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Richard III

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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.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23614

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, but none the less generally tolerated and necessary. He has a warrant for this murder from the King himself. The hired assassin fears the Last Judgement, damnation and hell. He is the only believer in this play. He hears the voice of conscience but at the same time realizes that conscience cannot be reconciled with the laws and order of the world he lives in, that it is something superfluous, ridiculous and a nuisance.


I'll not meddle with it; it makes a man a coward. A man can not 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. 'Tis a blushing shame-fac'd spirit that mutinies in a man's bosom. It fills a man full of obstacles. It made me once restore a purse of gold that (by chance) I found. It beggars any man that keeps it. It is turn'd out of towns and cities for a dangerous thing, and every man that means to live well endeavours to trust to himself and live without it.

Only two people in this tragedy reflect on the order of the world: King Richard III, and a hired assassin. The one who is at the top of the feudal ladder, and one placed at its very bottom. Richard III has no scruples or doubts; the hired assassin experiences a moment of doubt. But they both see the Grand Mechanism equally clearly, although from opposite angles. Neither of them has any illusions: they are the only ones who can afford not to have them. They accept the world as it really is. Moreover, the king and the hired assassin represent the world's order in its "pure form." Shakespeare wanted to say just this. There are sudden flashes of genius in this early, youthful play. One of them is the equation of a hired assassin with the King's brother:


In God's name, what art thou?


A man, as you are.


But not as I am, royal.


Nor you as we are, loyal.

This fragment of dialogue already foreshadows Hamlet. For what are hired assassins if not history's gravediggers? In the Elsinore churchyard, too, gravediggers talk to a king's son. They too look at great historical events and human dramas from the same point of view: of those who dig graves and put up gallows. Viewed from this angle there is no difference between a king's son and a beggar. They are both mortal. They were born to die. A hired assassin and the king's son have been made doubly equal. In the order of history they both are just cogs in the Grand Mechanism. From the perspective of a cemetery and the gallows they both are only human beings. Shakespeare excels in unexpected confrontations in which—as if illumined by lightning—the entire immense landscape of history suddenly comes into view. Thus Richard III already points the way to the interpretation of Hamlet as a political drama, and, conversely, Richard, interpreted through Hamlet, becomes a philosophical drama about discrepancy between the moral order and the order of practical behaviour.

Two assassins come to the prison cell in order to murder Richard's own brother at his request. Both the Duke of Clarence and the assassins kill by the order of the King and in his name. Only yesterday Clarence could, on the King's behalf, order them to commit any murder. Today he is in prison himself, and must die by the order, and in the name, of the same King. The Duke and the hired assassins are only men, and cogs in the same mechanism.

Let us consider this scene once more. The King's brother used to command assassins to kill for the sake of political order. He has been put in prison and meets the same assassins. He defends himself. He speaks to them of conscience. Their reply is that he himself had mocked conscience. He tells them that he is a minister of the crown. Their reply is that in prison there are no ministers. He speaks to them of lofty ideas. They reply that the very same ideas now demand his death.


. . . Wherein, my friends, have I offended you?


Offended us you have not, but the King.


I shall be reconcil'd to him again.


Never, my lord; therefore prepare to die.


What we will do, we do upon command.


And he that hath commanded is our king.

(Richard III, I, 4)

And so the two hired assassins drown the Duke of Clarence in a barrel of malmsey.

Thus has the long week begun. It will end with the great coronation scene. Richard has by now eliminated all those who had stood in his way to the throne. He has terrorized the Council, the House of Lords, and the City. It is night. The proscenium represents a court-yard of the royal palace. The terrified nobles, assembled here, watch in silence. Gloucester's agents walk about everywhere. In a corner of the courtyard there is a crowd of townspeople dragged from their houses. It is they who are to proclaim Richard king. For he has agreed to reign only by the will of the people. At last he shows himself on the balcony, with a prayer book in his hand. He is praying. After all, he is to be king by the will of God.


See where his Grace stands, 'tween two clergymen.


Two props of virtue for a Christian prince,
To stay him from the fall of vanity; . . .

On this little wooden circle, the "O" to which Shakespeare has several times compared his own stage, one of history's great scenes is now being performed. Richard lets himself be implored to accept the crown.


Do, good my lord. Your citizens entreat you.


Refuse not, mighty lord, this proffer'd love.


O, make them joyful, grant their lawful suit!

(Richard III, III, 7)

Both the nobles and the townspeople are silent They will only say: "Amen". This is enough. Richard has agreed to accept the crown. He has put away his prayer book. He turns to the bishops still standing at his side, and says:

Come, let us to our holy work again.


History in the theatre is mostly just a grand setting; a background against which the characters love, suffer, or hate; experience their personal dramas. Sometimes they are involved in history, which complicates their lives, but even then does not cease to be a more or less uncomfortable costume: a wig, a crinoline, a sword knocking about their feet. Of course, such plays are only superficially historical. But there are plays in which history is not just a background or a setting, in which it is played, or rather repeated on the stage, by actors disguised as historical personalities. They know history, have learned it by heart, and do not often go wrong. Schiller was a classic author of this kind of historical drama. Marx used to call his characters speaking trumpets of modern ideas. They interpret history because they know the solutions it offers. They can even sometimes express real trends and conflicts of social forces. But even this does not mean that the dramatization of history has been effected. It is only a historical textbook that has been dramatized. The textbook can be idealistic, as in Schiller and Romain Rolland, or materialistic, as in some dramas of Büchner and Brecht; but it does not cease to be a textbook.

Shakespeare's concept of history is of a different kind from the two mentioned above. History unfolds on the stage, but is never merely enacted. It is not a background or a setting. It is itself the protagonist of tragedy. But what tragedy?

There are two fundamental types of historical tragedy. The first is based on the conviction that history has a meaning, fulfils its objective tasks and leads in a definite direction. It is rational, or at least can be made intelligible. Tragedy consists here in the price of history, the price of progress that has to be paid by humanity. A precursor, one who pushes forward the relentless roller of history, but must himself be crushed by it for the very reason of his coming ahead of his time, is also tragic. This is the concept of historical tragedy proclaimed by Hegel. It was near to the views of the young Marx, even though he substituted the objective development of ideas. He compared history to a mole who unceasingly digs in the earth.

Well said, old mole! Canst work i' th' earth so fast?
A worthy pioneer!

(Hamlet, I, 5)

A mole lacks awareness, but digs in a definite direction. It has its dreams but they only dimly express its feeling for the sun and sky. It is not the dreams that set the direction of its march, but the movement of its claws and snout, constantly digging up the earth. A mole will be tragic if it happens to be buried by the earth before it emerges to the surface.

There is another kind of historical tragedy, originating in the conviction that history has no meaning and stands still, or constantly repeats its cruel cycle; that it is an elemental force, like hail, storm, or hurricane, birth and death. A mole digs in the earth but will never come to its surface. New generations of moles are being born all the time, scatter the earth in all directions, but are themselves constantly buried by the earth. A mole has its dreams. For a long time it fancied itself the lord of creation, thinking that earth, sky and stars had been created for moles, that there is a mole's God, who had made moles and promised them a mole-like immortality. But suddenly the mole has realized that it is just a mole, that the earth, sky and stars had not been created for it. A mole suffers, feels and thinks, but its sufferings, feelings and thoughts cannot alter its mole's fate. It will go on digging in the earth, and the earth will go on burying it. It is at this point that the mole has realized that it is a tragic mole.

It seems to me that the latter concept of historical tragedy was nearer to Shakespeare, not only in the period when he was writing Hamlet and King Lear, but in all his writings, from the early Histories up to the Tempest.

.. . for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
  Scoffing his state, and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
  To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks;

. . . and humour'd thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

(Richard II, III, 2)

We began our considerations with a metaphor of the grand staircase of history. It was on such a staircase that Leopold Jessner set Richard III in his famous production at the Berlin Schauspielhaus. That metaphor has philosophical consequences and is also dramatically fruitful. There are no good and bad kings; there are only kings on different steps of the same stairs. The names of the kings may change, but it is always a Henry who pushes a Richard down, or the other way round. Shakespeare's Histories are dramatis personae of the Grand Mechanism. But what is this Grand Mechanism which starts operating at the foot of the throne and to which the whole kingdom is subjected? A mechanism whose cogs are both great lords and hired assassins; a mechanism which forces people to violence, cruelty and treason; which constantly claims new victims? A mechanism according to whose laws the road to power is at the same time the way to death? This Grand Mechanism is for Shakespeare the order of history, in which the king is the Lord's Anointed.

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
  The deputy elected by the Lord.

(Richard II, III, 2)

The sun circles round the earth, and with it the spheres, planets and stars, all arranged in a hierarchic order. There is in the universe an order of the elements, an order of angelic choirs, and a corresponding order of rank on earth. There are superiors and vassals of the vassals. Royal power comes from God, and all power on earth is merely a reflection of the power wielded by the King.

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
  Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron'd and spher'd
Amidst the other, whose med'cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets
  In evil mixture to disorder wander,
  What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
Commotion in the winds! Frights, changes, horrors
  Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
  The unity and married calm of states
  Quite from their fixture! O, when degree is shak'd,
  Which is the ladder to all high designs,
  Then enterprise is sick!

(Troilus and Cressida, I, 3)

Richard II is a tragedy of dethronement. It is, however, not just Richard's dethronement, but that of the King. Dethronement, in fact, of the idea of regal power. We have seen how Shakespeare equated a prince of royal blood—the King's brother—with a hired assassin. In Richard II, the Lord's Anointed, the King deprived of his crown, becomes a mere mortal. In the first acts of the tragedy the King was compared to the sun: others had to lower their eyes when faced with his dazzling Majesty. Now the sun has been hurled down from its orbit, and with it the entire order of the universe.

. . . what can we bequeath,
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.

. . . Throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief,
  Need friends. Subjected thus,
  How can you say to me I am a king?

(Richard II, III, 2)

"E pur si muove! " These words can be read with different intonations. "And still it moves . . ." There is also a bitter sort of laughter in those words. There is no heaven and hell, no order of the spheres. The earth moves round the sun, and the history of the Renaissance is just a grand staircase, from the top of which ever new kings fall into the abyss. There exists only the Grand Mechanism. But the Grand Mechanism is not just cruel. There is another side to it: it is a tragic farce.

Richard III foreshadows Hamlet. Richard II is a tragedy of knowledge gained through experience. Just before being hurled into the abyss, the deposed King reaches the greatness of Lear. For King Lear, like Hamlet, is also a tragedy of man contemporary with Shakespeare; a political tragedy of Renaissance humanism. A tragedy of the world stripped of illusions. Slowly, step by step, King Lear walks down the grand staircase, to learn the whole cruelty of the world over which he had once ruled, but which he did not know; and to drain the bitter cup to the dregs. Richard II is brutally and suddenly pushed into the abyss. But with him will founder the structure of the feudal world. It is not only Richard who has been deposed. It is the sun that has ceased to move round the earth.

Give me the glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? Hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine
  And made no deeper wounds? O flattering glass,
  Like to my followers in prosperity,
  Thou dost beguile me! Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
  Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face
That like the sun did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that fac'd so many follies
And was at last outfac'd by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face.
As brittle as the glory is the face,
(Dashes the glass to the floor.)
For there it is, crack'd in a hundred shivers.
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport, . . .

(Richard II, IV, 1)

The tragedy of Richard II has been performed on the uppermost step. The main scenes of Richard III are unfolded on the lower steps, on the protagonist's way up. There is no tragedy of history without awareness. Tragedy begins at the point when the king becomes aware of the working of the Grand Mechanism. This can happen when he falls victim to it, or when he acts as executioner. These are the points at which Shakespeare carries out his great confrontations, contrasting the moral order with the order of history.

Richard III compares himself to Machiavelli and is a real Prince. He is, at any rate, a prince who has read The Prince. Politics is to him a purely practical affair, an art, with the acquisition of power as its aim. Politics is amoral, like the art of bridge construction, or the practice of fencing. Human passions, and men themselves, are clay that can be shaped at will. The whole world is a huge piece of clay which can be shaped by hand. Richard III is not just a name of one of the kings who have mounted the grand staircase. Nor is he a collective term for one of many royal situations depicted by Shakespeare in his historical chronicles. Richard III is the mastermind of the Grand Mechanism, its will and awareness. Here for the first time Shakespeare has shown the human face of the Grand Mechanism. A terrifying face, in its ugliness and the cruel grimace of its lips. But also a fascinating face.


Richard III is the first of those great personalities that Shakespeare endowed with the full range of historical experience in order to conclude his tragic reckoning with the real world. This reckoning starts with Richard's meeting with Lady Anne. It is one of the greatest scenes written by Shakespeare, and one of the greatest ever written.

Lady Anne follows an open coffin in which servants are carrying the body of her father-in-law, Henry VI. Richard has had him murdered in the Tower. He had earlier killed her husband, Edward, and her father, the Earl of Warwick. Was it the day before? A week, a month, a year ago? Time has no meaning here. It has been condensed to one long night, one long, oppressive week.

Richard interrupts the funeral procession. In the course of six minutes, counted by the tower clock, in the space of three pages of the Folio, in forty-three speeches, he will persuade the woman, whose husband, father, and father-in-law he has murdered, to enter his bedchamber of her own accord.

Stay, you that bear the corse, and set it down.

These are Richard's first words in this scene. Lady Anne, like furies in ancient tragedies, is all suffering and hate. But Lady Anne knows well what times she is living in. From the outset Shakespeare places the scene in a country of terror and awe, where all are paralysed by fear, and no one is sure of his life. Halberdiers flee before Richard, servants throw down the coffin. Nothing surprises Lady Anne any more. She has seen everything:

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

She will be left alone with Richard. She has lost all her dear ones. She is now free from fear. She cries, implores, curses, mocks, sneers:

No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

And Richard replies:

But I know none, and therefore am no beast.

Once again Shakespeare reminds us that the action takes place on earth, the cruellest of planets, and among men, who are more cruel than beasts. In order to conclude his reckoning he searches for ultimate, extreme forms of love and suffering, crime and hate. Lady Anne is as yet the superior in this duel. Richard is insipid, tries to deny his crime, tells lies. Lady Anne will make him admit it. And only now, in the world stripped of appearances, and in which violence has been openly revealed, in the world where the murderer stands face to face with his victim, Richard will be stronger than Anne. He admits he has killed the king.


Let him thank me, that holp to send him thither;
For he was fitter for that place than earth.


And thou unfit for any place, but hell.


Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.


Some dungeon.


Your bed chamber.

This is the moment of Richard's first victory. As long as he lied, beat about the bush, denied his crime—he recognized the existence of moral order. Now he has annihilated it. They are alone on the stage; but not only there. They are alone in the world full of murder, violence, brute force and cruelty.


III rest betide the chamber where thou liest!


So will it, madam, till I lie with you.


I hope so.

At this point Lady Anne is already lost. Richard has pulled the ground from under her feet. So the entire cruel mechanism, the death of her dear ones, the sufferings of great lords of the realm, the struggle for power and the crown—all this it seems was for her, and only for her. The world has been stripped of appearances, the moral order has been annihilated, now history ceases to exist. There is only a woman, a man, and a sea of spilt blood.


Your beauty was the cause of that effect—
Your beauty, that did haunt me in my sleep
To undertake the death of all the world,
  So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.


If I thought that, I tell thee, homicide,
These nails should rend that beauty from my cheeks.

Shakespeare has the gift of psychological clairvoyance. In this great scene he undertakes, in bold short-cuts of frantic dialogue, his own journey to the heart of darkness. He reduces the world to elemental forces of hate and lust. Lady Anne still hates Richard, but is already alone with her hate, in a world in which only lust exists. This scene should be interpreted through our own experiences. One must find in it the night of Nazi occupation, concentration camps, mass-murders. One must see in it the cruel time when all moral standards are broken, when the victim becomes executioner, and vice-versa. Lady Anne will spit in Richard's face, but this is her last gesture, her last defence before surrender.

Lady Anne does not give herself to Richard out of fear. She will follow him to reach rock-bottom. To prove to herself that all the world's laws have ceased to exist. For when all has been lost, only memory remains, but it, too, must be stifled. One must kill one-self, or kill in oneself the last vestiges of shame. Lady Anne goes into Richard's bed to be destroyed.

If history is no more than a gigantic slaughter, what does remain, except a leap into the darkness, a choice between death and pleasure? Shakespeare was great in the way he made Lady Anne take exactly this choice, the final and only choice left to her.

Richard gives her his sword.


Nay, do not pause; for I did kill King Henry—
But 'twas thy beauty that provoked me.
Nay, now dispatch. 'Twas I that stabb'd young Edward—
But 'twas thy heavenly face that set me on. . . .

LADY ANNE (falls the sword)

. . . Though I wish thy death,
I will not be thy executioner.

Half a century later another play was written in which a man faces a woman whose father he has killed. Chimène's father had insulted Rodrigue's father, and Rodrigue avenged his father's shame. Chimène in turn has to avenge her father and demands Rodrigue's head. Throughout the whole tragedy there goes on a dialogue between love and duty conducted in smooth alexandrines, whose hard rhythm is not broken even for a moment. Corneille's world is cruel, too, but neither its moral order, nor its intellectual order have been violated. Honour, love and law have remained intact. In Shakespeare's royal Histories there is only hate, lust and violence; the Grand Mechanism, which transforms the executioner into a victim, and the victim into an executioner. Corneille's heroes are worthy of each other and self-confident. They do not experience doubt, and their features are never twisted by passion. They live in an unshaken world. This may be the reason why they seem to be people from another planet. In full view of the audience they try to outbid each other with their noble-mindedness, but this does not cost them much and does not inwardly change them. I cannot help preferring the wild snatches of Shakespearean dialogue to Corneille's grand rhetoric, in which passion is declined according to immutable rules of grammar.


I would I knew thy heart.


'Tis figur'd in my tongue.


I fear me both are false.


Then never man was true.


Well, well, put up your sword.


Say then my peace is made.


That shalt thou know hereafter.


But shall I live in hope?


All men, I hope, live so.

(Richard III, i, 2)

Corneille's heroes are stronger than the world, and there is no darkness in their innermost souls. But Lady Anne, who spits in the face of her husband's murderer and then goes to bed with him, seems to me more human, or perhaps only more contemporary than the statue-like Chimène. In Shakespeare all human values are brittle, and the world is stronger than men. The implacable steam-roller of history crushes everybody and everything. Man is determined by his situation, by the step of the grand staircase on which he happens to find himself. It is that particular step that determines his freedom of choice.

In Richard II Shakespeare deposed not only the king, but the idea of kingly power. In Richard III he showed the crumbling of the entire moral order. After the great abdication scene Richard II calls for a mirror, and when he finds his face unchanged, breaks it. The King has become a man, the crown has been torn off the head of the Lord's Anointed. But the world has not been shaken in its foundations, and nothing has changed, not even his own face. So the crown was no more than sham.

Having forced Lady Anne to his bedchamber, Richard III, too, calls for a mirror. Everything has turned out to be sham: loyalty, love, even hate. Crime goes unpunished; beauty has chosen beast; human fate is clay that can be shaped in one's hands. There is no God, no law.

Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I no friends to back my suit withal
But the plain devil and dissembling looks?
And yet to win her—all the world to nothing?

(Richard III, I, 2)

Richard III calls for a mirror. But he is wiser than Richard II. He calls for a mirror, but at the same time he calls for tailors to cut him a new suit.


Shakespeare views the implacable mechanism without medieval awe, and without the illusions of the early Renaissance. The sun does not circle round the earth, there is no order of the spheres, or of nature. The king is no Lord's Anointed, and politics is only an art aiming at capturing and securing power. The world offers a spectacle similar to a storm or hurricane. Weak bushes are bowed down to the earth, while tall trees fall uprooted. The order of history and the order of nature are both cruel; terrifying are the passions that breed in the human heart.

Only in his comedies does Shakespeare recall the images of Renaissance utopia. In the Forest of Arden lovers find each other, a son regains the property of which he had been deprived, free men hunt and sing, a just prince is restored to his throne. But even the utopia of Arden forest and the hot dream of a midsummer night are split by inner contradictions. Harmony is only a brief and fleeting moment of stillness. The idyll is disturbed by Jaques's bitter mockery.

Of all the important works written by Shakespeare before 1600, i.e. in what nineteenth-century scholars called his optimistic period, only Henry IV can be called a cheerful play. In both the Richard plays, and in the other Henrys, history is the only dramatis persona of the tragedy. The protagonist of Henry IV is Falstaff.

The great feudal barons are still butchering one another. King Henry IV, who had recently deposed Richard II, and let him be murdered together with his followers, did not atone for his crimes by a journey to the Holy Land. The allies who have put him on the throne are rebelling. For them he is a new tyrant. Wales and Scotland rise. History will begin from the beginning. But in Henry IV history is only one of many actors in the drama. It is being played out not only in the royal palace and in courtyards of feudal castles; not only on battlefields, in dungeons of the Tower, and in the London street where frightened townsmen are hurrying by. Nearby the royal palace there is a tavern called "The Boar's Head". In it Falstaff is king. Somehow, between the chapters of an austere historical chronicle there has been interpolated a rich Renaissance comedy about a fat knight, unable for many years to see his own knees under his huge belly.

I prefer Richard II and Richard III to Henry IV. They seem to me a far deeper and more austere kind of tragedy. Shakespeare exposes in them the mechanism of power directly, without resorting to subterfuge or fiction. He dethrones regal majesty, strips it of all illusion. He finds that the succession of reigns, the mere mechanism of history, is sufficient to achieve this. In Henry IV the position is different. The successor to the throne is a future national hero, the victor of Agincourt. Henry IV is already a patriotic epic.

Shakespeare never renounces his great confrontations. It is only that he poses them differently. Against the feudal barons butchering one another he sets the gargantuan figure of Falstaff. Sir John Falstaff not only personifies the Renaissance lust for life and thunderous laughter at heaven and hell, at the crown and all other laws of the realm. The fat knight possesses a plebeian wisdom and experience. He will not let history take him in. He scoffs at it.

There are two excellent scenes in Henry IV. The first one shows Falstaff as a newly created captain walking with his men to the place where the army has assembled. He has recruited only cripples and the poorest wretches in rags and tatters, because all those who had a little money could evade enlistment. The young prince looks aghast at this sorry army. But Falstaff, undisturbed, replies:

Tut, tut! good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They'll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

(I Henry IV, IV, 2)

This entire scene might have been put, as it stands, into a play by Brecht. And only on reading it does one realize how much Brecht has taken from Shakespeare.

The other scene shows Falstaff on the battlefield. He soliloquizes while looking for the best place to hide himself:

What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon—and so ends my catechism.

(I Henry IV, V, 1)

In Henry IV two notions of England are continuously set in contrast to each other. The feudal barons slaughter one another. The young crown prince robs merchants on the highways and has a gay time in taverns with a band of rascals. Henry IV is one of the few apologetic dramas written by Shakespeare. The young prince grows up to become a wise and brave king. There is, however, a sting in the moral. It appears that the company of Falstaff and cutpurses is a far better school for royalty than the feudal slaughter. After all, the two occupations are not so very different. It is enough to recall King John:

Cousin, away for England! Haste before;
And ere our coming see thou shake the bags
Of hoarding abbots; set at liberty
Imprison'd angels. The fat ribs of peace
Must by the hungry now be fed upon.

(King John, III, 3)


We have now to return for the last time to Shakespeare's metaphor of the grand staircase. Richard II grows in the course of his tragedy. On the lower steps he is just the name of a king; only on the last step do we see him in a big tragic close-up. He has regained his human face. The dramatic optics of Richard III reverse this order. Here the king is, in the first half of the tragedy, the mastermind of the Grand Mechanism, a demiurge of history, the Machiavellian Prince. But Shakespeare is wiser than the author of The Prince. As he walks up the grand stairs, Richard becomes smaller and smaller. It is as if the Grand Mechanism was absorbing him. Gradually he becomes just one of its cogs. He has ceased to be the executioner, he is now a victim, caught in the wheels.

Richard had been making history. The whole world was for him a piece of clay to shape in his hands. And now he himself is a piece of clay, shaped by someone else. In the Histories I have always admired Shakespeare's perception of the moment when history pushes the hitherto all-powerful prince into a blind alley; the moment when he who has been making history, or thinks he has been making it, becomes no more than its object. The moment when the Grand Mechanism turns out to be stronger than the man who has put it in motion.

In the last act of the tragedy, Richard III is only the name of a pursued king. The scene shifts from battle-field to battlefield. They are after him. He flees. He becomes weaker and weaker. They have caught up with him. Now he just tries to save his life.

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

(Richard III, V, 4)

So, this is how much all his efforts have been worth. This is the real price of power, of history, of the crown adorning the Lord's Anointed. One good horse is worth more than the entire kingdom. This is the last sentence of the great cycle of Shakespeare's historical chronicles.


In 1958, Jacek Woszczerowicz with a group of young actors performed some scenes from Richard III in the Warsaw House of Culture. The room was full and the tiny platform was almost covered by the crowd. No special lighting and no props were used. Woszczerowicz took off his coat and remained dressed in a thick black pullover with a high collar. He rolled up his left sleeve exposing a withered hand. On the forefinger of his right hand there was a large ring. Lady Anne wore an ordinary dress. The man in the black pull-over had murdered her father and husband. Now he asked her to sleep with him. The black pull-over, with a collar covering the lower part of his chin, looked like armour. But does one need armour to commit murder? I had never before seen a Shakespeare performance so compact and consistent. After that I waited for Richard III with Woszczerowicz. At last, early in the winter of 1960, Woszczerowicz produced Richard III at the Atheneum Theatre in Warsaw.

He walks briskly in, dragging one of his feet slightly. He stops and begins to laugh. He says that the war is over, that peace has come, and jagged swords can be laid aside. From above, rows of iron bars are lowered down to the stage, one after the other, forming the background. Richard talks to himself, not to us. He laughs again, not at himself, but at us. He has a broad face, untidy hair, and wears a soiled and torn tunic. "Woszczer" might thus begin the part of Sganarelle: with the same make-up, the same tone, the same laughter. He stands there with legs wide apart, and his withered left arm hanging down.

Sir Laurence Olivier was fascinating from the outset. His deformity was only slightly sketched, he was overpowering and awesome, a brother of the King. Woszczerowicz speaks about peace—laughing. This misshapen dwarf begins with tomfoolery. This is the first revelation, and shock. He is smaller than all the other characters: he has to look up in order to look them in the face. He is a figure of fun. He knows it; he knows everything.

In the nineteenth century the part of Richard was acted by tragedians, in a tragic fashion. He was represented as a pathological type of great criminal, or a "superman". Woszczerowicz is the first to build up Richard's part with all the means available to a comic actor. His Richard shows off, goes down on his knees, affects pity and anger, kindness, rage, and lust, even cruelty. His Richard is above all situations; he does not identify himself with them, he just plays them. He is not, he only pretends he is. Woszczerowicz is a great actor, but his Richard is an even greater actor. An actor in the literal sense is the one who acts and plays his cards. In legal terminology an actor is the plaintiff, not the defendant. Similarly, one talks about great actors of history. They both act and play their cards. They are not ashamed of tomfoolery. They are not ashamed of anything, just as the actor is not ashamed of any part he is to play, because he only enacts it. He is above the part. If he is the producer, he chooses the part and imposes situations. Then everything is a theatre to him. He has "outplayed" everybody. When he remains alone on the empty earth, he can laugh. He can even afford to recognize himself as a clown; a super-clown.

Shakespeare was very fond of comparing life to the theatre. It is a comparison that goes back to ancient times, but it was Shakespeare who endowed it with depth and clarity. "Teatrum Mundi" is neither tragic, nor comic. It just employs tragic and comic actors. What is the tyrant's part in that theatre? Richard is impersonal like history itself. He is the consciousness and mastermind of the Grand Mechanism. He puts in motion the steam-roller of history, and later is crushed by it. Richard is not even cruel. Psychology does not apply to him. He is just history, one of its ever-repeating chapters. He has no face.

But the actor who plays Richard must have a face. Woszczerowicz's Richard has a broad face and laughs. It is a frightening laughter. The most terrifying kind of tyrant is he who has recognized himself as a clown, and the world as a gigantic buffoonery. Of all actors in the part, Woszczerowicz has been the first thus to interpret Shakespeare. To my mind it is an interpretation with a mark of genius. He begins his performance with buffoonery, and buffoonery is the substance of his part. All his attitudes are those of a clown: the sly and cruel ones, as well as gestures of love and power. But buffoonery is not just a set of gestures. Buffoonery is a philosophy, and the highest form of contempt: absolute contempt.

Richard has become king. On his shoulders he wears the royal robe. It has been tailored in a couple of hours. Others may care about pretty clothes; he does not need them. He is always in a hurry. Others have time for trifles, not he. A throne has been carried onto the empty stage. It is a wooden structure looking rather like gallows. The dwarf is now sitting high like a spider, holding the royal insignia. He despises them, too. He has put his sceptre under one of his thighs. What is a sceptre? A golden stick. Richard knows the price of that stick.

Richard ceases to be a clown only in the last act. Until then he affected outbursts of rage and fury, devotion, even fear. Now he is really afraid. Until now he had been the one to choose the part and stand above others. Now he is simply himself: a man whom they want to murder. Richard does not want to accept this part, but he must. He is not laughing any more. He is just a heavy, misshapen dwarf. In a while he will be butchered like a pig. From the head of the corpse the crown will be torn. A new, young king will now talk of peace. Rows of bars are lowered from above. Henry VII speaks of peace, forgiveness, justice. And suddenly he gives a crowing sound like Richard's, and, for a second, the same sort of grimace twists his face. The bars are being lowered. The face of the new king is radiant again.

Richard P. Wheeler (essay date 1971-72)

SOURCE: "History, Character and Conscience in Richard III" in Comparative Drama, Vol. V, No. 4, Winter 1971-72, pp. 301-21.

[In the following essay, Wheeler discusses how this play dramatizes, through the life of King Richard III, two divergent views of history: that events are determined by divine will, and that events are determined by human will but are repeated in cyclical patterns.]

Criticism of Shakespeare's second tetralogy of English history plays has moved away from the attempt to correlate precisely the history dramatized in these plays with that presented by official Tudor apologists. C. L. Barber's essay on the Henry IV plays,1 for instance, finds in them a much more profound understanding of historical rhythms and of human involvement in the dynamics of power than E. M. W. Tillyard could establish by interpreting Shakespeare through concepts expressed in the chronicles and other sixteenth century poetry.2 Alvin B. Kernan, in his recent essay on the Henriad, demonstrates the sophisticated artistry through which Shakespeare comprehends the essential conflict of power and self as it is presented to modern western civilization.3 The first tetralogy and King John perhaps fail to achieve this sophistication, but in these plays Shakespeare begins to win for himself a difficult and sobering emancipation from official historical attitudes. I will examine this struggle as it shapes the drama of Richard III.

A wide range of historical attitudes have been assigned to Richard III. The extremes are represented by Jan Kott's stunning, free-wheeling essay on "The Kings" and Tillyard's scholarly, background-oriented study of Shakespeare's History Plays. From Shakespeare's histories, writes Kott, "there gradually emerges the image of history itself. The image of the Grand Mechanism."4 Shakespeare presents a history stripped of all illusion and mythology, indeed, of all meaning, a cruel, amoral, impersonal history of manipulators and victims. Inevitably the manipulators, the kings and the king-makers, become the victims of history's "recurring and unchanging circles" (p. 8). Gloucester understands and expresses the essence of this history, though he, too, becomes its "victim, caught in the wheel" (p. 51). Richmond's victory at Bosworth Field begins a new variation of the old pattern of kingship. Henry VII becomes the new face and voice of history, smoother, higher sounding, but equally implicated in the power process. Tillyard, on the other hand, sees Shakespeare faithfully dramatizing the Tudor myth of a divinely ordained unification of the houses of York and Lancaster. For Tillyard, Richard III is a profoundly religious play: "The play's main end is to show the working out of God's will in English history.... "5 Victorious Richmond represents the sacred force of right providentially triumphing over the forces of evil.

What is remarkable is not that these polar approaches to Richard III have been made, but that the play can so readily accommodate both. Historical outlooks close to each are essential to this play. Richard III dramatizes a struggle, never quite resolved, between conflicting ways of interpreting historical experience. In this play Shakespeare is finding his way toward an understanding that ultimately undermines a simple adherence to Tudor historic myth, but is not yet in full awareness and control of its disturbing implications.

Caught between contradictory conceptions of history, Shakespeare is profoundly drawn toward both. The two point toward views which, according to Mircea Eliade,6 distinguish the modern historical sense from that of earlier cultures. The Tudor historic myth—a strange adaptation of reactionary trends in Reformation and Counter-reformation political thought to the need for an official apologetic which could celebrate and stabilize Tudor succession—develops a traditional view of history which denies that life is tied to an irreversible procession of time which cannot be redeemed. Throughout the various levels of sophistication developed within this view of history, there runs the central idea of redeeming time-bound, worldly experience by immersing it in transcendent systems of meaning. Redemptive destiny makes the suffering of life bearable. By giving historical cycles a profound regenerative meaning, it invests the moment of suffering with a quality of meaningful, historical necessity:

... whether history was governed by the movements of the heavenly bodies or purely and simply by the cosmic process, which necessarily demanded a disintegration inevitably linked to an original integration, whether, again, it was subject to the will of God, a will that the prophets had been able to glimpse, the result was the same: none of the catastrophes manifested in history was arbitrary. (Cosmos and History, p. 133)

This way of understanding the present through a redemptive destiny makes history sacred. In contrast, "modern non-religious man" has come to regard himself

solely as the subject and agent of history, and he refuses all appeal to transcendence. In other words, he accepts no model for humanity outside the human condition as it can be seen in the various historical situations. Man makes himself and he only makes himself completely in proportion as he desacralizes himself and the world. The sacred is the prime obstacle to his freedom. He will become himself only when he is totally demysticized. He will not be truly free until he has killed the last god. (The Sacred and (he Profane, p. 203)

To the extent that profane man can 'create' history without submission to archetypal prescriptives, he has a freedom and individuality that mythic, sacred history denies. On the other hand, profane history has no means of justifying the terrors of history because it can neither escape nor regenerate time. Patterns continue to repeat themselves, but devoid of their redemptive content.

But repetition emptied of its religious content necessarily leads to a pessimistic vision of existence. When it is no longer a vehicle for reintegrating a primordial situation, and hence for recovering the mysterious presence of the gods, that is, when it is desacralized, cyclic time becomes terrifying; it is seen as a circle forever turning on itself, repeating itself to infinity. (Ibid., p. 107)

Profane man must come to terms with a history in which "time presents itself as a precarious and evanescent duration, leading irremediably to death" (Ibid, p. 113).

In Richard III a disturbing awareness of the possibility of a profane view of history suggesting the lines sketched by Eliade is eating into Shakespeare's faith in regenerative, historic myth. Eliade's distinction between sacred and profane history thus provides a useful interpretive frame for approaching the conflict in this play between Shakespeare's allegiance to an old order of thought and the doubts and discoveries which trouble that allegiance. But the relationship between the tensions of the play and the dichotomies of the modern writer's theoretical speculations is also to be understood as a mythology in common. This shared myth identifies the persistence in our time of the problem that worries Shakespeare's play. Eliade's writings are saturated with a profound nostalgia for the lost order, which he is able to preserve through his own Christian position. His vision of profane history—which he sees as necessarily a process in which the price of freedom for a few strong individuals is paid with the terror, futility, and constraint of the many—is shaped by this commitment to a sacred order which alone can infuse human life with meaning and comfort. Just so, Shakespeare needs at this stage to approach history through the assurance of the Tudor myth, solidly grounded in a Christianity that invests all historical events with the quality of meaningful necessity. With this need he confronts the England of the 1590's, and the result, projected into the past, is the delightful but nightmarish monster of individual will, Richard III, whose terrible presence is a source of fascination so long as it can be shrouded with the very ordered meaning of history which he threatens.

Richmond's victory is shaped by the Tudor myth of divine union; the blood-soaked land is regenerated and the violence is redeemed with peace and joy. This triumph culminates a thematic structure that can be clearly traced throughout the play. Richard III explicitly provides a single, well-defined interpretive frame for its events. Irving Ribner sums it up as

a stern morality which combines a Senecan notion of Nemesis with a Christian faith in providence, for the evil path of Richard is a cleansing operation which roots evil out of society and restores the world at last to the God-oriented goodness embodied in the new rule of Henry VII.7

Once it is understood that Richard is the scourge of God, his actions, however evil, serve a divinely ordained end. He becomes the paradoxical "Angel With Horns" brilliantly analyzed by A. P. Rossiter.8 But trends toward a profane view of history which emerge from the action of the play threaten the controlling power of the mythic structure. Whereas Richmond fulfills the destiny of one kind of history, Richard appears to make the other kind. Richard embodies the creative individuality that profane history grants its agents, just as he comes to embody the doom that such history demands.

The play is carefully constructed so that two levels of reality interact through the mediating agency of Margaret's curse. Richard's cruel manipulation of profane existence fulfills Margaret's prophetic curse, which in turn fulfills the divine plan, purging England of evil and clearing the way for Tudor ascension through Richmond. The play asks us to endorse such a view, but it also invites us to question it. The very structure that uses Richard as the scourge of God destined to aid providence is also constructed so as to put a severe and disruptive strain on its providential message. This threat is created by strong pressures toward a profane view which are never allowed thematically to break out of the sacred view which encloses them, but which show through the sacred veneer. The thematic structure surrounds but cannot completely control the violent energy of the inner, emotive structure. What follows is an attempt to locate those trends in the play that disrupt its stated meaning.

