Richard III (Vol. 52)
Shakespeare's Richard III has long been a favorite play for actors as well as for audiences, showcasing as it does a character who is simultaneously repugnant, lethal, witty, and engaging. Richard's attractiveness in spite of, or because of, his wickedness has also been the focus of critical debate. Central to this debate is the manner in which morality is treated in the play. Scholars have commented, for example, on the connections Richard III makes between morality on the one hand and nature versus nurture on the other. Discussion has also focused on the complex relationships in the play between sex, politics, and integrity. Finally, Richard III and the issue of morality have been approached by several critics from the vantage point of genre. In other words, scholars have speculated on the extent to which medieval morality plays with their characterizations of Vice and Virtue inform the structure and possible interpretations of Richard III.
Nancy A. Cluck (1985) locates the play's emphasis on immorality directly in Richard III's “pathological shamelessness” which, she explains, is the result of his physical deformity. Richard's “unlovable” shape has placed him outside of society. Cluck observes that in order to cope, Richard turns his shame to shamelessness by celebrating his own deformity and by behaving as an immoral “villain,” wreaking pain and destruction on the society that has rejected him. Grant B. Mindle (1993) defines the sheer magnitude of Richard's immorality. Mindle observes that while many Shakespearean characters (such as Macbeth) feel guilty or at least uneasy about the murders they commit, Richard does not. Richard, Mindle suggests, commits his murders “deliberately” and “serenely.” Further, Mindle points out that Richard himself describes conscience as “a word that cowards use.”
Maurice Hunt (1997) relies on Elizabethan politics and Tudor history to describe the types of morality at work in the play. Hunt remarks that as the daughter of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was sensitive about the question of legitimacy—an issue that also plagued Richmond; thus in Richard III, Shakespeare avoids offending his queen by drawing a distinction between “moral bastardy” and “moral integrity.” Hunt traces the history of both Richmond and Elizabeth I to demonstrate that while each could be regarded as bastards in the eyes of the law, both were morally sound. By contrast, as a Yorkist rather than a Tudor, Richard III could lay a strong claim to legitimate rule; nevertheless, Hunt explains, the treacherous Richard lacked legitimacy because he was grossly immoral.
Paul N. Siegel (1986) sees a different type of immorality expressed in Richard III. Taking a Marxist approach to the play, Siegel describes Richard as the embodiment of the self-centered individualism that began to appear during the early-modern era in which Shakespeare lived. Hunt observes that Richard's language is laced with “cold-blooded” references to business and money, and that the brutal Richard thereby prefigures the equally brutal and self-interested conquerors of the New World as well as the advent of the bourgeoisie who, Siegel suggests, achieve their own needs at the expense of others.
Several critics have noted the theatricality of Shakespeare's Richard and how this contributes to Richard's portrayal as an immoral character. Deborah Mitchell (1997) observes that audiences and actors alike positively relish Shakespeare's depiction of a flamboyant Richard who lacks any moral fiber. Mitchell further remarks that this representation has been effectively perpetuated onscreen first by Laurence Olivier and later by Ian McKellen, who portrayed Richard III “in a Nazi uniform seal[ing] his fate as eternity's archvillain.” This monstrous view of Richard persists despite contradictory historical evidence simply because—as Mitchell suggests—the apparently false story of a wicked Richard III is highly entertaining.
Gillian M. Day (1991) similarly acknowledges the theatrical power of Richard III, noting that the character “plays the villain with a great sense of spectacle and theatre.” In addition, Day connects Richard with the tradition of the morality plays of the medieval period in which characters representing Vice (Richard) must be overcome by those representing Virtue (Richmond). A different perspective on the morality theatrics of the play is expressed by Peggy Endel (1986), who remarks that, unlike other Shakespearean characters, Richard foregrounds his immoral plots by discussing them in the very public atmosphere of the throne room. Endel compares this behavior of Richard's with a late-medieval painting by Hieronymus Bosch of the devil sitting in state on a chamber pot.
The ways in which Richard uses sex to further his immoral cause have also been examined by scholars. Rebecca W. Bushnell (1990), Linda Charnes (1993), and Phyllis Rackin (1995) all discuss the ways in which the physically unappealing Richard skillfully manipulates sexual desire and lust to disempower the female characters around him in order to further his own aims. Deborah Willis (1995) contends that Richard's wickedness is driven by his hatred for his mother—whom he blames for his deformity—and his contempt for women in general—who reject him because of his deformity.
