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Richard III

Shakespeare's Richard III has long been a favorite play for actors as well as for audiences, showcasing as it does a character who is simultaneously repugnant, lethal, witty, and engaging. Richard's attractiveness in spite of, or because of, his wickedness has also been the focus of critical debate....

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Richard III

Shakespeare's Richard III has long been a favorite play for actors as well as for audiences, showcasing as it does a character who is simultaneously repugnant, lethal, witty, and engaging. Richard's attractiveness in spite of, or because of, his wickedness has also been the focus of critical debate. Central to this debate is the manner in which morality is treated in the play. Scholars have commented, for example, on the connections Richard III makes between morality on the one hand and nature versus nurture on the other. Discussion has also focused on the complex relationships in the play between sex, politics, and integrity. Finally, Richard III and the issue of morality have been approached by several critics from the vantage point of genre. In other words, scholars have speculated on the extent to which medieval morality plays with their characterizations of Vice and Virtue inform the structure and possible interpretations of Richard III.

Nancy A. Cluck (1985) locates the play's emphasis on immorality directly in Richard III's “pathological shamelessness” which, she explains, is the result of his physical deformity. Richard's “unlovable” shape has placed him outside of society. Cluck observes that in order to cope, Richard turns his shame to shamelessness by celebrating his own deformity and by behaving as an immoral “villain,” wreaking pain and destruction on the society that has rejected him. Grant B. Mindle (1993) defines the sheer magnitude of Richard's immorality. Mindle observes that while many Shakespearean characters (such as Macbeth) feel guilty or at least uneasy about the murders they commit, Richard does not. Richard, Mindle suggests, commits his murders “deliberately” and “serenely.” Further, Mindle points out that Richard himself describes conscience as “a word that cowards use.”

Maurice Hunt (1997) relies on Elizabethan politics and Tudor history to describe the types of morality at work in the play. Hunt remarks that as the daughter of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was sensitive about the question of legitimacy—an issue that also plagued Richmond; thus in Richard III, Shakespeare avoids offending his queen by drawing a distinction between “moral bastardy” and “moral integrity.” Hunt traces the history of both Richmond and Elizabeth I to demonstrate that while each could be regarded as bastards in the eyes of the law, both were morally sound. By contrast, as a Yorkist rather than a Tudor, Richard III could lay a strong claim to legitimate rule; nevertheless, Hunt explains, the treacherous Richard lacked legitimacy because he was grossly immoral.

Paul N. Siegel (1986) sees a different type of immorality expressed in Richard III. Taking a Marxist approach to the play, Siegel describes Richard as the embodiment of the self-centered individualism that began to appear during the early-modern era in which Shakespeare lived. Hunt observes that Richard's language is laced with “cold-blooded” references to business and money, and that the brutal Richard thereby prefigures the equally brutal and self-interested conquerors of the New World as well as the advent of the bourgeoisie who, Siegel suggests, achieve their own needs at the expense of others.

Several critics have noted the theatricality of Shakespeare's Richard and how this contributes to Richard's portrayal as an immoral character. Deborah Mitchell (1997) observes that audiences and actors alike positively relish Shakespeare's depiction of a flamboyant Richard who lacks any moral fiber. Mitchell further remarks that this representation has been effectively perpetuated onscreen first by Laurence Olivier and later by Ian McKellen, who portrayed Richard III “in a Nazi uniform seal[ing] his fate as eternity's archvillain.” This monstrous view of Richard persists despite contradictory historical evidence simply because—as Mitchell suggests—the apparently false story of a wicked Richard III is highly entertaining.

Gillian M. Day (1991) similarly acknowledges the theatrical power of Richard III, noting that the character “plays the villain with a great sense of spectacle and theatre.” In addition, Day connects Richard with the tradition of the morality plays of the medieval period in which characters representing Vice (Richard) must be overcome by those representing Virtue (Richmond). A different perspective on the morality theatrics of the play is expressed by Peggy Endel (1986), who remarks that, unlike other Shakespearean characters, Richard foregrounds his immoral plots by discussing them in the very public atmosphere of the throne room. Endel compares this behavior of Richard's with a late-medieval painting by Hieronymus Bosch of the devil sitting in state on a chamber pot.

The ways in which Richard uses sex to further his immoral cause have also been examined by scholars. Rebecca W. Bushnell (1990), Linda Charnes (1993), and Phyllis Rackin (1995) all discuss the ways in which the physically unappealing Richard skillfully manipulates sexual desire and lust to disempower the female characters around him in order to further his own aims. Deborah Willis (1995) contends that Richard's wickedness is driven by his hatred for his mother—whom he blames for his deformity—and his contempt for women in general—who reject him because of his deformity.

Donald R. Shupe (1978) and Betty A. Schellenberg (1990) both focus on Richard's extraordinary powers of persuasion. Schellenberg concludes that Richard is doomed to fail despite his facility for language because both his aims and the language he uses to express them are corrupt. Ultimately, Schellenberg asserts that it will take the “prayers” of Richmond to “purify” the language and bring harmony back to society.

Nancy A. Cluck (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Shakespearean Studies In Shame,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 36, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 141-51.

[In the following essay, Cluck defines shame and its place in Western culture by comparing Shakespeare's character Antony with his character Richard III. Cluck remarks that Richard is so intensely ashamed of his misshapen body that he seeks refuge in complete shamelessness and immorality.]

Few human emotions are more distressing than those associated with shame. Though feelings such as anger, grief, fear, and even guilt can be equally painful, they are more easily expressed because they are more acceptable to Western society. Shame isolates the sufferer from social communication and drives him into hiding or into an attitude of shamelessness that serves as a defense mechanism. Recent psychological studies of the causes and manifestations of shame have deepened our understanding of the experience in our own lives and in literature. But shame exceeds psychological boundaries, and in doing so it vitally affects our moral and spiritual natures as well as our emotional nature. Shakespeare probes the complexities of shame in several of his characters. He thus clarifies the more abstract theoretical investigations of modern psychologists and social scientists. Shame drives Othello, Lear, and Antony; meanwhile its alter-ego, shamelessness, spurs Iago, Edmund, and Richard III. The clearest exemplifications of shame appear in the shamelessness of Richard III and in the shame of Antony.


The fact that few literary studies of shame exist may be attributed in part to the fact that the notion of shame has not been sufficiently examined in other disciplines such as psychology or the social sciences. In Western society, shame has often been absorbed into studies of guilt. Sociologists have contrasted “shame” societies with “guilt” societies, asserting that shame cultures depend upon external sanctions, guilt societies upon internal sanctions. Such classifications have proved to be inadequate, however, for analyses of the nuances involved in the individual experience of shame.

Fortunately, some recent investigations have moved away from that early stance to question the classification of the world into guilt and shame societies. In doing so, they have also questioned the subordination of shame to guilt in psychological theory.1 Gerhart Piers and Milton Singer explain, for example, that feelings of shame do not depend solely upon external social sanctions; at the core of the embarrassment and humiliation of shame is surprise with oneself.2 Shame arises from internal ambiguities; the person who experiences it finds within himself something which does not match his standards of acceptance. No one else need be present; no other person need witness the exposure, for the central element in shame is the exposure to self. An aspect of the self never before recognized springs up, and the discovery of this alien character embarrasses or, more severely, shames us. In On Shame and the Search for Identity, Helen Merrell Lynd comments upon this shocking discovery of unknown aspects of the self: “We have acted on the assumption of being one kind of person living in one kind of surrounding, and unexpectedly, violently, we discover that these assumptions are false. We had thought that we were able to see around certain situations, and instead, discover in a moment that it is we who are exposed; alien people in an alien situation can see around us.”3

Another method of explaining this disparity is the hypothesis of a conflict between the ego and the ego-ideal. According to this theory, each person constructs an ideal version of the self from various sources, but when the ideal is violated by an action of the ego which has not been assimilated or recognized by the ego-ideal, the self is exposed, vulnerable, and shamed. Because of its overwhelming threat to the core of the self, shame cannot easily be overcome. Unlike guilt, which can be assuaged by confession and penance, shame “… can be altered or transcended only insofar as there is some change in the whole self. No single specific thing we do can rectify or mitigate such an experience. Unlike guilt it is—in specific terms—irreversible.”4

While shame may range from simple embarrassment to overwhelming humiliation, the fear that underlies and accompanies it is the fear of abandonment and contempt. It stems from a sense of one's fundamental unlovability. According to Piers and Singer, contempt, “on an even deeper level of the unconscious, spells fear of abandonment, the death by emotional starvation.”5 Suddenly confronted with an odious, previously unrecognized part of ourselves, we expect others to react as we do and hold us in contempt, emotionally abandoning us. Driven to self-contempt and unable to love ourselves, we assume that we are basically unlovable.

This sense of unlovability cannot be endured for long periods of time. If shame cannot be overcome, it may be redirected into a way of life, such as shyness, self-consciousness, or backwardness, that protects its victim from risks that might again lead to the spectre of abandonment, contempt, and unlovability. In more drastic instances in which the individual continually experiences contempt, he may learn to defend himself by the more extreme expedient of adopting the shield of shamelessness. Dismissing love, spurning normal communication, embracing a perverse order of values, the one who has too often felt shame may turn to its opposite. His narcissism and will to power over others assuage his wound and enable him to feel that he can simply nullify all who might have the ability to force him to confront himself. According to Wurmser, this attitude constitutes a reaction formation against shame: “Shamelessness is no simple regression to a stage before the establishment of a shame barrier. It is rather, like sadism, the outcome of a complex layering of defenses. Superficial shamelessness about betrayal, sexual provocation, an exhibition, coupled with brazen abuse of another person, undaunted by fear of ridicule and mockery, constitutes a defiant display of ‘power’ in displaced form. The weakness about which the person is ashamed refers to tender feelings, to kindness, to warmth; these emotions represent subjugation and must be avoided at all costs.”6

The complex of shame—including exposure, a threat to identity, a fear of abandonment, a sense of unlovability, and an adoption of shamelessness as a mask—finds expression in many of Shakespeare's dramatic characters and situations. In no play is shamelessness more clearly presented than in Richard III, where it helps to define the nature of shame. The most perceptive and unrelenting exploration of shame occurs later, in Antony and Cleopatra.


Richard's entire approach to life is suffused with shamelessness. His narcissistic concern for self, his lust for power, his complete cynicism, and his sadistic pleasure in the pain of others—all attest to pathological shamelessness. The essence of Richard's shamelessness—its motivation, its effect upon others, its threat to his self-identity, and its eventual failure—is revealed most clearly in three soliloquies. The first exposes the causes of his shamelessness and explains its expression in his narcissism and lust for power. The second apparently offers the possibility for a replacement of his shamelessness while continuing to reveal its characteristics. In the third, the implications for self-knowledge emerge as Richard is finally forced to confront himself.

In his opening soliloquy, Richard describes his alienated condition, which stands in relief against the background of peace and love ushered in upon the end of the wars. His acknowledgment of his repulsive physical appearance leads him to note the differences between himself and others who are attractive and lovable. Denied love, he pledges to be a villain:

                    But I, that am not shap’d
for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
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.

(Richard III, I.i.14-31)7

Richard has been so long an object of contempt that he no longer considers himself a part of society. Scorned even by dogs, he has long since learned to protect himself from the painful feelings of shame by adopting an attitude of shamelessness. He no longer fears abandonment; instead he has abandoned the society that denies him a chance to participate, and in effect he has abandoned himself in the process. Contemptuous of himself as well as of others, Richard's only delight is to “descant on mine own deformity.”

Richard's fascination with self leads to the narcissism characteristic of shamelessness; it is the shadow of himself, however, that interests him, for he was not “made to court an amorous looking-glass.” Richard cannot look directly upon the full physical, moral, and emotional deformity that constitutes himself. His shamelessness and narcissistic absorption with his shadow thus attest to a self-hate that Elizabeth recognizes as his “interior hatred.” Self-contempt motivates his will for power. Viewing himself as an unlovable mutation of “dissembling nature,” having no role in a peaceful world, he converts his bitterness to shamelessness and promises to be a villain and hate “the idle pleasures of these days.”

To set his plan in motion, Richard decides his first step must be to woo and marry Anne, the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales. He needs her to carry out his revenge against both family and state. But her acceptance makes him pause to consider that he may after all be worthy of love. Despite the contemptuous tone in his second soliloquy, he wavers momentarily—conjuring a vision of himself as worthy of the looking-glass rather than as a deformed body and spirit that must be relegated to the shadows. For once, Richard skirts the edges of normal self-esteem and finds himself “crept in favor with myself”:

And will she yet abase her eyes on me,
That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince
And made her widow to a woeful bed?
On me, whose all not equals Edward's moi’ty?
On me, that halts and am misshapen thus?
My dukedom to a beggarly denier,
I do mistake my person all this while!
Upon my life, she finds (although I cannot)
Myself to be a marv’llous proper man.
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 favor with myself,
I will maintain it with some littl cost.
But first I’ll turn yon fellow in his grave,
And then return lamenting to my love.
Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.


Despite their implied cynicism, these lines underscore Richard's long-hidden desire to drop his protective shield of shamelessness. He evokes the imagery of his first soliloquy; but now instead of eschewing the looking-glass, he plans to buy one; and instead of descanting upon his deformity when he sees his shadow, he exhorts the sun to shine brightly until he has his mirror. After Anne's acceptance he marvels, “I do mistake my person all this while! / Upon my life, she finds (although I cannot) / Myself to be a marv’llous proper man.” Fleetingly, he glimpses a self surpassing the one that has lain hidden behind the protection of shamelessness.

Richard's retreat from contempt does not last, however. In the scene following this soliloquy, the women of the play provoke him to his former posture. Their attempts to shame him reinforce his shamelessness and strengthen his resolve for villainy. The widowed Queen Margaret initiates the process as she curses him under her breath, “Hie thee to hell for shame, and leave this world, / Thou cacodemon, there thy kingdom is” (I.iii.142-43). Later Richard's own mother laments the degradation he has brought upon her: “He is my son—ay, and therein my shame; / Yet from my dugs he drew not this deceit” (II.ii.29—30). After the murder of Elizabeth's two sons, she vents a bitterness as potent as that of Queen Margaret:

My prayers on the adverse party fight,
And there the little souls of Edward's children
Whisper the spirits of thine enemies
And promise them success and victory.
Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end;
Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend.


As they curse him with jibes about his deformity, about his repulsive physical nature as well as about his heinous crimes, the women stoke the fires of Richard's self-hatred and confirm him in his opinion of himself as unlovable. Retreating further behind his shield, he closely resembles the portrait of shamelessness drawn by the psychologist Léon Wurmser: “The ‘shameless’ person, like the ‘frozen’ or ruthless person, acts to avoid the psychotic terror of showing any of his feelings, because anyone who perceived them would gain power over him. To show most or any feelings would mean complete self-loss. It is basically the pervasive shame of a child exposed to tyrannical intrusiveness and extreme manipulation by the dominant parent—an archaic generalized shame, defended against, disguised by, this shameless, feelingless behavior—its own form of hiding.”8

But as carefully as he erects his barrier, Richard does not ultimately succeed in escaping shame. His final soliloquy stands in stark contrast to the opening one, showing him to be defenseless, his shamelessness overcome by conscience. Rebuked by the ghosts of those he has murdered, he wavers, torn by a sense of self-loss. For unlike the shaming at the hands of the women, the shaming by the ghosts drives Richard into himself. Fear, self-contempt, and remorse drive him beyond shamelessness to grapple with the spectre of self:

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.
Is there a murtherer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why—
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain; yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well; fool, do not flatter:
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;
Murther, stern murther, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all us’d 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.
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murther’d
Came to my tent, and every one did threat
To-morrow's vengeance on the head of Richard.


In these final reflections, Richard tries to escape the condemnation of his conscience, but to no avail. Defenseless, he repeatedly refers to self, reiterating the word in an attempt to hold onto his identity. Finally shamed by his own deeds, he loses his identity. Apparently even he did not realize that he was capable of such horrible acts as those he must now acknowledge. Self-abandoned, he is beyond the point where he might have merely confessed and repented his deeds and received absolution. His feelings are of the most abject shame, and now there is no retreat from the fear of abandonment, even in the dire villainy that has finally become directed at himself. The defense of shamelessness has failed him. His shame is irreversible, and he dies, as he feared, unpitied.


In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare created a completely different type of hero from Richard. Yet Antony also suffers the onslaught of shame as a result of his actions. By contrast with Richard, whose shamelessness is a response to his misshapen body and his self-contempt, Antony has no history of shame. His life had been one of great honor, bestowed both by his troops and by the entire citizenry. Shame overtakes Antony only through the insidious invasion of his reason by appetite. In Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor, Curtis Brown Watson characterizes the play as “… almost a study in shame. From the very beginning of the play, Antony's former reputation as a great Roman general, as austere and disciplined as any of the great military leaders of Spartan Greece, is contrasted with his present decline into an epicurean, pleasure-loving wastrel who cannot break away from Cleopatra's bewitching snares.”9 Cleopatra's sensuality effectively transforms him from a man of reason, honor, and integrity to a man of weakness, irresoluteness, and cowardice. She tames the great Roman hero and conscripts him into her own service. He is womanized, and the shame that overcomes him during the course of the play threatens his self-identity. Unlike Richard, however, Antony grows from the experience rather than adopting the mask of shamelessness. Forced to look more deeply into himself, he reorders his identity and ultimately reaches tragic understanding.

Although Antony's shame arises from his relationship with Cleopatra, its ramifications are more widespread, involving all of Egypt and Rome. Like the primal lovers Adam and Eve, whose story traces the advent of shame in postlapsarian Eden, Antony and Cleopatra shake the foundations of their world. Antony places far more importance upon his desire for Cleopatra than upon his moral and patriotic duty, just as Adam before him had worshiped Eve rather than God. In both instances, misplaced love and mistaken priorities reveal a lack of self-knowledge. The archetypal shame which causes Adam and Eve to cover themselves from the view of God attests to the awful knowledge that came with the sin, but this knowledge also allows them to know themselves and eventually to transcend self in reconciliation with God. Similarly, Antony's shame leads him to greater self-knowledge if not to transcendence; and although it brings tragedy, it also brings integrity.

Long before Antony suffers the shock of self-exposure, others try to shame him. His officers endeavor to bring him back to his senses, but Cleopatra uses shame to manipulate him to her own desires. Two societies, represented on the one hand by Caesar and on the other by Cleopatra, struggle for Antony's soul.

Early in the play as Antony reads a summons from Caesar, Cleopatra taunts him: “As I am Egypt's queen, / Thou blushest, Antony, and that blood of thine / Is Caesar's homager; else so thy cheek pays shame / When shrill-tongu’d Fulvia scolds” (I.i.29-32). She adeptly accuses Antony of being womanized by Fulvia. In fact he has been womanized by Cleopatra; but he cannot perceive the irony in her taunts. He boldly responds:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life
Is to do thus. …


Far from showing his nobility and independence, Antony's boast that he will not be manipulated by Caesar and Fulvia demonstrates his lack of perception and his subordination to Cleopatra. His friends Demetrius and Philo note the change and comment that he does not act like the Antony of old: “Sir, sometimes when he is not Antony, / He comes too short of that great property / Which still should go with Antony” (I.i.57-58). Yet he does retain at least a vestige of his former self, for he admits later that he must break the “strong Egyptian fetters / Or lose myself in dotage” (I.ii.116-17).

The disparity between his former self and his current hedonism in Egypt occasions Caesar's outcry:

Leave thy lascivious wassails. When thou once
Was beaten from Modena, where thou slew’st
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow, whom thou fought’st against
(Though daintily brought up) with patience more
Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink
The stale of horses and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at; thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge;
Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou brows’d. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on; and all this
(It wounds thine honor that I speak it now)
Was borne so like a soldier, that thy cheek
So much as lank’d not.


The contrast between the former Antony—strong, honorable, heroic—and the present Antony—lackey of Cleopatra—is striking. Caesar's hope that “his shames quickly / Drive him to Rome” (I.iv.72-73) is soon realized, however, as Antony temporarily recovers and returns to Rome.

But although he escapes his dotage in Egypt for a time and resumes his duties in Rome, Antony does not yet feel the shame that others try to impose upon him. Not realizing how far he has descended, he has yet to confront that in himself which he wishes to deny. Safe in Rome with all the familiar landmarks, and affirmed by those who have found him honorable, Antony admits a discrepancy between his life with Cleopatra and his life as a soldier, but he does not yet see into himself with sufficient insight to understand his own responsibility for his lapse. Replying to Caesar's charge that he did not lend arms when needed, Antony insists that he did not deny his duty: “Neglected, rather; / And then when poisoned hours had bound me up / From mine own knowledge” (II.ii.89-91). His faulty vision prevents him from acknowledging his own fault; he blames Cleopatra for all his mistakes.

Antony's penchant for accusing others extends to his treatment of Caesar. Self-ignorance parades as pride when Antony takes exception to speeches in which, he believes, Caesar fails to pay sufficient tribute to him, affording Antony only “narrow measure,” “terms of honor, cold and sickly.” This affront causes the narcissistic Antony to amass an armed force against Caesar, vowing to his wife that “If I lose mine honor, / I lose myself; better I were not yours / Than yours so branchless” (III.iv.22-23). Antony's clouded perception does not allow him to understand that he has already lost his honor, and ironically to a foreign woman rather than to his Roman rivals. So he devises scapegoats—first Cleopatra and then Caesar—steadfastly refusing to look into himself and consider his basic loss of integrity. Although his stay in Rome seems to restore him, he can act honorably only when surrounded with all that is familiar and only with those who previously considered him honorable. When threatened by Caesar, he returns to Egypt.

Finally, when he battles Caesar in Egypt, Antony is forced to confront that part of himself which he had previously denied. As he prepares for the confrontation, the former military hero repudiates the advice of his officers and turns to Cleopatra for strategy. Though others see his mistake, they cannot recall him to his duty or to his former self. Enobarbus thus speaks directly to Cleopatra, attempting to persuade her to loosen her hold:

Your presence needs must puzzle Antony,
Take from his heart, take from his brain, from's time,
What should not then be spar’d. He is already
Traduc’d for levity, and ’tis said in Rome
That Photinus an eunuch and your maids
Manage this war.


Enobarbus knows that his only hope for saving Antony and winning the battle is to keep Cleopatra at bay, but she insists upon being present and directing the strategy. In his weakness Antony cannot see his mistake. Canidius puts it succinctly: “So our leader's led, / And we are women's men” (III.vii.68-69).

Although his men have commented upon his lack of self-knowledge and his dishonorable subjugation to Cleopatra, both early in the play and again before the sea battle, Antony has not allowed himself to recognize the extent of his departure from self. Nothing seems to have prepared him for his gravest downfall. Thus only when his ship turns and runs after Cleopatra's instead of carrying the ill-advised sea battle to Caesar does Antony suffer the overwhelming shock of shame. He abruptly confronts that portion of himself that others had tried to make him aware of. Realizing that he has fallen far short of his expectations and his ideal vision of self, and feeling overcome with humiliation and shame, he experiences a loss of identity. He urges others to fly from him: “I have fled myself, and have instructed cowards / To run and show their shoulders” (III.xi.7-8). The effect is so devastating that others urge Cleopatra to go to Antony, for “He's unqualited with very shame” (III.xi.44).

At last Antony begins to understand the extent of his fall—the distance between what he now is and what he once was, between what he thought he was and what he has become. Although he continues to blame Cleopatra, for the first time he acknowledges his own responsibility and fears the consequences. Now it is he who laments the change from his former state:

Now I must
To the young man send humble treaties, dodge
And palter in the shifts of lowness, who
With half the bulk o’ th’ world play’d as I pleas’d,
Making and marring fortunes. You did know
How much you were my conqueror, and that
My sword, made weak by my affection, would
Obey it on all cause.


Suddenly Antony recognizes the extent to which he has surrendered his integrity and honor to Cleopatra. In the moment that his ship flees the battle to chase after his paramour, he is forced to confront a cowardly and weak part of himself that he had not acknowledged before.

He must now reconstruct a self, taking into account the despicable component that he has just recognized. He has far to go before he can transcend his shame, but his regeneration begins at this point. To Cleopatra's question, “Is Antony or we in fault for this?” Enobarbus answers, “Antony only, that would make his will / Lord of his reason” (III.xiii.3-4). As this passage shows, others can still see better than Antony that he has freely surrendered to Cleopatra, but he is now beginning to learn the full consequences of his weakness.

Antony attempts to alleviate his shame by doing battle with Caesar again. He cannot recover so easily, however. Returning to his former role as soldier isn't sufficient to counteract the dark facet of self that shamed him earlier. He must somehow manage to incorporate and transcend the spectre he was forced to see when he ran from battle. But rather than exorcising his shame, the second battle with Caesar, once again ending in defeat, brings further anguish. Again Antony experiences a sense of self-loss, lamenting “Here I am Antony / Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave. / I made these wars for Egypt, and the Queen, / Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine” (IV.xiv.13-16). He sees his confusion over self reflected in the clouds whose shapes change, sometimes appearing to be a rock, at others to be a tower. Like the imaginary forms in the clouds, Antony cannot retain his identity. A fear of public shaming intensifies his suffering. He imagines the humiliation that will accompany his return to Rome as Caesar's prisoner, and he questions his friend:

Wouldst thou be window’d in great Rome, and see
Thy master thus with pleach’d arms, bending down
His corrigible neck, his face subdu’d
To penetrative shame, whilst the wheel’d seat
Of fortunate Caesar, drawn before him, branded
His baseness that ensued?


Antony moves beyond humiliation and shame only when he accepts full responsibility for his own acts. The news of Cleopatra's apparent death forces him to admit that he has caused his own shame; he can no longer fault her. Unable to recapture nobility as a soldier, he thus seeks honor through suicide. He transcends his shame the heroic Roman way. Now he tells Cleopatra:

The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes
Wherein I liv’d, the greatest prince o’th’ world,
The noblest; and do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman—a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish’d.


Compelled to acknowledge a dark and undesirable area in himself, Antony gains fuller knowledge of himself and then transcends, shame. Helen Merrell Lynd describes the process by which shame can lead to new integrity and freedom: “Living in terms of the confronting of shame and allowing shame to become a revelation of oneself and one's society—makes way for living beyond the conventions of a particular culture. It makes possible the discovery of an integrity that is peculiarly one's own and of those characteristically human qualities that are at the same time most individualizing and most universal.”10 Antony's life ends in suicide, but not before he reaches tragic knowledge and heroism. Ultimately he is “a Roman by a Roman / Valiantly vanquish’d.”


Shakespeare's two portraits of shame in Richard III and Antony and Cleopatra exemplify the range of the emotion and of reactions to it. Richard's shame over his physical deformity and alienation from others is transformed into a shamelessness that manifests itself in narcissism, sadism, and megalomania. Far from experiencing growth as a result of shame, Richard becomes less and less human, fascinated by his shadow. The mask fails in the final moments, however, as he loses his sense of identity. Having denied an undesirable part of himself for so long, he suffers the anguish of self-loss when he can no longer avoid the shaming of the ghosts.

Antony, on the other hand, erects no defense mechanism. Accustomed to admiration, he simply refuses to believe his actions are shameful until he can no longer avoid seeing what has long been apparent to others. His reaction to shame in battle is first to deny it and then to accept his own responsibility and incorporate the dark side of self into a new heroism.

Though reacting differently, Richard and Antony both undergo a typical form of shame. Initially shocked by something alien in the self, they fear the contempt of others and of themselves, and experience the loss of identity. But Antony transcends his shame and dies a hero's death. Richard, unprotected by his shamelessness, dies fragmented and unpitied.


  1. Among the most useful studies of shame within the last thirty years are Helen Merrell Lynd, On Shame and the Search for Identity (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1958); Herbert Morris, ed., Guilt and Shame (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971); and Léon Wurmser, The Mask of Shame (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1981).

  2. This sense of surprise is treated in Shame and Guilt, A Psychoanalytic and Cultural Study (1953), reprinted as “Shame” in Herbert Morris, ed., Guilt and Shame, pp. 147-54.

  3. Lynd, p. 35.

  4. Lynd, p. 50.

  5. Gerhart Piers and Milton B. Singer, “Shame” (1953), reprinted in Herbert Morris, ed., Guilt and Shame, p. 150.

  6. Léon Wurmser, The Mask of Shame, p. 260.

  7. All citations to Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  8. Wurmser, p. 263.

  9. Curtis Brown Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1960), p. 429.

  10. Merrell, p. 258.

Paul N. Siegel (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Richard III and the Spirit of Capitalism,” in Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach, Associated University Presses, 1986, pp. 80-5.

[In the following excerpt, Siegel argues that the character Richard III symbolizes the self-centered, bourgeois attitude to political power as well as to the immoral domination and manipulation of others in a society based on capital.]

It may seem strange to regard Richard III, a member of the feudal house of York, whose conflict with the rival house of Lancaster marked the waning of the Middle Ages in England, as representative of the spirit of capitalism. However, as seen in chapter 2, Shakespeare regarded the Tudor order as threatened by the rampant individualism of both the old nobility, with its tradition of feudal prerogatives that superseded the national state, and the most aggressive section of the bourgeoisie, which was already in the 1590s beginning to challenge the monarchy. He more than once identified the individualism of the one with that of the other, in the same way that the American capitalists of the late nineteenth century are called “the robber barons.”

Thus King Lear, although its social setting is that of an early, primitive feudalism and its characters are members of either royal or feudal families, reflects the conflict in Shakespeare's time between the medieval and the modern worlds. The evil members of the younger generation are of the new capitalist world. The language of Goneril and Regan, says Wolfgang Clemen, citing the research of one of his students, Lotte Schmerz, has “frequent occurrence of quantitative and mercantile terms as well as the use of calculating comparatives.”1 The words of Edmund, “Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit” (1.2.187), might have served as a motto for the acquisitive bourgeoisie, which was buying up estates from the older landowners.

Richard is very much of the new capitalist world. He uses the language of business and displays its attitudes throughout. Much attention has been paid to the stylization of the play's dialogue, with its stichomythia in the wooing scene of Anne, its ritualistic curses of Margaret, its chorused laments of the three queens, but little notice has been taken of what Charles Lamb called the “sprightly colloquial” language of Richard,2 which acts as a counterpoint to this stylization. It is a colloquial language that often recalls the contemporary turns of phrase expressing the values of our own business civilization.

We might begin by looking at a line of images that can be called that of “the peddler and his packhorse.” In his soliloquy at the end of the first scene of the play, Richard says that Edward “must not die / Until George be packed with post horse up to heaven” (1.1.145-46). He regards Clarence as a bale of goods that he will sling over a horse's back and ship express from the kingdom of England to the kingdom of heaven. Richard's quick mind then leaps ahead to his plans after Clarence and Edward are dead, but he stops himself with the jocular reminder: “But yet I run before my horse to market. / Clarence still breathes, Edward still lives and reigns; / When they are gone, then must I count my gains” (1.1 160-62). “I run before my horse to market” was a proverbial phrase meaning “I’m running ahead of myself in my eagerness” or, as Kittredge glosses it, “I count my chickens before they’re hatched.”3 The packhorse has to take one's goods to the market before one can make his profit. Only then, when one has carried out his plans, can he sit down to total up what he has made. The image of the peddler and his packhorse is used again when Richard says to Queen Elizabeth of his labors in behalf of her husband Edward, “I was a packhorse in his great affairs” (1.3.121) and also, a little later, when he says in disclaiming any desire to be king, “I had rather be a peddler” (1.3.148). It is an image that seems to spring naturally to his lips.

Richard also frequently uses financial and monetary terms. “Repaired with double riches of content” (4.4.319), “advantaging their loan with interest / Of ten times double gain of happiness” (4.4.323-24), “go current from suspicion” (2.1.96)—that is, pass as genuine currency without being suspected of being counterfeit—these are but a few examples. In addition to these and subsequently cited examples, I have counted eight others.4

Although he may possibly use more such terms than any Shakespearean character with the exception of Shylock, what is most important is not the frequency with which Richard uses them but their effect in a number of instances. This effect may be contrasted with that of the recurring Shakespearean image of the lover as a merchant and his mistress as a treasure of great price for which he is venturing forth on an ocean journey.5 The image of the lover as a merchant suggests the romance of foreign commerce, the exotic appeal of strange lands in new worlds, with great fortunes to be won through high risks in ventures in which aristocrats could partake.6 Such are the ventures of Antonio, the aristocratic merchant prince who stands in opposition to the niggardly usurer Shylock and finances Bassanio on his romantic overseas quest to gain Portia, the “golden fleece” (1.1.170).7 Richard's financial and monetary language, on the other hand, undercuts the romanticism of medieval chivalry and its ideal of aristocratic honor.8

A noteworthy instance of Richard's use of monetary terms occurs when he says in disparagement of the queen's kindred, who are of obscure gentry origin but have been ennobled by the king, “Great promotions / Are daily given to ennoble those / That scarce, some two days since, were worth a noble” (1.3.79-81). “Worth a noble” refers to a coin of the time. Richard measures nobility by money, not by blood, in direct opposition to Bassanio, who tells Portia, “When I did first impart my love to you, / I freely told you all the wealth I had / Ran in my veins. I was a gentleman” (3.2.253-55). The words “gentle” and “noble” had long had moral connotations as well as referring to social classes, the suggestion being that members of the aristocracy had a fineness of character and sensibility peculiar to them. For Richard, however, “noble” refers to money. “Money talks.” Just so Shylock, who in his insistence on the supremacy of the bond, the sacred business contract, over the claims of humanity is the representative of the capitalist ethic, is not referring to Antonio's moral character, as Bassanio thinks, when he says “Antonio is a good man” (1.3.12), but means that he is a good business risk. The bourgeoisie, said Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, “has resolved personal worth into exchange value.”9 The idea of personal worth as exchange value lies behind both Richard's and Shylock's lines, as it does behind our own expressions “that man is worth a million dollars” and “he is good for the money.”

Other monetary terms Richard makes use of are also indicative. “My dukedom to a beggarly denier,” he exclaims (1.2.251), when he wishes to express a certainty. His dukedom is for him a source of wealth and power, which he will wager against a denier, a small French coin; it is not a heritage of honor that he must jealously protect. His concept of it is worlds apart from that of his father, who had said, “And for these wrongs, those bitter injuries, / Which Somerset hath offered to my house, / I doubt not but with honour to redress” (1 Henry VI, 2.5.124-26). But Richard had said of himself, “I have no brother, I am like no brother; / And this word ‘love,’ which greybeards call divine, / Be resident in men like one another / And not in me: I am myself alone” (3 Henry VI, 5.6.80-83). The bourgeoisie, to quote The Communist Manifesto again, with its “egotistical calculation,” “reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”10 The notion of family honor and family devotion is alien to Richard, who has Buckingham suggest to the citizens that his brother Edward was the illegitimate issue of an affair of his mother’s. He is indeed motivated only by “egotistical calculation.”

When Richard wishes to propose to Buckingham that he murder the two young princes, he tells him, “Ah, Buckingham, now do I play the touch / To try if thou be current gold indeed” (4.2.8-9). Personal worth is again spoken of in terms of money. Richard is to be the touchstone that will measure the genuineness of Buckingham's gold. If Buckingham is really “as good as gold,” he will murder the two children.

When Richard wishes to entice Elizabeth to marry her daughter to him, he tells her that, after having conquered Buckingham, he will to her daughter “retail my conquest won, / And she shall be sole victoress” (4.4.335-36). “Retail,” derived from the earlier meaning (OED 1) “to sell (goods, etc.) in small quantities,” signifies (OED 2) “to recount or tell over again,” suggesting not only relating in detail but counting and recounting money. Richard is, therefore, promising Elizabeth's daughter the joys of gaining all of England, which he represents as something to be counted out bit by bit.

Richard uses not only monetary terms but business language. He greets the men he has hired to kill Clarence with “How now, my hardy stout-resolvèd mates! / Are you now going to dispatch this thing?” and sends them off with “about your business straight. / Go, go, dispatch” (1.3.339-40, 353-54). “Dispatch” was a word with business connotations. One of its meanings was (OED I, 3) “to dismiss (a person) after attending to him or his business; to settle the business and send away.” This was easily extended to (OED I, 4) “to get rid of or dispose of (any one) by putting to death; to make away with, kill.” Richard is playing on the word: the murder of Clarence is just a little business matter to be speedily taken care of. Clarence may try to talk them out of it, but the professional killers, enterprising free-lance forerunners of Murder, Incorporated, know their jobs (after all, “business is business”) and will not allow themselves to be diverted. The word “business” in “about your business straight” suggests the same coldbloodedness as in Edmund's words in calculating his course, “A credulous father, and a brother noble … I see the business” (1.2.183-86).

Richard is twice referred to by other characters as a business agent. Buckingham, urging him before the citizens to rule in his own stead, not as the lord protector of the boy king, tells him to take on “the charge and kingly government of this your land; / Not as protector, steward, substitute, / Or lowly factor for another's gain” (3.7.130-33). “Steward” meant, of course, the business manager of an estate, and “factor” meant the business agent acting in behalf of his principal. Richard, despite his public professions, was really not content to be either, but the irony is that in the last analysis a business agent is all that he is: Margaret, reciting the many deaths of guilty persons that have already occurred, says, “Richard yet lives, hell's black intelligencer, / Only reserved their factor to buy souls / And send them thither” (4.4.71-73). He is the business agent of hell, buying souls and shipping them off to it.

As a businessman, Richard is, to use the language of Babbitt, a “real hustler,” a “go-getter.” He displays enormous energy from the time he says, in 3 Henry VI, that he is as one “lost in a thorny wood” from which he will “hew” his “way out with a bloody ax” (3.2.174-81) until the time of his last battle when he dashes frantically about calling “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (5.4.7). Hustle and bustle characterize his behavior throughout. “Delay leads impotent and snail-paced beggary” (4.3.53)—inactivity is invariably followed by bankruptcy—he exclaims, calling forth to combat. On the eve of his last battle, he says, in an attempt to regain his old zest, “Tomorrow is a busy day” (5.3.18). And before entering the final fray he cries out, “Come, bustle, bustle. Caparison my horse” (5.3.290). His underlings in their way speak his language. “Tut, tut, my lord, we will not stand to prate. / Talkers are no good doers,” says the First Murderer (1.3.349-50), assuring him that they will not allow Clarence to engage them in conversation and move their pity. “Talk is cheap” and “time is money”.

Richard's energy is the energy of the bourgeoisie. “The bourgeoisie,” says The Communist Manifesto, “has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionists so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about … Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”11 The word “business,” it may be pointed out, is derived from “busyness.”

With Clarence dead, says Richard, “God take King Edward to his mercy / And leave the world for me to bustle in!” (1.1.151-52). The world that had been rejected by medieval otherworldliness as one of the three great temptations—”the world, the flesh, and the devil”—he welcomes as his sphere of activity, gladly relinquishing an alleged heaven to Edward. In response to Gratiano's attempt to joke away Antonio's melancholy by telling him that he has too great care for the things of this world, Antonio replies, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano— / A stage, where every man must play a part” (1.1.77-78)—a theater with the ephemerality of the theater in contradistinction to the eternity of heaven. But for Richard this world is all. The bourgeoisie, says The Communist Manifesto, “has drowned the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor … in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”12

In his disdain for religion, in his contempt for the generality of men, to whom he regards himself as far superior, in his ruthlessness, cunning, and dissimulation, Richard is, as has often been noted, the greatest Machiavellian villain of Elizabethan drama. In the drama the Machiavellian villain is generally a powerful nobleman or a usurper of a throne or a dukedom, often that of a corrupt Italian court, with the great exception being Marlowe's Jew of Malta, the precursor of Shylock. But in Elizabethan satiric literature Machiavellians are either “Italianate” members of the old aristocracy or Puritan members of the bourgeoisie, the two threats, from the right and the left, to the Tudor order.13 Robert Greene's satiric portrait of Gorinus the usurer, who on his deathbed advises his sons to devote all their energies to amassing money and advancing in this world by following the precepts of Machiavelli on trickery and dissimulation, is an example of the Machiavellian under the guise of bourgeois respectability: “Wise he was, for he bore office in his fox-furred gown, as if he had been a very upright-dealing burgess. He was religious, too, never without a book at his belt and a bolt in his mouth, ready to shoot through his sinful neighbor.”14 So Richard, when approached by the mayor and other city dignitaries whom Buckingham has persuaded to petition him to become king, presents himself with a bishop on each side of him and a Bible in his hand, supposedly not ready to receive any “worldly suits” (3.7.62), but he has had Buckingham make some aspersions about the lustfulness of Edward and the legitimacy of his sons.

Richard, like the other Machiavellian villains produced by the Elizabethan imagination contemplating the new world coming into existence, is governed by the principle that the entire world may be destroyed as long as he achieves his will. This is the principle that has governed the ruling bourgeoisie of the advanced capitalist countries and plunged the world into two great wars, costing the lives of millions. Shakespeare, incarnating in the monstrous form of Richard III the spirit of the bourgeoisie at the time of its menacing approach to power, was able to anticipate the bourgeoisie's behavior when it gained world domination. For that spirit did not die at Bosworth Field.


  1. W. H. Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951), p. 135n.

  2. “Cooke's Richard the Third,” repr. in Richard III, ed. Mark Eccles (New York: New American Library, 1964), p. 213.

  3. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Irving Ribner and George Layman Kittredge (Waltham, Mass.: Ginn, 1971), p. 639.

  4. 1.2.249, 355, 262; 3.7.157; 4.2.34; 4.3.34; 5.3.11.

  5. Cf. G. Wilson Knight, The Shakespearean Tempest (London: Oxford University Press, 1932), pp. 72ff.

  6. Foreign trade was permitted as an occupation for gentlemen, for whom it was regarded as improper to stand behind the counter of a shop. Cf. Ruth Kelso, “The Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century,” University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 14 (1929): 68ff.

  7. Shakespeare in his early sonnets plays with the idea of physical beauty as a treasure freely loaned by nature that must be freely spent. The youth is a “beautous niggard” and a “profitless usurer” (Sonnet 4) because he hoards his beauty instead of marrying and begetting sons like himself. The “use” of his “beauty's treasure” in marriage would not be “forbidden usury” (Sonnet 6), for the loan of his body would make his wife happy, unlike the loans made to the victims of genuine usurers.

  8. Compare the attitude toward the military profession of the mercenary soldier Iago with that of the romantic warrior Othello, who speaks of the “pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war” (3.3.351). Iago, using mercantile language and imagery, speaks of the “trade of war” (1.2.1) and advises Roderigo to use money as a weapon in besieging Desdemona: “Put money in thy purse. Follow thou the wars” (1.2.334–35). Earlier he had used such terms as “lined their coats [with money],” “cashiered,” and “I know my price.” (1.1.50, 45, 10)

  9. Marx and Engels, Basic Writings, p. 9.

  10. Ibid., p. 10.

  11. Ibid., p. 10

  12. Ibid., p. 9.

  13. Siegel, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 59–62.

  14. Robert Greene, The Life and Complete Works, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (London: Huth Library, 1881–83), 12:104.

Works Cited

… Clemen, W. H. The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951. …

Greene, Robert. “Greene's Groatsworth of Wit.” In The Life and Complete Works, edited by Alexander B. Gosart, 12:101-50. London: Huth Library, 1883. …

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy. Edited by Lewis S. Feuer. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959.

———. The German Ideology. Edited by Roy Pascal. New York: International Publishers, 1939.

———. On Literature & Art. Edited by Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973.

Marx, Karl. Capital. 3 vols. Chicago: Kerr, 1909.

———. Early Texts. Edited by David McLellan. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.

———. Selected Essays. Translated by H. J. Stenning. London: Leonard Parsons, 1926.

———. Selected Works. Vol. 1. New York: International Publishers, n.d. …

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare. Edited by Sylvan Barnet. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

———. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Edited by Irving Ribner and George Lyman Kittredge. Waltham, Mass.: Ginn, 1971.

———. Henry IV, Part 1. New Arden ed. Edited by A. R. Humphreys. New York: Random House 1967.

———. Henry V, New Arden ed. Edited by J. H. Walter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1961.

———. King John. New Arden ed. Edited by E. A. J. Honigman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1962.

———. The Merchant of Venice. New Arden ed. Edited by John Russell Brown. New York: Random House 1964.

———. Richard II. New Arden ed. Edited by Peter Ure. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1956.

———. Richard II. New Cambridge ed. Edited by J. Dover Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1957.

———. Richard III. Signet ed. Edited by Mark Eccles. New York: New American Library 1964.

———. Timon of Athens. New Arden ed. Edited by H. J. Oliver. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1965.

Siegel, Paul N. “English Humanism and the New Tudor Aristocracy.” Journal of the History of Ideas 13 (1952): 450-68.

———. Shakespeare in His Time and Ours. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

———. Shakespearean Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1983.

———. ed. His Infinite Variety: Major Shakespearean Criticism since Johnson. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1964. …

Grant B. Mindle (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8182

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Demonic Prince,” in Interpretations 20, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 259-74.

[In the following essay, Mindle observes that Richard III is the most Machiavellian of all of Shakespeare's protagonists, noting that unlike characters such as Macbeth and Henry IV, Richard III has no respect for morality or conscience.]

Why Buckingham, I say I would be king.
Why, so you are, my thrice-renownéd lord.
Ha! Am I king?


Shakespeare's Richard III is the story of a man who would be king, a chronicle of a tyrant who tries to “clothe [his] naked villainy” by setting “the murderous Machiavel to school” (I.iii.335; 3 Henry VI, III.ii.193). A murderer without a “touch of pity,” a consummate “liar,” a “subtle, false and treacherous” villain, Richard is perfectly, splendidly, and delightfully wicked (cf. Disc., I.27). His best conspiracies are conceived and executed in the spirit of Machiavelli, exploiting the vanity of his victims.

Richard III is “the only one of Shakespeare's kings explicitly associated with Machiavelli.”2 There are other Shakespearean kings whose ascent and reign are marred by injustice, but their wickedness is imperfect and half-hearted and their demeanor too solemn to classify them as Machiavellian. Bolingbroke would never have deposed his cousin but for Richard II's complicity in their uncle's death. Macbeth, despite his “vaulting ambition” would never have raised his hand against Duncan but for the witches' prophecy and the intercession of his wife (Macbeth, I.vii.27). Their royal ambitions were kindled by their pride in their own virtue, and their consciousness of their superiority to the monarchs whose thrones they usurped. Bolingbroke hoped to “purge the throne of the stain left on it by Richard's having committed the sin of Cain,” but when to his consternation he is forced to commit the same sin “he is stricken with remorse,” his sense of moral superiority shattered.3 Thinking himself preeminent in manliness, Macbeth embarks upon the murder of Duncan prepared to “jump the life to come,” but the weight of his actions is more than even he can bear, his “guilty conscience betray[ing] him at every turn” (Macbeth, I.vii.7).4

Unlike Richard, Bolingbroke and Macbeth have some regard for morality, for their obligations as kinsman, subject, and host (Richard II, V.iii; vi.24-52; Macbeth, I.vii.1-28; but cf. Richard III, III.i.108-9; IV.ii.59-64). To Richard, “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!” (V.iii.310-12).5 He is neither surprised nor unduly perturbed by the harm he does. No one murders more deliberately and seemingly more serenely than Richard III (V.iii.198). The murder of Lady Anne is anticipated prior to their marriage, and then announced to the audience in a soliloquy with a lightheartedness which is surprisingly and frightfully amusing (I.ii.227-29).6 Richard's numerous professions of remorse are comical performances by a skilled actor who knows how to “quake and change [his] color” whenever the occasion requires (III.v.1; see also I.iii.305-18, 323-37; III.vii.210; IV.ii.64; 3 Henry VI, III.ii.182-92). The downfall of a tragic hero is inevitably an act of self-destruction brought on by pride or hubris; his suffering elicits our pity, because we mourn the loss of his virtues, and our terror, because were it not for his virtues, he would not have suffered so. But we feel no pity for Richard III (V.iii.202-4). His final words—“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (V.iv.13)—are more befitting a comedy than a tragedy. He is inferior to his victims, and he knows it (3 Henry VI, III.ii.165-67).

Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabbed in my angry mood at Tewkesbury?
A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman
Framed in the prodigality of nature
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal
The spacious world cannot again afford.


Not pride or even hubris, but what we shall call for want of a better word “self-contempt” is the key to Richard's being. “Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,” he cannot imagine himself worthy of anyone's love (I.i.19). His ugliness, though he endeavors to conceal it from others, he readily and eloquently concedes to himself in his soliloquies.7 No one, not even his most ardent enemies, ridicules Richard half so well as Richard ridicules himself.

Richard III begins with a soliloquy, the only one of Shakespeare's plays to begin in this way. As Tracy Strong astutely observed, what “interests Shakespeare [is] not just [Richard’s] actions,” but “what is going on inside” Richard's head (p. 204). Not “made to court an amorous looking glass,” or “strut before a wanton ambling nymph,” Richard is “determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days” (I.i.15, 17, 30-31; see also 3 Henry VI, III.ii.153-71; Cf. the reference to “ambitious leisure” in Disc. I. preface). Unlike Bolingbroke and Macbeth, his rebellion is kindled by his sense of inferiority. Richard has no right to rule, but also no regard for natural right.8 The plot of Richard III is not a revolution—“The first and most fundamental cause of revolution is … the different conceptions men have of justice”—but a conspiracy, boldly conceived and executed by one alone whose motive is surprisingly private and trivial: its author's inadequacy as a lover.9

Everything Richard does, every lie, every betrayal, every murder, is premeditated. “Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous / By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams / To set my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate the one against the other” (I.i.32-34). Seven lines later, Clarence appears on stage accompanied by an armed guard appointed by the king to convey him to the Tower. Throughout the play, this pattern is repeated again and again. Richard tells us what needs to be done, does it, and then pauses to pat himself on the back. His successes are so astonishing, his conceits so clever, his victims so foolish, and his sense of humor and self-contempt so wonderful that we are apt to hate him less than we should. “I am possessed with admiration of the genuine Richard, his genius, and his mounting spirit, which no consideration of his cruelties can depress.”10

The England portrayed in the opening lines of Richard's first soliloquy is at peace (I.i.1-2). After years of civil war, the time has come to put away our “bruiséd arms” and “barbéd steeds,” and dedicate our lives to dancing and romance. Love is the order of the day. And yet, the passions which seem to stir the hearts of Edward IV's subjects most fervently are ambition and revenge (II.iii.27-28). Buckingham covets title to the earldom of Hereford and its movables (IV.ii.87-90); Lord Hastings is eager “to give them thanks / That were the cause of [his] imprisonment” (I.i.127-28). So great is the suspicion, ill-will and injustice in Edward's England that the most frivolous of accusations commands a sympathetic hearing: “This day shall Clarence closely be mewed up / About a prophecy which says that G of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be” (I.i.38-40; II.i.133-34) (Stubbs, quoted in Furness, p. 1).

