Richard III Essay - Criticism



The royal children and their murderers Published by Gale Cengage

E. M. W. Tillyard

[In this excerpt, Tillyard refers to Richard III as the final play in a tetralogy which includes Henry VI, parts one, two, and three. Further, Tillyard explains that divine retribution and the deliverance of England through God's grace is the theme of Richard III, and that fighting against Richard's "vast" evil is the cause that finally unites England through Richmond.]

... I [have] put the theme of Richard III partly in terms of God's intentions. As it is usual to put it in terms of Richard's character, I had better expand my thesis. But it is a delicate matter. People are so fond of Shakespeare that they are desperately anxious to have him of their own way of thinking. A reviewer in the New Statesman was greatly upset when I quoted a passage in Measure for Measure as evidence that Shakespeare was familiar with the doctrine of the Atonement: he at once assumed I meant that Shakespeare believed the doctrine personally. And if one were to say that in Richard III Shakespeare pictures England restored to order through God's grace, one gravely risks being lauded or execrated for attributing to Shakespeare personally the full doctrine of prevenient Grace according to Calvin. When therefore I say that Richard III is a very religious play, I want to be understood as speaking of the play and not of Shakespeare. For the purposes of the tetralogy [Shakespeare's four plays: 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, and Richard III] and most obviously for this play Shakespeare accepted the prevalent belief that God had guided England into her haven of Tudor prosperity. And he had accepted it with his whole heart, as later he did not accept the supposed siding of God with the English against the French he so loudly proclaimed in Henry V. There is no atom of doubt in Richmond's prayer before he falls asleep in his tent at Bosworth. He is utterly God's minister, as he claims to be:

O Thou, whose captain I account myself,
Look on my forces with a gracious eye;
Put in their hands thy bruising irons of wrath,
That they may crush down with a heavy fall
The usurping helmets of our adversaries.
Make us thy ministers of chastisement,
That we may praise thee in the victory.
To thee I do commend my watchful soul,
Ere I let fall the windows of mine eyes.
Sleeping and waking, O, defend me still.
[V.iii. 108-17]

In the same spirit Shakespeare drops hints of a divine purpose in the mass of vengeance that forms the substance of the play, of a direction in the seemingly endless concatenation of crime and punishment. In 3 Henry VI, York at Wakefield, Young Clifford at Towton, Warwick at Barnet, and Prince Edward at Tewkesbury die defiantly without remorse. In Richard III the great men die acknowledging their guilt and thinking of others. Clarence, before his murderers enter, says:

O God, if my deep prayers cannot appease thee,
But thou wilt be aveng'd on my misdeeds,
Yet execute thy wrath in me alone:
O spare my guiltless wife and my poor children
[I.iv. 69-72]

Edward IV, near his death, repents his having signed a warrant for Clarence's death and while blaming others for not having restrained him blames himself the most:

But for my brother not a man would speak,
Nor I, ungracious, speak unto myself
For him, poor soul. The proudest of you all
Have been beholding to him in his life;
Yet none of you would once plead for his life.
O God, I fear thy justice will take hold
On me and you and mine and yours for this.
[II.i. 126-32]

The Duchess of York, who once rejoiced when her family prospered, now in humility acknowledges the futility of ambitious strife.

Accursed and unquiet wrangling days,
How many of you have mine eyes beheld.
My husband lost his life to get the crown,
And often up and down my sons were toss'd,
For me to joy and weep their gain and loss.
And, being seated and domestic broils
Clean overblown, themselves, the conquerors,
Make war upon themselves: blood against blood,
Self against self. O, preposterous
And frantic outrage, end thy damned spleen.
[II.iv. 55-64]

All this penitence cannot be fortuitous; and it is the prelude to forgiveness and regeneration. But the full religious temper of the play only comes out in the two great scenes in the last third of the play: the lamentations of the three queens after Richard has murdered the princes in the Tower, and the ghosts appearing to Richard and Richmond before Bosworth. These are both extreme and splendid examples of the formal style which ... should be considered the norm rather than the exception in the tetralogy. Both scenes are ritual and incantatory to a high degree, suggesting an ecclesiastical context; both are implicitly or explicitly pious; and both are archaic, suggesting the prevalent piety of the Middle Ages.

