(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard III

As in previous centuries of scholarship, twentieth-century scholarship dealing with Richard III focuses on the person of Richard III himself. However, twentieth-century scholars have tended to turn their focus away from the moral shortcomings of Richard and from the historical inaccuracies incorporated into his role. Instead, they have turned to the drama of the work, to the interaction of Richard with other characters, his roleplaying, wit, and love of villainy, and also to the literary and cultural antecedents of Richard's role, the structural unity of the play, and the political and moral history that exists beyond the tragedy of an individual king.

This theme of political and moral history existing beyond the individual king is one aspect of kingship explored further in recent scholarship. Francis Fergusson has focused on Richard's place in objective history as the last of the Yorkist kings before the new Tudor monarchy defeated Richard through Richmond. Thus, the play chronicles both Richard's climb to power and his eventual overthrow by the Tudors because they have greater moral right on their side. Jan Kott has seen history as a grand staircase on which an individual ascends to power through successive steps of murder and treachery until one is eventually pushed off the top step by someone coming up from below. Thus, in the grand staircase of history, although Richard's motivations may seem exceptionally evil, his progress toward power is typical of those who aspire to the throne. Richard P. Wheeler has argued that history can be viewed as either moral and providential or amoral and materialistic. For Wheeler, Shakespeare incorporates both views, exploring the amoral and materialistic view through the actions of Richard, yet affirming the moral and providential through the overthrow of Richard by Richmond.

Attention by modern scholars has also been directed toward the problems inherent in the idea of kingship. David Riggs has studied the character of the self (of Richard, in this case) in relation to the ideals of the heroic tradition and to the rituals of chivalry that characterize the public identities of the courtiers of Richard's day. In a similar vein, John C. Bromley has investigated Richard's problem of living with his father's image and trying to achieve his own ambitions that conflict with that image. Thus, Richard presents the image of his father in public but shows his own character and motivation in private. Nina S. Levine has examined the necessity of providing an heir for the throne, which was a focus of concern in Shakespeare's own time in regard to Queen Elizabeth I (granddaughter of Henry VII, Richard's successor), and which is reflected in Richard III. Maurice Hunt has also explored the topic of succession—in relation to bastardy. Hunt highlights the legal and religious difficulties associated with bastardy in Elizabethan times, and suggests that Richard III involves a comparison of the moral bastard Richard with the physical bastard Richmond (who became Henry VII).

Richard's exuberant rhetoric has always excited critical interest, and the language of Richard III has again become the focus of a number of recent essays. Wolfgang G. Müller has examined Richard's language from the perspective of the Renaissance belief in the omnipotence of language and of the Renaissance ideal of the wise statesman-orator, concluding that Richard shows the danger of the abuse of the power of language for evil. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. has compared the speeches of Richard and Richmond according to the rules of rhetoric set down in the military manuals of the period, and has concluded that Richmond's speeches represent better military rhetoric. E. Pearlman has analyzed the language of Richard III to show that Richard's jealousy and rivalry with his brothers are emphasized as Richard moves from being an intense warrior in 2 Henry VI to being someone who advises overreaching ambition in the second scene of 3 Henry VI to being the deceitful, manipulative, murderous villain of 3 Henry VI and of Richard III

The characterization of Richard is another theme studied in current scholarship. John J. McLaughlin has suggested that readers should interpret Richard's continual changes in role and his violent ways as the machinations of a rogue in slapstick comedy. Phillip Mallett has envisioned Richard as a Machiavellian puppet-master who shows his puppeteering skill to the audience in a play within the play, but who eventually finds that he himself is haplessly manipulated by fate or Providence.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Francis Fergusson (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Richard III," in Shakespeare: The Pattern in his Carpet, Delacorte Press, 1958, pp. 51-6.

[In the following excerpt, Fergusson describes Richard III as an early masterpiece combining contemporary political attitudes about the monarchy with skilled stagecraft.]

Richard III was written about 1592 and was one of Shakespeare's first big successes. Though it has a great deal of political and psychological wisdom, it is essentially a melodrama, full of sardonic humor and of the youthful Shakespeare's delight in thunderous language. It has fascinated audiences since its first appearance on Shakespeare's own stage.

It is the story and the character of Richard himself that give the play its extraordinary theatrical vitality. The Tudor historians had created the popular image of Richard as a heartless villain, and at least two plays had been written about him, before Shakespeare wrote his play. Modern historians criticize the Tudor interpretation of King Richard, but Shakespeare accepted it with gusto, making him a horrible example of mischief in high places. His Richard, when played with the right smiling and demoniac energy, enthralls us still, whether we know anything about English history or not.

Shakespeare's patriotic audience, however, would have found Richard's story absorbing not only because of Richard but because it marks the turning point in the bloody narrative of the English crown. Richard appears at the end of Henry VI's "disastrous reign" as the visible epitome of that savage moment, as his own House of York returns to power. But it is Edward, not Richard, who becomes king:

Now is the winter of my discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York,

as he sardonically remarks at the beginning of this play. While he lives he will dominate the scene, but everyone in Shakespeare's audience knew that he would be defeated, at last, by Henry Tudor, who would become king as Henry VII, and the grandfather of the great Elizabeth herself.

It is Richard's own relatives that stand in his way, and he proceeds with the greatest enthusiasm and dexterity to get rid of them one by one. The King obligingly dies, but Richard has to arrange the murders of his brother Clarence, of the Queen's kinsmen, of his lukewarm follower Hastings, and finally of the little Princes. He marries Anne to settle the Lancastrian claim to the throne, and he fools and bullies the Londoners into accepting him as king. All of this he accomplishes in the first three acts.

