Richard III (Vol. 84)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Richard III, see SC, Volumes 8, 14, 39, 52, 62, and 73.
Richard III (c. 1592-93), the fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, dramatizes the final episode in the English Wars of the Roses, a dynastic struggle between the rival noble houses of Lancaster and York for control of the English monarchy that raged between 1455 and 1485. The play chronicles the rise and fall of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is depicted as a deformed, fiendish, and manipulative murderer who is willing to dispose of any man, woman, or child who stands between him and the throne of England. Though crowned king through his skillful machinations, Shakespeare's Richard enjoys his power only briefly before the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond mounts an invasion from France destined to depose him. Richard dies in the ensuing Battle of Bosworth Field, and Richmond takes his place as King Henry VII, first of the English Tudor monarchs. Critics have noted that Shakespeare's unfavorable portrait of Richard III suggests a likely political motivation to please the reigning Elizabeth I, a Tudor queen. The vast majority of scholarship regarding Richard III has focused on the play's diabolical titular character, whom many critics consider as one of Shakespeare's most brilliant portraits of evil.
Richard's villainous yet charismatic character is compelling to actors, audiences, and especially critics. Scholars such as Mary Ann McGrail (2001) have attempted to determine how Richard's wickedness functions as a response to his own deformed body and to the world in which he lives. McGrail contends that Richard's decision to play the usurper and tyrant is a direct result of his resentment of nature's malformation of his body, and argues that Richard's belief that no one can love his deformed body is what drives him to seek vengeance against his world and the people in it. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1987) focuses on two of the play's female characters: Queen Elizabeth, mother of the two young princes (whom Richard orders assassinated), and the younger Elizabeth (whom Richard wishes to marry). Hassel asserts that Queen Elizabeth is smarter and less naive than some of her earlier critics have suggested, especially in her dealings with Richard. The critic notes that although it appears that Richard successfully persuades Queen Elizabeth to hand over her daughter in marriage in Act IV's “wooing scene,” the Queen is in fact protecting her daughter and herself with language that might sound like acquiescence, but is actually delay.
Richard III, one of Shakespeare's most popular plays on the stage, has long been a favorite of audiences as well as actors, who consider the character of Richard to be one of the most desired Shakespearean roles. Markland Taylor (1999) praises director Tina Packer's 1999 Shakespeare and Co. production of Richard III as a “blessedly straightforward and vital telling of an endlessly bloody tale of a physically and psychically deformed man proving himself a villain.” Patrick Carnegy (2001) commends Michael Boyd's 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production for achieving “a play balanced as Shakespeare intended it.” Carnegy notes that Boyd focused less exclusively on the character of Richard so that the other characters received their proper due, particularly the female characters. In a review of Barry Kyle's 2003 production for the Globe Theatre, Sheridan Morley (2003) points out that while Kyle held to the tradition of Richard's physical deformity as a key to his character, he opened up the possibilities of the play by using an all-female cast. The critic notes that “[t]his Richard III asks whether the king is inherently evil, or just the intelligent but warped product of an unloved and unloving family.”
Many critics, such as Jack E. Trotter (1993), contend that an important theme of Richard III is Richard's disgust with the world of flesh and his attempt to conquer the inadequacies of nature, particularly as they are revealed by his own body. Trotter sees strong evidence of this theme in Act I during Richard's courtship of Lady Anne. The critic suggests that Richard's contempt for Lady Anne, once he easily convinces her to be his wife, is not simply an indication of his hatred of women, but more importantly is a symbol of his disgust with the flesh in general. Similarly, Marie A. Plasse (1995) argues that Richard uses his malformed body as an excuse to behave wickedly. In other words, Plasse explains, Richard feels that he is trapped in a twisted body and is therefore ideally shaped for twisted acts, such as imprisoning or murdering his enemies. Richard W. Grinnell (1997) argues that Richard III can be read as a critique of Renaissance society. Grinnell compares the transforming powers of the theater with those of witchcraft and observes that while Richard relies on both to destroy his enemies, Shakespeare employed them as metaphors through which he critiques his society. Ramie Targoff (2002) connects the repeated use of the word “amen” in the play with the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty and attempts to determine whether the “amens” at the end of the play represent “an enthusiastic or only halfhearted endorsement of Henry's rule.”