The incantation takes the form not only of an obvious antiphony, like Queen Margaret's balancing of her own woes with Queen Elizabeth's—

I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kil'd him—
[IV.iv. 40-3]

but of a more complicated balance of rhythmic phrases and of varied repetitions, as in the Duchess of York's self-address:

Blind sight, dead life, poor mortal living ghost,
Woe's scene, world's shame, grave's due by life usurp'd,
Brief abstract and record of tedious days,
Rest thy unrest on England's lawful earth,
Unlawfully made drunk with innocents' blood.
[IV.iv. 25-9]

The piety in this scene is implicit rather than explicit, and the two passages just quoted will illustrate it. Queen Margaret is thinking of Richard's crimes and the vengeance he will incur, yet by repeating a phrase in four successive lines she expresses unconsciously the new and fruitful unity that God is to construct out of Richard's impartial wickedness. The Duchess's mention of England's lawful earth is in itself an assertion of the principle of order and an implicit prayer for a juster age. The medievalism and its accompanying suggestion of piety comes out in Margaret's great speech to Elizabeth, itself an example of incantation and antiphony. She refers to her prophecies made earlier in the play and now fulfilled.

I call'd thee then vain flourish of my fortune.
I call'd thee then poor shadow, painted queen;
The presentation of but what I was;
The flattering index of a direful pageant;
One heav'd a-high, to be hurl'd down below;
A mother only mock'd with two sweet babes;
A dream of what thou wert, a breath, a bubble,
A sign of dignity, a garish flag,
To be the aim of every dangerous shot;
A queen in jest, only to fill the scene.
Where is thy husband now? where be thy brothers?
Where are thy children? wherein dost thou joy?
Who sues to thee and cries 'God save the queen'?
Where be the bending peers that flatter'd thee?
Where be the thronging troops that follow'd thee?—
Decline all this and see what now thou art:
For happy wife a most distressed widow,
For joyful mother one that wails the name;
For queen a very caitiff crown'd with care;
For one being sued to one that humbly sues;
For one that scorn'd at me now scorn'd of me;
For one being fear'd of all now fearing one;
For one commanding all obey'd of none.
Thus hath the course of justice wheel'd about
And left thee but a very prey to time;
Having no more but thought of what thou wert
To torture thee the more being what thou art.
[IV.iv. 82-108]

The speech takes us back to the Middle Ages; to the laments of the fickleness of fortune, to the constant burden of Ubi sunt [Where are (those who were before us?)], and to the consequent contempt of the world. …

The scene of the ghosts of those Richard has murdered follows immediately on Richmond's solemn prayer, quoted above. It is essentially of the Morality pattern. [A Morality was a medieval play depicting the virtues and vices.] Respublica [the State] or England is the hero, invisible yet present, contended for by the forces of heaven represented by Richmond and of hell represented by Richard. Each ghost as it were gives his vote for heaven, Lancaster and York being at last unanimous. And God is above, surveying the event. The medieval strain is continued when Richard, awaking in terror, rants like Judas in the Miracle Plays [medieval religious plays] about to hang himself. The scene, like Richmond's prayer and his last speech, is very moving. It may have issued from Shakespeare's official self, from Shakespeare identifying himself with an obvious and simple phase of public opinion. But the identification is entirely sincere, and the opinion strong and right, to be shared alike by the most sophisticated and the humblest. The scene becomes almost an act of common worship, ending with Buckingham's assertion:

God and good angels fight on Richmond's side;
And Richard falls in height of all his pride.
[V.iii. 176-7]

And just because he participates so fully, because he holds nothing of himself back, Shakespeare can be at his best, can give to his language the maximum of personal differentiation of which he was at the time capable. This differentiation he achieves, not as in some of the other great places in the play by surprising conjunctions of words or new imagery but by subtle musical variations within a context of incantation. He seems indeed to have learnt and applied the lessons of [the Elizabethan poet Edmund] Spenser. At the same time the substance of what each ghost says is entirely appropriate to the speaker and by referring back to past events in the tetralogy serves to reinforce the structure of the plot. There may be better scenes in Shakespeare, but of these none is like this one. Of its kind it is the best.

