Richard III (Vol. 62)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Richard III, see SC, Volumes 8, 14, 39, and 52.
Richard III, written circa 1592, is the fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy. The play recounts the rise and fall of Richard III, the end of the Wars of the Roses, and the beginning of Tudor peace. Religious concerns, among them the notion of divine providence, underscore the action of the play and are a source of modern critical interest. Richard III also features four women—the Duchess of York, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and Lady Anne—who are often viewed collectively as the play's “grieving chorus” rather than as individuals. A number of critics focus their attention on the function of these women in the play. In addition, a wealth of critical analyses center on the character of Richard, who generates mixed emotions in audiences who are repulsed by his villainy, entertained by his wit, and seduced by his words. Full of potent dreams, curses, and omens, Richard III is in some ways structured by prophesy, an issue that interests scholars who observe that most of the predictions in the play come true.
Richard III is often characterized as allegory, with Richard playing the role of the villain-king who is scourged by God. According to the standard allegorical reading, Richard is used as God's instrument in restoring the throne of England to God's chosen ruler, Richmond, whose union with Elizabeth generates the house of Tudor. Clifford Chalmers Huffman (1982) analyzes this reading and finds that the play offers an alternative to this perspective. Huffman maintains that God's mercy also plays a role in Richard III, allowing many scenes—such as Richard's self-scrutiny, the wooing of Anne, and Clarence's dream—to be read in such a way that allows Richard's tragedy of character, rather than his allegorical status, to become the play's focus. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1985) identifies the play's allusions to St. Paul and notes that St. Paul, like Richard, was marked by physical deformity and known as a skilled rhetorician and debater. Additionally, Hassel compares the “argument” of the play to that of Revelation, and finds that while the Book of Revelation focuses on prophecies concerned with the last days and the punishment of God's enemies, the scope of Richard III is limited to the last days of the Wars of Roses. The critic also contends that while the characters in the play may have allegorical counterparts, the play is not strict allegory; Richard is “devilish,” but does not represent Satan, and Richmond is Christ-like, but not a Christ-figure. Hugh M. Richmond (1984) centers his attention on the rather substantial religious vocabulary of the play, demonstrating the way in which Richard III reflects the religious tensions of Shakespeare's time. The critic maintains that by reversing medieval conventions, Shakespeare exploited the conflict between Protestants and humanists.
Richard's “devilishness,” as well as his other intriguing qualities, has made the title character the focal point of many critical analyses. Some critics, including Michael Neill (1976), note that although Shakespeare drew from traditional source material that depicted Richard as a Machiavellian, or as the Vice-figure of morality plays, Shakespeare was able to create a character with startling psychological depth. Larry S. Champion (see Further Reading) focuses more intensely on the subject of source material, tracing the literary depictions of the historical Richard III to one of the earliest accounts (written between 1489 and 1491) in which Richard is portrayed as demonic. Like Neill, the critic observes that although Shakespeare was constrained by the Tudor myth developed by the authors of his source material, he was able to give new life to a character previously stylized as the figure of evil. This long-standing characterization of Richard as the embodiment of evil has been examined by critics attempting to better understand this aspect of his character. Janette Dillon (see Further Reading) demonstrates that for Shakespeare, Richard's deformity stood for more than a warning of the evil deeds he would later commit; rather, it served as a symbol of Richard's innate “unnaturalness,” an outward sign of his inner corruption. Tzachi Zamir (1998) is also concerned with the relationship between Richard's physical state and his villainy. Examining the way Richard discusses his appearance in soliloquy, Zamir points out that to Richard, ugliness is not merely a condition, but rather, a consequence of something. This suggests to Zamir that there is a vengeful quality in Richard's villainy. Dolores M. Burton (1981) focuses on the way Richard uses language, particularly in the first act of the play. Burton notes that each major scene in the first act can be viewed as a separate dramatic unit, with each possessing its own style. Investigating this variety of both incident and language, Burton finds that Richard demonstrates a gradual mastery over persuasive rhetoric as the act progresses. Ralph Berry (1984) examines with the way Richard bonds with the audience, and how this bond contributes to the success of the play. Berry explains that Richard establishes a bond with the audience through a variety of methods, such as soliloquies and asides, the use of double meanings and word-play, and the use of colloquial expressions designed to appeal to a bourgeois audience. Berry also explores the audience's support and later abandonment of the “villain-hero.”