Surrounded by fools less proficient in the use of arms than he, Richard has no difficulty sowing dissension within the ranks of the nobility. Like his teacher, the notorious Machiavel, he wages war by force and especially fraud. Richard is truly an “artist in evil,” and yet, the righteous have no cause to criticize Richard's handiwork (Rossiter, quoted in the Signet edition, p. 248). With the possible exception of the young princes, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the victims of his tyranny are justly punished (but see I.iii.198-208; II.i.133-34; ii.33-35; IV.iv.61-66). Lady Anne is the butt of her own curse: “If ever he has wife, let her be made / More miserable by the life of him / Than I am made by my young lord and thee!” (I.ii.26-28, 113, 131-32; IV.i.58-62, 65-86). George, Duke of Clarence, is guilty of perjury and murder (I.iii.134-38, 312-14; iv.46-68, 204-18, 223-26; 3 Henry VI, V.v.34-40). Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and Hastings stood by while Edward Prince of Wales was “stabbed by bloody daggers” (I.i.127-28; iii.89-91, 209-13; II.i.7-27; III.ii.99-103; iv.14-16; IV.iv.68-70). Hastings, contrary to his oath “swear[ing] perfect love” to the Queen's brethren, was overjoyed by their arrest and sentencing: “This day those enemies are put to death, / And I in better state that e’er I was” (II.i.9-28; III.i.181-85; ii.49-103; iv.87-92). Buckingham is the author of his own punishment: “This, this All Souls' day to my fearful soul / Is the determined respite of my wrongs. / That high All-seer which I dallied with / Hath turned my feignéd prayer on my head / And given in earnest what I begged in jest. / Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men / To turn their own points in their masters’ bosoms” (V.i.13-29; II.i.29-40). Anne, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, and Buckingham die cursing themselves for their fate (cf. I.iii.318). Robbed of their dignity, their death is no tragedy. “Richard's victims are first made into fools, and then into corpses” to the delight of his audience, and in accord with everyone's sense of justice, including that of his victims (Jaffa, “The Unity of Tragedy,” p. 287).

Some critics have called Richard an “avenging angel,” a “scourge of God,” an “angel with horns.”11 But Richard is no angel. He has no regard for justice, and unlike everyone else in the play, no desire for vengeance. Incapable of anger, he feigns moral indignation whenever it suits his purpose (I.iii.42-81; II.i.79-82; IV.ii.27-31). His conduct is dictated by cold, calculating reason, by the necessities imposed upon him by his desire to be king (I.ii.229;II.i.140; II.148-50; III.i.94, 158-93; vi; IV.ii.5-23, 49-61; iv.294-496; 3 Henry VI,; vii.31-34).12 Hastings and Buckingham are unjust, but it is not their injustice (their injustice was useful to Richard), but their scruples which cost them his favor. Hastings is executed because he will not countenance the dethronement of Edward IV's children: “I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders / Before I’ll see the crown so foul misplaced” (III.ii.38-55). Buckingham's fall from grace begins when he balks at arranging the murder of Richard's nephews: “High-reaching Buckingham grows circumspect” (IV.ii.5-31).

Richard never curses anyone in earnest (I.iii.58), perhaps because he is the only one who blames nature for his misfortunes. He is too ugly, or so he assumes, to be worthy of anyone's love (e.g., IV.iii.47-57; cf. King Lear, I.i). Richard “loves no one, trusts no one, strange to say, hates no one, but uses all” (E. B. Warner, quoted in Furness, p. 15, emphasis added). He is amazed that Lady Anne should find him, though he himself cannot, “a marv’lous proper man” (I.ii.254). The target of his nephew's barbs, he magnanimously applauds the young man's wit:

Think you, my lord, this prating York
Was not incenséd by his subtle mother
To taunt and scorn you thus opprobriously?
No doubt, no doubt. O, ’tis a parlous boy,
Bold, quick, ingenious, forward, capable:
He is all the mother’s, from the top to toe.


Richard is a devil, albeit one more apt to arouse our admiration than our hatred (A. W. Schlegel, quoted in Furness, p. 15; Richardson, quoted in Furness, p. 555; Bewley, quoted in Furness, p. 568). He is unbelievably ugly, but his physical deformity, the root of his worldly wisdom, candor, and good humor, is mitigated by his virtù (cf. Disc., I.55). Originally by virtue of the defects of his body, and thereafter by virtue of the operation of his mind, he seems to stand outside the natural order of the universe. “I have no brother, I am like no brother; / And this word “love,” which graybeards call divine, / Be resident in men like one another / And not in me: I am myself alone” (3 Henry VI, He loves no one. His family means nothing to him, and unlike Bolingbroke and Macbeth he has no desire to be a father and founder of a political dynasty. He has no friends; there is “absolutely no soul in whom Richard could confide.”13 He treats everyone and everything, including himself, “without any respect” (cf. Disc., I.preface). He is incapable of reverence, and therefore shameless. Nothing is holy to him. There is no principle he will not betray, no trust he will not violate, no human being he will not sacrifice should the necessity to do so arise. The lines nature and piety would have us draw between public and private, friend and foe, kinsman and stranger are blurred by Richard's Machiavellianism. Its unit of currency is the individual, while the communities and associations to which he belongs are derivative and of secondary importance.

One cannot speak of Richard's nature, because he has none. His being is art, and art alone (Strong, pp. 205, 213-14). As an actor, he is, so to speak, always on stage, and strangely, never more so than in his soliloquies (H.N. Hudson, quoted in Furness, p. 565). His twelve soliloquies and four asides, constituting nearly five per cent of the play, testify to his isolation as a human being. “Richard is the quintessential individualist” (Jaffa, “The Unity of Tragedy,” p. 287; see also Strong, pp. 213-14). He is truly uno solo, but an uno solo who by virtue of his isolation dominates every scene whether or not he is physically present (the phrase is Machiavelli’s, see Disc., I.9). As it is, Richard appears in 14 of the play's 25 scenes, delivering 32 per cent of its lines.14

His birth is unnatural, and his misshapen body the original provocation for his war against nature (I.i.20-27; II.iv.127-28; IV.iv.49; 3 Henry VI, III.ii.153-62) (Strong, pp. 194-95; cf. Disc., I.1-3 on the insufficiency of nature). In Richard's case, nature dissembled by providing him with a body incommensurate with his spirit. Sent into the world “scarce half made up” (Soulless? Cf. Strauss, p. 31), Richard finds himself surrounded by men and especially women for whom the body—or more generally, appearances—are everything. “Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands. … Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; … For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar” (Prince, ch. 18). Everyone in Richard's world is vulgar. In their own way, the victims of his deceits are even uglier than he. They are shallow and vain, their souls too simple and plain to sustain his admiration for long (I.i.118; iii.327-28). “He entertains at bottom a contempt for all mankind, for he is confident of his ability to deceive them whether as his adversaries or his instruments” (Schlegel, quoted in Furness, p. 584).

We cannot help laughing when Clarence chastises his murderers for speaking ill of his brother: “O do not slander him, for he is kind” (I.iv.226-46). “With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes / The bleeding witness of my hatred by” (I.ii.233-34; IV.i.65-80), Lady Anne succumbs to Richard's profession of love and penitence. Hastings, despite mounting evidence of Richard's duplicity, absurdly exclaims on the eve of his own execution that “there's never a man in Christendom / Can lesser hide his love or hate than he, / For by his face straight shall you know his heart” (III.iv.48-53). To Richard, the world is a stage and the actor is king. “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” (3 Henry VI, III.ii.182-85; Richard III, I.iii.47-53). Armed with “honey words” to mask his “deep intent,” Richard knows how to seem a saint when most he plays the devil (I.iii.337; IV.i.79). His ugliness and reputation for villainy—handicaps which were it not for Richard's (and Machiavelli’s?) example might seem insuperable—are nothing to him because he knows it is not virtue, but virtù, the appearance of virtue, that matters (II.ii.27-28; III.v.29; cf. Prince, ch. 15).

“Names” and “name-calling” are integral to the action of the play. George, Duke of Clarence, is arrested because his name begins with “G.” Edward (Prince of Wales), Henry VI, Clarence, Edward V, and Richard (Duke of York) are murdered, and Anne and the younger Elizabeth are courted and married because their surname might give them or their husbands the right to lay claim to the throne. Queen Margaret, having no arms she can call her own, is reduced to cursing and name-calling. Her admonition to “take heed of yonder dog, … when he fawns, he bites,” is ignored, because even her insults are useful to Richard. He is the first to acknowledge the extent of Margaret's suffering, and the first to publicly repent the wrongs he has done her, thereby giving his enemy, Lord Rivers, cause to commend him for his moral virtue: “A virtuous and Christianlike conclusion / To pray for them that have done scathe to us” (I.iii.216-337). Later, Richard stands between two churchmen with a prayer book in his hand so that the Lord Mayor of London will call him pious (; vii.46-47).15

A vicious man may appear virtuous provided that he is sufficiently artful (III.i.7-15). This is so, because to determine the morality of a deed, the author's motive or intention must always be considered. To be moral, one must not only do what is right, but one must do “it for the right reason or for the love of God” (Mansfield, “Introduction,” pp. x-xi). All morality then presupposes a “profession of good” (Prince, ch. 15). It is Richard's awareness of the primacy of speech, and especially his own speech, which allows him to seem a saint when most he plays the devil. Baffled by the impossibility of discerning Richard's heart, Anne wonders whether or not to take him at his word: “I would I knew thy heart. / Tis figured in my tongue” (I.ii.192-93). Machiavelli's best disciples are known less by their prowess on the battlefield than by their skill in waging war with their tongues, by their ability to manipulate the criteria by which praise and blame are assigned (see Prince, chs. 15 and 18).

In the Prince and the Discourses, Machiavelli redefines virtue and vice, treating tyranny under the rubric of a new and more favorable name so that men will learn how to be not good, how to excuse behavior which were it not for Machiavelli's instruction would otherwise be condemned. When Clarence tells Richard the cause of his arrest—“Because my name is George”—Richard suggests that Clarence be “new christ’ned” (I.i.46, 50; cf. Prince, chs. 15-17; Disc., I.25-27). Redemption through new christening may be accomplished in one of two ways: by reinterpreting the accused's motive (Disc., I.9, 18, 29); or by feigning subjection to some necessity to conceal one's strength and the exercise of one's will (Prince, ch. 15; Disc., I.10, 17 and 29).16 A new prince ought to govern his subjects indirectly (Prince, ch. 3; I.iii.329-34; iv.221; IV.iv.225-26). Machiavelli prefers the word “executive.”17 An executive is a prince who appears in the guise of a servant ostensibly ministering to the needs of others with little or no regard for himself. The greatest prince is the one whose rule is most indirect and invisible, that of Machiavelli himself, a prince who graciously offers to serve others by teaching them how to acquire and maintain states of their own (cf. Prince, ch. 11).

Richard begins his ascent with a descent, by humbling himself before his beloved in order to disguise his own selfish ambition (I.i.76-80; ii.127-30; iii.124; II.i.74; III.i.132-35; vii.17, 153-63, 204; IV.iv.336; cf. Disc., I.preface; II.13). Officially, he is not a ruler, but a “poor devoted servant” (I.ii.206; iii.121-24; IV.iv.355; cf. Prince, Epistle Dedicatory, and ch. 6's reference to Moses as a “mere executive”). Since a profession of love is a tacit admission of weakness, incompleteness, and inferiority, the lover is necessarily and logically subordinate to his beloved. His love invests her with the opportunity and the right to rule, to dictate so to speak the terms of his surrender.18 This hierarchy of authority, however, is reversed when the prince merely impersonates a lover. By placing his beloved on a pedestal, by elevating her to a position of honor, the relative status of both parties is radically altered. Since the lover is free to withdraw his affection and proclaim his subjection to another as soon as it is to his advantage to do so, his beloved, especially if she is proud of the stature conferred by her lover's profession of love, is more dependent upon him than he is on her.19 Professions of love are difficult to resist, because it is “a quarrel most unnatural to be revenged on him that loveth thee” (I.ii.134), and because we want to be admired. Professions of love appeal to our vanity and our self-esteem (cf. Prince, ch. 23). Richard is impervious to flattery, because he is consumed by self-contempt. The reason he “cannot prove a lover” (I.i.28) is not his physical deformity (he is not unloved), but his conviction that anyone who loves him is a fool.

Richard's “love” impoverishes his beloveds by robbing them of their dignity. Their dignity is diminished as soon as they succumb to Richard's rhetoric, not merely in Richard's eyes, but also in the eyes of his audience. The recipients of Machiavelli's favor are similarly impoverished. His exaltation of the state is accomplished by means of argument which reduces the political community to a gang of pirates.20 His use of stato is never impersonal; patriotism is devotion to someone's state, one's own or somebody else’s.21 It is either selfishness or foolishness, depending upon whether or not one happens to be a member of the ruling class (cf. Florentine Histories, III.13). The state is no longer an association dedicated to virtue and the common good, but a vehicle for the expression and satisfaction of a subtler, more insidious, and potent form of human selfishness.

Machiavelli is eager to show men less gifted than he how to satisfy their selfish ambitions. Rarely, if ever, do his disciples notice the price they pay in return for his assistance.22 A Machiavellian prince governs his subjects indirectly, under the cover of a profession of love in order to disguise his authority and facilitate attribution of his “sins” to his solicitude for their welfare (I.ii.38-39; cf. Prince, ch. 26; Disc., III.41). To govern in this way, a prince must first divest himself of pride, lest he take for granted his right to rule and claim by right what can only be his “by force or by fraud” (Florentine Histories, III.13). Natural right is absent from Machiavelli's political science, because no one has a right to rule over others by virtue of his nature; a prince, if he wishes to maintain himself, must not only be bad, he must know how to be bad; he must be devoid of reverence and psychologically prepared to woo his subjects (Disc., 1.27). It is no accident that Richard's greatest accomplishment, his most memorable and Machiavellian moment, is the wooing of Lady Anne. (On the wooing of Fortuna, see Prince, ch. 25.)

Edward, Prince of Wales (Anne's husband), was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. His father, Henry VI, died of unknown causes while imprisoned in the Tower of London that same year. In 1474, Richard married Anne. Shakespeare exaggerates Richard's villainy so that he might dazzle us with the power of Machiavellian virtù.23 In 3 Henry VI and Richard III, the historical sequence of events is compressed so that the murder of Anne's husband and her father-in-law and Richard's proposal of marriage occur within days of one another. (On the necessity of committing all of one's cruelties “at one stroke,” see Prince, ch. 8.) In 3 Henry VI, Edward IV, followed by Richard, and then Clarence stab Anne's Edward, their insolent and unarmed prisoner after the battle is over (V.v.38-40). Richard, acting on his own initiative, then hurries off to the Tower to murder King Henry VI (3 Henry VI, V.v.46-50; vi.56-67). “[U]nder what seem wantonly unfavorable circumstances,” during the burial procession of Henry VI, Richard proposes marriage to Lady Anne. The scene is so wildly implausible that it is usually considered “an unplayable strain on credulity”24; perhaps, but it is also a tour de force so dauntless that the audience is stunned and stupefied (I.ii.44-45; cf. Prince, ch. 7).

Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was every woman in this humor won?
I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.
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 my 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!


When Richard accosts Anne, she is overcome by grief and thirsting for revenge. “Curséd be the heart that had the heart to do it! / Curséd be the blood that let this blood from hence!” (I.ii.14-15). Richard is evil incarnate, a “black magician,” a “dreadful minister of hell,” a “lump of foul deformity,” a beast who knows no “touch of pity,” a “diffused infection of a man” who is “fouler than heart can think thee,” and a “devilish slave” (see also I.iii.229). There is nothing Richard can say, and but one thing he can do to excuse his conduct: “Thou canst make no excuse current but to hang thyself” (I.ii.84).

Richard needs to marry Edward's widow in order to strengthen his claim to the throne (I.i.58-59). But why would someone as clever as Richard choose this particular moment to ask for Anne's hand in marriage? Would it not have been more prudent to wait a while to allow Anne's grief time to subside? The historical Richard waited three years. Only a fool would choose a moment as inauspicious as this to proclaim his love, and yet, Richard's “madness” is more Machiavellian than it seems. The timing of Richard's proposal is a stroke of genius. To win Anne's heart, Richard must find a way to dispel her suspicions. Richard is a clever villain, but his reputation for cleverness is a handicap, a handicap he cleverly exploits. By imprudently asking for Anne's hand when her hatred of him is at its zenith, Richard looks like a man so blinded by love that he is incapable of thinking clearly. He masquerades as the perfect Christian, overlooking Anne's insults, and rendering “good for bad, blessings for curses” (I.ii.69; iii.334). To Richard, Anne is a “sweet saint,” an “angel … fairer than tongue can name thee” whose beauty haunted him even in his sleep.

If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,
Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword;
Which if thou please to hide in this true breast
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,
I lay it naked to the deadly stroke
And humbly beg the death upon my knee.


But Richard must do more than convince Anne of his sincerity; he must also acquit himself of his “supposèd crimes.” But how? Richard blames Anne for his conduct (cf. Prince, ch. 18; Disc., I.29; Florentine Histories, III.13). He disclaims responsibility for Edward's death, but Anne knows better: “In thy foul throat thou li’st! Queen Margaret saw / Thy murd’rous falchion smoking in his blood” (I.ii.93-94). He compounds his dilemma by answering Anne's question, “Didst thou not kill this king?” (I.ii.101), affirmatively. Undaunted, Richard asks Anne a question of his own, a question which leads to another, that of motive, which he alone can answer: “Is not the causer of the timeless deaths / Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward, / As blameful as the executioner?” (I.ii.117-19).

The distinction Richard makes between cause and effect catches Anne by surprise: “Thou wast the cause and the most cursed effect” (I.ii.120). The plausibility of Richard's assertion to the contrary—“Your beauty was the cause of that effect” (I.ii.121)—is enhanced by the timing of his marriage proposal. Having already condemned Richard for his “heinous deeds,” Anne must now reconsider her verdict in the light of his motive. To her dismay, she discovers that she cannot condemn Richard without condemning herself as well. If Richard is a murderer, then she is his unwitting accomplice. Haunted by Anne's beauty, Richard would have undertaken “the death of the whole world” in order “to live one hour in [her] sweet bosom” (I.ii.123-24). Anne of course is no more liable for her “heavenly face” than Richard for his physical deformity, but she believes otherwise: “If I thought that, … These nails should rend that beauty from my cheeks” (I.ii.125-26; cf. IV.iv.216-18).

Richard's descent, his profession of love, reverses everything. Her wretchedness pales in comparison with his. Anne is his day and his life (I.ii.130), his ruler, and his accessory, however inadvertently, to the deaths of “these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward.”

Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.
Would they were basilisks to strike thee dead!
I would they were, that I might die at once;
For now they kill me with a living death.


Prior to Richard's profession of love, Anne could do nothing but shake her fist in impotent rage and pray for divine vengeance, but now, Richard offers her the opportunity to punish him herself.

Then bid me kill myself, and I will do it.
I have already.
That was in thy rage.
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 accessory.


Richard's descent is Anne's undoing. She cannot bring herself to execute Richard or bid him to commit suicide. Already an accessory to two murders, she is reluctant to become an accessory to yet a third (I.ii.185). But having declined to punish Richard, she no longer has the right to ask God to revenge Henry's death or to stand fast by her belief that Richard “canst make no excuse current but to hang [him]self.” Eager to “make the wench amends” by becoming “her husband and her father,” Anne can hardly say no to the man who purged her of her grief and “help[ed her] to a better husband” (I.i.155-56; I.ii.138-44).25 A moment ago, Richard was a “villain” who “know’st nor law of God or man,” but now Anne consents to accept his ring, and gladly grants the boon he asks of her, to allow “him who hath most cause to be a mourner” to oversee the interment of “this noble king” (I.ii.70) (Cf. The account of this scene in Strong, pp. 206-8.). Her joy at seeing Richard “become so penitent” is exceeded only by his at the success of his performance: “And will she yet abase her eyes on me … On me, whose all not equals Edward's moi’ty” (I.ii.210-20, 246-50).

Richard appears both here and elsewhere as an executive, seemingly acting in concert with others and at their behest in order to diffuse responsibility for his actions and disguise his ambition to be king (I.i.63-65, 106; iii.89-90, 173-80, 323-30; iv.171; II.ii.21, 151-54). When Richard finally accepts the crown, he claims to do so “against [his] conscience and [his] soul,” reluctantly sacrificing his will to that of his countrymen (III.vii.140-72, 203-25, 230-35). Richard may “want love's majesty” (I.i.16), but his ugliness does not prevent him from impersonating a lover and feigning subjection to the will of his beloved.

A magnanimous man is too proud of his superiority in virtue to demean himself before his inferiors, and too contemptuous of honor to stoop to chicanery and flattery to secure that honor which is his by right and which cannot be justly refused (Jaffa, “The Unity of Tragedy,” p. 288). Yet the honor due to the virtuous is often withheld. To Richard, the untimely demise of Edward, Henry VI, and Clarence, whose virtues are superior to his, is proof that the earth is no proper home for the practice of moral virtue (I.i.118-20; ii.104-8, 239-45; III.i.79, 94). Richard's conclusion is reminiscent of Machiavelli's declaration in the fifteenth chapter of The Prince that he “who wants to make a profession of good in all things must come to ruin among so many who are not good.” Lest we condemn Richard too harshly for the murder of his nephews, it should be noted that were it not for “Richard III's desperate attempts to gather the varied strands of legitimacy to himself … the cycle of rebellion and misrule that … plagued England for a hundred years” would have continued.26 Richard needs to “murder [Elizabeth’s] brothers and then marry her” not only “to stop all hopes whose growth may damage” him, but also to bring peace to England (IV.ii.57-61; iv.471-72). Richmond obviously agrees. He marries Elizabeth to unite “the true succeeders” of the houses of York and Lancaster to put an end to England's “civil wounds.” Richmond's conduct is equally determined by political necessity, and not love, although Richmond is somewhat more honest about it than Richard (IV.iii.40-42; iv.256, 343, 416; V.v.29-40).

There is another and more disturbing parallel. Shortly before his death, Clarence asks God to spare his “guiltless wife” and his “poor children” (I.iv.72). Richard spares them, but only because they pose no threat to his reign: “Inquire me out some mean poor gentleman, / Whom I will marry straight to Clarence's daughter. / The boy is foolish and I fear him not” (IV.ii.52-54; iii.36-37; iv.145-46). When Clarence's children appear on stage to bewail their fate—“What stay had we but Clarence? And he's gone” (II.ii.75)—it seems to be a dramatic device for intensifying our hatred of Richard by showing us the innocent victims of his tyranny. But the presence of Clarence's children on stage simultaneously casts a dark shadow over Richmond's subsequent assertion of moral superiority (V.iii.241-72). An Elizabethan audience would have known that Clarence's “last prayer had not been answered, for the destruction of his wife and children by Henry VII and Henry VIII, who feared their possible claims to the throne, was an oft-told tale.”27 Clarence's wife and children were “foes to [their] rest and [their] sweet-sleep's disturbers,” and therefore beheaded lest their kingdom stand “on brittle glass” (IV.ii.60, 72).

Margaret (see 3 Henry VI, I.iv.79-180; I.iii.173-86), Edward IV, Clarence, Richard, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey, Hastings, and Buckingham were no innocents. None of them is free of sin (II.iii.27-28). The same, of course, might be said (and is said by Shakespeare, albeit more subtly) of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Were it not for his soliloquies, Richard's conduct might seem no worse than theirs (Strong, p. 201). With the possible exception of Margaret and Henry VII, of whom nothing is explicitly said, everyone in Richard III suffers from a guilty conscience, even the allegedly conscienceless Richard (IV.i.82—84; V.iii.73-74, 119-223).

Is Richmond's victory a refutation of Machiavellianism? Or does Richard fail because in the end, his Machiavellianism is inferior to Richmond’s? In his oration to his soldiers, Richmond's affirmation of the justice of their “good cause” is capped by an appeal to his soldiers’ greed. Richard's soldiers, despite their numerical superiority, need cheering up, but Richard is inexcusably silent about the justice of their cause, dwelling instead upon the inferiority of their enemies—“Remember whom you are to cope withal, / A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways / A scum of Britains and base lackey peasants”—and his soldiers’ fear for the safety of their “lands” and “beauteous wives.” Richard would have his soldiers believe that Richmond is a “paltry fellow” whose army consists of “overweening rags of France,” and “famished beggers, weary of their lives, / Who, but for dreaming on this fond exploit, / … had hanged themselves.” Had Richard prevailed, his victory would have brought him no glory, a victory over these “poor rats” merits no commendation, and yet he needs “to carry on some great enterprises and to give rare examples of himself” (the phrase is Machiavelli’s, see Prince, ch. 21) to mask his own injustice. His use of fear to strengthen his soldiers' resolve is foolish, for as Richmond shrewdly observes, “Richard except, those whom we fight against / Had rather have us win than him they follow” (V.iii.11, 238-72, 315-42). Richard is successful when he conceals his selfishness beneath a plausible profession of love, but he fails miserably whenever he is compelled to rely upon naked fear, fear unadorned by love or deceit (IV.iv.494-96; V.iii.343-45).28

Machiavelli's teaching is easily and frequently misunderstood; his object is not the resurrection of spiritedness, but rather the manipulation of love, and professions of love. A Machiavellian prince governs not by impressing others with his moral virtues, but through a blend of humility and audacity intended to leave his subjects satisfied and stupefied, or rather, grateful and fearful. Neither Machiavelli nor his pupils can afford to be spirited or angry, lest they come to demand by right what can only be theirs by force or fraud. It is no accident that Machiavelli is the author of three comedies (The Woman from Andros, Clizia, and Mandragola), and no tragedies, and that in each of his three plays the object is to overcome the obstacles which stand in the way of the union of a man and a woman.

Richard has no difficulty deceiving the nobility and the Lord Mayor of London, but his rhetoric is ineffectual with the multitude, because his strategy for wooing the many is not at all Machiavellian (II.iii; III.v.75-94; vii.1-42). Richard asks Buckingham when he speaks to the multitude to “infer the bastardy” of both Edward IV and his children, and “urge his hateful luxury / And bestial appetite in change of lust” (III.v.80-81). Does Richard honestly believe that a few allusions to Edward IV's “vices,” his nephews' bastardy, and his own “superior” lineage will persuade the multitude to demand his coronation instead of his nephews (II.iii.8-15)? It is absurd for Richard to advance his claim to the throne on the basis of his “form and nobleness of mind,” his “discipline in war, wisdom in peace,” his “bounty, virtue, [and] fair humility” (III.v.14-17). Richard has never done anything, at least so far as we know, to curry favor with the multitude (cf. the account of Caesar's liberality in Prince, ch. 16).

Richard's approach to foreign policy is also contrary to Machiavelli's teaching. Unlike Henry V and the young Edward V, Richard has no imperial or Caesarean ambitions (Frisch, pp. 2-4). Henry V went to war with France to disguise the illegitimacy of his title to the throne, but Richard is strangely content to be king of England, and of nothing else (2 Henry IV, IV.v.213-14).29 The villain who rejects Edward IV's peace because he “hate[s] the idle pleasures of these days” is the author of a conspiracy whose goal is ironically the creation of a more profound and enduring peace than the one he spurns. If Richard had had his way, there would have been no one left to contest his right to be king: “What heir of York is there alive but we? / And who is England's king, but great York's heir” (IV.iv.471-72)? What Richard does not seem to realize is that Richmond has as much right to wrest the crown from him, if he can, as Richard had to wrest it from his nephews. A Machiavellian prince has no right to take his legitimacy for granted.

Edward V, assuming he meant what he said to Buckingham about his desire, once he becomes a man, to go to war to “win our ancient right in France again,” has no more regard for peace and justice than Richard (III.i.69-93) (Bloom with Jaffa, pp. 113-14; Alvis, pp. 109-12). I rather doubt that Shakespeare would have approved of Edward V's ambition to emulate the tyrant Caesar. It is no accident that Richard III literally begins with a celebration of peace, albeit by a man contemptuous of the virtues of peace, and ends with Richmond's prayer that peace “may long live here, God say amen!”

In Richard III, Shakespeare gives us cause to wonder whether Richard's tyranny would have been possible without Christianity, and whether Christianity might not itself stand in the way of England's peace and happiness. The science of indirect government as expounded and practiced by Machiavelli is inspired by his reflections upon the Christian conquest and governance of Rome. The priest rules over monarch and subject alike, but in the name of God, or as Machiavelli intimates, by feigning submission to the will of God in order to conceal his own rule.30 Similarly, Richard is most successful when he governs his subjects under the cover of a profession of love and subjection to the will of his beloveds.

Richard whets Derby, Hastings, and Buckingham's appetite for revenge against the Queen's brethren, but then sighs, and “with a piece of Scripture / Tells them that God bids us do good for evil” (I.iii.328-34). Is not Christianity guilty of doing the same thing? Does it not command charity as it indulges and whets our appetite for vengeance? Time and again, the victims of injustice in Richard III implore God to avenge their injury, not merely in the next world, but also here on earth. To Richard, the murder of Henry VI and Edward is an act of divine vengeance so that, in truth, it is “God, not we, [who] hath plagued thy bloody deed” (I.iii.173-80, 185). Although Christian doctrine teaches that “If God will be avengèd for the deed, / O, know you yet he doth it publicly. / Take not the quarrel from his pow’rful arm. / He needs no indirect or lawless course / To cut off those that have offended him,” its doctrine of divine providence offers cover to those who undertake on their own initiative the punishment of their enemies (I.iv.218-22). Richmond does not ask for divine authorization to assemble an army and set sail for England, waiting instead until the eve of his battle with Richard to pray that God “make us thy ministers of chastisement,” because his ambition to be king is sufficiently compelling (V.iii.114).

The doctrine of divine providence is a godsend to ambitious men. Or as Machiavelli puts it, “let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone” (Prince, ch. 18). The ordinary citizens in Richard III are too mindful of Christianity's injunction to “leave it all to God” to exercise a salutary restraint upon the conduct of the nobility, and the nobility is too ambitious to restrain itself (II.iii). Since each of God's “ministers” is himself in need of chastisement, a moral justification for selfish ambition and vengeance against one's enemies is never lacking, leaving the state always on the verge of civil war.

I am inclined to think that Brackenbury is speaking for Shakespeare when he observes that,

Princes have but their titles for their glories,
An outward honor for an inward toil,
And for unfelt imaginations.
They often feel a world of restless cares;
So that between their titles and low name
There's nothing differs but the outward fame.


If so, then contrary to Machiavelli, the most important lesson of Shakespeare's Richard III is the insufficiency of glory, and by implication, the superiority of private life (Disc., III.2; cf. Plato's Republic, 620c-d).


  1. All unidentified citations are from the Signet edition of Shakespare's Richard III, ed. Mark Eccles (New York: New American Library, 1964). Citations to Machiavelli's Discourses are abbreviated as Disc. All quotations from Machiavelli's The Prince are from the edition translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

  2. Morton J. Frisch, “Shakespeare's Richard III and the Soul of the Tyrant,” Interpretation 20(1993) 280; cf. Tracy B. Strong, “Shakespeare: Elizabethan Statecraft and Machiavellianism,” in The Artist and Political Vision, eds. Benjamin R. Barber and Michael J. Gargas (New Brunswick: Transaction Books), pp. 201, 215-16.

  3. Allan Bloom, “Richard II,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), pp. 51-52, 60.

  4. Harry V. Jaffa, “The Unity of Tragedy, Comedy, and History: An Interpretation of the Shakespearean Universe,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, pp. 284-86.

  5. Cf. Prince, ch. 12, on good arms and good laws, and Disc., III.6, where conscience is defined as “confusion of the brain.”

  6. Cf. Mansfield, “Introduction” to The Prince, p. 10; Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969), p. 292: “In Machiavelli we find comedies, parodies, and satires but nothing reminding of tragedy. … There is no tragedy in Machiavelli because he has no sense of the sacredness of ‘the common.’”

  7. H. Knight, quoted in A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, Richard III (hereinafter abbreviated as Furness), ed. H.H. Furness, Jr. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1909), p. 562; H. Giles, quoted in Furness, pp. 563-64.

  8. Justice is no great theme for Machiavelli either; see Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 295.

  9. Harry V. Jaffa, “Aristotle,” in History of Political Philosophy, 2d ed., ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1972), p. 122; Aristotle, Politics 1031a36-39.

  10. Charles Lamb, quoted in the Signet edition of Richard III, p. 211; see also A.P. Rossiter, quoted in the Signet edition, p. 247; Jaffa, “The Unity of Tragedy,” p. 287.

  11. Rossiter, quoted in the Signet edition, p. 248; Holinshed, quoted in the Signet edition, p. 189; E.M. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1951), pp. 204-8.

  12. Cf. Prince, ch. 3 on the wisdom of the Romans, ch. 4 on the necessity of eliminating the bloodline of the previous monarch, and Disc., III.2 on the insufficiency of private life.

  13. Warner, quoted in Furness, p. 15; cf. Prince, ch. 19, and Disc., I.10 on the superiority of adoption.

  14. Webb, quoted in Furness, p. 191; Larry S. Champion, Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), p. 61.

  15. On the piety of the ordinary citizen, see II.iii where the word “God” appears seven times in forty-seven lines; cf. Prince, ch. 18, on the need to appear religious.

  16. See my article, “Machiavelli and Caesar,” in Natural Right and Political Right, ed. Thomas B. Silver and Peter W. Schramm (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1984).

  17. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power (New York: Free Press, 1989), pp. 121-49.

  18. Allan Bloom with Harry V. Jaffa, Shakespeare's Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1964), pp. 51, 133-35.

  19. See, for example, III.v.24-32; cf. the account of Lady Fortuna and her suitors in Mansfield, “Introduction,” p. xxiv.

  20. Prince, ch. 16; Clifford Orwin, “Machiavelli's UnChristian Charity,” American Political Science Review, 72 (December 1978).

  21. On Machiavelli's use of stato, see Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., “On the Impersonality of the Modern State,” American Political Science Review, 77 (December 1983).

  22. See my article, “Machiavelli's Realism,” Review of Politics, 47 (April, 1985), pp. 226-29.

  23. Horace Walpole, Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III, 1767, reprinted in Richard III: The Great Debate, ed. Paul Murray Kendall (New York: Norton Press, n.d.), pp. 160-65.

  24. F.S. Boas, quoted in Furness, p. 54; Strong, pp. 202-3, 206; Wolfgang Clemen, “Tradition and Originality in Shakespeare's Richard III,Shakespeare Quarterly, 5 (1954), 254.

  25. Cf. the reference to Callimaco as Lucrezia's father in Mandragola, V.iv.

  26. Strong, p. 201. See also II.iii.30 where England is called a “sickly land,” and V.v.15-41 where she is said to have “long been mad and scarred herself.”

  27. Lily B. Campbell, quoted in the Signet edition pp. 223-24; Wright, quoted in Furness, p. 5 n30; cf. Disc., III.4.

  28. On how love and fear may be combined according to Machiavelli, see Orwin, pp. 1224—1226.

  29. John Alvis, “The Career of Henry Monmouth,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, pp. 107, 111.

  30. Cf. Disc., I.11 where Machiavelli speaks of Numa's feigning converse with a nymph.

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8599

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's King Richard III and the Problematics of Tudor Bastardy,” in Papers on Language and Literature 33, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 115-41.

[In the following essay, Hunt contends that in Richard III, Shakespeare distinguishes between “moral bastardy” and “moral integrity.” In other words, although Richard apparently has a more legitimate claim to the throne than the possibly illegitimate Richmond, Richard loses his legitimacy as a result of his wickedness while Richmond solidifies his claim through his morality.]

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 III'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 life-time. 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 Elizabeth an 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 damaturgy. 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 things 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 already 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.


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 Curteis 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 (Bowle 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 saving “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 wellspring 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 displace 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” (III.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 powerful 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.


  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 distate 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 mortall blemishe may her blotte” (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 mortall blemishe may … blotte” 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. Neill 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 3 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 countefeit 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 ofThersites 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 Riverside 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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Kerrigan, John. “Henry IV and the Death of Old Double.” Essays in Criticism 40 (1990): 24-53.

Laslett, Peter, and Karla Oosterveen, and Richard M. Smith, ed. Bastardy and Its Comparative History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980.

———. “The Bastardy Prone Sub-society.” Laslett, Oosterveen, and Smith 217-46.

Levine, David, and Keith Wrightson. “The Social Context of Illegitimacy in Early Modern England.” Laslett, Oosterveen, and Smith 158-75.

Loades, David. The Reign of Mary Tudor: Politics, Government and Religion in England, 1553-58. London: Longman, 1991.

Macfarlane, Alan. “Illegitimacy and Illegitimates in English History.” Laslett, Oosterveen, and Smith 71-85.

Manheim, Michael. “The Four Voices of the Bastard.” Curren-Aquino 126-35.

Marcus, Leah. Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

McCoy, Richard C. “‘Thou Idol Ceremony’: Elizabeth I, The Henriad, and the Rites of the English Monarchy.” Urban Life in the Renaissance. Ed. Susan Zimmerman and Ronald F. E. Weissman. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1989. 240-66.

More, Saint Thomas. The Complete Works of St. Thomas More: “The History of King Richard III.” Ed. Richard S. Sylvester. The Yale Edition of The Complete Works of St. Thomas More 2. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963.

Neill, Michael. “‘In Everything Illegitimate’: Imagining the Bastard in Renaissance Drama.” The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 270-92.

Ornstein, Robert. A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1972.

Poole, Kristen. “Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 47-75.

Porter, Joseph A. “Fraternal Pragmatics: Speech Acts of John and the Bastard.” Curren-Aquino 136-43.

Rackin, Phyllis. Stages in History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Reese, M. M. The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays. London: Edward Arnold, 1961.

Richmond, Hugh M. “Richard III and the Reformation.” JEGP83 (1984): 509-21.

Ridley, Jasper. Elizabeth I: The Shrewdness of Virtue. New York: Viking, 1987. Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. Ed. Antony Hammond. London: Methuen, 1981.

———. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: “The Tragedy of Richard The Third.” Ed. Horace Howard Furness, Jr. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1908.

———. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. Boston: Houghton, 1974.

Simons, Eric N. Henry VII: The First Tudor. New York: Barnes, 1968.

Smith, H. Maynard. Henry VIII and the Reformation. London: Macmillan, 1962.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Qveene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. London: Longman, 1977.

———. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Ed. William A. Oram et al. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Stroud, Ronald. “The Bastard to the Time in King John.” Comparative Drama 6 (1972-73): 154-66.

Teichman, Jenny. Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Trace, Jacqueline. “Shakespeare's Bastard Faulconbridge: An Early Tudor Hero.” Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 59-69.

Van de Water, Julia C. “The Bastard in King John.” Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960): 137-46.

Williamson, Marilyn L. “When Men are Rul’d by Women’: Shakespeare's First Tetralogy.” Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 41-59.

Wilson, Richard. “‘A Mingled Yarn’: Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers.” Literature and History 12.2 (1986): 164-80.

Wriothesley, Charles. A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors. Ed. William D. Hamilton. Westminster: J. B. Nichols, 1875. 2 vols.

Rebecca W. Bushnell (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Thriftless Ambition: The Tyrants of Shakespeare and Jonson,” in Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 118-26.

[In the following excerpt, Bushnell asserts that in his role as tyrant, Richard III discovers that lust and political ambition are interconnected, so that in order to exert power over people, he must also “abase” himself by playing the role of seducer or suppliant to Anne and Elizabeth.]

Shakespeare and Jonson portrary tyranny by showing how sexual and political desire both shapes an ambitious tyrant's image and undoes it. More specifically, Richard III and Sejanus (and in a different way, Macbeth) combine ambition with the tyrant's traditional attribute of lust when they rely on seduction in grasping for the crown. In doing so, however, they trap themselves in a web of dependency, for in the end they need to be desired themselves as much as they want the crown. In this confusion, where the seducer abases himself to achieve power, the traditional opposition between the masculine king and effeminate tyrant is both set up and deconstructed. By the time they achieve their purpose, these tyrants find that the power and self they built up through the process of gaining the crown are highly unstable.1

In developing this link between ambition and sexual desire, Shakespeare's and Jonson's tyrant plays thus demonstrate an acute self-consciousness of how the traditional rhetoric of statecraft worked in forming the sovereign's as well as the tyrant's image. In these plays, both tyrants and kings manipulate the traditional images of tyrannical lust and effeminacy in seeking to consolidate their own power; in doing so, however, they expose the conventional nature of that imagery. Even as these plays support the earlier characterization of the tyrant as fragmented by desire and subjected to women, by focusing on how power is acquired and legitimized through use of that characterization, they reveal its ideological basis. The morality plays dismantle the prince's character when he gives into temptation and desire; Shakespeare's and Jonson's plays, however, more in the fashion of Buchanan's Baptistes, demonstrate how to create a political image in a tradition of rhetoric that defines authority by moral character and gender identity. This exposure of the political process extends beyond the uses of sexuality and gender to strip bare the complex strategies of using antithesis to paint a political character.

Shakespeare's Richard III is notorious for being, in Bacon's words, a “tyrant both in title and regiment.”2 Throughout the play Richard is enveloped in the traditional imagery of beast and devil, or “hell's black intelligencer” (4.4.71), that brands the Renaissance tyrant both when he seeks the crown and when he possesses it.3 Yet what distinguishes Richard from his predecessors is his pleasure in this black image. Rather than boasting of his own bright splendor in Herodic fashion, he privately glories in his monstrosity. As much as he publicly dons the mask of the saint, Richard privately adopts rather than rejects his accusers' rhetoric to construct his own version of sovereignty.4

Richard's private acknowledgment of his wickedness and his public display of virtue are both part of his admitted role as “the formal Vice, Iniquity,” who moralizes “two meanings in one word” (3.1.82—83). Like Ambidexter's swearing by his honesty, his very profession of sincerity and admission of his own playing are characteristic of the Vice, and of what James I calls the tyrant's “counterfeiting the saint” (see, for example, 1.3.333-37).5 In fashioning the tyrant directly in terms of the Vice, the morality tyrant's double, Shakespeare thus departed from the tradition of the public exhibition of tyrannical rage and rant.6 As a Vice, Richard displays less Cambyses' or Herod's spectacular and boasting rhetoric than the Vice's rhetorical flexibility and obsequiousness: he can fit his terms and face to any situation and weeps as much as any Ambidexter does. Although Cambyses' histrionic nature is implied by his alliance with Ambidexter, Cambyses himself is not a hypocrite in the conventional sense of the word; further, as legitimate king, he is allowed his public and violent displays of power. Until he is king, however, Richard's power cannot be displayed in public but must work indirectly and secretly.

Richard's Vice-like character is thus largely a function of his usurpation as opposed to his reign; when king, he seems to have more and more difficulty sustaining his various roles. Once he is on the throne, Richard's self-control and mastery over others immediately begin to falter, and he first gives way to a kind of Herodic public rage. As the Vice does, Richard best holds power over others by covertly manipulating his equals or superiors. But he has little success in exercising public authority by ordering and subduing inferiors. In this identity as Vice-tyrant thus lie Richard's strength and his weakness: he is strong in his secrecy and ability to present a multitude of faces, yet he is weak insofar as he depends on his subordinate position, and thus on others, to construct his own power.7 In particular, like the Vice, Richard fashions power through strategies of seduction, making himself a powerful object of desire and thus reversing the image of tyrannical desire in which passion is expressed through sexual domination.

Richard's seductions draw on the convention of the tyrannical power of sexual desire even as they invert that convention. The tyrant's lust conventionally marks both his vulnerability and the essence of his power. Even though it drives him to rape and oppress others, lust unmans the tyrant when the object of his desire comes to control him. Richard, however, explicitly avoids being called lustful. He describes himself as lacking sexual desire (because, in fact, he is undesirable);8 instead, his “soul's desire” is sovereignty (3 Henry VI 3.2.128). At the same time, like the Vice he sees how to manipulate the desires of others in order to control them. Ultimately, however, Richard cannot escape the prison of both lust and ambition, in which his self-image becomes inextricable from his seductions of others.

When seeking sovereignty, the ambitious Richard first carefully manipulates the traditional association between lust and tyranny in order to undermine his enemies' claims, thus converting his own lack of sexual desire into a kingly and virtuous chastity.9 Practically, by representing Edward as lustful, Richard wants to “infer the bastardy of Edward's children” (Richard III 3.5.75) in order to bolster his own claim to the throne. But he goes further to suggest Edward's character as a tyrant, commanding Buckingham that in speaking against Edward he should

Moreover, urge his hateful luxury
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 also paints a picture of Edward as uxorious:10 in response to Clarence's complaining that such a “toy” as a prophecy should send him to the Tower, Richard carps, “Why, this it is, when men are rul’d by women” (1.1.62). In the earlier trilogy, Henry VI is explicitly condemned as an effeminate prince (1 Henry VI 1.1.35), not because of any addiction to pleasure but because of his willingness to give in to others, and especially to the virago Margaret.11 In Richard's accusations Edward's effeminate tyranny combines seeking after pleasure with such subjection to the rule of women.

At Baynard's castle, Richard's appearance dramatizes the contrast he wishes to create between his own chaste and manly character and that of the effeminate and lustful Edward. Buckingham has already circulated public pronouncements that not only touch upon the bastardy of Edward's children but also stress “th’ unsatiate greediness of [Edward’s] desire, / And his enforcement of the city wives, / His tyranny for trifles, his own bastardy,” as opposed to Richard's warlike manner, “wisdom in peace,” his “bounty, virtue, fair humility” (3.7.7-17).12 Buckingham then displays Richard as a holy man who does not know the body's pleasures:

Ah ha, my lord, this prince is not an Edward!
He is not lulling on a lewd love-bed,
But on his knees at meditation;
Not dallying with a brace of courtezans,
But meditating with two deep divines;
Not sleeping, to engross his idle body,
But praying, to enrich his watchful soul.
Happy were England, would this virtuous prince
Take on his Grace the sovereignty thereof.


Richard's manipulation of statecraft's description of tyranny thus converts his own exclusion from sexual pleasure into a virtue, legitimizing his claim to sovereignty on “natural” terms in contrast to Edward's “unnatural” desire.

Even though Richard condemns Edward's desire, at Baynard's castle Richard himself is figured as eminently desirable in both erotic and political terms. Buckingham sets up a scene of seduction in which Richard, not the Lord Mayor, is the one to be seduced. He instructs Richard: “And be not easily won to our requests: / Play the maid's part, still answer nay, and take it” (3.7.50-51). They scheme thus to paint an image of a passive, womanish Richard, one filled with “tenderness of heart / And a gentle, kind effeminate remorse” (3.7.210-211). He is now the object of desire; the others court him, Buckingham beseeching, “Refuse not, mighty lord, this proffer’d love,” while Catesby echoes, “O make them joyful; grant their lawful suit” (3.7.202-3). The very desirability of this “sweet Prince” is wrapped up in his passivity. He submits unwillingly: “For God doth know, and you may partly see / How far I am from the desire of this” (3.7.235-36). As Heilman puts it (from a man's point of view), Richard's language is such as “might be used by a woman coyly yielding to seduction.”13 The amorous rhetoric of the scene is familiar from the erotic politics of Elizabeth's court, but here the “virgin Queen” is the chaste Protector, Richard. Thus, even when he is at his most “manly” in his invulnerability to women, Richard is “effeminate” in his passivity and power to excite desire.

As a seduction scene, this scene parallels the two other scenes where Richard is the seducer, once of Anne and once of Elizabeth. Adopting Petrarchan conventions, Richard sets the terms of the earlier scene, so that Anne “plays the maid's part” to Richard's wooer.14 Yet by using these conventions, Richard describes the beloved's power as a kind of tyranny, making him her slave. Specifically, Richard makes Anne herself the cause of Henry's and Edward's deaths:

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.


Whereas at Baynard's castle Richard uses the woman's image to make himself powerful, here he makes Anne into an image of the power he seeks, at the same time that he woos her as a means to it.15 On one level, this strategy inverts the model of tyrannical desire, whereby power is the means of gratifying lust, for here Richard imitates love as a means to gain power. On another level, like the scene at Baynard's castle, this scene suggests Richard's need to be the object of desire as well as the one who desires: he is both the man who possesses and the woman who submits.

The successful wooing of Anne pleases Richard, who finds himself to be desirable in playacting love:

I do mistake my person all this while!
Upon my life, she finds (although I cannot)
Myself to be a marv’llous proper man.
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.


As Marguerite Waller suggests, Anne “can allow him to see reflected in her a self that is not deformed but proper in the sense of physically complete and sexually eligible”16 (even if he does not quite believe it); that is, she legitimizes him as a “proper” self because she desires him. This scene of seduction is thus instrumental to Richard's drive to the throne, not only because of his practical need for the alliance with Anne; it is important because throughout the play that desirability, created through such histrionic seductions, constructs a “proper” and sovereign self. It is the same character he later creates in the scene with the Lord Mayor, where he must be desired in order to be granted the name of king.17

But constructed in this way, Richard's self and sovereignty are highly unstable. Once he becomes king, his plays of seduction begin to fail, and Richard falls out of love with himself. The seduction of Elizabeth differs significantly from that of Anne: first, in that it is indirect, the appeal being made to the mother rather than to the beloved; second, in that it ultimately fails. Richard uses the same rhetoric with which he ensnared Anne, saying to the mother that once he conquers the young Elizabeth, then she shall find herself “sole victoress, Caesar's Caesar” (4.4.336). He again transfers agency and responsibility to the beloved, insofar as he implies that the welfare of all England depends on Elizabeth's choosing him:

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.


