Bettie Anne Doebler (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: Doebler, Bettie Anne. “‘Dispaire and Dye’: The Ultimate Temptation of Richard III.” Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 75-85.

[In the following essay, Doebler evaluates Richard III's character in the tradition of the dramatic allegory of Vice.]

During most of the play Shakespeare's Richard III undergoes little temptation in the usual dramatic sense; in the manner of the conventional dramatic Machiavel, he announces his evil course to the audience and systematically and bloodily carries it out. No audience of any time could doubt the wickedness of Shakespeare's character. Even the twentieth century with its sympathy for the physically deformed instantly recognizes Richard's evil. It is thus not surprising that Mr. Spivack in his Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil can illustrate so copiously the fundamental connection between Richard and the old Vice of homiletic tragedy.1

Given the lack of internal conflict in the character, the audience of any time, but especially the Elizabethan audience with its view of life as a Pauline battle, would have a focus for its dramatic interest in the external conflict between Virtue and Vice that runs throughout the play and reveals ultimately the downfall of Vice as embodied in an evil king. Familiar to critics and scholars are the bloody Senecan conventions of ghosts, dreams, murders, and vengeance. Thus far unspecified, however, has been Shakespeare's use of the popular symbolic tradition of the ars moriendi to dramatize the example of a wicked king who has lived badly and must be shown to die badly. The conventions of the ars moriendi tradition are most clearly illustrated in the famous third scene of Act V, where Richard is visited by a succession of ghosts. Most striking are the psychological and dramatic implications of this scene for a Renaissance audience. These implications emerge, not simply from the obvious references to murder, death, and the supernatural, but from the iconic structure given the scene by its relation to the Temptation to Despair, part of the last battle of Satan for the soul. I do not mean to argue, of course, that the allegorical level accounts for the whole play; indeed, it is Shakespeare's genius that while involving the audience fully in a particular ethical and historical situation he can suggest an elaborate dimension of universals. In this instance, however, the particular scene moves closer to the theological dimension than much of Shakespeare and therefore requires commentary.

Shakespeare, as usual, gives the conventional material new vitality by integrating it into the dramatic context so that it enlarges both the vision of history and that of personal experience. Not only does he place it at the climax of the action, thus drawing upon the natural high feeling to which the audience has been brought, but he incorporates into the staging of the scene the familiar iconography of the deathbed scene, which supports emotionally the metaphorical language from the ars moriendi. A modern audience, however, misses a good deal of the power of the scene (and thus the play) because it is not sensitive to the fusion of the iconographical implications of both staging and language.

Though Shakespeare also makes brilliant and original use of the popular ars moriendi tradition in both Othello2 and Hamlet, his most elaborate and explicit re-creation of its conventions occurs in the earlier history plays. Dignified by their relation to the history of England, these plays appropriately contain formal conventions which embody many of the questions and answers in the allegory of salvation that shaped the Elizabethan attitude toward history. History was to the Renaissance mind, even the popular mind, always related typologically to...

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biblical truth and was therefore close to the great questions of the salvation of the soul. For a Renaissance man, the four last things were still important concerns. One should not then be surprised that the theme of death would be elaborated inHenry V and, in parodic form, in the dying of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor.3 But the richest and most illuminating use of the art of dying well appears in the above-mentioned scene in the last act of Richard III. The play was often entitled The Life and Death of Richard the Third, a title which suggests the powerful Renaissance belief in the centrality of the moment of death to a man's life and character.4

Although the ars moriendi tradition on which Shakespeare drew took various popular shapes in the sixteenth century, the most explicit form of instruction for the battle between the Good and Bad Angels for the soul of the dying occurs in a fifteenth-century series of eleven woodcuts published in a block book about 1450. In addition to the text, the book contains woodcuts of the five temptations of the dying one by the Devil, the five inspirations by the Good Angel, and the final receiving of the soul out of the mouth of the dead by the Good Angel. These woodcuts were at the center of the ars tradition and as such were often reproduced in the sixteenth century. Paintings, also, often portrayed the same subject matter.5 It is the second of these temptations that lies behind Richard's scene.

In Act V, scene iii of Richard III, Richard is no longer the demonic aggressor or the conqueror we have seen in much of the play. Much of the action lies in the middle. Although he has accomplished all his ends, mainly through the vices traditionally most closely associated with evil—deceit and murder—his past sins, namely the murders he has committed, rise up to accuse him and to bring him to despair. Ironically, his victories have brought him to defeat. Partly because this is a dream scene, Richard is passive. His passivity, however, becomes part of the great theatrical image of the familiar deathbed scene that would have struck the chords of memory in an Elizabethan audience. The night before his actual death, he lies in the posture of the Moriens in the woodcuts, a figure of death to the audience as he dreams that he is visited by all those he has murdered, including Henry VI, who lay as a corpse between Richard and Lady Anne in an early scene.

Tom Driver has interpreted this scene brilliantly in terms of the forces of history coming together in judgment upon Richard and England.6 There is no question that the historical and cosmic cohere, especially since the scene is built upon a broad contrast in which both Richard and Richmond are seen in bed on stage, and the ghosts treat them again in a manner that suggests the old opposition between Virtue and Vice. In this instance, the scene plays up the contrast between the bad king and the future good king, a favorite opposition in the Renaissance and one built firmly upon the literature which deals with the education of the prince. To an audience whose literate members were familiar with Elyot's Book of the Governor and Castiglione's Courtier (to name only the most influential examples), the godhead working through history must have been seen to pass its inexorable judgment upon such a king as Richard, who had broken many of the laws of political philosophy as well as the laws of nature.

But there is more than the judgment of God in history in this scene; Richard comes to an internal judgment upon himself, or, at least, his mind forces him finally to a judgment which must of necessity include his past. Richard labels this judgment conscience in his waking speech.

Before we consider the internal judgment, however, it will be fruitful to examine the dream which culminates in Richard's meeting with conscience. Although concerned with the outward struggle between Virtue and Vice which implies the force of this moral interpretation of history, Shakespeare nevertheless always returns to the more personal allegory of salvation that Miss Tuve has called attention to.7 It would be foolish in the instance of a history play to argue the superiority of the spiritual allegory which this scene plumbs. Clearly, the moral allegory is most often dominant in the plays that interpret the facts of history. But it is a mark of Shakespeare's dramatic genius that he also goes beyond the historical into the depths of a personal conflict to produce the tragic.8

The strength of Richard's personal sense of damnation in this scene is imparted to the audience through the rich adaptation of several aspects of the ars moriendi tradition. As indicated above, the visual images of Richard and Richmond in bed on stage with the procession of the ghosts of those murdered by Richard would in themselves have brought immediate associations for the audience with the Temptation to Despair, the most powerful scene in the ars moriendi series of temptations and alternating inspirations. As those familiar with the ars tradition know, all five of these temptations were believed to be staged by the Devil at a man's end in the last great battle against God for the soul. This scene as portrayed in the woodcuts shows the Devil bringing all the past sins of the dying man to parade before his eyes9—including as one of the sins the figure of a man he has murdered—with the intent to lead him to despair of the mercy of God.10

Although this traditional image is obviously in the background of the stage image and would undoubtedly have been seen as such by an Elizabethan audience, here, as usual, Shakespeare has selected and adapted his material creatively. The inspirations of the Good Angel in the woodcuts are absent as far as Richard is concerned. Shakespeare seems to say that Richard has already gone so far towards damnation that he cannot see or hear his own Good Angel. The inspirations of the Good Angel, however, which are part of the woodcut series, are drawn upon in Shakespeare's scene; they are so placed to comfort and encourage Richmond. This is obvious, I think, in the visual and rhetorical structure of the scene; but if anyone should miss it, Shakespeare has the ghost of Clarence associate with angels the “wronged heirs of York” by his “Good Angels guard thy battle, Live and Flourish” (V.iii.156), and, later, Buckingham assures Richmond that “God, and good Angels fight on Richmonds side” (V.iii.206). Shakespeare with this adaptation maintains the visual balance of temptations and inspirations that is part of the ars tradition. The ars, after all, was historically a tradition of comfort, in which the Good Angel through inspirations wins the soul of the Moriens, though in Richard III Shakespeare reverses the outcome.11

In addition to the striking visual use of the ars moriendi through the image of Richard lying abed on stage, Shakespeare has structured his scene rhetorically to invoke the powerful emotions associated with the theme of damnation in the Elizabethan mind. The most obvious reference to the Temptation to Despair is the repetition of the refrain “Dispaire and dye” (V.iii) by all those Richard has murdered: the ghosts of Prince Edward, son to Henry VI; King Henry VI; Clarence; Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan in a group; Hastings; the two young Princes; Anne; and Buckingham. The repetition of this refrain, with such minor variations as Edward's “Dispaire therefore, and dye” (V.iii.135) or Grey's “let thy soule dispaire,” sounds a somber bell of judgment throughout the scene, especially as it contrasts with the alternative words of comfort and life addressed to Richmond.

It was, of course, commonplace to show the contrast between the death of the virtuous man and that of the wicked man. Here Richmond is not literally upon his deathbed as Richard is at least close to being, but the opposition of Virtue and Vice, which balances that in the famous courtship scene between Anne and Richard (I.ii), suggests the kind of contrast often shown or discussed in a death scene. One of the earliest, and most clearly allegorical, instances of the contrast appears in the beautiful, early fourteenth-century De Lisle Psalter, now in the British Museum. (It was acquired by Lord William Howard, of Naworth, Cumberland, in the late sixteenth century.) An illumination of the twelve articles of faith shows, also, the soul of Lazarus being received by good angels and that of Dives by bad angels.

Shakespeare's refrain suggests the relentlessness with which Richard's past sins accuse his conscience and ultimately overwhelm him with despair; it also suggests the commonplace revelation of past sins being paraded before the sinner on his deathbed in the Temptation to Despair. The scene has, however, the narrative formality of procession or masque as Shakespeare handles it, rather than the visually simultaneous presentation of the sins as they are shown in the woodcut. The formal liturgical repetition builds gradually to the appearance of the last ghost murdered, who is Buckingham:

GHOST to Rich.
The first was I
That help'd thee to the Crowne:
The last was I that felt thy Tyranny.
O, in the Battaile think on Buckingham,
And dye in terror of thy guiltinesse.
Dreame on, dreame on, of bloody deeds and death,
Fainting dispaire; dispairing yeeld thy breath.


From the numerous allusions to the ars tradition one might speculate that Shakespeare did not consider this a unique or unusual dream but an instance of the preparation for death that every man must be concerned with. Though the earliest form of the ars might suggest that it is relevant primarily to those calmly dying in bed at home, the tradition was adapted in the hands of preachers and devotional writers to instruct people who lived less safe or stable lives. For example, the popular preacher William Perkins has an ars book intended for instruction to “Marriners when they goe to sea; Souldiers when they goe to battell; Women when they travell of childe.”12 And Shakespeare himself in Henry V (IV.i.181-89) gives Henry lines on the equal necessity for preparation for death by the soldier and the man who will die at home in bed. In fact, Shakespeare's dream scene in Richard III picks up from the devotional tracts the familiar idea that a man's whole life must be a preparation for his death, though the ars also insists, of course, that there is always time for repentance on his deathbed. Ironically, Richard's preparation has been a series of heartless murders that can only lead him to the despair the ghosts counsel. Though the ars has throughout most of its manifestations insisted that the grace symbolized by the Good Angel is always available to the sinner, Shakespeare's scene, like the end of Dr. Faustus, makes the dramatic point that Richard's preparation for death through murder has cut him off from the mercy of God by leading him to a state of despair in which he cannot throw himself upon the mercy of the Christ whom he has rejected throughout his life. He cannot believe that so great a sinner can be forgiven—such is the hopelessness of despair. In short, it is his own state of mind and soul that causes the Good Angel to be absent from his consciousness, for the dream is an image of the state of Richard's soul.

This internal dimension, which is more characteristic of allegory than of Elizabethan drama, is underlined by Richard's waking speech in which he reveals to his audience the judgment of his conscience:

Give me another Horse, bind up my Wounds:
Have mercy Jesu. Soft, I did but dreame.
O coward Conscience! how dost thou afflict me?
The lights burne blew. It is not dead midnight.
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: yet I Lye, I am not.
Foole, of thy Selfe speake well: Foole, do not flatter.
My Conscience hath a thousand severall Tongues,
And every Tongue brings in a severall Tale,
And every Tale condemnes me for a Villaine;
Perjurie in the high'st Degree,
Murther, sterne murther, in the dyr'st degree,
All severall sinnes, all us'd in each degree,
Throng all to' th' Barre, crying all, Guilty, Guilty.
I shall dispaire, there is no Creature loves me.


I have quoted this speech at length because, as Richard's answer to his dream, it sums up many elements of the tradition. A few lines later, at the actual end of the speech, he makes himself resolute to battle to the death with Richmond, and the final section of the speech moves us forward into the battle itself. But it is this earlier major section that is our concern. We notice, to begin with, that it seems a rather long set speech, following the formal, nearly allegorical structure of the dream itself. Examined internally, however, one sees that the speech is a microcosm of Richard's confrontation with his past sins and is actually the only instance where he seems to have a conscience. The very use of the phrase “O coward Conscience” reveals Shakespeare's sophisticated use of the Temptation to Despair, whereby the ancient allegory of the Devil struggling for the soul of the sinner against his Good Angel may be seen to represent an internalized struggle within the individual soul.

Contained in this struggle are lines which suggest technical or formal elements within the ars and which together form a rhetoric through which the speech moves. Line one, of course, suggests that upon waking, the reality of his dream convinces Richard that he is in the battle scene the next day, that he is wounded and in need of a horse, just before his actual (as opposed to psychological) death scene. The immediacy of death gives point to his calling upon Jesus' mercy. From a modern point of view, this appeal to Christ may seem odd in a character who, throughout the play, has been allied obviously with the Devil; but here again Shakespeare's audience would have found commonplace the ars convention that recognized the name of Jesus as the most powerful and present help against despair. Time and again, contemporary (and much older) devotional books had insisted that the greatest help for the Moriens at his moment of temptation was to fix his eyes upon the crucifix and, indeed, to have the crucifix itself laid upon his eyes.13 In the woodcuts and in most of the visual representations a crucifix hangs before the eyes of the sinner to remind him that the mercy of Christ through which he suffered the passion is available to the sinner until the moment of his death, specifically the moment at which his soul goes forth out of his mouth.