Shakespeare makes Richard understandable as the deformed child who becomes a spiritually distorted man, and takes savage and ironically smiling vengeance upon the world for his misfortune. But he was more interested in the theatrical effectiveness of such a character than in trying to account for him psychologically. His Richard is the heartless villain of Senecan melodrama, who at the same time has the humor and intelligence to see himself as the "Vice" of the old morality plays, a figure traditionally played for laughs. Richard onstage can satisfy our savage instincts, and also our appetite for huge Aristophanic farce.

The princes and nobles around Richard lack his fascination, and they have none of the human depth of Shakespeare's later characters. But there is a great political wisdom in Shakespeare's picture of their dangerous struggle for power. They are always trying to guide their policies according to the party they believe to be the strongest. They make friends solely in order to get ahead, and instantly betray them when it serves their purpose. They are in fact the typical "palace guard" as it appears in every generation around the center of power; but in this case their struggles acquire the cruel color of Richard's personality. They are just what old Margaret calls them: "wrangling pirates."

The central story of the play is of course that of Richard, but Shakespeare does not forget the wider theme which unites Richard III with the other histories, that of England and her longed-for peace. The widowed Margaret, the old Duchess of York, Edward's widow, Elizabeth, and Richard's unwilling wife, Anne, are on hand to bewail the bloody treacheries and to pray for England's deliverance. And we are given glimpses of the common people, who know very well that their rulers, as they tear each other to pieces, are also destroying the England of the humble folk. These motifs make a dark background for Richard's impudent successes, and prepare us for the more solemn ending of the play.

We hear the "wailing Queens" for the first time in Act I, scene 3. They return in force at the end of Act IV (scene 4). Old Margaret notes with gusto that her dire predictions are being fulfilled:

So now prosperity begins to mellow,
And drop into the rotten mouth of death.

Her longest speech runs to thirty-four lines, and the other wailing Queens are not far behind her. The scenes of women's lamentation strike the modern reader as much too long, and they are always cut in production. They have, like so much of the play, the formality of the "classical" plays which were written in imitation of Seneca. Even the violent disputes are often formal, like Richard's with Anne in Act I, scene 2, or with Elizabeth in Act IV, scene 4. The antagonists have a sharp exchange of single lines, the so-called stichomythia:


Infer fair England's peace by this alliance.


Which she shall purchase with still-lasting war.


Tell her, the King that may command, entreats.


That at her hands which the King's King forbids.

Such fights are like operatic duets, and the Queens' prolonged curses are like operatic arias, or Senecan choruses. The Elizabethans apparently relished the form itself, as one may relish the "form" of a good boxer; but to us they are likely to seem merely artificial. That, however, should not obscure the underlying theatrical power of the "wailing" scenes. There is more anger than self-pity in the women's tirades, and the joy of anger is infectious:


O thou well skilled in curses, stay awhile,
And teach me how to curse mine enemies.


Forbear to sleep the night, and fast the day;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were.

There is humor here, as well as pathos; part of the fun of the play is in its resounding curses.

The scenes of the common people, contrasting with the Queens' high style, are deflated and realistic. The thug whom Richard has hired to murder brother George of Clarence is bothered by his conscience:

I'll not meddle with it, it makes a man a coward. A man cannot steal, but it accuseth him. A man cannot swear, but it checks him. A man cannot lie with his neighbour's wife, but it detects him. . . . every man that means to live well endeavours to trust to himself, and to live without it.

The murderer slyly speaks for the audience, who can recognize in what he says their own dealings with their consciences. He also describes the action of the play, in which everyone (reflecting Richard's style) gets rid of his conscience and trusts to himself alone in the struggle for power. The citizens know just what is going on throughout. In Act II, scene 3, after Edward's death, they see clearly what will happen with a child on the throne. In Act III, scene 6, the Scrivener, on his way to post a notice of Hastings' execution, understands that Richard has liquidated another man who stood in his way: "Who is so gross / That cannot see this palpable device?" Even when the Londoners give Richard the crown they are not really fooled. The common people are close to the meaning of the play as Shakespeare saw it; they express both its sardonic and its serious aspects.

The turning point comes at the end of Act III, when Richard gets the crown. He must now take the consequences of his crimes. His follower, Stanley, looks for a way to leave him; Buckingham, his chief ally, runs away and starts a rebellion; Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, approaches from France with an army.

At this point Richard himself changes, as though his inspiration had left him. He does not rejoice in his old devilish way when the Londoners make him king. When he bullies Elizabeth into granting him her daughter's hand he lacks the comic verve he displayed in the similar scene (Act I, scene 2) when he wooed and won the Lady Anne. These scenes are psychologically convincing; Richard's pleasure, we see, was in the savage game of power, and once he has the prize he realizes that, if he is to keep it, he has nothing to look forward to but more crimes. But this change is hard to put over in performance. The audience misses its evil clown, and Shakespeare is not prepared to show us the depths of Richard's failure. Richard says (Act IV, scene 2):

But I am in
So far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin.

We are reminded of Macbeth's terrible line (Act III, scene 4 of that play):

I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

Macbeth's words convey the very essence of weariness and stale horror, while what Richard says merely gives us the facts of his situation. When Shakespeare wrote this play he had not yet attained his full poetic power, or his full vision of evil and its effects on the human psyche. Richard, in his fall, does not hold us with the tragic pity and terror of Macbeth,

Shakespeare, however, does not expect him to. To carry the end of the play he counts less on Richard than upon the patriotic theme of the whole sequence of histories, and it is, of course, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who announces the stirring finale. Listen to the military music of his speech (Act V, scene 2):

Fellows in arms, and my most loving friends,
Bruised underneath the yoke of tyranny,
Thus far into the bowels of the land
Have we marched on without impediment. . . .