The women in the play—the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Margaret, and Lady Anne—also draw a great deal of critical attention. Phyllis Rackin (1996) observes that Shakespeare's portrayal of female characters in his history plays changed dramatically from Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 to Richard III, and contends that this shift corresponds to Shakespeare's increasing interest in the tragic genre. Rackin goes on to demonstrate the ways in which the women of Richard III, though ennobled, are also disempowered. Finally, the critic maintains that the women are defined by their relationship to English kings, and they all support the conclusion of the play's historical plot, that is, the founding of the house of Tudor. Challenging critics such as Rackin who state that the women of the play do not have individual power, Shirley Carr Mason (1997) argues that the women, both individually and within various groupings, serve as Richard's antagonists in the first four acts of the play. Taking another approach, Harold F. Brooks (1980) focuses on Shakespeare's adaptation of the female characters from his source materials, noting that the women's primary scenes, such as the wooing of Anne and the “wailing royal women,” were not derived from the chronicles Shakespeare consulted. Contending that Seneca inspired Shakespeare's portrayal of the women, Brooks demonstrates the way in which each of the four women corresponds to one of the four in Seneca's Troades.
Richard III contains a number of prophetic dreams, omens, and curses. Queen Margaret utters numerous curses and predictions, many of which come to pass by the play's end. Margaret prays for the death of King Edward and his heirs, and curses Lord Hastings and Earl Rivers with an early death. She wishes a life of misery for Queen Elizabeth and sleepless nights and ruin for Richard. Finally, she predicts that Richard will betray Buckingham. Clarence, the brother of King Edward and Richard, is haunted by a dream the night before he is murdered. Famous for images of shipwrecks and drowning, the dream, it has been argued, foreshadows the tenuous condition of England under Richard's reign. Many critics, including Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Kristian Smidt (1982), focus on the role of such prophetic elements in Richard III. Garber maintains that the dream episodes in the play operate as metaphors for the larger action. Examining in particular Margaret's curses, Clarence's dream, and the “haunting nightmare of Bosworth field,” Garber explores the way omens and apparitions fix the limits of the world of the play. Similarly, Smidt demonstrates the way in which predictions, prophesies, curses, and dreams structure the play, observing that nearly all predictions are fulfilled.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Richard III,” in Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments, University of Georgia Press, 1976, pp. 67-100.
[In the following essay, Hunter reviews the plot and characters of Richard III, and also discusses Shakespeare's adaptation of his sources.]
We regard the hellish fall of Dr. Faustus and wonder at the forces that explain it, particularly at the mysteries of grace and free will, of election and reprobation. The hellish fall of Richard the Third directs our minds toward the same unlawful things, but Shakespeare's first great tragic protagonist is the protagonist of something more (or other) than tragedy. The Richard III plays (I shall be considering Henry VI, Part Three as well as Richard III) are doubly generic—tragic history within comic history—and the tragic destruction of Richard is simultaneously the comedy of England's salvation. Evil is done but good comes of it. Divine providence is necessarily among Shakespeare's subjects. The mysteries of grace and free will, of election and reprobation are contained within the mysteries of providence and predestination. The result is a work of art more complex than Marlowe's.
Not that the explanation for the increase in complexity is to be found wholly or even largely in the theological concepts evoked. Shakespeare is making art out of history and Northrop Frye is right when he maintains...
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Criticism: Dreams, Prophesies, And Curses
SOURCE: “Dream and Plot,” in William Shakespeare's Richard III, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 5-14.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Garber examines the way the dream sequences in Richard III serve as metaphors for the play's larger action and analyzes the role of omens and apparitions in constructing the world of the play.]
The great popularity of the dream as a dramatic device among the Elizabethans is surely due at least in part to its versatility as a mode of presentation. Both structurally and psychologically the prophetic dream was useful to the playwright; it foreshadowed events of plot, providing the audience with needed information, and at the same time it imparted to the world of the play a vivid atmosphere of mystery and foreboding. Thus the Senecan ghost stalked the boards to applause for decades, while the cryptic dumb show, itself a survival of earlier forms, remained as a ghostly harbinger of events to come.
Even in his earliest plays, Shakespeare began to extend and develop these prophetic glimpses, so that they became ways of presenting the process of the mind at work in memory, emotion, and imagination. What was essentially a predictive device of plot thus became, at the same time, a significant aspect of meaning. Dream episodes, in short, began to work within the plays as metaphors for the larger action,...