Richard, however, like Faustus, hears no answer from his Savior, but turns inward to find only himself present. Shakespeare makes the experience dramatically more powerful by portraying Richard's profound sense of aloneness. Unlike the figure in the woodcuts, who is surrounded by companions supernatural and human, Richard wakes to find himself alone. The loss of all companionship is perhaps the strongest foreshadowing of hell. The ghosts have come and gone, the demons have disappeared, and Richard is left with himself: “Is there a murtherer here?” (V.iii.215).

Throughout the rest of the speech he vacillates between despair and the last shred of self-esteem that keeps him from literal suicide. Despair here at the end of the speech is used in the technical theological sense that was familiar to Elizabethans. It was not considered simply a state of very deep distress, but the loss of faith in the mercy of God for one's self that ultimately leads to suicide. Throughout the speech Richard has battled with himself lest he revenge himself upon himself. To the Elizabethan this meant a struggle with the impulse to suicide, the worst of sins because it did not allow time for repentance before death. The allegorical elaboration of this struggle may be seen at its most frightening in the “Despair Canto” of the Faerie Queene14 and at the end of Dr. Faustus, but an Elizabethan would not have had to turn to poetry or drama to be aware of the theological and human implications of despair. Devotional literature had sounded its dangers, especially in the sixteenth century when the Temptation to Despair had become the most frequently developed of the last temptations by the Devil. So strong, apparently, was the fear of being overcome by the sense of sin encouraged by the Devil at the last illness that some devotional manuals for the sick, such as the one attributed to Luther, had become simply compendiums of comforting biblical passages which emphasized the unquenchable mercy of God.15 In the oldest conventions of the ars in the block books, the Inspiration against Despair shows the angel pointing to Paul and Peter as the archetypes of great sinners who have found mercy.

Richard, however, though he retains enough of conventional piety to call upon the mercy of Jesus in the second line of his speech, persuades himself by the end that the accusation of all his sins, which “Throng all to th' Barre, crying all, Guilty, Guilty,” results in despair. Most damaging of all is his realization that he can find in himself no pity for himself:

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.


The entrance of Ratcliff cuts short Richard's speculations before there is any indication of suicidal action following the recognition of despair, and the plotted necessities for battle preparation leave little time for introspection. The next time Richard speaks of conscience he is seeking to encourage his forces before the battle. More importantly, however, his desperation remains clear as he defies the very things that are moving his thoughts. Although he may seem during the battle heroic to a modern audience, his loss of heaven and the acceptance of damnation expressed in his speech to Norfolk would mark him as demonic to an Elizabethan audience:

Our strong armes be our Conscience, Swords our Law.
March on, joyne bravely, let us too't pell mell,
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to Hell.


For it is at this point that Richard is shown by Shakespeare to have turned his back utterly upon his conscience. From a modern point of view we are tempted to see this behavior as a kind of brave whistling in the face of insurmountable obstacles, and certainly I can think of no instance where Shakespeare is totally devoid of sympathy. But the overwhelming force of Richard's speech as prepared for by the Temptation to Despair and its judgment of conscience is to show the desperation in Richard's soul—a desperation which reveals him as utterly lost. The ghosts have urged him to carry in his mind the despair that they have counseled; it is within this context that the battle takes place next day.

It may seem curious that in this very formal ghost scene with its terse speeches and many repetitions, the major one of which is the refrain “Dispaire and dye,” the play rises to its emotional climax, culminating in Richard's great soliloquy. It is, indeed, one of the best instances of the way in which formality becomes necessary to contain the most passionate emotions. Vice is finally overcome; the Devil as always is seen to be his own worst enemy. Richard dies later, literally by the hand of Richmond, but the dream scene bodies forth the death of his soul. His death, in the larger sense, has been brought about by the wickedness of his own past. Always within the ars moriendi devotional tradition, the Moriens is counseled to remember that the death of the soul is far more serious than the death of the body. And just as a good death is dependent on a good life, the life of the soul depends on dying a good death. Horror at the death of the soul is one of the emotions that would be aroused in an Elizabethan audience sensitive to this tradition. At the same time the audience would respond to the justice in the conventional use of the Temptation to Despair, which shows the past sins finally being visited upon their executor. After the capitulation to despair, it would have been no surprise for an Elizabethan audience that Richard is no longer in control. Even the despairing final burst of courage is only to be taken for that. Virtue and Richmond are in the ascendency. Richard is slain without being given a final speech. If the audience thinks at all of him during the final reconciliation of the play, it is only to visualize hellmouth gaping for the hellhound. But that is not in the play.


  1. Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York, 1958). Mr. Spivack chooses as his major examples of the Vice, Aaron the Moor, Iago, and Richard of Gloucester.

  2. For further background on the ars tradition in Shakespeare's hands, see Bettie Anne Doebler, “Othello's Angels: the Ars Moriendi,ELH, 34 (1967), 156-72.

  3. See Kathrine Koller, “Falstaff and the Art of Dying,” MLN, 60 (1945), 383-86. One needs to recall the importance of death in popular Renaissance theology. Dying was seen as the supreme moment of a man's life and the last opportunity for the Devil (the Bad Angel) to ensnare the soul. Likewise, an eternity of bliss or damnation hung upon the outcome of the final battle between the Devil and the Guardian Angel (the Good Angel). Numerous books of popular devotion reiterated these points; they sold for a penny each in London, and many copies were sold every day. See Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill, 1935), p. 235; Helen C. White, English Devotional Literature 1600-1640 (Madison, 1931); and Tudor Books of Devotion (Madison, 1951) for discussion of the popularity and influence of devotional tracts. Several of the more interesting are Thomas Becon, “The Sicke Mans Salve,” The Seconde Part of the Bokes, which Thomas Becon hath made and published (n.p., 1560); Desiderius Erasmus, Preparation to Deathe, no trans. (n.p., 1534); Henry Thorne, Phisick for the Soule (London, 1576); Sir Thomas Elyot, A Preservative Agaynste Deth (London, 1545).

  4. The Variorum Shakespeare, ed. Howard Furness, XVI (Philadelphia and London, 1908). All quotations from the play will be taken from this edition. The descriptions of the deaths of great men were one strain within the ars moriendi, a part of the general consideration of the importance of death and, especially, the importance of how a man faced his own death. See for examples the account of Essex's last hours in a political sermon by William Barlowe, Sermon Preached at Paules Crosse (London, 1601), sig. C7r-8v, and the more traditional account of the death of John Donne by Isaak Walton in his Life of John Donne (London, 1658). Even as late as the middle of the seventeenth century, the traditional interest in the way a man faced his death survived in such a form as William Somner's The Frontispiece of the Kings Book, which opened with a poem annexed “the In-security of Princes. Considered in an occasional Meditation upon the King's late Sufferings and Death, 1650.”

  5. The Ars Moriendi (Editio Princeps, circa 1450), facsimile edition, ed. W. Harry Rylands (London, 1881). One example of the numerous reproductions of similar woodcuts is the title page of Wynkyn de Worde's edition of Caxton's The Book named the Royall (London, 1506), which reproduces the Temptation to Impatience; also contained in the section on holy living and holy dying (sig. Jvr) is the eleventh woodcut in the series, which portrays the soul of the Moriens being received by angels in clouds over the bed while the demons speak in scrolls to the effect that they have been foiled again. This book, according to Miss Tuve, in Allegorical Imagery (Princeton, 1966), p. 57, is one of the most popular sources of medieval iconography for the Renaissance. Another late example is the painting by Hieronimus Bosch of the “Death of the Miser” in the Andrew Mellon National Art Gallery, Washington, D.C.

  6. Tom F. Driver, The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama (New York, 1960), pp. 87-105. Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III (London, 1968), pp. 202-3. Clemen comments that Shakespeare has substituted a contrast between the two great figures in this, his climactic scene, for the dramatic conflict between persons we should expect. This substitution is perhaps the source of the frequent critical comment this scene has attracted, and it arises, I believe, from the unwillingness to recognize the closeness of the play in form to allegory and the Elizabethan concern with allegory's major theme, the salvation of the soul. See Clemen, also, pp. 203-4, for a discussion of symmetry in the staging of the scene.

  7. Though I should agree with Roland Frye that Shakespeare is most concerned with the ethical present, I should also argue that for Shakespeare and his audience the great tradition of allegory provides another dimension to the mimetic mode. The medieval notion that truth is veiled is perhaps even more prominent in the Renaissance than in the medieval period and tends to draw audiences through the particular context to theological implication and back again.

  8. I am not arguing that Richard III is a full tragedy, but the tragic implications and mood result from this kind of probing of the inner turmoil.

  9. The criticism of Richard III contains a long argument as to whether the ghosts in the scene have objective or subjective reality, that is, literal reality upon the stage or symbolic reality as existent only in Richard's conscience. I should agree with Clemen that both possibilities are present for Shakespeare: “Shakespeare realizes that an apparition existing outside a conscience-stricken mind may, without losing its reality, at the same time be a symbol for conflicts within the mind of the protagonist.” Clemen, Commentary, p. 215. See also Hardin Craig, An Interpretation of Shakespeare (New York, 1948), p. 74.

  10. For a thorough discussion of the sinister aspect of Christianity which concerns attitudes towards the Devil and the Last Judgment and damnation, see Susan Snyder, “The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition,” SRen, 12 (1965), 18-59.

  11. Marlowe as well used the reversed tradition in Doctor Faustus. See Beach Langston, “Marlowe's Faustus and the Ars Moriendi Tradition,” A Tribute to George Coffin Taylor (Richmond, 1952), pp. 148-67.

  12. “A Salve for a Sicke Man. Or a Treatise Containing the Nature, Differences, and Kindes of Death; As also the right manner of dying well,” The Workes of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge Mr. William Perkins, I (London, 1612), 487.

  13. Desiderius Erasmus, Preparation to Deathe, no trans. (n.p., 1534), sig. F3v. This text suggests the specific remedy of the crucifix laid upon the eyes, but the injunction to fix one's eyes upon the cross appears in numerous expressions of the ars moriendi.

  14. See Kathrine Koller's excellent article, “Art, Rhetoric, and Holy Dying in the Faerie Queene with Special Reference to the Despair Canto,” SP, 61 (1964), 128-29.

  15. Every Dayes Sacrifice (London, 1607).

L. C. Knights (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: Knights, L. C. “Richard III.” In William Shakespeare: The Histories, pp. 16-26. London: Longmans Green & Co., 1962.

[In the following essay, Knights examines the structure and method of characterization of Richard III, considering the drama as more than simply a political morality play.]

To call Shakespeare's Histories ‘political’ plays is simply one way of indicating that they deal with such matters as the nature of power—and the conflict of powers—within a constituted society, and with the relation of political exigencies to the personal life of those caught up in them. In other words, they belong not with the limited class of Elizabethan chronicle plays, but with that extensive range of world literature that includes Antigone, Athalie, The Possessed and Under Western Eyes. To say this is not of course to offer a definition: it merely suggests the nature of the interest that we bring to bear. What that interest finds to engage and direct it in such plays as Richard III and Julius Caesar is a matter for particular criticism: there is no formula that will help us. But there is one preliminary generalization that may be made. Shakespeare's early plays show an increasingly subtle relation between observation and what—for want of a better word—we may call inwardness. It is observation that strips off pretence, shows us how the world goes, points a useful moral. But at its furthest reach it can do no more than offer a truth that we acknowledge about other people—the Bastard's ‘Commodity, the bias of the world …’, or Dr. Stockman's summing up in An Enemy of the People:

I only want to drum into the heads of these curs the fact that the liberals are the most insidious enemies of freedom—that party programmes strangle every young and vigorous truth—that considerations of expediency turn morality and justice upside down.

Inwardness on the other hand is not only the probing of character and motive, it involves the observer: some revelation of what is usually concealed prompts not only dramatic sympathy but a sense that something potential in the spectator is being touched on. It is the development of this quality that, above all, links the political plays with the great tragedies—with Macbeth, for example, which is simultaneously political play and universal tragedy. In the plays before us there is indeed no clear line of progression, but we shall, I think, appreciate more vividly what each play has to offer if we see it not simply as an isolated achievement but as pointing towards the masterpieces that lie outside the scope of this study.

Richard III (1592-3) is clearly linked to the three parts of Henry VI by what Dr. Tillyard calls ‘the steady political theme: the theme of order and chaos, of proper political degree and civil war, of crime and punishment’; but, unlike its predecessors, it is very much more than a dramatic presentation of the Tudor view of history. It is not simply a play about the providential accession of the House of Tudor, it is, in the first place, an elaborately formal dramatization of power-seeking in a corrupt world, held together by what Rossiter calls a ‘basic pattern of retributive justice’.1

The formal pattern of the play has often been described, and certainly it is a contrivance of great ingenuity. Basically (as Dover Wilson, following Moulton, points out), it is composed of a complicated system of nemeses: crime brings punishment, for, in the words of York in 3 Henry VI, ‘Measure for measure must be answered’, or, in the words of Buckingham in this play, ‘Wrong hath but wrong, and blame [sc. fault] the due of blame’. Clarence (who broke his promise to Warwick and was one of those who killed Edward, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales) goes to his death in the Tower just as Hastings is released. Hastings, hearing of the death of the Queen's kindred at Pomfret, exults in his own security:

Think you, but that I know our state secure,
I would be so triumphant as I am?


just before he is hustled to his death by Richard and Buckingham. Buckingham, ‘the deep revolving, witty Buckingham’, who plays his part as Richard's ‘other self’ with something of his master's swagger, breaks with Richard partly because of the proposed murder of the Princes, partly because he can't get payment for his services: when he too falls and is led to execution, he recalls the false oath with which he sealed his reconciliation with the Queen's party:

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


As for the arch-contriver, there is the succession of eleven ghosts before Bosworth to remind him—and us—what he is now paying for. This kind of repetition in the action gives an effect of irony both to the mutual pledges and to the boastful self-assertion of the characters; whilst at the same time the device of formal accusation of one character by another keeps the crimes committed constantly in view—each is, as it were, his brother's bad conscience. The effect is to present almost all these people as interlocked in a ‘destiny’ made of ‘avoided grace’ (IV.iv.219).