The desacralizing quality of the play cannot easily be accounted for in the thematic development toward an optimistic resolution. The roles of Margaret and Richmond are too carefully controlled to allow that. Steeped in vengeful anguish, Margaret delivers and presides over a prophetic curse which comes to be realized in the action of the play. First go Rivers, Vaughan and Grey: "Now Margaret's curse is fall'n upon our heads" (III.3.16)9; then Hastings: "O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse/Is lighted on poor Hastings' wretched head!" (III.4.91-93); then Buckingham: "Thus Margaret's curse falls heavy on my neck" (V.1.25). Richard himself is served his end according to Margaret's explicit predictions—betrayed by friends, his soul victim to "the worm of conscience," sleepless except for "some tormenting dream." Richmond's name is brought into the play as a potential counter to Richard just after Richard has become king. As Richmond draws nearer to England, his power steadily growing, Richard becomes increasingly troubled, his self control visibly shaken. A sense of fatefulness attaches itself to the approaching victory of Richmond that is experienced as destiny.

But even within the roles played by Margaret and Richmond there are tendencies which either disrupt the complete assimilation of history to a mythical pattern, or fail to make that assimilation completely convincing. The very fact that Margaret's prophetic power is manifested in a curse obscures the clarity of the sacred perspective. There is a difference between Richard's thematic function as scourge of God—one who can only serve divine ends regardless of the depths of his evil—and Margaret's as conscious agent of God's will—one who would have her curse "pierce the clouds and enter heaven." She tarnishes the purity of the sacred, for she serves God only as she serves her own gluttonous revenge: "I am hungry for revenge, / And now I cloy me with beholding it" (IV.4.61-62). Margaret finds the same cruel delight in her bloodthirsty success that Richard does. Margaret's purpose conforms to a divine end, but her presence suggests what Eliade describes as the "magico-religious paraphernalia" of "hybrid forms of black magic and sheer travesty of religion," steps in "the process of the desacralization of human existence" (The Sacred and the Profane, p. 206).

When Richmond arrives with his army (V.2), he encourages his troops "To reap the harvest of perpetual peace / By this one bloody trial of sharp war." He plans his battle for the next day, and prays that his forces may be able to serve God as "ministers of chastisement." Asleep, he dreams the "fairest-boding" half of a dream he shares with Richard. Richmond inspires his soldiers with the prospect of glory and peace through "God and Saint George! Richmond and victory!" Finally he defeats and kills Richard in the Battle of Bosworth Field, accepts the crown, and promises Tudor union, worthy heirs, and peace. This is a work of historical redemption done with God's sanction and in his presence. Richmond's speeches and the action of the final scenes bring the play to a thematic conclusion wholly consistent with the Tudor historic myth. The play demands a peaceful world to succeed a world of misery. The structuring of this theme insists that Richmond first be kept to the background, then austerely brought into the center of the action. But such a strategy, though adequate thematically, is simply not able to balance the tremendous emotional investment in its countertheme. In the early parts of the play, Shakespeare pushes unrelieved terror and misery toward the status of general human conditions. The play presents a world, as Queen Elizabeth tells Richard, "full of thy foul wrongs." The cumulative effect of this expansive emphasis on cruelty, deceit and misery creates a lingering impression that becomes independent of the simple cause (Richard) and effect (evil in the world) system that is thematically, but not emotionally, absorbed by the optimistic structure of the play.

Richmond's promise is fulfilled hope and perpetual peace. But Richmond must take over a rhetoric that has already been colored by the sardonic humor of Richard and the prolonged laments of his victims. Richmond's person simply does not carry enough force to jolt his key terms free from associations that have accrued to them in the course of the previous four acts. Through Richard's victims, the prospect of peace becomes fused with false hope and deception, as in the sickening irony of King Edward's wish to leave behind him a united kingdom.

And more at peace my soul shall part to heaven,
  Since I have made my friends at peace on earth,

followed by,

There wanteth now our brother Gloucester here
  To make the blessed period of the peace.

(II.1.3-4; 43-44)

Richard makes peace a tool of his savage wit, and uses the promise of peace in his various deceits. He would be reconciled to King Edward's "friendly peace," and entreats "true peace" of Queen Elizabeth. With Edward dead, Richard hopes that "the king made peace with all of us;/And the compact is firm and true in me." Hastings is executed for the "peace of England." Wooing Elizabeth for her daughter, Richard argues, "Infer fair England's peace from this alliance." But only the peace of death is salvable in the world Richard rules, and this is turned to when access even to false hope is impossible, as it becomes for the Duchess of York: "I to my grave, where peace and rest lie with me.

Richmond's purpose, of course, is to change all this. He brings "perpetual peace," "sleep in peace," and "smooth-faced peace" that "lives again." But because the preceding parts of the play identify the quest for peace so strongly with false hope, despair, blasphemy, and deceit, the language of peace carries into the last act affective associations that Richmond's promises are not entirely able to dispel. Behind the optimistic conclusion presided over by Richmond is an affective content already created by the earlier parts of the play, and which attaches itself to the language of the last act even though it contradicts the redemptive theme. This affective power is generated by the force of Richard's actions earlier, and to Richard we must turn in order to clarify the implications of this force.

The keys to Shakespeare's presentation of history in this play lie primarily in the relationship between Richard and the thematic apparatus used to subdue him. Richard's outstanding features are, of course, his extraordinary wit, his exceptional abundance of energy which this wit channels and releases, his total lack of scruples in the pursuit of power, his skill as an actor, and his penetrating insight into the psychology of persons with whom he deals. As master of face to face encounter, Richard is without peer. His virtuosity is demonstrated from the first, in his meeting with Clarence, where Richard displays his knack for playing on the weakened position of others to win their total confidence. But Clarence is a pushover, the real triumphs are to come. A more subtle development within this scene (I.1) is the side exchange with Brackenbury, who feels the bind between the royal order to let no one speak with Clarence and Richard's witty confiding as he violates this order. The quiet, almost inconspicuous terror conveyed in Brackenbury's response to Richard's intimidating congeniality establishes a quality that grows in magnitude and intensity throughout the play.

Richard's technique builds on his knowledge of the human tendency to substitute wish for reality when the facts of reality are intolerable. Richard can create both the oppressive reality and the outlet of illusory escape through false hope. By the end of the first devastating courtship scene, the easiest alternative for Anne is to hope for a redeeming sincerity in Richard's appeal for her hand in marriage, though she should better know the futility of this hope than anyone. Faced with the gruesomely real prospect of stabbing Richard's bared breast (killing him by word or deed in her mind are equal alternatives by this point, so thoroughly has Richard constructed a false reality through words), Anne slides into a realm of false hope in which Richard's remarkable love rhetoric becomes credible, however distant it is from the true situation. Instead of acting she pauses, "I would I knew thy heart," and the moment is Richard's. So is Anne Richard's, but the moment is what counts, not the woman: "I'll have her; but I will not keep her long."

This power to manipulate the wishes of others works both to create and shatter illusions. When Richard, ranting of injustice and violations of the social hierarchy, bursts in on the queen and her group (I.3), Elizabeth knows well what is on his mind:

Come, come, we know your meaning, brother Gloucester;
You envy my advancement and my friends!
God grant we nevei/may have need of you!

But during the long intrusion of Margaret's curse, Richard is able to deflect their animosity for him toward her, and bind the group to him with a kind of fellow feeling against the widow of Henry VI. His master stroke of feigned forgiveness when Margaret leaves is praised by Rivers as a "virtuous and Christian-like conclusion." Richard reverses this process of building from insecurities a false sense of good faith in his next encounter with the court regulars (II.1). He first enters into the spirit of dying King Edward's wish to reconcile the affairs of family and state before his death. Then still in his pious mode, Richard shatters this wishful optimism with the news of Clarence's death—as if by the king's too slowly rescinded order.

Richard retains his power to dominate intimate personal encounter through the last chance he has to exercise it—the courtship of Queen Elizabeth for her daughter (IV.4). Once again he triumphs over incredibly formidable conditions in getting this woman to relent. Queen Elizabeth is no more able than Anne had been to withstand Richard's psychic assault; she does not fend him off with a false promise, but is driven to consent to his request. The difference between the two courtship scenes is the changed nature of the play's political situation, which does not allow Richard to sustain the triumph of the moment in the time that follows it. Richard brings Elizabeth to relent, but he now faces a problem in power that extends far beyond the limited time and space of intimate personal encounter. Offstage, Elizabeth realizes what has happened to her, just as Anne did, but Elizabeth simply slips away to the camp of Richmond, a possibility that did not exist in the power arrangement that Anne faced.

Richard is the most famous of Elizabethan Machiavels, but the Machiavelli who wrote The Prince would have little patience with his tactics. Rule by fear is, of course, a principle Machiavelli endorses, but this rule is effective only when carefully controlled:

A prince, however, should make himself feared in such a manner that, if he has not won the affection of his people, he shall not incur their hatred.10

Machiavelli repeatedly asserts that a prince must "avoid everything that would make him odious and despised. And in proportion as he avoids that will he have performed his part well, and need fear no danger" (Ibid., p. 79). Richard, on the contrary, does everything possible to make himself "odious and despised." His very triumphs create the conditions that result in his down-fall.

Nobody protests the execution of Hastings. The contrivance which traps Hastings into falsely but fatally condemning himself (III.4) is one of Richard's most impressive exhibitions of imaginative coercion. But although no one protests, neither is anyone fooled by this trumped up charge of treason, as the Scrivener indicates:

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.


The political reaction against Richard that follows from the proliferation of such attitudes as the Scrivener's need not be considered the response of a divinely guided universe to Richard's wickedness. Machiavelli would have foreseen it. That the successful exercise of political power derives from a broad base is not a divine nor a mythic nor even a moral law. "Never," writes José Ortega y Gassett,

has anyone ruled on this earth by basing his rule essentially on any other thing than public opinion. . . . The fact that public opinion is the basic force which produces the phenomenon of rule in human societies is as old, and as lasting, as mankind.11

Richard the master of palace politics does everything possible to prevent himself from attaining this broad base in popular support, which in his England was manifested in the strength of the nobility.

Richard's strategy in winning the crown (III.7) exhibits the discrepancy between his brilliance as an actor and his failure as a politician of real strength. The crowd, long silent, that finally concedes a reluctant "amen" to Richard's acceptance of the title of "England's worthy king," is simply joining, for the expedience of the moment, the play that Richard and Buckingham have staged using the rusty armor, the priests, and the lord mayor as props. It is an impressive display of acting virtuosity, but an artifice is created, not a solid political reality, which is no more able to sustain itself in the broad world of political power than any such artifice not solidly grounded. Judged only by conditions of a political reality that the play establishes, Richard's power is so disintegrated by the last act that virtually anyone able to attract to himself the eager support of the frustrated and fearful English nobility could have unseated him. Richard, politically, ironically is the "bottled spider" that Margaret calls him, able to poison whomever ventures into his web, but not able to extend this web as a means of embracing the power of the kingdom. The force of Richmond as Agent of God is diminished by there being no need for a resort to a higher system of causality, of what Paul Goodman12 calls a "miracle" to relieve England of the "impasse" of Richard's tyranny. There is no impasse. Richard's political and military might have been so drained that there is little doubt about the outcome. This, of course, does not deny the play's prerogative to interpret the events of history in terms of the sacred or mythic, as it does. But Richard III establishes a rigorous inner integrity within an essentially profane system of political causality which makes the Tudor-Christian myth seem more the ornament of history than its essence.

The arc of Richard's development through a series of triumphs to final defeat best can be understood through his highly self-conscious role as an actor who imposes the conditions of stage onto the real world. Richard's vice role reflects far more than Shakespeare's indebtedness to an old theatrical tradition. Anne Righter comments that Richard—who "through the power of illusion . . . blinds honest men and accomplishes their overthrow"—"seems to be regarded by Shakespeare more as an example of the power wielded by the actor than as a figure of treachery and evil."13 But Shakespeare also shows, through Richard, the limits of the actor, both in controlling power and in controlling the whole person that lies behind the actor's mask.

Machiavelli, of course, insists that a ruler be an actor, a dissembler who appears to act in the interest of the good while actually contriving to maintain and extend his power by any means necessary. Richard's ascent to power is grounded in his acting artistry, in his ability to fabricate reality, to create a world of illusion that others accept as real. He turns his world into a stage, history into a play which he creates. But similarly, his failure is an artistic one. Shakespeare's Richard violates the basic laws of mimesis; he distorts the world so out of shape in his play-acting that the artificiality of it becomes only too clear. By the time he has become king, he simply is no longer fooling anyone. Instead of adapting himself to a part dictated by the precarious political conditions he encounters, Richard attempts to re-shape these conditions in terms of the part he craves to play. No artist is more powerful than his materials, and Richard's attempt to be so leads to his destruction at their hands. Richard's theatricality, through which he manifests his strength, is also his essential political weakness, because he believes the momentary illusion of reality that he creates by acting can be extended through time over the real sources of political power.

Just as Richard's relations to the external world are focused through his role as actor, so are his relations to himself. The vice role allows him to avoid facing the complicating demands of his inner self, and is essential to the defensive structure of his character. As Hazlitt saw, Richard uses his talents and his drive for power "to shield himself from remorse. . . . "14 Richard feels, as do most men, a need for power, a need for love, and a bondage to conscience. Rather than attempt a working compromise of these inner demands, Richard strives for an identity built solely around an unmitigated drive for power. He substitutes sadistic violence for the need for love; he transforms shame for his own deformity into disgust for others. The guilt that such an inversion arouses is consciously warded off through a total commitment to sadistic aggression, although this maneuver divides Richard against himself. He is fierce and cunning in the manipulation of others, but as his queen tells us, at night he has "timorous dreams."

Richard has constructed a role that projects onto the outer world the violence of his inner conflicts. As the objective power structure he has created begins to crumble, there is a corresponding weakening of Richard's capacity to keep repressed needs at a distance. Eventually, Richard is forced to see himself from the vantage point he has outrageously flaunted before. Helpless before his accumulated guilt in the dramatized dream in which his victims return to accuse him, Richard finds himself alone, afraid, and unloved:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree,
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree,
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, 'Guilty, guilty!'
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul will pity me.


The culturally defined conflict to which Richard finally succumbs—that of a Christian political morality opposed to the individual rage for power—corresponds psychologically to an unresolved ambivalence belonging to the earliest stages of infancy. Richard is driven by inner needs which present themselves to him in the contradictory extremes of the infantile imagination: the need for a feeling of omnipotence, around which he builds his aggressive drive for power; and the need for love of a sort which could be achieved only by total, selfless submission. So long as he has before him the promise of an ever growing sense of externally realized power, Richard can relegate his self-disgust and the fear of being unloved to the domain of witty detachment, as in the famous opening soliloquy. Richard, "not shaped for sportive tricks/Nor made to court an amorous looking glass," delights in his "own deformity," and decides to "prove a villain" since he "cannot prove a lover." The need for power and the consciously repudiated need to be seen as the worthy object of the love of others both appear, however, in his major triumphs. The aggressive drive for power furnishes the propelling force, but the need to be loved emerges—to be mocked—in the disguise. He bares his breast to Lady Anne, offering her the option to destroy him or to love him. He presents himself as victim and martyr—"too childish-foolish for this world"—to the court of dying Edward. He plays "the maid's part" before his London audience, reluctantly accepting the burden of a crown forced upon him. Even in persuading Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter for him, Richard attempts to picture a situation in which he and the queen and her daughter are all helpless before the conditions of the time, duty bound to effect the marriage:

In her consists my happiness and thine;
Without her, follows to myself and thee,
Herself, the land, and many a Christian soul,
Death, desolation, ruin and decay.
It cannot be avoided but by this;
It will not be avoided but by this.


Richard's guise to "seem a saint, when most I play the devil" (I.3.337) is not only a clever expedient, but reflects his conflicting drives to be both, one of which is necessarily repressed in order that the other may be asserted. An exchange between Richard and the Duchess of York provides an essential key to these contradictory needs. Richard turns to her after the death of Edward:

Madam, my mother, I do cry you mercy;
I did not see your grace. Humbly on my knee
  I crave your blessing.
God bless thee, and put meekness in thy breast,
  Love, charity, obedience, and true duty!
Ameni [aside] and make me die a good old man!
That is the butt-end of a mother's blessing;
I marvel that her grace did leave it out.


His mother's blessing, for Richard, amounts to a curse. Christian obedience and the possibility of receiving love are fused in Richard's mind with passive, effeminate submissiveness to others and to the force of conscience. The demands of love and duty can lead only to frustration of his drive for power. And power, for Richard, means the narcissistic triumph of unbounded self-esteem through the sadistic reduction of others to helpless, inferior, repugnant objects. He strives for self love through a destructive repudiation of the need to be loved. The real pleasure in this power—which betrays its origins in early infantile ambivalences—comes through inflicting suffering on women. Men must be destroyed in order for Richard to gain his power; the sequence of killing started in 3 Henry VI is extended by the deaths of Clarence, of Rivers, Vaughan and Grey, of Hastings, of the two princes, of Buckingham. But the real pleasure of sadistic aggression begins for Richard in the cruel courtship of Anne, and the real suffering of the play comes to be focused in the voices of widowed mothers. Richard does not kill men so much as he kills sons and husbands.

As the play progresses, and all of Richard's visible enemies are destroyed, the dramatic situation is polarized into a verbal battle between Richard—the terrible son his mother's "womb let loose to chase us to our graves"—and a chorus of bereaved mothers—old Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York. It is appropriate that just after Richard's own mother leaves him with her "most grievous curse," Richard persuades Elizabeth to court her daughter for him, for it is as to a mother that he turns to Edward's widowed queen.

If I did take the kingdom from your sons,
To make amends I'll give it to your daughter;
If I have killed the issue of your womb,
  To quicken your increase I will beget
  More issue of your blood upon your daughter.


He goes on to promise her first "grandam's name," then the chance to be "mother of a king." As he moves toward increased intimacy, he calls her "my mother," then "dear mother." He celebrates his success by calling her "happy mother."

As before with Anne, the triumph gives Richard a chance to confirm his disgust with female weakness: "Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!" But this time the effort shatters Richard's self-composure. Confronted almost immediately with news of Richmond's increasing power, Richard is irritable, shaken, and confused. His conquest of Elizabeth, like that of Anne, has expressed his defensive hatred of women, as it has parodied his deep but denied need to purify himself through the love of a woman, ideally of a mother. But the disintegration of the power situation, which has previously allowed the separation of defense and need, has created a corresponding interior disintegration. The inner defensive balance—which sacrificed the need to be loved for the narcissistic feeling of omnipotence achieved through sadistic aggression—is completely tied to the external situation. The victory over Elizabeth parodies and mocks but does not fulfill a deeply repressed need; without the compensatory assurance of power, Richard feels the absence of what he has pretended to gain.

As the political artifice crumbles, the actor's mask is pulled away, and the weakness of Richard, his human susceptibility to conflicting needs, comes to the surface. Before lying down on the eve of the battle, Richard is baffled by the disappearance of his vigor and self-assurance: "I have not that alacrity of spirit/Nor cheer of mind that I was wont to have." During the night, he confronts his guilt, and shudders before it. The inner torment is fiercer now than any danger he can face in the field:

By the apostle Paul, shadows to-night
Have struck more terror to the soul of Richard
Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers
  Armed in proof and led by shallow Richmond.

His speech before the troops the next day is an attempt to reassert a power that is no longer his. Richard bolsters his courage with a magnificent half-truth in which he defines the nature of conscience as he would still like to regard it:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe;
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!


He dies in the same vein, true in the action of battle to a private obsession with power that has lost its sway in the public realm and its unchallenged supremacy in his personal struggle for an omnipotent self: "Slave, I have set my life upon a cast, / And I will stand the hazard of the die."

Richard, who becomes an actor-king with near demonic powers by repudiating a part of his own humanity, eventually becomes a slave to the role he has created for himself. His realization that he must marry the daughter of Elizabeth brings with it an ironic step toward self-recognition:

I must be married to my brother's daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass;
Murder her brothers, and then marry her—
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
  So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.


Though Richard tries to turn this oblique step toward self-understanding into an assertion of his pitiless cruelty, the irony lies in his partial awareness of the political and psychological determinants that have made him their pawn. The role Richard has created has become a part in a play no longer shaped solely by his egoistic drive for power, but by forces not within his control. These forces—within him, within the play, and within Shakespeare—are moral and religious in form, but do not reflect precisely the historical morality of Tudor chroniclers.

The return of the suppressed forces of conscience in a moment of personal vulnerability is a major organizing principle in the play. When Clarence's dream on the eve of his execution releases a surer knowledge of his relationship to Richard than he has conscious access to, his fear is accompanied by waves of guilt and retribution. As the two murderers prepare themselves for killing Clarence, the second murderer shudders to find that "some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me" (I.4.120-21). The murderers openly regard conscience as the enemy to manly assertion: "Tis a blushing, shame-faced spirit that mutinies in a man's bosom; . . . and every man that means to live well endeavors to trust to himself and live without it." Of the two murderers, only one will accept his reward once the killing is accomplished; the other would wash his hands "of this most grievous murder!" What is interesting, however, about the extraordinary scene in which Clarence's killing is carried out, is the means by which the assassins prepare themselves for it. In order to escape the obstructions of a conscience they regard as effeminate and inhibiting, they turn to an outrageous delight in the cruelty of their plan:

Take him on the costard with the hilts of thy
sword, and then throw him into the malmsy
butt in the next room.
O excellent device! and make a sop of him.

The murderous identity they achieve through sadistic activity that simply seems to fly in the face of internal restraint presents in small the story of Richard himself.

A clear pattern emerges, developed in large by Richard and elaborated by lesser figures, Clarence, the assassins, and Buckingham: a violent release of cruel energy—which serves an egoistic need for power, which is expressed through sadistic aggression, and which must overcome the inner restraints of conscience by projecting its self-tormenting force onto the outside world—is finally unable to elude the grasp of conscience, and succumbs to it. This pattern accounts for the action of Richard as a character, and also for his relationship to the moral theme of the play. This latter relationship expresses in an external, cultural context the same drama that goes on inside the character of Richard. The night before the battle, Richard's dream of omnipotence is destroyed; during the battle the political objectification of that dream is dealt its final blow. With the rhetoric of Richmond's victory, Shakespeare clears his own conscience by destroying the egoistic monster through which he has eluded it.

The relationship of Richard to the moral theme is presented by Shakespeare as the message bequeathed by past history, but it actually expresses better the historical conditions under which the play was written. Richard III dramatizes, ultimately, neither the past as it had been interpreted by Tudor historians (Tillyard), nor the confrontation with history we face today (Kott), but the historical pressures experienced by Shakespeare and his contemporaries anxious about the approaching death of the last, aging Tudor. This is an experience which created in the Elizabethan theater fascination with Richard, tolerance for Margaret, and the need for Richmond. The massive cultural pressures presented by the power struggle of church and state, by the economic forces which dissolved feudalism and threatened the stability of class distinctions, by the emergence of an intellectual freedom and awareness which overthrew the shackling dominance of medieval thought, these and other powerful social disruptions brought confusion, anxiety and opportunity into the key relationships which bind an individual to his society. Zevedei Barbu speculates suggestively on the experience of inhabiting this world in which traditional answers are shaken by the prospects of an emerging but as yet unclarified social reality greatly changed from the one that created them:

On the psychological level, the situation was characterized by an outburst of primary mental energy—instincts and wishes—which escaped the moulding and repressing influence of traditional values and patterns of behaviour. People passed through a period of reorientation of their mental structure, and particularly their conscience. It would perhaps be appropriate in this case to speak about a period of interlude in the human conscience in the sense that the conscience articulated by the old world of values was weak while the new was not yet formed. Thus, the period was one of mental freedom verging on inner anarchy.15

Barbu's remarks seem to describe aptly a condition out of which Shakespeare's Richard III might arise, since Richard builds his success around the explosive force of crude instinctual demands masked by a role that parodies traditional values. Richard's rampant egoism would appear to channel into shared, theatrical fantasy the released energies of a people who not only were "becoming more and more prepared to admit that their minds were often activated by primitive egoistic impulses, but also that this should be so."16

Apt as Barbu's comments may seem, a contradiction nevertheless emerges. Richard's egoism is not condoned but condemned by the play. Richard must privately face the terrors of his conscience and publicly succumb to the restorative power of Richmond. The contradiction points to a mis-emphasis in Barbu's analysis of the historical experience. Barbu posits a weakening and a reshaping of the individual conscience, but Freud has stressed the persistence in the individual of values formed in the past even when altered social and economic conditions draw men toward activities which contradict them.

Mankind never lives entirely in the present. The past, the tradition of the race and of the people, lives on in the ideologies of the super-ego; and so long as it operates through the super-ego it plays a powerful part in human life, independently of economic conditions.17

The release of energy given dramatic expression in Richard is a release that incurs the wrath of a conscience still powerful in the inner life even if violated in the pursuit of egoistic opportunity. Richard as a character offered to Elizabethan audiences the chance to indulge through the vicarious medium of theater egoistic drives striving for liberation; Richard III the play allowed them a rapport with the persisting demands of an old morality. Indeed, the relationship is even more thoroughly pervaded by the power of conscience than this, because the special delight in cruelty that characterizes the play derives from the cruelty of super-ego forces projected into relationships with others. That the attempt of the play to contain Richard within an optimistic historical frame is only partially successful points to the very precariousness of the historical situation as it was faced by the individual of Elizabethan England. In attempting to resolve Richard's cruelty into an optimistic re-integration of past values, Shakespeare projects into dramatic form the division of moral, religious self against egoistic self central to the crisis of the individual during his lifetime. This division within the individual corresponds to the opposing trends toward sacred and profane history with which we started, for it is Shakespeare's age that faced the exhilarating and terrifying origins of that conflict in historical awareness that is still in progress.

The collapse of a unifying perspective within the play yields a volatile mixture of insight, fantasy and cliché ignited by the collision of doubt with faith in the historical order, release with restraint in the personal order. Richard as a character expresses Shakespeare's fascination with the possibility of a creative, self-assertive individuality, unleashes his intoxicating delight with the escape from traditional, moral restrictions through the power of imagination as it serves egoistic demands. But as a figure exercizing his egoistic freedom in the world of other men, Richard presents to Shakespeare the possibilities for terror and destruction which can accompany that freedom. The grotesque proportions of Richard's evil reflect Shakespeare's radical distrust of the individual not controlled by a divine moral plan. Shakespeare's "villainizing" of the idea of individuality in the person of Richard expresses his disbelief that there can be any real power to sustain order located in agencies (social, economic, political, institutional, etc.) which mediate between the divine scheme of things and the demands of individual men. With the inner disintegration of Richard, Shakespeare sees deeply into the psychological persistence of internal restraints in those who will to escape them. In presenting Richard's political triumph and defeat, Shakespeare discovers in dramatic action the rigid causality of Machiavellian politics. But the sacralization of history through Richmond's triumph is an attempt to nullify these discoveries, to hold in check the fascinating and terrifying Richard by assimilating him to a view of history Shakespeare can no longer quite believe and not yet afford to abandon.


1 "Rule and Misrule in Henry IV" Shakespeare 's Festive Comedy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 192-221.

2Shakespeare's History Plays (New York; Collier Books ed., 1962).

3 "The Henriad: Shakespeare's Major History Plays," Modern Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), pp. 245-75.

4Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1966), p. 10.

5Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 238. A. L. French has recently argued that Richard III "by no means conforms to the Tudor morality-play pattern proposed by Tillyard and others...." and that "the play enlists feelings wide of any conceivable Tudor mark." "The World of Richard III," Shakespeare Studies, IV (1968), 31-32. But French fails to appreciate the anxieties aroused by diminishing the control over historical experience offered by the official Tudor view.

6 The discussion of Eliade's ideas derives primarily from Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1959) and from The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Harper Torchbook, 1961), both translated by Willard R. Trask.

7The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, revised ed. (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 118.

8Angels With Horns, ed. Graham Storey (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961), pp. 1-22.

9 Quotations from Richard III are from the Pelican Shakespeare text, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1969).

10The Prince, trans. Christian E. Detmold, ed. Lester G. Crocker (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), p. 73.

11The Revolt of the Masses, authorized trans. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1932), pp. 126-27.

12The Structure of Literature (Chicago: Phoenix Books ed., 1962), p. 55.

13Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (Harmonds-worth, England: Penguin Shakespeare Library ed., 1967), pp. 87, 88.

14Characters of Shakespear's plays, quoted in F. E. Halliday, Shakespeare and His Critics, revised ed. (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., 1958), p. 138.

15Problems of Historical Psychology (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 154.

16 Ibid., p. 155.

17 "The Dissection of the Psychical Personality," The Complete Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans, and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), p. 531.


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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 Shakespeare had already begun to reassemble the legend that is forfeited in the earlier cycle, and Henry V, while it is uncompromisingly severe in its repudiation of the French chivalric style, remains the only play that he could have written with Hall's Union in one hand and Erasmus' Institutio Principis in the other. In itself, this revival of the hero-king is hardly surprising. The figure, like the theatrical conventions that secured his popularity, was an indestructible part of Shakespeare's world. The student of English drama in the seventeenth century, following this figure through the plays of Dryden and his contemporaries, is bound to be more impressed by his resilience and adaptability than by his occasional disappearance into the stereotypes of political orthodoxy. The problem at hand, once again, has rather to do with the peculiar adjustments that ensue when the heroic pattern is assimilated to English social convention. The later histories challenge our attention because they resume that problem and, more particularly, because they suggest a new way of looking at it. Where Henry VI chronicles the attrition of the chivalric legacy throughout the fifteenth century, the later histories presuppose that the legend of the hero-king has a life of its own, a currency in popular belief that will outlast any number of "vile politicians." For a legendary ideal is liable to persist indefinitely, as Machiavelli recognized, once it passes into the mythology of statecraft: whatever the Prince himself may come to know or believe, it is still required that he identify himself to the world through the rituals of chivalry.

Thus the early trilogy will stand as "heroical" literature in a sense which does not apply to the histories that follow. Whatever their peculiar misdeeds and betrayals, the principal figures of Henry VI all can give their personal assent to the heroic traditions that secure their public identities. True, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, introduces himself as an aspirant "Machiavel"; but the imagery and tone of his exposition are still controlled by the conventions of Marlovian conqueror-drama. Machiavelli would not have recognized it. Richard III, Henry Bolingbroke, and his son Hal inhabit a world that is considerably less assured about its relationship to the ideal past of epic and romance. They participate in the rituals of chivalry and courtly display, but they do not, and cannot, wholly identify themselves with what they have come to recognize as a political myth. Even Henry V, on the eve of Agincourt, acknowledges that the identity which "Ceremony" confers does not square with his deepest intuitions about himself. Like his father, he has to live with the knowledge that the formal attributes of "majesty" are, in effect, a special "person" or "presence" which must always be kept "fresh and new" (I Henry IV, III.ii.56, 55). The crux of the problem, as Richard HI discovers on the eve of Bosworth Field, lies in the relation of this "person" to the man who keeps it. "Everyone sees what you appear to be," Machiavelli reminds his new prince; "few really know what you are."2 So much may be clear; but then, who does know what this new prince really is? How, if tradition does not tell him, can he know himself?

It is evident that Shakespeare comes to reappraise the heroic tradition and its significance in English history by way of these dilemmas. To pursue them through Richard III and I Henry IV, the two plays that actually try to resolve them, is to gain a fuller sense both of the values which underlie Henry VI and of the conceptual limits within which the trilogy is enclosed. In I Henry VI Shakespeare sets forth the criteria that differentiate heroic ceremony from mere "bravery." In Richard III he begins with a consummate impersonator, and proceeds to raise the larger problem of whether artifice and "form" can be taken as trustworthy determinants of a ruler's true nature. The critique that results strikes at the very notion of exemplary behavior. If the proper style really can be mastered by a self-professed "villain," what is there to prevent an unbroken chain of cynical princes and gullible subjects? In Henry VI the problem of authenticity can finally be resolved only by reference to ancestry and nurture. Talbot's rectitude is guaranteed because he is a Talbot; the Bastard's infamy is immanent in the circumstances of his birth. When these conventions break down in the succession of generations around which the trilogy is organized, there is nowhere to turn. The interested spectator can only try to weigh one man's pretensions against another's. The prince can only try to suit his performance to his audience's expectations. In I Henry IV Shakespeare takes this erosion of traditional standards for granted, as a fact of political life, and thereby secures the freedom to redefine the incentives that lead a prince to elect the chivalric vocation. What Young Talbot inherits, Hal chooses for himself; and the reasoning that underlies his choice comprises, in turn, the fullest available justification for the heroic ideals of Henry VI.

Richard III

When Richard announces, "I am determined to prove a villain" (I.i.30), he is paying his farewell to the noble occupations of love and war and entering a more devious theater of operations, one in which he is the trickster and his antagonists are the gulls. As A. P. Rossiter has said, he is the companion of Barabas and Volpone, a "murderous practical joker" who "inhabits a world where everyone deserves everything he can do to them."3 His evident amusement at being unsuited to play the courtier at Edward's triumphs seems calculated to stress the essential incongruity: what is this vicious, ironic comedian doing in a serious play about English history? Unlike his predecessors in the earlier trilogy, and the plays that stand behind them, Richard possesses no vision of aristocratic honor to establish his significance as a humanistic example. Nor can he be adequately described (although it is becoming customary to do so) as simply an admonitory stereotype of political ambition. The limitations of that idea are aptly summarized in Coleridge's wise and penetrating comment on the play:

As, in the last [Richard III], Shakespeare has painted a man where ambition is the channel in which the ruling impulse runs, so, in the first [Richard II], he has given us a character, under the name of Bolingbroke, or Henry IV., where ambition itself, conjoined unquestionably with great talents, is the ruling impulse. In Richard III. the pride of intellect makes use of ambition as its means; in Bolingbroke the gratification of ambition is the end, and talents are the means.4

If Richard were ambitious in the manner of Henry Bolingbroke—or his own father York—his character would present no special difficulty. But "pride of intellect" is less easily accounted for, in an historical framework, than heroic aspiration or ordinary political canniness.

The conception must have seemed novel even to the enthusiastic audiences who applauded Burbage's rendition of the part. There was little in the sixteenth-century portrayals of Richard that would have prepared them for it. The monster who emerges from Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III is a creature of popular demonology conceived in a spirit of classical irony. As court propagandist for Henry Richmond's son, More took pains to preserve the Tudor myth about the Yorkist Antichrist who was born with hair and teeth and grew up to kill the babes in the Tower; as an urbane humanist historian he kept the legendary monster under control by treating his aspirations as an elaborate, grotesque joke. Consequently, "The History of King Richard HI" occupies a special place in the pages of Grafton, Hall, and Holinshed. Rather than a loose collection of historical episodes, it constitutes a polished piece of rhetorical invective, designed to set forth its object as a hopeless case of depravity and deformity. For a playwright such material would seem to offer meager alternatives. Thomas Legge manfully tried to recreate Richard as a weak and vicious tyrant in the neo-Senecan play Richardus Tertius (1579). Ten years later, writing for a popular rather than a university audience, the anonymous author of The True Tragedy of Richard III simply ignored More altogether and, like Colley Cibber some hundred and ten years later, cast Richard as a Marlovian conqueror with an anguished conscience. Shakespeare took a third course. In effect, he preserved the myth about Richard's monstrosity, but he transferred More's alert sense of irony to Richard himself. In the History it is the witty and sophisticated narrator who characterizes Richard and Buckingham as mere actors, wondered at by a populace that can only regard them as figures in some private charade; in the play it is the hero himself who eagerly cultivates the role of stage manager and elicits his audience's unanimous acclaim. In theatrical terms, the youngest son of York happily assumes the role of a villain—a lineal descendant of the Vice, the clown, and the comic Machiavel, in whom the desire to entertain, to maximize the possibilities for comic impersonation and verbal wit, is always ascendant.

How was it that Shakespeare, in recounting the final, ghastly aftermath of Henry VI, took such a figure for his hero? And what are the connections between the play's comedy and its sombre historical backdrop? Such questions as these do not loom very large in recent criticism of the play. It is rather the explicitly moral dimension of Richard's character that has attracted the most attention from the historically minded criticism of this century. The classic account of the "modern" Richard is set forth in the chapter on Shakespeare's villains in E. E. Stoll's Shakespeare Studies: Historical and Comparative in Method.5 By Stoll's reckoning all of Shakespeare's great villains personify one side of a traditional Christian dualism, projecting the eternal struggle between good and evil onto the secular stage through such historical analogues as the Vice, the Machiavel, and the Senecan badman. The villainies of a character like Richard can thus be taken as a self-fulfilling exercise in anarchy and evil, utterly divorced from any plausible human motivations. More specialized studies, particularly those of Bernard Spivack, Mario Praz, and F. L. Lucas, along with Wolfgang Clemen's magisterial Kommentar zu Shakespeares Richard III, have all tended to confirm the hypothesis.6 The play may be taken, in other words, as part revenge drama, with Margaret as Divine Nemesis, and part morality, with Richard as "the formal vice, Iniquity" (III.i.82). As such it will appear not to be a history, in the sense that I have been using the term, but rather a tragedy, more precisely, a tragedy that now and again affords glimpses, through Margaret's elaborate choric laments and Richard's crisis of conscience, into the formal configurations and traditional homiletics of Christian historiography. This reading offers the surest guide to the moral scaffolding of the piece—but it takes the risk of reducing the adroit theatrical intellect that delighted Lamb, Hazlitt, and generations of playgoers, to a mere cipher in a providential scheme. It exposes the ethical confusions implicit in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century idealizations of Richard's character, but it fails to account for the intellectual brilliance that prompted them in the first place.

