What is Shakespeare's reason for having the young princes turn Richard's language against him in Act 3 of Richard III?
Richard's language is his strength throughout the play and here it fails him against mere children. In one of several examples prince Edward says, "I fear no dead uncles," to which Richard responds, "Nor none that live I hope" (even though he knows they should fear him). Edward then says, "And if they live, I hope I need not fear," as though he sees through Richard. Shakespeare is up to something in this scene, but I just can't figure out what. Thanks.
In Act 3, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1st Riverside edition), the young princes – particularly the young Duke of York – show that they are almost as clever and as talented in the use of language as is their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard, after all, prides himself on his verbal dexterity, as when he congratulates himself, in an aside, by saying “I moralize two meanings in one word” (3.1.83). The young Prince Edward has already shown himself skilled in rhetoric as well, particularly when speaking about Julius Caesar (3.1.68-71, 75-78). Richard himself seems genuinely impressed by the youthful prince’s wit, as when he says in an aside “So wise so young, they say do never live long” (3.1.79). His first four words – the words before the comma – might at first seem a compliment, but the words that follow the comma emphasize his evil intentions.
The verbal wit that the princes display allows Shakespeare to
- make Richard seem jealous, even of children
- make Richard feel threatened, even by children
- make Richard nakedly reveal, in his asides, his own evil nature, in contrast to the virtue of the princes
- make Richard demonstrate his own verbal dexterity and counter-cunning
- make Richard reveal once more his skills as an actor
- suggest that if the princes are allowed to grow older, they may potentially be quite resourceful opponents of Richard
- suggest that if the princes – even at this age – are allowed to address many English aristocrats and commoners, they may be very persuasive and win genuine loyalty
- suggest that the princes, even at this age, resemble their mother in character and intelligence and are thus real threats to Richard (3.1.156)
It is, of course, York’s joking about Richard’s misshapen back that really seems to bother Richard:
Uncle, my brother mocks both you and me:
Because that I am little, like an ape,
He thinks that you should bear me on your shoulders. (3.1.129-31).
In some productions of the play, this moment is presented as an especially dark turning point in Richard’s relations with the princes. Meanwhile, Buckingham is shocked but also impressed by York’s remark (3.1.132-35), calling the young prince “cunning” and thus a potential rival, someday, to Richard himself – if, that is, York is allowed to live.
Richard cannot, at this point, deal with the princes as openly or violently as he would like, especially since he is surrounded by witnesses before whom he must perform. The death of the princes must take place in secret, so that few can know of Richard’s real feelings and his actual responsibility for their murders.