The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,
That spoiled your summer fields and fruitful vines,

Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your embowelled bosoms, this foul swine
Lies now even in the centre of this isle . . .

In God's name cheerly on, courageous friends,
To reap the harvest of perpetual peace
By this one bloody trial of sharp war.

The fifth act is all based on the famous battle of Bosworth Field, which to Shakespeare's audience meant the beginning of England's health and "perpetual peace." It is a formal set-piece, which concludes both this play and the sequence which began with Henry VI, Part 1. The feeling is almost religious, and the style is allegorical. The battle—like so many battles in Shakespeare—has some of the meaning of the medieval "ordeal" in which the rival champions, submitting their causes to the "arbitrement of war," fought in order to discover the will of God. Richard sets up his tent on one side of the stage, Richmond sets up his on the other side. On the night before the battle, the ghosts of the Princes whom Richard has murdered come to curse him and foretell his doom, while they give Richmond

The sweetest sleep, and fairest-boding dreams,
That ever entered in a drowsy head.

In the morning each champion addresses his soldiers. Richmond invokes God and England's patron saint, Saint George, while Richard appeals to fear, hatred, and the joys of fighting. The old Richard flashes forth here at the end, and when he yells the famous line, "My kingdom for a horse!" we sympathize even as we rejoice in his death. So Shakespeare ends his story, absorbing it into the wider theme of England triumphant.

Richard III is a masterpiece of Shakespeare's youth. It does not have the depth or the haunting poetry of Macbeth, but we feel in it the great tragedies to come. Some of it is too elaborately rhetorical for our taste; yet the theatrical power of its fierce humor is irresistible, and its political wisdom applies to our own or any time.

Jan Kott (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "The Kings," in Shakespeare: Our Contemporary, translated by Boleslaw Taborski, W.W. Norton & Company, 1974, pp. 3-55.

[In the following excerpt originally published in Polish as Szkice o Szekspirze in 1961, Kott describes Richard III as part of the cycles of history showing rulers' rise and fall through murder and treachery.]

What, do you tremble? Are you all afraid?
Alas, I blame you not, for you are mortal . . .

(Richard III I, 2)


A careful reading of the list of characters in Richard III is enough to show what sort of historical material Shakespeare used in order to illustrate facts relating to his own period and to fill the stage with his real contemporaries. Here, in one of his earliest plays—or rather in its historical raw material—one can already see the outline of all the later great tragedies: of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. If one wishes to interpret Shakespeare's world as the real world, one should start the reading of the plays with the Histories, and in particular, with Richard II and Richard III.

Let us begin with the list of dramatis personae:

King Edward IV—deposed the last Lancastrian king, Henry VI, and imprisoned him in the Tower, where he was murdered by Edward's brothers, Gloucester and Clarence. A few months earlier, at Tewkesbury, the only son of Henry VI had been stabbed to death by Richard.

Edward, Prince of Wales, son to Edward IV, afterwards King Edward V—murdered in the Tower, on Richard's order, at the age of twelve.

Richard, Duke of York, Edward IV s other son—murdered in the Tower, on Richard's order, at the age of ten.

George, Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV—murdered in the same gloomy Tower, on Richard's order.

A son of Clarence—imprisoned by Richard immediately after his coronation.

A daughter of Clarence—forced, when still a child, to marry a commoner so that she could not become the mother of kings.

The Duchess of York, mother of two kings, grandmother of a king and a queen—her husband and youngest son killed, or murdered in the Wars of the Roses; another of her sons stabbed to death in the Tower by hired assassins; her third son, Richard, responsible for the murder of both her grandsons. Of all her offspring, only one son and one granddaughter died a natural death.

Margaret, Henry VI's widow—her husband murdered in the Tower, her son killed in battle.

Lady Anne, the wife of Richard III, who had killed her father at the battle of Barnet, and her first husband at Tewkesbury and had even earlier let her father-in-law be murdered in the Tower—imprisoned by Richard immediately after their wedding.

The Duke of Buckingham, Richard's confidant and right-hand man in the struggle for power—beheaded on Richard's orders within a year of the coronation.

Earl Rivers, brother to Queen Elizabeth; Lord Grey, son of Queen Elizabeth; Sir Thomas Vaughan—all executed on Richard's orders at Pomfret, even before the coronation.

Sir Richard Ratcliff, who organized the Pomfret executions and the coup d'état—killed at Bosworth two years later.

Lord Hastings, a nobleman and follower of the House of Lancaster—arrested, released, then arrested again and beheaded by Richard on the charge of plotting against him.

Sir James Tyrrel, murderer of Edward IV's children at the Tower—later executed.

We are nearing the end of the list of characters, or rather—victims. There is Sir William Catesby, executed after the battle of Bosworth, and the Duke of Norfolk, who died in the battle. There are one or two other lords and barons who saved their heads by fleeing abroad. And the last few lines of the list; characters without names of their own. It is enough to quote the end of the list: "Lords, and other Attendants; a Pursuivant, Scrivener, Citizens, Murderers, Messengers, Soldiers, etc. Scene—England."