The formal patterning of the action is of course paralleled in the verbal structure: ‘the patterned speech of the dialogue … is fundamentally one with the ironic patterns of the plot’ (Rossiter). I do not know whether rhetorical devices are more numerous here than in any other of Shakespeare's plays; they are certainly more obtrusive. No purpose would be served by listing the various figures of speech—alliteration, repetition, antithesis, stichomythia, and more recondite Elizabethan ‘figures’—it is enough if we notice the stiff formal texture of so much of the verse:

Lo, in these windows that let forth thy life
                                                  [the wounds of the dead Henry VI]
I pour the helpless balm of my poor eyes.
O cursed be the hand that made these holes!
Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!
More direful hap betide that hated wretch,
That makes us wretched by the death of thee,
Than I can wish to adders, spiders, toads,
Or any creeping venom'd thing that lives!


Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.
Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make
No excuse current but to hang thyself.
By such despair, I should accuse myself.
And, by despairing, shouldst thou stand excused
For doing worthy vengeance on thyself,
That did unworthy slaughter upon others.


Q. Elizabeth.
If you will live, lament: if die, be brief


DUCHESS of York.
Dead life, blind sight, poor mortal living ghost,
Woe's scene, world's shame, grave's due by life usurp'd,
Brief abstract and record of tedious days,
Rest thy unrest on England's lawful earth,
Unlawfully made drunk with innocent blood!


These are characteristic examples; and the internal patterning of the verse is emphasized by the formal stance of the characters, as when Richard and Anne engage in a ‘keen encounter of our wits’, or when Queen Margaret makes a late appearance (clean contrary to historical fact and probability—‘Here in these confines slily have I lurk'd’) solely that she may join with Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York in a prolonged antiphonal lament that serves, once more, to recall the crimes and miseries of the past that have made the wretched present. Together, the elements of rhetorical speech and carefully balanced action combine to produce a complicated echoing effect of revenge and mutual wrong.

Yet what we have to do with is not a self-enclosed world of evil. The characters, it is true, move in a dense atmosphere of hatred, suspicion, treachery and fear, but the standards against which we, the spectators, are expected to judge ‘the grossness of this age’,2 are firmly presented. This is not only a matter of explicit religious reference, as when the Second Murderer of Clarence surprisingly quotes Scripture—

How fain, like Pilate, would I wash my hands
Of this most grievous murder—


Shakespeare had already at command more varied means of awakening the moral imagination. When compared with the second part of Clarence's dream, which is explicitly about hell, the first part may at first seem almost extraneous to the matter in hand: in fact it is an effective symbolist transformation of the more explicit moral commentary:

Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks,
A thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon,
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalu'd jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea.
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. …


This, we may say, is a Shakespearean condensation of the contrast that runs all through Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy. At the other extreme is the dialogue on conscience between the murderers of Clarence:

FIRST Murderer.
How dost thou feel thyself now?
SECOND Murderer.
Faith, some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.
FIRST Murderer.
Remember our reward, when the deed's done.
SECOND Murderer.
‘Zounds! he dies! I had forgot the reward.
FIRST Murderer.
Where's thy conscience now?
SECOND Murderer.
O, in the Duke of Gloucester's purse.
FIRST Murderer.
So when he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.
SECOND Murderer.
'Tis no matter, let it go: there's few or none will entertain it.
FIRST Murderer.
What if it come to thee again?
SECOND Murderer.
I'll not meddle with it: it makes a man a coward: a man cannot steal, but it accuseth him; a man cannot swear, but it checks him; a man cannot lie with his neighbour's wife, but it detects him. 'Tis a blushing shamefast spirit, that mutinies in a man's bosom; it fills a man full of obstacles; it made me once restore a purse of gold that by chance I found; it beggars any man that keeps it; it is turn'd out of towns and cities for a dangerous thing; and every man that means to live well endeavours to trust to himself and live without it.


Irrelevant from the point of view of ‘plot’, this—which has obvious parallels in the later plays—is clearly a low-life variation on the main theme. (‘Conscience’, says Richard, when he has just suffered his worst defeat at its hands, ‘is but a word that cowards use.’). Nor, if we remember the Seven Deadly Sins in Piers Plowman, shall we find anything incongruous in the humour. The serious comedy of this scene is one more reminder that behind Richard III is the tradition of the morality play.3

Now all this, although necessary, has done little to bring into focus what it is that makes the play worth watching or reading, what makes it indeed characteristically Shakespearean: that is, the felt presence of a creative energy centering in, but not confined to, the figure of Richard of Gloucester. It is something that takes possession of our imagination as soon as Richard declares himself in his opening soliloquy.

… Grim-visag'd War hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds,
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber,
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shap'd for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty,
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable,
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain. …


There is a colloquial vividness here that reminds us of Mosca's self-revelation at the opening of the third act of Volpone, but the total effect is quite un-Jonsonian. The idiomatic gusto—the pleasure in speaking words that have the well-directed aim of caustic popular speech—points forward to the Bastard, and will be an element in the poetry of all the greater plays. And this blends unobtrusively with effects of rhetoric and artifice: consider, for example, how the alliteration insists on a slight meaningful pause after ‘spy’ and ‘descant’ in the lines,

Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity.

What is not Jonsonian is the felt presence of a world behind the lines—a world of strutting gallants and affected ladies, with, by contrast, the dogs barking at the malformed Richard; and behind this, pressing on it, is the private world of the man who has always felt himself to be outside the world's game and will, in consequence, simply play his own.4

It is the energy with which Richard plays his part—forthright wooer, plain blunt man, reluctant king (‘O! do not swear, my Lord of Buckingham’), satirical commentator on the world's affairs and machiavellian schemer—it is this that makes him into a commanding figure. But we should certainly be wrong to regard him solely as an ‘engaging monster’ to whose successful contrivance we give a reluctant admiration. Not only is Richard, like the other political figures, placed firmly within a framework of explicit moral reference, the energy that informs his language also manifests itself in other ways. I do not intend to take up again the question of ‘character’ in Shakespeare.5 It is clear that if Shakespeare was intent on something more than—something different from—the presentation of life-like characters, his figures are never merely embodied abstractions: in some sense we feel them as if they were persons, and we are made explicitly aware of those aspects of their assumed life history (Othello's generalship, Coriolanus' ties to his mother) that are relevant to the main design. In the case of Richard of Gloucester this means that Shakespeare compels us to take into account, and to give full weight to, his deformity—and his rancour at his deformity—that is insisted on in his first soliloquy. When, in Act II, scene iv, young York retails the gossip, picked up from his mother, that his uncle Gloucester was born with teeth, it seems a mere repetition of the legend to which Gloucester had himself subscribed in 3 Henry VI (V.vii.53-54 and 70ff.). The effect, however, is very different; for whereas in the earlier play the abnormality seemed little more than part of the stock legend of the monster (‘which plainly signified That I should snarl and bite and play the dog’), the present context enforces a change of tone and implication. Gloucester—his mother has just told us—‘was the wretched'st thing when he was young’, and this unobtrusive substitution of the real for the conventional momentarily shifts the balance of our sympathies and antipathies, just as when, later, young York gives his uncle a ‘scorn’ about his hunchback (III.i.128-135). There is to be sure no attempt to blur judgement with a sentimental ‘understanding’. But the fact remains that in the presentation of the zestfully sardonic villain there are some disturbing reverberations.

A grievous burthen was thy birth to me;
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;
Thy school-days frightful, desperate, wild and furious. …


It does not seem fanciful to say that this—from a further exchange between mother and son—presents in miniature the Delinquent's Progress to a manhood that is ‘proud, subtle, sly, and bloody’ (IV.iv.172).6

In Richard III, although the various conventions are not yet welded into a unity, the connexion between linguistic vitality and energy of moral insight is already apparent. It is not only that Richard's lively idiom ‘cuts through the muffled hypocrisies of language’.7 Even in the elaborately stylized scenes Shakespeare is aiming at something more subtle than a self-conscious display of rhetorical skill: these too can precipitate a moment of lucid truth about human nature; as when Anne gives a somnambulistic half-assent to Richard (‘I would I knew thy heart’) when he has woven round her his net of sophistrïes, which she knows to be such (I.ii.33-224), or when Queen Elizabeth, engaged in a formal rhetorical duel with Richard (IV.iv.376-80), shows him, step by step, that there is nothing he can swear by and be believed—neither honour, nor self, nor religion:

Q. Eliz.
Swear then by something that thou hast not wrong'd.
K. Rich.
Then, by myself—
Q. Eliz.
                                                            Thyself is self-misus'd.
K. Rich.
Now, by the world—
Q. Eliz.
                                                                                'Tis full of thy foul wrongs.
K. Rich.
My father's death—
Q. Eliz.
                                                                                Thy life hath it dishonour'd.
K. Rich.
Why then, by God—
Q. Eliz.
                                                                                God's wrong is most of all.

But perhaps the most striking example of artifice working in the service of psychological realism is the climactic scene of Richard's visitation before Bosworth by the ghosts of his victims (V.iii.119ff.). Judged by the standards of the later Shakespeare the stiffly formal projection of suppressed guilt is crudely done. But this ‘morality masque’, this ‘homily in fancy dress’, does not stand alone; it leads directly to Richard's soliloquy on awakening:

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a 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. …

Touches of melodrama should not prevent us from seeing that Richard's dialogue with himself is, as Palmer says, ‘no empty catechism, but a dialogue pointed at the heart of the eternal problem of conscience and personality’. It not only points forward to the deeper searchings of the self-division caused by evil in Macbeth, it helps to explain why Richard III is so much more than an historical pageant, more even than a political morality play. It is one instance among others of Shakespeare's sure sense—his sane, sure probing—of what lies behind the heavy entanglements of public action.


  1. Whether directly, or mediately through the chronicles, Shakespeare was deeply indebted to More's Life of Richard, which was ‘an attack on the non-moral statecraft of the early Sixteenth Century.’—R. W. Chambers, Thomas More, (1935) p. 117.

  2. Buckingham, objecting to the Cardinal's reluctance to fetch the young Duke of York from sanctuary:

    You are too senseless-obstinate, my lord,
    Too ceremonious and traditional.
    Weigh it but with the grossness of this age,
    You break not sanctuary in seizing him.


  3. Cf. Dover Wilson's Introduction to his edition of the play, pp. xvi-xvii. There is of course more sardonic humour in the scene (III.vii.) in which Gloucester is ‘persuaded’ to accept the crown.

  4. There is an excellent account of this soliloquy by D. A. Traversi in his essay, ‘Shakespeare: the Young Dramatist’, The Pelican Guide to English Literature, 2, The Age of Shakespeare, pp. 180-2.

  5. See my essay, ‘The Question of Character in Shakespeare’, in More Talking of Shakespeare (1959), edited by John Garrett.

  6. See Grace Stuart, Narcissus: a Psychological Study of Self Love (1956).

  7. ‘In scorn or indignation, such writers as Dickens, Heine and Baudelaire sought to cut through the muffled hypocrisies of language’. George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1960), p. 25.

Vance Adair (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Adair, Vance. “Back to the Future: Subjectivity and Anamorphosis in Richard III.Critical Survey 9, no. 3 (1997): 32-58.

[In the following analysis of Richard III informed by Lacanian and poststructuralist theory, Adair draws thematic links between Richard's monstrous physical and psychological deformities and the drama's problematic representation of history.]

… the unconscious is manifested to us as something that holds itself in suspense in the area, I would say, of the unborn.


Having confounded his own expectations in the successful wooing of Lady Anne, Richard has recourse to a model of ego formation that, for modern audiences at least, has much in common with the Lacanian archetype:

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

(I.ii.252-58, 262-63)

Internalising the gaze of the Other, in this case that of Lady Anne, Richard's acquisition of a looking glass is accompanied by an idealisation of body image that is redolent of the ‘jubilation’ experienced by the subject of Lacan's mirror stage. Briefly, in the mirror stage the ego is formed in terms of identification with one's specular image, the infant who has not yet mastered the upright posture upon seeing himself in the mirror will ‘jubilantly assume the upright position’ (Lacan 1977, 2). The apparently ‘orthopaedic effect’ of captation by the mirror image would appear particularly apposite for a character that is frequently disposed to descanting upon on his own deformity. This transition from an uncoordinated body image, the corps morcele, to the Gestalt of bodily wholeness, however, is irreducible to a myth of origins. As Jane Gallop has argued, the mirror stage involves a temporal dialectic at once anticipatory and retroactive which is of paradigmatic significance for Lacan's understanding of the relationship between subjectivity and the signifying chain:

The mirror image would seem to come after the body in bits and pieces and organise them into a unified image. But actually, that violently unorganised image only comes after the mirror stage so as to represent what came before. What appears to precede the mirror stage is simply a projection or a reflection. There is nothing on the other side of the mirror.

(Gallop 1988, 78)

The mirror stage, it seems, is the threshold for a paradoxical short circuit from the ‘not yet’ to the ‘always-already’. Lacan's sustained engagement with paradoxical models of temporality attests to the need to rearticulate the question of teleology in terms of the movement of desire which, like signification, always runs behind the signifying production itself.1 Of central importance is the concept of the ‘future anterior’ which is given its most succinct definition in Lacan's argument that ‘What is realised in my history is not the past definite of what it was, since it is no more, or the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming’ (Lacan 1977, 86).

If anamorphosis is the favoured Lacanian motif for the analysis of the retroactive dynamic of desire in the Imaginary, what can be called a temporal anamorphosis provides the topological model for the Symbolic. As early as 1953 Lacan argued that:

The past and the future correspond precisely to one another. And not any old how—not in the sense that you might believe that analysis indicates, namely from the past to the future. On the contrary, precisely in analysis because its technique works, it happens in the right order—from the future to the past.

(Lacan 1988, 157)

By reading events ‘backward’, so to speak, Lacan assented to this anamorphic entity that gains its consistency only in retrospect, viewed from within the symbolic horizon. In a strictly Lacanian reading, subjectivity and its attendant ‘self-consciousness’ inheres at this decentring point of anamorphous discord: ‘normal reality’ is perceptible only at a point where ‘it thinks remains a formless stain’.