I recur to the play's comedy because it bears directly on many of the topics that occupied the previous chapter. The jokes originate, it will be recalled, in 3 Henry VI, with Richard's mock-heroic promise to emulate and outdo the most successful orators of antiquity, Ulysses, Nestor, and Sinon, and the godlike pattern of quick-change artistry, Proteus. If he opens Richard III by formulating his ideal in less spacious phrases, the shift in tone, from classical allusion to unvarnished assertion, only serves to underscore the irony of his original citations: "villains"—clowns, parasites, time-servers, men who live by their tongues—have a way of insinuating themselves into history and epic, genres where they cut an unlikely figure just as the "unfashionable" Richard looks out of place at Edward's triumph. In public, however, Richard is still careful to keep decorum, with the result that the humanistic history of Henry VI repeats itself in this play: only it repeats itself as farce. For much of the first four acts, Richard flaunts his "pride of intellect" by mimicking the visible forms of aristocratic and heroic virtue as if they were just so many parts to be learned. Speaking through his mouth-piece Buckingham, he makes the sternest appraisal of that "base declension and loathed bigamy" (III.ii.189) which would disqualify Edward's lineage from the throne. He can be a courtly lover like Suffolk (I.ii), a loyal brother in adversity like Warwick (I.iii), and a forthright, plain-speaking counselor like Gloucester (I.iii). When occasion demands, he proves as stirring a martial orator as Talbot (V.iii), and an even more pious recluse than Henry VI (III.vii). In the civilized world of the court these postures serve Shakespeare's "slave of nature" just as the armor and curtle-axe that Tamburlaine puts on serves Marlowe's hero: they are the "adjuncts" by which he establishes his claims to that high status which his birth had apparently denied him. Richard, however, never dreams of suggesting that the outward forms of nobility should fit the man beneath; indeed he is quite explicit to the contrary. He becomes a lover to frustrate the ends of love, a counselor to inhibit the exercise of good counsel, and a patriot to subvert the respublica. Where Marlowe's aspirant hero selects one commonplace definition of nobility and lives it out, Shakespeare's aspirant villain selects them all, but views each in the reductive light of satire.

Beneath his Protean transformations there is a stable, unchanging Richard, but he is identifiable not so much as a moral stereotype as an extension of Marlowe's belief in the efficacy of the individual will to shape the world by its own force of character. In Richard's case the conception has all been channelled into "pride of intellect"; but the pride, the core of heroic self-assertion, remains intact. Hence the curious fact that this "villain" never stoops to such mere devices as the forged letters, shuffled corpses, and poisoned rapiers that are the stock in trade of his predecessors Barabas and Lorenzo. As if in deference to the more lofty decorum of an historical action, he engages his enemies at first hand; and even as they are tricked by his imitations of virtue, they are tried, tempted, and over-come by his comic assault on their ethical defenses. Invariably the success of his impersonations depends on the victim's inability to distinguish the false from the genuine article. As the scourge of whatever God stands behind Margaret's unremitting moral calculus, Richard tempts each inhabitant of this "dark monarchy" with the illusion of virtue best calculated to elicit his personal failing: Clarence's blind adherence to fraternal ties (which had led him to rejoin Edward after taking the sacrament to fight for Warwick); Anne's readiness to forgive Richard his murders at Tewkesbury—if they were all for love; Hastings' fatuous satisfaction at the execution of his ancient enemies, Dorset, Rivers, and Grey; and, finally, Buckingham's naive supposition that usurpation can be compacted by a gentlemen's agreement. Like Tamburlaine, much of Richard III is about the intrinsic superiority of a natural virtue for sovereignty in a corrupt world; only it views the phenomenon through parody and impersonation rather than aristocratic idealism. By so doing, the play finally calls into question the whole notion of a "public" aristocratic style of life based on humanistic ideals.

If the comedy were not so relentlessly mock-heroic, if Richard had made his way to the throne by forged letters and poisoned rapiers, presumably the conclusion would have shown us Wily Beguiled, as in "the farce of the old English humour, the terribly serious, even savage comic humour" that T.S. Eliot associates with The Jew of Malta,7 But Shakespeare's intention was not to produce a bloody farce contrived by "God your only jig-maker," nor was he interested (as was the author of The True Tragedy) in casting Richmond as a bold and bloody revenger. It may be, as Hamlet says, that "the enginer / Hoist with his own petar" (III.iv.206-207) provides the most entertaining of ironies; but Richard is not permitted to continue as an "enginer" beyond the fourth act. Beneath the brilliant impersonations that decorate its surface, Richard III moves inexorably towards the consummation of the Tudor myth about English history; and as if to preclude any ambiguity on this point, the final act externalizes the moral constituents of the myth in the most uncompromising terms. The battleground shifts from the guilt ridden court to Bosworth Field, and the representatives of good and evil, Richmond and Richard, are presented as two sides of a stable polarity.

This movement into a fully providential vision of history does not depend, however, on Richard's simply being reduced to a figure in a pattern. The externalization of moral values on the plane of national history is exactly paralleled, and extended into an individual conscience, when Richard looks within himself. As the lights burn blue, he at last begins to apprehend inexorable processes of historical time ("It is now dead midnight" [180]) moving towards their appointed end. Now his "villainies" reappear to him as sins, all crying out for the moment of judgment:

Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree,
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree,
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, "Guilty! guilty!"

(V.iii. 197-200)

The villain who would be king discovers what it means to be a "murderer" in a providential universe, and his astute mockery of what the world admires as virtue now returns to mock him as well: "Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter" (193). It has frequently been argued that Shakespeare was trying, at this point, to do something for which he was not yet prepared: to portray the conscience of an earlier Macbeth, a murderer tormented by self-knowledge. But there is another way of taking these lines. For what has always been denied by Richard's postures and calculations—as it is denied here—is just that core of personal honor, or "worth," which would have left him with a self to know. Had he ever possessed it, his recognition that "I am I" might indeed have foreshadowed the tragic ironies that result when Othello and Macbeth, as well as lesser men (like Claudius and Laertes), confront themselves. Instead we get a momentary glimpse into the hall of mirrors where Machiavelli's player king must look for self-knowledge. "Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are." Having made his "person" solely the creature of his audiences' expectations, Richard finds it impossible to know what he is, or to imagine what he might have been. On the one hand there is the most austere of moral appraisals, on the other, flattery; but no recollection of, or any meaning for, the performance itself.

No one would question that Richard's sudden apprehension of his own past shows, to borrow Coleridge's words again, "the dreadful consequences of placing the moral in subordination to the intellectual." Whether Shakespeare was able to convey this lesson "at the same time that he taught the superiority of moral greatness"8 is rather more problematic. In order to establish Richmond in his special role as God's Captain, Shakespeare found it necessary to expunge all traces of what his audience would have recognized as "heroic" from the character; and readers ever since have noted the relative flatness of Richard's conqueror.9 Richmond's final prayer, of course, has a way of disarming this criticism: one would not wish to be among those "traitors" who do not say "Amen." But the very fact that Shakespeare found it appropriate to go to this extreme indicates the extent of his disillusionment with the tradition of fame. Conventional ideas of personal worth enter this play only as brittle parodies: for Richard they are springes to catch woodcocks; for Shakespeare, the bait of falsehood by which he takes his carp of truth. Small wonder that Richmond elects to say a prayer rather than celebrate his triumph.

The prayer celebrates a paradise regained. Not a "paradise within thee happier far," to be sure, but nonetheless one in which God's Captain chooses piety over all those uncertain virtues that would elicit the last infirmity of a noble mind. This study has dealt, for the most part, with a narrow range of theatrical conventions and rhetorical strategies; but Shakespeare's experience with humanist history, at least in its wider implications, was scarcely an isolated phenomenon. The high regard of his own generation for the moral value of worthy exempla is captured in the stanzas that Fame addresses to Fortune in Drayton's Legend of Robert, Duke of Normandy:

But I alone the Herald am of Heaven,
Whose spacious Kingdome stretcheth farre and wide,
Through ev'ry Coast upon the light'ning driven,
  As on the Sunne-beames, gloriously I ride,
  By them I mount, and downe by them I slide,
I register the Worlds long-during houres,
And know the hie Will of th'immortall powers.10

It is this Christianized Fama who presides at the death of Talbot in I Henry VI. Shakespeare, more farsighted than his predecessors, seems to have recognized from the start that what she has to offer should never be confused with mere worldly success: it is rather a formal, humanistic consolatio, one that gives a permanent, didactic significance to the apparent failures of history.

Yet no one in the early histories ever learns from Talbot's example. Instead, the characters who succeed him drift further and further towards the Machiavellian premise that fame is the creature of earthly fortune.11 Richard of course becomes the most eloquent spokesman for this point of view, urging his father, his brother, and finally himself, on towards the crown

Within whose circuit is Elysium
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.


The moral and political confusions that necessarily result are perhaps nowhere more expicit than in the scene where Sir John Montgomery declares to York's son Edward:

What talk you of debating? In few words:
If you'll not here proclaim yourself our King,
I'll leave you to your fortune and be gone
To keep them back that come to succour you.
Why shall we fight, if you pretend no title?


It is an easy leap from here to the logic that openly refutes any attempt to distinguish between legitimate aspiration and brazen fakery:

Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.12

Richard III, then, comes to embody Shakespeare's severest appraisal of the quest for earthly fame, and, by extension, of the humanistic values which support that quest. The high permanence of fame is invoked only once in the play, and that occasion provides, I believe, the exception that proves the rule.

Prince. I do not like the Tower, of any place
Did Julius Caesar build that place, my lord?
Buck. He did, my gracious lord, begin that place,
  Which, since, succeeding ages have re-edified.
Prince. Is it upon record, or else reported
Successively from age to age, he built it?
Buck. Upon record, my gracious lord.
Prince. But say, my lord, it were not regist'red,
  Methinks the truth should live from age to age,
  As 'twere retailed to all posterity,
  Even to the general all-ending day.
Rich. [Aside] So wise so young, they say do never live long.
Prince. What say you, uncle?
Rich. I say, without characters fame lives long.
  [Aside.] Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.
Prince. That Julius Caesar was a famous man:
With what his valor did enrich his wit,
  His wit set down to make his valor live.
Death makes no conquest of this conqueror,
For now he lives in fame, though not in life.
I'll tell you what, my cousin Buckingham—
Buck. What, my gracious lord?
Prince. An if I live until I be a man,
I'll win our ancient right in France again
Or die a soldier as I lived a king.
Rich. [Aside.] Short summers lightly have a forward spring.


It is hardly necessary to expound Richard's cryptic "meanings" in order to appreciate the ironies of the situation. This is the one case where the rule given earlier—that "everyone deserves everything he can do to them"—does not apply. The young prince inquires whether Julius Caesar indeed began the building of the Tower of London. His faith in the enduring, worldly efficacy of his grammar-school training in the humanities ("Death makes no conquest of this conqueror") and his eagerness to "win our ancient right in France again" can only be a source of private amusement to his uncle, the callous veteran of 2 and 3 Henry VI. It was also, one supposes, the focus of more poignant ironies for the bookish young playwright who had already measured the distance between Talbot and Gloucester. Youth is betrayed by the "formal Vice, Iniquity"; the Tower is not a "monument"—it is a charnel house.

The irony, of course, includes Richard as well. Despite his efforts to falsify the account, his own infamy is assured "Even to the general all-ending day," not because of what chroniclers will set "upon record"—but because "murder will out." The playwright's idea of history, like his ideals of personal "worth," has undergone a drastic transformation. Coming to terms with one historical tradition, Shakespeare arrives at another, which we may tentatively identify as Christian and providential. . . .


1 See J. H. Walter's introduction to the text of Henry V edited by himself for the New Arden Shakespeare (London, 1954), pp. xiv-xviii. Walter's treatment of the play as it relates to humanistic conceptions of the ideal ruler is thorough and well documented; therefore 1 have not felt that it was necessary to discuss it in this concluding chapter.

2 Max Lerner, ed., The Prince and the Discourses (New York, 1950). Quotations from The Prince in my text are based on (but do not always exactly correspond to) this translation.

3Angel with Horns and Other Shakespearian Lectures (London, 1961), p. 16.

4 Thomas M. Raysor, ed., Coleridge 's Shakespearean Criticism (rev. ed., London, 1960), II, 141 (the Lectures of 1811-12).

5 New York, 1927, pp. 337-403.

6Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York, 1958); "Machiavelli and the Elizabethans," Proceedings of the British Academy, XIV (1928), 49-97; Seneca and Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge, 1922); Kommentar zu Shakespeares Richard III (Göttingen, 1957). The Kommentar has been translated and abridged by Jean Bonheim, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III (London, 1968).

7Selected Essays 1917-1932 (New York, 1938), p. 5.

8Shakespearean Criticism, I, 205; II, 165.

9 See the discussion of this scene in Clemen's Kommentar, pp. 311-315.

10 J. William Hebel, ed., Works, II (Oxford, 1932), 391. The passage is cited in Edward O, Benjamin, "Fame, Poetry, and the Order of History in the Literature of the English Renaissance," Studies in the Renaissance, VI (1959), 64-84.

11 The text most frequently cited in this regard by seventeenth-century historians was the comment on Caesar in chapter 10 of the Discourses: "Nor let any one be deceived by the glory of that Caesar who has been so much celebrated by writers; for those who praised him were corrupted by his fortune, and frightened by the long duration of the empire that was maintained under his name, and which did not permit writers to speak of him with freedom" (The Prince and the Discourses, ed. Max Lerner, p. 142). Shakespeare may have had it in mind while writing the exchange (discussed below) between Richard and Prince Edward concerning the permanence of Caesar's fame. See Benjamin, "Fame, Poetry, and the Order of History" for citations of this passage.

12 Sir John Harington, The Letters and Epigrams, ed. Norman E. McClure (Philadelphia, 1926), p. 164.

John C. Bromley (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Machiavel and Yorkist Knight: Richard III" in The Shakespearean Kings, Colorado Associated University Press, 1971, pp. 29-40.

[In the following essay, Bromley contends that Richard III publicly presents the persona of his father but follows privately the desires of his own persona.]

No king of England ever came to the throne better prepared than Richard of Gloucester, for while his brother Edward reigned in London, Richard ruled at York. Exiled by taste and temperament from the Woodville court he so despised, he rose early in his brother's favor and, while by our standards still a boy, labored mightily in Edward's service. He was created Duke of Gloucester at nine, Admiral of England, Ireland, and Aquitaine at ten, commissioner for nine of the twentytwo counties at eleven, and Constable of England for life at eighteen, when he was also his brother's companion in victory.

Clearly the childhood and adolescence of the last of the Yorkist kings were as troubled as his later reign. As Chief Justice of Wales, he pacified and then pardoned the rebels of that troubled area which was later to betray him. At Barnet the Duke, "who lacked the physique to be a warrior, the experience to command an army corps, and the eloquence of a Clarence to stir the imagination of followers,"1 led the right wing of Edward's army. Fresh from Barnet, he advanced with his royal brother to Tewksbury; in the London celebration that followed victory "the honor of heading the triumphal procession was bestowed upon Richard, Duke of Gloucester. .. . He was not yet nineteen."2

But Richard's most recent and partisan biographer, Paul Kendall, convincingly contends that the métier of this fierce prince was not war but peace. The youngest of the sons of the illustrious Duke of York, and the only one of them born in England, Richard was most at home in his father's dukedom and city. Indeed, the record of the city of York's defiance of Henry VII is a testament to the greatness of Richard's rule in the north, and it was only through the treacherous exercises of the Earl of Northumberland that the men of the city of York were late upon the road rather than at Market Bosworth in 1485. While it was in the most fundamental sense Richard's defect as king to attempt to impose upon all his dominions the justice that had characterized his rule of the north, it is greatly to his credit that he tried at all. At Market Bosworth Richard was betrayed rather than defeated, and Kendall argues persuasively that the ingredients of his greatness were themselves the seeds of treachery that flowered in the presence of four armies—one Tudor, one Royal, and two Stanley, waiting to pick the winner—upon that unhappy field:

The gifts which Richard had bestowed out of generosity rather than policy, the treasure he had dispensed to show his good will when he might have withheld it to toughen the sinews of his enterprise, the justice he had done at the risk of alienating powerful interests, the services he had performed for the weak—all these did little for him now. His kindness to the wives of rebels, his munificence to friends, his statutes to curb oppressions, his attention to the humble causes of commoners, would not stead him in the hour of mustering a steel host.3

Indeed, in the historical Richard before Bosworth—curiously indolent, lost in the void created by the deaths of his son and beloved wife, surrounding himself with treacherous nobles whose depths he had plumbed before—we find some of Shakespeare's Richard. But in the default at Bosworth Kendall's Richard is a man worn by grief and by betrayals, from Warwick's to Buckingham's, whereas Shakespeare's Richard is a man internally destroyed by guilt, an Antic without joy, however grim. In Richard himself, both in history and in drama, we see the glorious redemption of "the last King of England to die, or fight, in battle."4 Only, then, in the manner of his dying do modern historians, Shakespearean drama, and the mythographers who wrote Tudor history agree about Richard III.

But precisely because so much of what Shakespeare knew about Richard III—from the malicious and selfserving invention of John Rous to the repetitions of More and Hall—was drawn from the natural tendency to glorify the present by defaming the past, the student of Richard III needs to know more about that shortlived king than about any other.5 For unless one accepts Tillyard's labored assumption that "in spite of the eminence of Richard's character the main business of the play is to complete the national tetralogy and to display the working out of God's plan to restore England to prosperity,"6 one needs to deal with Richard the character as comical, evil, at last triumphant, and always paradoxical; and Shakespeare's presentation of Henry Tudor is not without irony. We regard Shakespeare's characters as dramatic constructs not of necessity related to Tillyard's dictum that "in the tremendous evolution of God's plans the accidents of character must not be obtruded."7 For Shakespeare's Richard III is a play about men—and about the accidents of their characters.

Indeed, the entire notion of the tetralogy is no more helpful to the student of Richard III than is the inclusion—erroneous but frequent—of Antigone as the middle term between Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. If we view Richard III only as necessary completion, the play must arbitrarily be relegated to inferiority: "In its function of summing up and completing what has gone before," wrote Tillyard, "Richard III inevitably suffers as a detached unit."8 But Richard III is by no means simply a conclusion to the three parts of Henry VI, and while it is true that the Duke of Gloucester indicates, in 3 Henry VI, that his story will be continued, the play which bears Richard's name contains so great an enrichment of the depth and range of the protagonist's dimensions that we have, if not a new Richard, surely a far different one. In his own play Richard poses problems which range from dramatic demonology to political and ethical philosophy. He is not, as he was in 3 Henry VI, simply a fierce extension of his father's will, molded by deformity and grief, moved by a vaulting, if as yet ill-formed, ambition. He is, as he promised to be, his own man—and a different man.

Even the title of Rossiter's admirable "Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard III' is an ironic commentary upon the notion that Richard HI merely dramatizes the fulfillment of God's design; "for in the pattern of divine retribution on the wicked, he [Richard] functions as an avenging angel."9 As Rossiter suggests, the idea of Richard as God's instrument cutting a wide swath through the populace in preparation for the Godly Knight places a most uncomfortable burden upon the orthodox Christian reading of the play. Richard is not God's man; no more is he the Devil's; he is, as he has told us, his own man. The "I am myself alone" (3 Henry VI, V, vi) of the misanthropic Yorkist prince is a prefiguration of the king's "I am I" (Richard III, V, iii) after the apparitions at Bosworth field, and each is the expression of absolute alienation.

It is precisely this alienation, personal and dramatic, which sets not only Richard III apart from the Henry VI plays, but also the protagonist apart from his own play. As Rossiter and Middleton Murry have noted, Richard is the actor's actor; for three acts, he sweeps all before him—and his audience, by virtue of their privileged relationship, before him also.10 No little measure of our affinity with Richard derives from the fact that his initial soliloquy places us as far from the play as it does Richard, and we delight in his antic villainy partly because it is ours. Only as Richard falters does our sympathy falter. Anticipating Iago in his privileged relationship and Macbeth in his regal horror, Richard is unique in the degree to which he is an exercise in participatory evil. God, who at one point after all reserved vengeance to himself, may not by orthodox conceptions be disposed to permit us to relish exercise of His vengeance in human hands so inhuman as Richard's.

Therefore the problem of Richard III is, fundamentally, a problem of critical method. If we were to postulate a structure in which Richard is Vice, Richmond the Godly Knight, the queens Nemesis, and the princes Purity, the bias upon which the Morality is based might warp the play away from its political implications altogether. Modern psychology, coupled with the remarkable degree to which Palmer renders Richard plausibly, even movingly, misanthropic in 3 Henry VI, leaves us able only to agree that what the Elizabethans considered moral deformity was in Richard physically depicted, but while we shall attempt to render Richard's murders understandable, we shall not labor to make them forgivable. Nor can we deny that the historical Henry Tudor expunged from England a very real evil—Medievalism—although he may well have replaced that evil with a worse. And the "Tudor Myth" serves us not as an ending point, but as a beginning; we are concerned, after all, with a dramatic construct from which emerges a most unusual hero—not with a view of history, however distorted, with which Shakespeare no doubt amiably agreed.

The study of Richard III becomes, then, the measurement of mixtures: an ironic use of Christianity, history, and myth which owes quite as much to native wit as to the Inn-yard Morality; an astutely inverted blend of political, ethical, and psychological considerations in which guilt is at least partly a product of power rightly used; and a hero drawn in part from the Vice but developed with the full range of the poet's expanding artistry into a character whose initial confession—indeed, advocation—of purposive villainy is both richer and blacker than all the ink spent since to describe that villainy.

The Duke of Gloucester, in his powerful introduction both to himself and to his play, tells us that he is bored. His remarkable martial gifts are now superfluous; his deformity is invoked solely to evidence that he cannot, in these days of idleness, play the lover—though shortly he will play the lover with rapacious success. The Duke, sardonic and grim, tells his audience about a lazy time in which his patently superb intellect rusts unused. A great part of our initial identification with Richard is founded simply upon our selfserving unwillingness to see intellect, however evil, frustrated. We know, as Shakespeare's audience knew, that Richard will fall; but the very diabolism of Richard's introduction to us lends a most unholy fascination to his rise.

That rise is notable not only in that it is fast, but also in that it is founded upon a dramatic dualism; for when Richard is not himself—and he is totally himself only when alone with his audience—he plays his father, the Duke of York. The public Richard is a man of intense family feeling, as with Clarence; the Protector of princes and people, as he is at his brother's deathbed; or a pious and reticent noble, who, like Caesar, arranges that the people shall call him three times—but, unlike Caesar, Richard accepts. In all this he is a caricature of his father York. But the private Richard knows that the first axiom of power is the destruction of all who might impede its obtainment, and that the second axiom of power is the obliteration of all who assisted in procuring the prerogative.

It is in this blend of the illusory public incarnation of the bluff, rude, but well-meaning father with the private reality of the Machiavellian son—who, like Hotspur later, wants work—that we find the essential Richard, for Richard is precisely that blend, a union of his private and public selves.

The Duke of York's medicine for the state was rule by the sword; his son's medicine for the state is rule by the knife—a medicine not as different in kind as in degree. Richard of Gloucester is surrounded by the colossally inept. His father by contrast was surrounded by equally maladjusted peers, but the state of Henry VI was no more ill than will be the state of Edward V. Whereas the Duke of York moved, when he moved, into battle, his son the Lord Protector, blending a very real political function with a most unholy relish in the exercise of that function, steps into a political void. The Protector's—and the state's—enemy is Faction, writ large, and the Protector's three references to St. Paul, the apostate organizer, are an immensely ironic recognition that to Richard, alone of the royal dukes, duty is pleasure.

Clarence is no less duped by the public Richard than is their reigning brother, and the wooing of Anne is conducted by the public Richard as a hugely witty reduction to absurdity, in which Richard proceeds from a discussion of Henry VI's proper resting place—heaven—to his own proper resting place—in Anne's bed. "The eternal bully speaks to the everlasting trollop—and knows that he will prevail."11 The wooing of Anne, which, like the protestations of loyalty to Clarence, is performed in purposive consciousness of the imminent death of each, serves as a fitting introduction to Richard as a party man; upon meeting the Woodvilles, whom shortly he will exterminate or render powerless, the public Richard, gruff and seemingly out of his depth, performs superbly—and positively apes his father. His pious "The world is grown so bad/That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch./Since every Jack became a gentleman/There's many a gentle person made a Jack" (I, iii) might, save for the neat irony of his phrasing, have graced the mouth of his father.

The litany of the Wars of the Roses which follows is most significant in that Richard silences Queen Margaret with power and force—simply by the use of her name. But the purpose of the scene is to provoke faction to its destruction, a provocation which makes Edward's deathbed amity even more a mockery than it was by nature. Richard, alone, begins, "I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl." (I, iv.) Richard's public function is never so well performed as here, and is remarkably clear: Richard lives in the opportunistic present, his enemies in the past. Even Clarence, instead of thinking, dreams—surely a retrospective exercise, even if prophetic. And he is murdered by the servitors, however conscience-bound, of future greatness, however brief.

The death of Edward is no less an exercise in retrospective folly than the death of Clarence. The hatreds of contending nobles are exorcised with specious piety, and Edward himself—the eternal dupe—is, like Anne, reduced to absurdity by the ultimate exercise in futility which his lament over his inability to save his brother, contrasted with his pardon of Stanley's servant, represents. Richard tells his brother that "some tardy cripple bare the countermand/That came too lag to see him [Clarence] buried." (II, i.) But the grim cripple is never tardy, and Richard, aping his father, is at last his father's only son.

And then, Gloucester and Buckingham paying lip service to Edward's "peace," the prince Edward is to be drawn from his Woodville tutors. The scene is followed by the citizens' dark meditations:

3 CIT. Woe to the land that's govern'd by a child!

2 CIT. In him there is a hope of government,
That in his nonage, council under him,
  And in his full and ripened years himself,
No doubt, shall then and till then govern well.

1 CIT. So stood the state when Henry the Sixth
Was crowned in Paris but at nine months old.

(II, iii.)

In that parallel is all the justification required for Richard's usurpation. While the hats of these citizens will not be thrown up with pleasure at Richard's accession, still they will go up—and not implausibly so, for only Richard, in this play, is fit to rule. But Richard is not fit to live.

"The murder of the princes was a necessary act of state,"12 argues Palmer, in defense not only of maligned Richard but also of his own idea that Richard represents a universal political type. "The crime of Richard," Palmer continues, "is the secular crime of the power politician in every age and there is a sense in which every political leader is a wicked uncle who kills little children in their beds."13 And Prince Edward dooms himself. "I want more uncles here to welcome me," he cries—Woodville uncles. "God keep me from false friends!" he exclaims, and we pity him. "But they were none," he adds, referring again to his Woodville uncles. (III, i.)

Prince Edward is, we suspect, far more than half Woodville; his saucy brother is all Woodville. Of York, Richard remarks, "He is all the mother's, from the top to toe." (III, i.) And to be a Woodville during this Protectorate is mortal. Rivers, Grey, and Vaughn are already at Pomfret; Hastings will die, as much for his misplaced rejoicing at Woodville deaths as for his connection with Mistress Shore; and the princes must die. Politically, they die as do the rest of the Woodvilles—unlamented, by those who have heard the parallel between Edward and Henry VI. And not a few in Shakespeare's audience must have remembered the minority of another Edward and the over-mighty nobles who flourished with him. The little boys killed by their wicked uncle here seem to be very bad little boys indeed, making the murderous intentions of their uncle a ruthless but perhaps preferable alternative to their survival. Richard's decision to murder them is as directly taken when he commits them to the Tower as his decision to murder, however judicially, the Woodvilles was taken at the moment of their commission to Pomfret.

Richard HI, then, is the perfect union of iron will and superb intellect, complemented as well as sullied by a grim, self-directed, ironic perception that makes his conquest of the world implicit in his vision of himself. But mastery of the world is not mastery of self, and Richard—to our shock—is too moral a man to be a successful Machiavellian. His first remorse is for Clarence (I, iii), and into Richard as king there creeps that curious paralysis of will, where indecision and ferocious activity alternate, which is his destruction. The fire is out, and it will flash but once again. We hear of his dreams, watch him countermand orders. He is tricked by Queen Elizabeth and drowns the curse of his mother in a flourish of trumpets. Before Bosworth, he despairs and dreams. Haunted by the apparitions, for a moment he pities himself—and then, in what is his most magnificent moment save his dying, denies himself even his own pity:

There is no creature loves me.
And if I die no soul shall pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?

(V, iii.)

Wild, whirling words. His battle order, "let us to't pellmell/If not to heaven, then hand to hand to hell," (V, iii) is as chaotic as Richmond's is pedantic, and the horse which he dies requesting is the symbol of his reversion to type: the Knight.

When "the bloody dog is dead," (V, v) so is gallantry, and so are all the Plantagenets. That Henry Tudor, cold and harsh here as well as in history, soils his hands with the dog's blood is simply a lapse of taste (as well as a lapse of verisimilitude) necessitated no doubt by the tender sensibilities of Henry's reigning granddaughter. It is also, of course, a nod to Hall and to the True Tragedy of Richard III, the structure of which the poet could not break without its being painfully obvious. But Shakespeare's portrait of Henry Tudor is far from pleasant. If he is God's avenging angel, he is a most self-righteous, pedantic angel indeed. He simply refers to God too many times to be palatable as His agent.14

But Richard III is written about the Plantagenet prince, not the Tudor, and at Market Bosworth the king, surrounded by traitors in whose tents, in one most unregal moment, he would skulk (V, iii), is no longer himself. In some measure his soul is struck by remorse, but, far more important, his achievement has outrun his capacity to make achievement meaningful. "Richard," writes Palmer, "in acquiring the crown was seeking an outlet for the exercise of his genius. When the crown was won, his interest was abated."15 Richard at Bosworth is as bored as was the magnificently animated Richard of the first soliloquy, but the earlier boredom was that of a man suspended between kinds of activity—or, if you will, between murders. The Richard of Market Bosworth has seen the horror at the bottom of ambition's mire, and his boredom now is that of suicidal despair. Richmond is an anticlimax, because to Richard effort was all and achievement nothing. There is nothing left for the king but to die well, and that he does magnificently.

The reign of Richard III was as meaningful as was the knightly manner of his dying. Henry VIII will be a quarter Woodville, not all Woodville; and, at last, the French influence is expunged. Margaret at her leavetaking sardonically observes, "These English woes shall make me smile in France," (VI, iv), and the ambition of Edward V's "I'll win our ancient right in France again/Or die a soldier as I liv'd a king" (III, i) is extinguished with his life. Indeed, that ambition is a part of his death warrant. The French influence remains only in the Tudor army, which Richard describes with devastating accuracy, and the fact that Richmond conquered England with the sweepings of Breton jails—a memory here deliberately invoked—lends no grandeur to Shakespeare's portrait of Henry Tudor.

Remember whom you are to cope withal;
A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,

A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o'er cloyed country vomits forth
To desperate ventures and assure'd destruction.

(V, iii.)

We may presume that Tudor conquest by force of foreign arms was a memory that even Elizabeth did not relish. The ugly reminder of the composition of Richmond's army enforced here might have been, in 1593, only reminiscent of Philip's Spanish host so barely repelled by weather and sea dogs five years before.

So if, in Richard III, Shakespeare created a horror, it was at least a totally domestic horror, for Shakespeare's Richard is as English as his Henry Tudor is foreign. And at the end, the evil ironist is assumed into the greater—and more haunting—figure of the Yorkist Knight, so greatly alone, and, at last, so like his father.


1 Kendall, Paul Murray, Richard the Third, 1965, p. 92.

2 Kendall, pp. 103-4.

3 Kendall, p. 390.

4 Kendall, p. 417. I am indebted to Mr. Kendall for such of the factual details in the preceding section as are not common knowledge, and also for the conclusions I have drawn from the study of Richard's life, for they are, while not explicit, clearly implied in his text.

5 "It is Rous who begins the tale that Richard lay sullenly in his mother's womb for two years, and was born with teeth and with hair streaming to his shoulders." (Kendall, p. 470.)

6 Tillyard, E. M. W., Shakespeare's History Plays. 1964, p. 199.

7Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 201.

8Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 199.

9 Rossiter, A. P., in Shakespeare: The Histories, ed. Eugene M. Wraith, 1965, p. 82.

10 Rossiter, p. 79. In a footnote the editor indicates that the conception of Richard as an "actor" was anticipated in Middleton Murry's Shakespeare.

11 Palmer, John, Political and Comic Characters of Shakespeare, 1962, p. 83.

12Characters of Shakespeare, p. 99.

13Characters of Shakespeare, p. 101.

14 That the Tudor Myth was myth indeed is attested by the continuance of the Wars of the Roses, which Henry Tudor was forced to suppress by execution; "the names of the leading victims—Lincoln, Warwick, Suffolk, Courtenay—mark the steps up which the Tudors clambered to the safety of supremacy." Bindoff, S. T., Tudor England, 1959. p. 48.

15Characters of Shakespeare, p. 103.

Nina S. Levine (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "'Accursed womb, the bed of death': Women and the Succession in Richard III" in Renaissance Papers 1992, edited by George Walton Williams and Barbara J. Baines, The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1993, pp. 17-27.

[In the following essay delivered as a paper at the 1992 Southeastern Renaissance Conference, Levine contends that Shakespeare 's treatment of women in Richard III reflects a contemporary political concern of Shakespeare's era: the end of the Tudor line due to the failure of Queen Elizabeth I to marry and produce a male heir.]

Shakespeare concludes his first tetralogy of English history plays with a fitting tribute to the Tudors. At the close of Richard III the victorious Richmond promises to heal the nation's wounds with his marriage to Elizabeth of York and solemnly prays that his heirs will "Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac'd peace, / With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days" (V.v.33-34).1 On the Elizabethan stage, of course, Richmond's epilogue neatly connects the past with the present age, inviting the audience to see the reign of their own queen as fulfilling her grandfather's prayer. Not included in this scene of celebration, however, is Elizabeth I's grandmother, Richmond's bride. In fact, contrary to the prophecy uttered at the beginning of the tetralogy—that there would be "none but women left to wail the dead" (I Henry VI, I.i.51)—at the close we witness the complete absence of women from the stage, an absence made conspicuous by the fact that they have dominated the state and stage throughout much of the tetralogy. From Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou in the Henry VI plays to the wailing mothers of Richard III, women have been aggressive participants in the struggle for control of the English state. That Shakespeare at the close of the tetralogy chooses to exclude the women and locate the glorious beginnings of the Tudor reign exclusively in the male figure of Richmond raises questions, of course, about the political resonance of this tribute. Though I do not propose any definitive answer to these questions, I would like to suggest some possibilities. One way of understanding the absence of women at the play's close is to examine their presence elsewhere in the play. At the same time, it may also be worthwhile to consider the representation of women in Richard III alongside contemporary references to women in power.

It has become commonplace to regard the women of Richard III, most of whom are queens, as victims.2 Bereft of their husbands and children, these women clearly document the loss that will be restored by the fruitful marriage promised at the play's close. One might argue, then, that the lamenting queens of Richard III serve as a foil to set off the images of Tudor fertility displayed in Richmond's closing prayer. I would like to suggest, however, that they also present an unsettling image of queenship and the succession that not only contrasts with Richmond's vision of the future but also evokes what is perhaps a more accurate and timely image of the Tudor state. For the recurrent figure in Richard III of a queen whose womb is a "bed of death" (IV.i.53) bears an uncanny resemblance to the mortal, aging body of Elizabeth I, who, well past childbearing age in the early 1590s, had failed to provide England with an heir to insure the kind of prosperity promised by Richmond. The play's unsettling representation of the female body as the source of the destruction as well as the preservation of patriarchal lineage may take its pattern from contemporary insecurity about female rule in general and the succession in particular.

The locus classicus of sixteenth-century attacks on the female Tudor body politic is John Knox's The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, written in opposition to the Catholic reign of Mary Tudor but published in 1558, the year Elizabeth I came to power. Unashamedly misogynistic, Knox declares that female rule is contrary to the laws of God and nature and represents "the subversion of good Order, of all equitie and justice."3 Of particular interest in this investigation is a less familiar passage in which Knox imagines a deformed and monstrous female body politic:

For who wolde not judge that bodie to be a monstre, where there was no head eminent above the rest, but that the eyes were in the handes, the tonge and mouth beneth in the bellie, and the eares in the feet?. . . . And no lesse monstruous is the bodie of the Common welth where a Woman beareth empire.4

Knox's grotesque placement of the queen's tongue and mouth in the "bellie"—a term that suggests both stomach and womb—anxiously equates a woman's sexual and verbal power and connects them both with an image of gross appetite. Knox thus renders suspect the one legitimate site of a woman's power in the patriarchy—the queen's womb.

Like Knox, Shakespeare's Richard of Gloucester also draws on traditional anxieties about female power, defining female sexuality as a threat to the legitimacy and stability of the monarchy. In the play's opening scene, for example, Richard represents the female body as powerfully erotic, capable of seducing and thereby subverting masculine authority. He complains that the once valiant warrior has become effeminate:

And now, in stead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
  He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
  To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.


Rather than translating his aggressive horsemanship into the bedroom, the warrior is himself seduced and dominated, made "to strut before a wanton ambling nymph" (17). The political sub-text for this passage, as Richard soon makes clear, is Edward IV's amorous affairs, his ill-advised marriage to Lady Grey and his liaison with Jane Shore. Richard shrewdly links Jane Shore's promiscuity, as well as the king's, with a similar contamination in the state. After Edward's death, Richard intensifies his attack by insinuating that the heirs to the throne are bastards. Richard's most outrageous attempt to steal the succession from his nephews, however, is to declare Edward himself a bastard, a charge that requires Richard to impugn the virtue of his own mother (III.v.86-90). Richard, by the way, insists on tracing his own lineage directly from his father, circumventing his mother altogether (III.vii.12-14).

