Clifford Chalmers Huffman (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6208

SOURCE: “‘Unvalued Jewels’: The Religious Perspective in Richard III,” in Bucknell Review, Vol. 26, 1982, pp. 58-73.

[In the following essay, Huffman challenges the common allegorical view of Richard as the “villain-king” scourged by God. Huffman maintains that the play offers an alternative to this perspective, one that allows Richard to be seen as a tragic individual rather than as an allegorical figure.]

Twentieth-century studies of Shakespeare's Richard III have shown the character of Richard to be that of a Machiavel, a figure closely related to the Vice of the Morality plays and to the Tyrant of Senecan tragedy.1 The suggestion of the family resemblance to the Vice in turn suggests his association with the moral and even theological dimension which that figure never quite lost on the English Renaissance stage, and a number of critics have tended to supplement these character studies with a rather schematic view of the play's action. For R. B. Pierce, “What gives order to Richard III is the central conflict between the villain-king and the power of nemesis. This vengeful force has some effect on the consciousness of Richard himself; but it is primarily an external force, embodied in the curses, the wailing women, and the figure of Richmond as God's minister.”2 If Richard III is viewed as the culmination of Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, the historical and religious dimension is strengthened a priori, and the pattern of “Senecan” nemesis modified by “Christian” Providence becomes clear: through Richard God scourges England, ultimately for the deposition and murder of Richard II, and, at last, places on the throne the Earl of Richmond, who, wedded to Elizabeth of York, bequeaths to posterity the Tudor house and, most notably, Queen Elizabeth.3

Concentration on this overall pattern tends to stress on the one hand the fascinating character of the villain-king and, on the other, the allegorical drama in which the villain is defeated by the force of God working through history, rendered, as Pierce observes, through such liturgical scenes as that in 4.4 in which old Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York lament. Such a view requires that we see in the final action of the play not so much that Richard has defeated himself but rather that he is destroyed by the ritual of history: he, the chosen vehicle for God's wrath, is cast off after he has served his function as scourge.4 The critic is thus caught awkwardly between two tendencies, each of which seems inescapable: this view accounts, on the one hand, for the endless fascination that Richard has exerted over audiences and readers as the witty and ironic evil ruler, and, on the other, for the play's ending, which imports Richmond into the action and stages a highly allegorical opposition between the two rivals on the eve of the battle of Bosworth field.

Act 5, scene 3 is the moment in the play that would seem to join the two levels, of character and of history, which students of the play have discerned, and it warrants a few preliminary comments. It marks the highest degree of fascination with Richard, for when he awakens from his dream, tormented by the ghosts of his victims, he expresses his fear, and ends, drowned by this irrefutable record of his villainy, in despair of God's mercy. His dream has shown that “conscience,” although perhaps cowardly, is nevertheless a fact of life, and this conscience causes him to turn upon himself and to express the painful paradox that his own love for himself, a love that has taken the...

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form of an exclusive self-concern, is indistinguishable from hatred of himself: it has made him both a king and a murderer. Richard confronts this paradox for the first time consciously and expresses it in a series of propositions immediately contradicted:

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.

[ll. 188-93]5

Richard resolves the dilemma by coming to rest with acceptance of his guilt and, with that acceptance, with despair; and surely Doebler is right in insisting that that despair, so much like that in Dr. Faustus and in the “despair canto” of The Faerie Queene, would have functioned for Elizabethans as an implication of spiritual damnation consequent upon failure to trust in God's infinite mercy.6

Whatever external role history, or God operating through it, may have in the play, at this moment it is merged with the dramatic character: by seeing only himself in his past actions, Richard's speech internalizes an otherwise allegorical representation of a soul succumbing to despair, and his actions on the battlefield are evidence both of heroism and foolhardiness. The humanization of the allegorical scourge of God is successful, and part of the audience's response must be a contrary tugging of feelings: yes, Richard is guilty and one wants him punished; but no, one cringes at the prospect of eternal damnation, one cringes at the ending of a play in which a character given such heroic stature is merely ground out in an unequal contest with superhuman forces. In this pull and counterpull the reader, like the theatergoer, feels an urge to break into the play's action by reminding the character of a piece of commonplace knowledge he has lost sight of and that could save him: Richard, locked in his personal predicament, fails to perceive that which another, with a different perspective, can see clearly—God's mercy.

Critics of the play would be quite justified in dismissing such a response, which violates the artistic integrity of a play; but, I should like to argue, it is supported by elements within the play, and responds to Shakespeare's overall success in merging the personal character and the religiohistorical aspects of this play, which are really mutually supportive. At the moment in which Richard awakens and speaks, two unequal points of view are juxtaposed: Richard's vision of despair and damnation is the more compelling, but it is limited, and from the religious point of view inadequate, quite evitable, and false. This moment means that the conclusions some critics have drawn are false, that the play's overall historical pattern is retributive, that human character is thereby diminished, that free will is abrogated, and that man is “no more than dead skulls on the slimy bottom of the deep.”7 Richard's speech, limited, inadequate, and false as it is, is nevertheless crucial to his tragedy, but a full account of this must proceed by following the play's clear stress on conflicting and unequal perspectives on human actions and their ultimate consequences.

The most obvious link between the world of a character's decisions and actions and the larger-than-human world of history is sleep. Macbeth's “death of each day's life” and the dream are linked closely, at least in Hamlet's mind, with conscience:

                                                  To die—to sleep.
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
.....Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

[3.1.63-67, 83]

The first dreams we hear about in Richard III are the “drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams” invented by Richard to set his brothers Clarence and Edward IV at odds. The prophecies and dreams, always difficult of interpretation, say that “G of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.” George, Duke of Clarence, is incarcerated and killed, but Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is at least indirectly responsible for the King's death.8 The association so established with the words prophecy and dream is not one of falsehood, but, rather, of temporary uncertainty and ultimate truth.

Prophecies and dreams relate moments in time otherwise separated by great distances and the effects of chance. The former term has an important role in the play in foreshadowing future actions, and this role imposes a structure on the play: the important prophecies of Margaret and Anne come true.9 They stress both the consequences of action and the inevitability of universal justice of an ironic sort, glimpsed by Macbeth when he refers to the “even-handed justice / [that] Commends th' ingredience of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips” (1.7.10-12). The prophecies and dreams, then, are distinct from and opposed to any character's personal intentions, which are based on an assessment of a given situation. The dreams are the most obvious example of a second perspective, and make the audience aware of its ironic effect upon man's exclusive concern with his own perceptions and plans.

Richard III provides quite early instances of Shakespeare's deliberate use of this ironic opposition of perspectives. In his famous opening soliloquy, Richard introduces his villainy by developing the idea of the new peace in England, with its joy, plenty, and luxury, and its unsuitability to his character. To this vision he opposes himself, with a series of disjunctive clauses, “But I, that am not …,” “I …,” “I …,” “Why, I …,” culminating with, “since I cannot prove a lover … I am determined to prove a villain” (ll. 14-30). Yet the first major action of the play is the justly famous seduction scene in which, before the dead body of the late King Henry VI, Richard woos and wins the Lady Anne. The scene's rhetoric, technical virtuosity, theatrical magnificence, and its ultimate psychological realism have all been duly noted.10 Yet for the audience and reader, what these elements demonstrate is that Richard is wrong about himself; the brilliance of his political success with Anne shows the extent to which he has erred.11 Nor does he err once only: for the moment of success with Anne eclipses—for a moment for his audience, but permanently for himself—the first characteristic of his soliloquy, the forthright personal honesty and accuracy of self-appraisal and its consequence, his aggression. The aggression is based on error, and its success causes error to be mistaken for truth.

The error and its consequences make Richard a villain and a fascinating character, but Shakespeare places a variety of reminders in the play to correct audience sympathy with him, to remind it of the inadequacy of the personal perspective, and, thereby, to remind it of the coexistence of and distinction between the two perspectives. These reminders are formulated in human terms and are articulated by characters in discourse with others. Even the lamentation scene in 4.4 is less an instance of the direct intervention of God in history than it is a reminder, like the silent presence of Henry VI in 1.2, of tradition: Margaret (purified by contrast to her existence in the Henry VI cycle) reminds the audience of human opposition to Richard, and of the normality of acceptance of adversity through suffering, a standard of behavior that everything in Richard contradicts.

Long before this crucial scene in which military and political reversals begin and continue to mount up against Richard until they culminate with the announcement of Richmond's arrival, the audience has been made aware of this other, anti-Ricardian perspective. After Richard's self-analytical opening speech and his victory over religious and social conventions as over personal scruples in the scene with the Lady Anne, and after the audience has been caught up in the heady freedom of Richard's independence, there occurs an isolated scene which, dominated by a character who has no further role in the play, contributes little of real importance to the plot: this is the “Clarence” scene in 1.4.

The murder of Clarence fulfills Richard's plan and the dream he describes has an obvious parallel in that of Richard on the eve of the Bosworth Field battle. The scene is ahistorical in that it is an addition to Shakespeare's sources; although the barrel of malmsey is mentioned in the Mirror for Magistrates, for instance, other elements, particularly the talk of conscience, probably derive from earlier dramatizations of the Richard story, but there they occur in connection with the pathetic murder of the young princes in the Tower.12 Shakespeare's simple transposition of material to fit not children but a character with a high degree of articulateness and a considerable degree of personal involvement and guilt raises issues more complex than pathos. They are, I suggest, of the utmost significance for the understanding of Richard's tragedy.

Clarence's vivid language in describing his dream to the keeper has been remarked upon by several critics.13 It is unexpected, since his brief appearance earlier was unmarked by exceptional verbal dexterity. So unexpected is it that the keeper reacts with surprise: “Had you such leisure in the time of death / To gaze upon these secrets of the deep?” (ll.34-35). This response is one of several contrasts, implicit and explicit, in the scene, and is not necessarily a casting of the cold water of realism on Clarence's dream.14 The dream reminds the audience of Richard, who causes Clarence to fall into the sea, and certainly Clarence's later calls for mercy contrast with Richard's expressed contempt for it. In Aerol Arnold's formulation, where Clarence shows a Christian concern about divine punishment and conscience, Richard seems a saint while playing the devil and dismisses conscience (p. 53).

But the poetry of Clarence's speeches is more operative than such character contrasts suggest. One need not, for instance, allow total sympathy with Clarence, who is certainly guilty of murder and treason. The question for him is, Will there be forgiveness, whether in this life or the next? Implicit in the language of the scene is his answer: No. And that answer is, from the audience's point of view, an ironic one, because the language of the play has shown that it is false. A similar divergence of perspectives affects other elements of the scene. It is also ironic that Clarence, in dreaming of his escape from a confining prison, should find himself the more constricted by water, water that presses in so much that although “often did I strive / To yield the ghost,” it “stopp'd in my soul, and would not let it forth / To find the empty, vast, and wand'ring air, / But smother'd it” (1.4.35 ff.). The pain of the constriction is given further force by Shakespeare's use of the classical “journey to the underworld,” in which the souls who accuse Clarence call on Furies to “take him unto torment.” For Clemen it is Clarence's conscience that has caused this dream in which final judgment is rendered, and the use of death by water, with its mythological associations of disintegration and dismemberment, points to a judgment that is pitiless and hopeless (p. 69). On the other hand, the scene is filled with language that refers to God as the King of Kings, to expiation, to the afterlife and the Day of Judgment, and echoes the language of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.15 One wonders whether an audience sensitive to such language would not be painfully conscious of irony in seeing a character so limit himself to a classical, non-Christian perspective in a setting so clearly washed with a Christian tint; whether it would not, for instance, recognize that the waters of disintegration might also suggest waters of a potential regeneration. In any event, that Clarence and others are not aware of the possible implications of their words does not mean that these are inoperative in the total linguistic economy of the play.

For Clemen, among others, the description of the bottom of the sea, with its shipwrecks, skeletons, treasures, and gems come to rest in the eye sockets of skeletons, suggests the transitoriness of life and the falseness of worldly standards. On the other hand, M. Mahood provides an illuminating gloss on the passage that recognizes its use of differing perspectives: the jewels were once beyond price—“inestimable”—but are now “unvalued” because those who valued the jewels are dead.16 And who, we may then ask, are they? Are they the owners of the jewels, who would have been risking their lives for the possession? Are they, more likely, simply the mariners who risked and lost their lives merely to transport them? There is judgment here: the “gems” ironically, “as 'twere in scorn,” mock the dead bones of the men who so misvalued life that they risked it for earthly jewels—even for someone else's jewels. These men are punished for their error, an error that all men commit insofar as all have a metaphoric gem for which each would give his life. Clarence's rendering of his dream presents to the audience and reader a judgment of human action from the perspective of a time span as great as the life of a single human. Although still a limited perspective, it is larger and truer than the perspectives of those who have risked and lost; it is sufficient to judge and find wanting that action which has ended in death and meaninglessness.

The dream, then, provides a perspective that evokes a response from the attentive reader or listener somewhat more complex than Clarence's, and one that succeeding moments in the play guide through further complexities. Clarence's dream causes the audience to call in question the values and intentions of the stage figure who articulates them, just as Richard's seduction of the Lady Anne called into question his self-analysis. In both cases the character's perceptions, understanding, and, consequently, intentions, are limited; and this situation is true of other characters as well. Clarence ends his interchange with the keeper on a pious note: he admits his ill deeds, performed for the sake of his brother, and begs God to be merciful to his own family. Clarence is not the only character to fail to see the contradiction of seeking to be loyal to human and divine standards. Like him, the uncomprehending keeper can be frightened of the dream and still wish his charge “good rest”; and Brakenbury can receive the murderers' “commission,” adhere to the human standard of loyalty to a superior, and yet discard another standard while drawing attention to it: “I will not reason what is meant thereby, / Because I will be guiltless from the meaning” (ll. 92-93). An attempt to adhere to divergent standards is, it would seem, a human problem in the play; it affects the lowliest servant and the greatest prince, for, as Brakenbury observes, “Between their titles and low name / There's nothing differs but the outward fame” (ll.82-83). The standards diverge because they are standards according to different perspectives on human life.

The extension of the dilemma universalizes it. The lowest level of humanity, the hired murderers, now enter, and, pace Whitaker, Shakespeare observes decorum by presenting them as the least conscious of the significance of their words—they are consequently very funny.17 Unlike Clarence, they murder not on a changed principle but on no principle at all: hence the propriety of their articulate and superficial bandying of words meaningless to them just prior to the extinction of life. The initial interchange between the murderers develops the twin themes of conscience and principle, or warrant, for action. The remorse that the second murderer feels at the word judgment has little immediate effect, since he has an adequate earthly warrant; yet no warrant at all can defend him from the ultimate consequences of his action, consequences brought home to the audience not by the perspective of human life, of “gems as 'twere in scorn of eyes,” but by that greater perspective which places even the end of the body in the still larger continuum that reaches fulfillment only on the “great Judgment Day” (1. 101), and that includes the inevitability of damnation—or of salvation. It is life seen in this theological context that the second murderer risks for “the Duke of Gloucester's purse.”

Only “conscience” can intervene, conscience that he, like Richard who later addresses “coward conscience,” scorns because it limits man's earthly pleasures, successes, and riches. Man were best, he says, again like Richard, to ignore it, “to trust to himself and live without it” (l. 135). But can he? At crucial moments Clarence and Richard are visited by conscience; and at a crucial moment the first murderer is visited by it and, after this amusing rhetorical moment of devil's advocacy, he succumbs—but only momentarily. The comedy is laden with irony: but for the murderers, the perspective on intended action and its ultimate consequences—conveyed by the theological cast of language—casts any concern with its practical consequences into a severely constricted spectrum. With perfect lack of comprehension they “reason” with the awakening Clarence, who quickly understands their purpose. His hysterical protestation of innocence is, for all the murderers know, quite true, and their answer justified in the limited terms of human loyalty: the warrant to murder one not convicted by a court of law is the warrant of an absolute monarch—a temporary warrant, as it turns out, already rescinded. The inadequacy of their response is thus made plain both on the practical level—hence the “dramatic irony” of the scene—and also on a higher one, for the “King of Kings” has ordained that there shall be no murder. The questioning here, like that by Dr. Faustus in Marlowe's tragedy, has led from the observable, immediate world to the First Cause, and from this standard the interlocutors shrink.18

All three men here stand convicted by that absolute standard, although there is in fact a hierarchy of standards in this scene: shrinking from the absolute one, Clarence invokes a lesser one of brotherly love—lesser, but informed at least by pity. But the murderers, whose standard (if it can be called one) is lesser still, fail to respond to it. Clarence observes that they “make war with God” in their insistence, and will reap no rewards for their act: hence from all points of view they stand to risk and to lose; and nevertheless they strike. The final movement of the scene brings the discrepant perspectives home with yet greater clarity: the second murderer wishes he were innocent, but his very wish for innocence is infected by the limitation of his understanding: “How fain (like Pilate),” he exclaims, “would I wash my hands / Of this most grievous guilty murder” (ll. 261-62). For Ribner (p. 115) these words are part of “a ritual gesture to underscore the horror of the act,” but the desire to be innocent is no clearer than its impossibility; the second murderer, like Pilate in the biblical account, is guilty, would be innocent but cannot be, and has, willy-nilly, to accept the consequences. That he thinks that Pilate was successful in washing his hands of Christ's murder and that he compares himself to the Roman so glibly is, from the point of view the play allows the audience to take, one of the most striking instances of incomprehension and misperception in the play.

The function in Richard III of the Clarence scene exceeds the sum of its connections with narrative and with thematic development. However, to say with Clemen (pp. 65-66) that Clarence here is the first victim in a string of Nemesis of which Richard is agent and ultimately victim, tends to minimize his importance by tying him to the supernatural, active war on Richard. The issues raised are not schematic, but vital to humans as humans, although the awareness of any individual character is less significant than that of the attentive reader or listener. The audience hears a character who perceives justice to be the action of Furies, yet also recognizes that references to the King of Kings imply mercy; and it hears another err in his reference to Pilate but, by obliquely implying the presence of Christ, underscore the presence of God's mercy. The divergence of perspectives is rendered with greater clarity by the allegorical means Shakespeare utilizes in presenting Richmond in 5.3, Margaret—who, according to Holinshed, had died—and the brief glimpse of the entombed Henry VI. These anachronistic presences, like Richard's moment of success with Anne, implicitly judge his march to power and an earthly crown according to standards that call it in question—the varying standards or perspectives of “inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,” of a guilty conscience, of judgment, of the rightful grounds of human action and of human moral blindness. No character is sensitive to these standards, for each chooses to act in what he takes to be his own interests; yet each is responsible to them.

An allegorical method of representation need not belittle free will or the possibility of human dignity, as some critics believe. It is because Richard has full freedom and is not constrained by historicist preconceptions that Shakespeare can present to the audience the larger perspectives obliquely, by means, for instance, of the common, gullible people in 2.3, who know only that, if Richard is evil, yet the “Queen's sons and brothers [are] haught and proud” (l. 28). In 3.1, when Richard counsels the young Prince Edward to sojourn at the Tower of London, the latter replies that he dislikes that place, and asks whether it is true that it was built by Julius Caesar. There ensues the following interchange:

Pr. Is it upon record, or else reported
Successively from age to age, he built it?
Buck. Upon record, my gracious Lord.
Pr. But say, my Lord, it were not regist'red
Methinks the truth should live from age to age,
As 'twere retail'd to all posterity,
Even to the general all-ending day.
Rich. [aside] So wise so young, they say do never live long.
Pr. What say you, uncle?
Rich. I say, without characters fame lives long.
[aside] Thus, like the formal vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.
Pr. That Julius Caesar was a famous man.
With what his valour did enrich his wit,
His wit set down to make his valour live.
Death makes no conquest of this conqueror,
For now he lives in fame, though not in life.

[3.1. 72-88]

The irony of the interchange is not limited to character. The “wise” young Prince's dislike of the Tower raises the negative Renaissance associations with the tyrannic Caesar;19 and Richard's self-assurance, which takes the form of the witty variation on the words live long—such wise youths do not live long, unwritten biographies may live long through oral communication—ignores that negative view. The physical record of Caesar's building recalls Caesar's evil greatness, a record of which will descend to “the general all-ending day,” at which moment records become true. The perspective of history has helped to define and find faulty another limited human perspective.

The adjustment, the reorientation in point of view that this interchange imposes on the audience, carries a choric effect more inclusive than Hastings's oft-quoted lament beginning “Woe, woe for England” (3.4.79-92); Hastings's nationalist perspective is less comprehensive than the cosmic one the play reminds one of so often. A similar contrast of perspectives occurs in 3.7. Despite Buckingham's stage management, the people have remained “like dumb statuës or breathing stones” (l. 25). Hence Richard and Buckingham prepare a scene in which the former appears before the Lord Mayor and the citizens, between two bishops, intent, in his devotions, on the salvation of his soul. “I cannot tell if to depart in silence,” he says at the beginning of a long speech, “Or bitterly to speak in your reproof, / Best fitteth my degree or your condition” (ll. 141-43). Richard's consummate hypocrisy at this moment has often been observed, and its perfection is clearly dependent on his lack of concern with the sentiments he utters. But those sentiments are nevertheless present, are embodied in the bishops, even in a scene that belittles and holds them up to scorn. They are present not as an alternative to Richard—the play does not preach such a political lesson—but as a differing standard, a responsibility imposed by a perspective on action that differs from Richard's but to which he is at last to be held.

Following the liturgical scene of lamentation, Richard suffers military and personal reversals. They begin with his dialogue with Queen Elizabeth about the possibility of marrying Elizabeth of York. Although critics have differed on whether or not he convinces her, the very lack of absolute certainty in the matter is a significant variation on the patent success in the parallel scene with the Lady Anne. He believes he has won: “Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman,” he says. But the audience would certainly have known that historically Elizabeth married not Richard but Richmond, bore the Tudor line and their own Queen Elizabeth; such knowledge would impose a sense of failure on the dialogue and the language of the scene permits at least a degree of uncertainty. The military reversals now announced continue the uncertainty of truth and dramatize Richard's difficulties in assessing it in any but a wholly personal, and therefore inadequate and erroneous way. “'Tis thought” that a navy is on the western coast, with Richmond the admiral; English armies are in arms against Richard; but now the army is reported to be “dispers'd and scatter'd”; and an English army is in arms; the navy is scattered; last, the army is defeated and Buckingham taken prisoner, but the navy has landed (ll. 432-534). Each report is apparently true according to its point of view, and Richard responds to each with his own; no longer calculating, aggressive, and self-advancing, he forgets Catesby's message (ll. 445-48), and then strikes and rewards a messenger (ll. 507ff).20 This moment in Richard's career is comic rather than tragic because its scope is limited to the moment, is so without reference even to the practical outcome of the issues.

The play, then, is at pains to present different perspectives on the same moments: Richard's self-analysis and seduction of the Lady Anne, Clarence's dream, the conversation with the murderers, the reference to Julius Caesar, Richard and the bishops, Richard and Queen Elizabeth and with the messengers; and, at last, Richard with himself. In each case more than one point of view on the situation and a main character's response to it is made clear, and in each case the inaccuracy, the inadequacy of the main character's response is underlined. In each case it is the language in which the scene is conveyed that prompts the reader or the listener to act out the desire to reach into the artistic world to alter a decision taken by a character. This active sense of an alternative perspective is a vital part of the tragedy of character.

Thus it is that Richard's dream on the eve of his last battle, a dream so reminiscent of Clarence's earlier in the play, is not that of a man crushed by the righteous sweep of history or by God's inexorable retribution on England, in which He also casts away the scourge that had served him in punishing the nation. Richard's dream—the ghosts calling for vengeance—is the symbol of his human freedom in the sense that he was chosen and acted freely and has not been bound by scruple or convention. That he makes of his experience what Clarence had made of his, and sees only the prospect of merciless punishment while at the same time mouthing “Jesu,” is not the result of an autonomous Nemesis or Necessity, but of the limitation of his perspective. The very pity with which the audience or reader responds is itself the refutation of that perspective, since it contradicts the nothingness that Richard believes he faces. If Richard's death may be termed tragic, as I believe it can, it is because he has consistently and deliberately ignored a host of alternative, larger, and more accurate views of the human condition, views that could have saved his soul, and that have been held up clearly to the audience from the beginning. In his career Richard has not ironically activated impersonal forces that destroy him: rather, he has realized in fullness a character that, in the ripeness of time, can see in life only the justice of revenge, a justice that Shakespeare formulates here (as in Titus Andronicus) as insufficient and as inadequate to the fundamental value and significance of human life.


  1. On Richard as an Elizabethan “Machiavel,” the aspiring will that threatens to destroy order, see A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961), pp. 15 ff. S. Thomas, The Antic Hamlet and Richard III (New York: King's Crown Press, 1943) and Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 386-407, both discuss Richard's relation to the Vice figure. On Shakespeare's Senecanism, see the still influential essay by T. S. Eliot, “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation,” Selected Essays (1932; reprint ed., New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950), pp. 51-88.

  2. Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1971), pp. 89-90. The autonomous power of Nemesis is discussed by Tom F. Driver, The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960). Driver warns against an uncritical use of the idea, but his caveat has not always been observed; it is in part dismissed by Pierce, p. 122. Rossiter argues that the play presents “two things: on the one hand, a rigid Tudor schema of retributive justice … and, on the other, a huge triumphant stage-personality” (p. 2).

  3. The fullest articulation of the providential scheme in Richard III is E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1944); Irving Ribner argues that the play is correctly viewed as a morality play, the last chapter, as it were, of the Henry VI tetralogy, written to “emphasize the role of providence in history, and to show how God's grace enabled England to rise out of the chaos of the Wars of the Roses.” The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, rev. ed. (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 116. Shakespeare's adherence to the Tudor myth is stressed by H. A. Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 295. However, John Dover Wilson disagrees; see his edition of the play (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954), p. xlv.

  4. John R. Elliott, “The History Play as Drama,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 2 (1968): 21-28. Rossiter argues that the historical and personal aspects of the play form an ultimate paradoxical unity; see pp. 20-22. His stress on the “repulsiveness” of the retributive justice receives extension by Nicholas Brooke (see n. 7).

  5. Quotations are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Irving Ribner (Waltham, Mass.: Xerox, 1971).

  6. B. A. Doebler, “‘Dispaire and Dye’: The Ultimate Temptation of Richard III,” Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 75-85. For studies interested primarily in the character of Richard, this scene is a bit hard to handle: see, for instance R. B. Heilman, “Satiety and Conscience: Aspects of Richard III,Antioch Review 24 (1964): 53-73, reprinted in Essays in Shakespearean Criticism, ed. J. L. Calderwood and H. E. Toliver (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), pp. 137-51; see pp. 146-47. References to Heilman are to this reprint.

  7. Nicholas Brooke, “Reflecting Gems and Dead Bones: Tragedy vs. History in Richard III,Critical Quarterly 7 (1965): 134.

  8. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 3:241-42, argues that Edward appears to die of remorse because no one had tried to save Clarence. On the other hand, he observes in part, “Clarence removed, Edward must die next” (p. 241).

  9. W. Clemen, “Anticipation and Foreboding in Shakespeare's Early Histories,” Shakespeare Survey 6 (1953): 25-35.

  10. For two opposing views, compare Ribner, for whom the wooing of Anne is a ritual act, “designed to repeat the theme of Edward IV's earlier wooing of Lady Grey, rather than … a depiction of historical fact” (pp. 114-15), with S. C. Sen Gupta, Shakespeare's Historical Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 91-92, for whom it is an alteration of history designed to help delineate character. For the ultimate extension of the personal view, see Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964), p. 39.

  11. Heilman discusses the political nature of this success, pp. 144-45.

  12. Bullough discusses the relevance of Thomas Legge's Richardus Tertius and the anonymous True Tragedy of Richard III and Hall's account on pp. 233-41; cf. J. Spargo, “Clarence in the Malmsey-Butt,” Modern Language Notes 51 (1936): 166-73.

  13. Howard Baker, Induction to Tragedy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939), pp. 60-62; F. P. Wilson, Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), p. 123; Rossiter, Angel with Horns, pp. 9-12; Aerol Arnold, “The Recapitulation Dream in Richard III and Macbeth,Shakespeare Quarterly 6 (1955): 51-62.

  14. W. Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III, trans J. Bonheim (London: Methuen, 1968), p. 74. Clemen identifies the “keeper” as Brakenbury from the beginning of the scene, following Q, although in his edition Ribner, following F, distinguishes between them.

  15. R. S. H. Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge (London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1935), pp. 133-35. On the religious dimension of the association of dreams and Bosworth Field, see Emrys Jones, “Bosworth Eve,” Essays in Criticism 25 (1975): 38-54.

  16. Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957), pp. 44-45.

  17. Virgil K. Whitaker, Shakespeare's Use of Learning (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1953), p. 62.

  18. 2. 2. 18-75 in the edition of Irving Ribner (New York: Odyssey Press, 1963).

  19. On the differing attitudes toward Julius Caesar in the Renaissance, see Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), pp. 10-23 and notes; and T. J. B. Spencer, “Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans,” Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957): 27-38.

  20. For another view on this important scene, see Heilman, “Satiety and Conscience,” esp. pp. 143-44.

Harold F. Brooks (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9035

SOURCE: “Richard III, Unhistorical Amplifications: The Women's Scenes and Seneca,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 75, No. 4, October, 1980, pp. 721-37.

[In the essay that follows, Brooks investigates the influence of Seneca's Troades on Shakespeare's depiction of the four women in Richard III.]

In Richard III, Shakespeare owed little to his chronicle sources for the sensational wooing of Anne, the wailing royal women, and Clarence's dream. Yet though these passages are unhistorical, he had, as with the episode of the faithful groom in Richard II,1 materials and inspiration for them. When investigated, Clarence's dream appears to be an imaginative fusion and re-creation from a range of reading outside the chronicles, with hints coming from Seneca, Golding's Ovid, The Mirror for Magistrates, probably from The Spanish Tragedy, and above all from the Cave of Mammon and the sea-episodes in the first three books of The Faerie Queene, published in 1590, the year before the date I would assign to Richard III. I have chosen, however, to consider the dream separately in another article,2 and to devote this one to the elaboration, without historical warrant, of the women's scenes I have spoken of. The debt they owe to Seneca will lead me in conclusion to consider his part, among many other strands, in the weave of the play.3

Geoffrey Bullough, in his Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, gives me the starting-point I want.4 He discusses the possibility that Shakespeare took from Legge's Richardus Tertius the idea of ‘increasing the importance of his women so as to provide links with the Henry VI plays and to serve as a substitute for the Senecan chorus’: a suggestion to which I have nothing to add. But naturally he observes that just as Legge drew upon Seneca, so also might Shakespeare; and he notes further that Shakespeare's ‘introduction of three generations’ of women, ‘each with its memories and griefs’, specifically ‘recalls Seneca's Troades’, while for Richard's courtship of Anne ‘it is possible that, having decided to include Senecan elements in his tragedy, Shakespeare went … to the Hercules Furens’: to Lycus's similar (but unsuccessful) attempt with Megara.5 These suggestions I shall develop, arguing that the debt to the Troades is not merely possible, but virtually certain, and that the scene between Richard and Anne is undoubtedly of Senecan inspiration, the main debt to the Hercules Furens being accompanied by lesser ones to other plays, notably the Hippolytus.

As I shall later show, each of the four women in Richard III corresponds to one of the four in the Troades. Would Shakespeare have had reason to include them in his play if he had been oblivious of their counterparts in Seneca's? It must be admitted that one need not invoke Seneca to account for the presence of Anne, Queen Elizabeth, or even Queen Margaret. That Elizabeth and Anne should figure was to be expected from the historical data, though the pre-Shakespearian True Tragedy of Richard III did without Anne.

As regards Queen Margaret, the argument is different. Her role, as everyone notes, is contrary to the historical facts (facts which in part Shakespeare could presume)6 and, if verisimilitude were in question, totally impossible. Yet without prompting from a source, Shakespeare would still have had strong motives for writing her part; it has dramatic functions of the greatest importance in the whole cycle of four plays, the lines of which were laid down in the three Henry VI plays, already written. She appears in all three, and knits Richard III with them. And just as in 1 Henry VI she steps into a role that continues Joan's with a difference, for she is potentially a new French scourge of the English, carrying the affliction from French to English soil, so in Richard III she vacates her role, leaving Richmond, with a difference, to step into it. The old type of vengeance, itself a new crime, perpetuating the Senecan chain of wrong and curse on royal houses, is embodied in her; it is superseded by vengeance which is God's, is just, and calls for no further vengeance, when Richmond is made the minister of chastisement. This passing of role from person to person is a characteristic Shakespearian technique, especially obvious later in Richard II where the political norm against which Richard and Bolingbroke offend is carried from Gaunt (and the half-hearted York) to the gardeners and then to Carlisle's prophetic protest. If The Troublesome Raigne of King John is later than Richard III, the author picked up from Shakespeare the device of introducing an unhistorical dramatis persona to embody a principle and a heritage, since the Bastard brilliantly solves the problem of dramatizing the spirit of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, for contrast with John, in a play where Coeur-de-Lion is, and must be, already dead.7 The Bastard represents a step beyond the role of Margaret in Richard III: the step from introducing a major historical character unhistorically, to inventing, for a similar purpose, a major character who is unhistorical altogether.

Justice has perhaps now been done to the case against postulating, in the women characters of Richard III, the influence of the Troades. For Margaret, we are not compelled to look beyond Shakespeare's dramaturgy; for Elizabeth and Anne (with the important exception of the wooing scene) not beyond the chronicles, supplemented for Elizabeth by The Mirror for Magistrates and the True Tragedy, and for both, possibly by Legge. What, then, satisfies me that Shakespeare was, in fact, influenced by Seneca's play? My conviction comes from three considerations: the weight accorded to Richard's mother, the dowager Duchess of York; her place in the pattern of the four women; and that pattern itself.

To include the Duchess was by no means an inevitable or even a very obvious idea; it did not occur to Legge or to the author of the True Tragedy. From Hall and Holinshed, Shakespeare could learn that she outlived Richard;8 further than that, he would meet her in their accounts of two episodes only. He used (IV. 4. 162-67) what they reproduced from More about the Duchess's sufferings at Richard's birth: ‘It is reported, his mother the duches had much a dooe in her travail, that she could not be delivered of him uncut, and that he came into the world fete forward … and as the fame ran not untothed.’ He would read also how she condemned Edward IV's marriage plan, was ‘nothyng apeased’ with his ‘wordes’ justifying himself against her, and did her best to block the marriage.9 In Shakespeare she is twitted with having a temperament ‘which cannot bear the accent of reproof’ (IV. 4. 158). If he needed any encouragement to invent her interruption of Richard's march and her curse on his wickedness, he may have thought them in character with her recorded rebuke of another son's headstrong folly, and her interruption, as her ‘duty to God warde’ of the marriage plan. She temporarily halted Edward; in the play, she temporarily halts Richard. Passing from the chronicle sources to The Mirror for Magistrates, one finds only one relevant reference. It is in the monologue of ‘Shore's Wife’, among her maledictions upon ‘every cause whereof’ Richard's ‘body came’:

Woe worth the brestes that have the world begylde,
To norryshe thee that all the world dyd hate.

(p. 384)

At most, this could do no more than reinforce the chronicle-tale of Richard's ominous birth.

Shakespeare had made Richard glory in the omens, after Henry had begun to reproach him with them in the penultimate scene of 3 Henry VI (V. 6. 44-56, 69-77). Perhaps the most celebrated ominous birth in classical legend was that of Paris, destructive of Troy and the Trojan royal line: his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she brought forth a firebrand. The story, a commonplace in Shakespeare's time, is recalled in Troilus and Cressida (II. 2. 110): ‘Our firebrand brother, Paris, burns us all.’ Richard's ominous birth forms an easy link between the Duchess and Hecuba in the Troades. In her first speech, Hecuba alludes to her dream: ‘meus ignis iste est, facibus ardetis meis’ (l. 40). Jasper Heywood, in his translation, makes the allusion more explicit: ‘My fyre it is wherwith ye burne, and Paris is the brand.’10 From the prophetic dream, Hecuba claims that even before Cassandra she foretold the disasters to ensue:

… quidquid adversi accidit …
prior Hecuba vidi gravida nec tacui metus.

(ll. 33, 36)

‘Hecuba … gravida’ is perhaps reflected in Margaret's phrase for Richard: ‘Thou slander of thy mother's heavy womb’ (I. 2. 231). Shakespeare repeatedly emphasizes the fatal consequences that, through Richard, have their origin in the womb of the Duchess. Margaret says of him to the Duchess:

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

(IV. 4. 47)

The Duchess herself apostrophizes her womb:

O my accursed womb the bed of death
A cockatrice hast thou hatched to the world

(IV. 1. 53)

In the Octavia, which Shakespeare would accept as Seneca's, Nero's mother apostrophizes her womb, ‘monstrum qui tale tulit’ (l. 372); and Alcmena in the Hercules Oetaeus declares ‘fecit hic natus mihi / uterum timendum’ (l. 1795). These phrases may have added their influence to that of the Hecuba legend.

In the scene where news is brought of Edward IV's death, the Duchess elaborates upon the shares of grief belonging to his widow Elizabeth, and to Clarence's children: each a half-share compared with her own, which embraces both theirs. Here Shakespeare seems clearly to recollect Hecuba's lines:

Quoscumque luctus fleveris, flebis meos;
sua quemque tantum, me omnium clades premit
mihi cuncta pereunt, quisquis est Hecubae est miser.

(l. 1060)

(Jasper Heywood's version is, I think, a little less pregnant:

Wherever man's calamityes ye wayle for mine it is.
I beare the smarte of all their woes, each other feeles but his.
Who ever he, I am the wretch, all happes to me at last.)

The Duchess spells out what is in fact an application of the second line in the Senecan passage:

Alas, I am the mother of these griefs.
Their woes are parcell'd, mine is general.
She for an Edward weeps, and so do I;
I for a Clarence weep, so doth not she.
These babes for Clarence weep and so do I:
I for an Edward weep, so do not they.

(II. 2. 80)

Antiphonal balance is of course a Senecan feature. The parallel here carries our argument further. In relation to the ominous birth, the Duchess's role has behind it a chronicle-passage of which Shakespeare had already made emphatic use;11 that aspect of the role is significant for the postulated connexion with Hecuba's as offering to his imagination a strong associative link, but though the striking parallel exists, it is not exclusive of prior chronicle influence. The present parallel is exclusive to Hecuba's speech and the Duchess's, which owes nothing to another source.

Among the royal Yorkist women the Duchess, like Hecuba among the royal Troades, is the ancestral figure. As we have seen, Bullough observes that the three generations in Shakespeare recall the Troades. In fact, each of Shakespeare's four women has her counterpart in that play. Like Hecuba, the Duchess of York has been widowed in the war, and (if the repetition may be forgiven) by an ominous birth has brought forth a son who has inflicted disaster upon her house and nation. Elizabeth, like Andromache, is a younger widow; the husband she has lost was the Duchess's son, as Hector, Andromache's husband, was son to Hecuba. Elizabeth's son, the boy Edward, royal heir and the hope of England, corresponds to the boy Astyanax, Andromache's son and the hope of Troy. Both lads are murdered for political motives by the ruling power: Edward because he has succeeded to the throne, Astyanax lest he grow up to succeed his father. Anne corresponds to Polyxena; each is mocked by a marriage which means her death.12 Anne, moreover, is summoned to the ritual of coronation when her death, which she foresees, is already decided on; Polyxena accepts the ritual preparation for a ‘bridal’ which, she has now learnt, is to ‘marry’ her, as a human sacrifice, to the dead Achilles. The parallel with Iphigenia, lured to her similar death by a false promise of marriage (to that same Achilles, then alive), is indicated in Seneca's play (ll. 247-49, 360 ff.).

Finally Margaret, like Helen, is the odd woman out, the alien, the Lancastrian among Yorkists as Helen is the Greek among Trojans. Like Helen, she has wrought the others great harm; she is hostile, hated, and yet she is a victim with them. Most probably the Senecan prototype helped Shakespeare to his inspired bringing-in of Margaret as the answer to the dramaturgical needs which, as we have pointed out, she serves.

This large pattern of correspondence between the women of Richard III and of the Troades, is (I believe) both more cogent evidence of Shakespeare's indebtedness, and a more interesting kind of debt, than any parallels of detail. Yet a few further details are worth looking at.

In the presence of the Trojans, Helen begins with speech aside; so, in the presence of her foes, does Margaret. Like Helen, she compares her woes with those of the other women, and counters their accusations against her.13 Concerning the Queen's kin and their enemies, Margaret exclaims:

… were you snarling all before I came
And turn you now your hatred all on me?

(I. 3. 187)

Similarly, speaking of the Greeks and Trojans, Helen exclaims: ‘in me victor et victus furit’ (l. 914).14 The antiphonal use of the names of the dead, found in the Duchess's lament for Clarence and Edward IV (quoted earlier) is repeated with even greater elaboration in the lines beginning ‘I had an Edward till a Richard kill'd him’ (IV. 4. 36) and ‘Thy Edward he is dead that kill'd my Edward’ (IV. 4. 63). One may make comparison with Helen's speech (ll. 905 ff.) where, like the Duchess, she is claiming that her loss is worse than those of the other mourners:

… causam tamen
possum tueri iudice infesto meam,
graviora passa. luget Andromacha Hectorem
et Hecuba Priamum; solus occulte Paris
lugendus Helenae est.

(l. 905)15

Margaret, moreover, declaiming

Thy Edward he is dead, that kill'd my Edward,
The other Edward dead, to quit my Edward,
Young York he is but boot, because both they
Match'd not the high perfection of my loss

(IV. 4. 63)

and asking whether ‘Henry's death, my lovely Edward's death’ only counter-balanced the murder of Rutland (I. 3. 191, 193), is working proportion sums of vengeance like Medea, who exclaims: ‘… ut duos perimam, tamen / nimium est dolori numerus angustus meo’ (l. 1010) and ‘… est coniunx; in hanc / ferrum exigatur. hoc meis satis est malis?’ (l. 125).

Andromache, when she is within sight of being left a childless widow by Ulysses's demand for her son, declares that to terrify her he should threaten her with life, not death: ‘vitam minare: nam mori votum est mihi’ (l. 577).16 (Jasper Heywood's version does not avoid ambiguity: ‘Threaten my life for now to dye my chief desyre it were.’)17 Margaret's curse on Elizabeth (I. 3. 203) does threaten her with life-long and wretched life as a childless widow:

Outlive thy glory, like my wretched self!
Long mayst thou live to wail thy children's death …
And, after many lengthen'd hours of grief,
Die neither mother, wife, nor England's queen.

That she will die childless, and the curse be fulfilled, is Elizabeth's fear when she hears of her son Edward V's deposition, and anticipates what that will end in; she bids Dorset seek refuge with Richmond: ‘Thy mother's name is ominous to children’ (IV. 1. 41).18 She has learned of the deposition from the message summoning Anne to be crowned with Richard—at which she almost faints:

… cut my lace, …
Or else I swoon at this dead-killing news.

(IV. 1. 34, 36)

Hecuba swoons outright when she learns that Polyxena is to be sacrificed (Troades, ll. 949 f.). Her swoon and Elizabeth's near-swoon are from like causes: grief for a doomed and treasured child, and anticipation of childlessness—Polyxena's death will leave Hecuba childless (ll. 960 ff.). But what Elizabeth dreads, for Hecuba are certainties.

Anne herself, bidden to be enthroned along with Richard, wishes that the royal insignia, the crown and holy oil, would kill her. She would be glad, that is, if the coronation ritual brought death (and not the continuance of marriage with a loathed husband), as Polyxena rejoices that the ‘bridal’ ceremonies are going to bring death to her (and not marriage with Pyrrhus). It is when Polyxena learns her real fate that she allows Helen to plait her hair into the six strands befitting a bride. As Polyxena by this time knows her fate, so Anne foresees hers: Richard hates her, ‘And will, no doubt, shortly be rid of me’. She is ‘a woeful welcomer of glory’; the paradox of her coronation in the shadow of death is not unlike the paradox of Polyxena's wedding to the tomb.19

The hypnotizing of Anne by Richard's courtship, in the sensation-scene of Act I, is greatly indebted to Seneca. Though the debts are not to the Troades, they support the foregoing claims for the influence of that play by showing that Shakespeare, as he expands and supplements his historical materials, and perceives potentially dramatic patterns in them, has Seneca very much in mind. The chronicle-material on which the courtship-scene is founded is threefold. First, according to Hall and Holinshed, Anne had been wife to Prince Edward, son and heir of Henry VI. Richard had shared in the murder of her husband, and had himself then murdered Henry, her father-in-law. She married him, however. So, Shakespeare had every right to conclude, Richard must have had to get round her. In the second place, the chronicles related that after her death he did temporarily cajole Edward IV's widow, Elizabeth, into entertaining his suit for the hand of Elizabeth's daughter, Elizabeth of York, though she was sister of the Princes he had had murdered in the Tower. That brazen proposal would assure Shakespeare that the courtship of Anne in its breath-taking impudence was thoroughly in keeping with Richard's character as history recorded it. In his dramatic structure it would enable him to use a device he greatly favoured: the later scene which matches, with a difference, an earlier one. He had only to invent the when and how of the earlier scene. As to the when, more chronicle-data lent him aid. The corpse of Henry VI was taken to Chertsey, a journey fifteen miles out of London, for burial, and (according to Holinshed and Stow), while at rest at St Paul's and further on at Blackfriars, it bled, traditionally a sign of murder.20 It was in the presence of the murderer that such corpses were ordinarily supposed to bleed afresh; so these incidents would readily suggest an encounter between Richard and the funeral procession.21 What more natural than that Anne should be with it as mourner? And what more sensational than that Richard should court and fascinate her in presence of his victim whom she is mourning as her second father, while his guilt is confirmed by the supernatural witness of that victim's blood?

Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Was ever woman in this humour won?

(I. 2. 227)

When Richard, true to character, gloats over his own virtuosity, Shakespeare is also advertising the actor's, and moreover the dramatist's; the scene goes beyond Seneca in a spirit which reminds me of Spenser's when he set out to overstep Ariosto.

For in something like this humour at first, Megara is wooed by Lycus the would-be usurper in Hercules Furens, and throughout the episode, in a situation outrageous in a similar way to Anne's: the mourner sought in marriage by the slayer of those she is mourning for. (The scene has been pointed out by Geoffrey Bullough as at least a possible source of Richard's with Anne.)22 Megara is not won. Richard outdoes Lycus; the historical outcome required it. It was a challenge one imagines attractive to Shakespeare. To show Lycus failing in so monstrous an enterprise was simple in comparison; to show Richard succeeding was a far harder task and a correspondingly greater opportunity. Shakespeare responds with a display on Richard's part of histrionic powers, Machiavellian dissimulation, and diabolic magnetism, beyond anything Lycus can deploy; he has no such resources.

The encounter in Richard III, as Shakespeare presents it, appears to combine the situation in Hercules Furens with another in Seneca's Hippolytus (a play Shakespeare draws on elsewhere in the canon).23 This second Senecan situation implies a tableau resembling that of Richard at Anne's feet, encouraging her to use the sword she holds pointed at his breast. But in the spectacle on Shakespeare's stage, Richard corresponds to Phaedra, and Anne to Hippolytus.24

The Shakespearian scene, and those in Seneca, including parallels already indicated in brief, will bear comparison in more detail. In Richard III and in Hercules Furens, the preparation for the entrances of Richard and Lycus correspond. Amphitryon laments the King and his sons whom Lycus has slain, execrates the slayer, and looks forward to the punishment he trusts Hercules will return to exact. Anne laments Henry and Prince Edward, and passes from execrating Richard to invoking divine vengeance upon him.25 From the first approaches to the two women there is a sequence, not almost commonplace like the one just indicated, in which both plays correspond. Lycus makes his first appeal to Megara on general principle; if peace is ever to follow war, one must let bygones be bygones:

si aeterna semper odia mortales gerant
nec coeptus umquam cedat ex animis furor,
sed arma felix teneat infelix paret,
nihil relinquent bella …

(l. 362)26

The Christian principle in face of wrongs goes further, and Richard, with his pose of piety, makes his first appeal to that:

Sweet saint, for charity, be not so curst …
Lady, you know no rules of charity,
Which renders good for bad, blessing for curses.

(I. 2. 49, 68)

Lycus introduced his appeal with the plea ‘facilis mea / parumper aure verba patienti excipe’ (l. 360).27 Richard follows his with the like request: ‘let me have / Some patient leisure to excuse myself’ (I. 2. 81). Midway in the confrontation, after a passage of sharp repartee, he proposes a change of tone:

To leave this keen encounter of our wits
And fall something into a slower method.

(I. 2. 115)

Lycus, too, after the sustained bitterness of Megara's first reply, proposes a change, at least for her, which will mitigate the sharpness of their conflict: ‘Agedum effaratas rabida voces amove’ (l. 397).28 Richard, earlier, asked leave ‘By circumstance but to acquit myself’ (I. 2. 77). Lycus now claims the right to speak further: ‘pauca pro causa loquar / nostra’ (l. 401).29 Each man, after proposing the change of tone, proceeds to justify or excuse the slaughters he has committed. Megara's father and brothers, says Lycus, fell, after all, in war. If it be objected that he was an aggressor, whom they were rightly resisting, he will answer: ‘quaeritur belli exitus, / non causa’ (l. 407).30 Of war, men ask the outcome, not the cause. Thus he raises, if only to brush it aside, the question of the cause of his slaughters. At the corresponding point of Shakespeare's scene, Richard also defends his murders, and his excuse is to allege a cause: ‘Your beauty was the cause of this effect’ (I. 2. 121). At Richard's corollary, that she shares the responsibility for his man-slayings, Anne expresses the self-disgust she would feel if she believed she had inspired such love as this:

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

(I. 2. 125)

To free herself from Richard's homicidal adoration, she would violently destroy her beauty; Megara, to escape Lycus's demands, would welcome the gift of violent death. When he bids her choose what royal wedding-gift she will have, she retorts: ‘Aut tuam mortem aut meam’ (l. 426).31 Her reaction and Anne's have something in common.

Because of the sequence just described, parallel in the two plays, I attach significance also to some other parallels, even though in Richard III the features concerned might be the result simply of elaborating the situation itself. The student of literary indebtedness is necessarily aware of the double standard which applies to parallels. As evidence that an antecedent work is indeed a source, they must meet the most stringent criteria: no commonplaces are evidential. But once we are satisfied that the work is a source no parallel is without a certain significance. If it is a commonplace, still this source is one place where the author met it; this may be one of the encounters with it which ended in his using it. And if it is closely linked with more striking parallels, the debtor may have taken it over along with them. To proceed, then, with parallels which are linked with the others in the Lycus episode, the audience receives a strong hint of Richard's motive in his courtship when, in soliloquy, he plans it

… not all so much for love,
As for another secret close intent
By marrying her which I must reach unto.

(I. 1. 157)

Richard, the audience is well aware, aims at the throne; so this marriage is to be a step towards it. Lycus, who is in the act of usurping the throne of Thebes, in monologue avows his similar motive more openly:

… alieno in loco
haut stabile regnum est: una sed nostras potest
fundare vires iuncta reguli face
thalamisque Megara.

(l. 344)32

The same passage, it seems not unlikely, was remembered when Richard resolves on trying to repeat with Elizabeth of York his tour-de-force with Anne:

I must be married to my brother's daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.

(IV. 2. 62)

It is the same self-admonition as Lycus's ‘haut stabile regnum est’; though ‘brittle glass’ is a commonplace, and in The Mirror for Magistrates is a comparison for what ambition attains.33

In Richard's soliloquy about Anne, already quoted, he glories in having taken her ‘in her heart's extremest hate’. Lycus, too, regards hatred as no deterrent, though while Richard has triumphed over a woman's it is public hatred Lycus would defy:

invidia factum ac sermo popularis premet?
ars prima regni est posse invidiam pati.

(l. 352)34

Richard, on his way to kingship, had certainly been capable of facing and enduring Anne's hate, and had not allowed it to restrain his action. Megara's stance, unpropitious, like Anne's, from her suitor's point of view, is described in Lycus's monologue before he addresses her. She is at the altar, close-veiled, in sacred mourning (ll. 355-57). Anne, following the bier, is a similar figure of mourning piety, but she needs no description; the spectacle, on Shakespeare's stage, was eloquent enough.

That the scene was written with Seneca much in mind is confirmed by Shakespeare's use of Senecan stichomythia in half-lines (six for Anne and five for Richard) in the exchange beginning: ‘“I would I knew thy heart”—“'Tis figur'd in my tongue”’; and even the Senecan quarter-line: ‘“Some dungeon”—“Your bed-chamber”’ (I. 2. 192-202, 111).35

Nor is the Hercules Furens the only play by Seneca that it reflects. Richard declares that until Anne's eyes moved his to tears, and ‘sham'd their aspects’ with ‘childish drops’, he had never shed tears before. In the Hercules Oetaeus, the hero, dying in agony, exclaims:

invictus olim voltus et numquam malis
lacrimas suis praebere consuetus (pudet)
iam flere didicit. quis dies fletum Herculis,
quae terra vidit?

(l. 1266)36

Richard's ‘sham'd’ eyes may recall Hercules's ‘(pudet)’; and Hercules's rhetorical question may have helped to prompt the enumeration of occasions when Richard did not weep.37 Again, when Richard contends that Anne is no less guilty than himself of the deaths of King Henry and Prince Edward, since her beauty was the cause; and presses the question

Is not the causer of the timeless deaths
Of these Plantaganets …
As blameful as the executioner?

(I. 2. 117)

Shakespeare was surely recollecting Seneca's Medea, who attributes to her love of Jason the crimes she has so far committed, and argues that Jason, for whom she has sinned, is as much responsible as she is. She demands of him, ‘tibi innocens sit quisquis est pro te nocens’ (l. 504).38 At the climax, Richard reiterates his murders, and his passion for Anne as the motive:

… I did kill King Henry
But 'twas thy beauty that provoked me.
… 'twas I that stabb'd young Edward—
But 'twas thy heavenly face that set me on.

(I. 2. 179, 182)

His hypocritical protestation parallels Medea's sincere one; she enumerates her crimes, including the murders of Absyrtus and Pelias, and adds the reason—love:

… funestum impie
quam saepe fudi sanguinem!—et nullum scelus
irata feci; movit infelix amor.

(l. 134)

Finally, I have little doubt that the stage-climax of Shakespeare's scene derives from Seneca's Hippolytus. Until I recollected Hippolytus and Phaedra in Seneca, I was haunted by the near-certainty that I had met Shakespeare's tableau somewhere outside Shakespeare.

When Anne's beauty is cited by Richard as the cause of his murders, her first impulse (as we have seen) is self-disgust at the very idea:

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

(I. 2. 125)

She would consign to destruction a beauty that had inspired such love as Richard's. Hippolytus devotes himself to destruction for inspiring such love as Phaedra's, incestuous as well as adulterous; he, likewise, when Phaedra makes her avowal, is filled with self-disgust. Horrified, he marvels that the thunderbolt of divine retribution does not strike, a commonplace of rhetoric (ll. 671-81); what is not a commonplace is that he then calls for it to fall upon himself; ‘sum nocens, merui mori;39 / placui novercae’ (l. 683). ‘My Stepdames Fancy I have fed’ is Studley's translation of that last phrase; Anne's initial revulsion could be expressed as ‘This murderer's fancy have I fed?’. The commonplace with which Hippolytus begins is one that Anne also uses in her curse on Richard: ‘heav'n with lightning strike the murd'rer dead’ (I. 2. 64), though Hippolytus's form of it is more closely paralleled by Elizabeth at IV. 4. 24 f., exclaiming upon the murder of the Princes in the Tower; compare with line 671:

                    Magne regnator deum
tam lentus audis scelera? tam lentus vides?
et quando saeva fulmen emittes manu
si nunc serenum est?(40)

and with Elizabeth's ‘O God … / When didst thou sleep when such a deed was done?’ and Margaret's answer, aside: ‘When holy Harry died, and my sweet son’.

Between Richard's scene with Anne, and Phaedra's with Hippolytus, far the most important resemblance is that of the posed pair of figures and the situation which the pose embodies, held tense, then dissolved by a gesture. The posed figures are a high point in the stage spectacle for Shakespeare's audience, even if only in the mind's eye for Seneca's. The outraged Hippolytus draws sword against Phaedra. The criminal lover is at his feet; laying hold on the sword she directs it at her breast and encourages him to slay her. Richard, like Phaedra a self-confessed criminal lover, is at Anne's feet; his sword, which he has made her take, is at his breast, and he bids her use it upon him. The sword of Hippolytus, in its owner's eyes, is polluted by Phaedra's touch; he casts it away. Anne, says the stage-direction, ‘falls the sword’, lets it drop. Hippolytus's action is crucial in one way; the abandoned weapon is made evidence of his having attempted to force the Queen.41 Anne's is crucial in another; she cannot, having blenched, recover her resolute and mortal hate. When she ‘falls the sword’, what the stage-business is emphasizing is the turning-point of the scene.

Since it can hardly be denied that the Hippolytus is behind this episode, it may also have helped to suggest the schizophrenia of the guilty soul which is the leading principle of Richard's soliloquy after his dream on the eve of Bosworth. The tradition not only of his dreaming a terrible dream, but of the perturbation it caused him, came to Shakespeare from the chronicles; but not with any particulars of his ‘Manie busie and dreadfull imaginations’ on awaking.42 For these Shakespeare turned to the Senecan (if also Ovidian) concept of the personality split by its guilt, and terrified of itself.43 He would be familiar with Kyd's adaptation of the motif in The Spanish Tragedy, where Bel-imperia fears Bel-imperia, and Lorenzo marvels: ‘Fear yourself?’ (III. 10. 96-98; compare the astonished questions Richard asks himself). But Bel-imperia is without the guilt which, in Richard and according to Seneca, causes the split and the impulse to flee from the self of which the guilty creature is terrified. In the Hippolytus, Phaedra's nurse speaks of the ‘animus’ ‘… culpa plenus et semet timens’ (l. 163).44 ‘What do I fear?’ exclaims Richard:

… Myself? There's none else by …
Is there a murderer here? No—yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why—
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself!

(V. 3. 183)

His ‘fly … from myself’ echoes the polluted Œdipus in Seneca's Phoenissae:

Me fugio, fugio conscium scelerum omnium
pectus, manumque hanc fugio.

(l. 216)45

Richard, too, finds himself conscious of all crimes (‘conscium scelerum omnium’):

All several sins, all us'd in each degree
Throng to the bar, crying all ‘Guilty! guilty!’

(V. 3. 197)

More than any other of Shakespeare's plays, Richard III is his contribution to that phase in the development of the Elizabethan drama in which the neo-classical and the popular native traditions were brought together. In this it belongs with The Spanish Tragedy, and the pre-Shakespearian Hamlet where, Nashe testifies, English Seneca was bled line by line to afford whole handfuls of tragical speeches.46Richard III is Senecan in its royal houses under curse, and the chain that binds them, one generation after another. It is Senecan as a tragedy of blood, the bloodshed (but with two exceptions) not being exhibited on stage. Senecan, again, are the ghosts demanding revenge, and the prominence of the revenge motive. As a criminal hero, Richard resembles Atreus the Senecan tyrant, Thyestes the murderous hypocrite, and, in his intellectual force and absence of moral feeling, the protagonist of the Medea. In the play's form and expression, Senecan features are the prologue-like opening monologue; the choric function performed by Margaret; the forensic oratory; the gnomic sayings; and the stichomythia.