Once again, Richard offers the women power over himself and all the realm while he seeks power through them. Yet the tone of the scene is different, insofar as Elizabeth, rather than Richard, seems in control of the rhetoric until the end. Further, although Richard believes that he has succeeded in changing her mind, he does not exult in his power over her, and the next few moments show him absentminded and weak rather than triumphant (and as we find out later, he has in fact not succeeded). Even after he calls Elizabeth a “relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman” (4.4.431), some twenty lines later he himself snaps out: “My mind is chang’d.” In this moment he becomes the woman he has just condemned as changeable. Whereas before the double role of seducer and the object of desire empowered him, here it weakens him.

Richard's lack of success with Elizabeth accompanies his change from seducer-usurper to sovereign, marking his inability to make the transition. While now he should not have to resort to the rhetoric of seduction but should only command, he fails. Not only does he miscarry with Elizabeth, but now he does not know how to keep the “love” of a man such as Buckingham. He removes the tie that binds them together as “two selves” when he refuses Buckingham the goods and title that the duke wants and for which he has loved Richard. As Richard's seductions falter, he loses both political control and the sovereignty of his self. His terrified soliloquy of act 5, scene 3, enacts the collapse of his self constructed through desire:

What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I [am] I.
Is there a murtherer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why—
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.


Richard can imagine himself neither as a lover nor as the beloved. This soliloquy thus denies both the desire and desirability that earlier defined his histrionic constructions of sovereignty.


  1. See Robert N. Watson, Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), for an account of this process. One clear exception to this description of tyranny is the portrait of Claudius in Hamlet; since that play is concerned more with tyrannicide than with the tyrant, however, I have chosen not to consider it here. On the treatment of tyrants and tyrannicide in Hamlet, see Roland Mushat Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet: Issues and Responses in 1600 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), chap. 2.

  2. Cited by W. A. Armstrong, “The Elizabethan Conception of the Tyrant,” Review of English Studies 22 (1946):166.

  3. On the association with the devil, see Armstrong, p. 171.

  4. In particular, Richard appropriates the bestial imagery that the other characters use to denounce him in order to paint a vision of his destiny of power. Queen Elizabeth calls him a tiger (2.4.50-52), and Margaret calls him a “bottled spider,” a “poisonous, bunched-back’d toad,” (1.3.241-45), a dog (288-90), and a “hell-hound” (4.4.48). The images of bestiality echo the form of Richard's own crippled body, “an indigested and deformed lump” (3 Henry VI, 5.6.51). Yet, in 3 Henry VI Richard himself interprets the prodigious form of his own body, born feet first and with teeth, as a sign that he was born into this world “to make haste” and to “snarl, and bite, and play the dog” (3 Henry VI 5.6.77). Rather than trying to counteract this rhetorical onslaught (except by turning it back on the originator), Richard seizes on the shape of his bestial body as his destiny. Richard further uses his ugliness to support his public image as a saint; contrasting himself to the fair, conniving and corrupt courtiers, he claims he is naturally incapable of deception, because “I cannot flatter and look fair” (1.3.47).

  5. See Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of a Metaphor in Relation to His Major Villains (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), p. 398. See also W. A. Armstrong, “The Influence of Seneca and Machiavelli on the Elizabethan Tyrant,” Review of English Studies 24 (1948): 19-35.

  6. See Antony Hammond, in introduction to the Arden edition of King Richard III (London: Methuen, 1981), pp. 99-100, who notes that in portraying Richard as Vice, Shakespeare followed up “the hints found in More.” Richard's suppression of rant in favor of hypocrisy corresponds with the play's remarkable lack of stage violence. Shakespeare's representation of Richard thus differs markedly from both Thomas Legge’s, in Richardus Tertius, and from that in The True Tragedie of Richard III. Legge's tyrant is Senecan: as Churchill says, “his one resource is the one resource of the Senecan tyrant—the sword: his cry is always ‘tollantur hostes ense’”; relying on his counselors, he shows little of the craft of More's Richard—or Shakespeare's (George B. Churchill, Richard III up to Shakespeare: Palaestra X [Berlin: Mayer and Mueller, 1900], p. 377). The Richard of The True Tragedie, too, is “direct and forceful. He has little use for hypocrisy” (Churchill, p. 472). In this sense, Richard's tyrannical strategies are different from, yet related, to what Shakespeare depicts of Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece: Tarquin is a rapist, but Richard is a seducer. On the links between rape and tyranny, see Michael Platt, Rome and Romans According to Shakespeare rev. ed. (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983), pt. 1, and Ian Donaldson, The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformations (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982).

  7. For a largely psychoanalytic analysis of this structure of dependency, see Michael Neill, “Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics and Psychology in Richard III,Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 99-129. For a feminist analysis, see 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: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 159-74.

  8. The corollary of this argument is Richard's evident misogyny: to him, women are not worth desire, since they do not care for him. See Madonne M. Miner, “‘Neither mother, wife, nor England's queen’: The Roles of Women in Richard III,” in The Women's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 35-55, on Richard's misogyny.

  9. In general, according to Richard, Edward is corrupted by all forms of pleasure: Richard complains that, “O, he hath kept an evil diet long, / And overmuch consum’d his royal person” (1.1.139-40).

  10. This strategy is also apparent in Legge's Richardus Tertius, where not only is a great deal of emphasis put on the role of Elizabeth, but we also find Richard complaining that “now the honor of England succumbs to a woman!” (Thomas Legge's Richardus Tertius: A Critical Edition with a Translation, ed. Robert J. Lordi [New York: Garland, 1979], p. 274).

  11. See Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), pp. 37-57, on the role of effeminacy in the Henry VI plays.

  12. Shakespeare has himself elided the period of peace and good government following Edward's accession to the throne that More emphasizes at the beginning of his History of King Richard III (The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 2, ed. Richard S. Sylvester [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963], pp. 3-4).

  13. Robert B. Heilman, “Satiety and Conscience: Aspects of Richard III,” in Essays in Shakespearean Criticism, ed. James L. Calderwood and Harold E. Toliver (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 142.

  14. See Edward I. Berry, Pattern of Decay: Shakespeare's Early History Plays (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975), p. 78, on Richard's use of Petrarchan conventions.

  15. See Ann Rosalind Jones, Currency of Eros, forthcoming from Indiana University Press, on the function of Petrarchan convention in the construction of the male self.

  16. Waller, pp. 169-70. See also Neill, p. 112.

  17. For an Oedipal reading of this effect, see Watson, pp. 25-26. Also see Watson on Richard's effort to “establish a royal identity blessed with the stability and integrity of a self that is born and not made” (p. 19). Cf. Richard P. Wheeler, “History, Character and Conscience in Richard III,Comparative Drama 5 (1971-72): 301-21, on theatricality itself as Richard's weakness.

Linda Charnes (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10426

SOURCE: “Belaboring the Obvious: Reading the Monstrous Body in King Richard III,” in Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 33-51.

[In the following excerpt, Charnes explains how the murderous and physically monstrous Richard transmogrifies Anne's hatred into sexual desire during the emotionally charged wooing scene.]

What we regard as “history” is always “mediated through subjectivity”: it becomes history only by the process of repetitive inscription in and through the symbolic. Consequently its “Truth arises from misrecognition”—whatever it signifies in the social formation necessarily routes through the misrecognition of consciousness (what Zizek calls “the opinion of the people”—Sublime Object, p. 61). “If we want to spare ourselves the painful roundabout route through the misrecognition, we miss the Truth itself” (p. 63). And this Truth is that the significance of history is consolidated only retroactively, like the “truth” of the analysand who has come through psychoanalysis and assigned his symptomology its place in the narrative. The very grammar of history, therefore, is proleptic: it puts later things first (just as Shakespeare chronicles later historical events in the “first tetralogy”). In this way, what was once profoundly contingent is reconstituted as “inevitable.” Richard III maps the function of repetition for the subject who wants to “spare himself the painful roundabout route,” who will not know what he knows, who refuses to read the signs, as if they were external to him and he could choose not to read them. In the figure of Richard we see the subject who will not identify with the symptom, who does not “believe” in omens and therefore secures his function as the symptom and omen of others. By rejecting his own portentousness, Richard “intervenes” and in his illusion of contingency ends up confirming “providential” history. This illusion is figured in Richard's denial of the language of intertextuality, his mistaking of his existence as a first time occurrence, as if he had no prior textual existence which had already constituted his own “symbolic necessity.” This in itself would not be remarkable if the habitus of the play (within the larger habitus of Elizabethan England) weren't structured around this “necessity,” if it weren't full of other figures who continually speak Richard's deformed frame as the advertisement of an overdetermined historical frame.1

The centrality of Richard's physical deformity is clear from the play's opening lines, and contemptuous self-regard is the first position the play engages. Richard begins by referring to the late wars, as we are reminded of the preceding plays in the first tetralogy:

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.


Centered in emblems of the battlefield, this language charts a move from one kind of public space—the overtly political male space violently choreographed by war—to another, less overtly political space of the gender and class relations practiced in courtly “leisure,” now made possible by a temporarily stable disposition of state power. In Althusser's terms, these lines translate the openly repressive apparatuses exercised when political power is fought for by martial means into the ideological apparatuses that interpellate the subjects of “legitimate” redistributions and delegations of that power. Such a change is, however, metonymic rather than substitutive. The gap between these two kinds of activities—the naked aggression of warfare and the social and sexual aggression of court life—is increasingly compressed as Richard's language moves “indoors” into the realm of aggression he envisions as the erotic:

Grim-visag’d War hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead 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.


The conflation of war and eroticism is here condensed into a narrative troping that becomes increasingly claustrophobic, as it moves from the outdoor space of the battlefield to the socially elite space of “merry meetings,” and then to the privatized space of “a lady's chamber,” until finally it reaches the personalized space of bodies:

But I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph:
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made-up—
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity.


Lacking a battlefield in which to “pass away the time,” Richard knows that he has not been fashioned to participate in the “sportive tricks” of erotic courtship. The language Richard uses to describe the facets of war—bruised arms, dreadful marches, wrinkled fronts—metonymically links his body to Grim-visag’d War. He, too, has bruised arms, a dreadful march; he, too, will smooth his wrinkled front as he manipulates others. For Richard, the absence of an opportunity openly to exercise violent aggression forces him into a position of self-regard, in which he must behold his own image and establish a relationship to his “person.” The soliloquy is rhythmically propelled by rhetorical self-reference: “I that am not shaped for sportive tricks,” “I that am rudely stamp’d,” “I that am curtail’d of this fair proportion.” These lines clearly assert Richard's “I” as the issue at stake; and the imbrication of self-regard in the social is immediately foregrounded.

Since Richard claims he cannot “prove a lover” (a claim he will, significantly, disprove later) his alternative is to “spy my shadow in the sun, / And descant on mine own deformity.” To “descant,” as the OED tells us, is to enlarge upon a theme. Enlarging upon his deformity would mean establishing a perspective in relation to it. Ernest Gilman, in discussing the emergence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of perspective painting, points to the centrality of the human body in contriving contingent perspectives:

Perspective, like music and mathematics, was seen to be based on a satisfying system of proportions—between the objects to be painted and their images, between the braccio and every figure in the painting, and between the distance of the observer's eye and the entire construction. It embodied and revealed the substratum of the harmonious order of nature, and put the painter, no less than the philosopher, in touch with the intelligible world. At the center of this order is man. The proportions of the human body provide the basic unit of perspective measurement, and the painting is organized around the viewpoint of the individual spectator.2

If we imagine for a moment Richard as spectator to his own shadow, he becomes at once the individual viewer Gilman describes above, and the object that provides the proportions of the image he witnesses. Richard's awareness of his deformity, reflected back at him by his shadow, can lead him to two possible perspectives. In the first, he can perceive the deformed shadow as a perverted structure in an otherwise harmoniously ordered world. But this would require detaching himself from the image of his shadow (figuratively speaking), regarding it only as an external image to which he is the spectator, the “other.” In the second, however, we might imagine that he sees his shadow on the ground (rather than, say, against a wall); in this instance the shadow is visibly connected to him (presumably at the feet) and such a detachment is impossible—he is positioned as both spectator to and represented object of the deformed image. In such an orientation there could be no clear distinction between spectator and spectacle. Richard, however, “incorporates” both perspectives; that is to say, he knows he has been “curtail’d of this fair proportion,” but at the same time his perspective is itself overemplotted: the place from and through which he looks is fixed by his deformed proportions. It is this straddling that leads him to attempt to “dispossess” his deformity. But such a dispossession can be no mere denial; rather, it requires a restructuring of the world according to his own proportions: the creation of a world in which all behavior, values, and perceptions are extensions of his body image. A world—according to Richard—in which the misproportions of his body provide the “normal” perspective from which all ways of seeing are derived.

In his opening soliloquy Richard speaks of himself as the victim of a surround—alternately conceived as maternal, natural, social—that is assigned mysterious agency: he is “rudely stamp’d,” “curtail’d” of fair proportion, “cheated of feature.” Contrary to the rumors others have generated about his remaining too long in the womb and being born with teeth and hair, Richard claims to have been “sent before [his] time,” “unfinish’d” and “scarce half made-up.” The discrepancy of versions of Richard is apparent even here; and the emotional significance of his sense of being born before he was ready will permeate his relations with the play's female figures. Richard replaces a language of overgestation, of prodigious belatedness, with one of underdevelopment, of rude and untimely prematurity, and in doing so speaks a fantasy of preceding his own legend. By literally conceiving himself, this time as “unfinish’d,” “scarce half made-up,” he speaks a fantasy of arriving early at the scene of his own story, with the possibility of “making up” the rest himself. However, Richard's fetal self-revisionism denies the conditions that compel the activity in the first place; and his efforts to reorganize the relationship between his body and the social becomes the driving impetus toward a status in which he will be not excluded (because he is not shaped for sportive tricks) but at the very center.

I do mistake my person all this while!
Upon my life, she finds—although I cannot—
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.

Richard III (1.2.252-254)

After Richard's acknowledgment of his deformity in the first scene, it is others, and most notably the women, who repeatedly refer to his body in the most scornful and degrading terms. The project, then, of reorganizing the relations of social perception begins properly with Richard's courtship of Anne Neville. In this scene, and apparently against all odds, Richard produces himself as an object of libidinal attraction. I say “apparently” because however preposterous his success may seem, it reveals as much about the play's libidinal structures and affective investments as it does about Richard, and possibly more. Although critics diverge in their views of the courtship—its success, its apparent absurdity, its “psychological veracity” (or more commonly its lack thereof), most tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they find it unbelievable that Anne capitulates, or they see Richard's “genius” and his success as a function of rhetorical skill.3 Although Richard must (and did) marry Anne as part of his progress toward the crown, this scene does far more than just establish the requisite “traffic in women” necessary for the disposition of property and lineage. The reach of its effectiveness, however—what Richard calls his “secret close intent” (1.1.158), cannot be understood by appealing to notions of psychosexual “health” or “normalcy.” On the contrary. It is precisely its preposterousness that renders the scene dramatically successful, erotically convincing, and centrally revealing of the rest of the play's social and libidinal relations. The scene works by revealing the socially productive fascination that always underlies revulsion, and by demonstrating the discursive and libidinal identities between contempt and desire, revulsion and attraction, political obsession and sexual fixation. Richard's “genius” in this scene may be rhetorical; but its force issues from the way he both manipulates and sets in motion around himself the affective power of the object of sexual disgust.

As Jonathan Goldberg has recently argued about the “preposterous” (with its rhetorical origins in the classical figure of hysteron proteron), it etymologically and epistemologically reorganizes sexual economies by treating ends—anatomical as well as teleological—as beginnings.4 To understand the preposterous eroticism of this scene in particular (and its links to Richard's success in reorienting public perception in general), we must first consider how its identities are visually invoked and then discursively appropriated.

As I’ve already noted above, when Richard enters in Act 1, scene 2, Anne is performing a ritual lament over Henry's body and railing against Richard:

Foul devil, for God's sake hence, and trouble us not;
For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell,
Fill’d it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.
If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.
O gentlemen! See, see dead Henry's wounds
Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells;
Thy deed inhuman and unnatural
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.


Richard's “foul deformity” is yoked to his “heinous deeds,” and both are connected to the political by their ability to draw forth blood from the dry wounds of the dead king. Anne's rhetoric verges here on the excessive; and Richard properly reads in its “excess of affect” her vulnerability to a fundamentally “perverse” courtship. Anne's hatred and public volubility provide Richard with a store of discursive materials already charged with appropriable affective energy. When she says “Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!” he replies “Sweet saint, for charity be not so curst.” She calls him a “Foul devil,” and he returns: “Lady, you know no rules of charity, / Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.” Anne escalates her indictment: “Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man, / No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.” Richard inverts her sense: “But I know none, and therefore an no beast.” Anne, recognizing his strategy, replies, “O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!”; and Richard counters with “more wonderful, when angels are so angry.” These flip-side tosses of the same rhetorical coinage continue, as Anne calls him a “diffus’d infection” and a “hedgehog,” and he calls her “Fairer than tongue can name thee” and “gentle Lady Anne.”

Drawing Anne into a libidinal economy that trades on the tensions and identities that link binaristic oppositions, Richard's inversions produce erotic effect even as they escalate antagonistic affect. In fact, they do so precisely by underscoring such antagonism. Speaking the language and gestures of courtly gentility, Richard provides a new epistemology for the revulsion Anne feels, taking an emotional intensity surrounding one kind of history and substituting for it another:

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 that I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.


Here Richard claims that the desire for Anne's beauty motivated his violent actions, a claim that forges a link between her beauty and his “monstrosity.” In perhaps the scene's most “perverse” lines, Richard makes another remarkable juxtaposition:

And thou unfit for any place but hell.
Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
Some dungeon?
Your bedchamber.

Assertions of personal desire are proffered to occlude those of providential history, as Richard realigns political with sexual ambition, murder with sexual desire, dungeons with bedchambers, and the erotic with violence, entrapment, and damnation. In the courtship scene, Richard is able to sustain a perfectly balanced inversion that works partly because, as David Holbrook has pointed out, “to substitute hate for love has what Polanyi calls ‘the logical appeal of the apparent stability of the total inversion of values.’”5 But its logic is stabilized not just by the structural homologies that support ideological inversions but also by the particular kind of metonymy inversion produces: one that renders radical opposites “alike.” Richard cunningly personalizes as sexual desire political actions and ambitions that are shared by most of the other figures in the play. For Richard, the political is the personal, as he fabricates sexual subjectivity as a usable fiction. By rhetorically substituting sexual for political desire, Richard insinuates an interactive ground on which he can compete with his fellow men as if he were no different from them.6 After claiming that he is not “shap’d for sportive tricks,” Richard nevertheless deploys them; and in doing so, counters others' view of him as prodigious object with a version of himself as a social subject—of desires, emotions, and physical drives. By courting Anne, he includes himself in the social.

But Richard's rhetorical skill is not the only influence at work in this scene. The success of the courtship is underwritten by the mise-enscène. Just as the play uses Richard's body to make its “point,” Richard requires a body through which to run his rhetorical legerdemain. Richard “woos” Anne not in some pleasant garden or lady's chamber, but over the dead Henry's corpse and its gaping, bleeding wounds. After Anne succumbs, Richard himself is stunned by his success:

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.
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 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!


That Richard is baffled signals not the absurdity of the scene but rather its deep logic: no matter how “perverse” Richard believes himself to be, there is something familiar about what has transpired. Something happens at the level of the visual that prompts Richard to imagine that he can transform the perception of physical evidence, can make it mean differently. The “bleeding witness of her hatred” underscores the scene's (and the play’s) violent scopophilia; but it is Anne who initiates the recoding of Henry's wounds by the very copia of her terminology. First she calls them “these wounds,” then “these windows,” then “these holes” (1.2.11-13), and finally, these “congeal’d mouths” (1.2.56). Henry's wounds, windows, holes, and congealed mouths, detached from the rest of his body by their obviousness as targets of the gaze (by what they “show” in the Lacanian sense, in which the object of the gaze shows itself showing itself), are assigned a kind of agency in which they literally express the excessive force of Richard's presence, the power the play gives him to mobilize that which should be congeal’d (whether blood or hatred or desire or line of succession). As multiple signifiers, however, they also provide materials for contesting the significance of this force—what it means in a particular representational lexicon. According to conventional Renaissance lore (which Anne enunciates), the wounds bleed in the proximity of the murderer, and thus are claimed as part of the play's arsenal of Tudor propagandistic devices which code Richard as political portent or monster.

But their very “detachability” also makes them available for Richard's use. Richard picks up the prurient threads which run through Anne's (and the audience’s) engagement with Henry's wounds by openly respeaking them as sites of fetishistic scopophilia: loci of sexual rage and jealousy, as well as substitutive objects/causes of desire, in a libidinal economy which Richard structures around penetration—the transgression of political, social, personal, and gender boundaries. As the agent of such “seduction,” Richard himself need not experience “sexual” desire. As Baudrillard has argued, “Seduction is not desire. It is that which plays with desire, which scoffs at desire. It is that which eclipses desire, making it appear and disappear … Such is the attraction of the dark body of seduction. Things seem to follow their linear truth, their line of truth, but they reach their peak elsewhere, in the cycle of appearances. Things aspire to be straight, like light in an orthogonal space, but they all have a secret curvature.”7 Richard transforms Henry's corpse and its wounds into this dark body of seduction. This “secret curvature,” this appearance and disappearance, describes the way Richard's language reorganizes the discursive habitus according to the signifying trajectory of his own misshapen body, with its less-than-secret curvature. Richard, too, aspires to be “straight” (considers himself cheated by dissembling Nature); but for him there is no movement—whether toward the sexual or toward the royal—that does not reach its peak elsewhere, in the cycle of appearances, that does not veer from its target.

When Richard appears at the beginning of the scene and Henry's wounds bleed afresh, Anne immediately claims them for the play's portentous version of Richard as historical monster. Richard advances his own version of the portentous by recoding the wounds as portents of desire—signs, in Bourdieu's terms, of his own “absolute subjecthood”—put forward to counter the absolute objecthood affixed to him by Tudor history. Henry's wounds will no longer testify for Henry against Richard: now they testify for Richard and his desire. The bleeding witness for the prosecution becomes a witness for the defense.

But this shift isn't libidinally effective with Anne until Richard offers his own breast and sword to her (or pretends to), proclaiming his willingness to take his “wounds” at her hand. In this move, Richard's body becomes identified with Henry's and Anne's with Richard’s; and even while Anne remains rhetorically unconvinced (“Arise dissembler,” she says in 1.2.189), there is something powerfully persuasive about this shifting of bodies and gender roles, as Richard gives Anne the same phallic instrument used to enter Henry's body, and offers up his breast to her. By giving Anne the opportunity (however disingenuously) to penetrate his body with the same “tool,” Richard positions her within the structure of his desire (however dissembled), mimetically doubling not only Henry but an “Anne” who now invites penetration. This shift of gendered subject positions enacts a process of mimetic triangulation in which Anne and Richard are identified in a variation of the “homosocial” in which Henry's body, with its cuts of “desire,” simultaneously provides a feminized medium for which these two opponents can compete (in terms of how it signifies) and through which they can meet.8

This kind of identification/triangulation has links, however, to an older theatrical tradition enacted in medieval Corpus Christi celebrations and play cycles: the practice of contemplating Christ's wounds. Throughout the first tetralogy, Henry is frequently aligned with the figure of Christ: loving, pacific, politically ineffectual but morally pure, helpless against the cunning manipulations of the more “worldly.” Anne clearly equates Henry's wounds with Christ's (as she equates Richard with Satan, who “has made this happy earth a hell”); and her lamentation over his body on the stage solicits what Peter Travis has called “ocular communion”: a joining in and with the spirit and meaning of Christ's Passion by contemplating representations of his mortified body, a ritual designed not only to foster religious desire but to reinforce communal bonds through the “magic” of sacred identification—with Christ, and, through him, with fellow observers.9 Such plays were meant to produce a kind of affective inhabitation of the figure of Christ, in which the mysteries of the Eucharist and transubstantiation were “realized” by gazing at graphic representations of his wounds—by entering, as it were, his body with one's eyes.

But such representations became increasingly lurid in the late Middle Ages and focused more and more on the graphic physical humiliations imagined to have been inflicted by the “tortores,” especially in the Chester cycles, in which there is also much fascination with the exchange of bodily fluids—“spittle and mucus” (Travis, “Social Body,” p. 28, quoting Rosemary Woolf). The intensity of physical language, image, and display in these performances is part of a larger set of representations that has generated much work on the fascination the body and its apertures were provoking apart from explicitly theological concerns.10 As Travis says, “Scholars have told us about late medieval affective piety, the increasing realism and sensationalism of the religious arts, and the attendant psychology, rather like violence in pornography, of heightened shock to envigorate desensitized feelings” (p. 29). Shakespeare's Richard III draws upon and “perverts” this tradition, as Anne's exhortation to “behold” Henry's wounds recalls the convention of “ocular communion,” here evoked to ratify political and social homogeneity (through a sacralized object) against a common enemy. In this invocation, Henry's wounds are sanctified like Christ’s. But unlike Christ's body in the medieval cycles, Henry's sexual status as a male body, a body with a penis, is drastically effeced. Travis points out the “unwavering attention given to Christ's penis during two centuries of Renaissance art” (“Social Body,” p. 19), noting how concerned church authorities were to assign him his “full manhood,” concerns “generated by the horror of lack” (p. 20). In the late medieval plays, the attention paid to Christ's wounds, to his physical subjection, was always accompanied by “attention”—arguments, gestures, or images—designed to dispel anxieties that he might be “nonsexed” (as those without a particular kind of representation of the phallus have, until very recently, always been designated) and therefore “less than perfect.”

But as Sarah Stanbury has also argued, part of the controversy around Christ's masculinity in these representations of the Passion had to do with who was doing the gazing, whose eyes were palpating the limp and punctured male body. Anxiety over potential emasculation is initially engendered by the fact that it is women, and Mary in particular, who tend to direct the gaze of the viewers, both within the representations (in a painting or among a group on the stage) and outside it as well. The viewer’s/audience's gaze is circuited through a female gaze, one that is disallowed in virtually every other cultural arena. Women do look in medieval narratives and poems; but when they do, it is almost always coded as erotic transgression, insofar as looking repositions women within subjectivity, and frequently (and more threateningly) in authority.11

Such transgression and the erotic aspect that I would argue is always present in the gaze are even more directly provoked in drama than they are in painting or lyric, since the viewer confronts the materiality of bodies on a stage. In Richard III (as in other scenes of sacralized violence in Renaissance drama), the transgressive erotic potential of the medieval paradigm makes its way into the semisecular tableau of Anne's lament, as she boldly exhorts others to “behold,” “behold.” Her speech seems less grief-laden (although she sheds tears into Henry's wounds, a literal ocular communion in which her tears enter his body) than warrior-like. Positioned in rhetorical equilibrium with Richard, her language is powerful, confrontative, and aggressive, like her ocular decorum. Her visual assertiveness, however “socially legitimized as a gesture of grief” (Stanbury, “Virgin's Gaze,” p. 1087), as well as her position as designated mourner, appropriates Henry's body, arrogates it to herself, and consequently, by way of exactly the kind of imaginative empathy and identification such ritualistic mourning is designed to foster, reconstitutes it as an extension of herself. Anne's sensationalistic attention to Henry's “holes,” and lack of corresponding attention to his more “manly” parts, pre-pares (if one might be forgiven the pun), Henry's body for what will be Richard's transsexual repairing which, rather like the violence in pornography, achieves its “heightened shock” by gendering all wounds as female (and conversely, by regarding all females as wounded).

Rhetorically recoding Henry's dead body and its wounds as the “effect” (penetration) of “that cause” (sexual desire), Richard transforms political wounds into sexual ones: simulacra of the deflowered maidenhead. Accordingly, Henry's death is translated from a political-theological sacrifice into a sexual one. Henry's “Passion” becomes Richard’s. Like the sexuality pornography claims to “express,” Richard's penetrations of Henry's body are passed off as sexual, rather than political, in nature; and correspondingly, so is the bloody “deluge” that issues from the wounds. Thus, Henry's body becomes, pace Baudrillard, the “peak” that is “reached elsewhere”: the actual target of the secret curvature of Richard's political desire, dissembled by Richard as the deflectionary target of his sexual desire.

In this circuitry, then, “ocular communion” over Henry's body becomes a kind of staged communal voyeurism, in which a body that cannot look back (now visually and discursively coded as female) is “probed” by the gaze of others for its significance. Such activity has long been aligned (as Foucault has argued about the Inquisition, witchcraft interrogations, and the history of confession) with sadistic erotic pleasure, the pleasure afforded (by definition almost exclusively to men) within patriarchal Western culture by exercising scopic and discursive power over bodies with less or no power.12 Despite their differences in this play as male and female figures, and however vitriolic Anne may seem in relation to Richard, they enact a shared voyeurism, a perverse ocular communion over and through a shared body that they have both “entered” and appropriated in their respective ways. In terms of the rhetorical symmetry of their verbal intercourse, as well as the symbolic symmetry of their intercourse with Henry's body, the courtship is staged, however temporarily, between equals; and it is partly this suspension of sheer phallic prerogative that allows for the kind of “friction” that in Shakespeare's courtships frequently constitutes the erotic.13

This is not, however, to say that it is only friction between antagonists that constitutes the erotic in this scene, nor is it to claim that the political—either in terms of royal politics or in terms of gender politics—has even for a moment been suspended. On the contrary. The scene critiques the very conditions of the eroticism it stages. No matter how much moral authority Anne is allowed to exercise in this scene (as the voice of Tudor providentialism and judgment), she is still finally reigned back into the confines of her female body. She has looked aggressively and spoken aggressively and therefore transgressed “proper” feminine decorum; but in doing so, she has also opened herself. A woman's look not only violates but renders her vulnerable to violation. A woman with open eyes, open mouth, and open ears is no longer the hortus conclusus, no longer the “body enclosed,” no longer safely contained, in terms of how she might either mislead or be mislead.14 That Anne's eyes and mouth are so very open in the courtship scene means that her ears will not be far behind. The woman who spits at Richard and says that he “infect[s] [her] eyes” (1.2.152) is signaling that he has already somehow gotten inside. It is through her ears that Richard will secure his success; and he rams his tidings fruitfully.

In revising the epistemology of Henry's death in terms of sexual desire, Richard draws upon a long tradition in which women's bodies and beauty are the putative cause of war, murder, and betrayal; and his success in this scene includes him within this conventional tradition. But it also demonstrates his awareness of it as a form of preposterous displacement, in which the outcome of aggression between men is proleptically installed in the bodies of women as originary cause. Anne, like many other female figures, is simultaneously positioned as the object/cause of violence and as the recipient of that violence as a sacrificial tribute. Richard reinfuses the cold relic of Henry's corpse with the hot life of the sacred gift:

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.

Proclaiming his willingness to pay everything, Richard's declaration of prodigality of expenditure (to undertake the death of all the world for an hour in Anne's “sweet bosom”), like Satan’s, inverts Christ's (who undertook to save the life of all the world) and matches in its profligacy the vehemence of Anne's language. This is no offer of sonnets, undying love, or eternal worship. Here is a dead king (along with a dead husband and promise of even more murderous tributes) served up on the trencher of sexual desire. Reading in Anne's will to sight and speech a will to a certain kind of knowledge (like Eve listening to the serpent), Richard insinuates a desire for her that matches her own in its excessive vehemence and renders its bearer perversely appealing.

That Anne, near the scene's end, goes, within twenty-one lines, from wishing Richard's death (188) to wearing his ring signals the erotic force of the scene's visual and discursive choreography. But this has, I suggest, more to do with the structural operations of transgression than it does either with Richard's “genius” or with Anne's sudden credulity. Rather than attributing it to “characteristics” of Richard or Anne, one might better approach the eroticism of this scene by looking at how the play maps the homologies between excesses of violent ambition and sexual desire. The distinction Bataille has drawn between the “homogeneous” and the “heterogeneous” worlds is illuminating here. The “homogeneous” is that which works conservatively to affiliate social and economic elements with a predictable, reproducible, and conventionally recognizable mode of social production: it is that which excludes contradiction in the social formation. The “heterogeneous,” however, “concerns elements that are impossible to assimilate,” including notions of the sacred and the taboo.15 According to Bataille, “the heterogeneous thing is assumed to be charged with an unknown and dangerous force”; and “the heterogeneous world includes everything resulting from unproductive expenditure (sacred things themselves form a part of this whole). This consists of everything rejected by homogeneous society as waste or as superior transcendent value” (Visions of Excess, p. 142, italics added). Including cadavers, human bodily waste, body parts, and “persons, words, or acts having a suggestive erotic value,” Bataille establishes an identity between “waste” and “superior transcendent value.” To posit them as general equivalences is to describe the ideological structure that constitutes the play's overarching structure of desire. For the play sets up an opposition between the ideology of “divine right,” transcendently bestowed by God on the Tudor monarchy, and the “waste” that it must make, under such overdetermined historiography, of Richard. Coded as waste from the very beginning of the play, by himself as much as by others, and belonging to the realm of the “heterogeneous” because of his withered arm, crook-back, deformed, abortive, and lumpish person, Richard is nevertheless a vitally productive element in the Tudor politics of providential transcendence. For while both waste and superior transcendent value may seem to exist outside productive expenditure, it is precisely this appearance that is socially productive. More important, both are capable of generating the same kind of affective response: “Heterogeneous elements will provoke affective reactions of varying intensity, and it is possible to assume that the object of any affective reaction is necessarily heterogeneous (if not generally, at least with regard to the subject). There is sometimes attraction, sometimes repulsion, and in certain circumstances, any object of repulsion can become an object of attraction, and vice versa” (Visions of Excess, p. 142). Richard's courtship of Anne, as well as the rest of the play, generates those “certain circumstances” Bataille describes by foregrounding the constitutive identities between waste and transcendent values, between curses and blessings, devils and saints, “proper” and improper men, loathing and attraction—all the identities Richard extracts from Anne's language. And her response unarguably demonstrates the intensity of her affective reaction to the play's most heterogeneous object.

This scene works by undermining the pretenses of distinction between high political, and therefore moralized, discourse (which Anne speaks)—the ideology of royal authority and its “universal” signification (also linked to “high” tragedy, which Anne attempts to make of this scene as she laments Henry's death in Senecan style); and Richard's equally ideological but more pragmatic discourse of personal desire and the body: lust, scopophilia (his actions the result of gazing at her beauty and wanting an hour in her sweet bosom). Henry's “corse” and its wounds become the site of articulation between two discursive strategies: one public, “official,” and “moral,” the other private, unsanctioned, and “base.” These narratives, propelled by Anne's and Richard's respective gazes, converge in Henry's bleeding wounds, which are translated from a political sacrifice (the iconology of high tragedy) into a transgressive erotic gift. To borrow from Lewis Hyde, who speaks of the transformative power of gifts, “It is this element of relationship which leads me to speak of gift exchange as an “erotic” commerce, opposing eros (the principle of attraction, union, involvement which binds together) to logos (reason and logic in general, the principle of differentiation in particular.”16 By insisting that Henry's death was the result of his desire for union with her, Richard underscores Anne's “involvement” with him in those wounds, one which binds them together; and in doing so, counterposes the principle of eros to Anne's logos, her rhetorical efforts to differentiate, in absolute terms, not only herself from Richard, but Richard from all humanity. Henry's body becomes this transformative gift, and the bleeding wounds become a sign not of accusation but rather of the plenitude of Richard's desire.

Whether Anne perceives herself to be repositioned by Richard's “gift” inside an erotic commerce or to be the recipient of a Maussian “prestation” is not clear.17 But the scene works in the way that prurience always works: by running ideological misrecognition through an object of affective fixation. Involving repeated exhortations of the gaze, the scene requires the audience's fetishistic scopophilia: its investment in a politics that constructs “that which shows” (the object of the gaze showing itself to the gaze) as that which wants to be seen showing itself, and consequently sees in the hysterical symptom the “will” of the “other.” What is actually most “perverse” about this scene is not Richard's love suit but rather its foregrounding of Henry's body, which becomes the obscene, the too-much-exposed, too visible, too ob-vious object. If, according to T. S. Eliot, the “problem” with Hamlet is the “excess of affect,” the problem in Richard III is the excess of objects.18 Richard's power in this scene derives from a knowledge he bears in his own body: an understanding of the way bodies can be made to mean more than they say. It is (to paraphrase Bourdieu) precisely because bodies do not, strictly speaking, speak for themselves that what they mean is always more than they say. And that meaning transposes the political and the libidinal through the power relations, whether conducted on the battlefield or in a lady's chamber, that organize both fields. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have pointed out about the symbolics of the sewer in nineteenth century Paris, “The melodramatic coercion of extreme opposites into close intimacy here becomes the ultimate truth of the social. For indeed the signs of the sewer could not be confined ‘under the surface.’ The sewer—the city's ‘conscience’—insisted, as Freud said of the hysterical symptom, in ‘joining in the conversation.’”19 Henry's body and its “sewage” “join in the conversation” that Richard's body has already set in motion; for Richard has turned Anne's hyperbolic monologue into dialogue, and has made the wounds speak, as it were, out of both sides of their mouths. Henry's body provides the material for two discursive trajectories—moral/political and sado-erotic—in which these apparently “extreme opposites” are coerced, melodramatically to be sure, “into close intimacy.” The question to be addressed now is: How does this “become the ultimate truth of the social”?

The “attraction of repulsion” arises from a confrontation with a pleasure that cannot be “legitimately” owned (Stallybrass and White, Transgression, p. 144). This pleasure, refracted through the ritual disavowals of prurience, may particularize an individual's history or may be general—the “ultimate truth of the social.” But the truth of the subject is also always a representation of the ultimate truth of the social. Henry's corpse functions in the courtship scene the way Richard's body functions in the rest of the play. For just as Henry's wounds “speak” him as portentous object without his “consent,” so is Richard's body made to enunciate a discourse that doesn't originate in his own utterance.

Richard's sense of what's at stake in bodies is foregrounded when, comparing himself to Edward, he says Anne will nevertheless “debase her eyes” on him. Anne exclaims earlier in this scene that Richard “infects” her eyes. But ocular “infection” is the demonic form of ocular communion: penetration that threatens rather than reinforces structural integrity. That Richard can sway a woman who begins by pleading for “proper” vision, a woman who at one point tells him to get “out of [her] sight,” does seem to enable Richard to creep into a new kind of favor with himself. And yet, it is unclear which side of his mouth he speaks out of when he says,

I do mistake my person all this while!
Upon my life, she finds—although I cannot—
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
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.


Richard realizes that he does have a kind of power to transform the way others regard him; he is clearly stunned by the success of his courtship. But we can also see a desire for a different kind of self-regard, as he says, “Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, / That I may see my shadow as I pass.” These lines are no doubt ironic, and we can imagine Richard capering facetiously as he says them. But if we recall his earlier remarks which are echoed here, it is apparent that his successful courtship has given him a perspective in which he is willing to “descant” on his deformity. Richard begins to find more habitable an image partly of his own making, or at least to envision the possibility of eliding his monstrousness from public perception, demonstrating how rhetorical success reorganizes bodily subjectivity. Richard's achievement in the erotic signals the possibility that language can reconstruct his “person” in terms of how it shows itself showing itself; and that he might revise his status as the object of public gaze in other arenas. If he can translate ocular “infection” to ocular communion with Anne, perhaps he can do so elsewhere.


  1. Marjorie Garber's exploration, in Shakespeare's Ghost Writers, of the way Shakespeare uses the “historicity” of the figure of Richard pushes beyond the usual bounds of the Tudor-propaganda debate into the deconstructive politics of historiography. Garber argues that all history writing is essentially propagandistic insofar as it is “deformed” by the invested, “authorized” writing hand; and that the amplification of Richard's deformity over time signifies the inevitable deformations of history itself. Richard's character “marks the inevitability of deformation in the registers of the political and historiographical” (p. 33). Thus, the writing of history, like the writing of Richard, exemplifies “the dangers of re-membering, of history as an artifact of memory” (p. 44). Garber eloquently asserts that to remember is to re-member, to re-assemble, to assign new members to something; and that the figure of Richard is just such a “remembering”: “Richard is not only deformed, his deformity is itself a deformation. His twisted and misshapen body encodes the whole strategy of history as a necessary deforming and unforming—with the object of re-forming—the past” (p. 36). The suggestion here is that Richard is History: both are prodigious, both are untimely (in the sense of being constructed after the fact), both are misshapen by authorized and authorizing hands.

    In what I take to be the central point of her argument, Garber asserts that, like history, and “created by a similar process of ideological and polemical distortion, Richard's deformity is a figment of rhetoric, a figure of abuse, a catachresis masquerading as a metaphor. In a viciously circular manifestation of neo-Platonic determinism, Richard is made villainous in appearance to match the desired villainy of his reputation, and then is given a personality warped and bent to compensate for his physical shape” (p. 36). While I agree with Garber's characterization of the vicious circle of historiography Richard finds himself in, and finds in himself, her exposition seems haunted by what it leaves out, forecloses on something about Richard that, however anamorphically, demands to be seen. As Garber herself points out early in her argument, “no account of Shakespeare's literary or political motivations in foregrounding his protagonist's deformity is adequate to explain the power and seductiveness of Richard's presence in the plays. Indeed, the very fascination exerted by the historical Richard III seems to grow in direct proportion to an increase in emphasis on his deformity” (p. 31). But emphasizing his deformity as standing solely for the process of writing a history play also seems inadequate “to explain the power and seductiveness of Richard's presence in the play.” In her understandable concern not to essentialize “character,” Garber ends an otherwise convincing discussion almost where one wants it to begin. Accepting the play’s legerdemain by reinscribing the deformed figure of Richard as a “catachresis masquerading as metaphor,” her account misses the way that Shakespeare is representing a subjective identity between metaphor and catachresis: the fact that anyone who is made to “stand for” him or herself will feel “incorrect” or warped, like a bad facsimile of some more “authentic” “original”—that the identity coerced by metaphor is always itself a “masquerade,” always itself purchased by catachresis. In subsuming the figure of Richard under the larger conceptual carapace of “Shakespeare's ghost writers,” Garber's account doesn't explain the “power and seductiveness of Richard's presence in the play” because it leaves out the ghost in the machine.

  2. The Curious Perspective: Literary and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 22.

  3. That the history of criticism of this scene is largely one of incredulity is evident in the vehemence of the criticism that argues for its psychological verisimilitude. Donald Shupe, in “The Wooing of Lady Anne: A Psychological Inquiry,” Shakespeare Quarterly 29 (1978): 28-36, argues that Richard's Machiavellian skill at manipulation makes the scene psychologically believable; and Denzell Smith, in “The Credibility of the Wooing of Anne in Richard III,Papers on Language and Literature 7 (1971): 199-202, argues for the psychological “realism” of the scene as well. However, for an interesting analysis of why the scene doesn't work for Richard precisely because he does accomplish his aim, see 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: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 159-174. Dolores Burton, in “Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III” (Shakespeare Studies 14 [1981]: 55-84), analyzes the wooing of Anne in terms of classical rhetoric, noting that Richard triumphs over Anne because of his skill with forensic or judicial oratory: “Because this oratory of the courtroom attempts to defend or to blame a person's behavior, it looks back to the past, develops arguments from the special topics of justice and injustice, and employs as its means accusation and defense” (p. 62). It is a rhetoric of disputation, and Richard wins because “despite [Anne’s] ability to match Gloucester's language word for word and phrase for phrase, [she] is no match for his logic” (p. 65). Although Burton's interpretation is splendid in its attention to the details and nuances of the language, I don't agree with her sense of what is at stake in the scene. For Burton, the many references to eyes and sight must be understood in the sonnet tradition, the language of which Richard deploys against Anne. She makes no connection between Anne's plea for proper vision in this scene and the larger politics of visual evidence in the play.

  4. I refer here to a paper Goldberg read at the meeting of the English Institute at Harvard University, August 1991. Brilliantly linking the historical and legal construction of “sodomy laws” (in which the “crimes” are never uniformly defined in, as Goldberg puns, “fundamental” terms) with representations of Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf war, Goldberg argued the way in which constructions of “sodomy” and homosexuality are grafted onto figures that a culture wishes to demonize by coding as “unnatural.” Focusing his discussion on an advertisement for a T-shirt that depicted Saddam's face on the rear end of a camel (“in place of” the animal's anus), Goldberg asserted that through such strategies Saddam's “monstrousness” was visually and discursively driven home, and that justification of the war synecdochized the moral imperatives of heterosexism with those of national sovereignty. The paper, entitled “Sodometries,” is now part of Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992).

    Patricia Parker, in Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London: Methuen, 1987), also discusses the “preposterous” as a “rhetorical figure or trope—hysteron proteron, routinely Englished in the Renaissance as ‘The Preposterous.’ Puttenham and others described it as a form of verbal reversal, one which sets ‘that before which should be behind’ (Puttenham) or ‘that which ought to be in the first place … in the second’ (Angell Day)” (p. 67). Parker skillfully analyzes this figure in terms of the politics of gender and role reversals and the threat they pose to the ideological syntax of “proper order”—whether of history, inheritance laws, or gender relations.

    And Joel B. Altman, in “‘Preposterous Conclusions’: Eros, Enargeia, and the Composition of Othello” (Representations 18 [Spring 1987]: 129-157), uses the figure of hysteron proteron to argue that Shakespeare's characters in general, and in Othello in particular, deploy it in their attempts to construct “probability” out of what the playwright himself represented as “radical improbability” (p. 132). Arguing that the trope of the preposterous operates for characters when, “under the sway of passion, effects precede causes (rationally construed) and ends precede means” (p. 133), Altman persuasively demonstrates in his sophisticated rhetorical analysis that Shakespeare “would seem to have had considerable purchase upon a probabilism that was beginning to acquire the dangerous features of an ideology in his time” (p. 133).

  5. David Holbrook, Sex and Dehumanization in Art, Thought and Life and Life in Our Time (London: Pitman Publishing, 1972), p. 24.

  6. Richard's skill at the Latin rhetorical form insinuatio is manifest. In this one scene he fulfills seven out of the eight criteria of the form elaborated by Edward Corbett in Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 310. Richard (1) denies the charges that have created prejudices against him, (2) admits the charges but denies their alleged magnitude, (3) cites a compensating virtue or action, (4) attributes the discrediting action to an inescapable compulsion, (5) cites others who were guilty of the same thing but were not charged, (6) substitutes a different motive or cause for the one alleged, (7) inveighs against calumny and malicious insinuation in general.

  7. Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, trans. Bernard Schutze and Caroline Schutze (New York: Semiotext(e), 1988), pp. 67, 69-70.

  8. I borrow the term “homosocial” from Eve Sedgwick's powerful account of the representational strategies and structures of male bonding within a “heterosexual,” homophobic culture; see Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). In defining her use of the term, Sedgwick says that “‘homosocial’ is a word occasionally used in history and the social sciences, where it describes social bonds between persons of the same sex; it is a neologism, obviously formed by analogy with ‘homosexual,’ and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from ‘homosexual.’ In fact, it is applied to such activities as ‘male bonding,’ which may, as in our society, be characterized by intense homophobia, fear and hatred of homosexuality. To draw the ‘homosocial’ back into the orbit of ‘desire,’ of the potentially erotic, then, is to hypothesize the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual” (p. 1). Relying heavily on the concept of triangulated desire developed by René Girard in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Sedgwick articulates the structure relevant to my use of the term here: “What is most interesting … in his study is his insistence that, in any erotic rivalry, the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the two rivals to the beloved: that the bonds of ‘rivalry’ and ‘love,’ differently as they are experienced, are equally powerful and in many senses equivalent” (p. 21).

  9. See Peter Travis, “The Social Body of the Dramatic Christ in Medieval England,” Early Drama to 1600, Acta 13 (1985): 17-36.

  10. Perhaps three of the most important and influential works on the shifting historical standards of what one might call orificial decorum are Elias, The History of Manners; Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968); and Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966). For a brilliant critical synthesis and theoretical analysis of representations of and debates around the body and its apertures in early modern England, see Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), esp. pp. 1-26.

  11. Stanbury, “The Virgin's Gaze: Spectacle and Transgression in Middle English Lyrics of the Passion,” PMLA 106, no. 5 (October 1991): 1083-1093, esp. 1085. Women are supposed to be objects, not subjects, of the gaze; and as Stanbury puts it, the key question is “Why does Mary seem exempted in this setting from taboos against a woman's gaze, particularly one focused on the male body?” (p. 1086). She argues that “medieval passional lyrics present a drama of transgression,” but that “Mary is not prohibited from looking … because a nearly dead body is hardly an erotic spectacle; moreover, her gaze is maternal and compassionate, entitled by a mother's right. Yet, I would counter, these categories—what is maternal, what is erotic—are not that simply fixed … What we do not see when we look at a tableau as familiar as, for example, Giotto's Lamentation are its transgressions, its violations of ordinary boundaries through gestures that conflate Eros, Thanatos, and maternal power” (p. 1086).

    Stanbury is right that the categories above, as well as others, are not simply fixed and that they exceed their own boundaries as well as overlap the boundaries of other codes of “decorum” all the time. Such transgression is, I would add, precisely what gives these representations their power of fascination: they represent less fully their own subject matter than they do what's involved, evoked, and conjured in the act of “apprehending” it.

  12. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977); and idem, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1980). Dianne Hunter, editor of Seduction and Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), argues in her introduction (pp. 1-10) that masculine subjectivity in patriarchal Western culture depends on its ability to dominate and subjugate others (most notably women) with and to the gaze. Norman Bryson, in Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), argues that the gaze enacts “a certain violence (penetrating, piercing, fixing)” and that it “actively seeks to confine what is always on the point of escaping or slipping out of bounds” (p. 93).

    Barbara Freedman, in her fine study Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), has argued that the Renaissance stage in particular, and theatricality in general, are site and trope respectively for representations of the gaze that are best illuminated by Lacan's theory of subjectivity. Freedman points out the ways Shakespearean drama fetishizes the observed and the observing. And she asserts that its requirement that the audience identify with the performative acts, as well as physical outlines, of the figures on stage reproduces the conditions of subject formation charted in Lacanian psychoanalysis: “Méconnaissance is Lacan's term for the misrecognitions through which the ego is constructed and the illusory identifications, whether of gender or ideology, through which it is sustained. The term reminds us that Lacan's mirror stage has broader implications, especially because the mirror stage need not rely on a physical mirror per se … For Lacan, self-identification is based on a representation that alienates as it procures: ‘Man becomes aware of this reflection from the point of view of the other; he is an other for himself’ … Desire and aggressivity mark the distance between subject and its ideal image, termed ideal because it can never be fully assimilated” (p. 53). It is just such a “procurement” that the gaze establishes: one that constitutes the gazing observer as subject precisely by “alienating” as “Other” the object of the gaze.