This strategy of presenting the royal body and the women associated with it as sexually corrupt gains a certain topicality if we recall the propaganda generated against female rule in sixteenth-century England. In impugning his mother's virtue, Richard draws upon the one anxiety inherent in a patriarchal society where political and social order depend upon the purity of the queen's body to insure the succession. When the queen is not merely a consort but a queen regnant, as in the case of the Tudor queens, and when she, like Elizabeth I, also fails to marry and produce an heir, traditional anxieties about the queen's body and the succession naturally increase, as the seditious rumors that circulated during Elizabeth's reign dramatically demonstrate. Elizabeth, of course, worked to allay her nation's fears, cultivating an elaborate mythology of virginity and presenting herself as a kind of divinely sanctioned virgin-mother of England.5 Yet while the queen presented her body politic as well as her own natural body as inviolable and sacred, court records indicate that others inverted the royal images to represent the queen's body as promiscuous and corrupt. In one notorious case, for example, the queen was accused of having had four children by Robert Dudley. Persistent rumors detailing the queen's promiscuity and illegitimate children, not unlike those spread by Richard in his brother's court, continued well past the queen's child-bearing years, fueled in the last decade of her reign by renewed anxieties about her failure to name a successor.6

Although the charges of bastardy and corruption in the body politic raised in Richard III have a topical resonance, Shakespeare to some extent contains the play's potential for sedition by placing these slanders in the mouth of Richard, whose unbounded designs on the throne render all his accusations suspect. The play not only fails to authorize Richard's charges but in fact demonstrates their ineffectiveness in stirring up rebellion. That Richard's misogynistic opposition to the monarchy takes on an Elizabethan cast may even work to reinforce the legitimacy of Elizabeth's monarchy: if we associate Richard, even minimally, with opposition to the queen, then his defeat by Richmond in Act V becomes a triumph not only for the Tudor dynasty but, more specifically, for Elizabeth I as well. Yet while the play may discredit the spokesman of its decidedly misogynistic discourse, does it discredit the discourse itself? The degree to which the play authorizes this discourse, I suggest, depends only in part upon the credibility of Richard's voice; it also depends upon the play's representation of women. Without validating the particulars of Richard's accusations, the play may indeed lend a certain authority to his misogyny by presenting the women not simply as victims but as morally culpable as well. From the compliant Lady Anne to the murderous Margaret and the inscrutable Elizabeth, the women of Richard III are, at best, highly ambivalent figures who slide with unsettling ease between opposing moral stereotypes, between victim and aggressor, nurturer and murderer. For the remainder of this paper, I would like to consider the possibility that the representation of women in Richard III to some extent validates Richard's misogyny and so works against the vision of a prosperous and fertile Tudor dynasty presented at the play's close.

The patriarchal representation of the queen as a fertile mother insuring the patrilineal succession exists in Richard III as an ideal only, against which we may measure the characters' perversion of queenship and motherhood. The most outrageous violator of the ideal, of course, is Richard himself. He attempts to rise to power by seizing control of Queen Elizabeth's body and her issue, with the charges of bastardy, the murder of her sons, and finally with his proposal of an incestuous union with her daughter, Elizabeth of York. Yet however much Richard is responsible for perverting the maternal role, there is also the sense that the women themselves are responsible. "O my accursed womb, the bed of death!" (IV.i.53), the Duchess of York wails when she learns that Richard is about to be crowned king of England, locating the source of the nation's evil in her own body. Like the cry of the Duchess, the queen's warning to her son—"Thy mother's name is ominous to children" (40)—has a disconcerting ambivalence as well. These women, their children and husbands murdered by Richard, are victims, to be sure, but they may also share in his guilt.7 Richard himself blames his monstrousness on women when he displays his deformed body to the court as proof of the evil practice of women who, he claims, "have prevail'd / Upon my body with their hellish charms" (HI.iv.61-62). The play makes clear that Richard has been deformed from birth, but though that fact may exonerate Queen Elizabeth and Jane Shore from charges of witch-craft, it may also be used to implicate his mother in his monstrousness. Indeed, the avenging Margaret traces the origin of Richard's evil to his mother's womb:

From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes . . .
Thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves.

(IV.iv.47-49, 54)

More recent critics than Margaret have also implicated the Duchess of York in her son's evil. Coppèlla Kahn writes, for example, that the play "strongly suggests the importance of the mother, rather than the father, in the formation of masculine identity—but negatively, by showing how alienation from the mother helps turn a physical monster into a moral one."8

As a way of righting the monstrousness they have engendered, the women actively seek control through destruction, the only choice left them. They play's most overt display of this perversion of maternal power occurs when the women come together in IV.iv to lament their losses and, led by Margaret, turn their cries of grief into vengeful curses. The Duchess of York here regains some control over the monstrous issue of her womb by uniting the women in a collective curse of her son. Yet however heroic the Duchess may be as she attempts to restore the moral balance overturned by her son's birth, the figure of a deathbringing mother is nonetheless anxiety producing. Even in these dire circumstances, she evokes an image of unnatural female independence suggestive of Amazonian mothers who control the issue of their wombs by murdering or maiming their sons at birth.

Epitomizing the figure of the Amazon-mother, of course, is the ghostly Queen Margaret who looms over the action of Richard III. Margaret is in some respects a sympathetic figure: she has returned to her enemies' court to avenge the cruel murder of her husband and young son. Rather than restoring order, however, Margaret's desire for vengeance exceeds all bounds, particularly when she demands the death of the king's children (I.iii.200). Underscoring the barbarism of Margaret's call for justice, the play links her chilling cry for the death of the prince with an image of infanticide dramatized in the Henry VI plays. But in referring to the horrific scene from 3 Henry VI in which Clifford stabs the young Rutland, Shakespeare makes an important alteration in Richard III recasting Margaret and not Clifford as the schoolboy's murderer. Margaret's infanticide, her murder of that "peevish brat" (192) as she unremorsefully continues to call him, indeed reverberates through Richard III. It has become the original crime, the first cause, which has given rise to the chain of vengeance documented over the course of the two plays. Grotesquely inverting her role as queen and mother, Margaret's unspeakable act of infanticide, the play suggests, provides the mirror and the motive for all the atrocities that follow.

The play's ambivalent images of the female body as the site of both birth and death have a counterpart in the Elizabethan discourse of sedition. Elizabeth I herself appropriated the figure of motherhood early in her reign as a means of countering demands for her to marry.9 The queen's subjects, as we have seen, gave Elizabeth's paradoxical representations of herself as an unmarried mother a grotesque literalness with their rumors of illegitimate births. Often combined with these tales of the queen's children, however, were rumors that the queen had murdered them. The accounts are lurid: two peasants in Essex in the early 1590s, for example, alleged that Leicester burned the children alive, stuffing them up a chimney;10 another accusation recounts how the queen gave birth to a daughter and then ordered the child to be cast into a fire and the midwife who delivered her poisoned.11 More official voices than these also emphasized the discrepancy between expectations and the reality of Elizabeth's rule. A draft of a bold speech Peter Wentworth had prepared to read before the Parliament in 1592 depicts the queen as a nursing mother who uses her power not to sustain but to destroy the life of her nation:

O England England how great ar thy sines towardes thy mercifull god, that he hath so alienated the harte of her that he hath sett over thee to be thy nource, that she should withold nourishing milk from thee, and force thee to drinke thyne one distiuction.12

I would like to return now to the conclusion of Richard III, this time by way of Henry V. Shakespeare concludes each of his English tetralogies with the promise of a dynastic marriage. The union between Henry V and Katherine of France celebrated at the close of the second tetralogy is represented on the stage by a kiss; and though the epilogue of the play soon undermines the optimism of the royal marriage by looking ahead to the disastrous reign of Henry VI, the concluding image of the royal couple gloriously figures Henry's conquest of France. By contrast, the union between Richmond and Elizabeth at the close of Richard III is only announced. "We will unite the White Rose and the Red" (V.v.19), Richmond promises, his ambiguous pronoun referring either to himself and Elizabeth or, as is more likely, his new authority as king. Elizabeth does not appear on stage at all, either in this scene or elsewhere in the play. The exclusion of women from the conclusion of Richard III is also in direct contrast to other Elizabethan dramatizations of Richard III. In the anonymous True Tragedy of Richard III (1594), considered by many to be a source for Shakespeare's play, women are essential to the conclusion.13 Here the queen mother ceremoniously hands her daughter to Richmond and then, after a review of the Tudor dynasty, concludes the play with a lengthy compliment to Elizabeth I.14 Thomas Legge's Richardus Tertius (1579), though it does not include any women in its brief conclusion, does at least, in its closing lines, pay tribute specifically to "the mighty Princess Elizabeth, a daughter worthy of [her] father . . . may he protect her life by shielding [her]."15

Shakespeare's principal source for the first tetralogy, Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548), also makes much of the royal marriage, as we might expect. Hall in fact opens his chronicle with a preview of its resolution, offering a lengthy paean to the sacrament of marriage in general and to the union of Richmond and Elizabeth in particular, a union to be fulfilled, he writes, in the peaceable rule of Henry VIII. To be sure, Hall's elaborate praise of marriage might not have translated well onto the Elizabethan stage. Shakespeare's revision of his source suggests something other than deference to his queen, however; for by minimizing the marriage and focusing instead on the heroic male warrior, Shakespeare refashions Hall's account of Tudor history into a nationalistic myth that is exclusively male. In place of Hall's compliment to Henry VIII, Shakespeare offers no parallel compliment to his own monarch. Elizabeth of York, upon whose fertility the Tudor succession depends, appears in the conclusion to Richard III only through the agency of Richmond's voice, which names her but once. The unruly women who have dominated the tetralogy are gone, and in their place is a queen whose presence is evoked only by her absence.

On the Shakespearean stage the Tudor reign begins in Richmond alone. In many ways, of course, Shakespeare's emphasis on Richmond is more accurate than the scene of Tudor origins staged in either the True Tragedy or Richardus Tertius: the historical Richmond based his title on his victory at Bosworth, not on his marriage to Elizabeth of York.16 It might be argued, then, that the absence of women from the conclusion of Richard III simply mirrors official Tudor history. But when we consider the absence of women in terms of their unsettling presence elsewhere in the play, we generate a far different version of Tudor history. By excluding the women, and Lady Elizabeth in particular, Shakespeare fails to represent on stage an alternative or corrective to the play's ambivalent female figures. Like the rumors that surfaced again and again during Elizabeth I's reign that her brother Edward VI was still alive, Shakespeare's representation of the origins of the Tudor dynasty evokes both the nation's yearning for a male monarch as well as the fear that the queen's womb does, after all, bring death.17 In the last decade of her reign, Elizabeth I endangered the Tudor state not only because she was a woman but also because she had failed to provide what her father and grandfather had obsessively attended to, the perpetuation of the Tudor line. The prosperous and fertile future of the Tudor patriarchy celebrated at the close of the tetralogy would be contested by history itself, as Shakespeare's audience already knew.


1 All quotations from Shakespeare refer to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

2 See, for example, Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971); Madonne Miner, "Neither Mother, Wife, nor England's Queen': The Roles of Women in Richard III"" in The Woman 's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980); and Irene G. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981).

3 John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), in The Works of John Knox, ed. David Laing (1855; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1966), 4: 373.

4 Knox, p. 391.

5 See Louis Adrian Montrose, "The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text," in Literary Theory / Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

6 Carol Levin, "Queens and Claimants: Political Insecurity in Sixteenth-Century England," in Gender, Ideology, and Action: Historical Perspectives on Women's Public Lives, ed. Janet Sharistanian (Westport: Green-wood Press, 1986), pp. 55-61.

7 Miner and Dash tend to regard the women as victims of both Richard's savagery and the patriarchal culture. Many more studies, however, point to the women's culpability; see for example, Richard P. Wheeler, "History, Character and Conscience in Richard III" Comparative Drama 5 (1971-2): 301-21, and Marguerite Waller, "Usurpation, Seduction, and the Problematics of the Proper: A 'Deconstructive,' 'Feminist,' Rereading of the Seductions of Richard and Anne in Shakespeare's Richard III" in Rewriting the Renaissance, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

8 Coppélia Kahn, Man 's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); pp. 63-4; see also Michael Neill, "Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III" Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 99-129.

9 Allison Heisch, "Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy," Feminist Review 4 (1980): 50.

10 Joel Samaha, "Gleanings from Local Criminal-Court Records: Sedition Amongst the 'Inarticulate' in Elizabethan Essex," The Journal of Social History 8 (1975): 69.

11 Levin, p. 59.

12 J. E. Neale, "Peter Wentworth," English Historical Review 39 (1924): 196-97.

13 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), III: 238.

14The True Tragedy of Richard the Third 1594. Malone Society Reprints, ed. W. W. Greg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929).

15 Robert J. Lordi, Thomas Legge 's 'Richardus Tertius ': A Critical Edition with a Translation (New York: Garland, 1979).

16 Mortimer Levine, Tudor Dynastic Problems, 1460-1571 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1973), p. 35.

17 For a discussion of the rumors about Edward VI, see Levin, pp. 41-66.

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's King Richard III and the Problematics of Tudor Bastardy," in Papers on Language & Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 115-41.

[In the following essay, Hunt suggests that Shakespeare used Richard HI to support the Tudor monarchy by showing that a physical bastard like Richmond chosen by God makes a better king than a moral bastard like Richard III]

Granted Queen Elizabeth's touchiness concerning the subject of royal bastardy, Shakespeare ran a risk in King Richard III by focusing questions of bastardy in such a way that they invite comparison with problematical details of bastardy in the Tudor succession. The queen's life-long association with bastardy makes Shakespeare's emphasis surprising.1 Analysis of Tudor bastardy reveals the emergence of a paradigm of illegitimate legitimacy (or legitimate illegitimacy), a composite reproduced in the discourse on royal bastardy in King Richard III. The ambiguous melding of legitimate illegitimacy that allowed Elizabeth, her half-sister and half-brother, and her grandfather to side-step challenges to their right to rule (or potentially to rule) reappears in the play in the rationale that Richard of Gloucester uses to dispossess his nephews and seize the crown. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's dramaturgy finally exonerates rather than undercuts the Tudor monarchy. In the play the growth of bastardy into a metaphor for a certain illegitimacy of human nature transforms the dramatic debate into one of everyman's existential legitimacy or illegitimacy. In this respect, a figurative bastard is much worse than a ruler of moral character who may (or may not) be a bastard in the technical sense of the word. The legitimately born "bastard" Richard and the pious, ethical Henry, Earl of Richmond, who is tainted with bastardy in the play (as he was in life), illustrate this paradoxical idea.

Understanding the problematical history of Tudor bastardy becomes a prerequisite for fully appreciating the representation of royal illegitimacy in King Richard III. Charges of bastardy afflicted the Tudors before and even during the historical times depicted in King Richard III. Henry VII's paternal grandfather, Owen Tudor, and Catharine of Valois, the widow of Henry V, fell in love and had three sons (Edmund, Jasper, and Owen); but the parents may never have married. This ambiguity invited the stigma of bastardy. Because the boys were the children of a former queen of England, those guarding the rights of the minor Henry VI such as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester regarded the children as a threat and so branded them illegitimate. Still, King Henry VI countenanced Owen Tudor's sons, making them royal half-brothers. Edmund Tudor—Henry VII's father—in 1453 at age twenty-three became the Earl of Richmond. Concerning this recognition, Eric Simons speculates, "whether [King Henry VI] and his Council were now convinced that [the young men's] parents had been truly married at their birth, or whether they considered it politically advisable to remove the stigma of bastardy from the royal half-brothers, cannot be said" (6). In 1459-60, an act of Parliament affirmed the legitimacy of Edmund, Jasper, and Owen Tudor, chiefly because of their father's Lancastrian services during the Wars of the Roses (Simons 5-6). Nevertheless, the taint of bastardy continued to surround the births of certain progenitors of the founder of the Tudor monarchy—Henry VII.

Henry VII's maternal great grandfather, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, was—in Simons's words—"technically a bastard" (6). King Henry IV had specifically excluded the Beauforts from the order of succession. The kingship claim of Edmund Tudor's son, Henry, Earl of Richmond, depended principally on the young man's descent from Catharine of Valois and from Edward Ill's son John of Gaunt via Lady Margaret Beaufort, granddaughter of John Beaufort (Given-Wilson and Curteis 18). Yet we have seen that both of these routes included the quicksand of original bastardy charges. After the final Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury and the ascension of the York King Edward IV, Henry and his uncle Jasper Tudor sought refuge in France. In January 1584, the new king Richard III "obtained the outlawry of the Earl of Richmond and the Countess of Richmond, his mother" (Simons 26). In June 1485, Richard, waiting for Henry Tudor's imminent invasion, at Nottingham issued a proclamation declaring that Henry "'is descended of bastard blood both of the father's side and of the mother's side, for the said Owen his grandfather was bastard born, and his mother was daughter unto John duke of Somerset, son unto Dame Katherine Swynford, and of her in double adultery begotten, whereby it evidently appeareth that no title can or may be in him, who fully intendeth to enter this realm purposing a conquest'" (Given-Wilson and Curteis 159).

Richard labored incessantly to resurrect the skeleton in the Tudor closet. Just prior to Henry's second, successful departure from France with an invasionary force, Richard hysterically proclaimed that "Henry and his followers were 'open murderers and extortioners,' and imputing dishonour to his grandmother [Catharine of Valois], Henry himself a bastard of both families, an accusation of which his countrymen must by now have been growing weary" (Simons 33). The question of Tudor bastardy was sufficiently alive that Henry, after Richard's defeat, felt compelled to authorize his claim to the throne partly "by right of the formal legitimization of his birth previously established in an earlier session of Parliament" (Simons 67).

Henry VIII's reign again raised the specter of Tudor bastardy. Long-running accusations of illegitimacy blasted the lives of three of his four children surviving infancy—those of Mary, Henry (later Duke of Somerset and Richmond), and of course Elizabeth. Only the future Edward VI, the son of Jane Seymour, escaped unscathed. Mary's case is perhaps the most pathetic. On 20 April 1534, "all the craftes in London were called to their halls, and there were sworne on a booke to be true to Queene Anne and to beleeve and take her for lawfull wife of the Kinge and rightfull Queene of Englande, and utterlie to thinke the Ladie Marie, daughter to the Kinge by Queene Katherin, but as a bastarde, and thus to doe without any scrupulositie of conscience" (Wriothesley 1:24). Mary Tudor remained an official bastard throughout much of Henry VIII's and all of Edward VI's reigns, until 1553 (after her ascension to the throne) when Parliament declared Henry VIII's divorce from Katharine of Aragon illegal and Mary legitimate.

Mary was usually kept during her father's lifetime far from court, forced to follow with less pomp Elizabeth and Edward in royal processions. Even though she was a proclaimed bastard, Mary followed Edward in the line of succession in her father's will. However, in January 1553, Edward, with only a few months to live, "drew up .. . an elaborate 'device,' directing the succession in the event of his own death without heirs, to the descendants of his aunt Mary by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Both his sisters he excluded on the grounds of their illegitimacy" (Loades 15). The descendants of Edward's aunt Mary included the Ladies Catharine, Mary, and Jane Grey. Later the device was tampered with to exclude Frances Grey and make Jane Grey, who represented in early 1553 an unpopular radical protestantism, the royal heir (Loades 16). What allowed Edward VI and his protestant adherents to override the strong legality of Henry VIII's will in the matter of succession so as to bar Mary from the crown was the persisting cancer of her bastardy. Nevertheless, after Edward's death, Mary Tudor squelched Lady Jane Grey and her allies. Henry VIII's will—not Mary's birth—dictated her right to the throne. According to David Loades, "it was not the [legitimacy] of Mary Tudor's birth which was proclaimed in July 1553 but the force of her father's will, and of the statute which authorised it" (17). Only by stacking Parliament could Mary legitimize herself. But as history repeatedly demonstrated from the time of Owen Tudor in the mid-fifteenth century to the present day of 1553, this legislative method for "proving" (or "disproving") legitimacy had transparently become the tool of political opportunists, often of the crassest stripe. This fact made it easier for protestants, both at home and abroad, to continue to insist upon Mary's bastardy and thus upon her usurpation of the throne.

For a period of Henry VIII's reign, a legitimate male royal bastard was deemed a better heir to the crown than either one of two reputed female royal bastards. Henry, surnamed Fitzroy, was described as "a base sonne of our soveraigne King Henrie the Eight, borne of my Ladie Taylebuse, that time called Elizabeth Blunt" (Wriothesley 1:53). King Henry affectionately lavished honors on his first male offspring surviving childhood, making him at age six a Knight of the Garter and later Duke of Norfolk. Henry married his publicly acknowledged bastard to Lady Mary, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. On 26 July 1525, Henry the base son became Admiral of England; two years later he assumed the wardenship of the marches toward Scotland. The lieutenancy of Ireland constituted a final recognition of young Henry's worth. This preferment prompted contemporary and later observers of Henry VIII's reign to conclude that the king "procured the Act of Parliament empowering him to bequeath his crown in order that he might settle it upon young Henry in the event of his having no male issue by Jane Seymour" (Wriothesley 1:53). Likewise, H. Maynard Smith judges that King Henry's making his bastard Duke of Richmond involved the question of succession, "for Richmond had been the title of his grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, through whom the Tudors derived their claim to the throne" (7). Henry VIII's ultimate intentions with regard to his base son were never known; young Henry died on 22 July 1536, and legitimate Prince Edward was born on 12 October 1537. In many respects, the figurative legitimacy that King Henry created for his orthodox bastard problematizes the bastardy foisted upon his more legitimately born bastard daughters Mary and Elizabeth.

Since Shakespeare presented King Richard III during the reign of Elizabeth (the queen may in fact have seen one or more performances of the play), the complex problem of her illegitimacy becomes important for certain aspects of royal bastardy staged in the tragedy. Henry VIII covertly married Anne Boleyn near the end of January 1533; he had been living openly with her since 1531, after he sent Katharine of Aragon from the court. Conceived while Henry was still married to Katharine (Cranmer in mid-1533 declared Henry's marriage to Katharine null), Elizabeth was born only seven months after Henry's and Anne's secret marriage. On 11 July 1533, at Charles V's insistence, Pope Clement VII "issued a bull declaring that Henry was unlawfully cohabitating with Anne Boleyn, and that any child born of their union would be illegitimate" (Ridley 22). But Henry stubbornly insisted that Mary was a bastard and Elizabeth the true heir to the throne until God sent him a son. The Act of Succession of March 1534 required citizens on demand to swear that the children of Henry and Queen Anne were the legitimate heirs of the crown. But considerable grumbling and protest arose; for many of Henry's subjects, "Catherine was still 'the Queen' and Mary 'the Princess.' Anne was 'the concubine,' and Elizabeth 'the little bastard," (Ridley 23).

On May Day 1536, Anne's arrest purportedly for having committed adultery with five men and for having planned to kill Henry suddenly authorized the murmurings about Elizabeth's baseness. Now Henry's opponents could argue that Elizabeth was not only a bastard but was most likely not even a royal bastard. The New Act of Succession of July 1536 legally bastardized Elizabeth and Mary, chiefly so that the expected children of Henry and Jane Seymour would have no rival claimants to the monarchy. Henry and Cranmer found a basis for declaring the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn illegal: Henry had had sexual intercourse with Mary, Anne's sister, before he carnally knew his future queen. Nevertheless, the official bastardizing of Elizabeth did not preclude her from a place in Henry's will, after Prince Edward and his issue, after the children that King Henry might have by Katharine Parr, and after Mary and her issue.

Elizabeth remained an official bastard throughout Mary's reign, especially once the new queen proclaimed in October 1553 that she was the legitimate daughter of Henry's lawful marriage to Katharine of Aragon. Even though Elizabeth's bastardy prevented Philip II of Spain from considering her a potential wife, once he was married to Mary, he favored Elizabeth, continually seeking a Catholic husband for her—mainly because Mary Queen of Scots had married the Dauphin of France and thus posed a succession threat in England that the presence of a married Catholic Elizabeth could obstruct. As Mary's savage reign wore on, tampering with Henry VIII's will to exclude the official bastard from succession became less and less advisable. Catholic efforts to protect base-born Elizabeth's royal status thus reflect the continuing problematics of Tudor bastardy, which from its inception paradoxically conflated legitimacy and illegitimacy.

Mary's death on 17 November 1558 gave Elizabeth rule of England, and the new queen quickly revealed her hidden protestantism. During the Parliament of 1559, a decision was made that would prove momentous for later sixteenth-century literary depictions of Elizabeth and the issue of royal bastardy. Elizabeth's counselors advised her not to repeal the Act of 1536 which bastardized her, or to proclaim her biological legitimacy. "This was done largely on the advice of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He argued that as Elizabeth was in any case entitled to succeed to the crown under Henry's will, there was no point in reopening old controversies by looking into the events of 1536. Instead Parliament quickly passed a bill which enabled Elizabeth to succeed to her mother's property, notwithstanding any forfeiture imposed by law or by previous statutes" (Ridley 85-86).

In effect, this decision made at the beginning of Elizabeth's long rule kept her bastardization official throughout her lifetime. It remained a major weapon in the unflagging campaign of her adversaries against the "bastard" queen and her "illegitimate" government. One noteworthy example can stand for the hundreds, even thousands, of accusations of bastardy directed against Queen Elizabeth until her death in 1603. In 1588 Cardinal William Allen, leader of English Catholics abroad, published in Antwerp in English a book titled An Admonition to the Nobility and People of England and Ireland Concerning the Present Wars, which was intended for distribution in England after the Spanish Armada had landed there. As was often the case, Elizabeth was unsuccessful in her attempts to suppress Allen's treatise and punish the European publisher and printer. In this book Allen "denounced Elizabeth [as] the issue of the 'incestuous copulation' of her 'supposed father' Henry VIII, with an 'infamous courtesan' Anne Boleyn" (Ridley 282). Similar blackenings of Elizabeth's character determined the compensatory nature of many literary depictions of the queen, including those of Edmund Spenser.2

If certain members of Elizabethan audiences of King Richard III sought a sixteenth-century context for understanding Shakespeare's staging of royal bastardy in King Richard III,3 memorable scenarios of illegitimacy from Henry VIII's reign supplied it. In act III, charges of bastardy become Richard of Gloucester's weapon for destroying the right of his nephews to the crown. Richard tells his henchman Buckingham to "infer the bastardy of Edward's children" (III.v.74)4 when speaking to the Mayor and citizens of London. So ambitious is Richard for the kingship that he additionally is willing to taint his brother Edward, his mother, and nearly himself with illegitimacy. "Nay, for a need," Richard instructs his tool Buckingham,

thus far come near my person:
Tell them, when that my mother went with child
  Of that insatiate Edward, noble York
  My princely father then had wars in France,
And by true computation of the time
Found that the issue was not his-begot;
Which well appeared in his lineaments,
Being nothing like the noble Duke my father—
Yet touch this sparingly, as 'twere far off;
Because, my lord, you know my mother lives.


After Buckingham returns from speaking to the Mayor and Londoners, Richard asks him, "Touch'd you the bastardy of Edward's children?" (III.vii.4). "I did," Buckingham replies,

. . . with his contract with Lady Lucy,
And his contract by deputy in France;
Th' unsatiate greediness of his desire,
And his enforcement of the city wives;
His tyranny for trifles; his own bastardy,
As being got, your father then in France,
And his resemblance, being not like the Duke.
Withal I did infer your lineaments—
Being the right idea of your father,
Both in your form and nobleness of mind.


Concerning this passage, Antony Hammond, the editor of the Arden text of the play, notes that verses 5-6, 8, and 11 of this scene do not appear in the 1597 Quarto of King Richard III (245). As a possible reason for the loss, Hammond cites an opinion appearing in the 1908 New Variorum edition of the play, that the lines may have been "deleted in deference to Elizabeth I's feelings, the charges being similar to those brought against her father" (245-46).

The evocation of Henry VIII in this respect becomes quite explicit in Shakespeare's play. At the time Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville (Grey), he was apparently engaged to both Elizabeth Lucy and Bona of Savoy through a dynastic contract made in France. Edward could be said to have had marital precontracts with the latter two women. "The ecclesiastical theory of pre-contracts which prevailed before the Reformation was the source of great abuses. Marriages that had been publicly acknowledged, and treated for a long time as valid, were often declared null on the ground of some previous contract entered into by one or other of the parties. In this way Henry VIII, before putting Anne Boleyn to death, caused his marriage with her to be pronounced invalid by reason of a previous contract on her part with Percy, Earl of Northumberland" (Shakespeare, New Variorum 255-56). Edward's mother, the Duchess of York, was evidently aware of a precontract, or even a secret marriage, between her lascivious son and Lady Lucy, "for she urge[d] it as one of several grounds of objection to her son's marriage with Elizabeth Woodville: 'It must needs stick as a foul disparagement of the sacred majestie of a Prince . . . to be defiled with bigamy in his first marriage'" (Shakespeare, New Variorum 256). For Elizabethan playgoers, the notion of a king's "simultaneous" marriages or betrothals later bastardizing his children would have evoked the recollection of a similar archetype in the troublesome reign of Henry VIII.

This evocation was not simply academic for Shakespeare's contemporaries. If Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was illegitimate, then their daughter Elizabeth was a bastard. And since she became Henry VII's wife, the possible illegitimacy of Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville further called Henry VIII's pedigree into question. "When Henry VII became king, and married the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, any allusion to the precontract [with Lady Lucy] was treated as disloyal" (Shakespeare, New Variorum 255). Interestingly, Richard's and Buckingham's accusations against Edward IV stand in Shakespeare's play; no character refutes them, or even makes an attempt to do so. At this point, one might counterclaim that the accusations stand not because characters necessarily think that they are true but because wary nobles and citizens refuse to commit themselves politically through speech in the rapidly destabilizing, treacherous atmosphere of the court and city. The assembled citizens do refuse to assent to Buckingham's pro forma rehearsal of the bastardy argument. But we shall see that their silence is only temporary. Later analysis of the latter part of act III, scene vii will show Richard's and Buckingham's bastardy charges against Edward and his children prevailing with the Mayor and citizens, breaking the people's silence, and giving Richard almost immediate access to the throne.

The source of Shakespeare's representation of King Edward IV's precontracts and "bigamy" was Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III (pub. 1557) (Candido, "More" 139). More originally wrote this work in Latin and English in or near 1513, when he was still strongly supportive of Henry VIII. Ironically, a book written by an advocate of Henry VIII would one day become the source of a stage depiction potentially critical by analogy of the king and embarrassing to his daughter. Analysis of More's History sharpens the critical commentary on Henry VIII latent in Shakespeare's dramaturgy. More emphasizes Elizabeth Grey's widowhood as the basis for the Duchess of York's claim that marriage to her would be bigamous: More's Duchess tells Edward, "'wheras ye only widowhed of Elizabeth Gray though she wer in al other thinges conuenient for you, shold yet suffice as me semeth to refrain you from her mariage, sith it is an vnsitting thing, & a veri blemish, & highe disparagement, to the sacre magesty of a prince, yt ought as nigh to approche priesthode in clenes as he doth in dignitie, to be defouled Wt bigamy in his first mariage'" (62). In canon law, bigamy included marriage to a widow, especially by ecclesiastical clerks. "'And as for ye bigamy,' More reports Edward as replying, 'let ye Bishop hardely lay it in my wai, when I come to take orders. For I vnderstand it is forbidden a prieste, but I never wiste it yet yt it was forbidden a prince'" (64). Edward had sired at least two illegitimate children—a son, Arthur Plantagenet, definitely by Elizabeth Lucy, and a daughter, Elizabeth, perhaps by Elizabeth Lucy. The girl was born about the time of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville Grey. More's Edward boasts to his mother, "'That she is a widow and hath alredy children, by gods blessed Ladye I am a batcheler & have some to: & so eche of vs hath a profe yt neither of vs is lyke to be barain'" (64). Because of the story of Edward's precontract with Elizabeth Lucy and the Duchess's accusations, the bishops refused to marry Edward and the widow. They relented only after Elizabeth Lucy publicly equivocated on the matter of the precontract.

Few literate playgoers of the 1590s were unfamiliar with Henry VIII's argument that his marriage to the widow of his brother Prince Arthur—Katharine of Aragon—ought to be considered bigamous and thus null and void. Mary was bastardized upon this pretext. The issue enmeshes Elizabeth too. If Henry VIII's marriage to Katharine of Aragon was not bigamous, then Elizabeth was a bastard. This possibility remained a primary Catholic argument for the queen's illegitimacy and—until 1572—for Mary Stuart's right to the throne. Shakespeare triggers the above-described Henrican associations by making the bigamy of More's text part of his play.

How this happens deserves further analysis. In act III, scene vii, Richard and Buckingham perform a previously agreed upon dialogue designed to place Richard on the throne (III.vii.94-246). Because of "the corruption of a blemish'd stock" (III.vii.121)—Edward IV's and his sons' imputed bastardy—the crown "as successively from blood to blood" and "right of birth" ought to be Richard's (III.vii.134-35). Or so Richard and Buckingham argue. After Richard hypocritically rejects Buckingham's royal overtures, his fellow Machiavel develops his earlier speech to the Mayor and citizens:

You say that Edward is your brother's son:
So say we too—but not by Edward's wife.
For first was he contract to Lady Lucy
(Your mother lives a witness to his vow),
And afterward by substitute betroth'd
  To Bona, sister of the King of France.
These both put off, a poor petitioner,
  A care craz'd mother to a many sons,
  A beauty-waning and distressed widow,
  Even in the afternoon of her best days
Made prize and purchase of his wanton eye,
Seduc'd the pitch and height of his degree
To base declension and loath'd bigamy.
By her, in his unlawful bed, he got
This Edward, whom our manners call the Prince.
More bitterly could I expostulate,
Save that for reverence to some alive
I give a sparing limit to my tongue.

(III.vii. 176-93)

Alluding to a gloss in the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of the play, Hammond enlarges More's definition of bigamous widowhood by generalizing that "marriage with a widow was bigamy according to canon law" (254). The charge made by the Ghost of Hamlet's father—that Claudius's marriage to the widow Gertrude is adulterous, thus incestuous—constitutes evidence for Hammond's judgment. If the sacrament of marriage made man and wife one flesh, after the first marriage there could be no other. A wife could not share her flesh twice in a lifetime. This, too, was one of Henry VIII's arguments that his marriage with Katharine of Aragon was bigamous and his child of that union a bastard.

Thus far we have been exploring the Tudor echoes in the first two of the four verses deleted from III.vii.5-14 in the 1597 Quarto of King Richard III. The third excised verse—"and his enforcement of the city wives"—strengthens Edward IV's association with bastardy and with Henry VIII. By all accounts, Edward was a lecher, dallying with his subjects' daughters and wives, including the notorious Jane Shore (Given-Wilson and Cuiteis 4-5). In the script he sketches for Buckingham, Richard says, "Tell them how Edward put to death a citizen / Only for saying he would make his son / Heir to the Crown" (III.v.75-77). Evidently several royal "sons" throughout the city compete with the two princes for succession. "Moreover, urge his hateful luxury," Richard counsels Buckingham,

And bestial appetite in change of lust,
Which stretch'd unto their servants, daughters, wives,
  Even where his raging eye or savage heart
Without control lusted to make a prey.


Richard thus suggests that the king's bastardizing certain families in his realm somehow connects with (or derives from) the reputed bastardy of himself and his supposedly legitimate sons. His begetting bastards on other women in this context justifies labeling the princes bastards. Or so Richard's rhetorical logic runs.

Considered in the context of the associations with Henry VIII already evoked, this dimension of Edward's bastardy intensifies the linkage. King Henry had a notoriously roving eye, and his carnal relations with Anne Boleyn and other women before he had extricated himself from the marriage of the moment were popular knowledge. It was Henry VIII's "bastardizing" lust that partly made both Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate as subsequent "marriages" blighted the girls' mothers and their origins. The resonances here are sufficiently disturbing that the verses missing in the 1597 Quarto, which were presumably part of the playhouse script, may have been cut because of the shadow they cast upon Henry and Elizabeth. By saying that Elizabeth Grey "Made prize and purchase of [Edward's] wanton eye, / Seduc'd the pitch and height of his degree / To base declension and loath'd bigamy" (III.vii.186-88), Buckingham reprises the charges of Henry's and Anne's enemies, that the king's wanton, courtesan-like woman had harnessed the king's giant libido and consequently disinherited Katharine of Aragon and bastardized her child Mary. And it was Anne's supposedly promiscuous nature and spotted reputation that made Elizabeth a bastard in the minds of some of her antagonists. That Henry should have gotten Jane Seymour pregnant before he had found convenient reasons for ridding himself of Anne in order to marry her merely repeated the scenario that had bastardized Mary (Bowie 200-1). This time, however, Elizabeth was its victim.

The illegitimate legitimacy (or legitimate illegitimacy) that disturbed the Tudor succession marks the family romance of Edward IV. The disruptive role of bastardy in Henry VIII's life strikingly reprises its place in the mid-fifteenth-century York kingship as depicted by Shakespeare. That Shakespeare should portray unworthy Richard using mainly bastardy charges evocative of problematical Tudor illegitimacy in a bid for the crown was a bold, potentially reprehensible stroke throughout the 1590s. Buckingham urges Richard "to draw forth your noble ancestry / From the corruption of abusing times / Unto a lineal, true-derived course" (III.vii. 197-99). Richard agrees to be crowned legitimate king only after Buckingham threatens,

Yet know, whe'er you accept our suit or no,
Your brother's son shall never reign our king,
But we will plant some other in the throne
To the disgrace and downfall of your House.