All this, however, is made to combine with the native dramatic heritage to constitute a play for the popular stage. Richard III is eventful, far beyond any classical or neo-classical tragedy. Again, though most of the bloodshed is ‘off’, Clarence is stabbed on stage, and the audience is gratified with the spectacle of Hastings's decapitated head. In so far as the play is a tragedy, it is tragedy of the medieval casus type. Primarily it is a drama of history, moralized according to the Tudor political idea of the providentially-ordered process that brought Richmond and his successors to the throne.47 Sequel and climax to the Henry VI plays, it completes a cycle which may be seen as the successor (secularized, in so far as politics in Shakespeare and his age ever are secularized) of the medieval mystery cycles. Those dramatized the divine plan of religious salvation for mankind, Shakespeare's, the divine plan of salvation for England. In the Renaissance, I have heard it said, the New Messiah was the King, the New Monarch; and in Richard III, Richmond will be he. Plays of political controversy (chiefly in religious politics) had been developed in the sixteenth century out of the medieval morality-play, and these led up to the full-blown moralized historical drama with its political themes. The Vice in the Tudor moral and political interludes is at once a descendant of the Deadly Sins and the devils in medieval drama, and an ancestor of Shakespeare's Richard, who at one point compares himself to ‘the formal Vice, Iniquity’ (III. 1. 82).48 Like Aaron in Titus Andronicus, he derives from the Vice his comedian's delight in clever evil doing. For a time he makes the audience, too, enjoy his atrocities: it is because of this trait that Bernard Shaw compares him to Punch.49Richard III may resemble Senecan drama, and differ from Henry IV Parts I and II later in having no comic sub-plot, but through Richard it includes comedy: it is not a neo-classical tragedy in one tone.

In pointing to Senecan features in Richard III, I am far from wishing to magnify them beyond their real extent and importance. Their effect in Shakespeare differs greatly from their effect in Seneca: what he does with what he takes, thereby transforming it, is something a critic or editor of the play would wish to explore. The play exemplifies, moreover, in an early form, the extraordinary synthesizing power of Shakespeare's creative gift. As historical drama, though it is so designed that it can stand alone, it completes the cycle of the three parts of Henry VI; by its Senecan features it recalls Titus Andronicus, which has Seneca as well as Ovid behind it. Its strands from Seneca are woven into a fabric which comes from the chronicles and The Mirror for Magistrates, from the original of the True Tragedy of Richard III, and possibly from Legge's Richardus Tertius,50 with further colour from moral and Tudor interpretations of history and politics such as were embodied in some Interludes. Richard himself is modelled on Sir Thomas More's Richard, in the chronicle versions, who is a play-actor as well as a villain, on the Vice of the Interludes, and on the Senecan criminal hero. He has affinities, too, with the Machiavels, Kyd's Lorenzo, and Marlowe's Barabas. The play has Kyd's combination of the neo-classical and the popular, but with poetry beyond Kyd's range, and akin to Marlowe's. It is characteristic that a phrase so Marlovian in its reverberation as ‘fall / Into the blind cave of eternal night’ (V. 3. 62) is Senecan too: it combines (with ‘chaos’ as the associative link between them) ‘in caecum chaos casurus’ (Octavia, l. 391) and ‘noctis aeternae chaos’ (Hercules Furens, l. 610; Medea, l. 9; compare ‘noctis aeternae plagis’, Œdipus, l. 393). Richard's self-descriptive opening soliloquy resembles not only a Senecan prologue, but also the speeches in Marlowe that descend from the ‘gabs’ with which tyrants introduce themselves in medieval drama. Pithy sayings may be native proverbs: ‘I run before my horse to market’, ‘talkers are no good doers’. Or they may be from Senecan sententiae: ‘I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin’ (IV. 2. 65) evidently derives from ‘Res est profecto stulta nequitiae modus’, and ‘clausa iam melior via est … / per scelera semper sceleribus tutum est iter’ in the Agamemnon (ll. 150, 109, 115).51 Or they may partake both of the Senecan and the proverbial, as with ‘I do the wrong, and first began to brawl’ (I. 3. 324) which is reminiscent of Hippolytus, ‘tutissimum est inferre, cum timeas, gradum’ (l. 722)52 and a variant of the proverb which Tilley (C579) illustrates from Lyly's ‘curst wife, who deserving a check, beginneth first to scold’, and from King Leir:53

He first begins for to complayne himselfe,
When as himselfe is in the greatest fault.

(l. 1154)

For a final instance of Shakespeare's eclecticism, turn again to Richard's schizophrenic monologue; the substance, as we have seen, is indebted to Seneca and Spenser, but the stiff convention in which it is couched derives from Lyly, who likewise dramatizes the mind in conflict by dialogue between the two attitudes, in question and answer, proposition and objection. The most extended and formal examples are in his prose fiction,54 but he does use the method in drama, as when Eumenides, in Endimion, is torn between the claims of love and friendship:

What now Eumenides? Whither art thou drawne? … Hast thou forgotten … [c]are of Endimion? … Shall he die in a leaden sleepe, because thou sleepest in a golden dreame? I, let him sleepe ever, so I slumber but one minute with Semele … Tush, Semele doth possesse my love. I, but Endimion hath deserved it. I will helpe Endimion. I found Endimion unspotted in his trueth. I, but I shall finde Semele constant in her love.55

Yet the range of its eclecticism is not the most remarkable feature of Richard III. More remarkable still is its harmonization of elements so variously derived. The further ripening of that power of harmonization is to be seen a few years later, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.


  1. See my ‘Shakespeare and The Governour’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (Summer 1963), 195-99.

  2. See Shakespeare Survey, 32 (1979), 145-50.

  3. See … p. 722, n. 2 and p. 736, n. 1 [in Harold F. Brooks, “Richard III, Unhistorical Amplifications: The Women’s Scenes and Seneca,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 75, No. 4, October, 1980] for discussion of (1) the relationship between Richard III and The Troublesome Raigne of King John (1591); and (2) the comparative status, as witnesses to Shakespeare's source-material, of The True Tragedy of Richard III (1594) and The Mirror for Magistrates (edition of 1587).

  4. See Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols, (London, 1957-75), III (1960), 221 (introduction and extracts 3 and 4 for Richard III). It may lend additional (hardly needed) weight to my identification of Seneca's Lycus episode and Trojan women as sources, or (for him) possible sources, to record that I made it independently.

  5. Bullough, III, 236-37; compare 306-17.

  6. That Margaret, ransomed (some four years after Tewkesbury), spent the remainder of her life in France would be apparent to him on the natural interpretation of Hall's account, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1543), edited by Henry Ellis (London, 1899), p. 301. None of his known sources would inform him that she died there in 1482, the year before Edward IV's death which he makes her survive.

  7. I believe that not only the Bad Quarto, dated 1591 in the imprints of its two parts, but also the original play of which it is a version, is later than Richard III. Memorial contamination by the actors, or reminiscence by the anonymous dramatist, are the likeliest explanation of the parallel phrases, of which the most striking is ‘Set downe, set downe, the load’ (II. 786; I cite Troublesome Raigne from Bullough, IV, 72 ff.) compare Richard III, II. 1. 1. Since, however, they do not produce symptoms of corruption in the text of Troublesome Raigne, the dramatist is more probably responsible for them than the actors. That the debt is his, not Shakespeare's, is suggested particularly by the parallel between ‘purveyer for hell’ (I. 1734) and ‘hell's black intelligencer / Only preserved their factor to buy souls’ (IV. 4. 71), where Shakespeare has a source in what he drew on for his play—Hastings in The Mirror for Magistrates calls Richard and his like ‘factours for all evils’; (p. 277 of Lily B. Campbell's edition (Cambridge, 1938); page-references throughout are to this edition) while Troublesome Raigne has no source unless Shakespeare is one. The fragmentary parallels in John's speech of despair, ‘hopeless of any good’ and ‘Who pities me? … a few will pity me’ (II. 788, 791), are surely echoes of Richard's soliloquy after his fearful dream: ‘I love myself. Wherefore? For any good … ?’ and ‘no soul will pity me’, rather than contributors to it; especially as John's speech is the one that begins ‘Set down, set down the load’. In the other parallels noted, the phrase comes as a rule from a more memorable context in Richard III than in Troublesome Raigne. These phrases are: ‘for his delivery’, ‘supposed crime’, ‘thy cursed self’, ‘split thy heart’, ‘league of perfect love’, ‘divine instinct’, and (with the rhyme-word ‘law’) ‘to keep the world in awe’ (I. 1572; I. 1740; I. 1055; II. 287; II. 577; I. 756; I. 518; I. 1396. Compare Richard III, I. 1. 75; I. 2. 76, 80; I. 3. 301; II. 1. 2, 16; II. 3. 42; V. 5. 310). Troublesome Raigne is odd man out among similar publications such as A Shrew and the True Tragedy of Richard III; if, like them, it belonged to 1594, one could argue that it is (as I conclude them to be) cobbled from the corresponding pre-Shakespearian and Shakespearian plays. But the 1591 imprints stand in the way.

  8. W. G. Boswell-Stone, Shakespeare's Holinshed (London, 1896; 1907 reprint), p. 350, n. 3; Hall, Union of … Lancastre and Yorke, (1809 reprint), p. 472.

  9. Bullough, III, 253, 270-71; Raphael Holinshed, The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande … The last volume … contayning the chronicles of Englande from William Conqueror until this present tyme, 3 vols (1577; edition of 1587).

  10. Seneca His Tenne Tragedies, edited by Thomas Newton (1581), cited from the edition by Charles Whibley, Tudor Translations, Second Series, II, 2 vols (London, 1927), II, p. 10. Below, the translations by Thomas Newton, John Studley, and Jasper Heywood are cited by volume and page from this edition.

  11. In 3 Henry VI, V. 6. 49-54, 70-77; for the chronicle-references, …, n. 2 above.

  12. Polyxena is persona muta; but her part in the scene is depicted when Helen addresses and Andromache describes her (871-87, 945-54).

  13. In her second and last scene she soliloquizes before they enter. Compare I. 3. 110-55 and passim; IV. 4. 1-8; Troades, ll. 861-71.

  14. Troades, ll. 903-22; Richard III, I. 3. 155-62; IV. 4. 35-125; ‘On me both partes will vengeance take al lightes to me at last.’ Heywood (Whibley, II, 43).

  15. Yet I before most hateful judge dare wel defend my part,
    That I of all your grevous cares susteyne the greatest smart.
    Andromache for Hector weepes, for Priam Hecuba,
    For onely Paris prively bewayleth Helena.

    Heywood (Whibley, II, 43)

  16. Compare Medea, l. 19, ‘Mihi peius aliquid, quod precui sponso, mane / —vivat’.

  17. There may be a more definite sign that Shakespeare is not dependent on the translation, if it was Hecuba's ‘sortem occupavi, praemium eripui tibi’ (l. 998), even though the meaning in Seneca is different, which suggested Margaret's reproach to Elizabeth: ‘dost thou not / Usurp the just proportion of my sorrow?’ (IV. 4. 109). Heywood has no equivalent.

  18. It is often said that Margaret's curses are all fulfilled. But Elizabeth does not die childless. The exception is of the greatest significance: her daughter Elizabeth and son Dorset enter the circle of Richmond and are safe. Shakespeare marks this for us in her counsel to Dorset:

    If thou wilt outstrip death, go cross the seas
    And live with Richmond, from the reach of hell …
    Lest thou …
    … make me die the thrall of Margaret's curse,
    Nor mother, wife, nor England's counted queen.

    (IV. 2. 42-47)

  19. IV. 1. 59-63, 87, 90; Troades, ll. 945-47; 876-78; 942-44.

  20. Bullough, III, 191, 206-207, 249, 253, 286-87; Boswell-Stone, pp. 318, 340-41, 345-46, 399-400; The Mirror for Magistrates, pp. 266, 276.

  21. The instance in Arden of Faversham (1592), V. 3, may be indebted to Richard III; it is not in the dramatist's narrative source. The subject was topical in 1591; at the trial of Arnold Crosby, 25 January, the Lord Chamberlain moralized upon the renewed bleeding of his victim's wounds when he passed behind the house where the body lay (G. B. Harrison, The Elizabethan Journals 1591-1603, 3 vols in 1 (London, 1938), 1, 6-7). Scott, who uses the belief in The Fair Maid of Perth, quotes (Note O) a trial which shows that in 1688 it was thought to have been long and widely accepted.

  22. Bullough, III, 236, 313 ff.

  23. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and Macbeth.

  24. Compare also Deianira and Hyllus, in Hercules Oetaeus: ‘dexteram intrepidam para. / patet ecce plenum pectus aerumnis: feri; / scelus remitto’ (l. 999). Richard ‘lays’ his ‘breast naked to the deadly stroke’ (I. 2. 175, 177). J. S. (viz., Studley) translates the Seneca: ‘And to it with unfeareful arme, far overchargde with woe, / My breast lies bare unto thy hand. Stryk, I thy gilt forgeve’ (Whibley, II, 228). Legge, in a scene where Richard courts Elizabeth of York, has him offer to requite his killing of her two brothers by killing himself, and continues, ‘paratis ensibus pectus dabo?’ but the swords are in the plural and there is no present tableau, though further on he draws to threaten her. (See Bullough, III, 307, 311).

  25. Hercules Furens, ll. 254-58, 269-78; Richard III, I. 2. 3-28.

  26. Heywood (Whibley, I, 20) translates:

    If alwayes men eternal hates should one to th'other beare,
    And rage be gone out of the hart should never fall away,
    But th'happy still should armour holde, the'unhappy stil obay,
    Then shall the battayles nothing leave …
  27. ‘A litle whyle receive and heare my wordes with pacient eare.’ Heywood (Whibley, I, 20).

  28. ‘Goe to, these fierce and furious wordes thou woman mad refraine.’ Heywood (Whibley, I, 21).

  29. ‘A few wordes yet to thee now speake I shall / For this my cause.’ Heywood (Whibley, I, 21).

  30. ‘Yet the end of war is now complayned, loe, / And not the cause.’ Heywood (Whibley, I, 21); ‘quaeritur’ should be translated ‘men ask’.

  31. ‘Thine owne death els, or els the death of mee.’ Heywood (Whibley, I, 22).

  32.                                                   … in forrayne countrey set
    No stable kingdome is. But one my pompe and princely might
    May ratify once joynd to me with regall torche ful bright,
    And chambers Megara.

    (Heywood (Whibley, I, 19))

  33. See The Mirror for Magistrates, p. 223 (on Clarence); Parts Added to The Mirror for Magistrates, edited by Lily B. Campbell (Cambridge, 1946), p. 256 (on ambition); compare M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs of England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1950), G 134.

  34. ‘The hate of men will then my pryde, and peoples speach oppres. / Chief knacke of kingdome is to beare thy subjectes hates eche one.’ Heywood (Whibley, I, 19).

  35. For stichomythia in half-lines, compare the Hippolytus, ll. 242 ff.; in quarter-lines, the Medea, ll. 168 ff.

  36. The time hath bin no plunging pangues could cause our courage quaile,
    That never use with cristall teares our anguish to bewayle.
    Ah, fy, I am ashamde that I should learne these teares to shed:
    That Hercules in weeping wise his griefe hath languished:
    Who ever saw at any day in any time or place …

    (J. S., viz., Studley (Whibley, II, 236))

  37. See I. 2. 153-64. Hypocritical tears were characteristic of the Vice in Tudor Interludes: see below, …, n. 2.

  38. Lines 500-504: ‘If any man shall for thy sake polute his hand with ill, / To thee let him an innocent yet be accompted still’ (J. S., viz., Studley (Whibley, II, 77)).

  39. ‘I guilty am, deserved death I have.’ Studley (Whibley, I, 161).

  40. O soveraygne Sire of Gods, dost thou abide so long to heare
    This vile abhomination? so long dost thou forbeare
    To see this haynous villany? If now the skies be cleare,
    Wil thou henceforth at any time with furious raging hand
    Dart out thy cracking thunder dint, and dreadfull lightenings brand?

    (Studley (Whibley, I, 160))

  41. Richard III, I. 2. 174-82; Hippolytus, ll. 706-14, 726-29.

  42. Boswell-Stone, p. 413 (quoting Holinshed); compare Hall in Bullough, III, 291.

  43. Professor G. K. Hunter refers me to Ovid (see for example Heroides, VII. 61: ‘Perdita ne perdam, timeo, noceam re, nocenti’) and further reminds me of Spenser's Cave of Despair (Faerie Queene, I. 9); that episode and the Senecan passages would be likely to reinforce one another in Shakespeare's mind. Spenser's Trevisan ‘of himselfe … seemd to be afraied’. His Terwin has killed himself from the sense of inexpugnable guilt which it is Despair's tactic to induce. Red Cross himself all but succumbs, with a divided mind to which his action bears witness (‘resolv'd to work his finall smart, / He lifted up his hand, that backe againe did start’); his mental conflict is reproved by Una as ‘this reproachfull strife’. Richard, in his split-mind soliloquy, is assailed by despair: ‘I shall despair’ he exclaims. But in him, as in Seneca's Œdipus, the guilt, split mind, and fear of himself all belong to one person; not so in Spenser.

  44. ‘And conscience burdend sore with sinne that doth it selfe mistrust.’ Studley (Whibley, I, 142): ‘semet timens’ is more suggestive of Shakespeare's idea than ‘doth it selfe mistrust’.

  45. Again the Latin impresses more strongly the ideas Shakespeare pursues: Newton has: ‘From whom, from what do you thus flee? OED. From none but from my selfe / Who have a breast full fraught with guilte: who wretched caitiff Else / Have all embrude my hands with blood.’ (Whibley I, 110).

  46. That the author lacked Latin to ‘bleed’ the original may be simply Nashe's gratuitous insult.

  47. On this first tetralogy, I see no reason to depart from E. M. W. Tillyard's invaluable account in Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944).

  48. See Peter Happé on ‘Richard III as Vice’ in ‘The Vice: 1350-1605’, his doctoral thesis, 1966, in the University of London (pp. 454-84), He notes that the Vice-characteristics cease with his coronation, and that his courtship of Anne exemplifies the Vice in action, typical features being the crocodile tears, ‘business’ with a sword, logic-chopping debate, success with a woman, and contempt of the victim.

  49. Our Theatres in the Nineties, Standard edition, revised, 3 vols (London, 1932), II, 285.

  50. Bullough, III, 236-39. Dover Wilson, in his edition of Richard III, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1954), pp. xxvii-xxxi, and in an article in Shakespeare Quarterly, 3 (March 1952), 299-306, concluded that in the Mirror Shakespeare did not look beyond Sackville's ‘Buckingham’ and its ‘Induction’, and Baldwin's ‘Clarence’; whereas it is now clear that he was familiar with the whole of the 1587 Mirror, echoing in this play or that many widely separated passages. Dover Wilson concluded that where a parallel exists between Richard III and the True Tragedy, the pre-Shakespearian play is the source, and there is no need to take a parallel in the Mirror into account. But if, as I believe, the True Tragedy (which he agrees is a Bad Quarto) is contaminated from Richard III itself, its parallels are not above suspicion: there is no certainty that they all come from the pre-Shakespearian play; whereas a parallel in the Mirror is a work Shakespeare undoubtedly knew: the derivation may run from the Mirror to Richard III and thence by way of an actor's memory to the True Tragedy. For the relevant material it contains, the Mirror should be recognized (reversing Dover Wilson's conclusion) as more surely the source; though to the extent (and no doubt it is a large extent) that the True Tragedy represents the pre-Shakespearian play, it is a source also.

  51. ‘It is a very folishnes to kepe a meane therein’ (viz., in Clytemnestra's ‘fault’, ‘crime’); ‘The fittest shift prevented is, the best path overgrowne’; ‘The safest path to mischiefe is by mischiefe open still’. Studley (Whibley, II, 108, 106).

  52. ‘The best it is, thy foe first to invade.’ Studley (Whibley, I, 162).

  53. The versions in Lyly and King Leir, especially the former, are no doubt the primary influences: compare the verbal echoing of ‘beginneth first to scold’ and of ‘first begins’.

  54. Compare (with their reiteration of ‘Ay, but’) Lucilla's monologue of ‘contrarieties’ in Euphues, and Camilla's in Euphues and his England (The Complete Works of John Lyly, edited by R. Warwick Bond, 3 vols (Oxford, 1902), I, 205; II, 184). The dramatization of the mind in conflict as a disputation between two voices goes back in the classics to Ovid's Heroides (for example, VII. 31-36 or XV. 203-204), and in medieval literature at least as far as Chrétien de Troyes; compare, in Cligés, Soredamors's dialogue with herself, ll. 873-1046 (Eric and Enid, translated by W. W. Comfort (London, 1914), pp. 103-104).

  55. Endimion (Works, III, 50).

Marjorie B. Garber (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3565

SOURCE: “Dream and Plot,” in William Shakespeare's Richard III, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 5-14.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Garber examines the way the dream sequences in Richard III serve as metaphors for the play's larger action and analyzes the role of omens and apparitions in constructing the world of the play.]

The great popularity of the dream as a dramatic device among the Elizabethans is surely due at least in part to its versatility as a mode of presentation. Both structurally and psychologically the prophetic dream was useful to the playwright; it foreshadowed events of plot, providing the audience with needed information, and at the same time it imparted to the world of the play a vivid atmosphere of mystery and foreboding. Thus the Senecan ghost stalked the boards to applause for decades, while the cryptic dumb show, itself a survival of earlier forms, remained as a ghostly harbinger of events to come.

Even in his earliest plays, Shakespeare began to extend and develop these prophetic glimpses, so that they became ways of presenting the process of the mind at work in memory, emotion, and imagination. What was essentially a predictive device of plot thus became, at the same time, a significant aspect of meaning. Dream episodes, in short, began to work within the plays as metaphors for the larger action, functioning at once as a form of presentation and as a concept presented. This is clearly the case with the dramatic action of Richard III. From Queen Margaret's curse to Clarence's monitory dream and the haunting nightmare of Bosworth Field, omen and apparition define and delimit the play's world.

The consciousness of dreaming which is to dominate the play throughout makes its first striking appearance in Richard's opening soliloquy:

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.


Dreams here appear in what will become a familiar context for the early plays, clearly analogous to “plots,” “prophecies,” and “libels” as elements of the malign irrational. Richard has deftly contrived to manipulate circumstance by preying upon the vulnerability of the superstitious king. Encountering his brother Clarence on his way to the Tower, he is told what he already knows: the king, says Clarence,

                                        harkens after prophecies and dreams,
And from the crossbow plucks the letter G,
And says a wizard told him that by G
His issue disinherited should be;
And, for my name of George begins with G,
It follows in his thought that I am he.


The poetry here halts and stammers, a mirror of the simplicity and confusion which make Clarence such an easy target. He considers himself a reasonable man, and, confronted by unreason, he is both impotent and outraged. Yet such an absolute rejection of the irrational is a fatal misjudgment in the world of Richard III, and Clarence's skepticism becomes a means to his destruction, just as later his determined denial of the truth of his own dream will lead directly to his death.

Here, in the first scene of the play, a sharp contrast is already apparent between the poles of dream and reason. Significantly, Richard, the Machiavel, defines himself as a realist, in contrast to the foolish Clarence and the lascivious Edward; he intends to control his fate and the fate of others through an exercise of reason. Yet the very first evidence of his supposed control, the false prophecy of “G,” is truer than he knows: not George but Gloucester will disinherit Edward's sons. Clarence's passive skepticism about the irrational is but an image of Richard's more active scorn, and Richard's vulnerability to the powers of the imagination at Bosworth is prefigured by Clarence's prophetic dream of death.

The basic pattern of dream as prophecy is exemplified in simplest form by the dream of Lord Stanley as it is reported to Hastings in act 3:

He dreamt the boar had rased off his helm.
.....Therefore he sends to know your lordship's pleasure,
If you will presently take horse with him
And with all speed post with him to the north
To shun the danger that his soul divines.


But Hastings, like Clarence, reacts with instinctive disbelief:

Tell him his fears are shallow, without instance;
And for his dreams, I wonder he's so simple
To trust the mock'ry of unquiet slumbers.


In the dream and its reception we have the fundamental design of early Shakespearean dream: the monitory dream which is true, but not believed. Stanley dreams that Richard—the boar—will cut off their heads, and Hastings rejects this suggestion absolutely. He reasons, further, that to react to it will have the undesirable effect of making the prophecy come true, since if it is known that they distrust him, Richard will give them reasons for distrust.

To fly the boar before the boar pursues
Were to incense the boar to follow us
And make pursuit where he did mean no chase.


This is a politic and sophisticated conclusion; it is also a false one, and it places Hastings in the revealing category of those who scoff at omens. He is in fact a prisoner of his own reason. “A marvelous case it is,” remarks Holinshed, with customary exactitude, “to hear either the warning that he should have voided or the tokens that he could not void.” It is only hours later, when he hears himself condemned, that he at last grasps the enormity of his mistake.

For I, too fond, might have prevented this.
Stanley did dream the boar did rase our helms,
And I did scorn it and disdain to fly.
Three times today my footcloth horse did stumble,
And started when he looked upon the Tower,
As loath to bear me to the slaughterhouse.


This belated account of an earlier omen, equally disregarded, establishes even more clearly Hasting's distrust of the entire realm of the irrational. It is only in the developing context of supernatural warnings that he, too late, can interpret the sign correctly.

For his part, Richard follows the same course with Hastings as he did with Clarence and Edward: he pretends to have discovered “devilish plots / Of damnèd witchcraft” (3.4.59-60), ostensible reasons for his own deformity, and condemns Hastings to death for his cautious skepticism. Once again, he employs witchcraft as a device, something to be used rather than believed in. Apparently, then, he and Hastings occupy positions at opposite ends of the rationalist scale: Hastings the victim, warned by true omens he chooses to ignore; Richard the victor, creating false signs and prophecies through which he controls the superstitious and the skeptical alike. Yet they are more alike than they seem at first. When Richard himself becomes the dreamer, the recipient of omens and supernatural warnings, his rationalist posture is susceptible to the same immediate collapse; the terrifying world of dream overwhelms him, as it has overwhelmed Clarence and Hastings, at the critical moment of his ill-starred defense on Bosworth Field.

The double dream at Bosworth is an apparition dream, related to the risen spirits in 2 Henry VI and Macbeth as well as to the ghosts of Hamlet and Julius Caesar. Richard and Richmond, encamped at opposite ends of the field, are each in turn visited by a series of ghosts representing Richard's victims: Edward Prince of Wales, Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray and Vaughan, Hastings, the two young princes, Anne, and Buckingham. As each spirit pauses he speaks to Richard like a voice of conscience within the soul: “Dream on thy cousins smothered in the Tower” (5.3.152); “Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death” (l. 172). And then, in a formal counterpoint, each turns to Richmond and wishes him well. The whole scene is symmetrically arranged, the contrast of sleeping and waking, despair and hopefulness, emphasized by the rigidity of the form. For Richard, “guiltily awake” (l. 147), this is the fulfillment of the last term of Margaret's curse:

The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv'st,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be while some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!


Richard's sleeplessness, like Macbeth's, is the mark of a troubled condition of soul, the outward sign of an inward sin. Margaret in her self-chosen role as “prophetess” (1.3.300) has called it down upon him, adding yet another to the series of omens which culminate in dream.

The terror which this dream evokes in Richard's mind is explicitly shown in his frightened soliloquy (“Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am” [5.3.185]), and even more in his subsequent conversation with Ratcliff. “O Ratcliff,” he exclaims, “I have dreamed a fearful dream!” This is a very different man from the bloodless Machiavellian who plants the seeds of Clarence's execution in his brother's brain. His cry is now the Shakespearean equivalent of Faustus's last speech:

King Richard: O Ratcliff; I fear, I fear!
Ratcliff: Nay, good my lord, be not afraid of shadows.
King Richard: By the apostle Paul, shadows tonight
Have struck more terror to the soul of Richard
Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers.


In his fear he hits the point precisely: the “shadows,” because they arise from the symbol-making unconscious, are more threatening than the substance. The Richard who can say “Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I” (5.3.184) must create his own omens if they are to strike him with terror. Consciousness is the one enemy he can neither trick nor silence. From the controller of dreams he has become the controlled, the victim of his own horrible imaginings.

The Bosworth dream, like the predictive dream of Stanley, serves a structural purpose as well as a psychological one. The apparitions of murdered friends and kinsmen recall to the onlooker all the atrocities that have gone before, the perfidies of 3 Henry VI as well as the events of the present play. The device is dramatically useful because of the complexity of the historical events involved; many in the audience will probably not remember whose corpse is being mourned at the play's beginning, nor what relation the Lady Anne bears to the Lancastrian monarchy. Points of history are thus clarified at the same time that a psychologically convincing “replay” takes place in Richard's mind. The direct inverse of the prophetic dream, this recapitulation simultaneously furthers the ends of psychological observation, historical summation, and structural unity, so that the sequence of dreams and omens which are the formal controlling agents of Richard III are all embodied in the last revelation at Bosworth.

As useful a device as this final dream proves to be, it carries with it several inherent drawbacks. The apparatus of the serial ghosts is cumbersome and formal, analogous to (and probably derived from) the older pageantry of Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues. Holinshed, again a useful touchstone, describes the assemblage merely as “divers images like terrible devils” and rejects any supernatural interpretation: “But I think this was no dream but a punction and prick of his sinful conscience.” His eagerness to moralize causes him to miss a more significant point: the very equivalence of dream with “the punction and prick of conscience” goes deep into the structural and psychological roots of the play. But Holinshed's devils are simply punishment figures of a generalized and abstract sort; by replacing them with the pageant of Richard's victims seeking retributive justice, Shakespeare transforms the entire significance of the last dream. He will use such a formal array only once more, in the series of apparitions which address Macbeth on the heath. There, again, the ghostly figures will become part of the king's private and terrible mythology of symbols, at the same time that they recall the ominous, monitory procession of deadly sins common to Tudor drama.

But the interior world of dream in Richard III was to undergo yet another alteration and expansion, quitting the specific formalism of the Bosworth dream for a freer and richer exploration of the subconscious. Just as Richard's apparent control of “prophecies, libels, and dreams” was abruptly replaced by subjugation to internal terrors, so, in Clarence's dream, imagination and the creative unconscious begin to replace the mechanism of witchcraft and omen as the proper architects of dream. Clarence's prophetic dream falls into three structurally distinct parts, each of which is important to the pattern of dream use in the play. The first part (1.4.9-20) recounts his supposed sea journey with Gloucester, their reminiscences of the wars, and Gloucester's accidental fall:

                                                            As we paced along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling
Struck me (that thought to stay him) overboard
Into the tumbling billows of the main.


There is both psychological and symbolic truth in this passage. What Freud called the “dream-work,” the process by which the latent dream thoughts are transformed into the manifest dream content, has rendered Clarence's latent suspicion of Richard, a suspicion he finds emotionally unbearable, into more reassuring terms. The subconscious thought “Gloucester wants to murder me,” rejected by the conscious, here appears in the disguised form “Gloucester will kill me by accident, though he doesn't want to.” Outwardly, of course, this prediction falls into the category of monitory dreams, the “tumbling billows of the main” anticipating the butt of malmsey in which Clarence is to be ingloriously drowned. We may, if we choose, regard it solely as another ignored or misunderstood omen, a class for which there is precedent in Shakespeare's works and in those of his contemporaries. But the passage, like the play, offers more than one possibility. While it fits into the pattern of unheeded warnings, it also begins to become an intrinsic part of the mind of the speaker, communicating to us something even he himself does not know.

Gloucester “stumbles” metaphorically in seeking the crown. This information is conveyed more directly in his own words; his soliloquies are psychological revelations, his disappointments and ambitions shown in psychological terms. He is a wholly new kind of character in Shakespeare, and we are able to follow the workings of his mind in a wholly new way. When he thinks aloud at the close of 3 Henry VI, “Clarence, beware. Thou keep'st me from the light” (5.6.84), he gives to us the same warning which is given in Clarence's dream. And though we enter Clarence's consciousness only once, in the dream itself, it is clear that some part of him suspects what we know to be a certainty: Richard's design on his life. To read the accident passage as merely another foreshadowing is to ignore the remarkably acute psychology with which the poet approaches the unique occasion of the dream. Through the dream device he permits us to enter Clarence's consciousness for a moment, in the same way we have entered Richard's. This is why the dream appears so different in style and imagery from anything else in the play. The latent suspicion Clarence harbors is authentically presented in masked form by his subconscious mind. And what is most interesting is that the process of masking here takes the form of metaphor.

The mention of the “tumbling billows” meantime precipitates the dream into its second phase, the lyrical description of a world undersea. The chief characteristic of this vision—for that is what it really appears to be—is a striking contrast of mortality and eternity, the obscenely decaying body and the insensate but highly valued jewels which endure unchanged.

A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatt'red in the bottom of the sea.


The ambiguity in “unvalued” is key to the whole. To Clarence in the extremity of his fear the jewels, though priceless, are without value as compared to human life. “Some lay in dead men's skulls,” he continues,

                                                                                                    and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems
That wooed the slimy bottom of the deep
And mocked the dead bones that lay scatt'red by.


What is chiefly remarkable about this image is its sheer physicality, the fascinated horror of a man contemplating his own imminent death. When the same image next appears in Shakespeare, it will have been curiously purified of passion:

Those are pearls that were his eyes:
          Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
          Into something rich and strange.

(Tempest, 1.2.401-4)

In Ariel's song mortality has become immortality, the eyes not replaced by pearls but transformed into them. The difference between this view and Clarence's suggests the direction in which vision and dream will develop in the plays. In Richard III, however, the undersea passage is nightmare to the dreamer, though its language is touched with a strange and haunting lyricism.

The passage which succeeds it, by contrast, is vividly dramatic, working through dialogue rather than through images. Two spirits appear to Clarence and confront him with his crimes, much as Richard's victims do on Bosworth Field. The tradition here evoked is that of the underworld visit of classical epic, the dead man greeted by the shades of those he knew on earth.

I passed, methought, the melancholy flood,
With that sour ferryman which poets write of,
Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.


Here is yet another sea journey, parallel to the channel crossing of the dream's first section. This generally unnoticed parallel is significant, for it again utilizes authentic dream logic to clarify the total meaning of the dream. In the first sea journey, as we have seen, Clarence overtly ascribes the cause of his fall to accident, though he betrays a latent distrust of his brother Richard. Here, in the second journey, he pictures his destination as hell, and supplies vivid reasons—in the forms of Warwick and Edward, prince of Wales—why he deserves damnation. The displaced figure of the stumbling Richard is strongly related to Clarence's assessment of his own guilt: he has perjured himself (i.e., dissembled about his allegiance) and slain the heir to the throne. But Richard, too, is a perjurer and will become a murderer; he has had Clarence falsely imprisoned and has then pretended ignorance and concern over the event; he will later have him killed because he stands in the line of succession. Clarence thus displaces his unacceptable distrust of Richard, by transferring his just suspicions to analogous episodes in his own life. Simultaneously he punishes himself for having these suspicions by turning them against himself. The ghosts of Warwick and Edward thus possess a multiple significance for the dream's meaning, establishing even further the psychological accuracy of its form.

The more direct significance of these figures is of course historical recapitulation, as it will be in the Bosworth dream. The magnificent tongue twister of a line,

                                                            “What scourge for perjury
Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence?”


is meant to recall the elaborate chain of events by which, in 3 Henry VI, Clarence first pledges his support to Warwick and then deserts him. On that occasion Warwick rebukes him as a “passing traitor, perjured and unjust” (5.1.106), and the charge is repeated by the prince of Wales: “Thou perjur'd George,” he taunts (5.5.34), and when Clarence joins with his brothers to stab the prince to death, he does so in a spirit of resentment as well as anger, retorting, “there's for twitting me with perjury” (l.40). The accusations made by the ghosts in his dream are thus authentic reminders of Clarence's history. The prince's ghost resembles the accusatory apparitions of Bosworth, but is much more closely assimilated into the consciousness of the dreamer:

A shadow like an angel, with bright hair
Dabbled in blood, and he shrieked out aloud,
“Clarence is come, false, fleeting, perjured Clarence,
Seize on him, Furies, take him unto torment!”


This is no ceremonial intoning, but rather a visionary visitation. The prince is not identified by name, but is only presented in fragmented detail, as if hastily glimpsed—“a shadow like an angel,” “bright hair,” “blood.” We are inside the mind of Clarence, and we see the ghost through his eyes. In keeping with the play's general design, the ghosts of Clarence's mental landscape appear only secondhand, as related through his dream. It is Richard's consciousness with which we are continually in contact, and only Richard's ghosts make actual appearances on stage.

Yet there is something extremely important about the relationship of Clarence's vision of Warwick and Edward to the actual ghosts of act 5. Clarence's dream internalizes the ghosts, portrays them directly as elements of imagination. Gone is the cumbersome apparatus of the Bosworth dream, and gone likewise is the aura of artificiality created by the mechanical pattern of omen and fulfillment. Dream here is an agency of liberation, a means of freeing prophecy from device and relating it to psychological intuition. Imagery bears a bigger part, and association is legitimately employed to make images into symbols. The materials of Clarence's dream are still embryonic, and its technique stands in marked contrast to that of the rest of Richard III. But it is the first real anticipation of a new use of dream, to be refined and expanded in the later plays.


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Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1288

Richard III

Richard III, written circa 1592, is the fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy. The play recounts the rise and fall of Richard III, the end of the Wars of the Roses, and the beginning of Tudor peace. Religious concerns, among them the notion of divine providence, underscore the action of the play and are a source of modern critical interest. Richard III also features four women—the Duchess of York, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and Lady Anne—who are often viewed collectively as the play's “grieving chorus” rather than as individuals. A number of critics focus their attention on the function of these women in the play. In addition, a wealth of critical analyses center on the character of Richard, who generates mixed emotions in audiences who are repulsed by his villainy, entertained by his wit, and seduced by his words. Full of potent dreams, curses, and omens, Richard III is in some ways structured by prophesy, an issue that interests scholars who observe that most of the predictions in the play come true.

Richard III is often characterized as allegory, with Richard playing the role of the villain-king who is scourged by God. According to the standard allegorical reading, Richard is used as God's instrument in restoring the throne of England to God's chosen ruler, Richmond, whose union with Elizabeth generates the house of Tudor. Clifford Chalmers Huffman (1982) analyzes this reading and finds that the play offers an alternative to this perspective. Huffman maintains that God's mercy also plays a role in Richard III, allowing many scenes—such as Richard's self-scrutiny, the wooing of Anne, and Clarence's dream—to be read in such a way that allows Richard's tragedy of character, rather than his allegorical status, to become the play's focus. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1985) identifies the play's allusions to St. Paul and notes that St. Paul, like Richard, was marked by physical deformity and known as a skilled rhetorician and debater. Additionally, Hassel compares the “argument” of the play to that of Revelation, and finds that while the Book of Revelation focuses on prophecies concerned with the last days and the punishment of God's enemies, the scope of Richard III is limited to the last days of the Wars of Roses. The critic also contends that while the characters in the play may have allegorical counterparts, the play is not strict allegory; Richard is “devilish,” but does not represent Satan, and Richmond is Christ-like, but not a Christ-figure. Hugh M. Richmond (1984) centers his attention on the rather substantial religious vocabulary of the play, demonstrating the way in which Richard III reflects the religious tensions of Shakespeare's time. The critic maintains that by reversing medieval conventions, Shakespeare exploited the conflict between Protestants and humanists.

Richard's “devilishness,” as well as his other intriguing qualities, has made the title character the focal point of many critical analyses. Some critics, including Michael Neill (1976), note that although Shakespeare drew from traditional source material that depicted Richard as a Machiavellian, or as the Vice-figure of morality plays, Shakespeare was able to create a character with startling psychological depth. Larry S. Champion (see Further Reading) focuses more intensely on the subject of source material, tracing the literary depictions of the historical Richard III to one of the earliest accounts (written between 1489 and 1491) in which Richard is portrayed as demonic. Like Neill, the critic observes that although Shakespeare was constrained by the Tudor myth developed by the authors of his source material, he was able to give new life to a character previously stylized as the figure of evil. This long-standing characterization of Richard as the embodiment of evil has been examined by critics attempting to better understand this aspect of his character. Janette Dillon (see Further Reading) demonstrates that for Shakespeare, Richard's deformity stood for more than a warning of the evil deeds he would later commit; rather, it served as a symbol of Richard's innate “unnaturalness,” an outward sign of his inner corruption. Tzachi Zamir (1998) is also concerned with the relationship between Richard's physical state and his villainy. Examining the way Richard discusses his appearance in soliloquy, Zamir points out that to Richard, ugliness is not merely a condition, but rather, a consequence of something. This suggests to Zamir that there is a vengeful quality in Richard's villainy. Dolores M. Burton (1981) focuses on the way Richard uses language, particularly in the first act of the play. Burton notes that each major scene in the first act can be viewed as a separate dramatic unit, with each possessing its own style. Investigating this variety of both incident and language, Burton finds that Richard demonstrates a gradual mastery over persuasive rhetoric as the act progresses. Ralph Berry (1984) examines with the way Richard bonds with the audience, and how this bond contributes to the success of the play. Berry explains that Richard establishes a bond with the audience through a variety of methods, such as soliloquies and asides, the use of double meanings and word-play, and the use of colloquial expressions designed to appeal to a bourgeois audience. Berry also explores the audience's support and later abandonment of the “villain-hero.”

The women in the play—the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Margaret, and Lady Anne—also draw a great deal of critical attention. Phyllis Rackin (1996) observes that Shakespeare's portrayal of female characters in his history plays changed dramatically from Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 to Richard III, and contends that this shift corresponds to Shakespeare's increasing interest in the tragic genre. Rackin goes on to demonstrate the ways in which the women of Richard III, though ennobled, are also disempowered. Finally, the critic maintains that the women are defined by their relationship to English kings, and they all support the conclusion of the play's historical plot, that is, the founding of the house of Tudor. Challenging critics such as Rackin who state that the women of the play do not have individual power, Shirley Carr Mason (1997) argues that the women, both individually and within various groupings, serve as Richard's antagonists in the first four acts of the play. Taking another approach, Harold F. Brooks (1980) focuses on Shakespeare's adaptation of the female characters from his source materials, noting that the women's primary scenes, such as the wooing of Anne and the “wailing royal women,” were not derived from the chronicles Shakespeare consulted. Contending that Seneca inspired Shakespeare's portrayal of the women, Brooks demonstrates the way in which each of the four women corresponds to one of the four in Seneca's Troades.

Richard III contains a number of prophetic dreams, omens, and curses. Queen Margaret utters numerous curses and predictions, many of which come to pass by the play's end. Margaret prays for the death of King Edward and his heirs, and curses Lord Hastings and Earl Rivers with an early death. She wishes a life of misery for Queen Elizabeth and sleepless nights and ruin for Richard. Finally, she predicts that Richard will betray Buckingham. Clarence, the brother of King Edward and Richard, is haunted by a dream the night before he is murdered. Famous for images of shipwrecks and drowning, the dream, it has been argued, foreshadows the tenuous condition of England under Richard's reign. Many critics, including Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Kristian Smidt (1982), focus on the role of such prophetic elements in Richard III. Garber maintains that the dream episodes in the play operate as metaphors for the larger action. Examining in particular Margaret's curses, Clarence's dream, and the “haunting nightmare of Bosworth field,” Garber explores the way omens and apparitions fix the limits of the world of the play. Similarly, Smidt demonstrates the way in which predictions, prophesies, curses, and dreams structure the play, observing that nearly all predictions are fulfilled.

Michael Neill (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III,” in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 8, 1975, pp. 99-129.

[In the following essay, Neill examines the psychological complexity of Richard's character.]

Here the King is, in the first half of the tragedy, the mastermind of the Grand Mechanism, a demiurge of history.(1)
God in love with His own beauty frames a glass, to view it by reflection.(2)

Richard III is the most stridently theatrical of all of Shakespeare's plays. The superb histrionic insolence of Richard, his stagy relish in confidential soliloquy and aside, is matched by a self-conscious patterning of plot, spectacle, and language, as if Shakespeare's artistry were being flaunted like Richard's own. And the connection is insistently underlined by the use of stage metaphors: poet, actor, and protagonist unite in a Marlovian pageant of self-display.3 This ostentatious theatricality, while it has a lot to do with the play's continuing success on the stage, has presented critics with problems almost as intractable as those faced by Sir Laurence Olivier when he attempted to translate Richard into the alien conventions of cinema. E. A. J. Honigmann, prefacing his recent edition of the play, shows a characteristic unease about its Senecan melodrama and the rhetorical rigidities which embody a “primitive” psychological technique working “at a level not much superior to that of The Spanish Tragedy.4 Criticisms of this sort may seem inevitable if Richard III is placed beside Macbeth, the mature tragedy which it most obviously anticipates, and no one would contest the fact that the style of the early histories is incapable of “the intellectual and emotional insights of the tragic period.”5 Nevertheless, what is impressive about Richard III is the dramatic intelligence with which Shakespeare makes his limitations work for him, and this is an aspect of the play which can be brought out if one thinks of Richard III less as an immature version of the pathological horrors of Macbeth and more as a preliminary investigation of ontological problems like those explored in Hamlet.

At first sight the connection between Hamlet and Richard III may seem tenuous. It does, however, occur to Honigmann himself, who writes of Richard's “curious, inverted affinity to the Prince of Denmark, the other Shakespearean hero with a connoisseur's sense of theatre” (p. 39). Anne Righter similarly sees Richard III as being “like Hamlet … a tragedy filled with assertions of the actor's power,” to the point that Richard himself emerges “more as an example of the power wielded by the actor than as a figure of treachery and evil” (p. 88). And Jan Kott's essay on the histories, operating from very different premises, insists on the necessity of interpreting Hamlet in the light of Richard III and Richard III in the light of Hamlet.6

Richard's confidence in the efficacy of acting as a mode of action certainly stands at the opposite pole from Hamlet's metaphysical agonies, but it, too, is the product of something much deeper than mere connoisseurship—just as Shakespeare's own assertions of the actor's power are more than an extravagant mannerist flourish. Hamlet sets out to obey the philosopher's precept “know thyself,” and the play is about the vertiginous terrors concealed by that deceptively simple injunction. Richard, with none of Hamlet's moral sensibility, but poised on the edge of the same ontological abyss, sets out, rather, to create himself. His methods are those of the theater. Crucial to both plays is the familiar quibble on “acting” and “action”: it is through action that we realize what we are; it is through acting that we make real what we are not. Trapped by his awareness that this apparently absolute distinction is, in existential terms, unviable, Hamlet finds significant action impossible. He can redeem himself only by an act of nominalist faith, a magical proclamation of his selfhood—“This is I, Hamlet the Dane”—a proclamation that works only because it is rooted in a larger faith that makes the quest for intellectual self-knowledge an irrelevance.7 Richard begins and ends with a similar proclamation of his integral selfhood—“I am myself alone;” “Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.” But the blasphemous self-sufficiency of his “I am” belongs to the rhetoric of despair. The tragic paradox of Richard's position is that only action can validate the self he proclaims; and yet just because that self can be located only in action—because it is otherwise null, a chaos, unformed and unknowable—action must take the form of acting, must become a way not of proving but of concealing the self, the void at the center of being. And when the external motives for action are removed, “Richard,” literally, disintegrates.


Of course, both the metaphors which invite us to view historical events in a theatrical perspective and the characterization of Richard as a diabolic actor-hypocrite have a basis in the traditional materials on which Shakespeare was building. The world of Richard III is figured as a Wonderful Theater of God's Judgments, and men are depicted as mere puppet-actors, their movements dictated with a nice regard for witty symmetry by the Cosmic Ironist. Margaret, the furious prophetess, is the Chorus for His tragedy of blood. In Act IV, scene iv, which she describes as a “dire induction” to a tragedy (ll. 5-7), she recalls the murder of her son Edward as a “frantic play,” with Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, and Grey as its sadistic audience (ll. 68-69); and she goes on to type the reign of Edward of York as a kind of May Game pageant, with Elizabeth as a Summer Lady:

I call'd thee then vain flourish of my fortune;
I call'd thee then poor shadow, painted queen,
The presentation of but what I was;
The flattering index of a direful pageant;
.....A queen in jest, only to fill the scene.


The impotence she ascribes to the pageant-actors is confirmed by the Duchess of York's abstraction of herself as “Woe's scene”—a passive spectacle of grief (l. 27). And that image in turn looks back to Elizabeth's sorrow at her Edward's death:

Duch. What means this scene of rude impatience?
Q. Eliz. To make an act of tragic violence.


Though she sees herself as the maker of her own play, the best that Elizabeth and her fellow mourners can do is to compose an inert tableau of grief in a pageant they cannot direct:


Q. Eliz. Ah for my husband, for my dear Lord Edward!
Chil. Ah for our father, for our dear Lord Clarence!
Duch. Alas for both, both mine, Edward and Clarence!
Q. Eliz. What stay had I but Edward? and he's gone.
Chil. What stay had we but Clarence? and he's gone.
Duch. What stays had I but they? and they are gone.
Q. Eliz. Was never widow had so dear a loss.
Chil. Were never orphans had so dear a loss.
Duch. Was never mother had so dear a loss.


Those who fancy themselves as directors of the theatrical procession find themselves in turn caught up in its inexorable movement. Hastings rejoices in the downfall of the Queen's party in III.ii—“I live to look upon their tragedy” (l. 59)—but before two scenes are out, the plot has come full circle: “They smile at me who shortly shall be dead.” (III.iv.107). Death changes partners in a dizzy reel: God calls the tune. Buckingham, envisaging heaven as no more than the auditorium for God's brutal theater of revenge (V.i.3-9), squarely confronts its terrible ironies:

That high All-Seer, which I dallied with,
Hath turn'd my feigned prayer on my head,
And given in earnest what I begg'd in jest.
Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men
To turn their own points in their masters' bosoms. …

One thinks of Beard's Marlowe, gouging his own eye with the hand of blasphemy.

A God of the kind implied by these play metaphors will do well enough for a Puritan fanatic like Thomas Beard or a propagandist like Halle, and his activities accord with the providential scheme defined by Tillyard. But he presents problems for a dramatist—witness the didactic clumsiness of The Atheist's Tragedy. Seen from the viewpoint of Shakespeare's supposed “official self,” the play belongs to an impressive but drastically limited kind of ritual theater, plotting the ironic symmetries of providence with equally exact schemes of action, spectacle, and rhetoric. The limitations are both moral and dramatic. Moral, because providence too easily appears, if not a mere instrument of human faction,8 then a model for its vicious plots; dramatic, because in denying the possibility of significant moral activity, it tends to reduce human action to a meaningless writhing.

Of course, Richmond's triumph appears to give official endorsement to this grand scheme—it could hardly do otherwise. But the play's total poetic statement is another matter. It is significant that the most humanly moving of Margaret's speeches is not among the cursings by which she marks the progress of nemesis but is her agonized questioning of the whole fatal process in Act I, scene iii:

Did York's dread curse prevail so much with heaven
That Henry's death, my lovely Edward's death,
Their kingdom's loss, my woeful banishment,
Should all but answer for that peevish brat?
Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?


By the end of the scene she has convinced herself otherwise:

I will not think but they ascend the sky,
And there awake God's gentle-sleeping peace.


But even here the violent yoking of gentleness and savagery creates an ambiguity. The endless spectacle of death glutting on life can hardly be other than sickening, and Margaret's question forces us to ask by what scale God distributes justices—if indeed He concerns Himself with it at all. Elizabeth's despairing retort to Richard in Act IV, scene iv suggests a heaven which denies justice to the victim, just as it cuts the oppressor from the sun:

What good is cover'd with the face of heaven,
To be discover'd, that can do me good?


It is as though God (at best) has withdrawn His light from the fallen world and left it for the devil, Richard, to bustle in.

What finally raises the play's theater of revenge above mere ritual is the character of Richard himself—dramatist, producer, prologue, and star performer of his own rich comedy.


The way in which the character of Richard is developed out of a combination of More's Machiavellian “deep dissimuler” with the self-delighting witty Vice of the Moralities is perceptively traced by Anne Righter in her section on “The Legacy of the Vice.”9 Here I am concerned with the surprising psychological insights which Shakespeare manages to produce from the manipulation of such thoroughly traditional material. Because the shaping of Richard's character is a process substantially begun in 3 Henry VI, any full account of it must take that play into account, although Richard III as a dramatic structure is perfectly able to stand on its own.

Richard's delight in his prowess as an actor, the bustling energy of his performances, makes him in a sense the only lively moral positive in the play. His most sustained virtuoso exercise comes in the second scene, where it is tellingly placed against the embodiment of orthodox virtue—a corpse—the “poor, key-cold figure of a holy king” whom even Margaret recalls contemptuously as “Holy Harry” (IV.iv.25). Clearly it was this quality of style in Richard—what Honigmann calls his “glamour”—which attracted the citizen's wife to Burbage, and has excited audiences ever since. It's the same quality that stirs us in a Barabbas, a Volpone, or a Vindice. Just as it is the quality which wins Anne herself, who falls to Richard precisely because she is not deceived, because (as he intends) she is bowled over by the nerve, the sprezzatura, of the performance itself:

Arise, dissembler! Though I wish thy death,
I will not be thy executioner.

(I.ii.184-85; italics mine)

What is perhaps less obvious is the subtle psychological realism which lies behind the compelling staginess of Richard's character: the way in which his titanism is shown as the reflection of a most appalling emotional weakness and deformity.

Two important soliloquies in 3 Henry VI contain all that is necessary for the development of Richard's character in the last play of the sequence.10 Like most of Richard's monologues, both take the form of extended asides to the audience, and both are ostensibly expressions of his naked, all-consuming ambition. But in fact they are much more than merely signposts to the plot. In the first (III.ii.124 ff.), Richard sketches the development of his ambition in a pseudo-dialectical form: too many lives stand between him and the crown he desires, and therefore he would be wiser to direct his energies to private satisfactions; but his physical ugliness appears to make this gratification of sexual lust a vanity even more absurd than lust for dominion, so that he is forced back again on his political aspiration. Trapped in this logical impasse, he concludes that the politician's formula of violence masked by smooth deceit offers his best release. The structure of Machiavellian rationalism is not, however, sufficient to contain the confused emotional impulses behind the speech. Richard broods obsessively on the theme of sexual love and his own deformity, the whole speech grows out of his bitter reflections on Edward's carnal prodigality, and one senses that the means of the curse he invokes—the grotesque tortures of syphilis—are imaginatively more important than its ends: to open Richard's pathway to the crown. The wanton multiplication of claimants to the throne—“Clarence, Henry, and his son young Edward, / And all the unlook'd-for issue of their bodies” (ll. 131-32)—is as much an affront to his sexual capacity as to his ambition. He posits an alternative to political enterprise only to provide an excuse for further masochistic flagellation. The unstable combination of self-pity, savage irony (tending always towards brutal self-parody), and an almost masturbatory relish in his own wickedness becomes the keynote of Richard's descants on his own deformity:

Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard;
What other pleasure can the world afford?
I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap,
And deck my body in gay ornaments,
And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks.
O miserable thought! and more unlikely
Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns!
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 wither'd 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 unlick'd bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.

(3H6, III.ii.146-62)

It is the strident self-assertion of an ego monstrously enlarged to protect an inner self pitiably warped and enfeebled. Physical deformity is felt as the outward manifestation of an inner formlessness, a mirror of psychological chaos. And the ontological vacuum is located in a profound emotional alienation: Richard cannot know himself because he cannot love himself, and he cannot love himself because he has never been loved—“love forswore me in my mother's womb.” It is not only in a physical sense that Richard resembles the unlicked bear-whelp “that carries no impression like the dam”: his relation with his mother, whose loathing is displayed with admirable economy in Richard III, has failed to provide Richard with the necessary locus for his sense of self.11

The second of the two 3 Henry VI soliloquies returns to this theme of love and maternal alienation:

Indeed 'tis true that Henry told me of;
For I have often heard my mother say
I came into the world with my legs forward.
.....The midwife wonder'd 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.
Then since the heavens have shap'd my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.
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.


Richard here conceives of love in the terms set out in Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium:

Likeness generates love. Similarity is a certain sameness of nature in several things. If I am like you, you are necessarily like me; therefore, the same similarity which compels me to love you, forces you to love me. … Moreover, a lover imprints a likeness of the loved one upon his soul, and so the soul of the lover becomes a mirror in which is reflected the image of the loved one. Thereupon, when the loved one recognises himself in the lover, he is forced to love him.12

Ficino, significantly, insists on love as a mode of self-realization: “When you love me, you contemplate me, and as I love you, I find myself in your contemplation of me; I recover myself, lost in the first place by [my] own neglect of myself, in you, who preserve me. You do exactly the same in me. … I keep a grasp on myself only through you as a mediary” (II.viii; p. 145). And the highest form of self-realization is naturally through love of God, of which all other loves are but shadows: “… we shall seem first to have worshipped God in things, in order later to worship things in God; and shall seem to worship things in God in order to recover ourselves above all, and seem, in loving God, to have loved ourselves” (VI.xix; p. 215). Love, the creative mirror by which we realize ourselves, has been withdrawn from Richard. A child, says Winnicott, “needs one person to gather his bits together,” a mirror to establish his sense of integral identity;13 Richard, the unlicked bear-cub, carries no impression like his dam and so identifies his self as a chaos. Without form he can be “like” no one, and no one can be “like” him: he is “himself alone,” with all the horror of isolation which that arrogant despair implies.

In the prologue-soliloquy with which he opens Richard III, Richard plays again on the theme of physical deformity and emotional alienation:

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.


The glass which Richard mockingly rejects is the old icon of vanity, displaying the narcissistic image of the physical self. But since the body in turn is only an image or shadow of soul and mind, the inner self,14 the icon also doubles as an emblem of self-knowledge. And one is aware that Richard is as much concerned with psychological reality as with physical appearance. The solution to his anguish is a paradoxical one: “to see my shadow in the sun, / And descant on mine own deformity.” He makes himself into a kind of travesty Narcissus, creating a false self to be the object of his consuming need for love. Ficino's account of Narcissus is helpful:

A certain young man, Narcissus, that is the soul of bold and inexperienced man, does not see his own countenance, he never notices his own substance and virtue, but pursues its reflection in the water, and tries to embrace it; that is, the soul admires the beauty in the weak body, an image in the flowing water, which is but the reflection of itself. It deserts its own beauty and never catches its shadow. …

(VI.xvii; p. 212)

Richard's narcissism is in fact precisely a strategy to avoid the contemplation of his own true countenance. He sublimates his tearing consciousness of inner formlessness by concentrating on its outward image, which he creates as something outside himself, a shadow. Like an actor's shadow-self, it is a role whose recognition involves no necessary acknowledgment of self-knowledge, being part of the self-consciously adopted persona of a Machiavellian villain:15

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.