  13. Stephen Greenblatt argues that discrepancies between gender roles, conceptions of the male and female bodies, and the conditions of cross-dressing in Shakespearean comedy generate a “chafing” or “friction” that produces erotic “heat,” both within the play and for the audience as well. Using a masturbatory image as the central trope for an allegory of theater-as-foreplay, Greenblatt's “case” is more persuasive for courtship in the comedies than for courtship in the tragedies, where the “friction” of “foreplay” (which is where the comedies tend to end—with preconsummated nuptials) usually leads to an eroticism that inevitably invokes male sexual anxiety and violence. See “Fiction and Friction,” in Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), esp. pp. 88-93. Interestingly, I discovered after writing this chapter that Greenblatt amplifies his statement that “erotic chafing is the central means by which characters in [comedies] realize their identities and form loving unions” (p. 88) with a footnote in which he confesses, “I think Shakespeare first realized the erotic energy of chafing in the wooing scene in Richard III” (p. 183). If Richard and Anne Neville generate this kind of erotic “friction,” it is the result of a temporary suspension of their “proper” gender roles as they jockey for position and power over Henry's feminized corpse, a suspension that will quickly be canceled once Anne capitulates to the frictional eroticism that can be celebrated in the comedies only because it is always, ultimately, under male control.

  14. See Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 123-142.

  15. Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 140.

  16. Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage, 1979), p. xiv.

  17. Marcel Mauss has described the way gift exchange binds all involved in the obligation to give, to receive, and to reciprocate and consequently weaves them into a fabric of social constraints that have little to do with the individual “wills” of the participants. The obligation is especially compelling for the recipient, who is “free” neither to refuse a gift nor to extricate herself from the “debt” incurred. See The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W. D. Hall (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 39.

    One could object that what we are seeing between Anne and Richard is merely political strategy and sexual dissembling, and therefore that there is nothing “genuinely” erotic about the scene. And certainly one could argue that within the patriarchal relations that structure all relations in the play, we see only the hobbled kind of eroticism that a habitus structured around murderous phallic aggression is capable of producing. But these objections would be more interesting for what they tend to assume rather than point up about the erotic. To say that there could not be any genuine erotic attraction between Richard and Anne would be to assume (1) that eroticism is always based on a benevolent libidinal investment, and (2) that it is a fixed category that does not shift shape, target, and configuration. It would be to assume, mistakenly, that there is nothing erotic about dissembling itself. (Whatever we might think of them, figures such as Kierkegaard's “seducer” Johannes, Choderlos de Laclos' Valmont and Merteuil, Richardson's Lovelace, not to mention the more recent success of a cultural figure like Madonna, give the lie to this.) It is to repeat the mistake that medieval church censors made when they failed to see erotic transgression in the gaze of the Virgin: to assume that the matter being represented (the ostensible object of desire) is more “authentic” than the process involved in representing and apprehending it—more real than what gets set in motion around the object “itself.” Such an assumption posits an absolute division between forms of desire, such as ambition, lust, envy, competition, love—a division that is ideological rather than essential. In terms of the erotic effect of the scene, it little matters what Richard's “real” aims are or what his “darker purpose” is.

  18. See Jacqueline Rose, “Hamlet: The Mona Lisa of Literature,” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986), pp. 124-125.

  19. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 141. Of course, Richard's body is not yet the “bourgeois body,” with its repression of the “lower bodily stratum”; there is not yet the full stratification and policing of acceptable/unacceptable bodily spheres as they make their way into discourse (and as discourse makes its way into bodily spheres).

    And yet Francis Barker, in The Tremulous Private Body: Essays in Subjection (London: Methuen, 1984), is wrong to assert that there were in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries no distinctions between the individual's physical person and the bodily stratum of the social, which he terms “the plenum.” Throughout the first tetralogy, particular bodies are very much in the way. They “obstruct” unauthorized political movement; and they do so because they belong to persons who stand in a “legitimate” or illegitimate relationship to accession to royal power by virtue of bloodlines. Richard's body is discreditable because it “reveals” Richard's “true” relation to the social and political, a relation which is designated monstrous and perverse. But it is no mere metaphor. The tension between the body as metaphor and as all-too-concrete is precisely what constitutes Richard's identity; others produce figurative material out of a body that has condensed around Richard like a shell, disqualifying him from utterances of metaphorical signification because of inevitable and literal self-implication.

Phyllis Rackin (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Engendering the Tragic Audience: The Case of Richard III,” in Shakespeare and Gender: A History, Verso, 1995, pp. 263-82.

[In the following essay, Rackin examines the disempowerment that occurs to the female characters when Shakespeare transforms a history play into a tragedy as he does with Richard III.]


Although the First Folio classifies Richard III with Shakespeare's other English histories, the title pages of the Quartos suggest generic difference. In the case of 2 Henry VI, the title page indicates both the episodic chronicle structure of the play and its historical subject: ‘The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Iacke Cade: And the Duke of Yorkes first claime unto the Crowne’. The Quarto of Richard III, by contrast, designates at once its self-consciously dramatic form as tragedy, its origins as a script for theatrical performance, and its strongly centred focus on the male protagonist: ‘The Tragedy of Richard the third, Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his iunocent nephewes: his tyrannicall usurpation: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserved death. As it hath beene lately Acted by the Right honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his servants’.

In Shakespeare's time, the story of Richard III was repeatedly identified as tragic. Edward Hall had entitled his account of Richard's reign ‘The Tragical Doynges of Kynge Richard The Thirde’, Richard's story (along with those of Clarence, Hastings, Buckingham, and Jane Shore) was identified as a tragedy in A Mirror for Magistrates. Thomas Legge's Latin play Richardus Tertius, performed at Cambridge in 1579, is identified in contemporary texts as an exemplary tragedy, singled out by Sir John Harington and Thomas Heywood to illustrate the beneficial effects of tragic drama, and by Francis Meres in his list of ‘famous tragedies’.1 Yet another play about Richard, anonymously published in 1594 and entitled ‘The True Tragedy of Richard III’, begins with a dialogue between Truth and Poetrie that identifies ‘Tragedia’ as a player in the coming action and the subject of the play as a ‘Tragedie’ (Sig A3r).

This essay is an attempt to delineate the ways the reconstruction of history as tragedy in Richard III transvalued the representations of women on Shakespeare's stage, and transformed the gendered relationship between actors and audience in the playhouse. I should begin, however, by acknowledging that the distinction between history and tragedy was by no means clear. The protagonists of tragedy, like those of history, were understood to be characters of high rank. Moreover, in the Renaissance as in antiquity, plays identified as tragedies frequently took their subjects from history. (Shakespeare himself is a good case in point: of the eleven plays designated as tragedies in the First Folio, all but Romeo and Juliet and Othello have historical subjects.)2

Despite the many similarities between the subjects of the two genres, contemporary descriptions of the ways they affected their audiences are strikingly different in regard to issues of gender. Anti-theatrical invective typically attacked all theatrical performance as effeminating, but the English history play offered a significant exception.3 Thomas Nashe, in fact, used the example of the English history play to defend theatrical performance against its detractors: ‘our forefathers valiant acts … are revived’, he declared, ‘than which, what can be a sharper reproofe to these degenerate effeminate days of ours?’ Commemorating the valiant deeds of heroic forefathers and celebrating the masculine virtues of courage, honour, and patriotism, the theatrical representation of English historical subjects could redeem theatrical performance as a means of reclaiming the endangered masculinity of the men in the theatre audience.

Tragedy, on the other hand, was likely to inspire womanly emotions in its spectators. According to Stephen Gosson, ‘The beholding of troubles and miserable slaughters that are in Tragedies, drive us to immoderate sorrow, heaviness, womanish weeping and mourning, whereby we become lovers of dumpes, and lamentation, both enemies to fortitude.’4 The claim that tragedy produced womanly softness in its spectators was not confined to anti-theatrical discourse. Sir Philip Sidney recounts a story from Plutarch in which the performance of a tragedy ‘drewe aboundance of teares’ from the eyes of a tyrant ‘who, without all pitty, had murthered infinite nombers, and some of his owne blood’ (pp. 177-8). Arguing for the salutary effects of tragedy, Sidney does not identify them as effeminating. The terms of his argument, however, suggest just that. He claims, for instance, that tragedy ‘openeth the greatest wounds, and sheweth forth the Ulcers that are covered with Tissue’. As Gail Paster has demonstrated, men's bodies opened and wounded were gendered feminine; and the ulcer image directly parallels the terms in which Hamlet will address his guilty mother: ‘Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, / That not your trespass but my madness speaks; / It will but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen’ (III.iv.145-9).

Women, in fact, were especially prominent in descriptions of the effects of tragedies on early modern audiences. In a 1620 recollection of a performance of The Spanish Tragedy, for instance, ‘Ladyes in the boxes’ are said to have ‘Kept time with sighes and teares to [the player’s] sad accents’. As Richard Levin points out, the numerous contemporary accounts that describe ‘women weeping in the theatre’ suggest a perception ‘that women had a special sensitivity to, and perhaps a special preference for, pathetic plots and situations’ (pp. 170-71).5

In An Apology for Actors, Thomas Heywood recounts three anecdotes to illustrate the beneficial effects of tragedies on their auditors. Two of them centre on women who had murdered their husbands. In the first, ‘a townes-woman (till then of good estimation and report)’ watching a play about a woman who had committed a similar crime ‘suddenly skritched and cryd out Oh my husband, my husband! I see the ghost of my husband fiercely threatning and menacing me’, and subsequently confessed her crime to the people about her in the audience. In the second, the particulars of the tragic plot are somewhat different, but they have exactly the same effect on the wicked woman: during the performance of a play in which a labourer, envied by his fellow-workers for his diligence, is murdered by having a nail driven into his temples, ‘a woman of great gravity’ becomes ‘strangely amazed’ and ‘with a distracted & troubled braine oft sighed out these words: Oh my husband, my husband!’:

The play, without further interruption, proceeded; the woman was to her owne house conducted, without any apparant suspition, every one coniecturing as their fancies led them. In this agony she some few dayes languished, and on a time, as certaine of her well disposed neighbours came to comfort her, one amongst the rest being Church-warden, to him the Sexton posts, to tell him of a strange thing happening him in the ripping up of a grave: see here (quoth he) what I have found, and shewes them a faire skull, with a great nayle pierst quite through the braine-pan, but we cannot conjecture to whom it should belong, nor how long it hath laine in the earth, the grave being confused, and the flesh consumed. At the report of this accident, the woman, out of the trouble of her afflicted conscience, discovered a former murder. For 12 years ago, by driving that nayle into that skull, being the head of her husband, she had trecherously slaine him. This being publickly confest, she was arraigned, condemned, adiudged, and burned.

(sig GIv, G2v)

Heywood's lurid examples represent an extreme case. The plays he describes belong to the subgenre of domestic tragedy, an innovative dramatic form that moved down the social scale and into the home to find its subjects in a domestic space where female characters could and did play central roles (Dolan). Not all of the female spectators of tragedy were imagined as ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play’, and not all of the spectators of tragedy were imagined as women. None the less, the spectators were repeatedly and consistently described in contemporary accounts as moved to emotions and responses (compassion, remorse, pity, tears) that were understood as feminine. This conception of the effects of tragedy as feminizing, although not always explicitly stated, is remarkably consistent: it appears in arguments for and against the theatre, in the prologues and epilogues to plays, in accounts of actual experience as well as in prescriptive directions.

The Induction to A Warning for Fair Women (1599) begins with the stage direction: ‘Enter at one doore, Hystorie with Drum and Ensigne: Tragedie at another, in her one hand a whip, in the other a knife’. During the ensuing dispute with Comedie and Hystorie, Tragedie's feminine gender receives repeated emphasis. She is addressed by the others as ‘mistris buskins’ and ‘my Ladie Tragedie’, and she describes the kind of performance she requires as one that will produce feminine emotions in the audience:

I must have passions that must move the soule,
Make the heart heave, and throb within the bosome,
Extorting teares out of the strictest eyes,
… Until I rap the sences from their course …

(sig. A2v, A3r)

Over half a century later, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, described the effects of Shakespeare's tragedies in similar terms:

in his Tragick Vein, he Presents Passions so Naturally, and Misfortunes so Probably, as he Peirces the Souls of his Readers with such a True Sense and Feeling thereof, that it Forces Tears through their Eyes. …6

In direct contrast to Nashe's celebration of the history play, which imagines an audience of men inspired by the representation of a heroic masculine world to emulate the manly virtues of the forefathers, tragedy is repeatedly described as appealing to women as well as men; and its appeal to men is repeatedly described as directed towards their feminine sympathies, softening hard hearts, piercing guilty souls with remorse, ravishing the entire audience with the feminine passions of pity and fear, and forcing them to weep.

A similarly gendered difference characterized the subjects of the two genres. On the stage as in the audience, the exemplary subjects of tragedy—‘Gods and Goddesses, Kynges and Queenes’ (Webbe, p. 249)—were understood to include women as well as men.7 Because history sought to commemorate the past, reconstituted as a nostalgically idealized world of the fathers, women and sexuality occupied only marginal roles. Both tragedy and comedy, however, assigned important roles to women and marriage. In comedy, conflicts between older and newer social dispensations are characteristically resolved in marriage; in tragedy they often constitute the hero's predicament, which is typically defined at least partly in terms of his relationship to women. This is true not only in plays like Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra, which centre on romantic relationships, but also in virtually every tragedy in the Shakespearean canon, with the possible exceptions of Julius Caesar and Timon of Athens.

Shakespeare's history plays opposed the troubling realities of cultural change by projecting a better world in the past; his tragedies played out those cultural contradictions in the struggles of an individual heroic figure destroyed by the irreconcilable conflicts they produced.8 Deeply implicated in those contradictions, the ambivalent place of women in Shakespeare's world and the instability of the gender ideology that attempted to contain them were central issues in tragic drama (Rose; Callaghan).


The reconstruction of history as tragedy in Richard III is accompanied by a remarkable transformation in the representation and placement of female characters. Paradoxically, even as the female characters are ennobled, they are also disempowered. On the one hand, women are much more sympatheticaly portrayed. On the other, they lose the vividly individualized voices and the dangerous theatrical power that made characters like Joan and Margaret in the Henry VI plays potent threats to the masculine project of English history-making. Robert Weimann's distinction between locus and platea can be used to chart both the elevation of the female characters and their containment. Weimann associates the locus with the upstage site of mimetic illusion, ‘allofness from the audience and representational closure’ which privileges the authority of the objects represented, the platea with the forestage where actors addressed their audiences, a liminal space where the authority of the represented narrative could be challenged by calling attention to the immediate theatrical occasion with all its subversive potential.9 Although not always or necessarily literalized in specific locations on the physical stage, the different acting styles and different relationships between actor and audience that Weimann associates with locus and platea provide a useful basis for understanding the transformation of women's roles in Richard III. Ennobled, the female characters move into the privileged locus of hegemonic representation, but this move also subsumes them into the patriarchal project of that representation, and distances them from the present theatre audience.

Because the traditional subjects of English history were the heroic deeds and dynastic struggles of kings and noblemen, the female characters in Shakespeare's other English history plays are typically defined in gendered antithesis by low social status and foreign nationality. The foreign tongues spoken by the Welsh woman in 1 Henry IV and the French woman in Henry V, and the malapropisms that disfigure the speech of Mistress Quickly signal their inability to enter the official discourse of English history. In direct antithesis, all of the female characters in Richard III are highborn English women who speak in the undifferentiated, formal blank verse that constitutes the standard language of the playscript. Recruited in the service of the hegemonic project of the plot, the accession of Henry VII to the English throne, the women are also subsumed in its hegemonic discourse.10 Even Margaret, the most powerful of Richard's female antagonists, speaks in the generalized rhetorical terms that constitute the normative language of the play.

Assuming their tragic roles as pitiable victims, female characters are no longer represented as dangerous, demonic Others. The subversive theatrical energy of the peasant Joan is replaced by the pathos of suffering English queens.11 Margaret, the adulterous wife and bloodthirsty warrior of the Henry VI plays, is transformed into a bereaved and suffering prophet of divine vengeance for the crimes of the past. In the Henry VI plays, the female characters are defined as opponents to the masculine project of English history-making. In Richard III, all of the women support the desired conclusion of the historical plot, the foundation of the Tudor dynasty.

Although the overarching goal of the dramatic action in Richard III (as in all of Shakespeare's English histories and a number of his tragedies as well) is the maintenance of a legitimate royal succession, in this play, unlike the earlier histories, it is the male protagonist who opposes the patriarchal project. The threats to patrilineal succession represented in the Henry VI plays by Joan's sexual promiscuity and Margaret's adultery are replaced by Richard's murders and his deceitful effort to deny the legitimacy of his brother's innocent children, the rightful heirs to the throne he usurps, and even of Edward himself. In Richard III, the subversive power associated with female characters in the earlier plays is demystified, and all the power of agency and transgression is appropriated by the male protagonist. The threat of adultery is no longer real, and the character who threatens to displace legitimate heirs is not any adulterous woman but the slanderous man who brings the charge. Witchcraft, the quintessential representation of the dangerous power of women, is similarly reduced from a genuine threat to a transparent slander. Both Joan in 1 Henry VI and Eleanor Cobham in 2 Henry VI summon demons to the stage. In Richard III, however, there are only Richard's unsupported and obviously false chargest against Queen Elizabeth and Jane Shore.

Joan in 1 Henry VI is the prototype for the marginal and criminal status of the women in the Henry VI plays and also for their subversive, theatrical energy. Her very subversiveness, however, authorizes her dramatic power. As both Catherine Belsey and Karen Newman have observed, the custom of requiring witches to confess from the scaffold ‘paradoxically also offered women a place from which to speak in public with a hitherto unimagined authority which was not diminished by the fact that it was demonic’. These public occasions were also theatrical. As both critics note, ‘the crowds at trials and executions’ were frequently described as ‘beholders’ or ‘the audience’, and ‘Pamphleteers often described[d] the scene of execution explicity as a play.’12

Two episodes, one near the beginning of the play and one near its end, illustrate the way the powerful role of demonic other, occupied by women in the Henry VI plays, is now transferred to Richard. The longer of these is the second, the encounter near the end of Act IV between Richard and Queen Elizabeth, where Shakespeare altered his historical source in order to ennoble the character of the widowed queen. As Barbara Hodgdon observes, Shakespeare ‘displaces those attributes the chronicler ascribes to the Queen onto Richard’ (pp. 109-10). In Hall's version, Queen Elizabeth exemplifies female ‘inconstancie’, first promising her daughter Elizabeth (or, in the event of Elizabeth's death, her next daughter, the Lady Cecile) to Richmond, then, persuaded by promise of ‘promocions innumerable and benefites’, agreeing to Richard's demands:

… putting in oblivion the murther of her innocente children, the infamy and dishonoure spoken by the kynge her husbande, the lyvynge in avoutrie leyed to her charge, the bastardyng of her daughters, forgettyng also ye feithfull promes and open othe made to the countesse of Richmond mother to ye erle Henry, blynded by avaricious affeccion and seduced by flatterynge wordes, first delivered into kyng Richards handes her. v. daughters as Lambes once agayne committed to the custody of the ravenous wolfe.

(pp. 391, 406)

Shakespeare's widowed queen, unlike Hall’s, keeps faith with Richmond and adamantly refuses Richard's urgings to forget past wrongs. Insistently recalling the fate of her murdered children, she charges: ‘No doubt the murd’rous knife was dull and blunt / Till it was whetted on thy stone-hard heart / To revel in the entrails of my lambs's (IV.iv.227-9). Shakespeare thus appropriates for Elizabeth's use against Richard the very arguments, and even the terms, by which the authoritative narrative voice in Hall's chronicle condemns her action.

In Shakespeare's representation, it is Richard and not Elizabeth—or any of the women—who becomes the sole object of condemnation. The women are deprived of theatrical power and agency, both of which are appropriated by Richard, along with their demonic roles. The audience is never allowed to see Elizabeth deciding to bestow her daughter on Richmond. All we get is Stanley's laconic report that ‘the Queen hath heartily consented / He [Richmond] should espouse Elizabeth her daughter’ (IV.v.7-8); and a number of critics have accepted Richard's judgement at the end of their encounter that the queen is a ‘relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman13 Like the other women in Richard III, Elizabeth serves as a kind of ventriloquist's dummy. She gives forceful and eloquent voice to Richard's crimes, but her own motives can remain ambiguous because they are finally irrelevant to the outcome of the plot. What is important is that Richmond marries her daughter; whether or when the queen gives her consent is of so little consequence that it is never clearly specified in Shakespeare's script.

The earlier incident is much more brief, a telling moment in Act I when Richard literally appropriates the demonic power of a woman's voice. Margaret of Anjou, sent at the end of 3 Henry VI back to France (where her historical prototype died in 1482), returns unhistorically in Richard III like a voice from the dead to recall the crimes of the past and pour out curses on her old enemies. In Act I, Scene iii, she comes onstage as an eavesdropper who punctuates the dialogue with bitter comments delivered to the audience, unheard by the other characters. Finally, she moves forward to dominate the stage with a great outpouring of curses and denunciations, directed at each of the other characters in turn. When she comes to Richard, however, he interrupts the stream of malediction to turn Margaret's curses back upon herself. ‘O, let me make the period to my curse!’ she complains. ‘Tis done by me’, he replies, ‘and ends in “Margaret” ’ (I.iii.216-38).

This exchange dramatizes what will be a major source of Richard's theatrical power—his appropriation of the woman's part.14 Characterized throughout in terms of warlike masculinity and aggressive misogyny, Richard also commands the female power of erotic seduction. His monopoly of both male and female sexual energy is vividly portrayed in his seduction of Anne. The turning point comes when Richard lends her his sword and lays his breast ‘naked’ for her penetration (I.ii.177). Overwhelmed by Richard's aggressive passivity, Anne's resistance quickly collapses, whereupon Richard seals his sexual conquest by enclosing her finger with his ring. ‘Look how my ring encompasseth thy finger,’ he says. ‘Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart’ (I.ii.203-4). Owner of both the sword and the naked breast, both penetrated ring and penetrating heart, Richard has become, as Rebecca Bushnell points out, ‘both the man who possesses and the woman who submits’ (p. 124).

The power that Richard takes from women is not only the power to curse and seduce; it is also the power to transcend the frame of historical representation, the ability to address the audience directly without the knowledge of the other characters, and the theatrical energy that serves to monopolize the audience's attention. The structure of Richard's exchange with Margaret is also the structure of the early scenes in the play: it is always Richard who has the last word—along with the first. Each scene is punctuated by soliloquies in which Richard addresses the audience, predicting the action to come, responding to the action just past, flaunting his witty wickedness, gloating at the other characters' weakness and ignorance, and seducing the fascinated auditors into complicity with his diabolical schemes.

The association between the transgressive, the demonic, and the theatrical is consistently used to characterize Richard. It is, in fact, associated with his story from its beginning in More's History of King Richard the thirde (c. 1513-18), written about thirty years after Richard's death, the source for the versions Shakespeare found in Hall and Holinshed.15 In Shakespeare's representation, as in his sources, Richard's wickedness is repeatedly and explicitly associated with his characterization as an actor. These associations are established even in 3 Henry VI. Just before his murder by Richard, Henry asks: ‘What scene of death hath Roscius now to act?’ ( Earlier in the play, Richard has a long soliloquy in which he identifies himself as a villain in exactly the same terms that Renaissance writers typically used to describe actors:

Why, I can smile, and murther 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 can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murtherous Machevil to school


In Richard III. Richard's identity as a master performer becomes the structural principle of the dramatic action. As Alexander Leggatt has observed, this ‘is the only play of Shakespeare's to begin with a soliloquy by one of its characters’. Not only the central character in the locus of historical representation, Richard also monopolizes the platea of direct address to the audience; he ‘is not just hero but chorus and presenter as well’ (p. 32).17 The early scenes of the play are punctuated by asides and soliloquies in which Richard announces his chosen dramatic role (‘to prove a villain’), shares his wicked plots with the audience before stepping back into the frame of representation to execute them upon the other characters, and then returns to the platea to gloat about the efficacy of his performance.

By defining his villainy as theatrical tour de force, Richard invites the audience to suspend their moral judgement and evaluate his actions simply as theatrical performance. Significantly, the most striking instance of this manœuvre occurs in the soliloquy at the end of the scene when he seduces Anne. ‘Was ever woman in this humor woo’ d?’ he asks the audience. ‘Was ever woman in this humor won?’:

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 withness of my hatred by,
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabb’d in my angry mood at Tewksbury?
And will she yet abase her eyes on me,
That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince
And made her widow to a woeful bed?


This soliloquy, which ends the scene, goes on for thirty-seven lines, reminding the audience of the historical wrongs that should have made Anne reject his suit, flaunting the theatrical power that made her forget the past. Here, and throughout the first act of the play, Richard performs a similar seduction upon the audience. For the audience as for Anne, the seduction requires the suspension of moral judgment and the erasure of historical memory, since Shakespeare's contemporaries would have entered his theatre well aware of the demonic role that Richard had been assigned in Tudor historiography; but the sheer theatrical energy of his performance supersedes the moral weight of the hegemonic narrative.

The conflation of the historical seduction represented onstage with the theatrical seduction of the present audience, of the character Richard with the actor who played his part, and of the feminine character he seduces onstage with an audience placed in a feminine role, is implicit in two well-known anecdotes associated with the play from the beginning of the seventeenth century. In March 1602, John Manningham recorded in his diary an account of a ‘citizen’ in the audience ‘upon a tyme when Burbidge played Rich. 3’ who ‘greue soe farr in liking with him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to come that night unto hir by the name of Ri: the 3’.18 Another anecdote, not explicitly sexual, also attests the identification of Richard with the actor who played his part. Bishop Richard Corbet, a friend of Ben Jonson, described a visit to the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field in which his host, ‘when he would have said, King Richard dyed, / And call’d—A horse! a horse!—he, Burbidge cry’de’.

Both these anecdotes point to a subtle but significant difference between conceptions of tragedy and history, a difference which helps to explain both the ennobling and the disempowering of the female characters in Richard III. Contemporary descriptions of the history-play genre focus on the historical objects of representation. Celebrating ‘our domesticke histories’, Thomas Heywood asks:

what English blood seeing the person of any bold English man presented and doth not hugge his fame, and hunnye at his valor, pursuing him in his enterprise with his best wishes, and as beeing wrapt in contemplation, offers to him in his hart all prosperous performance, as if the personater were the man Personated. … What English Prince should hee behold the true portrature of that [f]amous King Edward the third, foraging France, taking so great a King captive in his owne country, quartering the English Lyons with the French Flower-delyce, and would not bee suddenly Inflam’d with so royall a spectacle, being made apt and fit for the like atchievement. So of Henry the fift.

(I: sig B4r)

Thomas Nashe makes essentially the same claims for the theatrical performance of English history. For Nashe as for Heywood, the value of the history play is identified with the value of the objects of historical representation. ‘[W]hat a glorious thing it is’, he insists, ‘to have Henrie the fifth represented on the Stage, leading the French King prisoner.’ He imagines ‘How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times) who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding?’ (4:238-9). The thought of the weeping spectators, however, leads inexorably to the thought of the ‘Tragedian’: the present actor who elicits the spectators’ feminine tears replaces the historical character who constitutes the object of masculine emulation.

Conceived as historical drama, the play features the objects of representation. Conceived as tragedy, it features the theatrical power of the actor. In either case, the role of the protagonist is reserved for a male character, but so long as the protagonist is identified, like Heywood's Edward III or Nashe's (and Shakespeare’s) Talbot, with the locus of historical representation, the transgressive power of theatrical performance can be mobilized by a woman like Joan (or a disorderly, effeminate man like Falstaff) to subvert the hegemonic narrative. Once the protagonist assumes the role of tragic hero, however, he can also dominate the platea. Not only the character privileged in the represented action, the tragic hero is also the actor privileged in theatrical performance. When Richard speaks to the audience, the platea begins to assume the function it would have in plays like Hamlet and Macbeth as the site of the soliloquies where the masculine subject of tragedy was to be constructed.19


The movement in Richard III from historical chronicle to tragical history is also a movement into modernity. Tragedy, as Catherine Belsey has shown, was deeply involved with the emergent conception of an autonomous masculine identity defined in performance. The history play was doubly associated with the past, not only with the traditional heroes of the historical chronicles it represented, but also with an older conception of masculine identity rooted in patrilineal inheritance. As a dramatic genre, moreover, tragedy represented the wave of the future, while the vogue of the history play was remarkably short-lived, beginning in the 1580s and ending soon after the accession of James I (Levy, p. 233; Rackin, pp. 30-32).

Both transitory and transitional, the Shakespearean history play was shaped by the same process of rapid cultural transformation that quickly produced its obsolescence as a dramatic genre. The plays combine two potentially contradictory versions of national and personal identity, rationalizing new conceptions of royal authority and masculine identity by reference to old models of patrilineal inheritance, amalgamating medieval cultural structures of dynastic succession with emergent concepts of personal achievement and private property. In so doing, they anticipate the new concept of feudalism that Richard Halpern describes as James I's ‘major innovation on the absolutist claims of the Tudors’, the conception of the crown as a piece of property inherited by the king. As Halpern explains:

[The older] theory relies on a divine conception of political authority, which is mystically passed from the body of the ruling king to his successor; it regards the monarch as the political representative of God and therefore invests the office of kingship with certain unique qualities. The [emergent] ‘feudal’ theory, by contrast, envisions not a mysterious transmission of power but a legal transmission of property, with the king as little more than a particularly privileged landlord. Political authority derives not from divine sanction but from the prerogatives of property ownership, and is conterminous with it.

(pp. 220-23)

One way to state the problem in Richard III is in terms of the contradiction between these two models of royal authority. Representing the end of the old Plantagenet dynasty and its replacement by the House of Tudor, the project of the play is to ratify the property rights that Richmond acquired by his victory at Bosworth Field with the warrant of God's grace expressed throughout the play by prophecies, dreams and curses, and the patriarchal legitimacy that he appropriates by his marriage to Elizabeth.

The new conception of royal authority was implicated in new understandings of masculine identity. In the older, feudal model, not only a man's property, but also his title, status and personal identity were all determined by patrilineal succession. Increasingly, however, a man's status and identity were determined simply by his wealth. Instead of an inheritance, ratified by time and patriarchal succession, a man's place in the social hierarchy could now be achieved by his own performance. Ultimately, even the ideal of the landed hereditary aristocrat would give way to that of the self-made man. For the time being, the status and land purchased by new money were validated by genealogical fictions of aristocratic lineage.

This transition involved a transformation of the functions of marriage. In a society where social and economic status were based on patrilineal succession, the most important function of marriage was to contain sexuality and avoid the production of illegitimate children. In a society where the marital unit itself became the basis of social and economic status, marriage changed from being the instrument of reproducing patriarchy over time to the site of producing new wealth and status within its own time. As Karen Newman points out, by the 1590s the earlier conception of marriage as a necessary alternative to whoredom—as the lesser of two evils—was increasingly displaced by celebrations of ordered family life as the model and foundation for the good order of the state (Newman, p. 25). This transition is generally associated with the movement from Roman Catholic asceticism to Protestant celebration of marriage. However, it also involves the replacement of the notion that marriage is valuable only as a means of procreation of legitimate heirs by the belief that it is valuable in itself; and as such it can be seen as a concomitant of the transition from feudalism to an early form of capitalism in which the family was the basic unit of economic production among the emergent middle classes.

Authority was still gendered masculine and rationalized historically, but there were significant differences in the ways a man's place in the status hierarchy (and therefore his identity) was established. In the older, feudal model, status was grounded in land, inherited from an authorizing father and transmitted through the body of an effaced mother. In the newer model—the product of an emergent capitalism and an emergent nation-state—the material basis for power and authority was monetary wealth. That wealth did not need to be inherited; it could just as well be obtained by a man's own efforts, and it could be derived either from land or from some other source of monetary income, including the acquisition of a wealthy wife.

Transforming the structure and functions of the family, the cultural transformation that led in the long run from the masculine ideal of the hereditary feudal aristocrat to that of the self-made capitalist man also produced a new conception of women (Belsey, ‘Disrupting’). Women became a form of property: acquiring a woman, like acquiring any other property, became a means of validating masculine authority and manhood. Within the feudal, dynastic model of cultural organization, a man was defined as his father's son, and the ideal woman was a chaste mother who transmitted the father's legacy. Once a man's status came to be defined by his own performance, however, the ideal woman became the marriageable heiress, the prize to be attained by a man's own efforts, the material basis for the establishment of his own wealthy household.

This is not to say, of course, that wealthy and aristocratic wives were not valued by feudal noblemen, or that chaste mothers had no place in the logic of bourgeois gender ideology. The simple schematic opposition I am proposing cannot begin fully to account for the richly textured variety of social practice and socially conditioned desire, for differences over time and across class, or the ways variations in the material conditions of individual lives qualified the force of prescriptive ideals. Even within the relatively closed discursive field of Shakespeare's English history plays, both models of the family and of gendered identity can be seen, although since history was a conservative genre, the patriarchal, feudal model predominates. The alternative performative model, although it becomes increasingly prominent in the second tetralogy, is much more fully elaborated in the comedies and tragedies.20

In the Henry VI plays, marriage is represented as dangerous and destructive to men. Both Henry VI and Edward IV reject prudent dynastic marriages in order to marry on the basis of personal passion; both marriages are represented as disastrous mistakes that weaken the men's authority as kings and destabilize the political order of their realms. Richard III, on the other hand, reaches its happy resolution in the marriage between Richmond and Elizabeth, the foundation of the Tudor dynasty. In so doing, it looks forward to Shakespeare's representation of Henry V, where the successful courtship of Katherine is presented as the culminating event of Henry's triumphant reign. The resolutions of those plots in marriage literalize the scripture from Proverbs, widely quoted in contemporary marriage handbooks and sermons: ‘A good wife is the crown of her husband’ (Newman, p. 15). Like a newly prosperous commoner who acquired a coat of arms in order to authorize his new wealth in genealogical fictions of hereditary entitlement, both kings authorize their possession of the lands they have won in military conquest by marrying women who can secure that land by genealogical authority to their heirs.

Although both marriages are historical facts, their deployment in Shakespeare's plays is a product of dramatic selection. Their location as the satisfying theatrical culminations of the represented stories also satisfies the ideological imperatives of an emergent capitalist economy and an emergent nation-state that increasingly employed the mystified image of a patriarchal family to authorize masculine privilege and rationalize monarchical power.21 The ‘mirror of all Christian kings’ (II. Cho.6), Shakespeare's Henry V is also a prototype for the emergent ideal of modern masculinity, a gender identity that can be established only in the performance of heterosexual conquest. The act of sexual domination constitutes Henry's greatest triumph. The association of royal authority with the authority of a father in a family looks ahead, in fact, to Jacobean ideology, to Filmer's Patriarcha, to the emergent construction of the masculine paradigm as paterfamilias.

In keeping with this ideal, all the female characters in Richard III are related by blood or marriage to English kings and defined by their familial relationships———as wife, as prospective wife, as mother, as widow. Unlike the Henry VI plays, where both Joan and Margaret appeared onstage in masculine battledress and led armies on fields of battle, the female characters in Richard III are confined to domestic roles and domestic settings. The domestication and sexualization of women represents a movement into modernity; it adumbrates the rising barriers that were to confine respectable women within the household, defined as a separate, private sphere. Richard III, like the plays of the second tetralogy, is noticeably more modern in its representations of women, of gender roles, of the English state and of the family.

The movement into modernity reaches its culmination in the concluding speech, when Richmond seals his victory at Bosworth Field by announcing his intention to marry Elizabeth of York. It is only by appropriating Elizabeth's genealogical authority as the last survivor of the House of York that Richmond can authorize himself as king and authorize the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty; only by becoming a paterfamilias that he can secure his new identity as king. Elizabeth, moreover, literalizes the legal status of a married woman as a feme covert, reduced to a disembodied name, a place-marker for the genealogical authority that Richmond's son will inherit.

The other female characters who appear in the play are also recruited in Richmond's project; and like Elizabeth, they are also sacrificed to it. Richmond's victory, in fact, re-enacts in benevolent form Richard's earlier appropriation of the feminine. Just as the play begins with Richard's appropriation of Margaret's power of subversive speech, it ends with Richmond's appropriation of the moral authority of bereaved and suffering women to authorize his victory. To serve that purpose, the female characters must lose their individuality and become an undifferentiated chorus of ritual lamentation, curse and prophecy that enunciates the providential agenda of the play. Recounting the crimes of the past, they speak as ‘poor mortal-living ghost[s]’ (IV.iv.26). Like the literal ghosts who appear on the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, they announce the obliteration of patrilineal genealogy and invoke the higher authority of divine providence to validate Richmond's accession.22

In praying for Richmond's victory, the ghosts of Richard's victims speak for the entire nation, which is now identified as a helpless, suffering woman. This identification is reiterated in Richmond's final speech: ‘Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord’, he prays, ‘that would reduce these bloody days again / And make poor England weep in streams of blood!’ The suffering victim of Richard's bloody tyranny, England is also the cherished object of Richmond's compassionate concern. Both here and in his oration before the battle, Richmond characterizes himself as a loving, protective paterfamilias, and he also promises his soldiers the rewards that go with that role:

If you do fight in safeguard of your wives,
Your wives shall welcome home the conquerors;
If you do free your children from the sword,
Your children's children quits it in your age.


Richard, by contrast, resorts to jingoistic appeals to masculine honour and misogynist charges that Richmond is a ‘milksop’ and his soldiers are ‘bastard Britains [i.e. Bretons], whom our fathers / Have, in their own land beaten, bobb’d, and thump’d’. ‘If we be conquered’, he says, ‘let men conquer us’ (V.iii.325-34).

At this point in the play, the audience is prepared to reject Richard's aggressively masculine rhetoric and respond instead as Richmond's ‘loving countrymen’ who desire to ‘sleep in peace’. They are not, however, prepared to accept a female image of royal or theatrical authority. When Richmond invites the audience to join him in a prayer that the descendants of his union with Elizabeth will ‘Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac’d peace, / With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days’, he appeals to their feminine desires for peace and prosperity and invokes the authority of their own female monarch to sanction his accession to the throne. But just as the Elizabeth whom Richmond marries can never appear onstage, the Elizabeth he foretells is never mentioned by name or identified as a woman.

Assuming the role of benevolent paterfamilias, Richmond constructs himself in direct antithesis to the solitary individualism of the tragic hero he supplants, the murderer of young princes, the character who defined himself from the beginning by his contempt for women and his separation from the loving bonds of kinship. None the less, the play ends as it begins, with a male character speaking from the platea empowered by his appropriation of the woman's part and his performative self-construction as the object of a feminized audience's desire.23


  1. I am indebted to Roger Abrahams, Rebecca Bushnell, Jean Howard, Donald Rackin, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg for careful readings and helpful criticisms of earlier versions of this essay.

  2. See Harrington, p. 210; Heywood, sig F4v; and Meres, pp. 319-20.

  3. On the convergence of history and tragedy, see Lindenberger, pp. 72-8. For Aristotle the ideal tragic protagonist was ‘highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families’—and also historical: Unlike comic poets, ‘tragedians still keep to real names’ (Poetics XIII, IX). Cf. Lope de Vega, p. 543: ‘For a subject tragedy has history and comedy has feigning.’

  4. Early modern beliefs about the effeminating effects of theatrical performance and attributions of feminine characteristics to actors have received considerable attention in recent criticism, but see especially Howard, ‘Renaissance Antitheatricality’, and Singh, pp. 99-122.

  5. Playes Confuted in five Actions, p. 215. Gosson's charge that tragedy would incite womanly passions in its auditors had an ancient and respectable precedent in Book X of Plato's Republic, where Socrates condemned the sympathetic raptures stirred up by the tragedian as ‘the part of a woman’ (39). For a perceptive discussion of the effeminacy of the tyrant figure and the effeminating effects of his representation in tragedy, see Bushnell.

  6. Levin quotes the description of the ladies in the Spanish Tragedy audience from Thomas May's The Heir (1620).

  7. CCXI. Sociable Letters (1664), reprinted in The Riverside Shakespeare 1847, and also quoted in Levin, ‘External Evidence’, p. 12. For an impressive array of similar descriptions, see Levin's entire article.

  8. This is a familiar list. On the marginal roles of women in Shakespeare's English history plays, see Stages of History, Chapter 4.

  9. In the words of Herbert Lindenberger, ‘Tragedy … gives history a way of making “sense” out of what might otherwise be a chaos of events; or the catastrophe whose inevitability it demonstrates works to confirm our worst fears about the nature of events and, by one of those apparent paradoxes that we often find when we examine the effects of art, it ends up helping us to cope with an otherwise unbearable reality’ (Historical Drama, p. 73).

  10. See Weimann's Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, pp. 73-85, 224-6, and ‘Bifold Authority’, pp. 409-10. For an excellent analysis of Richard III in terms of Weimann's theory, see Mooney.

  11. As Nicholas Brooke has observed, ‘the flexibility of private speech’ in this play is almost entirely ‘confined to Richard’ (p. 108).

  12. On the widespread use in English Renaissance drama of female characters, and especially of bereaved mothers, as ‘a symbolic focus of pity’ rather than individual figures ‘involved in … action[s] through [their] own motive and volition’, see McLuskie, p. 136 and Chapter 6 passim.

  13. Newman, p. 67; Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy, pp. 190-91.

  14. Antony Hammond, the editor of the Arden edition, states that ‘Commentators have laboured to settle the impossible, whether Elizabeth's acceptance was real or feigned’ (p. 296).

  15. Cf. III.vii.51, when Buckingham will advise Richard to ‘play the maid's part … and take’ the crown. See also Bushnell, pp. 118-26 for a brilliant exposition of this aspect of Richard's characterization.

  16. See Hammond, pp. 77-8, for two striking examples, especially notable because, as Hammond points out, they occur in a passage that Shakespeare did not use in his play.

  17. In addition to the repeated use of similar descriptions in anti-theatrical invective, it is noteworthy that Burbage himself, the actor who first played Richard's role, was compared in admiring contemporary descriptions to Proteus, the shape-shifter. For a good summary of Elizabethan descriptions of actors, including Burbage, see Montrose, pp. 56-7. On the image of Proteus as applied to actors, see Barish, pp. 99-107.

  18. Compare Weimann's suggestive analysis in Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, pp. 159-60.

  19. A similar account, quoted by Schoenbaum, pp. 205-6, appeared in Thomas Wilkes's A General View of the Stage (1759), pp. 220-21.

  20. For arguments that emphasize the differences between Richard and later tragic heroes, see Belsey, Subject of Tragedy, pp. 37-9; Adelman, p. 9. In Belsey's view Richard's isolation and self-assertion declare his alignment with the Vice ‘rather than defining an emerging interiority’. To Adelman ‘the effect’ in Richard's final soliloquy ‘is less of a psyche than of diverse roles confronting themselves across the void where a self should be’. She sees Richard as possessing a ‘powerful subjectivity’ in 3 Henry VI, which is emptied out in Richard III, as he remakes himself ‘in the shape of the perfect actor who has no being except in the roles he plays’ (pp. 8-9). For a discussion that emphasizes Richard's status as prototype for the modern tragic hero, see Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, pp. 159-60. In Weimann's view, Richard ‘marks the point of departure for modern tragedy … the Charakterdrama of an individual passion and a self-willed personality’ who combines the self-expressive threatrical energy of the traditional Vice with the ‘mimetic requirements of a locus-oriented royal personage’. Weimann concedes that ‘Richard III, of course, only points the way’, but he also insists that ‘the pattern seems clear’.

  21. For the distinction between patriarchal and performative masculinities, see Jeffords. Many critics have remarked on the patriarchal structures of Shakespeare's English chronicle plays, but see especially Kahn, Chapter 3. On the differing structures of masculine identity in the comedies, see Williamson.

  22. Many writers have made this point, but see especially Williamson, Chapter 3, ‘Patriarchy, Pure and Simple’, and Schochet.

  23. For a suggestive analysis of this function of the ghosts, see Hodgdon, p. 114.

  24. On the exclusion of female characters from the platea, see Helms, pp. 554-65. Helms associates the male monopoly of the platea in public theatre plays with the fact that men's roles were played by adult shareholders in the companies, while women's roles were played by boy apprentices. See Forse for an argument that female parts were also played by adult shareholders, including William Shakespeare.


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———A Warning for Fair Women: A Critical Edition, ed. Charles Dale Cannon, The Hague: Mouton, 1975.

Barish, Jonas, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 1981.

Belsey, Catherine, ‘Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies’, in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis, London: Methuen, 1985, pp. 166-90.

———The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama, London: Methuen, 1985.

Brooke, Nicholas, ‘Reflecting Gems and Dead Bones: Tragedy versus History in Richard III’, in Shakespeare's Wide and Universal Stage, ed. C. B. Cox and D. J. Palmer, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

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———‘Home-Rebels and House-Traitors: Murderous Wives in Early Modern England’, Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 4 (Winter 1992): 1-31.

Forse, James H. ‘Why Boys for (wo)Men's Roles? or Pardon the delay, “the Queen was shaving”’, Selected Papers from the West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Association 15 (1992): 6-27.

Furness, Horace Howard, Jr., ed. The Variorum Edition of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Philadelphia, PA. Lippincott, 1908.

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Gosson, Stephen, Playes Confuted in Five Actions, Chambers 4:213-19.

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Halpern, Richard, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Hammond, Anthony, ed., The Arden Edition of Shakespeare’s King Richard III, London: Methuen, 1981.

Harington, Sir John, A Preface, or rather a Briefe Apologie of Poetrie, 1591, Smith 2:194-222.

Helms, Lorraine, ‘“The High Roman Fashion”: Sacrifice, Suicide, and the Shakespearean Stage’, PMLA 97 (1992): 554-65.

Heywood, Thomas, An Apology for Actors, London, 1612.

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Howard, Jean E., ‘Renaissance Antitheatricality and the Politics of Gender and Rank in Much Ado about Nothing’, in Howard and O’Connor, Shakespeare Reproduced 163-87.

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———‘Women in the Renaissance Theatre Audience’, Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989).

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Meres, Francis, Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, 1598, Smith 2:309-24.

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Deborah Willis (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Performing Persecution,” in Malevolent Nature: Witch Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England, Cornell University Press, 1995, pp. 193-207.

[In the following excerpt, Willis contends that Richard demonizes his mother and all women for his own defects as well as for his distance from the succession to the throne of England.]

Richard's Mothers

In the middle of Richard III, as Richard is consolidating his power en route to his short-lived kingship, he makes a blatantly fraudulant charge of witchcraft against Queen Elizabeth and Jane Shore:

Look how I am bewitched! Behold, mine arm
Is like a blasted sapling withered up.
And this is Edward's wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.


What has been suggested in the tetralogy's two earlier examples of witchcraft prosecution is now taken one step farther. Richard initiates a “witch-hunt” in the modern sense; his charges against Elizabeth and Jane Shore are a piece of machiavellian theater, a politically expedient way of staging Hastings's arrest and impending execution. As Shakespeare also makes clear, this witchcraft charge is embedded in Richard's history of relations with women. Elizabeth (Edward's widow) and Jane Shore (Edward's mistress) make an unlikely team; yet for Richard it makes perfect sense to link them. Both have made his rival Edward, first son and true likeness of the father, the object of their love; their alleged act of witchcraft, moreover, recalls Richard's account of the deforming effects of his mother's womb, articulated first in his soliloquy in the middle of 3 Henry VI

Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb;
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe
To shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlicked bear whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.
And am I then a man to be beloved?


Richard's soliloquy has been lucidly analyzed by Janet Adelman as the fantasy of Shakespeare's “first fully developed male subject,” who defines his masculinity in terms of violent escape from a malevolent maternal matrix.1 Richard blames his deformity on his mother's womb and attendent female presences; to redefine himself, he must hack his way out of the suffocating “thorny wood” that he associates with them. In Adelman's reading, moreover, the speech “localizes a whole range of anxieties about masculinity and female power” in the tetralogy as a whole. And so it does. Yet Shakespeare, I believe, points to more than the maternal body through Richard's richly imagined fantasy. The mother's womb is inevitably also home to the father's generative seed; the “thorny wood” through which Richard must hack his way to gain the crown is also associated with the family tree of the father's patrilineage. Witnessing Edward's proposal of marriage to Elizabeth, Richard starts off by envisioning the future in these terms:

Would [Edward] were wasted, marrow, bones, and all,
That from his loins no hopeful branch may spring
To cross me from the golden time I look for!
And yet, between my soul's desire and me—
The lustful Edward's title buried—
Is Clarence, Henry, and his son young Edward,
And all the unlooked-for issue of their bodies,
To take their rooms ere I can place myself.
A cold meditation for my purpose!


The father's first two sons, their sons, and their “unlooked-for issue” possess the womblike “room” of kingship now and into the future; the “hopeful branch” of this expanding family tree is the obstacle that returns to haunt Richard in the image of the “thorny wood” that separates him from the crown. By contrast with this flourishing forest of brothers' issue, Richard as “deformed” third son is but a “withered shrub,” a “blasted sapling withered up,” an unhealthy branch of the York patrilineage which deserves to be discarded and passed by.

Richard indeed directs his rage over these exclusions especially at the mother's womb and women who become associated with it. His deformity encodes the failure that supposedly causes it—the mother's failure to nurture her son properly. Love “foreswore” him; he is “like to a chaos, or an unlicked bear whelp / That carries no impression like the dam” (161-62), an “indigested lump” (2H6 5.1.157). But the plays place Richard's fantasies in a context that also brings out the father's role. Moreover, images of the mother's womb segue into images of the mother's voice—specifically the voice of the patrilineal mother, who articulates the values of the aristocratic honor culture. And having first rejected him in the womb, the mother and her proxies continue to reject him after birth. Richard's mother, we are later told, loved Edward and Clarence as “two mirrors” of her husband's “princely semblance,” but she rejected Richard as a “false glass” (R3 2.2.51-54). Other female voices do likewise: “The midwife wondered and the women cried / ‘O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!’ / And so I was, which plainly signified / That I should snarl and bite and play the dog” (3H6 5.6.74-77); Margaret calls him “a foul misshapen stigmatic / Marked by the destinies to be avoided, / As venom toads or lizards' dreadful stings” (3H6 2.2.136-38); Anne later calls him “devil,” “dreadful minister of hell,” “lump of foul deformity” (R3 1.2.45, 46, 57); the list could easily go on. Males, too, apply such language to Richard; yet it is clearly from women—and usually women positioned as mothers—from whom Richard has heard it first.