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SOURCE: “Plots and Prophecies—The Tragedy of King Richard the Third,” in Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1982, pp. 53-71.
[In the following essay, Smidt studies the role of dreams, prophesies, and curses in Richard III, demonstrating the way in which these devices structure the play.]
In dramatic method Richard III is the most non-realistic of Shakespeare's history plays, not excepting Richard II. It has even been called ‘the most stridently theatrical’ of all his plays.1 In a sense it is a metadrama in which a self-styled villain conspires with the spectators to produce a black comedy and himself plays a variety of roles in order to deceive and discomfit the other members of the cast. This actor-villain speaks a total of 166 lines (i.e. about 4.5 per cent of the play's dialogue) in soliloquy or in direct address to the audience. He is seconded in his histrionics by one (Buckingham) who ‘can counterfeit the deep tragedian’; and he does, in fact, deceive everyone else, including his coadjutor when it comes to the point. Everyone, that is to say, except two old women. One is his mother.
Ah, that deceit should steal such gentle shape And with a virtuous visor hide deep vice!
exclaims the Duchess of York in answer to her grandson's innocent description...
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Criticism: Female Characters
SOURCE: “Richard III, Unhistorical Amplifications: The Women's Scenes and Seneca,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 75, No. 4, October, 1980, pp. 721-37.
[In the essay that follows, Brooks investigates the influence of Seneca's Troades on Shakespeare's depiction of the four women in Richard III.]
In Richard III, Shakespeare owed little to his chronicle sources for the sensational wooing of Anne, the wailing royal women, and Clarence's dream. Yet though these passages are unhistorical, he had, as with the episode of the faithful groom in Richard II,1 materials and inspiration for them. When investigated, Clarence's dream appears to be an imaginative fusion and re-creation from a range of reading outside the chronicles, with hints coming from Seneca, Golding's Ovid, The Mirror for Magistrates, probably from The Spanish Tragedy, and above all from the Cave of Mammon and the sea-episodes in the first three books of The Faerie Queene, published in 1590, the year before the date I would assign to Richard III. I have chosen, however, to consider the dream separately in another article,2 and to devote this one to the elaboration, without historical warrant, of the women's scenes I have spoken of. The debt they owe to Seneca will lead me in conclusion to consider his part, among many other strands, in the weave of the...
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SOURCE: “History into Tragedy: The Case of Richard III,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 31-53.
[In the following essay, Rackin identifies the ways in which the women's roles in Richard III differed from those in his earlier historical plays, arguing that the disempowering of female characters seen in Richard III is related to Shakespeare's movement away from history towards tragedy.]
An audience coming to Richard III from the Henry VI plays and King John witnesses a remarkable transformation in the roles and representations of female characters. On the one hand, women are much more sympathetically portrayed. They take on their tragic roles as suffering victims and assume their tragic status as central objects of male concern. On the other hand, they lose the vividly individualized voices and the subversive theatrical power that made the female characters in Shakespeare's earlier history plays formidable antagonists to the masculine project of English history-making (Rackin 151-60).
Robert Weimann's distinction between locus and platea can be used to chart both the elevation of the female characters and their containment. Weimann associates the locus with the upstage site of mimetic illusion, “aloofness from the audience, and...
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SOURCE: “‘Foul Wrinkled Witch’: Superstition, Skepticism, and Margaret of Anjou in Shakespeare's Richard III,” in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 52, October, 1997, pp. 25-37.
[In the essay below, Mason challenges critics who suggest that the female characters in Richard III are only powerful as a group. Mason explores the power exerted by the women in the play, noting the ways in which they individually, as well as collectively, serve as Richard's antagonists.]
‘Foul wrinkled witch’ is Richard of Gloucester's greeting to Margaret of Anjou in Richard III I.3.1 By calling Margaret ‘witch’, Richard endows her role with an implied power, a power that as we shall see, has impressed many later commentators. But the endowment is complex and possesses profoundly contradictory elements which this essay will explore.2 At the same time Margaret is sharply differentiated from Queen Elizabeth, Lady Anne, and the Duchess of York, though all are queens, or nearly so. And even though Richard later accuses Elizabeth also of witchcraft, there is a marked contrast in the circumstances, and the follow-up of the two accusations.3
The differentiation of the women needs to be established against a critical background which has often been dramaturgically simplistic and reductive. Traditionally, the women of Richard III have been regarded...
