Richard III

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2007
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Character overview; Plot summary
Pages: 39
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Richard III


Although Richard III was first published in 1597, most scholars believe that this play about the rise and fall of a wicked king was written several years earlier, probably in 1592 or 1593, and was first performed shortly afterward. Evidence shows that it was popular from the beginning. The Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage achieved distinction playing Richard III, and the character's final line—"A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"—was already famous by the time Richard Corbet wrote a poem about the play in 1618 or 1621. Historians believe that Shakespeare's audiences would have especially appreciated the patriotic speech given by Richmond, who becomes King Henry VII in the last act and was Queen Elizabeth I's grandfather.

Early critical assessment of Richard III was mixed. Sir William Cornwallis (1600) and William Winstanley (1660), for example, objected to Shakespeare's portrayal of King Richard as "a monster." In contrast, the poet John Milton (1650) argued that the character in the play was "true to his historical counterpart." Today, most scholars agree that Shakespeare based the drama primarily on Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548). Hall's work relies on both fact and fiction to tell the history of King Richard III's family, the House of York, and its long power struggle—known as the Wars of the Roses—with King Henry VII's family, the House of Lancaster. A secondary source was Page 726  |  Top of Articleprobably Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587). In turn, each of these works was based upon Sir Thomas More's witty and ironic Historie of King Richard the Thirde, published around 1513. In this account, More—who grew up in the household of the bishop of Ely, a minister to Henry VII—used a dry, almost humorous tone to describe Richard as hunchbacked, tyrannical, and evil.

Shakespeare's play varies from its sources in numerous ways but two are of particular importance. The first is that, although Shakespeare borrowed More's ironic narrative tone, he placed it in Richard's mouth, so that the character becomes a complex, semicomical villain who laughs at himself and others even while he is plotting to do harm. The fact that Richard III functions as a sequel to Shakespeare's three plays on the previous monarch, King Henry VI, accounts for the second of Shakespeare's significant modifications: in Richard III, Margaret, the widow of Henry VI—the Lancastrian king who was murdered by Richard in Henry VI, Part Three—remains in England, where the play is set, rather than sailing home to France, as she did according to history. Onstage, Margaret voices her opinion on the action in the play, predicting the doom and misery that will serve as her revenge on Richard and his supporters. In cursing those who brought about her and her husband's downfall, Margaret serves the same dramatic function as a chorus; a chorus, or individual choral figures, are sometimes used to describe events that occur before the beginning of a play or to comment on the play's action as it unfolds.

Richard's complexity and Margaret's haunting presence have generated much critical discussion, especially with regard to the play's themes of divine retribution. Richard's coronation comes toward the end of the Wars of the Roses, a long period of bloody civil strife, and some critics argue that his wickedness functions as both divine punishment against the warring parties and also as a method of cleansing England in preparation for a new era of peace. Margaret proves intricately involved in the development of the play, with her curses on each guilty character eventually being fulfilled. Above all, Richard is the central focus of the play. He is a ruthless, compellingly witty character who arguably has firm control of the people and events around him. In large measure thanks to Richard's dazzling wickedness, Richard III remains one of Shakespeare's most popular plays.


Act 1, Scene 1

At the beginning of Richard III, on a London street, Richard, Duke of Gloucester and brother to King Edward IV, remarks that times of war have come and gone—and since his deformed person (he was purportedly hunchbacked) turns him away from romantic or peaceful interests, he will play the villain and convince King Edward that their other brother, George, Duke of Clarence, is a threat. Indeed, Clarence enters, guarded by Brakenbury, and laments that he is being imprisoned simply for bearing a name that starts with the letter G; a wizard has told King Edward that someone named so should be disinherited. Feigning sympathy, Richard declares that Queen Elizabeth and her brother Earl Rivers must have slandered him. Brakenbury interrupts, and as Clarence is led away, Richard promises aid to his brother. Once alone, Richard remarks that he intends to have Clarence murdered immediately. Lord Hastings, himself just released from prison, arrives to note that King Edward is sick. When Hastings leaves, Richard declares that he intends to marry Lady Anne, whose father-in-law and husband—King Henry VI and his son Edward—Richard recently killed.

Act 1, Scene 2

Lady Anne is seeing the coffin of Henry VI transported through the streets, and the funeral procession pauses so that she can mourn his death—and curse his murderer, Richard. As they prepare to move on, Richard enters and forces them to pause again. When Anne curses Richard to his face, he begs for pity and flatters her. He also denies having killed her husband, blaming Edward instead, but admits to killing Henry, who he claims is better off in heaven. He then professes a desire to gain Lady Anne's bedchamber, asserting that he in fact killed both men because he was moved by her beauty. She still wishes revenge on Richard, who says that he will love Anne better than did her deceased husband. He then expounds upon how he had never been moved to shed a tear until he was struck by her beauty. When she continues to scorn him, he offers his sword, that she might slay him. She moves to do so—but when he again praises her Page 727  |  Top of Article
Richard III, King of England Richard III, King of England beauty, she lowers the weapon. He then tells her that if she again asks him to kill himself, he would; she does not, however, and when Richard offers her his ring, she accepts it.

Richard then bids Anne retire to Crosby House, where he will meet her after directing Henry VI's body to its burial place. When left alone, he reveals that he does not intend to "keep" Anne for long. He even professes amazement that Anne should show him any favor, given how virtuous her deceased husband had been. In the meantime, he will attire himself well.

Act 1, Scene 3

At the palace, Queen Elizabeth is consoled by her brother and sons about the possible death of her husband; Queen Elizabeth also laments that her own son Edward, the heir apparent, would be placed under the guardianship of Richard if King Edward dies. The Duke of Buckingham and Lord Stanley then arrive to note that the king is in fair health and wishes to make peace between parties that have been quarreling recently.

Richard then enters to complain that people such as Lord Grey have been unfairly speaking ill of him; Queen Elizabeth retorts that Richard is simply jealous of the political advancement of her kin. Richard accuses Queen Elizabeth of causing Clarence's imprisonment, which she denies. Queen Margaret, the widow of King Henry VI, then enters to watch the quarreling unnoticed. While Richard speaks of the good deeds he has done on behalf of King Edward, Margaret criticizes him bitterly in asides. Richard accuses Rivers and the others of backing Henry's house of Lancaster, to which Rivers replies that he was simply serving his king.

At length, Margaret comes forth to declare that she is ignoring her banishment and demanding recognition of the extreme sorrows she has suffered. Invoking the earlier death of Rutland, Richard rouses Queen Elizabeth and the others present to condemn Margaret. Furious, Margaret curses nearly everyone present for their treachery to her family; she lays her longest curse on Richard, warning the others that they will one day wish they had supported that cursing. She expresses no ill will toward Buckingham alone, who tries to make peace, but Margaret insists that God will see that her revenge is had and that they will all regret allying with Richard. When Margaret leaves, Richard plays the role of a penitent and forgiving Christian.

After Catesby arrives and ushers everyone else off toward King Edward, Richard muses over how he has convinced Derby, Hastings, and Buckingham that Queen Elizabeth and her relatives conspired against Clarence. The two men whom Richard has hired to kill Clarence then arrive and accept a warrant from Richard. He urges them to kill Clarence without listening to any of his pleas.

Act 1, Scene 4

Clarence relates to the Keeper the dream he had the previous night, in which Richard seemed to knock him overboard accidentally as they were crossing the sea to France; after long drowning and gazing at the morbid wonders beneath the sea, he traveled to hell to be tormented by the souls he had wronged. After Clarence prays for his family's welfare, he falls asleep; Brakenbury then enters and speaks a few words about the glory of princes, to be followed in by the two Murderers, who present their warrant.

After Brakenbury and the Keeper leave, the Murderers have second thoughts about their deed when they remember Judgment Day. They regain their resolve thinking about the reward Page 728  |  Top of Articlethat Richard will give them, with the Second Murderer ruminating on the eternal nagging of the conscience—and losing his resolve again. Clarence awakes, and the two men inform him that they have come on behalf of King Edward to kill him. Clarence pleads that he deserves no harm from them, having never done them harm, but the men invoke the authority of King Edward—which Clarence insists should be ignored if it contradicts the authority of God. But the Murderers point out that Clarence forsook his oath to serve King Henry VI, leaving Clarence to question how Edward, for whose sake he rebelled against Henry, can be justified in ordering his murder. The Murderers inform Clarence that Gloucester—who had correctly anticipated Clarence's pleading—was no ally of his. Clarence continues to plead, and the Second Murderer hesitates, but the First Murderer finally manages to stab Clarence. He then takes Clarence away to throw him in a wine cask, while the Second Murderer repents.

Act 2, Scene 1

King Edward delights in the peacemaking he has accomplished among the various courtly parties before him, including Hastings, Rivers, Dorset, Buckingham, and Queen Elizabeth. When Richard arrives, he likewise speaks out in a grand and lofty style on behalf of making peace. Queen Elizabeth then suggests that Clarence should be shown mercy, at which Richard announces that Clarence has died in prison. When Stanley arrives in an untimely fashion to beg clemency for his servant, who committed murder, Edward laments that no one had seen fit to beg him to show clemency to Clarence, as Clarence had done him so much service. When King Edward expresses fear of God's retribution and departs with others, Richard voices to Buckingham his suspicion that Queen Elizabeth and her kin ordered Clarence's death.

Act 2, Scene 2

At the palace, the old Duchess of York, mother of King Edward, Richard, and Clarence, is talking to Clarence's son and daughter about his death and Edward's sickness. The children inform their grandmother that Richard has blamed Edward for Clarence's death, which the Duchess disputes. Queen Elizabeth then enters to relate that King Edward has just died. The Duchess expresses her grief over the deaths of the two virtuous images of her husband, with only the "false glass" of Richard remaining alive. At length, the children mourn their father's death, Queen Elizabeth mourns her husband's death, and the Duchess mourns both deaths.

Richard, Buckingham, and others arrive to announce a plan to send a small party to bring the deceased king's son, also named Edward, to London. Buckingham and Rivers voice their concern over the fragility of the rule of such a young man. Expressing his own hopes of maintaining peace, Richard sends Queen Elizabeth and his mother to fetch the young prince. Buckingham then reveals that he intends to help Richard turn Queen Elizabeth's kin against young Edward.

Act 2, Scene 3

Three Citizens gather and speak of political matters. Knowing that King Edward is dead, they wonder how effectively the young prince will rule. The Third Citizen points out that both Queen Elizabeth's kin and Richard might conspire to gain the throne. The First Citizen voices some optimism, but the others have little hope that peace will hold.

Act 2, Scene 4

The Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth wonder at how much Prince Edward has grown, especially in relation to his brother the sprouting Duke of York. York remarks that Richard had told him that weeds grow quickly, flowers slowly; the Duchess remarks that Richard grew slowly but was certainly no flower, and York relates a jest he might have made at Richard's expense. A Messenger then arrives to announce that Rivers, Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan have been taken prisoner, leading Queen Elizabeth to be alarmed at the coming ruin of her house. The Duchess despairs, and Queen Elizabeth and the young York head for sanctuary.

Act 3, Scene 1

Richard and Buckingham welcome Prince Edward, who is weary with travel and grief over his deceased uncles. Richard assures him that they died for being false friends, which Edward doubts. Edward greets the Mayor and Citizens kindly, then wonders why his mother and brother have not arrived; Hastings then enters to note that the two have taken sanctuary, and Buckingham denounces Queen Elizabeth's peevishness and asks the Cardinal to fetch York. The Cardinal objects, but Buckingham convinces him that to do so would not be a violation of the laws of sanctuary.

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Richard suggests to Prince Edward that he lodge at the Tower, which was built by Julius Caesar. Prince Edward contemplates the nature of fame and determines that he will someday attempt to conquer France. The Cardinal returns with York, who then parries wits with his uncle. At length, Richard persuades York and Prince Edward to proceed to the Tower; when they depart, Buckingham remarks that Queen Elizabeth must have incited York to be insolent. He then asks Catesby whether Hastings will join them in their plot to gain Richard's coronation as king. Catesby leaves to probe Hastings while informing him of the impending execution of Queen Elizabeth's kin, Hastings's enemies; Richard asserts that Hastings will be beheaded if he does not cooperate.

Act 3, Scene 2

At the house of Hastings, a messenger arrives from Lord Stanley, who dreamt that he was beheaded by Richard, "the boar," and is concerned over the meetings of the separated councils. Hastings tells the messenger that Stanley need not worry, as Catesby will inform him of goings-on at the alternate council.

Catesby arrives and tells Hastings of the impending executions, and Hastings rejoices—but remarks that he would never support Richard's coronation as king, leading Catesby to comment in an aside about Hastings's impending execution. Stanley then arrives and expresses his concern in person, which Hastings dismisses. Hastings then tells a Pursuivant (a royal messenger) of his delight in the execution of Queen Elizabeth's kin, and he holds brief counsel with a priest. Buckingham then fetches Hastings to dine—and die—at the Tower.

Act 3, Scene 3

At Pomfret Castle, Ratcliffe leads Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan to their deaths. Rivers and Grey lament the fulfillment of Margaret's curses.

Act 3, Scene 4

A number of lords are dining at the Tower and planning the date of Edward's coronation, with Hastings declaring that he will speak on behalf of Richard in his absence. Richard then arrives; after sending the Bishop of Ely to fetch him some strawberries, Richard learns from Buckingham of Hastings's unwillingness to join their plot. Richard and Buckingham exit, leaving Hastings to assert that Richard is evidently in good spirits. When the two men return, Richard complains that Queen Elizabeth and Jane Shore, Edward's mistress, had practiced witchcraft against him, crippling his arm. Hastings utters a comment that Richard insists is a treasonous defense of Shore and declares that Hastings will be immediately beheaded. Hastings, too, laments the fulfillment of Margaret's curse.

Act 3, Scene 5

At the Tower, Richard and Buckingham greet the Mayor with a display of paranoia over traitors. When Hastings's head is brought in, Richard declares that Hastings had been associating with Shore, and Buckingham says that Hastings had been plotting their murders. They express regret that their supporters had seen fit to execute Hastings so hastily, as the Mayor could not then hear his guilty testimony. The Mayor believes them and departs, and Richard tells Buckingham to go to London and persuade the people that Edward's line is corrupted with bastardy. Meanwhile, Richard will have holy men join him at Baynard's Castle and remarks that he will have Clarence's children confined to solitude.

Act 3: Scene 6

The Scrivener who copied the indictment of Hastings notes that the entire episode seems tainted with treachery, but he knows better than to put his own life at risk by saying anything.

Act 3, Scene 7

At Baynard's Castle, Buckingham reports to Richard that he managed to convince some people that the late King Edward was himself a bastard child and that Richard should be named king instead of Prince Edward. The response to his assertions was unenthusiastic, but the idea was established nevertheless.

Richard then enters the castle, while Buckingham will pretend to be seeking an audience with him but having difficulty. Catesby acts as messenger, telling Buckingham in the Mayor's presence that Richard's religious duties are his priority; Buckingham then comments pointedly about Richard's piety, in contrast to the late Edward's purported adultery. After Catesby goes back inside, Richard appears in the presence of two Bishops and asks why Buckingham and the others have sought him there. Buckingham declares that Richard would be doing the Page 730  |  Top of Articlenation good service by accepting the crown, but Richard humbly refuses, saying that he has no ambition to rule the nation and that Prince Edward will prove a perfectly capable leader. Buckingham insists, noting there are serious doubts about Prince Edward's legitimacy as heir to the throne. Richard refuses, Buckingham expresses severe disappointment, and the Mayor and the others leave; Richard then has Catesby call them back, and he tells them that he will accept the kingship for the good of the nation after all. Buckingham announces that the coronation should take place tomorrow, and Richard retires with the Bishops.