Admittedly, this dialogue is a set-up between two Machiavels; nevertheless, it convinces the Lord Mayor—speaking for the silent citizens—that Richard should be king (III.vii.200, 236). When Buckingham concludes by exclaiming, "Long live Richard, England's worthy King," citizens and Mayor alike pronounce "Amen" (III.vii.239-40). One might object that the citizens' validation of Buckingham's royal salute to Richard—their saying "Amen" to his "Long live Richard, England's worthy King!"—may reflect their prudent fear rather than the persuasiveness of Buckingham's argument. A wary silence signified their reception of Buckingham's initial presentation of the bastardy charges. In the present case the citizens most likely take their cue from the Lord Mayor, whose affirmation of Richard's right to the throne rings with conviction (III.vii.200). The Mayor's spoken endorsement of Richard apparently encourages—perhaps obligates is a better word—the citizens to voice their obedience. Thus for all practical purposes, Richard's and Buckingham's use of bastardy charges places the crown within Richard's grasp.

As he plots the deaths of his nephews, Richard continues to stress their supposed illegitimacy:

Foes to my rest, and my sweet sleep's disturbers,
  Are they that I would have thee deal upon.
Tyrrel, I mean those bastards in the Tower.


Interestingly, Richard's conversation with his assassin reveals the weakness of his own belief that bastardy publicly disqualifies his nephews from succession. He believes that he must have them murdered to keep them off the throne. Ironically, Richard's insecurity about his right to the kingship moves him to grovel before Edward IV's wife in order to gain her daughter in marriage before Henry does. Richard seeks to unite with a member of the family that he previously bastardized but who now represents a legitimizing match; if Henry Tudor were to marry her, he would powerfully blend the white Yorkist and red Lancastrian roses. Richard's desperate matrimonial begging amounts to a potentially just punishment for his political use of bastardy to win the crown. In a humiliating fashion, he ultimately feels compelled to reverse the bastardy charges he once made.

Nevertheless, Richard continues to use his favorite method of foisting bastardy upon rivals so as to consolidate his political power. In the final instance, this rival is the future Henry VII. Even though bastardy figured strongly in Henry VII's origins, explicitly implying that Queen Elizabeth's grandfather was a bastard would have been highly objectionable, almost certainly self-destructive for the playwright. In King Richard III, the taint of bastardy surrounding the Earl of Richmond gets displaced onto his troops. The effect, however, is to associate him distinctly with illegitimacy (since he is their head). During his battle oration at Bosworth Field, Richard tells his soldiers that the "scum of Bretons" in Richmond's ranks will, if victorious, "distain" Englishmen's "beauteous wives" (V.iii.314-23)—will, that is to say, make bastards the children of Richard's troops. "If we be conquer'd, let men conquer us!" (V.iii.333), Richard concludes,

And not these bastard Bretons, whom our fathers
  Have in their own land beaten, bobb'd, and thump'd,
  And in record left them the heirs of shame.
Shall these enjoy our lands? Lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?


No one has provided a satisfactory historical or political explanation for Richard's calling the Bretons, the men of Brittany, bastards. One could argue that Richard calls them bastards simply because he has become fixated upon bastardy during his rise to the crown. More likely, however, is the motive of associating Henry Tudor with illegitimacy. Richard deploys his obsession with bastardy so as to signify the political illegitimacy of the Earl of Richmond. If Henry wrests the crown from Richard, a multitude of English families will include bastards. Political bastardy will lead to widespread biological bastardy. Or so Richard's argument concludes. The bastard Bretons, if triumphant, will spread their bastardy by fathering illegitimate children on the losers' wives. In this conception, politically illegitimate Henry Tudor becomes the well-spring of bastardy in its most basic sense. Richard never directly challenges but in truth defers to, even respects, the principle of legitimate succession. He "never questions the right of Clarence to take the crown before him .. . nor the right of Edward's son; he accepts his place in the hierarchy even as he works to undermine hierarchy in general" (Carroll 213). Once he is on the throne, Richard, despite his murderous methods, becomes the genealogically legitimate holder of the scepter and the humane Richmond technically a usurper (Carroll 215-18; Reese 55; Hodgdon 103; Gurr 40-43, 46).5 "Richard is, after all, descended from the third son of Edward III," James P. Hammersmith remarks, "whereas the Earl [of Richmond] is descended from the fourth" (35). This suggestion of usurpation further strengthens the overtones of illegitimacy surrounding Richmond.

Nevertheless, tracing the development in King Richard III of bastardy into a metaphor for human corruption tends to absolve the original Tudor monarch of the charge. Richard's willingness to impute adultery to his mother opens the door to questions about his own legitimacy, a risk that reveals his potentially self-destructive loathing of his imagined physical "baseness." Jenny Teichman has copiously illustrated Western writers' tendency to portray bastardy in terms of physical deformity and violent rages. On both counts, Shakespeare's Richard III fits the profile. Francis bacon in his Essayes implicitly equates bastardy and physical defects when he judges that "Deformed Persons, and Eunuches, and Old Men, and Bastards, are Envious: For he that cannot possibly mend his own case will doe what he can to impaire anothers" (28). Physically twisted, resembling the shape of neither his mother nor his father, Richard feels like a bastard, even though he is by all accounts legitimately born.6 Self-disgustedly, Richard feels himself to be illegitimately legitimate (or legitimately illegitimate). Several critics have compared Shakespeare's characterizations of Richard and the bastard Edmund of King Lear. "Edmund's bastardy works in the same way as Richard's crookedness," John F. Danby argues. "Richard resents both his shape and his position of contemptuous ridicule. He will react therefore against God and man. With both Richard and Edmund we feel that their resentment is understandable" (64). Danby notes that both Richard and Edmund become "sincere" hypocrites who sardonically unmask the hypocrisies of those seemingly sincere (such as respectively Edward IV and the Earl of Gloucester) (60-62). Both Richard's and Edmund's sense of dispossession and social alienation drives them to dis-place rivals who have more legitimate claims to lands and inheritance. Richard's repeatedly voiced defiant credo of the "self alone" is the ethos of the early modern stage bastard, especially the memorable bastard Edmund.7 For William C. Carroll, "the connection between Richard and Edmund .. . is that for both characters the principle of 'lineal glory,' the 'form' and 'order of law,' is both the principle which denies them and so must be annihilated, and the principle which will define them and so is constantly desired" (214). This connection focuses the curious fact of Richard's deferral to the principle of legitimate succession that was documented in the previous paragraph. Now we can say that Richard's recognition of legitimate succession could amount to a compensation for his feeling of being a figurative bastard. Richard protects himself from this negative emotion by projecting bastardy onto his imagined rivals, including Edward, his nephews, and the Bretons (including Richmond).

Richard's struggle with a powerful feeling of personal illegitimacy takes several forms. Buckingham reports that in his address to the Mayor and citizens,

Withal, I did infer your lineaments—
Being the right idea of your father,
Both in your form and nobleness of mind.


Sycophantic Buckingham correctly guesses that Richard wants to hear reported his physical attractiveness in comparison to Edward's supposed ugliness. Buckingham makes Richard's obsession with bastardy serve as the occasion for easing Richard's apparent anxiety about his deformation and thus for ingratiating himself with his master. If Edward is a bastard, he must be ugly—"base"—and thus Richard must be handsome by comparison. Or so this parasitic subtext runs. Because of Richard's mother's purported bastardizing of Edward and Edward's subsequent bastardizing of his "sons," "the noble isle," Buckingham concludes, "doth want her proper limbs" (HI.vii.124). Shortly thereafter Richard's accomplice flatters his master's "gracious self (III.vii.130). This conflation equates England with physical deformity and royal legitimacy with gracious physique, supposedly the being of Richard who would cure the realm of the debilitating effects of others' bastardy.

Despite these ministrations, Richard continues to feel illegitimate. His frantic negotiations for a legitimizing marriage with Elizabeth, the daughter of his brother Edward and Elizabeth Woodville. partly derives from his barren marriage to Anne. He has no heirs to succeed him. The historical Richard and Anne Neville in fact had a son Edward (1473-84), Earl of Salisbury (1478) and Duke of Cornwall (1483). Furthermore, Richard, according to Sir Thomas More, "Had at least two bastard children, Catherine Plantagenet and John of Pomfret or John of Gloucester" (211). (Also see Given-Wilson and Curteis 8, 160-61). More notes that Richard pledged his only lawful son to marry Buckingham's daughter, if Buckingham would help make him king (44). Shakespeare in King Richard III omits all mention of Richard's legitimate and illegitimate children. His barrenness in the play becomes an additional jealous motive for his smearing Edward's sons with bastardy. If he cannot (or does not) have any sons, then (in his mind) the sons of his brother Edward cannot (will not) be legitimate—that is to say, authentic.

Taken as a whole, Richard's cruelty and faults stamp him a defective person, a human manque. The Earl of Richmond in his oration to his troops calls Richard a "base, foul stone, made precious by the foil / Of England's chair" (V.iii.251-52). In this pejorative context, the word "base" catches the overtones of figurative bastardy inherent in Richard's own dehumanized conduct and his tacit self-appraisals and condenses them in the mouth of his adversary. Legitimate Richard's figurative bastardy (or baseness) by contrast makes other Yorkists and especially Henry Tudor who have been either labeled or associated with bastardy appear less culpable, even—in the Earl of Richmond's case—non-blamable. This dramatic strategy provides the basis for the play's concluding emphasis upon Tudor fertility and legitimacy. During his onstage nightmare, Richard hears the ghosts of his two murdered nephews tell sleeping Richmond, "Live, and beget a happy race of kings" (V.iii.158). Ironically, Shakespeare's audience, hearing this speech, might recollect that this "race" would include as many queens as kings, both of whom would have their happiness blighted at one time or another by the frost of bastardy. Yet this recollection concerns the unknown future of the play's characters. In this play the founder of the Tudor dynasty proudly proclaims his political legitimacy (through a powerfiil conjunction that—dramatically at least—overbears and mutes future questions about his biological legitimacy).

O now let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together,
And let their heirs, God, if Thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac'd peace,
  With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days.


Phyllis Rackin has argued that "the problem of illegitimacy" in the cycle of Shakespeare's dramatized history "is never fully resolved until the end of Richard III, when the Lancastrian Henry VII turns to a woman to secure a crown he has won in battle, announcing that he will unite the warring factions by marrying the Yorkist princess Elizabeth. The best efforts of three generations of kings and their suffering subjects and the struggles of three generations of men killing each other in battle can never resolve the problem of royal legitimacy. It can only be resolved in marriage, with the incorporation of the necessary female ground of all patriarchal authority—in this case the Princess Elizabeth" (163-64). The stigma of bastardy that Richard, like a lightning rod, deflects from Richmond onto himself in Shakespeare's play prepares the way for Rackin's conclusions and makes them more persuasive.

For one brief moment, divine legitimacy in the formulation of Shakespeare's Richmond characterizes the origins of the Tudors, offsetting the many later political accusations of bastardy within the royal "race." Shakespeare's creation of a scapegoat figurative bastard in King Richard III must have made Richmond's claims nostalgically believable. Shakespeare later (most likely in 1594 or 1595) positively portrayed illegitimacy in the character of Philip the Bastard in King John, a figure who Ronald Stroud has shown gains a metaphoric legitimacy by comparison with the moral shifting of less honest courtiers.8 Shakespeare formulates this dramaturgy of King John in King Richard III when the moral bastardy of "legitimate" Richard and the hypocrites of the Yorkist court defines the moral integrity of the "bastard" Henry Tudor. Despite the generally negative cultural representation of bastardy during Shakespeare's lifetime (Elton 131-35; Hyland 6-9; Neill; Macfarlane 73, 77),9 the playwright in King Richard III found a novel way to evoke the problematics of Tudor bastardy in order to de-emphasize its seriousness. That a censor may have ordered the erasure of key verses of this evocation suggests that the approach may have been appreciated by only a segment of Shakespeare's audience.

I want to thank my former Baylor University student Jessica Watson for stimulating my interest in the topic of bastardy in King Richard III and for suggesting several resources for researching the subject of this essay.


1 Shakespeare's emphasis upon bastardy in a history play such as King Richard III is, per se, not surprising. Rather, I am claiming that, considered in light of Queen Elizabeth's distaste for public allusions to the topic of Tudor bastardy, Shakespeare's evocation of the subject in King Richard III is surprising. A number of recent commentators have demonstrated that bastardy becomes a major issue in many of Shakespeare's history plays. See especially, Candido, "Blots, Stains, and Adulteries"; Manheim (and less centrally several other essays in Curren-Aquino); Kerrigan 40-44; Rackin 53-54, 66, 76, 184-91; and Neill 275, 278-79, 283-84, 287-88.

2 In the April Eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender, the poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth, Spenser wrote, "For shee is Syrinx daughter without spotte, / Which Pan the shepheards God of her begot: / So sprong her grace / Of heavenly race, / No mortali blemishe may her biotte" (Yale Spenser 72-73). While Elizabethan writers often mythologized King Henry VIII as the protean, all-powerful god Pan, Spenser's identification of Anne Boleyn with Syrinx is a bit unusual. Pan—Henry VIII—made a kind of immortal music—the miraculous child Elizabeth—through playing the reed that Syrinx had become. In this reading, Syrinx—Anne Boleyn—sacrifices her life so that she and Pan can make something wondrous. While the phrase "without spotte" mainly attaches to Elizabeth, it also modifies Syrinx, suggesting by its ambiguous syntactical position that Elizabeth's legitimacy proceeds from her pure mother. "No mortali blemishe may . . . biotte" Elizabeth because she came of a clean "heavenly race." Spenser's recreation of Elizabeth's virginal conception reappears in Book III of The Faerie Queene, wherein the sun's rays innocently beget a prototype of Elizabeth—Belphoebe—within the body of sleeping Chrysogene ( Chrysogene/Anne Boleyn in the myth thus preserves her "chaste bodie" (, such that, as regards Belphoebe/Elizabeth, "her whole creation did her shew / Pure and vnspotted from all loathly crime / That is ingenerate in fleshly slime" ( Spenser's adaptation of the motif of the Annunciation suggests the imaginative degree protestant apologists were willing to go to defend Elizabeth from innuendoes of bastardy and sexual corruption in her origin.

3 In the past sixteen years, commentators on Shakespeare's King John and the plays of the First and Second Tetralogies in steadily increasing numbers have demonstrated the relevance of sixteenth-century English personages, doctrines, and events for their interpretations. See for example Trace; Richmond; Greenblatt; Wilson; Williamson; Marcus 51-96; Jackson; McCoy; Belsey; and Poole. One of the original authorizations for giving aspects of Shakespeare's history plays early modern readings was Queen Elizabeth's pronouncement that Shakespeare's company's playing Richard II on the eve of the Essex Rebellion especially identified her with King Richard (Kastan 468-69, 473).

4 All quotations of King Richard III refer to the Arden text edited by Antony Hammond. When Richard commands Buckingham to stigmatize Edward's offspring, Robert Ornstein refers to the "time-honored custom for usurpers to bastardize those they overthrow" (26).

5 "Yet it is the bloody butcher himself, Richard, who most clearly aligns himself with the ideology of loyal and 'natural' succession; and it is the re-sacramentalized emblem of 'ceremonious' order, Richmond, who intervenes when the 'chair' of state is not 'empty,' when the 'empire' is not 'unpossess'd'" (Carroll 218).

6 Neil remarks that around "the 'rudely stamped' Richard of Gloucester['s] . . . monstrous birth and physical deformity hang metaphoric suggestions of the very bastardy with which he stigmatizes his own nephews. .. . In i Henry VI, V.5.115, [Richard] and his brothers are denounced by Queen Margaret as 'the bastard boys of York' in a context where York's patronage of the usurper Cade (a counterfeit Plantagenet) and appearance at the head of an Irish army associates the Yorkist faction with illegitimacy of all kinds" (283). For the early modern English notion that bastardy often revealed itself in the bastard's monstrous shape, see Neill's analysis of Volpone's "family" and the character of Thersites in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (287, 289-92).

7 Neill asserts that "the stage bastard repeatedly insists on his own self-begotten sufficiency in overreaching language that insolently travesties the divine 'I am'" (284). Richard shares many character traits with the stage bastards Edmund and Faulconbridge of King John, These include a proneness to tease or scoff, cynical commentary—often expressed in an aside—on the dramatic action, a darkly comic or ironic sense of humor and theatrical style of behavior and speech as responses to a sense of illegitimacy (Van de Water 141-43; Rackin 53-54); self-congratulatory double-entendres, soliloquies suggestive of superior intellectual complexity, a fondness for spoken interruptions, expostulations, defiances, mockeries, and expressions of incredulity (Porter 139); and a penchant for Machiavellian policy, made attractive by a large capacity for personal charm (Danby 58-80). Richard shares these and other characteristics with the Shakespearean stage bastard represented by Edmund and Faulconbridge partly because all three figures ultimately derive from the Morality Vice.

8 Clearly, Shakespeare depicts the brave bastard Faulconbridge, who grows into an understanding and appreciation of moral truth during the course of the events of King John, as more qualified to rule England than the problematical but yet more legitimate John and Arthur, the former progressively unscrupulous and confused and the latter pious but frightened and ineffectual in his childhood. See the analysis of Herschel Baker in The River-side Shakespeare 766-67; Manheim; and Rackin 184-91.

9 Peter Laslett has statistically demonstrated with reference to historical English bastardy ratios that there was "an illegitimacy wave in the latest decades of the sixteenth and the earlier decades of the seventeenth century" (233). Also see Ingram 157-59. For confirmation of this increase and an account of its probable socioeconomic origins within the disorderly popular culture of the 1590s, see Levine and Wrightson 158-75. The marked increase in bastardy rates that occurred while Shakespeare was writing for the theater may have played a role in his emphasis upon illegitimacy in King Richard III, other history plays, and several comedies and tragedies.

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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 a completely different character, a villain who, except for the final battle scene, never soils his hands with blood. In brutal utterances such as "Off with his head!" (III.4.78) or "I wish the bastards dead. / And I would have it suddenly perform'd." (IV.2.18-19) there is still a reflection of the pitiless butcher of Henry VI, but, as a rule, Richard's villainy now works in a subtler and more infernal way, which manifests itself in his specific use or, rather, abuse of rhetoric. This change in the conception of the villain is forecast in Richard's great soliloquy in 3 Henry VI, IIL2.124-195, which would be dramatically pointless without the succeeding play1.

It is the object of the present article to scrutinize the hero of Richard III from a rhetorical point of view. This approach has several advantages, one of them being its comprehensiveness. Covering all aspects of persuasion from the use of word and argument to the management of voice, facial expression, and gesture, rhetoric provides a key to the various facets of Richard as a manipulator and intriguer. Also Richard's histrionic performances must be understood as rhetorical efforts, achievements in dissimulation and simulation. The play's immense theatricality derives to a very great extent from its protagonist's virtuosity as a role-player. The conception of Richard as an actor, age-old as it is, has recently received new emphasis and elaboration. Michael Neill, for example, finds the essence of Richard's character in his being "dramatist, producer, prologue, and star performer of his own rich comedy"2. Or, to adduce another critic, Thomas F. Van Laan declares that "the hero's play-acting forms the only real subject of the first three acts" of Richard III.3 Richard's histrionic temperament is, admittedly, essential to the play and its continuing success on the stage, but the view of him as an actor—"a charming entertainer", as Van Laan puts it4—cannot account for his mastery of the techniques of verbal persuasion and manipulation. Besides, how much Richard may enjoy his own performances, how much he may gloat at them, he never loses sight of his aim which is "to catch the English crown" (3 Henry VI, III.2.179). His role-playing is rhetorical in its essence. There are ample grounds for regarding him as an artist in crime, but it is going too far to say that his "purpose is not what the show may accomplish but the show itself'5. It should never be forgotten that his intrigues and crimes lead him in a calculated process step by step toward his great goal. All his machinations in the first three acts are, in fact, targeted to the realization of his ambition.6 And once he has reached his aim, his motivation is gone and his character loses much of its theatrical brilliance.

Also rhetoric is essential to a historical and cultural assessment of the play and its protagonist. Shakespeare alludes to two sources for his villain in Richard III, both of which are related to rhetoric. One of Richard's ancestors is the Vice of the old morality plays, the accomplished dissembler, verbal juggler, trickster, inveterate enemy of virtue and peace and lover of evil and mischief. During a dialogue with young Edward, the Prince of Wales, Richard makes a number of ambiguous remarks, saying to himself in an aside:

Thus, like the formal vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.

(III. 1.82-83)

Richard sees his kinship with the Vice in his verbal duplicity, his habit of saying the opposite of what he means. It is only in the very early examples of the psychomachia that the vice figures use physical aggression as a means to overthrow their enemies, the virtues. Already in the first extant English morality play, The Castle of Perseverance, their military strategy having failed, the vices throw Covetousness into the fight, who succeeds in enticing Humanum Genus by protestations of friendship, flattery and promises. Assault is here replaced by deceit, a military by a verbal strategy, and all through the history of the Vice rhetorical deceit and doubledealing are his trademark.

Richard's second and more recent ancestor is the Machiavel, a type whom Marlowe had introduced to the English theatre with power-thirsty, mischief-making, deceitful and self-congratulatory magnetic personalities such as Barabas in The Jew of Malta. The Machiavel is a theatrical appropriation—and in many ways a distortion7—of the type of the power-obsessed amoral politician whom Niccolò Machiavelli had presented in his work Il Principe (1513). At the end of his programmatic soliloquy in 3 Henry VI, where Richard declares his intention "to catch the English crown" by murdering, deceiving, and playing the orator, he says summarily that it is his aim to "set the murderous Machiavel to school" (III.2.193)8. The immediate context of this statement with the references to the orator Nestor (188), the deceiving Ulysses (189), the colourchanging chameleon (191) and the shape-changing Proteus (192) makes it quite obvious that the Machiavel here stands for rhetorical deceit. It is one of the doctrines of Machiavelli's Prince that a successful politician must be an excellent rhetorician. In his famous lion-and-fox analogy (The Prince, Chapter 18) Machiavelli says that the ruler should have the strength of the lion but also the cunning of the fox9, and that he should know how to hide his nature as a fox. He must, in effect, be a master of rhetorical deceit, "a great pretender and dissembler"10, who veils his true position by the cunning use of words. Sir Thomas Browne refers to this aspect of Machiavelli's theory of statecraft when he couples it with "the Rhetorick of Satan"11. In his Discorsi Machiavelli has a chapter in which he maintains that he who wishes to rise to an eminent position in the state "must learn to practise deceit" and conceal it12>. That a ruler must be able to dissimulate, i.e. to hide his true opinion and intentions, was a common-place in the Renaissance. In his Arte of English Poesie (1586) George Puttenham quotes the Latin proverb: "Qui nescit dissimulare nescit regnare"13. Equally Pierre Charron says: "Now dissimulation [ . . . ] is very necessarie in Princes, who otherwise could not know how to reigne, or well to commaund. And they must many times dissemble [... ]"14. There were few political philosophers, however, who emphasized rhetorical deceit and hypocrisy as much as Machiavelli did.

A third source of inspiration for Shakespeare's amalgamation of villain and rhetorician is to be seen in the characteristically Renaissance belief in the irresistible power of rhetoric. It was actually believed in that age that it was possible "with a word to winne Cities and whole Countries"15. In Richard III the power of rhetoric is demonstrated most drastically by means of the monstrous results it can achieve. Richard is an extreme projection of the contemporary fascination with the word. While in Renaissance rhetoric-books, grammars, and educational treatises eloquence was hailed as a great humanizing and civilizing power, dramatists were often interested in presenting the effects of rhetoric when put to negative uses. The villain-rhetorician must be understood as a dramatically most effective antithesis to the humanistic ideal of the wise statesmanorator.

2. The Villain's Argumentative Skill

One of the essential characteristics of Richard's rhetoric is his mastery of wit, which is displayed most strikingly in what is one of the most amazing rhetorical tours de force in all literature, the persuasion scene with Lady Anne (I.2), where Richard, who has killed the latter's husband and her father-in-law, succeeds in turning her feelings from venomous hatred to a halfacknowledged acceptance of his marriage proposal. Shakespeare has emphasized the grotesqueness of the situation by making the villain woo the widow over the hearse of his victim. The scene is, from first to last, conceived as a rhetorical contest: Richard refers to the dialogue as a wit-combat, "this keen encounter of our wits" (115). And when he kneels before Anne offering his chest to her to be killed, she says, "Arise, dissembler" (184), realizing even at this emotional climax that Richard is dissembling6.

In his verbal fencing match with Anne Richard displays a dazzling command of rhetoric ranging from sheer mockery and sophistry to the calculated use of pathos, the appeal to the emotions. Argumentatively, he always has the better of Anne. He is constantly capable of giving the debate an unexpected twist and taking Anne by surprise. When she curses him in the manner of declamatory Senecan rhetoric, asking heaven and earth to destroy him, he, the arch-villain, hypocritically reminds her of her Christian duty of charity; to her overheated wrath he opposes a gentle sanctimonious reproach:

Lady, you know no rules of charity,
Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.


Or when she says that he is "unfit for any place but hell" (109), he lasciviously suggests that there is "one place else" (110), her "bed-chamber" (111)17. His sophistry becomes pure cynicism and mockery at virtue and religion when he suggests that King Henry VI—renowned for his saintliness—should thank him, i.e. Richard, for having sent him to heaven, a place for which "he was fitter [ . . . ] than earth" (108). There is no room for a detailed analysis of this scene. I shall just have a closer look at its climax. Richard feigns the suicidal despair of the rejected lover. He offers the sword to Anne, demanding her to kill him. Confronting her with crime, he appeals to her better instincts, to what lies beyond hatred and rage18. As he expected, she is unable to perpetrate the deed. He, then, outdoes his diabolical strategy by asking her to repeat her earlier wish that he should kill himself:

Speak it again, and even with the word
This hand, which for thy love did kill thy love,
Shall for thy love kill a far truer love;
To both their deaths shalt thou be accessary.


These lines abound with rhetorical figures, among which metonymy is most prominent. Richard metonymically substitutes the word "love" for the names of two persons, Anne's killed husband and Richard himself, thus making "love" the keyword of the passage. Love-rhetoric is here employed to palliate crime and deceit. Using the argument of cause (argumentum a causa)20—"for thy love" occurs twice in parallel position—, Richard presents love as the motive for his crime and the hypocritically proffered suicide. Maliciously distorting the facts, he implicates Anne in the guilt: "To both their deaths shalt thou be accessary".

Richard's cunning mixture of protestations of love and accusations of Anne makes her resistance break down. She stops arguing, saying with intense curiosity: "I would I knew thy heart" (192).

3. Machiavellian Rhetoric

Richard marries Anne for a "secret close intent" (I.1.158), and it is his mastery of persuasion that engineers this political marriage21. Equally, he uses rhetoric in a sly and underhanded manner in order to ensnare his enemies, i.e. whoever stands in his way to the crown. He also practises persuasion on the great stage of state affairs, where he uses it for political manipulation. This aspect of Richard III is strongly indebted to Thomas More's History of King Richard III. With its concern with the acquisition of the crown as an end in itself and with its autonomous representation of the techniques of rhetorical deceit and manipulation, Shakespeare's play is to a large extent "the product of the Machiavellian view of politics"22. It differs in this respect from one of its presumable sources, The True Tragedie of Richard the Third23, which does not represent Richard as a Machiavellian deceiver.

Richard's Machiavellian rhetoric, as it may be termed, emerges most prominently in the third act of the play, where Shakespeare presents the techniques of persuasion and manipulation by which his hero manages to create the impression that his accession to the throne is legitimate and that the crown is urged on him through official solicitation and public acclamation. Richard's political campaign is carefully rehearsed. First, he makes Buckingham, his propaganda minister, deliver a speech to the citizens of London. Buckingham is to slander the late king and to insinuate that his children are bastards, thus implying that Richard is the only possible successor to the title. Shakespeare directs attention to the fact that this is a commissioned speech with the arguments provided and prescribed by Richard. Richard is, in fact, shown to instruct Buckingham in the art of persuasion. Shakespeare here gives us a demonstration of the manipulatory processes taking place in power politics. Buckingham's speech itself is not rendered directly. He retells the whole scene after the event in a dialogue with Richard. This mediate mode of presentation enables Shakespeare to reveal to us the ulterior motives of the two plotters' machinations. The speech abuses King Edward and praises Richard as a soldier and statesman. It culminates in Buckingham's request to the people to proclaim Richard King of England. The citizens, however, remain totally silent, unmoved "like dumb statues or breathing stones" (III.7.25). A few claqueurs shout: "God save King Richard" (III.7.36). With the cynicism of the perfect demagogue Buckingham interprets these shouts as general acclaim:

'Thanks, gentle citizens and friends,' quoth I.
This general applause and cheerful shout
Argues your wisdoms and your love to Richard.'


In a carefully staged performance, Richard seizes power in a final verbal coup, which Shakespeare presents like a play within the play (III.7). The technique of the staged scene is here used as yet another device to expose manipulatory strategies in politics. Richard enters between two bishops with a prayer-book in his hand. He feigns piety, thus following Machiavelli, who thinks that to appear virtuous and religious is very necessary for a ruler, whereas to have virtue and religion and always to observe them is disadvantageous to him24. Argues your wisdoms and your love to Richard.' Richard presents himself as a pious Christian prince who will only reluctantly take on the cares of state because the public demand that he do so is overwhelming. The two plotters perform their political theatricals with great gusto. First there is a persuasive dialogue, in which Buckingham offers or, rather, implores Richard to accept the crown. Richard's refusal, which is most cleverly packed with insinuations, is an ironic strategy which is meant to provoke further entreaties. This rhetorical device, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired, is called accismus (Greek akkismos). It is employed by Julius Caesar when he thrice refuses the crown Antony offers him. More recounts that some of the people present condemn Richard's behaviour as a prearranged stratagem, while others excuse it as a ritual, comparing it with the consecration of a bishop, who must "bee twise asked whyther he wil be bishop or no, and he must twyse say naye, and at the third tyme take it [. .. ]"25. Buckingham advises Richard in Shakespeare's play to "Play the maid's part: still answer nay, and take it" (III.7.51).

When Richard—after the repeated alternation of denial and renewed entreaty—finally accepts the crown, he adds a finishing touch to his performance, which is not, in this form, to be found in More's account of the matter. He declares that since the crown has been forced upon him, he stands acquitted of having tried to gain it by dishonest and criminal means:

Since you will buckle fortune on my back,
To bear her burden, whe'er I will or no,
  I must have patience to endure the load;
But if black scandal or foul-fac'd reproach
Attend the sequel of your imposition,
Your mere enforcement shall acquittance me
From all the impure blots and stains thereof;
For God doth know, and you may partly see,
How far I am from the desire of this.


With great cunning he forestalls the rumours and scandals that are bound to arise from his accession to the throne. The whole third act of the play with its vivid deployment of manifold techniques of rhetorical deceit and manipulation could be called a lesson in Machiavellian politics.

4. Dissimulation as Richard's Chief Rhetorical Strategy

The hallmark of Richard's dealings with other people is dissimulation, the concealment of his true feelings and intentions. Shakespeare's conception of his protagonist as a dissembler owes much to Thomas More, who describes Richard as "close and secrete, a deepe dissimuler, lowlye of counteynaunce, arrogant of heart, outwardly coumpinable where he inwardely hated"26. When recounting how Richard deceives his young nephew with feigned kindness, More cannot refrain from adding the heartfelt marginal comment "O dissimulacion"27, a comment which Holinshed took up in his chronicle28 and repeated once more in an extended form in the margin of the account of Richard's pretended refusal of the crown: "O singular dissimulation of King Richard"29. On the same page Holinshed adds yet another marginal comment in the same vein: "King Richard spake otherwise than he meant"30. Another source for Richard as a dissimulator is, of course, the Vice Dissimulation, who appears in Bale's King John (1530-36) and in a very late morality play, Robert Wilson's The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (1589), is inveighed against by Love31.

O gall in honey, serpent in the grass!
0 bifold fountain of two bitter streams,
Dissimulation fed with viper's flesh,
Whose words are oil, whose deeds, the darts of death!

Richard's emphasis on his dissimulatory powers in the above-mentioned soliloquy in 3 Henry VI

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry 'Content!' to that which grieves my heart,
  And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
  And frame my face to all occasions.


can be paralleled with Cloaked Collusion's boast of his faculties of dissimulation in Skelton's morality Magnyfycence (1513-16)32:

I can dyssemble, I can bothe laughe and grone;
Playne Delynge and I can neuer agree; (698-699)
Two faces in a hode couertly I bere; (710)
Paynte to a purpose Good Countenaunce I can, (724)
My speche is all Pleasure, but I stynge lyke a waspe. (730)

"Dissemble" and "dissembler" are key-words in Richard III, and the technique of dissimulation is ever and again referred to. In one of his soliloquies Richard declares that it is his intention to "clothe" his "naked villainy" (I.3.336). Introducing his young nephew into "the world's deceit", he explains to him that a man's "outward show" hardly ever "jumpeth with the heart" (III.1.8-11), that behind "sug'red words" "the poison" of the "heart" is hidden (III.1.13-14). Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, is an exception among the play's characters in that she looks through the villain33:

Ah, that deceit should steal such gentle shape,
And with a virtuous vizor hide deep vice! 


The central terms of this statement are linked by alliteration and paronomasia (vizor, vice), which makes for an intense characterization of Richard's dissimulation. The metaphor of the visor (vizard) used to describe vice masquerading as virtue has a long tradition. It appears, for instance, in Lewis Wager's morality The Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene (c. 1550), where Infidelity, the play's Vice, declares that he conveys his "matters cleane!/Like as I haue a visour of vertue" (37-38)34. In The Belman of London Thomas Dekker, speaking of the vices, uses the same metaphor in a statement which hardly deviates from the words of the Duchess of York in Richard III: "All Vices maske themselues with the vizards of Vertue [ . . . ]"35. To adduce yet another example, Pierre de La Primaudaye says: "It is most certaine, that vice putteth on a vizard, and goeth disguised and couered with goodly shewes that belong onely to vertue [ . . . ]"36.

Richard's dissimulation works on two levels. He does all to mask his villainous intentions, and he takes great pains to conceal his rhetorical skill. The ideal of making one's art look artless, the celare artem, had already been formulated in Aristotle's Rhetoric (III.2.1404b) and Cicero's De Oratore (II.4.177). In the Renaissance it was taken up by Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier (1528), where that kind of art is defined as "a verie arte, that appeareth not to be arte". Castiglione speaks of "most excellent Orators" who "enforced themselves to make everie man believe, that they had no sight in letters, and dissembling their cunning, made semblant their Orations to be made verie simply, and rather as nature and truth ledde them, than Studie and arte"37. As a rhetorician Richard follows this practice. In Machiavelli's terminology, he is always intent on hiding his character as a fox, i.e. his art of verbal deception. In his dialogue with Lady Anne, for instance, he denies his practice and talent of persuasive speech, pretending that it is only in this unique case of true love that his heart makes him speak persuasively:

I never sued to friend nor enemy;
My tongue could never learn sweet smoothing word;
But, now thy beauty is propos'd my fee,
My proud heart sues, and prompts my tongue to speak.


An even stronger denial of his rhetorical ability is to be found in the succeeding scene with Queen Elizabeth, where he—just as Antony does in Julius Caesar—presents himself as a "plain man" who thinks "no harm" and speaks "his simple truth", while his opponents are "silken, sly, insinuating Jacks" (I.3.51-53). It is one of his ironic strategies to acquit himself of any verbal duplicity and to describe his political adversaries as devilish dissimulators. In his epitaph on Hastings he cynically characterizes the victim of his machinations as a perfect dissembler who "daub'd his vice with show of virtue" (III.5.29). Repeatedly denouncing his enemies as dissimulators, he, most ironically, gives a series of portraits of himself. Richard's thinking is so centred round the concept of dissimulation that he even considers nature, which sent him as a cripple into the world, a dissembler. In his first soliloquy he declares that he is "curtail'd of this fair proportion, / Cheated of feature by dissembling nature" (I.1.18-19). For him the origin and medium of all evil is dissimulation. Accordingly, he explains his physical deformity as a swindle of dissembling nature38.

5. Rhetorical Role-Playing (Simulation) as a Perversion of Courtly Conduct

It was pointed out above that the tradition of the morality Vice and the Machiavel merge in the conception of Richard as a dissimulator. Now it is to be suggested that for a proper understanding of Richard's art of dissimulation it must be related to the Ideology of courtly conduct developed by Castiglione and his successors as a third and at least equally important source. For Castiglione the courtier is a man who does not follow his natural impulses (natura); he rather disciplines them by means of artistic rules (ars), and he does so in such a manner that his conduct appears as natural as an altera natura named sprezzatura by the Italians. The already-mentioned celare artem is of the utmost importance for the courtier. He has to disguise his art; he has to practise dissimulation in all his public activities, be it singing, painting, poetry-writing, courting a lady, or politics. The more perfect his command of the art of dissimulation is, the more successful he will be in courtly life. He must be able to play his part in the pervasive role-playing characteristic of courtly culture. Heinrich F. Plett has shown that tropic diction, i.e. the figurative use of words, receives its special aesthetic and social function in this context39. Figures such as metaphor, metonymy, irony and allegory are the ideal instruments of the indirect mode of dissimulatory expression. It is highly interesting in this context that George Puttenham, in his Arte of English Poesie (1589), should call allegory "the Courtly figure" or "the figure of [false semblant or dissimulation]"40 or even, towards the end of his poetic, "the Courtier or figure of faire semblant"41. Puttenham explains this remarkable terminology by pointing out that the courtier cannot be successful in any of his endeavours without using allegory as a means of dissimulation. Tropic diction is the medium of courtly communication.

