Analysis of Al Pacino’s Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Play Richard Iii

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Words: 1537 |

Pages: 2|

8 min read

Published: Feb 12, 2019

Words: 1537|Pages: 2|8 min read

Published: Feb 12, 2019

Shakespearean plays have been interpreted and portrayed in different formats in order to appeal to modern society and culture. Shakespeare’s King Richard III (1593), is an Elizabethan historical play, that depicts the Machiavellian-like rise to power of King Richard. Al Pacino’s ‘Looking for Richard’ (1996), is a pedagogical docu-drama which integrates a collage of views from actors and scholars, along with impromptu vox pops with the American public in order to make Shakespeare accessible to the public. Looking for Richard aims to “communicate a Shakespeare about how we feel and think today”. Al Pacino integrates core ideas from Shakespeare’s play and the Elizaethan era, including the importance of religious morality and Machiavellian ideas, and vernacularises them to American culture.

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Shakespeare’s ‘King Richard III’, highlights the pursuit of power and its consequences. In the early Elizabethan period, the audience was familiar with Machiavellian ideas including “The Prince: Politics have no relation to morals”, which contained ideologies including “Politics have no relations to morals” and “It is better to be feared than loved”. The Elizabethan era was in a time of tension between free will and providentialism, and religious ideologies are a major theme in the play. In Act 1 Scene 2, Richard woos Anne, whose father-in law and brother had been murdered by. Shakespeare portrays Richard as a Machiavellian character, and as the protagonist who has a secular worldview. In the scene which takes its form in stichomythic dialogue and soliloquy’s, religious imagery is utilised in “Thou hast made happy earth thy hell” in order to exemplify Richard’s desertion of religious morality, reasoning his evil behaviour to this cause. Shakespeare also employs an antithesis, in order to criticise Richard’s ambitions for power, whilst the dichotomy of Gods earth and hell reinforces the extent to which the Elizabethans saw morality, in terms of extreme positions. Once Anne has left the stage, in a soliloquy Richard proclaims, “Was ever a woman in this humour wooed? Was a woman in this humour won”? Shakespeare’s incorporation of anaphora through the repetition of “Was ever”, in conjunction with the repeated rhetorical questions almost forces the audience to admire his rhetorical skill, despite his cruelty, making us complicit in his scheming. Shakespeare involves us through the desertion of our own conscience, in order to portray power’s corruption of humanity.

Looking for Richard is set in a secular society, so Pacino focuses on Richard’s ambitions and how far he will go to achieve power, rather than religious tensions. In the scene where Anne is wooed by Richard, the use of medium camera angles and turning away is used to reinforce that Anne is subservient to the powerful Richard. Al Pacino cleverly utilises chiaroscuro through the use of shadows and light, in order to contrast the dark and monstrous Richard, to the innocent Anne. The Omission of phrases on Richard’s physical deformity is integrated within the scene, in order to make the play appropriate to modern society, by focusing the source of Richard’s evilness on his psychological state, rather than his physical deformities. A voiceover is utilised in order to give the audience an understanding of the play’s context, whilst explaining why Anne fell for Richard so easily. “She needs protection, she was on the losing side of the War of the Roses, she’s young, no husband, she has no future”. Scholars are used in this particular scene not only for further information, but also for comedic purposes (“Why does the scholar get to talk to the camera? /Scholar/: “I really don’t know why?”). Although comedic, this brings up the idea that there is a power struggle in the text between the actors and the academics. Al Pacino’s portrays Shakespeare’s message that the pursuit of power corrupts humanity, in a form that is accessible to the community, through a pursuit of his own understanding of the Elizabethan context.

In Act 1 Scene 4 and Act 2 Scene 1, the themes of morality and conscience are prominent in the scenes when Clarence is murdered. Prophecies and religious beliefs played a major role in Elizabethan society, which was centred around religious morality. In Act 1 Scene 4, Clarence’s dream/prophecy, which occurs when he is locked in the Tower of London is filled with negative visual imagery and biblical allusion. This is evident in, “I saw 1000 fearful wacks” and “I was in hell”. Later on in the scene, when the murderers are deciding on how to murder Clarence, the corruption of conscience through the pursuit of power is clear. The murderers, whose conscience “hath bred a kind of remorse”, was corrupted and had gone to the “Duke of Gloucester’s Purse”, reinforcing that conscience can be corrupted by greed and power. Biblical allusion is significant in this scene, and is utilised when Clarence warns, “Thou Shalt not do murder”. After the killing of Clarence, Shakespeare implements a biblical simile “Like Pilate, would I wash my hands/ of this most grievous murder”, in order to warn the audience of the evil that comes from ignoring your conscience and morality.