Shakespeare is like the world, or life itself. Every historical period finds in him what it is looking for and what it wants to see. A reader or spectator in the mid-twentieth century interprets Richard III through his own experiences. He cannot do otherwise. And that is why he is not terrified—or rather, not amazed—at Shakespeare's cruelty. He views the struggle for power and mutual slaughter of the characters far more calmly than did many generations of spectators and critics in the nineteenth century. More calmly, or, at any rate, more rationally. Cruel death, suffered by most dramatis personae, is not regarded today as an aesthetic necessity, or as an essential rule in tragedy in order to produce catharsis, or even as a specific characteristic of Shakespeare's genius. Violent deaths of the principal characters are now regarded rather as an historical necessity, or as something altogether natural. Even in Titus Andronicus, written, or rewritten, by Shakespeare probably in the same year as King Richard III, modern audiences see much more than the ludicrous and grotesque accumulation of needless horrors which nineteenth-century critics found in it. And when Titus Andronicus received a production like that by Peter Brook, today's audiences were ready to applaud the general slaughter in act five no less enthusiastically than Elizabethan coppersmiths, tailors, butchers and soldiers had done. In those days the play was one of the greatest theatrical successes. By discovering in Shakespeare's plays problems that are relevant to our own time, modern audiences often, unexpectedly, find themselves near to the Elizabethans; or at least are in the position to understand them well. This is particularly true of the Histories.

Shakespeare's History plays take their titles from the names of kings: King John, King Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard III (King Henry VIII, a work partly written by Shakespeare towards the close of his literary activities, belongs to the History plays solely in a formal sense. Apart from King John, which deals with events at the turn of the thirteenth century, Shakespeare's Histories deal with the struggle for the English crown that went on from the close of the fourteenth to the end of the fifteenth century. They constitute an historical epic covering over a hundred years and divided into long chapters corresponding to reigns. But when we read these chapters chronologically, following the sequence of reigns, we are struck by the thought that for Shakespeare history stands still. Every chapter opens and closes at the same point. In every one of these plays history turns full circle, returning to the point of departure. These recurring and unchanging circles described by history are the successive kings' reigns.

Each of these great historical tragedies begins with a struggle for the throne, or for its consolidation. Each ends with the monarch's death and a new coronation. In each of the Histories the legitimate ruler drags behind him a long chain of crimes. He has rejected the feudal lords who helped him to reach for the crown; he murders, first, his enemies, then his former allies; he executes possible successors and pretenders to the crown. But he has not been able to execute them all. From banishment a young prince returns—the son, grandson, or brother of those murdered—to defend the violated law. The rejected lords gather round him, he personifies the hope for a new order and justice. But every step to power continues to be marked by murder, violence, treachery. And so, when the new prince finds himself near the throne, he drags behind him a chain of crimes as long as that of the until now legitimate ruler. When he assumes the crown, he will be just as hated as his predecessor. He has killed enemies, now he will kill former allies. And a new pretender appears in the name of violated justice. The wheel has turned full circle. A new chapter opens. A new historical tragedy:

Then thus:
Edward the Third, my lords, had seven sons:
The first, Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales;

The second, William of Hatfield; and the third,
Lionel Duke of Clarence; next to whom
Was John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster;
The fifth was Edmund Langley, Duke of York;
The sixth was Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester;
William of Windsor was the seventh and last.
Edward the Black Prince died before his father
And left behind him Richard, his only son,
Who after Edward the Third's death reign'd as king
Till Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster,
The eldest son and heir of John of Gaunt,
Crown'd by the name of Henry the Fourth,
Seiz'd on the realm, depos'd the rightful king,
Sent his poor queen to France, from whence she came,
And him to Pomfiret, where, as all you know,
Harmless Richard was murthered traitorously.

(2 Henry VI, II, 2)

This scheme of things is not, of course, marked with equally clear-cut outline in all Shakespeare's Histories. It is clearest in King John and in the two masterpieces of historical tragedy, Richard II and Richard III. It is least clear in Henry V, an idealized and patriotic play which depicts a struggle with an enemy from without. But in Shakespeare's plays the struggle for power is always stripped of all mythology, shown in its "pure state". It is a struggle for the crown, between people who have a name, a title and power.

In the Middle Ages the clearest image of wealth was a bag full of golden pieces. Each of them could be weighed in hand. For many centuries wealth meant fields, meadows and woods, flocks of sheep, a castle and villages. Later a ship loaded with pepper, or cloves, or big granaries filled with sacks of wheat, cellars full of wines, stores along the Thames emitting a sour smell of leather and the choking dust of cotton. Riches could be seen, handled and smelt. It was only later that they dematerialized, became a symbol, something abstract. Wealth ceased to be a concrete thing and became a slip of paper with writing on it. Those changes were described by Karl Marx in Das Kapital

In a similar fashion power was dematerialized, or rather, disembodied. It ceased to have a name. It became something abstract and mythological, almost a pure idea. But for Shakespeare power has names, eyes, mouth and hands. It is a relentless struggle of living people who sit together at one table.

For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings!
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill'd—
All murthered; . . .

(Richard II, III, 2)

For Shakespeare the crown is the image of power. It is heavy. It can be handled, torn off a dying king's head, and put on one's own. Then one becomes a king. Only then. But one must wait till the king is dead, or else precipitate his death.

He cannot live, I hope, and must not die
Till George be pack'd with posthorse up to heaven.
I'll in, to urge his hatred more to Clarence
With lies well steel'd with weighty arguments;

Which done, God take King Edward to his mercy
And leave the world for me to bustle in!

Richard III I, 1)

In each of the Histories there are four or five men who look into the eyes of the dying monarch, watch his trembling hands. They have already laid a plot, brought the loyal troops to the capital, communicated with their vassals. They have given orders to hired assassins; the stony Tower awaits new prisoners. There are four or five men, but only one of them may remain alive. Each of them has a different name and title. Each has a different face. One is cunning, another brave; the third is cruel, the fourth—a cynic. They are living people, for Shakespeare was a great writer. We remember their faces. But when we finish reading one chapter and begin to read the next one, when we read the Histories in their entirety, the faces of kings and usurpers become blurred, one after the other.