The twofold characterization of "the Courtly figure" of allegory as a figure of "faire" and "false semblant" reveals the ambiguity of the ideal of courtliness, the ever-present possibility that it may degenerate into deception, hypocrisy, imposture and intrigue. The courtier may turn out to be nothing but Machiavelli's fox. His dissimulatory rhetoric may prove to be a mere instrument of deception and intrigue. From a rhetorical point of view the intrigue can be defined as a plot carried on by dissimulation42. Puttenham is not unaware of the unpleasant fact of the courtier's deception. He gives a whole catalogue of courtly vices, insisting, however, that his "Courtly Poet" is "an honest man", not "an hypocrite", who leaves "these manner of dissimulations to all base-minded men" and is "a dissembler only in the subtilties of his arte"43. It is well-known that hypocrisy and dissimulation belong to the main targets of court satires. The courtier came to be identified with the hypocrite in the Renaissance44. Pierre Charron calls "hypocrisie and dissimulation" "a notable quality of Courtiers, and in great credit amongst them as vertue"45, and Thomas Gainsford describes the courtier as a "schollar of deceit46". In The Unfortunate Traveller Jack Wilton advises one of his dupes, "the vgly mechanicall Captain", to "haue the Art of dissembling at his fingers ends as perfect as any Courtier"47. Deceitful or dissimulatory rhetoric was felt to be the hallmark of courtly communication. In Robert Wilson's late morality play The Three Ladies of London (1581) the Vice Dissimulation says48:

Mass, masters, he that cannot lie, cog,
dissemble and flatter now-a-days,
  Is not worthy to live in the world, nor in the
court to have praise.

At first sight Richard looks the very opposite of the courtier. In his introductory soliloquy he characterizes himself as "not shap'd for sportive tricks, / Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass" (I.1.14-15), and he adds:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
  I am determined to prove a villain
  And hate the idle pleasures of these days.


Yet the next scene already, the persuasion scene with Lady Anne, belies his assertion, when he plays the role of the lover with stunning perfection. To illustrate how tropes serve the purpose of dissimulation in this scene we can go back to Richard's earlier-cited use of metonymy ("This hand [ . . . ] shall for thy love kill a far truer love"). When he substitutes for his own person the quality of love, he slips into the role of the lover. Dissimulation is here realized verbally by the use of tropic diction, which is precisely what Puttenham means when he calls allegory "the Courtier" or "the figure of [false semblant or dissimulation]".

Richard's villainy manifests itself in a variety of dissimulatory acts which usually coincide with simulatory acts. Dissimulation and simulation here are two complementary activities. Richard's attempt to conceal his villainy concretizes itself, accordingly, as an attempt to put on a show of saintliness: "And thus I clothe my naked villainy [. . . ] And seem a saint" (I.3.336-338). With great perfection he plays one role after the other, his histrionic talent being one aspect of his character which More had emphasized very strongly in the Latin version of his history49. It is important to realize that in his play-acting Richard never changes his name and garment, a trick of which the morality Vice had been so fond50 and which is a constitutive element of Elizabethan plays with a disguise plot51. The parts Richard plays with so much gusto52 are, in fact, social roles, which he can put on with a protean swiftness and facility. He presents himself, for instance, as the devoted brother (commiserating with the victim of his own machinations—1.1.42-116), the courting lover (I.2), the plain man wronged by his deceitful enemies (I.3.42-53), the innocent lamb, "too childish-foolish for this world" (I.3.142), thanking "my God for my humility" (II. 1.72), the sage uncle letting his nephew in on "the world's deceit" (III. 1.8), the crippled victim of treachery and witchcraft (III.4.61-74), and, most triumphantly, the meditating holy man who is, against his resistance, called to the duty of kingship (III.7).

The rhetorical basis of Richard's play-acting should not be lost sight of. The playlet which precedes Hasting's fall in III.4—Richard affably asking the Bishop of Ely for some of his "good strawberries" and putting on a captivating show of geniality and, then, inveigling Hastings into proposing his own execution—has been called "totally unnecessary"53. But this vignette must be understood as a highly effective dramatic illustration of the perfidy of the dissimulatory process as set forth by Richard himself in his dialogue with Prince Edward: the victim is lulled into security with "sug'red words" only to be killed by "the poison" of the heart (III.1.13-14).

Richard's role-playing is, to a considerable part, of a parodistic nature. By means of parody he mocks and sneers at human virtues and the moral order. Mockery of moral values is according to Innocent Gentillet's so-called Contre-Machiavel the effect of the Florentine's precept that the politician should simulate virtues rather than have them: "For what man is so brutall or ignorant, that seeth not with his eie, how Machiavell delights to mock & play, with the most excellent virtues amongst men?"54. Role-playing as an essential ingredient of the Renaissance concept of courtly conduct is deliberately put to negative use by Richard. It is degraded by this arch-actor, reduced to an instrument of intrigue and mockery. What we have in Richard's histrionics is an abuse of the ideal of Renaissance rhetoric and a deliberate perversion of the Renaissance ideology of courtly conduct55.

Play-acting is even in a deeper sense essential to the protagonist's character in Richard III. His status as a villain seems to depend on his ability to play the role of the villain. Richard refers to his rhetorical performances as "playing the orator", which is a very frequent formula in Shakespeare's earlier plays (3 Henry VI, III.2.188, Richard III III.5.95)56, and, similarly, he comments on his villainy as playing "the devil" (Richard III I.3.338) or playing "the dog" (3 Henry VI V.6.77). He obviously tries to play his role as a villain as well as possible. This is also the meaning of the programmatic declaration in his first self-expository speech—"I am determined to prove a villain" (I.1. 30)—, which has puzzled so many commentators. He is determined to prove the villain by the superior skill with which he can play the part of a villain. This is a role which he, with great gusto, plays before the audience, with whom he establishes, right from the beginning, an almost conspiratorial complicity. Richard acts for two audiences, the gulls in the play who are deceived by his rhetorical and histrionic performances, and the auditors in the theatre whom he takes into his confidence in his soliloquies and virtually makes his accomplices57. Considering the theatrical metaphors of the play, it is not going too far to say that Richard is presented to us as a character who himself chooses and creates his role as a villain. Richard is not a realistic portrait of an amoral power-seeking man, but, to borrow Wilbur Sanders' phrase, "a magnificent theatrical fiction"58.

6. Rhetorical and Theatrical 'Actio '

As a rhetorician and politician Richard is a perfect actor. In order to carry on his intrigue he slips, chameleon-like, into a multitude of roles. His rhetorical playacting is the most obvious expression of his dissimulatory strategy. Now there is one part of rhetoric which forms the connecting link between rhetoric and the art of acting, namely actio, the management of voice and body during the delivery of a speech. The rhetorical actio was given much weight in the age of Shakespeare, though there were some theorists who followed Cicero in warning of the exaggerated use of gestures. Thomas Nashe parodied excessive actio in his description of a theological disputation in The Unfortunate Traveller; "Luther had the louder voyce, Carolostadius went beyond him in beating and bounsing with his fists"59. In his essay Of Boldness Francis Bacon retells an anecdote on Demosthenes60:

Question was asked of Demosthenes, what was the chief part of an orator? He answered, action; what next? action; what next again? action.

That action, i.e. "that part of an orator which is but superficial, and rather the virtue of a player", "should be placed so high", Bacon attributes to the foolish nature of man. The high estimation of actio is expressed most concentratedly in Volumnia's definition from Shakespeare's Coriolanus: "Action is eloquence" (III.2.76). This is an abbreviated and distorted version of Cicero's definition: "est enim actio quasi sermo corporis" (De Oratore, III.59.222), which Thomas Wilson renders in his Arte of Rhetorique as: "The Gesture of Man is the speech of his body"61. By shortening this definition to "Action is eloquence", Volumnia identifies actio and rhetoric. This extreme emphasis on actio quite often goes together with the concept of rhetoric as an art of dissimulation and simulation as is evidenced in Coriolanus itself, in Julius Caesar (III.2), Othello62 and in Richard III. At the climax of the persuasion scene with Lady Anne Richard most effectively resorts to actio by giving her his sword, laying his chest open and asking her to kill him. The persuasive power of actio is here used at the decisive moment in the scene. Similarly, actio plays a great role in the final manipulatory scene of Richard's rise to supreme power when he appears between two clergymen with a prayer-book in his hand. In addition to such explicit references to actio there are a great many implicit or indirect allusions to it, for instance in II.2, where Clarence's orphaned son relates how his "good uncle Gloucester [ . . . ] wept, / And pitied me, and kindly kiss'd my cheek". (20-24). Feigned tears belong, by the way, to Richard's favourite tricks (cf. I.2.163-166). In Richard III there is even a scene where the two plotters, Richard and Buckingham, discuss the importance of actio as an element of their manipulatory strategies:

Come, cousin, canst thou quake and change thy colour,
Murder thy breath in middle of a word,
And then again begin, and stop again,
  As if thou were distraught and mad with terror?

Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian;
Speak and look back, and pry on every side,
Tremble and start at wagging of a straw,
Intending deep suspicion. Ghastly looks
  Are at my service, like enforced smiles;
And both are ready in their offices
  At any time to grace my stratagems.


The whole passage is a sequence of actio-signals referring to the management of voice, facial expression, and gestures. The rhetorical actio is here described in theatrical terms. Buckingham stresses the fact that he can "counterfeit the deep tragedian" (III.5.5). The function of the two plotters' play-acting is, in Buckingham's words, "to grace my stratagems" (III.5.11). Their histrionics are thus characterized as being political and rhetorical in intention. Richard's and Buckingham's discussion on actio must be recognized as a part of the rehearsal of their coup d'état. What the scene tells us is that politicians who wish to be successful must above all be good actors.

7. Conclusion

In the Renaissance—just as had been the case in classical antiquity—language was felt to be the measure of the difference between man and beast. Speech and eloquence were regarded as means of moving men to reasonable and virtuous ends63. The other side of the coin was, however, not overlooked, namely that the abuse of language and rhetoric could disfigure man beyond recognition and reduce him to the moral status of the devil. In the course of the Renaissance the attitude towards eloquence became increasingly ambiguous. "The tongue is the best and the worst thing that is", said Pierre de la Primaudaye64. And Pierre Charron put it in almost the same words: " [ . . . ] there is nothing better, nothing worse than the tongue"65. Shakespeare never leaves us in doubt about the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad in Richard III, but, in the full presence of the unblurred values of vice and virtue, he makes us suspend our moral judgment, so that we may be fascinated by the mastermind of his villain-rhetorician, who pursues his plans untrammelled by conscience and pity66. Richard is the man who will kill, or rather liquidate, whoever stands in his way, but on the stage his villainy is, for the most part, shown to work by rhetorical deceit and rhetorical role-playing used for veiling murder and intrigue. In many scenes of Richard III the protagonist seems to be a dramatic exemplification of Samuel Daniel's dictum: "For men doe fowlest, when they finest speake"67. With this hero Shakespeare presents a dramatically most effective portrait of a supreme artist in persuasion whose rhetoric is totally divorced from moral considerations and who constantly tells "lies well steel'd with weighty arguments" (I.1.148). One of the reasons for the enormous theatrical success of Richard's role derives from the fact that the actor playing his part has the unique opportunity of impersonating a man who is himself a consummate actor, whose roleplaying is, in fact, the most important means of furthering his criminal plans. While Renaissance writers of educational treatises such as Sir Thomas Elyot's The Book named The Governor (1531)68 or Lodowick Bryskett's Discourse of Civili Life (1609) wanted dissimulators, i.e. people who "cary one thing in their tongue, and another in their heart", to be "hunted out of all ciuill society"69, dramatists of the age such as Marlowe or Shakespeare brought them on the stage because they recognized the formidable theatrical potential contained in the figure of the villain-rhetorician.


1 Cf. M. Mincoff, "Henry VI Part III and The True Tragedy", English Studies, 42 (1961), 272-288, esp. 279. Quotations from Shakespeare are taken from William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. P. Alexander (rpt. London, 1968).

2 M. Neill, "Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III", Shakespeare Studies, 8 (1975), 99-129, cit. 103.

3 T. F. Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto, 1978), p. 72.

4 Ibid., p. 141.

5 Ibid.

6 "Richard also shows evident pleasure in tricking his victims, but his attack on them is guided by a settled purpose." (M. E. Prior, The Drama of Power. Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays [Evanston, III., 1973], p. 291).

7 "[ . . . ] the stage Machiavelli was saddled with crimes and misdemeanours to which no reference can be found in any of the Florentine's works." (F. Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli [London, 1964], p. 56).

8 In the bad quarto of 3 Henry VI, The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York, the last line of Richard's soliloquy reads: "And set the aspyring Catalin to schoole."

9 Speaking of two types of injury—"by violence or by fraud"—Sir Thomas Elyot equally uses the lion-andfox analogy: "[... ] fraud seemeth to be properly of the fox, violence or force of the lion" (The Book named The Governor [London, 1970], p. 168). For the humanist Elyot fraud and dissimulation belong to the devil's art, of course. In his Unfortunate Traveller Thomas Nashe declares that "the foxes case must help, when the lions skin is out at the elbowes." (The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow, II [Oxford, 1958], p. 210). Wyndham Lewis made the lion-andfox figure the starting-point of his rather eccentric study The Lion and the Fox. The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare (1927; rpt. London, 1966). He does not deal with Richard III.

10 Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, transl. W. K. Marriot (London, 1978), p. 98.

11The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. C. Sayle, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1912), I, p. 33. In his Christian Morals Browne has a section condemning hypocrisy and simulation (The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, III, p. 499-500).

12 Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses, ed. B. Crick (Harmondsworth, 1981), II. 13, p. 310-312.

13 George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. G. D. Willcock and A. Walker (Cambridge, 1936), p. 186.

14 Pierre Charron, Of Wisdome Three Bookes, transi. S. Lennard (London, 1608), p. 360.

15Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique 1560, ed. G. H. Mair (Oxford, 1909), "The Epistle". Cf. my study Die politische Rede bei Shakespeare (Tübingen, 1979), p. 11.

16 Cf. Neill, op. cit., 104.

17 E. Leisi calls Richard's attack "ice-cold and calculating", contrasting it with the intensely sensuous rhetoric of Donne's love elegy "On his Mistress going to bed" (Paar und Sprache. Linguistische Aspekte der Zweierbeziehung [Heidelberg, 1978], p. 68-69).

18 W. Clemen, Kommentar zu Shakespeares Richard III (Göttingen, 1957), p. 60.

19 Italics mine.

20 See H. Lausberg, Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik (München, 1960), p. 208-210.

21 For the political motive of Richard's marriage with Anne see J. P. Cutts, The Shattered Glass: A Dramatic Pattern in Shakespeare's Early Plays (Detroit, 1968), p. 127; W. F. McNeir, "The Masks of Richard the Third", Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 11 (1971), 167-186, esp. 174.

22 D. L. Frey, The First Tetralogy. Shakespeare's Scrutiny of the Tudor Myth. A Dramatic Exploration of Divine Providence (The Hague, 1976), p. 75.

23The Mahne Society Reprints, ed. W. W. Greg (London, 1929).

24 Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 99-100.

25The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, ed. R. S. Sylvester (New Haven, 1963), II, p. 80.

26op. cit., 8. In his "Introduction" Sylvester notes the parallel between More's portrait of Richard and Tacitus' description of Tiberius as a dissimulator (xcvi).

27op. cit., p. 42.

28Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. (London, 1808), III, p. 378.

29op. cit., p. 395.

30 Ibid. A similar verdict is passed in Holinshed on Edrike de Streona, "a man of great infamie for his craftie dissimulation, falshood and treason, used by him to the ouerthrow of the English estate" ( Holinshed's Chronicles, I, 728). As a villain-rhetorician who strives for the aim of kingship Edricus, the leading character of the chronicle play Edmond Ironside is akin to Shakespeare's Richard. ( Edmond Ironside, ed. E. Boswell. The Malone Society Reprints. [Oxford, 1928]).

31 R. Dodsley, A Select Collection of Old English Plays, 4th ed., rev. by W. C. Hazlitt, 15 vols. (London, 1874-1876), VI, p. 421.

32Magnyfycence. A Moral Play by John Skelton, ed. R.L. Ramsay. Early English Text Society. Extra Series, 98 (London, 1908), p. 23-24.

33 Italics mine.

34 Lewis Wager, The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene, ed. F. J. Carpenter (Chicago, 1902).

35The Non-Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. A. B. Grosart, 5 vols. (1885, rpt. New York, 1963), III, p. 116.

36 Pierre de La Primaudaye, The French Academie, transl. T. B. (London, 1618), p. 29.

37 Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, transl. Sir Thomas Hoby. Everyman Ed. (London, 1975), p. 46. Cf. W. A. Rebhorn, Courtly Performances. Masking and Festivity in Castiglione 's "Book of the Courtier" (Detroit, 1978), p. 32-33.

38 Cf. W. Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1968), p. 91.

39 "Konzepte des Allegorischen in der englischen Renaissance", Formen und Funktionen der Allegorie. Symposion Wolfenbüttel 1978, ed. W. Haug (Stuttgart, 1979), p. 310-335, esp. p. 324-328; "Elisabethanische Hofpoetik. Gesellschaftlicher Code und ästhetische Norm in Puttenhams 'Arte of English Poesie'", Europäische Hofkultur im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert. Vorträge und Referate, ed. A. Buck, G. Kauffmann, B. L. Spahr und C. Wiedemann, 3 Bde. (Hamburg, 1981), II, p. 41-50; "Hamlets Rede an die Schauspieler. Zur 'actio' als Theorie des fiktionalen Handelns bei Shakespeare", Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West (1981), 133-153, esp. 151-153.

40 Puttenham, op. cit., p. 186.

41 Ibid., p. 299.

42 Louis Adrian Montrose's connection between Puttenham, Castiglione and Machiavelli is bold but entirely to the point: "In Puttenham's 'figure of faire semblant', Castiglione's Courtier masks Machiavelli's Fox". ("Celebration and Insinuation: Sir Philip Sidney and the Motives of Elizabethan Courtship", Renaissance Drama, 8 [1977], 3-35, cit. 6).

43 Puttenham, op. cit., p. 302 (catalogue of vices, p. 300-302).

44 Cf. C. Uhlig, Hofkritik im England des Mittelalters und der Renaissance. Studien zu einem Gemeinplatz der europäischen Moralistik (Berlin, 1973).

45 Pierre Charron, op. cit., p. 445.

46 Thomas Gainsford, The Rich Cabinet (London, 1616), p. 18.

47The Works of Thomas Nashe, II, p. 220.

48 Dodsley, op. cit., VI, p. 279.

49The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, II, p. 8.

50 Cf. A. Wierum, "'Actors' and 'Play Acting' in the Morality Tradition", Renaissance Drama, 3 (1970), 186-214.

51 Cf. V. O. Freeburg, Disguise Plots in Elizabethan Drama. A Study in Stage Tradition (New York, 1915).

52 For descriptions of Richard's roles see S. Thomas, The Antic Hamlet and Richard III (New York, 1943); Sanders, op. cit., p. 89; McNeir, op. cit.; Van Laan, op. cit., p. 138-141; King Richard III, ed. A. Hammond. The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1981), p. 112-113.

53 Van Laan, op. cit., p. 141.

54 Innocent Gentillet, A Discourse vpon the Meanes of Well Governing and Maintaining in Good Peace, a Kingdome [ . . . ] Against Nicholas Machiavell the Florentine, transi. S. Patericke (London, 1602), p. 275.

55 Michael Neill is one of the few critics to notice this aspect of the play: "[... ] Richard's flair makes him only the most accomplished performer in a court of hypocrites, as the pageant of dissimulation in II. 1 shows." ("Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors", 109).

56 Cf. A. Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London, 1962), p. 95-96.

57 Cf. McNeir, op. cit., 173. The self-congratulatory tone of several of his soliloquies and asides makes it obvious that there is still a third audience in the play: Richard also performs for himself, in other words, with himself as an applauding audience. See, for instance, his soliloquy after the persuasion scene with Lady Anne (I.2.227 ff.), which is, in fact, a self-gloating review of his own performance.

58 Sanders, op. cit., p. 104.

59The Works of Thomas Nashe, II, p. 250.

60 Francis Bacon, Essays. Everyman Ed. (London, 1975), p. 35.

61Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique 1560, p. 221.

62 Cf. H. F. Plett, "'Action is eloquence'. Zur rhetorischen Aktionstypik in Shakespeares 'Othello'", Germanischromanische Monatsschrift, N. F. 32 (1982), 1-21.

63 For a number of humanist authors praising speech and eloquence see my Topik des Stilbegriffs. Zur Geschichte des Stilverständnisses von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Darmstadt, 1981), p. 22-25.

64 Pierre de la Primaudaye, op. cit., p. 53.

65 Pierre Charron, op. cit., p. 44.

66 A narrow moralistic approach to the play does not do justice to its theatricality. John Dover Wilson, for instance, finds cause to complain "that this of all plays should be the joint product of the two greatest minds of the Tudor age [More, Shakespeare], since it afforded little or no scope for the humanity, tenderness and spiritual depth which characterize them both." (Richard III, ed. J. D. Wilson [Cambridge, 1954], p. xivxv). Similarly, Lord Macaulay argues that uniting vice and attractiveness is a very bad thing for a playwright to do. See Critical and Historical Essays by Lord Macaulay, ed. F. C. Montague (London, 1973), p. 12.

67 Samuel Daniel, Musophilus, ed. R. Hymelick (West Lafayette, Ind., 1946), p. 75.

68 See in particular the chapter "Of fraud and deceit, which be against justice" (III. 4).

69 Lodowick Bryskett, A Discourse of Civili Life (1609; rpt. Amsterdam, 1971), p. 39.

E. Pearlman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Invention of Richard of Gloucester," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 410-29.

[In the following essay, Pearlman describes Shakespeare 's development of Richard III from a lifeless character in 2 Henry VI to a fascinating entity in Richard III as the result of the influence of the ideas of jealousy and of the competition between brothers. ]

The chronology of Shakespeare's earliest plays is so uncertain that it is impossible to describe with any confidence the process by which the playwright learned to transmute the raw theatrical materials available to him in 1590 into the refined works he was able to produce less than a decade later. When Shakespeare first began to put to good use what he would modestly call his "rough, and all-vnable Pen," he had already absorbed a variety of deeply rooted theatrical genres. As a youth in Stratford, he had almost certainly heard companies of travelling professional actors perform the late moralities that were popular choices for the mayor's play. Shakespeare had also studied the works of Plautus and Seneca and, after his move to London, had paid careful attention to the liberating innovations of Kyd and Marlowe. In his first years as a playwright, Shakespeare discovered how to integrate a varied inheritance into a sophisticated drama that at its richest moments was simultaneously mimetic and symbolic.

Attempts to chart Shakespeare's progress as a dramatist often bog down in specialist bibliographical detail. It is good fortune that the circumstances out of which the astonishing Richard of Gloucester emerges are quite clear. Richard appears in two plays that antedate Richard III: he plays a brief part in 2 Henry VI and one considerably more extensive in 3 Henry VI, which was written and performed sometime before September 1592, when Greene's Groatsworth of Wit was entered in the Stationers' Register. (A sentence from the invective aimed by Richard's father, the duke of York, at Margaret of Anjou—"Oh Tygres Heart, wrapt in a Womans Hide" [TLN 603; 1.4.137]1—had been extracted by Robert Greene and transformed into an attack on Shakespeare himself.) The assumption that 3 Henry VI must have preceded the composition of Richard III (usually dated about 1593 or 1594) has not been challenged.2

As he appears in The Tragedy of Richard the Third, Richard of Gloucester is the earliest of Shakespeare's inventions whose power and poetry continue to fascinate and amaze. When Shakespeare devised Richard, he created a character to whom no figure in the plays thought to precede this play—i.e., in the earlier history plays or The Two Gentlemen of Verona or Errors or The Shrew or Titus Andronicus—is even remotely comparable. The differentiation of Richard from the comparatively colorless orators and warriors who populate the Henry VI plays marks a turning point—perhaps the turning point—in Shakespeare's development into a dramatist of more than ordinary excellence.

When Shakespeare began to compose 3 Henry VI, he may well have discovered that the Richard who had served adequately in a minor part in 2 Henry VI was too flat and too unmarked for the more central role he would now enact. Over the course of the first two acts of 3 Henry VI, Shakespeare appears to have conducted a series of experiments with the character. While Shakespeare does not seem to have been entirely satisfied with his first efforts, he did not bother to expunge the vestigial remnants of these trials from his manuscript. Not until the momentous scene in which Richard comments aside and then discourses at length on his brother Edward's lascivious wooing of the widow Lady Elizabeth Grey (3.2) does the ironic, leering, self-conscious, and devilish character with whom audiences have become familiar suddenly emerge. This reconceived Richard is amplified in the remainder of the play and was fully realized by the time Shakespeare sat down to compose the exceedingly accomplished opening soliloquy of Richard III.

Moreover, the transmutation of Richard seems to have taken place at a particularly heated psychological moment. The limbeck of emotion in which the new Richard was shaped was one of undisguised conflict between the siblings Edward and Richard and was especially charged by the furious sexual envy aimed by Richard at his callous older brother. Thus at the very same moment that Shakespeare invented the character of Richard, he also concentrated his imagination (possibly for the first time) on a closely linked pair of topics that reverberate in his writing throughout the next two decades. The first of these is, of course, the corrosive, insane jealousy that will dominate such characters as Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes; the second, and even more elemental, is the murderous competition between brothers, which will reappear in conflicts between Robert Falconbridge and his bastard brother Philip; between Oliver and Orlando; between Claudius and the elder Hamlet; between Edmund and Edgar; and between Prospero and Antonio. The evidence suggests that Shakespeare discovered his own genius while writing and revising a play that began as conventional chronicle history but that transmuted into a resonant study of jealousy and brotherhood.

In 2 Henry VI, Richard is deformed, audacious, and bloodthirsty. The older Clifford (not an impartial witness, to be sure) accuses him of being a "heape of wrath, [a] foule indigested lumpe, / As crooked in thy manners, as thy shape" (TLN 3156-57; 5.1.157-58). Richard is a relentless warrior whose nature is epitomized in his striking aphorism "Priests pray for enemies, but Princes kill" (TLN 3294; 5.2.71). Shakespeare reintroduces his bold soldier in the first scene of 3 Henry VI, where Richard, his older brother Edward, and a character named Montague3 (historically a brother-in-law to the duke of York and therefore an uncle to the pair of brothers) vie for the duke's approval. Each produces his own trophy. First Edward, who proclaims that he has either slain or wounded the duke of Buckingham, presents a gory cloth or knife and says, "this is true (Father) behold his blood" (TLN 18; 1.1.13). Then Montague displays his bloody hands (or clothes) and boasts, "here's the Earle of Wiltshires blood" (TLN 19; 1. 14). Finally, ferocious Richard trumps his brothers by bringing onstage not the blood but the stage-property head of the earl of Salisbury. Richard, pretending to address his defeated enemy ("Speake thou for me, and tell them what I did" [TLN 21; 1. 16]), must then either throw the head to the ground or manipulate it as if it were a ventriloquist's dummy: "Thus do I hope to shake King Henries head" (TLN 25; 1. 20). The primitive and bloodthirsty Richard who brings a decapitated head onstage to mock his enemy would be at home in a play like Titus or Selimus or The Spanish Tragedy but is as yet far wide of the devious, indirect, ambitious, and self-conscious figure he will soon become.

The character of Richard becomes more complex but also more confused in the second scene of the play, when he volunteers to advise his father York on a question of chivalry: namely, whether York must honor his oath to permit Henry VI to remain as king. Richard's argument is worthy of the closest attention:

An Oath is of no moment, being not tooke
Before a true and lawfull Magistrate,
  That hath authoritie ouer him that sweares.
Henry had none, but did vsurpe the place.
Then seeing 'twas he that made you to depose,
  Your Oath, my Lord, is vaine and friuolous.
Therefore to Armes: and Father doe but thinke,
  How sweet a thing it is to weare a Crowne,
Within whose Circuit is Elizium,
And all that Poets faine of Blisse and Ioy.
Why doe we linger thus? I cannot rest,
Vntill the White Rose that I weare, be dy'de
Euen in the luke-warme blood of Henries heart.

(TLN 335-47; 1.2.22-34)

This speech divides into three distinct sections, each of which is characterized by its own particular diction and tone. In the first six lines, Richard advances the argument that his father's oath is of no binding force. The colorless language of these lines does not distinguish Richard from hosts of other chronicle-play characters. It is marked by vagueness ("Henry had none"), awkwardly disposed verbs ("being not tooke"), and redundancies ("Then seeing 'twas he that made you to depose"). These lines reflect neither the simple brutality of Richard in his first appearance nor the complexity that he will ultimately acquire. His choplogic quibbling in fact recalls nothing so much as the performance of the young nobles in the Temple Garden scene of 1 Henry VI in dispute about some "nice sharpe Quillets of the Law" (TLN 946; 2.4.17).

The second section (from the seventh through the tenth lines, i.e., from "Therefore . . ." to "Blisse and Ioy") is logically distinct from the argument that precedes and follows it and is of an entirely more fanciful rhetorical sweep. Discarding lawyer-like argumentation, Richard now exhorts his father to greater ambition. For this Richard the throne is no longer merely a political target but has become a transcendent aim. Richard speaks these four declamatory lines as if he has been kidnapped and translated from Tamburlaine. He becomes a Marlovian overreacher-in-little who distinctly echoes the Scythian shepherd's famous sentences about the "sweet fruition of an earthly crown." At the same time, Richard puts forward an idea that is commonplace enough in the Marlowe universe but discordant and alien in the context of 3 Henry VI—that the crown grants its wearer "all that Poets faine of Blisse and Ioy." That Richard can trundle forth so inauthentic a sentiment only demonstrates that the boundaries of his character are still quite porous. Shakespeare must have quickly recognized that there was little to be gained by replicating Tamburlainean aesthetics in his own play, and he managed to confine Richard's enthusiasm for royal bliss and poetry to this one derivative moment.

Having tried and thus far failed to propel the character of Richard in a new direction, Shakespeare then, in the final three lines, fell back upon the conception of Richard present in the shocking early moments of the play. The impatient and fierce Richard, eager to dye his white rose in "luke-warme blood," recalls the character who toyed with Somerset's decapitated head but is distinct from the legalistic Richard of the first part of this speech and from the celebrant of Elysium in its middle section. Richard's disjointed address makes an effective dramatic point, but its incorporation of three very different styles of speech reveals little of the character whom Richard would ultimately become.4

The portrayal of Richard in 3 Henry VI remains fluid in 2.1, the scene in which he makes his next important appearance. The sequence of events in this crowded scene begins with Edward and Richard anxious to discover whether their father escaped the battlefield at St. Albans. While they wait, three suns miraculously appear in the heavens. A messenger then informs the brothers that their father—"the flowre of Europe, for his Cheualrie"—has been slain "after many scornes, many foule taunts" by "vn-relenting Clifford" and "ruthlesse" Queen Margaret (TLN 714-27; 11. 58-71). Soon after, the earl of Warwick confesses his culpability in the Yorkist disaster at St. Albans; a few moments later, he, Edward, and Richard determine to rally their friends and set out in haste for London. In all this business Richard is an active and voluble participant who continues to employ a variety of tongues. Especially troublesome and confusing is his piece of oratory while waiting for a messenger from St. Albans. To Edward's fraternal concern—"How fares my Brother? why is he so sad?"—Richard replies at length:

I cannot ioy, vntill I be resolu'd
Where our right valiant Father is become.
I saw him in the Battaile range about,
And watcht him how he singled Clifford forth.
Me thought he bore him in the thickest troupe,
  As doth a Lyon in a Heard of Neat,
  Or as a Beare encompass'd round with Dogges:
Who hauing pincht a few, and made them cry,
The rest stand all aloofe, and barke at him.
So far'd our Father with his Enemies,
So fled his Enemies my Warlike Father:
Me thinkes 'tis prize enough to be his Sonne.

See how the Morning opes her golden Gates,
And takes her farwell of the glorious Sunne.
How well resembles it the prime of Youth,
Trimm'd like a Yonker, prauncing to his Loue?

(TLN 660-76; II. 8-24)

Richard decorates this leisurely statement with a variety of formal tropes. The comparison of York to a lion is commonplace, but the longer simile about the bear suggests that Shakespeare was aiming for classical, or Vergilian, grandeur. The pair of lines that climax the description of York's peril begins with a teeter-totter of antimetabole (father-enemies; enemies-father) and adds anaphora ("So far'd .. . so fled ...") , alliteration, and a dollop of isocolon. Although the later Richard possesses formidable suasive powers, he never again resorts to rhetorical artifice of such formal pattern.

The most discordant element of this speech is its conclusion, where, in the final four lines ("See how the Morning opes her golden Gates . . ."), Richard modulates to still another style of speech and calls attention to the miracle that Edward makes explicit ("Dazle mine eyes, or doe I see three sunnes?" [TLN 677; 1. 25]) and that is figured in the Ql stage direction: "Three sunnes appeare in the aire" (sig. B3V). The sonneteering expressions that come so inappropriately to Richard's lips—the "golden Gates" of morning, the archaizing verb "opes," the submerged reference to Phoebus, and above all the egregiously unRicardian prancing "Yonker"—are unique to this moment.5

Throughout the remainder of the scene and up until the death of young Clifford, 3 Henry VI itself veers in the direction of revenge tragedy, and Richard is consequently transformed into a revenger-hero very much in the manner of Hieronymo or Titus. In response to the report that his father has been killed, Richard commits himself to seek private justice. Once again his language alters to accommodate Shakespearean experimentation: "I cannot weepe: for all my bodies moysture / Scarse serues to quench my Furnace-burning hart" (TLN 735-36; 11. 79-80). He continues in this high-flying oratorical vein and brings his newest statement of self-definition to a stirring, if windy, conclusion: "Teares then for Babes; Blowes, and Reuenge for mee. / Richard, I beare thy name, Ile venge thy death, / Or dye renowned by attempting it" (TLN 742-44; 11. 86-88). Richard then urges Warwick to join with him to fight on Edward's behalf. He continues to play the part of the revenger who discards religion and public morality in order to seek private vengeance. "Shall we," he asks Warwick, employing genuinely animated language for the very first time,

. . . throw away our Coates of Steele,
And wrap our bodies in blacke mourning Gownes,
Numb'ring our Aue-Maries with our Beads?
Or shall we on the Helmets of our Foes
Tell our Deuotion with reuengefull Armes?

(TLN 818-22; 11. 160-64)

Richard's incarnation as a revenger-hero has its finest moment when, in the midst of excursions, strokes, and blows on a battlefield near York, he informs Warwick, at this point still the leader of the Yorkist party, that the earl's brother has been killed by Clifford:

Ah Warwicke, why hast thou withdrawn thy selfe?
Thy Brothers blood the thirsty earth hath drunk,
  Broach'd with the Steely point of Cliffords Launce:
And in the very pangs of death, he cryde,
Like to a dismall Clangor heard from farre,
Warwicke, reuenge; Brother, reuenge my death.

(TLN 1074-79; 2.3.14-19)6

In this passage Richard speaks in the popular dramatic style of the early 1590s at its most overwrought—a language still far removed from the jaunty mockery that will eventually become his hallmark. When Richard exhorts Warwick to revenge, his speech is marred by too ample alliteration ("Brothers blood... Broach'd"), by mandatory adjectives ("thirsty earth," "Steely point," dismall Clangor"), by generalities when specificity is sorely needed ("heard from farre"), and by an overplus of gruesome detail. Elizabethan audiences would almost inevitably compare the words "Brother, reuenge" to similar expressions in The Spanish Tragedy and Locrine as well as to Thomas Lodge's famous ghost "which cried so miserally at the Theator, like an oister-wife, Hamlet, reuenge"1 Shakespeare would one day parody this style of declamation by placing it in the mouths of Pistol and Bottom/Pyramus.

Richard the revenger makes a second notable appearance in 3 Henry VI. Along with his brothers Edward and George and their ally Warwick, he attempts to poke fun at Clifford, pierced in the neck with an arrow, but is forestalled when it is discovered that his mortal enemy has breathed his last and that would-be mockery is directed at a corpse. At this point Richard delivers himself of the extraordinary sentiment that,

If this right hand would buy two houres life,
That I (in all despight) might rayle at him,
This hand should chop it off: & with the issuing Blood
  Stifle the Villaine, whose vnstanched thirst
Yorke, and yong Rutland could not satisfie.

(TLN 1365-69; 2.6.80-84)

Richard's offer to mutilate his own body in order to triumph over his enemy is appropriate to the gorier moments in Senecan drama and finds Elizabethan parallels in Hieronymo's severed tongue and the barbarities visited upon Lavinia and Titus. It is pure rant, all strut and bellow. Perhaps Shakespeare resorted to such purple poesy in 3 Henry VI in order to express the depth of Richard's commitment to honoring and revenging his father. It is tempting to try to salvage the lines by scrutinizing them for a telltale wink of irony, but in truth there is no hint either in word or deed that Richard has not unreservedly embraced the role of avenger of his father's death.

Shakespeare had now explored quite a variety of possible approaches to the character of Richard of Gloucester. He began with a figure who was little more than ugly and audacious and who spoke in the undifferentiated tones of chronicle history. He then borrowed in turn from Marlowe, from the epic, from Seneca, and from the revenge tradition. Throughout, Richard continued to be marked by an uncomplicated ferocity.