Mothers, nurses, and wives, themselves inscribed within patrilineal discourse, in turn inscribe Richard, denigrating him as devil, monster, “foul misshapen stigmatic.” Women's voices encode hierarchies of difference sanctioned by the patrilineal order, privileging older sons over younger, “normal” bodies over deformed. It is a history shaped as much by Richard's fantasized constructions as by women's actual conduct; Richard scapegoats them for the oppressive, marginalizing effects of patrilineality and for a discourse about the abnormal body. Though the plays to an extent share in Richard's scapegoating they also expose its limits. Women are witches—and they are not; the plays invite sympathy with Richard's misogyny and also interrogate it.

Interestingly, and consistent with his treatment of women elsewhere, Richard does not pursue the witchcraft charges against Elizabeth and Jane Shore. Whereas he seeks to control, humiliate, and punish women, he seldom actually has them killed. His violence is directed instead at the male rivals they have preferred over him. The witchcraft charge makes Hastings (a supporter of the claims of Edward's young heir, son of Queen Elizabeth, grandson of Richard's own mother) another casualty of a fantasy of maternal betrayal in which mothers are punished through the murder of their sons and their sons’ supporters; the mothers themselves must be alive to suffer the knowledge of those deaths. The first such murder is that of Margaret's son, young Ned, before his mother's eyes; in that scene, all three of the York sons join together to stab him in turn. It is made clear that in so doing they are symbolically killing the mother in the son. In contrast to Richard, who “carries no impression like the dam,” Ned is the image of his mother in his valiant spirit and high-sounding words; Richard himself comments on those words in one of their early confrontations: “Whoever got thee, there thy mother stands; / For, well I wot, thou hast thy mother's tongue (3H6 2.2.133-34). And as the York brothers stab him in front of Margaret, Edward echoes Richard's sentiments, remarking with a rather childish nastiness, “Take that, thou likeness of this railer here” (5.5.38). Although Richard seems ready to kill Margaret at this point, he stops at the request of Edward (who “loves the breeder better than the male” [2.1.42]). In punishing the mother by means of the son, Richard also enacts the punishment of the mother in the son.

Richard's fantasy of a mother's deforming influence on sons is embedded in cultural beliefs that often did locate the cause of a child's deformity in the maternal body. As Janet Adelman notes, his fantasy “reiterates the belief that the mother could literally deform fetuses through her excessive imagination, her uncontrollable longings, her unnatural lusts.”2 Richard's mother voices a related belief when she says she “sees her shame” in Richard; a child's deformity could be the consequence of a parent's shameful, sinful act, especially a mother’s. But “shame” here is a term that may tilt both ways: that is, it may imply that the mother is shamed by a deformity that comes from a different source. A few lines earlier in the same scene, his mother has said of Richard, “He is my son—ay, and therein my shame; / Yet from my dugs he drew not this deceit” (2.2.29-30). Here, she is shamed by her son's deceitful and vicious actions but denies responsibility for them; the cause does not lie in her milk. Others in the plays also locate the cause of Richard's deformity elsewhere. Thus Margaret, in calling Richard a “foul misshapen stigmatic,” notes that he is not like either “sire or dam” and sees his deformity as “marked by the destinies to be avoided.” An ambiguous supernatural power has caused Richard's deformity, not his parents. Later Henry expands upon this view, describing the seeming omens that surrounded his birth:

The owl shrieked at thy birth—an evil sign;
The night crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howled, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rooked her on the chimney's top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou cam’st to bite the world.


Again both mother and father, the “goodly tree,” are exonerated; the mother, in fact, is figured as a victim of this ominous supernatural event, confronted after an especially painful birth with a child who is “less than a mother's hope.” Exactly what sort of supernatural power is inscribing Richard's deformity Henry does not make clear (Richard terms it “the heavens” shortly thereafter). By the end of Richard III, of course, this power is more clearly aligned with divine providence, Richard's deformity signifying that he is God's scourge. Ultimately, however, the plays leave the source of Richard's deformity—physical and mental—undecidable; multiple explanations are offered, but the question of origins is left tantalizingly unresolved. Mothers may—or may not—be to blame.

The plays more clearly endorse Richard's sense of rejection and locate its source in women's stigmatizing speech. Richard from the moment of his birth seems to have been surrounded by women telling him his deformity marks him as someone “less than a mother's hope”; mother, midwife, and female servants, moreover, are the first to articulate the various theories explaining Richard's deformity as ominous supernatural sign. Early modern mothers often interpreted abnormalities in their newborn infants in similar fashion—sometimes with dire consequences. Infanticide was one result of the belief that a deformed child was a changeling, a devil, a monstrous prodigy.3 A deformed child allowed to survive might also be subjected to particularly abusive treatment by parents seeking to “beat the devil out of him.”4 Since mothers in a patrilineal culture were under pressure to produce male heirs, they had a special investment in their sons, and their own status and access to power would depend in particular on bearing a son who was the father's likeness and accepted as his heir. The mother who bore a deformed child was at the very least faced with “less than a mother's hope”; she was herself likely to be stigmatized in some way by husband and neighbors whether or not she was openly blamed for the child's deformity. Shakespeare situates the beginning of Richard's sociopathic career in this problematic relation between patrilineal mother and deformed child. And yet, while the plays arouse sympathy for Richard's sense of rejection, they also toy with the idea that “mother” may be right. Is Richard a “devil,” possessed of an innate aggressiveness that causes his mother to reject him, a “grievous burden” to her at birth and “tetchy and wayward” in his infancy, as she herself later describes him? (4.4.168-69). Or is it her stigmatizing, marginalizing discourse and her rejecting behavior that help to nurture a retaliatory violence in Richard? The plays provide evidence for both views, inviting the audience to see that both mother and son are implicated in the son's construction of identity but allowing no fixed conclusion.

Richard appropriates the mother's discourse and attempts to turn it against her. If mothers insist that his deformity means that he will “snarl and bite and play the dog,” he will do so but on his own terms, transforming their power relations. If he is a “devil,” she will be a “witch”—a powerless one, subordinated to his will. Her words become mere words, with no power to injure, deform, or render impotent. Thus, Margaret the “railer,” having lost crown, husband, son, and all the powers that went with them, returns in Richard III to be harassed by Richard as a “foul wrinkled witch” and “hateful withered hag” with only “frantic curses” for weapons (1.3.164, 215, 247). Richard literally turns the curse she utters about him back against her by interrupting her with her own name, making her assume the position of the “elvish-marked, abortive rooting hog,” the “loathed issue,” the “rag of honor” he is meant to be (228, 232, 233). “Thus have you breathed your curse against yourself,” comments Elizabeth dryly to Margaret afterwards (240). And for much of the play, Richard's skill with words, theatrical dissembling, and spectacle allow him to overcome all his opponents; like Iago, he works “by wit, and not by witchcraft” to gain the upper hand. Margaret, Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, Lady Anne—we see them almost entirely as vulnerable, weak, and powerless, in transit to and from the Tower, bemoaning the loss of the husbands, brothers, and (especially) children they are utterly unable to protect. Neither “mother” nor “witch” can match this son's diabolic wit; both terms are evacuated of power.

Yet before the end of the play, the mother's discourse recovers some of its sting. After Margaret leaves the stage in act 1, scene 3, Buckingham admits, “My hair doth stand on end to hear her curses” (304). And as one by one the predictions her curses contain begin to come true, the witchlike attributes of Margaret and the other mothers in the play begin to acquire a new potency. If at first the play seems to substitute mother-hunting for witch-hunting, inviting the audience to take pleasure in Richard's triumphs over women while recognizing his misogyny, by the play's end not only do mothers reclaim some of their lost witchlike powers, but those powers also take on an oddly positive value. In act 4, scene 4, Margaret passes on her power to curse to her old enemies, Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, and witch tropes underlie the scene in a variety of ways. Margaret begins by taking malevolent pleasure in the suffering of the female rivals who have injured her in the past and, like an aristocratic version of the typical village witch, utters a curse on a rival's child—the “hellhound” and “carnal cur” that has crept from the Duchess of York's womb (4.4.47-58). Again like the typical witch, she expresses her curse as a prayer to an “upright, just, and true-disposing God” (55). It is a curse that we know will very quickly be answered, will indeed “light” upon her enemy, as her earlier curses have already done.

Margaret is still very much her clan-centered, vengeful self, the “Amazonian trull” triumphing in her enemies' woes, articulating the revenge code of the feudal honor culture without modification. For her, divine justice does not temper or in any way transform revenge, it is identical with it. Yet because Richard (who “preys on the issue of his mother's body”) has alienated his own mother (and sister-in-law), Margaret's curses also provide the possibility of a bond between these old clan enemies. “Sorrow admits society” as the women's reproaches of each other give way to shared grief and anger at Richard, and Elizabeth requests that Margaret teach her how to curse. It is the Duchess of York, however, who makes best use of Margaret's teaching, becoming another witchlike, child-killing mother in cursing her own son. “Go with me,” she invites Elizabeth, “and in the breath of bitter words let's smother / My damned son that thy two sweet sons smothered” (132-34). Her curse will not only “light,” its phrasing will also seem to conjure up the supernatural, ghost-filled dream that Richard has the night before his final battle:

Therefore take with thee my most grievous curse,
Which in the day of battle tire thee more
Than all the complete armor that thou wear’st!
My prayers on the adverse party fight,
And there the little souls of Edward's children
Whisper the spirits of thine enemies
And promise them success and victory!


Richard's dream contains exactly such a scene with the ghosts of Edward's children; subtly, his mother's witchlike curse recalls the powers attributed to the real witch Margery Jourdain, glimpsed in 2 Henry VI raising spirits to prophesy the future. Richard dies on the battlefield, undermined by the feelings aroused by that dream as much as overwhelmed by his enemies, “providentially” murdered not only by Henry of Richmond but also by his own mother's voice, unnerved not only by his prophetic dream of defeat but also by a sudden eruption of conscience which suggests his internalization of maternal rejection is finally complete. “There is no creature loves me, / And if I die no soul will pity me. / And wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (5.3.200-203). Maternal rejection has been, as it were, internalized by Richard; mother speaks in his rejection of himself.

There is room here to stage these scenes so that these women's words do seem to have a “real” magical power; in some productions, Margaret in particular has been presented in such a way as to suggest she has some genuinely witchy features. But Margaret has described herself as a “prophetess” (1.3.301); “witch” is Richard's term for her. And Elizabeth and the duchess construct their own curses as mere words, “windy” words, “Poor breathing orators of miseries.” They nevertheless have value for the women: “Let them have scope! Though what they will impart / Help nothing else, yet do they ease the heart” (4.4.127-31). And as it turns out, even mere words have power—the power to injure Richard and to deceive him, among other things. Richard can hardly bear to hear these women's “bitter words”; like a child, he tries to drown out their voices with drumbeats: “Strike alarum, drums! / Let not the heavens hear these telltale women / Rail on the Lord's anointed. Strike, I say!” (149-51). It is his mother in particular he does not want to hear, agreeing finally to listen to her only after she promises never to speak to him again. Those words—the words of her curse—seem to have a power over his soul as deadly as any literal witch's curse.

Elizabeth, least witchy of the three women in that she has least “spirit to curse” (197), nevertheless also has a witchlike ability to deceive and to manipulate the emotions. As Richard seeks to win her consent in arranging a marriage to her daughter (also named Elizabeth), attempting to repeat his victory over Anne at the beginning of the play in another conquest of a “shallow, changing woman” (4.4.431), he meets instead an adversary well able to match his wit and confound his meaning. At last, dissembling her submission, she wins time to arrange her daughter's marriage to his rival, Richmond. Before doing so, however, she forces him to acknowledge his impotence as a lover and his dependence on a mother's power: “Myself myself confound!…/ Therefore, dear Mother—I must call you so—/ Be the attorney of my love to her. / Plead what I will be, not what I have been” (399, 412-14). Desperate for this marriage to secure his title and power, he is again in a position where his need for a mother's favor makes him vulnerable to rejection.

Thus, mothers reclaim control of the discourse that Richard appropriated from them; they define him as “carnal cur,” “devil,” and “rag of honor” and call down a punishment that even he must concede is deserved. They do not speak or act alone, of course, but are part of a larger process in which witch's curse and godly prayer, conjuration and prophecy, revenge and divine justice (not to mention house of York and house of Lancaster) become inseparably intertwined in opposing Richard and bringing about his fall. Margaret's curse ends in a prayer for Richard's death: “Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray, / That I may live and say, ‘The dog is dead!’” (77-78); Richard's mother's curse ends, “Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end” (195). The language of both mothers is echoed in Richmond's declaration of victory: “The day is ours; the bloody dog is dead” (5.5.2). Through Richmond, maternal authority is reunited with patrilineal right, the mother's voice absorbed into the male warrior's reassertion of control.

To an extent, then, Shakespeare at the end of this sequence opens up a space for the mother as white witch, who heals with her destructive violence. In the interests of constructing a national family, even participating in the murder of one's own son can be a good thing. Margaret, Elizabeth and the Duchess of York—a coven of cursing mothers—in helping to destroy Richard, aid Richmond, a son whose own mother loves and blesses him (see 5.3.82-83), and though they still play a largely marginalized and subordinate role in the male-centered political and military world, they are allowed some scope for action within it. They survive in part because they are on the margins of that world, becoming witnesses of the costs when masculinist honor violence has crippled it. Of all the supernatural powers attributed to the witch, Shakespeare seems to take most seriously the witch's power as diviner or prophetess (especially in Macbeth). Mothers see what men in the thick of action choose to ignore; they have a prophetic insight that may depend in part on a perspective they can have only because they are liminally positioned on the margins. More broadly, Shakespeare relates the witch's power to the de facto power of aristocratic mothers at court, whose special perspective and positioning allows them to exert influence from behind the scenes, enacted through patronage, intrigue, or as matchmaking “attorneys.” At best ambivalent about this power throughout most of the tetralogy, Shakespeare here at the end recuperates a witchlike maternal malevolence to a surprising degree: Richard yields to the power of mothers as well as to Richmond's advancing army.5

Yet a number of things render this recuperation problematic, most of them related to the “problem” of the ending itself. As readers and audiences have often complained, Richmond is an unsatisfying hero, no match for the hero-villain Richard. The order he stands for is largely undefined. And though by now we are tired of Richard's act, though clearly his multiplying villainies have earned him his end, the vitality and interest of the play—indeed of the tetralogy as a whole—has been generated by its upstarts. Joan, York, Margaret, Suffolk, Cade, Richard—all suffer some form of exclusion. Though their resistance to exclusion is always represented as transgressive, their outraged dignity is allowed a voice, and the wounds to their self-esteem act as challenges, prompting them to dazzling displays of ingenuity, wit, and Machiavellian stratagems. In Richard's first soliloquy, his long meditation on the “torment” of his separation from the crown gives way to exuberant boasting: “I can add colors to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages. / … Can I do this, and cannot get a crown? / Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down” (3H6 3.3.191-92, 194-95). The individualist ambitions that drive Richard (and other upstarts) find expression through theater: the desire to achieve honor, glory, higher class standing, the “Elysium” of the crown is indistinguishable from the desire to be on center stage, as it were, to be recognized and admired by an audience. Audiences, actors, and playwrights necessarily have an investment in their enterprise by virtue of the theatrical medium itself. Shakespeare locates within the feudal culture a theatrical imperative. Joan's desire for glory, York's ambition to be king, and especially Richard's quest for the “Elysium” of the crown, all seem to reflect a yearning to be the object of a gaze that reproduces the mother's seemingly unconditional worship of “his majesty the baby,” to recreate through the theatricality of power the illusion of being the mother's phallus. The inability of these upstarts to modify their aims, to take into account the needs of others or their own occasional empathic impulses, leads finally to the failure of their projects; their destructive trajectory ends also in self-destruction, and the audience is ultimately distanced from them.

Yet while displaying both the attractions and the limits of feudal individualism, the plays grope toward but fail to offer a satisfying alternative. Richmond is too much like the pious, one-dimensional king Richard pretends to be before the Commons in act 3, scene 4. His “God is on our side” rhetoric, moreover, has been emptied out and exposed as subject to manipulation. His new order is an order without theater or wit. Presenting him only on the battlefield, the play takes us back to the narrowly militarist world of Talbot. And Richard's mockery of him may raise doubts about his status even as a warrior. Richmond is “a paltry fellow, / Long kept in Brittany at our mother's cost … / A milksop, one that never in his life / Felt so much cold as over shoes in snow” (5.3.323-26). Shakespeare's historical “error” here seems entirely appropriate; of course Richard would imagine his own mother has been providing support for his rival.6 Yet the play, in emphasizing Richmond as mother's darling—blessed by his own mother, aided by Queen Elizabeth in marrying her daughter, patronized by Richard's mother—may recall the specter of the mother-dominated male from earlier plays, as if the alternative to Richard could only be another Henry VI. Richmond is linked to the “effeminate” French, his army a “scum of Bretons,” “overweening rags of France … whom our fathers / Have in their own land beaten, bobbed, and thumped” (317, 328, 333-34). As far as we see or hear, he has no father—only a host of mothers, who support him in an invasion of England from France.

Richmond's final speech is emblematic of the problem:

England hath long been mad, and scarred herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughtered his own son,
The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire.
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire division.
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-faced peace,
With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days!
Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloody days again
And make poor England weep in streams of blood!
Let them not live to taste this land's increase
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace!
Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again.
That she may long live here, God say amen!


Here, Richmond's gender-coded imagery condenses a pattern that has become familiar: male treason originates in a self-destructive female matrix; brothers, fathers, and sons, divided against one another, enact the “mad” female will of an “England” who scars her own body—much like the mother's womb that produces a son who preys on its own issue. Similarly, mothers throughout the plays have supported and encouraged the factiousness of sons, lovers, and male kin; they have thus brought on, to an extent, their own suffering and wounds. This madness is brought to a conclusion by the marriage of Elizabeth and Richmond, “true succeeders of each royal house”: a patrilineal “line” is securely reestablished with a new father at its head, enabled by the transmissibility of the royal succession through the female as well as the male; Elizabeth, daughter of a royal father and now sole heir, as mother will pass on the Yorkist paternal inheritance, as Richmond will the Lancastrian one: in a sense, only by feminizing one of the warring fathers—by reducing the York patrilineage to its female members—can homosocial peace be attained. The powers of aristocratic women as heirs and as mothers proves necessary to this restored male order, and the return of a nurturant, “good” mother to England—“smooth-faced peace,” who will bring “smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days”—is made possible only by acknowledging a limited agency for women within that order.7

The problem here—and elsewhere in this ending—is that this construction of “England” excises the role of the father and of a patriarchal symbolic in the production of civil war disorder: the father exists only as another son, another extension of a “mad” maternal body. In ascribing a primarily female origin to male treason, the play leaves the door open not only to idealizing the mother (in the form of white witches, supportive mothers, or peace's smiling plenitude) but also to scapegoating the mother-as-witch, toward which the tetralogy has tended in its earlier scenes; it replays maternal complicity in a patriarchal order as matriarchy. Mothers in these plays are indeed complicit in the male order, but they are not its main authors; scapegoating the mother becomes a refuge from the anxieties aroused by more directly confronting the father's excesses and vulnerabilities and by facing the weaknesses in a sociopolitical order organized around patrilineality, patriarchy, and primogeniture. In blaming his mother's womb and speech for his deformity and his exclusion from patrilineal power, Richard need not face the fact that his mother's preferences also enact his (loved) father's will. In affirming mothers and accepting their help, Richmond no less than Richard avoids confronting problems in his paternal inheritance. The potential for disorder within order, foregrounded in the Henry VI plays, remains: patrilineality may still bring to the throne a geek, a monster, a tyrant, a “weak king”; its ambiguities may still produce crises of legitimacy; its exclusionary hierarchies may still breed envy, faction, and individualist ambition.

An alternative male subjectivity is only gestured toward, not reached. Richmond embodies a hope more than an actual reconfiguration of identity. It is through the mothers themselves rather than “son” Richmond that Shakespeare comes closest to imagining a positive alternative to Richard—an alternative that draws upon Richard's strengths as well as punishes his villainies, that uses those strengths in the service of new affiliative bonds. The women appropriate his dissembling, his wit, his skill with words, and turn it against him, matching him pun for pun, confounding his meaning as he has confounded theirs, duping him with seeming submission to his construction of them as fickle and changeable. Insofar as we glimpse an alternative to the individualist and clan-centered ties that have driven honor violence throughout the plays, it is in the precarious bond established between old enemies—in Lancastrian Margaret teaching Yorkist mothers how to curse. In the end, of course, this bond does little more than enable the reinstatement of the rule of another patrilineal father, the hegemony of a new Tudor clan. The plays do not subvert patriarchy or abandon their androcentric focus; yet as sons attempt to differentiate themselves from as well as sustain a connection to a problematic inheritance from the father, the plays do, I believe, open up a larger space within patriarchy for acknowledging an inheritance from the mother and for valorizing female solidarity and self-assertion, even when these take violent form.

The trope of witch as malevolent mother, for Shakespeare, marks the problem of maternal power within patriarchy and also the problem that is patriarchy. Maternal authority, predating the encounter with the father, reasserts itself as an ambivalently desired, subversive alternative when the father, subject to death, limits, vulnerabilities, shows himself to be inadequate to the son's idealizing yearnings. But rather than fully break with this ideal (and thus with the hope of inheriting the father's greater authority), sons choose to blame only the mother for the deforming effects of patrilineality and other problematic aspects of the father's order. In the end, chastened mothers may recuperate some of their power, becoming “white” witches, but only, it would seem, by consenting to make the son into an idealized father, first in a new patrilineal “line” that disavows any frailties.

At the same time, Shakespeare decenters the persecutory impulse his culture directed against both witches and mothers. The witch trope marks the problematic intersection of the “real” and the “imaginary”; it doubly calls attention to the mother as a locus of threat and to a potential in the male for persecutory fantasy. In these plays, a literal witchcraft is exposed as part deception and theater, then superseded by the figurative witchcraft of mothers. As witch-hunting segues into mother-hunting, the persecutory impulse becomes subject to a more skeptical critique. The audience is invited to take pleasure in Richard's denigrations of women and his punishment of them, yet also to see there is something excessive about his persecutory aim. The tetralogy, while never quite freeing itself from Richard's core fantasy, does not fully endorse it either. For Shakespeare, witchcraft accusation points “in” to the self as well as “out” to an other, making the woman accused an unstable locus where it is never clear who really is to blame.


  1. Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, pp. 2-3.

  2. Ibid., p. 6.

  3. Just before she delivers her final curse to Richard, the Duchess of York recalls her lost opportunity of infanticide (abortion, actually), combining a murderous will with beliefs about the deforming power of the womb as she describes herself to her son as “she that might have intercepted thee, / By strangling thee in her accursed womb, / From all the slaughters, wretch, that thou hast done!” (4.4.137-39).

  4. See Hoffer and Hull, Murdering Mothers, pp. 149-50.

  5. Not all critics would agree. Janet Adelman, for one, sees a dramatic structure “that moves women from positions of power and authority to positions of utter powerlessness, and finally moves them off the stage altogether” (Suffocating Mothers, p. 9). Marilyn Williamson, for another, also sees the women as powerless, though an illusory power imputed to them functions to mask the historical process by which men produce civil war, as when Margaret's prophecies produce a false sense that she is responsible for their destinies. “When Men Are Rul’d by Women,” pp. 56-57.

  6. Actually, the error is Holinshed’s; the second edition of his Chronicles contained a misprint, substituting “mother’s” for “brother’s”; Richmond had been supported by Richard's brother-in-law, the duke of Burgundy. See Bevington's footnote, Bantam edition.

  7. An agency for mothers, but perhaps not for daughters; Elizabeth seems to protect her daughter's right to reject an unwelcome suitor, as Richard is likely to be; yet the audience never sees her daughter give that consent. The daughter has no voice of her own and is treated as an extension of the mother whose name she shares.

Works Cited

Witchcraft—Primary Sources

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The Apprehension and confession of three notorious Witches, Arreigned and by Justice condemned and executed at Chelms-forde. London, 1589.

Bodin, Jean. De la Demonomanie des Sorciers. Paris, 1580.

Bower, Edmond. Dr. Lamb Revived; or, Witchcraft Condemn’d in Anne Bodenham a Servant of His. London, 1653.

Calendar of Scottish Papers. Vol 5. 6, 10 (1589-93). Ed. William K. Boyd and Henry W. Meikle. Edinburgh, 1936.

Dasent, John R., ed. Acts of the Privy Council. New series. 25 vols. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1897.

A detection of damnable drifts, practized by three Witches arraigned at Chelmisforde in Essex. London, 1579.

The examination and confession of certaine Wytches at Chensforde in the Countie of Essex. London, 1566.

The examination of John Walsh … upon certayne Interrogatories touchyng Wytchcrafte and Sorcerye. London, 1566.

Gifford, George. A Dialogue concerning Witches and Witchcraftes. 1593. Ed. Beatrice White. London: Oxford University Press, 1931.

———. A Discourse of the subtill Practises of Devilles by Witches and Sorcerers. 1587.

———Foure Sermons. London, 1598.

Goodcole, Henry. The wonderfull discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer, a Witch, late of Edmonton. London, 1621.

Gowries Conspiracie: A Discourse of the unnaturall and vyle Conspiracie, attempted against the Kings Maiesties Person at Sanct-Ionstown. 1600. Rpt. in A Selection from the Harleian Miscellany, 190-98. London: C. and G. Kearsley, 1798.

Guazzo, Francesco. Compendium Maleficarum. Milan, 1608.

James I. Daemonologie. London, 1597. Rpt. in Elizabethan and Jacobean Quartos, ed. G. B. Harrison. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966.

Knox, John. The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Rpt. in The Political Writings of John Knox. Ed. Marvin A. Breslow. Washington, D. C.: Folger Books, 1985.

Kramer, Heinrich, and Jacob Sprenger. Malleus Maleficarum. Cologne, 1486.

Marston, John. The Wonder of Women, or The Tragedy of Sophonisba. In Three Jacobean Witchcraft Plays, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.

Middleton, Thomas. The Witch. In Three Jacobean Witchcraft Plays, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.

The most strange and admirable discoverie of the three Witches of Warboys, arraigned, convicted, and executed at the last Assizes at Huntington, for the bewitching of the five daughters of Robert Throckmorton Esquire, and divers other persons. London, 1593.

Newes from Scotland. London, 1591. Rpt. in Elizabethan and Jacobean Quartos, ed. G. B. Harrison. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966.

Perkins, William. A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft. Cambridge, 1608.

A Rehearsall both straung and true, of hainous and horrible actes committed by Elizabeth Stile, Alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell, Mother Margaret, Fower notorious Witches, apprehended at winsore in the Countie of Barks. London, 1579.

Rowley, William, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford. The Witch of Edmonton. 1621. In Three Jacobean Witchcraft Plays, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.

Scot, Reginald. The Discoverie of Witchcraft. 1584. Ed. Hugh Ross Williamson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.

Strype, John. The Life of Sir Thomas Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1820.

W. W. A true and iust Recorde, of the Information, Examination and Confession of all the Witches, taken at S. Oses in the countie of Essex: whereof some were executed, and other some entreated according to the determination of Lawe. 1582. Facsimile. Ed. Anthony Harris. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1981.

The Witches of Northamptonshire … Who were all executed at Northampton. London, 1612.

The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower. London, 1619.

Witchcraft—Secondary Sources

Anderson, Alan, and Raymond Gordon. “The Uniqueness of English Witchcraft: A Matter of Numbers?” British Journal of Sociology 30 (September 1979): 359-61.

———. “Witchcraft and the Status of Women—the Case of England.” British Journal of Sociology 29 (June 1978): 171-84.

Anglo, Sydney, ed. The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.

Balfe, Judith H. “Comments on Garrett's ‘Women and Witches.’” Signs 4 (Autumn 1978): 201-2.

Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. “On Studying Witchcraft as Women's History: A Historiography of the European Witch Persecutions.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 4 (1988): 17-18.

Beckwith, Sarah. “The Power of Devils and the Hearts of Men: Notes towards a Drama of Witchcraft.” In Shakespeare in the Changing Curriculum, ed. Lesley Aers and Nigel Wheale, 143-61. London: Routledge, 1991.

Biggins, Dennis. “Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth.Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 255-77.

Bovenschen, Silvia. “The Contemporary Witch, the Historical Witch, and the Witch Myth: The Witch, Subject of the Appropriation of Nature and Object of the Domination of Nature.” New German Critique 15 (Fall 1978): 83-119.

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———. “King James's Daemonologie: Witchcraft and Kingship.” In The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft, ed. Sydney Anglo, 156-81. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.

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Bridget Gellert Lyons (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5938

SOURCE: “Kings Games”: Stage Imagery and Political Symbolism in “Richard III,” in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts XX, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 17-30.

[In the essay below, Lyons suggests that, like actual monarchs such as Elizabeth I, Shakespeare's Richard III and Richmond resort to elaborate symbolism and theatrical performances to manipulate or to communicate with their subjects.]

“We Princes,” Queen Elizabeth said in 1586 to a deputation of her Lords and Commons, “are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed.” She was speaking of the need to observe all the proprieties in dealing with Mary Queen of Scots, and of the blame that she herself would incur if she made a false step. Two years earlier, an ambassador to her court had offered a somewhat more cynical appreciation of her acting talents: “She is a Princess who can act any part she pleases.” The two quotations can be taken to illustrate diverging views of royal theatricality.1 According to Elizabeth, it was not by their own will that princess were “set on stages,” constrained to play a part that was largely prescribed for them, to a “duly” observing public. But the French ambassador suggested another possibility about her theatricality when he hinted that the Queen's grief over the death of one of her suitors may not have been entirely sincere. He suggested that the Queen's acting talent made her flexible, and that it could be put in the service of her pleasure or her will.

While a degree of tension between the two kinds of performance was evidently felt by some observers of Elizabeth's reign, her ability to combine them effortlessly was even more apparent.2 Her enjoyment of pageantry, lavish costumes, and allegorical shows that extolled her mythical virtues also managed to express, with astute political sense, her love for her people and her feeling of kinship with them. In particular, as Frances Yates has shown, Elizabeth was adept at using the symbolism and ceremony of the past, chivalric and religious, for new ends. The iconography formerly associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary was used with some daring to promote her own cult as the “state Virgo,”3 and portraits of Elizabeth drew on every kind of symbolism that the Renaissance had to offer—Neoplatonic, Petrarchan, Catholic, Imperial—to portray her as the head of the reformed empire.4

The public management of royal symbols, because it was so conspicuous a feature of Elizabethan political life, is central to an understanding of Shakespeare's history plays. Since sacramental and ceremonial spectacle has always had close affiliations with historical drama, symbolic ritual is an important feature in all of these plays, in which crowns and thrones, coronation pageants, enthronement scenes, formal trials and royal entrances into cities, as well as other examples of spectacle, can be found. But while the sanctity of public ceremony is one of their subjects, the plays are not ceremonies for the audience. Their icons and stage images do indeed convey meanings—often conventionally and historically sanctioned ones, which iconographic scholarship can be helpful in recovering for the modern reader—but these meanings are inseparable from the dramatic situations of which they form a part. For this reason, critics who wish to interpret the history plays iconographically, concentrating on the traditional meanings of the stage images they present, must, like foreign legates at Elizabeth's court, see royal symbolism with its received meanings as interwoven with the willfulness of monarchs and the fluctuations of political situations.

When Shakespeare wrote Richard III, Machiavelli had already demonstrated the importance to a ruler of being able to manipulate appearances:

Men, on the whole, judge more by the eye than by the hand; because anyone can see, but it is permitted to few to touch. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few understand what you really are. … The herd is always taken in by appearances. …5

Richard associates himself with this aspect of Machiavellian theory, as well as with the villainous stereotype of the stage machiavel, when he declares himself in 3 Henry VI (III, ii, 182-92) to be like Proteus and other skillful deceivers. From the start of Richard III, he is proud of his ability to manage appearances. Stage imagery is therefore an extremely important feature of the play, not merely to convey abstract meanings about Richard's evil nature,6 but to express his skill, and later his failures, as a machiavellian manipulator of images. The iconography of the play functions differently during Richard's rise to power, when images of kingship and authority, however constant in their meanings, can be used by him for his own ends, than it does when he is king, and he is unable to project a real connection between himself and the signs of his office. In the latter part of the play, the symbols of kingship are shown with special emphasis to have the inviolable force that they would have in the commonplace books; they cannot be appropriated by a usurper without obvious dissonance and incongruity. If the use of royal symbolism at the end of the play seems simple and idealistic, it is no more so than the play's plot, in which the villainous king is punished and the man with sacred and unquestioned rights to the throne triumphs. The iconography of the play expresses its dramatic action.

From the start, as the second scene in the play with Lady Anne demonstrates, Richard seems able to wield others to his will by controlling their sense of what they are seeing, as well as what they are hearing. While language and visual image cannot, of course, be separated, it is not language alone that has won over Lady Anne; in Richard's retrospective triumph, it is “the plain devil and dissembling looks” (I, iii, 236). With a great deal of irony, he comments on how different Anne's image of him must now be from his own:

Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marv’llous proper man.
I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass,
And entertain a score or two of tailors
To study fashions to adorn my body. …

(I, ii, 253-57)

If Richard is able to surmont his physical appearance in people's minds, as he does in becoming a prospective husband for Lady Anne and in appearing like a straightforward, friendly person to Hastings (III, v, 50-55), he is able also to use his deformity when it suits his purposes, drawing from it meanings that further his plot. When Richard turns against Hastings, he accuses Mistress Shore (and, by association, Hastings) of witchcraft simply by displaying his deformed arm, and making the council dwell on the image of his deformity:

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.

(III, iv, 69-74)

At this point in the play, Richard is sufficiently powerful politically that he can draw from the images he presents to others the meanings that are most useful to him. Other examples of Richard's command of appearances are evident in the tableaux that he stages in the earlier part of the play when he is rising to power. A striking instance is his and Buckingham's appearance in “rotten armor” when they convince the Lord Mayor that they have been defending London, and that their illegal acts are therefore justified by a state of emergency (III. v). An even more subtle example of state-management occurs when partly through Richard's doing, the Prince of Wales is deprived of the triumphant entry into London that a prospective king was entitled to.7 While there are some trumpets and attendants for the Prince (III, i), he “want[s]more uncles here to welcome” him, and he is melancholy from the “crosses on the way” (III, i, 4-6). The traditional welcome of a city to its king, associated with the joy of his subjects and the fertility of nature,8 is turned here into melancholy and impending death as the Prince, with justified forebodings, agrees to spend the time before his coronation in the Tower.

The most telling example, however, of Richard's ability to manipulate symbolic imagery—one that stands out because of the elaborateness of its preparation and the length of time it takes in performance—is the great scene (III, vii) where he pretends to refuse the crown that is being pressed upon him by Buckingham, the Lord Mayor, and a group of well-coached citizens. The scene has been orchestrated in advance by Buckingham with Richard, and their skill is demonstrated in its visual details and in the public significance that they make it communicate. Central to the scene is Richard's appearance with a prayer book, “aloft, between two Bishops” according to the stage direction, and Buckingham's gloss or “holy descant” (III, vii, 49) on how religious Richard is. Richard's appearance, however, does more than suggest his supposed piety. His strategically lofty eminence, as well as the bishops on either side of him, form a visual emblem of kingship, suggesting the coronation ceremony itself.

The sources of the image of the king flanked by bishops in the visual arts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance have been traced by Meyer Schapiro.9 According to his account, the image had its origin in the Biblical story of Moses' defeat of Amalek. In the 17th chapter of Exodus, Moses, accompanied by Aaron and Hur, is described as watching the battle of his troops from a hill, with the “rod of God” in his hand. When Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; when he dropped his hand, Amalek prevailed. So to ensure the victory of the Israelites, Aaron (the archetype of the priest) and his brother-in-law, Hur, held up Moses' hands while he sat on a stone. The story of Moses, supported on each side by Aaron and Hur, was transformed in the Middle Ages into a Christian image (Moses’ supported arms being thought to resemble a cross),10 and it was therefore incorporated into the iconography of theocratic kingship. The medieval king, like the Renaissance one, was anointed by the Church (a fact that Richard himself alludes to later in the play), and the visual representation of this relationship between the king and the Church was the image of the king flanked by bishops or by saints in episcopal dress.

The image of the Christian king flanked by bishops made its way into the English literary tradition; in the legendary history of King Arthur, for instance, Geoffrey of Monmouth described Arthur brought to his coronation by two bishops.11 Accounts of actual coronations, furthermore, were popular in 16th-century England; for example, a detailed account (with no literary pretensions) of the coronation of Henry IV of France in the 1590's was translated into English; that account too describes the King brought into the coronation hall, “according to the custome,” by two bishops.12 Or, to take a British example that preceded the writing of Shakespeare's play by some years, a picture attached to Stephen Hawes’ meditation on the coronation of Henry VIII shows Henry and Katharine of Aragon, crowns poised above their heads by the bishops that are flanking each of them, while above the royal couple are displayed their emblems: the rose of Henry, the pomegranate of Katharine.13 The most important example for Shakespeare's purposes occurred in a principal source for the play, Holinshed's Chronicles. Holinshed describes the procession of Richard III to his coronation at some length, and when he comes to the King himself he reports: “And on everie side of the king there went one bishop, that is to saie, the bishop of Bath, and the bishop of Durham.” Queen Anne is similarly accompanied in the procession: “Then followed queene Anne daughter to Richard earle of Warwike in robes like to the king, between two bishops. …”14

Shakespeare's transposition to the gallery scene of the conventional pictorial detail of the two bishops shows that his interest in iconography was primarily dramatic. He shifted this vivid detail from Holinshed's pageantry of coronation to the scene where Richard wishes to be perceived as the true king, and where the symbolism of coronation becomes an important part of his performance. There are no bishops present in the gallery scene as Holinshed describes it;15 it is Shakespeare who has amplified the scene iconographically, in accordance with his portrait of Richard as a master of deceptive stage management. And Buckingham, glossing the scene for the benefit of the crowd, gives the picture its motto and text, emphasizing not only Richard's piety but also his potential royalty in language that makes explicit the picture's traditional connections between king and clergy. The bishops, according to Buckingham, are “Two props of virtue for a Christian prince, / To stay him from the fall of vanity” (III, vii, 97-98). Insistently throughout the scene Buckingham explains the connection between religious principle and rulership, and when he draws Richard into the scene more actively as a participant, he addresses him by his familial, royal titles: “Famous Plantagenet, most gracious Prince” (III, vii, 100).

However sceptical his audience may be in accepting Richard's shameless presentation of himself and denigration of Edward and his heirs, he is, at this point in the play, in command of the tableaux which he presents and of their symbolic meanings. His language at the end of the scene, for example, seems to transform his deformity emblematically. He suggests that the “burden” of kingship which he is reluctantly agreeing to assume is a cross that he has to bear, like his hunchback, or that he is like the emblem representing religious Hope as a man with Fortune's wheel strapped to his back, who walks along, doubled over by his burden, yet supported by the staff of Hope:16

Whether or not a specific emblem was intended, Richard's method has affinities with the emblematic one; he is suggesting to the audience an image that is appropriate to his supposed reluctance and that is rich with moral meaning. His deformed figure is transformed by his language into an emblem of Christian patience and endurance, in line with the image of himself between two bishops as one associated with Christian kingship.

But while Shakespeare demonstrates, in Richard III, how traditional emblems and visual images can be misused, he does not (as he does in Richard II) call into question the meanings that such images convey. Richard himself depends on the stable meanings of symbols of kingship (including the coronation tableau whose history has just been considered), since he wants to attach them to himself. Rather, the last part of the play creates drama by revealing the distance between the false king and the emblems and ceremonies of royalty, showing that Richard, a usurper, cannot make the two fit together. The aural and visual symbols which he tries to appropriate to his own purpose exert a power that he cannot control once he actually becomes king.

A jarring note for any audience occurs in the pivotal scene right after his coronation (IV, ii), when with a great deal of pomp (Stage direction: “Sound a sennet. Enter Richard, in pomp, as King. …”) he ascends the throne, the seat of majesty, rich (as many commentators have shown) with symbolic significance as the source of theocratic power.17 But in the scene we are considering, the effect of the throne's importance is to underline the inappropriateness of Richard's presence and actions there. Mounted on the throne with great flourishes, presumably for the first time, he asks everyone but Buckingham to withdraw (“Stand all apart,” IV, ii, 1), thus dramatizing in visual terms that his eminence is not the summit of society's pyramid, but a lonely perch occupied by him alone in the temporary company of his accomplice in crime.18 The royal seat of England, separated in this way from the society to which it is meant to give order and coherence, becomes the private place where Richard plots the murder of the legitimate ruler, and where he is unable to assert his authority even over his accomplice (Buckingham hesitates to obey his wish to get rid of the two princes at this point).

Richard is now incapable of sustaining the ceremonial behavior that his crown and his position on the throne seem especially to call for. While he had been adept at using courtly language when he needed to earlier (for instance, in wooing Lady Anne), Buckingham's refusal to take his hints forces him to become brutally direct: “Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead” (IV, ii, 18). His murderous plotting is the opposite of kingly, and that point is soon enforced by the image of King Richard, descended from the throne which is still presumably within sight, brooding, soliloquizing, and entering into whispered private conversation with the assassin, Tyrrel.19 Visually, then, the scene is a highly effective one in which the throne, with its associations of legitimate authority, simply emphasizes by contrast Richard's crime and isolation, and his inability to sustain any kind of kingly language or gestures.

Richard's inability to project, except in a dissonant way, the meanings of the symbols with which he publicly associates himself is especially apparent in the significance that his own emblem or crest, the boar, acquires as the play progresses. The emblems that noblemen or noble families took for themselves in the Renaissance were public symbols of their honor and worth, displayed particularly on ceremonial occasions. Perhaps because such public emblems were artificial vestiges of the replicas of fierce animal forms that the leaders of primitive people took into battle to frighten the enemy,20 the insignia of great noblemen tended to emphasize the aggressive aspects of animals: the lions of kings of Britain, the wolf that was an emblem of the Duke of Blois, or even the porcupine whose bristles warded off his enemies, the emblem of Louis XII of France.21 While occasionally a prince might associate himself with the gentler animals: the hen and its young, for example, signifying the ruler's motherly care for his people, or the domesticated ox, reaching its goal “step by step,” as the motto explained,22 the fiercer animals generally predominated, though it was a fierceness controlled by frozen, heraldic postures, or by the crown or other insignia of rule which were also present in the picture. Richard was therefore not unusual in taking as his emblem a fierce and unpleasant animal, whose aggressive qualities could be dramatized.

In Shakespeare's play, however, Richard's emblem loses its abstract, noble qualities, and becomes naturalized by the language of his victims and opponents. They are the ones who interpret it, and they stress only the ruthlessly destructive, sub-human qualities of the boar. Richard, in other words, is unable or unwilling to assert those qualities of the fierce animal—its courage or its strength23—which would make it an appropriate symbol for him. It is entirely possible that the boar-crest itself, on banners or shields, was displayed to Elizabethan audiences of the play,24 as it was to modern audiences of Laurence Olivier's film version. If so, the pictured emblem functioned as a commentary on those aspects of Richard's career which are least kingly in any positive sense. Here again, Shakespeare expands possibilities that were raised only very briefly in his source. In Shakespeare's play, the boar not only razes the head of Stanley in his dream, as it does in Holinshed's account, it is the terrifying animal that threatens the life of the hostage-son of Stanley, prisoner in the “sty of the most deadly boar” (IV, v, 2), and it becomes a rallying point, a negative image that Richmond can use to rouse Richard's enemies:

The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,
That spoil’d your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your embowell’d bosoms—this foul swine
Is now even in the centre of this isle. …

(V, ii, 7-11)

The standard that is supposed to provide an abstract, unifying symbol for Richard's own forces is robbed of its symbolic qualities and elaborated in naturalistic and horrifying detail by his enemy.25

Like all of the play's stage-spectacle, Richard's insignia, visually or verbally evoked, function dramatically, not merely as static symbol or decorative pagenatry catering to the audience's love of display. And in the last part of the play, as Richard loses control of the kingship, spectacle becomes especially important. One stage direction, as we have seen, reads “Enter Richard, in pomp, as King”; another reads “Enter Richmond, Oxford, Sir James Blunt, Sir Walter Herbert, and Others, with drum and colours” (V, ii)—an indication of the visual and aural ceremony with which the play abounds. But whereas Richard is able, earlier, to suggest the symbolism and ceremony of kingship by placing himself above his interlocutors between two bishops, it is precisely because he has used such images for his own advantage in his ascent to the throne that they lose, for him, their power to suggest publicly valuable qualities once he is king.

His inability to profit from royal ceremony expresses Richard's progressive inability to command any kind of language—visual or verbal—that testifies to more than his ruthless aspirations to power. On the verbal level, Queen Elizabeth points out to him, when he tries to get her consent to his marriage with her daughter, that all of his oaths—whether by his honor, his crown, or his “self,” whether by God or country—are meaningless because they have been misused. On the level of pomp and pageantry, Richard's efforts become more and more discordantly inappropriate also. When he meets the royal women he has wronged (IV, iv), he invokes ceremonial grandeur in desperate gestures that become almost comic—no longer the kind of comedy, however, that testifies to his exuberant mastery. The stage direction reads “Enter King Richard and his Train, marching with drums and trumpets,” but the flourishes and trumpets he commands are used to drown out the complaints of the women he has bereaved, complaints that he wants to minimize as the sound of scolding women:

A flourish, trumpets! Strike alarums, drums!
Let not the heavens hear these tell-tale women
Rail on the Lord's anointed. Strike, I say! [Flourish. Alarums.]
Either be patient and entreat me fair,
Or with the clamorous report of war
Thus will I drown your exclamations.

(IV, iv, 149-54)

The sound effects available to the leader of a nation's army are desperately called on to drown out the legitimate cries of the bereaved, and the King—the Lord's anointed as he grandly calls himself—who should stop in his progress to hear the pleas of the weak and helpless,26 cannot do so because he has caused their miseries in the first place. When Queen Elizabeth says to him that his golden crown hides a forehead that should be branded (IV, iv, 140-41), the audience is once again made aware of the disparity between Richard and the most significant emblem of his office.

At the very end of the play, the signs and portents which Richard has previously managed to his own advantage (for example, when he deceives Edward regarding the identity of the “G” who is prophesied to murder his heirs) work against Richard, while he becomes increasingly convinced of their importance. He becomes superstitious, reading in nature omens that will possibly be destructive to him. The sun, which he commands to shine at the beginning so that he can cast a shadow on the ground with his deformed figure, “disdains,” as he puts it, to shine at the end: “A black day will it be to somebody” (V, iii, 280). The dramatically inevitable end of his powerlessness to identify himself, even with noise and show, with the officially acceptable meanings of his crown or of his personal emblem, the boar, occurs in the account of his death. At this point, he receives no honors of any kind but is referred to simply as an animal (“the bloody dog is dead” V, v, 2), and the crown, taken from his corpse, is given to its rightful owner, who is told to restore it to its dignity: “wear it, enjoy it, and make much of it” (V, v, 7).

Richard III, then, is an optimistic play in its treatment of kingship, and one that is of course flattering to the Tudor monarchy that came in with Henry Richmond. The power of royalty and its symbols is never seriously questioned for the legitimate ruler, as it is in Richard II. Nonetheless, we can see, even in the earlier play, Shakespeare's ability to create dramatic interest out of what was recognized in his time as a significant tension between public symbols and the political purposes for which they were inevitably used. Unless such symbols could be seen as potentially insecure—susceptible to misunderstanding, ambiguity, or personal appropriation—they could be viewed only sacramentally or ceremonially, and it would be difficult to imagine subjects like kingship dramatically at all. The spate of history plays on the English public stage at the time Richard III was presented, however, is evidence that it was now natural to regard kingship dramatically: that is, to see the man and his role as potentially separable, and to see the symbolic trappings of kingship as possible vehicles of deception and self-aggrandisement. Even Holinshed's chronicle-account of English history points to the dramatic aspects of public ritual when he discusses Richard's staged acceptance of the crown:

And in a stage plaie, all the people know right well, that one plaieng the Soldan, is percase a sowter [shoemaker]; yet if one should can so little good, to shew out of season what aquaintance he hath with him, and call him by his owne name while he standeth in his maiestie, one of his tormentors might hap to breake his head (and worthie) for marring of the plaie. And so they said, that these matters be kings games, as it were stage plaies, and for the more part plaied upon scaffolds, in which poore men be but the lookers on. And they that wise be will meddle no further.27

Richard III provides a simple example of the theatricalization of public symbols which Holinshed seems to see as a general condition of political life, because in the play it is the villainous king who misuses them and the rightful one—courageous, pious, interested in the unity and prosperity of the country—who embodies the stable and heroic qualities the symbols express. Nonetheless, Richard and his dynamic theatrics give us the most memorable and often the most engaging moments of the play of which he is the center. In subsequent history plays by Shakespeare, the lines between heroes and villains will be even less clearly drawn, and no king will be so true that he does not have to play “kings games.”


  1. J. E. Neal, Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, 1584-1601 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1957), p. 119, and J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I: A Biography (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), p. 263. Both citations are used by Stephen J. Greenblatt, Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973), p. 52, and p. 187, n. 39.

    In this paper, all references to Shakespeare's plays are to the Peter Alexander edition (London: Collins, 1958). In all quatations, u and v have been regularized.