Even their names are the same. There is always a Richard, an Edward and a Henry. They have the same titles. There is a Duke of York, a Prince of Wales, a Duke of Clarence. In the different plays different people are brave, or cruel, or cunning. But the drama that is being played out between them is always the same. And in every tragedy the same cry, uttered by mothers of the murdered kings, is repeated:


I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill'd him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him.


I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp'st to kill him.


Thy Edward he is dead, that kill'd my Edward;
Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward;
Young York he is but boot, because both they
Match'd not the high perfection of my loss.
Thy Clarence he is dead that stabb'd my Edward,
And the beholders of this frantic play,
Th' adulterate Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey,
Untimely smother'd in their dusky graves.

(Richard III, IV, 4)

Emanating from the features of individual kings and usurpers in Shakespeare's History plays, there gradually emerges the image of history itself. The image of the Grand Mechanism. Every successive chapter, every great Shakespearean act is merely a repetition:

The flattering index of a direful pageant,
One heav'd a-high to be hurl'd down below, . . .

(Richard III, IV, 4)

It is this image of history, repeated many times by Shakespeare, that forces itself on us in a most powerful manner. Feudal history is like a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall. One will soon be able to snatch it.

. . . That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap, . . .

(Macbeth, I, 4)

From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them—good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile and noble, naive and cynical—tread on the steps that are always the same.

Was this how Shakespeare conceived the tragedy of history in his first, youthful period that has lightheartedly been called "optimistic"? Or was he, perhaps, an adherent of absolute monarchy and used the bloody stuff of fifteenth-century history to shock the audience by his spectacle of feudal struggles and England's internal disruption? Or did he write about his own times? Perhaps Hamlet is not so far removed from the two Richard plays? On what experiences did he draw? Was he a moralist, or did he describe the world he knew or foresaw, without illusions, without contempt, but also without indignation? Let us try to interpret Richard II and Richard III as best we can.


Let us begin by tracing the working of the Grand Mechanism as Shakespeare shows it in his theatre. On the proscenium two armies fight each other. The tiny inner stage is turned into the House of Commons, or the King's chamber. On the balcony the King appears, surrounded by bishops. Trumpets are blown: the proscenium is now the Tower courtyard where the imprisoned princes are being led under guard. The inner stage has been turned into a cell. The successor to the throne cannot sleep, tormented by thoughts of violence. Now the door opens, and hired assassins enter with daggers in their hands. A moment later the proscenium is a London street at night: frightened townsmen hurry past talking politics. Trumpets again: the new monarch has made his appearance on the balcony. . . .


The tragic character of Shakespeare's world is thus gradually revealed. But before we return to Hamlet's great questions, we have to describe the world once again, and see that it was a real world. The world we live in. Once again we have to trace the working of the Grand Mechanism: from the foot of the throne to the streets of London; from the royal chamber to the Tower prison.

Henry VI and Duke of Clarence have been murdered, Edward IV has died. In the first two acts of Richard III Shakespeare compressed eleven long years of history, as if they were a week. There is only Richard and the steps he has yet to climb on his way to the throne. Each of these steps is a living man. Finally, only two sons of the dead king are left. They, too, have to die. It is part of Shakespeare's genius that in writing about history he has cleared it of all descriptive elements, of anecdote, almost of the story. It is history purified of irrelevancies.

Historical names, or the literal accuracy of historic events is of no importance. The situations are true; I would say: super-true. In this long unending Shakespearean week there may be morning, evening, or night. Time does not exist. Only history is present; its working, felt by us almost physically. There is night; one of those dramatic nights when the fate of the whole kingdom may depend on one council held at the castle, perhaps even on one thrust of a dagger. One of those historic nights when the air is heavier than usual and the hours longer. When one is watting for news. Shakespeare not only dramatizes history; he dramatizes psychology, gives us large slices of it; and in them we find ourselves.

Richard has already assumed power as Lord Protector. In the royal palace there are two frightened women: the Queen Mother and the Queen Dowager. Beside them a ten-year-old boy is playing: their son and grandson. The Archbishop has arrived. They are all waiting and concerned only about one thing: what will Richard do? The boy, too, knows the history of his family, of the country, the names of those who have been murdered. In a few days' time, in a few hours, he will be the brother of the King. Or . . . The boy says something careless, teasing his powerful uncle. The Queen reproaches him.


Good madam, be not angry with the child.


Pitchers have ears.

This palace, in which every member of the royal family is named after someone murdered, is very much like Elsinore. Not only Denmark is a prison. At last comes the messenger.


Here comes a messenger. What news?


Such news, my lord, as grieves me to report.


How doth the Prince?


Well, madam, and in health.


What is thy news then?


Lord Rivers and Lord Grey are sent to Pomfret,
With them Sir Thomas Vaughan, prisoners.


Who hath committed them?


The mighty Dukes,
Gloucester and Buckingham.


For what offence?


The sum of all I can I have disclos'd.
Why or for what these nobles were committed
Is all unknown to me, my gracious lord.