Donald R. Shupe (1978) and Betty A. Schellenberg (1990) both focus on Richard's extraordinary powers of persuasion. Schellenberg concludes that Richard is doomed to fail despite his facility for language because both his aims and the language he uses to express them are corrupt. Ultimately, Schellenberg asserts that it will take the “prayers” of Richmond to “purify” the language and bring harmony back to society.
SOURCE: “Shakespearean Studies In Shame,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 36, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 141-51.
[In the following essay, Cluck defines shame and its place in Western culture by comparing Shakespeare's character Antony with his character Richard III. Cluck remarks that Richard is so intensely ashamed of his misshapen body that he seeks refuge in complete shamelessness and immorality.]
Few human emotions are more distressing than those associated with shame. Though feelings such as anger, grief, fear, and even guilt can be equally painful, they are more easily expressed because they are more acceptable to Western society. Shame isolates the sufferer from social communication and drives him into hiding or into an attitude of shamelessness that serves as a defense mechanism. Recent psychological studies of the causes and manifestations of shame have deepened our understanding of the experience in our own lives and in literature. But shame exceeds psychological boundaries, and in doing so it vitally affects our moral and spiritual natures as well as our emotional nature. Shakespeare probes the complexities of shame in several of his characters. He thus clarifies the more abstract theoretical investigations of modern psychologists and social scientists. Shame drives Othello, Lear, and Antony; meanwhile its alter-ego, shamelessness, spurs Iago, Edmund, and Richard III. The clearest exemplifications...
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SOURCE: “Richard III and the Spirit of Capitalism,” in Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach, Associated University Presses, 1986, pp. 80-5.
[In the following excerpt, Siegel argues that the character Richard III symbolizes the self-centered, bourgeois attitude to political power as well as to the immoral domination and manipulation of others in a society based on capital.]
It may seem strange to regard Richard III, a member of the feudal house of York, whose conflict with the rival house of Lancaster marked the waning of the Middle Ages in England, as representative of the spirit of capitalism. However, as seen in chapter 2, Shakespeare regarded the Tudor order as threatened by the rampant individualism of both the old nobility, with its tradition of feudal prerogatives that superseded the national state, and the most aggressive section of the bourgeoisie, which was already in the 1590s beginning to challenge the monarchy. He more than once identified the individualism of the one with that of the other, in the same way that the American capitalists of the late nineteenth century are called “the robber barons.”
Thus King Lear, although its social setting is that of an early, primitive feudalism and its characters are members of either royal or feudal families, reflects the conflict in Shakespeare's time between the medieval and the modern...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Demonic Prince,” in Interpretations 20, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 259-74.
[In the following essay, Mindle observes that Richard III is the most Machiavellian of all of Shakespeare's protagonists, noting that unlike characters such as Macbeth and Henry IV, Richard III has no respect for morality or conscience.]
Richard. Why Buckingham, I say I would be king. Buckingham. Why, so you are, my thrice-renownéd lord. Richard. Ha! Am I king?
Shakespeare's Richard III is the story of a man who would be king, a chronicle of a tyrant who tries to “clothe [his] naked villainy” by setting “the murderous Machiavel to school” (I.iii.335; 3 Henry VI, III.ii.193). A murderer without a “touch of pity,” a consummate “liar,” a “subtle, false and treacherous” villain, Richard is perfectly, splendidly, and delightfully wicked (cf. Disc., I.27). His best conspiracies are conceived and executed in the spirit of Machiavelli, exploiting the vanity of his victims.
Richard III is “the only one of Shakespeare's kings explicitly associated with Machiavelli.”2 There are other Shakespearean kings whose ascent and reign are marred by injustice, but their wickedness is imperfect and half-hearted and their demeanor too solemn to classify them as Machiavellian. Bolingbroke would never...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's King Richard III and the Problematics of Tudor Bastardy,” in Papers on Language and Literature 33, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 115-41.
[In the following essay, Hunt contends that in Richard III, Shakespeare distinguishes between “moral bastardy” and “moral integrity.” In other words, although Richard apparently has a more legitimate claim to the throne than the possibly illegitimate Richmond, Richard loses his legitimacy as a result of his wickedness while Richmond solidifies his claim through his morality.]
Granted Queen Elizabeth's touchiness concerning the subject of royal bastardy, Shakespeare ran a risk in King Richard III by focusing questions of bastardy in such a way that they invite comparison with problematical details of bastardy in the Tudor succession. The queen's life-long association with bastardy makes Shakespeare's emphasis surprising.1 Analysis of Tudor bastardy reveals the emergence of a paradigm of illegitimate legitimacy (or legitimate illegitimacy), a composite reproduced in the discourse on royal bastardy in King Richard III. The ambiguous melding of legitimate illegitimacy that allowed Elizabeth, her half-sister and half-brother, and her grandfather to side-step challenges to their right to rule (or potentially to rule) reappears in the play in the rationale that Richard of Gloucester uses to dispossess his...
