(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12175 words.)

Marjorie B. Garber (essay date 1974)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 entire section is 3565 words.)

Kristian Smidt (essay date 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11119 words.)

Harold F. Brooks (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9035 words.)

Shirley Carr Mason (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7255 words.)

Clifford Chalmers Huffman (essay date 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6208 words.)

Hugh M. Richmond (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4585 words.)

R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 6244 words.)

Michael Neill (essay date 1975)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11412 words.)

Dolores M. Burton (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10968 words.)

Ralph Berry (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4982 words.)

Tzachi Zamir (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8714 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 446 words.)