  2. See, for instance, Neale, Queen Elizabeth, pp. 59-63, for a description of the pageantry, allegorical shows, etc., that preceded Elizabeth's cornoation, and for some criticism (again, by foreign legates) of the personal stamp that she put on these proceedings, which she obviously enjoyed thoroughly.

  3. Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 76-80.

  4. Ibid., pp. 112-20, esp. p. 116.

  5. Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. and intro., A. Robert Caponigri (Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1963), p. 96.

  6. Soji Iwasaki's often illuminating iconographic study of the play emphasizes, for the most part, Richard's visual connections with such figures as Saturn, Time, and Death. The Sword and the Word: Shakespeare's Tragic Sense of Time (Tokyo: Shinozaki Shorin, 1973), first section.

  7. For the Prince's entrance as a “muted” version of the triumphal entry, with ominous associations, see Alice V. Griffin, Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage (New Haven: College and University Press, 1951), pp. 41-42, and Martha Hester Fleischer, The Iconography of the Elizabethan History Play (Salzburg: Salzburg Studies in English Literature, 1974), pp. 60-61.

  8. The progresses of Queen Elizabeth I were often associated with a pastoral nature that was both enlivened and tamed by her; it was only at her departure that death and mourning were represented as taking over (Griffin, pp. 134-36). Traditionally the king's entry into a city was accompanied not only by the acclaiming shouts of the populace, but also with flower-strewing that symbolized his association with the fertility of nature. For a discussion of the iconography of royal entries, associated with Christ's entry into Jerusalem or with Solomon, the “Expected One,” entering Zion, see Ernst H. Kantorowicz, “The ‘King's Advent’ and the Enigmatic Panels in the Doors of Santa Sabina,” The Art Bulletin, XXVI, no. 4 (December 1944), 207-31.

  9. Words and Pictures: On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1973).

  10. On the Christian significance commonly read by the Church Fathers into the image of Moses with his arms extended, see Jean Daniélou, Sacramentum Futuri: Études sur les origines de la typologie biblique (Paris: Beauchesne, 1950), pp. 145-46 and 195-96. This figure was well known in Renaissance iconography: see, for example, the second emblem in The Heroicall Devises of M. Claudius Paradin (London, 1591), which explains the hieroglyphical significance of the large letter T on the basis of the Moses-Amalek story and the Cross.

  11. Cited by Schapiro, n. 42.

  12. The Order of the Ceremonie observed in the annointing and Coronation of the most Christian King of France and Navarre, Henry the IIII, of that name. … translated by E. A. (London, n. d.), B2v.

  13. Stephen Hawes, A Joyfull medytacyon to all Englonde of the coronacyon of our moost naturall soverayne lorde kynge henry eyght (London, n. d.).

  14. Raphael Holinshed, The Third volume of Chronicles (London, 1587), p. 733.

  15. Neither Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III (Holinshed's source for Richard's early career) nor Holinshed (pp. 731-32) has the bishops in the gallery scene. Shakespeare seems to have incorporated and expanded this detail from Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (see the passage quoted in the Furness Variorum edition of Richard III, p. 484).

  16. See Gilles Corrozet's emblem, “Esperance Conforte Lhomme,” in Hecatomgraphie (Paris, 1543), Giiiv (reproduced in Arthur Henkel and Albrecht Schöne, Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts [Stuttgart: J. B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1976], col. 1806). The text of this picture of a man trudging along with fortune's wheel strapped to his back, the first part of which is perhaps relevant to Richard's sense of having been played a bad trick by Nature (I, i, 18-22), reads:

    Si fortune soustiens, et porte,
    Qui m’a fait un tour inhumain:
    Ie tiens esperance en la main,
    Qui me conduict, et me conforte.

    It is interesting to note that at least one other emblem of Corrozet’s, that of a man with a bow and arrow aiming for a target, with the motto “Parler peu & venir au poinct,” (Aiiiiv-B; Henkel and Schöne, col. 1068), may have found its way into Shakespeare's work with Lear's injunction to Kent to break off a long sentence and get to the point: “The bow is bent and drawn; make from the shaft” (King Lear, I, i, 142).

  17. There is a detailed treatment of this subject, with several illustrations of late-medieval thrones, in Percy E. Schramm, Herrschaftszeichen und Staatssymbolik: Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte vom dritten bis zum sechzehnten Jahrhundert. Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae historica, no. 13 (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1954-56), esp. vol. 3, ch. 42, and plates 134, 135, and 148.

  18. This and the following point are made by Iwasaki, pp. 61-62. For a picture of King Henry VIII seated on his chair of state as the apex of two semi-circles formed by his courtiers, see the illustration from John Foxe's “Book of Martyrs” (Acts and Monuments, 1570), reproduced in Yates, Pl. 5b.

  19. Many Shakespearean editors omit the interpolated stage direction at line 27, “Descends from throne.” Richard's behavior, however, appears just as incongruous—probably even more so—if he remains seated on the throne throughout the scene.

  20. This idea is suggested in some Renaissance treatises on impresas and personal emblems. See for example The Worthy Tract of Paulus lovius, translated by Samuel Daniel (London, 1585). In the opening epistle to Daniel, the writer (“N.W.”) speculates on the functions of insignia: “Then what was the intent of these Ensignes and Devises? What cause can bee pretended for them? What did they import? Iamblicus saieth that they were conceiptes, by an externall forme representing an inward purpose: So Fergusus the first Scottish King did beare in his Standard a Lion geules, to bewray his courage testifie his stomacke, and dismaie his adversarie, which being well marshalled, is borne for the atchivement of Kinges ever since.”

  21. See Paradin's Devises, p. 27, for the porcupine and the wolf.

  22. Ibid., p. 350.

  23. While most emblems in which boars figured did not glorify the animal, there were some, even among those that were not personal emblems, that did. An example can be found in Joachim Camerarius, Symbolorum & Emblematum ex Animalibus Quadrupedibus Centuria (Nuremberg, 1595), no. 48 (p. 56), where a heroic death for one's country is figured by a boar running into a hunter's spear, with the motto AUT MORS AUT VITA DECORA. (Reprinted in Henkel and Schöne, col. 478.) Richard's boar is described in Holinshed's somewhat moralized language as “The proud bragging white bore (which was his badge). …” p. 760.

  24. Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages, 1300-1600 (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul and Columbia University Press, 1957-1972), 2 vols. in 3, offers material on the use of heraldic devices in pageants and in court performances (though not necessarily in the public theatres). See especially I, 105, 244, and his section “Emblematic Devices and Stage-plays at Court,” II, 280-99. See also C. Walter Hodges, The Globe Restored (New York: Coward-McCann, 1954), pp. 78-81, on the recreation of a chivalric atmosphere in jousts and “barriers” through emblems and allegorical devices, and for comments on the shields in Henry V and Pericles.

  25. Holinshed avoids stripping the boar-image itself of its heroic qualities, though the idea seems to have occurred to Richard's contemporaries. When Holinshed quotes the famous doggerel rhyme of the period, “The Cat, the Rat, and Lovell our dog, / Rule all England under an hog” (p. 746), he immediately adds that the only reason “boar” became “hog” in the poem was to preserve the rhyme. It seems at least as likely that the denigrating word “hog” was the original inspiration for the distich.

  26. The conscious use of this tradition by Queen Elizabeth I is described at various points in the Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, illustrated with historical notes by John Nichols (London: J. Nichols and son, 1823). In I, 39 (after Holinshed, p. 1172), for example, the theatrical metaphor is explicit as the Queen is described as stopping to hear the suit of any “baser personages,” or to accept their flowers: “So that if a man shoulde say well, he could not better tearme the Citie of London that time, than a stage wherein was shewed the wonderfull spectacle, of a noble hearted Princesse toward her most loving People, and the People's exceding comfort in beholding so worthy a Soveraigne. …”

  27. J. C. Trewin, Going to Shakespeare (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1978), p. 32.

Peggy Endel (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Profane Icon: The Throne Scene of Shakespeare's Richard III,” in Comparative Drama 20, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 115-23.

[In the following essay, Endel discusses the problematic “throne scene” of Act IV where the newly crowned Richard III enacts private, conspiratorial business in the throne-room—a place that is normally treated as a highly public stage complete with an audience of courtiers.]

The English drama critic John Trewin first began to review Shakespeare's plays on the London stage in 1930. In 1978, when he was seventy years old, this dean of theater critics looked back over a lifetime of what he called “going to Shakespeare” and recalled an extraordinary moment at the Old Vic in London in 1944. Remembering Laurence Olivier enthroned as Richard III in Act IV, scene ii, of Shakespeare's play, Trewin writes, “One must always judge [Olivier’s] famous portrait from its first presentation with the Old Vic company, and not from the film. … Richard distilled his own darkness; and I cannot return to the play now without picturing Olivier, a cauldron-figure, crowned and sceptred, as he brooded on the throne.”1 What Trewin evokes here is a stage image so potent and so compelling that it has impressed itself on his mind's eye for almost thirty years despite some element of resistance. Thus his negative formulation: “I cannot return to the play now without picturing … a cauldron-figure … brooding on the throne.” Trewin is responding to Richard III primarily as a playgoer, a spectator in the theater; and he represents all of those spectators who have found in Shakespeare's picture of Richard darkly brooding on the throne a dramatic icon that is at once memorable, powerful, and complex.

For many critics and editors of Richard III, however, the climactic throne scene of Shakespeare's first great play has proven to be not merely complex, but positively disquieting. As the stage directions for this scene indicate, Shakespeare raises the expectations of his audience for a scene of state which, by tradition, ought to be societal and public: “Sound a sennet. Enter Richard in pomp, crowned; Buckingham, Catesby, Ratcliffe, Lovel, [a Page, and others].”2 But with Richard's first words, “Stand all apart,” Shakespeare frustrates at once the expectations that he himself has raised. In Richard's first act as king, he plots his nephews' deaths as though he were in private; and, as though he were in private, King Richard broods on Richmond, leaving off his meditation only to refuse Buckingham the gift that he has promised with the lines toward which the entire scene tends: “[I am not in the giving vein to-day]” (l. 116); “Thou troublest me, I am not in the vein” (l. 118).

As early as 1885, we find one distressed scholar proposing that because of the private nature of the business transacted on the throne the director of Richard III ought to stage Act IV, scene ii, not in the throne-room, but in Richard's private chamber. Wilhelm Oechelhäuser complains: “The interviews with Buckingham and Tyrell, with the courtiers grouped at the back seem utterly unnatural.” If the scene is moved to Richard's private chamber, he proposes, “The mounting of the play will … be much simplified and the illusion will not be destroyed.”3

Writing almost a hundred years after Oechelhäuser, Bridget Gellert Lyons voices precisely the same discomfort at the spectacle of King Richard's treating the chair of state as a private place; and, because of her uneasiness, she supports those many editors of Richard III who have accepted Edmond Malone's stage direction that Richard should descend the throne in the course of the scene, a direction that Malone first proposed in 1790. Lyons says in a footnote, “Many Shakespearean editors omit the interpolated stage direction at line 27, ‘Descend from throne.’ Richard's behavior, however, appears just as incongruous—probably more so—if he remains seated on the throne throughout the scene.”4

Most modern editors reject Malone's stage direction that Richard descend the throne in Act IV, scene ii; but we ought nevertheless to ask why able critics and editors should feel compelled to dismantle a stage image that has created a brilliant effect in the theater. My own answer to this question is that, while those who would take Richard off the throne have been mistaken in their conclusions, their instincts are sound. For in their discomfort—in sensing that there is something “unnatural” and “incongruous” here—they are responding more fully to this crucial scene in Richard III than those critics who have ignored its effect.

Alan Dessen has astutely noted that on the uncluttered Elizabethan stage any action centered on the throne is likely to be significant since the throne is a “potentially charged” object highly visible on the open stage; and, he goes on to say, the more arresting or unsettling such a moment, the more crucial it may be to the meaning of a play: “Bizarre, unrealistic effects fit well with the open stage and the viewer's eye. To ignore or to play down such moments so as not to offend realistic expectations is to pass over possibilities that may be central to a play.”5 Such, I believe, is clearly the case here.

Richard's protracted meditation on the throne is one of those “bizarre, unrealistic” effects that may be central to a play; and I would suggest that the source of discomfort in this stage image and the source of dramatic power may be, at root, the same. For if Shakespeare's critics have been struck—and baffled—by the spectacle of King Richard doing private business in a public place, Shakespeare himself was evidently struck by the spectacle of Thomas More's Richard doing public business in a private place: Shakespeare's powerful and unsettling stage image of a king, crowned and sceptered, brooding on the throne, evidently grows out of a bizarre parenthetical detail in Sir Thomas More's History in which King Richard and his page devise the deaths of the two princes in the Tower while Richard sits, not in pomp on England's throne, but on a “draught” or privy.

Shakespeare's imagination is often stimulated by the smallest details in his sources, and the glimpse that More permits of Richard at the draft is just such a detail. Even so, Shakespeare is not alone among his contemporaries in fastening on More's parenthetical remarks: in 1596, Sir John Harington—the inventor of the modern water closet—declares More's peek at Richard on the privy to be the most memorable moment in the most celebrated of histories. In his playful book The Metamorphosis of Ajax—that is, the metamorphosis of a-jakes—Harington writes:

Lastly the best, and best written part of all our Chronicles, in all mens opinions; is that of Richard the third, written as I have heard by Moorton, but as most suppose by that worthy, and uncorrupt Magistrate, Sir Thomas More, sometime Lord Chancelor of England, where it is written; how the King was devising with Terill, how to have his nephews privily murdered, and it is added, he was then sitting on a draught (a fit carpet for such a counsel).6

As Harington and Shakespeare see, a quibble or pun lies at the center of More's version of the young princes' “privy” murder, a secret and foul deed both private and befitting the privy. In his account of the deaths of the Princes in the Tower, More concludes, “Thus (as I have learned of them that much knew, and little cause had to lie) were these two noble princes, these innocent tender children, borne of most royal blod, brought up in great wealth, likely long to live, reign, and rule in the realm, by traitorous tyrannie taken, deprived of their estate, shortly shut up in prison, and privily slain and murdered, their bodies cast God wot where, by the cruel ambition of their unnatural uncle and his despiteous tormentors.”7

Fatal Cleopatra or not, the quibble fascinates Shakespeare, particularly in the early 1590’s; and whether or not More intends “privily” as a quibble, Shakespeare, like Harington, probably regards it as such. Thus, in Shakespeare's Richard III, a “privy order” dooms the princes (III.v.106); and Buckingham—whom More describes as “privy to all the protector's counsel”—will function in Shakespeare's throne scene as Richard's Privy Councillor: many members of Shakespeare's audience would have known that soon after the historic Richard III's death in 1485, there developed in the royal Privy Chamber the office of Groom of the Stool (i.e., Groom of the Royal Close-Stool); and that by 1547, at the death of Henry VIII, the king's Groom of the Stool had become his Privy Councillor as well.8

There is certainly a play of wit in Shakespeare's throne scene; but what seems to have engaged Shakespeare's imagination most fully in More's picture of a foul king sitting at the draft is not so much the punning historicity of More's dubious scrap of “information” as its strange psychological vividness and mythic power. For as Shakespeare evidently recognizes, the portrait in More's History of King Richard sitting at the draft belongs within a well-established tradition linking the King of Hell with anality. “No one,” More says—and then in parentheses—“(except the devil)” could have harmed Tyrrel so much as Tyrrel's friend Richard's page; “For upon this page's words King Richard arose”—then parentheses again—“(for this communication had he sitting at the draught, a convenient carpet for such a council.”9 In More's History only these parallel, parenthetical phrases “(except the devil)” and “(for this communication had he sitting at the draught)” suggest the affinity between Richard on the privy and the Devil himself. Confronted with the interstitial character of this passage, Shakespeare chooses to read between the lines.

In his History, More associates King Richard's draft with the Devil's privy through the most subtle indirection; but the association between the demonic and excrement recurs throughout medieval and Renaissance thought, and nowhere more vividly than in More's own attack on the “heretic” and “Antichrist” Martin Luther. In the Responsio (published in 1523 a few years after the History), More's bluff speaker William Ross rails at Luther as “the sludge of sin” in “the sludge of Satan,” a “cacodemon” whose breast is a “bilge” and whose “filthy mouth” is a “privy” that spews “muck, filth, dung, shit” onto God's apostle and the holy Church. More's speaker uses the idiom of Luther's own “dungy writings” for, he says, “as long as your reverend paternity will be determined to tell these shameless lies, others will be permitted, on behalf of his English majesty, to throw back into your paternity's shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit, all the muck and shit which your damnable rottenness has vomited up, and to empty out all the sewers and privies onto your crown.”10 Sister Scholastica Mandeville, the translator of this pungent passage, apparently sees that More is not simply indulging in coprophilia here, but rather is responding in kind to a Protestant polemic that uses scatology to empower itself both theologically and politically.

Perhaps the most familiar visual analogue to Shakespeare's Richard seated on the throne is Hieronymus Bosch's Satan seated on a privy in the Hell-panel of the Millennium (fig. 1),11 a painting that reaches back to the cannibalistic, defecatory, three-headed Satans of the Italian trecento12 for its visual vocabulary (fig. 2). Monstrous, insatiable, Bosch's bird-beaked, cauldron-crowned King of Hell is enthroned high on a stilted close-stool, where, with one motion, he devours and defecates the damned. Like Bosch's defecatory Satan, Shakespeare's King of Hell is a “cacodemon,” that is, a kaka-demon or devil of dung.13 Thus Queen Margaret's aside early in the play,

Hie thee to Hell for shame, and leave this world,
Thou cacodemon, there thy kingdom is.


Unlike the Satanic prototype, however, the cacodemon Richard is costive—that is, he is “not in the giving vein.”14 Shakespeare's diabolic king sits and broods on his privy-throne for 112 lines. And if some theater-goers have felt this protracted meditation on the throne to be unnatural, that is, I believe, precisely Shakespeare's intent. For Richard is, among other things, contra naturam—a physical and metaphysical outrage that has lodged in the body politic. He is, to quote from the plays, “an indigested and deformed lump” (3 Henry VI, a “lump of foul deformity” (I.i.57),

A base foul stone, made precious by the foil
Of England's chair, where he is falsely set;
One that hath ever been God's enemy.


Toward the end of Thomas More's History, Buckingham complains bitterly that Richard denied him his promised gift both before and after becoming king; in the throne scene of Richard III, Shakespeare conflates More's picture of Richard on the throne with More's picture of Richard on the draft, and then introduces the withholding of a gift into that conflation.

By creating a devil-king who is not in the giving vein, the dramatist can align the Satanic prototype with a familiar Elizabethan character type—the costive melancholiac who is the wretched child of Saturn. One might illumine Act IV, scene ii, of Richard III much as Erwin Panofsky has illumined D¨rer's complex engraving Melencolia I—and with much of the same literary and iconographic evidence. In Melencolia I, Dürer depicts a seated, brooding woman, head on hand, whose closed fist and mental perplexity develop from an earlier pictorial tradition in which pinched, avaricious Melancholy supports his head with one hand, while, with the other, he clinches a closed purse filled with coins. Relating Melencolia I to earlier versions of melancholy, Panofsky traces the evolution of Avarice into perplexed thought by noting the artist's tendency, with time, to intellectualize Melancholy's costiveness or avariciousness.15 Shakespeare's stage image of King Richard—a man seated, perplexed, perhaps head on hand—is related formally to Dürer's Melencolia I; but in spirit and intent Shakespeare's Devil-king is akin to the wintry old men and crabbed misers with their money-bags in visual representations of Melancholy as an unredeemed humoral type.

In the Ptolemaic poetic the human body occupies the center of an elaborate set of analogies; and Shakespeare's hoarding figure on the throne embodies the disorder in the microcosm that corresponds to the disorder in the macrocosm. Richard III is, as Emrys Jones has said, an “end-of-the-year, end-of-the-cycle” play in the course of which England is to negotiate its critical dynastic change.16 This play dramatizes the butt-end of civil war, the dregs of history in its demonic phase, the desperate way the old world ends within the frame of the Tudor myth; and melancholy—the dregs or faex of black bile—is one semiotic term in the language of last things—the most calamitous of the four humors; associated with cold, dry winter, the most severe of the four seasons; with old age, the most discontented of the four ages; with earth, the grossest of the four elements; and with cold, dry Saturn, the planetary god of death and dung, whom iconographers depict as a savage king, enthroned, devouring a living child.

In the opening line of Richard III Shakespeare distills and psychologizes this entire system of analogies. Into Richard's first line, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” the dramatist compresses the opening stanzas of his chief poetic source, Sackville's Induction, which begins,

The wrathful winter prochinge on a pace
With blustring blastes had al ybard the treen
And old Saturnus with his frosty face
With chilling colde had pearst the tender green.(17)

Wrathful Winter; Boreas; cold, dry, barren earth; and, above all, ascendant “olde Saturnus with his frosty face”—this is the setting for Sackville's descent with Sorrow into Hell, where the Duke of Buckingham will tell his horrifying tale of the reign of the tyrant Richard III who devoured his own nephews. In Shakespeare's Richard III, at the death of King Edward, the choric Third Citizen has a premonition that such, too, will be the Hell that is England under Richard:

When clouds are seen, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, then winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
All may be well; but if God sort it so,
’Tis more than we deserve or I expect.


Enthroned in his demonic epiphany, Shakespeare's saturnian and saturnine King of Hell is costive and astricted in every sense—retentive, “bound” in brain and bowel, close, hard, cold, and parsimonious.

Confronted with this profane icon in 1592, Shakespeare's audience can draw on the vast mythological and characterological tradition that surfaces visually in images like that of Bosch's Satan and Dürer's Melencolia. In the 1980’s, we, presumably, cannot. The iconography of evil accessible to Shakespeare's audience has presumably been lost to us in the theater; and yet audiences continue to find Richard enthroned a powerful, unsettling, and memorable image. If this is so, it is perhaps because of the cultural codes that have created an area of overlap between Elizabethan and twentieth-century structures or mythologies of the mind. The mythological and characterological traditions available to an audience in 1592 have their correlate in twentieth-century psychoanalytic theory. Freud, in his work on melancholy and sado-anal-eroticism, in a sense reformulates features of a continuous tradition. When, for example, Freud anatomizes melancholy in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” he is using the archaic Galenic term “melancholy”—that is, literally, “black choler.” Elizabethan and classic Freudian theory seem to be parallel or analogous modes of organizing and interpreting human behavior. Within a definable cultural matrix, the common ancestor of both modes is Galen.

In trying to account for audience response, I am reminded of the play-goer who was so impressed with the psychological complexities of Measure for Measure that he assumed that it was Jonathan Miller—and not Shakespeare—who had set the play in Vienna. Shakespeare's climactic stage image in Richard III seems iconic, preverbal, gestural. And its power to disturb seems to depend, in some measure, on its ability to touch and to reveal the depths of the hidden man. Shakespeare succeeded where no one has succeeded before or since in writing plays that appear to pass through many stages of consciousness. Perhaps this is one reason why, despite himself, fifty years after the fact, John Trewin finds himself saying “I cannot return to the play now without picturing Olivier, a cauldron-figure, crowned and sceptred, as he brooded on the throne.”


  1. J. C. Trewin, Going to Shakespeare (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1978), p. 32.

  2. This and all other quotations from Shakespeare's plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  3. Wilhelm Oechelhäuser, Einführungen in Shakespeare's Bühnen-Dramen (Minden, 1885), p. 158, as quoted in Richard III, ed. Horace Howard Furness, Jr., New Variorum Edition (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1908), p. 286n.

  4. Bridget Gellert Lyons, “‘King's Games’: Stage Imagery and Political Symbolism in Richard III,Criticism, 20 (1978), 17-30.

  5. Alan C. Dessen, Elizabethan Drama and the Viewer's Eye (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1977), p. 80.

  6. Sir John Harington, Sir John Harington's “A New Discourse of a Stale Subject Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax,” ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1962), p. 108 (italics mine).

  7. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587), ed. Sir Henry Ellis (1807-08; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), III, 401 (italics mine).

  8. See David Starkey, “Representation Through Intimacy: A study in the symbolism of monarchy and court office in early-modern England,” in Symbols and Sentiments: Cross-cultural Studies in Symbolism, ed. Joan Lewis (London: Academic Press, 1977), pp. 187-224.

  9. Holinshed, p. 401.

  10. St. Thomas More, Responsio ad Lutherum, ed. John M. Headley, trans. Sister Scholastica Mandeville, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, V, Pt. 1 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1963), 221.

  11. The entire panel is illustrated in Walter S. Gibson, Hieronymus Bosch (New York: Praeger, 1973), fig. 79.

  12. I have chosen as an illustration to accompany this paper an engraving by Baldini (1460-80) that is after the fresco of the Inferno according to Dante at Pisa (Hind, Early Italian Engraving, A.1.59).

  13. The imitative root ‘caco-,’ is derived from the child's word meaning “feces” or “to defecate” (see Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language [Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1966], I, 217). In Richard III, Shakespeare, like More, chooses the word “cacodemon” with a keen sense of its etymology.

  14. ‘Costive’ and ‘constipated’ are used interchangeably in the sixteenth century to designate a physical disorder: “Suffering from hardness and retention of the faeces; ‘bound’ or confined in the bowels” (OED). In addition, ‘costive,’ which derives from L. constipatus, signifies related character traits or personality disorders: (1) “Slow or reluctant in action; esp. in speech or utterance: Close, reticent, uncommunicative (obs.)”; and (2) “Reluctant to give, niggardly, stingly” (OED)—that is, “not in the giving vein.”

  15. Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1955).

  16. Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 228.

  17. The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (1938; rpt. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), p. 298.

Gillian M. Day (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “‘Determined to prove a villain’: Theatricality in Richard III,” in Critical Survey 3, No. 2, 1991, pp. 149-56.

[In the essay below, Day examines Richard III's chosen and not always reliable professions as prologue, stage manager, and actor in the “morality-Vice manner” of the play.]

Richard III has a long association with theatricality. Colley Cibber's melodramatic attentions to the text in 1700 ensured its reputation as a piece of showmanship even into the 1950s when, some would say, Laurence Olivier's film confirmed the histrionic image. Both men, however, built on what already existed in the play. Richard III is self-consciously theatrical, inviting an audience both to perceive and to question its central metaphor of acting and illusion.1

Richard's opening soliloquy is a self-presentation in the morality-Vice manner. At the same time its structural formality is a mirror of deliberative discourse wherein the character rejects the more virtuous futures which offer themselves and determines upon villainy. The simplicity of syntax pointed by monosyllables and the stress on ‘Now’ and ‘But I’ suggest a logic which the balance of such imagery as winter/summer, lover/villain reinforces. Indeed such modest simplicity and seeming logic infusing Richard's words create a distinctive style which appears itself sufficiently persuasive of the argument's integrity. But the logic is nonexistent, and while the form of the argument looks sound enough, its content is not.

So is it persuasive enough to fool the listener? Not entirely, since the apparent rationale is counterpointed by its other function, that of prologue to a play—one delivered unexpectedly by the protagonist, whose words with their insistent pointing of theatricality refuse to let us suspend our disbelief. The change from a war footing to the more dancing pleasures of Edward's court is conveyed in mocking images recalling stage enactments, ‘stern alarums’, ‘brows bound with victorious wreaths’. Even personified war itself performs to a lute like some masquer. To subvert this complete masquerade Richard has laid plots and inductions as would any villain of the piece, his part also ‘determined’ by prescript: and he invites us to watch him acting.

The third layer of artifice in this soliloquy reconciles Richard's performance with his discourse. ‘Determinations’ were specific exercises of scholastic disputation against an opponent by which a student proceeded from his baccalaureat to study for a master's degree. One's thesis was determined by proof in academic debate. Richard's thesis is ‘to prove a villain’. He plays the villain with a great sense of spectacle and theatre. He also proves a villain with an equal sense of judicial procedure, his argument betraying acute awareness of legal terms and process, and an astute perception of the law's capacity for ambiguity. I want to suggest that the play permits the playing to comment on the proof. In a sense Richard's thesis is determined by a show of reason and logic: but he consistently undermines this, and many in his audience would recognise this fact.

The two combine most particularly in the play's three wooing scenes—those with Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth (I.2. and III.7), and the central scene of Richard's presentation to the citizens at Baynard's Castle where, in silent audience, they are wooed to affirm him as their king (IV.4). Over the past century directors have consistently cut, removed, adapted or played around with these scenes which, ironically, are the most consciously theatrical in the play. Each is a play within the play wherein Richard stages proof to us, his audience, of his claim to the title villain. It forms a set piece, a performance in the court of love and of law, and relies for fullest effect on the staging and the hearing of the entire argument.

Every performance is preceded by a prologue, given twice by the star himself and once by Gloucester and Buckingham in double-act, announcing very clearly the artifice of what will follow. In the subsequent scene, Richard plays defendant and wooer (once the wooed), against quite a vocal adversary—Anne, Buckingham and Elizabeth (Buckingham, of course, is only pretending—illusion again). On each occasion the performance is given before a silent onstage audience—our representatives—an ever-present reminder of its artifice.

Facing Anne, ‘The bleeding witness of [his] hatred by’, Richard politely asks her leave to prove his innocence, ‘By circumstance but to acquit myself’ (I.2.233,77). The form of interchange, it seems, is to be judicial discourse. Yet twenty-three lines later he has admitted his guilt, confessed to at least two murders, and Anne's righteous indignation seems justified.

Didst thou not kill this king?
I grant ye—yea.


Has she won? The ten-syllable interchange contrasts markedly with the eighteen-line accusatory tirade which greeted Richard's earlier interruption of the cortège and, despite its content, establishes Richard's domination of the scene. As in his opening soliloquy, Richard plays content against form, subtly moving the debate away from justice to charity (on which grounds judicial logic no longer applies) while his economy of style draws the discussion of guilt down to the monosyllabic mundane.

Quite rightly he loses the legal argument—after all, Anne has an eye-witness account of one murder, and evidence of the other lies between them, bleeding—but he gains the verbal advantage. The rapid wit-play of their stichomythic interchange robs her argument of force. The accumulated evidence and emotion of Anne's opening attack is prevented by Richard's disruption of the expected pattern. The seeming simplicity of his style proves quite alien to her rhetorical mode. When she hears his words, takes Richard's lead and adopts what she thinks is the pattern—he halts. ‘I grant ye—yea.’ And she is thrown. The simple rhythm of the words hides their lack of reason, and ambiguity begins to cloud the clear-cut absolutes of retributive justice she was so sure of at the start. Richard has indeed ‘by circumstance’ acquitted himself, for he has circumstanced Anne, winding about her with the manner but not the matter of reason.

In the realm of fact Richard cannot defend himself for long, but if he transfers his ground to the emotions he can better do so. Seemingly as logical, albeit of a ‘slower method’, the next stage of Richard's proof divides the guilty act between the executioner and its initiator—Anne's beauty. She, the plaintiff, turns defendant as the procedures move from those of law to courtly love. The rhetoric of romance into which Richard has moved now ironically reflects the earlier extremes of Anne's passion, the bare-breasted lover suppliant before the sword of his cruel mistress mockingly granting her the revenge which earlier she sought. In both word and act the artifice of one points up the artificiality of the other. The courtly love game to which, traditionally, both parties willingly submit relies on extensive word-play, irony and wit, on the adoring lover and the coy beloved, on structured, decorous form and on the conscious masking of reality. When, as Anne takes up the sword, Richard bluntly reminds her of his crimes (though blaming them on her), he undermines past truth with present circumstance.

It is the latter which Anne chooses, for she cannot in reality enact her curse and match word with action. As Richard makes her accessory to his crimes, so she accedes to his equivocation. Her words betray it. Calling him dissembler, she questions his integrity while yet adopting the equivocatory figures he employs. Her acceptance of the ring, disguising truth in ambiguity, and her refusal of a kiss enact exactly the role of courtly mistress, ‘To take it not to give’ (I.2.202).

The scene theatrically undermines absolutes. The informality of Richard's mundane though stylish wit, followed by the elaborate falsehood of the courtly wooing, subverts the opening rhetoric, exposing it through words and emblematic action while preserving the utmost decorum.

The second wooing scene takes place at Baynard's Castle where Richard himself, now the ‘belovèd’, coyly rejects the advances of his ‘lovers’, the petitioners. The auditorium audience has again been well primed for the show, Richard and Buckingham having discussed acting style and set and improvised the costumes just a few moments before. It commences in accusation—that of Richard's neglected duty to the state, to which he responds with careful rationale, ‘definitively thus I answer you’ (III.7.152). But this is all a prologue to the wooing as Buckingham, the Mayor and Catesby ‘proffer love’ and sue for his acceptance. As scripted, and as reticent as any gentle mistress, Richard submits—but unexpectedly qualifies his acceptance with one condition:

But if black scandal or foul-faced reproach
Attend the sequel of your imposition,
Your mere enforcement shall acquittance me
From all the impure blots and stains thereof.


The terminology is legal: the intention corrupt—yet the detail, as we, beyond the stage, observe, is truth. God and we do know, but those on stage may only partly see ‘How far [he] is from the desire of this’ (III.7.235). A condition of his kingship is total absolution from all sins. The law must now legitimise equivocation. Significantly silent are the onstage onlookers, for even if they do see the truth of this charade they will say nothing—the Scrivener has assured us of that.

The artificiality of the scene is patent, the layering of truth mirroring the rank of the figures. Only those above and we beyond are fully in the picture. The rest form part of it, the play-in-play of a would-be king fooling with show his silent audience to confer their token voices on his coup d’état. Perhaps our presence as an extension of the silent crowd condemns our own collaboration in the fiction.

Only a few scenes previously, Prince Edward has opined that great men's fame needed no written record, for word of mouth should accurately relate the truth ‘from age to age … Even to the general all-ending day’ (III.1.76,78). Nothing, though, is said of that majority whose silence chronicles lies.

The inaccuracy and inefficacy of oral history is attested to by the women who, like Hamlet's players, offer their ‘brief abstract and record of tedious days’ (IV.4.28) as the action unfolds. Bereft of all other titles—wife, mother—by Richard's deeds, the Duchess of York sees herself as nought but living chronicle, a mere cipher to the great accompt, and play, of history,

Dead life, blind sight, poor mortal-living ghost,
Woe's scene, world's shame, grave's due by life usurped,
Brief abstract and record of tedious days,
Rest thy unrest on England's lawful earth


Is it a legitimate account, however? Margaret's advice on cursing suggests not. She recommends enhancing memory and eking out the truth with lies, ‘Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse’ (IV.4.123). The fugue-like lamentations of the women's woes recording the eternal repetition of events betrays a selfish partiality. The trading of name for name and trouncing of woes remains ever a fragmentary chorus. Identifying individual Edwards and Richards has become as unimportant for them as it should be impossible for us—names which are interchangeable commodities traded in for status in misery's hierarchy.

The citizens' scene (II.3) almost parodies this lamentation, the empty comfort of wise saws and aphorisms echoing the reinforcement of inaction which rehearsing past woes provides. Both choric groups find the meaning of the words serves less purpose than the speaking of them—an unthinking consolation which Richard trades upon.

When she catalogues the variability of language which the play presents, Elizabeth pinpoints the naïvety of the Prince's hope that chroniclers should chronicle the truth. Words are mere mercenary lawyers, ignorant of integrity, who disinterestedly legitimise any referent:

Windy attorneys to their clients' woes,
Airy succeeders of intestate joys,
Poor breathing orators of miseries.


The legal imagery here is significant for such consistent subversion of structure, verbal and legal, as Elizabeth describes has until now been the villain's sole province. The indictment of Hastings, the execution of the Woodville brothers and the persuasion of the Mayor and citizens—sent for earlier to the justices (II.3)—all illustrate his appropriation of legal sanctions to his own ends. When Hastings refuses his support, Richard condemns him as a traitor upon an ‘if’—as much of evil as of virtue in an ‘if’ misused. Ambiguity, even untruth, becomes the law.

As the wooing scenes portray, Richard challenges and subverts the power of legal terms as much as he disrupts the force of ceremonial forms. His interruption of ceremony, progress and meeting, from questioning the noble pedigree of the Woodville jumped-up Jacks to his announcement of Clarence's death at Edward's family reunion, dramatically counteracts the ritual artifice of courtly form. His first five appearances in the play are interruptions of ceremonies, progresses or meetings. Not until arriving in London with the new king, Prince Edward, does Richard appear on stage with others at the opening of a scene. His previous entrances were a visual reminder of his separateness from the group already on stage, and an implication that, like the vice figures, he comes from another place.

If all ritual is but hollow artifice, Buckingham suggests, better avoid ceremony and tradition altogether and, weighing all by present standards ‘but with the grossness of this age’ (III.1.46), rewrite the rules, as Richard does. If however the law and government, and the recorded past on which both rest, no longer prove consistent and integral, the present state which they support disintegrates. It balances on ‘brittle glass’—a fragility Richard recognises in the final wooing scene (IV.4) when, grasping at nonexistent absolutes, his oaths of honour relate to nothing of substance in himself. Anticipating here a repetition of his scene with Anne, Richard goes to play again a ‘jolly thriving wooer’, but ‘his train … with drums and trumpets’ silently witness a performance disintegrating into improvisation. Elizabeth's unexpectedly perceptive interpolations refuse to let him play the script, for it is she who now prosecutes the duplicity of words: ‘Be not so hasty to confound my meaning’ (IV.4.262). Asked by Richard to act as his attorney in the court of love, she relocates the trial in that of justice. When he vows to repay her with ‘interest’ through the ‘advantages’ his ‘issue’ will ‘beget’ in her ‘entitlement’, she adopts the same legalistic imagery and advises him to press his case himself by citing past deeds as presentations and inducements to love—terms suggestive of illegal persuasion. While he desperately attaches words to a precise interpretation, she plays on their duality as once he did, reinterpreting the images to show him a more exact truth:

Your reasons are too shallow and too quick.
O no, my reasons are too deep and dead—
Too deep and dead, poor infants, in their graves.


The scene inverts the pattern of Act I, scene 2, by turning courtship to self-defence. Elizabeth leaves, equivocating her decision as did Anne, but fooling Richard with an ambiguity which, for the first time, he misreads. His brief dismissal of Elizabeth, however, confirms that the actor is not entirely pleased with his performance since for once he is not sole director of the drama—as Elizabeth realises. Margaret has reminded us there is another play, that of historical events already chronicled to which the dramatic action is inevitably bound. There is a truth in her words which Richard cannot divert, try though he might. The audience knows its history. Margaret ushers it in as the mellowed time when, the ‘dire induction’ past, there follows but the ‘bitter, black and tragical’ consequence of this ‘frantic play’ (IV.4.5,7,68).

The terms here are significant, applying as they do both to dramatic and formal argument, the consequence of a proof following from the induction or presentation of the case. It is the same merging of theatre and disputation contained in Richard's opening soliloquy. There he was ‘determinèd to prove a villain’—which thesis he has cunningly confirmed. Yet there also he was made both presenter and subject of his own debate, ‘I am determinèd’. As the passive voice implies, the latter role is subject to the exercise, to pre-set rules of argument and an ordained conclusion.

Both Richard and Margaret therefore retain a unique objectivity about the drama they are in, she a Cassandra-like anachronism cursing her prediction of what the outcome will be, he side-stage of the chronicle frame, mocking its unreality and mocking his own. His frequent asides and ironies keep ever before us Richard's dramatic origins, particularly in Act III, scene 1:

I say, without characters fame lives long.


What follows pinpoints the pun on ‘characters’ while at the same time reinforcing Richard's metadramatic role:

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


Richard III's historical fame, or infamy, as Iniquity incarnate is but a persona relying as little on the reality of his character as that of the Vice does on the individuality of the actor. Hence ‘without characters fame lives long’.

It is no mere coincidence that this reference to the villain-figure Richard comes in the one scene where the Crookback's legend is most fully to the fore. The mysterious murder of the innocents, uniting Richard III with Herod, was as famous to Shakespeare's audiences as it is to audiences today. The scene plays much upon it. Several details associate Richard's behaviour at this point with that of the Devil figure in morality drama, as Alan Dessen has observed.2 Satan was often shown to frighten victims with a dagger of lath, and Shakespeare's scene draws ironically on the parallel both in action and word, for the young Duke of York will shortly have Richard's dagger in another sense, as the audience well knows.3 The child's request to ride on Richard's shoulders again highlights the symbolism of the scene since traditionally the morality Vice departed for hell on the Devil's back, and the child's wit as well as his name associates him with Richard. It matters not whether the boy does leap onto his uncle's shoulders or is dissuaded from the attempt by horrified onlookers, the suggested image—a perversion of the Christ-child on the shoulders of the saint—remains. The irony here relies on our foreknowledge, providing rich possibilities for symbolic business underlining Richard's satanic associations.

The tragi-comic ironies of word and image are so openly played upon at this point, in the manner of theatrical ‘performances’ elsewhere in the play, that something of the same self-consciousness suggests itself. In a sense the scene becomes another play-in-play relying, like the rest, on the audience's perception of dramatic and historical irony while simultaneously hinting at that history's surrounding fiction.

Richard as historical character and Richard as dramatic figure confront each other in his final soliloquy, the opposing voices mimicking earlier courtly confrontations. This trial however is a self-examination, with Richard, simultaneously the prosecution and defence, no longer capable of any witty self-deception. Basic terms now reflect basic truth, ‘Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.’ (V.3.193). Nor is there a determined conclusion. The conflict is real, not played, and it forces him to face the unreality of his dramatic role. Richard describes the ghosts as witnesses at his arraignment where, significantly:

… every tale condemns me for a villain.
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all ‘Guilty! Guilty!’


Each testimony condemns his villainy—and, triumphantly, concludes his case. Ironically their evidence proves his determination—‘I am a villain’. The dramatic persona has succeeded in the role, and the thesis is complete. No longer need he summon a defence. No longer can he do so, for the other voice, the new-found voice of conscience creating him a moral character, regards it all as failure. Realistically such villainy is unacceptable,

O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.


The speech resonates with self-reference as Richard's self-searching recognises not only a divided mind torn by guilt but also a divided figure torn by the dramatic requirements of the history and its form. The integrity and nobility which it has been his role to mock throughout the play is denied him. The player gives his judgment on the man:

There is no creature loves me;
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?


for how can a fiction have feeling? In this we glimpse the paradox of the play, for if this Richard is a fiction then his story is so too—and what if history is so too? The ambivalence of legitimate word and image which the play reflects encourages our doubt.

The inversion in Richard's words to Ratcliffe, ‘Will our friends prove all true?’ (V.3.214), assumes an interesting ambiguity, for if his men now prove disloyal, shrinking from him to swell the ranks of Richmond's troops, they will ensure his death, fulfil history's determination, confirm the legend and indeed prove all is true—won’t they?

Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.


Richard's final cry supplies a comment on this—the warrior's determination to make a noble death even in the face of damnation, if the game of chance will have it so. The terms ‘die’ and ‘cast’, however, also retain an association with stamping or minting, for the die was an engraved stamp used to impress a figure or design on softer material, the cast being that which was so moulded. Must deformed, unfinished Richard therefore die as he was cast, stamped or determinèd to do—and strike himself proof villain?


  1. Elizabethan playgoers came to hear and judge a play, to participate in its debate—the morality tradition bequeathed this and the physical structure of the playhouse could hardly have allowed it to be avoided. History plays in particular questioned the nature of authority, even if unconsciously, by subjecting kings to the judgment of an audience—an argument which is explored more widely in the following monographs, to which I am indebted: Joel B. Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind (Berkeley, 1978); Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley, 1975).

  2. Alan C. Dessen, Shakespeare and the Late Moral Plays (Lincoln and London, 1976), pp. 38-54.

  3. Holinshed's Chronicle twice associates Richard with the weapon, possibly intending to imply his evil origins (Shakespeare's Holinshed, ed. Richard Hosley, New York, 1968, pp. 248, 270), and The True Tragedy of Richard III (c. 1594) mentions that:

    For if he heare one stirre he riseth up.
    And claps his hand upon his dagger straight
    Readie to stab him, what so ere he be.

    (Malone Society Reprint, Oxford, 1929, lines 1778-80)

All references to Shakespeare's Richard III are to the New Penguin edition edited by E. A. J. Honigmann (Harmondsworth, 1968).

Deborah Mitchell (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8683

SOURCE: “Richard III: Tonypandy in the Twentieth Century,” in Literature/Film Quarterly 25, No. 2, 1997, pp. 133-45.

[In the following essay, Mitchell discusses the ways in which Ian McKellen's 1996 cinematic performance of Richard III powerfully reinforces the Tudor myth that presents Richard as an immoral monster.]

In her 1951 detective novel, Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey proffers the theory that Richard III, last of the Plantagenet kings, was a victim of Tudor character assassination. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, House of York, brother of Edward IV, had long been accused and by many convicted of a long list of heinous crimes, not the least of which was usurping the throne and murdering his nephews in the Tower. We know him today as Shakespeare's “bottled spider,” “foul devil,” “fouler toad.” We also know today that Shakespeare based his portrait on the works of Polydore Vergil, Sir Thomas More, Edward Hall, and Raphael Holinshed: Tudor chroniclers who had their motives for blackening the White Rose. In his biography, Richard the Third, Paul Murray Kendall suggests that “the history of Richard's reputation is a drama; it exhibits a cumulative plot, a powerful central conflict, and scenes of passion, scorn, vituperation, and ridicule. It begins more than [500] years ago, and is not yet ended” (496). He also suggests that at the heart of this drama stands “the Tudor myth, or tradition, a collection of alleged facts and attitudes and beliefs concerning the course of history in fifteenth-century England, which was … given its final expression in the three plays of Henry the Sixth and the Richard the Third of William Shakespeare” (Kendall 496).

The traditionalist view of wicked Uncle Richard persists in the twentieth century, yet we know that at least part of the portrait is a fake. Infra-red photography reveals the literal fake: some portraits touched up in Tudor times to make one shoulder appear higher than the other (Williamson 68). In Daughter of Time, Tey calls this practice of perpetuating myth and flouting fact “tonypandy,” after a village in South Wales whose citizens still claim that the government used troops to shoot down Welsh minors striking for their rights in 1910 (94). Everyone knows that the riot was quelled with little more than a bloody nose, but the myth is much more exciting (Tey 94). As Tey's Detective-Inspector Alan Grant, Scotland Yard's “face expert,” lies bed-bound and bored in the hospital, his actress friend Marta Hallard brings him a diversion: a packet of portraits, one of which is Richard III. With the help of a young American student, Grant spends the rest of his recovery period trying to solve a fifteenth-century mystery. At one point in their investigation, frustrated with the tangle of “historical” evidence, Grant cries, “Give me research. After all, the truth of anything at all doesn't lie in someone's account of it. It lies in all the small facts of the time. An advertisement in a paper. The sale of a house. The price of a ring” (95). The detectives conclude that the small facts about Richard don't add up to a portrait of a killer.

Josephine Tey's revisionist theory set forth in her novel wasn’t new. Richard always had his defenders. William Cornwaleys, Sir George Buc, Horace Walpole, Sharon Turner, Caroline Halsted, and Sir Clement R. Markham had long ago dealt with the monarch as if he actually had been a human being, as Kendall points out. Some of his defenders looked for evidence in sources more contemporary to Richard. Some pointed out the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of Tudor chroniclers. Some acquitted him of all charges—even the murder of his nephews—a stand as dangerous as his prosecutors’. While Tey's position wasn't new, her forum for it was. Using the popular detective novel genre, she achieved what few pro-Ricardians had ever done. She mass marketed the revisionist theory that perhaps Richard III was not the Antichrist. In a sense, then, Tey's novel, Daughter of Time, is to the revisionist theory what Shakespeare's drama, Richard III, is to the traditionalist theory. They represent two camps that still exist today, long after Richard's death in 1485 on Bosworth Field. Saint or Sinner? Few hold a moderate position. For a monarch who ruled England only a little over two years, Richard III has generated more controversy than all the other rulers put together. As A.J. Pollard says in Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, “It seems that he was one of those charismatic public figures to whom people react strongly, either enthusiastically for or violently against” (200). The Richard III Society in England, with a thriving chapter in the United States, continues its search for information that will vindicate their much-maligned monarch. While academic scholars continue their debate, Pollard tells us that, since Tey's work was published, more than forty novels have appeared on Richard III, some of them bodice-ripping romance novels set in his household or court (222). “Over a longer period, twenty-four plays have been written for stage or radio, mostly to set Shakespeare straight, including one in which the bard is arraigned in Hell on a charge of falsifying history” (Pollard 222). In 1979 the BBC broadcast a courtroom drama based on Elizabeth Jenkins's The Princes in the Tower, and, in 1984, London Weekend Television broadcast an unscripted courtroom drama in which Richard III was tried for murdering his nephews. The verdict: not guilty.

In spite of the increasing numbers who have joined the ranks of the revisionist camp, however, it's the traditionalists who hold sway. Shakespeare's “bottled spider” is too vivid an image to shake. As Taylor Littleton and Robert R. Rea point out in To Prove a Villain: The Case of King Richard III, every schoolchild knows that “villainy hath charms that never fade” (xi). The bad guy is not only more fun to play, but also more fun to watch. The list of actors who have played Richard on stage and screen reads like a who's who in theater and film: Barrymore, Olivier, Bates, Holm, Sher, Pacino, Washington, and McKellen, to name only a few. These varied performances by popular actors have helped perpetuate the traditionalist line that Richard usurped the throne and shed innocent blood to do it. In fact, Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen's film Richard III, based on the London stage production, is a brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare's text. Both revisionist and parodic in the cinematic sense, this version provides a riveting visual portrait of evil personified. In her review “Tricky Dick III,” Plain Dealer film critic Joanna Connors says:

No invisible proscenium arches or thundering declamations from castle parapets here. This “Richard” is a movie movie, trimmed to fighting weight and primed for action and speed. Director Richard Loncraine and actor Ian McKellen … have thrown out great chunks of the play, rearranged the rest, and transposed it all to 1930s England. In their updated War of the Roses, European fascism pounds at the palace gate while dissipated royals blithely dance the night away inside. … It works. Spectacularly.