Act 4, Scene 1

The Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, and Anne cross paths at the Tower. There, Brakenbury informs Queen Elizabeth that Richard—whom he calls first king, then Lord Protector—has disallowed any contact with the Princes Edward and York. Stanley then arrives, sent by Richard to bring Anne to be crowned queen, and Queen Elizabeth mourns that Margaret's curse is coming to pass; she urges her son Dorset to flee to join Richmond, the stepson of Stanley, in Breton (Brittany), France. Before leaving with Stanley, Anne regrets that she allowed herself to be wooed by the man who killed her husband; in fact, since she cursed whoever would be Richard's wife, she cursed herself. Before again heading for sanctuary, Queen Elizabeth bids the Tower's stones keep her sons safe.

Act 4, Scene 2

After being helped to the throne by Buckingham, Richard eventually manages to tell him that he wishes that Prince Edward be slain. Buckingham asks for time to consider the order, and Richard immediately loses confidence in Buckingham and instead asks a page if he knows anyone who would commit murder for a fair reward; the page suggests a man named Tyrrel. Stanley arrives to report that Dorset has fled to the aid of Richmond. Richard then tells Catesby to spread rumors that Anne is grievously ill and declares that he intends to find a lowly mate for Clarence's daughter while he himself will marry King Edward and Queen Elizabeth's daughter. Tyrrel arrives, and Richard orders him to kill Edward and York. Buckingham then returns, and while Richard muses over the threat of Richmond, Buckingham boldly and repeatedly asks for the earldom of Hereford, which Richard had promised him. When Richard refuses, Buckingham resolves to flee.

Act 4, Scene 3

Tyrrel reveals that two men murdered the princes on his behalf—and afterward regretted doing so. After receiving this news, Richard reveals that Clarence's children have been dealt with and that Anne has also passed away. Richard then notes that he would woo Elizabeth, daughter of Queen Elizabeth, in part because Richmond might otherwise do so in a ploy to gain the throne. Ratcliffe arrives to announce that the Bishop of Ely has fled to Richmond and that Buckingham is rallying an army of rebellious Welshmen.

Act 4, Scene 4

Queen Margaret, slinking about the palace, happens upon the grieving Queen Elizabeth and Duchess of York. Margaret eventually approaches the women as if to extend sympathy, but instead she rejoices in their sorrows, which she sees as fitting retribution for the wrongs she herself has suffered. She castigates the Duchess for having given birth to Richard, who has brought about so many deaths. Elizabeth wishes only to learn how to issue curses from Margaret, but she merely turns and departs.

King Richard then appears, to be intercepted by the two women. He initially has his trumpeters drown out their chiding, but the Duchess demands an audience; she prophecies that Richard will die in battle, with his enemies heartened by the souls of King Edward's slain children. Queen Elizabeth starts to leave after the Duchess, but Richard asks her to stay and inquires of her daughter, also named Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth declares that she would sooner damage her own self by declaring that someone other than King Edward was the girl's father than allow her to be used—or killed—for Richard's advantage. At length, Richard admits that he wishes to marry young Elizabeth, but Queen Elizabeth doubts that his love is genuine and asks how he could actually woo her, given all of their family members whose deaths he ordered. Still, Richard describes how Queen Elizabeth could regain her former stature and rebuild her family by endorsing the match; in place of the sons she lost, she would be blessed with royal grandchildren. Queen Elizabeth resists, offering various objections to the match; when Richard begins to swear an oath, she points out that he Page 731  |  Top of Articlehas already forsaken all sacred people and things and thus has no one and nothing to swear on. Still, Richard insists that only a union between himself and Elizabeth can bring peace to the nation, and Queen Elizabeth at last relents and goes to speak to her daughter.

Ratcliffe arrives to inform Richard that Richmond's navy is awaiting the help of Buckingham's army on the western coast. Richard seems confused in giving orders to Catesby and Ratcliffe. Stanley arrives and confirms that Richmond is at sea, presumably on his way to ally with Dorset and Buckingham and seek the crown. Stanley assures Richard that his loyalty lies with him, not with his own stepson, and so Richard bids him to raise troops in the north—while another of Stanley's sons, George Stanley, will be held hostage.

Two Messengers arrive to report that various lords are up in arms, but a Third Messenger reports that Buckingham's army is scattered, and a Fourth Messenger declares that Richmond's navy has been dispersed by a storm. Finally, Catesby arrives to report that Buckingham has been taken and that Richmond has landed at Milford.

Act 4, Scene 5

Stanley sends Sir Christopher to tell his stepson Richmond that he cannot send aid while his other son is being held by Richard but also that Queen Elizabeth has consented to give Richmond her daughter's hand. Sir Christopher notes that Richmond has already been joined by a number of valiant soldiers.

Act 5, Scene 1

As he is led to his execution, Buckingham expresses remorse for his role in Richard's rise to the throne and admits that he deserves the punishment he is receiving.

Act 5, Scene 2

At Richmond's camp, Richmond announces that they are receiving reinforcements from Stanley and condemns Richard's bloody tyranny, which brings words of support from Oxford, Blunt, and Herbert.

Act 5, Scene 3

At Bosworth Field, Richard's tent is pitched, and Norfolk assures Richard that Richmond's rebel army is only a third of the size of the royal army. Meanwhile, Richmond dispatches Blunt with a note for Stanley and retires to his own tent to discuss strategy. In turn, Richard dispatches Catesby to bid Stanley to join them before sunrise; Richard then asks for wine, inquires as to the melancholy Northumberland, and confesses to being somewhat low in spirits. At length, he sleeps. Stanley then arrives at Richmond's tent to assure him that he will offer his aid in the coming battle; however, with his son's life at stake, Stanley cannot be too obvious in his support. Richmond prays for his soldiers and likewise falls asleep.

As the two men lie unconscious, the ghosts of Richard's many victims—including King Henry VI, Henry's son Edward, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, the young Princes Edward and York, Lady Anne, and Buckingham—pay them visits, all telling Richard to despair and die and telling Richmond that he should take heart and be victorious.

When Richard wakes, he frets over his afflicted conscience and realizes that he deserves the love of no one—and does not even love himself. He imagines that he dreamed the visits of the many ghosts. Ratcliffe then enters to rouse Richard to prepare for battle; fearing the desertion of his friends, Richard entreats Ratcliffe to join him in eavesdropping on their men. Richmond, too, then wakes, much heartened by the kindly visits from the ghosts that he seemed to have dreamed. He delivers an oration to his men, asserting that they are on the side of good, fighting against evil, and that Richard's allies, who certainly fear him and would rather not be ruled by him, are bound to desert him when confronted in battle.

Richard, meanwhile, is reassured as to his men's loyalty but despairs now at the fact that the sun will not shine that day. Norfolk reveals that he received a cryptic note, which Richard dismisses as a ruse by the enemy. Speaking to his own army, Richard denounces the rebels as unruly, greedy, pathetic vagabonds from France. A Messenger arrives to report that Stanley will not join them, and Richard demands the head of Stanley's son—but Norwich points out that the enemy is advancing, and they set off to battle.

Act 5, Scene 4

In the heat of the battle, Catesby seeks help for Richard, who has fought fiercely even on foot. Having slain five of Richmond's doubles, Richard exclaims that he would give his kingdom for a horse.

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Act 5, Scene 5

Richmond slays Richard. Having taken the crown from the deceased King Richard's head, Stanley turns it over to Richmond. Stanley notes that his son George has fortunately not been killed. Richmond declares that in marrying young Elizabeth, he will at last be uniting his own house of Lancaster with Elizabeth's house of York, ending the civil strife that has long plagued the nation.


Lady Anne

As the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales, who was the son and heir of King Henry VI, Anne hates Richard for murdering her husband and father-in-law, but Richard charms her into marrying him. As Richard's unhappy queen, she dies of unstated causes after he tires of her. Anne first appears following the coffin of her father-in-law, Henry VI. She laments King Henry's death and curses his murderer, Richard, and also places a curse on any woman who marries Richard—thus, ironically, cursing herself. When Richard enters and halts the funeral procession, Anne disgustedly calls him a "foul devil" and begs for lightning to strike him dead. But Richard is persistent: he flatters Anne and excuses his crimes by asserting that he was inspired by her beauty, claims he loves her, and even invites her to kill him with his own sword. Eventually, Anne relents. "I would I knew thy heart," she tells him before agreeing to accept his ring.

In acknowledging how implausible this scene is, critics have attempted to show how Richard successfully woos Anne. He carefully listens to her, observes her changing emotions, and adapts his arguments to these changes, eventually winning her sympathy. He plays upon Anne's grief and skillfully manipulates her. Some critics argue that, in addition to being in mourning, Anne is susceptible to Richard's advances simply because she behaves as women were expected to at the time.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • A critically acclaimed motion picture version of Richard III was produced and directed by Laurence Olivier in 1955 through London Film Productions. The film features Olivier himself, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Claire Bloom. The film was distributed on video by Embassy Home Entertainment in 1985.
  • The British Broadcasting Corporation and Time-Life Television produced a televised performance of The Tragedy of Richard the Third in 1983, as part of the "Shakespeare Plays" series on PBS.
  • Another motion picture version of Richard III was directed by Richard Loncraine and produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists in 1995; it was set in an imaginary England of the 1930s, capturing the political atmosphere of instability and tyranny of the play's true historical time period. Ian McKellen, who wrote the screenplay, fills the role of Richard III, with other stars including Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth, Jim Broadbent as Buckingham, Robert Downey Jr. as Rivers, Nigel Hawthorne as Clarence, Kristin Scott Thomas as Anne, and Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York.
  • Al Pacino's 1996 Looking for Richard is a unique film, mixing documentary interviews about the play with scholars, critics, actors, and people on the street with fully costumed and staged scenes from the play. Pacino directed, cowrote the narration with Frederic Kimball, and stars as Richard III. Winona Ryder is Lady Anne, Alec Baldwin is Clarence, and Kevin Spacey is Buckingham. Estelle Parsons is the cursing Queen Margaret.

When Anne appears for the next and last time, in act 4, scene 1, she has married Richard and is miserable. She recalls the curse she had made on any woman "mad" enough to become his wife and bitterly laments, "Within so small a time, my woman's heart / Grossly grew captive to his honey words, / And prov'd the subject of mine own soul's curse." She goes unwillingly to Westminster to be crowned Richard's queen. Richard later starts a rumor that Anne is Page 733  |  Top of Articleseriously ill, then later still he briefly mentions that she has died.

Traditionally, Anne has been regarded as weak and vain for being fooled by Richard's flattery. However, given Richard's powerful position as brother to King Edward and his demonstrated ruthlessness, Anne certainly cannot kill him and so has little choice but to accept him. Although her appearance in the play is fairly brief, Anne's role is important in that her encounter with Richard provides an early and revealing glimpse of his cunning and persuasiveness.

Boy and Daughter

Clarence's children, whose unmentioned names are Edward and Margaret, discuss their father's death with their grandmother, the Duchess of York, revealing how thoroughly Richard had convinced them that King Edward was the one responsible.

Sir Robert Brakenbury

Brakenbury is Lieutenant of the Tower of London and in charge of the prison, where first the Duke of Clarence and later King Edward's two young sons are held.

Sir William Catesby

As a supporter of Richard, Catesby is sent to find out whether Hastings will support Richard's coronation and manages to probe and advise the lord without revealing his own relationship to the aspiring usurper. Catesby also assists in Richard's deceptive posing as a man of religion at Baynard's Castle and, during the battle on Bosworth Field, calls out for the rescue of the frantic King Richard.


Three Citizens discuss the death of King Edward IV and their low expectations with regard to the country's future, demonstrating the opinions of the common people.

Marquis of Dorset

Dorset is Queen Elizabeth's son from a previous marriage. He joins the Earl of Richmond's side after Richard is crowned king.

King Edward IV

Edward IV is the king of England at the play's opening. Edward is ill at the beginning of the play, and his only substantial activity is the peacemaking he accomplishes among his courtly followers and his wife's family. After Richard appears and declares that King Edward's pardon for their brother, the Duke of Clarence, came too late to save him from death, he laments that no one advised him to be merciful earlier. He then marches off and later dies.

Duke of Buckingham

Buckingham is Richard's primary coconspirator. He helps Richard become king but falls out of favor when he balks at murdering Edward IV's two young sons. He joins the Earl of Richmond's side against Richard but is later captured and executed. Serving as Richard's right-hand man, Buckingham plays an important role in the play. Richard uses him as an adviser and a spy and in fact calls him "my other self" in act 2, scene 2.

Buckingham's first appearances give no indication that he is anything other than a minor character; Richard refers to him merely as one of several "simple gulls" or fools whom he is deceiving in act 1, scene 3. Once King Edward dies, Buckingham gains prominence, as he schemes to place the king's heir—Edward, Prince of Wales—in Richard's power by fetching the child to London without the protection of his mother or her kinsmen. When Queen Elizabeth flees to sanctuary with her youngest son, the Duke of York, Buckingham takes it upon himself to order the child brought back to London.

In act 3, scene 5, Buckingham asserts that he is nearly as good an actor as Richard is: "I can counterfeit the deep tragedian," he says, as he and Richard prepare to fool the Mayor of London into believing that Richard is a good man who has been cruelly betrayed. He insists, "Ghastly looks / Are at my service, like enforceèd smiles; / And both are ready in their offices / At any time to grace my stratagems." He proves his point well in scene 7 when he helps Richard stage so convincing a performance of pious humility and reluctant royal worth that the citizens of London entreat Richard to become king.

Still, Buckingham falls short of being Richard's "other self" when it comes to murdering the two young princes. In act 4, scene 2, the newly crowned Richard first hints then bluntly states that he wants King Edward's heirs killed. Buckingham's reply—"Your Grace may do your pleasure"—does not satisfy Richard, who needs a perpetrator for a crime so heinous. Buckingham's next attempt to postpone making a decision only Page 734  |  Top of Articleinfuriates Richard, who mutters, "High-reaching Buckingham grows circumspect." Later, when Buckingham returns to the question of the princes' murder—as well as that of the earldom he hoped to earn through his treachery—Richard dismisses him. Buckingham's hesitation costs him his life. Although similar to Richard, having likewise been described as a machiavel, ultimately Buckingham is no match for his deceitful king.

Edward, Prince of Wales

The Prince of Wales is the young son and heir of King Edward IV. Along with his younger brother, the Duke of York, he is led to—and imprisoned in—the Tower of London by his ambitious uncle Richard. Later both children are murdered on Richard's orders.

Queen Elizabeth

Formerly Lady Grey, she is the wife of King Edward IV and the mother of Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York, the King's two young heirs. She shows a certain familial affiliation for Richard at first—supporting Richard's schoolyard-style deflection of Margaret's curse on him, confirming, "Thus have you breathed your curse against yourself"—but ultimately Queen Elizabeth hates Richard for murdering her brother and her sons. Nevertheless, he persuades her to consider him as a mate for her daughter, Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth's presence and comments generally highlight Richard's ruthless quest for the throne, since, as King Edward's wife and the mother of the heir, she has perhaps the most direct interest in Richard's success or failure. As early as the first scene, Richard is seen spreading lies regarding her influence over King Edward, revealing that Queen Elizabeth and her relatives are operating as a distinct faction in the context of the court.

Queen Elizabeth first enters in act 1, scene 3, voicing her fears about the king's illness to her brother, Lord Rivers, and her two older sons, Lord Grey and the Marquis of Dorset. She knows that if King Edward dies, her young son Edward, Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne, could be placed under Richard's protection, "a man," she tells her sons and brother, "that loves not me, nor none of you"; indeed, Richard appears shortly afterward and insults her.