By drawing upon the theoretical problematic yielded by Lacan's investigation of anamorphosis, and how it relates to the cognate psychoanalytical domains of repetition, the uncanny and the gaze, this article seeks to argue that, in its ostensible production of history, Shakespeare's Richard III is besieged by similar problems that centre crucially around the ‘deformed figure’ of Richard. If being ‘sent into the world in a less than finished state’ indicates for Freud how prematurity is a founding condition of subjectivity, Richard's declaration that he was ‘sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up’ (I.i.20-21), is not the only occasion where his misshapen body is aligned with anxieties of origination. In III Henry VI he is called ‘an indigested and deformed lump’ ( by the king, a description echoed in Clifford's later depiction of Gloucester as a ‘foul indigested lump’ (ll. 157-58). The precise nature of Richard's deficiency becomes a confused affair when it is revealed that he had ‘Teeth … in thy head when thou wast born’ (ll.54), an image that is repeated by Queen Margaret in her vituperative assault in Richard III:

From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood;


As a ‘lump of foul deformity’ (I.ii.58), Richard is also imbued with this peculiar morphology of lack and surplus in John Rous' history, written in 1492, which relates how the royal birth was complicated by the fact that Richard remained in his mother's womb for five years and was born with teeth and hair down to his shoulders.2

As facilitator to the Tudor succession, Richard is not the only monster in Elizabethan tracts to have his epochal significance distinguished by a ‘birth that is, simultaneously, both too early and too late’. An account from 1600 relates how ‘A Strange and miraculous accident happened in the Cittie of Purmenent, on New yeare's even last past 1599, of a young child which was heard to cry in the Mothers wombe before it was borne’ (Wolfe 1599).

As a paradox of causation, the designation of Richard as a ‘monster’, I would like to suggest, attests to pervasive anxieties in the text's representation of history. Although frequently attributed to divine will, this proliferation of narratives in the sixteenth century, as Katherine Park and Lorraine J. Daston have argued, inevitably circulated around the difficult question of ‘how to tell which monsters arise in the course of nature and which are expressly produced as signs by God’ (Daston 1982, 34).3 Elevated to the status of a cultural milieu following the momentous upheavals of the Reformation, the study of monsters cathected a crisis of authority in narratives of historical progress. The doctrine of Aristotle, which provides the discursive frame for most early modern accounts, characterises the monster as a paradox of causation which accomplishes an erasure of filiation: ‘anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity’, later in the text he similarly avers that ‘monstrosities come under the class of offspring which is unlike its parents’ (Aristotle 1953, 402, 425).

This somewhat perplexing preoccupation with the question of Richard's origins has found its way into the text's critical history, paramount of which is E. M. W. Tillyard's discussion in Shakespeare's History Plays that reveals anxieties over the place that the text should be assigned in the Shakespeare canon. Attempts to adduce what should be considered ‘historical in the context of the play’ invariably confronts the issue of Richard's deviant morphology. The monster, qua diegetic form, is ultimately an agency within the text that holds the place of a certain formal disturbance in its fantasmatic field. Initially, Tillyard considers the question of authority in terms of an overarching telos of the artistic development of the author. If Richard is the victim of arrested development, he is, in fact, a dissimulated effect of his literary genitor's immaturity:

He Shakespeare was to do better when he matured, but in Richard III he delivered himself of what he was good for at that time. Not being the fully accomplished artist he had to labour prodigiously and could not conceal the effort.

(Tillyard 1981, 205)

In a text which Coppelia Kahn has correctly identified as suggesting ‘the importance of the mother, rather than the father, in the formation of masculine identity’ (Kahn 1981, 63), Tillyard's metaphors reveal a highly vexed relationship towards the question of authority in terms of a dispute over paternity. The claim that the text fails to ‘conceal the traces of its production’ not only encodes artistic impropriety as a peculiarly feminine vice, the putative failure of Richard III to successfully demarcate a space between the author and his work relocates Tillyard's ambivalence about the text's representation of history within a consideration of the masculinisation of Shakespeare himself. Assuming that Aristotle was correct in his argument that what makes the monster monstrous is that it serves as a reminder that paternity can never really be proven, Tillyard's remarks are similarly concerned with a recovery of the father's image.4 Indeed, such anxieties acquire considerable irony in connection with the text's bibliographical history. A speech by Richard in Q1 of III Henry VI, which is frequently offered as an apology for his subsequent villainy, is prefixed by a line that is not contained in the Folio text:

I had no father, I am like no father
I have no Brother, I am like no Brother:
And this word (love) which Gray-beards call pure,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me.

(Kahn 1981, 63)

Tillyard's contention that Shakespeare was ‘to do better’ attempts the solicitation of a paternal presence on behalf of a character noted for eloquent pronouncements on his own perceived alienation, ‘I am myself alone’ (III Henry VI Redeemed retroactively the text will, presumably, come to recognise its origins through a procedure that is also, as Jacques Derrida has argued, a restitution of paternal rights with Shakespeare as ‘a father that is present, standing near it, behind it, within it, sustaining it with his rectitude, attending it in person in his own name’ (Derrida 1991, 118).

It is, however, a more persistent failure of the text to satisfactorily recognise its origins that leads Tillyard to comment upon the ‘confused place that Richard III occupies in the tetralogy’. Articulated within a temporal frame that is simultaneously proleptic and retrospective, Tillyard negotiates this paradox in terms of an ostensible ‘working out of the traumatic civil wars’ in preparation for the Tudor succession: ‘the main business of the play is to complete the national tetralogy and to display the working out of God's plan to restore England to prosperity’ (Tillyard 1981, 205). What threatens to disrupt the fantasmatic consistency of this Elizabethan world picture on display, however, are points of discontinuity that betray a dangerous overproximity to the site of the text's own significations: ‘Richard III inevitably suffers as a detached unit … the play can never come into its own till acted as a sequel to the other three plays’ (ibid.). This fore-closure of self-reference, the putative failure of the text to ‘come into its own’, provides the title of an essay by Derrida5 who also locates the ‘monstrous precisely at this site of dehiscence between past and future’. History and anamorphosis co-operate in Richard III in terms of this radical asymmetry, unable to occlude the performance of its own historicity, the text shares a peculiar affinity with its protagonist in that both are, in the words of Linda Charnes, a ‘product of their own belatedness’ (Charnes 1993, 34). Derek Traversi also discusses the text in terms that can only be described as prenatal, arguing that Richard III is a ‘new type of drama at once the necessary conclusion of all that has gone before and the expression of a new conception of what the chronicle play implies’ (Traversi 1968, 46).6

Revealing Richard III as something of a misfit preventing the symbolic order from fully constituting itself, in an attempt to arrest this slippage in signification Tillyard confers ‘shape on the play through an invocation of the monologic authority of Shakespeare’ as the agency through which contingency is seamlessly reconstituted as necessity:

… at the end of the play Shakespeare comes out with his full declaration of the principle of order, thus giving final and unmistakable shape to what, though largely implicit, had been all along the animating principle of the tetralogy.

(Tillyard 1981, 207)

Such a totalising procedure discloses the text, and more particularly the figure of Richard, as the same kind of structural-dialectical paradox that Slavoj Zizek has characterised as ‘an effect which exists only in order to efface the causes of its existence’ (Zizek 1994, 100). This temporal loop which divides the coincidence of the text with itself is also the enabling condition of the putative working out of its traumatic past in terms of its retroactive inscription within providential determinism. At the close of his analysis Tillyard reinvokes this phrase in an attempt to harmonise the contradictory vectors of the text's signification: ‘Whereas the sins of other men had merely bred more sins, Richard's are so vast that they are absorptive, not contagious’ (Tillyard 1981, 216). Structural antagonisms which may contradict the historical design that Tillyard is attempting to adduce are obviated by the reintroduction of the character of Richard, thereby effecting a displacement of this preternatural excess onto a figure already conveniently encoded as deviant. Any attempt to retain an origin of meaning from which history can be measured is possible only if the process of ‘working out’ is complicit with a movement of ‘absorption’, of coming back. This double movement of the text's signification betrays what Jacques Derrida has called an uncomfortable athesis that is contagious in the sense that it repels any exegetic frame for the construction of secure binarisms. As Derrida has argued, what the construction of a tradition amounts to is an attempt to negotiate a ‘pathway out of tension between protensions and retensions, projections forward, and retainings of the past’ (Hobson 1987, 134).

As both symptom and cause of all that has gone before, Richard is ‘within the limits of the play’, as Tillyard remarks in the context of a discussion on the credibility of character, ‘both possible and impossible’ (Tillyard 1981, 216). We may read this invocation of ‘limits as suggestive of a structural duplicity’ that Slavoj Zizek has described as a ‘reflection-into-itself’ of the boundary which ‘emerges when the determinatedness which defines the identity of an object is reflected into this object itself and assumes the shape of its own unattainable limit, of what the object can never fully become … how its condition of possibility is simultaneously its condition of impossibility’ (Zizek 1994, 100). In other words, it is precisely because Richard is the embodiment of society's meaningless excess that he is also the locus for its return to harmonious consistency.

In what follows, I would like to develop some of the Lacanian implications of these issues in the service of an ideological analysis of the text. Working upon Ernesto Laclau's provocative hypothesis that ‘There is ideology whenever a particular content shows itself as more than itself’ (Laclau 1997, 303) the structural antagonisms cathected by the character of Richard are read not so much as symptomatic of ideology so much as the ideological effect strictu sensu. Arguing that the ‘dialectics between necessity and impossibility gives ideology its terrain of emergence’ Laclau's sophisticated account of ideology, at least at a heuristic level, is remarkably similar to the dialectical production of the object that we find in Lacan's model of anamorphosis:

On the one hand closure as such, being an impossible operation, cannot have a content of its own and only shows itself through its projection in an object which at some point assumes the role of incarnating the closure of an ideological horizon, will be deformed as a result of that incarnating function. Between the particularity of the object which attempts to fulfil the operation of closure and this operation, there is a relationship of mutual dependency in which each of the two poles is required, and at the same time, each partially limits the effects of the other.

(ibid., 303)

Similar to the anamorphic stain in a picture, where consistency is conferred only as a retroactive product brought about by a change in point of view, Laclau's discussion of ideology implicates this structural interdependence of meaning and non-meaning where the frame of view is always-already framed by a part of its content. It is at this anomalous juncture of the traumatic Real that Richard most assiduously solicits the gaze of his audience, retroactively redeeming past crimes only by paradoxically manifesting ‘cause’ as ‘remainder’. What the Real encodes is the radical impossibility of teleology: ‘cause is always produced, apres coup, in the symbolic space’. As an ‘indigested lump’ Richard shares a morphology similar to Lacan's definition of the Real as ‘the object that cannot be swallowed’, as it were, which remains stuck in the gullet of the signifier (Lacan 1994, 270). Both the monster and the Real pertain to a certain limit that is always missed: they are either too early or too late. Taking seriously Traversi's suggestion that Richard succeeds in ‘gathering into his person the savagery which everywhere prevails around him’ (Traversi 1968, 54), then it is at this level of a metaphorical surplus-signification upon which the text's ‘literal signification’ and historic reality crucially depends. Retroactively sealing meaning, from a point in futurity, the monster is truly portentous. In a comment that succinctly encapsulates the paradoxical deixis of contingency and necessity that accompanies any discussion of monsters, Aristotle makes the claim that ‘The monstrosity though not necessary in regard of a final cause and an end, yet is necessary accidentally’ (Wilson 1993, 20).


As recent critics have noted, both Richard III and Richard II disclose at a more obvious level a paradox that threatens to unmask the teleological project of the history plays: the first tetralogy was written earlier but chronicles events that occur in time after the events of the second. Both texts evince a paradoxical temporality that actively contest a notion of history in which events are serially disposed. Occupying contradictory and seemingly antagonistic polarities that frame the histories, the two Richards constitute a doppelganger logic which operates at the level of Freud's model of traumatic memory described by Jean Francois Lyotard as ‘a first moment of shock without affect and a second moment of affect without shock’ (Lyotard 1990, 12).

Unique in the context of the history plays, Richard III's title stages in advance that Gloucester is destined to be king. In a sense, the text reaches its destination even before it begins and conforms to a logic that Maurice Blanchot has identified specifically in relation to narration as that which is:

towards a point … that is strange but such that it seems to have no prior reality apart from this movement, yet is so compulsive that the narration's appeal depends on it to the extent that it cannot ‘begin before it has reached it.’

(Blanchot 1982, 62)

Richard III displays a similar compulsion to repeat which Freud has described in suitably theatrical terms when in ‘The Question of Lay Analysis’ he describes the analysand's relation to his past as one in which he ‘is obliged to stage a revival of an old piece, as though it were actually happening, instead of remembering it’ (Gay 1995, 678). Freud's metaphor is not merely fortuitous. A well known entry in John Manningham's diary of 13 March 1601 relates how an audience member was so enamoured of Burbage's portrayal of Richard that he arranged to meet her for what was, presumably, an illicit liaison. The entry continues that:

Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was intertained, and at his game ere Burbidge came. Then message being brought that Rich. the 3.d was at the dore, Shakespeare caused returne to be made that William the Conqueror was before Rich. the 3.

(Chambers 1930, 212)

Although frequently cited, what this entry ironically discloses is how the putative ‘duping of Burbage’ is inexorably tied to the problematic relation between theatre and history that is one of the issues negotiated by the text itself. Richard III regularly imparts a self-consciousness of its own theatricality in terms of the uncanny inhabitation of a space of repetition that is, like Burbage's rival, always already there. As soon as the text can be said to begin Richard, outlines the ‘plots I have laid’ (I.i.32) and provides a synopsis of subsequent events. Both the text and its protagonist engage in a preposterous logic that elicits from Richard the self reproach that he must not ‘run before my horse to market’ (I.ii.160). Richard occupies a traumatic place within the text because the text itself proffers what Geoffrey Hartman has called a ‘paraprophetic discourse, as prophecy after the event—an event constituted or reconstituted by it, and haunted by the idea of traumatic causation’ (Hartman 1980, 40). One particularly resonant example of this effect can be found in an episode which, significantly, also gestures toward an acknowledgement of the text's own derivative and supplementary identity. Announcing the indictment of Hastings, the scrivener is suspicious of its authenticity and invites the audience to:

… mark how well the sequel hangs together:
Eleven hours I have spent to write it over,
For yesternight by Catesby was it sent me;
The precedent was full as long a-doing:
And yet within these five hours Hastings lived,
Untainted, unexamined, free, at liberty.