It is characteristic of Richard's mode of histrionic self-consciousness that he regards even the wicked self concealed by his pious performances as itself a role, something to be “played:”

And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

(I.iii.335-37; italics mine)

And the broad element of self-caricature, which is never more apparent than when he is ostensibly laying himself naked—“dogs bark at me as I halt by them”—is a reflection of this self-divisive strategy.


In that long soliloquy from 3 Henry VI where Richard contemplates his own chaos, he imagines his political struggle in terms which powerfully suggest his agony of psychological confusion:

And I—like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rents the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way, and straying from the way
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out—
Torment myself to catch the English crown;
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.

(3H6, III.ii.174-81)

The implication of self-division in the self-torment, and of self-destruction in the self-division, unconsciously anticipates the horrors of Richard's last night at Bosworth Field. And the method by which he proposes to end his torment is also, ironically enough, a method of self-division:

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.

(3H6, III.ii.182-93)16

It is the method of the actor—a creator of multiple selves—and it is as an actor that Henry contemptuously sees him—“What scene of death hath Roscius now to act?” (3H6, On the level of simple plot Richard emerges as the perfect actor-hypocrite, identifying himself in the last scene of 3 Henry VI with the archetypal figure of Judas:

To say the truth, so Judas kiss'd his master,
And cried “All hail!” when as he meant all harm.

(3H6, V.vii.33-34)

In Richard III we are constantly being reminded of Richard's theatrical virtuosity in perhaps a dozen different roles, by his self-congratulatory asides, by the games he plays with Buckingham, and even by the extravagant energy of the performances themselves, his sensuous delight in histrionic rhetoric:

Because I cannot flatter and look fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive, and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy,
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abus'd
With silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?


In one sense, of course, Richard's flair makes him only the most accomplished performer in a court of hypocrites, as the pageant of dissimulation in II.i shows. Indeed, the logic of political corruption ensures that the self-division of hypocrisy is paralleled beyond the court: in the First Murderer's denial of conscience—“My voice is now the King's, my looks my own” (I.iv.170)—and in the pathetic evasions of Brakenbury and the Scrivener:

I will not reason what is meant hereby,
Because I will be guiltless from the meaning.


                                                                                                    Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who['s] so bold but says he sees it not?


The scrivener's death warrant, beautifully engrossed for an execution which has already taken place, is an epitome, at once horrible and absurd, of a political charade in which all become passive, but nevertheless guilty, actors. All, that is, except Richard. For what gives him his demonic power is the way in which he seizes the freedom which an actor's function normally denies. The selves he creates are, or (at least until Act IV) appear to be, independent of any plot-mechanism but those which he himself devises; and, more than that, they are actually agents in determining the roles others must perform within his plots.

The prologue-like speech with which Richard opens his play, summarizing previous action and outlining the shape of that to come, creates for him a kind of extra-dramatic status which is borne out in his running commentary of asides through the first four and a half acts. In the speech itself the presenter-function is conflated with that of playmaker:

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.32-35; italics mine)

The puns are appropriate both because, until the end of IV.iii, the plot of the play is virtually indistinguishable from Richard's plotting and because his characteristic way of working out his plots is theatrical: consequently, the action tends to resolve itself into a series of plays within the play with Richard as author-actor.17 Of these, the most breathtaking is that with Anne in I.ii, the play of “The Witty Lover.”

The purpose of playing, as Hamlet tells us, is to hold a mirror up to nature, and Richard's theatrical magic works by mirrors. Hamlet's performance for Gertrude in the closet scene sets up a glass to show her her inmost self; Richard's performance for Anne works by more confusing sleights. If there seems to be something unconvincingly histrionic about Anne's first two big speeches, we soon find out why. Seeming to accept her role of grief-enraged wife and daughter, Richard draws Anne through a mirror-maze of stichomythia, where speech reflects speech in apparently innocent antithesis for eighty lines, until she is made to feed him precisely the cue he wants:


Anne. Out of my sight, thou dost infect mine eyes!
Glou. Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.
Anne. Would they were basilisks, to strike thee dead!


Disastrously—but inevitably—her gibe recalls a thousand Petrarchan clichés on the killing beams of the lady's eyes, and it enables Richard to slip into the full routine of the Rejected Lover. By a further mirror-trick his speech becomes an inverted image of her opening salvo of curses: the revenge invoked then is offered her now—but in terms which render it farcically irrelevant. Anne may have his life, but only if she consents to close his play in a final tableau of the Cruelty of Love: the earthly Venus plunging her sword into the humble heart of her servant. And yet, in the rhetorical labyrinth into which she has wandered, the only conceivable alternative is the grant of mercy:

Glou. But shall I live in hope?
Anne. All men, I hope, live so
[Glou.] Vouchsafe to wear this ring.
[Anne. To take is not to give.]


However she looks, Anne finds her image fatally defined in the mirrors of Richard's art: a looking glass world in which joke becomes reality and reality a player's sour jest, where Anne's curses reflect back, as Richard has mockingly warned (l. 132), upon herself—

If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the [life] of him
Than I am made by my young lord and thee!


—where Margaret in turn will be made to curse herself, Hastings to pronounce his own sentence of death, and the citizens of London to implore a tyrant's accession.

Act I, scene ii ends as it began, in monologue—Richard's epilogue balancing Anne's prologue. And in this concluding flourish of the theatrical mirror, Richard himself returns to the icon of the looking glass:

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 little cost.
.....Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.


The scene we have just witnessed has been just such a glass. For if its immediate end has been the conquest of Anne, its true purpose, like all of Richard's performances, has been to reflect, and to realize, himself—to call a self into being out of the nothing, the chaos within: “And yet to win her! All the world to nothing!” (I.ii.238). The shadow of his nothing falls upon all that is.

The sun which Richard invokes is the heraldic sun of York, but it is also the sun of majesty in whose light he may cast his long shadow upon the world, a world which will thus become a gigantic reflector of his own reality. And at a further remove it may suggest the Sun of Divinity, which his shadow seems to cut from the world,18 Plato's inner light on which all human understanding and commerce depends:

The sun generates eyes and it bestows upon them the power to see. This power would be in vain, and would be overwhelmed by eternal darkness if the light of the sun were not present, imprinted with the colours and shapes of bodies. … In the same way, God creates the soul and to it gives mind, the power of understanding. The mind would be empty and dark if it did not have the light of God, in which to see the principles of everything.19

The suggestion somberly deepens the resonances of his threat to Clarence at the end of 3 Henry VI:

Clarence, beware! thou [keep'st] me from the light,
But I will sort a pitchy day for thee.


Clarence's death in Act I, scene iv is made into a grotesque mirror image of the sacrament with which he entered the world, the symbolism of rebirth horribly realized in a literal new-christening in the Tower. So that the golden time of Richard, the third sun of York, becomes the reign of a terrible anti-Christ:

For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell,
Fill'd it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.


K. Rich. And came I not at last to comfort you?
Duch. No, by the holy rood, thou know'st it well,
Thou cam'st on earth to make the earth my hell.
A grievous burthen was thy birth to me,
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;


Not only does Richard appear as an antitype of the Comforter, but also as a kind of travesty Creator, making a new earth in the image of his own deformity, like the clumsy and malign demiurge of Gnostic myth. In Platonic accounts of creation, God, “in love with his own beauty, frames a glass to view it by reflection”; that glass is the universe:

The desire of a thing for the propagation of its own perfection is a kind of love. Absolute perfection consists in the supreme power of God. This perfection the divine intelligence contemplates, and hence the divine will desires to generate the same perfection beyond itself; because of this love of propagation everything was created by Him.20

And it is this creation by love which gives the world its coherent order:

… if Love creates everything, He also preserves everything, for the functions of creation and preservation always belong together. Certainly like things are preserved by like, and moreover, Love attracts the like to the like. Every part of the earth, joined by mutual love, links itself with other parts of earth like itself.

(III,ii; p. 149)

Richard's creation by hate, on the other hand, can only be a creation of disorder: a mirror of his own psychological chaos. Where Love joins the universe together in mutual attraction—“a circle of good, revolving from good to good perpetually”21—Richard's self-propagating “I am” sets up an apparently endless cycle of division in which “sin will pluck on sin” (IV.ii.63) as “wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame” (V.i.29), a cycle through which the desperate incoherence of Richard's inner state is at last resolved in annihilating self-division—“Myself myself confound!” (IV.iv.399)—the serpent of evil gnawing at its own tail.


Richard's kingdom is built “on brittle glass” in more than the sense he intends at IV.ii.60. It is a kingdom of mirror-plays and actor-shadows in which he manipulates the lens. Mirror images register in the consciousness of other characters, too, but purely as metaphors for passive observation and reflection, metaphors which tend by their stylized remoteness to suggest an impoverishment of human relations. For Anne, the corpse of her father-in-law is contracted to a kind of mirror-emblem:

If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.


For the bereaved Duchess of York, her dead sons are recalled as reflections of their father; and Richard, seen as a distorting mirror of these dead, is also a reflector of her own shame:

I have bewept a worthy husband's death,
And liv'd with looking on his images;
But now two mirrors of his princely semblance
Are crack'd in pieces by malignant death,
And I for comfort have but one false glass,
That grieves me when I see my shame in him.


Shadows, shades, ghosts, and finally distorted reflections—the living are only images, good and bad, of the dead, or (more accurately) of one's own passion of loss.

The way in which relationships are reduced to mere perspectives of solipsist mirrors in this corrupted world is powerfully dramatized in certain “mirror scenes,” notably II.ii and IV.iv. In the antiphonal patterns of the language (and in the staging such patterns appear to invite) one grief reflects another in apparently infinite recession. Elizabeth, for Margaret in I.iii, is merely a spurious image of herself, the true Queen—“Poor painted queen, vain flourish of my fortune!” (l. 240); by Iv.iv., Elizabeth, Margaret, and the Duchess of York have become exact mirror-images of one another's sorrow:


Q. Mar. [Tell over your woes again by viewing mine:]
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
I had a [Harry], till a Richard kill'd him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him.
Duch. I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou [holp'st] to kill him.
Q. Mar. Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard kill'd him.


“Shadow,” “presentation,” “pageant,” “dream”—the terms of Margaret's speech beginning at line 82 point to the way in which the fantasies of the glass have become reality. But the elaborate parallelism asserts the identity of their situations only, since the formalism denies any identity of feeling, any sympathy. Their relationship is displayed as a mere epitome of the remorseless mechanical formula by which human lives are organized in the first tetralogy—“wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.”

Perhaps the most terrible of the play's mirror figures appears in the complex symbolism of Clarence's dream; cast haphazard among the other emblems of mortal vanity are jewels:

Some lay in dead men's skulls, and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept
(As 'twere in scorn of eyes) reflecting gems,
That woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatt'red by.


It is as though the eyes, travestying their traditional function as “windows of the soul,” have become mere mirrors, at once mocking their owners' humanity and denying the possibility of communication with that humanity. The image anticipates Buckingham's irony in the council scene—

We know each other's faces; for our hearts,
He knows no more of mine than I of yours,
Or I of his, my lord, than you of mine.


—and Richard's subsequent rejection of Buckingham:

                                                                                none are for me
That look into me with considerate eyes.


Buckingham—“respective,” “circumspect,”—attempts to see beyond the mirrors, and dies for it.

Clarence's gems reflect only the slimy bottom of the deep upon itself, as Richard's mirror-play ultimately shows Anne only the image of her own corruption. Her eyes which pour their balm on Henry's wounds and which she repeatedly tries to make reject the image of Richard—“mortal eyes cannot endure the devil” (I.i.45) and “Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes” (I.ii.148)—become the metaphorical agents of her fall, as Richard's verbal mirror turns her rhetoric back upon herself:

Glou. Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.
Anne. Would they were basilisks, to strike thee dead!
Glou. I would they were, that I might die at once;
For now they kill me with a living death.
Those eyes of thine from mine have drawn salt tears,
Sham'd their aspects with store of childish drops:
These eyes, which never shed remorseful tear—
No, when my father York and Edward wept
To hear the piteous moan that Rutland made
.....                                                  —in that sad time
My manly eyes did scorn an humble tear;
And what these sorrows could not thence exhale,
Thy beauty hath, and made them blind with weeping.


The love-dazzled eyes in Richard's mirror are a monstrous parody, but the brilliance of the reflection blinds Anne's moral vision; and what it reveals to her is a kind of truth. These lovers' eyes get no babies, but they get, in different ways, themselves. In the moment of triumph Richard repeats his offer to kill himself in lines which mimic the mirror-ironies of divine justice:

This hand, which for thy love did kill thy love,
Shall for thy love kill a far truer love.



Richard III, as critics from Moulton to Tillyard have observed, continues the ironical pattern of nemesis established in the three plays which precede it: punishment follows crime in apparently endless sequence, as though Justice held a mirror to every act. But in this play there is an increasing tendency for the ironies to become self-reflexive: the biter bit becomes the biter bitten by himself. Buckingham's death speech reechoes the familiar “measure for measure” theme—“Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame” (V.i.29)—but recognizes a special malicious wit in the means:

Why then All-Souls' day is my body's doomsday.
.....This is the day wherein I wish'd to fall
By the false faith of him whom most I trusted;
.....That high All-Seer, which I dallied with,
Hath turn'd my feigned prayer on my head,
And given in earnest what I begg'd in jest.
Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men
To turn their own points in their masters' bosoms.


There is an obviously ironical echo here of Richard's mock offer to Anne; and indeed God's modus operandi seems all too close to Richard's own. As Richard made Clarence's death a new baptism, so God makes All Soul's Day Doomsday for Buckingham. As Richard's mirrors turned Anne's and Margaret's curses, so God turns Buckingham's prayer back upon himself.22

Richmond's concluding speech (which by its self-conscious appeal to the loyalties of the audience becomes a kind of epilogue, corresponding to Richard's “prologue”) expresses the theme of self-division in political terms:

England hath long been mad and scarr'd herself:
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughtered his own son,
The son, compell'd, been butcher to the sire.
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire division.


The events of the fifteenth century are seen as a history of progressive self-division—in the body politic; in its model, the family; and at last within the individual members of the physical body. Thus the motif of the divided self in Richard III is in a sense only the ultimate extension of the political argument. But what makes this a richer play than its predecesors is its new psychological focus. In the Duchess of York's lament in Act II, it is as though civil dissension were now reduced to a mere mirror of the inner crisis of the psychomachia:

                                                                                themselves, the conquerors,
Make war upon themselves, brother to brother,
Blood to blood, self against self.


England, “this sickly land,” as the citizens call it in II.iii, is infected by Edward's fatal sickness, a sickness which Richard mockingly describes as self-consumption:

Now by Saint John, that news is bad indeed!
O, he hath kept an evil diet long,
And overmuch consum'd his royal person.


Edward destroys himself as surely as the courtiers who gather about his death bed in II.i and call down vengeance with their false oaths of friendship. And Margaret's warning to Elizabeth amid the bitter feuds of I.iii has a general application: “Fool, fool! Thou whet'st a knife to kill thyself” (I.iii.243). It is a warning which Elizabeth may recall in her final encounter with Richard in the second wooing scene:

Q. Eliz. Shall I forget myself to be myself?
K. Rich. Ay, if yourself's remembrance wrong yourself.


As the play develops, we are presented with the reality of the self-division that Elizabeth is talking about. Self-forgetfulness, the suppression of the moral self, leads at last to self-abandonment, to despair, as character after character is confronted by the consequences of his abdication:

Q. Eliz. Ah, who shall hinder me to wail and weep,
To chide my fortune, and torment myself?
I'll join with black despair against my soul,
And to myself become an enemy.


Anne. Lo, ere I can repeat this curse again,
Within so small a time, my woman's heart
Grossly grew captive to his honey words,
And prov'd the subject of my own soul's curse.


Buck. That high All-Seer, which I dallied with,
Hath turn'd my feigned prayer on my head,
And given in earnest what I begg'd in jest.


But the most potent version of the motif is once again in the scene of Clarence's murder. The politic self-division of Brakenbury, the pathetic moral stratagem of the murderers, the dramatized contest by which they attempt to objectify conscience as something outside themselves, all help to realize the process of self-division which has led to Clarence's condition of despair:

Ah, Keeper, Keeper, I have done these things
(That now give evidence against my soul).


The first murderer's “Come, you deceive yourself” (I.iv.245) reminds us that Clarence before, like the murderers now (“to their own souls blind,” l. 255) has denied a part of himself. Such a denial is a kind of self-murder, and the drowning in Clarence's dream becomes a vivid metaphor for the suffocation of the moral self:

                                                                                and often did I strive
To yield the ghost; but still the envious flood
Stopp'd in my soul, and would not let it forth
To find the empty, vast, and wand'ring air,
But smother'd it within my panting bulk,
Who almost burst to belch it in the sea.


The imagery recalls Richard's self-torment in 3 Henry VI:

And I—like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rents the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way, and straying from the way,
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out—
Torment myself to catch the English crown.

(3H6, III.ii.174-79)

Clarence's dream-death, however, proves to be a moral rebirth, just as the dream itself, like Richard's later, is a moral awakening: he dies, not to find the “empty air” of annihilation, but to be confronted by the ghosts of Warwick and Prince Edward—as much the shadows of his murdered conscience as the shades of his murdered enemies.

If Clarence's dream becomes the chief imaginative symbol for the agonies of the divided self, it is in the character of Richard that the process of division is most fully embodied. Richard's perverted self-obsession—at once self-love and self-loathing—leads him to create a whole theater of false selves to conceal his true self from himself, a glass to contemplate his physical deformity in order to forget his inner formlessness. Ficino's Commentary again appears to throw some light upon the nature of this split. Ficino is seeking to explain Aristophanes' myth of the cloven man as a version of the Fall:

“Men” (that is, the souls of men) “originally” (that is, when they were created by God), “were whole” and equipped with two lights, one natural, the other supernatural. … “They aspired to equal God”; they reverted to the natural light alone. Hereupon “they were divided”, and lost their supernatural light, were reduced to the natural light alone, and fell immediately into bodies. “If they become too proud, they will again be divided”; that is, if they trust too much to natural ability, that innate and natural light which remains to them will also be extinguished in some way.

(IV.ii; p. 155)

What has been debased is called, and correctly so, broken and “split” [“fractum … scissumque”].

(IV.v; p. 165)

Richard's proclamation of his self-sufficiency (“I am myself alone”) is nothing if not a revelation of the pride against which Ficino warns—“God alone, in whom nothing is lacking, above whom there is nothing, remains satisfied in himself and sufficient in himself, and therefore the soul made itself the equal of God, when it wished to be content with itself alone.” (IV.iv; pp. 158-59)—and its consequence is the extinction of the natural light of conscience. Perhaps the cruelest of the many ironies at Richard's expense is that the very acts by which he attempts to assert his moral self-sufficiency are those which in fact declare his moral annihilation.

With Anne, Richard can make a game of the sort of self-division by which the murderers seek to excuse themselves (I.ii.89-98) and a game of the final self-division of despair (“By such despair I should accuse myself,” l. 85); and he can shrug off her attempts to remind him of the consistent relation of the self and its actions (ll. 99, 120). His insouciance is possible because, for Richard, the “self” has no moral continuity but is wholly defined in and by the immediate act, or performance—it is a projection, an image, a shadow in a glass.23 As there is no stable self to which responsibility can be referred, the deed can be acknowledged or denied as the dynamics of performance dictate: “Say that I slew them not?” (I.ii.89). The last theatrical offer—“Then bid me kill myself, and I will do it.” (I.ii.186)—is in a sense perfectly genuine: for there is no self to kill, except a part. In his closing soliloquy, as he contemplates the imaginary mirror, Richard presents an almost infinitely refracted image of himself, as though reflected in the facets of a prism:

I do not 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 little 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.

(I.ii.252-63; italics mine)

The vertiginous trompe l'oeil multiplication of himself is meant as nothing more than a last exuberant display of his rhetorical sprezzatura, but it anticipates, with ironical precision, the appalling mirror-maze of his agony before Bosworth.

In Act I, scene iii, Richard again mocks the notion of self-enmity in his prayer for the pardon of Clarence's enemies:

So do I ever—(speaks to himself) being well advis'd;
For had I curs'd now, I had curs'd myself.


Of course there is a sense in which Richard is already quite self-consciously his own enemy, as the following soliloquy suggests: “I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl” (I.iii.323). The extent of his control over the action means that the other characters appear increasingly as pawns in an elaborate game played with himself. Making it his heaven to dream upon the crown rather than to actually possess it, Richard, like his kinsman Volpone, takes more pleasure in the cunning purchase than in the glad possession. Even Buckingham emerges as a kind of extension of Richard,24 “my other self” as Richard calls him (II.ii.151). But Buckingham, too, conforms to the logic of the split self, and he turns against the king precisely at the point when Richard's own disintegration begins. The board at last swept clean of pieces, the player is left confronting … himself, the image in the glass.

Already in the first scene of Act IV, Anne has given hints of shadows not in the sun:

For never yet one hour in his bed
Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep,
But with his timorous dreams was still awak'd.


And in the following scene we become aware of the first conscious stirrings of Richard's suppressed moral self:

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


It is as if the grotesque incest in butchery catalogued by Margaret in IV.iv has been pursued to the point where Richard himself is its only remaining object, the last of the issue of his mother's body on which the carnal cur may prey (IV.iv.56-57). His self, in Elizabeth's sarcastic retort (IV.iv.374) is “self-misus'd”; and when Richard picks up her gibe with a repetition of the self-cursing motif, there is behind the willed mockery an hysterical seriousness:

                                                                      Myself myself confound!
Heaven and fortune bar me happy hours!
Day, yield me not thy light, nor, night, thy rest!


The confusion of the episode with Ratcliffe and Catesby, where for the first time the comedy is turned against Richard himself, immediately confirms the descent into psychological chaos, “the blind cave of eternal night.”

Act V, scene iii is the last and physically most obvious of the play's mirror-scenes (recalling in its diagrammatic precision Act II, scene v of 3 Henry VI, the episode of the son-who-has-killed-his-father and the father-who-has-killed-his-son). Now, however, the careful parallels in action and staging serve only to show how much the world is no longer Richard's mirror. The sun, which Richard greeted in the opening lines of the play and in which his shadow has sported for so long, makes its symbolic setting, and for Richard, at least, it is not to rise again. The last scene of his life is played in shadow.

In itself, as many critics have felt, the dream sequence is less than fully satisfying: it is probably the one point in the play where the mirror motif becomes obtrusively clumsy. The sequence is constructed as a kind of didactic mirror for magistrates, in which the false king is presented as the distorted mirror-image of the true. But at the same time it has to serve as an image of Richard's psychological torment, and the two functions are incompatible. As long as the ghosts are in Richard's dream, we can take them (like those in Clarence's dream) as shadows of his murdered conscience. The awkwardness arises when they appear in Richmond's, where, if they are not to appear as projections of a smug self-righteousness, they have to be taken as literal specters. The most telling part of the scene, however, is not the dream itself but the agony which follows it, in a speech which is at once the culmination and the fullest expression of the theme of the divided self.

Richard wakes in a sweat of terror from a dream prefiguring (shadowing) his death—“Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!” (V.iii.177)—and the terror gives a voice to self heard nowhere else in the play: “Have mercy, Jesu!” (l. 178). That cry in the dark has a poignancy absent from the conventional pieties of any of the apparently more virtuous characters. The voice, however unfamiliar, is one which Richard, like the murderers before him, recognizes well enough: “O coward conscience, how thou dost afflict me!” (l. 179) “Conscience” here has the full sense of “consciousness” as well as “moral awareness” and implies a total suppression of the inner life and hence of any true self:

What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard, that is, I [am] I.


We are back here in the mirror world of the soliloquy at the end of I.ii. The reassertion of the old blasphemy, “I am I,” is a despairing attempt to proclaim his self-sufficient integrity: “Richard loves Richard,” the name is one with the namer; the image in the mirror is one with the self that sees it.

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.


But the struggle to remake the emblem of self-love (the lookingglass of I.ii) inevitably collapses because Richard, the chameleon actor who has created himself only in his fleeting changes, can locate no stable self to love, no self solid enough to be loved:

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.


Indeed it proves impossible to find a locus for his self-loathing:

I am a villain; yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well; fool, do not flatter.


The self disintegrates into a babel of self-conflicting voices:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.


The cracked mirror becomes a fragmenting prism. And for a self so lost the only outlet is despair, because no single, integrated focus of consciousness exists, the only sound, the baying of a thousand several tongues:

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


Richard, who from the beginning has denied his kinship to the rest of humanity (“I am like no brother”), has thereby alienated himself from his own humanity: he is not like himself and therefore cannot love himself.

“A dream itself is but a shadow,” and Richard's is a dream of shadows, refracted images of his own self, seen not by the artificial sun of his parody of godhead (“Shine out, fair sun”) but looming in the blind cave of night:

Rat. Nay, good my lord, be not afraid of shadows.
K. Rich. By the apostle Paul, shadows to-night
Have strook more terror to the soul of Richard
Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers.


It is the last trick of God's dissembling mirror that Richard, who makes himself in shadows, is destroyed by shadows:

I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.


The best that Richard can manage in his last performance is a reincarnation of himself in the act. But while, even now, the energy is all his—“Come, bustle, bustle! Caparison my horse!” (V.iii.289)—Richard is far from being (as Olivier gleefully announced) “himself again!” In the willful denial of conscience at the beginning of his oration to his army there must be a self-contradiction:

Let not our babbling dreams afright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!


In the bravado of “A thousand hearts are great within my bosom” (l. 347), we can hardly fail to hear an echo of the babbling of conscience in its “thousand several tongues.”

Act V, scene iii has been regarded, somewhat slightingly, as a theatrical tour de force. Of course, if one sets it beside the dramatizations of conscience in Hamlet or even Macbeth, it is certainly that. But what is so impressive is the sure dramatic instinct by which Shakespeare makes the limitations of his immature style work for him. The theatricality of Richard's conscience soliloquy becomes a positive strength because it corresponds so exactly to his own limitations. Where the inner self has been so systematically oppressed, there is no possibility of complex introspection. Richard's interior is a kingdom of night, a blind cave of shadows, at best a hall of mirrors, reflecting endlessly the insubstantial shadows of the lost self: a self he vainly tries to capture with the hopelessly inadequate tools of his old word-games. The cunning vice, Iniquity, moralizing two meanings in one word, is lost in the labyrinth of his own puns.


If the conclusion of Richard III has a weakness, it is not in the dramaturgy of Richard's moral collapse but in the dramatist's moralization of his fall, in his refusal to confront the real issues which the play raises—though the refusal is, I suppose, inevitable. The ironies of the end are God's, and in their light the whole plot with its complex of witty peripeties is evidently the masterwork of a Cosmic Ironist. This being so, one finds oneself asking, despite Richmond's complacent pieties, isn't God only a greater and more competent Richard, fulfilling his fantasies of omnipotence, a malign demiurge delighting in the monstrous shadow of his own ugliness and obliterating it when it attempts to walk alone? Richard tries to declare his independence of the Ironist's tragic farce, to assert himself by making the world in his own image, a mirror-play of his own chaotic deformity, a glass to hold his shadow as he passes. His greatest sin lies in his attempt to become equal to God: the disturbing trouble is that, morally speaking, he appears to succeed.


  1. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London: Methuen, 1964), p. 44.

  2. A. E. Waite, ed., The Works of Thomas Vaughan (New York: Univ. Books, 1968), p. 5.

  3. Cf. Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London: Penguin, 1967), pp. 81-91.

  4. E. A. J. Honigmann, ed., King Richard the Third, New Penguin Shakespeare (London: Penguin, 1968), p. 37.

  5. Honigmann, p. 37.

  6. Kott, pp. 13, 27-28.

  7. I have argued this point at greater length in an article, “The Matter of Denmark and the Form of Hamlet's Fortunes,” forthcoming in SQ. All citations are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  8. The point is well made by Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), p. 94.

  9. Righter, pp. 86-91. Richard's descent from the Vice is most fully expounded in Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958). Spivack, however, makes a low estimate of Shakespeare's ability to transform the medieval convention. Of Richard's theatrical displays he writes: “Through them we shall look in vain for anything in the temper of his performance that corresponds to a passion for sovereignty, or to any other motive that is morally intelligible” (p. 403; italics mine).

  10. Olivier's film of Richard III acknowledged their importance (perhaps naively) by grafting parts of both into Richard's opening soliloquy.

  11. Cf. D. W. Winnicott, “Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development” in Peter Lomas, ed., The Predicament of the Family (London: International Universities Press, 1967), pp. 26-33; and David Holbrook, “R. D. Laing and the Death Circuit,” Encounter, 31 (Aug. 1968), 35-45. Writing on the childhood bases of ontological security, Winnicott remarks on the mother's essential “role of giving back to the baby the baby's own self” (p. 33): “in individual development the precursor of the mirror is the mother's face” (p. 26). The failure of the mother to provide such a mirror results in “a threat of chaos. … a baby so treated will grow up puzzled about mirrors and what the mirror has to offer. If the mother's face is unresponsive, then the mirror is a thing to be looked at but not into” (p. 28). R. D. Laing's studies of schizoid and schizophrenic experience provide poignant illustrations of the inner “chaos” of which Winnicott writes. Certain of Laing's remarks seem especially illuminating with regard to Richard III:

    There are men who feel called upon to generate even themselves out of nothing, since their underlying feeling is that they have not been adequately created or have been created only for destruction.

    The Politics of Experience (London: Penguin, 1967), pp. 36-37.

    If the individual cannot take the realness, aliveness, autonomy, and identity of himself and others for granted, then he has to become absorbed in contriving ways of trying to be real, of keeping himself … alive, of preserving his identity, in efforts, as he will often put it, to prevent himself losing himself.

    The Divided Self (London: Penguin, 1965), pp. 42-43.

  12. S. R. Jayne, ed. and trans., Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1944), II, viii, p. 146. Ficino's argument goes back to the discussion of the relation between likeness and love in the Lysis, the negative side of which is also relevant: “… the good are like and friendly with the good, but … the bad … are not ever even like themselves, but are variable and not to be reckoned upon. And if a thing be unlike and at variance with itself, it will be long, I take it, before it becomes like to or friendly with anything else” (Lysis, 214 c-d, quoted from The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton [New York: Pantheon, 1961], p. 157). There is a remarkable resemblance between Plato's argument and Laing's recognition that “a firm sense of one's own autonomous identity is required in order that one may be related as one human being to another” (The Divided Self, p. 44). Jayne notes that the Lysis topic was a frequent subject of debate in Renaissance courts (p. 149 n.). Spenser's Hymnes are often close to Ficino, and Love and Beautie must have been circulating in manuscript when Shakespeare was writing Richard III. Beautie, lines 190 ff., deals with Platonic ideas of love and likeness.

  13. Holbrook, p. 39. The image of the mirror in Richard III, with which this essay is much concerned, has been briefly discussed by J. P. Cutts in The Shattered Glass: A Dramatic Pattern in Shakespeare's Early Plays (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 129-34. Some of Professor Cutts's arguments touch on my own.

  14. See, for instance, Ficino, Commentary, II, iii, p. 136.

  15. The adoption of such a persona seems to be a well-documented schizoid strategy. A case history recorded by Laing makes an interesting comparison: “The sense Brian made of his sudden inexplicable abandonment by his mother was: because I am bad. To be bad was his credo. He lived by it. It was the rock on which he built his life. ‘Since I am bad, there is nothing but to be bad’” (Self and Others [London: Penguin, 1971], p. 94). Richard's diabolic despair, in fact, corresponds very closely to the schizophrenic experience: “The schizophrenic is desperate, is simply without hope. I have never known a schizophrenic who could say he was loved, as a man, by God the Father or by the Mother of God or by another man. He either is God, or the Devil, or in hell, estranged from God” (The Divided Self, p. 38).

  16. It is interesting to compare the theatrical personality projected here with the schizophrenic self described by Laing:

    it was on the basis of … exquisite vulnerability that the unreal man became so adept at self-concealment. He learnt to cry when he was amused, and to smile when he was sad. He frowned his approval, and applauded his displeasure. “All that you can see is not me,” he says to himself. But only in and through all that we do see can he be anyone (in reality). If these actions are not his real self, he is irreal; wholly symbolical and equivocal; a purely virtual, potential, imaginary person, a “mythical” man; nothing really.

    The Divided Self, p. 37.

  17. “The Loving Brother,” “The Loyal Friend,” “The Witty Lover,” “The Loyal Subject,” “The Good Protector,” “The Reluctant Prince,” “The Bluff Soldier”—to name only some of the most obvious. Cf. Sanders, p. 89.

  18. Compare the exchange with Margaret, I.iii.263-75:

    Glou. Our aery buildeth in the cedar's top
    And dallies with the wind and scorns the sun.
    Q. Mar. And turns the sun to shade—alas, alas!
  19. Commentary, VI, xiii, pp. 206-7.

  20. Commentary, III, ii, p. 149. Compare, for instance, Spenser's An Hymne of Heavenlie Love, ll. 29-35, 110-19; An Hymne of Love, ll. 195-96. For discussion of the relationship between Love and political Concord in Renaissance thought, see John Erskine, “The Virtue of Friendship in The Faerie Queene,PMLA, 30 (1915), 831-50; and Charles G. Smith, “Spenser's Theory of Friendship: An Elizabethan Commonplace,” SP, 32 (April 1935), 158-69.

  21. Commentary, II, ii, p. 134.

  22. The mysterious episode of Hastings' encounter with the Pursuivant in III.ii is symbolically suggestive. The Pursuivant, “also named Hastings,” is a kind of mirror figure; and the meeting itself ironically mirrors the occasion of Hastings's previous visit to the tower. The suggestion of unwitting self-division is appropriate; Hastings is putting his own head in the noose. The irony is complicated by the déjà vu, as though God were playing tricks with time.

  23. Cf. Laing, Self and Others (p. 51): “the schizophrenic does not take for granted his own person (and other persons) as being an adequately embodied, alive, real, substantial and continuous being, who is at one place at one time and at a different place at another time, remaining the ‘same’ throughout.” Rosalie Colie's witty and subtle examination of certain ontological paradoxes is also suggestive in this context:

    it is true, in grammar at least, that “nobody” can know himself, especially if he has no context within his disrupted and fragmentary environment. Nobody himself does not exist, in an environment existing only to change. Even if a man might recognize himself in a true mirror, he never can in a false one: if he himself is false, even a true mirror will not reflect a true man.

    The psychological effect of mirrors is that they both confirm and question individual identity—confirm by splitting the mirrored viewer into observer and observed, giving him the opportunity to view himself objectively, as other people do; question, by repeating him as if he were simply an object, not “himself,” as he so surely knows himself to be, by repeating himself as if he were not (as his inmost self insists that he is) unique. … The re-created self, the separated and objectified self, may turn out, one fears, to do instead of one's self, may replace the original and originating self. The re-created self is a threat to the self.

    Paradoxia Epidemica (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 297-98, 355-56.

  24. Buckingham's argument on sanctuary (III.i.44 ff.), for instance, precisely echoes the sophistry of Richard's advice to York regarding his oath to King Henry (3H6, I.ii.18-27). He speaks, in effect, with Richard's voice.

Hugh M. Richmond (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4585

SOURCE: “Richard III and the Reformation,” in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 83, No. 4, October, 1984, pp. 509-21.

[In the following essay, Richmond analyzes the “massive” religious vocabulary of Richard III and reveals the ways in which the play explores contemporary religious tensions between Protestants and humanists.]

When Richard of Gloucester compares himself to “the formal Vice, Iniquity” (III.1.82)1 and is repeatedly called “a Devil,” the play of Richard III explicitly recalls the archaic formulas of the miracle plays, mystery cycles, and the morality plays, which were dying out in Shakespeare's lifetime under the combined hostilities of the Reformers and the Humanists. Shakespeare, however, had excellent historical justification for putting such specific allusions to the religious drama into Richard's mouth. Ample evidence survives from the fifteenth century of the intense interest in drama in Northern England, which was Richard's primary power base—and particularly in the city of York, where the medieval cycle continues to be performed. In 1483 the Corpus Christi Guild of York revived a Creed Play (performed earlier in the century) for presentation before Richard.2 Indeed, the play was so effective that it was still in circulation as a performable script as late as Shakespeare's lifetime. Moreover, there are records in which a professional troupe, “the Duke of Gloucester's players, can be traced between 1479 and 1480 in places as far apart as Selby Abbey in Yorkshire, and Canterbury and New Romney in Kent.”3 (Richard was made Duke of Gloucester as early as 1461.) By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the Reformers' hostility to this “papistical” drama had radically diminished its prestige: Protestants were “determined to turn such plays into vehicles of propaganda or to suppress them outright.” Unfortunately “the passion for public edification” of the Protestant playwrights “succeeded in boring their audiences rather than entertaining them, and drove them into the arms of the professional players.”4 This in turn helped foster the antipathy between the Puritans and the Public Theaters.

Nevertheless, as the massive religious vocabulary of the play Richard III confirms …, Shakespeare is not repudiating the genre of religious drama, but giving it fresh vitality in the light of the ecclesiastical and aesthetic controversies generated by the coming of the Reformation. He brings the verve of popular drama to bear on traditional themes and genres, undercutting them with mocking irony and the new sense of precise historical allusion generated by Puritans and Humanists alike. For example, an important element of the first English tetralogy lies in its elaborate mockery of the miracle plays' celebration of saints' lives, in a way calculated to appeal to nationalistic Protestants in England. Joan of Arc had long been rehabilitated in France, and thus appeared there in Shakespeare's time as “a holy prophetess” (1 Henry VI, I.iv.102), and as “France's saint” (1 Henry VI,, but sixteenth-century English Protestants would still be content to reaffirm her nature as a “damned sorceress” (1 Henry VI, III.i.38) illustrating the fraudulent, even diabolic, nature of Catholic saints.

Similarly, Henry VI's own sanctity is ridiculed by demonstration of his credulity over fraudulent “miracles” by the humanist rationalism of Duke Humphrey (2 Henry VI, II.i), who is in turn himself destroyed by the diabolism of his superstitious wife. Her viciousness is exploited by an unholy alliance of the vicious Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, and the Termagant Queen, Margaret of Anjou. Both of these malevolent representatives of the established order in fifteenth-century Europe discredit traditional authority through Shakespeare's emphases: Beaufort dies “Blaspheming God and cursing men” (2 Henry VI, III.ii.372), and we are admonished that “So bad a death argues a monstrous life” (2 Henry VI, III.iii.30) by the naïve Henry himself. Queen Margaret mocks her own husband's traditional devotions:

                    all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave-Maries on his beads; …
His study is his tilt-yard, and his loves
Are brazen images of canonized saints.
I would the college of the Cardinals
Would choose him Pope and carry him to Rome,
And set the triple crown upon his head—
That were a state fit for his holiness.

(2 Henry VI, I.iii.55 ff.)

These elements in Henry VI invert traditional values in provocative and amusing ways which would appeal to popular audiences, but they also appeal skilfully to views and tastes of both Protestants and Humanists. Shakespeare builds on the historical success of Henry VI in the theater by strengthening such effects in Richard III. This play masses traditional religious motifs and vocabulary to an unusual degree, for the most part by reversing or parodying them in ways appealing to the Tudor synthesis of Protestant and Humanist views of fifteenth-century Catholic society. Lady Anne explicitly triggers Protestant repudiation of saints and their worship when she anticipates Henry VI's beatification: “Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost” (Richard III, I.ii.8). Richard quickly reminds her and us of Henry's incompetence and mocks such pseudo-sanctity by elevating Anne herself to the rank of “sweet saint” (I.ii.48). At every level in the play Shakespeare deftly exploits the religious concerns of his time, mostly by inverting medieval conventions and attitudes. Yet the ultimate effect is not to discredit religion but to intensify an awareness of it in the subjective terms fostered by Reformation stress on the individual state of mind.

The play's religious concerns are more thoroughly demonstrated by my word-frequency comparisons than by critical assertions, and they certainly have not escaped scholarly observations such as those of Thomas Carter, who noted ninety Biblical references in the text, while Wolfgang Clemen has counted seventy-three invocations of God (without noting the further thirty-two uses of the word listed in Spevack's Harvard Concordance, or the numerous other religious terms listed in my frequency table, based on this source).5 If E. K. Chambers has used his underestimate of fifty-seven references to “blood” to revive Moulton's idea of the play as governed by a pagan Nemesis ruthlessly meting out vengeance to all, François Faure's reinterpretation of such data is more orthodox.6 He finds that “the abundance of religious vocabulary and allusions to the Scriptures emphatically gives the whole tragedy a religious tone” which “obliges the spectator to recognise religious tragedy” as its genre, giving fresh twists to classic motifs. For example, he asserts that despite its specious dependence on the historical circumstance of Richard's marriage to her, in the episode of Lady Anne's seduction “the Elizabethan spectators could not fail to make the connection with the biblical episode of Eve and the Serpent.” But Richard's pleas involve a more sophisticated method than any medieval demon's, as when he sardonically suggests of the naïvely inept Henry VI that his assassin merits thanks for sending him to heaven, because “he was fitter for that place than earth” (I.ii.108). Richard ridicules the whole idea of merit and confidence in salvation implicit in Dante's title for his Divine Comedy. Faure shows that Richard and his agents serve as “the representatives of Providence,” but in a far less optimistic way than messengers in medieval moralities, whose warnings are unambiguous. Catesby admonishes the complacent Hastings that it is “a vile thing to die, my gracious lord, / When men are unprepar'd and look not for it” (III.ii.62-63). Hastings' persistence in self-destruction after this warning lacks Christian humility, and approaches pagan hubris:

O monstrous, monstrous! and so falls it out
With Rivers, Vaughan, Grey; and so ’twill do
With some men else, that think themselves as safe
As thou and I.


The distinctive cathartic effect of Shakespeare's play lies in this evocation of Christian truths in the most harshly ironic terms, which merely make human repudiation of Providence more powerfully plausible. Perhaps the most memorable of these paradoxical scenes, in which grotesque comedy reinforces religious awareness, lies in the setting of Clarence's murder, when his assassins cynically try to validate their crime as proper, and to see “conscience” as an aberration to be exorcised: “Take the devil in thy mind, and believe him not; he would insinuate with thee but to make thee sigh” (I.iv.147-49). Here it is Lutheran concerns that are evoked by parody, so that this grotesque episode becomes what Faure considers “an epiphenomenon of a much more important religious reality.” So intense does this reality become as the episode evolves, that the Folio edits out the religious terms as sacrilegious on the secular stage when Clarence exclaims:

I charge you, as you hope [to have redemption
By Christ's dear blood shed for our grievous sins,]
That you depart, and lay no hands on me.


Of course, his assassins reject the admonition, until after the crime has damned them:

How fain, like Pilate, would I wash my hands
Of this most grievous murther.


Yet even this allusion is ironic, for Clarence is no innocent victim, like Jesus, but as vicious and treasonable as his killers. Through such details this episode reinforces our horrified awareness that the play demonstrates mankind's consistent rejection of a universal potentiality for grace.

Structurally, as Spivack has noted,7 the play is built out of a sequence of such didactic episodes showing the fates of Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, Lady Anne, Buckingham, and finally Richard himself. In this episodic structure the play nominally follows the models of Dante's Inferno, or Chaucer's Monk's Tale, or the Dances of Death so popular around 1500, not to mention The Mirror for Magistrates on which it draws so heavily. The play's word frequencies all seem to confirm its adherence to traditional values derived from Old Testament legalism: “prophet,” “curse,” “blood,” and “death” all lead to foreordained punishment on the appointed “day.” With perhaps the exception of The Mirror for Magistrates, however, which shares some of its introverted subjectivity, Richard III achieves a far more sophisticated level of irony, comparable to the self-destruction of Sophocles' Oedipus. Thus Buckingham discovers that he has foreordained his own destruction by his insincere oath: “This is the day … I wish'd might fall on me when I was found / False” (V.i.13-15). Similarly, Anne discovers that she has “proved the subject of mine own soul's curse” (IV.i.80). Such mathematical patterning may seem medieval enough, but it attains a fresh aesthetic and psychological interest because of the dawning of self-awareness and self-judgment in the victims, not present for example in those of Chaucer's Monk's Tale, though prefigured in The Mirror for Magistrates' remorseful ghosts. There has been a shift of emphasis from the medieval objective vision of a coherent universe to the inner world of sophisticated character, whose genesis is best studied in Shakespeare's development of the role of Richard himself.

Shakespeare elaborates religious allusions in his source, particularly More's account of Hastings' death.8 There Richard exclaims vehemently: “By Saint Paul, I will not to dinner til I see thy head off,” and so the wretched Hastings “made a short shrift for a longer would not be suffered, the Protector made so much haste to dinner: which he might not go to til this were done for saving of his oath.” This single reference in More to a Pauline oath becomes a unique Ricardian trait in the play, where Richard uses it compulsively. John Harcourt reminds us also of the disconcerting reverberations of the primary allusion, when it is linked to Acts, 23:12: “And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.” In this case, either the original historical situation or More's sophisticated irony has provided the kind of complex counterpoint characteristic of this play as a whole. Hitherto, Spivack and others have mostly stressed that Richard's black humor derives from the traditionally malevolent roles of the Devils and Vices to which he himself alludes, but Shakespeare's Richard is far subtler, deriving from a new level of inter-relations between exact historical data favored by the new Humanist historians, and the intense study of the text of the Bible stressed by the Reformers. Curiously enough, Shakespeare seems to recognize in the historical Richard traits which have been restored to general awareness only by such modern historians as Paul Kendall, but which may well have lingered in the minds of Englishmen as late as Shakespeare's generation.

In his biography of Richard, Kendall stresses that to his contemporaries Richard seemed “a rudimentary Puritan, as were the townsmen to whom he felt himself so warmly bound. It was the vices particularly repugnant to the sixteenth and seventeenth century Puritans from which he wished to turn men's habits—lechery and arrogance and dishonesty and blasphemy and ruthless greed. Hence … his insistence that Jane Shore do public penance for harlotry.” Richard himself proclaimed to an assembly of bishops that “our principal intent and fervent desire is to see virtue and cleanness of living to be advanced … and vices … provoking the high indignation and fearful displeasure of God be repressed.” Like many later Puritans, “Richard revealed a surprising sense of women as people in their own right,” showing an intense concern for the opinions of his mother, wife, and female friends.9 The stage-play Richard consistently displays this preoccupation with public decorum, the power of women, and the dangers of sexual indulgence of an extravagant kind. All seven allusions to Jane Shore in the play are Richard's, and worded in the ambivalent vein of hostility and morbid fascination with sexuality characteristic of such other affected Puritans as Malvolio and Angelo.

Another prefiguration of such sixteenth-century concerns by the historical Richard appears in the survival of his personally annotated copy of Wycliffe's translation of the New Testament, so that the preoccupation of Shakespeare's Richard with Saint Paul is plausible and apt. Harcourt detects a “curiously Pauline atmosphere” in the whole play, for it echoes the puritanical tone of The Epistles to the Corinthians with their relentless stress on female decorum and sexual restraint. Paul shows an aversion to sexual intercourse shared by Shakespeare's Richard, who also unexpectedly shares with the historical apostle some kind of physical disability, not to mention their shared deep sense of guilt from direct involvement in the assassination of innocent Christian victims.

So far I have implied that Richard's Puritanism in the play, while possibly suggested by surviving knowledge of his historical personality, is only an ironic affectation, as More's life of Richard III insists so strenuously. Shakespeare's achievement in creating the character involves, however, a deep synthesis of history and stage characterisation rather than a facile duplication of the traditional, crudely insincere Vice figure, in which psychological plausibility is never seriously attempted. T. S. Eliot detects in this later type of character “a kind of self-consciousness which is new,” and he defines it as the dawn of modern subjectivity: “identifying the Universe with oneself.”10 In Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric, Barbara Lewalski shows that this blend of historical biography with an intimate subjective outlook transformed traditional religious formulas in the lyric, and she asserts that such literature displays “the Reformation emphasis upon application of all scripture to the self.”11 One can apply these ideas to dramatic psychologies such as Richard's. Indeed, Richard affects a cynical bravado exceeding anything in Donne's lyrics, religious or amatory—yet like Donne, in that such effects derive from the biography of his historical prototype. Kendall describes these psychological complications: “he betrayed a feeling of insecurity, a mounting strain which gave him sleepless nights, a careworn look, and an uneasy mind” (p. 358). Shakespeare makes Lady Anne recall such “timorous dreams” as disturbing the marriage bed he shared with her (IV.i.84). Thus the stage Richard is no abstract Vice, but a realistic, psychologically complex character, as distressed by his conscience as his victims are.

Shakespeare's Richard derives his own merciless insight into the weakness of others from his acute sense of his own defects, as we see in his frequent bitter soliloquies and asides, which reflect a self-censure and repudiation as harsh as any Puritan could desire. It is Richard's role which ensures the overpowering frequencies of such terms as “soul-s” (exceeding even Hamlet), coupled with such ominous words as “fall,” “guilt,” despair,” “Hell-,” “remorse-,” all of which reflect Richard's intense awareness of the total depravity of fallen human nature. This despairing insight is what gives him psychological ascendancy in any dialogue, since his interlocutors (initially, at least) share a naïve faith in conventional humane values and good intentions. By contrast, Richard consistently thinks and acts on Saint Paul's assumption of universal wickedness, as in Romans, 3:10: “There is none righteous, no not one. … They have all gone out of the way: … there is none that doeth good.” Significantly anticipating Hamlet's pessimism (“Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?” [II.ii.529-30]), Richard can disorient the hysterically revengeful Lady Anne by reinforcing his mastery of conventional Petrarchan flattery with plausible Christian admonitions: “Lady, you know no rules of charity, / Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses” (I.ii.68-69). As Spivack says: “Richard gets from Christian homiletics a prescriptive victory over her astonished heart.”12 We in turn are forced to a deeper sense of the meaning of Original Sin, which should reduce our susceptibility to the unpredictable emotionalism exploited in Richard's seduction of Lady Anne in the guise of a sentimental Petrarchan lover, as Faure shows.

In such scenes, the traditional allegorical precedents and melodramatic reversals should not blind us to the Reformation assumptions involved in the characterizations. Protestantism stressed the instability of the human mind, the proneness of even the best to temptation, and the unpredictable nature of grace. Under such a system, anxious and persistent self-scrutiny is intensified, and Richard strikingly epitomizes this Reformation focus: the play exceeds all others of Shakespeare in its use of the words “self” and “myself.” Richard uses “I” 256 times, and the play leads all others in the two English tetralogies in the use of that pronoun. The surfacing of the deeper structure of this private personality provides the climax of Shakespeare's play, when Richard reveals how far this damning self-awareness extends, on the night before Bosworth Field:

Have mercy, Jesu! …
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. …
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, …
All several sins, all us'd in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, “Guilty! guilty!”


The vehement stress on “self” here does not hesitate to appropriate the Biblical affirmation of Jehovah, “I am that I am,” in the interest of private personality—a striking example of Barbara Lewalski's idea of the “application of all scripture to the self.”

Even more remarkable is the classic dissociation of the personality resulting from extreme application to one's experience of negative judgments in the Calvinist mode, here anachronistically back-dated to the fifteenth century. As Bullough has shown, Shakespeare characteristically antedates Reformation neuroses to much earlier periods, as when he ingeniously transposes to Macbeth the despair, hallucinations, and use of witchcraft of the guilt-ridden Catherine de' Medici, instigator of the Saint Bartholemew's Day Massacre of Huguenots in 1572.13 Such a transposition was prefigured in Richard III, for Shakespeare seems to have lifted phrases about these events in France from the account of them by the Calvinist Agrippa d'Aubigné's neglected epic, Les Tragiques, which was widely known in draft form among Protestants by 1589, though printed much later. Whether or not Shakespeare knew the epic, Richard certainly displays the same dissociated personality that the disruptive power of the Reformation generated in Protestants and Catholics alike. For the French King Charles IX fell victim after the Massacre which he authorized in 1572 to the same kind of personality disorders afflicting his mother Catherine de' Medici:

                                                                                          le fier changea de face,
Oubliant le desdain de sa fier grimace,
Quand, apres la semaine, il sauta de son lict,
Esveilla tous les siens pour entendre à minuit
L'air abayant de voix, de tel esclat de plaintes
Que le tyran cuydant les fureurs non esteintes …
Il depescha par tout inutiles deffenses:
Il void que l'air seul est echo de ses offenses, …
Du Roy, jusqu'à la mort, la conscience immonde
Le ronge sur le soir, toute la nuit lui gronde,
Le jour siffle en serpent; sa propre ame lui nuit,
Elle mesme se craint, elle d'elle s'enfuit.

(Les Tragiques, V.1005-10, 1014-15, 1021-24 ff.)

(… the proud man changed his expression, forgetting the disdain of his haughty scowl, when after the week of massacres he leapt from his bed, waked all his servants to hear the air at midnight baying with voices in such an uproar of complaint that the tyrant thought rage to kill not extinct. … He set out futile defences everywhere: he sees that the air itself is the echo of his crimes. … The filthy conscience of the King, until his death, gnaws him at evening, scolds him all night; the day hisses like a serpent; his own soul harms him, it fears itself, it flees from itself.)14

Richard's self-indictment parallels such self-hatred characteristic of the Reformation period, but of course its ultimate precedent is again to be found in Saint Paul, as in Romans, 7:14: “My own behavior baffles me. For I find myself not doing what I really want to do but doing what I really loathe.” In Paul, however, such self-censure is only the prelude to a confident affirmation of the paradox admitted by even the severest Calvinist: that redemptive grace transcends all human concepts of merit or defect, so that Saul, who dealt death to innocent Christians, can become himself one of the great Christian apostles. Richard's astonishing exclamation, “Have mercy, Jesu!” provocatively stresses that even such a monster may recognize to the end this deeply irrational potentiality for forgiveness of penitent sinners. In this Richard shares the awareness of another, more venial reprobate, for Falstaff regularly warns us “I'll repent, and that suddenly” (1 Henry IV, I.ii.89). If we accept the testimony of the Hostess in Henry V (II.iii) it appears he does just that, for on his deathbed he echoes the Twenty-Third Psalm, and calls repeatedly on God. Not for nothing is Falstaff derived from the career of the proto-Protestant martyr Sir John Oldcastle who figures so prominently in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Similarly, many of the death scenes of Richard III display this delayed and unpredictable redemptive element, as my remaining undiscussed word-frequencies amply confirm. If the play masses to a remarkable degree words establishing its characters' guilt, it also reiterates such corrective terms as “grace-,” “charity-,” “repent-,” as well as such possible reminders of the Nativity as “mother” and “child.” If we look closely at the Biblical allusions in the final moments of most of Richard's properly punished victims, we find them saturated with images of redemption via the Atonement. Clarence is most explicit, as we have seen, in his reference to “[redemption / by Christ's dear blood shed for our grievous sins]” (I.iv.189-90), but Grey also prays:

Be satisfied, dear God, with our true blood,
Which, as thou know'st, unjustly must be split.


Hastings elucidates the recurrent pun in the play between the worldly salutation “your Grace” and the theological term:

O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!


Richard's near repentance and theological awareness are thus carefully prefigured. Indeed, in the forgiveness of another failed puritan, Angelo of Measure for Measure, we can see the reprieve which admitted guilt may properly secure before Renaissance audiences. Less Calvinistic modern audiences find such reversals harder to accept than audiences in the Reformation.

Just how deeply Shakespeare has invested his own awareness in Richard's role appears in his duplication of it in Sonnet 121, which affirms Richard's characteristic posture of duplicity: “’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed.” In the face of “frailer spies” set on “my frailties” Shakespeare echoes Richard's existential assertion of self-sufficiency, “I am that I am,” and repudiates all human judgment except under the doctrine of Original Sin, with which he confronts his own over-complacent Puritan critics:

By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown,
Unless this general evil they maintain—
All men are bad and in their badness reign.

(ll. 12-14)

In the last plays of Shakespeare it is precisely such awareness of universal fallibility that exacts general forgiveness and reconciliation as proposed in the previous Sonnet 120:

… your trespass now becomes a fee;
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.

(ll. 13-14)

As Cymbeline says, “Pardon's the word to all” (V.v.422) if they can accept, even to the diabolical Iachimo. Only the egotism of a Richard or a Faustus, confident of unforgivable crimes, dares to reject the offer. The frequency pattern of terms offering such universal grace to the repentant not only revealingly links Richard III to Measure for Measure, but confirms the verbal, structural, and metaphysical affinities it has with Henry VIII, which deals with a scarcely less murderous tyrant. Both plays exploit hindsight cleverly to prefigure the new order of the Tudors, whether under Elizabeth or Henry VII.

However, Richard III does not end in a mood of shallow confidence. Henry VII's hopes for the future are tempered with a diffidence about the ways of Providence, which fosters humility as well as the forgiveness of enemies (V.v.16):

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!
Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord.


In such a context perhaps I also should end cautiously by pointing out the dangers of scholarly confidence in interpretation, even via statistics. The last term on my frequency list, the Biblical term “amen” is used less frequently in these two Reformation dramas than in a play supposedly set in a pagan, pre-Christian world: Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare's wit and irony are not readily confined by rigid theories. If the Reformation affirms the superiority of individual personality to rules and predictable outcomes, the works of Shakespeare are its finest flower.


  1. All references are cued to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. Glynne Wickham, The Medieval Theatre (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), p. 115.

  3. Wickham, p. 173.

  4. Wickham, p. 188.

  5. Thomas Carter, Shakespeare and Holy Scriptures (London: Hodder and Staughton, 1905), pp. 120-48; Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III (London: Methuen, 1968), p. 78, n. 2.

  6. E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London: Macmillan, 1935), pp. 12-13; François Faure, “Langage religieux et langage Petrarchiste dans Richard III de Shakespeare,” Études anglaises, 23, No. 2 (1970), 23-37.

  7. Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), p. 397.

  8. See John B. Harcourt, “‘Odde Old Ends, Stolne …’: King Richard and Saint Paul,” Shakespeare Studies, 7 (1974), 87-100.

  9. Paul M. Kendall, Richard III (New York: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 352-63.

  10. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950), p. 119.

  11. Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), p. 131.

  12. Spivack, p. 405.

  13. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), VII, 520-21.

  14. See Agrippa D'Aubigné, Œuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), pp. 174-75. More detailed discussion of the impact of Les Tragiques appears in Hugh M. Richmond, Puritans and Libertines: Anglo-French Literary Relations in the Reformation (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), pp. 340-52.

Kristian Smidt (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11119

SOURCE: “Plots and Prophecies—The Tragedy of King Richard the Third,” in Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1982, pp. 53-71.

[In the following essay, Smidt studies the role of dreams, prophesies, and curses in Richard III, demonstrating the way in which these devices structure the play.]

In dramatic method Richard III is the most non-realistic of Shakespeare's history plays, not excepting Richard II. It has even been called ‘the most stridently theatrical’ of all his plays.1 In a sense it is a metadrama in which a self-styled villain conspires with the spectators to produce a black comedy and himself plays a variety of roles in order to deceive and discomfit the other members of the cast. This actor-villain speaks a total of 166 lines (i.e. about 4.5 per cent of the play's dialogue) in soliloquy or in direct address to the audience. He is seconded in his histrionics by one (Buckingham) who ‘can counterfeit the deep tragedian’; and he does, in fact, deceive everyone else, including his coadjutor when it comes to the point. Everyone, that is to say, except two old women. One is his mother.