In act 2, scene 1, Queen Elizabeth and her kinsmen reconcile with Richard and other members of the court at King Edward's request. But by scene 2, he is dead, and the distraught Queen Elizabeth agrees with Richard that the Prince of Wales should be brought to court. By scene 4, her situation has worsened, as Richard has imprisoned Rivers and Grey, and also holds the Prince of Wales in his custody. Queen Elizabeth realizes that Richard now controls the government, remarking, "Insulting tyranny begins to jut / Upon the innocent and aweless throne." She flees with her youngest son, York, into sanctuary, but Richard and Buckingham order York brought back to London to "lodge" in the Tower with the Prince of Wales, and in act 4, scene 1, Elizabeth is barred from visiting them.

Elizabeth's final and most famous encounter with Richard occurs in act 4, scene 4, when she apparently agrees to persuade her daughter to marry him. This scene has been described as a battle of wits between Richard and Elizabeth, and it is not clear who wins. Elizabeth never explicitly states that she will tell her daughter to marry him. Instead she asks, "Shall I go win my daughter to thy will?" and ends by telling Richard, "I go. Write to me very shortly, / And you shall understand from me her mind." In act 4, scene 5, we are told that she has promised her daughter to the Earl of Richmond. Has Elizabeth been weak-willed and inconsistent, or has she finally outwitted Richard?

George, Duke of Clarence

Clarence is the brother of King Edward IV and Richard. He is imprisoned in the Tower of London after Richard turns King Edward against him, never realizing that Richard is his enemy. The dream that he relates to the Keeper is filled with vivid metaphorical imagery that conveys the sense of doom eventually closing over many of the play's characters. When Richard sends assassins to the Tower, Clarence nearly persuades them not to kill him, but the more determined of the two eventually stabs him.


Among the Ghosts who visit King Richard and Richmond on the night before the battle at Bosworth are Edward, Prince of Wales, Henry VI's son, who was stabbed by Richard; King Henry VI, who was murdered by Richard; Clarence; Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan; Hastings; the young princes Edward and York; Lady Anne; and Buckingham.

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Lord Grey

Lord Grey is Queen Elizabeth's son from a previous marriage; Richard has him assassinated.

Lord Hastings

Sometimes called Lord Chamberlain, Hastings is assassinated for expressing that he would not support Richard's ambition to be king.

Henry, Earl of Richmond

Henry, known in the plays as Richmond, is a Lancastrian who raises an army to defeat King Richard III and end his reign of tyranny. Although he is the play's hero, Richmond's role is minimal; he interacts with other characters very little, giving only a few substantial speeches on his way to slaying Richard and gaining the throne to become Henry VII.

Queen Margaret

Margaret is the widow of King Henry VI, who was murdered by Richard. She prophesies revenge for herself and destruction for King Edward IV's family and supporters. Margaret appears in only two scenes, but her influence is felt throughout the play. She first enters in act 1, scene 3, speaking—as she often does—in asides, commenting to the audience on the bickering among her Yorkist enemies, including Queen Elizabeth and her kinsmen, Richard, Clarence, and the various lords. When Margaret finally speaks directly to those present, she curses them, foretelling misery to Elizabeth and death to Rivers and Hastings, reserving her most virulent words for Richard. By the time she appears again in act 4, scene 4, most of her prophecies have been fulfilled. She exults in her revenge and gives Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York some brief advice about how to curse Richard, who has become, as Margaret had predicted, an enemy to all of them.

When Richard III is produced onstage, Margaret's role is frequently omitted on the grounds that the language in her scenes is too formal and repetitive to have an impact on modern audiences. On the other hand, Margaret provides useful background information on Richard's grim quest for power. Her predictions and ghostlike presence—in act 4 she states, "Here in these confines slily have I lurk'd / To watch the waning of mine enemies"—reinforce the theme of divine retribution in the play, as do the characters' recollections of her prophecies when they are led to their executions. In act 3, scene 4, for example, Hastings laments, "O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse / Is lighted on poor Hastings' wretched head." Likewise, in act 5, scene 1, Buckingham cries, "Thus Margaret's curse falls heavy on my neck."

Lord Mayor of London

The Lord Mayor is the leader of the citizens of London. After the death of King Edward IV, Richard and Buckingham deceptively convince him that Richard deserves to become king.


The Two Murderers sent to dispose of Clarence manage to do so only after some hesitation resulting from moral qualms about the act.

Sir Richard Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe provides crucial information regarding the activities of King Richard III's enemies.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester

The younger brother of King Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, Richard later becomes King Richard III. The play's opening couplet ("Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York") and the final line of act 5, scene 4 ("A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!") are probably the most famous lines in the play; appropriately, they are also the first and the last words that Richard speaks. Richard is the energizing force of the play and is responsible for most of its dark comedy, which usually occurs when he is mocking himself or ridiculing his victims. He has been called a machiavel—one who views politics as outside of morality and will use any means, however unscrupulous, to achieve political power—because of his ruthless drive for power. Almost as soon as he appears onstage he tells us that he is "determined to prove a villain" and mentions the traps he is setting against his own brothers. He describes himself as "deform'd, unfinish'd," and so unpleasant to look at that dogs bark at him, and he blames his wickedness on his physical appearance. One scholar has noted that explicit connections were indeed drawn between external appearance and internal character in Shakespeare's time.

Richard does not announce his intention to become king until act 3, scene 1, but his plots and murders ever lead in that direction, and in act 4 he is finally crowned. A focus of critical debate has been whether Richard himself truly controls Page 736  |  Top of Article
Antony Sher as Richard III and Penny Downie as Lady Anne in Act I, scene ii at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1984 Antony Sher as Richard III and Penny Downie as Lady Anne in Act I, scene ii at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1984 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) events or whether he is simply a divine instrument meant to clear England of the corruption of civil war so that the country can begin afresh. In either case, toward the end of the play Richard has definitely lost control as well as his sense of humor; in act 5, scene 3, he notes, "I have not that alacrity of spirit / Nor cheer of mind that I was wont to have." The night before battle, he is tormented by sleeplessness and haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered. The following day he is killed in battle by Richmond.

A frequent topic of discussion is the apparent contradiction between Richard's monstrous behavior and his continuing attractiveness to audiences. One argument suggests that he is not meant to be a realistic character but a melodramatic, comic villain whose extreme antics lighten the mood of what would otherwise be an unendurably morbid play. A somewhat different view holds that Richard's witty dialogue and his ability to mock himself lead audiences to disassociate him from the many murders that he orders but does not himself commit; the murders that he did commit occur before the action of Richard III.

It has also been argued that—with the exception of the two young princes—Richard's victims are not as innocent as they seem but are instead hypocrites who know they are being used and who try unsuccessfully to use Richard. According to this view, Richard is simply more clever than anyone else in the play at getting what he wants.

Richard, Duke of York

The younger son of King Edward IV and thus second in line to the throne when his father dies, York demonstrates a certain cleverness in act 2, scene 4, and parries wits with Richard in act 3, scene 1. He is imprisoned in the Tower along with his elder brother by their ambitious uncle Richard, who later has them murdered.

Earl Rivers

Rivers is Queen Elizabeth's brother; Richard has him assassinated.

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In discussing the indictment of Hastings that he copied, the scrivener demonstrates how poorly Richard is disguising his foul deeds.

Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby

Stanley is the Earl of Richmond's stepfather. Stanley demonstrates loyalty to Richard but is distrusted by him because he is related to the primary threat to Richard's rule. As king, Richard takes Stanley's son George as hostage, hoping to ensure that Stanley will not dare to fight on Richmond's side. Stanley manages to prevent Richard from realizing that he is indeed supporting his stepson until just before the battle, when Richard has no time to have Stanley's son executed.

Sir James Tyrrel

Tyrrel is recruited by Richard to arrange for the murder of the two young heirs of Edward IV. His brief soliloquy on that heinous crime serves to highlight Richard's evil.

Sir Christopher Urswick

Urswick is a chaplain who sends a letter to Richmond on behalf of Stanley. He also informs Stanley of other supporters of Richmond.

Duchess of York

The Duchess of York is the mother of King Edward IV, of George, Duke of Clarence, and of Richard. She mourns the deaths of King Edward and Clarence and curses Richard for his wickedness. After long inhabiting a passive role, commenting only offhand on her low opinion of the youngest of her three sons, she manages to vehemently curse Richard after gaining inspiration from Margaret.



In act 2, scene 3, of Richard III, a group of English citizens worries over what will become of the nation now that King Edward IV has died and his heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, is still a child. The citizens know that a Protector will be appointed to govern for Prince Edward until he is old enough to rule by himself. They also know that the child's uncles are vying with one another to be Protector, and the citizens are frightened that the inevitable power struggle will throw the country into turmoil. They have already endured a number of chaotic years in the course of the Wars of the Roses, as the Houses of York and Lancaster have fought back and forth for England's throne, and the citizens of England long for peace and order. Instead, of course, they get Richard.

The question of succession in English law, or the order—based on birth or marriage—by which a person lawfully and rightfully becomes monarch, was of much concern to the citizens of England during Shakespeare's time since their aging queen, Elizabeth I, was unmarried and had no heirs. Although Elizabeth was England's lawful queen, she had already weathered several challenges to her power, including those of Mary, Queen of Scots, a relative whom Elizabeth finally saw executed in 1587, and Philip II of Spain, who had sent his Armada in 1588 in hopes of unseating her. Thus, a play about an ambitious relative of a king who was determined to become king himself was very relevant to Shakespeare's audience.

Richard knows that he will in truth be a usurper: he will become king through illegal deeds and knows that if he does not at least appear to be England's lawful ruler, then he will suffer endless challenges to his power. The string of murders that Richard commits and orders before and after he becomes king can be seen as attempts to legitimize his rule by eliminating others with claims to the throne. Of the three brothers—King Edward IV; George, Duke of Clarence; and Richard, Duke of Gloucester—Richard is the youngest of the king's brothers and farthest from succession to the crown. Clarence is before him and might become the Protector of Edward's son and heir, the Prince of Wales, when King Edward dies. Thus, when King Edward falls seriously ill, Richard plots to have Clarence killed, removing in one stroke a possible Protector and a potential claimant to the throne.

Richard's next move is to make certain that he alone becomes Protector to his nephew, the Prince of Wales. He eliminates Rivers, who is the prince's uncle on his mother's side, and also murders Lord Grey, the prince's half-brother. (The prince's remaining half-brother, the Marquis of Dorset, escapes to join the Earl of Richmond.) Once Richard becomes the unchallenged Protector, he can more easily seize Page 738  |  Top of Articlethe throne for himself. He murders Hastings after that nobleman swears to remain loyal to Prince Edward's right to the throne. By suggesting that the Prince of Wales and his younger brother, the Duke of York, are illegitimate and not true sons of Edward IV, and are therefore unqualified for succession, Richard and Buckingham convince the citizens that Richard is the only one left who, by lineage and virtue, deserves to be king.

Even after Richard becomes king, he knows that his power is vulnerable to challenge as long as the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York remain alive; although imprisoned and hidden from sight, these two rightful heirs to King Edward's throne could still serve as a rallying point for dissatisfied or ambitious subjects. So Richard adds the two young princes to his list of victims; still, he does not feel secure. He imprisons Clarence's son because that child has a better claim to the throne than he, and he marries off Clarence's daughter to a commoner to destroy any possibility of royal claimants coming from that blood line. Finally, Richard hears that his enemy the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond intends to marry Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth and thus unite the royal families of York and Lancaster. Richard hopes to prevent this union and strengthen his own claim to the throne by marrying King Edward's daughter himself, which is why he tries to persuade Queen Elizabeth to consent to such a marriage. Richard's attempts to legitimize his power through bloodshed end when he is killed in battle by the Earl of Richmond, who begins a new line of succession—the Tudors—and is crowned Henry VII.

Retributive Justice

Widespread in Shakespeare's era was the idea that the members of the court of King Edward IV, inhabiting their positions of power and advantage only as a result of earlier bloodshed and sin, met their downfall as a result of divinely ordained retributive justice—justice that paid them back for what they had done. Based on the prominent references to that notion in Richard III, especially as represented in the curses issued by Margaret. E. M. Y. Tillyard goes as far as to assert, "The play's main end is to show the working out of God's will in English history." Coppélia Kahn, in turn, descriptively notes, "Critics have often interpreted Richard III as the lump of chaos born of England's chaos, the incarnation of its untrammeled slaughter of sons, brothers, fathers."

Indeed, Shakespeare calls much attention to the notion of God dispensing justice among those who have committed crimes or misdeeds. In his essay, "Angel with Horns," A. P. Rossiter points out that Raphael Holinshed, the author of one of Shakespeare's sources, makes reference to the notion of such justice and that the playwright then incorporated that notion throughout Richard III. In terms of the scenes, several are devoted explicitly to lamentations over those lost, with Margaret offering Queen Elizabeth this conclusion in act 4, scene 4: "Thus hath the course of justice whirled about / And left thee but a very prey to time." In terms of the language, Shakespeare often has characters repeating lines or responding to each other in back-and-forth patterns, suggesting what Rossiter dubs a "tennis-court game of rhetoric" that reflects the equality of payback.

Above all, Rossiter highlights "the simple overriding principle derived from the Tudor historians: that England rests under a chronic curse—the curse of faction, civil dissension, and fundamental anarchy, resulting from the deposition and murder of the Lord's Anointed (Richard II) and the usurpation of the house of Lancaster." This curse, which issued forth originally from the mouth of Richard II and is later echoed in Richard III by Queen Margaret, is of course ultimately enacted by God alone. Perhaps ironically, then, God proves to enact these curses through the character of Richard III. Regarding Richard's paradoxical status, Rossiter concludes,

He is not only this demon incarnate, he is in effect God's agent in a predetermined plan of divine retribution: the "scourge of God." Now by Tudor-Christian historical principles, this plan is right. Thus, in a real sense, Richard is a king who "can do no wrong"; for in the pattern of the justice of divine retribution on the wicked, he functions as an avenging angel.

Richard's evil, then, was in a sense "good."

Shakespeare seems to have also weighted the notion of retributive justice by not including certain scenes that might have served to inspire greater sympathy in the audience. August Wilhelm von Schlegel suggests, "Shakespeare intended that terror rather than compassion should prevail throughout this tragedy: he has rather avoided than sought the pathetic scenes which he had at command." Schlegel points out that the death of Clarence alone is depicted onstage, with the deaths Page 739  |  Top of Articleof Anne and the young princes only mentioned; meanwhile, characters such as Hastings, Buckingham, and Rivers are not presented in ways that might inspire the audience to pity them. The overall effect, then, is that the audience is fairly indifferent, if not content, when many of these characters are eliminated; as such, the audience more readily agrees with the notion that these characters are being punished by God for their sins and for the sins of their forebears. Schlegel concludes, "Shakespeare has most accurately observed poetical justice in the genuine sense of the word, that is, as signifying the revelation of an invisible blessing or curse which hangs over human sentiments and actions."

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  • King Richard III was one of the most ruthless politicians ever to grace England's royal throne, ordering numerous murders to ensure that no one could be considered to have a more legitimate claim to the throne than himself. In modern American politics, far different underhanded tactics are used by politicians to secure power. Write an essay on the American political tradition of mudslinging. Compare this tactic with the tactics used by Richard in moral terms, providing specific recent examples of mudslinging or other such competitive tactics that might be classified as immoral.
  • As a Shakespearean villain and protagonist, Richard III has often been compared to Macbeth. Read Macbeth and write an essay in which you compare and contrast the two title characters.
  • At least one critic has wondered why Shakespeare chose not to include the historical scene in which the Cardinal persuades Queen Elizabeth to release her son Richard, the Duke of York, from sanctuary (this occurs offstage in act 3, scene 1). Write a report on the concept of sanctuary in medieval law, discussing whether you believe the Cardinal should or should not have acted as ordered by Buckingham in not truly recognizing York's right to sanctuary.
  • Identify a modern film in which the villain is not only the center of attention but also is depicted in a way that solicits the viewer's sympathy. In an essay, analyze the ways in which the director, writer, and actor in this film humanize the villain, comparing their methods with the theatrical strategies used by Shakespeare in Richard III. (If possible, also view a filmed version of Richard III and address the methods used by the actor playing the title character in your discussion.)
  • The idea of retributive justice is still invoked in modern times. Write an essay about recent religious leaders who have claimed that events or occurrences signaled punishment from God. Analyze these leaders' motivations for making such claims and discuss reactions among various segments of the public. (For example, certain figures called the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 a retributive act of God.)