In More's account of Richard's reign, a putative source of Richard III, the publication of this defamatory proclamation moves one citizen to comment upon the sequence of events by sardonically observing that ‘it was written by prophecy’ (More 1963, 146). The uncanny aspect of this scene is compounded by the fact that Hastings, in a much remarked upon encounter, meets his own double in the person of the pursuivant who is also called Hastings. If Hastings is ‘fated’ it is because the subject's symbolic identification always has an anticipatory, hastening character that, to recall Richard's earlier predicament, is similar to the anticipatory recognition of self in the mirror where the subject is already preceded by its image.

It is Richard himself, however, who is most frequently identified as the site of this ‘traumatic causation’, locating him in a contestatory position in relation to the representations of history that compete for legitimacy throughout the text. At one point he interrupts Queen Margaret and appoints himself not only the adjudicator of matters relating to historical verisimilitude, but also the figure around which the collective memory should reconstruct itself:

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.


Effectively, what Richard does is to disarticulate the notion that memory is a strictly symbolic function, insisting that subjectivity inheres in a network of signifiers that constitute the relation to the real. As Laplanche and Leclaire have argued, the so called ‘return of the repressed’ should not be understood in terms of an element which, once recovered, will reactivate continuity, but ‘an interpretive elaboration or working through whose role is to weave around a rememorated element an entire network of meaningful relations that integrate it into the subject's explicit apprehension of himself’ (Laplanche 1972, 176). As the accomplished actor, Richard's diabolic force resides in his ability to reinterpret the relationship between subjectivity and memory in terms of improvisation:

Shall I be tempted of the devil thus?
Ay, if the devil tempt you to do good.
Shall I forget myself to be myself?
Ay, if yourself's rememberance wrong yourself


Richard's theatrical notion of selfhood is conspicuously demonstrated in this application of his improvisational skills to successive writings and re-writings of history. Nowhere is this facility more deftly deployed than in the seduction of Lady Anne. Presenting himself as ‘the plain devil’ and dissembling looks he continues:

And yet to win her! all the world to nothing!
Ha? Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabbed in my angry mood at Tewkesbury?


Commenting upon his own performance as one who has committed himself to resurrecting events that are ‘In the deep ocean buried’ (I.i.iv), Richard becomes the conduit through which the text regularly encounters its own forgetfulness. It is through his role as an agent of repetition that the text discloses this unheimliche effect of ‘something which is secretly familiar … which has undergone repression and then returned from it’ (Freud 1988, 113). Richard, in fact, regularly invokes his double, whether it is by becoming a spectator to his own ‘shadow’ (I.1.26; I.ii.230), or by christening Buckingham ‘my other self’ (II.ii.151). Commenting on Freud's frequent association of the diabolical with repetition, Jacques Derrida has suggestively argued that this appropriately titled ‘limping devil’ is:

The figure of the diabolical which simultaneously looks in the direction of Beyond … and in the direction of Das Unheimliche it upsets the appeasing order of representation. However, it does so not by reducing double effects but, on the contrary, by expanding them, by expanding the effect of duplicity without an original, which perhaps is what the diabolical consists of.

(Derrida 1987a, 270)

Crucially, the text's highly complicated rhetoric of forgetting is invoked in contradictory ways that serve, at times, to contest the protocols of linearity and tradition that legitimise absolutist ideology. Buckingham's protracted exhortation to Richard to become king, which is meticulously rehearsed in advance, explicitly locates theatrical representation in a deeply ironic politics of memory:

The noble isle doth want her proper limbs;
Her face defaced with scars of infamy,
Her royal stock graffed with ignoble plants,
And almost should'red in the swallowing gulf
Of dark forgetfulness and deep oblivion.


Simultaneously soliciting Richard as the redeemer of England's memory and the embodiment of her identity, Buckingham's language is all the more remarkable for its morphological frame of reference which casts the deformed Richard as the reformer of national identity and historical continuity:

If not to bless us and the land withal,
Yet to draw forth your noble ancestry
From the corruption of abusing times
Unto a lineal true-derived course.

(11. 197-200)

Buckingham's speech occupies a contradictory space in the repertoire of representations associated with Richard in the text: waste is converted into transcendent value as the monster becomes the guarantor of identity and the previously ‘orphaned Richard’ is the very model of linearity and a ‘true-derived course’. How are we to understand this paradox, especially in relation to Richard's problematic position in the text's putatively ‘historical’ narrative?

At one level, we can once again approach this radical reorientation of perspective in terms of Lacan's comments on anamorphosis: the transformation of the indecipherable spot into the locus of meaning is, in Lacanian psychoanalysis, paradigmatic of the way in which, in the logic of the signifier, meaning and non-meaning coincide in terms of structural necessity. Lacan's theoretical elaboration of this dynamic is best exemplified by his notion of the point de capiton. Just as the anamorphic stain acquires consistency through alteration of perspective, simiarly no signifier is isolatable until a point is reached in the signifying chain which retroactively confers symbolic consistency on preceding events. The locus of this ‘quilting’ is the point de capiton which is in itself meaningless but which achieves its privilege by operating as the signifier through which other signifiers recognise themselves in their unity: ‘A signifying unit presupposes the completion of a certain circle that situates its different elements’ (Lacan 1993, 263). Sense emerges from nonsense only at a point which retroactively and provisionally seals the meaning of a sentence, such that notions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ co-operate in terms of a structural, anamorphic tension.

In relation to Richard III's troubled encounter with its own teleological project, it is Richard that unwittingly reveals the contingent forces involved in the construction of subjectivity. Significantly, it is precisely when his own identity is under the most vigorous assault that he discloses the radical implications of Lacan's thesis: ‘identity’ emerges only at a point which ‘sews’ the meaning into the signifier:

QUEEN Margaret:
Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell!
Thou slander of thy heavy mother's womb!
Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins!
Thou rag of honour! thou detested—
QUEEN Margaret:
QUEEN Margaret:
I call thee not.


In the domain proper to ideology interpolation consists in the subject's acceding to the ‘call of the Other’ in a way which also occludes its performative dimension. Richard's intervention just before his name is to become the ‘quilting’ point of Margaret's vitriolic speech, however, illustrates how signification retroactively seeks to produce identity. In other words, Richard discloses the illusion necessary to the conferring of a symbolic mandate where the subject must misrecognise that it is the very act of recognition which makes him what he has recognised himself as. The subversive aspect of this interruption achieves its impact precisely because Richard reveals the structural operation of this retroactive illusion where he is pinned to a signifier that represents him for the other and through which he is assigned a place in the intersubjective network. Disclosing the arbitrary nature of this mandate Richard refuses to accede to the call: ‘I cry thee mercy then, for I did think / Thou hadst called me all these bitter names’ (II. 238-39).

Queen Margaret is, we should recall, the only character to appear throughout the first tetralogy. At a diegetic level, her function in Richard III conforms precisely to the discourse of the Other which ‘is not the discourse of the abstract other, of the other in the dyad, of my correspondent, nor even of my slave, it is the discourse of the circuit in which the subject is integrated’ (Lacan 1989, 89-90). Earlier in the scene Richard elicits from Margaret a comment that would appear to support this view:

Foul winkled witch, what mak'st thou in my sight?
But repetition of what thou hast marred;
That will I make before I let thee go.

(II. 164-68)

‘The meaning of repetition’, argues Lacan, ‘has all to do with the intrusion of the symbolic register’ (ibid. Lacan, 88). Richard's defiant rhetorical intervention reveals how this repetition operates as the agency through which the symbolic order hails the individual into a space that is, in a sense, always already there. This is the effect, irreducibly theatrical, that Lacan discerns in the story of Oedipus where the oracle also embodies the discourse of the Other:

Oedipus' unconscious is nothing other than this fundamental discourse whereby, long since, for all time, Oedipus' history is out there—written, and we know it, but Oedipus is ignorant of it, even as he is played out by it since the beginning … Everything takes place in the function of the Oracle and of the fact that Oedipus is truly other than what he realises as his history. The whole pulsation of the drama of his destiny, from the beginning to the end, hinges on the veiling of this discourse, which is his reality without his knowing it.

(Lacan 1989, 245)

Richard's ‘history’, like that of Oedipus, is ‘played out’ only insofar as the text ‘embodies its own forgetting’ (Felman 1985, 1050). One particularly notable case of amnesia occurs when the young Duke of York repeats the mythic account of his uncle's birth where Richard ‘could gnaw a crust at two hours old’ (II.iv.28). The inquiry as to how the Duke came to be in possession of this knowledge is the cause of some dispute:

His nurse! Why, she was dead ere thou wast born.
If 'twere not she, I cannot tell who told me.


What this bizarre episode highlights is precisely the Oedipal maxim that knowledge is nothing other than the crystallisation of symbolical activity which it forgets, once constituted. Again, though in a displaced form, Richard stands in an antagonistic relationship to the text's traumatic return to the question of ‘birth’. If history conforms to a repetitive logic which eschews recourse to an act of simple remembrance, through its eponymous anti-hero Richard III alludes to an awareness of its own inscription within a symbolic horizon that contradicts and anamorphically disfigures its status as a ‘chronicle’ or non-problematic repository of past events. An episode which centres around a dialogue on the origins of the Tower of London explicitly disengages the function of memory from the procedure of merely presencing that which is absent:

Did Julius Caesar build that place, my lord?
He did my gracious lord, begin that place;
Which, since, succeeding ages have re-edified.
Is it upon record, or else reported
Successively from age to age, he built it?
Upon record, my gracious lord.
But say, my lord, it were not regist'red,
Methinks the truth should live from age to age,
As 'twere retailed to all posterity,
Even to the general all-ending day.


What the Prince refers to is nothing other than the logic of repetition that characterises the intersubjective network, an ‘always-already there’ which, in Derrida's words, ‘no reactivation of the origin could fully master and awaken to presence’. What I also want to suggest is that it is also possible to read the Prince's comments in the light of the Elizabethan theatre's own complicity in, literally, retailing truths in a way that is irreducibly repetitive: where the practices of ‘retelling’ and ‘retailing’ become inextricably linked. This connection is made explicit in The Gull's Hornbook, Dekker's parodic consumer guide to London life, where the author identifies ‘The theatre as the poets Royal Exchange … when your groundling and gallery commoner buys his sports by the penny and like a haggler is glad to utter it again by retailing’ (Dekker 1967, 98). Indeed, what the theatre reveals is the essential impossibility of any absolute synchronisation. In a passage that has manifold implications for any discussion of the history plays, Derrida has argued that repetition is the modus operandi of theatre as event:

Disjunction, dislocation, separation of places, deployment of spacing of a story … could there be any theatre without that? The survival of a theatrical work implies that, theatrically, it is saying something about theatre itself, about its essential possibility. And that it does so, theatrically, then, through the play of uniqueness and repetition …

(Derrida 1993, 419)

It is this ‘play of uniqueness and repetition’ that has so perturbed critics; a perceived failing of the text is that it either lets the ‘audience know too much too soon’ (Driver 1967, 88) or, alternatively, that it is ‘possessed of a much too anticipatable conclusion’ (Auchincloss 1970, 46). Rather, what this self-subversion amounts to is a drama of dispossession, an expropriation of the text by itself as it seeks to enact the performance of its own historicity. With its cast of monsters, dreams, ghosts and prohecies, Richard III resembles a psychoanalytic case study, yet what also emerges is how this phantasmatic space traces its trajectory in explicitly theatrical terms. A consideration of how the scopic register of the text participates in what I have been discussing as an anamorphous logic of repetition relies upon Lacan's account of the gaze which is also inexorably tied to the domination of the subject by the symbolic order. The last section will focus upon this theoretical conjuncture by expanding upon Lacan's crucial argument that ‘it is within the explanation of repetition that … the scopic function is situated’ (Lacan 1994, 79).


In some respects then, Richard III can be said to articulate a relationship between theatre and history in terms of repeated encounters with its own ‘blind spots’. A particularly resonant example can be found in the insistent anxieties relating to blindness recounted in Clarence's dream, although on this occasion it is associated with a surplus visuality over which he can exercise little control: ‘What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears! / What sights of ugly death within mine eyes!’ (I.iv.22-23). This figurative alignment of drowning with an over abundance of vision becomes increasingly complex as Clarence relates the details of his nightmare:

Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks;
A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon;
Wedges of gold, great ingots, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatt'red in the bottom of the sea.
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit these 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.

(ll. 24-33)

If, as Christopher Pye has suggested, Clarence indicates his awareness that he exists in the play solely in order to die (Pye 1992, 80), this speech is the most explicit example of how the play ‘shows itself showing itself’ by returning its gaze upon the audience. At a psychoanalytical level, the speech itself indexes this radical alterity of the gaze in a way that conforms to Lacan's account of the scopic register of the dream. ‘In the so called waking state’, Lacan argues, ‘there is an elision of the gaze, and an elision of the fact that not only does it look it also shows. In the field of the dream, on the other hand, what characterises the images is that it shows’ (Lacan 1994, 75). A field of pure monstrance, the exhibitionist dimension of dreams, for Lacan, acts as a compelling example of the subject's inability to master the field of vision in the way typified by the Cartesian cogito. Clarence responds to Brakenbury's teasing enquiry as to whether he had time ‘To gaze upon the secrets of the deep’, by insisting that.

Methoughts I had, and often did I strive
To yield the ghost: but still the envious flood
Stopped in my soul, and would not let it forth
To find the empty, vast, and wand'ring air.

