"A Dog, a Rat, ... a Cat to Scratch a Man to Death!": Olivier's Richard III and Popular Cultures

By Malone, Toby | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

"A Dog, a Rat, ... a Cat to Scratch a Man to Death!": Olivier's Richard III and Popular Cultures


Malone, Toby, Literature/Film Quarterly


CATESBY:

Dispatch, my lord: the duke would be at dinner.

Make a short shrift, he longs to see your head.

(Hastings, regarding in great bitterness Catesby, Ratcliffe, and Lovell in turn, pronounces the following lines of contemporary doggerel.)

HASTINGS:

The Cat, the Rat, and Lovell the dog

Rule all England under the Hog.

RATCLIFFE:

Come, come, dispatch.

LOVELL:

Tis boodess to exclaim.

(Olivier and Dent)

So Lord Hastings goes to his death in Laurence Olivier's iconic 1955 film Richard III, connecting a Technicolor fantasy London to legendary apocrypha. Hastings's lines of doggerel are (unsurprisingly) extra-textual additions to Shakespeare's play. As the stage directions above suggest, the two-line insult incorporating the names of the king's closest advisors and the heraldic badge of the king himself was contemporary to the historical Richard III. The fate of the poem's author, William Collingbourne, is well documented, and is often held up to demonstrate the cruelty of Richard Gloucester. "Abbreviated shorter by the head and [. . .] divided into four quarters" (Holinshed 422) for "making a foolishe rime" (Campbell 347), Collingbourne's additional crime of conspiring to fund an invasion attempt by the future Henry VII is mentioned by Holinshed but often overlooked by history (Potter 148-49).

Regardless of Collingbourne's exact crimes, his crude poem demonstrates how sections of contemporary London society viewed King Richard III even before the alleged character assassinations of More, Legge, Shakespeare, and Cibber. The presence of the rhyme in Olivier's film raises an interesting dilemma. The source of the poem is beyond question, but the same cannot be said for the provenance of the lines' addition to Shakespeare's play. In this paper, I seek to clarify the point at which the "Cat, the Rat and Lovell the dog" poem was added to adaptations of Shakespeare's Richard III. This investigation explores the few circulating theories on the piece's provenance, and proposes an unlooked-to modern connection point between poem and play. Furthermore, the connection between Olivier's adaptation and his historical sources demonstrates the critical dramaturgical interplay between film and prior intertexts. Connections between Olivier's film on the one hand and popular culture, historical fact, and apocryphal detail on the other have been under-examined, and this critical detective work effectively uncovers the provenance and significance of dramaturgical choices in Shakespearean adaptations. As dramaturgical sources, "popular cultures" act as units of construction upon which a filmic adaptation is built, and at the same time provide texture, detail, and context. In this case, an obscure piece of doggerel reveals an intertextual exchange between adaptation and sources beyond Shakespeare's text. As a result, it enriches and extends the adaptation in a manner reflecting Shakespeare's own use of popular cultures and historical elements.

The unfortunate William Collingbourne was a "poeticall schoolemaister [and] corrector of breefs and longs" (Holinshed 422) who once held the post of Sergeant of the Pantry to Edward IV (Seward 162-63). Collingbourne is known almost exclusively for the "foolishe rime" nailed to die door at St. Paul's rather than for his pro-Richmond agitating, which is more likely the primary reason for his grisly fate. Cited as a historical curio, indictment of tyranny, or moralistic warning, Collingbourne's death is recorded by Fabyan, Holinshed, and in The Mirror for Magistrates, but is ignored by More and Vergil. The rhyme for which Collingbourne was known gradually faded into obscurity, periodically cited in anthologies of curious puns. The poem virtually dropped from all usage until Sir Walter Scott's The Antiquary (1816), in which an amateur historian identifies a man named Lovell with the Collingbourne lines (16). …

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