Jan Kott on the "Grand Mechanism"

     Emanating from the features of individual kings and ururpers in Shakespeare's History plays, there gradually emerges the image of history itself. The image of the Grand Mechanism. Every successive chapter, every great Shakespearean act is merely a repetition:
The flattering index of a direful pageant,
One heav'd a-high to be hurl'd down below . . . --- Richard III, 4.4.85-6
It is this image of history, repeated many times by Shakespeare, that forces itself on us in a most powerful manner. Feudal history is like a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall. One will soon be able to snatch it . . . .

From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them -- good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile and noble, naive and cynical -- tread on the steps that are always the same. . . . .

Shakespeare was very fond of comparing life to the theatre. It is a comparison that goes back to ancient times, but it was Shakespeare who endowed it with depth and clarity. "Teatrum Mundi" is neither tragic, nor comic. It just employs tragic and comic actors. What is the tyrant's part in that theatre? Richard is impersonal as history itself. He is the consciousness and masterminder of the Grand Mechanism. He puts in motion the steam-roller of history, and later is crushed by it. Richard is not even cruel. Psychology does not apply to him. He is just history, one of its ever-repeating chapters. He has no face.

But the actor who plays Richard must have a face. [Jacek] Woszczerowicz's Richard [in a 1958 Warsaw production] has a broad face and laughs. It is a frightening laughter. The most frightening tyrant is he who has recognized himself as a clown, and the world as a gigantic buffoonery . . . . Buffoonery is a philosophy, and the highest form of contempt: absolute contempt.

--- Jan Kott, Shakepeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boreslaw Taborski (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966), 10-11, 53-4.

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