(ll. 35-39)

The dream involves submission to an excessive and oppressive visuality so that ‘the subject does not see where it is leading, he follows’. Blindness and vision regularly supplant each other in Clarence's dream, climaxing in the image of the jewels which act as prosthetic eyes of ‘dead men's skulls’. It is no coincidence that, for Lacan, the jewel acts as a metaphor for the disarming proximity of the gaze of the Other: ‘The point of the gaze participates in the ambiguity of the jewel’ (Lacan 1994, 96). The diffuse irradiating power of the jewel's reflection lures the viewing subject and transfixes him as object in the sight of the world. This excess vision is comparable to drowning in the overflowing and inapprehensible function of the gaze where ‘Light may travel in a straight line, but it is refracted, diffused, it floods, it fills—the eye is a sort of bowl—it flows over too’. Similar to that other favoured Lacanian motif for the annihilating power of the gaze, Holbein's Ambassadors, the skull in Clarence's dream finds mortality inextricably linked to entrapment within a scopic field that cannot be mastered. Just as Holbein teaches how the subject is inscribed in the scopic field, Clarence's portentous dream also evokes an uncanny sense of his own inscription within the larger symbolic space of the text. When it inevitably comes, Clarence's death not only involves his drowning in a ‘malmsey-butt’ but, in a bitterly ironic gesture, his demise is hastened by a naive faith in his powers of perception:

My friend, to
I spy some pity in thy looks
O, if thine eye be not a flatterer,
Come thou on my side, and entreat for me.
A begging prince what beggar pities not?
Look behind you, my lord
stabs him


Although to a modern audience the warning to ‘Look behind you’ is a refrain commonly associated with pantomime, it also serves as an aphorism which encapsulates the fate of the subject caught in the trap of the gaze that ‘circumscribes us … makes us beings who are looked at, but without showing this’ (Lacan 1994, 75).

This complex relationship between death and the scopic drive is most commonly associated with Richard who, we should recall, is frequently aligned with the myth of ‘the evil eye’. In III Henry VI, he commits himself to ‘slaying more gazers than the Basiliskes’ (III.iii.187). In Richard III he is similarly endowed with a deadly power of fascination: the possessor of a ‘deadly eye’ (I.iii.225) he is also, for the Duchess a ‘cockatrice … whose unavoided eye is murderous’ (IV.i.56). For Lacan, what the ubiquity of this myth alludes to is a ‘fatal function’ that resides in its ‘power to separate’ (Lacan 1994, 115), a ‘power that is strictly correlative to a reproduction of the split between the eye and the gaze’. In the scopic field, Lacan argues, ‘The subject is strictly speaking determined by the very separation that determines the break of the a, that is to say, the fascinatory element introduced by the gaze’ (Lacan 1994, 118). The evil eye is what Lacan calls the fascinum, the dimension in which the power of the gaze is exercised directly, acting as the fatal lure which has a mortifying effect on the subject by its ‘captivation’ in the sight of the Other. Richard's description of Anne's beauty proceeds in terms of an encounter with her gaze which produces a feeling of shame:

For now they kill me with a living death.
Those eyes of thine from mine have drawn salt tears,
Shamed 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
When black-faced Clifford shook his sword at him;
Nor when thy warlike father, like a child,
Told the sad story of my father's death,
And twenty times made pause to sob and weep
That all the standers-by had wet their cheeks
Like trees bedashed with rain—in that sad time
My manly eyes did scorn an humble tear.


This lament, which offers a complex juxtaposition of masculine aggression with the death dealing effect of female beauty, now substitutes Anne as the bearer of the ‘evil eye’. In a comment that inevitably recalls Richard's speech in III Henry VI, Anne tries to repel Richard's advances by wishing that her eyes ‘were basilisks to strike thee dead!’ (ll. 150). The ‘evil eye’, in its role as ‘that which has the effect of arresting movement and, literally, of killing life’, (Lacan 1994, 118) introduces the death drive into the scopic field. This scene, however, elaborates a complicated relationship between death, subjectivity and the scopic drive which entails a dialectic of desire between Richard and Anne that locates ‘hell’ and the ‘bed-chamber’ as its discursive frame. In a discussion that makes no direct reference to the scopic politics of the text, but which, nevertheless, addresses some of the epistemological problems that arise from the question of deformity, Marjorie Garber has argued that ‘The very fascination exerted by Richard seems to grow in direct proportion to an increase in emphasis on his deformity’ (Garber 1986, 81; emphasis added). What Garber gestures toward is a structural complicity between the text's strange circuit of desire and the seductive appeal of Richard. The fascinating, if albeit disconcerting, eroticism of this scene is negotiated around the deformed Richard's success in surmounting his initial unsuitability as the object of desire by disclosing the precarious border that separates beauty from disgust. In the event, Anne and Richard exchange subject positions:

Out of my sight! thou dost infect mine eyes.
Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.
Would they were basilisks to strike thee dead!
I would they were, that I might die at once;

(ll. 148-52)

To an Elizabethan audience, this displacement of diabolic power from Richard to Anne would not have gone unnoticed. According to the accepted Renaissance physiology of vision, the eye operates as the organ by which ‘infected spirits’ are transmitted from the body of the harlot to that of the observer. As the agent of infection or bewitchment, the eye forms the point at which sight transforms from passivity to activity, and where subject and object exchange places. An entire pathology of an erotics of vision were in part indebted to the influence of Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium on Love. In 1588 Valleriola developed a thesis on the origins of erotic love in Observationum medicinalium libri sex which discusses love-sickness in terms of a fascination that enters through the eye, as an alien vapour that spreads contagion throughout the body (Beecher 1988, 7). By the seventeenth century Burton was still persuaded by this specular pathogenesis which made the fascinatio crucial to seduction:

the manner of the fascination, as Ficinus declares it, is this: Mortal men are then especially bewitched, when as by often gazing one to the other, they direct sight to sight, join eye to eye, and so drink and suck in Love between them; for the beginning of this disease is the Eye.

(Beecher 1988, 9)

The libidinal economy of the scene also locates the monstrous at that point where knowing and desiring reach a traumatic point of deadlock. The entire seduction is played out in a scopic register which serves to block desire and, paradoxically, open desire to circumvent the blockage. Richard captivates Anne at precisely this site of antagonism:

I wish I knew thy heart
'Tis figured in my tongue
I fear me both are false

(ll. 192-94)

Here, desire is produced not as a striving for something, but only for something else or something more: it has no determinate object that is not, as Richard homophonically suggests, ‘dis-figured’. The apparent opacity of Richard's language is perceived by Anne as, in Jean Copjec's words, ‘a veil which cuts off from view a reality that is other than what the subject is allowed to see’ (Copjec 1989, 237). Desire, here, pertains precisely to the Lacanian formulation that ‘desire is the desire of the Other’. The subject may fashion itself in the image of the Other's desire, but only at a point of lack as there is no determinate image of this desire. Richard's strategy of counter-identification, of ‘rendering good for bad, blessings for curses’ (ll. 69), is seductive precisely because it relies upon the fact that truth is not demonstrable and implicitly cathects his monstrous body as that which also acts at the level of failed phenomenalisation. Contesting the pronounced scopophilia of the scene Richard parodies the interiorising subject of modernity: here ‘depth’ is literally generated by the monstrous distortion of the surface.

It is, however, around the wounds of Henry's corpse that the most insistent exhortations to see are made and where desire produces distortion in the scopic field. The body presents a hole in the Other which Anne, metaphorically, seeks to occupy:

Lo, in these windows that let forth thy life
I pour the helpless balm of my poor eyes.
O cursed be the hand that made these holes!


A site of pure monstrance, the holes encode the corpse as an object that cannot look back but which, nevertheless, provokes the gaze of its spectators. Anne's substitution of the eyes for the holes locates a lack in the Other, a split between eye and gaze in terms of a failed encounter: ‘You never look at me from the place from which I see you’. The gaze indexes a hole in the symbolic order, and Anne's subsequent exclamation in which the holes become ‘mouths’ emphasises how the scopic drive circulates, literally, around a point of failed symbolisation:

If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,
Behold this patterns of thy butcheries.
O, gentleman, see, see! dead Henry's wounds
Open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh.

(ll. 54-57)

It is within this libidinal economy that Richard orchestrates his seduction of Anne. Unable to elicit a confession that he murdered Henry and Edward, Anne accuses Richard of being ‘the cause of that accursed effect’. Richard's response, characteristically, is to complicate such a causal logic. He does so, however, by relocating death on an axis of desire where it is the power of fascination exerted by the sublime image of Anne that assumes a lethal dimension:

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.


The scene's seemingly incongruous engagement with the central motifs of courtly love has been a recurrent source of incredulity for critics who tend to view Richard's unlikely role as courtier solely in terms of pastiche. For Lacan, however, the encounter between beauty and the beast is paradigmatic of the libidinal economy of courtly love. It is precisely a crisis in symbolic authority, manifested in what Lacan defines as the Thing, which leads to an irruption of the monstrous in the feminine:

The poetry of courtly love, in effect, tends to locate in the place of the Thing certain discontents of the culture. And it does so at a time when the historical circumstances bear witness to a disparity between the especially harsh conditions of reality and certain fundamental demands. By means of a form of sublimation specific to art, poetic creation consists in positing an object I can only describe as terrifying, an inhuman partner.

(Lacan 1992, 150)

Richard rehearses the Lacanian thesis that the power of fascination exerted by a sublime image always announces the proximity of the death drive. The haunting image of a dream, sublimation in Richard's account has nothing to do with the object of desire but, rather, with the primordial void around which the drive circulates. Both Richard's aggression and the question of his culpability become inseparable, as he claims, from ‘the beauty that provoked me’ (ll. 180). In his increasingly rhapsodic meditations he represents Anne as the subliminal object, the ‘angel’ that is a ‘divine perfection of a woman’ (ll. 75). Offering a definition of the sublime as ‘an object elevated to the level of the Thing’, Lacan again relies on anamorphosis as the favoured heuristic device to demonstrate how the conventions of courtly love attempt to inscribe the Real of desire. It is in relation to Lacan's contention that ‘If beyond appearance there is nothing in itself, there is the gaze’, that this idealisation of the woman is situated. It is, of course, a narcissistic move, but it is precisely because vision falters that desire is possible:

It is only by chance that beyond the mirror in question the subject's ideal is projected. The mirror may on occasion imply the mechanisms of narcissism, and especially the diminution of destruction or aggression that we will encounter subsequently. But it also fulfils another role, a role as limit. It is that which cannot be crossed. And the only organisation in which it participates is that of the inaccessibility of the object.

(Lacan 1993, 151).

The anamorphic glance teaches that an object is discernible only by viewing it awry; that is, that a disinterested gaze reveals a void. So too in the conventions of courtly love the object is revealed as something graspable only at the site of its own erasure. This is the ‘vacuole’ whose positive substance consists solely in the network of ‘detours and obstacles which are organised so as to make the domain of the vacuole stand out as such’ (Lacan 1993, 152). The ring that Richard gives to Anne may be read as an indication of how the ‘gift functions in this exchange as an attempted embodiment of the impossible’ Thing: i.e. as materialised Nothingness.

To begin again. Subjectivity is ultimately a question of this non-substantial self-relating, where self-consciousness is literally decentred in an anamorphic stain. That archetypal scene of Richard's infantile ‘jubilation’ captures fleetingly what kind of specular seduction is involved:

Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marv'llous proper man.
I'll be at charges for a looking glass,
And entertain a score or two of tailors,
To study fashions to adorn my body:
Since I am crept in favour with myself

(ll. 253-58).

By presenting himself as the negative image of his monstrous body, as a ‘proper man’, Richard discloses the fact the Thing is nothing other than the subject's impossible equivalent, the very negativity that defines the subject. At a purely etymological level, of course, the term ‘monster’ indicates a gratuitous showing, yet it is also that phantasmatic locus for the inequality of form to itself qua the non-coincidence of the eye and the gaze. As Derrida has argued, ‘an object is monstrous when by its size it defeats the end that forms its concept’ (Derrida 1987b, 143). Richard's de-formity pertains to that other paradoxical object cause of desire which Lacan has called the objet petit a; that remainder of matter which bears witness to the fact that form is not yet fully realised, that it remains a mere anticipation of itself. Temporally, it is an object which exists only as that which is either too early or too late, a temporal loop that short circuits from the ‘not yet’ to the ‘always already’.7 In relation to the text's ambivalent relationship towards its teleological project, Richard is nothing other than this anamorphic expression of the constitutive antagonism between ‘incarnation and deformation’ that Laclau maintains ‘is at the root of all ideological process’ (Laclau 1997, 315). The anamorphic logic of the gaze not only teaches how an object can become the retroactive product of its own effects, but also how without this deformed residue of matter the formal consistency of the field of so called ‘reality’ collapses. Perhaps the example of Richard provides the possibility for a model of ideological critique that is not so much concerned to analyse anamorphosis, as to suggest along with Althusser that analysis itself may profitably assume greater sensitivity to the anamorphic glance which accompanies the production of all objects of knowledge:

To see … ‘oversights’, to identify the lacunae in the fullness of discourse, the blanks in the crowded text, we need something quite different from an acute or attentive gaze; we need an informed gaze, a new gaze, itself produced by a reflection of the change of terrain on the exercise of vision, in which Marx pictures the transformation of the problematic.

(Althusser 1990, 27).


  1. Lacan's most considered excursus on this relation is elaborated in the seminar ‘The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious (Lacan 1977, 292-325).

  2. For a useful, although brief, summary of the mythologising of Richard see Warwicke 1986.

  3. A recent study by Kathryn M. Brammall has identified a trend in how the appellation of ‘monster’ was increasingly employed as a rhetorical trope from 1570 (Brammall 1996).

    As will become clear, what I am principally attempting to elaborate here is an account of the monstrous which makes use of Lacan's complex association between spatial and temporal anamorphoses. Although arguably writing from a more emphatically structuralist perspective, Michel Foucault makes some characteristically subtle comments on the emergence of the study of monsters in the human sciences that are particularly apposite. Critiquing theories of evolutionism Foucault argues that:

    continuity is not the visible wake of a fundamental history in which one same living principle struggles with a variable environment. For continuity precedes time. It is its condition … First, the necessity of introducing monsters into the scheme … The monster ensures in time, and for our theoretical knowledge, a continuity that, for our everyday experience, floods, volcanoes, and subsiding continents confuse in space. The other consequence is that the signs of continuity throughout such a history can no longer be of any order other than that of resemblance … On the basis of the power of the continuum held by nature, the monster ensures the emergence of difference. This difference is still without law and without any well-defined structure; the monster is the root stock of specification, but it is only a sub-species itself in the stubbornly slow stream of history.

    (Foucault 1990, 155-56).