That the play's main end is to show the working out of God's will in English history does not detract from the importance of Richard in the process and from his dominance as a character. And it is through his dominance that he is able to be the instrument of God's ends. Whereas the sins of other men had merely bred more sins, Richard's are so vast that they are absorptive, not contagious. He is the great ulcer of the body politic into which all its impurity is drained and against which all the members of the body politic are united. It is no longer a case of limb fighting limb but of the war of the whole organism against an ill which has now ceased to be organic. The metaphor of poison is constantly applied to Richard, and that of beast, as if here were something to be excluded from the human norm. Queen Margaret unites the two metaphors when she calls him "that poisonous bunch-back'd toad" and that "bottled spider," the spider being proverbially venomous.

In making Richard thus subservient to a greater scheme I do not deny that for many years now the main attraction of the play has actually been Richard's character in itself, like Satan's in [John Milton's] Paradise Lost. Nor was this attraction lacking from the first. Indeed it antedates the play, going back to More's History of Richard III, which was inserted with trifling modifications into Hall's chronicle and repeated thence by Holinshed. Shakespeare in singling out Richard III and later Henry V for special treatment as characters is not therefore departing from tradition but following closely his own main teacher of the philosophy of history, Hall.

One would like to think of Shakespeare hailing More (through Hall) as a kindred spirit and using his charm as an inspiration. Actually, though Shakespeare accepts More's heightened picture of Richard as an arch-villain, he can very coolly reject the episodes of which More made much. He quite omits Edward's wonderful speech on his deathbed and the most moving scene of all, the Archbishop persuading Queen Elizabeth to give up her younger son out of sanctuary. It may be however that More's abundant sense of humour encouraged Shakespeare to add to Richard that touch of comedy that makes him so distinguished a villain. His aside after he has gone on his knees to ask his mother's blessing is very much in More's spirit:

Duch. God bless thee, and put meekness in thy mind,
Love, chanty, obedience, and true duty.
Rich. Amen; and make me die a good old man.
That is the butt-end of a mother's blessing:
I marvel why her grace did leave it out.
[II.ii. 107-11]

A number of people have written well on the character of Richard: in one place or another all has been said that need be said. It remains now to think less in terms of alternatives and to include more than is usually done in Richard's character, even at the sacrifice of consistency. [Essayist Charles] Lamb, for instance, who in his brief references raised most of the pertinent questions, wants to exclude the melodramatic side:

Shakespeare has not made Richard so black a monster as is supposed. Wherever he is monstrous, it was to conform to vulgar opinion. But he is generally a Man.

Actually Shakespeare was already at one with vulgar opinion and willingly makes him a monster. But only in some places; in others he keeps him human. Similarly we need not choose between Richard the psychological study in compensation for physical disability and Richard the embodiment of sheer demonic will, for he is both. It is true that, as Lamb notes, Richard in the allusions to his deformity

mingles ... a perpetual reference to his own powers and capacities, by which he is enabled to surmount these petty objections; and the joy of a defect conquered, or turned into an advantage, is one cause of these very allusions, and of the satisfaction, with which his mind recurs to them.

But [critic Edward] Dowden [in Shakespeare: His Mind and Art] also is right when he says of Richard that

his dominant characteristic is not intellectual; it is rather a daemonic energy of will. …
He is of the diabolical class. … He is single-hearted in his devotion to evil. … He has a fierce joy, and he is an intense believer,—in the creed of hell. And therefore he is strong. He inverts the moral order of things, and tries to live in this inverted system. He does not succeed; he dashes himself to pieces against the laws of the world which he has outraged.

It might be retorted that the above distinction is superfluous, because an extreme manifestation of demonic will can only arise from the additional drive set in motion by an unusual need to compensate for a defect. But the point is that Shakespeare does actually make the distinction and that Richard, within the limits of the play, is psychologically both possible and impossible. He ranges from credibly motivated villain to a symbol, psychologically absurd however useful dramatically, of the diabolic.