(Richard III, II, 4)

The same long week continues, as does the night when power is changing hands. Earlier on Shakespeare compressed eleven years of history into a few violent scenes; now he shows us one hour after another. We are in a London street. Townsmen hurry by in frightened groups of two or three. They have just heard something, they know something. But they are not a chorus from an ancient tragedy to comment on the events or proclaim the will of the gods. There are no gods in Shakespeare. There are only kings, every one of whom is an executioner, and a victim, in turn. There are also living, frightened people. They can only gaze upon the grand staircase of history. But their own fate depends on who will reach the highest step, or leap into the abyss. That is why they are frightened. Shakespearean tragedy, unlike ancient tragedies, is not a drama of moral attitudes in the face of immortal gods; there is no fate which decides the hero's destiny. The greatness of Shakespeare's realism consists in his awareness of the extent to which people are involved in history. Some make history and fall victims to it. Others only think they make it, but they, too, fall victims to it. The former are kings; the latter—the kings' confidants who execute their orders and are cogs in the Grand Mechanism. There is also a third category of people: the common citizens of the kingdom. Grand historical events are performed on the fields of battle, in the royal palace, and the Tower prison. But the Tower, the royal palace, and the battlefields are actually situated in England. That was one of the discoveries of Shakespeare's genius which helped to create modern historical tragedy. Let us, then, listen to the voices in the street:


Doth the news hold of good King Edward's death?


Ay, sir, it is too true. God help the while!


Then, masters, look to see a troublous world.


No, no! By God's good grace his son shall reign.


. . . For emulation who shall now be nearest
Will touch us all too near, if God prevent not.
O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester,
And the Queen's sons and brothers haught and proud;
And were they to be rul'd, and not to rule,
This sickly land might solace as before.


Come, come, we fear the worst. All will be well.


When clouds are seen, wise men put on their cloaks; . . .

(Richard III, II, 3)

Still the same long week, and the same London street. Only one day has passed. Richard has sent his confidants to fetch the Prince of Wales. Trumpets are blown. The child successor to the throne is entering London. But he is not greeted by his brother, or his mother. The Duke of York and the Queen Dowager have, for fear of Richard, sought refuge in the white Gothic Cathedral of St. Paul's, as if they had been common criminals, whose right of sanctuary was protected by law. They have to be got out of there. The Archbishop of Canterbury has objections. But the Duke of Buckingham knows how to produce convincing arguments:

You are too senseless-obstinate, my lord,
Too ceremonious and traditional.
Weigh it but with the grossness of his age, . . .

And the Cardinal replies:

My lord, you shall o'errule my mind for once.

(Richard III, III, 1)

The long week does not seem to end. Both successors to the throne—the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York—have been placed in the Tower; the executioner is on his way to Pomfret Castle to cut off the heads of the Queen's closest relatives and friends. Richard is making long strides towards the throne. But the coup d'état is yet to be accomplished. The House of Lords and the Privy Council have yet to be cowed, the City intimidated. It is only now that we shall see how those, who think they are the makers of history, are actually enmeshed in the Grand Mechanism. We shall see the image of political practice in its pure form, free from all mythology, and sketched in broad outlines. We shall see a dramatized version of a chapter from Machiavelli's Prince, the great scene of the coup d'état. But this scene will be played by living people, and it is in this fact that Shakespeare's superiority over Machiavelli's treatise is revealed. It will be played by people who know they are mortal, and try to save their skins, or bargain with history for a little self-respect, a semblance of courage, of decency. They will not succeed. History will first of all disgrace them, and then will cut off their heads.


It is four A.M. For the first time in tragedy, Shakespeare gives the exact time. It is significant that this should be four A.M. It is the hour between night and dawn; the hour when decisions in high places have been taken, when what had to be done has been done. But it is also the hour when one could still save oneself by leaving one's home. The last hour in which freedom of choice is still possible. The sound of a knocker is heard: someone knocks hastily on the door.


My lord! my lord!

HASTINGS (within)

Who knocks?


One from the Lord Stanley.

HASTINGS (within)

What is't o'clock?


Upon the stroke of four.


Cannot my Lord Stanley sleep these tedious nights?


So it appears by that I have to say.
First, he commends him to your noble self.


What then?


Besides, he says there are two councils kept; . . .

I greatly admire in Shakespeare those brief moments when tragedy is suddenly projected onto an everyday level; when the characters, before a decisive battle, or having woven a plot on which the fate of a kingdom will depend, go to supper, or to bed. ("Come, let us sup betimes, that afterwards / We may digest our complots in some form.") They sleep, or cannot sleep, they drink their wine, they call their servants, do all sorts of things. They are only men. Like Homer's heroes they eat, sleep and fidget about on their uncomfortable beds. Shakespeare's genius shows itself also in the way he depicts the events occurring at four A.M. Who has not been awakened in this way at four A.M. at least once in his life?

Therefore he sends to know your lordship's pleasure,
If you will presently take horse with him
And with all speed post with him toward the North
To shun the danger that his soul divines.

Lord Hastings was awakened at four A.M. He has been warned by his friends. But he cannot bring himself to flee. He waits.

Go, fellow, go, return unto thy lord;
Bid him not fear the separated councils.
His Honour and myself are at the one,
And at the other is my good friend Catesby;

Tell him his fears are shallow, without instance;
And for his dreams, I wonder he's so simple
To trust the mock'ry of unquiet slumbers.
To fly the boar before the boar pursues
Were to incense the boar to follow us
And make pursuit where he did mean no chase.
Go, bid thy master rise and come to me,
And we will both together to the Tower,
Where he shall see the boar will use us kindly.

(Richard III, III, 2)

The hour of decision is over. All are assembled in the Tower. Lord Stanley, who had given the warning; Hastings, who ignored the warning; the Bishop of Ely; and Ratcliff, who has just carried out the executions at Pomfret. All of them are assembled at one table. The Council of the Crown, the most powerful lords of the realm, temporal and spiritual; the men who wield power over Church, Treasury, Army, and Prisons. These are the ones before whom others tremble. They are all there, except Number One: Richard, the Lord Protector. He has not come. And in the meantime they have to speak, vote, express their opinions. They are to do so before the Lord Protector will express his. No one knows what Richard thinks. No one except his confidants. But they have no wish to speak. They are waiting. And the Council, the men before whom all England trembles, are silent.