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SOURCE: “Thriftless Ambition: The Tyrants of Shakespeare and Jonson,” in Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 118-26.
[In the following excerpt, Bushnell asserts that in his role as tyrant, Richard III discovers that lust and political ambition are interconnected, so that in order to exert power over people, he must also “abase” himself by playing the role of seducer or suppliant to Anne and Elizabeth.]
Shakespeare and Jonson portrary tyranny by showing how sexual and political desire both shapes an ambitious tyrant's image and undoes it. More specifically, Richard III and Sejanus (and in a different way, Macbeth) combine ambition with the tyrant's traditional attribute of lust when they rely on seduction in grasping for the crown. In doing so, however, they trap themselves in a web of dependency, for in the end they need to be desired themselves as much as they want the crown. In this confusion, where the seducer abases himself to achieve power, the traditional opposition between the masculine king and effeminate tyrant is both set up and deconstructed. By the time they achieve their purpose, these tyrants find that the power and self they built up through the process of gaining the crown are highly unstable.1
In developing this link between ambition and sexual desire, Shakespeare's and...
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SOURCE: “Belaboring the Obvious: Reading the Monstrous Body in King Richard III,” in Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 33-51.
[In the following excerpt, Charnes explains how the murderous and physically monstrous Richard transmogrifies Anne's hatred into sexual desire during the emotionally charged wooing scene.]
What we regard as “history” is always “mediated through subjectivity”: it becomes history only by the process of repetitive inscription in and through the symbolic. Consequently its “Truth arises from misrecognition”—whatever it signifies in the social formation necessarily routes through the misrecognition of consciousness (what Zizek calls “the opinion of the people”—Sublime Object, p. 61). “If we want to spare ourselves the painful roundabout route through the misrecognition, we miss the Truth itself” (p. 63). And this Truth is that the significance of history is consolidated only retroactively, like the “truth” of the analysand who has come through psychoanalysis and assigned his symptomology its place in the narrative. The very grammar of history, therefore, is proleptic: it puts later things first (just as Shakespeare chronicles later historical events in the “first tetralogy”). In this way, what was once profoundly contingent is reconstituted as “inevitable.” Richard...
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SOURCE: “Engendering the Tragic Audience: The Case of Richard III,” in Shakespeare and Gender: A History, Verso, 1995, pp. 263-82.
[In the following essay, Rackin examines the disempowerment that occurs to the female characters when Shakespeare transforms a history play into a tragedy as he does with Richard III.]
Although the First Folio classifies Richard III with Shakespeare's other English histories, the title pages of the Quartos suggest generic difference. In the case of 2 Henry VI, the title page indicates both the episodic chronicle structure of the play and its historical subject: ‘The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Iacke Cade: And the Duke of Yorkes first claime unto the Crowne’. The Quarto of Richard III, by contrast, designates at once its self-consciously dramatic form as tragedy, its origins as a script for theatrical performance, and its strongly centred focus on the male protagonist: ‘The Tragedy of Richard the third, Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his iunocent nephewes: his tyrannicall usurpation: with...
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SOURCE: “Performing Persecution,” in Malevolent Nature: Witch Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England, Cornell University Press, 1995, pp. 193-207.
[In the following excerpt, Willis contends that Richard demonizes his mother and all women for his own defects as well as for his distance from the succession to the throne of England.]
In the middle of Richard III, as Richard is consolidating his power en route to his short-lived kingship, he makes a blatantly fraudulant charge of witchcraft against Queen Elizabeth and Jane Shore:
Look how I am bewitched! Behold, mine arm Is like a blasted sapling withered up. And this is Edward's wife, that monstrous witch, Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore, That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.
What has been suggested in the tetralogy's two earlier examples of witchcraft prosecution is now taken one step farther. Richard initiates a “witch-hunt” in the modern sense; his charges against Elizabeth and Jane Shore are a piece of machiavellian theater, a politically expedient way of staging Hastings's arrest and impending execution. As Shakespeare also makes clear, this witchcraft charge is embedded in Richard's history of relations with women. Elizabeth (Edward's widow) and Jane Shore (Edward's mistress) make an unlikely team; yet...
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SOURCE: “Kings Games”: Stage Imagery and Political Symbolism in “Richard III,” in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts XX, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 17-30.