The innovative scene, 3.2, in which Richard achieves his new identity is comprised of two separate actions. In the first, Edward, soon to be proclaimed king, pays court to Lady Elizabeth Grey while his brothers George and Richard comment lubriciously aside. Edward is attractive to women and is portrayed as something of a philanderer. (Hall had given Shakespeare his cue by reporting that Edward "loued well both to loke and to fele fayre dammosels."8) Elizabeth approaches him with a suit to regain lands confiscated from her late husband. Edward indicates that he is prepared to return her property but only in trade for her virtue. Mean-while Richard, looking on, indulges in a succession of lewd observations: "I see the Lady hath a thing to graunt" (TLN 1512; 1. 12); "Fight closer, or good faith you'le catch a Blow" (TLN 1524; 1. 23); "Hee plyes her hard, and much Raine weares the Marble" (TLN 1559-60; 1. 50). But Elizabeth does not yield, and Edward, smitten, at last asks for her hand. Edward leaves the stage with peremptory instructions to his offended brothers: "Widow goe you along: Lords vse her honourable" (TLN 1645; 1. 123). In the second part of the scene, Richard is left onstage to ruminate on his prospects.

In the course of the extraordinarily inventive seventyone-line soliloquy that brings the scene to a close, old characteristics slough away, and a new Richard—theatrical, scheming, wicked, ironic—springs suddenly to life. At the beginning of the passage, Richard is angry but directionless. Alone onstage for the first time, he gives vent to unguarded passion.

I, Edward will vse Women honourably:
Would he were wasted, Marrow, Bones, and all,
That from his Loynes no hoperull Branch may spring,
To crosse me from the Golden time I looke for:
  And yet, betweene my Soules desire, and me,
The lustfull Edwards Title buryed,
  Is Clarence, Henry, and his Sonne young Edward,
And all the vnlook'd-for Issue of their Bodies,
To take their Roomes, ere I can place my selfe:
  A cold premeditation for my purpose.

(TLN 1648-57; 11. 124-33)

His initial line about Edward's womanizing is no more than an extension of the emotion of his previous asides, while the unfigured colloquial outburst that follows ("Would he were wasted . . .") expresses with genuine intensity an undiluted loathing and jealousy. By the time Richard brings the soliloquy to conclusion seventy lines later, his passion has transformed into selfcontrol and his inchoate anger has been supplanted by a coherent and determined strategy. The Richard who emerges during the course of the soliloquy intends to employ his consummate skill at disguise and pretense (a skill that up to this moment has been neither described nor displayed) to overcome any obstacle that might stand between him and his ambitions. Richard enters the soliloquy frustrated and immobilized but exits smugly confident of his powers and contemptuous of his opponents. His concluding couplet—"Can I doe this, and cannot get a Crowne? / Tut, were it farther off, Ile plucke it downe" (TLN 1718-19; 11. 194-95)—epitomizes his new conviction that gaining the throne is mere child's play for the accomplished intriguer that he has suddenly become. During the course of this speech, the character of Richard of Gloucester undergoes a radical metamorphosis.

The structure of the soliloquy is unusual in that it twice raises and resolves the same question. Following the exordium quoted above, in which he expresses his hatred for his brother and his desire to supplant him as king, Richard describes the conflict between his present situation and the desired kingship in terms of an extended geographical simile.

Why then I doe but dreame on Soueraigntie,
Like one that stands vpon a Promontorie,
And spyes a farre-off shore, where hee would tread,
  Wishing his foot were equall with his eye,
And chides the Sea, that sunders him from thence,
  Saying hee'le lade it dry, to haue his way:
So doe I wish the Crowne, being so farre off,
  And so I chide the meanes that keepes me from it,
  And so (I say) Ile cut the Causes off,
Flattering me with impossibilities:

My Eyes too quicke, my Heart o're weenes too much,
  Vnlesse my Hand and Strength could equall them.

(TLN 1658-69; 11. 134-45)

Richard compares his situation to someone who looks out across an immense body of water toward a distant shore, and he imagines that it would be as difficult to attain the crown as it would be to bail or drain this sea dry. Having created this modest allegorization of his psychic distress, he then, in lines 146-71 (TLN 1670-95), concedes that his ambition is intimately tied to his deformity: he seeks the crown because he is not a man to "be belou'd." But this revelation is immediately followed by a second dark conceit that in essence repeats the content of the first; this time, Richard describes his dilemma not in terms of a sea but in terms of a forest.

And yet I know not how to get the Crowne,
For many Liues stand betweene me and home:
And I, like one lost in a Thornie Wood,
  That rents the Thornes, and is rent with the Thornes,
Seeking a way, and straying from the way,
Not knowing how to finde the open Ayre,
But toyling desperately to finde it out,
Torment my selfe, to catch the English Crowne:
And from that torment I will free my selfe,
Or hew my way out with a bloody Axe.

(TLN 1696-1705; 11. 172-81)

He then seems to discover that a way out of the wood is to "smile, and murther whiles I smile" (TLN 1706; 1. 182)—and to his new-smiling villainy he rapidly adds a whole host of related accomplishments, all of which involve some degree of pretense.

The two sections ("Why then I doe but dreame . . . equall them" and "And yet I know not how .. . bloody Axe") are closely related. In each, Shakespeare translates internal psychological impediments into dream-like figures of frustration and paralysis. The see-saw rhythms of Richard's miniature allegories (especially in lines 175-76 [TLN 1699-1700]) replicate the intrapsychic struggle between his overweening desire and the difficulties that impede him. The desperate torment that Richard repeatedly struggles to express is neither theatrical affectation nor dissimulation. On the contrary, the speech portrays a soul in such pain that there is no relief for Richard but to "hew [his] way out with a bloody Axe." When Shakespeare presents Richard's internal psychological conflicts in terms of a vast sea or thorny wood, he twice falls back on traditional allegorical techniques to approximate in language suitable for the stage a measure of intrapsychic struggle and conflict for which there was as yet no established dramatic or descriptive vocabulary.

If these two moderately allegorical psychological expressions—the far-off shore and the thorny wood—are thought of as the framing of a problem, then the passages that immediately follow may be regarded as resolutions of those problems. Each of these figurative descriptions of a troubled mind is followed by a sudden and imaginative leap forward in the portrayal of the emerging character. The first of these leaps takes place when Richard confronts his own deformity.

Well, say there is no Kingdome then for Richard:
What other Pleasure can the World affoord?
Ile make my Heauen in a Ladies Lappe,
And decke my Body in gay Ornaments,
And 'witch sweet Ladies with my Words and Lookes.
Oh miserable Thought! and more vnlikely,
Then to accomplish twentie Golden Crownes.
Why Loue forswore me in my Mothers Wombe:
And for I should not deale in her soft Lawes,
Shee did corrupt frayle Nature with some Bribe,
To shrinke mine Arme vp like a wither'd Shrub,
To make an enuious Mountaine on my Back,
Where sits Deformitie to mocke my Body;
To shape my Legges of an vnequall size,
  To dis-proportion me in euery part:
  Like to a Chaos, or an vn-lick'd Bearewhelpe,
  That carryes no impression like the Damme.
And am I then a man to be belou'd?
Oh monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought.
Then since this Earth affoords no Ioy to me,
But to command, to check, to o're-beare such,
As are of better Person then my selfe:
  Ile make my Heauen, to dreame vpon the Crowne,
And whiles I Hue, t'account this World but Hell,
Vntill my mis-shap'd Trunke, that beares this Head,
Be round impaled with a glorious Crowne.

(TLN 1670-95; 11. 146-71) Richard's external shape has not changed in the slightest; he was a "Foule stygmaticke" in 2 Henry VI (TLN 3215; 5.1.216), a "valiant Crook-back Prodigie" early in 3 Henry VI (TLN 1538; 1.4.75). But until this moment his misshapen body has served only as the target of insult, and Richard's own attitude toward it has not been expressed in either language or action. Now, for the first time, Shakespeare links Richard's shape to his villainy. Responding directly to Edward's successful wooing of Elizabeth, Richard first admits that he is jealous of his brother and then confesses that the misfortunes of the womb have cut him off from normal relationships with women. He does not of course articulate his motivation in a modern psychological term such as compensation. Instead, he devises a conceit in which the abstractions Love and Nature contrive to visit him with Deformity. Richard's shrub of an arm and mountain back suddenly become not the insignia but the cause of his depravity. His misshapen body is no longer to be understood as a mere joke of nature but rather as the catalyst of his amoral ambition. Since he cannot be "a man to be belou'd," he will make his heaven not by lying in a lady's lap but by dreaming upon the crown. Richard's soliloquy departs from convention when it becomes a statement not only of self-description and intended malice but also of psychological causation. Self-portrayal becomes almost confessional, and motivation, which in the histories had almost invariably been of an external and public nature (most commonly dynastic loyalty), suddenly becomes internal and personal. The familiar starting point of Richard III—"I, that am not shap'd for sportiue trickes" (TLN 16; 1.1.14)—is the great discovery of this speech in the third act of 3 Henry VI, and the shift from a descriptive to an etiological psychology is a momentous occasion in the invention of the new Richard.

Despite the stunning revelations of this first leap forward, Shakespeare immediately followed it with Richard's retreat into the frustration of the "Thornie Wood"—a step backward that prepares for yet another forward leap, an innovation in the portrayal of his character of equal or even greater power than the exploration of his deformity. At the very moment when Richard suddenly announces that "I can smile, and murther whiles I smile," Shakespeare brilliantly transfuses qualities identified with the quasi-supernatural Vice of the moralities into Richard's secular and up until this point entirely naturalistic character.9

Why I can smile, and murther whiles I smile,
And cry, Content, to that which grieues my Heart,
And wet my Cheekes with artificiali Teares,
And frame my Face to all occasions.
Ile drowne more Saylers then the Mermaid shall,
  Ile slay more gazers then the Basiliske,
  Ile play the Orator as well as Nestor,
Deceiue more slyly then Vlisses could,
And like a Synon, take another Troy.
I can adde Colours to the Camelion,
Change shapes with Proteus, for aduantages,
And set the murtherous Maeheuill to Schoole.

(TLN 1706-17; 11. 182-93)

The Vice not only murders and smiles simultaneously; he regularly pretends to be exactly what he is not. Cloaked Collusion in Skelton's Magnyfycence, grandfather to a brood of Hickscorners, Newfangles, and Iniquities, brags that "I can dyssemble, I can bothe laughe and grone."10 The assumption of an alternative identity is a perennial feature of the Vice—so Shift disguises himself as Knowledge, Hypocrisy claims to be Friendship, Revenge pretends to be Courage, and so on. A precedent for Richard's sudden transformation can be found in the characteristic ability of the Vice (Haphazard) in Apius and Virginia (a play that Shakespeare seems to have recalled here and elsewhere) to assimilate to himself a variety of figures.

Yea but what am I, a Scholer, or a scholemaister, or els some youth.
A Lawier, a studient or els a countrie cloune
A Brumman [i.e., broom-man], a Baskit maker, or a Baker of Pies,
  A flesh or a Fishmonger, or a sower of lies: . . .
A Caitife, a Cutthrote, a creper in corners,
  A herbraine, a hangman, or a grafter of horners:
  By the Gods, I know not how best to deuise,
My name or my property, well to disguise. . . .11

Haphazard's catalogue of lawyer, student, and clown is paralleled by Richard's integration of the qualities of Ulysses, Nestor, and Sinon. Once Shakespeare allowed Richard to absorb the characteristics of the Vice, he immediately transformed him from a confrontational warrior to a creature of indirection, irony, and dissembling. He also empowered Richard to claim free access to the highly developed linguistic vitality of the Vice—a great liberation for a character who until this point had failed to find a distinct or constant voice. And while the pre-Vice Richard did not bother to wet his cheeks with artificial tears—in fact, he confessed that he was incapable of expressing emotion—the later Richard would always be ready with whatever emotion would be convenient to display.

In the litany that begins "Ile drowne more Saylers then the Mermaid shall," Shakespeare ingeniously overlaid Haphazard's pattern of speech with a spacious classical reference. In addition he reached back to an earlier moment in the play to retrieve an aborted gesture toward Marlovian aspiration. Like Tamburlaine, Richard is in restless pursuit of "more": "more Saylers," "more gazers," "deceiue more slyly," "take another Troy," "adde Colours." Classical, morality, and Marlovian elements combine to produce a triumph of rhetorical power and momentum. But Shakespeare had still another surprise in store: with the mention of Machiavelli, he departed from the precedent he had so carefully established. Without warning or transition, Shakespeare abandoned his predictable list of mythological guises in order to incorporate a modern bogeyman. There is a world of difference between, on one hand, mermaids and basilisks and chameleons and, on the other, the fearsome contemporary political analyst Machiavelli (although it is also true that in popular imagination the traits of Machiavel and Vice—atheism, unholy glee, evil for evil's sake—tended to intersect and merge). Richard's climactic "And set the murtherous Macheuill to Schoole" anachronistically introduced the new political atheism into historical drama, making it clear that this play would not merely exploit the allegorical tradition but would also amplify and supplement its traditional abstractions with a modern horror. While the Vice may be semi-comic, the murderous "Macheuill," at least in this context, is deadly serious, and Richard intensifies the emotional power of his soliloquy when he boasts that in comparison to his own skill at intrigue and villainy, the infamous Machiavelli is but a schoolboy.12 (Perhaps it is worth noting that, from this point on, Richard also seems to gain in sheer quickness of wit. This too sets him apart from members of the aristocracy in Shakespeare's early histories, who on the whole are marked more by blunt ferocity than by intelligence.)

The reduplicated pattern of Richard's soliloquy is now clear. Twice Shakespeare portrayed Richard's psychological paralysis in slightly allegorical passages and twice followed with passages that add significant new dimensions to the character. It was not until he supplemented the one idea—that Richard's deformity governs his jealousy, hatred, and ambition—with a second—that Richard incorporates the wicked dissimulation of the Vice—that Shakespeare completed his experimentation. For want of a better term, Shakespeare's first innovation may be called realistic or natural, while the second innovation may be called symbolic or supernatural. These two opposed yet complementary resolutions clearly indicate that the process of experimentation with the character was a restless and continuing effort. In fact, Shakespeare's great discovery in writing the soliloquy may be that a character can be deepened by providing independent but overlapping natural and supernatural explanations for his conduct. It is a triumph of dramaturgy and a minor miracle that in the course of the scene Richard becomes both more and less realistic.13

When Shakespeare later wrote The Tragedy of Richard III, he had already learned how to integrate the realistic and the symbolic. On the realistic level, throughout Richard III Richard's private history is a continuing concern, and the dynamics of his personal psychology and of his deeply riven family are not neglected but are set out in abundant detail. Richard is a creature of his deformity and jealousy, a character hated by his own mother and who hates all women in return. He is portrayed as having been a child whose birth was a "greeuous burthen" to his mother; who was "[t]etchy and wayward" in his infancy, "frightfull, desp'rate, wilde, and furious" as a schoolboy (TLN 2944-46; 4.4.168-70); and who arrived in the world (according to the outlandish canard repeated by Holinshed) "not vntoothed." Following the precedent of the great soliloquy in 3 Henry VI, Shakespeare supplemented so natural an account of Richard's malevolence with a second system of explanation. While Richard III is certainly a tragedy of unconscionable and distorted human ambition, it is also a play where the wounds of the murdered bleed again in the presence of the murderer, where the stumbling of a horse is a compelling omen, where dreams possess explanatory value, where ghosts return to influence and govern temporal events, and where prophecies are fulfilled not in vague and general outline but in specific detail. Richard is at once the ferociously envious and warped younger brother who compensates for lost love with ambition and villainy, and also an allegorized and devilish embodiment of evil. Natural and supernatural elements come into simultaneous play at the end of the story when Richard finds himself afflicted by burgeoning guilt. When the doomed king lies in uneasy sleep on Bosworth field and is haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered, an audience that knows Richard is a mere human mortal afflicted with naturally explicable remorse is also authorized to believe that supernatural beings have chosen a propitious moment to overthrow a satanic usurper. But at the moment of writing the hinge soliloquy in which Richard's character emerges, these innovations, though adumbrated, are still in Richard's future—just as are, in Shakespeare's future, such characters as Iago and Edmund, in which similar configurations are exploited with even greater verve and power.

As a result of Richard's emergence as a challenger to King Edward, the thematic focus of the later scenes of 3 Henry VI inevitably alters. While the first part of the play revolved around the competition for the throne between York and the earl of Warwick on the one hand and Henry and Margaret on the other, now the interplay between Edward, George, and Richard moves to centerstage. The cracking of the bond between son and father was once the primary theme: King Henry, when he adopted York as his successor, "vnnaturally" disinherited his son, Prince Edward (TLN 218; 1.1.199); furious Clifford murdered York's son Rutland ("thy Father slew my Father: therefore dye" [TLN 450-51; 1.3.46]); and Warwick boasted to the Lancastrians that "we are those which . . . slew your Fathers" (TLN 103-4; 1.1.90-91). This reiterated pattern was generalized in the allegorical inset of the "Sonne that hath kill'd his Father" and the "Father that hath kill'd his Sonne" (TLN 1189-90; 2.5.55, 79)—an episode that is a triumph of abstraction and which brings the theme of fathers and sons to climax and conclusion. If the most coherent intellectual concern of the first part of the play was the conflict between the generations, that theme is now exhausted. After Richard's transitional soliloquy, the remainder of the play turns its attention to cooperation and division among the three brothers.

The always implicit rift between them widens when both Richard and George complain that Edward has neglected to provide them with heiress wives. Richard accuses Edward of attempting to "burie Brotherhood" (TLN 2081; 4.1.54). Echoing Richard's complaints, George angrily abandons his older brother: "Now Brother King farewell" (TLN 2151; 1. 118). Warwick also defects, claiming that Edward has forgotten "how to vse your Brothers Brotherly" (TLN 2273; 4.3.38). The crucial political event of the second half of the play, although easy to overlook in so crowded a canvas, focuses directly on brotherhood. After Oxford, Montague, and Somerset rush to Coventry to join with Warwick in support of Henry and the Lancastrians, Warwick announces the arrival of George and his armies:

And loe, where George of Clarence sweepes along,
  Of force enough to bid his Brother Battaile:
With whom, in vpright zeale to right, preuailes
More then the nature of a Brothers Loue.

(TLN 2759-62; 5.1.76-79)

Warwick's absolute conception of an "vpright zeale to right" is directly opposed to the natural instinct of brotherly love. If Clarence continues to support Warwick, the victory will go to the Lancastrian side; should he rejoin his brothers, the Yorkists will triumph. It is a moment of high drama in which all eyes are fixed on George, duke of Clarence. Shakespeare surprisingly allows the matter to be settled with a silent but florid gesture: Richard and George "whispers togither." Then, as Warwick looks on with misplaced confidence, George acts decisively. According to a Ql stage direction that seems to reflect theatrical practice, "Clarence takes his red Rose out of his hat, and throwes it at Warwike" (sig. E2r). Rejecting the Lancastrian side, he elects to support his brothers:

. . . Why, trowest thou, Warwicke,
That Clarence is so harsh, so blunt vnnaturall,
To bend the fatali Instruments of Warre
Against his Brother, and his lawfull King. . . .
  And so, prowd-hearted Warwicke, I defie thee,
And to my Brother turne my blushing Cheekes.

(TLN 2768-71, 2781-82; 11. 88-91, 101-2)

Richard congratulates George for showing "Brother-like" loyalty (TLN 2788; 1. 108). Brotherhood, the scene proclaims, is both natural and just. A Yorkist climax of a sort is enacted when "Lasciuious Edward," "periur'd George," and "mis-shapen Dicke" (TLN 3009-10; 5.5.34-35) each stab young Prince Edward, the son of Henry VI and Queen Margaret. Conjunct assassination represents the high watermark of union and mutuality among the three royal brothers.

Shakespeare supplements the attention he pays to the brothers York with a complementary depiction of fraternal relations on the Lancastrian side. He elects to depict at considerable length Warwick's reaction to the death of his brother Montague at the climactic battle of Barnet—a minor event that, except for its thematic relevance, might easily have been passed over in silence. Hall describes the incident very briefly: "Warwicke . . . was in the middes of his enemies, striken doune and slain. The marques Montacute, thynkyng to succor his brother, whiche he sawe was in greate ieoperdy, and yet in hope to obtein the victory, was likewise ouer throwen and slain."14 Shakespeare expands this hint into a scene of remarkable fraternal tenderness. Fatally wounded, his "Glory smear'd in dust and blood" (TLN 2824; 5.2.23), the hitherto unsentimental Warwick calls out to his brother:

.. . Ah Mountague,
If thou be there, sweet Brother, take my Hand,
And with thy Lippes keepe in my Soule a while.
Thou lou'st me not: for, Brother, if thou didst,
Thy teares would wash this cold congealed blood,
That glewes my Lippes, and will not let me speake.

(TLN 2835-40; 5.2.33-38)

Warwick's request that his "sweet Brother" unglue his bloody lips with tears is baroque emotionalism of a kind previously unknown in the play and seems to have no other function than to reinforce the representation of fraternal loyalty which dominates these latter moments of the play.

It is in this context that Richard's return to the stage in the penultimate scene of 3 Henry VI must be set. In the play's last significant action, Richard leaves behind his brothers and rushes alone to London to murder Henry VI, the king "fam'd for Mildnesse, Peace, and Prayer" (TLN 814; 2.1.156). It is after this desperate deed, in the soliloquy beginning "I that haue neyther pitty, loue, nor feare," that Richard speaks the most famous and the most rivetting lines in 3 Henry VI. While the play as a whole has established the loyalty of brother to brother as its only credible value, Richard chillingly asserts:

I haue no Brother, I am like no Brother:
And this word [Loue] which Gray-beards call Diuine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me: I am my selfe alone.

(TLN 3156-59; 5.6.80-83)

The phrase "I haue no Brother, I am like no Brother" is powerfully resonant. Richard is, of course, blessed with brothers: not only Edward and George but also Edmund of Rutland, the "innocent Child" (TLN 408; 1.3.8) whose murder by Clifford is one of the drama's more odious atrocities. Richard's lines gain their power because in them he not only turns his face from his own natural brothers but from the ideal of brotherhood. His literal lie reflects a deeper truth—and a truth from which both the murder of the duke of Clarence and the conscienceless villainy that marks Richard's subsequent career inevitably follow. Shakespeare laboriously constructs a pattern of fraternal loyalty that is then eloquently refuted by his fully metamorphosed villain.

Richard's nihilist aphorisms are so clearly designed to capitalize on the innovations of the great soliloquy and to repudiate the ideal of brotherhood that it may come as a surprise to recall that his famous lines appear in an alternative form in Ql. To Richard's sentences, Ql prefixes one very interesting variant line:

I had no father, I am like no father,
I haue no brothers, / am like no brothers,
And this word Loue, which graybeards tearme diuine,
  Be resident in men like one another,
  And not in me, I am my selfe alone.

(sigs. E6v-E7r)15

The F and Ql versions differ crucially in emphasis. The presence of the line "I had no father" in Ql unquestionably diffuses the intensity of Richard's summary statement. F, on the other hand, by concentrating entirely on the relation between the deformed younger brother and the first-born king in whom the privileges of primogeniture are augmented by happy successes with women, catches the psychological essence of the play's concluding moments. The economical F version establishes brotherhood as a metaphor for all human contact, while the version in Ql is more dilute, less intense. When, as may be likely, Shakespeare returned to the Quarto passage to sacrifice "I had no father"—a credible if ultimately unprovable hypothesis—he made the last of the many courageous choices that were required to distill to its quintessence the fraternal theme of the play's latter half and to bring his emergent villain to full realization.

The antagonism between Richard and Edward (and George) seems to have fired Shakespeare's imagination. In finding this focus, Shakespeare tapped a well of Elizabethan resentment. Except for areas in Kent which still practiced gavelkind and for sections of the Celtic marches in which tanistry had persisted, England held strictly to primogeniture. The disenfranchisement of younger brothers, and even of the "younger sons to younger brothers" whom Falstaff dismisses so glibly, was a national grievance. The sentiment that animates Thomas Wilson's cry from the heart in The State of England, 1600 must have been shared by many a member of Shakespeare's audience: younger brothers are only allowed "that which the cat left on the malt heap, perhaps some small annuity during his life, or what please our elder brother's worship to bestow upon us if we please him and my mistress his wife." But Wilson adds that such disadvantages may provoke ambition or revenge; a younger brother might take up either letters or arms as a profession, "whereby many times we become my master elder brother's masters, or at least their betters in honour and reputation "16 (Shakespeare himself was a first surviving child—three elder siblings had died before his birth—and nothing is known of the emotions he felt toward his younger brothers Edmund and Richard.)

None of Shakespeare's history plays stray very far from the subject of antagonism between brothers. Hal's rivalry with Hotspur would be understood as a conflict between surrogate brothers even if Henry Bolingbroke had not been so tactless as to wish that the Plantagenet and Percy sons had been exchanged in cradle-clothes. Prince Hal even has a surrogate brother in the person of Poins; Poins is an underfinanced "second brother" (2 Henry IV, 2.2.63), Hal an older brother alienated from his natural siblings. In 2 Henry IV, Shakespeare dwells on the contrast between the playful Prince Hal and the sober-blooded and unscrupulous John of Lancaster. Moreover, the old king's deathbed fright is the prospect of war between his sons, and the new King Henry's first concern on succeeding to the crown is to allay such apprehensions:

Brothers, you mix your sadness with some fear.
This is the English, not the Turkish court;
Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds,
  But Harry Harry. . . .


The worried younger brothers must be reassured that Hal does not plan a mass murder of the sort familiar from recent Ottoman history (well known to theatrical audiences from its lurid echoes in Selimus and Soliman and Per seda).

Of all the glosses on Richard's "I haue no Brother" in the history plays, the grandest appears when Henry V inspires his troops just before the battle of Agincourt. Henry exalts the fellowship of those who will fight on St. Crispin's day and on the subject of brotherhood adopts a position that is the polar opposite of Richard's.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
  This day shall gentle his condition. . . .

(Henry V, 4.3.60-63)

While Richard sets himself apart even from his own brothers, King Harry proclaims a fraternity of shared pain. Harry's world is as inclusive as Richard's is exclusive, and his comprehensive vision of England is a generous alternative to the narrow and perverse individualism that makes Richard so dangerous a politician and so powerful a dramatic figure. The supersession of "I have no brother" by "we band of brothers" is a crucial marker in Shakespeare's long and epochal progress from a playwright whose initial and inherited subject was revenge to one who turned at last to reconciliation and forgiveness—to the realization that "the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" (The Tempest, 5.1.27—28). The long journey could not begin until Shakespeare had contrived a villain who could dominate the stage with his demonism, psychological coherence, and brilliance of language.17


1 Quotations of 2 and 3 Henry VI are taken from The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968) and are cited by Hinman's through-line numbers and also by the lineation in A. S. Cairncross's Arden editions (London: Methuen, 1957 and 1964). Quotations of the quartos of 2 and 3 Henry VI are from Shakespeare's Plays in Quarto, ed. Michael J. B. Allen and Kenneth Muir (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981) and are referenced by signature. Quotations from other plays of Shakespeare are drawn from the appropriate Arden editions.

2 The text of 3 Henry VI presents a number of impediments to the study of Shakespeare's strategies of composition. Modern editors accept the authority of the Folio and incorporate occasional readings from the quarto (more precisely octavo, but generally recognized in the abbreviation Ql) edition of 1594, called The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke. Ql has been widely regarded as a "bad" or reported text since the complementary studies by Madeleine Doran (Henry VI, Parts II and III: Their Relation to The Contention and the True Tragedy [Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1928]) and Peter Alexander (Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III [Cambridge: At the Univ. Press, 1929]). The editors of the new Oxford Shakespeare, who are not loath to challenge orthodoxies, agree that the report hypothesis "plausibly and economically accounts for the O [Ql] text, and . . . [they] accept it with only slight qualification." Their qualification is that Ql "reports an abridged and possibly otherwise revised version of the F text" (Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare, A Textual Companion [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987], p. 197). In taking this position, the Oxford editors follow Marco Mincoff ("Henry VI Part III and The True Tragedy, " English Studies, 42 [1961], 273-88), who showed that some of Ql's "rather obvious corruptions seem to be due to interference with a written source rather than to memorial reconstruction" (p. 276). Mincoff argued that the differences in Ql "seem on the whole to be the result of deliberate cutting rather than of the actors' forgetfulness" (p. 283). In a distinguished piece of detective work, Scott McMillin ("Casting for Pembroke's Men: The Henry VI Quartos and The Taming of A Shrew, " Shakespeare Quarterly, 23 [1972], 141-59) also accepted the basic hypothesis of memorial reconstruction but with severe reservations. He pointed out that there were three major rearrangements of the order of events in Act 4 of Ql which "appear to result from deliberate revisions" (p. 148); "Q seems to be not an accumulation of 'memorial' accidents but an accurate record of the history plays as they were performed by Pembroke's men" (p. 149). The discussion in the present essay will proceed as though Ql represents a memorially reported version, reconstructed in part from written material and in part from the memory of a stage adaptation of Shakespeare's manuscript, but will not ignore the strong possibility, amounting almost to certainty, that Shakespeare continued to rethink and revise the play after the manuscript that ultimately became Ql left his hands.

3 Montague as he appears in 3 Henry VI is a puzzle. It seems clear that "Mountague" in F and "Marquis Montague" in Ql, who is treated as the brother [in-law] of York, was historically York's nephew by his marriage to Cecily Neville and therefore brother to the earl of Warwick. But Montague's line "And I vnto the Sea, from whence I came" (TLN 237; 1.1.216) and Margaret's inexplicable sentence "Sterne Falconbridge commands the Narrow Seas" (TLN 270; 1. 246) strongly indicate that Shakespeare originally intended Montague's lines for a character who would be the York brother-in-law Falconbridge (whom Hall had confused with Falconbridge's bastard son of the same name and who was—also according to Hall—"Vice-admyrall of the sea, and had in charge so to kepe the passage betwene Douer and Caleys" [fol. 222r]; see A. S. Cairncross, "An 'Inconsistency' in '3 Henry VI'," Modern Language Review, 50 [1955], 492-94). As far as 1.1 is concerned, there is no reason why the change from a York brotherin-law to a Warwick brother would matter at all. It may be that Shakespeare made the change when he decided to contrast the antagonism between the York brothers to the relation of loyalty between Warwick and his "brother" Montague.

4 At this early point in 3 Henry VI, the character of the future Edward IV is no more developed than that of his brother Richard. Edward will shortly emerge as a willful and self-indulgent amorist, but in this scene he too speaks in terms that are clearly indebted to the example of Tamburlaine. On the question of York's oath, Edward is both aspiring and thoughtless: "But for a Kingdome any Oath may be broken: / I would breake a thousand Oathes, to reigne one yeere" (TLN 327-28; 11. 16-17). He becomes a far less hyperbolical speaker as the play proceeds.

5 Shakespeare found the omen of the three suns in Hall: "The duke of Yorke [i.e., Edward, successor to Richard, duke of York, and soon to be Edward IV].. . mett with his enemies in a faire playne, nere to Mortimers crosse, not farre from Herford east, on Candelmas day in the mornyng, at whiche time the sunne (as some write) appered to [him], like. iii. sunnes, and sodainly ioined al together in one, and that vpon the sight therof, he toke suche courage, that he fiercely set on his enemies, & them shortly discomfited: for which cause, men imagined, that he gaue the sunne in his full brightnes for his cognisaunce or badge" (Edward Hall, The Vnion of the Two Noble & Illustrate F amelles of Lancastre and Yorke [London: Richard Grafton, 1548], fols. 183v-84r). Shakespeare makes Richard (historically only eight years old at the time) a witness and analyst of the miracle. Richard sees the potential for an allegorical reading ("In this, the Heauen figures some euent" [TLN 684; 2.1.32]). Edward advances his own interpretation: "I thinke it cites vs (Brother) to the field, / That wee, the Sonnes of braue Plantagenet, / Each one alreadie blazing by our meedes, / Should notwithstanding ioyne our Lights together, / And ouer-shine the Earth, as this the World" (TLN 687-91; 11. 34-38). By allowing Richard to comment on the astronomical anomaly, Shakespeare develops the subject of cooperation and conflict between the "Sonnes of braue Plantagenet" If Shakespeare was attempting to arouse interest in fraternal relationships, as he certainly was at later points in the composition of the play, why, since he had already violated history by introducing Richard, did he not also include Richard's elder brother George of Clarence in the scene. Where was George? Why, that is, did Shakespeare not but fail to exploit the pregnant figure of the three suns/sons?

6 This particular passage is an instance in which evidence for revision is unassailable. Richard's speech survives in a variant but unquestionably authentic form in Ql, where the subject is not a Warwick brother but Warwick's father, old Salisbury (the brother—actually half-brother—in question in F would be [in Hall's phrase] "the bastard of Salisbury" [fol. 186r; see also Cairncross, 3 Henry VI, pp. xxi-ii and 2.3.15n]). Ql reads

Thy noble father in the thickest thronges
Cride still for Warwike his thrise valiant son,
Vntill with thousand swords he was beset,
And manie wounds made in his aged brest,
And as he tottering sate vpon his steede,

He waft his hand to me and cride aloud:
Richard, commend me to my valiant sonne,
And still he cride Warwike reuenge my death.
And with those words he tumbled off his horse,
  And so the noble Salsbury gaue vp the ghost.

(sig. C[1]v)

Shakespeare seems to have revised older Ql to newer F to shift the emphasis from a paternal to a fraternal theme. It should also be noted that Richard's style of speech in Ql is less distinct than in F and the revenge theme comparatively muted.

7Wits Miserie and the Worlds Madness (London: Adam Islip, 1596), p. 56.

8 fol. 195v. In reading in the chronicles about Edward, Shakespeare would have found Thomas More's description of Richard, taken from More's History of King Richard III. According to More, Richard was "close and secrete, a deepe dissimuler, lowlye of counteynaunce, arrogant of heart, outwardly coumpinable where he inwardely hated, not letting to kisse whome hee thoughte to kyll: dispitious and cruell, not for euill will alway, but ofter for ambicion, and either for the suretie or encrease of his estate. Frende and foo was muche what indifferent, where his aduauntage grew, he spared no mans deathe, whose life withstoode his purpose." Scene 2 of Act 3 also clearly reflects More's account of the events: "Whom, when the king beheld, & hard [Elizabeth Grey] speke, as she was both faire, of a good fauor, moderate of stature, wel made & very wise: he not only pitied her, but also waxed ennamored on her. And taking her afterward secretly aside, began to entre in talking more familiarly. Whose appetite when she perceiued, she verteousely denyed him. But that did she so wiseli, & with so good maner, & wordes so wel set, that she rather kindled his desire then quenched it. And fynally after many a meeting, much woing & many great promises, she wel espied the kinges affeccion toward her so greatly encresed, that she durst somewhat the more boldly say her minde, as to hym whose harte she perceiued more firmely set, then to fall of for a worde. And in conclusion she shewed him plaine, that as she wist herself to simple to be his wife, so thought she her self to good to be his concubine. The king much merueling of her constaunce, as he that had not ben wont els where to be so stiffely sayd naye, . . . so muche estemed her contynence and chastitie, that he set her vertue in the stede of possession & riches. And thus taking counsaile of his desyre, determined in al possible hast to mary her" (both passages quoted here from The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, 15 vols., Richard III, Vol. 2, ed. Richard S. Sylvester [New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1963-86], pp. 8 and 61). In More's version of the events, Richard and George do not eavesdrop, nor does Richard reflect on the conversation.

9 Richard's Vice inheritance is well established in criticism and is elucidated most fully in Bernard Spivock's Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of A Metaphor In Relation to His Major Villains ([New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958] esp. pp. 386-407). Antony Hammond epitomizes Richard's indebtedness to the Vice tradition in his new Arden edition of King Richard III ([London: Methuen, 1981] pp. 99-102).

10 Noted by Wolfgang G. Müller, "The Villain as Rhetorician in Shakespeare's Richard III," Anglia, 102 (1984), 37-59, esp. pp. 47-48.

11Apius and Virginia, 1575, ed. R. B. McKerrow (Oxford: Malone Society Reprints, 1911), 11, 210-19.

12 Ql reads "And set the aspiring Catalin to schoole" (sig. C8V). This anomaly can be explained as the result either of memorial reconstruction or of revision. If the former, the classical tag may have replaced the mention of the "murtherous Macheuill" when the compiler of Ql remembered the pre-1579 play of Catiline's Conspiracies, which the unconverted Stephen Gosson had written "too showe the rewarde of traytors" (Schoole of Abuse [London, 1579], p. 23). There may also have been a second play on the subject of Catiline by the Robert Wilson who was perhaps also an actor with the earl of Leicester's company (see An Edition of Robert Wilson's Three Ladies of London and Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, ed. H.S.D. Mithal [New York: Garland, 1988], p. lxvi). This section of Ql is badly abbreviated. Richard's soliloquy is truncated to a mere twenty-eight lines and seems to present clear evidence of "badness." For example, Ql inserts (after TLN 1651 ; 3.2.127) "For I am not yet lookt on in the world," a line that is triggered by the phrase "vnlook'd-for Issue" (TLN 1655; 1. 131) but which just as clearly anticipates Richard's much later "For yet I am not look'd on in the world" (TLN 3193; 5.7.22). Moreover, in Ql, Richard regrets that Love has been able "To drie mine arme vp like a withered shrimpe" (sig. C8r) where F retains the less ridiculous "To shrinke mine Arme vp like a wither'd Shrub" (TLN 1680; 1. 156). "Withered shrimpe" seems to be an actor's recollection that the Countess of Auvergne had once branded Talbot a "weake and writhled shrimpe" (1 Henry VI, TLN 859; 2.3.22). Both Talbot—"a Child, a silly Dwarfe"—and Richard were probably played by the same low-statured actor (Cairncross thinks 1 Henry VI to be a play in the same Pembroke repertoire as the Q versions of 2 and 3 Henry VI ["Pembroke's Men and Some Shakespearean Piracies," SQ, 11 (1960), 335-49]). The argument that a fragment of 1 Henry VI found its way into "bad" Ql will not be persuasive to those who hold that 1 Henry VI postdates and is therefore what has lately come to be called a "prequel" of 3 Henry VI—although it is not impossible that even if 1 Henry VI was written after 3 Henry VI, the compilation of Ql might still come after performances of 1 Henry VI.