Who knows the Lord Protector's mind herein?
Who is most inward with the noble Duke?


Your Grace, we think, should soonest know his mind.


We know each other's faces; for our hearts,
He knows no more of mine than I of yours;
Nor I of his, my lord, than you of mine.
Lord Hastings, you and he are near in love.


I thank his Grace, I know he loves me well;
But, for his purpose in the coronation,
I have not sounded him, nor he deliver'd
His gracious pleasure any way therein;
But you, my honourable lords, may name the time, . . .

At this point Richard enters. The noble lords will hear his voice at last. They will learn what is going on. And they do hear him speak:

My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn
I saw good strawberries in your garden there.
I do beseech you send for some of them.

Where and when did Shakespeare hear the tyrant's cruel laugh? And if he did not hear it, how did he have a presentiment of it?

Let us look again at the men before whom England trembles. They sit in silence; they avoid looking in each other's eyes; they try to penetrate into the minds of others. Above all, they want to know what he, the Lord Protector is thinking. But he has left again, without another word.


What of his heart perceive you in his face
By any likelihood he show'd to-day?


Marry, that with no man here he is offended;
For were he, he had shown it in his looks.

Richard enters again. He has made his decision. He knows already who has doubts. He has chosen his victim. In this great Council scene, Shakespeare maintains a tremendous tension and does not let the audience relax for a moment. It is so still that one hears people breathing. This is indeed the essence of history.

Richard speaks. We know these words by heart:

I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail'd
Upon my body with their hellish charms.

Lord Hastings did not want to provoke the boar. Lord Hastings had friends on the Council. He believed in legality. He was not against a coup d'état, but wanted it to be backed by the majesty of law. Only three hours ago he had defended the rule of law. He refused to take part in what was clear outrage. He wanted to preserve the last vestiges of shame and honour. He was a brave man. He was. It is possible that Shakespeare never saw the sea or, as other learned commentators maintain, a battlefield. He did not know geography. He gives Bohemia a seashore. Proteus boards a ship to go from Verona to Milan, waiting moreover for the tide. Florence, too, is for Shakespeare a port. Shakespeare did not know history either. In his plays Ulysses quotes Aristotle, and Timon of Athens makes references to Seneca and Galenus. Shakespeare did not know philosophy, had no knowledge of warfare, confused customs of different periods. In Julius Caesar a clock strikes the hour. A serving maid takes off Cleopatra's corset. In King John's time gunpowder is used in cannons. Shakespeare had not seen the sea, or a battle, or mountains; he did not know history, geography, or philosophy. But Shakespeare knew that at the Council meeting the noble Hastings will have spoken first, after Richard, and pronounced a death sentence on himself. I can still hear his voice:


The tender love I bear your Grace, my lord,
Makes me most forward in this princely presence
To doom th' offenders, whosoe'er they be.
I say, my lord, they have deserved death.

It is too late to save one's head, but not too late to disgrace oneself—to bring oneself to believe in witch-craft and the devil, in anything; to accept anything, even in the last hour before one is due to die:


Then be your eyes the witness of their evil.
Look how I am bewitch'd. Behold, mine arm
Is like a blasted sapling, wither'd up;
And this is Edward's wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.


If they have done this deed, my noble lord—


If? Thou protector of this damned strumpet,
Talk'st thou to me of ifs? Thou art a traitor.
Off with his head! Now by Saint Paul I swear
I will not dine until I see the same.
Lovel and Ratcliff, look that it be done.

(Richard III, III, 4)

I see this scene in Olivier's film. They all have dropped their eyes. Nobody looks at Hastings. One by one all those sitting next to him at the big table move away from him. Richard pushes aside his chair and takes his leave. The others, too, push aside their chairs and one by one leave the chamber. Bishop of Ely, as well as the faithful friend, Lord Stanley. No one has turned his head to look behind. The chamber is empty, except for Lord Hastings and the two grand executioners of the realm: Lord Lovel and Sir Richard Ratcliff. They have drawn their swords.

The crime must now be legalized. There has not been time for a trial. But the trial must and will take place, with all the appropriate ceremony. Except that the accused cannot be brought to court. Shakespeare knew the working of the Grand Mechanism. What are the Lord Mayor of London and the judges for? They have only to be persuaded. Richard and the Duke of Buckingham call for the Lord Mayor. He comes at once. No, he does not have to be persuaded. He is persuaded already. He is always persuaded.


Now fair befall you! He deserv'd his death,
And your good Graces both have well proceeded
To warn false traitors from the like attempts.


Yet had we not determin'd he should die
Until your lordship came to see his end,
Which now the loving haste of these our friends,
Something against our meanings, have prevented;
Because, my lord, we would have had you heard
The traitor speak, and timorously confess
The manner and the purpose of his treasons,
That you might well have signified the same
Unto the citizens, who haply may
Misconster us in him and wail his death.


But, my good lord, your Grace's word shall serve,
As well as I had seen, and heard him speak;
And do not doubt, right noble princes both,
But I'll acquaint our duteous citizens
With ail your just proceedings in this case.

(Richard III, III, 5)

This scene has a really fine ending. The Mayor rushes to the Guildhall. Gloucester and Buckingham go to dinner. The proscenium is empty. It is still the same long week. Morning has come. A Scrivener enters, with a paper in his hand:

Here is the indictment of the good Lord Hastings,
Which in a set hand fairly is engross'd
That it may be to-day read o'er in Paul's.
And mark how well the sequel hangs together:
Eleven hours I have spent to write it over,
For yesternight by Catesby was it sent me;
The precedent was full as long a-doing;
And yet within these five hours Hastings liv'd,
Untainted, unexamin'd, free, at liberty.
Here's a good world the while! Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world, and all will come to naught
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought.

