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...
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Language: Oaths, Curses, and Prophecies
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 making false or imprudent oaths and thus cursing themselves: When, for example, Richard swears by his success as a king and warrior that he means well to Elizabeth and her family, his false oath turns into a self-curse, and he dies on the battlefield.
Both Karl Weber and Kristian Smidt assert that dreaming is closely related to prophecy in Richard III. Smidt remarks that the Duke of Clarence's undersea dream predicts his murder and subsequent drowning in the butt of malmsey. Weber maintains that Clarence's dream foreshadows the rest of the play.
Smidt further argues that...
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Dark Comedy in Richard III
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 humor is there to lighten what would otherwise be dry history already well-known to its Elizabethan audience.
Ronald Berman looks at the "tough, cynical, and realistic wit" of both Richard and Buckingham and concludes that while these two characters deservedly pay for their cruel self-centeredness with their lives, in the meantime they serve to illustrate certain qualities of the individual as opposed to those of society. A. P. Rossiter also takes up this issue of society versus the individual to argue that Shakespeare wrote Richard III as a comic history in order to express life's...
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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 Elizabeth for her daughter's hand in marriage. Denzell S. Smith contends that the scene proves Richard's fitness as "God's scourge" against a nation mired in civil war. In wooing Anne, Smith asserts, Richard displays his skill at manipulating people by staying one step ahead of them and by playing many different roles. Donald R. Shupe draws upon psychology to demonstrate that the scene is a realistic encounter between two different personality types. And Irene G. Dash argues that in submitting to Richard, Anne is simply behaving according to Elizabethan society's expectations of women. Rejecting any explanations for Anne's submission, A. C. Hamilton observes that in demonstrating for us Richard's villainy, the scene is not meant to be...
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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 us "almost against our will." But Frisch chooses to examine Richard's motives and state of mind, and remarks that Richard's quest for power is pointless because he has no idea what he wants to do with power once he gets it. In a similar vein, Janette Dillon focuses on Richard's solitariness: She observes that he is isolated by choice because he is egotistical, ambitious, and ruthless, but that he is also forced into isolation through a "physical deformity which sets him apart from others."
Speaking from an economic rather than a psychological point of view, Paul...
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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 for critics. E. M. W. Tillyard regrets that Shakespeare included the scene (Act IV, scene iv) in which Richard asks for Queen Elizabeth's blessing to marry her daughter. Tillyard states that Elizabeth's weak submission to Richard serves no purpose, coming as it does toward the end of the play. In contrast, Dash and Stephen L. Tanner contend that Elizabeth does not submit, but in fact wins this battle of wits, and Tanner maintains that her victory signals Richard's fall from power.
Lady Anne has also been criticized for submitting to Richard. David Bevington refers to Richard's outlandishly successful" wooing of Anne, and regards her acquiescence as an enormous "betrayal of self." While Dash defends Anne's behavior, observing that...
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