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


exclaims the Duchess of York in answer to her grandson's innocent description of Richard. The other woman, who is not quite so elderly (though Richard calls her a ‘withered hag’) is the spirit of Revenge, Queen Margaret. For Margaret, like Richard, is an unrealistic character. She appears from nowhere, or France, to darken the dialogue with her mutterings and curses but has no physical business with the happenings of the play. In addition to her there are supernatural omens and apparitions, a bleeding corpse, a stumbling horse, a sun which apparently shines on one army and not on the other, and a procession of ghosts. There is a chorus of lamenting women and children, a repeated matching of griefs and grievances, a conspicuous use of stichomythia. There are two parallel wooing scenes and a number of parallel execution scenes. There are also attempts to render simultaneous action in two places, twice by interrupting almost continuous events at Westminster with scenes of death elsewhere (Clarence and the lords at Pomfret) and once, more remarkably, by pitching the tents of the opposing army leaders on the stage both at once and watching them alternately.

Much has been written about the formal patterning of Richard III. Irving Ribner has emphasised its indebtedness to Seneca and to the morality tradition, as well as to Shakespeare's more immediate forerunner, Christopher Marlowe. After enumerating the Senecan elements of the play—‘the villain-hero with his self-revealing soliloquies, the revenge motif, the ghosts, the stichomythic dialogue, and not least, the abundant echoes of Seneca's own plays’—Ribner declares: ‘The dominating figure of the Senecan villain-hero gives to Richard III a unity which the Henry VI plays lacked.’ The morality tradition, he says, ‘is carried on in the ritual technique with which Richard III abounds’. And he instances the wooing of Anne and the murder of Clarence as acts which are ‘handled in ritual fashion’. With Schelling he sees ‘the great choral scene of lamentation’ in IV.iv as ‘reproducing … the nature and function of the Greek choric ode’, while ‘the parallel orations of Richmond and Richard before the final battle’ also ‘serve a ritualistic function’.2

Ribner does not exaggerate. Ritual formalism pervades the play from beginning to end. It is apparent, too, as M. M. Reese has pointed out, in ‘its controlling pattern of Nemesis and revenge’, in the way in which ‘each successive blow of fate is the fulfilment of a curse, until at last the bleeding country is rescued by its foreordained deliverer’.3 In fact the most significant departure from realistic convention, with its frequent stress on the role of accident, is the extent to which everything that happens is exactly foretold before it happens. Shakespeare made liberal use of prediction in all his history plays, but never as much as in Richard III. This play is a web of stated intentions, curses, prophecies, and dreams, and practically all expectations are punctually fulfilled. A. P. Rossiter and Wolfgang Clemen have both admirably explored this aspect of the play,4 but it will still bear further scrutiny.

Only two minutes after Richard, Duke of Gloucester, has entered solus he informs us that he is ‘determined to prove a villain’, and, he goes on,

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;


Richard's ‘plots’, ‘prophecies’, and ‘dreams’ in themselves foreshadow the mode of the remainder of the play. His pretended prophecy that a certain ‘G’ will be the murderer of King Edward's heirs proves more true than the victims of the deceit, Clarence and Edward, suspect, but Richard knows already, and we know, that the G stands for Gloucester and not for George. He speaks the truth though with forked tongue. And he never keeps his audience in the dark.5

Richard is himself no prophet. But he is a man of iron will and unscrupulous performance coupled with exceptional gifts of persuasion and dissimulation. What he resolves to do he does, and his confidence in telling us of his intentions leaves no room for doubt that they will be carried out successfully. We know before the event that Clarence will be imprisoned and murdered (I.i.32-40, 119-20), that Richard will marry Anne (I.i.153), that he will have his revenge on Rivers, Vaughan, and Grey (I.iii.332),6 that something will be done ‘To draw the brats of Clarence out of sight’ and to get rid of the princes in the Tower (III.v.106-8, IV.ii.61), that he will do away with Anne and woo Elizabeth (IV.ii.57-61). All this is revealed in soliloquies, and Richard further confides in us about the success of his undertakings (IV.iii.36-43). In addition, of course, he conspires with Buckingham and his more inferior associates and gives instructions to his hired assassins on two occasions. We know what will happen to Hastings if he does not fall in with Richard's plans, and we know exactly what lies and pretences Richard will use to gain the support of the citizens of London for his coronation. Practically all the plot of the play until near the end of the fourth act is contained in Richard's stated intentions.

These intentions are for the most part reinforced by Margaret's curses and prophecies, since Richard turns on those of his own side and consequently his enemies are hers. In the great cursing scene of Act I, Margaret predicts no fewer than thirteen misfortunes relating to King Edward, his son, Queen Elizabeth, her children, Rivers, Hastings, Richard, and Buckingham. There is even a certain amount of detail in her curses: King Edward is to die ‘by surfeit’ and the Prince of Wales by ‘untimely violence’, the queen is to outlive her glory and her children and see another ‘decked in [her] rights’. ‘The day will come’, Margaret warns Elizabeth,

                              that thou shalt wish for me
To help thee curse this poisonous bunch-backed toad.


As for Richard, she is unsparing in her depiction of punishments for him, especially, as Tillyard points out, the curse of insomnia:

If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world's peace!
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv'st,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be while some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!


Margaret's curses are no mere displays of clairvoyance but obviously potent agents in bringing about the events which she prophesies, and as they come to pass this is recognised in turn by the victims—all but Richard. As Grey goes to his execution at Pomfret he remarks to Rivers,

Now Margaret's curse is fallen upon our heads,
When she exclaimed on Hastings, you, and I,
For standing by when Richard stabbed her son.


Similarly Hastings, Queen Elizabeth, and Buckingham7 all remember her words in their hour of distress, and Margaret herself tots up the score of her victories in the great lamenting scene of Act IV.

Margaret is the chief and most vociferous but by no means the only prophet and author of curses in the play. She herself is first prompted by Richard's reminder of his father's curse denounced against Margaret at the time of his death (I.iii.173-95). If ‘York's dread curse prevail[ed] so much with heaven’, then she must try the same means of revenge. The Duchess of York and Elizabeth take a lesson from Margaret, and the duchess utters violent imprecations against Richard to which Elizabeth says amen (IV.iv.188-98). Anne in the second scene of the tragedy curses the murderer of her husband and father-in-law and prays to God to revenge King Henry's death. Unwittingly she involves herself in her baneful wishes by hypothetically including the wife of the murderer. She remembers this when her misery is complete, just as Buckingham in the reconciliation scene swears an oath which recoils on himself and remembers it on the day of his execution.8 Even Richard, in the second wooing scene, swears against himself and is probably too sceptical to realise that his maledictions will be most precisely honoured:

                                        Myself myself confound!
Heaven and fortune bar me happy hours!
Day, yield me not thy light, nor, night, thy rest!


After his night of agony and confused awakening, the sun ‘disdains to shine’ on him on the day of battle. Vaughan and Hastings before being beheaded foretell the downfall of their judges. The ghosts, of course, add their full share of cursing. And Richmond, on Bosworth field, prays that he and his forces may be God's ‘ministers of chastisement’.

Prayers are mostly for chastisement and revenge, and blessings are as rare in Richard III as imprecations are plentiful. Clarence prays for his wife and children, the hoodwinked mayor invokes God's blessing on Richard when the latter agrees to accept the crown, Dorset exits to Brittany with the Duchess of York's benediction (she also rather futilely sends her good wishes with Anne and Elizabeth), Stanley blesses Richmond ‘by attorney’ from his mother, and of course the ghosts whisper encouragements to Richmond in his sleep. But the only time Richard talks of blessings is when he hypocritically craves one of his mother and makes fun of her admonishments (II.ii.106-11).

Dreams are almost as important as curses and prayers and equally prophetic. Richard uses invented dreams to set Edward against Clarence, Clarence appropriately dreams of drowning and of being tormented in hell, Stanley dreams symbolically of being executed by Richard along with Hastings, and Richard and Richmond dream on the eve of battle of defeat and victory. Hastings sceptically laughs at Stanley's being so simple as ‘to trust the mockery of unquiet slumbers’ (III.ii.27) but learns to his cost that Stanley was right. And Richard, who is outwardly the least superstitious of all the characters in the play, is plagued nightly after Margaret's curse by the phantom horrors it promises. As Clemen remarks, ‘There is the feeling of fear and uncertainty running like a keynote through almost all the scenes of the play and finding expression in various characters and ways.’9 So general is the mood of fearsome divination that even the anonymous citizens in II.iii, commenting on the death of King Edward, are inspired with prophetic forebodings.

Two prophecies originating in a time prior to the action of the play have to do with its decisive events. One is Henry's intuition, referred to by Richard in IV.ii.94-5, ‘that Richmond should be king’, the other the vision of ‘a bard of Ireland’ mentioned by Richard almost in the same breath that he (Richard) ‘should not live long after [he] saw Richmond’. Like these last two, all the prophecies in the play come true with only a few, mostly questionable, exceptions.10 Dorset, if he was ever meant to be included in Richard's revenge and in Margaret's curse, completely escapes them both, and Queen Elizabeth saves at least two of her children and will be the mother of a new queen.11 Stanley, too, escapes in spite of his ominous dream, though he is long kept on tenterhooks both for his own safety and his son's. But the most interesting case of non-fulfilment relates to the despair invoked on their destroyer by the ghosts of Richard's victims. The word ‘despair’ (and ‘despairing’) is uttered no fewer than twelve times in their maledictions, and we cannot forget that it had a very definite implication. To die in despair was to die without hope of salvation, especially by one's own hand.12 In his anguished soliloquy after the spectral visitation, Richard cries out, ‘I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;’ but there is no hint of despair in the last words he speaks in the tragedy, just before his death is reported; in fact his courage is unabated as long as we see him:

Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain today instead of him.
A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!


Perhaps he should be understood to be desperately minded though he does not betray the fact or perhaps even realise it himself. But the ghosts are quite specific in referring their curses to the moment of his defeat and summoning fear and guilt to unman him:

Tomorrow in the battle think on me,
And fall thy edgeless sword; despair and die!


Think upon Vaughan and with guilty fear
Let fall thy lance; despair, and die!


O, in the battle think on Buckingham,
And die in terror of thy guiltiness!
Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death.
Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath!


It would be in keeping with the pattern of anagnorisis which pervades the play if Richard, too, had his moment of recognition. In The True Tragedie of Richard the third we see considerably more of Richard's despair, and though he is courageous to the end as in Shakespeare's play, he recognises in his very last words that he will be ‘among the damned soules’. Since so many prophecies are so exactly fulfilled in Richard III one must necessarily wonder why this one is not. Could it be that the ghosts were not in the author's first draft, or else that that draft had a scene in which Richard's despair was actually shown? Strong arguments can be advanced for at least the former explanation.

In Shakespeare's main source, Hall's chronicle, the ghosts are only anonymous ‘ymages lyke terrible develles’ and Hall puts no words in their mouths. In The True Tragedie Richard's dreams are troubled by the ghosts of Clarence, the young princes, and ‘the headlesse Peeres’ which come ‘gaping for revenge’, but they make no visible appearance in the play, except for Clarence's ghost in the Prologue. It would be only natural if Shakespeare's initial impulse was to follow his sources. And there are indications in the texts of Richard III pointing to an early state in which the apparitions were not actually staged. Thus both Richard and Richmond adequately (from a dramatic point of view) describe their dreams after awaking, in passages which were obviously meant to be parallel and contrasting. The parallelism becomes particularly evident if Richard's lines, instead of awkwardly concluding his terrified soliloquy, as they do in the extant texts (V.iii.205-7), are transferred a few lines down to his dialogue with Ratcliffe, thus:13

O Ratcliffe, I have dreamed a fearful dream!
Methought the souls of all that I had murdered
Came to my tent, and every one did threat
Tomorrow's vengeance on the head of Richard.

Similarly Richmond tells his friends:

The sweetest sleep, and fairest-boding dreams
That ever entered in a drowsy head
Have I since your departure had, my lords.
Methought their souls whose bodies Richard murdered
Came to my tent and cried on victory.


Whether or not the ghosts were in fact added at a later stage of composition, it at least seems reasonably certain that they were not all included at once. A number of peculiarities point to this conclusion: 1. The ghosts of Anne and Buckingham tell the sleepers to dream on after they have been called on by the ghosts of the ‘headless peers’ to awake. 2. Prior to the dream scene there are preparatory invocations of all the ghosts except those of Clarence, Anne, and Buckingham.14 3. The order in which the ghosts of the princes appear in the first quarto differs from that of the third quarto and subsequent editions, including the Folio. 4. Clarence speaks not only for himself but for ‘the wronged heirs of York’, which would include the princes. 5. Anne is made to repeat the exact wording of Clarence's curse: ‘Tomorrow in the battle think on me, / And fall thy edgeless sword; despair and die! (V.iii.163-4). There are no other comparable repetitions in the string of curses.15

What would seem to have happened is that Shakespeare first introduced the ghosts of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, the Pomfret peers, and Hastings, in the order in which their deaths occurred in his own plays. Then he, or someone else, added the remainder—the two princes, Anne, and Buckingham—for good measure. And I am inclined to think ‘someone else’, since the placing of the princes was somehow bungled, since the contradiction between the injunctions to awake and to sleep on went unnoticed, and since Anne's curse is a mere repetition of Clarence's. In any case, and this of course is what I have been leading up to, if some or even all of the ghosts were not part of the original plan for this scene, the forecast of Richard's despair in the battle scene would not be nearly as marked as it eventually became.

The alternative explanation of the non-fulfilment of the ghosts' curses, viz. that the original version contained a scene in which Richard was actually shown to die in despair, is perhaps less likely, but it is strange in any case that the extant texts do not contain a single verbal exchange between the two antagonists Richard and Richmond. As in The True Tragedie, if we can trust the surviving version of that play, the defeat and death of Richard is given merely in dumb show. Shakespeare's tragedy has the brief stage direction: ‘Alarum, Enter Richard and Richmond, they fight, Richard is slaine.’ Obviously there is opportunity here for a variety of theatrical interpretations consonant with the curses. Nothing is actually said about Richard being supernaturally overtaken by impotence at the end, and it rather looks as if Richmond was meant to show his prowess by overcoming the tyrant in physical combat. But it seems just possible that a different solution was once intended.

We are still free to reject both these explanations, and in any other play there would be nothing very unusual in finding anticipations created only to be ignored. In the majority of such cases most readers and spectators will hardly notice that there has been a deception. And this may be the one instance in Richard III where Shakespeare allowed an important prophecy to lapse in order to have it both ways: we are made to think of Richard as desperate, but we actually see him fighting courageously to his last gasp.

The plot of Richard's rise and fall is extremely simple. Step by step and according to plan he climbs towards his goal, securing the supports he needs and removing the obstacles in his path ruthlessly and systematically. Anne is a mere object to mount on, Clarence, Clarence's children, and Edward's sons are swept from the line of succession, the queen's kinsmen and friends and Edward's loyal Lord Chamberlain are likewise eliminated. Only once is he dependent on fortune rather than on his own will: in the death of Edward. But even this event is made to seem part of his scheming, as it is part of Margaret's witchcraft. Richard is on the Wheel of Fortune and while it rises on his side he turns it, directing all events. It reaches the top and slows down at his coronation and the murder of the princes. The downward movement is signalised by the first mention of Richmond, which puts Richard in mind of the prophecies of Henry VI and the Irish bard, and by the defection of Buckingham. For a while he is able to stave off disaster. He even shows some of his old spirit in the wooing of Elizabeth. He captures Buckingham and has him executed. But as the descending wheel gathers momentum he loses control, and his fall is rapid: there is not a word spoken between him and Richmond as they fight and ‘the bloody dog’ is slain.

Seen in this way, the plot has a figurative and emblematic dimension. And Richard's great antagonist in this dimension is Margaret, who long plays his game for him in the external conflict but secretly torments him and finally drives him to destruction. She is mainly activated by personal revenge, but in her own way she prolongs the Wars of the Roses, which are temporarily over after the death of Henry VI but of which there are frequent reminders and which still have a symbolical importance, as both the beginning and the ending of the play testify. Two Lancastrian widows are the only remnants of opposition to York, until Richmond steps in. Poor Anne is quickly overcome, but Margaret fights on till she gets her revenge, constantly reminding us of past battles and crimes and claiming to be the rightful queen. Richmond wins the last battle of the Roses, but not till the conclusion of the play is he called ‘the true succeeder’ of his house, and it is never made clear how he is the succeeder except that he was designated by Henry VI. In any case he is more a concept than a character and comes to deliver England from a tyrant rather than to claim his own right. ‘In its context,’ says Reese, ‘the lifelessness of the character shows how seriously Shakespeare took him.’16

It is interesting to notice that the hired murderers of Clarence would have been taken for Lancastrians in a realistic context. Clarence is the object of God's vengeance, they tell him,

[Sec. Mur.] For false forswearing and for murder too:
Thou didst receive the sacrament to fight
In quarrel of the house of Lancaster.
[First Mur.] And like a traitor to the name of God
Didst break that vow, and with thy treacherous blade
Unrip'st the bowels of thy sovereign's son.


The murderers, however, are obviously to be understood not just as Richard's hirelings but as ministers of the heavenly vengeance they invoke. We must allow for a certain amount of artificiality in their attitudes. Similarly with the wooing of Anne. The artificial convention established by Richard's soliloquy in the opening scene makes it unnecessary, even absurd, to look for psychological probability in her submission.17 This scene, too, has a strong element of symbolical conflict and resolution.

To what extent the figurative dimension of Richard III is also a religious dimension has been a matter of disagreement and extreme opinions. In 1944—and it is perhaps not irrelevant to observe that this was the year of the Normandy landings—E. M. W. Tillyard asserted that ‘Richard III is a very religious play’. ‘For the purposes of the tetralogy and most obviously for this play,’ he said, ‘Shakespeare accepted the prevalent belief that God had guided England into her haven of Tudor prosperity.’ This view was endorsed by Irving Ribner in the following decade, quoting Tillyard to the effect that ‘the primary purpose of the play … is to “display the working of God's plan to restore England to prosperity”’. And towards the end of the sixties it was amplified by E. A. J. Honigmann in his Penguin redaction of Richard III.18 Discussing what he calls ‘the play's two-phase movement’, Honigmann remarked:

We thus see that the gradual unfolding of a providential design against the individualist who set himself up against God's order necessitated emphasis upon character in the first part of the play, … and then upon plot in the second, where the author's design mirrors that of God. We see, further, that Richard's fake piety is not simply a delightful comic touch but prepares us for the central conflict of the play, in which Richard's mighty opposite is not the puppet Richmond but the King of kings.

On the other side of the debate M. M. Reese has maintained that ‘Richard III is an unremittingly earthy play’ and that ‘True recognition of a higher power is found only in Richmond, who is a visitant from another world’. And in a very anti-Tillyardian piece, ‘The World of Richard III’, A. L. French has not only rejected ‘the notion that the play is the climactic lesson taught by the Tudor Myth’ but has argued in some detail to prove that ‘The world of Richard III … is by and large the reverse of religious’.19

Faced with such contrary opinions it is tempting to take refuge in the usual compromise and declare with the immortal Sir Roger that much might be said on both sides. But in fact I find French's arguments most convincing. There can be no doubt that the idea of heavenly vengeance is central to both the main conflict and to the fates of individual characters like Clarence, Hastings, and Buckingham, but it does not touch anyone deeply and is in fact chiefly a means of energising prayers and curses. The chief minister of heavenly vengeance does not appear till near the end, and in the meantime Margaret represents heaven in a completely pagan spirit. The central conflict involves not so much Richard and God, as Honigmann has it, as Richard and Margaret.

This is on the symbolical level. But of course the play is enacted on a realistic level as well. And Richard is not just ‘the formal Vice, Iniquity’ of the morality tradition, there is a great deal of realistic detail in his portraiture. In the first place we are given a sound psychological explanation of his villainy, and though Elizabethans may not have known about inferiority complexes they would certainly understand the mechanisms of compensation:

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.


In the second place there are hints that Richard does not, after all, tell us everything that goes on in his mind. He does not, for instance, reveal the ‘secret close intent’ which he must ‘reach unto’ by marrying Lady Anne (I.i.158-9) or the ‘divers unknown reasons’ why Anne should grant the ‘boon’ he asks of her (I.ii.217). Perhaps we are expected to realise that marrying Henry VI's daughter-in-law would put him in a stronger position to reach for the crown, perhaps we are meant to be mystified, or perhaps Shakespeare simply forgot to clear up the mystery.20 Whatever the explanation, this bit of secretiveness on Richard's part adds a touch of humanity. He does not immediately tell us, either, later on, why his ‘kingdom stands on brittle glass’ unless he is married to his brother's daughter (IV.ii.59-60), and once more we sense an opaqueness which makes him all the more lifelike. But in this case an explanation is given shortly afterwards: he has learnt that ‘the Britain Richmond aims / At young Elizabeth’ and has to forestall him. One thing he really suppresses for a long time: his nightly torments. Only his wife Anne is able to bring them to our knowledge:

For never yet one hour in his bed
Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep,
But with his timorous dreams was still awaked.

(IV.i.82-4; see also V.iii.161)

It is as if a mask of levity is whipped away and we suddenly see an agonised face behind it. There is another brief glimpse of that face as Richard commissions Tyrrel to dispose of his ‘Two deep enemies, / Foes to my rest and my sweet sleep's disturbers’ (IV.ii.71-2). And when we see Richard after the visitation of the spirits struggling to shake off the impression of his nightmare which has now fully invaded his consciousness we realise that he is not as entirely devoid of moral feeling as he is about to pretend at the commencement of the battle:

Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use.


Richard has reached a point where he is not even sure of his villain's role. He confounds himself according to the conditional oath he swore to Queen Elizabeth: ‘I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.’ This is psychological realism at Shakespeare's best. And it is supported by general behavioral attributes. Richard is always in a hurry, for instance. ‘Clarence hath not another day to live’, ‘go we to determine / Who … straight shall post to Ludlow’, ‘Then fiery expedition be my wing’, ‘And brief, good mother, for I am in haste’, ‘Come, bustle, bustle! Caparison my horse!’ The examples could be multiplied, and Shakespeare must have consciously endowed Richard with this urge for haste. He may even have associated it with the saying quoted after Gloucester by the young Duke of York: ‘Small herbs have grace; great weeds do grow apace’ (II.iv.13).21

On the realistic plot level Richard's chief antagonist is neither God nor Margaret but Queen Elizabeth and her ‘allies’, at least until Richmond takes over. Richard and Clarence in the first scene of the play speak of Elizabeth as the person who really rules the land: ‘We are the Queen's abjects, and must obey.’ Actually her role is fairly passive, as all but Richard's are. Since the initiative for action always comes from him until he is deserted by Buckingham, there is little conflict in the usual sense. We often see Elizabeth plaintive and in tears, and well she may complain, but she does stand up to Richard both at first and at the end, and is the last person to succumb to his force or persuasion. That she does genuinely succumb I see no reason to doubt, especially since both she and her daughter give their consent to Richard in The True Tragedie.22 But the capitulation is undeniably sudden after her long resistance. And the whole wooing scene is inordinately long, coming as it does just before the concluding phase of the action and having no influence on the plot as such. It includes the longest speech in the entire play, spoken by Richard and ending with a resounding climax which when it was first written may well have been meant to reduce Queen Elizabeth to submission:

Bound with triumphant garlands will I come
And lead thy daughter to a conqueror's bed;
To whom I will retail my conquest won,
And she shall be sole victoress, Cæsar's Cæsar.


The queen's ironical answer and the ensuing return to stichomythia are hardly what we expect after Richard's great display of eloquence. His long speech is omitted without trace in the quartos, probably as the result of abridgment, though it is tempting to think that the wooing scene as we have it in the Folio contains a conflation of alternative passages. I will not venture to suggest which parts of the scene were the author's first thoughts and which second, or which were meant for excision and which for retention, or whether indeed Shakespeare ever decided what to keep and reject, but the signs of complex composition are sufficiently clear. In a play as long as Richard III (it is almost as long as Hamlet, and the quarto version is not much shorter than the Folio) there may have been considerable indecision on the author's part as to what and how much to include. Some matter may have been discarded and some added in his efforts to arrive at a satisfactory structure and a suitable length; and the surviving texts may reflect a complicated process of drafting and revision, both substantive texts incorporating more than was eventually intended for stage performance.23 But, not to digress too much, we may in any case be reasonably certain that Queen Elizabeth disappoints our expectations in the end and proves momentarily to be what Richard calls her, a ‘relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman’.

Richard's dealings with the Grey faction are internecine in that the Yorkists now fight among themselves. The chaos of civil war during the last phase of Henry VI's reign has degenerated further into a brutal struggle between brothers and relations in which all idealism has disappeared. The ‘glorious summer’ of York has been short, and York's widow grieves for her sons:

And being seated, and domestic broils
Clean overblown, themselves the conquerors
Make war upon themselves, brother to brother,
Blood to blood, self against self. O preposterous
And frantic outrage, end thy damned spleen.


There is now no question of title to the crown, in fact Richard deliberately defies legitimacy and denies the rightful succession. Having ostensibly got Edward to do away with Clarence and then been favoured by the death of Edward, he fabricates stories of bastardy concerning both Edward and his children to prove himself next in line.

The plot is equally simple whether seen from a realistic or an emblematic point of view. But one tends to look more at the details, and there are more questions to be asked, in a realistic analysis. Why, for instance, do we never see Jane Shore? Or the Duchess of Clarence? Or Princess Elizabeth? Obviously there were limits to the number of women who could be put on the stage and there is a large number in Richard III as it is—four important characters, in addition to four children. But was Margaret strictly necessary?24 Or the Duchess of York? Or (one could go on) even Lady Anne? Shakespeare must at least have faced a difficult choice in selecting his women.

In the case of Mistress Shore it does look as if he may have contemplated using her. At the very outset of the play she is spoken of as a person of great influence. Clarence remarks:

By heaven, I think there is no man secure
But the Queen's kindred, and night-walking heralds
That trudge betwixt the King and Mistress Shore.
Heard you not what an humble suppliant
Lord Hastings was to her for his delivery?


And Richard replies:

Humbly complaining to her deity
Got my Lord Chamberlain his liberty.
I'll tell you what, I think it is our way,
If we will keep in favour with the King,
To be her men and wear her livery.
The jealous o'erworn widow and herself,
Since that our brother dubbed them gentlewomen,
Are mighty gossips in this monarchy.

There is further bantering about Mistress Shore between Richard and Brakenbury. After the death of the king she is referred to as Hastings's mistress (III.i.185). And in the crucial council scene at the Tower (III.iv), Richard accuses the queen, ‘consorted with that harlot, strumpet Shore,’ of having withered up his arm by witchcraft. Clearly one who was both so influential and so crafty might have defended a place beside Richard's other enemies. In The True Tragedie of Richard the third, which, pace Honigmann,26 was probably written before Shakespeare's play, Jane Shore has a not insignificant part and is even mentioned by way of advertisement on the title page, in a moralistic appendage (‘With a lamentable ende of Shores wife, an example for all wicked women’), which does not do justice to the sympathetic treatment of Jane in the actual tragedy. Geoffrey Bullough has suggested that Shakespeare wished to avoid dramatising incidents which had already been on the boards in the earlier play, but he offers no objective support for this view.27 It seems more likely that Shakespeare jettisoned Jane when he thought of introducing Margaret. The latter would be a much more imposing and colourful figure for a tragedy than Edward's bourgeois concubine. Similarly the inclusion of the Duchess of York, the mother of Edward, Clarence, and Richard, must have been a more tempting choice than the Duchess of Clarence, although the latter is mentioned in her husband's prayer for her safety and we might have expected to see her with the children when they appear shortly afterwards. Princess Elizabeth we may have a momentary expectation of meeting when Richard tells us in IV.iii. ‘To her go I, a jolly thriving wooer.’ She, too, is in The True Tragedie. But the dramatically effective wooing of Anne at the beginning of Richard III would probably have made a dialogue with the young Elizabeth too repetitious, and it was appropriate that Richard should have a final combat of wills and words with her mother the queen, who is so prominent in the early part of the play.

An expectation which is perhaps even more likely to be aroused than that of seeing Jane Shore is the actual sight of the murder of the princes. Here again The True Tragedie might have provided a model if any were needed. It is explicit on the title page about ‘the smothering of the two yoong Princes in the Tower’. Tyrrel's account of the murder in Shakespeare's play is second-rate narrative at best and stands no comparison with the earthy dialogue of Clarence's murderers. One may surmise that one murder performed in view of the audience was felt to be enough, but the argument would not hold for a great many other plays, and anyway why show Clarence being killed rather than the princes? One may further surmise that the play was beginning to be rather long by the time Shakespeare got to Act IV, Scene ii, but then why the extremely long wooing scene soon afterwards? In this case Bullough may be right, that the staging of the murder in an earlier play was still too fresh in people's memory. But perhaps the best answer is that Shakespeare sometimes ignored the most obvious dramatic attraction in order to exploit the less expected solution.

Honigmann has wondered about the absence of the trusted friend who betrays Buckingham to his captors:

Whether or not Shakespeare slipped in supplying no more than hints about the treachery that led to Buckingham's capture is less easy to decide. Abjuring all enmity to the Queen, Buckingham hopes that if he forgets his oath he will be punished in his greatest need by a friend's treachery (II.i.32ff), and later recalls that his wish has come true (V.i.13). Buckingham's son states the facts in Henry VIII (II.i.107-11): his father, ‘Flying for succour to his servant Banister’ was ‘by that wretch betrayed’. While writing Act II of Richard III Shakespeare perhaps planned a later scene depicting the treachery of Banister whom, according to Holinshed, Buckingham ‘above all men loved, favoured, and trusted’—a grand climax after the play's other acts of treachery. If so, he changed his mind.28

I would add two things to support this conjecture. First, that in Henry VIII Buckingham puts some emphasis on his having been betrayed by a friend. And, secondly, that Banister has a small part to play in The True Tragedie. But Shakespeare may not have changed his mind at all. It is quite conceivable that he actually wrote a scene like the one Honigmann hypothesises and that it was later removed either by the author or by some other abridger. It is less probable, perhaps, that he wrote a scene, which may likewise be hypothesised, featuring Doctor Shaw and Friar Penker, who are summoned to Richard's presence at the end of III.v but never turn up. Shakespeare was content, one may assume, to merge them with the two clergymen (bishops in Hall and in the stage direction in III.vii) who at Buckingham's suggestion appear on either side of the would-be king during his meeting with the mayor and citizens.

Two other very minor cases of persons remaining absent or appearing contrary to expectations may be briefly mentioned. The fairly conspicuous part of Dorset, and his flight to Richmond, seem to point forward to his reappearance with Richmond's army from Brittany.29 Instead we are told by a messenger when the rising is under way that he is in arms in Yorkshire. This would be a case of historical truth being in conflict with dramatic propriety, and it would be presumptuous to censure Shakespeare's decision in favour of the former. But that he did at need prefer fiction to fact is demonstrated clearly enough by the presence of Margaret. The second case concerns Stanley, who surprisingly turns up in Richmond's tent on the eve of battle after Richmond has despatched Captain Blunt with a written message for him. Stanley's visit is extremely short and apparently serves mainly to repeat the excuse for his passivity which he already conveyed to Richmond by Sir Christopher Urswick on the former's landing in Wales (IV.v). He does, however, promise to help the Earl as best he may, and Shakespeare may have felt the incident to be necessary in order to motivate the reappearance of Stanley in the final scene. In both Hall and The True Tragedie there is a similar interview between Richmond and Stanley, though the meeting occurs somewhere between the armies.

Richard III is the most conclusive of Shakespeare's English history plays. It leaves no loose ends and prepares for no continued action. It naturally has backward perspectives to the plays which precede it, and it is no doubt a help to the understanding of the relations between the main characters to be familiar with the two Contention plays. The butchering of Rutland and the Duke of York at Wakefield, of Prince Edward at Tewkesbury by York's three sons, and of King Henry in the Tower, are especially recalled, as well as King Edward's marriage to Lady Elizabeth Grey and Clarence's betrayal of his father-in-law Warwick before the battle of Barnet where Warwick is killed. But Richard III is self-contained in that it briefly recapitulates past events at all important points and has an entirely independent plot. It even approximately repeats passages from 3 Henry VI so as to assimilate them, especially Richard's long soliloquy in III.ii of the earlier play, which is echoed in the opening soliloquy of Richard III. I emphatically disagree with Tillyard, who declares:

In its function of summing up and completing what has gone before, Richard III inevitably suffers as a detached unit. Indeed it is a confused affair without the memory of Clarence's perjury to Warwick before Coventry, of Queen Margaret's crowning York with a paper crown before stabbing him at Wakefield, and of the triple murder of Prince Edward at Tewkesbury. The play can never come into its own till acted as a sequel to the other three plays.30

The best answer to this is provided by Honigmann:

Shakespeare, so far as we can tell, did nothing to make his tetralogies available as such, either in print or in the theatre. Like the other dramatists of his time he had to plan even two-part plays largely, if not entirely, as two self-contained units: for Richard III … he devised a firm internal structure, totally different from the loosely episodic sequences of Henry VI. Themes and characters may survive from earlier histories, but do so only when relevant to more immediate purposes. Richard III, the first English play that has consistently held the stage, stands triumphantly on its own.31

Among the characters who survive from earlier histories, one seems to be specially introduced into 3 Henry VI to prepare for his part in Richard III: young Henry Richmond, whom King Henry sees as ‘England's hope’ and ‘Likely in time to bless a regal throne’ ( He is Richard's opposite and counterpart, but we catch only a glimpse of him in the earlier play, and the lacking development of his character is in keeping with his mainly symbolical role. Hastings is already King Edward's particular friend and supporter in 3 Henry VI. There is also a Sir William Stanley, who helps to rescue King Edward from captivity and whom Edward promises to requite for his ‘forwardness’ (IV.v.23). This must be the Lord Stanley of Richard III who comes blundering in just as the news of Clarence's death has been broken to Edward and demands ‘A boon, my sovereign, for my service done!’ (II.i.97). Shakespeare obviously conflated the two brothers William and Thomas and especially the parts they played during the battle of Bosworth. In the third scene of the play, where this composite person makes his first appearance, Lord Stanley's later title of Earl of Derby is anticipated, but his part in that scene shows several signs of being an afterthought, and he may simply have served as an excuse for bringing in the name of Richmond at an early stage.32 On the other hand, some fairly central characters of Richard III are not in 3 Henry VI, above all Buckingham and the Duchess of York. Anne, Grey, and Dorset do not appear in the earlier play either, though the marriage between Anne and Prince Edward is arranged there. There is thus a certain amount of discontinuity between the two plays. There are many minor discrepancies, too,33 but no major ones, and Richard III commences smoothly from the situation arrived at the end of 3 Henry VI. The really significant break in continuity occurs about the middle of the earlier play, to be precise in Richard's soliloquy in III.ii, when the loyal brother becomes a murderous egomaniac.34 His part in the remainder of Henry VI truly belongs to Richard III and needs the latter play to be completed. But Richard III does not need it. Nor, as pure drama and a very different kind of drama from its predecessors, does it strictly need any support from the Henry VI plays.

Within a wider epic framework where the fates of peoples and heroes are recorded it is a different matter. There Richard III takes its place, not necessarily as the last play of a tetralogy, but as the description of the last phase in a power struggle beginning with England against France, continuing in civil war, and compacting itself into butchery of kith and kin before it finally narrows into a conflict within the evil mind:

Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why—
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?


A central theme in this longdrawn struggle as dramatised by Shakespeare is the rise and fall of the house of York. And the increasing savagery of the conflict is in part a reflection of the way in which the Yorkist claim to the throne of England gradually changes from being based on legitimacy to expressing a naked power-lust.

Within this wider extra-theatrical framework we may wish to see Margaret, the bearer of memories, of ancient desires and hates, the keeper of accounts, the Norn, as the central character—paradoxically perhaps, since she is a Frenchwoman and the plays are about England. Those who had the good fortune to see Dame Peggy Ashcroft sustaining the part of Margaret from youth to age in the 1963 and 1964 Stratford-upon-Avon productions of ‘The Wars of the Roses’ are not likely to forget the dominance of that personality. Margaret paves the way for the Yorkist rebellion by depriving a weak king of his strongest support, then carries the burden of the struggle against the rival faction until its last forlorn and monstrous hope is on the brink of destruction. Only then does she fade into the shadows and give place to the symbolic deliverer. And it is in the wider framework of all the plays in which Margaret appears that Richmond's concluding speech in the last of those plays has its full force:

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!


  1. M. Neill, ‘Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III’, SSt., VIII (1975) p. 99.

  2. Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (1957) pp. 117-20. See also A. P. Rossiter, ‘The Structure of Richard the Third’, Durham University Journal, XXXI (1938) 44-75; and ‘Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard III’ in Angel with Horns (1961) 1-21. In the former essay Rossiter analyses R3 in terms of a ‘ritualistic method’, which is first introduced, he thinks, in II.v of 3H6 and there marks a new departure. In ‘Angel with Horns’ he sees R3 as ‘a symphonic structure … with first and second subjects and some Wagnerian Leitmotifs’ (p. 7).

  3. [M. M.] Reese, The Cease of Majesty, (1961) p. 208.

  4. Rossiter, ‘The Structure of Richard the Third’ (see n. 2); Clemen, ‘Anticipation and Foreboding in Shakespeare's Early Histories’, SS, 6 (1953) 25-35.

  5. This statement perhaps needs a slight qualification. Richard is at least made to appear secretive about his intentions in marrying Lady Anne and for a long time he successfully conceals his nightmares. …

  6. Richard threatens revenge on Rivers, Dorset, and Grey in the F text, but Dorset is replaced by Vaughan when it comes to the execution of this revenge. Q has ‘Ryuers, Vaughan, Gray’ in the first place, too.

  7. Buckingham is the only person present in the cursing scene besides Richard who remains seemingly unaffected at first, to Margaret's annoyance. After his sceptical remarks it is surely wrong to attribute the speech ‘My hair doth stand an end to hear her curses’ to Buckingham, as the New Penguin edition does, following F. Q gives it correctly to Hastings.

  8. He does not say that he foretold his death on All Souls' Day, however, as Honigmann thinks—see New Penguin R3, p. 18.

  9. SS, [Shakespeare Survey], 6, p. 27.

  10. A. L. French thinks the curses in R3 do not all ‘come entirely true’ and that the point of this is to show that there is no absolute reign of Justice in the world of the history plays. See ‘The Mills of God and Shakespeare's Early History Plays’, ES, [English Studies], 55, 4 (Aug. 1974) 313-24, esp. pp. 321-3.

  11. Margaret in both the Q and F texts curses Rivers, Dorset, and Hastings for being ‘standers-by’ when her son ‘was stabbed with bloody daggers’ (I.iii.209-11), but in the execution scene at Pomfret Grey makes it clear that he, and not Dorset, was meant; and in IV.iv.68-9, Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, and Grey are called ‘the beholders of this frantic play’ (i.e. of the stabbing of Edward). In Shakespeare's 3H6 none of them are standers-by, though Hall says that Dorset and Hastings took part in the murder of Edward. Shakespeare evidently wanted Dorset to be quite a young man in R3 and replaced the older Dorset by Grey. He must have failed to do so at I.iii.209, and there would seem to be a good case here for emendation.

    It should be clear from I.iii.254-9 that Margaret only scolds Dorset and does not specifically curse him. He is included, however, in the general curse on Elizabeth's children (‘Long mayst thou live to wail thy children's death’, l.203), as Elizabeth remembers in IV.i.43-6. It is from this curse that he escapes.

  12. Compare the two other places where the word ‘despair’ occurs in R3:

    Anne. Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make
    No excuse current but to hang thyself.
    Richard. By such despair I should accuse myself.
    Anne. And by despairing shalt thou stand excused
    For doing worthy vengeance on thyself
    That didst unworthy slaughter upon others.


    Queen Elizabeth. I'll join with black despair against my soul
    And to myself become an enemy.


    Compare also the three occurrences in Lear:; V.iii.192; V.iii.255.

  13. There are a number of good reasons for transferring these lines. They occur in a passage in V.iii, ll.205-16 as numbered in the New Penguin edition, but here quoted from the first quarto:

    Me thought the soules of all that I had murtherd,
    Came to my tent, and euery one did threat,
    To morrows vengeance on the head of Richard.
                                                                                              Enter Ratcliffe.
    Rat. My Lord.
    King. Zoundes, who is there?
    Rat. Ratcliffe, my Lord, tis I, the earlie village cocke,
    Hath twise done salutation to the morne,
    Your friendes are vp, and buckle on their armor.
    King. O Ratcliffe, I haue dreamd a fearefull dreame,
    What thinkst thou, will our friendes proue all true?
    Rat. No doubt my Lord.
    King. O Ratcliffe, I fear, I feare.
    Rat. Nay good my Lord, be not afraid of shadowes.

    The following peculiarities may be noted: 1. The first three lines of this passage come abruptly and oddly at the end of Richard's soliloquy on starting out of his dream. One would expect Richard to identify his dream at the beginning (i.e. after ‘Soft! I did but dream.’) rather than at the end of the soliloquy. And if the lines are meant for information this can hardly be intended for the audience, supposing they have already seen and heard the ghosts. 2. The questionable lines as printed in F correspond in substantial details with the first quarto version, whereas they disagree with the third quarto from which, for the most part, the scene in the F text was pretty mechanically set. This certainly indicates a disturbance of some kind. 3. Lines 213-15 are omitted in F, in spite of its care in reproducing Q3 elsewhere. Most likely the compositor's eye jumped from the ‘O Ratcliffe’ of line 213 to the identical phrase three lines down, but the omission could be deliberate. At any rate it leaves Ratcliffe's exhortation ‘be not afraid of shadowes’ in line 216 without a point of reference. 4. Richmond describes his dream to his friends in the morning. He uses words which parallel those at the end of Richard's soliloquy:

    The sweetest sleep, and fairest-boding dreams
    That ever entered in a drowsy head
    Have I since your departure had, my lords.
    Methought their souls whose bodies Richard murdered
    Came to my tent and cried on victory.
    I promise you my heart is very jocund
    In the remembrance of so fair a dream.

    This suggests that Richard's words, too, should be addressed to an interlocutor. Hall tells how the king ‘recyted and declared to hys famylyer frendes in the morenynge hys wonderfull visyon and terrible dreame’. Both Richard and Richmond would then describe their dreams sufficiently to their friends to make the spectacle of the ghosts unnecessary, and the play is long enough without it. Even so, Shakespeare may have felt that he wanted this scene of combined Senecan eeriness and groundling entertainment, and it undeniably goes unobtrusively enough with the formalism of the play as a whole. (Clarence's dream, of course, is only described, but this is a different case, since Clarence is not a main character.)

    The reason for the anomalies in the transmitted texts could be untidiness in the manuscript which was used by the Q compositor. Concerning the relationship of this manuscript to the copy for F see my Memorial Transmission and Quarto Copy in ‘Richard III’ (Oslo, 1970).

  14. The Duchess of York in her last words to Richard calls on ‘the little souls of Edward's children’ to

    Whisper the spirits of thine enemies
    And promise them success and victory!


    And Buckingham, on his way to execution, invokes the souls of

    Hastings, and Edward's children, Grey and Rivers,
    Holy King Henry and thy fair son Edward,
    Vaughan, and all that have miscarried
    By underhand corrupted foul injustice,

    to mock his own destruction (V.i.3-9). He makes no specific mention of Clarence, Anne or, naturally, of himself.

  15. The repetition looks like a memorial error in Q copied by F, which was here set from Q3. The lines perhaps more naturally belong to Anne than to Clarence, since she once, in the first wooing scene, herself pointed a sword at Richard and let it fall. This would make Clarence's lines a case of anticipation. But the repetition could also be a sign that Anne's appearance was an afterthought.

  16. Reese, op. cit., p. 212. Cf. Ribner, p. 122: ‘His [Richmond's] personality is deliberately underdeveloped … ; he is instrument rather than actor.’ And A. L. French: ‘artistically speaking, Shakespeare was intent upon making Richmond as much of a cipher as possible’ (‘The World of Richard III’, SSt., [Shakespeare Studies] IV (1968) p. 31).

  17. An extreme example of attempts to prove the wooing scene psychologically probable is Donald R. Shupe's ‘The Wooing of Lady Anne: A Psychological Inquiry’, SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] 29, 1 (Winter 1978) 28-36.

  18. [E. M. W.] Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, [(1944; Peregrine Books, 1961)]; p. 204; Ribner, p. 118; New Penguin R3, p. 30.

  19. Reese, p. 223; French, SSt. IV, pp. 25, 33-6.

  20. There is no foundation in the play or the H6 plays for the assertion that ‘Richard woos Anne because Clarence has expropriated Anne's wealth, which Richard hopes to gain by doing away with Clarence and marrying her’. (Shakespeare Newsletter, Sep. 1971, review of Denzell S. Smith, ‘The Credibility of the Wooing of Anne in Richard III’, PLL, 7.2 (Spring 1971) 199-202.)

  21. Cf. 3H6,

    I came into the world with my legs forward.
    Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste
    And seek their ruin that usurp'd our right?

    Honigmann (p. 24) speaks of Richard's ‘suddenness’, which is another aspect of the same quality.

  22. This apparently is the view taken by Louis E. Dollarhide in an article entitled ‘Two Unassimilated Movements of Richard III: An Interpretation’ (Mississippi Quarterly, XIV (1960) 40-6). Taking a cue from A. P. Rossiter, Dollarhide thinks that ‘In writing Richard III, Shakespeare was evidently trying to do two things—first, construct a fable on a structure of curses and related emotive figures; and, second, present the portrait of “a witty king” …’. Dollarhide thinks that Shakespeare awkwardly and inconsistently brought the ‘witty king’ motif to a climax in Richard's successful wooing of Elizabeth when he had already set Richard on a declining course in the curses plot. Stephen L. Tanner reports this view (I am indebted to his report) and attacks it in his own interpretation of the second wooing scene, ‘Richard III versus Elizabeth’ (SQ, XXIV.4 (1973) 468-72). Tanner contends that in giving Elizabeth the upper hand in the wit combat Shakespeare obviously meant to show that Richard was continuing his fatal descent. There is thus an unbroken downward movement from the third scene of Act IV on. I personally see no difficulty in combining a sense of Richard's declining power—both politically and mentally—with a recognition of his hard-won victory over Elizabeth in argument. He has not yet been finally defeated. And if Elizabeth's submission seems sudden this kind of quick yielding after long persuasion is far from unique in Shakespeare. It is more worrying that we hear nothing of Elizabeth's subsequent change of mind before Stanley sends word to Richmond ‘that the Queen hath heartily consented / He [Richmond] should espouse Elizabeth her daughter’ (IV.v.7-8—these lines, incidentally, are misinterpreted by Tanner).

  23. It cannot be ruled out that the reason why the F editors (or compositors) used Q3 as copy for two extended passages in R3 was that the Q version for some reason contained speeches which were not in the manuscript to which they had access. We know that in one place it contained twenty lines of dialogue (the ‘clock passage’) which at any rate did not get into F, whether or not they were in the manuscript copy.

  24. Margaret was left out by Cibber and in our own time by Olivier, though this, of course does not prove her superfluous.

  25. ‘Lord Hastings was to her for his delivery’ is the Q reading. F reads ‘Lord Hastings was, for her delivery’ and the New Penguin ‘Lord Hastings was for his delivery’.

  26. See New Penguin R3, p. 15. Geoffrey Bullough, following G. B. Churchill and Dover Wilson, gives reasons for thinking The True Tragedie preceded R3—see Sources, III, pp. 238-9. In any case, ‘Shores wife, King Edward the fourths Concubine’ has her own complaint in the Mirror for Magistrates. Contemporary interest in Jane Shore is also attested by her appearance in the two parts of Heywood's Edward IV (1594?).

    Honigmann recognises the importance attributed to Jane Shore in the early scenes of R3 but thinks she becomes mainly ‘a moral touchstone’ and concludes rather oddly that ‘her function … is the same as that of the invisible Falstaff in Henry V’ (New Penguin R3, pp. 41-2).

  27. Sources, III, p. 239.

  28. New Penguin R3, p. 18.

  29. In The True Tragedie (Sc. xxi) Dorset is at least enquired after by Queen Elizabeth after the battle of Bosworth, and Richmond informs her that he had to remain in France as a pledge for the men provided by the French king.

  30. Tillyard, pp. 199-200. See Reese, p. 224: ‘a play which … is only a complement to Henry VI.’ And French, SSt. IV, p. 25: ‘if it is acted by itself, a great many references which are only meaningful in the light of Henry VI are baffling and have to be excised.’

  31. New Penguin R3, pp. 43-4.

  32. The queen's reference to the Countess of Richmond in I.iii. 20-4, since that person does not appear in the play, can only serve to point out that she is Stanley's wife and to remind us of the existence of her son. Richmond himself is not mentioned till IV.i.42, when Dorset is advised to fly to him, but in the following scene Richard becomes concerned with Richmond and his name is mentioned seven times in quick succession and again three times in IV.iii.

    As for Stanley being an afterthought in I.iii as I suggest, the best indications are (a) that he is not brought off the stage again although he has no speeches and can have no part in the quarrelling and cursing that follow, and (b) that he is an unlikely person to bring news of the king's health to the queen. So, for that matter, is Buckingham, who takes over as spokesman for the two lords and also tells the queen that the king has called a meeting of the opposing factions at court to ‘make atonement’ between them. It turns out only a moment later (I.iii.62-8) that the queen knows more about this meeting than Buckingham. On top of these indications it is interesting to notice that the entry of Buckingham and Stanley is announced with the words (spoken by Grey), ‘Here comes the Lord of Buckingham & Derby.’ This is the F version. Q1 has both the verb and the noun in the plural (‘Here come the Lords’) whereas Q3-6 have ‘Here comes the Lords’.

    It seems likely that the muddle of Stanley and Derby in speech headings and stage directions later in the play is due to his first, erroneous, appearance as Derby. In The True Tragedie, Stanley remains Stanley throughout.

  33. The change from Sir William Stanley to Lord Stanley may be counted as a discrepancy. Another has been pointed out in note 11: there are no ‘standers-by’ other than King Edward and his brothers and Queen Margaret during the killing of Prince Edward in 3H6. In 3H6 it is King Edward who first stabs the prince. Richard recalls this once in the later play, when he tells Lady Anne, ‘I did not kill your husband’ and claims that he was ‘slain by Edward's hands’ (I.ii.91-2). At IV.iv.63 Margaret reminds the Duchess of York, ‘Thy Edward he is dead, that killed my Edward’. But elsewhere in R3 the blame for the murder of the prince is laid entirely on Richard. He himself admits to it in his soliloquy in I.ii. King Edward is made to appear relatively blameless in R3.

    At I.iii.186 we are told, after the murder of Rutland has been brought up, that ‘Northumberland, then present, wept to see it’. But in 3H6 Northumberland is not present at the slaying of Rutland but weeps to see the suffering of York (I.iv.169-71). In R3 Richard claims that Elizabeth and her husband Grey ‘were factious for the house of Lancaster’ and that Grey was slain ‘in Margaret's battle at Saint Albans’ (I.iii.126-9), whereas in 3H6 Edward tells his brother that ‘in quarrel of the house of York / The worthy gentleman did lose his life’ (III.ii.6-7).

    In addition to the small internal inconsistencies in R3 pointed out in note 11 above, it may be mentioned that Ratcliffe in the F version and Catesby in the Q version are present in two places simultaneously (see my Iniurious Impostors and ‘Richard III’ (Oslo, 1964, p. 22). And Margaret in recapitulating her mockery of Queen Elizabeth in IV.iv.82-91 remembers more than she ever said in the cursing scene in I.iii.196-208. Finally, Richmond's order to the Earl of Pembroke to see him in his tent ‘by the second hour in the morning’ (V.iii.31-2) is not followed up.

  34. John Palmer sees the change in Richard taking place at an earlier time and fails to notice that Richard remains loyal not only to his father but to his brother Edward until the latter's marriage to Lady Elizabeth Grey. See his Political Characters of Shakespeare (1945) pp. 68-9. Rossiter, concentrating on the dramatic method of the early history plays, finds the most remarkable ‘fault’ in 3H6, II.v—see note 2 above.

(The New Penguin Richard III, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (1968) has been used for quotations and references.)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12175

SOURCE: “Richard III,” in Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments, University of Georgia Press, 1976, pp. 67-100.

[In the following essay, Hunter reviews the plot and characters of Richard III, and also discusses Shakespeare's adaptation of his sources.]

We regard the hellish fall of Dr. Faustus and wonder at the forces that explain it, particularly at the mysteries of grace and free will, of election and reprobation. The hellish fall of Richard the Third directs our minds toward the same unlawful things, but Shakespeare's first great tragic protagonist is the protagonist of something more (or other) than tragedy. The Richard III plays (I shall be considering Henry VI, Part Three as well as Richard III) are doubly generic—tragic history within comic history—and the tragic destruction of Richard is simultaneously the comedy of England's salvation. Evil is done but good comes of it. Divine providence is necessarily among Shakespeare's subjects. The mysteries of grace and free will, of election and reprobation are contained within the mysteries of providence and predestination. The result is a work of art more complex than Marlowe's.

Not that the explanation for the increase in complexity is to be found wholly or even largely in the theological concepts evoked. Shakespeare is making art out of history and Northrop Frye is right when he maintains that “the poet … can deal with history only to the extent that history supplies him with, or affords a pretext for, the comic, tragic, romantic or ironic myths that he actually uses.”1 Nonetheless, once the artist declares himself a writer of history he can achieve “the integrity or consistency of his verbal structure” only by accommodating his mythic urges to those facts which are too well known to be altered and by producing characters who are moved by impulses human enough to be reconcilable with the historical nature of the events which form the mythic pattern. Thus in the Henry IV plays Shakespeare must reconcile his mythic Hal—the legendary prodigal prince—with the Machiavellian power struggle which makes up the history he is dramatizing. The result of the effort is a Machiavellian prodigal, a character more complex and significant than the Henry of Monmouth produced by either popular legend or official history, and to create this figure Shakespeare invents one of his greatest mythic actions—the story of Falstaff and Prince Hal.

The accommodation of the legendary Richard III, the murderous Machiavel, to the facts of history had largely been done before Shakespeare took on the job. Indeed the legendary figure had been to some degree created by the historians and declared a fact by royal authority in order to validate what has since been called the Tudor myth. That pious version of the past held that the coronation of Henry VII (i.e., the arrival of the Tudor dynasty out of genealogical left field) was the happy ending of God's providential plan for sinful, suffering England, a plan that necessarily included the agonies inflicted upon the English by the villainy of the supplanted king. I do not believe that the propagation of this quaint notion was Shakespeare's overriding purpose in the Histories. The providential view is, however, among the materials Shakespeare had to deal with in making these plays and he did not choose to deal with it by eliminating it. On the contrary he used it as an essential ingredient for transforming what the historians presented him with—a melodrama about a melodramatic villain—into a tragedy with a tragic protagonist.

Authorized historical legend presented Shakespeare with a villainous instrument of God's beneficent providence. Shakespeare proceeded to discover the tragic meaning of such a figure by creating him through action. But in order to do so, it was necessary for Shakespeare to create a complicated work of art—complicated primarily in its sense of cause. The actions of the play must take place within a dramatic version of what we may call the world of second causes. What happens in that imagined world must be clearly the result of acceptable artistic imitations of those emotional and political forces with which, as creatures who inhabit the real world of second causes, we are altogether too familiar. But because the world in which the action of the play unfolds is proclaimed to be providentially ordered, the play must also make us aware that those very psychological and political forces are themselves caused and that their first cause is the nature and will of the God who has created and now governs that world—or Shakespeare's imitation of it. And what is true of action must be true of character also. Richard III is a vividly imagined expressionistic imitation of a man. Shakespeare has selected, emphasized, and repressed the various elements of human nature to create a brilliant artifact. But he has also imagined for this creation a creator other than the playwright himself. Richard the Third is presented as a manifestation of the first cause of the world he inhabits. Both action and character in the earlier histories are evidence of the nature of the God who governs the world of these plays, and the nature of the God they bear witness to is an important source of tragic terror for the audience at Richard's tragedy. By looking first at some aspects of the action of the plays and then at the character of the protagonist, I would like to try to discover what these tragical histories suggest about the nature of the God who creates and destroys Richard.

Not that divine nature is constantly being forced upon our attention in the Histories. God's existence is easy to forget, so completely does the action of these plays appear at times to be entirely the outcome of the characters' lust for power. Before the emergence of Richard, Warwick the King-maker is the most important human determiner of the design of these plays, the human God of the political world of Henry VI, Part III. Indeed, he is described more than once in terms that make him appear to be a human embodiment of Fortune, a man who, like Marlowe's Mortimer, “makes Fortune's wheel turn as he please,” or seems to. Queen Margaret calls him the “Proud setter up, and puller downe of Kings” (3H6.3.3.157), and on the occasion of his final fall Warwick finds it necessary to remind Edward IV that he owes his royalty to the talents of the King-maker: “Confesse who set thee up, and pluckt thee downe” (3H6.5.1.26).

With these images of royal rise and fall, Warwick is being associated with the goddess Fortuna, and by the association Shakespeare is saying something about the nature of Fortune as well as of Warwick. From one point of view, the force which moves these characters to catastrophe and success is blind chance, an unseeing goddess mindlessly turning a meaningless wheel. Looked at from another perspective, however, Fortune appears to own the features of Warwick, and the motivating force of these plays is the human drive for power. The tragic rises and falls result from the Machiavellian skills which the various characters bring to the political struggle the plays dramatize. This way of seeing explains the action by presenting it as a series of cause and effect relationships and thus satisfies our need to find a structure in the chaos of our lives. It does not, however, quite satisfy our need to find a meaning. The political perspective tells us that event is consequence, but we know that the coinciding of consequence and justice is rare and usually accidental. We want what happens in drama to be what, morally and ethically, should happen and Shakespeare presumably shares this desire. At any rate, he certainly plays with it, using it for the purposes of creating his tragic effect. He allows us to perceive that a design formed by the assertion of human will coexists in tragedy with the mindless revolutions of Fortune's wheel. But coexisting with both these patterns and transcending them both is a pattern determined by the exercise of the omniscient and omnipotent will of God. The plays suggest that chance and consequence have first and final causes and that they are appearances which conceal the reality of divine providential justice. The dramatic action is thus made meaningful and we are made happy, our need for meaning satisfied. But Shakespeare's tragedies are never content simply to achieve our happiness. The art then goes on to show us that the meaning which has pleased us is, in fact, incomprehensible and terrifying. If we choose to contemplate the vision of divine providence that these early histories present us with, we find that there is little in it for our comfort. What we confront is a mystery and when we attempt to solve that mystery by embodying in a god the logical conclusions toward which the clues in the art direct us, we find our reason bringing forth monsters. Thus we can discover if we wish to that our need for meaning leads us to terror and a knowledge of our ignorance. We learn from tragedy what we have been told by theology: the coveting of knowledge is a kind of madness.