This shift, however, is not irregular. In the first two scenes, containing his opening soliloquy, his dealings with Clarence, his interruption of the funeral of Henry VI with his courtship of Ann Nevil, he is predominantly the psychological study. Shakespeare here builds up his private character. And he is credible; with his humour, his irony, and his artistry in crime acting as differentiating agents, creating a sense of the individual. After this he carries his established private character into the public arena, where he is more than a match for anyone except Queen Margaret. Of her alone he is afraid; and her curse establishes, along with the psychologically probable picture just created, the competing and ultimately victorious picture of the monstrosity, the country's scapegoat, the vast impostume of the commonwealth. She makes him both a cosmic symbol, the "troubler of the poor world's peace," and sub-human, a "rooting hog," "the slave of nature and the son of hell." She calls on him the curse of insomnia, which later we find to have been fulfilled. Clearly this does not apply to the exulting ironic Richard: he must always have slept with infant tranquillity. Thus Margaret's curse is prospective, and though he continues to pile up the materials for the construction of his monstrosity, it is the credible Richard, glorying in his will and his success in compensating his disabilities, who persists till the end of the third act and the attainment of the throne. Thenceforward, apart from his outburst of energy in courting Queen Elizabeth for her daughter's hand, he melts from credible character into a combination of sheer melodrama villain and symbol of diabolism. His irony forsakes him; he is unguarded not secretive in making his plans; he is no longer cool but confused in his energy, giving and retracting orders; he really does not sleep; and, when on the eve of Bosworth he calls for a bowl of wine because he has not "that alacrity of spirit nor cheer of mind that I was wont to have," he is the genuine ancestor of the villain in a nineteenth century melodrama calling for whiskey when things look black. Then, with the ghosts and his awakening into his Judas-like monologue, psychological probability and melodramatic villainy alike melt into the symbol of sheer denial and diabolism. Nor does his momentary resurrection at Bosworth with his memorable shout for a horse destroy that abiding impression. That a character should shift from credible human being to symbol would not have troubled a generation nurtured on Spenser. Richard in this respect resembles one of Spenser's masterpieces, Malbecco, who from a realistic old cuckold is actually transformed into an allegorical figure called Jealousy.

Finally we must not forget that Richard is the vehicle of an orthodox doctrine about kingship. It was a terrible thing to fight the ruling monarch, and Richard had been crowned. However, he was so clearly both a usurper and a murderer that he had qualified as a tyrant; and against an authentic tyrant it was lawful to rebel. Richmond, addressing his army before Bosworth, makes the point absolutely clear:

Richard except, those whom we fight against
Had rather have us win than him they follow.
For what is he they follow? truly, gentlemen,
A bloody tyrant and a homicide;
One rais'd in blood and one in blood establish'd;
One that made means to come by what he hath
And slaughter'd those that were the means to help him;
One that hath ever been God's enemy.
Then if you fight against God's enemy,
God will in justice ward you as his soldiers;
If you do sweat to put a tyrant down,
You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain.
[V.iii. 243-9, 252-6]

And Derby, handing Henry the crown after the battle, calls it "this long-usurped royalty."
I have indicated in outline the course of the play: the emerging of unity from and through discord, the simultaneous change in Richard from accomplished villain to the despairing embodiment of evil. Shakespeare gives it coherence through the dominant and now scarcely human figure of Queen Margaret: the one character who appears in every play [of the tetralogy]. Being thus a connecting thread, it is fitting that she give structural coherence to the crowning drama. As Richard's downfall goes back to her curse, so do the fates of most of the characters who perish in the play go back to her curses or prophecies in the same scene, 1.3. Nor are her curses mere explosions of personal spite; they agree with the tit-for-tat scheme of crime and punishment that has so far prevailed in the tetralogy. She begins by recalling York's curse on her at Wakefield for the cruelty of her party to Rutland and the penalty she has paid; and then enumerates the precisely balanced scheme of retribution appointed for the house of York:

If not by war, by surfeit die your king,
As ours by murder, to make him a king.
Edward thy son, which now is Prince of Wales,
For Edward my son, which was Prince of Wales,
Die in his youth by like untimely violence.
Thyself a queen, for me that was a queen,
Outlive thy glory like my wretched self.
[I.iii. 197-203]

Curses on minor characters follow, but Richard, as befits, has a speech to himself. His peculiar curse is the gnawing of conscience, sleeplessness, and the mistake of taking friends for enemies and enemies for friends. I have spoken of the sleeplessness above, how it could not apply to the Richard of the first three acts. Similarly it is not till Bosworth that the curse of thinking his enemies friends comes true. We are meant to think of it when Richmond says in lines quoted above that "those whom we fight against had rather have us win than him they follow." The man with the best brain in the play ends by being the most pitifully deceived. For a detailed working out of the different curses I refer the reader to A. P. Rossiter's study of the play. But it is worth recording that Margaret in her last lines before she goes out unconsciously forecasts the larger theme of the plays. Talking of Richard she says:

Let each of you be subject to his hate,
And he to yours, and all of you to God's.
[I.iii. 302-3]

Margaret does not realise that this grouping of Yorkists against Richard will unite them to the Lancastrians similarly opposed, and that the just vengeance of God had even then given way to his mercy.