  4. I am particularly indebted to Marie-Helene Huet who, in a brilliant essay, has argued that ‘if resemblance creates a visible connection between father and child, it also conceals the questionable character of all paternities. At the same time that it suggests filiation, by instituting a “natural,” visible link between the genitor and his child, resemblance, used as a criterion for establishing paternity, elides the fact that this filiation can never be certain. Thus, resemblance masks a fundamental, primordial disorder. And what resemblance conceals, the monster unmasks’ (Huet 1991, 77). This question of Richard's self-proclaimed autogenesis finds a wider resonance in the way that early modern culture sought to create an identity for the processes of literary production itself. In a comment that inevitably recalls Richard, both in its use of metaphor and in its aggressive claims for autonomy, Thomas Nashe contests his status as an ‘outsider’ to ‘proudly’ boast:

    that the vaine which I have (be it median vaine or a madde man) is of my owne begetting, and cals no man father in England but my selfe.

    (Kastan 1987)

    Philip Sidney, however, provides a more complex example of how questions of literary creativity inevitably confront the issue of masculine identity. In a prefatory letter which dedicates The Countess Of Pembroke's Arcadia to his (then pregnant) sister, Sidney offers a disclaimer that deploys multivalent levels of displacement as he seeks to negotiate the claims of literary patrimony under the aspect of the prodigious:

    I hope, for the father's sake, it will be pardoned, perchance made much of, though in itself it have deformities … In sum, a young head not so well stayed as I would it were … having many fancies begotten in it, if it had not been in some way delivered, would have grown a monster, and more sorry might I be that they came in than that they gat out. But his chief safety shall be the not walking abroad; and his chief protection the bearing the livery of your name.

    (Sidney 1985, 13).

  5. Arguing how ‘every speculation implies the frightening possibility of the Hysteron Proteron of the generations’, Derrida undertakes a brilliant rereading of the Freudian account of repetition which includes biographical details of how neither Freud or his wife ‘got over’ the monstrous fact of children dying before their parents (Derrida 1978, 144).

  6. The notion that Richard III can be considered a ‘seminal moment in the artistic maturity of Shakespeare’ can still be found in more recent discussions of the text. E. Pearlman, for example, argues that ‘The differentiation of Richard from the comparatively colourless orators and warriors who populate the Henry VI plays marks a turning point—perhaps the turning point—in Shakespeare's development into a dramatist of more than ordinary excellence’ (Pearlman 1992, 411).

  7. In a discussion that also attempts to analyse the relations between the monster and anamorphosis, Slavoj Zizek has characterised the emergence of the monster as signalling nothing less than the passage to modernity:

    This empty form, this black stain in the very heart of reality, is ultimately the ‘objective correlative’ of the subject himself … by means of anamorphotic stains, ‘reality’ indexes the presence of the subject. The emergence of the empty surface on which phantasmagorical monsters appear is therefore strictly correlative to what Heidegger calls ‘the advent of the Modern-Age subjectivity’, i.e., to the epoch in which the symbolic ‘substance’ (the ‘big Other qua texture’ of symbolic tradition) can no longer contain the subject, can no longer bind him to his symbolic mandate … the monster is the subject of the Enlightenment, that is to say, the mode in which the subject of the Enlightenment acquires his impossible positive existence.

    (Zizek 1992, 134).

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis (1977), ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (London: NLB).

Althusser, Louis and Balibar, Etienne (1990), Reading Capital (London: Verso).

Aristotle (1953), Generation of Animals, A. L. Peck trans., (Cambridge: CUP).

Auchincloss, Louis (1970), Motiveless Malignity (London: Gollancz).

Beecher, Donald (1988), ‘The Lover's Body: The Somatogenesis of Love in Renaissance medical Treatises’ in Renaissance and Reformation 24, 1, 1-11.

Blanchot, Maurice (1982), The Siren's Song: Selected Essays by Maurice Blanchot, ed. Gabriel Josipovici, Sacha Rabinovitch trans., (Brighton: Harvester).

Bowie, Malcom (1990), Lacan (London: Fontana).

Brammal, Kathryn M. (1996), ‘Monstrous Metamorphosis: Nature, Morality and the Rhetoric of Monstrosity in Tudor England’ in The Sixteenth Century Journal, 27, 1, 3-21.

Chambers, E. K. (1930), William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford: OUP).

Charnes, Linda (1993), Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare (London: Harvard UP).

Copjec, Joan (1989), ‘Cutting Up’ in Between feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Teresa Brennan (London: Routledge), 227-46.

Daston, Lorraine J. and Park, Katherine (1982), ‘Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century France and England’ in Past and Present, 92, 20-54.

Dekker, Thomas (1967), Thomas Dekker: Selected Writings, ed. E. D. Pendy (Oxford: OUP).

Derrida, Jacques (1978), ‘Coming Into One's Own’ in Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Text, ed. Geoffrey Hartman (London: JHUP), 114-49.

Derrida, Jacques (1987a), The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, Alan Bass trans., (London: University of Chicago Press).

Derrida, Jacques (1987b), The Truth in Painting, Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod trans., (London: University of Chicago Press).

(1991), ‘Plato's Pharmacy’ in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. Peggy Kamuf (London: Harvester), 112-43.

(1991), (1993), Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (London: Routledge).

Driver, Tom F. (1967), The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama (London: Columbia UP).

Felman, Shoshana (1985), ‘Beyond Oedipus: The Specimen Story of Psychoanalysis’ in Lacan and Narration: The Psychoanalytic Difference in Narrative Theory, ed. Robert Con Davis (Baltimore: JHUP).

Foucault, Michel (1990), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage).

Freud, Sigmund (1988), Art and Literature (London: Penguin).

Gallop, Jane (1988), Reading Lacan (Ithaca: Cornell UP).

Garber, Marjorie (1988), ‘Descanting on Deformity: Richard III and the Shape of History’ in The Historical Renaissance: New Essays in Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture, ed. Heather Dubrow et al. (London: University of Chicago Press).

Gay, Peter (1995), The Freud Reader (London: Vintage).

Hartman, Geoffrey (1980), Criticism in the Wilderness (London: Yale UP).

Hobson, Marian (1987), ‘History Traces’ in Poststructuralism and the Question of History.

Huet, Marie-Helene (1991), ‘Monstrous Imagination: Progeny as Art’ in French Classicism in Critical Inquiry, 17.

Kahn, Coppelia (1981), Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (London: University of California Press).

Kastan, David (1987), ‘His Semblable Is His Mirror: Hamlet and the Imitation of Revenge’ in Shakespeare Studies, 19, 111-25.

Lacan, Jacques (1977), Ecrits: A Selection (London: Norton).

Lacan, Jacques (1988), The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book One: Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-1954, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, John Forrester trans., (Cambridge: CUP).

Lacan, Jacques (1989), The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book Two: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis: 1954-1955, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Sylvania Tomaselli trans., (Cambridge: CUP).

Lacan, Jacques (1992), The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VII, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Dennis Porter trans., (London: Routledge).

Lacan, Jacques (1994), The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Alan Sheridan trans., (London: Penguin).

Laclau, Ernesto (1997), ‘The Death and Resurrection of the Theory of Ideology’ in Modern Language Notes, 112, 297-321.

Laplanche, Jean (1972), ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’ in Yale French Studies, 48.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1990), Heidegger and the Jews (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

More, Thomas (1963), The Complete Works of St. Thomas More: Volume II, ed. Richard S Sylvester (London: Yale UP).

Parker, Patricia (1992), ‘Preposterous Events’ in Shakespeare Quarterly, 43, 2, 186-213.

Pearlman, E. (1992), ‘The Invention of Richard of Gloucester’ in Shakespeare Quarterly, 43, 4, 411-31.

Pye, Christopher (1992), The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (London: Routledge).

Sidney, Philip (1985), The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, ed. Katherine Duncan Jones (Oxford: OUP).

Tillyard, E. M. W. (1981), Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Penguin).

Traversi, Derek (1968), An Approach to Shakespeare: I Henry VI to Twelfth Night (London: Hollis and Carter).

Warwicke, Retha M. (1986), ‘The Physical Deformities of Ann Boleyn and Richard III: Myth and Reality’ in Parergon, 4, 135-53.

Wilson, Dudley (1993), Signs and Portents: Monstrous Births from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment (London: Routledge).

Woolf, J. (1599), STC 20511.

Zizek, Slavoj (1992), Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (London: Routledge).

Zizek, Slavoj (1993), Tarrying With The Negative: Kant, Hegel and the Critique of Ideology (Durham: Duke University Press).

Zizek, Slavoj (1994), For They Know Not What They Do (London: Verso).

Christopher Andrews (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Andrews, Christopher. “Richard III on Film: The Subversion of the Viewer.” Literature/Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 (2000): 82-94.

[In the following essay, Andrews evaluates the means by which film representations of Richard III, performed by Laurence Olivier, Ron Cooke, and Ian McKellen, have facilitated a relationship with the viewing audience.]

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

—Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King


For almost four hundred years the Chorus has made his appeal to audiences of Shakespeare's Henry V to imagine scores of horses and fields of men in battle. With the emergence of film we surely find the means to cast off such a device, perhaps with a desire to present a minimally altered script (after all, we can hardly imagine Henry V without the Chorus). Kenneth Branagh employs veteran Derek Jacobi as Chorus in his 1989 production. Jacobi, dressed in modern attire, calls for “a muse of fire” (1.1.1) and reflects on the limitations “within this wooden O” (13) on a sound-stage littered with props and film-making equipment. Despite this inherent appeal of this “behind the scenes” introduction to the film, it could be done without. As we fully expect when sitting to watch a film, we will see the horses and the men and the battles; the “two mighty monarchies” of France and England will appear in full on the screen (1.1.20). Yet this opening scene, in the Branagh film at least, does more than prime the viewer's imagination. This opening segment establishes a relationship with the viewer which continues through the close of the film. Direct relationships between actor and viewer are rather unconventional in the film genre, but not altogether absent. Indeed, filmed productions of Richard III consistently insist upon such a relationship. It is upon this relationship between actor and viewer that the following focuses.

“In linguistic communication,” explains Roland Barthes, “I and you are absolutely presupposed by one another” (260). Of course this is true, almost banal as Barthes himself admits; however, this presents a rather overlooked issue in the case of Richard III. For all of Richard's Proteus-like1 acting and assuming there exist two distinct audiences: the duped characters at his side and the viewers watching him upon the screen. Much has been said to elucidate the relationship that Richard shares with his audience, but such commentary applies to productions of the play in general. For example, we of course begin as sympathizers, progress to accomplices and confidantes, and ultimately come to our senses alongside the “circumspect” Buckingham (4.2.32). My interests lie in the manner in which specific actors approach this relationship and particularly the realization of this feat on film. By looking at the filmed performances of Laurence Olivier (1955), Ron Cook (1983), and Ian McKellen (1995) as Richard, we shall see exactly what role we, as viewers play and how each actor forces us into it.

Why film? First a clarification: H. R. Coursen, in Watching Shakespeare on Television, distinguishes between film and television with a discussion of the loss of spectacle as films are reduced to the “nineteen diagonal inches in the domestic and domesticated space of our playroom” (22).2 McKellen's romantic performance, in fact, draws its success from keen use of this “domesticated space,” but Coursen's point remains: television pales in comparison to the “big screen” atmosphere with its deafening digitized sound and full audience. For our purposes, however, we will be thinking about the films as they appear in video format for that is how they are most likely to be screened (be it in classroom or living room). So again, why film (video)? First, filmed productions are widely available and can be viewed repeatedly. Theatre productions, on the other hand, contain some degree of improvisation and, as with any other performance-oriented art, exist only once in time in the same way. This is not to dismiss theatrical performances, however. Richard III remains a widely performed play and looking to some specific production reviews will help to establish the traditional conventions against which the film versions react. Second, film and theatre, while related, are quite different modes of production. Susan Sontag offers the following generic distinction:

Theatre is confined to a logical or continuous use of space. Cinema (through editing, that is, through the change of shot—which is the basic unit of film construction) has access to an alogical or discontinuous use of space. In the theatre, actors are either in the stage space or “off.” When “on,” they are always visual or visualizable in contiguity with each other. In the cinema, no such relation is necessarily visible or even visualizable.

(108, original emphases)

To unpack this difference is to first acknowledge the selective exclusion/inclusion of the camera, described by André Bazin as “a mask which allows only a part of the action to be seen” (105). However, Sontag walks a fine line here. With the technical capabilities of the modern stage, namely set design and lighting, along with a strong imagination, the distinction between uses of space can be overcome. A stronger distinction yet exists between the film and theatre experience: film as visual; theatre as physical. Traditionally, say with Hitchcock or any of the slew of recent “action” films, this is a distinction that holds up. Our role in The Birds or Psycho is that of terrified onlooker peering through “the invulnerable voyeuristic eye” of the camera (Sontag 363). The likes of Terminator and Independence Day add excitement and thrills with intense and expensive special effects, but again we remain removed from the world on the screen. With Shakespeare, in particular Richard III, even this distinction becomes blurred: [film Richards] (taking their cue from Olivier's 1944 ground-breaking production of Henry V) look directly through the lens of the camera and invite, even insist, that we do matter, that we do play a role in the drama of the screen.

This convention, while new to film, traces back in form to Greek Theatre in which actors spoke in monologue.3 The technique of directly addressing the audience, known as soliloquy, became commonplace in Seneca's tragedies, most notably Thyestes, Hercules Furens, and Troades, which were available to Shakespeare in a 1581 translation. It is with Richard III that this technique firmly reasserts itself upon the Elizabethan stage:

[S]oliloquy, with its note of dramatic irony giving histrionic point to the crude plottings of the villain, subsequently becomes conventionalized, and gains its ultimate expression in the superb declarations of Gloster at the opening of Shakespeare's Richard III.

(Arnold 8)

A brief look at Seneca reveals the precursor to both the Chorus in Henry V and Richard's opening “confession”:

I syster of the Thunderer, (for now that name alone
Remaynes to me) Jove evermore as though devorst and gone,
And temples of the highest ayre as wydowe shunned have,
And beaten out of skyes above the place to Harlots gave.
I must dwell beneath on ground, for Whoores do hold the sky,
.....Let hateful hurt now come in anger wood,
And fierce impyety imbrew himselfe with his owne bloud,
And errour eke, and fury arm'd agaynst itself to fight.
This meane, this meane, let wrath of myne now use to shewe
my might.