[In the essay below, Lyons suggests that, like actual monarchs such as Elizabeth I, Shakespeare's Richard III and Richmond resort to elaborate symbolism and theatrical performances to manipulate or to communicate with their subjects.]
“We Princes,” Queen Elizabeth said in 1586 to a deputation of her Lords and Commons, “are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed.” She was speaking of the need to observe all the proprieties in dealing with Mary Queen of Scots, and of the blame that she herself would incur if she made a false step. Two years earlier, an ambassador to her court had offered a somewhat more cynical appreciation of her acting talents: “She is a Princess who can act any part she pleases.” The two quotations can be taken to illustrate diverging views of royal theatricality.1 According to Elizabeth, it was not by their own will that princess were “set on stages,” constrained to play a part that was largely prescribed for them, to a “duly” observing public. But the French ambassador suggested another possibility about her theatricality when he hinted that the Queen's grief over the death of one of her suitors may not have been entirely sincere. He suggested...
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SOURCE: “Profane Icon: The Throne Scene of Shakespeare's Richard III,” in Comparative Drama 20, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 115-23.
[In the following essay, Endel discusses the problematic “throne scene” of Act IV where the newly crowned Richard III enacts private, conspiratorial business in the throne-room—a place that is normally treated as a highly public stage complete with an audience of courtiers.]
The English drama critic John Trewin first began to review Shakespeare's plays on the London stage in 1930. In 1978, when he was seventy years old, this dean of theater critics looked back over a lifetime of what he called “going to Shakespeare” and recalled an extraordinary moment at the Old Vic in London in 1944. Remembering Laurence Olivier enthroned as Richard III in Act IV, scene ii, of Shakespeare's play, Trewin writes, “One must always judge [Olivier’s] famous portrait from its first presentation with the Old Vic company, and not from the film. … Richard distilled his own darkness; and I cannot return to the play now without picturing Olivier, a cauldron-figure, crowned and sceptred, as he brooded on the throne.”1 What Trewin evokes here is a stage image so potent and so compelling that it has impressed itself on his mind's eye for almost thirty years despite some element of resistance. Thus his negative formulation: “I cannot return to the play now without...
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SOURCE: “‘Determined to prove a villain’: Theatricality in Richard III,” in Critical Survey 3, No. 2, 1991, pp. 149-56.
[In the essay below, Day examines Richard III's chosen and not always reliable professions as prologue, stage manager, and actor in the “morality-Vice manner” of the play.]
Richard III has a long association with theatricality. Colley Cibber's melodramatic attentions to the text in 1700 ensured its reputation as a piece of showmanship even into the 1950s when, some would say, Laurence Olivier's film confirmed the histrionic image. Both men, however, built on what already existed in the play. Richard III is self-consciously theatrical, inviting an audience both to perceive and to question its central metaphor of acting and illusion.1
Richard's opening soliloquy is a self-presentation in the morality-Vice manner. At the same time its structural formality is a mirror of deliberative discourse wherein the character rejects the more virtuous futures which offer themselves and determines upon villainy. The simplicity of syntax pointed by monosyllables and the stress on ‘Now’ and ‘But I’ suggest a logic which the balance of such imagery as winter/summer, lover/villain reinforces. Indeed such modest simplicity and seeming logic infusing Richard's words create a distinctive style which appears itself sufficiently persuasive of...
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SOURCE: “Richard III: Tonypandy in the Twentieth Century,” in Literature/Film Quarterly 25, No. 2, 1997, pp. 133-45.
[In the following essay, Mitchell discusses the ways in which Ian McKellen's 1996 cinematic performance of Richard III powerfully reinforces the Tudor myth that presents Richard as an immoral monster.]
In her 1951 detective novel, Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey proffers the theory that Richard III, last of the Plantagenet kings, was a victim of Tudor character assassination. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, House of York, brother of Edward IV, had long been accused and by many convicted of a long list of heinous crimes, not the least of which was usurping the throne and murdering his nephews in the Tower. We know him today as Shakespeare's “bottled spider,” “foul devil,” “fouler toad.” We also know today that Shakespeare based his portrait on the works of Polydore Vergil, Sir Thomas More, Edward Hall, and Raphael Holinshed: Tudor chroniclers who had their motives for blackening the White Rose. In his biography, Richard the Third, Paul Murray Kendall suggests that “the history of Richard's reputation is a drama; it exhibits a cumulative plot, a powerful central conflict, and scenes of passion, scorn, vituperation, and ridicule. It begins more than  years ago, and is not yet ended” (496). He also suggests that at the heart of this drama stands...