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: de Somogyi, Nick. Introduction to The Shakespeare Folios: Richard III, edited by Nick de Somogyi, pp. xxvii-xlix. London: Nick Hern Books, 2002.
[In the following essay, de Somogyi provides an overview of Richard III, tracing the play's performance and textual history as well as providing Richard's family tree.]
‘THE BEHOLDERS OF THIS FRANTIC PLAY’: RICHARD III IN PERFORMANCE
The lank black hair and sharply prominent nose are unmistakable; so is the limp, as the hunchback King turns towards the camera's slow zoom, and (to the sound of a gently strummed lute) delivers, in that inimitably clipped bark, some of the most famous opening lines in the world: ‘It has been a hard day's night, and I have been working like a dog …’1 Peter Sellers's sublime impersonation of Laurence Olivier as Richard III (as John Lennon), recorded for a 1965 TV Beatles ‘spectacular’, is variously true to the play he didn't quote. The pleasure of Olivier's iconic performance—premièred on the London stage in 1944, immortalized on film in 1955—has been shrewdly located in ‘watching Olivier the consummate actor play Richard the consummate actor’;2 how apt, then, that Sellers, the arch-mimic, should add his own twist to the sequence of eerily accurate impersonations by which Shakespeare's hero-villain usurps the throne. From the very first,...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “The Wooing of Elizabeth.” In Songs of Death: Performance, Interpretation, and the Text of Richard III, pp. 57-73. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Hassel asserts that Queen Elizabeth is smarter and less naive than some of her earlier critics have suggested, especially in her dealings with Richard.]
On this dialogue 'tis not necessary to bestow much criticism, part of it is ridiculous, and the whole improbable.—
Dr. Johnson's opinion notwithstanding, its length, its placement, its carefully polished rhetoric and its concentration of ironies suggest that Shakespeare considered Richard's wooing of Elizabeth to be a fairly important scene.1 It is all the more ironic that when critics have stooped to interpret it, they have disagreed so radically about what finally happens. E. K. Chambers states one view: “In his last bout [Richard] is palpably outwitted. … Elizabeth is the deeper dissembler. She is already far in the plot with Richmond, and although her daughter shall be a queen, she shall assuredly not be Richard's queen.” Tillyard completely disagrees: “Are we to think, with E. K. Chambers, that Elizabeth had outwitted Richard and had consented only to deceive? That is so contrary to the simple, almost negative character of...
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SOURCE: McGrail, Mary Ann. “Richard III: That Excellent Grand Tyrant of the Earth.” In Tyranny in Shakespeare, pp. 47-76. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001.
[In the following essay, McGrail argues that Richard's belief that no one can love his deformed body is what drives him to seek vengeance against his world and the people in it.]
AND SET THE MURDEROUS MACHIAVEL TO SCHOOL
Richard III is the only play by Shakespeare that begins with the title character on stage speaking alone. Without the repeated insights into Richard's energetic malevolence, which this and his later soliloquies afford us, the play would make most sense as a straightforward dramatization of the Tudor myth.1 Richard offers us just such an oversimplification of historical fact in the first few lines of the play: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”2 This is the official version of how the Henry VI plays might conclude had there been no Richard. The Yorkists have rightly recovered the throne. But in the fourteenth line the outrageous sarcasm of this panegyric becomes apparent as Richard turns to his most interesting subject, himself: “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks.” He speaks of the action of the play being motivated and controlled from within him:
And therefore, since I cannot...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Taylor, Markland. Review of Richard III. Variety 375, no. 10 (26 July 1999): 44.
[In the following review, Taylor praises director Tina Packer's 1999 Shakespeare and Co. production of Richard III as a “blessedly straightforward and vital telling of an endlessly bloody tale of a physically and psychically deformed man proving himself a villain.”]
The very great virtue of Shakespeare & Co.'s Richard III is that it projects the text with such clarity and sense that every word can be heard and understood—the tremendous impact of the play is boldly revealed through words as much as action. This is due primarily to the Shakespearean training offered by the troupe, but also to the excellent acoustics of the Duffin Theater, a new venue the company is using for the first time a couple of miles away from the Mount, Edith Wharton's estate and the company's home, where its many other productions are staged.