Dark Comedy

A persistent thread of comedy runs through Richard III. Since the play is mostly about treachery and vengeance, the comedy it contains is appropriately dark, consisting of dramatic irony as well as parody. On the other hand, this comedy can be partly understood as intended to brighten the somber tone of that period of history. William E. Sheriff proposes that Shakespeare perhaps wished to enhance the last entry in his first group of four history plays from the plays of his competitors: "A cold-blooded approach to the throne, with no humor in Richard's character Page 740  |  Top of Articleand, as a result, less interest, would have repeated the pattern of so many of the contemporary history plays." Some of Richard's humor comes from his self-ridicule, but much of it comes when he mocks the confidence that others mistakenly place in him.

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience understands the real significance of a character's words or actions but the character or those around him or her do not. Richard's sympathetic comments to his brother Clarence as he is being taken to prison constitute dramatic irony because the audience knows from Richard's opening soliloquy that he is responsible for Clarence's being jailed. Dramatic irony occurs again in act 3, scene 2, when Catesby suggests that Richard should be crowned king in lieu of the Prince of Wales, and Hastings declares: "I'll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders / Before I'll see the crown so foul misplac'd." We already know from Richard's conversation with Buckingham one scene earlier that Hastings will indeed lose his head if he opposes Richard. Both of these incidents are intended to make the audience smile, if perhaps grimly, at Richard's trickery and his victims' naïveté.

Parody is the use of exaggerated imitation to ridicule someone or something that was meant to be taken seriously. Richard mocks both himself and Anne when he parodies a preening lover in act 1, after Anne—against all odds—accepts his ring: "I'll be at charges for a looking-glass, / And entertain a score or two of tailors / To study fashions to adorn my body." Part of the humor comes from Richard's ability to laugh at himself. Richard's most triumphant parody occurs when he fools the citizens of London into petitioning him to be their king. By imitating a holy man (which he most certainly is not) and appearing reluctant to accept the crown, Richard succeeds in getting the power he wants.

The Ultimate Actor

Richard's character is so central to Richard III that many commentators believe that the play in production is entirely dependent on that one role. For a play to revolve around a single role, that role must perhaps feature the utmost degree of dramatic complexity—and thus demand the utmost theatrical expertise. As quoted by Howard Staunton in The Complete Illustrated Shakespeare, Nathan Drake remarks of Richard,

While to the explorer of the human mind he affords, by his penetration and address, a subject of peculiar interest and delight, he offers to the practised performer a study well calculated to call forth his fullest and finest exertions. He, therefore, whose histrionic powers are adequate to the just exhibition of this character, may be said to have attained the highest honours of his profession.

Indeed, in terms of character, Richard himself can be understood as first and foremost an impeccable actor.

A. P. Rossiter offers perhaps the most comprehensive discussion on Richard's theatricality. He first makes note of "the appeal of the actor: the talented being who can assume every mood and passion at will, at all events to the extent of making others believe in it." He then points out why the machinations of Richard, however wicked, prove so riveting: "The specific interest here is the power that would be in the hands of an actor consummate enough to make (quite literally) 'all the world a stage' and to work on humanity by the perfect simulation of every feeling." The art of self-presentation, in fact, might be considered the particular realm of both the actor and the politician. Richard has so fine-tuned his ability to present himself that he is able to deceive and outmaneuver all others likewise seeking to claw their way to power.

The notion of the ultimate actor is closely related to the notion of the Superman, elaborated most extensively by the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche contended that the human being with complete control over his emotions and complete harnessing of his "will to power" could in effect out-evolve the rest of humanity, becoming a "Superman." Rossiter notes that Shakespeare, who predated Nietzsche by two hundred years, would have been exposed to the similar concepts of the Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince. Rossiter notes that Machiavelli's Prince and Shakespeare's Richard seek to embody the same quality: "a lifelong, unremitting vigilance in relentless simulation and impenetrable deception." Rossiter then invokes the language of Nietzsche, asserting, "There, precisely, lies the super-humanity of the Superman. The will-to-power is shorn of its effective power without it. He is an artist in evil." Richard, then, despite his ultimate downfall, was perhaps one of the greatest artists in superhumanity in history.

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Curses and Prophecies

Language is a potent weapon in Richard III, particularly as a source of retribution. Prophecies and curses are delivered and fulfilled, while oaths that are sworn but later broken bring about disaster. Curses, prophecies, and false or imprudent oaths occur so frequently and are so powerful that they should be understood as having a profound effect on the play's outcome.

As early as act 1, scene 3, Margaret curses virtually every principal character in the play. She prays for the death of King Edward as well as his heirs and for a life of misery for Queen Elizabeth. She curses Hastings and Rivers with early death, Richard with sleepless nights and ruin. She finishes by prophesying that Buckingham will be betrayed by Richard: "O Buckingham, take heed of yonder dog! / Look when he fawns, he bites; and when he bites / His venom tooth will rankle to the death." By the end of the play, nearly all of Margaret's predictions and curses have been fulfilled.

Ironically, many of the characters bring destruction upon themselves by reinforcing Margaret's curses with their own false oaths and self-curses. For example, in act 4, scene 4, Richard swears to Queen Elizabeth that he loves her daughter, and he supports this oath with a self-curse that is meant to take effect if his oath proves false: "God and fortune, bar me happy hours! / Day, yield me not thy light, nor, night, thy rest!" Richard's oath is indeed false: he does not love Elizabeth's daughter but hopes to marry her to consolidate his power. His self-curse—ruin and sleepless nights—is identical to Margaret's curse in act 1, and by the end of the play, it is fulfilled.


Man or Monster?

The depiction of Richard III is without question the centerpiece of the play bearing his name, and in turn, the historical accuracy of that depiction—and whether Shakespeare actually sought to portray Richard accurately—has been much discussed. On this topic, John Julius Norwich observes, "King Richard III, the only English ruler since the Norman Conquest to have been killed in battle, is also the only one to have become a legend. That legend, due first to Sir Thomas More and then to Shakespeare, is that of the lame and twisted hunchback whose misshapen body reflects the evil heart within it." One problem is that the printing press was only just coming into use during Richard's lifetime, so historical records from his era are rare and hard to verify.

The ultimate source of most of the information used by Shakespeare—More's Historie of King Richard the Thirde—was written by a Tudor historian who was quite explicitly describing events from the point of view of Henry VII, the sovereign he was serving. As a result, some modern historians have conjectured that More portrayed Richard with emphasized if not exaggerated monstrosity. Robert Ornstein asserts that More describes Richard "as an explorer might describe a rare and horrifying species of poisonous snake. Never allowing his reader to savor Richard's histrionic performances, More makes each of Richard's successes an occasion for moral outrage, disgust, and scorn." Others have suggested that More demonstrated ample integrity both in other works and throughout his life, and that there is insufficient grounds for questioning his honesty with regard to his portrait of Richard. Norwich points out that More is "a formally canonized saint" in contending, "Nothing that we know of his character suggests that he would have … deliberately written what he knew in his heart to be untrue." Ultimately, no scholarly authority can determine with certainty the degree to which More was faithfully representing the villainy of Richard III.

Regardless of the accuracy of More's portrayal, Shakespeare chooses not to portray Richard as an utter monster. He also endows him with a variety of appealing characteristics. Ornstein declares that what Shakespeare does "is make Richard's perversity credible and, more than that, enjoyable, for the heartless murderer More depicts becomes in Shakespeare's play a humorist and a comedian so cheeky, frank, and enthusiastic in his wickedness that most of his betters seem unpardonably dishonest and dreary." Indeed, much of Richard's appeal comes from his sense of humor, a trait perhaps prized above all others by some entertainment-seeking audiences. William E. Sheriff asserts that, in this respect, the playwright perhaps sees Richard's comic depth and intelligence as necessities: "Shakespeare realized we had to put up with this fellow until we had him seated on the throne in order for the play to sustain interest." That is, if Richard had been portrayed as a mere caricature of a murderous Page 742  |  Top of Articlevillain, the play's central role might have lacked the desired level of psychological and dramatic tension.

Still, Shakespeare walks a fine line in his effort not to make Richard too likable. Norwich points out that the playwright leaves the audience understanding that Richard is responsible for Clarence's imprisonment and death. In his opening soliloquy, Richard boasts about how he had set Edward and Clarence at odds with each other, thus, in a sense, claiming responsibility for Clarence's arrest. Later, Richard is shown giving orders to the Murderers, whom he calls "my executioners," and the two subsequently declare that their "reward" will come from "the Duke of Gloucester's purse" and perform their deed uncertainly and as if illicitly. However, in reality, Clarence fully earned his detention in the Tower by, among other missteps, suggesting that Edward was illegitimate, and Edward did consequently condemn him to death. With respect to this major piece of the plot, Shakespeare does portray Richard as more evil than history indicates he was, if not as more monstrous.

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  • 1470s: The notion that God will exact revenge on those who participated in the usurping of King Richard II's throne is in the forefront of the minds of those who are yet suffering through the Wars of the Roses.
    1590s: Citizens of Elizabethan England trust that with the retributive justice brought about by King Richard III, peace may be likely to hold—but rebellions must still occasionally be put down.
    Today: Wars and disasters are still invoked by some religious leaders as evidence that God is displeased with humankind.
  • 1470s: With written records scarce, people in positions of power can easily manipulate public perceptions of the truth by determining what information is made available.
    1590s: Written records are more available, making the falsification of historical events more difficult—but far from impossible.
    Today: While journalists and historians usually manage to ensure that people are made aware of historical truths, at least in more open societies, people in powerful political positions still have opportunities to manipulate public perceptions for their own ends.
  • 1470s: Murders are committed and executions are ordered with fair regularity by both those who aspire to, and those who hold, England's royal throne.
    1590s: Queen Elizabeth has maintained her reign for some thirty years, having survived several uprisings by Catholics looking to install her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots—who is eventually executed.
    Today: The last assassination of an American president was that of John F. Kennedy in 1963; among modern politicians, underhanded tactics are generally limited to slanderous mudslinging.

Sheriff, meanwhile, posits that even if Shakespeare softened Richard's monstrosity overall, he made an artistic decision to lessen Richard's appeal toward the end of the play, as demonstrated by his failure to sway Queen Elizabeth in act 4, scene 4, with his usual conversational ruses. Sheriff states of the playwright,

It is my opinion that he wished to balance the presentation of his characterization of Richard; that is, whereas he first convinced us of the powers of this monstrous comedian, he now wishes to destroy that image in order that the entire concept of Richard's character can be shattered on Bosworth Field without regret on the part of the spectator. The qualities we found fascinating in Richard, his brilliant wit, his corrupt sense of humor, his ability to stand outside the scene and watch himself, are missing in his Page 743  |  Top of Articleencounter with Queen Elizabeth, and we are in this manner prepared for the concluding act of the play.

In other words, as a prelude to his well-deserved death, Shakespeare's Richard can be understood to demote himself from mesmerizing monster to a merely villainous man.


Overwhelmingly, to be sure, critical attention to Richard III has focused on the title character. Indeed, as Mark Eccles notes, Richard speaks over a third of the plays' lines and appears in fourteen of twenty-five scenes—with five of his ten soliloquies occurring in the first three scenes—such that "his shadow hangs over the rest." Thus, the play as a total creation merits judgment based on the single portrait of King Richard III.

In that Richard III began life in performance, then, the actors who have inhabited the character of Richard deserve discussion in the context of critical opinion. Indeed, at the turn of the nineteenth century, Nathan Drake asserted that the play had gained renown largely by virtue of the portrayals of the title character: "The popularity of [Richard III], notwithstanding the moral enormity of its hero, may be readily accounted for, when we recollect that, the versatile and consummate hypocrisy of the tyrant has been embodied by the talents of such masterly performers as Garrick, Kemble, Cooke, and Kean." Regarding those men—all of whom graced the stage in the latter half of the eighteenth century or the beginning of the nine-teenth—Eccles confirms that David Garrick was "the most brilliant actor of his time"; John Philip Kemble, as Richard, was "stately and eloquent"; and George Frederick Cooke made the villain "diabolical." Eccles offers especial praise for Edmund Kean, who distinguished himself as Richard in London beginning in 1814. After citing Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who said that watching Kean was like "reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning," and John Keats, who lauded the actor's "intense power of anatomizing the passions," Eccles offers his own assessment: "The play gave Kean chances to display the whole range of his virtuosity: his violent passions, his pantherlike gaiety, his energy and power. In the last act he held his audience spellbound. His awakening from his nightmare sent a shudder of terror through the spectators." Shakespeare is understood to have had Richard Burbage, one of the leading actors in his own company, in mind when he conceived of the role of King Richard III—and if the playwright had not had access to Burbage's talent, he might have written that role quite differently.

Regarding the role itself, A. P. Rossiter finds Richard to be "a huge triumphant stage personality, an early old masterpiece of the art of rhetorical stage writing, a monstrous being incredible in any sober, historical scheme of things." Similarly, Morton J. Frisch declares,

Shakespeare has performed the extraordinary feat of presenting the serpentine wisdom of the tyrannic soul in such a way that it cannot fail to excite our sensibilities. In the satisfaction we receive in contemplating the character of Richard, in the various situations in which Shakespeare has shown him, it is almost as if we lost sight of the cold-blooded, calculating tyrant whose ugly soul is overshadowed and even to some extent obscured by the marvelous play of his intellect.

In turn, William E. Sheriff praises the portrayal of Richard for its prodigious fusion of tragedy and comedy: "As the dramatist developed in his handling of the English history play genre, he obviously became more adept at using comic elements to enrich his work. He dared to portray his most wicked king as his most comic king." Rossiter, too, highlights Richard's comedic traits in the context of his theatricality: "Through his prowess as actor and his embodiment of the comic Vice and impish-to-fiendish humor, he offers the false as more attractive than the true (the actor's function), and the ugly and evil as admirable and amusing (the clown's game of value reversals)." Indeed, from almost every imaginable perspective, critics have praised and wondered at the extraordinary, sometimes paradoxical complexity of Shakespeare's King Richard III.

The play Richard III is often considered in its context in Shakespeare's First Tetralogy, where it is the closing entry, following the three parts of Henry VI. August Wilhelm von Schlegel, quoted by Howard Staunton in The Complete Illustrated Shakespeare, asserts that in terms of tone and content, the four do function together as a unified work. Comparing the quality of Henry VI, Part Three and Richard III, E. M. W. Tillyard gives the latter qualified praise: "In style the play is Page 744  |  Top of Articlebetter sustained than its predecessor. There is less undifferentiated stuff, and the finest pieces of writing (as distinguished from the finest scenes) are more dramatic." Tillyard speaks less enthusiastically about the overall length and pace of the play in light of Shakespeare's artistic endurance, contending, "Richard's plotting with Buckingham and his acquisition of the throne though strongly organized must have tired Shakespeare. There are even signs of strain in the last stage of the process when Richard appears between the two bishops; the verse droops somewhat. After this … the vitality flags, except in patches." Other commentators offer similar criticism of minor or peripheral aspects of the play. Rossiter notes that certain scenes, like the collective lamentation of Queens Margaret and Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, constitute such contrived "quasi-realistic costume-play stuff" that "even editors have found the proceedings absurd." Overall, however, critics have expressed great appreciation for this fairly early Shakespearean history.