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SOURCE: “The Wooing of Lady Anne: A Psychological Inquiry,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 29, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 28-36.
[In the following essay, Shupe psychoanalyzes the wooing scene between Richard and Anne, concluding that its outcome is realistic because Richard is a highly persuasive Machiavellian type and because Anne is confused and vulnerable.]
Early in Richard III, Richard, as part of his plot to win the throne, decides to marry the Lady Anne. He undertakes her wooing at what would appear to be the least propitious moment for such an enterprise, during the funeral procession for her father-in-law, Henry VI, whom Richard has murdered. Richard, already responsible for the death of her husband, could hardly be surprised at the storm of vituperation Anne pours forth when he accosts the procession. Yet, less than 180 lines after Anne's “Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!” (I. ii. 46),1 she takes leave of Richard with the friendly and playful lines: “But since you teach me how to flatter you, / Imagine I have said farewell already” (ll. 223-24). During this time span Richard has maneuvered, lied, cajoled, chastised, flattered, and even offered up his own life to Anne.
Despite the considerable virtuosity of Richard's performance, the wooing scene has often been questioned on grounds of credibility. At best the scene has great difficulties; and an...
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SOURCE: “Conflicting Paradigms and the Progress of Persuasion in Richard III,” in Cahiers Élizabéthains, No. 37, April, 1990, pp. 59-66.
[In the following essay, Schellenberg asserts that in Richard III's rise and fall, Shakespeare is demonstrating the “dangers of persuasive rhetoric” when it is misused.]
Shakespeare's Richard III bustles through a stage world of highly formal rhetoric, setting in motion a near-successful bid for control not only of the stage and its other actors, but also of the masterplot of history. He delights in his Richard loves Richard text, glossing his verbal manipulations at every stage of their planning and execution, while other characters provide a conservative countertext of choric commentary, historical summary, and prophecy. These two broad linguistic groups represent the opposing forces in a power struggle between Richard's efforts to persuade history into his mold and the paradigm of an-eye-for-an-eye justice expressed by an ever-swelling chorus of lamenters and cursers.
Shakespeare's exposition, in the verbal acts which make up the first four scenes of Richard III, of an inevitable cycle set in motion by persuasive rhetoric abused, serves as a paradigm for the play's overall movement. Although the first act remains generally in the major key of Richard's fortunes, its structure of rhetorical conflict delineates...
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SOURCE: “‘This Son of Yorke’: Textual and Literary Criticism Again,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1986, pp. 359-65.
[In the following essay, Hammersmith examines a textual crux in Richard III: that is, whether Shakespeare wrote “sun” or “son” of York in the opening lines of the play and whether the puns that result in either case make one reading more likely than the other.]
Perhaps it is time again to put in a word in favor of the exercise of literary judgment in coping with textual problems and in making editorial decisions, though G. Thomas Tanselle's lucid and persuasive essay on the need to combine literary and textual criticism appeared not so long ago that it should already have passed out of memory.1 Still, the questions with which Tanselle grappled are complicated even further when a scholarly editor undertakes to produce a modern reading edition of an early work, for the decisions made for an old-spelling edition must sometimes be re-thought for a modernized edition. I am persuaded that Tanselle's principles apply in both cases, but in that of a modernized edition the scale may have to be tipped even further in the direction of critical judgment. What I have in mind here is the problem of words which are both substantive variants and spelling variants in early modern English. I plan to argue a specific case, namely that it is impossible,...
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Brooks, Harold F. “‘Richard III’: Antecedents of Clarence's Dream.” Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): 145-50.
Analyzes possible literary sources, including Seneca, for Clarence's ominous dream of his death through drowning.
Carlson, David R. “The Princes' Embrace in Richard III.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 344-47.
Compares Shakespeare's Richard III with two ballads also written about Richard and speculates on whether the ballads served as sources for the play or whether the play influenced the ballads.
Frisch, Morton J. “Shakespeare's Richard III and the Soul of the Tyrant.” Interpretation 20, No. 3 (Spring 1993): 275-84.
Asserts that Shakespeare characterizes Richard as attractively evil and suggests that perhaps the playwright was questioning whether the capability for evil is present in all people.
Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Last Words and Last Things: St. John, Apocalypse, and Eschatology in Richard III.” Shakespeare Studies XVIII (1986): 25-40.
Argues that Richard's use of doom-filled oaths from St. Paul and St. John ironically foreshadows his own destruction.
McDonald, Russ. “Richard III and the Tropes of Treachery.” Philological Quarterly 68, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 465-483....
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