Leading the production are Jonathan Epstein, playing Richard as a tremendously agile, four-legged spider whirling about the stage on crutches, and Ariel Bock as a mightily powerful Queen Elizabeth. Their big scene together, after Richard has had Elizabeth's sons murdered in the Tower, is wonderful—Epstein and Bock are well-matched dramatically and vocally. The rest of the acting is sometimes uneven, with some minor roles performed gauchely. But none of...
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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. “Epic Conclusion.” Spectator 286, no. 9013 (5 May 2001): 47-8.
[In the following review, Carnegy commends Michael Boyd's 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard III for achieving “a play balanced as Shakespeare intended it.” Carnegy notes that Boyd focused less exclusively on the character of Richard so that the other characters received their proper due, particularly the female characters.]
A year after the RSC launched its Shakespeare Histories cycle at Stratford it has completed it in London with Richard III, celebrating by offering audiences the experience of all eight plays in the course of a few days. Four directors have been at work, ranging from the white-box modernist Steven Pimlott (Richard II) to the relatively conservative Michael Attenborough (Henry IV). The second tetralogy of the three Henry VIs and Richard III has however been entrusted to a single director, Michael Boyd, and the continuities between these plays have justified his treatment of them as a four-part epic.
Following the Henry VIs through into Richard III rescues that play from its too frequent fate as a showcase for a star. This is not to suggest that Aidan McArdle's Richard is anything less than a powerfully crafted performance, but it is to say that he is able to show us a more complex and interesting...
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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “A Breath of Fresh Air.” New Statesman (30 June 2003): 48.
[In the following review, Morley positively assesses Barry Kyle's 2003 all-female production of Richard III at the Globe Theatre, noting that “[t]his Richard III asks whether the king is inherently evil, or just the intelligent but warped product of an unloved and unloving family.”]
There are few London treats more delicious than a beautiful evening, a good picnic, and Shakespeare in the open air.
At Shakespeare's Globe this summer, you can find a most unusual Richard III. It seems unlikely that Shakespeare meant Richard III to be a comedy, nor for almost every line to be delivered as if by a stand-up comedian, but it sort of works as long as it wasn't Shakespeare you wanted.
There's the small matter of an all-female company, for a start. If there has to be a group of women playing, perversely, some of Shakespeare's most macho men, we could have done a great deal worse than Kathryn Hunter's ironic and humorously amoral Richard.
Hunter starts as she means to continue, with a risky strategy of playing the murderer king against the modern convention that his deformity is in his mind. Hunter's body is so twisted that she lollops along at a sometimes horizontal angle which barely keeps her from toppling over. With not just a hump but an...
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SOURCE: Trotter, Jack E. “‘Was Ever Woman in This Humour Won?’: Love and Loathing in Shakespeare's Richard III.” Upstart Crow 13 (1993): 33-46.
[In the following essay, Trotter contends that an important theme of Richard III is the protagonist's disgust with the world of flesh and his attempt to conquer the inadequacies of nature, particularly as they are revealed by his own body. Trotter sees strong evidence of this theme in Act I during Richard's courtship of Lady Anne.]
Typical of nineteenth-century assessments of what is perhaps the most debated scene in Shakespeare's Richard III, the wooing of Lady Anne in Act I, is Henry Hudson's remark that Richard's remarkable triumph is due “not so much to any special vice or defect in [Anne] as to his witchcraft of tongue and wit, so put into play as to disconcert all her powers of resistance.”1 Like S. T. Coleridge before him, whose own estimation of Richard sets the tone for much of the century's criticism of the play, Hudson is enthralled with Richard's intellectuality, displayed above all by the almost demonic verbal pyrotechnics which have tried the skills of the best leading men down through the centuries. More recent critics are not so enamoured as their predecessors with the Promethean man of will. Robert Ornstein, among others, has noted that some of the supposed victims of Richard's verbal “witchcraft”...
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SOURCE: Plasse, Marie A. “Corporeality and the Opening of Richard III.” In Entering the Maze: Shakespeare's Art of Beginning, edited by Robert F. Willson Jr., pp. 11-25. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
[In the following essay, Plasse argues that Richard uses his malformed body as an excuse to behave wickedly.]