James L. Calderwood

Calderwood provides an overview of Richard III's attitude toward death, noting that the title character perceives the deaths of those around him not as "real deaths" but as "merely the removal of impediments." In this cavalier attitude toward death, the critic argues, Shakespeare himself is implicit, since his aim with the tragedy is to see that such deaths happen.

… Richard's mockery of murder at the end of 1 Henry VI is continued throughout Richard III. From his impatient point of view, brothers, lord, dukes, and princes are merely so much material stuff, so many annoying tubs of guts blocking his path to the crown; their deaths are not real deaths, merely the removal of impediments. And in some degree we share his attitude. Richard seduces us as he seduces Lady Anne, and by the same device—by announcing his desire. He has, he tells us, a goal to achieve, a crown to gain, and plots to gain it by. By keeping us informed of Richard's plots Shakespeare arouses in us the desire for form, for the completion of an aesthetic pattern. "Form," Kenneth Burke said years ago, in what is still the best definition we have of the elusive concept, "is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite." When Macbeth speaks of how "withered murder" moves "towards his design" like a ghost, his phrasing echoes the sense of aesthetic form implicit in the Witches' prophecies and Macbeth's wicked imaginings on the heath, both of which forecast his movement throughout the play toward the completion of murderous designs. Whatever or whoever frustrates this teleology frustrates us as well as the hero, and must be gotten rid of if the proper end is to be attained. Aaron, Iago, Edmund, and Macbeth all make us long perversely for the successful prosecution of forbidden acts.

In a larger sense, Shakespeare the tragic dramatist plays as villainous a role outside his plays as his Machiavellian plotters do within them. He too has murderous desires and designs. Tragedy, after all, is a killing kind of play, and it is the dramatist's dark business to see that this killing takes place, to try conclusions. Hence, like Richard III and the others, he establishes an appetite in us for a formal completion not just of the villains' plots but of his own tragic plot, whether there are villains or no. He creates in us an appetite for death the satisfaction of which compensates us for the pity and fear we have been made to suffer. Yet death is not truly death when it is reduced to playing a culminating part in the plot, a part we expect it to play and, in our aesthetic perversity, want it to play.

Death in tragedy is denied, demeaned, and diverted. It is also dignified beyond its due. To be touched with a poisoned foil like Hamlet or stabbed by one's own dagger like Othello is not the same thing as coughing and retching one's way to the grave like Keats. Most deaths are ugly, pathetic events, and Shakespeare must have seen his share of them in bodies tettered by the pox, made noseless by syphilis, or festering blackly from the plague. Tragic death transcends all of this. When the Player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead speaks well of histrionic killings and dyings, Guildenstern is indignant:

Actors! The mechanics of cheap melodrama! That isn't death! (More quietly.) You scream and choke and sink to your knees, but it doesn't bring death home to any one—it doesn't catch them unawares and start the whisper in their skulls that says—"One day you are going to die." (He straightens up.) You die so many times; how can you expect them to believe in your death?

Page 745  |  Top of Article

To which the Player replies "On the contrary, it's the only death they do believe." Both are right. Theatrical death is the only death they believe, because it lends an aura of vitality and excitement to the drab deaths outside the theater that they dare not believe in because to do so sets off those fatal whispers in the skull. From this standpoint theater itself becomes an immortality system, not merely because it sands the rough edges from death but because it intensifies and glamorizes all human behavior, superimposing on life a grander life replete with grander deaths.

Source: James L. Calderwood, "Tragedy and Death," in Shakespeare and the Denial of Death, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, pp. 133-35.

Irene G. Dash

In her examination of the powerlessness of women in Richard III, Dash focuses primarily upon Margaret, Anne, and Elizabeth. She describes Margaret as "dynamic," remarking also that she is the least conventional of the three women and the character most often left out of productions of the play. Dash describes Anne, by contrast, as more compliant and more typically "feminine" in her obedience to Richard. Finally, she asserts that Elizabeth, who at first seems somewhat lackluster, grows more complex in Act IV, after Richard has murdered her young sons and she has asked Margaret to teach her how to curse her enemies. At this point, Dash compares the two wooing scenes, observing that where Anne falls victim to Richard's clever words, the more experienced Elizabeth turns the tables on him.

In Richard III, four widows walk the stage: Margaret, Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and Anne. If women are confused by the meaning of power when they are young, being wooed or acting as wives to men of power, they realistically discover its meaning when they become widows. They learn that their husbands were not only the source of their power, but worse still, of their identity. How does a woman cope with this discovery, this becoming a nonperson? Shakespeare offers four versions in Richard III, from the simple acceptance of her status by the Duchess of York to the anxious search for new patterns by Elizabeth, who first entered this tetralogy when, as a widow suing for rights to her husband's lands, she discovered her powerlessness for the first time. Saved by her wit and beauty, she then moved from powerlessness to power. Like Margaret earlier, she became a queen and the mother of princes. When, in Richard III, the pattern repeats itself, Elizabeth seeks more substantial answers.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I and II (1590) retells the story of a Mongol warrior who, like Richard, uses deception to rise to power and eventually meets his downfall.
  • John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) features the character of Satan, to whom Shakespeare's Richard has been compared.
  • In her novel The Daughter of Time (1951), featuring a modern British detective who decides to investigate Richard's crimes, mystery writer Josephine Tey offers a sympathetically revised portrait of Richard III.
  • Desmond Seward offers a historical account of the life of this play's main character in the biographical Richard III: England's Black Legend (1982).

Her experience continues to mirror Margaret's despite deviations. Elizabeth's husband, instead of being murdered by Richard, dies, his illness aggravated by Richard's histrionics. Instead of losing one son and heir to the throne, Page 746  |  Top of Article
A scene from the 1995 film Richard III, with Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, and Maggie Smith A scene from the 1995 film Richard III, with Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, and Maggie Smith (Reproduced by permission of The Picture Desk, Inc.) she loses two. Instead of being childless at the end of the play, she remains a mother with surviving children. Instead of being a widow of a defeated monarch, she is widow of a man who was in power. But it little matters. Like Margaret, Elizabeth too loses power, discovering the strength of the patriarchal system. Finally, near the play's close, she seeks alternatives. Shakespeare offers a tentative glimpse at women supporting women, women relying on women, women bonding—even if in bitterness—with women.

To do this, the dramatist alters history and creates one of the most interesting studies in the play—he retains Margaret. Historically, she never returned to England after the deaths of her son and husband. Moreover, she died before the time of the action of this play. According to the chronicles, she roamed the French court, a woman in mourning for the rest of her life:

And where in the beginning of her tyme, she lyved like a Quene, in the middel she ruled like an empresse, toward thende she was vexed with troble, never quyet nor in peace, & in her very extreme age she passed her dayes in Fraunce, more lyke a death then a lyfe, languishyng and mornyng in continuall sorowe, not so much for her selfe and her husbande, whose ages were almost consumed and worne, but for the losse of prince Edward her sonne (whome she and her husband thought to leve, both overlyver of their progeny, and also of their kyngdome) to whome in this lyfe nothyng could be either more displeasant or grevous.

Shakespeare not only brings her back to England but gives her an important role in the play. She acts as narrative voice; she is seer and sibyl [a female prophet], predicting the doom of those responsible for the deaths of her son and husband; but she is also a dynamic woman, an anomalous character, roaming the palace of a rival monarch, expressing her opinions in positive language, sneering at York's unattractive progeny who now control power. Having lost all, she fears no one.

Margaret, who weaves in and out of this tetralogy [Henry VI, parts 1-3, and Richard III], the only woman character whose growth we observe from youth to old age, may also have challenged Shakespeare as a creative artist. Knowing that she walked through the court in Page 747  |  Top of ArticleFrance, a person in constant mourning, he might have wanted to project this image on the stage. Would such a woman have learned anything? Would she have grown? How might she have handled life, alone, in a hostile environment? Finally, has she made any breakthrough in self-knowledge; did she learn anything about herself as a woman?

Before she enters, Shakespeare introduces her principal antagonist, Richard, the title character. He defines the power and powerlessness of women in the first scene of Richard III. Introduced in soliloquy, he confides his plans to reach the throne despite the mass of relatives standing between him and his objective. "I am determined to prove a villain" (I.i.30), he proclaims, baring his plot to frame his brother Clarence. When the latter enters, en route to prison, Richard immediately blames a woman for Clarence's present fate. "Why, this it is, when men are rul'd by women" (62), Richard asserts, implying Queen Elizabeth's evil influence on Edward. Misogyny runs wild, for Clarence easily agrees, adding Mistress Shore's name to those who "rule" the King. Before the scene closes, a third woman is mentioned. Richard, again in soliloquy, admits,

    … I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter.
    What though I kill'd her husband and her father?
    The readiest way to make the wench amends
    Is to become her husband and her father.

Moments later Anne, the play's third widow, walks on following the coffin of King Henry, her father-in-law, and taking it to burial. Asking the pall bearers to "set down" their "honorable load" (I.ii.i), Anne delivers a long set speech of mourning explicitly cursing the murderer, Richard. She then orders the pall-bearers to resume the trek to the place of burial. Richard, unobserved, interferes, countermanding her order. "Stay, you that bear the corse, and set it down" (33). At their attempt to continue, Richard threatens with his sword. They obey. Graphically, this scene illustrates Richard's power and Anne's powerlessness. Helpless to challenge him physically, she attempts to disarm him with words. She seeks to force her will. Scorn, hatred, vehemence, curses: all fall from her lips. Little anticipating the aim of his confrontation, she is astonished and completely bewildered when Richard offers marriage.

Historically, Richard pursued Anne for two years before winning her. Shakespeare compresses this into one scene, choosing a moment when she is most confused and emotionally most unstable. In a long protracted courtship, their debates—her responses to his persistent claims—would have to be developed so that the many variables in personality could influence the decision. When compressed into a single scene, his duplicity and her confusion must be apparent at once. Some critics believe that the scene offers an opportunity to prove Richard's extraordinary ability. More recently critics have become aware of the psychological vulnerability of a person at a time of emotional crisis such as the loss of a husband and a father-in-law.

First Richard tries flattery, but Anne resists, assuring him that she would scratch her beauty with her nails (I.ii.126) if she thought it were the cause of the death of her husband or father-in-law. Then Richard, the consummate actor, offers her his sword and "lays his breast open" for her to kill him. He challenges her in a style that she cannot fathom. Untrained in the use of the sword, unwilling to take a human life, Anne reacts as a normal human being might, especially someone who has not been initiated into the games of war and murder. Although Richard continues "Nay, do not pause: for I did kill King Henry—/ But 'twas thy beauty that provoked me" (179-80), she drops the sword. But Richard's words are really superfluous. All of her training as a woman assures him success. Men are trained to kill. Woman are not. Here, against a defenseless person, in a time of uncertain peace, to kill the brother of the King would be insanity as well as suicide.

Richard then poses a false dichotomy for her: "Take up the sword again, or take up me" (I.ii.183). He leaves her no option; she must either kill him or accept him as her husband. Caught between suspicion and her training as a woman, Anne can do no more than say, "Arise, dissembler! Though I wish thy death, / I will not be thy executioner" (184-85). Still she does not acquiesce to marriage. The key interchange between them occurs moments later when Richard offers "Then bid me kill myself" (186) but refuses to accept her words, "I have already" (187). Instead, he then questions the honesty of her original intention. "That was in thy rage. / Speak it again" (187-88) he challenges, promising to kill himself for love. Anne's agonized words, "I would I knew thy Page 748  |  Top of Articleheart" (192) are spoken by many of the characters throughout the play. No one knows Richard's "heart"—his intention—until it is too late. For a woman being wooed, however, the price is particularly high—not friendship or allegiance, but marriage.

Although Richard congratulates himself on his success—"To take her in her heart's extremest hate, / With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes" (I.ii.231-32)—Shakespeare here creates a situation in which a manipulative liar has the best chance of success, a moment when his prey is most confused. Richard's timing, audacity, overwhelming flattery, and histrionics with the sword are beyond Anne's ability to cope. She belongs with such characters as Ophelia [from Shakespeare's play Hamlet], who is conforming, obedient, docile, "feminine." Historically, having resisted Richard for two years, she may have had more of the strength of Margaret or an Elizabeth. She may also have had as few options as they did, being sought by the persistent brother of the King. But rather than repeat a pattern already twice told, Shakespeare creates another type of woman, caught in a different situation, and reacting on a level not yet dramatized in this tetralogy. The man she must confront is the man who boasted in the previous play:

    Why, I can smile, and murther whiles I smile,
    Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
    Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
    Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
    Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.
    (3 Henry VI, III.ii.182-95)

Richard applies his abilities, skills, and techniques to convince Anne.

Critics have been harsh in their evaluation of her. August W. Von Schlegel, the nineteenth-century German scholar, writes that "Anne disappears without our learning anything further respecting her: in marrying the murderer of her husband she had shown a weakness almost incredible." William Richardson, in the eighteenth century, concludes that "She is represented by Shakespeare of a mind altogether frivolous; incapable of deep affection; guided by no steady principles of virtue …; the prey of vanity, which is her ruling passion." As Richardson continues, he not only says that Richard understands her perfectly but that she is a character of "no rational or steady virtue, and consequently of no consistency of character." He even suggests that it is "resentment, rather than grief, which she expresses." Georg Gervinus, the nineteenth-century German literary historian, offers a more balanced appraisal, however, when he writes, "We must take into account extraordinary degree of dissimulation, which deceives even experienced men," nothing also how stereotypical a portrait Shakespeare creates in Anne by having her delight in saving "such a penitent."

Anne appears in only one other scene, and that without Richard. Now married, she hopes to visit her nephews—the heirs apparent—held in the tower by her husband. Unlike her historical prototype, she admits:

    Lo, ere I can repeat this curse again,
    Within so small a time, my woman's heart
    Grossly grew captive to his honey words,
    And prov'd the subject of mine own soul's curse.

She is self-deprecating, and blames herself for her fate. Her conventionality is perhaps best testified to by the fact that she survives in all versions of the play. In Colley Cibber's version, Richard even tries to tempt her to commit suicide. In a recent production at the Cort Theatre starring Al Pacino, she appears so cold, self-righteous, and vindictive that audiences applaud Richard's success. There, although the text that remains is Shakespeare's, the cuts are reminiscent of Cibber's popular eighteenth-century work.

On the other hand, the one woman who most frequently disappears from productions is the one who challenges Richard, the least conventional woman—Margaret. Cibber set the pattern in 1700 when he eliminated her from his text. Since then, his version with its heavy emphasis on the male "star" role has seldom left the stage. But even when Shakespeare's text is used, Margaret frequently disappears or loses most of her lines. For example, in a Phelps 1845 prompt-book, she no longer functions as an individual, cursing the many members of the court, but acts rather as a choral voice of doom. Very similar cutting appears in a 1964 typescript of the play. She is also absent from Laurence Olivier's film version and from the Pacino 1979 production. Comparing the Cibber version Page 749  |  Top of Articlewith Shakespeare's play, Arthur Colby Sprague writes that:

the more obviously memorable episodes … have survived…. But Margaret is gone and Clarence and Hastings and Edward: the price paid for compactness was high. It is a version … which does best when it keeps to surfaces and shallows; an opportunist version, cunning, prosaic and vulgar.

Many productions of Richard III, like Olivier's and Pacino's mentioned above, follow Shakespeare's text but also take their cues for cutting from Cibber. It is perhaps difficult for audiences to realize how deeply eighteenth-century changes—perhaps because they reflect attitudes toward women that still exist—continue to intrude on, shape, and gently distort the text.