We are mightily assisted in our first attempts at understanding by the fact that the men and women around Richard are also trying to discover a transcendent meaning for their more or less horrible lives. As a result, the various characters present us with a series of versions of God and of a divine providence whose existence will explain away the meaningless injustice that is inherent in accident or mere consequence. This is true even of Warwick. As a preeminently political man, he is usually content with political meaning, but he is also conscious of divine power—though far more conscious of his own—and can appeal to it in moments of unusual stress:

Why stand we like soft-hearted women heere,
Wayling our losses, whiles the Foe doth Rage,
And looke upon, as if the Tragedie
Were plaid in jest, by counterfetting Actors.
Heere on my knee, I vow to God above,
Ile never pawse againe, never stand still,
Till either death hath clos'd these eyes of mine,
Or Fortune given me measure of Revenge.


The effect of this bombast is more than ordinarily complex for a play so early in the canon. Warwick's theatrical metaphor reminds us that he is wrong—the tragedy is played in jest by counterfeiting actors. But the action and speech that follow the metaphor remind us that he is doubly wrong. Prayers in the theater are usually addressed to the second balcony. By falling to his knees and calling God to witness, Warwick suggests that there is a divine spectator within the play's world for whom the imitated reality takes place in the theater of God's judgments. For the God of the play the action may be as much as drama as it is for us, the “children of paradise,” the human audience in the theater. Edward extends that sense by joining Warwick and further defining the power to which both appeal:

Oh Warwicke, I do bend my knee with thine,
And in this vow do chaine my soule to thine:
And ere my knee rise from the Earths cold face,
I throw my hands, mine eyes, my heart to thee,
Thou setter up, and plucker downe of Kings:
Beseeching thee (if with thy will it stands)
That to my Foes this body must be prey,
Yet that thy brazen gates of heaven may ope,
And give sweet passage to my sinfull soule.


Warwick vows; Edward also prays, and that characterizes both men. But in praying Edward modifies Warwick's vow. For Warwick, God is a spectator at the theater of His judgments; for Edward, He is the all-powerful actor in it. Warwick looks to Fortune for revenge. Edward looks beyond, defining Fortune's true nature. As we have seen, the phrase “Thou setter up, and plucker downe of Kings” could serve nicely to describe Fortuna and her wheel. It does serve to describe Warwick the King-maker, but in using it Edward is talking about neither Fortune nor Warwick. He is describing divine will, the ultimate reality which contains the meaning both of blind chance and of human will.

The pattern of royal rise and fall, which can be ascribed to the random working of blind Fortune, can also be seen as the result of such human power drives and political skills as are embodied in Warwick. But just as the appearance of Fortune is rejected by the more pious for the reality of divine will, so is the appearance of human freedom and control, and appropriately enough it is the pious Henry who defines the true relationship with precision:

But Warwicke, after God, thou set'st me free
And chiefely therefore, I thanke God, and thee,
He was the Author, thou the Instrument.


To be sure, the clarity of Henry's sense of the true nature of causes does not prevent him from immediately going on with an apostrophe to Fortune and an announcement of his political intentions. For the actors in the theater of God's judgments, chance and will are realities, and though they may not be the ultimate reality, the patterns they form have a perceptible existence and coexist with the overriding design of divine providence. One way of looking at the drama in which Shakespeare involves us is to see it as taking place in the theater of God's judgments and Henry is here defining God's true relationship to that theater. God is more than a spectator and participant. He is the author and the characters are his characters—his instruments. His providential plot will conclude with apocalypse—joy for some, horror for others. Along the way, providential comedies and providential tragedies occur. As a human imitator of divine creation Shakespeare devises imitations of both kinds of action in the course of his career. The late Romances are supreme examples of providential comedy but Richard III is a providential tragedy—that is, a tragic action set within a providential frame, and the apparent contradiction between the agony and villainy of the protagonist and the proclaimed beneficence of the whole action inevitably raises within a Christian audience questions, doubts, and fears which Shakespeare is less interested in answering or allaying than in turning to artistic account.

Such questions arise necessarily from the material which Shakespeare has chosen to dramatize in Henry the Sixth, Part Three and Richard the Third. The Tudor myth requires that Richard be the villain protagonist of a providential action. Shakespeare accepts the myth as a “given” and pays lip service to it, but the only important enthusiast for the myth in the plays is Richmond himself—and Shakespeare has made the first of the Tudors a dramatic nonentity, a vacuum in shining armor. Richmond's repeated pieties (I count eight variations of “God and our good cause fight upon our side” in the last one hundred and sixty lines of Richard III) give an intellectual existence to the purely beneficent Tudor myth version of providence and create for us a God in whom it would be pleasant to believe. Like Edward's, Richmond's God is a participant in the action of the play, but far more than Edward's, he is a benevolent participant. He is ultimately responsible for the good that happens and that includes, of course, the deserved punishment of the wicked, especially of Richard himself. Richmond's God, the author of good and the enemy of evil, is the last version of divine nature we meet with in the first tetralogy of history plays and it is possible, if one has a talent for optimism, to leave the theater in undisturbed possession of something rather like the semi-Pelagianism which the medieval miracle plays promote, and which Dr. Faustus also permits the unreflecting Christians in its audience to retain. But like Marlowe, Shakespeare creates other possible Gods for his tragedy. Two such divinities are imagined by characters within the plays as possible first causes for the tragic action. Because the God-devising (or perceiving) characters in question—Queen Elizabeth and Queen Margaret—are far more vivid than Richmond and because the events that inspire their speeches are tragic rather than triumphant, their visions have an intensity and a conceptual validity for the plays that Richmond's lacks.

The theological question that Elizabeth and Margaret are forced by the horror of their lives to confront is basic: is God responsible for the evil which results in human suffering? For Elizabeth the answer is, “Yes, in a sense.” For Margaret, “Yes, hallelujah!” The event which prompts their varying responses is Richard's murder of Elizabeth's sons, the two princes, in the Tower. The scene which explores the significance of this horror has a choral quality which is, appropriately, as much ecclesiastical as dramatic, turning it into a kind of mass for the dead with the Kyrie eleison of Elizabeth set against Margaret's Dies irae. The litany gets to its point when Elizabeth questions God's concern for the innocent:

Qu. Wilt thou, O God, flye from such gentle Lambs,
And throw them in the intrailes of the Wolfe?
When didst thou sleepe, when such a deed was done?


For the benevolent good shepherd of Richmond's version of divine power, Elizabeth is tempted to substitute a bad shepherd who abandons his flock when it is in danger. She begins, indeed, to go further and to see him throwing the innocent to the wolf. But then she turns back and modifies her accusation to one of ignorant uncaring, of sleep. The God she imagines is one who is responsible for evil only in the sense that he permits its existence and fails to prevent its effect. This, with the accusation of indifference removed, is close to the God of the theologians, like Hooker, who hold that God must permit evil in order to preserve human freedom: “all men of knowledge grant, that God is himself no author of sin. … And yet we must of necessity grant that there could be no evil committed, if his will did appoint or determine that none should be.”2 In terms of his control over the theater of his judgments, this God is more than Warwick's spectator, more than Richmond's benevolent participant, but less than Henry's “author.” He is rather like, to punish the metaphor, a commedia dell'arte scenarist who leaves his characters free to improvise dialogue and invent business (especially wicked business) but who has determined both the outline of the plot and its conclusion.

Elizabeth's God is not Margaret's. Henry the Sixth's queen has done and suffered evil for so long that her sense of it is bound to make Elizabeth's appear naive by contrast. Elizabeth asks when God has slept through a deed as evil as the murder of her children. Margaret tells us: “When holy Harry dyed, and my sweet Sonne” (RIII.4.4.25). In Margaret's world, the slaughter of innocents is banal, and her incantations prove it:

I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him:
I had a Husband, till a Richard kill'd him:
Thou had'st an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him:
Thou had'st a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him.


The duchess of York is also on stage and her memory is as long and her experience as rich as Margaret's. She reminds the queen and us that Margaret's role in the horrors has been far from passive:

I had a Richard too, and thou did'st kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou help'st(3) to kill him.


With the mention of Rutland, that pattern of the murder of innocent children in the two plays has been completely recalled. The Lancastrian Clifford's murder of young Rutland, the stabbing of Edward, prince of Wales, at Tewkesbury, and the murder of the little princes in the Tower form a series of events presented as doubly caused. The design results immediately from the repetitious barbarity of human impulses, but it also expresses the nature of Margaret's God, whose justice is served by such impulses even in their most barbarous forms.

Young Clifford, Margaret's chief general, is the most barbaric servant of such impulses in Henry VI, Part III. He comes into full dramatic being in Henry VI, Part II at the Battle of Saint Albans, entering immediately after the duke of York's murder of Old Clifford. Before he sees his father's body Clifford apostrophizes war:

                                                  O Warre, thou sonne of hell,
Whom angry heavens do make their minister,
Throw in the frozen bosomes of our part,
Hot Coales of Vengeance.


War and the heavens answer his invitation by presenting him with the sight of Old Clifford's corpse and he replies with a demand for nothing less than apocalypse itself.

                                                  O let the vile world end,
And the premised Flames of the Last day,
Knit earth and heaven together.


This early but very Shakespearean invitation to chaos to come again is a sign that the heavens have chosen Clifford as a minister of their wrath against humanity. As a servant of the drive toward chaos, he will not spare the innocent:

Henceforth, I will not have to do with pitty.
Meet I an infant of the house of Yorke,
Into as many gobbits will I cut it
As wilde Medea yong Absirtis did.


In Henry VI, Part Three he keeps his promise. He captures the twelve-year-old earl of Rutland, York's youngest son, and proceeds to slaughter him despite his pleas:

Rutland. I never did thee harme: why wilt thou slay me?
Clifford. Thy Father hath.
Rutland. But 'twas ere I was borne.
Thou hast one Sonne, for his sake pitty me,
Lest in revenge thereof, sith God is just,
He be as miserably slaine as I.
Ah, let me live in Prison all my dayes,
And when I give occasion of offence,
Then let me dye, for now thou hast no cause.
Clifford. No cause? thy Father slew my Father: therefore dye.


When Rutland realizes that the moral argument of his own innocence will not move Clifford, he tries to influence his murderer by suggesting that vengeance breeds vengeance. Blood will have blood and the same impulses move Yorkists and Lancastrians, Shepherdsons and Grangerfords, Hatfields and McCoys. But Rutland is not arguing simply from the brutality of men. Clifford should fear for the life of his innocent son “sith God is just.” By killing the innocent, men serve divine justice. But although Clifford suffers deserved death within the play, the sin of Rutlands' murderer is not visited on his posterity. Instead Queen Margaret appropriates the punishment to her own child by the enthusiasm with which she uses the death of Rutland to torment her enemy, York, before she helps Clifford to kill him:

          … where is your Darling, Rutland?
Looke Yorke, I stayn'd this Napkin with the blood
That valiant Clifford, with his Rapiers point,
Made issue from the Bosome of the Boy:
And if thine eyes can water for his death,
I give thee this to drie thy Cheekes withall.


The extravagance of this guarantees our memory of it, which must last on into Richard III if that play is to make the sense it should. It certainly lasts until the murder of Edward, prince of Wales, by York's remaining sons in act 5, scene 5 of 3 Henry VI, where it creates a context for Margaret's agonizing that gives a grim absurdity to such assertions as “Men, ne're spend their fury on a Childe” (3H6.5.5.56). But it also keeps us conscious of an emerging pattern when she turns upon the murderers:

You have no children (Butchers) if you had,
The thought of them would have stirr'd up remorse,
But if you ever chance to have a Childe,
Looke in his youth to have him so cut off.
As deathsmen you have rid this sweet yong Prince.


Her own example (and Clifford's) invalidate the first of these sentiments. Neither maternity nor paternity is a guarantee of decent human impulses. But the death she is suffering for is clear evidence that she is right in expecting the sins of parents to be visited upon their children. Hers were visited upon her child.

Margaret is here beginning to justify her epithet: “well skilled in curses.” But her virtuoso performances in the genre come only in Richard III. Her skill is double. She is both eloquent and accurate. Her eloquence is in part native, in part, as she explains to Elizabeth at act 4, scene 4, lines 116 and following, the result of wits sharpened by hatred. Her accuracy also has two sources: first, her ability to sense the consequences of the destructive nature of the human beings, particularly Richard, whom she hates, and second, a growing ability to perceive the pattern of divine vengeance, which becomes steadily clearer as the plays unfold. The first such moment of perception in Richard III comes in act 1, scene 3, when Margaret, having spied long enough on the band of wrangling pirates that the house of York has become, is amused to notice that her appearance and the memory of her evil—the death of Rutland in particular—serve to reunite the Yorkists temporarily:

What? were you snarling all before I came,
Ready to catch each other by the throat,
And turne you all your hatred now on me?


This is an important moment of analogous action. What Margaret does for the house of York, Richard will do for all England. The process of strife which originates and continues in human hatred can only be ended by human hatred. By being absolutely horrible Richard forces his society to unite in hatred against him. But this is not Margaret's perception of the future—it can only be ours, and only by hindsight. Margaret's vision is triggered by a pair of pieties from Richard and Queen Elizabeth, who see Margaret's suffering as the result of divine justice for Rutland's murder:

Rich. … God, not we, hath plagu'd thy bloody deed.
Qu. So just is God, to right the innocent.


Now Margaret knows that her sufferings, her plagues as well as her curses, have taken the form of the suffering of the innocent—she has been punished with the murder of her innocent son and husband—and she perceives that God can be expected also to visit the sins of the house of York upon guilty and innocent alike:

Did Yorkes dread Curse prevaile so much with Heaven,
That Henries death, my lovely Edwards death,
Their Kingdomes losse, my wofull Banishment,
Should all but answer for that peevish Brat?
Can Curses pierce the Clouds, and enter Heaven?
Why then give way dull Clouds to my quick Curses.
.....Edward thy Sonne, that now is Prince of Wales,
For Edward our Sonne, that was Prince of Wales,
Dye in his youth, by like untimely violence.


Margaret has conceived her God, has found out the providential pattern, the design worked out by the dynamics of divine justice in this Shakespearean example of the theater of God's judgments. The principle which emerges is that of punishing the infliction of suffering upon the innocent by inflicting suffering upon the innocent. In cursing an innocent child Margaret is asking that the will of her God be done on earth.

Margaret's God is a concept shockingly foreign to the liberal humanitarianism that has characterized middle-class Christianity for at least a century. It is distinctly less foreign to Shakespeare's play and Shakespeare's time. When the innocent Rutland warns his murderer that more innocents may suffer for the crime, he does so on the grounds that God is just. And every twelve-year-old Elizabethan bright enough to memorize his catechism knew how God characterizes himself in the second commandment: “I the Lorde thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, unto the thirde and fourth generation of them that hate me.”4 Such a visitation of iniquities is being presented in 3 Henry VI and Richard III.

Margaret's second and final appearance in Richard III returns us to our starting point—the fulfillment of her curse, the murder of the princes in the Tower. It is here that her perception of the two forces—human and divine—that shape the design of the play's horror comes into focus and presents her with a vision of Richard as the human agent of divinely willed suffering. Richard is God's enemy, “hell's black intelligencer,” the “foul defacer of God's handiwork,” but God is to be thanked for his existence:

O upright, just, and true-disposing God,
How do I thanke thee, that this carnall Curre
Prayes on the issue of his Mothers body.


It will not do to dismiss Margaret's vision of the God of her play as the ravings of a wicked woman. Her God is the inevitable corollary of Richmond's God. If the Tudor myth is to claim for Richmond the role of God's providential instrument, then it must confront the complementary possibility that Richard has previously served the same function. Before the Battle of Bosworth, Richmond prays, “Make us thy ministers of Chasticement.” An instrument for chastisement is a scourge, but for the Elizabethans the term “scourge of God” connoted human guilt.5 Richmond's innocence is a necessity for the completion of the providential pattern and so he is a minister. Richard is not innocent, but he is nonetheless an instrument of God. By slaughtering the innocent he has served the mysterious purposes of Margaret's “upright, just and true-disposing God.”

That the “justice” entailed is beyond the comprehension of human reason goes without saying. And yet a belief in providence demands of the honest mind a recognition that undeserved human suffering is as much an expression of divine will as the misery of the wicked or the happiness of the good. But what is mysterious by the light of nature, as Luther puts it,6 is comprehensible by the light of grace—that is, the innocent human suffering exemplified in the murder of Rutland and the little princes can be understood as necessary for the achievement of the benevolent purposes of providence—though in my opinion the play gives only minimal encouragement to this sort of piety. Beyond that, divine justice may be conceived of as insuring eternal compensation for temporal sufferings, but again, though so thumping a commonplace would hardly need emphasizing, this comfort is not strongly put forward by the play.

If we think of the God of Richard III as the first cause of the play's action, he is a terrifying figure, but one who becomes less frightening when he is viewed by the light of grace. It is when we view him as the first cause of Richard's nature that the terror is raised to tragic intensity. The pathos of innocent suffering is not finally so mysterious nor so frightening as the creation and destruction of God's evil instrument for inflicting that suffering. It is here that the light of grace fails even for the believing Christian to illuminate the mystery and leaves the spectator at the theater of God's judgments with the frightening sense that, as Luther put it, “the fault lies not in the wretchedness of man, but in the injustice of God.”7

It is also here, I think, that the imagination of Shakespeare is most fully engaged by the material he is dramatizing. The theological problem is central: is human evil of the sort embodied in Richard the result of God's permission or God's will? Augustine insists on the former, Calvin on the latter. But the question is also psychologically central. Whether phrased theologically or not, the question of the degree to which our wills are the creatures of forces other than our own is patently at the heart of our view of ourselves and the meaning of our minds' processes. Shakespeare's fascination with creating the illusion of minds in operation made the problem central artistically as well.

The artistic problem is complex. Just as the design of the plays must be the product simultaneously of the interaction of human wills and the expression of an omnipotent divine will, so the character of the protagonist must entail an acceptable imitation of the human psyche while remaining a fated instrument for the working out of the providential design. Shakespeare solves the problem primarily through the language of Richard's soliloquies. These convince us that they are the self-presentations of a human mind while at the same time they reveal the nature of the speaker in aspects of which the speaker could not be consciously aware. The psychomachies expressed by Richard's soliloquies are sciamachies as well. They betray the presence of causes other than those which the speaker tells us about. As moderns we define these causes as unconscious motivations and we marvel, rather naively, at Shakespeare's “instinctive grasp” of psychology. If we stay within the context which I am attempting to develop for these tragedies (and I do not insist that we must or should) then we can see these “other causes” as evidence of the first cause, the nature and will of God. But however we define or account for the character who emerges from the soliloquies Shakespeare has written for Richard, we are attempting to describe Shakespeare's first brilliant work of art. Richard III and a Shakespeare who invites bardolatry come into being at the same moment.

That moment arrives in Henry VI, Part Three, act 3, scene 2, line 124. Richard's first soliloquy dramatizes the creation of a self. The character who emerges from the speech at the end of it is Shakespeare's first great role for Burbage—and for all the Burbages who have inhabited the theater since. Richard III, the murderous Machiavel, the reverend vice Iniquity, the player king, who can smile and murder while he smiles, exists by the time the speech is over. That Shakespeare can call so brilliant a theatrical artifact into existence demonstrates that he is as great a playwright as Marlowe, who had shown his contemporary the way by calling into existence Barrabas, the Jew of Malta. But Shakespeare does more. He not only creates Richard, he has him created and doubly created. Richard is brought into existence by himself. The Richard who speaks the opening lines is a sardonic, ambitious, destructive, hate-filled, and desperate man. His desperation has its origin in a half-conscious perception that his destructive ambition is finally self-destructive and he creates a new self as an alternative to self-destruction. This Richard is a brilliant comment on the psychic forces that move us to will ourselves into existence. But again, Shakespeare does more, for the Richard here created has a divine, a superhuman cause as well. In creating himself, Richard unwittingly creates an instrument designed to serve the will of God.

The soliloquy opens with a declaration of hate—for Edward (“Would he were wasted, Marrow, Bones and all”) and for all the Plantagenets whose claims upon the throne are better than Richard's: Clarence, Henry, Edward, and the Prince of Wales “and all the unlooked-for Issue of their Bodies,” Richard's enemy is human fertility—or at least Plantagenet fertility—which produces the living barriers that stand between him and the only pleasure of which he is capable, the exercise of absolute power. The frustration which has procreation for its source is bound to be intense and the brilliance of this soliloquy is founded on two similes for Richard's frustration: the images first of a man on a promontory and then of a man in a thorny wood. The first of these comes immediately after Richard's consideration of the human barriers that stand between him and the crown:

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


Here is an early Shakespearean tragic height, an early version of the cliffs of Dover in King Lear or of “the cliffe, / That beetles o're his base into the sea” of Hamlet. The two later “heights” are associated with the self-destructive impulse and the landscape of all three is like that of Brueghel's Fall of Icarus.8 The Icarus emblem, also symbolic of tragedy as self-destructive aspiration is, I think, just below the surface in Richard's case. Later, he makes it explicit, in act 5, scene 6 of Henry VI, Part Three, where he applies it to Prince Edward:

Why what a peevish Foole was that of Creet,
That taught his Sonne the office of a Fowle,
And yet for all his wings, the Foole was drown'd.


Henry accepts the emblem and applies it:

I Dedalus, my poore Boy Icarus,
Thy Father Minos, that deni'de our course,
The Sunne that sear'd the wings of my sweet Boy,
Thy Brother Edward, and thy Selfe, the Sea
Whose envious Gulfe did swallow up his life.


For Richard in his first soliloquy the sea is the barrier of other human lives standing between him and the crown. I would propose, however, that Henry's equation of Richard with the destroying sea indicates, in retrospect, the full meaning of the first metaphor. Richard is destroyed by other men but he is also self-destroyed by the psychic forces which impel him to step toward his “far off shore.” The “envious Gulfe” into which he finally falls is as much Richard as Richmond and the event is predicted here. The image of a man on the edge of a cliff longing to take one step is an image of suicide. The total image is an emblem for, as well as from, the mind that has produced it. Richard is cliff and sea as well as man. Like Donne, he is his own precipice.

In the soliloquy Richard draws back from the suicidal vision and turns his mind to the possibilities of compensation:

Well, say there is no Kingdome then for Richard:
What other Pleasure can the World affoord?
Ile make my Heaven in a Ladies Lappe,
And decke my Body in gay Ornaments,
And 'witch sweet Ladies with my Words and Lookes.
Oh miserable Thought! and more unlikely,
Then to accomplish twentie Golden Crownes.


This is unduly pessimistic, as Richard's later spectacular success at “witching” the Lady Anne will prove. What Richard's self-mockery reveals is not so much the impossibility of making his way to a lady's lap as the unlikeliness of his finding heaven there. Straightforward sexual pleasure is no compensation for the frustration of a power drive as strong as Richard's and the absorption of that psychic energy in love is not a possible solution for Richard, who is capable neither of feeling nor inspiring it:

Why Love forswore me in my Mothers Wombe:
And for I should not deale in her soft Lawes,
Shee did corrupt frayle Nature with some Bribe,
To shrinke mine Arme up like a wither'd Shrub,
To make an envious Mountaine on my Back,
Where sits Deformitie to mocke my Body;
To shape my Legges of an unequall size,
To dis-proportion me in every part:
Like to a Chaos, or an un-lick'd Beare-whelpe,
That carryes no impression like the Damme.
And am I then a man to be belov'd?
O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought.


The declaration of hate has become a declaration of self-hate. Love, we can see, in forswearing Richard, has forsworn him entirely, so that he is incapable of inspiring love for himself in himself, and his deformity, the sign of love's desertion, repels him more than it does any other character in the play. But love being absent, pity is absent too. The lines contain no element of pathetic self-display. Richard is not asking for our alms. He covers his self-hatred with sardonic self-mockery and covers it so effectively that, I believe, he conceals it from himself. Richard nowhere expresses a consciousness of the self-hatred which he here betrays—not, at least, until the very end of his life—and he does not express it because he does not know of its existence. And yet self-hatred informs his being and his actions. His deeds and desires are responses to it and this Shakespeare makes clear in the lines that follow:

Then since this Earth affoords no Joy to me,
But to command, to check, to o're-beare such,
As are of better Person then my selfe:
Ile make my Heaven to dreame upon the Crowne,
And whiles I live, t'account this World but Hell,
Until my mis-shap'd Trunke, that beares this Head
Be round impaled with a glorious Crowne.
And yet I know not how to get the Crowne,
For many Lives stand betweene me and home.


The hatred which fills Richard can be safely diverted and even transformed to pleasure, to “joy,” by directing it outward. The exercise of power over others is the only release possible for Richard, but the frustration of his power drives forces him to fantasies of absolute power. Yet these unrealizable fantasies, like the sexual fantasies of a prisoner, torment their creator. Richard's self-hatred, prevented from dissipating itself in the “overbearing” of others, transforms itself into fantasy and returns to torment the self which originally inspired it. Richard is trapped and expresses his sense of being so in a second and tremendously powerful image of frustration:

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


The simile gains in claustrophobic effectiveness from being the visual and tactile opposite of the openness of the promontory image. Like the sea, the wood is for Richard the barrier of other men, the many lives that stand between him and home. Shakespeare uses the thorny wood again in the play, and, as he did with the Icarus image, applies it to the Lancastrians, Prince Edward prominently among them. Edward of York makes the application:

Brave followers, yonder stands the thornie Wood,
Which by the Heavens assistance, and your strength,
Must by the Roots be hew'ne up yet ere Night.


For Richard's brother, the wood really is what Richard claims it is for him—an obstacle that stands between him and the throne. Edward will remove it, will hew it up. Richard is trapped inside and must hew his way out. In part this is because for Edward the thorny wood is the declared enemy—the house of Lancaster—and thus something totally other than himself. Richard's thorny wood is the house of York as well as that of Lancaster and he is trapped within the family loyalties he must destroy. There is more to the difference than that, however, and Richard comes near to discovering what it is. Richard is tormenting himself. He is using his ambition as a flagellant uses his scourge. The thorns which rend him are his own neurotic ambition, his masochism, his “self.” To free yourself from self-torment, you must free yourself from yourself, and using a bloody ax to hew yourself out of yourself entails destroying yourself.

Richard does not destroy himself—at least not at this moment. What he does instead is to create a new self. It has been pointed out that the thorny wood simile is a symbolic description of birth9 and as such it is in keeping with the birth imagery that precedes it. But Richard is giving birth here—to himself. As an alternative to self-destruction Richard assumes a new self, one capable of satisfying ambition by acquiring power. Shakespeare, in other words, is here creating the Richard who will serve as the villain protagonist of the tragedy to come. But the making of this magnificent bogeyman is not a creation ex nihilo. Shakespeare fashions the apparently inhuman Richard out of such recognizably human elements as the ambition which has hatred, and self-hatred, for its source. Thus the finished creation contains, temporarily controlled and directed outward, the self-destructive qualities that have gone into the creature's making. The process of self-creation and the nature of the self created, are hardly realistic in any documentary sense. But they are brilliantly expressionistic versions or imitations of psychic realities.

The “murtherous Machevill” who emerges from the soliloquy is a formidable instrument of destruction. Before Henry VI, Part Three is over he has killed two of the four men he has named as standing between him and “home.” After the murder of the second, King Henry, Richard delivers a second soliloquy which is primarily a descriptive analysis of the self which we saw come into being during the first, a self which Richard characterizes as “I that have neyther pitty, love, nor feare,” and, a few lines later:

I have no Brother, I am like no Brother:
And this word (Love) which Gray-beards call Divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me: I am my selfe alone.


Because Richard is incapable of compassion he can be literally ruthless and this is the source of his success in gaining power. It is also the primary explanation for his almost immediate loss of it.

In order to gain the crown, Richard must perforce destroy his natural power base—the house of York. He has no compunction about this and is careful to replace the power he derived from family loyalties with the support of self-interested politicians and magnates—primarily the duke of Buckingham, and Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain. Act 1, scene 3 of Richard III is largely devoted to an exposition of the brilliance with which Richard works upon the rivalries, petty hatreds, and snobbism of such men in order to alienate them from Queen Elizabeth's party. Such successes require no understanding of love or pity and Richard achieves with great efficiency the destruction of the threat to his own power that is posed by the claims of young King Edward V's uncle and half-brothers to have some say in the governing of the kingdom. Thus Richard achieves unchallenged control of the kingdom as Lord Protector, but, of course, he is not satisfied with it. For him the symbolic glorious crown is even more important than the reality of power—or the reality is not complete without the symbol of it. But he discovers that in order to achieve coronation he must not only obliterate the rest of the house of York, he must also destroy his new power base as well. Lord Hastings, incomprehensibly to Richard, loved his master, Edward IV, and has transferred that love to his master's sons:

          that Ile give my voice on Richards side,
To barre my Masters Heires in true Descent,
God knowes I will not doe it, to the death.


That a man should be capable of feeling such sentiments, much less of intending to act upon them, must necessarily be beyond the comprehension of a Richard who is himself alone. Not that Hastings is an extraordinarily noble fellow. Insofar as he is characterized, it is by an intensely human delight in the destruction of his enemies. This portion of his humanity Richard can play upon for his own purposes, but Hastings's loyalty to those he loves is something Richard cannot manipulate, not, by any means, because it is too noble for manipulation, but because it is a kind of humanity that Richard cannot understand. The solution to Hastings therefore must be mere stupid brutality: “Chop off his Head: / Something wee will determine” (RIII.3.1.194-195). And that “something” turns out to be “Chop off his head.” The subtlety with which Richard concealed his guilt for the murder of Clarence disappears completely when he destroys Hastings, causing the scrivener to comment: “Who is so grosse, that cannot see this palpable device? / Yet who so bold, but sayes he sees it not?” (RIII.3.6.11-12). Richard appears to believe that the achievement of power marks the end of any need for the concealment of villainy, that so long as men can be frightened into acquiescence no more is necessary. But, of course, Richard does not really understand fear either, does not see that it can inspire men to destroy him as well as obey him.

A miscalculation of the effects of both pity and fear causes Richard to turn Buckingham from an essential supporter to an active enemy. The loss of power entailed is entirely preventable and again the result of Richard's inability to foresee the reactions of “men like one another.” Earlier in the play Richard flattered Buckingham by calling him “My other selfe.” When the time comes to kill the little princes, Richard appears to have convinced himself of the truth of the epithet, forgetting that he is himself alone and that Buckingham is subject to the inconvenient emotions and inefficient moral hesitations of other men. When Buckingham fails or refuses to understand Richard's coy hints (“Young Edward lives, thinke now what I would speake”), Richard, instead of dropping the matter, loses his temper: “Cousin, thou wast not wont to be so dull. / Shall I be plaine? I wish the Bastards dead” (RIII.4.2.17-18). It is not Richard's business to be plain, even with Buckingham. The duke's recoil from the proposed murders is evidence only of a greater moral sensitivity than Richard's—greater, that is to say, than none at all. Buckingham soon returns to claim the reward promised for his connivance in the judicial murder of Hastings. It is not clear whether he wishes Richard to understand that, as DeFlores puts it in The Changeling, “The last is not yet paid for” and that he will proceed to new villainy only when he has been rewarded for old, or whether he wants to collect what is coming to him before he clears out. Richard does not bother to discover. He insults Buckingham and leaves him terrified:

Buck. O let me thinke on Hastings, and be gone
To Brecnock, while my fearefull Head is on.


Richard's disaffecting of Buckingham is the gross stupidity of an extremely intelligent man. The destruction of Hastings would probably have eventually become a necessity for Richard. Properly managed, Buckingham could have been his creature forever. But Richard is a Machiavel and a Machiavel can be most succinctly defined as an incompetent Machiavellian. With the great and significant exception of Claudius, the true, competent Machiavellians (Bolingbroke, Tiberius, Octavius) of the Elizabethan drama survive. The Machiavels (Barrabas, Richard III, Sejanus, Iago) destroy themselves. The source of Richard's self-destructive incompetence as a politician is the source of his strength as a destructive force—his inability to share in and hence to understand and to predict the emotions of other men.

In creating a Richard to inhabit the world of second causes, Shakespeare has imagined a self-created self. He has given us a Richard who responds to the threat of a loveless, hate-filled and destructive nature by devising a persona which can successfully direct outward the hatred and destructiveness that would otherwise destroy their owner. But, of course, in the end they do destroy their owner, first because they force the men and women against whom Richard directs his destructive instincts to unite in hatred against him and to destroy him in order to preserve themselves. But also there is within Richard's nature none of the love that sometimes moves men, however minimally, in their dealings with one another. Because he cannot understand what he does not possess, Richard is unable to predict and control the actions of men moved by love and pity. The absence of love is essential to the efficient functioning of the murderous Machiavel, but it is also the flaw which results in his destruction. In order to preserve himself, Richard creates a destructive self, but the self he creates turns out to be as self-destructive as the desperate man who called him into being.

The question remains, to what degree does Shakespeare present this ultimately self-destructive act of self-creation as the free choice of a free will? Within the context of human causes a minimal freedom is present, I think. Richard boasts of choosing to be what he is: “Let Hell make crook'd my Minde.” “I am determined to prove a Villaine.” But these melodramatic proclamations of free choice are expressed in a context that limits their freedom almost to the point of making it disappear:

Then since the Heavens have shap'd my Body so,
Let Hell make crook'd my Minde to answer it.

(3H6. 5.6.78-79)

And therefore, since I cannot prove a Lover,
To entertaine these faire well spoken dayes,
I am determined to prove a Villaine,
And hate the idle pleasures of these dayes.


In fact Richard's choice of self is severely limited by the nature from which he can form that self and in his first soliloquy the only apparent alternative to the murderous Machiavel is a desperate thug, a hewer with a bloody ax. Which brings us to the question of what has so limited Richard's nature, the question of the first cause.

“Nature,” says Hamlet, thinking socially, “cannot choose his origin.” Richard's unchosen origin is, like everyone else's, his mother's womb and he believes that it was there that love forswore him. He is thinking consciously in the first soliloquy of human, venereal love. It is important that our thoughts should not be so limited as Richard's, for here Shakespeare is having him tell us more than he knows, or more, at least, than he is conscious of knowing. For Richard, his abandonment by love in the womb resulted in his deformity:

And for I should not deale in her soft Lawes,
Shee did corrupt frayle Nature with some Bribe,
To shrinke mine Arme up like a wither'd Shrub.


The other characters in the play see the deformity as significant of something more than the corruption of nature. Margaret makes the point with her usual force:

Qu. But thou art neyther like thy Sire nor Damme,
But like a foule mishapen Stygmaticke,
Mark'd by the Destinies to be avoided,
As venome Toades, or Lizards dreadfull stings.


The epithet “foul stigmatic” has already been applied to Richard by young Clifford in Henry VI, Part II. Its implications are at least triple. According to the O.E.D. it was a fairly common literaryism for a deformed person. But it derives from Greek through Latin. In classical antiquity a man might be stigmatized—that is have his flesh branded—either because he was a criminal or because he was a slave. (The custom of branding criminals was, of course, current in Shakespeare's time.) Richard qualifies on both counts. His criminality is obvious and his slavery is characterized, again by Margaret in Richard III, where, rising to an eloquence unusual even for her, she addresses him as

Thou elvish mark'd, abortive rooting Hogge,
Thou that wast seal'd in thy Nativitie
The slave of Nature, and the Sonne of Hell.


But if Richard is a slave, who has enslaved him? Or to pass to Margaret's contention that he has been “Mark'd by the Destinies,” if Richard's deformity is a sort of skull-and-crossbones label, where did the poison come from?

To arrive at an answer, we must combine the insights of Richard's enemies with the results of his own self-analysis in both the soliloquies of Henry VI, Part Three. For Margaret, Richard's deformity is a mark set upon him by “destiny” to warn his fellow men of his fatal nature. For Richard, it is the result of love's abandonment of him. In the second soliloquy Richard defines that love in a way that reconciles the two explanations for his deformity:

And this word [Love] which Gray-beards call Divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me: I am my selfe alone.


If it was divine love that forsook Richard at his conception, the results are precisely what we might expect. The consequence of the withdrawal of the ordering force of God's love would be: “To dis-proportion me in every part: / Like to a Chaos, or an unlick'd Beare-whelpe” (3H6.3.2.160-161). Created order is the result of the imposition upon elemental chaos of God's love. If God, in his just anger, withdraws that love, the result is a return to, or toward, chaos. Richard is the result of such a withdrawal of divine love and his deformity is the sign of it.

These lofty Empedoclean suggestions, concepts basic to Shakespeare's highest art, are, with a self-directed irony typical of Richard, and a willingness to attempt any juxtaposition typical of Shakespeare, set against the grotesque unnatural natural history of the “unlick'd Beare-whelpe.” The Arden edition elucidates by quoting Golding's Ovid: “The Bear whelp … like an evill favored lump of flesh alyve dooth lye. / The dam by licking shapeth out his members orderly.”10 Anne, in the scene of their courtship, will confirm her future husband in this view of himself by calling him a “lumpe of fowle Deformitie.” But Young Clifford has, in fact, already drawn Richard's attention to the resemblance: “Hence heape of wrath, foule indigested lumpe / As crooked in thy manners, as thy shape” (2H6.5.1.157-158). The “stygmaticke” is a creature enslaved by nature, the “chaos” is a creature deprived of God's love. The “lumpe,” absurdly enough, is the most suggestive of the three:

But, O man who art thou which pleadest against God? shal the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power of the claie to make of the same lompe one vessell to honour, and another unto dishonour?

What and if God wolde, to shewe his wrath, and to make his power knowen, suffre with long pacience the vessels of wrath, prepared to destruction?

(Romans 9: 20-22)

Romans 9 is, I think, the fundamental gloss on Richard's nature and significance. Shakespeare has imagined the coming into being and the destruction of a vessel of wrath. Like Robert le Dyable, Richard has, from the womb, been a creature of evil, but Robert inhabited a semi-Pelagian universe ruled by a benevolent God. Robert's will was free enough and strong enough to accept the grace offered to him. Richard, like Robert (some versions of him at least), is born with teeth “which plainly signified, / That I should snarle, and bite, and play the dogge” (3H6.5.6.76-77). Richard and Robert are born to do evil. Robert chooses to stop doing evil, but like Faustus, Richard chooses to do evil. Yet both Richard and Faustus can, I maintain, be seen as “choosing” out of necessity, in response to the will of a predestinating God who has determined from eternity that they are to be numbered among the reprobate. But neither Richard nor Faustus must be seen in this way. The terrible possibility exists as a device for increasing the intensity of the terror with which an audience responds to these tragedies. It may, of course, also cause the more intelligent and informed members of such an audience to think about the relationship of these created Gods and worlds to the reality they imitate.

Marlowe emphasizes the possibility of Faustus's lack of freedom by having him try unsuccessfully to obtain grace through repentance. In Shakespeare the same purpose is served by the insistence on providential design. Faustus may be trapped in a world created by an omnipotent being who refuses to listen to his pleas for grace. Richard may be the uncomprehending instrument of a power who has decided to use him in working out a plan that requires his (possibly eternal) destruction. Richard's becoming the murderous Machiavel of the first soliloquy is an act of self-creation, but it is also, of course, a transformation into the instrument required by God's plan, and so we may be watching the process by which the potter fashions a vessel of his wrath.

The deterministic possibility gets its strongest single emphasis at the moment of Henry VI's murder. Richard stabs the king at the end of a speech in which Henry prophesies the horror which Richard will create, and asserts that he was born to this end:

Thy Mother felt more then a Mothers paine,
And yet brought forth lesse then a Mothers hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lumpe,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly Tree.
Teeth had'st thou in thy head, when thou was't borne,
To signifie, thou cam'st to bite the world:
And if the rest be true, which I have heard,
Thou cam'st—
Rich. Ile heare no more:
Dye Prophet in thy speech,
                                                                                          Stabbes him.
For this (among'st the rest) was I ordain'd.


The theatricality of the moment does not detract from its sincerity. Richard, as the Arden editor says, “adopts the fate of which he is the instrument and the victim.”11 But the adoption is not eager, or even necessarily willing. In some part, Richard kills Henry in order to make him stop talking—stop telling Richard that he is, indeed, predestined to evil, a creature without freedom. Richard's “Let Hell make crook'd my Minde” is partly bravado, an attempt to assert a freedom of choice which he knows or fears is not really his. The knowledge or fear is something we must share, for it is basic to the experience and understanding of Shakespeare's art in the creation of this protagonist.

The catastrophe of Richard's tragedy is accompanied by the same mystery as to its significance that surrounds the soliloquies of self-creation and self-analysis in Henry VI, Part Three. The physical destruction, the defeat at Bosworth, is assigned by the providential pieties of Richmond to the will of God as first cause. It is quite possible to accept this explanation and to see that will working through second causes—through the unifying effect upon England of Richard's destructive ambition and through the inherent incompetence that is the necessary concomitant of Richard's brilliance as a political animal. But mysteries remain despite such explanations and the questions they raise are the most important sources for whatever terror and pity are aroused in us by the spectacle of Richard's destruction. Again the inspiration for these emotions is our sense of the relationship of the creator to his creation, of the potter to the vessel of his wrath.

Richard's first soliloquy dramatized the creation of a self; his last presents us with that self's threatened disintegration:

Cold fearefull drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What? do I feare my Selfe? There's none else by,
Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.
Is there a Murtherer heere? No; Yes, I am:
Then flye; What from my Selfe? Great reason: why?
Lest I revenge. What? my Selfe upon my Selfe?
Alacke, I love my Selfe. Wherefore? For any good
That I my Selfe, have done unto my Selfe?
O no. Alas, I rather hate my Selfe,
For hatefull Deeds committed by my Selfe.
I am a Villaine. …
I shall dispaire, there is no Creature loves me;
And if I die, no soule shall pittie me.
Nay, wherefore should they? Since that I my Selfe,
Finde in my Selfe, no pittie to my Selfe.


Here Richard approaches his own meaning and it is possible, I think, for us to come closer to that mystery than he does. Richard faces, at the end, the truth that we have suspected about him from the beginning: he hates himself. And we can see more clearly than he can that the hateful deeds for which he hates himself have brought him to his destruction. His fear of himself is justified. He is revenging himself upon himself. He is in the presence of his own murderer and he cannot escape. But we can understand, as he cannot, the origin of this psychic paradox: “Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.” Identity, he soon admits, is no guarantee of love. But his phrase for identity suggests another. God, when asked by Moses to name himself, obliges with “I am that I am.” Richard, in the presence of himself, is, in a double sense, in the presence of his creator and destroyer. Richard, the self-creator, is here supremely himself alone, but there is one else by. The creator of the self from which Richard creates himself is God and it is to that first creator's decision to withhold love from his creature that Richard's tragedy owes both its beginning and its end. A human being without love is a being of universal hate and though the desire for self-preservation may inspire the self to take forms which will direct that destructive hatred outward, in the end the destruction will include the self, and the full process is seen to have its source in the will of the creating God. The terrifying meaning of evil in a providentially ordered universe is fully dramatized in the nature, crimes, and destruction of Richard III, but a mystery remains in the questions of whether grace may not be offered even to this apparently reprobate creature.

Richard cannot pity, love, nor fear other men; he cannot pity nor love himself. But why should not the paradigm hold for fear? The answer is to be found in the fear's origin.

Give me another Horse, bind up my Wounds:
Have mercy Jesu. Soft, I did but dreame.
O coward Conscience! how dost thou afflict me?


Lady Anne has prepared us for the spectacle of these afflictions:

For never yet one howre in his Bed
Did I enjoy the golden deaw of sleepe,
But with his timorous Dreames was still awak'd.


Conscience, the origin of Richard's fear, can exercise its power over him only in sleep. When the will relaxes its control, timorous dreams take over the self-tormenting function of those fantasies of power, dreams of sovereignty, with which Richard tortured himself before his rise to the throne. But it will not do simply to modernize Richard's conscience into an equivalent for the diseased superego of a psychic masochist. The Shakespearean meaning of Richard's conscience lies in the fact that though it is a part of his consciousness, it is not simply a part of his self. It is the voice of God within him and consequently Richard can fear it as he can fear nothing human, either self or other. But this raises a question. If Richard is capable of fearing the voice of God, is he also capable of loving it? When Robert le Dyable reaches an equivalent moment in his spiritual career he is impelled to contrition and to the love of God by fear of damnation. Why does this not happen to Richard?

The answer lies hidden in the mystery of God's judgments. The freedom of Richard's will is either real or apparent. In either case its strength is beyond question. What we see in Richard's final soliloquy is a human self threatened with disintegration as a result of pressure from divine power. But Richard's human will successfully resists that pressure and reintegrates the threatened self:

Let not our babling Dreames affright our soules:
For Conscience is a word that Cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keepe the strong in awe,
Our strong armes be our Conscience, Swords our Laws.
March on, joyne bravely, let us too't pell mell,
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to Hell.


The irony of this sardonic bravado lies in the fact that Richard's successful preservation of his psychological self invites the destruction of his spiritual self. Shakespeare never pronounces on the eternal fate of his characters, but he frequently demands that we consider the possibilities. He is doing so here and we can only conclude that Richard has not found grace before he goes into battle. Since at Bosworth Field he notoriously did not have even the space between the stirrup and the ground to seek for mercy in, the play forces us to confront the possibility that hell is Richard's destination.

The play does not tell us if Richard's will is free to seek grace nor does it tell us if grace is available were he to seek it. But the absence of answers is not the same thing as the absence of questions. The terrible dreams that affright Richard, the products of God's voice within him, embody a question in the form of two possibilities. Viewed Calvinistically these pangs of conscience can be a deserved, divinely inflicted punishment upon a reprobate sinner. But if we grant the possibility that Richard's will is free, then these torments may be grace itself, battering Richard's heart, attempting to bring him to contrition. When Richard tries to talk Queen Elizabeth into granting him the hand of her daughter despite his murder of her sons, he makes an obviously hypocritical appeal to determinism: “All unavoyded is the doome of Destiny” (RIII.4.4.218). Elizabeth, in reply, appeals to grace in a way that affirms its mysterious nature:

True: when avoyded grace makes Destiny.
My Babes were destin'd to a fairer death,
If grace had blest thee with a fairer life.


Does Richard avoid grace or does grace refuse to bless him? Or, to focus upon the final moment of the failure of grace, when Richard says “Have mercy Jesu,” and then continues, “Soft, I did but dreame,” is the failure to complete the impulse toward contrition the result of Richard's freely willed avoidance of grace, or of God's refusal to bless the appeal? The play does not tell us, but it certainly asks us. We may answer as we choose, but we must not attribute our answer to the play, for the play's primary meaning resides in its refusal to provide a meaning and its confrontation of ignorance is a source of its tragic power.

In Richard III Shakespeare first explores the tragic implications of a belief in providence. These implications had, of course, been explored and agonized over by theologians for centuries. In the Old Testament we learn that “The King's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of waters: he turneth it whethersoever it pleaseth him” (Proverbs 21: 1). Augustine assures us that providence permits the rule of evil emperors in order that justice may be served: evil princes are a punishment for evil people.12 And this is a sentiment heartily and regularly endorsed by the Tudor establishment through the Book of Homilies.13 But there is a cause for fear and trembling in this orthodoxy and Calvin expresses it by quoting Augustine:

If any be more combered with this that we nowe say, that there is no consent of God with man, where man by the righteous moving of God doeth that which is not lawfull, let them remember that which Augustine saith in another place: Who shall not tremble at these judgements, where God worketh even in the hearts of evil men whatsoever he will, and yet rendreth to them according to their deservings?14

Chance does not exist in the providentially controlled world which is suggested as a possibility in Richard III. Richard begins his last speech with the lines: “Slave, I have set my life upon a cast, / And I will stand the hazard of the Dye” (5.4.9-10). The play answers Richard with Einstein's reply to Bohr: “Der Herr Gott würfelt nicht.” The Lord God does not throw dice. The concept of providence explains away the injustice that is inherent in accident, but Shakespeare's examination of providence raises the question of whether justice can exist in a world where accident does not.


  1. Northrop Frye, “New Directions from Old,” in Myth and Myth Making, ed. H. Murray, Boston, 1968, p. 117.

  2. Richard Hooker, Works, ed. Keble, rev. Church and Paget, Oxford, 1888, vol. 2, p. 563.

  3. F1 = hop'st.

  4. “The Catechism” in Liturgies and Occasional Forms of Prayer Set Forth in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, ed. W. K. Clay, Cambridge, 1897, p. 212.

  5. See Fredson Bowers, “Hamlet as Minister and Scourge,” PMLA, 1955, pp. 740-749.

  6. See above pp. 32-33.

  7. Ibid.

  8. See Harry Levin, “The Heights and the Depths: A Scene from King Lear,” in More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. J. Garrett, London, 1959.

  9. J. P. Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder—Henry VI,” in Early Shakespeare (Stratford-upon-Avon Studies #3), London, 1961, pp. 97-98.

  10. Andrew S. Cairncross, ed., The Arden Shakespeare: Henry VI, Part III, London, 1964, p. 78.

  11. Ibid., p. 138.

  12. D.T.C. vol. 131, col. 965.

  13. “An Homilie against disobedience and wilfull rebellion,” Homilies, pp. 278ff.

  14. Calvin, Institutes, 1.18.4. The quotation from Augustine is from Grace and Free Will, chap. 20.

Dolores M. Burton (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10968

SOURCE: “Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III,” in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 14, 1981, pp. 55-84.

[In the following essay, Burton examines Richard's language in the first act of Richard III, and asserts that the variations in Richard's rhetorical style help to emphasize the power he has over people and events.]

For sustained invention the first act of Richard III has no equal among those that follow in this play. Whereas strong hints from More and other historians inspire such later brilliant scenes as the death of Hastings and Buckingham's address to Gloucester at Bayard's Castle, the four scenes of this first act seem to be cut from whole cloth. In fact, it is not until the death of King Edward IV in the second act that Shakespeare follows the traditional sequence of events as he found it in his sources. The result is that each major incident in Act One—Gloucester's opening monologue, his wooing of Lady Anne, the confrontation with the Woodvilles and Queen Margaret, and the death of Clarence—emerges as a distinct dramatic unit, each exhibiting its own style. Given the careful patterning shown by later scenes of Richard III, it seems reasonable to seek some principle that explains the variety of incident and language in this act.

The variety of incident arises in part from the dramatic necessity of explaining Gloucester's amazing power over people and events. To dramatize that power, Shakespeare in the first three scenes depicts Gloucester as a master of all those forms of persuasive discourse recognized by classical rhetoric—deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Thus the opening monologue shows the master of policy deliberating on the course of action that he will pursue. In Scene Two we see him against the backdrop of the courts of law, defending himself against Lady Anne's accusations. With all the powerful persons of the court as his audience in Scene Three, Gloucester shows a command of ceremonial discourse that in its irony foreshadows Antony's funeral oration. Gloucester's persuasive power is revealed systematically by the forms of discourse and in climactic order as the audience persuaded grows in size and rank with each scene.

But if the variety of incident is unified by the gradual revelation of Gloucester's mastery of persuasive discourse, the different styles that characterize each scene must still be explained by some principle, such as decorum. The usual view is that decorum requires the style of a speech to suit the speaker. Hence, each of Gloucester's speeches in these three scenes should have the same style. However, as Annabel Patterson has shown in her major study of this surprisingly neglected subject, Renaissance views of decorum were more complex and elaborate than the Horatian dictum that speech be suitable to the speaker or the Ciceronian view that style varied with genre. She points out that the influential Italian critic Minturno recognized seven kinds of decorum that allowed style to vary not only with the speaker and genre but also with the audience, the rhetorical topics, the emotions expressed, the parts of an oration, and, above all, with the “forms” of speech. The last of these, decorum according to the forms of speech, was a notion derived from Hermogenes of Tarsus that enjoyed widespread popularity in Renaissance rhetorics because it permitted and described a great variety of styles: “As Minturno says, there is a suitable form of speech for every different purpose, such as persuading, comforting, judging, attacking, disputing, or telling a tale.”1 To assume that such a view of decorum is operating in Act One is to explain why Gloucester's language varies with each scene: Each type of persuasion is a different “form” of speech and requires a suitable expression.

Gloucester's opening speech takes its inspiration from deliberative discourse, a type of persuasion that looks toward the future, debates matters of public policy, weighs the alternatives of the worthy and the expedient, and, within the latter, considers the advantageous and the injurious.2 The questions central to deliberative discourse are: What course is to be chosen? or What course is to be avoided? These questions Gloucester must ask himself now that the wars between Lancaster and York have ended. The greater part of the monologue is devoted to the second question; hence, the soliloquy is an exercise in dehortation. Gloucester justifies his villainy by talking himself out of more praiseworthy activities.

The first three lines of the monologue place the audience in a cheerful mood by referring to those periods of time that people enjoy most, times of summer and sunshine:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.


Gloucester next reminds the audience of his past glory, for even the most prejudiced must recall that Tudor historians give him grudging praise for his warlike deeds and disposition. We have no reason to doubt that Gloucester deserves a wreath of victory or that his armor hangs among the trophies on the castle walls. This retrospective glance at his martial disposition prepares the audience for his key argument, that warriors make poor lovers. A certain nostalgia for the trappings of war insinuates itself into the cadence of

Our stern alarums chang'd to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.


and this nostalgia renders the audience receptive to a later argument that Gloucester's warlike talents should not go to waste.

With the audience receptive and convinced of the speaker's good character as a loyal soldier, Gloucester should now deliberate the courses of action open to a warrior once his country has made its peace and should exhort himself to adopt one of the worthier ones. Using the common topic of division, he would be expected to enumerate the possibilities: counsellor, statesman, scholar. Using comparison he might balance the active life of the courtier and the retired life of the scholar, or, using contrast, he might show the difference between a good courtier that gives his king wise counsel and the fop given to flattery and dalliance. Such arguments would easily occur to his audience because they arise both from the forms of argument with which they were familiar and from the common stock of premises about the way in which men of Gloucester's rank spend their time. Having formulated these arguments, Gloucester would then consider the means of embracing some worthy course of action.

Instead, by the technique of evasion, Gloucester passes over all consideration of appropriate roles like counsellor and statesman in order to argue that in Edward's court the only option open to him is that of lover. He then proceeds, by dehortation, to dissuade himself from this course of action using the special topic of inexpediency. Among the proofs that a course of action is inexpedient are arguments that it is impractical, impossible, or injurious.

He shows that being a lover is impractical because it has made even a handsome stalwart warrior like Edward IV look ridiculous. To prove the point he uses a rhetorical figure, diasrymus, “whereby an opponent's argument is … made to look ridiculous through base similitude”:4

Grim-visag'd War hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, in stead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.


Grim-visag'd War not only personifies an abstraction but refers to Edward IV, once a heroic young fighter, whose impetuous marriage to Elizabeth Woodville has made him a pawn to her contemptible relatives and who now compounds his folly by doting on Jane Shore. It would be impractical for a man of Gloucester's disposition to offer good advice to such a man; it would be even more impractical for him to turn to love when a man like Edward has already been destroyed by it.

Moreover, to pursue the course of lover would be impossible. To confirm arguments by the topics of the possible and the impossible, examples are useful. Thus Gloucester turns to a detailed recital of his physical shortcomings:

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—


The aposiopesis is, of course, intentional: Stopping short the sentence imitates the work of nature who did not complete her work in forming Gloucester. But if the sentence is incomplete, the argument is not. The argument that becoming a lover is impossible reaches a decisive conclusion with the forceful hint (unfinish'd, half made up, lamely) that Gloucester's outward appearance is not the only factor that might inhibit love-making.

The next four lines argue from the topic of the injurious—that a proposed course of action should be avoided because it will prove harmful:

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.


The phrases weak piping time of peace and descant on my own deformity, together with the line To entertain these fair well-spoken days which follows immediately, suggest that Gloucester briefly considers the option of becoming a poet. He rejects this role in terms that imply that poetry is a waste of time (no delight to pass away the time) and of talent—the phrase to see my shadow in the sun can mean not only that the sun calls attention to his physical deformity but that the sun of peace puts in the shade his one talent, waging war. If a man does not work at his vocation (war), if he wastes the time and talents given him (by writing poetry), he decreases his chances for eternal salvation. To spend time at poetry would thus prove injurious to Gloucester.

The entire monologue, then, justifies Gloucester's abstention from the arts of peace. By dissuading himself from a peaceful course of action on the grounds that to pursue it is impractical (love had made Edward look foolish; it would make Gloucester look even more foolish), impossible (his uncouth appearance), and injurious (a waste of time and talent), he need not make a case for the choice of villainy but can simply declare that it is the only course open to him:

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.


Determined now carries not only the semantic weight of simple intention on Gloucester's part or of predestination on the part of divine providence but of inevitability on logical grounds. Because all other options are closed to him, Gloucester must turn his talents to villainy.

The argument proper concludes with line 31. Having persuaded his audience to accept villainy as his only course of action, Gloucester proceeds to win their enthusiastic applause. He does so by promising them special knowledge:

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;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up
About a prophecy, which says that G
Of Edward's heirs the murtherer shall be.


This knowledge is special in several ways: it is knowledge of future events, it is knowledge of the invisible motives that explain human behavior, and it is knowledge of good and evil. In sum, it is the knowledge normally vouchsafed by God to preternatural beings like devils and shared by them with those humans they wish to tempt. The audience thus plays Faust to Gloucester's Mephistopheles and, like Faust, receives an immediate sign of their new ally's powers as Clarence enters escorted by armed guards and by Brakenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower of London. With this appeal to the audience and this gesture toward a sign, Gloucester completes his deliberations and embarks on his course of villainy.

Gloucester's use of deliberative discourse in his opening monologue places him in the position of the classical orator whose persuasive power depends in large measure on ethical appeal, which Quintilian regarded as the mode of persuasion most necessary to deliberative discourse.5 Those Renaissance rhetoricians who held that style could vary with the forms of speech recognized an idea of style called the ethical style which they tended to associate with oratory rather than with poetry. The four characteristics of the ethical style—simplicity, sweetness, subtlety, and modesty—generally lend themselves to a description of the style of Gloucester's speech.6

Simplicity, the first characteristic, could be achieved by using normal diction, short periods, smooth rhythms, and a logical method of presenting ideas. With the careful exception of the five lines about grim-visag'd War, Gloucester's diction admits no words that the average person in his audience would find extraordinary. Only victorious, unfashionable, and deformity are multi-syllabic, and of these only deformity might qualify as Latinate. Although there is some inversion of normal word order in the syntax of the first two lines

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;

so that the temporal adverb now occupies initial sentence position and the verb phrase is made includes the passive subject the winter of our discontent, each phrase, whether nominal or verbal, is quite short. The sentence rhythm, even when suspended as it is in the sentences that begin with I, coincides with the verse rhythm because the interrupting element does not displace the metrical caesura:

I, that am rudely stamp'd,/ /and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph./ /


With respect to a clear method, an impression at least of ideas logically presented arises from words like now, but, and therefore that normally mark syllogistic form. This tripartite structure receives reinforcement from the fact that three lines begin with now, three with our, and three contain the phrase I, that am. Triplets occur elsewhere in phrases like drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams or subtle, false, and treacherous. Antithesis and parallelism, which appear toward the conclusion when Edward's probity is contrasted with Gloucester's treachery, combine with these triplets to create a sense of completeness that assures the listener that all facets of the argument have been explored.