The opening scene of Richard III, unique among Shakespeare's plays in its call for the leading character to appear onstage alone and deliver a lengthy monologue, represents a marked departure from the crowded scenes that open the other three plays in the first tetralogy. Next to the heavily populated and eventful scenes with which those plays begin,1 the opening of Richard III seems remarkably stark. The expansive representation of historical events offered in the first scenes of the Henry VI plays is replaced in Richard III by a more narrowly focused representation of a single figure into which the scope of English history seems to compact itself. As Bernard Spivack has noted, this shift in perspective is discernible in the Henry series, but is not fully achieved until Richard III:
By the end of Henry VI Richard has only begun to emerge from the press of men and events which diversifies that trilogy, although we become aware that already he has magnetized a change in dramatic perspective: the...
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SOURCE: Grinnell, Richard W. “Witchcraft and the Theater in Richard III.” Upstart Crow 17 (1997): 66-77.
[In the following essay, Grinnell compares the transforming powers of the theater with those of witchcraft and observes that while Richard relies on both to destroy his enemies, Shakespeare employed them as metaphors through which he critiques his society.]
When Shakespeare created Richard of Gloucester, he created a master manipulator of character, one born, it seems, for the dangerous realm of the theater as conceived by Puritan critics. At the end of 3 Henry VI Richard tells us that he can “change shapes with Proteus for advantages” (III. ii. 192), and at the beginning of Richard III that his political aspirations rest upon “the plain devil and dissembling looks” (I. ii. 236).1 Richard's equation for success seems clear; it is demonic and theatrical. The shape-shifting god Proteus that Richard so confidently invokes is simultaneously the devil—as John Cotta describes him, for example, in his 1616 pamphlet The Triall of Witchcraft as “that old Proteus”2—and the actor.
For Renaissance England, the ability to change one's shape is a dangerous power. Renaissance England valued the ability to read an individual by his or her surface, and assumed a direct relationship between internal quality and external display....
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SOURCE: Targoff, Ramie. “‘Dirty’ Amens: Devotion, Applause, and Consent in Richard III.” Renaissance Drama, no. 31 (2002): 61-84.
[In the following essay, Targoff connects the repeated use of the word “amen” in Richard III with the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty.]
Like the twelve curses of Deuteronomy, the four Gospels of the New Testament, and endless petitions and benedictions in the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare's Richard III ends with the word “amen.” In the final scene of the play, the Earl of Richmond attempts to sanctify his right to the throne by soliciting a series of “amens” from both God and his people. First, upon receiving the crown from his stepfather, Lord Stanley, Richmond responds by seeking divine blessing: “Great God of heaven, say ‘Amen’ to all.” Second, after asserting his plan to “unite the white rose and the red,” and thereby bring to an end the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster, he boldly declares, “What traitor hears me and says not ‘Amen’?” Finally, Richmond ends the play with a petition for peace: “Now civil wounds are stopped; peace lives again / That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’” (5.8.8, 22, 41).1
The notion that England's formal transition into the peaceful reign of Henry VII would begin with the simple utterance of “amen” may seem a...
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Berry, Ralph. “Richard III: Bonding the Audience.” In Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, edited by J. C. Gray, pp. 114-27. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Examines the reason for the play's continued popularity with audiences.
Cox, Catherine S. “Sons of Eve: Ambiguity and Gender in the First Tetralogy.” Upstart Crow 17 (1997): 53-65.
Discusses the shifting religious and sexual roles that Margaret and Elizabeth play in Richard III.
Davison, Peter. Introduction to The First Quarto of King Richard III, edited by Peter Davison, pp. 1-49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Provides a detailed history of the different versions of Shakespeare's Richard III.
Dubrow, Heather. “‘The Infant of Your Care’: Guardianship in Shakespeare's Richard III and Early Modern England.” In Domestic Arrangements in Early Modern England, edited by Kari Boyd McBride, pp. 147-68. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 2002.
Examines how the abuse of guardianship is reflected in Richard III.
Endel, Peggy. “Profane Icon: The Throne Scene of Shakespeare's Richard III.” Comparative Drama 20, no. 3 (fall 1986): 115-23.
Speculates on the...
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