Margaret's absence necessarily affects the total impact of the play; her entrance, in Act I, scene iii, offers a welcome antidote to Richard's swaggering triumph with Anne. Listening to Queen Elizabeth and Richard arguing, Margaret, once again, as she did so long ago in 1 Henry VI speaks in asides. This time, however, her asides are not the questions of a young virgin but the bitter comments of an old woman. She listens to the conversation of those in power. To Elizabeth's "Small joy have I in being England's Queen" (109), Margaret mutters to herself:

    And less'ned by that small, God I beseech him!
    Thy honor, state, and seat is due to me.

At once we are reminded that Margaret is a deposed queen. We wonder at her presence in this court. Commenting on Richard's words, but still speaking in aside, she exclaims:

    Hie thee to hell for shame, and leave this world,
    Thou cacodemon, there thy kingdom is.

Only the audience hears her; nevertheless, her lines establish her strange position. What is she doing at the court, this woman, so unafraid of Richard who, in asides, tells us of the murder of Henry in the tower and the killing of her son Edward? When she speaks aloud, Margaret pierces the false veneer of Richard, but also reveals antagonism for the woman who has made her a shadow, a nonbeing, the woman who is Queen. Although Richard reminds Margaret that she is "banished on pain of death" (166), she dismisses the threat, challenging him to enforce it. "I do find more pain in banishment / Than death can yield me here by my abode" (167-68). He then pursues another direction. Always aware of his audience, the people around him on the stage, he attacks Margaret for the murders of York and Rutland. As a result the squabbling members of the court unite against her. Aware of Richard's technique, she taunts:

    What? were you snarling all before I came,
    And turn you all your hatred now on me? (187-89)

She then curses each of them. Still wrestling with the patriarchal values she has absorbed, she first curses the Queen, her alter ego in this strange arrangement where kings are murdered to make way for kings but queens in number are permitted to survive. Listing the parallels between them, Margaret wishes the other woman a fate like her own:

    Though not by war, by surfeit die your king,
    As ours by murther, to make him a king!
    Edward thy son, that now is Prince of Wales,
    For Edward our son, that was Prince of Wales,
    Die in his youth by like untimely violence!

She keeps returning to her role of mother.

    Long mayst thou live to wail thy children's death,
    And see another, as I see thee now,
    Deck'd in thy rights as thou art stall'd in mine!

Finally, she condemns Elizabeth to a fate too familiar to women.

    Long die thy happy days before thy death,
    And after many length'ned hours of grief,
    Die neither mother, wife, nor England's queen!

In this long passage, Margaret details her own life as queen. Unlike the curses one might choose for a man, those chosen for Elizabeth have a different emphasis—not death but life continued after joy has passed.

When the bitter woman fails to stop her cursing, Richard interrupts. In verbal battle, she responds, wishing him a fate more heinous than the others. Her curse concludes with "Thou Page 750  |  Top of Articledetested—." Never one to refuse a challenge, Richard quickly interjects the word "Margaret." But she is not to be deflected from her purpose. Her sentence continues, ending with "Richard!" Elizabeth, although she bears no love for Richard, is still a victim of that minority status psychology that mandates she express her deepest contempt for another woman. "Thus have you breath'd your curse against yourself" (239), she mocks. Her words are hardly worth including in this exchange except to remind us of the difference between the two women—the sibyl-like, intense, passionate Margaret, and the more pedestrian, rational Elizabeth.

Finally, Cassandra-like, Margaret warns the one person exempt from her vengeance to beware of Richard:

    Have not to do with him, beware of him;
    Sin, death, and hell have set their marks on him,
    And all their ministers attend on him.
    (I. iii. 291-93)

But Buckingham rejects her warning. Nevertheless, he shudders at her curses. Ironically, she is attacked as being a witch and a lunatic although her listeners recognize the core of truth in her words. During this scene Dorset, the new young lord who is Elizabeth's son, warns "Dispute not with her, she is lunatic" (253). Buckingham expresses the impact of the curses for all of them. "My hair doth stand on end to hear her curses" (303).

When her curses come true, she believes her mission is completed. But Shakespeare suggests that one possibility lies ahead—women extending their hands to each other in support—creating bonds with each other, rather than living in separate isolated worlds, connected only with the men whom they have wed. Entering in Act IV, scene iv, Margaret, in soliloquy, mutters "So now prosperity begins to mellow" (IV. iv. 1). Still bitter, overflowing with anger and hatred, she plans to go to France, hoping the lives of those who robbed her of son and husband will prove "bitter, black, and tragical" (7). She is a figure from the revenge tragedy of the period, asking right for right and Plantagenet for Plantagenet. It is only after the Duchess of York exclaims

    O Harry's wife, triumph not in my woes!
    God witness with me, I have wept for thine
    (IV. iv. 59-60)

that Margaret explains herself to them: "I am hungry for revenge" (61). She prays for Richard's end. Aware of her anomic position, Margaret returns to the theme of displacedness—"Thou didst usurp my place"—and to the role of childlessness and widowhood. She cannot establish a bond with any woman—not lend support, or seek help, or accept friendship.

"Vain flourish of my fortune" (IV. iv. 82), she had called Elizabeth. Detailing its meaning, the displaced Queen recognizes the role she played, "One heav'd ahigh, to be hurl'd down below" (86). She knows now that she was merely

    The flattering index of a direful pageant;
    … a bubble;
    A queen in jest, only to fill the scene.

She then enumerates the functions of a queen, listing the bending peers and thronging troops that followed her and Elizabeth when each was Queen. This speech, by the dramatist who later was to list the many roles of man as he progressed from infancy to old age, vibrates with the emptiness of a woman's roles. "Vain flourish of my fortune," Margaret had repeated. It is a line that many older women might speak, watching young women seeking success in the world and misreading their husbands' glories for their own.

Although Margaret's words are full of venom, hatred, and disappointment, Elizabeth seeks to create some bond, some tenuous connection, with this other woman. The scene marks a shift in attitude and is the first in which these women finally speak to each other as equals. Frequently referred to as the scene of the wailing women, it is also the beginning of mutual supportiveness. "My words are dull, O, quicken them with thine!" (124), Elizabeth begs, asking Margaret for instruction in cursing.

    Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,
    And he that slew them fouler than he is.
    (IV. iv. 120-21)

The older woman offers a basic premise that provides strength for Elizabeth's next encounter.

Clues to a sometimes ambiguous exchange between characters frequently appear in the sequential arrangement of Shakespeare's scenes. Moments after Margaret's advice to Elizabeth, Richard enters and asks for Elizabeth's Page 751  |  Top of Articledaughter's hand in marriage. Uncle Richard, murderer of the young woman's brothers, now King, anticipates success. In the debate between them, Elizabeth has her first opportunity to apply her newly learned lesson. Questions rather than answers characterize most of her replies. "Shall I be tempted of the devil thus?" (418), she asks. "Ay, if the devil tempt you to do good" (419), Richard sanctimoniously replies. "Shall I forget myself to be myself" (420), she continues. "Ay, if yourself's remembrance wrong yourself" (421), he answers. When she seems to equivocate, Richard simply carries on as best he can, picking up what he thinks are hints of affirmation. Even Elizabeth's "Yet thou didst kill my children" (422) fails to daunt him. He offers what he considers a perfectly logical response:

    But in your daughter's womb I bury them;
    Where in that nest of spicery they will breed
    Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.
    (IV. iv. 423-25)

This speech, so ugly in its lasciviousness, reflecting the character of the man who is speaking, must be answered without disgust by a mother. Again Elizabeth resorts to a question, rather than an answer. "Shall I go win my daughter to thy will?" (426). Has she finally fooled Richard? Immediately after her departure, he gloats, "Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman" (431).

She should not fool us. We have heard her scene with Margaret. We have listened to her first words to Richard in this encounter—"For my daughters, Richard, / They shall be praying nuns, not weeping queens" (201-2)—and we have seen her pity for Anne. The choice of a convent for her grows not from religious conviction—we have not heard any deep expressions of religious faith from Elizabeth—but from the wish to give her daughters control over their own bodies. Elizabeth has expressed herself on this subject from the time of her first appearance in 3 Henry VI.

When one compares Anne's response to Richard with Elizabeth's series of rhetorical questions topped by the instruction: "Write to me very shortly, / And you shall understand from me her mind" (428-29), one realizes Shakespeare's artistry. Richard, thinking that he is repeating an earlier wooing scene, assumes a repetition of that success—this time with far less effort than in his encounter with Anne. Because of his misogyny, he fails to hear the nuances that separate the responses of the women. He forgets the differences between them: one a young, unwordly heiress, the other a mature woman who has lived a varied existence. Finally, he has figured without understanding the impact of the death of one's child on a parent. The superb manipulator of people, Richard fails to read a woman accurately, because he fails to understand her feelings toward herself and her children.

To an extent, then, Elizabeth has triumphed. She has begun to understand the meaning of power and the necessity for choosing one's language with care, for restraining one's words, refraining from cursing. She has learned that she must function alone, leading, not leaning. In this her first test after her encounter with Margaret and her awareness of the role of queen as shadow, she has begun to understand the limits of power for a woman. She succeeds in fooling Richard, but had he not lost his life in battle, she probably would have been powerless against him. Her daughter, instead of becoming a nun, marries Richard's victorious adversary: Richmond, later Henry VII. Thus, she too becomes a queen, wearing the borrowed robes of power.

The women in these plays, queens and duchesses, wives of men of political strength, seek to exert power but discover its elusiveness. Margaret Fuller writes: "A profound thinker has said 'No married woman can represent the female world, for she belongs to her husband. The idea of Woman must be represented by a virgin.'" Perhaps the Queen in Shakespeare's audience believed this. The women in these plays, however, demonstrate the powerlessness of women whether virgins, wives, or widows. Fuller herself countered the argument by blaming marriage and "the present relation between the sexes, that the woman does belong to the man, instead of forming a whole with him."

This chapter opened with references to power and to women's powerlessness in a society where sexual politics is so pervasive that women have internalized the message. Shakespeare illustrates this by revealing the minority psychology of the women. They scorn other women, attempt to imitate men, and tend to believe in their own inferiority. The men too believe the women inferior to them, whether the women are selfconfident and challenge male power, or whether they acquiesce, seeking to appease male anger. The stereotypes do not exist solely among the characters in the plays, Page 752  |  Top of Articlebut appear also in the world outside the plays—in the criticism and productions. We read of Margaret's unwomanly strength, and of Richard's womanly guile. A recent critic describes the character's histrionic talents and sensitivity to people and atmosphere: "His awareness of other people has, in the best Hitlerian manner, an almost feminine subtlety. The list of roles he assumes is endless" (italics mine). On the basis of evidence within the plays, one might have expected a different conclusion For—as well as Richard—York, Edward, Buckingham, and Warwick have been the supreme manipulators, men of guile, organizing behind the scenes and plotting insurrection. Misogyny persists.

Optimistically, Fuller recommends that women not be influenced by men because they fail to see the entire picture. She instructs women to look within themselves to find their own "peculiar secret." This means rejecting the stereotypes and accepting their own strengths. Margaret, struggling with the concept that strength is "masculine," is vulnerable to the attack of "unwomanliness." Elizabeth, perhaps discovering her own "peculiar secret," tries to establish a bond of friendship or support with the woman she had scorned. But learning to curse is hardly a start on the path to understanding that the stereotypes (for "maleness" strength, courage, and initiative; and for "femaleness" docility, passivity, and weakness) must be denied if women are to gain power, not over the lives of others, but over their own lives. Shakespeare dramatizes the reality that women cannot do this alone. These plays reveal the limited world that exists as long as people believe that power belongs to men and powerlessness to women, refusing to recognize "the benefits … the world would gain by ceasing to make sex a disqualification for privileges and a badge of subjection."

Source: Irene G. Dash, "The Paradox of Power: The Henry VI-Richard III Tetralogy," in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays, Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 155-207.

Paul N. Siegel

In this excerpt, Siegel closely examines Richard's speeches and concludes that Richard uses the vocabulary of business in any endeavor he undertakes, whether it be planning the assassination of his brother Clarence or seeking Queen Elizabeth's blessing to marry her daughter.

Richard is very much of the new capitalist world. He uses the language of business and displays its attitudes throughout. Much attention has been paid to the stylization of the play's dialogue, with its stychomythia in the wooing scene of Anne, its ritualistic curses of Margaret, its chorused laments of the three queens, but little notice has been taken of what Charles Lamb called the "sprightly colloquial" language of Richard, which acts as a counterpoint to this stylization. It is a colloquial language that often recalls the contemporary turns of phrase expressing the values of our own business civilization.

We might begin by looking at a line of images which can be called that of "the peddler and his packhorse." In his soliloquy at the end of the first scene of the play, Richard says that Edward "must not die/Until George be packed with post horse up to heaven" (I, 4, 145 f.). He regards Clarence as a bale of goods which he will sling over a horse's back and ship express from the kingdom of England to the kingdom of heaven. Richard's quick mind then leaps ahead to his plans after Clarence and Edward are dead, but he stops himself with the jocular reminder: "But yet I run before my horse to market. / Clarence still breathes, Edward still lives and reigns; / When they are gone, then must I count my gains." (I, 1, 159-161) "I run before my horse to market" was a proverbial phrase meaning "I'm running ahead of myself in my eagerness" or, as Kittredge glosses it [in his The Complete Works of Shakespeare]. "I count my chickens before they're hatched." The packhorse has to take one's goods to the market before one can make his profit. Only then, when one has carried out his plans, can he sit down to total up what he has made. The image of the peddler and his packhorse is used again when Richard says to Queen Elizabeth of his labors in behalf of her Page 753  |  Top of Articlehusband Edward "I was a packhorse in his great affairs" (I, 3, 121) and also, a little later, when he says in disclaiming any desire to be king, "I had rather be a peddler." (I, 3, 148) It is an image which seems to spring naturally to his lips.

Richard also frequently uses financial and monetary terms. "Repaired with double riches of content" (IV, 4, 319), "advantaging their loan with interest / Of ten times double gain of happiness" (IV, 4, 323 f.), "go current from suspicion"(II, 1, 96)—that is, pass as genuine currency without being suspected of being counterfeit—these are but a few examples. In addition to these uses of such terms and subsequent ones I shall cite, I have counted eight others …

When Richard wishes to entice Elizabeth to marry her daughter to him, he tells her that, after having conquered Buckingham, he will to her daughter "retail my conquest won, / And she shall be sole victoress." (IV, 4, 323 f.) "Retail", derived from the earlier meaning (OED 1) [OED stands for Oxford English Dictionary] "to sell (goods, etc.) in small quantities", signifies (OED 2) "to recount or tell over again", suggesting not only relating in detail but counting and recounting money. Richard is, therefore, promising Elizabeth's daughter the joys of gaining all of England, which he represents as something to be counted out bit by bit.

Richard uses not only monetary terms but business language. He greets the men he has hired to kill Clarence with "How now, my hardy stout-resolved mates! / Are you now going to dispatch this thing?" and sends them off with "about your business straight. Go, go, dispatch." (I, 3, 339 f., 353 f.) "Dispatch" was a word with business connotations. One of its meanings was (OED I, 3) "to dismiss (a person) after attending to him or his business; to settle the business and send away". This was easily extended to (OED I, 4) "to get rid of or dispose of (any one) by putting to death; to make away with, kill". Richard is playing on the word: the murder of Clarence is just a little business matter to be speedily taken care of. Clarence may try to talk them out of it, but the professional killers, enterprising free-lance forerunners of Murder, Incorporated, know their jobs (after all, "business is business") and will not allow themselves to be diverted. The word "business" in "about your business straight" suggests the same
The murder of the princes, Act IV, scene iii The murder of the princes, Act IV, scene iii (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan) coldbloodedness as in Edmund's words in calculating his course, "A credulous father, and a brother noble … I see the business" ([King Lear] I, 2, 195-198).