Al Pacino reshapes the key themes and values to the modern audience, whose morality isn’t informed by religion, but rather pop culture. In the same scene where Clarence gets murdered in the Tower of London, Alec Baldwin, who plays Clarence, is renowned for taking on heroic roles in Hollywood, whereas Al Pacino is known for his complex anti-hero roles. This allows the audience to vision Clarence as morally correct, juxtaposed to the morally corrupt Richard. Pacino utilises omission in order to vernacularize the battle between providentialism and secularism, into a simplified good vs evil scenario, adhering to the secular audience. The dichotomy of good vs evil is further symbolised through the juxtaposition of clothing, with just Clarence bearing white, whilst sinister Richard bears black. The prop of blood may also be seen as a metaphor, as the murderer will be forever stained by innocent blood. Pacino connects with his modern audience on the issue of polarised religious views showcased by politicans in todays world, whilst the omission of religion throughout the scene makes the mode more relevant to all cultures and social classes.

In Elizabethan times, people were superstitious about dreams. They were often believed to have prophetic properties. In Act 5 Scene 3, all of the ghosts of Richard’s victims appear to him in a dream, wishing luck to Richmond, and death to Richard. The scene takes place in a split-stage, with Richard and Richmond both appearing on stage, representing simultaneous occurrences. Shakespeare utilises epistrophe and isocolon through the repetition of the mantra “Refrain and Die”, in order to emphasise Richard’s wrongdoings, whilst also foreshadowing their imminent battle. Richmond, the deus ex machina of the play, is glorified and praised by the ghosts. Richard comes to realise that he is in fact a murderer, an epiphany, in a stream of consciousness soliloquy, “Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.” Shakespeare maintains textual integrity, with the truncated sentence structure portraying the corrupting effects that power has inflicted, leading to a conflict in decision-making within his own psyche. This portrays the corruption of his humanity that has occurred due to his lust for power. In the battle between Richmond and Richard, Richard exclaims the phrase, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”. This is quite ironic, as Richard has everything he wanted, as King, but he would swap it all for a horse. As Professor Barbara Everett from LFR states, “He is a boar who has subsumed into himself frightful animal images, All the rest have to do is hunt”. His humanity has been corrupted through power and evil, and is no longer apparent.

Al Pacino vernacularises this scene, through the omission of much of the ghost scene, which is now takes the form of rapid cut shots, whilst non-diegetic creepy music creates tension and torments the audience. The use of these techniques, together allow the audience to feel the torment experienced by Richard, and somewhat sympathise with him. Rapid film transitions between Richard and Richmond are used (in comparison to split-stage in the play) in order to create a build-up towards the fight, whilst also symbolising the battle between good vs evil, and religious vs secularism. Richmond, who ends victorious, can be seen as praying, and a medium shot enforces his calmness, compared to Richard’s low angle shot, which represents his anger and tirade of violence. During the final battle scene between Richard and Richmond, the screen turns red, perhaps representing the blood rushing to Richard’s head, the chaos within the battlefield, or foreshadowing Richard’s imminent death. Once Richmond knocks over Richard, there is a shot of Richmond standing above Richard’s weakened body, symbolising the change in power. For a split second at 1:40:40, there is a still, subliminal message, of Richard awaking from his dream, proving to the audience that the dreams of the ghosts have finally come to, and that he has “Despaired and Died”. This comes back to the point made by critic Professor Emrys Jones, that “The ghost scene is the battle”.

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To conclude, Al Pacino successfully adapts and modernises Shakespeare’s King Richard III, through the altering of contextual ideas including religion. Pacino makes themes accessible to the general public, by immersing ourselves in his own struggle with the interpretation of this play, and its contextual issues.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Review of “Richard III” by William Shakespeare. (2022, December 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from
“Review of “Richard III” by William Shakespeare.” GradesFixer, 05 Dec. 2022,
Review of “Richard III” by William Shakespeare. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 Jun. 2024].
Review of “Richard III” by William Shakespeare [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Dec 05 [cited 2024 Jun 23]. Available from:
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