In style the play is better sustained than its predecessor. There is less undifferentiated stuff, and the finest pieces of writing (as distinguished from the finest scenes) are more dramatic. The quiet concentration of the Duchess of York's last words to Richard is beyond anything in the other three plays:

Either thou wilt die, by God's just ordinance,
Ere from this war thou turn a conqueror,
Or I with grief and extreme age shall perish
And never look upon thy face again.
Therefore take with thee my most heavy 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...

(The entire section is 9490 words.)

Language: Oaths, Curses, and Prophecies

Prince Edward as played by Lena Ashwell Published by Gale Cengage

As many critics have observed, Richard III is filled with oaths, curses, and prophecies. E. M. W. Tillyard argues that they are an expression of the play's theme of divine retribution, where the punishment of the feuding families, the destruction of Richard, and the final union of the houses of Lancaster and York are predestined. Margaret, who dispenses a significant portion of the curses and prophecies against the other characters in the play, is described by A. C. Hamilton as the "present witness to previous wrongs" and the embodiment of destiny and revenge.

Critics such as Frances Shirley and David Bevington have pointed out that the other characters inadvertently help to fulfill Margaret's prophecies by...

(The entire section is 8450 words.)

Dark Comedy in Richard III

Richard III as played by Edwin Booth (1872) Published by Gale Cengage

A number of critics have examined the types of comedy present in Richard III and have speculated about why so much of it exists in what is otherwise a grim play. William E. Sheriff points out that although there are no scenes that contain "outright comedy," there are many which become comedic as the result of dramatic irony. (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.) Thus Richard's commiseration with Clarence as he is being led to prison in Act I, scene i, becomes comedic because Richard has just informed us that he is responsible for having Clarence jailed in the first place. Sheriff suggests that such...

(The entire section is 10865 words.)


An episode in Richard III that has caused much controversy is Act I, scene ii, where Richard successfully woos Lady Anne over the corpse of her father-in-law, Henry VI, whom Richard himself has recently murdered. Nineteenth-century critics found Anne's acquiescence incredible and Shakespeare's invention of the scene inappropriate.

On the other hand, several twentieth-century critics have defended the scene as realistic or have acknowledged its importance to the themes of the play. Harold F. Brooks, for example, remarks that Richard's "breathtaking impudence" is supported by historical accounts of him at the time, and that the scene provides an effective counterpoint to Richard's later negotiations with Queen...

(The entire section is 4590 words.)


Richard and the ghosts by William Blake Published by Gale Cengage

Most critics agree that Richard is a Machiavellian villain (Machiavellianism is a precept that considers politics amoral and claims that any means, however unscrupulous, are justified in achieving and holding onto power). They also agree that he is witty—frequently poking fun at himself as well as at his victims. But critics are divided on the nature of Richard's wickedness, on his motives, and ultimately, on his purpose in the play.

Francis Fergusson asserts that Shakespeare was not interested in exploring the psychological state of the historical Richard, but in creating a Richard for the stage who is an irresistible comic villain. Morton J. Frisch acknowledges that Richard is a fascinating character who attracts...

(The entire section is 6879 words.)

The Women in Richard III: Anne, The Duchess of York, Elizabeth, and Margaret

Critics have studied the women in Richard III for their significance both as individuals and as a group. Madonne M. Miner, for example, focuses on the play's misogyny (the hatred of women), stating that Richard continually blames women instead of accepting the guilt which is really his own. Miner and Irene G. Dash also discuss the women's role as "ciphers" or "nonpersons," especially after they become widows and their sole source of power and of social identity—their husbands—is gone. Both critics note a positive element of women's fate in the play: Through their adversity, the women eventually identify with each other and unite against Richard.

Taken individually, the four women each pose certain problems...

(The entire section is 10598 words.)