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Criticism: Religious Elements
SOURCE: “‘Unvalued Jewels’: The Religious Perspective in Richard III,” in Bucknell Review, Vol. 26, 1982, pp. 58-73.
[In the following essay, Huffman challenges the common allegorical view of Richard as the “villain-king” scourged by God. Huffman maintains that the play offers an alternative to this perspective, one that allows Richard to be seen as a tragic individual rather than as an allegorical figure.]
Twentieth-century studies of Shakespeare's Richard III have shown the character of Richard to be that of a Machiavel, a figure closely related to the Vice of the Morality plays and to the Tyrant of Senecan tragedy.1 The suggestion of the family resemblance to the Vice in turn suggests his association with the moral and even theological dimension which that figure never quite lost on the English Renaissance stage, and a number of critics have tended to supplement these character studies with a rather schematic view of the play's action. For R. B. Pierce, “What gives order to Richard III is the central conflict between the villain-king and the power of nemesis. This vengeful force has some effect on the consciousness of Richard himself; but it is primarily an external force, embodied in the curses, the wailing women, and the figure of Richmond as God's minister.”2 If Richard III is viewed as the culmination of Shakespeare's first...
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SOURCE: “Richard III and the Reformation,” in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 83, No. 4, October, 1984, pp. 509-21.
[In the following essay, Richmond analyzes the “massive” religious vocabulary of Richard III and reveals the ways in which the play explores contemporary religious tensions between Protestants and humanists.]
When Richard of Gloucester compares himself to “the formal Vice, Iniquity” (III.1.82)1 and is repeatedly called “a Devil,” the play of Richard III explicitly recalls the archaic formulas of the miracle plays, mystery cycles, and the morality plays, which were dying out in Shakespeare's lifetime under the combined hostilities of the Reformers and the Humanists. Shakespeare, however, had excellent historical justification for putting such specific allusions to the religious drama into Richard's mouth. Ample evidence survives from the fifteenth century of the intense interest in drama in Northern England, which was Richard's primary power base—and particularly in the city of York, where the medieval cycle continues to be performed. In 1483 the Corpus Christi Guild of York revived a Creed Play (performed earlier in the century) for presentation before Richard.2 Indeed, the play was so effective that it was still in circulation as a performable script as late as Shakespeare's lifetime. Moreover, there are records...
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SOURCE: “Last Words and Last Things: St. John, Apocalypse, and Eschatology in Richard III,” in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 18, 1986, pp. 25-40.
[In the following essay, Hassel studies the allusions in Richard III to St. Paul and St. John's Apocalypse, highlighting the parallels between the “argument” of the play and that of the Book of Revelation.]
Although attempts to understand Richard's Pauline allusions have become almost epidemic recently, they have also usually been interesting. John Dover Wilson holds the most traditional view: he sees them as part of Richard's gleeful hypocrisy, specifically his characteristic “mock-Puritan piety.” Geoffrey Carnall thinks that Richard is “positively impersonating, with mischievous exhilaration, the unscrupulous Apostle of the Gentiles.” Other connections are argued by John Harcourt, particularly a parallel to Acts 23:12, when certain Jews swore like Richard with Hastings that they would not eat “till they had killed Paul.” Alistair Fox develops Harcourt's idea of “the theme of grace in its Pauline context.” Paul, like Richard, was afflicted with thorns in the flesh, but with patience and humility he bore his infirmities, in fact gloried in them, and was therefore richly rewarded. “Unlike Paul, Richard cynically repudiates providence so that his outward deformity,...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III,” in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 8, 1975, pp. 99-129.
[In the following essay, Neill examines the psychological complexity of Richard's character.]
Here the King is, in the first half of the tragedy, the mastermind of the Grand Mechanism, a demiurge of history.(1)
God in love with His own beauty frames a glass, to view it by reflection.(2)
Richard III is the most stridently theatrical of all of Shakespeare's plays. The superb histrionic insolence of Richard, his stagy relish in confidential soliloquy and aside, is matched by a self-conscious patterning of plot, spectacle, and language, as if Shakespeare's artistry were being flaunted like Richard's own. And the connection is insistently underlined by the use of stage metaphors: poet, actor, and protagonist unite in a Marlovian pageant of self-display.3 This ostentatious theatricality, while it has a lot to do with the play's continuing success on the stage, has presented critics with problems almost as intractable as those faced by Sir Laurence Olivier when he attempted to translate Richard into the alien conventions of cinema. E. A. J. Honigmann, prefacing his recent edition of the play, shows a characteristic unease about its Senecan melodrama and...