(Richard III, III, 6)

"Here's a good world the while!" .. . It is remarkable how closely this court clerk, with his cruel irony, resembles the fools of later Shakespearean comedies and tragedies. Would the clown, who philosophizes, for such is his job at court, and the scrivener, who knows everything, but is not allowed to speak, be the only ones to know the truth about the world? "Here's a good world. ... " But what world? What sort of world is it that Shakespeare writes about?

What did Shakespeare want to say in Richard III? He took the historical substance of the play from Hall's and Holinshed's chronicles, based on notes made by Sir Thomas More. He did not change the characters, or the order of events. Even the outrageous scene with the strawberries had been described in almost the same words by More. Was Shakespeare merely reshaping, and putting a new life into old historical dramas, popular in the London theatre, such as Richardus Tertius by Thomas Legge, or the anonymous True History of Richard III? Was Richard III intended to be just a page from history, a cruel chapter in the old annals of England?

"Here's a good world the while!" .. . But what world? Richard Ill's? Shakespeare's? What world did Shakespeare write about, what times did he want to depict? Was it the world of feudal barons, slaughtering one another in the middle of the fifteenth century, or perhaps the world of the reign of the good, wise and devout Queen Elizabeth? That same Elizabeth who cut off Mary Stuart's head when Shakespeare was twenty-three years old, and sent to the scaffold some fifteen hundred Englishmen, among them her own lovers, ministers of the realm, doctors of theology and doctors of law, generals, bishops, great judges. "Here's a good world . . ." Or did Shakespeare consider history to be one continuous chain of violence, an unending stormy week, with the sun only very infrequently breaking through the thick clouds at noon, with an occasional quiet, peaceful morning, or a calm evening when lovers embrace and go to sleep under the trees of a Forest of Arden?

Go hie thee, hie thee from this slaughterhouse,
Lest thou increase the number of the dead.

(Richard III, IV, 1)

"Here's a good world. ... " But what did in fact the Grand Mechanism mean for Shakespeare? A succession of kings climbing and pushing one another off the grand staircase of history, or a wave of hot blood rising up to one's head and blinding the eyes? A natural order that has been violated, so that evil produces evil, every injury calls for revenge, every crime causes another? Or a cruel social order in which the vassals and superiors are in conflict with each other, the kingdom is ruled like a farm and falls prey to the strongest? A naked struggle for power, or a violent beat of the human heart that reason cannot accelerate or stop, but a dead piece of sharp iron breaks once and for all? A dense and impenetrable night of history where dawn does not break, or a darkness that fills the human soul?


Richard III contains answers to only some of those great questions. In this tragedy, which abounds in violence, equalling, if not surpassing, that of Titus Andronicus, only one character has some scruples and experiences a brief moment of doubt. It is a hired assassin, one of the two sent by Richard to murder the Duke of Clarence in the Tower.


What? Art thou afraid?


Not to kill him, having a warrant; but to be damn'd for killing him, from the which no warrant can defend me.

In this world of kings, bishops, judges, chancellors, lords and generals, the only man who, for a brief moment, shrinks from committing murder, is the one whose profession it is to murder for money. He is not afraid of violating the laws of the kingdom or the social order. He knows he occupies in it a definite place; not a very honourable one,...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

David Riggs (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Tradition of Fame and the Arts of Policy: Richard III and 1 Henry IV," in Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition, Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 140-60.

[In the following excerpt, Riggs sees Richard III as Shakespeare's reappraisal of the validity of the assumptions of traditional epic heroism associated with the king.]

I Henry VI opens with a lament for Henry V, the hero-king who was "too famous to live long." As Elizabethan audiences were soon to learn, he was also too famous to be buried and forgotten. In I Henry IV...

(The entire section is 21142 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Wolfgang G. Müller (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Villain as Rhetorician in Shakespeare's Richard III," in Anglia, Vol. 102, No. 1 & 2, 1984, pp. 37-59.

[In the following essay, Müller discusses Richard Ill's use of rhetoric to further his own ends.]

1. Introduction

In the third part of Shakespeare's trilogy Henry VI Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is presented as a fierce warrior, a ruthless avenger, and an inhuman cynic. Having slain the saintly King Henry VI, he continues stabbing at him, saying: "Down, down to hell; and say I sent thee thither" (V.6.67). The Richard we meet in Richard III is...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

John J. McLaughlin (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Richard III as Punch," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, November, 1977, pp. 79-86.

[In the following essay, McLaughlin represents Richard III as a comic-villain who is intended to evoke laughter through his wit and the slapstick excess of his aggression for the sake of domination.]

There is a sure-fire show stopper in the Punch and Judy show: Punch takes his stick to one of his victims—usually Scaramouche—swings mightily, and the puppet's head is knocked clear off its shoulders. When Buckingham asks of Richard III, "Now my lord, what shall we do if we perceive / Lord Hastings...

(The entire section is 6122 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Barber, C. L., and Richard P. Wheeler. "Savage Play and the Web of Curses in Richard III." In The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development, pp. 86-124. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Discusses Shakespeare's presentation of theatrical aggression in the role of Richard III.

Berry, Ralph. "Richard III: Player and King." In The Shakespearean Metaphor: Studies in Language and Form, pp. 9-25. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Examines the play's structure in terms of Richard's role-playing and of his confrontation with reality.

Brooke, Nicholas. "Richard III." In Shakespeare's Early Tragedies,...

(The entire section is 1259 words.)