Sweetness, an attempt to gratify the senses, appears chiefly in the descriptive passages about the winter of war yielding to the summer of peace and in the lines that describe the orderly marches of war changing to the more pleasant but equally ordered measures of the dance. Figures like anaphora and alliteration, which dominate these lines, contribute to this sense of order and gratify the sense of hearing.

Beginning with line 9, however, subtlety of style replaces sweetness. The subtle style varies to some extent from normal usage, allows tropes like irony among its figures, and relies on wit. Thus the tone of the passage on grimvisag'd war is harsher, its vocabulary (adversaries, lascivious, amorous, wanton ambling nymph) more reminiscent of classical diction, and, as noted in the discussion of the argument, there is a pointed reference to the king's foolish behavior which is ironically contrasted with his own earlier heroism and that of Gloucester himself.

Modesty, the last feature that characterizes the ethical style, addresses itself to the speaker's need to ingratiate himself with the audience. One technique involves interrupting the train of thought, a phenomenon that occurs with the line That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—, which marks the end of Gloucester's disparagement of his appearance. To belittle oneself and to enlarge another is another technique of modesty, which may explain the otherwise puzzling lines

And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,


These lines may seem surprising in view of the earlier attempt to establish a picture that flattered Gloucester while portraying Edward as a dotard. That attempt is, to be sure, subtle while this is overt. Perhaps the turn-around occurs because Richard, having finished the deliberation and reached his conclusion, must now act consistently. Modesty appears too in that he barely hints at his martial valor and never mentions the fact that he is the brother of the King and the youngest surviving son of Edward, the duke of York.

Patterson, who observes that these four characteristics of the ethical style—simplicity, sweetness, subtlety, and modesty—appear at first to have little to do with one another much less to form a distinctive style, concludes, convincingly, that they operate together to persuade the audience that the speaker is an agreeable person, someone not too complicated, considerate of their taste, witty, but with the right touch of self-deprecation.7 These qualities, which the audience might ascribe to themselves, make the speaker one of them and thus establish the ethical appeal. They certainly describe the Gloucester that we meet in this soliloquy.

However, given Gloucester's confessed villainy and Quintilian's definition of the orator as a good man speaking, the attribution of ethical appeal to this speech may seem wrongheaded. In the Aristotelian tradition, however, the ethical appeal revealed itself in the qualities of the speech and the authority of the speaker. Gloucester's speech establishes his authority to speak on matters pertaining to one's personal advantage or injury, for he has a highly developed sense of expediency and of the arguments that support this line of reasoning. In this more technical sense his monologue has ethical appeal.

In Scene Two, Gloucester strengthens the effect of this tour de force of deliberative oratory by an excursion into forensic or judicial discourse as he woos Lady Anne. 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.8 The procedure for ascertaining the status of a case follows three steps: to ask whether something happened, to establish what it was that happened, and to determine why it happened. Each step addresses a distinct issue which thus becomes a subtopic of that stage in the proceedings. Evidence is an argument or subtopic crucial to determining whether something happened, definition to deciding what it was that happened, and motives or causes to explaining why it happened.9 Any one of these topics might become the major issue in a given case.

It is not difficult to discern each step of the judicial inquiry in the encounter between Gloucester and Lady Anne, which is to a great extent a debate over whether Gloucester murdered King Henry and Prince Edward of Lancaster. In Shakespeare's version of the events, Prince Edward has been killed in the battle of Tewkesbury three months earlier and his father, King Henry VI, who has been imprisoned in the Tower of London, has now died. His daughter-in-law, Lady Anne, the only mourner, follows his coffin from Saint Paul's Cathedral to the monastery of Chertsey where Henry will be buried.

In the rhetoric of disputation no less than in military strategy, the best defense consists of engaging the enemy before he has a chance to attack. Gloucester sets a tone of bold offense by interrupting the funeral procession and accusing Anne's attendants of discourtesy when they try to defend her:

Gentleman. My lord, stand back, and let the coffin pass.
Glou. Unmanner'd dog, [stand] thou when I command.
Advance thy halberd higher than my breast,
Or by Saint Paul I'll strike thee to my foot,
And spurn upon thee, beggar, for thy boldness.


Her support eroded, Anne must now defend herself, a burden she most willingly assumes by bringing against Gloucester the specific charge that Gloucester has murdered King Henry VI:

If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.


Since the first step in judicial procedure takes place with an inquiry as to whether some crime occurred, the question here is whether King Henry was killed or died from natural causes. While Lady Anne does not pose that question, a doubt might well have arisen in the minds of Shakespeare's audience who could read in the official chronicle that Henry's death resulted from “pure displeasure and melancholy” over the Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury. Lady Anne, however, adduces evidence of foul play that her contemporaries at least might have found incontrovertible:

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.


Warkworth, less sympathetic to the House of York than the official chronicler, recorded the superstitious belief that King Henry's wounds bled as his coffin was carried through the streets of London, and to this record Shakespeare adds the detail that Gloucester's presence induced the bleeding.10 The point is, of course, that the wounds of murdered men bleed in the presence of their murderer.

Anne next calls on God to avenge King Henry's murder by striking Gloucester dead. Her language makes clear that she seeks condign punishment, that Gloucester should receive the same treatment he has accorded King Henry:

Either heav'n with lightning strike the murth'rer dead;
Or earth gape open wide and eat him quick,
As thou dost swallow up this good king's blood,
Which his hell-govern'd arm hath butchered!


Anne's quest for vengeance introduces one special topic of judicial discourse, justice. Gloucester, however, changes the topic from justice to charity:

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


In the Christian scale of values, justice belongs among the moral virtues, ranking as the highest of the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. While these moral virtues can be incorporated into the supernatural realm through grace, they remain inferior to the theological virtues. Faith, hope, and charity exist only in the supernatural order, and, as justice is the highest of the moral virtues, charity is the highest of the theological virtues. By shifting the argument from justice to charity, Gloucester declares the standards by which judicial questions are settled to be irrelevant and inoperative. This declaration will prove useful when the inquiry moves to the second question: What kind of crime was committed? To be sure, Gloucester has not yet granted that any crime has been committed, but he wishes to discuss the matter more systematically:

Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,
Of these supposed crimes, to give me leave
By circumstance but to acquit myself.


While the phrase t' accuse in Anne's reply occurs as a result of editorial conjecture, the emendation is certainly apt since accusation and defense are the means of argument peculiar to forensic discourse.

Anne's initial recital of the charges against Gloucester is vague (unworthy slaughter upon others), but Gloucester, adhering to his strategy of the bold offense, brings before the court the charge that he killed Edward of Lancaster, denying it in the process:

Glou. I did not kill your husband.
Anne. Why then he is alive.
Glou. Nay, he is dead, and slain by Edward's hands.


Accusing another of the crime of which one stands accused would normally require that other to answer the accusation, but since that other is King Edward himself, Gloucester can remain confident that the issue will never come to trial and the question of who killed Edward of Lancaster must remain moot. Still, Anne does not give up easily; she gives Gloucester the lie, citing Queen Margaret's eyewitness account of the event:

In thy foul throat thou li'st! Queen Margaret saw
Thy murd'rous falchion smoking in his blood.


This testimony could be damaging, but Gloucester shrugs it off, replying that Margaret has slandered him.

It is clear by now that Lady Anne, despite her ability to match Gloucester's language word for word and phrase for phrase, is no match for his logic. She has prejudged the issue by declaring Gloucester guilty at the outset of the debate (known evils, l. 79) and by telling him to hang himself (l. 84). When she does enter the debate, her recital of charges is vague, and she illogically jumps from the premise that Henry and Edward are dead to the conclusion that Gloucester murdered them (ll. 89-90). Now, when Gloucester defames her witness, instead of requiring him to prove his point, she drops the whole issue of Prince Edward's death and reverts to her earlier charge that Gloucester has murdered King Henry. This behavior seems tantamount to acknowledging that she has lost her case as far as the murder of Prince Edward is concerned.

Nevertheless, if Gloucester has a strategy of bold offense, Lady Anne does not lack resources:

Anne. Didst thou not kill this king?
Glou. I grant ye.


Since Gloucester has admitted that he killed King Henry, the question of whether something happened has been answered. The judicial inquiry now moves from the question Did something happen? to the question What kind of thing happened? The issue thus becomes a matter of definition: Was killing King Henry an act of murder? Once again Anne prejudges the issues and is consequently unprepared for the line of defense that Gloucester will pursue:

Dost grant me, hedgehog? Then God grant me too
Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!
O, he was gentle, mild, and virtuous!


Anne's bottom-line argument that Gloucester is guilty and that God must punish him proves not only ineffective but disastrous, for Gloucester turns this argument against her. If God's justice is what really matters to Anne, then she ought logically to be glad of Henry's death, for it brings him the just reward of his virtue:

Anne. He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.
Glou. Let him thank me that holp to send him thither;
For he was fitter for that place than earth.


Anne's persistence in regarding murder as a sin punishable by God rather than as a crime punishable by man makes Gloucester's defense of himself unassailable.

The defense addresses itself by implication to several questions that arise in the process of defining what kind of deed was committed. Gloucester, the master of evasion, passes over the damaging question of what law has been violated, for he would have to acknowledge that his action is against both the natural law that Anne invokes and the written law in whose terms he seeks to defend himself. He dwells instead on the victim: Who was harmed? the individual? the community? Clearly, King Henry, a saintly man, could not be said to suffer harm if killing him resulted in his admission to heaven. Moreover, even the heavenly kingdom (the community) has benefited from this deed—Henry's gentle, mild, and virtuous character makes it better for the King of Heaven that hath him. Did the victim suffer harm against his will? Neither King Henry, nor Anne on his behalf, can object to a deed that improves his condition. But neither this question nor the next one—what was the extent of the harm—arises. The act of killing King Henry, to which Gloucester has confessed, has been at last defined as an act of charity, not the crime of murder.

The case against Gloucester could easily rest here, but to close it would not accomplish his aim of winning Anne's hand in marriage. Moreover, the matter of Prince Edward's death has been left open. Turning to the last subtopic in judicial inquiry, the issue of causes and motives, Gloucester reopens the entire question of his role in the deaths of Henry and Edward:

Is not the causer of the timeless deaths
Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward,
As blameful as the executioner?


By reopening the case Gloucester continues his strategy of attacking first, but strengthens it with the classic ploy of reversing the charges against him:

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.


Lady Anne must now play a defensive role leaving Gloucester free to direct the inquiry. Because his argument will depend heavily on revealing his inner dispositions, a confession that Anne has no desire to elicit and that only he can divulge, this freedom of inquiry is absolutely necessary to his defense.

Drawing on the language of the sonnets whose roots lie in the courtly love tradition, Gloucester acknowledges that his behavior was intentional, but he explains the cause of his behavior in terms that everyone will grasp and that most will regard as extenuating circumstances. A man in the grip of such passion, often described as a type of madness, can scarcely be called responsible for his actions. He only carries out, executes, the dictates of his appetite.

Anne, surprised, and, no doubt, flattered, tries to keep to the issue:

It is a quarrel just and reasonable,
To be reveng'd on him that kill'd my husband.


Her appeal to rationality provides Gloucester with his cue for addressing the next question, the motive for his behavior:

He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband,
Did it to help thee to a better husband.


These words should lead to the next line of questioning, for, after cause and motives have been examined, it is customary to inquire into the character of the accused and the character of the victim. Gloucester, avoiding “odorous” comparisons, lays claim to a better nature than young Edward but offers no substantiation. That he entertains the question seems clear, however, from the soliloquy that follows the successful wooing:

A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Fram'd in the prodigality of nature—
Young, valiant, wise, and (no doubt) right royal—
The spacious world cannot again afford.
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?


Instead, however, he passes indirectly to the question of extenuating circumstances—that the Lancastrians had, after all, killed his brother Rutland and their father, the duke of York. Finally, using the narrative of their deaths, he offers her a sign, the first of several, that his declaration of love proceeds from a sincere heart:

                                        —in that sad time
My manly eyes did scorn an humble tear;
And what these sorrows could not thence exhale,
Thy beauty hath, and made them blind with weeping.


This inquiry, technically an inquiry into Gloucester's motives for killing Prince Edward, has been conducted in part by Gloucester as if it were Anne's suit for vengeance. Her refusal to execute him or even to pass the sentence of death upon him indicates that the suit for vengeance has been dropped. Furthermore, the hypothetical syntax of Gloucester's plea for the verdict of death—if you cannot forgive me, kill me—allows him to infer that since she has not killed him, she has forgiven him for the crimes of which he stood accused.

Thus encouraged he can press his own suit for her hand in marriage. The second plea for the death penalty, Then bid me kill myself, and I will do it, initiates this new suit, forcing Anne to reveal that she sees no insurmountable impediment to their marriage. If she cannot cold-bloodedly tell him to kill himself, he cannot be an object of such great hatred. While her reluctant acceptance of his ring still strikes one as inadequately motivated, the argument that follows it is compelling. Gloucester expresses a desire to see King Henry buried and offers this solicitude as proof of his repentance for the murders he has committed:

                              (after I have solemnly interr'd
At Chertsey monast'ry this noble king,
And wet his grave with my repentant tears)
I will with all expedient duty see you.


To a woman of Anne's religious temperament the idea that one might have brought a sinner to repentance would be far more flattering than praise of her beauty or an offer of marriage from a prince of the blood royal. Gloucester, of course, cannot appreciate these motives but attributes his success to the plain devil and dissembling looks. He takes no more credit for his powers of persuasion than he does for his royal blood; both come so naturally to him that to claim credit for them would be to have no credit at all.

While one can trace quite easily the three phases of inquiry that belong to judicial discourse, it is not so easy to discern a style typical of that mode of persuasion. Three distinct styles become manifest in the course of the encounter between Gloucester and Lady Anne. The first style appears in the tirade that Anne launches when Gloucester stops the funeral procession (ll.50-67). The features of this style correspond to those that Renaissance rhetoricians described under the rubric of vehemence. Its characteristics include words that are harsh in sound, in meaning, or in both, and figures of speech like apostrophe. One criterion that Renaissance rhetoricians used to judge a harsh sound was difficulty of pronunciation. By this criterion the consonant clusters of these lines might be considered harsh:

O gentlemen, see, see dead Henry's wounds
Open their congeal'd mouths and bleed afresh!
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity.

(I.ii.55-57, italics added)

A word like blush—whose sounds are heralded by the immediately preceding bleed and afresh and then repeated in quick succession—might be thought to heap audible, almost tangible, scorn upon the person addressed. Other patterns of harshness in these lines might include the afficate of gentlemen (picked up later in congeal'd), the fricative f (foul deformity) and the wide central vowels of blush and lump. All these sounds have a diffusiveness that suggests both the explosive quality of Anne's anger and the spluttering that will at length culminate in her actually spitting at him.

Among the figures of vehemence that open this speech is one, bdelygmia, which expresses hatred in a few words, often by telling the object of hatred to disappear (out, varlet; begone): “Foul devil, for God's sake hence, and trouble us not” (I.ii.50). The entire speech seeks, of course, to exorcise Gloucester's malign presence. As anger at her inability to effect that exorcism builds, Anne's vehement language culminates in apostrophe:

O God! which this blood mad'st, revenge his death!
O earth! which this blood drink'st, revenge his death!


This figure, in addition to calling on unseen or inanimate forces, implies a turning aside from one previously addressed. Gloucester has not responded to her words; perhaps God will. Apostrophe at this juncture is a measure of Anne's frustration and a sign of her failure. In the pattern observed in the analysis of the judicial inquiry, Anne moves from the human to the divine realm for aid and, in so doing, she loses. Her anger subsides and her situation grows rather poignant as we realize too that the disjunctive ultimatum—either heaven strike him dead or earth swallow him up—will not be carried out. Gloucester does not disappear, and Anne's vehemence, now exhausted, can carry her no further. Her words have proven ineffectual, her verbal trump cards have been played, but she has lost the trick and now must follow Gloucester's stylistic lead.

As long as Anne employed the language of vehemence, she enjoyed a real advantage over Gloucester. Vehemence is a style of reproof, used among other things to rebuke known criminals. Gloucester's silence before Anne's diatribe confesses his guilt to some extent. Moreover, the emotions Anne expresses have some moral force. Invocations of unseen powers elevate her discourse to a supra-human plane, but when she descends from that realm to the rational world of human justice and judicial inquiry, her language inevitably changes from apostrophe to invective, from curse to insult, from solemn to strident. As we hear this modulation of tone, our sympathy for her grief and awe at her indignation become amazement at her cleverness and amusement at her anger.

By using his syntax, his rhythms, his tone, Anne places herself in Gloucester's power. The hypnotic effect of using Gloucester's language explains as well as any other theory her ultimate capitulation to his suit. In seven imitations that occur between lines 70 and 90, Anne responds to patterns set by Gloucester on five occasions. The following is typical:

Glou. Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.
Anne. Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make
No excuse current but to hang thyself.


We have clearly moved away from the vehement style, but we might well wonder which style characterizes these and other speeches in this phase of the judicial inquiry.

Patterson, while acknowledging the impossibility of demonstrating that “sixteenth and seventeenth century poets in England knew and practiced the Idea of Speed,” suggests that “they used deliberately a variety of speedy effects.”11 Among these stand the omission of conjunctions through asyndeton, the compilation of short lists through brachylogia, and figures like anaphora and epistrophe that please the ear without being intellectually demanding. In addition, trochaic feet and enjambment would presumably create the impression of speed in verse rhythms. Diction may admit no harsh consonants, but critics differ over whether it should be monosyllabic or polysyllabic. Unfortunately, this contellation of stylistic features cannot really be discerned in the lines in question.

Anne's diction continues harsh in meaning and, to a lesser extent, in sound, especially if we observe the high frequency of -st endings on second person singular verbs. The question of rhythmic effects requires considerable expertise in metrics but some tentative points can be advanced: Trochaic inversions do occur in line-initial position in two sets of imitations:

Lady, you know no rules of charity,
Villain, thou know'st nor law of God nor man:


Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have
Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make


Initial trochaic feet do seem to create a “running” start to the blank verse line and lend smoothness to the rhythm, providing some evidence of an attempt at producing a “speedy” effect. There also appear to be some dactyllic and trochaic feet at the end of these lines:

Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity


The second half of Anne's line is difficult. Assuming, however, that sense requires a strong accent on some, it is possible to scan some touch of pity exactly like blessings for curses, a dactyl followed by a trochee. Thus as Gloucester's speech grows irregular so does that of Lady Anne.

If speedy effects like trochaic feet do appear in these lines, the rhetorical figures explicitly associated with this style do not, except for a single “speedy” figure that dominates the entire dialogue, namely, syndrome. Johannes Sturm, whose well-known edition of Hermogenes' work on style received a quantity of praise in Ascham's Scholemaster, held that among the most telling figures in the “speedy” style was “syndrome, or the use of two brief contradictory sentences.”12 The name syndrome came metaphorically from the clash of armies. In fact the “speedy” style itself was deemed most appropriate for description of battle and, in characteristically Renaissance attempts to align styles with planets, syndrome was governed by Mars.

Considering the number of antithetical statements that make every other line in this passage a contradiction of its predecessor, it is not too fanciful to view the parallel sentences as the equal forces of battle drawn up and the contradictions a clash between them. It is certainly not too fanciful to suggest that combat and speed could have been concepts that governed the composition of this passage considering the words which close the second phase of the judicial inquiry:

                              But, gentle Lady Anne,
To leave this keen encounter of our wits
And fall something into a slower method.


Such wit combats appear so often between lovers in Shakespeare's early comedies, notably, of course, between Beatrice and Benedick, that the last shift in style, to the diction of the sonnets and of love lyrics, comes as no surprise. Indeed the wit combat has prepared both the audience and Lady Anne, at least unconsciously, for Gloucester's declaration of love, no more ridiculous, finally, than the sudden fallings in love that constitute the stuff of romantic comedies, no more repulsive, surely, than Titania's love for Bottom. Invoking all the clichés about haunting beauty, sleepless nights, and the power of the beloved over the lover's life, Gloucester presses his suit. That Gloucester, if not a prince turned into a frog, might yet be a toad with a precious jewel in his head, escapes neither the audience nor the auditor.

A major element in the diction of love, reference to the eyes, recurs through this phase of the dialogue:

Glou. These eyes could not endure that beauty's wrack.


Anne. Out of my sight, thou dost infect mine eyes!


Glou. Those eyes of thine from mine have drawn salt tears.


These references to eyes, whose beams were thought to pass from one lover's gaze to another's heart and whose guidance Dan Cupid lacks, explain in the sonnet tradition both love at first sight and the blind folly of loving an unworthy object. Anne's eyes, infected by the man who will not leave her sight however vehemently she orders him to do so, now deceive her as she watches Gloucester washing his eyes with tears, fallible signs to confirm merely probable conclusions in the world of logic but an infallible sign of sincerity in the rhetoric of love. This key sonnet motif—the heavenly rhetoric of [the] eye—may explain why sight has received repeated emphasis in Scene Two, starting with Anne's first speech to Gloucester.

Anne's rejection of Gloucester's love, though not inappropriate for the “cruel fair” of the sonnet tradition, reverts in its style to certain tactics of vehemence. Perhaps because words have long since proved ineffectual, she repels Gloucester's advances by gestures and other nonverbal signs of rejection. She first threatens, doubtless with a gesture toward her face, to mar her beauty. Some moments later she spits at Gloucester. Finally, she employs a specific figure of the vehement style that Puttenham called “mycterismus the fleering frumpe … a mock given with scornful countenance, as for example by drawing the lip awry:”13

Teach not thy lip such scorn; for it was made
For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.


One can envision Gloucester trying to kiss away the scornful grimace on Anne's lips at this point, and one can view the lines that follow immediately as his hasty reinterpretation of the kiss as a gesture of forgiveness:

If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,
Lo here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword.


since Anne is decidedly not ready for gestures of affection.

Nevertheless, that kiss makes it easier for her to let the proffered sword fall to the ground and finally to accept the ring he offers her. Once again her rhetorical strategy, in this case a series of scornful actions from spitting to grimacing to handling the sword, becomes subverted and used against her by Gloucester who offers counter gestures—crying, kissing, kneeling—that finally merge in mutuality—lifting him up (Take up the sword again, or take up me), accepting his ring, and submission—resigning to him her place in the funeral procession. These gestures are as integral to the style of this scene as the diction of the sonnets. Both words and gestures combine as powerful seconds to the arguments that Gloucester advances to defend himself against Anne's accusations so that the discourse of forensic oratory exhibits a variety of styles while preserving the utmost decorum.

With fairly explicit examples of deliberative and judicial discourse appearing in the first two scenes, it seems logical that this carefully constructed play should offer us a glimpse of Gloucester's ability to use the third type of persuasion, the epideictic or ceremonial oration. Unfortunately, Scene Three contains no such clear instances of ceremonial discourse as Antony's funeral oration in Julius Caesar or Cominius's praise of Caius Martius in Coriolanus. But the means employed by ceremonial discourse, praise and blame, together with its special topics, honor and dishonor, are quite apparent in the angry dialogue between Gloucester and the Woodvilles that opens Scene Three. Just as in his use of deliberative discourse Gloucester preferred the negative means of dissuasion to the positive means of exhortation, he here makes the technique of blame his overt concern though he aims ultimately at self-glorification.

In all likelihood Antony's funeral oration represents the perfection of a technique of epideictic discourse only outlined here: to mix praise and blame so that the praise (of Caesar) is overt—Antony's disclaimers notwithstanding—and the blame (of the conspirators) appears only through incremental irony—the references to the honorable men. The real topic of Antony's speech is therefore dishonor, a topic that he develops by employing the means of praise, usually associated with honor. This counterpointing of topic and means occurs also in Richard III, where the topic is ultimately praise of Gloucester but the means to achieve it is blame of the Woodvilles.

The logical probability that two scenes that feature deliberative and forensic discourse should be followed by a third that employs ceremonial discourse increases if we consider in addition the factor of the dramatic action. Despite the applause that must greet his cleverness in the wooing scene, Gloucester has openly acknowledged his killing of King Henry and Prince Edward of Lancaster. Moreover, he has betrayed a lady's trust by laughing at Anne's simplicity. All being fair in war and love the audience might forgive Gloucester his treatment of enemies and women, but as he is about to embark on fratricide he wisely takes occasion to build himself up in Scene Three by praising his brotherly loyalty to King Edward IV and by blaming on the Woodvilles the sentence of doom pronounced against Clarence by Edward.

As Queen Elizabeth, her brother Rivers, and her sons, Dorset and Grey, discuss with Buckingham and Derby the illness of King Edward and his desire to reconcile Gloucester and the Queen's relatives, Gloucester enters, complaining angrily that the Woodvilles have misrepresented him to the king:

They do me wrong, and I will not endure it!
Who is it that complains unto the King
That I, forsooth, am stern, and love them not?


Having been apparently discredited by rumors, he naturally seeks to discredit those who have circulated the rumors.

He begins with a disclaimer typical of the panegyrist. Antony protests that he is no orator, as Brutus is:

For I have neither [wit], nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech
To stir men's blood; I only speak right on.
I tell you that which you yourselves do know.

(JC, III.ii.221-24)

Similarly, but with much greater sincerity, Cominius, about to praise the heroism of Caius Marcius in his battle against the Volscians, begins

I shall lack voice: the deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be utter'd feebly.

(Cor, II.ii.82-83)

Gloucester, knowing the attack he is about to launch, introduces his scathing denunciation of the Woodvilles in terms that simultaneously establish his credibility and mitigate otherwise unpardonable insults:

Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abus'd
With silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?

(R3, I.iii.51-53)

This denial of duplicity addresses itself less to the speaker's manner of speaking than to the matter of his speech. It implies that plain words by definition carry a guarantee of truth. As a matter of fact, Gloucester's most damaging assertions against the Woodvilles prove to be those that are the most truthful.

As a second step in establishing his authority, Gloucester employs a technique of praise that declares the person lauded to be in some way unique. Thus Cominius says of Marcius

The man I speak of cannot in the world
Be singly counterpois'd.

(Cor, II.ii.86-87)

Gloucester takes his stand upon a blameless record when he demands of Grey and presumably of the Queen, Rivers, Dorset, and Stanley (the latter a representative of the “faction”):

When have I injur'd thee? When done thee wrong?
Or thee? or thee? or any of your faction?


The blameless record Gloucester cites has not quite the same argumentative force as conspicuous merit, but if people who cannot be quiet scarce a breathing while without bringing lewd complaints to the King have not previously managed to testify to any injury done them by Gloucester and if they do not now bring any charge against him when questioned openly, that silent testimony to his uprightness may well be considered a singular achievement.

These statements, however, are not so much part of Gloucester's self-praise as they are a preamble to his denunciation of the Woodvilles. He leads into that topic by deploring the decadent state of the world:

                    … the world is grown so bad
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There's many a gentle person made a Jack.


One way to praise an individual is to praise the group to which that person belongs. Thus in a classic model of ceremonial discourse Pericles praises the Athenians' democratic way of life more than he praises the dead heroes whose eulogy he pronounces. When Gloucester here laments the dissolution of the social order under the pressure of democratic tendencies, he leaves the audience to infer that the Woodvilles, as commoners advanced to the highest ranks in the realm, must answer for the loss of traditional standards. Thus to deplore the sorry state of the world is to point the finger at those responsible for it.

In three specific charges that follow the innuendo, Gloucester makes statements against the Woodvilles that Shakespeare's sources would have corroborated:

Our brother is imprison'd by your means,
Myself disgrac'd, and the nobility
Held in contempt, while great promotions
Are daily given to ennoble those
That scarce some two days since were worth a noble.


Holinshed makes it clear that upon hearing the prophesy about “G,” “the King and Queen were sore troubled and began to conceive a grievous grudge against the duke, and could not be in quiet till they had brought him to his end.”14 Shakespeare's audience would probably have believed Gloucester's charge that the Woodvilles shared some blame for Clarence's imprisonment. Gloucester's own sense of humiliation (Myself disgrac'd) might well have stemmed from the fact that he had not yet been officially named Lord Protector. Finally, the sense of dishonor felt by many of the old nobility appears in the sources where the Duchess of York protests her son's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, in the preferments offered Elizabeth's numerous male relatives, and by the forcible marriage of old nobility to members of the Woodville family: “But yet the Duchess of York his mother letted this match as much as in her lay [yet], in the next year after she was with great solemnity crowned queen at Westminster. Her father was also created Earl Rivers and made high constable of England; her brother Lord Anthony was married to the sole heir of Thomas Lord Scales; Sir Thomas Grey, son to Sir John Grey the Queen's first husband, was created Marquis Dorset” (italics added).15

In this scene Shakespeare has begun more obviously to quarry material from his sources in order to place arguments in Gloucester's mouth. The arguments are true; moreover, both Shakespeare and his audience would have been sympathetic to their substance. Hence they are a powerful means of blaming the Woodvilles for the unhappy state of the realm and of praising Gloucester, who is allied by birth to the oldest and noblest families of the land. Gloucester's repeated mention of the Woodvilles' upstart status becomes a refrain like Antony's insistence that all the conspirators are honorable men, although he does not intend the remark to be taken ironically. It is ultimately ironic that he is the greatest upstart of all, but at this point in the dramatic action the obvious truth of his statements about the Woodvilles dominates.

Having generally denounced the Woodvilles, Gloucester heaps particular scorn upon Lord Rivers, who is maternal uncle to the Prince of Wales, his tutor, and the governor of his household in Ludlow. Traditionally, Gloucester, as the King's younger brother, would have been entrusted with raising the heir to the throne. As uncles to the heir to the throne, both Gloucester and Rivers can expect to gain power if King Edward dies while that heir is a minor. Speaking to Rivers, Gloucester taxes him with achieving his present eminence solely through his sister's influence:

She may help you to many fair preferments,
And then deny her aiding hand therein
And lay those honors on your high desert.


It was a technique of epideictic discourse to insist that a person's success was due solely to his own efforts. For this reason Cominius in Coriolanus stresses Martius' single-handed defeat of the Volscians:

                                        Alone he ent'red
The mortal gate of th' city, which he painted
With shunless destiny; aidless came off. …

(Cor, II.ii.110-12)

Because Rivers had a high reputation as a scholar and patron of the arts, Gloucester's attribution of his position to family rather than to personal merit belittles his reputation and converts a reason for praise into a reason for blame. Rivers, confronted by a Plantagenet prince and a warrior, has only the weight that attaches to his reputation as a man of the new learning and the Queen's brother. He is thus made to appear as the prototype of the new nobility with the shallowest of roots.

The most scathing attack, however, is reserved for the Queen herself. Referring to the Queen's marriage to Edward IV, when he was a lad of eighteen while she was a widow ten years older, Gloucester intimates that the Woodvilles are accustomed to take advantage of young men so that the Prince of Wales will scarcely be safe with his own mother:

What, marry, may she? Marry with a king,
A bachelor, and a handsome stripling too:
Iwis your grandam had a worser match.


Having begun with a general warning against democratic tendencies in society (Since every Jack became a gentleman), continuing with the particular point that the Woodvilles have weakened the old order (the nobility / Held in contempt) and supporting that point by references to their treatment of Clarence, Gloucester lays the blame for the general decadence at court directly on Rivers and the Queen, hinting that a future controlled by them will bring even greater deterioration.

Gloucester has by no means finished placing blame, however. Clarence yet lives, though in disgrace, and offers a far greater threat to Gloucester than the Woodvilles. To Clarence he now turns, as he reaches the heart of his argument, and delivers a set speech whose length and structure lend further support to the view that this scene is dominated by ceremonial discourse:

'Tis time to speak, my pains are quite forgot.
.....Ere you were queen, ay, or your husband king,
I was a pack-horse in his great affairs:
A weeder-out of his proud adversaries,
A liberal rewarder of his friends;
To royalize his blood I spent mine own.
.....In all which time you and your husband Grey
Were factious for the house of Lancaster;
And, Rivers, so were you. Was not your husband
In Margaret's battle at Saint Albons slain?
Let me put in your minds, if you forget,
What you have been ere this, and what you are;
Withal, what I have been, and what I am.
.....Poor Clarence did forsake his father, Warwick,
Ay, and forswore himself—which Jesu pardon!—
.....To fight on Edward's party for the crown,
And for his meed, poor lord, he is mewed up.
I would to God my heart were flint, like Edward's,
Or Edward's soft and pitiful, like mine:
I am too childish-foolish for this world.


Four comments by Queen Margaret fail to diminish its singleness of effect, for it is clear from the speeches of Antony and Cominius in other plays that interruptions from hearers were characteristic of ceremonial orations. With respect to its structure, we find formal references to the act of speaking similar to those that mark the speeches of Antony and Cominius. The latter, having apologized for his inability to praise Caius Martius and having rehearsed the hero's career prior to Corioles, marks the transition from praise of past glory to eulogy of the latest act of valor by a second reference to the inadequacy of his words:

                              For this last,
Before and in Corioles, let me say,
I cannot speak him home.

(Cor, II.ii.101-03)

Gloucester in a similar fashion announces first that he will speak ('Tis time to speak), reviews the past (I was a pack-horse in his great affairs), and highlights his movement toward the real issue by words that point to and underscore the purpose of the speech:

Let me put in your minds, if you forget,
What you have been ere this, and what you are. …

(I.iii.130-31, italics added)

Before these lines, Gloucester had continued to heap blame upon the Woodvilles, but the issue has shifted from their ambition to their early Lancastrian loyalties. Moreover, Gloucester has introduced the note of praise for his own loyalty. But after the transitional words just cited, the argument from the subtopic difference, which stresses the contrast between Gloucester and the others, now focuses on the split within the Yorkist party. Having implied early in the speech that he, not Warwick, was the kingmaker (To royalize his blood I spent mine own), he now reminds the audience indirectly of Warwick's rebellion against Edward IV and, more pointedly, of Clarence's double desertion, first of the King and then of Warwick.

Clarence and even Edward are Gloucester's real targets in this speech. As the tone changes from anger to grief, we have an impression of three brothers—Edward, the beneficiary of Gloucester's labors, slighting him over the protectorship and turning against Clarence to please, in both cases, the Woodvilles; Clarence, vacillating and disloyal to family, to party, and to God; and Gloucester—liberal, hard-working, uncomplaining, and, above all, loyal. Of all the royal family, Gloucester has been unswervingly and uniquely loyal. This emphasis on unique virtue is among the most powerful means of praise in epideictic discourse, and, once again, Gloucester speaks the truth about the past. With only four or five lines of reference to himself, Gloucester has succeeded in setting forth his qualifications for the office of Protector.

To identify the style associated with the ceremonial discourse of this scene, one has only to return to Gloucester's opening words:

Because I cannot flatter and look fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive, and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.


Readers of Shakespeare have often encountered this language in the speeches of numerous blunt fellows like Hotspur or like Casca, whose

                    rudeness is a sauce to his good wit,
Which gives men stomach to disgest his words
With better appetite.

(JC, I.ii.300-02)

As these words suggest, such a style appears straightforward but employs artfully chosen linguistic means to achieve its ends. Whereas in the ethical style the speaker uses simple and modest language to convince his audience of his sincerity, authority, and good will, the speaker who adopts this “truthful” style seeks to communicate certain emotions to his audience and to produce in them a frame of mind favorable to his purpose.16 In other words, pathos, not ethos, is the speaker's concern.

The characteristics of this style include broken rhythms, irregular meter, short syntactic phrases, and plain words. Plain diction manifests itself in Gloucester's monosyllables (cog, meed, duck, plain, perch), terms from daily life (wrens, Jacks, bachelor, stripling, grandam), and temporary compounds and coinages (pack-horse, weeder-out, royalize, childish-foolish). The candid speaker often grows impatient and expresses his agitation by punctuating his speech with more or less mild oaths, as does Gloucester with forsooth, by holy Paul, a plague upon you all, marry, iwis. This angry tone also expresses itself in phrases whose substance, length, word order, and high frequency of pronouns and substitute verbs all suggest the unadorned speech of one who has no time for artifice:

They do me wrong, and I will not endure it!


[Tell him, and spare not. …]


What you have been ere this, and what you are;
Withal, what I have been, and what I am.


Finally, the candid style adopts figures of speech that express the speaker's questions, doubts, and self-correction represented, respectively, by the italicized phrases cited below—all ways of expressing the spontaneous language of a man who has taken no previous care to modulate his tone, smooth his syntax, or choose his words (italics added):

She may, Lord Rivers! Why, who knows not so?


I cannot tell, the world is grown so bad


Ere you were queen, ay, or your husband king. …


Such language has an abiding charm, despite its irritated tone, that convinces us of the speaker's naturalness and veracity.

By casting his discourse in this forthright style, Gloucester succeeds in his purpose of intimidating the Woodvilles. Although they never assume he is sincere and Gloucester himself does not believe he has changed their minds about him, he has achieved his goal, which is to gain ascendancy in the power play between him and Rivers. As Gloucester's angry tone dissolves into grief (more tears?), Rivers picks up the cue and delivers the expected response:

My Lord of Gloucester, in those busy days,
Which here you urge to prove us enemies,
We follow'd then our lord, our sovereign king.
So should we you, if you should be our king.


By this speech Rivers recognizes the bid for power and acknowledges that Gloucester has won the round. Hence, the Yorkist party has closed ranks even before Queen Margaret accuses them of forming an uneasy alliance against her. Her presence during Gloucester's final display of persuasive power in this act provides a corrective and counter to his arguments.

Indeed a desire on Shakespeare's part to affirm the legitimate use of persuasion may explain the confessional soliloquies that follow each of Gloucester's major speeches. Having used deliberative discourse to prove that he must be a villain, Gloucester confesses that he is subtle, false, and treacherous; after deceiving Anne through his abuse of forensic discourse, he admits that he has won her with the aid of the plain devil and dissembling looks; after praising his own worth through epideictic discourse, he explains that he seems a saint, when most I play the devil. These confessions warn us that the lion is not a lion. By making Gloucester admit that he has perverted the legitimate use of persuasive arts, Shakespeare affirms their legitimacy. It would be wrong-headed to see in Gloucester's association with persuasion a condemnation of reason, of classical oratory, or of rhetoric.

Assigning different forms of speech to Gloucester and associating with each form an individual style accounts for the dramatic and linguistic diversity of the opening scenes of Richard III. Annabel Patterson has shown that influential Renaissance critics like Minturno, Sturm, and Scaliger, whose works were well known in Shakespeare's England, espoused the view that there were not simply three styles, high, middle, and low, but a great variety of styles each with its appropriate diction, syntax, organization, phonology, and ornamentation. Such descriptions of style prove quite useful for understanding the principles that might have guided Shakespeare's decisions about appropriate language in the opening act of Richard III.


  1. Annabel M. Patterson, Hermogenes and the Renaissance: Seven Ideas of Style (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 14-15.

  2. Edward P. J. Corbett, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 146-55. Throughout this paper remarks about the classical theory of persuasive discourse will be taken from these pages.

  3. All citations of Shakespeare's plays are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1974).

  4. Sr. Miriam Joseph Rauh, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York: Hafner, 1966), p. 218.

  5. Corbett, p. 53.

  6. Patterson, p. 58.

  7. Patterson, p. 64.

  8. Corbett, p. 40.

  9. Corbett, pp. 149-52.

  10. James Gairdner, History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1898) pp. 16-18.

  11. Patterson, p. 156.

  12. Patterson, p. 160.

  13. Rauh, p. 391.

  14. Raphael Holinshed, Selections from Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in Richard III, ed. Mark Eccles (New York: New American Library, 1964), p. 190.

  15. Holinshed, p. 188.

  16. Patterson, p. 64; Rauh, p. 242.

Ralph Berry (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4982

SOURCE: “Richard III: Bonding the Audience,” in Mirror Up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, edited by J. C. Gray, University of Toronto Press, 1984, pp. 114-27.

[In the following essay, Berry explores the relationship Richard develops with the play's audience and argues that the bond that grows from this relationship contributes to the success of Richard III.]

The first thing that we know of Richard III is that it was a success, and remained so. From the days of its mentions in Henslowe's diary and the five quartos by 1612, through two centuries of Cibber's version to the triumphs of Olivier's film and the opening night of the Festival Theatre at Stratford, Ontario, Richard III has commanded popular success. It is not only a hit but a play intended and designed as a hit (as some of Shakespeare, in the second half of his career especially, is not). In Richard III Shakespeare seems to have expressed all that he knew of the means of controlling an audience: of creating, for the first time in his career, a star part and of welding the audience into a fascinated and delighted unity. The relations between Richard and his audience are my subject.


The ground-plan of Richard III is that the audience supports the villain-hero, then abandons him. The formal action can be called the working of ‘retributive justice’1; the audience experiences it as the waning of an affair and a demonstration that actions will have consequences that include our emotional reactions to those consequences. Gloucester is in the first place a channel for the energies of the drama, impulses transmitted from stage to audience and back. Those energies are dark and primitive, emerging from a stratum of folklore and desire in the collective mind. Richard, clearly, permits the acting-out of desires in the audience. He makes himself king; he takes his sexual rewards; he plans (but is unable to commit) incest. Against all the structures of morality, kinship, the needs of the tribe itself, the individual asserts himself. The process is made profoundly attractive and, in the end, as profoundly repellent. The atavistic forces tapped by Richard are never far below the surface of the action. The folklore element suggests, for instance, that Richard's status is that of imposter. He is the Man Who Would Be King, behind whom stretches a long line of tricksters. Then, in the wooing of Lady Anne, we become conscious of another myth: Beauty and the Beast. (It is a myth Middleton also exploits, in The Changeling.) Nicholas Brooke finds echoes of de Sade in Richard's treatment of Lady Anne. As Brooke remarks, the play's ‘sexual current, prominent in this scene and equally so later in the wooing of Queen Elizabeth for her daughter, is elsewhere frequently felt, but very much as an undercurrent.’2 This is true, but it is interesting that the sexual current is strong and explicit in Richard's apotheosis, his address to the troops:

You having lands, and blest with beauteous wives,
They would restrain the one, distain the other …
Shall these enjoy our lands? Lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?

(V.iii.321-2, 336-7)

The appeal to the sexual and racial instincts of the soldiery and the proposition that the end of war is to get at the enemy's womenfolk can be looked at as a tactic of rhetoric: they can also be taken as a straightforward exposition of Richard's psychology and values. The soldiery / audience is appealed to at a certain level of its psyche. The appeal is rejected, as it happens; but the intensity of the current is fully registered.

From these hints of a dark prehistory to Richard, a shadowy impression of his identity begins to emerge. That identity is, however, based on an immediately available tradition. The great container for Richard is the Vice figure. The explicit reference does not occur until III.i, but the Vice governs the frame of reference within which Richard engages the audience. Richard alludes to a network of devices, stratagems, traditions with which his audience is well familiar. He can, for instance, be looked at as a mutation of Herod in the mystery plays, a role ‘rooted in the tension and interaction of the horrible and the comic.’3 The comic is the means by which the audience both approaches the tyrant and revenges itself upon him. Richard, for his part, seeks to seduce the audience. Audience rapport is the key to the early structuring of this play, and we need to touch lightly on the obvious features of Richard's wooing of his public.


It is generally accepted that the soliloquies in Richard III, prior to the last one (V.iii), should be played as direct address to the audience.4 The tone is ingratiating, and the audience flattered by being taken into Richard's confidence. We become accomplices. But these soliloquies cluster most densely around the early scenes, and they later fade. Thus the audience's regard for Richard is insidiously weakened. In the opening phase Richard confides in us; in the second, in Buckingham; in the third, in no one.

The aside in Richard III is not really a miniature soliloquy, merely a joke that maintains good relations with the audience.

Amen! And make me die a good old man!
That is the butt-end of a mother's blessing;
I marvel that her Grace did leave it out.


This aside presents Richard as Peck's bad boy, an endearing-enough figure.

So wise so young, they say, do never live long.


The aside is transmitted to Catesby and Buckingham, who illustrate a tactic of their master's:

Catesby The princes both make high account of you—
For they account his head upon the bridge.


Hastings Nay, like enough, for I stay dinner there.
Buckingham And supper too, although thou know'st it not.


All instances of the aside occur in the first half of the play. Its lapse marks a weakening of the bond between Richard and audience.


The double meaning is a joke shared between Richard and the audience. While the remark is addressed to another character on stage, its import is clear and will be pointed up by the actor. Thus:

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


Meantime, this deep disgrace in brotherhood
Touches me deeper than you can imagine.


I will deliver you, or else lie for you.


For they that were your enemies are his.


Some tardy cripple bare the countermand.


Buckingham is presumably the audience for whose benefit the last remark is passed; the others are all for the playhouse audience. Again, the pattern holds of an opening blaze of instances, soon extinguished. But while the immediate tactic lapses, the idea of double meaning broadens out into the superlative continuous jest of III.vii.


Richard enjoys word-play, usually of a rather obvious and mechanical type. The most advanced instance I can find is the reference to the ‘new-delivered Hastings’ (I.i.121), a neat hit at the innocent-babe aspect of Hastings. Otherwise Richard's word-plays do not test the powers of the audience:

Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There's many a gentle person made a Jack.


                              while great promotions
Are daily given to ennoble those
That scarce some two days since were worth a noble.


What, marry, may she? Marry with a king …


These (with which one can include the oath-substitute of ‘Margaret’) are broad and easy games with words, much in the Vice tradition and sure to win the approval of the audience. Shakespeare extends their use into the second half of the play, presumably because he finds them psychologically interesting. Richard, in the bad-news scene, has three in rapid succession:

Stanley Richmond is on the seas.
Richard There let him sink, and be the seas on him!


Stanley Unless for that, my liege, I cannot guess.
Richard Unless for that he comes to be your liege,
You cannot guess wherefore the Welshman comes.


(The word ‘liege’ evidently touches a nerve: Richard had played on ‘true noble Prince’ with Buckingham, IV.ii.20.)

Stanley No, my good lord, my friends are in the north.
Richard Cold friends to me! What do they in the north,
When they should serve their sovereign in the west?


These attempts to wrest words from their meaning show a mind trying to impose order on a dissolving reality.

Word-play is the critical term for locating the traditions energized by Richard. It is focused to the clear exposition of

Gloucester So wise so young, they say, do never live long.
Prince What say you, uncle?
Gloucester I say, without characters fame lives long.
Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.


‘Gloucester's reference to the “formal vice, Iniquity” is—like Speed's—itself in the form of a pun, and it is a vicious and highly sophisticated kind of “contrarie sence” in which Gloucester uses the verb “moralize.”’5 Weimann marks the first and fourth lines in the passage cited as ‘aside.’ That is precisely the point, left open for performance, which characterizes the openness of the text to the traditional allusion. Richard may deliver the lines broadly, to the audience; or he may speak them covertly, to Buckingham. The one mode is the non-representational use of the platea (platform), a direct address to the audience. The other way assents to the realistic locus-centred style. It is impossible and unnecessary to determine the matter; no doubt the actors' way of playing this passage (and others raising parallel problems) varied over the years in Shakespeare's lifetime. These options raise the question of the degree of obsolescence associated with the tradition. Weimann emphasizes the word ‘old’ used of the Vice in Twelfth Night and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

These qualifications are, in Shakespeare, perhaps the most illuminating: The Vice was the old Vice, but still he could be used or referred to; and the words ‘old’ and ‘still’ indicate the dialectic of innovation and tradition by which Shakespeare's wordplay actually thrived upon the diminishing tensions of mimesis and ritual, matter and impertinency.6

The psychology of the role adapts easily to the dualism of the tradition. There is nothing improbable in the notion of a person modelling himself upon a stereotype of conduct or using this stereotype as a point of departure. ‘And what's he then that says I play the villain?’ demands Iago. It seems likely that the development of dramatic style was able to assimilate the traditional Vice. The villain-hero who takes the audience into his confidence—for whom an antecedent can be found as far back as the Chester cycle7—is absorbed into the self-consciousness of Richard. Even at the very end there is no contradiction between tradition and psychology. The demoniac energy of Richard—

March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell;
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell


—calling for a horse with his last breath, is simply the ‘terrible exuberance’ of the Vice, riding off like Nichol Newfangle to hell.8 On all counts, traditional, tactical, and psychological, the Vice material strengthens Richard's bond with the audience.

The Vice is a technical means of establishing rapport. It will not in itself guarantee success. Richard remains, a man. His links with the audience must consist of something other than jokes and direct appeals. Behind the tricks is a sensibility; and Shakespeare develops in that sensibility a sympathetic exploitation of class attitudes. One cannot adequately discuss the core of this play without reference to class.


Richard is an aristocrat. And some of his utterances assert an aristocratic sensibility, one founded on pride of family and class:

Unmanner'd dog, stand thou, when I command!


Ay, and much more; but I was born so high.
Our aery buildeth in the cedar's top,
And dallies with the wind and scorns the sun.


Madam, I have a touch of your condition,
That cannot brook the accent of reproof.


But this is not his norm. The substantive mass of Richard's expression is not aristocratic or is so only in a highly qualified sense. Richard habitually expresses himself in a mode that is highly accommodating to his audience, one that is in essence bourgeois. Let us explore this class sensibility. Richard's imagery and turns of speech are often colloquial and often suggest the attitudes of businessmen. Thus the ‘pack-horse,’ ‘post-horse’ references; and ‘But yet I run before my horse to market’ (I.i.160). Financial and monetary terms crop up: ‘then must I count my gains’ (I.i.162); ‘And yet go current from suspicion’ (II.i.95); ‘Repair'd with double riches of content’ (IV.iv.319). Buckingham adjures him to act ‘Not as protector, steward, substitute, / Or lowly factor for another's gain’ (III.vii.133-4): Queen Margaret repeats the perception in

Richard yet lives, hell's black intelligencer,
Only reserv'd their factor to buy souls
And send them thither


A consistent strain of language suggests the concerns of a businessman. I do not conclude, as does Paul N. Siegel in his Marxist reading, that Shakespeare is drawing a blackly negative picture of bourgeois values and using it to establish Richard's evil.9 The dramatic function of this bourgeois language is to maintain contact; it is in the main jocular, ingratiating, reaching to the concerns and awareness of the general audience. It is oddly reassuring, as though Richard were saying, ‘I am really one of you, you know.’ Richard's is the language of the common man rather than the grand seigneur.

Moreover, this linguistic quality reinforces certain class attitudes that the play on occasion calls upon. In I.iii Richard seeks to unite his stage audience behind him and against the queen's kindred, the Woodvilles; and in this the stage audience is the model of the larger audience. ‘The world is grown so bad / That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch’ (I.iii.69-70); for a moment there's a hallucinatory resemblance between Richard and Third Citizen, each crying woe! on social dissolution. The hits at ‘Jacks’ and ‘nobles,’ already quoted, extend the point. At bottom Shakespeare traces a commonplace of history, the alliance between nobles and people. No positive values are imparted to the Woodvilles. There is nothing in stage terms to counter Richard's stated view of them. Thus the Woodvilles focus whatever class resentment is in the audience: they are jumped-up gentry, a category which by definition no one (noble, popular, or simple bourgeois) cares for. So Richard succeeds in rallying the audience behind him.

Again, take Richard's relations with his subordinates. For most of the play he is affable enough, if with an edge. ‘How now, my hardy, stout, resolved mates! … I like you, lads, about your business straight’ (I.iii.339, 353). Richard's excellent relations with the workers reaffirms the audience rapport: ‘no side’ about Richard, one might say, a jovial and understanding employer. (Note how his word ‘business’ conflates the suggestions of trade and stage.) Not till IV.iii do these master-servant relations appear repellent (‘Kind Tyrrel,’ ‘gentle Tyrrel,’ which is altogether disgusting), and not till the last speech of all does Richard address Catesby as ‘slave,’ a word that reveals all by reducing Catesby from a name to an object. In sum, Richard for most of the play seems the sort of aristocrat of whom the general audience could reasonably approve, a noble with the common touch.

And this common touch emerges most subtly, I think, in the attitudes which Richard constantly invokes, sometimes by way of proverb. These attitudes I characterize as citizen morality. They are promoted (and of course subverted) by the very personae that Richard assumes: pious contemplative, unworldy innocent, country boy. All of them seem to me broadly bourgeois in origin, though I do not take the term literally as applying to a town resident. Take the country boy: the persona Richard affects in I.iii—one unused to the traffickings of court politics—sorts well with the rustic quality of some of his lines. ‘But yet I run before my horse to market’ (I.i.160); ‘He is franked up to fatting for his pains’ (I.iii.313); ‘Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace’ (II.iv.13); ‘Short summers lightly have a forward spring’ (III.i.94); ‘A milksop, one that never in his life / Felt so much cold as over shoes in snow’ (V.iii.325-6). The ‘strawberries’ episode suggests a man more at home in a garden than the court, and ‘Chop off his head’ is a woodman's phrase. Beyond the suggestions of milieu lie those of values. The wooing of Lady Anne is conducted by the ardent lover; nothing in Shakespeare is closer to the world of Colley Cibber, and the language of Richard here is eighteenth century, pure drama of sensibility. It illustrates a vein of popular morality and moralizing easily detectable elsewhere: ‘Now by St. John, that news is bad indeed! / O, he hath kept an evil diet long, / And overmuch consum'd his royal person’ (I.i.138-40); ‘God will revenge it’ (II.i.139); ‘O, do not swear, my lord of Buckingham’ (III.vii.220; Buckingham has just said ‘Zounds’). The marketing of the candidate to the citizenry is founded on the proposition that Richard ‘is not an Edward! / He is not lulling on a lewd love-bed … Not dallying with a brace of courtezans …’ (III.vii.71-4) No phrase sums up this aspect of Richard's appeal better than Buckingham's ‘I never look'd for better at his hands / After he once fell in with Mistress Shore’ (III.v.50-1). This is proto-Peck-sniffianism, a homage to moralizing, bourgeois righteousness. A picture emerges from all this of a reformist Richard, clean of speech and living, dedicated to restoring the standards of civic morality that have so sadly lapsed during the reign of Edward the Lustful.

It is high comedy, reaching its zenith in III.vii. Just how much of an edge there was in the presentation, then guying of these bourgeois attitudes is hard to say. I suspect that the satirical bite may have been fiercer than is commonly imagined.10 After all, the Vice tradition was rooted in challenge to the status quo, in a ‘moral scepticism’ directed at the conventional pieties: ‘I pray thee, tel me what meneth this word charity? / Because thou doest make it so holy.’11 Weimann suggests that the jingling language of the Vice may have recalled Lollard heresies12; and the ‘deep divines’ who flank the Protector in the draft-Richard convention may hark back to older traditions. It is not hard to see a vein of popular anticlericalism touched on here.13 One cannot dogmatize on such matters, but I propose a formulation of audience response along these lines: Richard and his accomplices promote a broad vein of citizen morality, bourgeois attitudes which are presented in an engagingly comic light in the early scenes; they culminate in the high-pressure, satiric comedy of III.vii which simultaneously delights and appals. Thereafter the mode changes. The comedy turns sour. (The formula is not so very different from Romeo and Juliet.) Buckingham's threnody on All Souls' marks a late conversion to conventional morality. Proverbs are extensions of ‘they say,’ and in the end it turns out that ‘they’ are right. Citizen morality, like God, is not mocked for five acts.

In all this, the movement of audience response is governed by an ancient formula: ‘The Vice criticizes from the audience's point of view.’14 Richard reaches out towards the platea: he is the presenter, the commentator on the locus scene. His genial mockery of civic values, his command of proverbial lore, his mode of delivery, all create a special relationship with his audience. But that is for three acts. The Vice stands outside the action to begin with and is then gradually sucked into it. The proverbs, jokes, word-plays die away. The audience becomes progressively more detached, then alienated. The Vice's ultimate dialogue (the V.iii soliloquy) is with himself, not the audience. The story of the last two acts is the turning of the audience against Richard. Much of this needs no comment; it is a simple revulsion against a monster. But I want to trace the lines of Shakespeare's technique in this matter. If class attitudes influence the bonding process in the early stages, the later stages rely on the imperatives of place. It is location, region, and ultimately nation that define the audience of Richard III.


No play of Shakespeare's is so strongly imbued with a sense of place, of national identity as the sum of many locations. Counting indifferently together names of places and titles (I shall come to the distinction later), I find some fifty English locations mentioned, whether of house (Crosby House), county (Devonshire), or city (Exeter). Of these fifty, many are referred to on several occasions. The Tower of London is mentioned no fewer than twenty-five times. All the major regions of the country are covered. The cumulative effect is of a massive impregnation of the text with a sense of England, the full extent of the land.

The broad effect is one thing. The individual references are something else. For each single allusion to a place there is a justification peculiar to drama: some member or members of the audience will know it or have some connection there. Shakespeare must have learned early that the chances of striking a chord in a spectator's mind through the allusion to some out-of-the-way place are fairly high. Someone always turns out to have come from Haverfordwest. It is not unlike the well-known odds against finding two people with identical birthdays in a quite small group. And all London references must connect with virtually the entire audience. The effect of each reference is a minor shock of recognition. The place-names are tiny foci of dramatic energy, pellets of meaning released into the audience's bloodstream. ‘I used to live near Baynard's Castle.’ ‘You can stay at Stony Stratford, but I wouldn't, not with the inns there.’ ‘Curious how you always get good strawberries in Holborn.’ ‘My mother came from Hereford!’ And so on. There is much dramatic energy stored in these innocent namings.

If that were all, it would at least justify raising the matter. But Shakespeare does not deploy place-names on a scatter principle. He organizes these far-flung places into patterns which are, as I take it, the final index to his sense of the audience's identity.

In act I, Richard III is above all a London play. Set in London, the milieu has great solidity of impression. The many references to the Tower, with all its associations, symbolize the dramatic centre of London; and we hear of Chertsey, St Paul's, Crosby House, Whitefriars. The provinces exist only through the references to St Albans and Tewkesbury (and thus, the past of the civil wars). Titles aside, that is all. Through this phase the audience enjoys the greatest rapport with Richard. Broadly, then: in the first act we are Londoners in London, and we approve of Richard.

Act II begins the move away. Although the play is still set in London, the impress of topography is much weaker. The talk is of travel, of Ludlow, Stony Stratford, Northampton. It is an undular strategy, in which Shakespeare creates a psychic wave away from London.

Act III anchors itself very firmly in London. All the manoeuvrings take place there, and the citizenry must establish itself as belonging to the capital. Similarly with the Recorder and the Lord Mayor of London. The Tower, of course, dominates all. The local allusions continue, and we are reminded of Holborn, the Crown, Baynard's Castle, Tower Bridge, Paul's, Crosby House. The provinces (Pomfret, Hereford) are still at the margin of this play's consciousness. The general audience, at the height of its pleasure in Richard, is continually reminded: this is London, our city.

