Tom Stoppard wasn’t, it seems, the first playwright to take a minor character from a Shakespeare play and forefront him in his own drama; Nicholas Rowe had already done so in [c.1700]. In fact, Jane Shore is so minor a character in Richard III, that she doesn’t appear at all (she is in the Laurence Olivier film version though, if you’re interested to see what she looks like), but is merely referred to – as a woman of chthonic powers, who cast her spell first over Edward IV, and then over Lord Hastings. She is responsible, you will recall, for that curious scene in which Richard III’s arm becomes withered. The one in which, since his arm does appear to be withered – at least, it is not suggested by Shakespeare that he is pretending – we must suppose that it actually is, and Richard III has some justification for his grievance, which was up to then clearly made up in order to get rid of Lord Hastings, who was opposed to murdering the princes in the tower.
Richard III does have quite a few nonsensical scenes in it, most of which – supposing a historical truth behind them – would best be explained by Richard III not being quite the deformed, murderous psychopath the play portrays. The scene in Act I when he woos and later marries Lady Anne, for instance, is a scene whose plausibility I find difficult to accept: this is a woman after all who knows Richard has murdered both her husband and her father-in-law, and who despises the very sight of him; and then there is the scene towards the end, more or less a parallel, with Queen Elizabeth (the wife of Richard’s brother, Edward IV), whom Richard successfully persuades to have a word with her daughter with a view to marriage, despite the fact that Elizabeth has always hated him, and knows that Richard murdered in effect her husband, and in actuality both her young sons and all her friends. Richard’s remarkable ability at seducing women who have good reason to hate him is even stranger when one takes into account his statement at the outset of the play that his main reason for intending to murder his way to power is that, being deformed and not being able to get anywhere with women, this seems the only purpose left he can put his life to.
To return though to Jane Shore, and the withered arm scene, I thought we’d have a little comparison, since the exact same scene appears in both. As you may recollect from my review of Addison’s Cato, it is the artificial rhetoric that dominates plays of this time, the long sententious speeches, which make them such dull affairs. They seem so static and declamatory; imagine the latter quote ad infinitum and nauseam.
So here is Shakespeare:
Gloucester [i.e. Richard III]: Then be your eyes the witness of their evil.
Look how I am bewitch’d; behold, mine arm
Is like a blasted sapling wither’d up.
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.
Hastings: If they have done this deed, my noble lord –
Gloucester: If? – thou protector of this damned strumpet,
Talk’st though to me of ifs? Thou art a traitor.
Off with his head! Now by Saint Paul I swear
I will not dine until I see the same.
Lovel and Ratcliff, look that it be done.
The rest that love me, rise and follow me.
And here is Rowe:
Gloucester: Then judge yourselves, convince your eyes of the truth;
Behold my arm thus blasted, dry and withered.
Shrunk like a foul abortion, and decayed.
Like some untimely produce of the seasons,
Robbed of its properties of strength and office.
This is the sorcery of Edward’s wife,
Who in conjuction with that harlot Shore,
By force of potent spells, of bloody characters,
And conjurations horrible to hear,
Call fiends and spectres from the yawning deep,
And set the ministers of hell at work,
To torture and despoil me of my life.
Hastings: If they have done this deed –
Gloucester: If they have done it!
Talkest thou to me of If’s, audacious traitor!
Thou art that strumpet-witch’s chief abettor,
The patron and complotter of her mischiefs,
And joined in this contrivance for my death.
Nay, start not, lords. – What ho! a guard there, sirs!
Lord Hastings, I arrest thee of high treason.
Seize him, and bear him instantly away.
He shall not live an hour. By holy Paul!
I will not dine before his head be brought me;
Ratcliffe, stay you and see that it be done.
The rest that love me, rise and follow me.
Why say anything once, when you can say it twice or four times? (Would it surprise anyone to learn that Rowe was also responsible for a translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia?)
In general though, the action of Jane Shore – just as Jane Shore herself – occurs entirely off-stage as it were from Richard III; it fills in the gaps. Another feature it bears in common with Addison – and not at all with Shakespeare – is the purity of its central character. There aren’t that many wholy good characters, pure exemplars of virtue, in Shakespeare – even Henry VI, who perhaps most closely fits the mould within these history plays, has all the wrong virtues for his position of state (thus creating “drama”). Jane Shore is, like Cato, just a paragon; and, like Cato, she is just as unjustly treated and – well, this is a tragedy, you can guess the outcome for yourself.
The portrait of a woman who, having lost her protector and all her property, is reduced to using her sexuality as her only means of surviving is interesting, for as long at least as Rowe can make it interesting; and the duplicitous character of Alicia, who pretends to be her friend but who destroys her, is at least very much in keeping with Shakespeare’s Richard III. (Richard doesn’t actually come off so badly in this play, for a man at least whose main intent is to murder some children). And the last act certainly has possibilities. But in truth, another play reasonably lost to time.