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SOURCE: “Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III,” in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 14, 1981, pp. 55-84.
[In the following essay, Burton examines Richard's language in the first act of Richard III, and asserts that the variations in Richard's rhetorical style help to emphasize the power he has over people and events.]
For sustained invention the first act of Richard III has no equal among those that follow in this play. Whereas strong hints from More and other historians inspire such later brilliant scenes as the death of Hastings and Buckingham's address to Gloucester at Bayard's Castle, the four scenes of this first act seem to be cut from whole cloth. In fact, it is not until the death of King Edward IV in the second act that Shakespeare follows the traditional sequence of events as he found it in his sources. The result is that each major incident in Act One—Gloucester's opening monologue, his wooing of Lady Anne, the confrontation with the Woodvilles and Queen Margaret, and the death of Clarence—emerges as a distinct dramatic unit, each exhibiting its own style. Given the careful patterning shown by later scenes of Richard III, it seems reasonable to seek some principle that explains the variety of incident and language in this act.
The variety of incident arises in part from the...
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SOURCE: “Richard III: Bonding the Audience,” in Mirror Up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, edited by J. C. Gray, University of Toronto Press, 1984, pp. 114-27.
[In the following essay, Berry explores the relationship Richard develops with the play's audience and argues that the bond that grows from this relationship contributes to the success of Richard III.]
The first thing that we know of Richard III is that it was a success, and remained so. From the days of its mentions in Henslowe's diary and the five quartos by 1612, through two centuries of Cibber's version to the triumphs of Olivier's film and the opening night of the Festival Theatre at Stratford, Ontario, Richard III has commanded popular success. It is not only a hit but a play intended and designed as a hit (as some of Shakespeare, in the second half of his career especially, is not). In Richard III Shakespeare seems to have expressed all that he knew of the means of controlling an audience: of creating, for the first time in his career, a star part and of welding the audience into a fascinated and delighted unity. The relations between Richard and his audience are my subject.
The ground-plan of Richard III is that the audience supports the villain-hero, then abandons him. The formal action can be called the working of ‘retributive...
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SOURCE: “A Case of Unfair Proportions: Philosophy in Literature,” in New Literary History, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1998, pp. 501-20.
[In the following essay, Zamir contends that through the character of Richard Shakespeare explored the philosophy of “ethical skepticism,” the view that there are no convincing arguments for choosing to behave morally.]
The degree of his actual ugliness is still difficult to determine. Various sources tell us that he was short, that one of his arms was smaller than the other, that his legs, too, were of unequal size, and that his shoulders were disproportionate. We are also told that he was not merely crook-backed, but had a “mountain on his back,” and that his face was ugly, that he was a crab-faced impotent who was born feet-first and toothed. The historical soundness of this description has been challenged many times. But whether or not it constitutes an adequate description of the historical Richard III is unimportant for the purpose of an aesthetic exploration of the psychological links between alienation and villainy, and even less so for a philosophical inquiry into a literary presentation of ethical skepticism. What is significant for such an undertaking is close scrutiny of the details with which a literary work configures a context that permits a uniquely powerful presentation of a conceptual claim.1
Moral experience through literary...
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Barber, C. L. and Richard P. Wheeler. “Savage Play in Richard III.” In William Shakespeare's Richard III, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 101-16. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
Explores the brutal motivation behind Richard's often farcical role, and finds that Shakespeare, through Richard, dramatized the influence of family and childhood on one's adult choices.
Blanpied, John W. “The Dead-End Comedy of Richard III.” In Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories, pp. 85-97. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.
Maintains that Richard creates his role and creates “history” through his mocking demonstration of the pliable and insubstantial nature of history.
Champion, Larry S. “Myth and Counter-Myth: The Many Faces of Richard III.” In A Fair Day in the Affections: Literary Essays in Honor of Robert B. White, Jr., edited by Jack D. Durant and M. Thomas Hester, pp. 37-53. Raleigh, N.C.: The Winston Press, 1980.
Surveys the historical attitudes toward King Richard III and studies Shakespeare’s role in the development of the mythology surrounding the historic Richard.
Dillon, Janette. “‘I am Myself Alone’: Richard III.” In Shakespeare and the Solitary Man, pp. 49-60. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and...
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