The peremptory ‘Stand all apart’ (IV.ii.i) announces the second part of the play. That order to the courtiers figures Richard's relations with the audience. From now on he is distrustful, paranoid; the old rapport is gone. The allusions to place impart the new reality. We have no sense of London, though the play is still set there. All the talk is of the provinces, which now come to the fore of the play's consciousness. The roll-call is impressive: Exeter, Brecknock, Salisbury, Devonshire, Kent, Yorkshire, Dorsetshire, Milford, Pembroke, Haverfordwest. The west, Wales, even Kent are in arms. The north (of the ‘cold friends’) is the distrusted, hostage-enforced alliance with Derby. The drama, then, composes a map which we can discern without much difficulty: the great rough triangle of the British isle has arrows pointed, threateningly, towards London. And with them the psychology of the play changes. The provinces are right, and London is wrong.

With these harsh explicit indications come subliminal suggestions all tending to the same end. For we cannot confine our assessment of place-names to a simple symbolism of region and rebellion. We have to recognize the soft mutation of place to title. This play often broods on ‘title’ as Brackenbury does—Richard, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth all talk about it—and the union of place and name has its significance. We have largely lost our sense of it today with our later traditions of title based on surname or battle-honour or simple euphony allied to tenuous local connection (Attlee, Alamein, Avon). It is salutary to be reminded, as one can still be in England today, that a local magnate counts for something in the area bearing his name. Titles were based on the possession of land; they were not empty honorifics. A name signified a reality. Thus insidiously the play makes its point along these lines: Dorset may be a cipher, but Dorsetshire (IV.iv.522) matters. The titles, hence the land, are in arms against the king.

And who supports the king? The symbolism of act V is clear. Only from the south-east is there any support: the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey, his son. (The name of Richard's horse, ‘White Surrey,’ underlines the symbolism.) Outside the south-east only Northumberland sides with Richard, and he is dubious, stigmatized as ‘melancholy’ and having his comments repeated for Richard's benefit. (‘What said Northumberland as touching Richmond?’) Derby has already made his arrangements. The titles offer a diagram of forces here.

The conclusion is a boar-hunt, conducted in the middle of England.

Thus far into the bowels of the land
Have we march'd on without impediment; …
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 embowel'd bosoms, this foul swine
Is now even in the centre of this isle,
Near to the town of Leicester, as we learn.

(V.ii.3-4, 7-12)

Bosworth is almost the dead centre of the land. There the forces of the south and west, united with the symbolic representatives of London and the midlands (Richmond and Oxford), defeat the tyrant, who is let down by the north and inadequately defended by his own south-east. The land renews itself, gathering together to kill the usurper to its title. (Again, as in King John, Shakespeare plays on the synecdoche of ‘England’ and ‘king of England.’) The triumph of right is also the triumph of the provinces. The alienation of the London audience is now complete: it detaches itself from ‘the bloody dog’15 and declares itself for the morality of the provinces, and thus the nation. Title (the Crown), land, people, and audience unite. In the end, the bonding principle of the audience is that it is English.


  1. A. P. Rossiter Angel with Horns London 1961, p 2

  2. Nicholas Brooke Shakespeare's Early Tragedies London 1968, p 67

  3. Robert Weimann Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function ed Robert Schwartz, Baltimore 1978, p 68

  4. The practice is codified in Laurence Olivier's film. It is accepted as correct by Brooke Shakespeare's Early Tragedies p 56. Bernard Spivack cites an interesting anecdote on this point: it was the experience of Margaret Carrington, who prepared John Barrymore for his Richard III. Barrymore delivered the soliloquy at the end of the Lady Anne wooing scene to himself, with a mediocre response from the audience. Margaret Carrington suggested that he speak directly to the audience; he did, and the reaction was tremendous. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil New York 1958, p 456

  5. Weimann Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition p 150. ‘“Moralize,” in this sense, is a metaphorical statement about the literary history of the verbal figure …’

  6. Ibid, p 151

  7. Weimann quotes a ‘Tyrant’ who introduces himself thus:

    I am full of sotelty,
    ffalshed, gyll, and trechery;
    Therfor am I namyd by clergy
    As mali actoris.

    (Ibid, p 69)

  8. Ibid, p 155

  9. Paul N. Siegel ‘Richard III as Businessman’ Shakespeare Jahrbuch (Weimar) 114 (1978) 106

  10. Wilbur Sanders, in The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge 1968), gives full weight to the ironic and satiric content of Richard III.

  11. King Darius printed in 1565; cited by Weimann Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition p 111

  12. Weimann Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition p 147

  13. There is also a tradition in the visual arts of such a grouping. The iconography of the king flanked by bishops is discussed by Bridget Gellert Lyons, in ‘Stage Imagery and Political Symbolism in Richard III,Criticism xx (1973) 21-3.

  14. Weimann Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition p 153

  15. ‘“The bloody dog is dead” replaces the customary obituary on the tragic hero; “from the dead temples of this bloody wretch” Derby has plucked the now superfluous crown.’ Wolfgang Clemen A Commentary on Shakespeare's ‘Richard III’ London 1968, pp 235-6

Citations are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare ed David Bevington, Glenview Ill 1980.

Shirley Carr Mason (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7255

SOURCE: “‘Foul Wrinkled Witch’: Superstition, Skepticism, and Margaret of Anjou in Shakespeare's Richard III,” in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 52, October, 1997, pp. 25-37.

[In the essay below, Mason challenges critics who suggest that the female characters in Richard III are only powerful as a group. Mason explores the power exerted by the women in the play, noting the ways in which they individually, as well as collectively, serve as Richard's antagonists.]

‘Foul wrinkled witch’ is Richard of Gloucester's greeting to Margaret of Anjou in Richard III I.3.1 By calling Margaret ‘witch’, Richard endows her role with an implied power, a power that as we shall see, has impressed many later commentators. But the endowment is complex and possesses profoundly contradictory elements which this essay will explore.2 At the same time Margaret is sharply differentiated from Queen Elizabeth, Lady Anne, and the Duchess of York, though all are queens, or nearly so. And even though Richard later accuses Elizabeth also of witchcraft, there is a marked contrast in the circumstances, and the follow-up of the two accusations.3

The differentiation of the women needs to be established against a critical background which has often been dramaturgically simplistic and reductive. Traditionally, the women of Richard III have been regarded as valuable in their status as a group, as grieving chorus.4 Indeed, at times the women are bonded together—in II.2, II.4, and for part of IV.4, for instance, when groups of women join in ritual lamentation, a kind of keening—but in other scenes (I.2, I.3, and the second half of IV.4) each appears in solo confrontation with Richard. Rather than forming merely an amorphous group with a common function as choric observer, their position through the first four Acts of the play is stronger than this: each also is presented separately, one of a series of antagonists.5 But for some critics, in their group existence lies their only value: “Not one of them has had very much personality as a woman, and artistically the play gains very much by the omission. Their part is simply to stand there as Women and, by so doing, cast ironic light upon men's war for greatness” (Mackenzie 73).

A. P. Rossiter, in the brilliant and erratic Angel with Horns, belittled them with ridicule: “In the lamentation scenes—where a collection of bereft females comes together and goes through a dismal catalogue of Who was Who and Who has lost Whom (like a gathering of historical Mrs. Gummidges, each ‘thinking of the old 'un’ with shattering simultaneity)—there, even editors have found the proceedings absurd; and readers difficult” (Rossiter 3-4). For Wolfgang Clemen the choric function outweighed in importance any details of individuality:

The most powerful impact made by this impressive scene [IV.4] results from the image of the three queenly figures, uttering lament and accusation, goddesses of revenge uniting to oppose the murderous tyrant; it is this dramatic image (containing in itself the essence of the whole drama) rather than the individual speech that lingers on in the memory. This total impression ought not to be allowed to sink under the mass of detailed observations resulting from an analysis of the scene

(Clemen 176).

The critic diminishes the clear differentiation that exists even in the first, ritual section of the scene. The long debate which follows between Elizabeth and Richard, being inconsistent with his scheme, he finds irrelevant, “unsatisfactory both from a psychological viewpoint and as dramatic art”.6 But it is the debate and the decision which follows it that directly bring about the dénouement, the successful basis for Richmond's rising, and the foundation of the Tudor dynasty.

Using the chorus as a starting point, Phyllis Rackin has illuminated broad aspects of the play/audience relationship: “On the one hand, women are much more sympathetically 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” (“Engendering” 51). But while the women use the formal language of their class, details of their rhetoric differentiate them sharply.7 Anne's unsophisticated imagery and hyperbole characterize her as youthful and wayward, ready to fall into Richard's logical and emotional snares; Elizabeth uses irony and other figures of thought as skilfully as Richard himself; and the Duchess of York's language is direct and relatively uncomplicated, until she expresses the confusion of her situation in the brief series of oxymorons in IV.4: ‘Dead life, blind sight, poor mortal living ghost’ (26). Margaret's imagery signals a more primitive response: she emphasizes gnawing and biting, with resonances of the Scriptural weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell.8 She expresses crude rage as she calls her child victim, Rutland, ‘that peevish brat’ (I.3.194). And the rhythms of her lines link the images into a predominant sense of ritual.

Clemen (48) and other commentators see Margaret as “the most powerful of Richard's female antagonists” (“Engendering” 51).9 Certainly the language which Shakespeare has attributed to her is hypnotic: “there arises against his brazen Carl Orff-like music the one voice [Richard] quails before (if but slightly): the sub-dominant notes of Margaret and her prophecy of doom, to which the ghosts will walk in the visionary night before Bosworth” (Rossiter 13). This, however, is an interpretation skewed by romance, for Richard shows no sign of quailing: on the contrary, he eggs Margaret on when it is to his advantage. And it is in fact the Duchess of York's voice that calls in IV.4 on the spirits of the children: ‘And there the little souls of Edward's children / Whisper the spirits of thine enemies / And promise them success and victory’ (IV.4.192-4).10

Of the four women in the play, Margaret and Elizabeth are queens, Anne becomes a queen, and the Duchess of York is the widow of a pretender to the throne. They are nearly equal in worldly status, but Margaret alone has attracted commentary which implies her power is more than temporal: “With the entrance of Margaret—an almost mythical figure emerging from a distant past—the play takes on a new dimension. The action no longer unfolds purely on the level of personal interplay, for historical and even supernatural overtones now make themselves felt” (Clemen 48). But her presence is unhistorical, her claims of legitimacy for the Lancastrian cause open to debate—and the appeal to the audience's sense of the supernatural (or, more strictly, the praeternatural)11 is subverted by counter-associations which Shakespeare has embedded in the role. If we overlook these associations, we overestimate Margaret's place in the ideological structure of the piece, and consequently undervalue others'—especially Elizabeth's.

It was part of Shakespeare's art to provoke, stimulate and entertain his audience with complex, sometimes contradictory, implied signs, and nowhere are they more evident than in Richard III. The characterization of Margaret incorporates the duality and instability of shifting signs.12 It reflects a blend of superstition and scepticism which is most effective and subtle. The epithet ‘witch’ applied to Margaret for the first time in Richard III, calls up multiple associations. Shakespeare has introduced the notion of witchcraft already in the Henry VI plays, in Joan la Pucelle and in Eleanor of Gloucester, and in both instances we can see scepticism at work.13 Margaret's duality is less obvious. In the earlier plays her position as a woman of power is a node of problems, and that power takes several forms: in 1 Henry VI V.5, Suffolk experiences her sexual attractiveness at their first meeting.14 In 2 Henry VI she is portrayed as Suffolk's mistress, and as a governing woman in the vacuum created by Henry's weakness, but her role is subordinated to the main plot of rebellion and intrigue among the men. In the Third Part her role is more active, and provokes intense hatred. York has some vicious titles for her: ‘She-wolf of France’, ‘Amazonian trull’, ‘proud queen’, and of course ‘Tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide’ (3H6 I.4.111 ff.), but there is never a mention of witchcraft in the accusations. Her son refers to her as ‘a woman of this valiant spirit’ (V.4.39), and she speaks in Christian phraseology as Oxford and Somerset go to their deaths: ‘So part we sadly in this troublous world, / To meet with joy in sweet Jerusalem’ (V.5.7-8).

Critical acceptance of Richard's stereotypical portrayal of Margaret as a witch-figure in Richard III emphasizes the sensational at the expense of the rational. She has no function in the plot, being ultimately powerless, “a crazed figure of impotence” (Hammond, in Arden 109), who is defeated by the Yorkists in battle and by Richard in the confrontation at court. On Margaret's first appearance, before Richard nominates her ‘witch’, Shakespeare calls on a mixed reaction from the theatre audience; there is an interplay of superstition and scepticism in the responses of the courtiers of I.3, the on-stage audience for Margaret's performance, which again helps both to differentiate their roles and to challenge multiple levels of response from the audience in the theatre. The ambivalence continues through the recollections of her ‘prophecies’ by the dying lords Grey, Rivers, and Hastings, and culminates in IV.4, when, after a threatening opening and climactic outpouring of feelings of revenge, Margaret leaves the stage rather than face a second confrontation with Richard. Her curses are then surpassed by the fury of the Duchess of York, which is made more appalling because the speaker is Richard's mother. But again the roles are differentiated: rage is transmuted into another kind of female power, subversive policy, and Margaret's ‘prophecies’ are seen to be less effective than another kind of language, Elizabeth's disputatious rhetoric. The memory of Margaret lingers in Buckingham's death speech, and his words create a powerful sense of closure: yet his recollection of her claim to be a ‘prophetess’ is itself problematic, as we shall see.

There is no historical foundation or known source for Margaret's appearance at the court of England after Edward IV's death, or even during his final sickness. I.3, together with the first section of IV.4, is Shakespeare's invention, and to justify Margaret's presence, commentary usually focusses on her place in the Christian providential apparatus which underlies the Tudor myth: she is seen as representative of Old Testament revenge in opposition to the New Testament reconciliation theme as represented by Richmond. Her presence is a reminder that in spite of the years of Edward's peace, injustice has been done and that God, and not only Richard, would bring retribution on the Yorkists. An audience familiar with the history might have considered her mere presence so surprising that it was evidence of her supernatural powers. But it is not so simple, for the ambiguity which pervades the play is a feature of every detail. Margaret's powerful, magnetic stage presence in this scene (brought about by rhetoric and the dark associations of witchcraft) is persistently undercut: Margaret is both subversive and subverted. Scepticism accompanies the notion of witchcraft. And the writing sets up moral paradoxes: like the lying Cretan, the evil accuser is essentially nihilistic. Paradox breeds a black humor, and when Margaret curses Richard, he is amused, and meets her on her own level, with a joke timed to spoil her punch line.

Shakespeare divides the surprise of her appearance. The theatre audience receives the first shock, then tension builds until she reveals herself to the on-stage audience. Her appearance is not simply startling, nor is the confrontation limited to direct opposition of arguments; each element is subversive. Her opening lines, like Richard's, are addressed to the theatre audience, and by their presentation undermine the onstage action as well as expressing vengeance with which to attack directly the onstage characters. The timing of her entrance accomplishes another kind of undermining: through Richard's derogation of Elizabeth and all women in I.1, and his skilful manipulation of Anne in I.2, Shakespeare has developed some audience expectation to the confrontation between Elizabeth and Richard in I.3. The conflict has its own mini-structure, and is about to climax as Margaret enters. Just before her entrance, Shakespeare has put into Elizabeth's mouth:

I had rather be a country servant maid,
Than a great queen, with this condition,
To be so baited, scorn'd, and stormed at:
Small joy have I in being England's queen


The lines recall a famous outburst of Queen Elizabeth I, with a somewhat different conclusion: ‘If I were a milkmaid with a pail on my arm, whereby my private person might be little set by, I would not forsake that poor and single state to match with the greatest monarch’.15

The moment of Margaret's entrance interrupts the first skirmish between Elizabeth and Richard, and undercuts that climax. Margaret's entrance, according to the Folio Stage direction, is timed to top, by immediately following, Elizabeth's lines.16 There would have been a double irony in early performances, one in the action of the play, Margaret having formerly been ‘England's Queen’, and one as a ‘nudge’ between author and audience, both presumably being able to recognize in Elizabeth's words, phraseology so close to at least one well-known speech of Elizabeth I.

Margaret's opening remarks appear to be attempts to establish a rapport with the theatre audience based on her sense of thwarted justice. Then the nature of her attempt to dominate her hearers changes. When she makes herself plain to the court, who are her onstage audience, Shakespeare's lines imply the significant gesture of their sense of shock, i.e., their trembling. Margaret immediately turns it to her advantage: ‘Which of you trembles not, that looks on me? / If not that I am Queen you bow like subjects, / Yet that by you depos'd you quake like rebels’ (160-2). She attributes their quaking to the presence of her wronged royalty. At once, Richard introduces the implication that only sorcery could have brought about her terrifying presence. By calling her ‘Foul wrinkled witch’ (164), he sends out a covert call for unity against the satanic threat. But for the audience, the additional level of scepticism is developed.

The section which follows is, like all of the women's scenes in this play, without precedent in the historical sources. It has, however, a parallel which subverts the power of her ‘witch’ associations, in Chapter III of Reginald Scot's sceptical Discouerie of Witchcraft.17 The thrust of Scot's work is to discredit the superstition that endows poor old women with spurious power. He described the so-called witches, in language of which Richard's reminds us, as ‘fowle, and full of wrinkles’. Scot of course was writing about women of the villages. In such a situation an old woman may have been the lone survivor of a previous generation, and Margaret's relationship with this younger, thriving court is very comparable.

It falleth out many times, that neither their necessities, nor their expectation is answered or served, in those places where they beg or borrowe; but rather their lewdnesse is by their neighbors reprooved. And further, in tract of time the witch waxeth odious and tedious to her neighbors; and they again are despised and despited of hir: so as sometimes she cursseth one, and sometimes another. […] Thus in processe of time they have all displeased hir, and she hath wished evill lucke unto them all; perhaps with cursses and imprecations made in forme


Having been called a witch, Margaret at first remains dignified, only reminding the courtiers of the injustice of her situation. It is Richard who persists in a game of superstition, introducing the idea that curses are efficacious, by claiming that his father's curse has been fulfilled in the fate which has befallen Margaret:

The curse my noble father laid on thee
When thou didst crown his warlike brows with paper,
And with thy scorns drew'st rivers from his eyes,
And then to dry them, gav'st the Duke a clout
Steep'd in the faultless blood of pretty Rutland—
His curses then, from bitterness of soul
Denounced against thee, are all fall'n upon thee,
And God, not we, hath plagued thy bloody deed


Richard covers himself by finishing ‘God, not we’, but his theologically unsound implication is that God has followed the leadership of York as he cursed. Richard sets up the frame into which Margaret is to fit herself.

Margaret had attempted to establish in front of the theatre audience a character of injured virtue which falters as the courtiers assault her verbally for the murder of little Rutland. Details of characterization distinguish the courtiers too from each other. Elizabeth refers to the justice of God. Hastings expresses sympathy for the child, and Buckingham empathizes with Northumberland's grief for Rutland's death, in ironic anticipation of their fatal support for Edward's children later. Dorset adopts a more passionate ‘young-man's’ eagerness for revenge. Rivers pulls in an association with a broader political arena.18

Eliz. So just is God, to right the innocent.
Hast. O, 'twas the foulest deed to slay that babe,
And the most merciless, that e'er was heard of.
Riv. Tyrants themselves wept when it was reported.
Dors. No man but prophesied revenge for it.
Buck. Northumberland, then present, wept to see it


Attacked from all sides, Margaret gathers together the shreds of her power by picking up on Richard's suggestion that curses work:

Did York's dread curse prevail so much with heaven
That Henry's death, my lovely Edward's death,
Their kingdom's loss, my woeful banishment,
Should all but answer for that peevish brat?


She begins her own series of ‘imprecations made in forme’, at the end of which Richard calls her ‘thou hateful wither'd hag’ (215). Margaret, like Scot's ‘witch’ has been induced by the reactions of others to believe in her own powers:

These miserable wretches are so odious unto all their neighbors, and so feared, as few dare offend them, or denie them anie thing they aske: whereby they take upon them; yea, and sometime thinke, that they can doo such things as are beyond the abilitie of humane nature


When she begins to play the witch by cursing, the rhythmical repetitions are chant-like, and she succeeds in creating a frightening presence. The response of the courtiers varies again, giving vent to the possible range of opinions in the theatre audience. Again Elizabeth expresses the conventionally correct religious attitude: ‘Thus have you breath'd your curse against yourself’ (240).

A careful reading of the reactions of the other courtiers reveals that none of them entirely believes Margaret at the time. But Shakespeare could certainly call on the vestigial and primitive response of fear in his audience through Buckingham's and Rivers's physical response: ‘My hair doth stand on end to hear her curses’ (304). Elizabeth's son Dorset adopts a rationalistic approach by calling Margaret ‘lunatic’ (254).

Richard, having lured Margaret to reduce herself to cursing, mocks and trivializes her further with a schoolboy trick of turning the curse against herself. A more orthodox view of cursing is given by Buckingham in this scene: ‘For curses never pass / The lips of those that breathe them in the air’ (285-6). Later Anne, too, implies that curses are self-defeating. In IV.1.70-80 she describes the curse she laid on Richard, his immediate wooing of her, and how she herself became ‘the subject of mine own soul's curse’ (80). The most evil feature of Margaret's cursing is her assumption that those whom she hates must also be subject to the hatred of God (303).

Curses, which call down evil on another, and prophecies, which merely foresee it, are not quite the same, and Margaret moves from curses to prophecy as she turns from Elizabeth and Richard to Buckingham. But educated contemporary views of prophecy also were sceptical.19 Several critics have pointed out that Margaret's prophecies when correct are no more than her own experience could tell her was likely (Arden 110, Williamson 56). That some of them come true, may point to political astuteness rather than diabolical or even divine inspiration. She is wrong in telling Elizabeth that she will lose all her children. Furthermore, the daughter who survives is the vessel of historical change.

Margaret concludes by telling Buckingham that he will think she was a prophetess—again an ambivalent prognosis, since those who believe in prophecies are also in a state of sin.20 The lords' comments at their executions are subtly differentiated. Responding to Grey's ‘Now Margaret's curse is fall'n upon our heads’ (III.3.15), Rivers turns the cliché sentiment into acceptable piety: ‘O remember, God, / To hear her prayer for them, as now for us’ (III.3.18-20). Hastings and Buckingham, who, as supporters of Richard, have been less innocent, fall further into superstition. Hastings catalogues his own superstitions: Stanley's dream (which he wrongly remembers), his horse stumbling, and his own rash boast of privilege. He concludes with: ‘O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse / Is lighted on poor Hastings' wretched head’ (III.4.92-3). Buckingham is more aware of the divine component of justice, but concludes: ‘Thus Margaret's curse falls heavy on my neck’ (V.1.25).21 They exemplify those who in Scot's words, ‘weighing the fame that goeth upon the woman (hir words, displeasure, and cursses meeting so justlie with their misfortune) doo not onelie conceive, but also are resolved, that all their mishaps are brought to pass by hir onelie meanes’ (30). Margaret and her ‘prophecies’ must be set against the complex background in which the rational analysis of Christian scepticism existed side by side with emotional and superstitious feelings.

Margaret next appears in IV.4. Shakespeare's presentation within this scene is less directly linked with recognizable sceptical material, but there are stylistic elements which subvert her pretensions to power. The first words of the scene pick up the progression of seasons from Richard's opening address. Discontented winter and glorious summer have moved on to an autumn of decay: ‘So now prosperity begins to mellow, / And drop into the rotten mouth of death’. The world-sharing which has been implied between Margaret and Richard is strengthened by stage convention: Margaret too is allowed to address the audience directly, with the deictic ‘Now’, and both roles use it to invite the audience to participate in their destructive glee. The imagery of voracity is repeated throughout Margaret's role: she has earlier spoken of the gnawing ‘worm of conscience’ (I.3.222) and later refers to Richard as a hell-hound which hunts (IV.4.48); and to a sheep-killer: ‘That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes, / To worry lambs, and lap their gentle blood’ (IV.4.40-50). Margaret calls Richard also a ‘carnal cur’ and says he ‘Preys on the issue of his mother's body’ (57). By using the same devouring imagery of herself as she does of Richard, she links herself again with him: ‘I am hungry for revenge / And now I cloy me with beholding it’ (61-2). But at the beginning of the scene the image of the waiting mouth of death, recalling the open Hell's Mouth of mediæval iconography or of a mediæval stage, serves to support Margaret's witch persona but also to undermine its potency.

Throughout the scene, the imagery is vividly iconological as well as sensory. The imagery of the hound of hell (47-58) becomes in lines 71-8, as Hammond describes it, ‘Faustian’, (77n., 279) concluding with a line that brings the Hell's Mouth motif round in a full circle and is as crowded as a mediæval painting: ‘Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray’ (75). These suggestions of an antiquated artistic style and of an old theatrical practice contribute to the characterization of Margaret as a queen whose day and power are past.

Glynne Wickham has claimed that “In the structure of plays, in costume and in setting, Elizabethan and Jacobean Londoners could still spy the prototypes beneath the veneer of change”.22 Professor Wickham wrote of the scenic ‘prop’ of a tomb, and of its use in The Winter's Tale and Antony and Cleopatra. The prototype to which he refers is that of the tomb to which the angel and the three Maries come on Easter morning, part of the ritual surrounding the Quem quaeritis trope. His argument would appear to lend greater credence to Wolfgang Clemen's comparison of the women of this scene of Shakespeare's with the three Maries. The staging of the scene and certain echoes from the older liturgy for Easter Day (surely to the audience the most familiar of all the church services), support the connection which both critics have made. Margaret appears alone by the wall of a stone monument. In this case the Tower of London has been grave to Elizabeth's two sons and to the Duchess's son Clarence. Elizabeth's language picks up some of the tone of the Easter service: ‘When the Sabboth was paste, Mary Magdalene, and Mary Jacoby and Salome, bought swete odoures, that they myghte come and annoynt him’.23 The timing of Elizabeth's entrance and her reference to sweetness, create some of the effect of the echo of ‘My new-appearing sweets’, which echoes also in another direction, ‘The first fruits of them that sleep’ (one of two anthems for the day). There is a cumulative pattern of other liturgical echoes from the service for Easter Sunday. The lesson for the day is Exodus xii, which narrates the Passover, the slaughter of the Paschal lamb, and the death of all the first born of Egypt: ‘And Pharaoh rose in the nyghte, he and his servauntes, and al the Egyptians, and there was a great crye in Egypt: for there was not a house, where there was not one dead’ (Holie. 30). One of the psalms for the day is no. lvii: ‘and under the shadow of thy winges shalbe my refuge, until this tyrannie be overpast’.24 Compare Elizabeth's ‘Hover about me with your airy wings, / And hear your mother's lamentations’ (13-14). Each echo is small in itself, a word or so in the appropriate sequence, as though the music of the liturgical readings and anthems were running in the background. The analogy with the Maries would hold fairly well for Elizabeth and the Duchess, but Margaret's function in this scenario is less clearly defined. Is she the angel of the tomb, one of the mourners for the innocent dead, or a more sinister presence?

The tone of the scene becomes a distortion of the Easter ritual, for Margaret calls the women together to curse Richard (35-43). She leads and joins in a ritual of grief and anger that in its repetitions becomes a parody of the ritual plea for mercy, the Litany (Brooke 125). As the liturgy becomes parodic, the suggestion is that here is a coven or Sabbot in the making, led by Margaret. She curses the issue of the Duchess's womb in a vicious reversal of the greeting of the Biblical Elizabeth to Mary. ‘Blessed is the fruit of thy womb’ (Luke 1.42) becomes ‘From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept / A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death’ (47-8).25

There is a strong sense of the women collectively, as a unit. The sense of ritual creates a bond not only among the group on stage, but also between them and the theatre audience. But this is a temporary effect which is weakened when Margaret leaves, and dissolves with Richard's entrance, though he too picks up some liturgical echoes as he accuses the women of railing on the Lord's anointed.

The latter part of the scene, between Elizabeth and Richard, has been too summarily dismissed by traditional criticism. Two kinds of rhetoric, Margaret's and Elizabeth's, are juxtaposed, and the second is clearly superior. The kind of power which underlies Margaret's speech is power to destroy and enslave, a crude, mystical idea of power. Yet even while she predominates, the tone of the scene is rendered antiquated by details of imagery and the suggestions of ritualistic rhythms and behavior. At the end of her section (118 ff.), Margaret consciously leaves her part to be played by Elizabeth, and Antony Hammond has commented that it is alarming that Elizabeth ‘joins in’ the incantatory curses of Margaret (Hammond 110).26 But in fact Elizabeth, though she asks to be taught how to curse, never curses; she argues with Richard on another level. There is no real joining of forces between Elizabeth and Margaret. The Duchess and Elizabeth shake off the yoke which Margaret has laid on them. They do go on to oppose Richard openly, but not in her way.

As soon as Margaret leaves, the tone of the scene changes. Shakespeare has assigned to Elizabeth imagery which suggests a new approach. From the misty magic of ritual chanting and hatred, the Duchess and Elizabeth emerge into the cooler light of reason, as expressed in the law, and into human sympathy. To the Duchess's question ‘Why should calamity be full of words?’ Elizabeth responds with legal imagery and with kindness:

Windy attorneys to their clients' woes,
Airy succeeders of intestate joys,
Poor breathing orators of miseries:
Let them have scope, though what they will impart
Help nothing else, yet do they ease the heart


This is quite different from the crude language of blood and gaping mouths used by Margaret (and by Anne before her). Civil law implied the natural light of reason. The Duchess next wishes defeat on her son, but from a position of moral righteousness. After the Duchess's diatribe, Elizabeth says ‘Though far more cause, yet much less spirit to curse / Abides in me’ (197-8). The scene which follows is a long disputation in which Elizabeth strips Richard of all excuses for the past and disregards all promises for the future. She cannot defeat him utterly in this contest because he holds the only trump card, which he wields: the threat of death over all those, including Elizabeth herself and her daughter, who are within his reach. In demanding marriage with her daughter, Richard threatens:

Without her follows to myself, and thee,
Herself, the land, and many a Christian soul,
Death, desolation, ruin, and decay


It is his one credible prognosis. Elizabeth uses art and policy, the traditional feminine skills of government, to escape.27

The series of women forms, singly or in groups, the antagonist to Richard throughout Acts I to IV of the play, in increasing order of success. Margaret, like Anne, is an antagonist who fails, though not quite so completely. Elizabeth's victory is devious, but its very deviousness leads to Richmond's triumph. Neither history nor the dynamic structure of the play could allow the climax to occur before Richmond won the battle at Bosworth field. But that success could not have come about, according to Shakespeare, if Elizabeth had not illustrated the limitations of Margaret's prophetic powers by escaping with her daughter from Richard's threats.28

We arrive, then, at a revaluation of the relative positions of Elizabeth and Margaret. Margaret is not Richard's most powerful opponent, because her position is undercut throughout her presence on the stage. Elizabeth defeats Richard in argument and surpasses him in dissimulation. But nothing, finally, is simple. The monochromatic characterization of Henry Tudor, and Elizabeth's concluding ambiguities should be seen as a less than wholehearted Shakespearean endorsement of the Tudor event. By juxtaposing signs from contradictory world-views, Shakespeare stimulates all the audience and at the same time invites them to be self-critical: as we have seen above, this has been recognized in Shakespeare's treatment of historiography. It is true also of his presentation of witchcraft and prophecy. Ghosts and Demons appear on stage in the first tetralogy, as features of well-tried theatrical convention. But Shakespeare has been careful in 1 Henry VI to have the Fiends appear to Joan when she is alone, and to make the Ghosts in Richard III appear in the dreams of Richard and Richmond. The presentation leaves open the interpretation that they are a figment of the imaginations, informed by conscience, of the characters to whom they appear. Similarly, though Margaret is called a witch, Shakespeare suggests the sceptical interpretation of her words and actions. …29 Criticism has long accepted that the ‘new’ Richmond replaces the ‘old’ rule of the Plantagenets. In the structure of this play, the ‘new’ Elizabeth, great-grandmother of the contemporary Queen, replaces the ‘old’ Margaret, and the ‘old’ magic is replaced by the cooler rule of law, wielded with political skill in the name of divine justice and mercy.


  1. All references in this essay to Shakespeare's plays are to the Arden editions: King Richard III, ed. Antony Hammond (1981; reprint ed. London: Routledge, 1988); The Second Part of King Henry VI, rev. ed. Andrew S. Cairncross. (London: Methuen, 1957); The Third Part of King Henry VI, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross. (London: Methuen, 1964).

  2. My thanks are due in this paper to Professor John Murphy of the University of Colorado for his detailed help, and to Professor Howard Norland of the University of Nebraska for his comments, and to both for their friendly support.

  3. Everyone present recognized that the accusation against Elizabeth was a trumped-up charge. See The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Richard S. Sylvester, ed., (New Haven: Yale, 1963), 48: ‘And thereupon euery mannes mind sore misgaue them, well perceiuing that this matter was but a quarel. For wel thei wist, that ye quene was to wise to go aboute any such folye’.

  4. Both feminists and ‘traditional’ critics have adopted this position: see Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III, English version by Jean Bonheim (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1968); Angus Mure Mackenzie, The Women in Shakespeare's Plays: A critical study from the dramatic and the psychological points of view and in relation to the development of Shakespeare's art (London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1924); A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures (London: Longmans Green & Co Ltd, 1961; reprint ed. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961); Phyllis Rackin, “Anti-historians: Women's Roles in Shakespeare's Histories” (Theatre Journal 37, no.2 [October 1985], 329-44), Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca, New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), “Engendering the Tragic Audience: the Case of Richard III” (Studies in the Literary Imagination, v. 26. no. 1 [Spring 1993], 47-65); Margaret Loftus Ranald, “Women and Political Power in Shakespeare's English Histories”, Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts, 36, 1982; Patricia Silber, “The Unnatural Woman and the Disordered State in Shakespeare's Histories”, Proceedings of the PMR Conference, v.2 [1977] 87-96. Madonne M. Miner attempts to redress the imbalance created by the dazzling virtuosity of the characterization of Richard himself: “Why does one figure appear to assume a roundness of dimension while others, suffering from advanced anorexia, appear to atrophy?” (“‘Neither mother, wife, nor England's queen’: The Roles of Women in Richard III”, in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980]), 35. Irene G. Dash writes of the female bonding in certain scenes without relegating the women entirely to group status, in Wooing, Wedding and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (Columbia Univ. Press, 1981).

  5. For treatment of the bonding, however temporary, as a positive attribute of the women, see Dash 201-04.

  6. See p. 189, where he refers to “The actionless, dialogue-filled wooing-scene”, and p. 190: “This so-called ‘second wooing-scene’, in which Richard pleads with Elizabeth for the hand of her daughter”. He refers also to Samuel Johnson's comment: “Part of it is ridiculous, and the whole improbable”. E. M. W. Tillyard presents a similar argument in Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1944), p. 214. On the other hand, E. K. Chambers and J. Dover Wilson, among others, recognize Elizabeth's victory and the power of the scene.

  7. Critics have recognized that the play is a rhetorical tour de force without noting the individuation of the roles within the rhetoric. See Hammond 114: “Richard III has long been recognized as the play of Shakespeare's which most depends upon the deployment of formal rhetoric”. See also his references and several other well-known studies: Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York 1947); David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories (Cambridge, Mass., 1971); and Nicholas Brooke, “Reflecting gems and Dead Bones”, Critical Quarterly 7 (1965). See also more recently Wolfgang G. Muller, “The Villain as Rhetorician in Shakespeare's Richard III”, Anglia 102 (1984): 37-59; Russ McDonald, “Richard III and the Tropes of treachery”, Philological Quarterly v. 68 no. 4 (Fall 1989), 465-84.

  8. See my article, “Queen Margaret's Christian Worm of Conscience”, NQ 239, 1 (March 1994), 32-33.

  9. At the opposite end of the scale, she is to Margaret Ranald a: “needling, railing, lamenting, woman given to continual litanies of past crimes and sorrows, recalled with editorial suppression of her own guilt, while her appearance belies her past reputation for great beauty. … Her frustrated energy remains, but it is all gone into the world of words, curses which can strike fear even into the heart of Richard” (Ranald 57-8).

  10. Rossiter (14) has allowed his Margaret fantasy to lead him to some other odd conclusions: “I cannot but think that when the old Duchess of York sits down upon the ground for the second lamentation-scene (to tell ‘sad stories of the death [sic] of kings’), the author's mind ran more upon Margaret as he wrote: ‘Dead life, blind sight, poor mortal living ghost’ (IV.4.26) [etc.]”.

  11. I am indebted to Professor John Murphy for noting this distinction.

  12. Joel B. Altman (The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978], 260) attributes to training in the sophistic tradition the Elizabethans' “amazing ability to respond on very different levels to the same story” and where two apparently contradictory views were present, their willingness to “acknowledge the validity of both truths”. Charles Osborne McDonald in The Rhetoric of Tragedy: Form in Stuart Drama (University of Massachusetts Press, 1966) analyzes the ‘antilogy’ of Euripidean techniques (39). Rackin, Stages, notes of the historiography: “the plays project into dramatic conflict an important ideological conflict that existed in their own time, not only by having dramatic characters speak and act from opposing ideological vantage points but also by inciting these conflicts among their audiences” (44-5). None of these critics notes this duality as an attribute of Margaret's characterization.

  13. See especially Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, “Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc”, English Literary Renaissance 18, No. 1 (Winter 1988): 40-65 (Rpt. ed. Joan of Arc, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992). However, there is a fleeting suggestion of Erasmian scepticism and irony in Shakespeare's attribution of the word ‘cacodemon’ to Margaret. J. A. K. Thomson, in Shakespeare and the Classics (London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1952, rpt. ed. 1966), p. 96, attributes Shakespeare's knowledge of the word to his reading of Erasmus's Colloquy “Exorcismus” (translated by Craig R. Thompson as “The Specter”, in The Colloquies of Erasmus [University of Chicago Press, 1965], 230ff). OED quotes Nashe (1594), possibly later than Richard III, and an early quotation from Trevisa. The page where the word should occur is missing from the fragmentary remains of Thomas Johnson's 1567 translation of “Exorcismus” (A Very mery and pleasaunt Historie done not long since, in this realm of England. Written in Latine by Erasmus of Roterodame, Dialoguewise, under the title of a Coniuration or Spirite [London: Henry Bynneman, for William Pickering, 1567]). Henry Bynneman published the Colloquies in Latin in 1571 (S.T.C. 10451), among other school textbooks. “Exorcismus/The Specter” describes the shenanigans that went on when one of the participants of the Colloquy attempted to follow up on the account of an apparition. See also Murphy 72-7 for comments on the value of this Colloquy in relation to King Lear, and a summary of the Colloquy.

  14. Both Andrew Cairncross (The First Part of King Henry VI, Arden xlix) and Rackin (Stages 157) refer to the role of Margaret as a stereotypically strong Frenchwoman ‘taking over’ where Joan's role has left off.

  15. J. E. Neale, in Elizabeth I and her Parliaments 1559-1581 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1957), documents the existence of several MS copies of this speech (367). In Queen Elizabeth I: a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1934; reprint ed., Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1957), Neale mentions a similar statement during the negotiations for marriage with the Archduke Charles in 1563: “‘If I am to disclose to you what I should prefer if I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: Beggarwoman and single, far rather than Queen and married’” (142). The words also recall those attributed by Halle (following More) to Edward IV, during disputes about his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville: see the Arden edition, I.3.108n.

  16. Editorial transposition of the Stage direction, on the grounds that Margaret must be seen on stage to hear Elizabeth's lines, would be inappropriate, for the earlier entrance would draw focus at the wrong moment. The Folio preserves the irony of Margaret's entrance on the words ‘England's queen’, and she may be assumed to have heard Elizabeth's words as she approaches.

  17. The Discouerie of Witchcraft, introduced by Hugh Ross Williamson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964). For differing arguments on the curses and prophecies in Richard III, see David Bevington, “‘Why should calamity be full of words?’ The efficacy of cursing in Richard III”, Iowa State Journal of Research vol. 56, no. 1 (August 1981), 9-21; Kirby Farrell, “Prophetic Behavior in Shakespeare's Histories”, Shakespeare Studies XIX (1987), 17-39.

  18. Shakespeare's drawing of this small role is consistent with the traditional portrait of Anthony Woodville as serious, aphoristic. See More 14; and Dominic Mancini, The Usurpation of Richard the Third: Dominicus Mancinus ad Angelum Catonem de Occupatione Regni Anglie per Riccardum Tercium Libellus, translated C. A. J. Armstrong (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969) pp. 67-9; and note Woodville's translation of Christine de Pizan's Morall Proverbes (London, 1478).

  19. See also Lord Henry Howard's A Defensatiue against the Poyson of Supposed Prophesies [London, 1584], and John Murphy's Darkness and Devils: Exorcism and “King Lear” (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1984), pp. 5-6. For an opposing point of view, see Kirby Farrell, “Prophetic Behavior in Shakespeare's Histories”, 23.

  20. Howard comments:

    GOD forbyddeth vs: Audire (margin: Deut.13.3.) verba prophetae aut somniatoris: to lysten to the wordes of a Prophete or a dreamer: whose trade was euer odious among the true professours of religion, as appeareth by the scornefull kinde of speach, which (margin: Gen.37.19) Iosephes brethren vsed at his fyrst comming into the field, Ecce somniator venit, beholde the dreamer commeth

    (Howard, Defensatiue, M.i.).

  21. See Marilyn L. Williamson, “‘When Men Are Rul'd by Women’: Shakespeare's First Tetralogy”, Shakespeare Studies XIX, 1987, 56: “Margaret does not arrogate the power to shape history, but has it attributed to her by its victims”.

  22. Early English Stages: 1300-1600, 2 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1963), 1.39. See also his Shakespeare's Dramatic Heritage: Collected Studies in Mediaeval, Tudor and Shakespearean Drama (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1969).

  23. The First and Second Prayer Books of Edward VI, (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910; reprint ed., 1913), 113. The Gospel (Mark xvi) which is the basis for the Quem quaeritis trope is in the Easter service of the First Prayer Book of Edward VI, not the Second, and not in Elizabeth's. In the Second Prayer Book and in Elizabeth's Prayer Book, the Gospel for the day is limited to John xx, beginning with Mary Magdalene coming alone to the grave. One can do no more than speculate on the reasons for the survival of the memory of the older Easter service.

  24. The Bishops' Bible (The. Holie. Bible. [London]: R. Iugge, 1572) shows the Psalms in two versions, side-by-side, one for the Book of Common Prayer, the other ‘from the hebrewes’. This is the BCP version.

  25. The image of Richard as Antichrist is by now almost commonplace. See Clemen 182, Hammond 102ff.

  26. See also Rackin “Anti-Historians” 338, Stages 177; Silber, 93.

  27. See Ranald 54: “Fatti maschii, parole femine, deeds are for men, words for women, the motto of the state of Maryland, may well be taken as a statement of the traditional European view of the relationship between women and power in history”.

  28. The behavior of the historical Elizabeth Woodville on this occasion was inscrutable. Her evasive skill here is Shakespeare's invention.

  29. See Scot 149-50 and Howard N.j.v.

R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6244

SOURCE: “Last Words and Last Things: St. John, Apocalypse, and Eschatology in Richard III,” in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 18, 1986, pp. 25-40.

[In the following essay, Hassel studies the allusions in Richard III to St. Paul and St. John's Apocalypse, highlighting the parallels between the “argument” of the play and that of the Book of Revelation.]

Although attempts to understand Richard's Pauline allusions have become almost epidemic recently, they have also usually been interesting. John Dover Wilson holds the most traditional view: he sees them as part of Richard's gleeful hypocrisy, specifically his characteristic “mock-Puritan piety.” Geoffrey Carnall thinks that Richard is “positively impersonating, with mischievous exhilaration, the unscrupulous Apostle of the Gentiles.” Other connections are argued by John Harcourt, particularly a parallel to Acts 23:12, when certain Jews swore like Richard with Hastings that they would not eat “till they had killed Paul.” Alistair Fox develops Harcourt's idea of “the theme of grace in its Pauline context.” Paul, like Richard, was afflicted with thorns in the flesh, but with patience and humility he bore his infirmities, in fact gloried in them, and was therefore richly rewarded. “Unlike Paul, Richard cynically repudiates providence so that his outward deformity, instead of being an occasion for regeneration, becomes emblematic of inner distortion.” As Harcourt suggests, “Man may accept grace or he may reject it; and therein, for Paul, lies his freedom or his misery. … Richard, freely avoiding grace, shapes his own destiny and others'.”1 Queen Elizabeth understands her vicious adversary in just such theological terms: “True: when avoyded grace makes Destiny” (l. 2998).2

Curious about other possible uses of these Pauline oaths, and about the one by St. John as well, I searched through Renaissance theological works for other Pauline commonplaces that might be applicable. One concerns Paul's confrontational temperament, his skills as a debater. John Calvin in his commentaries on Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians stresses the “earnestness and vehemence of Paul's confrontation of ‘false doctrines’ and ‘false apostles,’ the ‘disputing’” that is so characteristic of these epistles. In similar terms, Martin Luther calls I Corinthians 15 “a whole long chapter in strong and solid proof of [one] article of faith and in refutation of their injurious prattle.” The “Arguments” summarizing the contents of each of these Pauline epistles in the Geneva Bible make a similar point. In Galatians, Paul “earnestly reasoneth against … false Apostles”; in I Corinthians he skillfully sets “before their eyes the spiritual vertue, & heavenlie wisdome of the Gospel” and “correcteth divers abuses in their Church.” A modern commentator also describes Paul as “a powerful dialectician … with the native temper of a debater.”3 We need only recall Richard's scenes with Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth to acknowledge this possible if perverse connection to St. Paul. In the first encounter, Richard is as brilliant in debate as his predecessor, overwhelming both Anne's fury and her arguments with his own clever responses. Two of his oaths by St. Paul preface the debate. With Elizabeth, however, the result is reversed, spelling a diminishing wit and fortune that will culminate in despair and defeat at Bosworth Field. St. Paul's name is not invoked before this second encounter; neither are his dialectical skills.

A related irony may concern Richard's use of four of his five Pauline allusions to stifle debate or dissent. He threatens the Halberds: “Villaines set downe the Coarse, or by S. Paul, / Ile make a Coarse of him that disobeyes.” Further: “Advance thy Halbert higher then my brest, / Or by S. Paul Ile strike thee to my Foote, / And spurne upon thee Begger for thy boldnesse” (ll. 211-12, 216-18). These first two oaths will brook no parley, and receive none. In the third case, Richard is again opposing himself to dissent in his Pauline oath: “By holy Paul, they love his Grace but lightly, / That fill his eares with such dissentious Rumors.” Here, not a blow but an implied charge of treason is his threat against the queen and her allies. As she does in IV.iv, Elizabeth stands up to Richard here, defending herself against his “vile suspects” (ll. 511-12, 554) of slander and political intrigue. Finally, when Richard wants to cut off all dissent in the council chamber, he orders Hastings' head cut off with another Pauline oath: “Off with his Head; Now by Saint Paul I sweare, / I will not dine, untill I see the same” (ll. 2047-48). Herod-like, this ranting tyrant wants the head of the one man dumb or brave enough to question his evil. Of course, this Hastings is no John the Baptist. Still, Richard “will not dine” until he sees his head. Interestingly, when Richard first speaks to Hastings, before the Tower, he swears not by St. Paul but by St. John. Could he have meant the Baptist? At that same moment Richard has been protesting, prophet-like, against the king his brother's physical excesses: “O he hath kept an evill Diet long, / And over-much consum'd his Royall Person: / 'Tis very greevous to be thought upon” (ll. 147-49). Just before, he has been trying to get Brakenbury the Lieutenant to speak “naught” of Mistress Shore. Is this poor woman about to play her unwilling Salome to Hastings' unwitting Herod? Is Richard both Herod and John the Baptist in this strange interlude? The parts fit askew, but interestingly. I wouldn't put the scenario past Richard.

Though the Folio oath by St. John has often been emended to St. Paul, there are several good reasons to let it stand. The oath may refer to St. John the Baptist, but it may also refer to St. John the Evangelist, popularly thought in the Renaissance to have been the author of both the fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse of St. John.4 Several close parallels between Richard III and the tone, structure, language, and vision of Revelation may make this the most pertinent of Richard's pious oaths.

Perhaps the most impressive connections to Revelation are the parallels between its “Argument” and that of the play. The Geneva Bible describes the contents of Revelation as

a summe of … prophecies … adding also suche things as shulde be expedient, aswel to forewarne us of the dangers to come, as to admonish us to beware some, and encourage us against others. Herein therefore is lively set forthe … the providence of God for his elect, and of their glorie and consolation in the day of vengeance: how that the hypocrites which sting like scorpions the members of Christ, shalbe destroyed. … The livelie description of Antichrist is set forthe, whose time and power notwithstanding is limited, and albeit that he is permitted to rage against the elect, yet his power stretcheth no farther then to the hurt of their bodies: and at length he shal be destroyed by the wrath of God, when as the elect shal give praise to God for the victorie; nevertheles for a ceason God wil permit this Antichrist, and strompet under colour of faire speache and pleasant doctrine to deceive the worlde. … Satan that a long time was untied, is now cast with his ministers into the pit of fyre to be tormented for ever, where as contrariwise the faithful … shal enjoye perpetual glorie.5

Soften the theological edge a bit, and this could be the argument of Richard III, so often does it parallel the play in action, structure, tone, and meaning.

Margaret, of course, is our most extraordinary prophet of last things in the play, foretelling as she does most of the death, desolation, ruin, and decay that will occur before the promised end. When such diverse characters as Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and Buckingham all die, formally affirming the efficacy of her curses and the accuracy of her prophecies, the motifs of prophecy and eschatology are further strengthened. Their own prophecies and curses add still more potency to the common motifs of Revelation and Richard III. Of course, in Revelation, the prophetic visions pertain to the end of the world, eschatology, or last things. The seven seals unfold the plagues and portents that will accompany the second coming of Christ to reward and punish the quick and the dead. In Richard III, the scope is limited to the last days of the Wars of the Roses. Richard is only devilish, not the beast himself; Richmond is Christlike, not Christ. But these actors, like their actions and the tones of some of their apocalyptic speeches, are not unlike their counterparts in Revelation.

Buckingham, whose death comes second only to Richard's in the long, formal sequence of such prophesied judgments, directly links the dramatic motif of prophecy with apocalypse, eschatology, and doomsday:

Buc. This is All-soules day (Fellow) is it not?
Sher. It is.
Buc. Why then Al-soules day, is my bodies doomsday
.....This, this All-soules day to my fearfull Soule,
Is the determin'd respit of my wrongs:
That high All-seer, which I dallied with,
Hath turn'd my fained Prayer on my head,
And given in earnest, what I begg'd in jest.
Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men
To turne their owne points in their Masters bosomes.
Thus Margarets curse falles heavy on my necke:
When he (quoth she) shall split thy heart with sorrow,
Remember Margaret was a Prophetesse:
Come leade me Officers to the blocke of shame,
Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.

(ll. 3382-84, 3390-3401)

This All Souls' Day to which he twice alludes is November 2, “a liturgical day of the Roman rite, commemorating all the faithful departed.” Its celebration is also rich in images of last things, last judgment, reward, and punishment at doomsday. One of the prescribed readings from the Catholic missal is the famous Pauline passage from I Corinthians 15; it occurs at “the last trumpet,” and reads: “O death, where is thy sting?” The other is appropriately from John 5:25, 29, which reads: “The houre shal come, and now is, when the dead shal heare the voyce of the Sone of God. … And they shal come forthe, that have done good, unto the ressurection of life: but they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of condemnacion [judgment].”6 Buckingham knows that his body is doomed to die this All Souls' day. With all of the crimes on his head, and in light of his own testimony to God's providence in the punishment of “wicked men,” he is certainly worried about his immortal soul in the judgment to come. Unlike Richard, however, this liar and conspirator in murder does not die in despair, but in contrition. He humbly acknowledges, “Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.” There is hope yet for his spotted soul.

The “resurrection of condemnacion,” judgment hereafter, is vividly described in Revelation 20:12, 13, 15:

And I sawe the dead, bothe great & smal stand before God: and the bokes were opened, & another boke was opened, which is the boke of life, and the dead were judged of those things, which were written in the bokes, according to their workes. And the sea gave up her dead, which were in her, and death and hell delivered up the dead, which were in them: & they were judged everie man according to their workes. And whosoever was not founde written in the boke of life, was cast into the lake of fyre.

Hastings' works are none too good. Worse, they may have been “determined,” just as this judgment has been prophesied. If so, Buckingham is a reprobate who will as surely as Richard be “cast into the lake of fyre” at the fearful “seconde death.” Like All Souls' day, eschatology is much in Hastings' mind as he nears his first death.

Clarence and Richard both dream of last things, death, and judgment, as their own deaths approach. Clarence's dream of death actually comes across in a prophetic, visionary style reminiscent of Revelation:

O Lord, me thought what paine it was to drowne,
What dreadfull noise of water in mine eares,
What sights of ugly death within mine eyes.
Me thoughts, I saw a thousand fearfull wrackes:
A thousand men that Fishes gnaw'd upon:
Wedges of Gold, great Anchors, heapes of Pearle,
Inestimable Stones, unvalewed Jewels,
All scattred in the bottome of the Sea,
Some lay in dead-mens Sculles, and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept
(As 'twere in scorne of eyes) reflecting Gemmes,
That woo'd the slimy bottome of the deepe,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scattred by.

(ll. 857-69)

This is one of the most impressive pieces of visionary poetry in Shakespeare, or anywhere, for that matter. Clarence's dream of judgment is even more vivid, even more frightening:

O then, began the Tempest to my Soule.
I past (me thought) the Melancholly Flood,
With that sowre Ferry-man which Poets write of,
Unto the Kingdome of perpetuall Night.
The first that there did greet my Stranger-soule,
Was my great Father-in-Law, renowned Warwicke,
Who spake alowd: What scourge for Perjurie,
Can this darke Monarchy affoord false Clarence?
And so he vanish'd. Then came wand'ring by,
A Shadow like an Angell, with bright hayre
Dabbel'd in blood, and he shriek'd out alowd
Clarence is come, false, fleeting, perjur'd Clarence,
That stabb'd me in the field by Tewkesbury:
Seize on him Furies, take him unto Torment.
With that (me thought) a Legion of foule Fiends
Inviron'd me, and howled in mine eares
Such hiddeous cries, that with the very Noise,
I (trembling) wak'd, and for a season after,
Could not beleeve, but that I was in Hell,
Such terrible Impression made my Dreame.

(ll. 880-99)

With Brakenbury, we are afraid to hear Clarence tell this terrible vision of last things. “Apocalyptic” is the best term for the eschatological style and content of his vision. Again and again, Renaissance theologians link apocalypse and eschatology. In a sermon on Revelation, George Gifford called it “First … a prophecie which openeth the state of things to come … even to the great day of the generall judgement.” To Hugh Broughton, eschatology was the “Summe of the Argument” of Revelation: “Johns Apocalyps telleth, that Christ shewed the state to come, to the ende of the world.” John Napier repeatedly discussed “the latter day” or last things, “the day of judgment and general resurrection” in his treatise on Revelation. Augustine Marlorat concluded of Revelation: “Finally it sheweth (and that most plenteously) what shall be the ende at length both of the chosen, and the reprobates.”7 Clarence's dreams of dead bones, reprobation, and judgment fit comfortably within this apocalyptic, eschatological context.

But the surest test here is aesthetic: the passage also shares the style and feeling of apocalyptic literature. Listen to similar passages from Revelation8:

And I heard a great voyce out of the Temple, saying to the seven Angels, Go your wayes, and powre out the seven viales of the wrath of God upon the earth. And the first went, and powred out his vial upon the earth: and there fell a noysome, and a grievous sore upon the men, which had the marke of the beast, & upon them which worshipped his image. And the second Angel powred out his vial upon the sea, and it became as the blood of a dead man: and everie living thing dyed in the sea. And the thirde Angel powred out his vial upon the rivers & fountaines of waters, and they became blood. … And the fourth Angel powred out his vial on the sunne, and it was given unto him to torment men with heat of fyre. … And the fift Angel powred out his vial upon the throne of the beast, & his kingdome waxed darke, & they gnewe their tongues for sorowe. … And there were voyces, and thundrings, and lightnings, & there was a great earthquake, suche as was not since men were upon the earth.

(Rev. 16:1-18)

In substance, however, the best visionary passages of Revelation usually describe the new Jerusalem, not hell. These have more of the abundant imagery of Clarence's first dream:

And the buylding of the wall of it was of Jasper: and the citie was pure golde like unto cleare glasse. And the fundacions of the wall of the citie were garnished with all manner of precious stones: the first fundacion was Jasper: the second of Saphire: the third of a Chalcedonie: the fourth of an Emeraude: … the twelveth an Amethist. And the twelve gates were twelve pearles, and everie gate is of one pearle, and the strete of the citie is pure gold, as shining glasse.

(Rev. 21:18-21)

In Clarence's vision, torment predominates over blessedness. Both speeches possess brilliant apocalyptic imagery.

Richard's tormenting dream is relentlessly judgmental, each witness concluding his little vision with “dispaire and dye.” By force of will, Richard, unlike Clarence, resists these “afflictions” of a “coward Conscience,” particularly as they concern judgment hereafter. His brief slip into contrition and confession, “Have mercy Jesu,” is immediately countered by denial: “Soft, I did but dreame” (ll. 3640-41). There is no judgment hereafter. But even here, in Richard's mind and in his kingdom, the judgment is “Guilty, Guilty.” There will be “to morrowes vengeance on the head of Richard” even if he can reject for a while the later tomorrows and tomorrows. Judgment hereafter sticks deep in Richard's mind. As he addresses his troops, the possibility of judgment slips out again: “March on, joyne bravely, let us too't pell mell, / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to Hell” (ll. 3668, 3782-83). Like the fallen in Revelation before the final harvest of God, Richard begins to “Feare God, … for the houre of his judgment is come”; he begins to hear the third Angel,

saying with a loude voyce, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his marke in his forhead, or on his hand, The same shal drinke of the wine of the wrath of God, … and he shalbe tormented in fyre and brimstone before the holie Angels, & before the Lambe. And the smoke of their torment shal ascende evermore: & they shal have no rest day nor night, which worshippe the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the print of his name.”

(Rev. 14:9-11)

Richard, of all men, is marked his own forever. Richard's apocalyptic dream marks the beginning of his discovery of this eternity of torment.

In Revelation, Satan and his worldly allies are defeated in a final battle and cast into hell:

And I sawe the beast, and the Kings of the earth, and their warriers gathered together to make battel against him, that sate on the horse & against his souldiers. But the beast was taken, … and them that worshiped his image. These bothe were alive cast into a lake of fyre, burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slayne with the sworde of him that sitteth upon the horse.

(Rev. 19:19-21)

“A Horse, a Horse, my Kingdome for a Horse” (l. 3834). In Richard III we see the unhorsed Richard, God's enemy, slain by God's champion Richmond. His hellish hereafter has been widely predicted throughout the play. We have no reason to expect him to jump the life to come.

