Shakespeare’s play Richard III concerns a time in English history when the roles of the monarch, the monarch’s family, and the aristocracy were far more important than they are today. The monarch was expected (ideally) to be both morally and politically virtuous – to set a good ethical example and to be a worthy political model. Indeed, all members of the powerful aristocracy were expected (ideally) to live up to high ethical and political standards. However, everyone realized that because (according to Christian teachings) all people are sinners, neither moral nor political perfection was ever likely to exist.
Shakespeare almost immediately raises important moral and political issues in the very first scene of the play. Thus Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, quickly reveals to the audience that he has been plotting against his brother George, the Duke of Clarence, by helping to make another brother, King Edward IV, suspicious of Clarence. Right after line 41, Clarence enters the stage, under guard, on his way to the Tower of London, where the king plans to confine him. The ensuing discussion between Gloucester and Clarence highlights many moral and political issues, including the following:
- Gloucester tells Clarence that “the fault is none of yours” (47) when Clarence is being led to the tower – an immoral, deceptive statement, since Gloucester has, just a few lines earlier, revealed to the audience that the fault largely results from Gloucester’s own plotting. A lying, hypocritical member of the royal family would have been a cause for great concern in the middle ages and Renaissance.
- Gloucester pretends not to “know” (51) why Clarence is being confined – another lie.
- Clarence alludes to the fact that the king has a mistress even though the king is married (73) – another example of immoral behavior by the standards of the day.
- Gloucester also alludes to this example of royal immorality (99).
- After Clarence is taken away to the Tower, Gloucester says,
Simple plain Clarence, I do love thee so
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven . . . (118-19)
This, of course, is just one more piece of evidence of Richard’s immorality: not only is he plotting the death of another person, but that other person is his own brother!
Political matters are equally emphasized in this scene, as the following examples (among others) suggest:
- Gloucester tells Clarence that in the current political climate “we are not safe” (70), although it is Gloucester, of course, who most immediately threatens Clarence’s safety.
- Gloucester claims that recently the “Lord Chamberlain [got] his liberty” (77; emphasis added) by appealing to the king’s mistress.
- Gloucester asserts that the queen and the king’s mistress have both become “mighty gossips in our monarchy” (83), thus referring to the reigning political system of the time.
- Gloucester denies (to a third person) that he and his brother are guilty of speaking “treason” (90) – a serious political offense.
- Gloucester pretends political loyalty: “We are the Queen’s abjects, and must obey” (106).
Thus the opening scene of the play, like the rest of the work, successfully dramatizes many important political and moral issues – issues especially important in the contexts of the historical eras in which the play is set and in which it was written.