(Friday! 6)

Shakespeare's portrait of the Duke of Gloucester isn't going away. Neither, it seems, is our interest in the man: witness the recent discovery of the 1912 version of Shakespeare's Richard III, the oldest complete feature film made in the United States, and Al Pacino's 1996 drama/documentary Looking for Richard. Therefore, the issue today isn't which camp to choose, either the hard-line traditionalist or the over-zealous revisionist. The issue becomes one of avoiding the camps for fear of continuing a battle that can never be won. This is one puzzle that probably will never be solved, unless new evidence surfaces. The challenge is to come to the field with an open mind and enough information to separate propaganda from fact, storytelling from history. In The Mystery of the Princes, Audrey Williamson says that “the tentacles of the propaganda octopus stretch wide and few people seem born with questioning or sceptical minds” (194). Some, like Tey, do question the truth as history would give it to us. Her work is probably not so much a vindication of Richard as it is an indictment of historians and the way they’ve written history and served it up in textbooks. A comparison of Shakespeare's drama, Loncraine and McKellen's film adaptation, and the actual sources helps us to pinpoint the tonypandy and to reconstruct a modern-day portrait of a fifteenth-century king, a portrait of a complex man living in brutal times.

In Richard's Himself Again: A Stage History of Richard III, Scott Colley says that today we're tempted to play Richard as the complicated man he was; however, it's better to play him as Shakespeare's villain because “too much psychology ruins the part” (11-12). Ian McKellen felt the same way. In his London stage version of Richard III, McKellen thought that there was just too much to Richard to explore in one performance so he “settled upon a portrait of a mandarin-soldier who has been too long at war, and who returns to a detested peace to wreck the privileged club of which he has so long been a member” (257). Colley writes:

“What is it that goes so terribly wrong when soldiers are idle?” McKellen wondered. “What happens when a great soldier like Richard returns from the war and suddenly finds himself out of a job? What happens when he finds people are talking to women?” McKellen thus created a stiffly military, asexual World War I combat general who brings the terrors he had known on the battlefield to the corridors and council rooms of government buildings.


This is the Richard that McKellen brings to the screen. Loncraine and McKellen's film adaptation, set in 1930s England, also explores the question of what would have happened if Hitler had invaded England. It's an interesting hypothesis given the number of British aristocracy who sympathized with Germany in the early days of the conflict. In his introduction to the published screenplay, McKellen himself says:

The historical event of the play had occurred just a couple of generations before the first audience saw them dramatised. The comparable period for us would be the 1930s, close enough for no-one to think we were identifying the plot of the play with actual events, any more than Shakespeare was writing about the real King Richard. He was creating history-which-never-happened. Our production was properly in the realm of “what might have been.” Also, the 30s were appropriately a decade of tyranny throughout Europe, the most recent time when a dictatorship like Richard III's might have overtaken the United Kingdom, as it had done Germany, Italy, Spain and the empire of the Soviet Union.


The House of York in this War of the Roses is depicted as the Nazi Party, and Richard in a Nazi uniform seals his fate as eternity's archvillain. In one of the film's many homages, a Star Wars scroll tells usof events unfolding while the tickertape message warning the Lancastrians of an attack on Tewkesbury reminds us of the opening of Casablanca. Inside the palace, old Henry VI and his son Edward, Prince of Wales, are gearing up for a Yorkist attack. Edward sits behind his desk, eating his dinner, his dog chomping a bone before the fire. On his desk, we see a photograph of his wife, Anne of Warwick (Kristin Scott Thomas). A distant rumble shakes his wine glass and unnerves his dog. Suddenly, a tank crashes through the walls of the palace into his office. We hear the mechanical sound of breathing. A figure in a Darth Vaderesque mask shoots Edward in the head, moves quickly into the connecting chamber, and shoots the old king at prayer. The figure strips off his mask, and Richard (Ian McKellen)—with his thin mustache and yellowed, rotten teeth—sneers into the camera, the first of many close-ups that forces us to get up close and personal with this charming dissembler. Opening the film with these murders immediately heightens the drama of Shakespeare's first act, which begins with Richard's “winter of our discontent” speech, by intensifying the villainy of Richard. As Pollard states, Edward was killed in battle. No sources contemporary to Richard even hint “at cold-blooded murder at the hands of the Duke of Gloucester” (Pollard 52). The fate of Henry VI is less clear. Imprisoned in the Tower at the time of the battle, he died shortly thereafter of “pure displeasure and melancholy” (Pollard 54). Williamson offers another explanation: “In 1499 when a group of clergymen petitioned the Pope to move Henry's remains to Westminster Abbey, they stated: ‘He had yielded to a pitiable death, by the order of Edward, who was then king of England’” (35).

A series of visual images and a big band score set the mood for the House of York's Victory Ball. Exposition shots include the city of London; cars pulling up in front of the palace; the happy, loving King Edward (John Wood) and Queen Elizabeth (Annette Bening) playing with their children; gentle George (Nigel Hawthorne), the family photographer, snapping pictures; and Earl Rivers (Robert Downey, Jr.) arriving at the airport, slightly tipsy, cigarette dangling from his lips. When he arrives at the party with presents, his coat carelessly thrown over his shoulders, the camera is at a high angle long shot which suggests that fate is being played out here. Rivers is doomed. Cut to the ballroom scene with Edward and Elizabeth dancing, smiling into each other's eyes. Cecily, the Duchess of York and Queen Mum (Maggie Smith), looks on. This exposition establishes the warm, family atmosphere that makes Richard's deeds seem all the more dastardly. As he makes his entrance, the camera technique changes. A steady cam follows him as he winds his way, smiling and gladhanding, across the floor toward his family and the stage where an entertainer is singing the words to Christopher Marlowe's poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”

Throughout this film, Richard is in almost constant motion, like a spider weaving his web. In fact, the mise en scène, photography, and editing technique visually create the spider unloosed: calculating and cunning, spinning webs to snare his victims. Elizabeth dances with her youngest son on her feet. The rakishly attractive Rivers joins them for a threesome. A Kodak moment. How can we not care what happens to these people now? Some sources suggest that Elizabeth's family, the Woodville clan, actually gained controlling influence at court through acts of nepotism. When Edward secretly married widow Elizabeth Woodville while the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville (the “Kingmaker”), was negotiating for his royal marriage in France, he ruptured the peace between the Plantagenets and the Nevilles and tipped the scales of power in favor of the Woodvilles. Owen Tudor says that when Edward died unexpectedly at the age of 40, the Woodvilles not only controlled the court but also the king's council, “the Tower of London, the arsenal, the King's treasure, the fleet and above all … the new young king and his younger brother” (4). In the power struggle that ensued between Richard and the Woodvilles over the protectorship of young Edward and control of the country, Richard won. She who would be Queen Regent fled to sanctuary with her children and the royal loot. In Loncraine and McKellen's adaptation, the “innocent” Woodvilles once again become Richard's victims as he systematically sets about to exterminate the lot of them.

Richard begins his “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech on stage, at the microphone, in medium close-up. Cutaways to reaction shots of the family, especially his mother, show their subtle disapproval of him. The camera slowly moves in to an extreme close-up of his mouth, the thin mustache above a curling lip, and cuts on the line “To fright the souls of fearful adversaries.” Richard delivers the rest of his speech, which picks up with “I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,” over a urinal. He's become very skillful at using one hand. McKellen plays Richard as Shakespeare painted him—with all his physical deformities: crookback, withered arm, and uneven legs. It was John Rous in his Historia Regum Angliae who started the rumor that one shoulder was higher than the other. Thomas More added a few things:

Richarde … was … little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right, hard fauoured of visage … in other menne otherwise, he was malicious, wrathfull, enuious and, from afore his birth, euer frowarde. It is for trouth reported, that … hee came into the worlde with the feete forwarde … and also not vntothed. … He 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 sureitie 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.


Of course, now More's account is pretty much dismissed as a history and is taken as it was intended, as a drama, a morality piece, or, as Elizabeth Story Donno calls it in Thomas More and Richard III, a “declamation, specifically a controversia” (410). Pollard says that no contemporary evidence exists about Richard's physical description. The Italian, Mancini, writing at the time, saw him and “says nothing of his appearance which would seem to suggest that it was unexceptional” (Pollard 12). In Richard III: The Man Behind the Myth, Michael Hicks says, “It was after his death that it was first declared unnatural by enemies who tried to denigrate him. … He was certainly neither a cripple nor incapable of bearing arms” (49). One “Countess of Desmond, who claimed at an immense age to have danced when a girl at Edward's court” said that “Richard was ‘the handsomest man in the room except his brother Edward, and was very well made’” (Williamson 140).

As Richard finishes his speech, he stares into the mirror above the sink, then turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall of the screen, and says, “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” He moves to the door, and, with a conspiratorial crook of his finger, invites us to join him: “Plots have I laid … To set my brothers, Clarence and the King, / In deadly hate, the one against the other.” The scene shifts to a wharf where George, Duke of Clarence, is being taken by boat to the Tower. Richard feigns ignorance as to why George has been arrested and kisses whom he thinks to kill, promising to plead his brother's part to the king. The spider has snared another. However, it's the next scene that so vividly illustrates this image of Richard.

Anne, dressed totally in black, slowly walks down a hospital corridor. Bloody soldiers and wounded citizens lie to both sides of her, waiting for treatment. The camera follows her down the stairs to the morgue where she finds her husband, Edward Prince of Wales, lying on a slab. Blue filters give the room a hard, cold, impersonal feel. Light streams through narrow windows high in the walls. The music is low, sultry. Distraught, Anneleans over her husband's body and begins, “Cursed be the hand that made these holes!” We see Richard, the spider, quietly approach her from behind. He startles her. She's venomous toward him: “Foul devil, you have made this happy world my hell.” He begins to court her, circling her around the steel slab, cocooning her with his honeyed words and flattery. She's immobile. At one point, he grabs a knife, drops to his knee, holds the knife to his throat and says, “If your revengeful heart cannot forgive, / I humbly beg for death, upon my knee. … It was I who killed your husband; / But it was your heavenly face that set me on.” The high angle shot is on him and the low angle on her as she responds, “I will not be thy executioner.” He slowly takes the ring off his finger with his mouth, slips it on her finger, rises and salutes her. She cannot move. In the next shot, an elated Richard skips down the hospital corridor, smiling, shaking hands with the sick and dying. Looking directly into the camera, he confides in us, his intimates: “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won? / I’ll have her, but I won’t keep her long.” Big band music swells. He dances up the stairs, motioning for us to follow him.

When next we see him, Richard is sitting at the breakfast table alone, smoking and drinking, burning Edward's reprieve for George's life. Richard is seldom seen without his cigarette, nor far from a bottle. Shakespeare reverses some of the brothers' characteristics. It's long been known that Richard disapproved of Edward's carousing. While Edward was a notorious boozer and womanizer, Richard himself was actually somewhat of a prude. It was also Edward who had George executed for treason. Though the film depicts George as almost childlike and naive, many sources document his shady political dealings, jealousy, and greed. In the next scene, we see a very different breakfast with Elizabeth, the children, and her brother Rivers who is reading the Wall Street Journal in Native American headdress. Casting Americans in the Woodville roles subtly reflects their tenuous position. McKellen says, “In the play Queen Elizabeth's Woodville Family are reviled by Richard as provincial outsiders to the metropolitan power-center. A 30s equivalent was to make them American: witness the British Establishment's outcry in 1936, when King Edward VIII wanted Wallis Simpson to be his queen” (54). In this scene, Elizabeth confides in Rivers. She's worried about what will happen to her and her children should Edward die. Edward enters with young Elizabeth on his arm and assures his Queen that Richard will take good care of her. The juxtaposition of this scene with the next suggests just how well Richard plans to take care of them. Nazis march by as Richard meets Tyrell (Adrian Dunbar), his “most obedient servant,” at the boar pen. As Tyrell feeds a white boar, Richard's symbol, Richard recruits Tyrell to kill his brother George.

An immediate cut to George shows him sitting in profile position on a hard, straightbacked chair in his cell. Blue filters, huge pipes, and light streaming through an upper window (reminiscent of the morgue scene) create a sense of impending doom. Loncraine and McKellen have streamlined the play here, which makes the rising action move quickly and heightens the dramatic effect. They’ve eliminated some characters like Henry VI's Queen Margaret, and they’ve cross cut George's death with the dinner scene in which Elizabeth and Richard accuse each of plotting against the other. As George's jailer walks him down a narrow basement corridor out into the jail yard, we wait for someone to call out “Dead man walking.” George, in medium to medium close-up, tells the jailer about his dream in which Richard struck him overboard. The prison yard behind him looks like a Roman pit with its dirt floor, murky moat, and crumbling walls. The sky darkens, thunder begins, and rain pours down on him. It's a pathetic, isolated figure who finally says, “I, trembling, waked and for a season after / Could not believe but that I was in Hell.” The camera pulls back to a high angle long shot as we leave George drenched and alone in the prison yard. Cut to a street scene where Richard is paying Tyrell and Brackenbury to kill George. Two of his speeches are combined here as he says to them, “Your eyes drop millstones, when fools' eyes fall tears.” They leave and he turns to the camera: “Clarence hath not another day to live. / Which done, God take King Edward to his mercy—/ And leave the world for me to bustle in.” Cut to the dinner scene. Richard arrives late (as he usually does to make an entrance), holding hands with a radiant Anne in a red dress. As he smiles and flatters and looks fair, he says, “Because I cannot flatter and speak fair, / I must be held a rancorous enemy.” He accuses Elizabeth of having George arrested. She calls him a “bottled spider.” During this exchange, everyone at the table is uncomfortable except Anne, who smiles and touches her husband's hand across the table. The Archbishop (Roger Hammond) tries to be conciliatory. Rivers defends his sister, who at one point leans over to Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) and whispers, “O Buckingham, take heed of yonder dog! / Look, when he fawns, he bites.” Margaret actually has the argument with Richard in the play, but transferring the conflict between Richard and Elizabeth heightens sympathy for her in the film. Richard rises as Elizabeth exits, walks toward Buckingham, and asks, “What did she say?” Buckingham replies, “Nothing that I respect.” The whole scene is done in parallel editing with Tyrell and Brackenbury murdering an unsuspecting George in his bath, not “in the malmsey-butt.”

The film moves from George's bloody bath water to a medium close-up of Richard sitting alone in his chair, his face in profile. As the camera pulls back to a medium shot, we see that he's smoking and drinking, his man Ratcliffe massaging his withered arm. A knock at the door. A package. Richard opens it with one hand. It's George's reading glasses. Cut to Anne standing seductively in a white nightgown at the foot of their wide staircase. Richard moves toward her, switches off the lights, and walks out of the frame to the right. She pulls her gown back up over her shoulder and turns to climb the stairs to bed—alone. Cut to Richard and Anne in the back seat of their limousine. She's in red again, her husband's favorite color and symbol of her own degradation. She pops a pill and looks wordlessly at Richard, who simply ignores her. He's through with her, but as they arrive at Edward's seaside resort where the sickly king is recuperating, he's holding her hand. The film visualizes Richard's duplicity by juxtaposing scenes like these two which reflect the private and the public man. Smiling, touching, kissing all, he marks his victims. He gives Buckingham a little fake jab to the jaw and slaps Hastings on the back. Edward in his wheelchair attempts to reconcile his administrators with the Woodville clan. Instead of at his bedside as in Shakespeare's drama, the scene is played out in the bright, sunny veranda by the ocean to create an irony between appearance and reality. The obsequious Richard reconciles to all, stoops to Edward, looks into the camera and says, “I thank God for my humility.” Upon hearing that George has been executed, Edward collapses and is rushed into the palace. We see a close-up of his face from his bed where he draws his last breath. Elizabeth screams and descends the stairs where others are waiting. Low, jazzy, fatalistic music heralds the news: “Our king is dead.”

Shakespeare would have us believe that the Duchess of York's attitude toward her son was one of thinly veiled contempt. In this film adaptation, Maggie Smith plays Cecily, the Rose of Raby, with smoldering suspicion and increasing horror at Richard's behavior. After Edward's death, he becomes Lord Protector and stops his mother as she is ascending the stairs to Edward's room. He looks up at her: “Madam, mother, I do humbly crave your blessing.” She looks down at him: “God bless you—and put meekness in your breast, / Love, charity, obedience and true duty!” She knows these are all the things he does not have.

Buckingham has approached Richard from behind, whispering in his ear that he's off to part Earl Rivers from the Prince. Richard sanctions his mission by calling him “my other self.” Kendall says that Buckingham virtually appeared out of nowhere to become Richard's alter ego. He gained Richard's trust to the point that Richard bestowed great titles and wealth on him. He did not, as Shakespeare dramatizes, deny Buckingham anything, least of all the Bohun inheritance. The two were inseparable. When Buckingham betrayed Richard, Richard allegedly was so hurt that in a letter to his Chancellor he called Buckingham “him that had best Cause to be true” and “the most untrue Creature living” (323-24).

The next several scenes move with lightening speed. We see Rivers in bed with a stewardess he met on the plane. One of his hands is cuffed to the bedpost as her lips move down his body, and she exits the frame. As his body writhes in ecstasy, a knife suddenly shoots up from under the bed and slashes him through the chest. His lover screams. We cut to the sound of a train whistling, roaring, bearing the future Edward V through a tunnel. Cut to a toy train racing around a Christmas tree at the palace where the young Duke of York is playing while Cecily and Elizabeth hear of Rivers's death. In the film, Lord Stanley and Richmond (the future Henry VII) deliver the news. From this point on, Richmond is always lurking in the background somewhere, plotting Richard's overthrow with Stanley and the Archbishop. The ominous Tyrell stops the toy train with his foot as we cut to the real train arriving at the station. The young Edward says, “I want more uncles here to welcome me,” and Richard tells him, “Those uncles which you want were dangerous.” Edward defends Rivers: “God keep me from false friends—but they were none.” Prince Edward was raised almost exclusively by the Woodvilles and tutored by his uncle, the scholar Rivers. Richard rarely saw the boy. When Rivers plotted to usurp Richard's position as Lord Protector, Richard had him killed and the boy removed from Woodville influence.

Much has been written about Shakespeare's Act III, Scene IV, in which Hastings is framed, accused of treason, and beheaded immediately. By this time in the play, Richard's list of sins is mounting. Backed by Buckingham and Catesby, Richard traps Hastings who refuses to give his support to his usurpation of the throne, even though Edward's children have been declared illegitimate through Titulus Regius. The film adaptation sets the scene around a board table in the Council Chamber, before Richard arrives. Buckingham is smoking a big cigar. Catesby suggests that Richard should be king. Stanley and the Archbishop look nervous. Hastings has already told Catesby, “I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders, / Before I’ll see the crown so foul misplaced.” He pulls out a flask and takes a drink to calm his nerves. He's just dreamed of Richard with a boar's face showing his tusks, a bad sign. Richard enters, sits opposite Hastings, covers his eyes with his hand, and says, “Tell me what they deserve / Who do conspire my death.” Hastings answers, “They deserve death.” Richard rises, rolls up his sleeve, and circles the table, shaking his withered arm in each man's face. He stops behind Hastings, hits him on the shoulder screaming, “You are a traitor. Off with his head.” Cut to Hastings's body falling through a ceiling shaft on a rope. In one of the film's most outrageous scenes, Richard is stretched across his sofa, smoking, drinking, tapping his feet, and humming to a catchy little swing tune, drooling over photographs of Hastings with a noose around his neck.

The parody in the film version undercuts the seriousness of Richard's crimes. He's too evil to be true. He's made us an intimate, almost an accomplice, in his schemes by addressing us in his asides with devilish grins and coy mugging and winking at us with his baby blues. We're captivated by his audacity. We're drawn into the web. Like his victims, we get taken in by his charm, until he sends us reeling with a one-two punch. McKellen explains:

All of Shakespeare's troubled heroes reveal their inner selves in their confidential soliloquies. These are not thought-out-loud, rather true confessions to the audience. Richard may lie to all the other characters but within his solo speeches he always tells the truth. I never doubted that in the film he would have to break through the fourth wall of the screen and talk directly to the camera, as to a confidant. If this unsettled the audience, so much the better. They should not be comfortable hearing his vile secrets and being treated as accomplices. They would also better appreciate the brilliance of his ability to fool, deceive and seduce his hapless victims. Men and women are all players to Shakespeare but Richard is a consummate actor.


When Buckingham and Richard plot to gain the support of Council and citizens alike, they are in Richard's dressing room, complete with lighted mirror. A make-up artist and hairdresser come in while Buckingham tells him to affect a little humility and piety so they will back his bid for the throne. Buckingham says,

Pretend some fear!
And, look you, get a prayerbook in your hand.
Be not easily won by our requests.
Play the maid's part—still answer ‘No’ and take

Richard picks up a random book lying on the dressing table, and Buckingham pulls off the cover. The act begins. Richard allows Buckingham and the rest of the Council members to talk him into taking up the burden of king. Finally, Richard assents, looks into the camera with affected innocence and says, “I am not made of stones.” At their exit, we get a shot through a keyhole. Stanley, Archbishop, and Richmond are plotting to send Richmond to France for safety. The camera pulls back, and we see Catesby at the keyhole. Cut to a huge convention hall filled with uniformed soldiers with red sashes and red banners. Red flags line the walls as Richard in full uniform ascends the stairs to the stage. Buckingham shouts, “Long live King Richard,” and the hall fills with the chant of “Richard, Richard.” Like Hitler, Richard waves from the podium. Suddenly a huge red and black banner bearing his symbol of the boar unfurls behind him. The camera moves in on him until we are left with another close-up of Richard's twisted face and false smile. The road to the podium has been paved in blood, and the immediate cut to the next scene foreshadows more to come. Elizabeth, Cecily, Anne, and young Elizabeth are at the Tower gates. They are refused admittance. The camera is on the inside of the gates. Denied access to her sons, Elizabeth clutches the iron bars which make a pattern of squares on her face like a wall full of television screens. In a high angle medium shot she says,

Pity, you ancient stones, those tender princes
Whom envy has immured within your walls.
Rough cradle for such little pretty ones.
Rude, ragged nurse, use my babies well.

Richard quickly rises from Lord Protector to King. His coronation is shown through Anne's drugged haze. She's now a heroin addict—almost totally immobile, like a fly that's been caught in a web for a long time and has finally given up. A slick dissolve takes us from the actual coronation with Richard in profile on the throne to a black and white film of the same shot. Richard and Anne and his handful of intimates are now sitting in his screening room watching a film of the coronation. Anne is on the extreme right of the frame in a red dress, a cigarette dangling from her red lips. She's comatose. Buckingham is on Richard's left. Three times Richard says to him that young Edward still lives and urges Buckingham to speak on the subject. Buckingham avoids the issue until Richard, irritated with him, says, “Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead.” Buckingham begs some time to think and leaves his chair. Cut to a shot of Stanley and Richmond standing underneath the blue skies of France planning their invasion of England. Cut to Catesby now in Buckingham's chair. Richard says to him, “Rumor it abroad / That Anne, my wife, is very grievous sick … and like to die.” Aside, Richard explains: “I must be married to my brother's daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass. / Murther her brothers and then marry her.”

Richard is eating a box of chocolates when he calls Tyrell to him and asks him to kill the princes. Tyrell doesn't hesitate as he takes a candy and leaves. The look on Richard's face is orgasmic. It could be the chocolate, but it's probably death and power that turn him on. “Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.” The moment is shattered by Buckingham who appears before him in a low angle shot, blocking the screen. He demands the lands that Richard promised him. They step out into the night and onto the balcony, under a huge clock. The inference, visually depicted, is that Buckingham is like a Jack or manikin in an old clock that strikes the bell. He’s, as The Riverside Shakespeare notes, ready for action but does not strike (741). He wants to force his request but won’t. This angers Richard who finally screams at him: “You trouble me. I am not in the vein!” The cut is to Anne. Buckingham comes back into the screening room, and Anne looks up at him, delivering lines from an earlier speech in the play that work better in this scene in the film. She tells Buckingham:

Never yet one hour in his bed,
Have I enjoyed the golden dew of sleep;
But have been wakened by his timorous dreams.
Besides, he hates me:
And will, no doubt, shortly be rid of me.

Buckingham exits on the lines, “O, let me think of Hastings and be gone.”

The previous scene is a long but important one because it illustrates Shakespeare's attitude toward power: too much corrupts and turns the world order to chaos. Shakespeare feared chaos. He used Richard as an example of tyranny's destructiveness. In his work Richard III, Charles Ross says that Shakespeare was “acutely sensitive to the political climate of his own time. Civil war was abhorrent … sedition … was hateful; rebellion could not be forgiven” (xxxi). More was writing along the same conviction. But Henry Tudor usurped the throne. He was a bastard with no rightful claim. His actions had to be justified, so Richard became the monster and Henry the savior of England. Ross says, “His coming fitted into a scheme of divine providence, which ended the long period of suffering and atonement for England's sins” (xxxi). Both the play and the film are built on what The Riverside Shakespeare calls a “mounting sequence of crime and retribution … that finds its climax in the master-villain's death” (711). As Richard's treachery mounts, he is ensnared in his own web. Sin has plucked on sin. The shots of him are closed and tight. The space around him becomes claustrophobic, yet the spider evades the bottle for a while longer. When next we see Richard, it's in extreme long shot as he works at his desk under an enormous painting of himself. Tyrell enters his vast chamber and tells him that the deed is done. The distance between them is now very public. Tyrell has fulfilled his mission. He has killed the bastards by smothering them with a red scarf.

In a high angle medium shot Richard swivels in his chair at the news and says, “The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham's bosom.” Cut to a long shot of Anne's bedroom. Cut to a close-up of her lying in bed, eyes open and staring. Suddenly a black widow spider walks down her face. Cut to Elizabeth in extreme long shot crying on the staircase. Her circle of friends and family is fast dwindling. Cut to the Council Hall where Cecily is confronting her son. They begin their confrontation on opposite sides of a high balcony and continue until they meet midway at the staircase. In the play, Cecily's words are not as venomous as Maggie Smith delivers them in the film adaptation; however, the way Smith plays the scene with open hostility seems more appropriate and dramatic here. She's praying for the enemy. Practically spitting the words, she gets Richard's attention:

You came on earth to make the earth my hell. … 
Bloody you are: bloody will be your end.
Shame serves your life and will your death attend!

It's the only time in the film where Richard loses his composure; his face is ashen, blue eyes vacant. Cut to Cecily boarding a plane for France as Elizabeth and young Elizabeth, arms tight around each other, see her off.

In the next scene, mother and daughter arrive at Richard's camp, a train station, where he is preparing for battle with Richmond. Things are in a state of chaos as soldiers bustle in all directions, horses and tanks move back and forth randomly. This is in direct contrast to Richmond's camp with its neat, ordered rows of tents and calm atmosphere. Elizabeth spots Richard entering his railway car office and cries, “Where are my children?” The hard, cold steel of railroad tracks, cars, tanks, and beams reminds us of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. While soldiers grab the young Elizabeth and hold her outside, Elizabeth follows Richard into his office. The tight, confining space, with slits of light streaming in from the window, looks like the inside of a blue tinted bottle. Richard opens a bottle with one hand, circling Elizabeth as he did Anne in the morgue. He will marry his niece to thwart Richmond who wants to marry her to legitimize his claim to the throne and unify the houses of the white and red rose. Elizabeth, shocked and disgusted by Richard's suggestion, backs away from him but plays it cool. To buy time, she says she will give him her answer tomorrow. In a gesture he knows will repulse her, Richard says, “Be the attorney of my love to her. … Bear her my true love's kiss” and plants a big, sloppy kiss on Elizabeth. He laughs into the camera. McKellen explains that “this kiss has a double nastiness” (256). The audience by now can imagine the innocent young Elizabeth's “revulsion were she forced to be intimate with her brothers' killer” (256).

Elizabeth promptly heads for France and secretly marries her daughter to Richmond who is shown on his knees looking saintly in a close-up as he prays. “Defend me still!” It's the night before the Battle of Bosworth. Their marriage scene is juxtaposed with Buckingham's death. Tyrell strangles him in the back of an army truck while Richard waits in the front seat. As the newlyweds consecrate their marriage, Richard awakes in a cold sweat. In a high contrast, tightly framed close-up, Richard's sins visit him. Shakespeare has the ghosts of Richard's victims visit him and Richmond. While they promise support to Richmond, they curse Richard. In the film, as Richard cries, “There is no creature loves me. / And if I die, no soul will pity me,” Ratcliff appears and rocks him like a baby. Cut to young Elizabeth and Richmond in bed. Cut to an exterior shot of their tent as he takes his leave of her. Music swells.

Richmond gets into his tank. His attack takes Richard by surprise. Bombs rip his rail car. Richard's troops are in disarray. Men are on fire. Through the smoke we see Richard grab a machine gun on the back of a jeep and shoot at a bomber overhead. Ratcliff pulls him into a jeep, but its wheels catch in a ditch. Richard wrestles the wheel away from Ratcliff, who has been shot, and tries to dislodge the jeep. He cries, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” He sees Richmond in a tank, braving the crossfire, leading his men. Richard makes a limp for a steel staircase on the outside of an industrial power plant. He climbs the stairs and walks out onto a steel beam. Richmond follows him. Just as Richmond is ready to shoot Richard, Richard smiles, extends his hand and says, “Let us to it pell-mell. If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.” He deliberately falls backward into the flames below, and the song “I’m Sittin’ On Top of the World” begins. The question becomes, whom is the song for, Richard or Richmond? The ending is wonderfully ambiguous. The song could be for Richard. As Milton wrote, it's better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. On the other hand, Richmond is now King Henry VII. He shoots too late to kill Richard, and, for a split second, looks disappointed. Then he smiles. We’ve seen this smile before. It's Richard’s.

The ending of the film almost invites us to question Henry's motives and speculate on his own reign. When we look at Henry's trail of blood, Richard's sins seem minor. Richard's character, for example, seems unquestioned before 1483. Hicks says, “From 1468 to 1483 Richard's career is one of continuous and conspicuous royal service and fidelity to the crown” (52). He did disagree with Edward on taking annuities from France and would have attacked France; this is probably why France backed Richmond. His biographers suggest Richard and Anne were happy together and dismiss the accusation that Richard wanted to kill his wife so that he could marry young Elizabeth. Anne supposedly died of tuberculosis a year after their only son died. Overall, Williamson says. “The family of York was a conspicuously united one, Clarence apart” (28). Many of Richard's subjects in the north country were so loyal that they continued to rebel against Henry long after Richard's death. Elizabeth eventually reconciled with him. The question everyone asks is why would Elizabeth be so reconciled with Richard if he had killed her sons. It seems astonishing she would turn over the rest of her children to him if she thought he was guilty.

Richard did, however, pass Titulus Regius bastardizing Edward's children. Robert Stillington came forward with a marriage contract between Eleanor Butler (not Shakespeare's Lady Lucy) and Edward IV before his marriage to Elizabeth. The pre-contract would have been binding had the couple consummated the agreement. We can't know if this happened. Was this a set-up? We don't know. Kendall suggests that Richard was taken by surprise by Stillington's announcement. He killed Hastings but pardoned Archbishop Morton and Lord Stanley (who, it seems, refused to join the Battle of Bosworth until he knew which side was winning). Richard also killed Buckingham but paid Buckingham's widow an annuity of two hundred marks and paid Buckingham's debts so she wouldn't have to worry about them (Williamson 105). The jury's still out as to whether he murdered his nephews. No evidence exists that he did and none exists that he didn’t. Books have been written just on this little mystery—all of them have a different theory. Some sources say that Perkin Warbeck was actually the young prince, Richard of York. With the help of Richard's sister and ally, Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, he made a failed attempt to invade England. Some claim Henry himself is guilty, having more cause than Richard to murder the princes. In marrying Elizabeth, he legitimized her brothers, the rightful heirs; therefore, he had to kill them. In Henry's defamation of Richard, he doesn’t mention this worst crime of all. Why didn't he use this against Richard. Or, did he just not know what happened to them? This would have made him pretty nervous. The discovery of the bones of two children beneath the foot of a stairway in the Tower is tantalizing but cannot be linked directly to the princes or Richard.

Richard's admirers would argue that some of his crimes were justified. The stability of a kingdom and the Plantagenet line were in jeopardy. Though he took drastic measures, he showed mercy to many who didn't deserve it. On the other hand, it is possible that he developed a lust for power and removed anyone who got in his way. As Hicks points out, “In the rough world of medieval politics, the most effective kings were not the most engaging of men” (165). The times were brutal, and the stakes were high. Henry's hit list is longer than Richard’s. It includes every last Plantagenet. The meticulous search for facts that Inspector Grant cried out for has revealed some interesting skeletons in Henry's closet. Many people today know the truth, yet Henry is the saint and Richard the sinner. Tonypandy. Still, Shakespeare's Richard III makes a good story—so good that it has all but obliterated the human being behind the story. As Kendall says, “The forceful moral pattern of Vergil, the vividness of More, the fervor of Hall, and the dramatic exuberance of Shakespeare have endowed the Tudor myth with a vitality that is one of the wonders of the world. What a tribute this is to art; what a misfortune this is for history” (514).

Works Cited

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Connors, Joanna. “Tricky Dick III.” The Plain Dealer: Friday! 16 February 1996: 6.

Donno, Elizabeth Story. “Thomas More and Richard III.” Renaissance Quarterly 35.3 (1982): 401-47.

Evans, G. Blackemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

Hicks, Michael. Richard III: The Man Behind the Myth. Great Britain: Collins & Brown, 1991.

Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1955.

Littleton, Taylor, and Robert R. Rea. To Prove a Villain: The Case of King Richard III. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964. (includes excepts from More, Vergil, Croyland Chronicle, Holinshed, Sir Frances Bacon, Walpole, Dickens, Markham, Wilson, Myers, Tey)

Markham, Sir Clements R. Richard III: His Life and Character. New York: Russell & Russell, 1906, 1968.

McKellen, Ian. William Shakespeare's Richard III. New York: The Overlook P, 1996.

More, Sir Thomas. The History of King Richard III. Ed. J. Rawson Lumby, D.D. London: Cambridge UP (Pitt Press Series with Continuation of Hardying's Chronicle, London, 1543), 1883.

Pollard, A.J. Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. New York: St. Martin's P, 1991.

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Tey, Josephine. Daughter of Time. Great Britain: C. Nicholls & Company Ltd., 1951.

Tudor, Miles. The White Rose Dies. Surrey: A Tudor Sovereign Publication, 1991.

Williamson, Audrey. The Mystery of the Princes. Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1981.

Williamson, David. Kings and Queens of Britain. New York: Dorset P, 1992.

Works Consulted

Candido, Joseph. “Thomas More, the Tudor Chroniclers, and Shakespeare's Altered Richard.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 68.2 (1987): 137-41.

Crowl, Philip A. The Intelligent Traveller's Guide to Historic Britain. New York: Congdon & Weed, Inc., 1983.

Daniell, Christopher. A Traveller's History of England. New York: Interlink Books, 1991.

Gairdner, James. History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third. London: Cambridge UP, 1898. (includes “The Story of Perkin Warbeck” from original documents)

Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. The Plantagenet Encyclopedia. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Halliday, F.E. England: A Concise History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1964, 1994.

Hanham, Alison. Richard III and His Early Historians 1483-1535. Oxford:Clarendon P, 1975.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. Songs of Death: Performance, Interpretation, and the Text of Richard III. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Seward, Desmond. Richard III: England's Black Legend. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984.

——— The Wars of the Roses. New York: Viking, 1995.

Shaheen, Naseeb. “Shakespeare and the True Tragedy of Richard the Third.” Notes and Queries 32.1 (1985): 32-33.

Stauffer, Donald A. Shakespeare's World of Images: The Development of His Moral Ideas. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1973.

Stewart, Ralph. “Richard III, Josephine Tey, and Some Uses of Rhetoric.” Clues 12.1 (1991): 91-99.

“Trickier Dick, A.” Entertainment Weekly 19 January 1996: 39.

Weir, Alison. The Princes in the Tower. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

Wilson, Robert F. Jr. “Disarming Scenes in Richard III & Casablanca.” Shakespeare on Film Newsletter 10.1 (1985): 4.

Womersley, David. “Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III: A New Theory of the English Texts.” Renaissance Studies 7.3 (1993): 272-90.

Donald R. Shupe (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “The Wooing of Lady Anne: A Psychological Inquiry,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 29, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 28-36.

[In the following essay, Shupe psychoanalyzes the wooing scene between Richard and Anne, concluding that its outcome is realistic because Richard is a highly persuasive Machiavellian type and because Anne is confused and vulnerable.]

Early in Richard III, Richard, as part of his plot to win the throne, decides to marry the Lady Anne. He undertakes her wooing at what would appear to be the least propitious moment for such an enterprise, during the funeral procession for her father-in-law, Henry VI, whom Richard has murdered. Richard, already responsible for the death of her husband, could hardly be surprised at the storm of vituperation Anne pours forth when he accosts the procession. Yet, less than 180 lines after Anne's “Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!” (I. ii. 46),1 she takes leave of Richard with the friendly and playful lines: “But since you teach me how to flatter you, / Imagine I have said farewell already” (ll. 223-24). During this time span Richard has maneuvered, lied, cajoled, chastised, flattered, and even offered up his own life to Anne.

Despite the considerable virtuosity of Richard's performance, the wooing scene has often been questioned on grounds of credibility. At best the scene has great difficulties; and an actor portraying Richard is virtually assured that his performance will be evaluated, at least in part, in terms of his success in making the scene persuasive.

In his Shakespeare on the Stage, William Winter said, “Edwin Booth was the only actor I ever saw who made absolutely credible the winning of Lady Anne; and, as nearly as I can ascertain, from careful study and inquiry, he was the only actor of Richard who ever accomplished that effect.”2 Either this represents an overly critical view of the scene's difficulty or our standards for the scene have changed3—or, perhaps, the quality of acting has improved—because many modern critics regard the wooing scene as at least potentially credible. For example, Wolfgang Clemen believes that “Given a good performance, we are convinced, and only when the scene is read or subsequently analysed does it seem illogical.”4 Similarly, a reviewer of the 1967 Stratford, Ontario production of Richard III said that the director's “interpretation even made the wooing of Lady Anne feasible, and put the play into a meaningful perspective for our times.”5 Even though the wooing scene is now frequently viewed as credible, however, modern critics still express reservations about it in psychological terms. Thus, for example, Clemen says:

Anne's acquiescence following the dialogue between herself and Richard is bound to seem psychologically implausible according to modern standards, and critics have regarded the scene as no more than a brilliant bout of verbal fencing. But within a psychologically improbable framework Shakespeare has succeeded in achieving an effect both dramatically skilful and even humanly convincing.6

The question I wish to raise is whether the wooing scene is indeed psychologically implausible by modern standards.


Richard is a Machiavellian personality type.7 In order to obtain the throne, he is willing to lie and murder without qualm. He is cunning, ruthless, and capable of vast deception; at the same time, he is cool, aloof, and unresponsive to demands for justice and fair play. This picture of Richard is consistent with the findings of modern research concerned with the Machiavellian personality.

Stimulated by an interest in the nature of the successful manipulator, psychologist Richard Christie has developed a scale based on statements contained in Machiavelli's The Prince and the Discourses, a scale he calls the Mach scale.8 One version of this scale (Mach IV) contains twenty statements, and a given subject is asked to rate the extent of his agreement or disagreement with each. The following is a sampling of the statements:

One should take action only when sure it is morally right.
Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful
to do so.
It is wise to flatter important people.
It is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there.(9)

The “High Mach” personality type tends to disagree with the first statement above and agree with the others. Most of Christie's research has involved subjects, usually college students, who, having responded to the statements, have then been divided on the basis of the median score into High and Low Mach groups. The two groups are then subjected to some experimental treatment, often an interpersonal game situation. The difference between Richard III and a college student who scores above the median on Christie's Mach scale may be of great magnitude, of course. But Christie's experimental findings nevertheless illuminate important aspects of Richard's personality.

Subjects who score as High Mach personality types tend to manifest a disparaging, hostile, and cynical view of people and are surprisingly candid about themselves. Richard's scornful treatment of others, consistent with the High Mach type, hardly needs to be documented from the play. And his candor about himself is remarkable for its directness: “I am determined to prove a villain” (I. i. 30). If we extend our analysis of Richard's self-disclosure back to his role in 3 Henry VI, we find such statements as the following:

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 can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

(III. ii. 182-85, 191-93)

Even by self-definition, Richard is a High Mach type.

The candor of the High Mach only applies, of course, when there are no reasons for dissembling. For instance, in an experiment by Ralph V. Exline, in which subjects were goaded into cheating by a confederate of the experimenter and were later confronted by the experimenter for dishonesty (often with threats of intervention by the “Dean” or “Honor Council”), High Mach personality types looked the experimenter in the eye more frequently while denying the cheating and confessed to cheating less often than did Low Mach personality types.10

The following is a list of behaviors research has shown to be characteristic of High Machs, all of which are exemplified by Richard in the wooing scene.

(1) The High Mach improvises innovatively. Richard chastises, lies, and denies; then he confesses, but in doing so blames his crimes on his love for Anne. He parries rancor with flattery; he soothes; he is vulgar, sweet, and kind; he offers his life to Anne, and when she refuses to dispatch him he offers to kill himself at her command. In quick succession Richard tries tack after tack with incredible facility.

(2) The High Mach takes risks. We develop such great respect for Richard's virtuosity that, even had Anne taken him up on the offer of his life, we would have expected him adroitly to sidestep and turn the occasion to his advantage. Nevertheless, we must not forget that, because of the untimely occasion, the entire situation is fraught with great risk for Richard.

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 my 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?

(ll. 230-36)

(3) The High Mach keeps cool and avoids becoming emotionally involved. The wooing scene is highly emotional, but it is Anne who charges the atmosphere, not Richard; he maintains a steady coolness. His responses to Anne's most vindictive curses are matter of fact, light, and flattering.

Why dost thou spit at me?
Would it were mortal poison for thy sake!
Never came poison from so sweet a place.
Never hung poison on a fouler toad.
Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes.
Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.

(ll. 144-49)

Anne is confused by Richard's behavior. She curses him, he responds with flattery; she professes hate, he vows love. Anne has every reason to hate him, but he doesn't react properly; he can't be convinced. Her confusion culminates with the pathetic “I would I knew thy heart” (l. 192). The Machiavellian personality type is at best in situations of confusion and ambiguity: “It is as if the high Machs took advantage of the general confusion produced by ambiguity to be slightly more Machiavellian than might have been astute when others had fewer distracting concerns.”11 Richard's behavior creates confusion and ambiguity and thus provides an atmosphere conducive to his own ends.

Anne's behavior in the wooing scene is consistent with that of Low Mach personalities who “personalize the situation and respond primarily from an emotional-ethical orientation. They become so engrossed with the particular person or content they are dealing with that they get carried away and neglect to manipulate, implicitly assuming that fair play will prevail.”12 Except for the coyness of her final remarks in the scene, Anne engages in no manipulations. She is highly emotional, deeply involved in Richard as a person; and she is quite caught up in the notions of justice and fair play.


What happens, then, when High meets Low? “High Machs manipulate more, win more, are persuaded less, persuade others more. …”13 Highs make out better in interpersonal bargaining when three conditions are met: (a) when the interaction is face-to-face with the other person; (b) when there is latitude for improvisation; and (c) when the situation allows the arousal of emotions (for instance, when the stakes are high). In thirteen studies in which all three of these conditions were met, Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis report that High Machs won out in all but one case. Clearly these three conditions are met in the wooing scene.

The success of the High Mach is not simply a result of his innovative and manipulative abilities; it stems in large part from his singular dedication to the achievement of an end. He may act emotional or concerned, but this never interferes with his clear pursuit of an objective. He knows “how to push the limits of the possible without breaking them.”14 The Low Mach, on the other hand, is easily distracted and disadvantaged by his belief that fair play and reciprocity will be observed: “… in the process of ongoing, face-to-face interaction in which participants must follow the action and improvise responses in context, without time for private reflection, low Machs can get ‘carried away’ in going along with others.”15

Contrary to the widely-held belief that the scene is psychologically implausible, then, we find that a psychological analysis of the personalities of Anne and Richard adds credibility and indicates again that Shakespeare was an astute observer of human qualities and relationships. Shakespeare created a scene in which a High Mach personality is involved in bargaining with a Low Mach personality, and the scene includes those conditions that research has shown will benefit the success of the High Mach personality. The high emotionality of the scene, stemming from Anne's intense hatred, has for some, no doubt, detracted from the plausibility of Richard's success. Yet is is within situations of high emotionality that the High Mach has greatest advantage.


A number of research studies have supported a two-component theory of emotion.16 According to this theory, in order for a person to experience emotion, two conditions must be satisfied: (a) the person must be physiologically aroused, and (b) the situation must be such that an emotional label can be attached to this arousal. If a person is physiologically aroused, say through injection of a drug, but the situation is not one the individual can label as emotion-arousing, he may feel as if he were emotional but not actually experience emotion. If the person is in an emotional situation but no physiological changes occur, he does not experience emotion. Similar physiological symptoms can lead to different emotional states, depending entirely upon the situation in which the individual finds himself. Thus emotions such as fear, hate, love, or joy may stem from the same or similar physiological changes, with the distinct emotion experienced depending upon the situation and a person's interpretation of it.

The wooing scene opens with the funeral procession for Anne's father-in-law. Anne is physiologically aroused and a label is easily at hand for this arousal: grief, in combination with hatred for the person responsible for the grief. Anne therefore experiences emotion. As Richard enters, Anne can easily attach the label “hatred” to her arousal and experience that emotion. If we hypothesize that later in the scene as Anne is softening toward Richard she is still physiologically aroused, what emotion would she then experience? The dead Henry has been temporarily forgotten, and Richard has diffused her intense hatred. Is it possible for a new emotional label to be attached to her feelings at that point? Could she then experience attraction for Richard—even love?

Elaine Walster has developed a theory of love, based on the two-component theory of emotion, which may answer this question.

We would suggest that perhaps it does not really matter how one produces an agitated state in an individual. Stimuli that usually produce sexual arousal, gratitude, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, hatred, jealousy, or confusion may all increase one's physiological arousal, and thus increase the intensity of his emotional experience. As long as one attributes his agitated state to passion, he should experience true passionate love. As soon as he ceases to attribute his tumultuous feelings to passion, love should die.17

It is certainly not uncommon in literature for the emotions of fear, hate, love, and jealousy to be closely associated, one leading to another. Walster quotes an intriguing remark from the work of an early psychologist, H. T. Finck:

Love can only be excited by strong and vivid emotion, and it is almost immaterial whether these emotions are agreeable or disagreeable. The Cid wooed the proud heart of Diana Ximene, whose father he had slain, by shooting one after another of her pet pigeons. Such persons as arouse in us only weak emotions or none at all, are obviously least likely to incline us toward them. … Our aversion is most likely to be bestowed on individuals who, as the phrase goes, are neither ‘warm’ nor ‘cold’; whereas impulsive, choleric people, though they may readily offend us, are just as capable of making us warmly attached to them.18

Providing support for this theory is an unpublished study in which male subjects, who were led to believe they would soon receive electrical shock and were therefore presumably aroused because of this expectation, rated an attractive young woman to whom they were introduced as more likable and friendly than did a control group of subjects not expecting to receive electrical shock.19 The results suggest that an individual physiologically aroused may attribute his arousal, at least in part, to his reaction to another person.

But this does not explain why Anne later in the scene is sufficiently attracted to Richard to accept his ring rather than remaining repulsed by him; for repulsion is also an aroused reaction. To explain Anne's attraction toward Richard we must assume that repulsion is no longer a viable emotion toward a person who responds with flattery and vows of love, as Richard does. An important indicator is Anne's “I would I knew thy heart” (l. 192). At this point, Anne is confused (which, according to Walster, may also lead to arousal), and from this moment on her arousal may be attributed to attraction toward Richard.

The key to the credibility of this scene is its heightened emotionality. Heightened emotion is not only a condition advantageous to the success of the Machiavellian but also a condition necessary for the final change in Anne's attitude from repulsion to attraction. Consequently, the brevity of the wooing scene does not detract from its credibility but in fact adds to it: a continued state of arousal for Anne would be untenable if the scene were more prolonged.


Part of what makes Anne's conversion credible and the whole scene psychologically plausible is Anne's refusal to take Richard's life or order him to take his own. The competing psychological theories of cognitive dissonance and of self perception both lead to the same conclusion: that in light of Anne's refusal, her change in attitude is not only possible but likely.

The first theory postulates, among other things, that two incongruent attitudes (or a behavior and an attitude which are incongruent) will create a state called “cognitive dissonance.”20 The discomfiture of cognitive dissonance motivates an individual to resolve an incongruity through attitude change. This theory has shown great power, not only in enabling us to interpret and predict some rather unusual laboratory findings, but also in explaining the day-to-day rationalizations people engage in when justifying decisions.21

Cognitive dissonance occurs for Anne between her two speeches in the following exchanges:

Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.
Would they were basilisks to strike thee dead!
.....Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword,
Which if thou please to hide in this true breast
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,
I lay it naked to the deadly stroke
And humbly beg the death upon my knee.
Nay, do not pause: for I did kill King Henry—
But ’twas thy beauty that provokèd me.
Nay, now dispatch: ’twas I that stabbed young Edward—
But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.
Take up the sword again, or take up me.
Arise, dissembler: though I wish thy death,
I will not be thy executioner.

(ll. 149-50, 174-86)

If Anne could bring herself to kill Richard, her attitudes, feelings, and behavior would be consonant and no cognitive dissonance would occur; but she cannot, nor can she directly order him to kill himself. Cognitive dissonance is therefore created, and Anne's attitude toward Richard must change to resolve this dissonance. As Richard says, she must “Take up the sword again, or take up me.”

Daryl Bem has proposed a self-perception theory that explains many of the findings in the studies of cognitive dissonance, and does so without recourse to the hypothetical “dissonance reduction.”22 When an individual makes a statement in a context that is free from force or inducement, we tend to credit him with the stated belief. If the individual is induced to make the statement, however, by being coerced or rewarded in some manner, we question whether the statement reflects his true attitude. According to Bem's theory, the individual proceeds in the same way; he observes his behavior and its context, and he formulates his attitudes accordingly. Anne's refusal to kill Richard or command him to kill himself in a context where such an action seems justified would suggest to observers that she is not so unfavorably disposed toward him. According to Bem's theory, Anne would soon come to the same conclusion herself on the basis of the same evidence.