Richard is twice referred to by other characters as a business agent. Buckingham, urging him before the citizens to rule in his own stead, not as the lord protector of the boy king, tells him to take on "the charge and kingly government of this your land; / Not as protector, steward, substitute, / Or lowly factor for another's gain." (III, 7, 130-133) "Steward" meant, of course, the business manager of an estate, and "factor" meant the business agent acting in behalf of his principal. Richard, despite his public professions, was really not content to be either, but the irony is that in the last analysis a business agent is all that he is: Margaret, reciting the many deaths of guilty persons that have already occurred, says, "Richard yet lives, hell's black intelligencer, / Only reserved their factor to buy souls / And send them thither." (IV, 4, Page 754  |  Top of Article71-73) He is the business agent of hell, buying souls and shipping them off to it.

As a businessman, Richard is, to use the language of Babbitt, a "real hustler," a "gogetter." [George Babbitt is an American businessman in Sinclair Lewis's novel Babitt.] He displays enormous energy from the time in 3 Henry VI he says that he is as one "lost in a thorny wood" from which he will "hew" his "way out with a bloody axe" (III, 2, 174-181) until the time of his last battle when he dashes frantically about calling "A horse! / My kingdom for a horse!" (V, 4, 7) Hustle and bustle characterize his behavior throughout. "Delay leads impotent and snail-paced beggary"(IV, 3, 53)—inactivity is invariably followed by bankruptcy—he exclaims, calling forth to combat. On the eve of his last battle, he says, in an attempt to regain his old zest, "Tomorrow is a busy day." (V, 3, 18) And before entering the final fray he cries out, "Come, bustle, bustle, / Caparison my horse." (V, 3, 290) His underlings in their way speak his language. "Tut, tut, my lord, we will not stand to prate. / Talkers are no good doers," says the First Murderer, (I, 3, 349 f.), assuring him that they will not allow Clarence to engage them in conversation and move their pity. "Talk is cheap" and "time is money."

Richard's energy is the energy of the bourgeoisie. "The bourgeoisie," says The Communist Manifesto, "has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionists so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about … Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones." The word business, it may be pointed out, is derived from "busyness."

With Clarence dead, says Richard, "God take King Edward to his mercy / And leave the world for me to bustle in!" (I, 1, 151 f.) The world which had been rejected by medieval other-worldliness as one of the three great temptations—"the world, the flesh, and the devil"—he welcomes as his sphere of activity, gladly relinquishing an alleged heaven to Edward. In response to Gratiano's attempt to joke away Antonio's melancholy by telling him that he has too great care for the things of this world, Antonio replies, "I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano—/ A stage where every man must play a part" (I, 1, 75-78)—a theatre with the ephemerality of the theatre in contradistinction to the eternity of heaven. But for Richard this world is all. The bourgeoisie, says The Communist Manifesto, "has drowned the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor … in the icy water of egotistical calculation."

Source: Paul N. Siegel, "Richard III as Businessman," in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Vol. 114, 1978, pp. 101-06.

A. C. Hamilton

Hamilton demonstrates how Richard III "combines the genres of history play and tragedy," pointing out that if we look at the play's action through Richard's eyes, we see the history of his political progress; on the other hand, Margaret turns the play into a tragedy as each of her curses are fulfilled. Finally, Hamilton observes that the momentum of the play is toward Richard's isolation, since everyone connected with him is destroyed by him; moreover, it is Richard's isolation which eventually results in his own destruction.

Richard III, in its Quarto title "The Tragedy of King Richard the Third," combines the genres of history play and tragedy. [In drama, a tragedy recounts the significant events or actions in a protagonist's life which, taken together, bring about the catastrophe.] The demands of history itself upon the history play cause no opposition between the two genres: the strong Lancastrian bias of the age allowed the historical Richard to be as great a villain as the imagination of a tragic dramatist could desire. [John] Milton [in Eikonoklastes, 1650] rightly praises Shakespeare both for being "so mindfull of Decorum" in portraying Richard as a tyrant who counterfeits religious faith, and also for not "departing from the truth of History, which delivers him a deep dissembler, not of his affections onely, but of Religion." As the stage history of the play demonstrates and any reading confirms, Richard is the greatest of Shakespeare's historical characters. He embodies all the qualities of the political characters in the Henry VI plays who manipulate events to fit their own desires. [Henry VI, parts one, two, and three, are three plays by Shakespeare which precede Richard III.] He gathers within himself Joan's duplicity, Eleanor's aspirations, Winchester's pride, Buckingham's and Somerset's ambition, Margaret's and Suffolk's scheming, Clifford's revengeful fury, and, above all, York's intense Page 755  |  Top of Articlepassion. He stands—or crouches—as the final expression of one who uses time and opportunity to dominate his environment, overcoming for a season the adversity of circumstance, fortune, and fate by sheer human will. If, at his insistence, we look at the play from his perspective, we see a history play that shows his political triumphs, until the final moment brings his faltering before Richmond.

Early in the play, however, Margaret opposes Richard; she ensures that his history play becomes a tragedy, the climax to the tragic form that emerges in the Henry VI plays. After the opening scene in 1 Henry VI sets the stage for a tragedy with the funeral of Henry V, the action in that play turns to historical events; Salisbury's "woeful tragedy" (I.iv.77) is only an episode in the war with France, and the tragedy of Talbot is only one consequence of dissension in England. 2 Henry VI contains the "tragedy" (III.ii.194) of Gloucester's death and his enemies' "plotted tragedy" (III.i.153), which ends in chaos with York's first claim to the crown. 3 Henry VI leads quickly to "The True Tragedie of Richard, Duke of Yorke" (the play's Quarto title) and concludes with the brutal murder of Henry and his son. In Richard III, the tragic form encompasses the whole play and all the major characters. At the height of the action, Margaret feeds upon the fall of her enemies:

    So now prosperity begins to mellow
    And drop into the rotten mouth of death.
    Here in these confines slily have I lurk'd
    To watch the waning of mine enemies.
    A dire induction am I witness to,
    And will to France, hoping the consequence
    Will prove as bitter, black, and tragical.

She is the instrument through which the historical events in Richard's reign, including finally Richard himself, become an "induction" [prologue] leading to a catastrophe that proves "bitter, black, and tragical."

Richard III differs from the earlier history plays in its source. More's Historie of King Richard the Thirde had already transformed mere chronicle event into a literary tradition with considerable dramatic potentiality. Shakespeare knew More through Hall, [in The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, 1548] and he may have known also the dramatic treatments in Thomas Legge's Richardus Tertius (1579) and the anonymous True Tragedie of Richard the Third (1594). The tradition needed only one further transformation to achieve in Richard III one of the most popular plays on the English stage, second perhaps only to Hamlet.

The place of Shakespeare's play within this tradition can be quickly indicated. More describes Richard as an absolute villain:

Richard duke of Gloucester … was in witte and courage egall with the other [Clarence], but in beautee and liniamentes of nature far underneth bothe, for he was litle of stature, eivill featured of limnes, croke backed, the left shulder touche higher than the righte, harde favoured of visage, such as in estates is called a warlike visage, and emonge commen persones a crabbed face. He was malicious, wrothfull and envious … He was close and secrete, a depe dissimuler, lowlye of countenaunce, arrogante of herte, outwardely familier where he inwardely hated, not lettynge to kisse whom he thought to kill, dispiteous and cruell, not alwaie for eivill will, but ofter for ambicion and too serve his purpose, frende and fooe were all indifferent, where his avauntage grewe, he spared no mannes deathe whose life withstode his purpose. He slewe in the towre kynge Henry the sixte, saiynge: now is there no heire male of kynge Edwarde the thirde, but wee of the house of Yorke: whiche murder was doen without kyng Edward his assente.

As a historian, More cannot crown his villain by accusing him of Clarence's death. He admits that "of these poinctes there is no certentie, and whosoever divineth or conjectureth, may as wel shote to fer as to shorte" (sig.A.Aii). To answer these conjectures, Shakespeare shows how Richard plans that murder, persuades the king to condemn Clarence, and hires the murderers. What the historian does not deny, the dramatist, being "mindfull of Decorum," supplies, in order that from the beginning his villain may be guilty of an offense that "hath the primal eldest curse upon't—/ A brother's murder."

Page 756  |  Top of Article

To More's discussion of Edward's possible implication in his brother's death Hall adds the moral lesson:

… what a pernicious serpent, what a venemous tode, & what a pestiferous Scorpion is that develishe whelpe, called privye envye? Agaynst it no fortres can defend, no cave can hyde, no wood can shadow, no foule can escape, nor no beaste can avoyde, her poyson is so stronge, that never man in authoritie coulde escape from the bytyng of her tethe, scrachyng of her pawes, blastyng of her breath, defoulynge of her tayle.

Wherefore, let every indifferent persone, serche Histories, rede Chronicles, looke on aucthores, aswell holy as prophane, and thei shall apparauntly perceive, that neither open warre, daily famyne, or accustomed mortalitie, is not so muche an enemie, nor so greate a malle to destroye, and suppeditate high power and nobilitie, as is roted malice, inwarde grudge, and dissimuled hatred. (sigs. Rrivv-R[r]vr])

In place of this moral abstracted out of the chronicles, Shakespeare offers an image, in which "that develishe whelpe, called privye envye" is embodied in Richard. Earlier dramatic treatments follow More in displaying Richard as the Senecan tyrant [Seneca, a Roman statesman, author, and philosopher of the first century A.D., is famous for nine melodramas which had a great influence on tragic drama in Elizabethan England]. The dramatic limitations of this form show clearly in the True Tragedie, where Richard declares: "I hope with this lame hand of mine, to rake out that hatefull heart of Richmond, and when I have it, to eate it panting hote with salt, and drinke his blood luke warme" (ll. 1979-81). Felix E. Schelling [in his Elizabethan Drama: 1558–1642] believes that Shakespeare continues the line of Tamburlaine [a play by Christopher Marlowe, 1590] by a "concentration of interest in the heroic dimensions of a unified personality, the master passion of which carries the auditor's sympathies with it." Yet Shakespeare's hero differs radically from Marlowe's. In place of one

    Threat'ning the world with high astounding terms,
    And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword
    (Prologue, Part 1)

he offers one whose victories are shameful—over the simple, believing Clarence, a woman's captive heart, two innocent babes, the trusting Hastings, a gullible commons, and a "Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman" (R.III IV.iv.431). Tamburlaine's relentless ranting here changes into the direct speaking voice of one who can say to the brother whose death he arranges because of his name:

    Alack, my lord, that fault is none of yours:
    He should, for that, commit your godfathers.
    O, belike his Majesty hath some intent
    That you should be new-christ'ned in the Tower.

Since the plot leads to Clarence's death by being "newchrist'ned" in a malmsey-butt, murder has become matter for a brutal jest. Richard's tone ranges from the vigor of "Chop off his head" (III.i.193) to the sanctimonious "O, do not swear, my lord of Buckingham" (III.vii.220), from the Faustian [from Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus] cry, "Have mercy, Jesu!" (V.iii.178) to the heroic "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" (V.iv.13), or to the quiet thrust of his insolent question, superbly timed to shatter the peace of soul for which the dying Edward yearns: "Who knows not that the gentle Duke is dead?" (II.i.79).

Shakespeare displays Richard's character in the second scene, the wooing and winning of Anne. We know that she was fifteen when she first married Henry VI's son in December 1470, that after her husband's death in the following May she was disguised as a kitchen maid by Clarence in an effort to gain Warwick's estates, and that she was found by Richard, who placed her in sanctuary until the king let him marry her. Shakespeare knows only the curious fact that Richard married her the year after he murdered her husband. Accordingly, he invents the scene in which Richard woos her as she attends the funeral of Henry VI, also one of his victims. The scene proves startling from the outset. In his opening soliloquy, Richard scorns Mars [the Roman god of war] for having smoothed his wrinkled front and capering nimbly into a lady's chamber, while he himself in his deformity must remain, as Mars had been, "wrinkled" and "grim-visag'd":

    And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
    To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
    I am determined to prove a villain
    And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
    (I.i.9, 28-31)

In the closing soliloquy to this opening scene he refers to his "deep intent" (l. 149) in causing Clarence's death, which we take to be his chance at the throne if the king and his brothers' Page 757  |  Top of Article
Antony Sher as Richard III in Act V, scene iii, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1984 Antony Sher as Richard III in Act V, scene iii, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1984 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) children should die. Instead of saying so, however, he adds surprisingly: "For then I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter". (l. 153). Though he hints at having "another secret close intent" (l. 158) in marrying her, that intent, as it turns out, is to prove a villain by proving a lover.

Richard's seduction of Anne is a triumph, as he realizes in mock wonder. No lover's triumph is more complete:

     What! I that kill'd her husband and his father—
     To take her in her heart's extremest hate,
     With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
     The bleeding witness of my hatred by;
     Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
     And I no friends to back my suit at all
     But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
     And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!

The wooing is meant to shock, even as it shocks Richard himself.

     Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?
     Was ever woman in this humour won?
     (ll. 227-228)

he asks us; yet he need not pause for an answer. In literature, at any rate, no other woman has been wooed and won by her husband's murderer while she attends the funeral of her husband's father, who was also murdered by him. Anne's yielding cannot be explained by fear, or by her desire for him, or by a sense of guilt because her beauty drove him to murder, or by her not being deceived but cunningly deceiving him. Moral or psychological "explanation" only lessens the scene's dramatic impact. Anne's submission becomes ours: with her we recognize the reasons to curse Richard, yet we find our horror replaced by fascination. All the world loves a lover, especially if he is also a villain who makes evil attractive. Her yielding defines the kind of world we must accept, with its outrage of all human feelings, its perversion of love and marriage, and its human weakness when self is divided against self.

Yet the scene's final dramatic impact lies not in Anne's submission but in Richard's triumph. In Page 758  |  Top of Articlethe opening soliloquy, where he scorns lovers who trip into "a lady's chamber" (I.i.12), the suddenness of transition to the lines:

    And leave the world for me to bustle in!
    For then I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter
    (ll. 152-153)

astonishes us, and perhaps Richard himself. In his soliloquies and asides throughout the play he reveals himself so intimately that we become his accomplices: in sharing his keen delight in villainy, we share his guilt. No other dramatic character, except possibly Hamlet, appeals on quite the same level in being both intimate and archetypal. If his villainy were less monstrous, if we knew less about him, or even if he took himself seriously, he would become a monster. Instead, he invites our delight in his villainies and browbeats us into accepting him. Yet here we achieve less than full intimacy: he plays a trick on us, and on himself, by proving such a successful lover. His trick is to provide the delight for which we come to the theater, the enjoyment of a moral holiday staged by a consummate actor who always plays his part and plays it perfectly. Hence the delighted surprise with which he trips nimbly into a lady s chamber. The scene takes us into Richard's mind, where all the significant dramatic action takes place.

While the play's significant action occurs internally as our dramatic interest focuses upon Richard's mind, the external action is controlled by Margaret. Her role is to project the play as a historical tragedy. She remains at the English court, contrary to historical fact, in order to revile those who have offended against her. In the scene that follows Richard's seduction of Anne, our attention turns from Richard to Margaret, whose railing causes him and the others to attack her. Ironically, he teaches her how to curse when he claims that York's curses

    from bitterness of soul
    Denounc'd against thee are all fall'n upon thee;
    And God, not we, hath plagu'd thy bloody deed.