On the other hand, although unlikely, it is not beyond possibility that "aspiring Catalin" was the original conception and "murtherous Macheuill" an inspired improvement. An intelligent assessment of the place of Machiavelli on the stage and in the English imagination is offered by Margaret Scott in "Machiavelli and the Machiavel," Renaissance Drama, n.s. 15 (1984), 147-74. Scott notes in passing that the "three parts of Henry VI . . . reveal a world where all order is discounted, loyalty sacrificed to ambition, truth and trust set by, and the law of God and man displaced by force and fraud" (p. 171). Richard's invocation of Machiavelli would be, in this view, an inevitable outgrowth of implicit amorality.

13 It is tempting to hypothesize that the repetition in the structure of the soliloquy signals revision, and that, with the burst of imagination and inspiration in the passage beginning "And yet I know not how to get the Crowne," Shakespeare began again to come to terms with a recalcitrant problem. The passage in which Richard discusses his deformity seems to come to a full stop with "round impaled with a glorious Crowne"—a line that rings with finality. The ungainly repetition of "crowne" as the last word of two consecutive lines remains in the text as evidence of suture. (But counterevidence is provided by the epistrophes at 1.1.13-14 and 114-15; 1.4.23-24; 2.1.4-5; and 5.6.13-14.)

14 fol. 218r.

15 It is difficult to dissent from Wells and Taylor et al.'s observation that "the sense of the [Ql] line is of sufficient complexity to make it an improbable memorial interpolation" (p. 205). Positing "eyeskip" on the part of the compositor, the Oxford editors print the line as genuine. But memorial interpolation is not the only possibility. Is it not more likely that in this instance Ql preserves an earlier state of the speech which was not inadvertently omitted by the compositor but deliberately blotted by the author? At some point Shakespeare noticed that the line "I had no father" is inappropriate to Richard (who never wavers in his loyalty to his father) and only compromises both Richard's intensity and the thematic concerns of the last part of the play.

16 Quoted here from Joan Thirsk, "Younger Sons in the Seventeenth Century," History, 54 (1969), 358-77, esp. p. 360. Younger sons are compared to bastards by Arthur Warren in The Poore Mans passions. And Pouerties Patience (London, 1605):

Because we are not elder Brethren borne,
Apparant Heyres to earthly Heritage,
Hence hautie Worlds Inheritors vs scorne,
As not begot in lawfull Marriage,
The harme is ours, the iniury was theirs,
To take all, ere we borne were to be Heires.

(sig. C2V)

17 Most writers on 3 Henry VI (a play that does not enjoy as rich a criticism as some) do not concern themselves with shifts in the portrayal of Richard. The tendency in the work of those few who take note has been to regard what is here understood as experimentation as the revelation of characteristics that were implicit but unstated. So E.M.W. Tillyard notes that when Richard overhears his brother wooing Elizabeth, the "ecstasy of jealousy thereby aroused . . . both sharpens his malignity towards his brother and strengthens, in compensation for his own deficiencies in amorous scope, his already excessive ambitions" (Shakespeare 's History Plays [London: Chatto and Windus, 1948], p. 195). The same assumption underlies a remark by M. M. Reese (The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays [London: Edward Arnold, 1961]) that until the soliloquy in 3.2., "the practised Machiavel has kept his ambitions hidden" (p. 204). Even stronger positions are taken by Bernard Spivack ("Richard has continuous existence through three plays. . . . The character of Richard remains consistent with itself from first to last" [Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (cited in n. 9, above), p. 388]) and Larry S. Champion ("[Richard's] characterization is firmly established [from his first appearance]" [Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980)], p. 82). In contrast, Robert B. Pierce (Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State [Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1971]) takes note of the change in Richard's character. Pierce adduces an oedipal explanation: Richard's personality can only emerge after the death of York; "when the strength of his nature is freed from its filial tie, the last remnant of an order into which he can fit, he inevitably becomes a destructive force" (p. 83). David L. Frey notes Richard's "metamorphosis" towards "an embodiment of the perfected Machiavel" (The First Tetralogy: Shakespeare's Scrutiny of the Tudor Myth [The Hague: Mouton, 1976], p. 42). Nearest to the position advocated in this essay is that of Kristian Smidt, who sees Richard as a "brave soldier and a man of honour" who develops into "a Machiavelli of the blackest Elizabethan dye." Smidt notes that "a change of personality seems to occur after the arrival of Lady Grey and the beginning of Edward's impolitic infatuation" (Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays [Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982], pp. 33-34).


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6122

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 will not yield to our complots?" Richard's reply is a Punch-line: "Chop off his head." It has the finality of Punch's stick; we can almost see the head topple. Our delight at the sudden audacity and directness of Richard's answer is equal to a child's joy at watching Punch's victim lose his blockhead. Edmund Kean, we are told, delivered the line with a laugh,1 and Laurence Olivier, in his filmed version of Richard III gave it with a sardonic grin and a malicious twinkle of the eye. The audiences in both cases could be expected to laugh appreciatively, for Richard, like Punch, is a comedian-villain.2

There is nothing new in the notion that villainy can be played for comedy. The comic rogue and the melodramatic villain are often the same character in different kinds of plays, and any villain, if played too broadly, can trip into comic bathos. Open aggression, especially when it is unmotivated as it is with Richard, is always very close to comedy. If aesthetic distance and the rhetoric of the joke are present, aggression and cruelty easily become comic.

One of the archetypal comic villains of English popular drama is the hunchbacked puppet hero Punch, a character who represents the distillation of centuries of theatrical practice. Punch rules over a microcosmic comic world not only where murder is frequent and hilarious, but where violence emerges triumphant. The character was originally a puppet version of the commedia dell'arte's Pulcinello, quite a different comic type. In the eighteenth-century puppet theater Pulcinello was a comic henpecked husband, the receiver of blows. The metamorphosis of the character from a comic victim to the assassin Punch came about when the elegant puppet theaters of London declined and the puppet show was thrown out onto the streets where it was operated by a single person using gloved hand puppets. On the streets, the only criterion for the puppet showmen was laughter, and the character of Pulcinello, the victim of abuse, was transformed into Punch, the gleeful murderer.3 Clearly, what entertained audiences was an ever-increasing display of aggression on the part of the play's hook-nosed, hump-backed protagonist. The final Punch and Judy play as we know it today has a single-minded unity of action: Punch disposes of a series of characters by beating them into insensibility with his stick.

Both Richard and Punch are assassins—premeditated scoundrels intent on clubbing their way to dominance. Both are also crowd pleasers who have proved their endurance on the popular English stage. Burbage made his reputation as Richard, and other Shakespearean actors such as Cibber, Kean, Booth and Irving won fame in the role. Although the play has been a favorite with audiences for several centuries—especially in Cibber's version which makes it a star vehicle—only in recent years has it received favorable critical attention. We are much more sympathetic to the violence, psychological pathology, and theatricality of the play than were earlier critics. Dr. Johnson summed up the objections: "That the play has scenes noble in themselves and very well contrived to strike in the exhibition, cannot be denied. But some parts are trifling, others shocking, and some improbable."4

Trifling, shocking, and improbable—an apt description of the Punch and Judy show. Many of the problems of Richard III and its leading character clear up if we consider Richard, not as a character from tragedy, or even from melodrama, but as a comic rogue intent on Punch-ing his way to dominance. It is true that this theatrical interpretation ignores some of Richard's other dimensions, particularly the psychological questions raised by his inability to find satisfaction through conquest and achievement, and the moral and political contexts provided by his conscience and by Margaret's curses. These have been dealt with elsewhere, but the raw theatrical power of the character, especially his comic verve, though often noted, have been less frequently analyzed.

The essential Richard is already characterized in the second and third parts of Henry VI. His only pleasure is power and therefore he sets his sights upon the ultimate goal:

Then, since this earth affords no joy to me,
But to command, to check, to O'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
  I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
  And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell,
  Until this mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
  Be round impaled with a glorious crown.5

His method will be to dominate through role; he will become a Protean shape-changer, a master of mask and costume, a superhuman actor, a veritable Punch:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry 'Content' to that which grieves my heart,
  And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
  And frame my face to all occasions.

I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machievel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.


Richard had found complete fulfillment in war where he expressed his will to power in the most direct way, through slaughter. But as Richard III opens we find Gloucester an alienated man; peace has settled upon the land and the conflicts of battle have given way to the conflicts of love, and in this contest there is no hope for victory. In the court of Edward he is merely a grotesque hunchback incapable of attracting either admiration or love. He has been reduced from a vicious fighting machine capable of striking terror into the heart of an opponent to an ugly, ineffectual cripple. But Richard is unwilling to accept inferiority; he makes an existential choice:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
  I am determined to prove a villain . . .

(Richard III, I. i. 28-30)

He chooses no second-rate goal, but the highest known to man, kingship, and sets out to get it with all the resourcefulness and vitality at his command. Like the rogues of comedy he leaps nimbly from role to role as chance or his imagination dictates. One of the roles he plays is the comedian. We see him perform in the opening scene of the play when he meets his brother Clarence as he is being conducted to the Tower. Richard makes jokes at the expense of the king's mistress, Jane Shore, one of them a punning double entendre on the word "naught":

Glou. Naught to do with Mistress Shore!
>I tell thee, fellow,
He that doth naught with her, excepting one,
Were best to do it secretly, alone.

(I. i. 98-100)

But the cruelest joke is his offhand quip upon leaving Clarence:

Go, tread the path that thou shalt ne'er return.
Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,
If heaven will take the present at our hands.


This is the voice of Punch chuckling over the victim he has just clubbed into insensibility. The effect of these lines is to allow us to relish Richard's villainy without moral inhibitions, to sidestep the censor that might ordinarily tell us that this is a man we must condemn. The sardonic jest of doing his enemies a favor by sending them to their reward in heaven is a favorite one with Richard and he uses it in one of the most audacious scenes ever written into a play—his wooing of Lady Anne.

Characteristically, Richard's decision to become a wooer is a daring one, for he chooses the most inappropriate time possible to declare himself—when Anne is preparing to bury the corpse of Henry VI whom Richard has killed, even as he has slaughtered Anne's husband, Edward. His timing is utterly irrational; however Richard is not led by reason, but by his daemon, and by his driving need to bend others to his will, even against insuperable odds. Indeed, the improbability of success acts as an incentive to Richard, for like many of Shakespeare's characters he is a gambler and the greater the risk the greater the reward in emotional ecstasy when he has triumphed. To win against the greatest odds—"all the world to nothing"—is the most triumphant victory.

The wooing scene has often been condemned as one of the most improbable ever written by a playwright. Coleridge refused to believe that Shakespeare wrote it. It is indeed improbable if we consider it as a serious drama, but if we look at the scene for what it really is—high comedy—then it becomes a wit combat to match that of Beatrice and Benedick, with one important exception.

In the wit battles of Beatrice and Benedick and those of the Restoration "gay couples" the underlying motivation is sexuality, but in Richard's wooing of Anne the driving force is naked aggression. The scene demonstrates Richard's ability to bend Anne to submission with nothing more than the unyielding weight of his will. Against what appears to be hopeless odds, Richard seizes each line of Anne's spitting denunciation and turns it spider-like into the web that will enmesh her. The sallies between them are no less clever than those of Beatrice and Benedick. But Anne's wit never permits her to gain equality with her adversary as does that of Beatrice or Millamant:

Anne. O'he was gentle, mild and virtuous!
Glou. The better for the king of heaven, that hath him.
Anne. He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.
Glou. Let him thank me, that holp to send him thither,
  For he was fitter for that place than earth.
Anne. And thou unfit for any place but hell.

Glou. Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
Anne. Some dungeon.
Glou. Your bedchamber.

(I. ii. 104-111)

The exchange only appears to be a contest; in reality Anne is no match for Richard, because the underlying issue is really not sex. Richard's eye is not on Anne's bedchamber as he claims, but on the crown, and therefore Anne does not have sex, that great equalizer, in her arsenal.

When Richard draws his sword and offers it to Anne to run through his bared breast, an act that appears to entail the greatest danger of all, there is really little risk involved. He has already submitted her to his will and the rest is mere theatrics. In this gesture Richard is the master showman. He prevails for the same reason that the high wire aerialist prevails, because of daring, nerve, and unlimited self-confidence. Shakespeare's villains—Aaron, Richard, Don John, and Iago—all possess to some degree this talent for breathtaking showmanship.6

When Richard dismisses Anne after dominating her completely, he is once more the ironic comedian gloating over his victory. The soliloquy which begins, "Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?/Was ever woman in this humour won?" (I. ii. 228-229) anticipates Ben Jonson's Mosca, who preens, "I fear I shall begin to grow in love/With my dear self and my most prosp'rous parts. . . . " Richard, too, is filled with a bubbling, narcissistic self-love:

I'll be at charges for a looking-glass,
And entertain a score or two of tailors
To study fashions to adorn my body.
Since I am crept in favour with myself,
I will maintain it with some little cost.


Both Mosca and Richard seethe with the power that accompanies skill in aggressive behavior. The boundless energy with which they deceive, flatter, and cajole is exceeded only by the bursting, self-satisfied rejoicing at their success. Here is Mosca, Jonson's comic servant:

. . . your fine, elegant rascal, that can rise
And stoop, almost together, like an arrow;
Shoot through the air as nimbly as a star;
Turn short as doth a swallow; and be here,
And there, and here, and yonder, all at once;
Present to any humor, all occasion;
And change a visor swifter than a thought.7

And Richard:

What! I, that kill'd her husband and his father,
  To take her in her heart's extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of my hatred by;
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
  But I no friends to back my suit withal
  But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing! Ha!


These are two masters of their craft glorying in their skills. Their infectious, effervescent good humor is readily transmitted to an audience which can experience vicariously the triumph of malicious superiority.

If Richard the wooer is high comedy then Richard being wooed is pure farce. I refer to the scene where Buckingham and the citizens come to offer Richard the crown and he accepts it with feigned reluctance. The scene is staged by Buckingham and Richard like a prep school theatrical. Richard, flanked by two clergymen, is following Buckingham's stage directions for accepting the crown: "Play the maid's part, still answer nay and take it" (III. vii. 51). He is the chaste virgin, innocently at prayer, being sought for seduction and coyly yielding to it. When Richard refuses the crown, Buckingham and the citizens start to leave, with Buckingham's "Zounds! we'll entreat no more." Richard, who has just had Hastings' head lopped off, replies: "O do not swear, my Lord of Buckingham." So well does he play his part that he almost overplays it; he is forced to give Catesby a panicky "Call them again," to bring the citizens back.

The entire action is an outrageous example of how the comic rogue attains mastery through role. When the role is played broadly, as it is here, it becomes farce; it is difficult to act the scene any other way. Shakespearean actors have enriched the comedy with various pieces of comic business. Olivier, in his filmed version, for example, borrowed an effective piece of stage business from the nineteenth century American actor Richard Mansfield: Richard enters between two clergymen with a prayerbook in his hand. He appears to be piously absorbed in the book, but when no one is looking he suddenly does a double take and turns the book right side up. At the end of the scene Olivier also included a piece of business originated by Colly Cibber—now that the prayer book is no longer needed, he simply throws it away, tossing it high into the air.

The rich comedy of the wooing scenes is certainly not sustained throughout the play. Once Richard has attained the ultimate prize—the crown—once his will to power has been satisfied, it is as if a source of energy has been lost. With no further victims to crush, no further risks to run, no further roles to play, Richard grows petulant and ill-humored; he loses his ironic turn of phrase and his cynical wit. Without the lust for domination he is no longer comic. Then, on the eve of battle he is stricken by conscience in the form of the ghosts of those he has slain, and this makes lightness and laughter impossible—for him and for his audience. Only when Richard enters onto the battlefield and once more faces the challenge of a competitor does he regain his old gaiety.

Richard III represents an extreme example of what happens when a playwright bedecks villainy with lightness, wit, hyperbole, and a drive for mastery. The character, with a little nudging by either actor or audience, becomes comic. In Richard's case, too much of the comedian is visible to be accidental. Punch-Richard is the portrait Shakespeare painted—a comic psychopath, a master of both gallows gag and executioner's earnest, the topsman's top banana.


1 A. C. Sprague, Shakespeare and the Actors (London: Russell, 1944), p. 99.

2 G. B. Shaw was one of the earliest critics to recognize the resemblance between Richard and Punch. "Richard," Shaw wrote, "is the prince of Punches: he delights Man by provoking God, and dies unrepentant and game to the last. His incongruous conventional appendages, such as the Punch hump, the conscience, the fear of ghosts, all impart a spice of outrageousness which leaves nothing lacking to the fun of the entertainment, except the solemnity of those spectators who feel bound to take the affair as a profound and subtle historic study." Quoted in Edwin Wilson, ed., Shaw on Shakespeare (New York: Dutton, 1961), p. 164.

3 A scenario of the Punch play is in Philip John Stead, Mr. Punch (London: Evans, 1950). George Speaight's The History of the English Puppet Theatre (London: Harrap, 1955) is a scholarly study of the subject.

4 W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., ed., Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), p. 93.

5 Hardin Craig, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (New York: Scott Foresman, 1961), 3 Henry VI, III. ii. 165-171. Subsequent references to Shakespeare's plays are to this edition.

6 For an excellent discussion of Richard as showman see Robert B. Heilman, "Satiety and Conscience: Aspects of Richard III," Antioch Rev., 24 (Spring 1964), 57-73.

7 Alvin B. Kernan, ed., Ben Jonson: Volpone (New Haven: Yale, 1962), III. i. 23-29.

Phillip Mallett (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Trickster-Kings: Richard III and Henry V," in The Fool and the Trickster: Studies in Honour of Enid Welsford, edited by Paul V. A. Williams, Rowman & Littlefield, 1979, pp. 64-82.

[In the following excerpt, Mallett presents Richard as a Machiavellian Jester, able to fool and control others like puppets by means of his play-acting, but also subject to a jesting providence.]

It might be thought perverse to link Richard III and Henry V as plays seriously concerned with the trickery of their central figures. Why not regard Richard's trickery as simply the cunning of a villain, who is duly defeated when the heroic Richmond finally restores peace and justice to the world? But this just and heroic figure doesn't get on stage until the fifth act, so we can understand that Shakespeare returned to give a fuller account of such a character in the person of Henry V, who is to be seen as 'the mirror of all Christian kings', and therefore not a trickster at all.

But both plays are more complicated and more demanding than this. The most dutiful audience might think Richmond a little perfunctory in his patriotism, and an attentive one would see that this patriotism has already been shown at the mercy of the complex pressures of greed, power and self-deception. There is, accordingly, more to say about Richard than that he temporarily frustrates a Providential scheme which plans the good of England: we cannot make a stick to beat him out of the idea of a violated moral order, when we continually see this order to be equivocal. In fact the play does not lead unhesitatingly towards Richmond's closing speech, but fosters in a wider and more critical awareness than Richmond's platitudes admit.

We need to take this critical awareness to Henry V as well, where we find that an equivocal moral order cannot be made to serve as a prop to support Henry. The questioning throughout the history plays is so rigorous that we must feel uneasy when we meet someone who claims to have 'right' always on his side, and our suspicions about Henry are confirmed when we compare the panegyrics of the Chorus to the picture forced on us by the play as a whole. Henry is intelligible to us only if we see him as a trickster, who will always contrive to be justified by events or arguments, in order to 'show goodly', and to 'attract more eyes', like 'bright metal on a sullen ground'. The Chorus is his most conspicuous victim, but what makes Henry so alarming is his ability to take everybody in, perhaps even himself. He seems to have engaged a problematic sense in Shakespeare that he could only have become what he was popularly taken to be, by being a kind of Machiavel, a completely successful trickster in moral terms, with the result that we can no longer speculate as to what, if anything, lies in the inner man. Just at those moments when we expect a glimpse into his inner life, we encounter a blankness. And this blankness is more appalling than anything in Richard III.

To turn to Richard III Coleridge noted in the histories a concern with 'the relation of providence to the human will', and his remark should alert us to the questions in the plays about the orientation of the individual towards the moral order, and to the question where, in this world, such an order is to be found. Broadly, Shakespeare's sources imply two levels of providence: general providence, leading to the eventual accession of the Tudors, and particular providence, a kind of even-handed justice which ensures that the murderers become the murdered. This providential scheme co-exists awkwardly with a Machiavellian stress on the clashing of human wills: thus Henry VI can be seen both as a saint wretchedly sacrificed as England pays for the murder of Richard II (general providence), and as a weak king who proved incompetent to govern his country (human will). Through the confusions of this Shakespeare saw the possibility of making a central issue in Richard III out of the opposition of an idea of providence, and the human will of Richard. A succession of characters assume the providential fitness of things, as in their frequent curses:

Thyself a queen, for me that was a queen,
Outlive thy glory, like my wretched self!


or in the speeches at their deaths:

Come, lead me, officers, to the block of shame;
Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.


or in ritual recitals of past history:

Thy Edward he is dead, that killed my Edward;
Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward;


These comments amount to so many cries of 'Nemesis', either invoked or acknowledged. Richard defies this providential logic with the Machiavellian assertion of his own energies:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.


The ostensible irony is of course that this defiance is proved futile: ghosts still haunt Richard before Bosworth, and Richmond's arms are made stronger by his clear conscience. But the deeper irony is that the providence which defeats Richard appears to have a human face, magnified; and the face thus magnified looks disconcertingly like Richard's, at once jesting and malevolent.

It is Richard who opens the play, announcing himself as still the Machiavellian trickster who boasted in Henry VI that he could 'smile, and murder whiles I smile':

I can add colours to the chamelon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

(3 Hen. VI, 3.2.191-3)

This ability to frame his face to any occasion is demonstrated in the first scene, where Richard has one voice for us:

I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.


and another for brother Clarence, on his way to be murdered on Richard's orders, though he doesn't know it:

We are not safe, Clarence, we are not safe.


with a worried shake of the head. As Clarence leaves the voice changes again:

Simple, plain Clarence, I do love thee so,
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,
If heaven will take the present at our hands.


This is the image we keep of Richard as the play unfolds. The effect is like that of the play within a play. Clarence and most of the other characters exist in a single dimension, as distant puppet-like figures for the most part at the back of the stage, while Richard exists also in an extra dimension, front of stage, where he shares with the audience his delight in his skills as a puppet-master. We watch him put on the masks as he enters the main arena of the play's action, and remove them as he returns to comment on it. The shapes Richard can adopt are various and brilliant. He can be the 'plain man', who is 'too childish-foolish for this world': thus he convinces Hastings that 'by his face you shall know him straight', just a moment before he re-enters with 'a wonderful sour countenance, knitting his brow and gnawing his lip', to send Hastings to death (1.3.48, 3.4.48). He can be the passionate wooer, the anxious defender of the realm called out in a crisis in 'rotten armour', even a saint, with a prayer-book and two bishops, who begs to decline the crown offered him. The extravagance of all this is underlined by Richard's commentaries on his performances:

I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl . . .
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
  With odd old ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

(1.3.324, 336-8)

Richard and his co-plotter Buckingham even exchange technical notes on the arts of shape-changing; Richard discusses voice:

Come, cousin, canst thou quake, and change thy colour,
  Murder thy breath in middle of a word,
And then again begin, and stop again,
  As if thou wert distraught and mad with terror?


Buckingham discusses gesture and movement:

Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian,
Speak and look back, and pry on every side,
Tremble and start at the wagging of a straw . . .


And indeed their performances bear out their claims.

But evidently there is something else here, as well as the necessary skill of the Machiavel. Richard is not simply one who can smile and be a villain (Claudius in Hamlet can do as much), he is one whose villainy causes him to smile. We can see this in psychological terms as an instance of compensation, but it is more important to the economy of the play as a whole to see how Richard has added to his role of Machiavel the role of the Jester, the (in this case) quasi-diabolical mocker of human pretensions and pieties. His delight flows from this mockery. Much of it we too register as essentially comic; for example, Richard's filial duty as he kneels for his mother's blessing:

Amen! (Aside) and make me die a good old man,
  That is the butt-end of a mother's blessing:
I marvel that her grace did leave it out.


This is very funny, but Richard makes our laughter uneasy. It is disconcerting to discover that our usual moral attitudes are so much in abeyance that we are amused at the fraternal love which shows itself in giving away the brother's soul (and not, as Clarence's dream tells us, to Heaven). At the same time, we do see what gives Richard occasion for his mockery. The other characters on stage continually present themselves as if they were in touch with a moral order whose validity we could all admit; thus Queen Elizabeth:

So just is God, to right the innocent.


But their appeals to this order serve mainly to discredit it, or at the least render it equivocal; Elizabeth is addressing a former Queen, whose son and husband were murdered by Elizabeth's own husband and his brothers. It is this duplicity of conscience which gives license to our mockery. Thus when Clarence cites the sixth commandment, and warns that God 'holds vengeance in his hand' (1.4.199), we recognise that it is the fear of death which has finally converted him to these arguments. The damaging case against Clarence, that he is himself ripe for the vengeance of God against murderers, is made by hired murderers. The Lieutenant 'will not reason what is meant hereby' as he admits the murderers to the Tower, the Mayor will take on trust the assurances of the murderers that the murdered man had confessed his treasons. The Cardinal will not 'for all this land' break the 'holy privilege of blessed sanctuary', but:

My lord, you shall o'er-rule my mind for once.


One can always add 'for once' when surrendering the sanctities to the pressures of greed or fear. Richard thus appears as a kind of Elizabethan shaman, regardless of the official God but seemingly in touch with the other and unacknowledged gods of this world, so that at his approach the ready corruptibility of all around him seems to leap into evidence. His delight in his powers combines with our sense of the general moral laxity, to release some of the constraints from us, allowing us to respond with detached amusement as both persons and pretensions fall before Richard's onslaughts.

Nonetheless our laughter remains uneasy. Richard's mocking vision clouds even the most obvious 'positives' in ambiguity; even Peace looks disagreeable when seen by Richard:

He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber,
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.


The final tendency of Richard's mockery is revealed in his most versatile piece of shape-changing, the defeat of Anne. Richard successfully woos her, having previously killed her husband and her father, as she goes to bury her father-in-law—also one of Richard's victims. His triumph here is a matter of voice: at first she matches him, so that his 'Fairer than tongue can name thee' becomes her 'Fouler than heart can think thee', his 'divine perfection of a woman' becomes her 'diffused infection of a man'. But Richard's resources are endless, and at the last she falters as he kneels with his sword against his breast; now his voice matches hers:

Anne. I would I knew thy heart.
Rich. 'Tis figured in my tongue.
Anne. I fear me both are false.
Rich. Then never man was true.
Anne. Well, well, put up thy sword.


This marriage is supposedly part of Richard's path to the crown, but we never see its advantage to him. Its real purpose seems to be to prove that nothing in Anne's purposes or memories can resist his resourcefulness:

Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Was ever woman in this humour won? . . .
What! I, that killed her husband and his father
To take her in her heart's extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by;
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
  And I no friends to back my suit at all,
  But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her! all the world to nothing!


In this encounter are tested the values notionally respected in Anne's world, the conscience which makes one loyal to God and to the dead. The Machiavel-Jester defeats them all. Richard does not need to keep a Fool in his court to expose the vanity of human pretensions: here the king is his own Jester.

As the opposition to Richard shows itself willing to yield to him, our sense of him as the puppet-master, and of the others as his puppets, is moment by moment confirmed. Thus, Hastings is not seen as an innocent man caught in the toils of the powerful, but as a fool who tumbles blindly into snares long evident to us. He is even blind to his own ironies, as when he opposes the coronation of Richard:

I'll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders,
  Before I'll see the crown so foul misplaced.


He doesn't realise it, but this is almost the only thing he is to get right. He belongs entirely to the play within a play, and is interesting to us only in that he calls forth a virtuoso performance from Richard. This makes matters difficult, when we realise that we have to take Hastings seriously at his death. He reflects on the 'momentary grace of mortal men', prophesies the 'fearfull'st time' for England, and then asserts the weight of the providential scheme:

They smile at me who shortly shall be dead.


All that Hastings is felt to have achieved is that he now has a right to be one of the ghosts who later haunt Richard, and he can be swallowed up in Margaret's list of the murdered:

I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard killed him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him. . . .
Thy Clarence he is dead that killed my Edward;
And the beholders of this frantic play,
Th'adulterate Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey,
Untimely smothered in their dusky graves.

(4.4.40 et seq)

None of these characters moves out of the single dimension of the play within a play. Hastings and his enemies can all be bundled into the same line, where the rhyme of Grey-play, and a near rhyme on Grey-graves, smothers their names as effectively as the graves smother their bodies. The one name alive to us from this list is that of Richard, who is not the 'beholder' but the director of this 'frantic play'. The implication seems inescapable, that the path chosen by the Machiavel-Jester is the one that leads to freedom and individuality: the alternative is to become grist to the mill of providence. But Richard too is to fall victim to this scheme, and to be buried by it as surely as was Hastings.

The ironies of this lead us to the central ambiguities of the play. There are numerous reasons for mistrusting this providential Grand Design. Our recognition of Richard's energies leads us to feel repelled at its mechanical nature. Richard's Machiavellianism has exposed those who pay lip-service to it as fools and puppets. His role of diabolic Jester has exposed its equivocal nature: it can be used to justify personal revenge, lax evasions, and cynical opportunism. Those who speak for it seem to have surrendered their humanity: Margaret, its main prophetess, is a ghostly figure whose entrances are unnoticed, asides unheard and exits unmotivated. It even requires an act of will of the most self-destructive kind to perceive the scheme, if we recognise in Margaret's advice to Elizabeth the pattern of her own previous life:

Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;

Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,
  And he that slew them fouler than he is.


Nonetheless, this is the scheme which brings Richard down, and sets Richmond up. There are two levels of irony in this. One is that this providence is able to employ Richard. Clarence was a self-appointed 'bloody minister' when he helped to murder Henry VI, but Richard, the 'bloody dog', proves to have been appointed by providence. Clarence's protest, that God does not use an 'indirect or lawless course' to punish the guilty, seems to have been an error, since Richard is used to punish Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey and the rest. This is troubling enough. But the irony which underlies this is more so. Throughout the play Richard has seemed free. This is why he has been able to move in and out of the play within a play. He has remained the master of his face, able to gnaw his lip to affect anger, but now he is overseen gnawing his lip in real, not assumed, rage (4.2.27). Previously Richard has been of one mind, mocking those whose minds he could change ('Relenting fool, and shallow changing woman' (4.4.432)), but now he has to confess, 'my mind is changed' (4.4.457). All through Richard has appeared as the puppet-master, but now he too proves to have been a puppet, his strings needing to be pulled pretty hard to make him fall into place (he suddenly acquires a kind of conscience, and becomes an uncertain organiser, for example). A trick is being played on Richard, exactly like that he played on Hastings; the free man suddenly finds himself with strings tugging his limbs, he is an actor at the mercy of another will. Richard was after all in a play within a play within a play, and the real director was providence, now revealed as a Jester: providence employs Richard, mocks Richard, and—in the end—looks like Richard. . . .

Further Reading

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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, pp. 48-79. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1968.

Presents an analysis of the play's thematic structure and represents Richard as a tragic figure of human will set against the impersonal force of history.

Brownlow, F. W. "The Tragedy of Richard III" In Two Shakespearean Sequences: "Henry VI" to "Richard III" and "Pericles" to "Timon of Athens" pp.63-77. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Explores how Shakespeare circumvented historical fact in Richard's role to show the need for redemption in the soul rather than through human political figures.

Carroll, William C. "'The Form of Law': Ritual and Succession in Richard III." In True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, pp. 203-219. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Argues that Richard's adherence to the principle of succession despite his violation of every other form and law reveals him to be a monster.

Frisch, Morton J. "Shakespeare's Richard III and the Soul of the Tyrant." Interpretation 20, No. 3 (Spring 1993): 275-84.

Discusses the character of Richard in terms of classical definitions of tyranny and in terms of Shakespeare's understanding of the psychological motivations of a tyrant.

Garber, Marjorie B. "Apparent Prodigies: Dream and Plot: Richard III." In Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis, pp. 15-26. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

Contends that Shakespeare's dream sequences show the workings of characters' minds and serve as metaphors of the action of the play.

Gurr, Andrew. "Richard III and the Democratic Process." Essays in Criticism 24, No. 1 (January 1974): 39-47.

Argues that Richard's defeat at Bosworth was not due to Richard's conscience but to the defection of Stanley, who symbolized the free choice of the people in choosing the better man (Richmond) over the worse.

Hammond, Antony. Introduction to The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: King Richard III, edited by Antony Hammond, pp. 1-119. London: Methuen, 1981.

Includes a general critical discussion of ideas relevant to an understanding of the play.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. "Military Oratory in Richard III" Shakespeare Quarterly 35, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 53-61.

Argues that, according to the military manuals of the time, the military speeches of Richard III are inferior to those of Richmond.

Homan, Sidney. "Richard III: 'And Descant on My Own Deformity.'" In Shakespeare's Theater of Presence: Language, Spectacle, and the Audience, pp. 121-37. Lewisburg, W.Va.: Bucknell University Press, 1986.

Discusses Richard's sense of linguistic play and his skilful use of language, which he employs to manipulate others.

Kahn, Coppélia. "'The Shadow of the Male': Masculine Identity in the History Plays." In Man 's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare, pp. 47-81. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Examines Shakespeare's testing of the principle of patrilineal descent and of the definition of the male through the father in both tetralogies of history plays, showing Richard III as bringing destruction to the family and to the paternally-defined masculine identity.

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. "Shakespeare's Double Tetralogy: Richard III." In Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories, pp. 276-95. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Suggests that Richard III was not the evil agent of divine retribution but the recipient of divine justice in the person of Richmond in accordance with Tudor propaganda.

Knights, L. C. "Richard III." In William Shakespeare: The Histories, pp. 16-26. London: Longman, 1962.

Discusses Shakespeare's dynamic moral insight as the source of energy for the ingenious patterning of action and language.

Mindle, Grant B. "Shakespeare's Demonic Prince." Interpretation 20, No. 2 (Winter 1992-93): 259-74.

Demonstrates the extent to which Richard III, out of all of Shakespeare's kings, qualifies as Machiavellian.

Neill, Michael. "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, edited by J. Leeds Barroll III, pp. 99-129. New York: Burt Franklin & Co., 1975.

Contends that Richard, in the absence of a real inner self, creates a public self to conceal this inner void through his actions to obtain the crown, but discovers that this public self collapses into chaos when the selfdefining action of gaining the crown is finished.

Pierce, Robert B. "Richard III." In Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State, pp. 89-124. N.p.: Ohio State University Press, 1971.

Shows that the morality of the family together with order and justice defeat the villain-king Richard, who is the ultimate result and expression of the forces of evil at work in civil war.

Rackin, Phyllis. "Engendering the Tragic Audience: The Case of Richard III." Imagination 26, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 47-65.

Analyzes the effect of reconstructing history as tragedy on Shakespeare's representation of women and of the gender relationships between the actor and the audience.

Reese, M. M. "Shakespeare's England: Richard III" In The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays, pp. 207-25. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1961.

Interprets Richard III as a comic character acting in the midst of a tragic state of affairs.

Richmond, H. M. "The First Tetralogy: Richard III." In Shakespeare's Political Plays, pp. 75-96. New York: Random House, 1967.

Suggests that the chartacter of Richard III ultimately derives his dramatic power from mythic qualities found in the medieval morality play.

Rossiter, A. P. "Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard III." In Shakespeare: The Histories: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Eugene M. Waith, pp. 66-84. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

Discusses the unity of the play in terms of the use of the myth of Richard the monster-king to invert the meaning of the Tudor myth of providential history into a paradox of evil justice.

Sanders, Wilbur. "Providence and Policy in Richard III" In The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe & Shakespeare, pp. 72-109. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Argues that the picture of Christian Providential design in Richard's defeat reveals Shakespeare's not-yetmatured ability to express his true moral picture of pessimistic pagan naturalism.

Sen Gupta, S. C. "The First Tetralogy." In Shakespeare's Historical Plays, pp. 55-97. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Discusses Richard III, within the context of Shakespeare's development in the handling of historical plays, as an attempt to treat a chronicle theme as a tragedy.

Smith, Irwin. "Dramatic Time versus Clock Time in Shakespeare." Shakespeare Quarterly 20, No. 1 (Winter 1969): 65-9.

Discusses the relationship of the time taken to act the scene and the time needed in real life to do the actions suggested by the drama.

Waller, Marguerite. "Usurpation, Seduction, and the Problematics of the Proper: A 'Deeonstruetive,' 'Feminist' Rereading of the Seductions of Richard and Anne in Shakespeare's Richard III " In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, pp. 159-74. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Discusses from a feminist perspective the sexual and rhetorical assumptions involved in the deceptions that Richard and Anne suffer.

Weiss, Theodore. "The Anarch Supreme: Richard III." In The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare 's Early Comedies and Histories, pp. 158-200. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Traces the expressions of Richard's vigorous spirit as examples of a Renaissance probing of the idea of superman.

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A Monster Great Deformed: The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III


Richard III (Vol. 52)

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