The notion that behavior can cause attitudes is contrary to our usual assumption that attitudes cause behavior, but Bem has considerable empirical support for his theory. And interestingly enough, Shakespeare hints at the same hypothesis in Coriolanus. To become consul, Coriolanus is urged by his mother and friends to lie and obsequiously present himself before the tribunes. He says,

I will not do’t,
Lest I surcease to honor mine own truth
And by my body's action teach my mind
A most inherent baseness.

(III. ii. 120-23)

Which is a poetic way of saying that “behavior and the conditions under which it occurs are one of the major foundations of an individual's beliefs and attitudes. And, although the cognitive, emotional, and social factors also have their effect, it remains true that changing an individual's behavior is one of the ways of causing change in his beliefs and attitudes. His new behavior provides a source from which he draws a new set of inferences about what he feels and believes.”23 But an “individual's inferences about his beliefs may be based not only on acts he performs but also on alternative acts he rejects.”24 By rejecting the alternative of killing Richard, Anne puts herself in a position where her feelings toward him must change.25 Thus the very crux of the scene, according to both the theories of cognitive dissonance and of self perception, is in Anne's refusal to take Richard's life. It is after this refusal that Anne's attitude must and does change, and Richard's success is assured.

In summary, we find much in the way of psychological evidence that lends credibility to the wooing scene. The personalities of Richard and Anne are of such a nature that Richard enjoys an advantage from the start. Anne's hatred of Richard and the untimely situation in which the wooing occurs create ambiguity, confusion, and, most importantly, an atmosphere of charged emotionality which not only favors Richard, the Machiavellian, but also makes possible Anne's rapid shift from detestation to acceptance of his suit. Anne's failure to “Take up the sword” creates an emotional condition favorable to just that change in her feelings which Richard—with the skill, innovation, and sense of timing of the Machiavellian—can mold into complete surrender.


  1. All Shakespeare quotations are from The Pelican Shakespeare, rev., ed. Alfred Harbage (London: Penguin, 1969). Unless otherwise indicated the line references are to the “wooing” scene (I. ii).

  2. William Winter, Shakespeare on the Stage, 1st series (New York: B. Blom, 1911, reissued, 1969), p. 108.

  3. Harold C. Goddard observes: “Indeed, a time like our own that has out-Machiavelled Machiavelli has turned into sober realism much in this play that to a reader of forty years ago sounded like sheer invention” (The Meaning of Shakespeare, I [1951; rpt. Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1960], p. 36).

  4. Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III, trans. Jean Bonheim (London: Methuen, 1968), p. 23.

  5. Arnold Edinborough, “Stratford, Ontario—1967,” SQ, 18 (1967), 401.

  6. Clemen, p. 29.

  7. Clarence V. Boyer calls Richard “the perfect Machiavellian” (The Villain as Hero in Elizabethan Tragedy [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1914], pp. 79, 221).

  8. Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis, Studies in Machiavellianism (New York: Academic Press, 1970). The development of the Mach scales and the research discussed in this paper may be found in this work. For a briefer and less technical introduction to the topic see Richard Christie, “The Machiavellis Among Us,” Psychology Today, 4 (Nov. 1970), 82-86.

  9. Christie and Geis, p. 17.

  10. Ralph V. Exline, et al., “Visual Interaction in Relation to Machiavellianism and an Unethical Act,” in Christie and Geis, pp. 53-75.

  11. Christie and Geis, p. 159.

  12. Ibid., pp. 160, 304.

  13. Ibid., p. 312.

  14. Christie and Geis., p. 303.

  15. Ibid., p. 302.

  16. For a thorough discussion of the theory and supporting research see Stanley Schachter, “The Interaction of Cognitive and Physiological Determinants of Emotional State,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, I, ed. Leonard Berkowitz (New York: Academic Press, 1964), 49-80. A brief introduction to the theory can be found in Elaine Walster, “Passionate Love,” in Theories of Attraction and Love, ed. B. I. Murstein (New York: Springer, 1971), pp. 85-99.

  17. Walster, pp. 90-91 (original in italics).

  18. H. T. Finck, Romantic Love and Personal Beauty: Their Development, Causal Relations, Historic and National Peculiarities (London: Macmillan, 1891), p. 240. Cited by Walster, p. 91.

  19. Jack W. Brehm, et al., “Psychological Arousal and Interpersonal Attraction,” cited by Walster.

  20. The theory was developed by Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press., 1957). For a brief, highly readable statement of the theory by one of its prominent spokesmen see Elliot Aronson, “The Rationalizing Animal,” Psychology Today, 6 (May 1973), 46-52.

  21. Research supporting this conclusion is Ira J. Firestone's “Insulted and Provoked: The Effects of Choice and Provocation on Hostility and Aggression,” in The Cognitive Control of Motivation, ed. Philip G. Zimbardo (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1969), pp. 229-50.

  22. An outline of this theory and references to the studies mentioned may be found in Daryl J. Bem, “Self-Perception Theory,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, VI, ed. Leonard Berkowitz (New York: Academic Press, 1972).

  23. Daryl J. Bem, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs (Belmont, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 1970), p. 66.

  24. 24. Bem, p. 17.

  25. Besides the considerable change in Anne's attitude after her rejection of this alternative, critics (e.g., Clemen, pp. 27-28) have commented on the change in her form of address from the contemptuous use of “thou” and “thy” to the more polite “you” and “your.” This change takes place beginning with “Well, well, put up your sword” (l. 197), which is her final resolution that she can not be responsible for his death.

Betty A. Schellenberg (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5304

SOURCE: “Conflicting Paradigms and the Progress of Persuasion in Richard III,” in Cahiers Élizabéthains, No. 37, April, 1990, pp. 59-66.

[In the following essay, Schellenberg asserts that in Richard III's rise and fall, Shakespeare is demonstrating the “dangers of persuasive rhetoric” when it is misused.]

Shakespeare's Richard III bustles through a stage world of highly formal rhetoric, setting in motion a near-successful bid for control not only of the stage and its other actors, but also of the masterplot of history. He delights in his Richard loves Richard text, glossing his verbal manipulations at every stage of their planning and execution, while other characters provide a conservative countertext of choric commentary, historical summary, and prophecy. These two broad linguistic groups represent the opposing forces in a power struggle between Richard's efforts to persuade history into his mold and the paradigm of an-eye-for-an-eye justice expressed by an ever-swelling chorus of lamenters and cursers.

Shakespeare's exposition, in the verbal acts which make up the first four scenes of Richard III, of an inevitable cycle set in motion by persuasive rhetoric abused, serves as a paradigm for the play's overall movement. Although the first act remains generally in the major key of Richard's fortunes, its structure of rhetorical conflict delineates the broad outlines of his rise and subsequent fall.1 Further, this portrayal of the conjunction of eloquence and immorality, described by Gloucester himself as the principle that the outward show of a man Seldom or never jumpeth with the heart (III.1.10-11),2 reflects Shakespeare's sensitivity, noted by Vickers, to the dangers of persuasive rhetoric as “ambivalent or downright evil.3 In the successful persuasions of Iago, Cassius, Edmund, and Lady Macbeth, we focus in large part upon their victims, upon indiscriminate or already-tainted hearers and the complex progress of their error. Only in the earlier Richard III does Shakespeare present a paradigm for the progress of the rhetorical villain himself, beginning with his initial triumph over the audience and ending in his inevitable destruction as the public plot of history reasserts its control.

In his opening soliloquy, Richard presents himself to his audience as its interpreter of history, of his fellow characters, and of himself. No mere observer, however, Gloucester claims control of plot and players through this position. He includes within his compass the manufacture even of prophecies and dreams, usurping the rhetorical modes of the supernatural forces which he is challenging. Since this claim of control is supported by an evident mastery of language, especially in the form of witty self-deprecation, Richard has in all likelihood, by the end of his virtuoso speech, won in the audience his first persuadee. The Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes (41) which concludes the soliloquy reinforces the impression that we have been privileged with a glimpse of the undisguised Richard; this impression extends naturally, if not logically, to a suspension of disbelief in Richard's version of history as mere stage-set to the play of personal ambition.

The subsequent encounter with Clarence on his way to the Tower proves our confidence well-placed, for events proceed exactly as Richard has plotted them and Clarence is clearly duped. The immediacy of Richard's success establishes his credibility as decisive master of the short-term. Throughout the play, his actions and those of his minions are accompanied by some form of the refrain Come, come, dispatch, embodying his belief that delay leads impotent and snail-pac’d beggary (IV.3.53). Further, Richard here reveals his talent for morally defining others as a function of their momentary roles in his drama. The queen is accordingly first the jealous o’erworn widow, and then well struck in years, fair, and not jealous (81, 92).

In addition, Richard of course displays the irony and wordplay which make him appear almost omnipotent in his ability to twist language to his ends. The broad irony of Simple plain Clarence! I do love thee so, / That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven (118-19), however, reveals even more the audacity and cosmic proportion of his design by openly mocking the phraseology of Christianity. Similarly blasphemous is his antithesis of rhetorical levels near the end of this scene: God take King Edward to his mercy, / And leave the world for me to bustle in! (151-2). Shakespeare thus emphasises the scope of the conflict embodied in what is often a highly entertaining display of wit. Brooke observes that this “punctuation of rhetorical formality with sudden penetrations of the mundanely human” is uniquely associated with Richard's speech,4 thereby hinting at its importance as an indicator of the Persuader's determinedly secular nature and designs.

In this first scene of the play the frame of two full soliloquies, enclosing two encounters between Richard and an unsuspecting victim which are separated by Richard again alone on stage elaborating upon his designs, heightens the impression of a universe in tightly controlled revolution around the protagonist. This structure is rendered doubly effective as a model of Richard's control in that it is he himself who has authored the underlying events, and thus the scene's pattern. The audience is given the impression that this man need merely stand on stage announcing his plot against an individual in order for his victim to appear forthwith and suffer his fate. By the end of the scene, therefore, the spectator is prepared to accept the most astonishing example of Richard's persuasive powers: his wooing of the Lady Anne.

Richard's attempt to win Anne represents more than an act of persuasion in the private sphere; it is an attack on the temporal and causal structures of history itself, as they are embodied onstage in Henry VI's corpse and as they shape Anne's memory and sense of identity. Thus the corpse becomes Richard's silent opponent in the struggle for Anne's loyalty. As the scene begins, Anne is following bearers and hearse; as it ends, Richard remains on stage with them while she leaves, underlining the about-face which has occurred. The interpretation of remembered events is the focus of the conflict, as Anne addresses the body in an apostrophe, then as she struggles with Richard for control of the bearers, and finally in the subsequent verbal battle.

The first rhetorical modes of the scene, the formal lament and curse, introduce the traditional linguistic forces which will set themselves in opposition to Richard's language; they represent the inevitable and patterned retribution in conflict with the villain's designs for a self-made history. Richard's entry provides a sharp contrast to Anne's speech in his brisk assumption of control over both action and levels of address. As Burton aptly notes, Anne's adoption of Richard's language and rhythm is the first step in her defeat before his rhetoric.5 Through this victory over Anne's memory in the personal sphere, with its attendant implications for the interpretation of political history, Richard reveals the extent of those dramatic gifts which have already wooed the audience and will continue to deceive characters in ever-widening circles. As he argues for Christian charity, he swears by Saint Paul; as he proclaims the strength of the Petrarchan lover's devotion, he weeps, kneels, and humbly begs death. It is this ability to transform himself in keeping with the words he speaks which supplies the emotional power of Richard's persuasions. Shakespeare thus illustrates the rhetoricians' claims about the efficacy of an apte mouying of affections, while revealing the naïveté, in the face of individualistic ambition, of the assumption that No one man can better enuiegh against vice, then he can do, whiche hateth vice with al his harte.6

In the third scene, a widened sphere of action encompasses both the rival factions which threaten Richard's bid for absolute control of England's political sphere and the forces which will gather momentum towards his destruction. Although the villain's power to dazzle and persuade is again displayed, this structural broadening allows Shakespeare to contextualise that power. Against this new backdrop, Richard's stature is for the first time reduced somewhat, to that of an ambitious, perjured man in a turbulent sequence of ambitious, perjured individuals.

At the scene's opening, then, Shakespeare introduces a third variation upon the theme of Richard's taking control of the stage; in this case, audience expectation is aroused by his ominous presence in the mind of the queen, who describes him as A man that loves not me, nor none of you (13). Queen Elizabeth, Richard's principal adversary in the first part of this scene, is clearly less convinced by his rhetoric than are most characters in the early part of the play. But although she adjures him to match his words openly to his intentions, her conviction of the truth cannot match his rhetorical acrobatics and insinuations. Even later, in the stunned aftermath of Queen Margaret's exit, Richard finds a way to turn the former queen's general curse to present advantage over Elizabeth with Yet you have all the vantage of her wrong (310).

Meanwhile, however, a strong note of irony has intruded itself between Richard's active individualism and the audience's confidence in his control. While the protagonist may first disdain and then ignore the curses Queen Margaret has hurled at him, the audience cannot overlook the temporal sequence she introduces, in which Richard's own father's curses have already taken effect and in which downfall awaits all of Margaret's stage audience. That pattern of history which Hammond has called “a ritual expiation of collective guilt”,7 earlier hinted at in the curses pronounced by Anne and in Gloucester's own satire of the role of heaven's minister, has now been brought into full-voiced opposition to Richard's individualistic construct. The ironic possibility raised here, as Berry describes it, is “that Richard, the archindividualist, the archenemy of love, is not a ‘self alone’ after all but the unknowing victim of a scheme of retribution neither he nor anyone else in the play seems able to control”.8 Significantly, even before Margaret distributes curses among her hearers they instinctively unite with Richard against her in a collusion of the guilty against their judge.

Richard nevertheless immediately identifies Margaret as his opponent, on his stage, exclaiming, Foul wrinkled witch, what mak’st thou in my sight? (164). Their struggle for mastery of the scene emphasies the irreconcilable principles which they represent: Richard the individual's capacity to construct himself and his context; Margaret the shaping forces of history and community.9 Numerous critics have observed that Margaret is the only other character of the play who is given the kind of rhetorical control which Richard employs to such advantage, and is therefore his only comparable or even superior antagonist. While we have seen that Richard controls the frame of the scene, its climactic centre is almost wholly managed by the aged queen. Her unseen entry immediately establishes this fact; it is the first neither arranged nor expected by Richard and, indeed, bears the marks of a supernatural visitation.

Margaret employs language as a weapon of memory, as a means of righting Richard's perversion of the situation at hand. Her response to Richard's belligerent question is the firm But repetition of what thou hast marr’d; / That will I make before I let thee go (165-6). In this repetition the old queen does indeed re-use Richard's favourite tropes (the eagle, sun, and shadow) and figures (such as antithesis and rhetorical questions), relativising them as mere metaphors and verbal acrobatics which can be, and have been, abused by successive contenders for a place in the sun. Formal figures of repetition and balance are added to erect an even more elaborate rhetorical structure through which to convey the eye-for-an-eye retribution she invokes. Although Margaret makes only one more appearance in the play, her words hover over the movement of events from this time forward, weaving individual rises and falls into the structure of a pre-ordained pattern.

Despite Richard's flippant dismissal of Margaret's suggestion that he plays only a predestined role in a larger masterplot, the fourth scene prefigures the outcome of the play's conflict in Margaret's terms. Even before Richard's bustling begins with the arrival of the murderers a supernatural element again intrudes in the form of Clarence's dream. Foretelling Gloucester's role in his brother's death and reminding the latter of the eternal framework within which his earthly deeds will be judged, the vision reinforces the fact of moral standards measuring the action of individuals.

In recounting his dream, Clarence adopts a hypnotic style of repetition, exaggerated sequentiality, and nightmarish imagery. The grotesque description of skulls on the bottom of the sea, together with the repetition in a thousand fearful wracks; / A thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon (I.4.24-5), provides an ironic image link between Richard's earlier confident metaphor of the clouds of the past being permanently buried in the deep bosom of the ocean (I.1.3-4) and the same man's torture at the end of the play, where his conscience hath a thousand several tongues, / And every tongue brings in a several tale (V.3.193-4). Dream language, then, is able to suggest deeper levels of meaning which a conscious manipulation of words will not allow to surface.

In keeping with his specifically Christian tone, Clarence here also introduces the theme of conscience as a manifestation of that otherworldly frame which the play's villainous characters manage to ignore while doing evil, but which invariably reasserts itself at the moment of death. The motif is developed by the devious rhetoric of the two murderers, who first personify conscience in a humorous psychomachia and ultimately twist it into a deceptive devil in [the] mind (151). By means of this and other ‘redefinitions’ of words such as respect, reputation, and work (155-6), the two murderers parallel at a lower social level the debasement of language which results from Richard's kind of rhetoric. By contrast, Clarence's speech is simply and transparently persuasive, as Richard himself has warned the murderers, employing its art in support of arguments for justice and virtue. Although this use of rhetoric towards ideal ends fails significantly to stop the immoral action which stems from language abused, it nonetheless secures the repentance of one of the murderers immediately after the deed is done.

With Clarence's murder, the first movement of the play is brought to a close, successfully structured and controlled by Richard's definitions, despite the introduction of opposing voices. At the same time, a structural paradigm for the play as a whole has been established, delineating these opposing forces and the nature of their ultimate victory in determining the pattern of history. This victory entails not only the fall of a king but also a redefinition of Richard's own plot, making it merely the self-defeating course of hell's black intelligencer, / Only reserv’d their factor (IV.4.71-2).

The action of the play, like that of this first section, could be described as expanding outward in an ever-wider social and political sphere for Richard's bustling, countered by a lengthening and broadening of the temporal and moral frames against which his actions are measured. As the perspective is enlarged, the initial impression of Richard's ability to control his plot, created by the play's highly focused opening, is dissipated. Numerous parallels, therefore, can be traced between these first four scenes and the four major sections of the play, seen as Richard's opening soliloquy (I.1.1-41), his swift rise in influence from the imprisonment of Clarence to the announcement of the coronation (I.1.42-IV.1), his struggle to maintain control as the forces represented by Margaret's curses gain the ascendancy (IV.2.-IV.4), and his plunge towards death (IV.5.-V.5).

Gloucester's first soliloquy to the audience, as we have already seen, is the general exposition of his intentions, couched in the rhetoric which exhibits his control of language. Its movement is from the general to the particular, thereby emphasising his rejection of the long-term concerns of history and royal houses in favour of his own immediate gratification. By means of this narrowing process, Richard also focuses the audience upon his own perspectives and interests, which become for a time its only standard and field of vision. The stage is thus set for Richard's quick victories over Clarence, Hastings, and Anne, while on a large scale the audience is prepared to see Richard's plan to spy [his] shadow in the sun (I.1.26) realised. As Blanpied points out, Richard promises the audience a comic structure, but one which is built upon “the myth of [his] centrality.”10

We have noted that Richard's encounters in the first two scenes are characterised by a heavily ironic treatment of his victims, reinforced by frequent asides and soliloquies. This hierarchy of knowledge dominates the whole second movement of the play. It is particularly striking in Clarence's refusal to believe that his brother is his betrayer in I.4, and in Hastings’ insistent variations upon I know he loves me well throughout two entire scenes before his death at his trusted ‘friend’s’ command.11 The protagonist's control of irony is parallelled by his persuasive control of the action of every scene in which he takes part. This manipulation includes, for example, his introduction of the news of Clarence's murder to mar the reconciliation arranged by King Edward, as well as his forcing of the young princes into the Tower. Far from diminishing, Richard's power appears to know no limits, reaching even to the staging of complex plots involving large numbers of characters and elaborate properties, as in the scenes of Hastings' accusation and of the citizens' plea that Richard accept the crown.

Anne's lament and rehearsal of her wrongs in I.2 swell to a chorus of wailing women as Richard's crimes multiply. The highly patterned rhetoric of the curse also takes on a choric function by virtue of its repetition, while simultaneously shifting the balance of response from passive lament to active invocation of retribution. This motif is particularly effective when employed by a character at the point of his untimely death, since it thereby suggests a fuller vision of life's pattern than that with which Richard, in his self-created, secular universe, temporarily blinds himself. Although in the second movement the accumulating rhetoric of this paradigm of history appears ineffectual in stemming the tide of Richard's successes, its repetitive and inexorable character hints at its ultimate victory over Gloucester's ready tongue. Like the corpse's mute reminder in I.2 that history will out, young Prince Edward's reflection that the truth should live from age to age, / … Even to the general all-ending day (III.1.76-8) provides a glimpse of a reality that even Gloucester acknowledges with his response of So wise so young … (79). Similarly, those curses which come home to roost pave the way for an ironic reinterpretation of Richard's own flirtations with judgement, particularly when, in II.1, he goes so far as to assert that God will revenge Clarence's death (138).

These alternative versions and dramatic ironies drive small wedges of separation between Richard and the audience, wedges that are reinforced by the diffusion of dramatic focus which inevitably accompanies the extension of Richard's conquests. The introduction of Buckingham, for example, as Richard's fellow deep tragedian (III.5.5) results in a division of interest between the two clever actors in several scenes. In an extension of his earlier manipulation of the corpse bearers, the logistics of Richard's multiple activities require the increasing involvement of henchmen such as Ratcliffe and Catesby because Richard simply cannot be everywhere at once. The role of star performing in his own play is increasingly exchanged for that of script-writer: still a powerful position, but one accompanied by a loss of the former energetic intimacy between Richard and his audience. The momentum of the complex plot appears, moreover, to be taxing Richard's capacities to the limit. When Buckingham questions him about Lord Hastings' fate if the latter should prove unyielding, Richard's reply of Chop off his head. Something we will determine (III.1.193) reveals not only exuberant self-confidence, but also the frenetic pace of evil which will inevitably lead to the mistake of asking Buckingham to kill the princes. Richard's audience and even his confederates are being left behind because persuasion has become too time-consuming.

Richard nevertheless successfully wields a full range of rhetorical weapons in this movement of the play. His tactics are displayed particularly in his development of the role of pious, plain-spoken public servant begging his mother's blessing, warning his nephew against hypocrisy, and demurring at state visits while in prayer. He continues to define others for his manipulative purposes as he did Elizabeth in I.1. Edward's children, for example, become bastards, while Hastings is reclassified from the man who knows me well, and loves me well (III.4.31) to that ignoble traitor, / The dangerous and unsuspected Hastings (III.5.22-3). Staging a second great persuasion scene, Richard rewrites the evolved process of succession according to his personal script, and then tells the Mayor and citizens how to interpret his history in case of future black scandal or foul-fac’d reproach (III.7.231). His version apparently convinces, for the Mayor affirms, we see it, and will say it (237). Thus Richard duplicates on a larger scale his earlier success in persuading Anne to accept a rewriting of the facts; the success here is all the more spectacular, however, in its manipulation of the actors so that the persuasion comes not from Richard, but from his victims.

As this second sequence of the play closes, the growing fear with which Richard is regarded rises to a climax when the four women meet before the Tower. This scene marks the fulfilment of, and enlarges upon, Elizabeth's ominatia of I.3 just before the confrontation between Richard and Margaret. The imminent completion of Richard's iniquities before judgement is thus suggested by the parallel. Significantly, the chorus of women forms an increasingly unified body against Richard, indicating a rising up of England as mother for the rejection of her vicious offspring. This rising up is made symbolically complete in the third movement by the addition of Margaret, the voice of history. For the moment, Queen Elizabeth's warning to her son to flee reintroduces the significant name of Richmond, waiting from the reach of hell (IV.1.42), just as that name was first introduced by her in I.3.

In the subsequent three scenes, Richard's position is suddenly attacked from both within and without. He is clearly dwelling upon thoughts of Richmond; Richmond (or its variant Rougemont) is repeated eight times in IV.2, and becomes increasingly prominent thereafter. Significantly, it is Richard's own remembrance of prophetic utterances which first links Richmond with the threat of downfall to the new king. Thus it is initially an internal malaise from which he suffers, recalling the worm of conscience which Margaret has wished upon him (I.3.222). Her desire that he might his friends suspect for traitors (223) also finds fulfilment in his dismissal of Buckingham. The connection between Queen Margaret's first curse and Richard's present crisis is underlined by her reappearance, in which she teaches the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth to curse their own kinsman and former ally against her House of Lancaster.

Although Richard does not give in to the downturn without a struggle, Act IV scenes 2 and 4 are marked by numerous rhetorical failures, realising the possibility suggested by Richard's earlier difficulty in controlling Margaret. The first of these is Buckingham's shocked or deliberate inability to understand the language of innuendo, which has hitherto served Richard so well with his allies, in the exchange that ends with the king's exasperated Cousin, thou wast not wont to be so dull: / Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead (IV.2.17-18). In quick succession, we have Richard's non-conversation with Buckingham regarding Richmond and the earldom of Hereford, Buckingham's threat which ends the scene in lieu of the usual statement by Richard, the latter's inability to silence the cursing women who intercept his train, and his plea that Queen Elizabeth serve as attorney of [his] love to her daughter (IV.4.413). This plea's success is of course highly ambiguous, for Elizabeth manipulates Richard's arguments in a reversal of their wonted roles.

In the latter exchange in particular, Richard appears to have lost his paramologic intuition; far from anticipating Elizabeth's accusations, he is stymied by them. Most tellingly, he can find no self, no past, and no God to swear by in response to the memory which shapes her rhetoric. Having abused all of these in his creation of the Richard that hath done all this (287), he is left with a negative identity, void because it has destroyed its defining contexts of history and community. Even a vow mortgaging his own future is unpersuasive, as Elizabeth points out: Swear not by time to come, for that thou hast / Misus’d ere us’d, by times ill-us’d o’erpast (IV.4.395-6).

When a series of messengers informs the King of Richmond's imminent attack and of the rebellion of his countrymen, he is unable to formulate a single coherent order, finally retreating into invective against Richmond and threats against Stanley. Verbal manipulation gives way to increasing physicality in Richard's actions, and his power of persuasion wanes. As Clemen has pointed out, for example, Richard's former asides to the audience have now become mere talking to himself,12 and he resolves to converse [only] with iron-witted fools / And unrespective boys (IV.2.28-9), actors whose performance is unlikely to threaten his own.

Richard's loss of control of events, thus figured in a loss of control of scenes and verbal encounters, is counterbalanced by the increasingly insistent clamour of the tell-tale women rehearsing the past, demanding that the breath of bitter words … smother / [The] damned son that … two sweet sons smother’d (IV.4.133-4, 149). He nevertheless appears to maintain the same kind of disregard for the mounting opposition to his rule as he has earlier shown for Margaret's prediction of it. He continues to insist upon his own plot, ordering Catesby to clear Anne out of the way of a marriage to his niece. He is on the defensive, however, pursuing an Uncertain way of gain in order to stop all hopes whose growth may damage [him] (IV.2.64, 60). Furthermore, the verbal irony is now operating completely against Richard. He himself introduces the moral category of sin here (But I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin [64-5]) which, together with an increasing preoccupation with the supernatural, prepares the audience to accept the terms by which Richard's acts must now be judged. The dreams and ensuing accusations of conscience which have figured so prominently in Clarence's death at the close of the first act now come to the fore in his brother's anticipation of death. The parade of eleven accusing ghosts which passes before Richard during the last night of his life is a development of the two accusers Clarence has met in his vision; like the latter, Richard wakes to the thousand several tongues of his conscience.

Unlike his brother, however, Richard chooses, as do Clarence's murderers before him, to defy this coward conscience (V.3.180) and the divine judgement it represents in favour of his schema of the assertive self. He exhorts his forces to let Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law in a march hand in hand to hell (311, 313). To the end, Richard refuses to accept the paradigm of Margaret's curses with its underlying suggestion that he might be the duped instrument of a retributive God. Thus in his final despairing soliloquy he turns not against God, but against himself as the author of his own destiny. Despite his resolute denials, however, the King's obsession with shadows and the blackness of the day is reminiscent of Clarence's terror at the shadow like an angel in his dream (I.4.53), suggesting that the forces which Richard has mocked are in fact the opponents against which he has been pitted from the beginning.

This inward spiral, parallelled by an opposite outward movement of the plot away from any semblance of Richard's control, completes the separation of Richard and the audience begun in the second movement. While Richard himself may refuse to submit to a larger scheme of history, the spectator is forced to acknowledge that the overall structure of the plot follows not Richard's plan but Margaret’s. Of the last six scenes, Richard is present in only two; in the first of these two, he shares the stage and action with Richmond and is thereby depersonalised as the descending arm of a historical balance. Richard is permitted to die as he has lived, as the gambler who has set [his] life upon a cast, / And … will stand the hazard of the die (V.4.9-10). Immediately after his death, however, he becomes merely the bloody wretch whose existence is only significant as the last convulsion of that England which hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself (V.5.23).

Richmond's rhetoric in the play's concluding speech, couched in the form of a prayer, emphasises the end of laments and curses as the necessary rhetorical modes of opposition to Richard's language. The social chaos embodied in Richard's twisted rhetoric, a rhetoric finally debased, like the language of Clarence's murderers, to the crude definitions of poor rats and bastard Bretons, is now to be resolved in balance and harmony; thus Richmond's plain and measured rhetorical style, with its overtly Christian argument, echoes Clarence's ideally transparent language. In this larger outworking of the play's pattern of persuasion, such rhetoric is finally successful because it expresses a true paradigm of historical causality: Richard hath ever been God's enemy, and if you fight against God's enemy, / God will in his justice ward you as his soldiers (V.3.252-4). In the end it is not, and cannot be, Richard who is his own creator, persuasive though his role of self-defined man may initially be to a fascinated audience. Language must again be restored to a pure unity of words and meaning whose function is to persuade that a permanent structure of justice upholds the public good.


  1. Dolores M. Burton's detailed examination of “Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III”, Shakespeare Studies, 14 (1981), 55-84, is very helpful in its general emphasis upon Richard as a persuasive orator in the classical tradition. It stops short, however, of putting the first act in the larger context of the play's movement and thematic concerns. Burton can thus claim, rather too simplistically, I think: “By making Gloucester admit that he has perverted the legitimate use of persuasive arts, Shakespeare affirms their legitimacy” (p. 83).

  2. For all citations of the play I have used the Bevington revised edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Scott, Foresman & Co. (Glenview, 1973).

  3. Brian Vickers, “‘The Power of Persuasion’: Images of the Orator, Elyot to Shakespeare”, in Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. James M. Murphy, University of California (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983), p. 423.

  4. Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, Methuen (London, 1968), p. 54.

  5. Burton, p. 71.

  6. Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, intro. Robert Hood Bowers, Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints (Delmar, 1977), pp. 154, 158.

  7. Antony Hammond, Introduction to King Richard III, Arden edition, p. 43.

  8. Edward I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, 1975), p. 83.

  9. This argument does not, of course, deny Hammond's interpretation of Margaret as “morally myopic” (p. 110) regarding her own past crimes. Hammond himself describes her as a figure “brought back from the past” (p. 109); I wish to argue that although she may not know or deserve to know the precise nature of her curses' fulfilments, she is nevertheless the representative voice of a moral causality in history which the play itself ultimately affirms.

  10. John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories, University of Delaware Press (Newark, 1983), p. 91.

  11. Bertrand Evans, in his study of discrepant awareness in the tragedies (Shakespeare's Tragic Practice, Clarendon Press [Oxford, 1979], p. 117), points in passing to Richard III as a particularly “bold exploitation” of such irony.

  12. Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's ‘Richard III’ (1957), trans. Jean Bonhein, Methuen (London, 1968), pp. 166-7.

Criticism: Sources

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3893

SOURCE: “‘This Son of Yorke’: Textual and Literary Criticism Again,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1986, pp. 359-65.

[In the following essay, Hammersmith examines a textual crux in Richard III: that is, whether Shakespeare wrote “sun” or “son” of York in the opening lines of the play and whether the puns that result in either case make one reading more likely than the other.]

Perhaps it is time again to put in a word in favor of the exercise of literary judgment in coping with textual problems and in making editorial decisions, though G. Thomas Tanselle's lucid and persuasive essay on the need to combine literary and textual criticism appeared not so long ago that it should already have passed out of memory.1 Still, the questions with which Tanselle grappled are complicated even further when a scholarly editor undertakes to produce a modern reading edition of an early work, for the decisions made for an old-spelling edition must sometimes be re-thought for a modernized edition. I am persuaded that Tanselle's principles apply in both cases, but in that of a modernized edition the scale may have to be tipped even further in the direction of critical judgment. What I have in mind here is the problem of words which are both substantive variants and spelling variants in early modern English. I plan to argue a specific case, namely that it is impossible, in a modernized edition, to know what to do with all the “sons” and “suns” in the texts of Richard III on the basis of “pure” textual principles, and, moreover, that without resort to literary principles the decisions reached for an old-spelling edition will not only mislead the reader of a modernized text but will misrepresent Shakespeare as well.

The example I propose to set forth is a complicated one because the textual history of Richard III is itself complex. Nevertheless, while acknowledging that various details are still debatable, we can say that the prevailing view of the textual transmission, in outline form, is that summarized by G. Blakemore Evans in The Riverside Shakespeare.2 According to Evans, the six quartos which preceded the Folio text of 1623 were printed in a simple series, each descending from the immediately preceding edition. F1 “was printed partly from Q3 and partly from Q6, the copy of Q6 having been corrected against an independent manuscript,” which Evans thinks was “possibly Shakespeare's ‘foul papers’, but in any case almost certainly not a manuscript with theatrical connections.” The upshot of this state of affairs is that F1 must be the copy-text for the whole play except for III.i.1-158 and V.iii.48 to the end, which portions were set from Q3; for those parts, Q1 is the copy-text, “since Q3 is essentially nothing but a twice-removed reprint of Q1.” The texts of editorial concern, then, are Q1, Q6, and F1. Thus much is widely agreed upon, and it shall suffice for my purposes here.

In his New Arden edition of Richard III,3 Antony Hammond sets forth editorial principles which I mean to quote at some length in order to discuss what happens when textual principles are applied so rigorously that they do violence to the literary design of the play. He explains that “much recent textual theory assumes that an ‘old-spelling’ edition is being prepared” but that “this aspect of the theory has only incidental bearing on the production of a modernized edition such as the Arden. The principle that one chooses the copy-text on the basis of its superior accidentals does not apply to a modernized edition in which most accidental features, especially spelling and punctuation, are altered” (p. 50). One might well quarrel with the way this is put, since the choice of the copytext of any edition is based on the superiority of the accidentals, which afterward get “altered” in a modernized text, but as that is what Hammond does in practice, all is well so far. He bases his text on F1, “as the text of superior authority,” but he acknowledges that “every reading in which Q differs from F must be evaluated, since any such difference may originate with Shakespeare, or perhaps have his sanction.” Still, “most such variants are actors’ or compositors' errors, and will be rejected …” (p. 50). In the Arden edition punctuation and spelling are modernized because “we have passed safely through the period when scholars believed that the pointing of F was Shakespeare’s, and the subsequent period when it was held that, while not Shakespeare’s, at least the punctuation of early editions was rhetorical in intent, and thus served the function of a sort of stage-directions, indicating to the actor how to speak the lines” (p. 51). Thus, punctuation, though sometimes a delicate and subtle matter, can be normalized fairly routinely, and spellings offer only slightly greater difficulties: “While there is a greater chance of copy-spellings surviving into print than there is of copy-punctuation, it is well to remember Trevor Howard-Hill's caveat: all spellings in the printed text are compositorial. There can thus be no more reason for preferring F's punctuation to that of any other text than there would be for retaining its spellings” (p. 52). Hence, Hammond chooses “a modern spelling … if one exists” (p. 53), though of course no modern equivalent exists for some archaic words, such as “Iwis,” in which case the old word must be retained.

I wish to take up this last principle of spelling because textual authority, principles of modernization, and literary criticism collide head-on in several spelling problems in Richard III. To begin at the beginning, the opening four lines of the play read as follows in Q1 (1597):

Now is the winter of our discontent,
Made glorious summer by this sonne of Yorke:
And all the cloudes that lowrd vpon our house,
In the deepe bosome of the Ocean buried.


In the second line we have remarkable concord between Q1-Q6 and F1, all of which give some o form of “sonne” rather than a u form.4 As F1 is the copytext for this part of the play, an editor would print F's “Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke” without alteration; in a modernized edition, however, the triple pun in “Son of Yorke” poses some problems, for one must decide which meaning is primary—“son” or “sun”—before rendering the word in modern English. The trouble, of course, is that “sonne” is both a variant spelling of “sunne” (or of “sun”) and a word in its own right, meaning “male offspring,” and that both meanings apply in this context. As Tanselle says, the editor's “goal must necessarily be the recovery of the words which the author actually wrote” (p. 209). The question in this case is: is “sonne” a word—“son”—or is it a spelling variant of another word—“sun”? The words in this part of the text are likely to be Shakespeare’s, but the spellings are likely to be compositorial. The authority of F's “Son” is therefore dependent upon one's judgment concerning its status as a substantive or as an accidental feature.

Hammond prints “son” and explains in his note to the line: “Despite QF concurrence in the spelling, virtually all eds (though not Evans) have followed Rowe's emendation ‘sun’ to give point to the pun: Edward IV assumed the device of a sun as his emblem in consequence of the vision of three suns which appeared to him during the battle of Mortimer's Cross (see 3H6, II.i.21-40).” “Evans” is, of course, G. Blakemore Evans, who first printed “sun” in his edition for the Pelican Shakespeare, changed it to “son” in the revised edition,5 and retained the latter in the Riverside edition. What I wish to argue is that before an editor prints anything here, he or she must first decide whether a spelling variant or a substantive variant is at issue and that the matter cannot be decided without employing literary criticism. Tanselle maintains that an editor “must examine both the author's intention to use a particular word and the author's intention to mean a particular thing in the work as a whole—indeed, must make decisions about the first in light of the second” (p. 175), with the result that “one is inevitably drawn back to the work itself as the most reliable documentary evidence as to what the author intended” (p. 177). He goes on to explain how the two methods, textual and literary, and the part and whole function together: “The scholarly editor will amass all the evidence he can find bearing on each textual decision; but, when the factual evidence is less than incontrovertible, his judgment about each element will ultimately rest on his interpretation of the author's intended meaning as he discovers it in the whole of the text itself” (p. 183). Now, in the case in point, the reading would be incontrovertible if the word in question were not a possible spelling variant as well as a possible substantive variant. The issue is almost paradoxical because swords don't come more double-edged than this one: it is not a problem in an old-spelling edition precisely because the spelling variant is possible, but it is a problem in a modernized text for exactly the same reason. In practice this means that the editor of an old-spelling edition has the easier job of it, for, recognizing that the same spelling carries multiple meanings in early modern English, he or she need not decide which meaning is primary. The textual authority ends the matter. The accidental feature does not interfere with the substantive issue. For the modernizing editor, on the other hand, reliance on the authority of the text seems to me to violate the plain meaning Shakespeare has put into Richard's mouth—and there is other evidence of a textual nature to indicate that this is so.

Within the intention of the opening lines and within the intention of the play as a whole, the word “son” cannot be the word Shakespeare meant to be primary in the second line of the play. We are faced here with multiple meanings, but “regardless of how many meanings he finds in the text, the scholarly editor makes corrections or emendations on the basis of the one he judges most likely to have been the author's intended meaning” (Tanselle again, p. 181). That “son” is an intended meaning here is beyond question, but it is just one of three intended meanings, all of which inhere in the old spelling but only one of which is represented in the modern spelling. Hence, in presenting a pun to a modern reader the editor must look first to the primary sense from which the secondary senses are derived.

We can solve this particular problem in context only by tracing the process by which we come to understand the meaning of the lines. Since the lines are figurative, “son” will not serve as the primary meaning without undermining the vehicle of the metaphor. The tenor is that the son (Edward) of Richard, 3d. Duke of York, has by his ascension to the throne dispelled the discontent of the house of York (winter, clouds) and has ushered in a period (summer) during which the house may flourish. The vehicle, however, the sense by which we may arrive at the tenor, says that winter has been transformed into summer by the heat of the sun, which has also driven away the wintry clouds. Hence, we must first understand the sense “sun” if the metaphor is to be intelligible. That is the primary sense, which then passes into yet another meaning of “sun,” namely the emblem adopted by Edward IV. Finally, it is only through the sense of the emblem that we may identify Edward as the “son” of Richard, Duke of York. Consequently, the form printed by Evans and Hammond is actually the tertiary sense, which cannot be arrived at without first understanding the two precedent senses which depend, for Elizabethan and modern readers alike, upon the sense “sun.” The textual problem is that “sun” could be spelled “son” in Elizabethan English but must be spelled “sun” in modern English. That is, a contemporary reader would have seen all the meanings in one spelling, but even that reader would have had to recognize the meaning “sun” as primary before the metaphor could yield up its richness of meaning.

The proof of the point is in the performance, during which this “problem” does not even exist, since an audience of any century hears but the one sound. The question is how to represent the theatrical experience in print. What an audience hears is the collocation of “winter,” “summer,” “sun,” “clouds.” The metaphor is calculated to inspire a listener to hear “sun” before “son,” and, indeed, only thus can the secondary and tertiary meanings emerge. In the case of alternatives, all editorial work involves choices, and “these decisions are based both on whatever external evidence is available and on the editor's judgment as to how the author was most likely to have expressed himself at any given point” (Tanselle, p. 173). The editor must ask whether it is likely that Shakespeare wrote lines which seem to say that winter has been transformed into summer by York's offspring when just a micro-meaning away is the sense that winter has been transformed into summer by the sun. To insist on the former because the quartos and the Folio agree in a spelling which is ambiguous and interchangeable and which may not be Shakespeare's at all (“all spellings in the printed text are compositorial”) is to give a modern reader an experience which no theatrical audience anywhere at any time could have had.

That Shakespeare is “most likely to have expressed himself” with “sun” rather than “son” in the second line of the play is borne out by the evidence of the rest of the text. Richard III is filled with sons and suns, and neither Q1 nor F1 ever spells with a u if “son” is unequivocally meant. But here is the Q1 version of Richard's response to Anne's threat to tear her cheeks with her fingernails:

These eies could neuer indure sweet beauties wrack,
You should not blemish them if I stood by:
As all the world is cheered by the sonne,
So I by that, it is my day, my life.


Q2 follows Q1 in spelling with an o in line 129; the compositor of Q3 altered it to “sunne,” in which the rest of the quartos and F1 agree. A modernizing editor would print “sun,” the reading of the copy-text, but I doubt that the editor would wish to argue that Q1 and Q2 are in error. What we have here is a spelling variant. The editor prints “sun” on substantive grounds, the fact that F1 spells with a u while Q1 and Q2 with an o being entirely accidental. To put it another way, a modern editor prints “sun” because that is manifestly what the word means in all the texts, and it is just this kind of line which confirms that in old spelling the two forms are indifferent. The agreement or disagreement of the quartos and the Folio in the particular spelling is altogether irrelevant to the modernizing editor's decision in this case.

The problem with the authority of the copy-text is that F1 is elsewhere consistent, using the o form for the sense “offspring” and the u form for the heavenly body. Such consistency would indeed appear to justify printing “son” in the second line of the play. F1 is, however, itself a derivative text. Even if the printer's or the compositors' intention was to regularize the spellings of Q6 and the manuscript, there is more than a slight possibility that an oversight occurred right off the bat in the opening lines. But we can judge the matter only by combining the textual evidence with literary judgment. That is, as Tanselle advises, we arrive at Shakespeare's likely intention in the second line by looking at his likely intentions elsewhere in the play. For example, when Richmond ponders the prospects of a successful battle, Q1 represents his first three lines this way:

The wearie sonne hath made a golden sete,
And by the bright tracke of his fierie Carre,
Giues signall of a goodlie day to morrow. …


Q2 alters to the u spelling in line 19, to be followed by the rest of the quartos, F1, and Hammond, who has this note on the line: “The sun that rose on Richard's opening soliloquy now sets in favourable omen for Richmond; later (ll. 277-80) it will not rise for Richard. … Q1 compounds the allusion to I.i.2 by misspelling as ‘sonne’!” Given the treatment of the text, this is a very strange remark; one turns back to the second line of the play and looks in vain for “the sun that rose on Richard's opening soliloquy,” for there Hammond prints “son of York.” If the quibble is echoed in this later speech, it is hard to see why the o spelling is an error in one place but not in another. The compositor of Q2, after all, did no more here than a modern editor would do in changing “son” to “sun” in the opening soliloquy. That compositor had no textual authority for changing the spelling, and the line of transmission in both speeches is Q1-Q6 + MS-F1. The Q2 compositor simply used his critical judgment to point up the primary meaning, and the subsequent texts agree with him. As Tanselle says, when an erroneous word “does not make sense, and when the correct word is obvious, anyone who makes the correction is carrying out the author's intention” (p. 186). In this case we do not have a genuine “error” as such; we have rather an early modern English spelling variant which has become a modern substantive problem, but the principle is the same: the modernizing editor must print the author's likeliest intention. That is what Rowe did when he emended “Son of York” to “sun of York” upon no greater or lesser authority than did the compositor of Q2 in this later speech.

There are, moreover, two intermediate steps in this iterative quibbling on “son” and “sun,” one of which has not, as far as I am able to discover, been commented upon. The skeptical third citizen warns his neighbors to take precautions against the ravages of civil war when Edward IV dies, and his speech includes the same collocation that occurs in the opening lines; in Q1 his speech looks like this:

When cloudes appeare, wise men put on their clokes:
When great leaues fall, the winter is at hand:
When the sunne sets, who doth not looke for night:
Vntimely stormes, make men expect a darth. …


F1 substitutes “are seen” for “appeare” in line 32 and treats “stormes” as a collective singular by printing “makes” in line 35, but it too spells “sun” and preserves the collocation: here we have the “clouds,” “winter,” and “sun” again, but rather than a “summer” we have an image of autumn, “when great leaues fall.” The metaphor is perhaps a bit mixed, but the sense of it and its relationship to the opening lines is clear enough: the sun (/son, Edward) has now set, and this metaphor shifts its focus to the seasonal context in order to point up the significance of “winter”; the sun/son which dispelled winter and ushered in the glorious summer has now vanished, giving prospect of another winter “at hand.” The identity of the lexical cohesion gives further point to Richmond's quibbling later: “The wearie sonne [sunne] hath made a golden sete,” in which case the sun/son is now Richard, who, far from promising glorious summer, has benighted the country and laid it waste as winter.

The main point here is that all the metaphors function in the same way; that is, they all depend for their import on the sense “sun” being primary. A final instance of the pun will clarify the textual issue. As Richard and Margaret exchange barbs in I.iii, Richard explains to her that the house of York “buildeth in the Cedars top, / And dallies with the winde, and scornes the sunne” (Q1, ll. 264-65), to which she replies, also in the Q1 version:

And turnes the sun to shade, alas, alas,
Witnes my son, now in the shade of death. …


For “son” in line 267, Q5 and Q6 print “sunne,” and Hammond comments: “Margaret appropriates Richard's pun from I.i.2; the compositors of Q5-6 seem to have been bemused thereby, but F reverts to the earlier form; in a modernized text the distinction must be carefully made.” Indeed it must, but not on the basis of copy-text spellings alone. What is wanted in a modernized text is the primary meaning in each case. The facts that “son” and “sun” are sixteenth-century spelling variants and that the compositors decided the spellings in each specific case make the spellings in the copy-text a thoroughly unreliable guide to editorial decisions. We cannot say that at one point the compositors were bemused and at another point they misspelled, because they may have been utterly indifferent to the form of the word they set into type. At I.iii.266-67 the compositors spell so as to make the secondary sense primary to a modern reader, and modern editors do well to change it back, not because that is what F1 does but because that is what makes the passage intelligible to a reader today and because it surely represents Shakespeare's intention. The same must be said for Rowe's change to “sun” in the second line of the play.

To rely so heavily on the spellings in F1 that one misrepresents the primary sense of the word in Richard's opening soliloquy is to vitiate at the outset the whole point of the iterative imagery having to do with sons and suns. In a modernized text especially the textual evidence must be tempered with literary judgment to arrive at the author's intended meaning. In the cases of the sons and suns of Richard III one would do well to treat all the spellings as accidental and to base one's substantive decisions on the documentary evidence of the meaning of the text as a whole.


  1. G. Thomas Tanselle, “The Editorial Problem of Final Authorial Intention,” Studies in Bibliography, 29 (1976), 167-211.

  2. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 754. Evans provides a bibliography on the subject, briefly annotated to indicate the points of dispute. The line numbers I cite refer to his text.

  3. (London and New York: Methuen, 1981).

  4. The information on readings is based on Hammond's collations, checked against Kristian Smidt, ed., The Tragedy of King Richard III: Parallel Texts of the First Quarto and the First Folio with Variants of the Early Quartos (New York: Humanities Press, 1969). The quarto I cite is W. W. Greg’s, No. 12 in the Shakespeare Quarto Facsimiles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), checked against that in Michael J. B. Allen and Kenneth Muir, eds., Shakespeare's Plays in Quarto (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981). Folio readings are checked against The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968).

  5. The Tragedy of Richard III (Baltimore: Penguin, 1959); the same in Alfred Harbage, gen. ed., William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

Further Reading

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Brooks, Harold F. “‘Richard III’: Antecedents of Clarence's Dream.” Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): 145-50.

Analyzes possible literary sources, including Seneca, for Clarence's ominous dream of his death through drowning.

Carlson, David R. “The Princes' Embrace in Richard III.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 344-47.

Compares Shakespeare's Richard III with two ballads also written about Richard and speculates on whether the ballads served as sources for the play or whether the play influenced the ballads.

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

Asserts that Shakespeare characterizes Richard as attractively evil and suggests that perhaps the playwright was questioning whether the capability for evil is present in all people.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Last Words and Last Things: St. John, Apocalypse, and Eschatology in Richard III.” Shakespeare Studies XVIII (1986): 25-40.

Argues that Richard's use of doom-filled oaths from St. Paul and St. John ironically foreshadows his own destruction.

McDonald, Russ. “Richard III and the Tropes of Treachery.” Philological Quarterly 68, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 465-483.

Focuses on the language of the play, contending that Richard III reveals Shakespeare's increasing realization that words themselves are untrustworthy.

Slights, William W. E. “‘Swear by thy Gracious Self’: Self-Referential Oaths in Shakespeare.” English Studies in Canada XIII, No. 2 (June 1987): 147-160.

Stresses the power accorded to oaths in Renaissance England, and draws connections between the type of oath (personal or impersonal) and the nature of the character who speaks it in several of Shakespeare's plays.

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