In amazement, she learns that curses are effective:

    Did York's dread curse prevail so much with heaven
    That Henry's death, my lovely Edward's death,
    Their kingdom's loss, my woeful banishment,
    Should all but answer for that peevish brat?
    Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?
    Why then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses!
    (ll. 191-196)

She rails no longer and curses each in turn. Each has brought her curse upon himself by wronging her. In effect, she writes the complots of the tragedies that each then acts out to fulfill her word. Edward, Elizabeth, Rivers, Grey, Hastings, the young Edward, Buckingham, and finally Richard—all suffer and "die the thrall of Margaret's curse" (IV.i.46). They exist upon the level of her dreams to become what she wishes. In 2 Henry VI, the banished Suffolk wishes "would curses kill" (III.ii.310); now they do, and the action of the play shows how her words become deeds. Within the play, the entire action becomes a play directed by her. Although Richard bustles in the world, dominating it for the present moment through his intelligence and will, he is her chief actor. She is the Past, the present witness to previous wrongs, and her curses determine the future. Allegorically, she is Conscience, Revenge, or one of the Destinies, with the difference that she is involved herself in the guilt, revenge, and fate that she brings on others.

The play is organized into rituals of grief. Elizabeth defines the ritual when she bewails the death of the king. In her agony of grief, she is ready to "join with black despair against my soul / And to myself become an enemy." To the Duchess of York's question, "What means this scene of rude impatience?" she replies, "To make an act of tragic violence" (II.ii.36-39). The play is composed of such acts of tragic violence. 1 Henry VI has only Talbot's lament upon the death of his son; 2 Henry VI has Gloucester's lament, Margaret's and Suffolk's lament upon his exile, and Clifford's lament upon the death of his father; and 3 Henry VI has York's raging when Margaret goads him to "rude impatience," Henry's lament on the molehill, joined by the laments of the father who has slain his son and of the son who has slain his father, and finally Henry's raging against Richard. In Richard III, every character except Richmond laments, and Page 759  |  Top of Articleentire scenes are organized into rituals of lamentation.

There is even a competition in weeping. When Elizabeth bewails the death of her husband, the Duchess of York lays claim to having greater cause to grieve,

    Thine being but a moiety of my moan—
    To overgo thy woes and drown thy cries,

while Clarence's children refuse to join Elizabeth's lament because she did not weep for their father's death. She responds that she needs no help in weeping, for her tears alone can drown the world. Then their voices join in a three-part ritual of lament:

    Eliz. Ah for my husband, for my dear Lord Edward!
    Child. Ah for our father, for our dear Lord Clarence!
    Duch. Alas for both, both mine, Edward and Clarence!
    Eliz. What stay had I but Edward? and he's gone.
    Child. What stay had we but Clarence? and he's gone.
    Duch. What stays had I but they? and they are gone.
    Eliz. Was never widow had so dear a loss.
    Child. Were never orphans had so dear a loss.
    Duch. Was never mother had so dear a loss.

This triple threnody [a song of lamentation for the dead] concludes with the Duchess of York's lament for them all:

    Alas! I am the mother of these griefs!
    Their woes are parcell'd, mine is general.
    She for an Edward weeps, and so do I:
    I for a Clarence weep, so doth not she.
    These babes for Clarence weep, and so do I:
    I for an Edward weep, so do not they.
    Alas, you three on me, threefold distress'd,
    Pour all your tears! I am your sorrow's nurse,
    And I will pamper it with lamentation.

Such scenes may be compared to the complaint scenes that are a vehicle for Lucrece's curses and laments in her poem [Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece"], and to a similar competition in weeping between her father and Collatine. They are even closer to similar scenes in [Shakespeare's] Titus Andronicus that contain a dramatic gathering of rituals of lament.

Lamentation rises to a lyrical climax in a later scene when the Duchess of York, Elizabeth, and Margaret gather to mourn. Elizabeth, who has learned of the murder of her children, wails:

    Wilt thou, O God, fly from such gentle lambs
    And throw them in the entrails of the wolf?
    When didst thou sleep when such a deed was done?

Margaret responds, "When holy Harry died, and my sweet son" (l. 25), and the Duchess of York laments that she is the chronicle of all their woe. When they sit together, Margaret claims the seniority of her griefs and catalogs their woes:

    I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him:
    I had a husband, till a Richard kill'd him;
    Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
    Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him.
    (ll. 40-43)

Elizabeth's overwhelming grief, which leads her to cry out for "my tender babes! / My unblown flowers, new-appearing sweets!" (ll. 9-10), is modulated with both the quietness of the Duchess of York, who has long been overwhelmed by grief, for

    So many miseries have craz'd my voice
    That my woe-wearied tongue is still and mute,
    (ll. 17-18)

and Margaret's joy in their grief:

    O upright, just, and true-disposing God,
    How do I thank thee that this carnal cur
    Preys on the issue of his mother's body
    (ll. 55-57)

Though such formalized scenes are often omitted in modern productions as being too stylized for our taste, they shape the play into a tragic history.

The story of Hastings, as one "act of tragic violence," illustrates some features of the play as a historical tragedy and distinguishes it from the earlier history plays that have similar stories of Talbot, Gloucester, and York. For although Shakespeare follows More closely in telling Hastings' story, he adds ironic humor. Hastings' Page 760  |  Top of Articleinnocent remark on Richard's cheerful look, "There's some conceit or other likes him well" (III.iv.51), provides a broadly comic touch, for the "conceit" is the means of chopping off his head. Ironically, in his refusal to support Richard's claim to the throne, he pronounces his own doom:

    I'll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders
    Before I'll see the crown so foul misplac'd.

In his later remark, "God knows I will not do it to the death" (l. 55) he speaks more truly than he knows.

Such ironic comedy changes the significance of his fall. More, seeing in it an example of "the vayne surety of mans mynde so neare hys death," comments: "O lorde God the blyndnesse of our mortal nature, when he most feared, he was in moste suretye, and when he reconed hym selfe moste surest, he lost his lyfe, and that within two houres after" (sig. C[C]iiir-v). In the play, Hastings himself recognizes how "too fond" (III.iv.83) he has been, repents that he triumphed over his enemies while he felt secure in grace, and then interprets his own tragedy:

    O momentary grace of mortal men,
    Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
    Who builds his hope in air of your good looks
    Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
    Ready with every nod to tumble down
    Into the fatal bowels of the deep.
    (ll. 98-103)

Through these lines his earlier affability toward Richard—"I thank his Grace, I know he loves me well … His gracious pleasure"—gains new meaning. Just before the blow falls, he speaks of "The tender love I bear your Grace" (l. 65):

    His Grace looks cheerfully and smooth this morning …
    I think there's never a man in Christendom
    Can lesser hide his love or hate than he;
    For by his face straight shall you know his heart …
    Marry, that with no man here he is offended;
    For, were he, he had shown it in his looks.
    (ll. 50, 53-55, 59-60)

Here we see him hunting for the grace of a mortal man, as he builds his hope in air of Richard's good looks.

Hastings' moral state is central to the play. Margaret speaks of her murdered son as

    now in the shade of death,
    Whose bright out-shining beams thy cloudy wrath
    Hath in eternal darkness folded up,

Elizabeth of her dead husband in "his new kingdom of ne'erchanging night" (II.ii.46), Richard of the dead Clarence as one "who I indeed have cast in darkness," (I.iii.327), and Margaret of Elizabeth's dead sons as having their "infant morn" dimmed to "aged night." (IV.iv.16), Elizabeth sees herself wrecked by Richard,

    in such a desp'rate bay of death,
    Like a poor bark, of sails and tackling reft,
    Rush all to pieces on thy rocky bosom.
    (ll. 232-234)

In his dream Clarence falls "overboard / Into the tumbling billows of the main" (I.iv.19-20). The play shows the world poised to fall "into the fatal bowels of the deep"; for the bonds between earth and heaven are broken when a "foul devil" (I.ii.50) becomes "the Lord's anointed" (IV.iv.150).

Prayers to God are for revenge, not mercy. Elizabeth accuses God of throwing "gentle lambs … in the entrails of the wolf" and sleeping while evil is done. The apocalyptic imagery of harvest, coming darkness, and chaos rises to a scream in Margaret's curse:

    But at hand, at hand,
    Ensues his piteous and unpitied end.
    Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray,
    To have him suddenly convey'd from hence.
    Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray,
    That I may live and say "The dog is dead."

Movement within this world is downward: Clarence's dream anticipates his descent into hell, Margaret interprets Elizabeth's state as "One heav'd ahigh to be hurl'd down below" (l. 86), the death that threatens Stanley's son is a "fall / Into the blind cave of eternal night" (V.iii.61-62). The movement suggests a world ready for the Last Judgment. England becomes "this slaughterhouse" (IV.i.44), and Hastings prophesies for his country "the fearfull'st time to thee / That ever wretched Page 761  |  Top of Articleage hath look'd upon" (III.iv.106-107). When Buckingham "pleads" with Richard to assume the throne because England is "almost should'red in the swallowing gulf / Of dark forgetfulness and deep oblivion" (III.vii.128-129), he mocks the truth. That final shouldering is left to Richard, his high shoulder being the symbol of his malignancy.

The hell that each character inhabits is a mental state. Its chief lyrical statement in the play, Clarence's dream, has three stages: first the blow of being shouldered into the ocean by Richard, then the pain of drowning when the waters smother his soul within him, and finally the "tempest to [his] soul" (I.iv.44) when he enters hell to be accused by those against whom he has sinned:

    With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends
    Environ'd me, and howled in mine ears
    Such hideous cries that, with the very noise,
    I trembling wak'd, and for a season after
    Could not believe but that I was in hell,
    Such terrible impression made my dream.
    (ll. 58-63)

The first stage of his dream, that of being knocked overboard by Richard, is the "real" world of historical event where Richard arranges Clarence's death and the deaths of the others who stand between him and the throne. The second stage, the agony of death, is the demonic world that Richard creates, expressed in the imagery of drowning. The third stage, the tempest to the soul, is the state of despair, the private hell into which the characters fall under the burden of guilt. Edward on his deathbed seeks to reconcile opposing factions at the court, in order that "more at peace my soul shall part to heaven" (II.i.5); but the news of Clarence's death leaves him to die with his soul "full of sorrow" (l. 96), fearing God's justice. Elizabeth resolves to "join with black despair against my soul / And to myself become an enemy." Each character dies weighed down by guilt.

One by one, those who stand between Richard and the crown—Clarence, Edward, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, the two princes, Margaret, Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, Anne, and Buckingham—make an "act of tragic violence." Together they are an "induction" to the thirteenth fall, a catastrophe that proves "bitter, black, and tragical": the death of Richard. The whole movement of the play effects his gradual isolation, the cutting away of all supporting human relationships. By the end he stands alone; but, being unsupported, he falls. The tragic irony of his actions is that those who stand in his way support him: after they fall, he must fall.

Richard's fall has two stages: In the first he confronts the lamenting women, the Duchess of York and Elizabeth. Earlier in the scene, Elizabeth begs Margaret:

    O thou well skill'd in curses, stay awhile
    And teach me how to curse mine enemies!

Margaret teaches her, even as she was taught:

    Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;
    Compare dead happiness with living woe;
    Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,
    And he that slew them fouler than he is.
    Bett'ring thy loss makes the bad-causer worse;
    Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.
    (ll. 118-123)

Then Elizabeth, in turn, teaches the Duchess of York to curse. Up to this moment, the Duchess has submitted patiently to her sorrow, reduced almost to silence, seeing in herself

    Dead life, blind sight, poor mortal living ghost,
    Woe's scene, world's shame, grave's due by life usurp'd,
    Brief abstract and record of tedious days.
    (ll. 26-28)

Now she asks, "Why should calamity be full of words?" and Elizabeth replies:

    Windy attorneys to their client woes,
    Airy succeeders of intestate joys,
    Poor breathing orators of miseries,
    Let them have scope; though what they will impart
    Help nothing else, yet do they ease the heart.
    (ll. 127-131)

The Duchess now prepares to forgo her patient resignation and make her "scene of rude impatience":

    If so, then be not tongue-tied. Go with me,
    And in the breath of bitter words let's smother
    My damned son that thy two sweet sons smother'd.
Page 762  |  Top of Article
    The trumpet sounds; be copious in exclaims.
    (ll. 132-135)

When Richard enters, she forces him to stand and "patiently hear my impatience" (l. 156). Her curses determine the shape of his future actions:

    Therefore take with thee my most grievous curse,
    Which in the day of battle tire thee more
    Than all the complete armour that thou wear'st!
    My prayers on the adverse party fight;
    And there the little souls of Edward's children
    Whisper the spirits of thine enemies
    And promise them success and victory.
    Bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end.
    Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend.
    (ll. 187-195)

Now, when Richard triumphs over Elizabeth, as earlier he triumphed over Anne, the parallel only reinforces the contrast. Before, he needed only to flatter Anne; now he must curse himself and so swear away his future:

    As I intend to prosper and repent,
    So thrive I in my dangerous affairs
    Of hostile arms! Myself myself confound!
    Heaven and fortune bar me happy hours!
    Day, yield me not thy light; nor, night, thy rest!
    (ll. 397-401)

The triple curse upon him by Margaret, his mother, and himself begins its fulfillment in his dream before the final battle.

This dream marks the start of the second, and final, stage of his fall. The ghost of each of his victims urges him to "despair and die" (V.iii.120 ff.): that is, to despair at the moment of death and be eternally damned. Hall, worrying over Richard's fate after death, ends his story with"… but to God whiche knewe his interior cogitacions at the hower of his deathe I remitte the punyshment of his offences committed in his lyfe" (sig. [KKv]). If Richard repents at the last moment and so escapes hell, history provides a poor example for posterity. Holinshed [in his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1587] reproduces Hall's remark almost exactly, adding hopefully that if it happened that God did punish Richard severely, "who shall be so hardie as to expostulate and reason why he so dooth." Obviously, this answer does not satisfy. Shakespeare answers the question through the cry of the ghosts, "despair and die," ten times repeated. Yet each cry leaves a gap between "despair" and "die," affording that moment in which he could repent. But the ghost of Buckingham, who had helped Richard rise to the throne, now assures his fall:

    O, in the battle think on Buckingham,
    And die in terror of thy guiltiness!
    Dream on, dream on of bloody deeds and death;
    Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath!

Buckingham's curse gives Richard no instant for repentance; it dooms him, as he dies, to despair, and while he despairs, to die. He does dream on of bloody deeds and death: "Give me another horse. Bind up my wounds" (l. 177). That final Faustian cry, "Have mercy, Jesu!" comes, as with Faust, too late; for when he awakes and dismisses his dream—"Soft! I did but dream" (l. 178)—he is damned. In the final battle he asks only for a horse, and the kingdom that he is willing to give in exchange is greater than he knows.

Source: A. C. Hamilton, "The Resolution of the Early Period: Richard III," in The Early Shakespeare, The Huntington Library, 1967, pp. 186-202.


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Fields, Bertram, Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes, Regan Books, 2000.

A lawyer as well as a writer, Fields approaches the historical records from the time of Richard III with a well-honed skepticism and ability to conjecture, offering revisions of the more one-sided versions of the king's story.

Hicks, Michael, The Wars of the Roses: 1455–1485, Routledge, 2003.

Hicks provides a thought-provoking discussion of the causes of the Wars of the Roses in this relatively concise volume.

Marshall, Christopher D., Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

This even-keeled work discusses concepts of justice found in the Bible and considers their relevance to modern institutionalized systems of justice.

Olivier, Laurence, On Acting, Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Widely recognized as one of the greatest Shakespearean actors in history, Olivier provides a far-reaching discussion on the nature of acting, drawing on the lessons he learned playing the most demanding Shakespearean roles, including that of Richard III.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896100035