Like Revelation itself, Brother Edward has a double vision of last things. At the beginning of his end (II.i), his vision is all redemption: “I, every day expect an Embassage / From my Redeemer, to redeeme me hence. / And more to peace my soule shall part to heaven, / Since I have made my Friends at peace on earth.” By the end, he is less sure: “O God! I feare thy justice will take hold / On me, and you; and mine, and yours for this” (ll. 1126-29, 1259-60). Revelation 21:8 warns that “the feareful and unbeleving, and the abominable and murderers, & whoremongers, and sorcerers, & idolaters, & all liars shall have their parte in the lake, which burneth with fyre and brimstone, which is the seconde death.” The Geneva gloss includes among these sinners “Thei which feare man more then God,” and “Thei which mocke & jest at religion.” How few of these sins have Richard and his brothers Clarence and Edward avoided. How accurate their mutual prophetic visions of last things. Like his brother Clarence, Edward may be weighted down with sins, but he is also contrite: Richard never is. Their family portrait makes an interesting apocalyptic tableau in the play.

To the many accurate prophecies and the vivid prophetic style in Richard III are added additional characteristics from the “Argument” of Revelation in the Geneva Bible: forewarnings of the dangers to come, and admonitions to avoid them. We need look no further than Hastings' fine valedictory for such an admonition:

O momentarie grace of mortall men,
Which we more hunt for, then the grace of God!
Who builds his hope in ayre of your good Lookes,
Lives like a drunken Sayler on a Mast,
Readie with every Nod to tumble downe,
Into the fatall Bowels of the Deepe.

(ll. 2069-74)

The endless lamentations of the women, Clarence's and Buckingham's dying words, all of the ghosts speaking to Richard, and Richard's own despairing response to his dream are equally impressive admonitions “to beware” (Geneva “Argument”). The play is as full of them as it is of apocalyptic prophecy.

There is also presented in the apparently preordained victory of Richmond “the providence of God for his elect, and of their glorie and consolation in the day of vengeance” (Geneva “Argument”). Richmond certainly assumes his election, though with appropriate humility, throughout his portrayal in Richard III. His “couragious Friends” are urged to march “cheerely on” precisely because they march “in Gods name” (ll. 3419, 3427). Before the last battle, he prays with the faith and the humility of certain election:

O thou, whose Captaine I account my selfe,
Looke on my Forces with a gracious eye:
Put in their hands thy bruising Irons of wrath,
That they may crush downe with a heavy fall,
Th' usurping Helmets of our Adversaries:
Make us thy ministers of Chasticement,
That we may praise thee in thy victory:
To thee I do commend my watchfull soule,
Ere I let fall the windowes of mine eyes:
Sleeping, and waking, oh defend me still.

(ll. 3551-60)

“That we may praise thee in thy victory” is a double promise of piety and humility that Richmond grandly keeps. The ghosts testify to his election, and to Richard's reprobation: “Be cheerefull Richmond”; “vertuous and holy be thou Conquerer”; “live and flourish”; “Sleepe, Richmond, / Sleep in Peace, and wake in Joy, / Good Angels guard thee from the Boares annoy”; finally: “God, and good Angels fight on Richmonds side” (ll. 3566ff.). The victorious Richmond proves full of grace in accepting the victory, gracious to his “Victorious Friends,” and grateful to God: “God, and your Armes / Be prais'd, Victorious Friends; / The day is ours, the bloudy Dogge is dead” (ll. 3845-47). Later in the same speech we hear the conjunction of God's blessing of the elect and his vengeance on the reprobate that we associate with the Argument of Revelation:

Smile Heaven upon this faire Conjunction,
That long have frown'd upon their Enmity:
.....Now Civill wounds are stopp'd, Peace lives agen;
That she may long live heere, God say, Amen.

(ll. 3866-67, 3886-87)

What could be clearer, then, than Richmond's election “lively set forthe,” and his “glorie and consolation in the day of vengeance” (Geneva “Argument”). Richmond is portrayed as chosen by God to deliver England from the devilish tyrant Richard. Like the Messiah in Revelation, he counts among his allies not only God but “good Angels,” invoked by the ghosts of Buckingham, Clarence, and the two princes. “The Prayers of holy Saints and wronged soules” (l. 3707) are also among his impressive supernatural forces. In Revelation, first four angels, then seven participate in “the destruction of the wicked and comfort of the godlie.” So do “the Saintes of God overcome them all, and sing divine songs unto God by whose power they get the victorie.”9

Most impressive is Richmond's direct allusion to Revelation while he prays as God's minister of wrath, “Looke on my Forces with a gracious eye, / Put in their hands thy bruising Irons of wrath.” Of God's Messiah, his champion “Faithful & True” in Revelation 19:11, it is said that “he shal rule them with a rodde of yron: for he it is that treadeth the wine presse of the fiercenes and wrath of almightie God.” This allusion increases our sense of both the apocalyptic and the providential dimensions of Richmond's potency in Richard III. “And a crowne was given unto him, and he went forthe conquering that he might overcome” (Rev. 6:2). The conquering Messiah rides forth in Revelation on a “white horse, and he that sate upon him, was called, Faithful & true, & he judgeth and fighteth righteously” (Rev. 19:11). The conquering heroes of Revelation and Richard III bear interesting similarities, as do the forces they command.10

So do their antagonists. In Revelation as in Richard III, this is a day of vengeance as well as a day of victory. According to the Geneva “Argument,” on this last day “the hypocrites which sting like scorpions the members of Christ, shalbe destroyed.” Richard, in all his devilish splendor, is an impressive antichrist to Richmond's avenging Messiah. First, Richard, as a good antichrist, is given ironic connections to this Messiah. The murderers reply to Clarence's naive assumption of Richard's good offices: “Why so he doth, when he delivers you / From this earths thraldome to the joyes of heaven” (ll. 1080-81). God deliver us from such deliverers. Richard is also called “devil” more than once in the play. He proudly numbers among his allies the devil himself as well as his own “dissembling lookes” (l. 433). Further, Richard is associated through various animal symbols with his supernatural ally. Richard is overtly compared to what Lancelot Andrewes calls “the subtle serpent” with such epithets as “serpent,” “viper,” and “cockatrice.” His mother's epithet, “Thou Toad, Thou Toade” (l. 2918), parallels Milton's Satan, “Squat like a Toad, close at the eare of Eve.”11 Richard himself invokes “the spleene of fiery Dragons” (l. 3822) as he concludes his battle oration. Marbeck stated this traditional connection to Satan: “we maie fitly understand by the Dragon, Satan himselfe the father of lies.” Less precisely Satanic, but equally loathsome, malignant, or destructive, are the boar, the wolf, and the dog. As Andrewes said in another sermon, such animals are enemies to “our lives good,” if not explicitly Satanic.12 John Downame even called Satan a wild boar: “So also this wilde Boare would have broken downe the hedge which defended Job by tempting him to blaspheme God.” Downame added this touch: “He is called a murderer and a man-slayer, as though this were his profession and occupation.”13 That is Downame's early seventeenth-century description of Satan, not Richard; the connection is stunning. If Richard is not the beast of Revelation, he is certainly one of his dragonish associates.

Unlike Richmond's dream of comfort and victory, Richard's “tormenting Dreame / Affrights [him] with a Hell of ougly Devills” (l. 696). In the deep of his prophetic dream, brother Clarence sees “dead bones,” “Angells,” “Furies,” and a “Legion of foule Fiends.” Such angelology and demonology is yet another characteristic of Revelation and of apocalyptic literature in general. Most Renaissance commentaries on Revelation discuss not only “the promised Messias” and the “most ugly monster, the divell,” but the hosts of angels and devils at their command. Napier talked of “Gods Saints and holie servantes” combating “the Devill and all damned spirites” in the last days. Broughton described “Angel trumpeters [who] sound howe haile and fire is mixt with blood,” and depicts “Michaels Angels” against the “wicked spirites” of the devil. John Donne preached an entire sermon on the angelology and demonology of Revelation. The sermon was preached on All Saints Day, with Revelation 7:2, 3 as its text.14 Richard, Clarence, Richmond, the ghosts, and many of their companions in Richard III assume that they live in a similar universe of angels and devils.

In the last battle, Richard, like the antichrist described in the Geneva “Argument” of Revelation, “shalbe destroyed.” His power seems overwhelming. “Notwithstanding, [it] is limited … and at length he shal be destroyed by the wrath of God.” Just as surely as Richmond's victory seems preordained, and is so interpreted by God's minister, so Richard in his brief reign is like the beast “permitted … to rage … [and] under colour of faire speache and pleasant doctrine to deceive the worlde” (Geneva “Argument”). Anne, Hastings, Buckingham, Clarence, Edward, the princes, Henry VI, his Edward, Margaret, Elizabeth, his own mother, and unnamed others all suffer his hypocrisy and his sting. “At length he shal be destroyed by the wrath of God.”

As Richmond's election thunders through Act V, so does Richard's reprobation. The two are dancing very different steps on the same balance. Richard's foot is increasingly heavy: “I have not that Alacrity of Spirit / … that I was wont to have.” Richmond's is light, “jocond” in fact, “In the remembrance of so faire a dreame.” “True Hope is swift, and flyes with Swallowes wings.” Richard's back is bent with “dispaire and dye.” Richmond rises to “Successe, and Happy Victory.” And then, of course, come victory and defeat. “God, and your Armes / Be prais'd, Victorious Friends; / The day is ours, the bloudy Dogge is dead.” Richard is unhorsed and uncrowned. Richmond is made king, graced with the “long usurped Royalties” plucked “From the dead Temples of this bloudy Wretch.”15 In the Apocalypse, the antichrist that “a long time was untyed, is now cast with his ministers into the pit of fyre to be tormented for ever, where as contrariwise the faithful … shal enjoye perpetual glorie” (Geneva “Argument”).

In the world of the play, the judgment is almost as definitive:

Abate the edge of Traitors, Gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloudy dayes againe,
And make poore England weepe in Streames of Blood;
Let them not live to taste this Lands increase,
That would with Treason, wound this faire Lands peace.

(ll. 3881-85)

So much for Godless traitors. For the elect:

O now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true Succeeders of each Royall House,
By Gods faire ordinance, conjoyne together:
And let thy Heires (God if thy will be so)
Enrich the time to come, with Smooth-fac'd Peace,
With smiling Plenty, and faire Prosperous dayes.

(ll. 3875-80)

Revelation concludes its last days with similar separation of the elect and the reprobate, and similar distribution of rewards and punishments.

He that is unjust, let him be unjust stil: & he which is filthie, let him be filthie stil: & he yt is righteous, let him be righteous stil: & he yt is holie, let him be holie still. And beholde, I come shortly, & my rewarde is with me, to give everie man according as his worke shalbe.

(Rev. 22:11-12)

Holy forever, righteous forever; filthy forever, unjust forever. Such is the truth that lies behind Richard's despair and Richmond's joy, at least within the artifice of Richard III.

Such persistent parallels between the arguments of Richard III and Revelation are not meant to suggest influence so much as generic similarity. Richard and Richmond are neither antichrist nor Christ. Shakespeare's play is mostly about judgment here, Revelation about judgment hereafter. In the play the conflict is political and the characters human; in the Apocalypse the action and the actors are cosmological. But in Shakespeare's contrived but lively dramatization of fulfilled prophecies, moral admonitions, “the Providence of God for his elect,” the threatening but limited time of Richard the dragon, and the final awesome torment and grace of punishment and reward, we have a striking portrayal in this world of the core events of the Apocalypse. Add to those similar “arguments” the apocalyptic visions of Clarence, Richard, and Edward, and Buckingham's direct connection of his death and judgment with All Souls' and doomsday, and the analogy becomes even more striking. In its characters' preoccupation with last words and last things, there is much of apocalypse and eschatology in this history play.

Richard spoke more profoundly than he knew when he upbraided the messengers in Act IV: “Out on ye Owles, nothing but Songs of Death?” (l. 3311). He is surrounded by intimations of apocalypse and eschatology. The characters around him are preoccupied with last words and last things. Elizabeth's overwhelming victory, Richmond's threatening attractiveness, a nagging system of lesser defeats, and the inscrutable hand of providence join these apocalyptic motifs in hymning Richard's ultimate doom. Richard's ironic oaths by St. Paul and St. John join their swelling chorus. His despair and death will provide the final descant.


  1. John Dover Wilson, ed., Richard III (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1954), p. xx; Carnall, “Shakespeare's Richard III and St. Paul,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963), 188; I find Carnall's suggestion implausible, in my book Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980), pp. 9-13, I discuss the high esteem of St. Paul among most Renaissance Christians. Harcourt, “‘Odde Old Ends, Stolne …’: King Richard and St. Paul,” Shakespeare Studies, 7 (1974), 88-89; Fox, “Richard III's Pauline Oaths: Shakespeare's Response to Thomas More,” Moreana, 7 (1978), 20-21.

  2. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Richard the Third, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: Isaac Jaggard & Ed. Blount, 1623). Throughout, quotations from Richard III will refer to this edition. The complex relationship of the quarto and the folio texts invites such citation. Kristian Smidt's parallel text edition of The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (New York: Humanities Press, 1969) is an accurate and useful edition of both texts. I follow Smidt's Through Line numbering.

  3. Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, John Pringle, tr. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1948), I, 38-39; Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, William Pringle, tr. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 15-19; Luther, Works, Hilton C. Oswald, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1973), XXVI, 13; XXVIII, 60. The Geneva Bible, Lloyd E. Berry, ed. (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969); subsequent Biblical quotations will refer to this edition and be cited in the text. See F. Schroeder, “Paul, Apostle, St.,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), XI, 8.

  4. See, for example, William Fulke, A Defence … against … Gregory Martin, C. H. Hartshorne, ed. (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1843), I, 34; Thomas Brightman, The revelation of S. John …, 3rd ed. (Leyden: John Class, 1616), p. 4; and John Marbeck, A Book of Notes and Commonplaces (London: Thomas East, 1581), p. 555.

  5. Subsequent references to this “Argument” to Revelation in the Geneva Bible will be cited in the text as Geneva “Argument.”

  6. In commemoratione omnium fidelium defunctorum.” This quotation and the following citations are from Missale Romanum, Jussu editum (Venetiis, 1717), p. lviii; see also The Cathedral Daily Missal, Rudolph G. Bandas, ed. (St. Paul: E. M. Lohmann, 1961), p. 1878; and A. Cornides, “All Souls' Day,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, I, 319. The biblical quotations come from the Geneva Bible.

  7. George Gifford, Sermons upon … Revelation (London: Thomas Man & Toby Cooke, 1596), sig. A6r; Hugh Broughton, A revelation of the holy Apocalyps (Amsterdam [?], 1610), p. 13; John Napier, A plaine discoverie of … Revelation (Edinburgh: R. Walde-grave, 1594), p. 144; Augustin Marlorat, A Catholike exposition upon … Revelation, Arthur Golding, tr. (London: H. Binneman, 1574), p. 2. See also G. E. Ladd, “Apocalyptic as Eschatology,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), I, 153-56; and M. Rist, “Apocolypticism,” in Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), I, 157-61.

  8. See also Rev. 14:9-11.

  9. Geneva Bible, marginal note, Rev. 15.

  10. Christ as Messiah, deliverer of the faithful from the hands of the enemy, is a prominent feature of Revelation and its commentaries. Among many Renaissance comments: John Donne in a sermon on Rev. 7 called “this Angel [of Revelation] … our Saviour Christ himselfe.” The Sermons, George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, eds. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1953-62), X, 47. See also Gifford, sig. A7v; Napier, pp. 162-64, 230; and Richard Bernard, A key … for … revelation (London: Felix Kyngston, 1617), pp. 188 ff.

  11. Lancelot Andrewes, Ninety-Six Sermons (1843; rept. New York: AMS, 1967), V, 452; John Milton, Paradise Lost, in The Works, Frank Allen Patterson, ed. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1931), vol. II, l. 800.

  12. Marbeck, p. 315; Andrewes, II, 9; Gifford in a sermon analyzed swine and dogs as particularly degenerate animals. The swine neglect the truth; the dogs tear the truthful. Richard seems compatible. Milton compared Satan to a wolf in Paradise Lost, IV, 183. William Woods, A History of the Devil (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974), pp. 121-22; and J. B. Russell, The Devil (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 113, 116, mention these and other animals traditionally associated with evil in the Christian tradition.

  13. John Downame, The Christian Warfare Against the Devil, World, and Flesh, 4th ed. (London: William Stansby, 1634), pp. 88-89. Several other details may be worth a note, though I have not been able to find Renaissance sources. Maximilian Rudwin, The Devil in Legend and Literature (Chicago: Open Court, 1931), p. 48, says: “The Devil is often represented with a hump. This deformity was caused, according to … Victor Hugo, … by the fact that, in escaping out of the sack in which the Devil carried them on his back to hell, the human souls left behind ‘their foul sins and heinous crimes, a hideous heap, which, by the force of attraction natural to the Fiend, incrusted itself between his shoulders like a monstrous wen, and remained for ever fixed.’” In a similar vein, G. Wilson Knight, The Sovereign Flower (London: Methuen, 1958), p. 211, attributes to Richard and St. Paul a mutual lameness. Rudwin concurs (p. 49).

  14. Gifford, sig. A7v; Napier, pp. 242-43; Broughton, pp. 13, 152-58; Donne, vol. 10, sermon 1; see also vol. 8, sermon 1; and Rist, I, 157-61.

  15. Lines 3513-14, 3697-98, 3428, 3565-3623, passim, 3845-51.

Tzachi Zamir (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8714

SOURCE: “A Case of Unfair Proportions: Philosophy in Literature,” in New Literary History, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1998, pp. 501-20.

[In the following essay, Zamir contends that through the character of Richard Shakespeare explored the philosophy of “ethical skepticism,” the view that there are no convincing arguments for choosing to behave morally.]

The degree of his actual ugliness is still difficult to determine. Various sources tell us that he was short, that one of his arms was smaller than the other, that his legs, too, were of unequal size, and that his shoulders were disproportionate. We are also told that he was not merely crook-backed, but had a “mountain on his back,” and that his face was ugly, that he was a crab-faced impotent who was born feet-first and toothed. The historical soundness of this description has been challenged many times. But whether or not it constitutes an adequate description of the historical Richard III is unimportant for the purpose of an aesthetic exploration of the psychological links between alienation and villainy, and even less so for a philosophical inquiry into a literary presentation of ethical skepticism. What is significant for such an undertaking is close scrutiny of the details with which a literary work configures a context that permits a uniquely powerful presentation of a conceptual claim.1

Moral experience through literary works has become a focal point of much discussion into the relations between philosophy and literature.2 The attractiveness of the idea partly lies in the way in which it can accommodate and justify the belief that greater comprehension of philosophical concepts requires literature. The challenge that faces proponents of this approach is to suggest ways by which to avoid conceiving the connections between moral experience and fiction solely through general or programmatic terms. Most of this paper will be devoted to a detailed investigation into the characterization and motivation of Richard III. My broader theoretical aim is to use these details in order to point to one avenue by which the specifics of the connections between the rhetoric of literary texts and philosophical response patterns can be explored.

Let us call “ethical skepticism” the position according to which there are no compelling reasons for choosing morality. There are other terms that have been used to designate this position (meta-ethical skepticism, amoralism, immoralism, and so on), and there are other kinds of ethical skepticism (verities of relativism). But for our purposes the ethical skeptic is one who answers negatively the “Should I be moral?” question. Ethical skeptics can put in practice such a rejection of morality in two ways: they can simply ignore ethical considerations, or—more palpably—they can challenge morality through choosing immoral conduct. In Shakespeare's terms the second option would amount to willfully choosing villainy, a theme that he explores in Richard III.3

“Exploring a philosophical theme through literary means” can mean various things. One can try to “confirm” or “refute” a position by, for example, showing how an agent who chooses it flourishes or is made to regret his choice.4 If he would have chosen such routes, Shakespeare could have “taken sides” in disputes concerning skepticism, a position which gained considerable strength in Renaissance theological and intellectual polemics.5 The subtleties of Shakespearean rhetoric, however, cannot be reduced to such simple modes of contact with a conceptual position.


When the atrocity of an action is itself considered an advantage, the notion of evil suggests itself strongly. Richard's justification of his actions in the opening soliloquy of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Richard the Third is unique in that, unlike Edmond, Iago, or Macbeth, for whom villainy at least appears to start off as a form of revenge or as instrumental for future gain, Richard finds merits and pleasure in the villainous action itself and chooses it as such.6 How exactly this is marshaled becomes apparent from a scrutiny of his opening soliloquy:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our House
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
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.
Grim-visag'd War hath smooth'd his wrinkled front:
And now, in stead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of frightful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber,
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
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.
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 …(7)

We observe a tripartite breakdown: lines 1-13 inform us about the peaceful times; lines 14-31, the section of most relevance to this paper, establishes the cause and effect nature of Richard's ugliness and his justification of villainy. Lines 32-40 inform us of the plots Richard has already laid.

Taken literally, however, Richard's justification is peculiar.8 It is presented as an argument, the “stages” of which are as follows: (1) these are peaceful times; (b) love is most appropriate for such periods; (c) I am ugly, hence, unfit for love. Therefore, since I cannot be a lover, I will be a villain. This characterization differs from the very similar pseudoargument which “he” gives in 3 Henry VI:

And am I then a man to be belov'd?
O monstrous fault to harbour such a thought!
Then since this earth affords no joy to me
But to command, to check, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown;
And, whiles I live, t'account this world but hell,
Until my misshap'd trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.


Since “this earth” gives him none of the joys of love, Richard will “dream upon the crown” his villainy being merely a means to that end. We may therefore observe that in Richard III the characterization of his villainy significantly shifts from mere ambition to stress upon a primarily noninstrumental form of villainy chosen for its own sake.9 We observe also that the syllogistically styled justification of villainy Richard employs in the opening soliloquy works only if he also assumes that being a lover or a villain is an exhaustive existential alternative. But why should he believe that? What is there in villainy to replace that achieved by love?


Six times is the first-person plural (“our”) repeated in the first eight lines of the soliloquy. It contrasts sharply with the nine times the first-person singular forms (“I,” “my,” and “mine”) are used in lines 13-30. This, however, provides evidence of a strange usage: unlike the typical employment of the first-person plural, in Richard's case it is not inclusive; our “glorious summer,” “merry meetings,” and “delightful measures,” are not “mine.” Richard's speech conveys a strong sense of alienation not merely by distinguishing between “I” and “them,” but rather by deploying an “I”/ “our” distinction. It is not simply a matter of a group of people who enjoy certain states that Richard cannot share, but that he cannot be a part of his group. He cannot fulfill desires planted in him by his formative context because of his ugliness.10

In a space of ten lines that follow the first part (ll. 14-23) Richard uses no less than nine different expressions to describe his deformity. Only one of the constructions used by Richard—“rudely stamp'd”—metaphorically refers to his ugliness. Three others designate activities he cannot perform because of it: “not shap'd for sportive tricks,” “nor made to court an amorous looking glass,” and “want love's majesty to strut before a wanton ambling nymph.” The constructions “not shap'd for sportive tricks” [Q's “sharped”], “unfinish'd,” “half made up,” and “lamely” strongly hint at impotency.11 The other five are synonymous with ugliness through negatives or implied negatives: “curtail'd of this fair proportion,” “cheated of feature,” “deform'd,” “unfinish'd,” and “unfashionable.”

In all of these expressions, Richard is in the passive, linguistically positioned as someone for whom ugliness is not merely a state, but rather the consequence of some action. The cause of the unfairness is nature, “dissembling nature.” This suggests that, like Edmond and Iago, Richard's villainy is also vindictive. Indeed, it is “The most replenished sweet work of Nature” which he later causes to be destroyed (4.3.17-19).12 Whereas Edmond and Iago direct their revenge at a particular person, however, Richard's vengeance seems to be general. It is unindividuated and appears to work through a crude self/world distinction: the outer world has been the cause of his suffering, therefore “it” has to pay.

“Dissembling nature” is a telling construction. It reveals to us something about Richard's conception of beauty: it is a false mask (compare 1.2.268), a cover-up of the true nature of people that needs to be camouflaged. Moreover, the words Richard chooses are nonspecific: “features” (beauty) are dissembling not for this or that person but for all of them. The implication of this conceptualization is that villainy creates a consistency between exteriority and character. Villainy reveals through performance the true, core content of every person, thereby turning villains like Richard into messengers of truth. This challenges the Elizabethan belief in physical appearance as an outward reflection of internal constitution.13 Such a belief is true only concerning ugliness. Beauty reflects nothing. It simply lies. Another possible implication is that beauty contributes to forming systems of signification in which representatives—such as Richard's face and body—are rejected precisely because they contain the threatening possibility of truth.

But since he does not develop the point, and never returns to it, such an abstract move—arguing from human nature to conduct—seems merely to function as a superficial excuse. Like many others who want to justify an immorality, Richard, too, appeals to a particular belief concerning human nature, which he then supposedly exemplifies by his conduct. But he is not really interested in making explicit such a general conceptual defense. The implied philosophical is only alluded to and then immediately gives way to a return of the explicitly personal: his preoccupation with his ugliness.


The aforementioned descriptions of ugliness, however, do not yet include perhaps the strongest: the “barking dogs.” This construction completes Richard's self-description and paves the way for lines 24-27, which are devoted to his self-hatred. The strength of this particular terminological choice lies in the way it eliminates a conventionalized conception of ugliness. The use of dogs, of extrahuman entities, means that reacting to beauty and ugliness is more than conditioning to a socially constructed opposition. For Richard, to be ugly is not only to be “unfashionable” but not to belong to the human world. Alienation is at its extreme. So is the irony of the celebrative “our” of the first eight lines. He is out of time, out of fashion, spurned as a lover and avoided not only by every person but also by any creature. But the use of dogs—specifically, the barking of dogs—means more than this. It in fact explains in a fascinating way why Richard employs such a repetitious chain of nearly synonymous adjectives to convey his motivation for his choice of villainy.

To theorize about literary repetition is to analyze sufficiency. The use of repetition presupposes that components of meaning are left out if certain information is communicated only once. Such components cannot be part of the meaning of the repeated concept itself, since in that case they would have been sufficiently conveyed merely through using it once. One of the uses of literary repetition is as a tool by which to express the significance of certain information to a specific character. This is what partly seems to be going on in Lear's five “nevers” when he bemoans Cordelia (“Thou'lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never.”), although the force of that line is more a result of a degree of grief that reduces Lear almost to speechlessness, to an inarticulate repetition of information using a single word. Lear reaches this breakdown of elocution—identical repetition was considered by Renaissance rhetoricians to be a grave fault14—after realizing an aspect of his grief; he loses forever that particular kind of joy brought about by having one's child enter one's visual field.

Richard's repetition, on the other hand, appears to mark expressive failure. He seems to fumble about, to grope for a precise formula with which to capture his ugliness and what it means for him. He is not only “rudely stamp'd,” “unfinish'd,” “deform'd,” or any of the other complex adjectives. But although it would be tempting to surmise that these labels together succeed in forming a description of his state that satisfies him, the uniqueness of this specific soliloquy will not allow us to do that. Richard's self-descriptions move from a metaphor to a bark, from a sophisticated figurative expression to a vocal reaction that is not language anymore. The process is a collapse of language. Literal and figurative signifiers fail for Richard, so he has to resort to nonhuman aversion.

But this is still not enough for him. The fact that the barking dogs description in line 23 is given through an aposiopesis implies that he wants to go even further but cannot.15 The line is incomplete not only because—as Dolores Burton notes—the curtailed sentence imitates the incomplete work of nature (DD 58), but also in order to take the incapacities of description one step further. In a context of self-hatred and alienation, the bounds of copious speech are fixed by the move from the human to the nonhuman and from there to silence. Richard's soliloquy moves to its termination using words that are set on a course of an ever growing amplification of self-aversion; a process which culminates in a total disconnection, a gap that parallels the state and message of the speech's alienated producer. For Richard, language can no longer capture the degree of his deformity. He is that ugly.


Richard then moves to his double “delight”: “spying” (or “seeing”16) his own shadow and descanting (commenting or singing about) his own deformity. Aversion is not only a relationship between the world and a self, but between a self and his own body. Richard becomes one with society. He, too, mocks the ugly. This process of conforming to a conventional reaction allows Richard to belong. It is only then, when his body is externalized and mocked, that he experiences delight. Language moves from the passive to the active. Richard becomes an agent through self-hatred.

This split suggests further understanding of his choice of villainy. As long as Richard feels one with his body he does not belong. His ability to relate to himself like a spectator to a perceived object makes at least one part of him harmonious with his social setting. Indeed, Anne blames him for experiencing “delight” when he views his “heinous deeds” and the “pattern of [his] butcheries” (1.2.53-54). Externalizing evil performance allows socially constructed voices to participate; ugliness is thereby overcome, and the loneliness it induces is broken. Such a pattern of belonging is introduced immediately after the extreme degree of alienation implied by the aposiopesis of the previous line. Richard's dissent from the human to the extrahuman ends up in his totally moving out of language. His re-entering language can only be achieved through self-aversion, since regaining structural position within the set of human signifiers requires reaffirming the hierarchies which constitute that system. Later on in his soliloquy at Bosworth Field (given below) he repeats the pattern: self-hatred through negative self-descriptors (ll. 190-202) culminates in an aposiopesis (l. 202) that resolves itself into a justification and reaffirmation of conventional social reaction (ll. 203-4). Whether such reaffirming is actually necessary is not our question. It is sufficient that Richard chooses it, thereby betraying a psychology that connects self-aversion with belonging.

Further support for reading Richard this way is found in an observation—made by several commentators—that he repeatedly refers to himself as an actor playing a role: that in his determination to “prove” a villain, he seems to be acting out the part.17 Indeed, at a later point in the play, Richard calls attention to his acting skills:

I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl:
The secret mischiefs that I set abroach
I lay unto the grievous charge of others.
Clarence, whom I, indeed have cast in darkness,
I do beweep to many simple gulls,
Namely to Derby, Hastings, Buckingham;
And tell them 'tis the Queen and her allies
That stir the King against the Duke my brother.
Now they believe it, and withal whet me
To be reveng'd on Rivers, Dorset, Grey.
But then I sigh, and, with a piece of Scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ,
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

(1.3.324-38, my italics)

The last line encapsulates the double-acting in which Richard involves himself. He not only uses acting—seeming to be “a saint”—to achieve the villainies he relates (compare 3.2.182-85, 191-92; 3 Henry VI, 1.2.266), but his actual villainy is a performance too. He plays the devil (compare 3 Henry VI, 5.6.77 when Richard claims that in this world he should “play the dog”). Further on in the play, he likens himself to “the formal Vice, Iniquity” (3.1.82), that is, he relates to himself as a dramatic exemplification of evil. That Richard's villainy is a performance is further suggested by its unmistakably exhibitionistic nature. In many of his asides and soliloquies Richard describes his actions to the audience (1.1.32-40, 2.231-68, 3.324-38; 3.1.82-83) revealing a self-proclaiming villainy that seeks to be perceived. He not only communicates his villainy to the audience; most of his victims also get to know precisely who caused their sufferings. His evil is not, therefore, merely a form of revenge set off by the psychological consequences of exclusion, but a performance that is inherently tied to perception, and ultimately, to self-perception.

Indeed, it is precisely after such a performance—the successful wooing of Lady Anne—and before conducting another one—his return to her, “lamenting” after he has buried her father-in-law—that the need for self-perception arises:

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.


Self-seeing, calling out to be perceived through the very faculty responsible for his exclusion, is Richard's victory over dissembling nature. This victory is orchestrated on two levels: his intelligence enables him to defeat his ugliness when he wins Anne, and his rhetorical tour de force allows him to be picked out as a fascinating object of sight by the same faculty that can kill him “with a living death” (1.2.156). After twice circumventing the avoidance for which he was naturally doomed by sight (compare 1.2.151), Richard is willing to become an object for his own gaze. His villainy makes him worthy of a look, so he calls the sun—nature's condition of sight (and ultimately of ugliness) introduced in the ambiguity of the first sentence of the play—to “shine out.” The vehicle that enables exclusion is called upon to allow for a complicated belonging.

The process of belonging, while at the same time conducting a socially deviant performance, is carried out on yet another level through the use of a fascinating inconsistency between the rhetorical style of the opening soliloquy and its content. Rhetorical analysis of the opening soliloquy has shown that it is conducted according to the “ethical style.” The ethical style was one of Hermogenes' seven ideas of style, which were extremely influential in the rhetorical teaching of the Renaissance, and which Shakespeare probably employed in some of his sonnets.18 The ethical style included four components: subtlety, sweetness, modesty, and simplicity, all of which have been argued to make up Richard's opening soliloquy.19 The purpose of the ethical style was to win the goodwill of the audience. Speaking in the ethical style was calculated to make the audience feel that the speaker was one of themselves; therefore, it was inoffensive (subtlety and modesty) and uncomplicated (simplicity). Richard's argument for villainy through a speech in the ethical style creates a sharp, cynical contrast between style and content that doubles the ironical disjunction between the peace-proclaiming content of the first four lines and the audience's greater knowledge of what Richard is about to do. Moreover, it manifests the same kind of duality of “belonging through non-belonging” that Richard attempts to achieve. Paradoxically, Richard expresses his alienation through a rhetoric of belonging.

The split in Richard is fully revealed in his soliloquy at Bosworth Field, when he wakes up in horror after the ghosts of all his victims appear to him:

Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!
Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft, I did but dream.
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 and I.
Is there a murderer 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;
Murder, stern murder, 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 murder'd
Came to my tent, and every one did threat
Tomorrow's vengeance on the head of Richard.


After the first prophetic exclamations comes his uncharacteristic cry for divine mercy. The cold villain would never have exclaimed: “Have mercy, Jesu!” Only in sleep could such a thought be formulated and voiced. While awake, Richard successfully rationalizes away his conscience: “I am in so far in blood,” he says while contemplating the murder of Elizabeth's brothers, “that sin will pluck on sin. Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (4.2.62-65). Elsewhere he produces a Nietzschean analysis of conscience as a means “to keep the strong in awe” (5.3.310-11).

But the move from sleep to wakefulness allows his submerged conscience to resurface and enables Richard to reflect on his villainy—though not through cynicism or the shallow, unreflective kind of cleverness he usually employs, but through the normative categories he had long abandoned. We witness “insight”—a moment in which he gets to read himself through a frame of reference to which he was previously blind. He reacts by immediately personifying (and thereby externalizing) his conscience, and blames it for being a coward. The split is now fully revealed, making possible the schizophrenic dialogue Richard conducts with himself. He sets forth a chain of self-references: he fears himself, wants to fly from himself, wants to have revenge on himself, and hates himself. In all these descriptions the villain is feared and hated by what can only be a self that conforms to the strictures of conventionality, the same one that delighted in descanting on his own deformity in the opening soliloquy.

Richard seems to divide himself between a bundle of conventional value-judgment producing voices—which he calls his “conscience”—and a monolithic character type—the one he was determined to become—which he terms “villain.” He moves in and out of these constructions—between the “I and I”—which make up his psychic ontology. The quickly “won” self-argument concerns what he is and what he feels toward it. The detached third person of “Richard loves Richard,” gives way to the emotional first person: “O, no! Alas, I rather hate myself.” Recognition, the process by which a particular self-description is accepted as true by this plurality of voices, then takes place. We shall later return to this crucial moment of recognition, especially to what Richard does not include in it.


Why is it that just one scene after the opening soliloquy with its elaborate discourse of the alienated and unloved, Richard not only is accepted as a lover, but also refrains from following up this possibility? In what is undoubtedly the strangest scene in the play, he succeeds in wooing Anne after he has killed her father-in-law and her husband. The clever rhetoric Anne uses in the scene (esp. ll. 74-89) makes it interpretatively implausible to regard her simply as silly or shallow. The peculiarity of the scene lies not only in Anne being insufficiently motivated to turn so quickly from the extreme hatred she manifests throughout most of the scene, to partial acceptance of Richard's wooing (one wonders if any motivation could count as sufficient for that), nor in the further implausibility involved in the public setting of the process (during her father-in-law's funeral), but also in the fact that—contrary to his opening soliloquy—Richard is accepted as a lover (at least potentially) and simply ignores the options such acceptance opens up.

For some interpreters who refuse to take Richard's opening soliloquy at face value, this fact merely supports their dismissal of Richard's explicit motivations for his villainy. That would mean, however, that if one also dismisses ambition as a motivational factor,20 Richard's villainy simply turns out to be unmotivated. Such a reading has been defended by regarding Richard as conforming to the mid-sixteenth-century dramaturgic convention of the Vice, a personification of diabolical evil that only seems to be motivated by human or rational reasons. But since Richard's villainy can be explained without dehumanizing him, there is no reason to fall back on a reading that simply demonizes Richard, thereby making him psychologically uninteresting.21

The insights contained in the opening soliloquy concerning Richard's psychological constitution make his “avoidance of love” only superficially illogical. As we have seen, Richard's method of belonging is not to be accepted as what and who he is (a mechanism which ideally culminates in love), but to participate in his own rejection. This, and not his ugliness or his implied impotency, is the deeper reason he “cannot prove a lover.” This point is revealed by the close proximity of the argument in the opening soliloquy to its too obvious “refutation” in this scene. This proximity yields a further characterization of Richard by revealing the extent of his alienation—that it has already become irremediable by any worldly fact.

If Richard can be explained through his previous characterization, Anne cannot. Her acceptance of Richard's wooing is outrageously unmotivated, and the very blatancy of this fact makes it implausible to dismiss it simply as an aesthetic fault in the play. Nor could one see the scene as merely exemplifying Richard's rhetorical abilities or exhibiting what Moulton calls Richard's “fascinating power” over his victims (DA 97-98). No degree of rhetorical force or fascination could plausibly explain Anne's acceptance of Richard under the circumstances.

Insight into this question is gained when one drops the attempt to remotivate Anne. Respecting her irrationality is achieved by outlining the point made by portraying her acceptance of Richard as an irrational process. That the scene involves wooing which succeeds contrary to rational reasons is, in fact, consistent with Richard's seemingly irrational persistence in his villainy, given the possibility of love. For both of them, logic breaks down. Richard holds to a conclusion of a refuted argument and Anne accepts a wooer contrary to her better judgment. Both of them are explainable if we regard their actions as conveying a deep sense of this scene, that belonging overrides rationality. The need to belong is aroused by the context of ultimate separation, a funeral—a process with which Richard interferes and which he eventually spares Anne the need to complete. But while this explanation might clarify why accepting Richard must in fact be insufficiently motivated, it does not yet tell us precisely how Richard succeeds in promising Anne belonging.

She spits at him in the center of the scene. With her spit “hanging” from his face (ll. 151), he woos and wins her. The spitting is, in fact, the turning point of their dialogue, since it is followed by her gradual acceptance of him (it is also their first physical contact). Their discourse turns from legalistic argumentation and verbal fencing to actions. This process begins with her spitting, which is followed by her inability to stab him, her inability to ask him to kill himself, her acceptance of his ring, and, finally, her granting him a favor by leaving. What allows Richard to move confidently from words to self-endangering praxis is the discovery of her weak spot in the lines that lead up to the spitting:

Rich. It is a quarrel most unnatural,
To be reveng'd on him that loveth thee.
Anne. It is a quarrel just and reasonable,
To be reveng'd on him that kill'd my husband.
Rich. He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband,
Did it to help thee to a better husband.
Anne. His better doth not breathe upon the earth.
Rich. He lives that loves thee better than he could.
Anne. Name him.
Rich. Plantagenet.
Anne. Why that was he.
Rich. The self same name, but one of better nature.
Anne. Where is he?
Rich. Here.
                                                                                                    She spits at him


Richard discovers in these lines that Anne is accepting his identification of a “better husband” (l. 143) with someone who loves her more. It is the discovery of her self-centered conception of love—revealed by her aroused curiosity when she wants her new lover to be named—that enables him to win her. Asking for the name, she in practice accepts his justification of Edward's murder. All that is left for Richard is to convince her—through what she will retrospectively refer to as “his honey words” (4.1.79)—that such a lover exists.22 Asking her to stab him, inverting roles of penetration that he only superficially does not control, is a form of bodily union that grotesquely entails the death of the acceptor at the very moment of somatic reception. Like sexual desire, belonging turns into a paradoxical drive, which is eliminated at the moment in which it is gratified. This is too much for Anne. She wants him to live.

Spitting, like the barking of dogs, is communication that is a withdrawal from the realm of language. It is aversion not supported anymore by argumentation or reasoning (note that in line 140 above, Anne still wants her quarrel to be “just and reasonable”). From the moment Anne reaches that stage, Richard can quickly manipulate her to accept him. Anne moves from cursing and dehumanizing Richard—comparing him either to animals or to supernatural entities—to rehumanizing him through arguing with him, and, from that, to an insupportable aversion, which collapses into acceptance. This is an elaboration on the same pattern of response to Richard we have already noted in the opening soliloquy, when Richard moved from curse-like self-descriptors, to extrahuman aversion, and from that to his own method of belonging.


The man determined to prove a villain has succeeded. His soliloquy after his nightmare at Bosworth Field makes that clear. The thousand tongues of his conscience all condemn him for a villain, and now he is in a position to assess his success. It is not clear what his verdict is. He hates himself and has no pity for himself. He knows that no one loves him or would pity his death. He acknowledges his crimes in all their gravity and does not attempt to justify them. But do such words manifest regret? Was this not precisely what he set out to do? Was he looking for love or self-love when he made villainy a vocation? Was not this exclusion from the sphere of love already an established assumption on which he built his argument for choosing villainy—an assumption he not only considered true, but also made true in his rejection of Anne?

The re-entrance of conventional belonging—the need to be loved—so violently silenced in the opening soliloquy, overlaps the climax of belonging through self-hatred. At this point Richard fears and wants to flee from himself. He wants to have revenge on himself. He says that no creature loves him (note the return to an alienation that includes more than humans). He hates himself. He has no pity for himself. We already know that through this “descant” on his moral deformity he belongs, so we may conclude that achieving self-hatred parallels his successful attempt to prove himself a villain. But embedded in the same moment of the realization of his sad success is its cost and what he had to give up. Gone is the delight he used to experience through self-hatred. Plain, conventional, banal love is what he craves now.

Here we should expect regret. Hastings acknowledges his mistake in such a moment of recognition. So do Clarence and Buckingham, each explicitly regretting his previous actions. In Richard's speech, however, there is no remorse or regret, only pain and fear. What may be concluded from the textual evidence is that, for him at this moment, his life is a miserable one. This by no means implies that he regards his choices as mistakes. This is easy to overlook because Richard mentions many seemingly close notions, such as guilt and sin, and he makes a case of his unhappiness. Nevertheless, there is no regret. Regret is missing not only from his soliloquy, but also from his actions following it. Not only does he not change at the last moment like Edmond, he does not even contemplate such a change.23

The frustrating of the audience's natural expectations for regret is even more disturbing because another structural expectation of dramaturgy—that Richard and his accomplices be punished—is fully met by Shakespeare. Nemesis works in calculated and subtle ways in this play; each crime meets with its appropriate punishment.24 But retribution is not enough, and, in Richard's case, it is not accompanied by regret. This absence of regret uniquely allows the work to position the reader between the ethical condemnation elicited by the unfolding of a certain chain of fictional events and the empathy we are made to feel toward a villain—an empathy achieved through the deployment of an ethical skeptic who chooses villainy not out of some general, philosophical, consideration, but out of the painfully personal.

Indeed, one of the ways through which choosing morality has been traditionally defended is by attempting to ground moral conduct on the avoidance of pain. Afterlife punishment or the Socratic thesis that immoral conduct causes suffering to the agent are examples of such justifications. If the avoidance of suffering supports a choice of conduct, however, then there is no way to argue against someone for whom such avoidance requires immoral performance. Richard turns villainy into a way through which a basic human need can be met and satisfied. It is certainly not the only way open to him, but—as his rejection of Anne makes clear—his constitution blinds him to any alternatives (note that after she yields to him, he never contemplates the possibility of actually loving her). Paradoxically, the same need to belong, responsible at least partly for normative conformity, causes Richard to choose immorality.

Ethical skepticism is not merely a stage in intellectual discussion but an experience in which a strong need to maintain and reassert one's moral beliefs and sentiments clashes with a conceptual impasse. This text positions us precisely at this emotive and intellectual point. The literary tools of character and plot bring forward many of the same sentiments and principles that are used in interpreting, judging, and relating to nonfictional events. Only then, when these elements are drawn out, are we challenged by the skepticism that underlies this work. That Richard chooses villainy means he would, on one level, agree with any ethical condemnation of him that an audience might entertain, but, on another, challenge the entire framework from which that judgment was initially produced. This work leaves the reader suspended at this point of disorienting nonjudgment.

We can employ various adjectives and value judgments merely to describe Richard; that is, we can simply follow him in his Bosworth Field soliloquy when he describes his actions and calls himself a villain. But the fascinating power of this work is not only that its underlying skepticism will allow us to go no further, but that it makes us repeat the movement of his first soliloquy. Recall that Richard described his ugliness directly and through elimination of its opposite; he described three different inabilities he experienced because of it, and only then mentioned barking. These are the stages which readers also undergo: they can describe Richard's villainy; they, too, experience inability, an inability to ground their reaction, being eventually reduced to nonjustifiable aversion. We attempt to describe ethical ugliness and end up barking.

While barking is reached from “within,” by a reading experience that identifies with the motivations supplied by the fictional system, a reader may, of course, step “outside” the grip of this work and try to reconstruct a philosophical condemnation of Richard. Bernard Williams has convincingly argued that a philosophical justification of morality of whatever kind cannot constitute a definite answer to the ethical skeptic, since the latter can always dismiss any rational, compelling reason to choose morality through preferring immorality over rationality.25 As we have seen, this route is precisely the one built into Richard's (and Anne's) characterization. The constitutional presuppositions of Richard are such that, for him, psychological needs override philosophical claims. This disposition is itself unassailable by philosophical argumentation precisely because such a preference limits the power and scope of such a tool. Richard is unphilosophical through and through. He never attempts to formulate a philosophical defense of his actions, though, as we have seen, there are implied routes which he can follow. He does not relate to himself through generalizations concerning conduct or human nature. He holds to a conclusion of a refuted argument. Why should a philosophical defense of morality matter to him? In fact, Richard never doubts that his actions are wrong, and it is absurd to suppose that what he requires for the mending of his ways is some general explanation of why he should choose to be ethical. If, as Williams claims, philosophy is reduced to silence when faced with an immoral skeptic, barking is experienced not only through identification with the “internal” assumptions of the work, but also “externally” to it.

Barking, like spitting, is a retreat from language and the rational discourse it permits—a discourse that typically seeks to ground ethical condemnation on something else. When we discover that Richard's villainy fulfills a basic human need for him, we follow Anne's reaction to him. The discovery of Anne's particular conception of love paved the way to both her spitting at him and her acceptance of him. Similarly, we, too, are reduced to simultaneous acceptance, barking, and spitting through a rehumanizing psychology this play supplies. Explanation collapses into justification, and the attempt to rigidly separate these categories fails for us, as it failed for Anne when she allowed Richard to explain his actions. A consistency appears between intertextual elements and actual response patterns. Affective relationships within the fictional domain predict and reflect the positioning of the reader, which the textual rhetoric achieves.


The metaphor of positioning makes it possible to explain the special way in which this piece of literature enables us to relate to conceptual content. Ethical skepticism is faced only after certain aspects that constitute our real-life relations to others—moral sentiments which we use for the purpose of ethical judgments, character interpretation, empathy—have been drawn out. This allows an involvement with a philosophical position that transcends merely comprehending truth claims and argumentation. Philosophy becomes an experience, one that includes such cognitive elements but is not exhausted by them. When philosophy is viewed this way, the textual tools that can make such an experience possible become pertinent. The often vague intuition that literature is relevant to philosophy is thereby replaced by the informative claim that a certain conception of philosophy underlies such intuition, a conception that views philosophy as including more than what more limited versions of its nature are willing to admit.

Our reading of Richard III shows, I think, that we can take a step further the belief that philosophy is an experience that includes both cognitive and emotive elements that can be forcefully tapped by literary texts. The philosophical experience created by the rhetoric of fiction need not be merely a conclusion of philosophical and literary theorizing, but a notion that itself can be investigated. Certain literary works do not simply create an experience in the reader, but recreate it after it has already been intratextually articulated. We thereby gain insight into our experience, allow literature to read us, not simply by inspecting our own response patterns but through the examination of the detailed description of that experience in the text.26

An inability to justify the choice of morality: such is the conceptual heart of ethical skepticism. A repeated use of synonymous adjectives to describe what is feared and hated, a feeling of impotence that finally resolves itself into unjustifiable condemnation: such is its experience. When philosophy is regarded as both conceptual information and experience, its full comprehension requires the use of tools such as literature that are able to construct such cognitive experiences.27


  1. The sources of this description of Richard are Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard the Third, and Shakespeare's descriptions of him in 3 Henry VI. For a critique of the historical inadequacy of this description, see Emyr Wyn Jones, “Richard III's Disfigurement: A Medical Postscript,” Folklore, 91 (1980), 211-27.

  2. See Jesse Kalin, “Philosophy Needs Literature: John Barth and Moral Nihilism,” Philosophy and Literature, 1 (1976), 170-82; Ronald Duska, “Philosophy, Literature and Views of the Good Life,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 54 (1980), 181-88; Martha C. Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford, 1990); and Frank Palmer, Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (Oxford, 1992).

  3. In his typology of immoralities, Ronald D. Milo has further distinguished the second type of ethical skepticism (what he terms “wickedness”) into “preferential wickedness” (the villain acknowledges his actions as wrong, but performs them because he values some other end over morality) and “perverse wickedness” (the agent believes his actions are actually good). Since in both variants the agent does not choose morality, this further distinction does not affect the way in which both exemplify ethical skepticism (Ronald Milo, Immorality [Princeton, 1984]).

  4. See, for example, Kalin's treatment of nihilism in Barth (Kalin, “Philosophy Needs Literature,” pp. 170-82).

  5. For one historical account that traces the growing popularity of skeptical thinking from Erasmus through Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola to Montaigne, see Brian P. Copenhaver and Charles B. Schmitt, Renaissance Philosophy (Oxford, 1992), pp. 239-60. But apart from the revival of classical skepticism during Shakespeare's times (which might well be dismissed as coincidental with, but not related to, his work), a strong case for the idea that Shakespeare's plays are actually preoccupied with questions concerning skepticism has already been made by Stanley Cavell's well-known Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (New York, 1987).

  6. Moulton and Rossiter both ground the ascription of evil to Richard on this, although the fact that Richard's villainy is noninstrumental is not the only reason for regarding him as evil (Richard G. Moulton, Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist [1885; New York, 1966], p. 93, hereafter cited in text as DA; A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures [London, 1961], p. 13). Further support for the use of the extreme notion are the many direct and indirect Satanic allusions to him. For a survey of these see R. Chris Hassel, Jr., “Last Words and Last Things: St. John, Apocalypse, and Eschatology in Richard III,Shakespeare Studies, 18 (1986), 25-40, and Gillian M. Day, “‘Determine'd to Prove a Villain’: Theatricality in Richard III,Critical Survey, 3 (1991), 149-56.

  7. All references and quotations from Richard III and 3 Henry VI are taken from the Arden editions except this quotation, for which—for a reason I shall give later—I preferred The Riverside Shakespeare.

  8. Moulton claimed that Richard's villainy is insufficiently motivated (Moulton, Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, p. 93). Bernard Spivack not only accepted this view, but added that “every sensitive reader of the play” will find it so (Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil [New York, 1958], p. 36). This paper will oppose such a conclusion.

  9. Moulton has argued against regarding Richard as motivated by ambition, because Richard never dwells “upon the prize in view” (Moulton, Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, p. 92). This conclusion goes too far, since even if Richard's words do not express ambition, his actions certainly do. A fair assessment would be that while ambition does not totally disappear, it is played down in order to stress other motivational components. For the development in Richard's characterization between 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, and Richard III, see E. Pearlman, “The Invention of Richard of Gloucester,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 43 (1992), 410-29.

  10. Moulton, Robert Ornstein, and Antony Hammond all play down the significance of Richard's deformity and argue for the implausibility of regarding it as an exhaustive explanation of his motivations (Moulton, Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, p. 93; Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage [Cambridge, Mass., 1972], p. 67; and Antony Hammond, introduction to the Arden edition of King Richard III [New York, 1981], p. 105). However, if the following analysis is correct, the text supplies enough detail concerning Richard's extreme relationship with his body in order to explain his actions sufficiently.

  11. Burton and Jones argue for this point (Dolores M. Burton, “Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III,Shakespeare Studies, 14 [1981], 55-84, hereafter cited in text as DD; Jones, “Richard III's Disfigurement,” pp. 211-27, see esp. pp. 223-24). Impotency is already hinted at in 3 Henry VI, 5.6.81-83.

  12. The maternal associations of “nature” for Elizabethan audiences suggest that vengeance is only superficially directed at nature and is in fact aimed at nature as mother. This route has been followed in detail by many commentators who trace the relations between Richard and his mother. See the opening pages of Adelman for argument and many references to such attempts (Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to the Tempest [New York, 1992]).

  13. “Certainly there is a consent between the body and the mind; and where nature erreth in the one, she ventureth in the other” (Francis Bacon, “Of Deformity,” in The Essays of Francis Bacon, ed. Mary A. Scott [New York, 1908], pp. 200-3).

  14. “Worse than tautologia is omoiologia [identical repetition], which, as Quintilian says, has no variety to relieve the tedium and is all of one monotonous colour. Who has got ears patient enough to put up even for a short time with a speech totally monotonous?” (Erasmus, De Copia, tr. B. I. Knott, Book I, Ch. 8, lines 10-14, in The Collected Works of Erasmus, 24:302). For two other sixteenth-century texts that regard repetition as a rhetorical fault, see George Gascoigne, Certayne Notes & Instructions Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English (1575; London, 1868), p. 36, and Richard Sherry, A Treatise of Schemes and Tropes (1550; Gainesville, Fla., 1961), p. 33.

  15. I am following Burton in seeing an aposiopesis in line 23 (Burton, “Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III”). Such a reading is consistent with the Riverside edition as well as many other editions that hyphenate line 23, thereby indicating an aposiopesis to the actor. The point is controversial, however. The Arden editors have hyphenated line 21 as well as line 23, thereby turning lines 22 and 23 simply into a parenthesized remark. My general point concerning the moving out of language, however, is sufficiently established by the barking dogs construction and does not depend on the existence of an aposiopesis (although it does support the idea that the trope is actually being employed).

  16. The variations between F and Q are both consistent with my reading.

  17. For detailed support of this claim, see Rossiter, Angel with Horns, pp. 16-19; Thomas F. Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto, 1978); Hammond, introduction to the Arden edition of King Richard III, pp. 112-14; and Gareth Lloyd Evans, The Upstart Crow: An Introduction to Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1982), pp. 36-37.

  18. On the centrality of Hermogenes to Renaissance rhetoric, see Annabel M. Patterson, Hermogenes and the Renaissance: Seven Ideas of Style (Princeton, 1970), and esp. pp. 22-26. … Patterson argues for the incorporation of the ideas of Beauty and Verity in Shakespeare's sonnets (pp. 136-41).

  19. Burton traces these elements one by one in the speech, though strangely she says nothing concerning the irony this involves (Burton, “Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III”).

  20. See n. 9 above.

  21. Another difficulty I have with the Vice reading—used by Hammond who follows Spivack's major study on this point—is that inadequate motivation does not necessarily entail the choice of villainy to be irrational. It also could be itself an insight concerning the nature of evil: that, as the cases of Edmond and lago show, evil involves a disproportionate response to a cause (Hammond, introduction to the Arden edition of King Richard III; Spivak, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil).

  22. He will later (4.4.294-324) appeal to such a notion of love in Elizabeth too—asking her to replace her love to her murdered children with love to future grandchildren—but this time he will fail (one wonders whether this is merely a difference in the characterization of Anne and Elizabeth, or a suggestion concerning a difference between the love of a spouse and the love of a child).

  23. Heilman, too, sees no regret in Richard's soliloquy, but regards this fact as indicative of the immaturity of the play. He seems to base this conclusion on the assumption that moral feeling and perspective are required for deep self-knowledge. He does not argue the point, so it appears that, at base, he simply cannot envision an evil that remains untouched by moral scruples (Robert B. Heilman, “Satiety and Conscience: Aspects of Richard III, The Antioch Review, 24 [1964], 57-73).

  24. See Moulton, Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, pp. 107-24; and Rossiter, Angel with Horns, pp. 2-3.

  25. See Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), ch. 2.

  26. Systematic investigation into reading experience no doubt raises many problems that need to be dealt with in the framework of a complete theory of interpretation and are, therefore, out of the scope of this paper. However, while the idea that response patterns parallel intratextual elements is not, to my knowledge, used by existing reader-response theories, it is certainly continuous with many of them. Many of the problems that this idea would no doubt raise for several readers (for example, control of subjectivism) can be answered through routes that are already established by such theories.

  27. I would like to thank Marcelo Dascal, Elizabeth Freund, Shai Frogel, Miri Rozmarin, and Shirley Sharon-Zisser for insightful comments and criticism of earlier versions of this paper.

Further Reading

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Barber, C. L. and Richard P. Wheeler. “Savage Play in Richard III.” In William Shakespeare's Richard III, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 101-16. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Explores the brutal motivation behind Richard's often farcical role, and finds that Shakespeare, through Richard, dramatized the influence of family and childhood on one's adult choices.

Blanpied, John W. “The Dead-End Comedy of Richard III.” In Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories, pp. 85-97. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

Maintains that Richard creates his role and creates “history” through his mocking demonstration of the pliable and insubstantial nature of history.

Champion, Larry S. “Myth and Counter-Myth: The Many Faces of Richard III.” In A Fair Day in the Affections: Literary Essays in Honor of Robert B. White, Jr., edited by Jack D. Durant and M. Thomas Hester, pp. 37-53. Raleigh, N.C.: The Winston Press, 1980.

Surveys the historical attitudes toward King Richard III and studies Shakespeare’s role in the development of the mythology surrounding the historic Richard.

Dillon, Janette. “‘I am Myself Alone’: Richard III.” In Shakespeare and the Solitary Man, pp. 49-60. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.

Compares Richard’s voluntary isolation, resulting from his ambition and egotism, with his involuntary isolation, which stems from his physical deformity.

Doebler, Bettie Anne. “‘Dispaire and Dye’: The Ultimate Temptation of Richard III.” Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews 7 (1974): 75-85.

Argues that Shakespeare used the popular contemporary symbolism of the ars moriendi tradition in order to portray the familiar example of the wicked king “who has lived badly and must be shown to die badly.”

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Military Oratory in Richard III.” In William Shakespeare's Richard III, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 73-83. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Studies the military oration in Richard III, particularly Richmond's speeches to his troops.

Moulton, Ian Frederick. “‘A Monster Great Deformed’: The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 251-68.

Examines the tensions related to the practice and the construction of masculine gender roles in the early modern patriarchy of Richard III.

Pearlman, E. “The Tragedy of King Richard III.” In William Shakespeare: The History Plays, pp. 48-64. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

Focuses on Shakespeare's characterization of Richard, discussing the character as an allegorical figure, his credibility as a character, his theatricality, and his antagonists.

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

Analyzes Richard III as a carefully patterned sequence that illustrates divine retributive justice and the triumph of Richard as a stage personality.


Richard III (Vol. 52)


Richard III (Vol. 73)