(Hercules Furens 1-5; 97-100)

As this prologue continues, Juno reveals her impending revenge against her brother and husband Jupiter which includes a plot to have his “base Sonne Hercules” kill his own wife and child. This entire prologue closely parallels Richard's soliloquies of the first act in which he complains of his disadvantage and then reveals his “plots” and “inductions.” In Richard's hands the soliloquy becomes a sharpened sword with multiple edges: it introduces and sets the scene much like the Chorus does in the later Henry V (1.1.13); it serves to introduce Richard (1.1.13-27) and his plans (1.1.27-40, 3.5.101-4, 4.2.62-7); it announces the entrance of characters (1.1.41, 1.3.337); it allows him to gloat over his successes (1.3.215-50, 1.3.322-36, 3.1.82-3, 4.4.362). Perhaps most importantly, and unquestionably so for the purposes of this study, the soliloquy provides the vehicle through which Richard relates to the audience/viewers. This is also the aspect of the soliloquy with which individual actors most freely experiment.

On stage we find a plethora of Richards: a pathetic Richard so “‘rudely stamped’ that not only can he not ‘strut before a wanton ambling nymph’ but he cannot strut at all—at least not without the help of crutches” (Shaw 20); the condescending Richard of McKellen's 1992 RSC stage production (the precursor to his film) who stands “stiffly downstage center and [addresses] the audience in a distinctly upper class accent”4 (Oberlander 10); an intimidating Richard who seems to both threaten and eyeball the audience “as if totting up the box-office take” (Smallwood 327); a friendly Richard who delivers the opening soliloquy as he prowls amongst the audience before mounting the stage to meet Clarence (Shaltz 43); a rallying Richard who treats the audience throughout as troops being prepared for the upcoming battle (Shurgot 28); a “hyperactive, peevish, spastic” Richard “with a trace of Tourette's Syndrome and attention deficit disorder” (Timpane 19) who offends and repels the audience. Actors playing Richard on film are no more consistent than their theatrical counterparts: Olivier chooses to awe and oppress; Cook plays to our sympathies; McKellen romances us. Despite their differing approaches, each succeeds to the desired and expected denouement in which we ally ourselves with Richard's (and our) victims and freely invite the vengeance exacted upon our former “friend.” We shall now closely examine each actor's technique and approach in winning the favor of his audience.

II. OLIVIER (1955)

“In Olivier's hands.” writes Constance Brown in her groundbreaking “re-evaluation” of the film, “one of Shakespeare's better plays … is transformed into an intricate, subtle, coolly ironic plunge into one of those recesses of human nature that are generally avoided through the same fastidious impulses that make the manufacture of sewer covers a profitable business” (23). Indeed, if frequency of performance is a measure, one would certainly agree with Brown's claim that this is one of the “better plays.” Throughout the performance history of Richard III actors have eagerly risen to the challenge offered by its title role. In fact, scholars believe that Richard III is privileged as the first production of Shakespeare in America,5 and it has since been performed with surprising frequency. What, then, is the appeal of Richard? Perhaps the following, spoken to the reader by Kurt Vonnegut's own villain-hero Howard W. Campbell, Jr. from his novel Mother Night offers some insight: “I doubt if there has ever been a society that has been without strong and young people eager to experiment with homicide, provided no very awful penalties are attached to it” (120). Both Brown, in identifying a “recess of human nature,” and Vonnegut help to make our point: human nature draws us to Richard; more specifically, our predatory instincts seize upon this opportunity to take advantage of unsuspecting, and in most cases, deserving victims. Moreover, the play is constructed so as to allow us opportunity to withdraw from the relationship which feeds upon our inherent bloodlust, return to the side of the moral and the just, and leave Richard alone in his despair.

Despite this universal appeal of the play, which translates into the appeal of a perfect crime, the actor must still develop a technique to convince us of our desires. Only once we have been convinced to go along with Richard do we find we enjoy it. Laurence Olivier chooses to overpower us to the point in which we feel compelled to go along with him. By including an excerpt of Richard's extended soliloquy from 3 Henry VI in his opening address, Olivier begins to paint his Richard as omnipotent. The following lines in particular suggests the almost superhuman nature of Olivier's Richard:

I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages.
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it further off, I'll pluck it down.


Not only does Richard compare himself to the best orators and deceivers known to history, he believes without a doubt that he will outperform them. The fact that Richard controls the majority of the action of the play as histrionic dissembler can only strengthen his control over us, for after all we too play a role, however passive, in this drama directed by Richard. Richard sees himself as actor in a play larger than life, a play in which he not only takes the lead, but takes the lead better than anyone else. This role places him in a specific position of power from which he “pulls the strings” of his victims, including Clarence, Anne, and the young Princes. Moreover, in the 3 Henry VI passage he hints at a supernatural disposition in comparing himself to Proteus and the chameleon, and professes confidence in redefining the methods of Machiavelli's Prince. Machiavelli explains that while a man may rise to power by “murder[ing] his fellow citizens, betray[ing] his friends … be[ing] devoid of truth, pity, or religion” (25), he will not thus gain glory; while such a man may become a powerful ruler, “his fearful cruelty and inhumanity, along with his innumerable crimes, prevent us from placing him among the really excellent men” (25). Olivier's Richard fully intends to prove this wrong, as we shall see when he mounts the throne and expects our unconditional praise and submission. We shall also see how it is this desire which turns us from his side and saves us from sharing his punishment and despair.

By fully cutting Margaret from the film Olivier channels all of the supernatural and psychic powers through Richard.6 He becomes the sole manipulator in the play and the source of our awe and wonder. Margaret's curses (4.4), which in the original text seem informed by some greater power as they come to fruition in turn, are replaced, then, by Richard's own prophecies:

I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And whiles I live, t'account this world but hell,
Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impalèd with a glorious crown.

(3 Henry VI 3.2.169-71)

This day should Clarence closely be mewed up
About a prophecy which says that ‘G’
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.


In fact, each plan that Richard shares with us, such as his plans to marry Anne (1.1.53ff), becomes a revelation of his own foresight. With the realization of each prediction our fear and admiration of Olivier's Richard grows.

But such editing and script rearranging, along with Olivier's sinister physical appearance,7 can be fully realized on stage. We must focus primarily on Olivier's filmic techniques and the way he specifically demands our complacency by controlling and directing us. The central conventions to the omnipotence and omniscience of Olivier's Richard and his manipulation of the viewer include spatial dynamic, set design, and use of shadows. As outlined by Lorne Buchman in the first chapter of Still in Movement, Olivier uses the spatial field accessible in film by alternating the depth of the shot to create a tension between two distinct Richards: the “distant schemer” of the long shot and the “conspiring friend” of the close shot (18). With the close shot we are drawn into Richard's confidence: “‘We'll do it together, you and I’, he seems to suggest, making sleepy eyes at the camera, looking up and down as some men contemplate a prospective lover” (Brown 30). But with the long shot of Richard dressed in black standing menacingly against a wall decorated with his “bruisèd arms” we are reminded that we are not his equals.

His ability (as director and actor) to control our point of view demonstrates his authority over us. Conversely, our role as viewers taking in the images offered us displays our submission to his will. Along with Olivier's camera techniques, his set design plays a significant role in shaping what we see and establishing Richard as omnipresent. The set facilitates Richard's view of scenes in which he does not directly play a role. For example, Richard peers down into the courtroom as King Edward condemns Clarence and then watches later as his brother details his dream to Brackenbury. In both cases Richard controls us by controlling our vision. In the first he opens window shutters to reveal the courtroom below and invites us to peer in with him. The latter scene begins and ends with a shot of the barred window of Clarence's cell and we realize as it comes to an end that “we have unknowingly witnessed [Clarence's confession] through [Richard's] eyes … like the characters he manipulates, we the audience find ourselves controlled and directed by him” (Singer 191, original emphasis). While Anthony Davies suggests that this “reinforces the suggestion of our having been drawn into voyeuristic complicity with Richard” (68), the fact that we are forced to view what we do remains. Unlike our experience in the theatre where we can freely shift our focus from character to character, film actively and consciously chooses and directs our attention. Susan Sontag draws this distinction in defining film as “mediated art” and theatre as “relatively unmediated art”:

We can see what happens on stage with our own eyes. We see on the screen what the camera sees. In the cinema, narration proceeds by ellipsis (the “cut” or change of shot): the camera eye is a unified point of view that continually displaces itself. But the change of shot can provoke questions, the simplest of which is: from whose point of view is the shot seen?

(110, original emphasis)

The techniques of film allow for such creative and shocking situations as our viewing of the commotion caused by the beheading of Macbeth through the eyes of the head as it is swung around on the end of a halberdier in Roman Polanski's film.8

Shadows also play an important role in the construction of Olivier's Richard, and much has been already noted in this area. Constance Brown sees the shadow as the punctuation to each goal Richard realizes and as metaphorical subtext. For example, his shadow overtakes the train of Anne's white dress after the successful wooing scene to signify his victory and domination over her just as it engulfs the screen to represent Richard's tyrannous conquering of England (25). But this is not all there is to it. Through this manipulation of his shadow, Olivier finds yet another way to bridge the world of the play with the world of the viewer and, moreover, another means of oppression and intimidation. The shadows which accompany virtually every movement in the first act repeatedly expand to drown the entire screen in darkness; what begins as a trace movement caught in the corner of the camera's (and the viewer's) eye builds to a threatening force which reaches out to pull us under its constrictive hold. We become entrapped by Olivier the director by these carefully placed and precisely driven shadows of Olivier the actor. Not only do these shadows stand for the metaphorical engulfing of the state of England, but they stand for Richard's tyrannous hold over us. Again we fall victim to manipulation in the hands of a peremptory Richard.

Jack Jorgens, in his ground-breaking Shakespeare on Film, admits he is “not really frightened by Olivier's entertaining Richard, who is a handsome devil” (142). Such a misconception speaks for Olivier's overall success in orchestrating the role of Richard. While we are indeed drawn under an oppressive rule by precise machinations, we do not come to realize this until Richard agrees to accept the crown. And this is of course part of Olivier's game. We are meant to feel at ease and comforted by this “handsome devil,” but we are also kept under constant management. The perpetual affirmations of our alliance with Richard keep us ignorant of his increasing hold over us; that is, until he gains the throne and finds it only seats one (something he knows all along, but something our ignorance keeps us from seeing). Olivier descends from his position between the “two props of virtue” (3.7.96) on the rope of a bell causing it to spin wildly out of control. As he lands amidst the clamor of the crowd of citizens and the clanging of the bell he vehemently juts his gloved hand forward for Buckingham to kiss:

He thrusts it forcibly toward the camera, and holds it extended in the air like a huge, black claw. The hand is extended toward the audience as much as toward Buckingham. For the first time, the audience is advised that what it has approved by laughter and condoned in the earlier part of the film is its own destruction.

(Brown 31)

While Brown may underscore the earlier domination of an “amused” audience, she is right in identifying this as the point in which Richard ends any relationship that may have existed between him and his viewers. If our innocent ignorance of this “handsome devil” has otherwise kept us from realizing the true nature of our situation, this scene, with its overt symbolic and physical demand for submission, surely sets us straight.


With the screening of Olivier's film on American television in 1955, more people were introduced to the play than the sum total of those who had ever seen it before performed on-stage; understandably, Olivier's Richard left an impact. While actors have since struggled to escape Olivier's shadow in their own portrayals of the role, perhaps none do so as well as Ron Cook. Cook, in Jane Howell's BBC production of the play, takes precisely the opposite approach than Olivier in his characterization and presentation of Richard. Rather than appropriate the image of a powerful and commanding Duke plotting to gain the throne by force as introduced in the extended soliloquy from 3 Henry VI, Cook emphasizes Richard's physical deformities:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass,
I that am rudely stamped and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph,
I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, 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—


Such are the lines to receive specific attention in Cook's emotional deliverance. The Proteus-like, commanding, and treacherous Richard of Olivier is replaced with a sniveling, disheveled, and pathetic Richard. Though the relationship suggested by an introductory scene in which Cook first makes contact with us and laboriously writes “Richard III” slanting diagonally down upon a blackboard is one of teacher-student; the actual relationship that develops boasts no such degree of respect. While the down-sloping title may serve as symbol for the decline of England in Richard's hands, as well as for Richard's own downfall, it more importantly serves as the pattern for the relationship between Cook's Richard and his audience.

Unlike the intimidating projection of Olivier's opening soliloquy delivered strongly and convincingly, Cook's opening utterance reeks of pity and sorrow. Cook enters through a door on one end of the stage (for indeed the set is a stage) to the sounds of laughter and music coming from the “lady's chamber” where we assume Edward IV “capers.” He immediately and deliberately moves across the stage to shut out the celebratory music that he cannot appreciate. Cook, physically short in stature, plays a severely crippled Richard hunched over and complete with highly visible leg brace. Even without comparing him to Olivier, we notice a lack of concern for self-appearance: his clothing careless; his hair ungroomed and greasy; his demeanor humble and withdrawn. His every action, from shutting the music out, to his limping around the room, emphasizes his exclusion. He systematically plays the plain-spoken injured man of 1.3 who breaks in upon the King's kindred to complain of their “dissentious rumours” against him (42-53), and we, at least at first, systematically fall victim to his performance.

Again we see an actor's manipulation upon his audience; however, while Olivier chooses to physically dominate, Cook preys upon the emotions of an unsuspecting audience. As R. Chris Hassel notes, “Cook's speech is stage-Cockney on occasion, as though the blood royal were no different from the newly minted bloods from Elizabeth's line” (10). Coupled with his lowly physical appearance, Cook's voice becomes one we can relate to, one we can in fact pity; he almost reminds us of a nagging little brother down on his luck. Hassel continues to say that for all Cook “lacks [in] magnetism and stature” (11) his Richard “rises to our esteem” (12) in the first wooing scene. This may indeed prove true on an initial viewing; however, closely tracing the relationship between the audience and Richard reveals how this scene offers our first hint that Cook is indeed playing a role and that he is manipulating us right along with Anne. When Anne spits in his face, we catch a brief glimpse of the true man hiding behind this meek façade. Cook becomes enraged and forgets his role for a moment, yet sure enough he switches right back into character and delivers with injured eyes “Why dost thou spit at me?” (1.2.144) as the pathetic wretch we have become attached to. While his brief flash of rage adequately scares Anne, it does not serve as warning enough to frighten us from his side.

Director Jane Howell plays an important role in establishing the relationship between the audience and Cook's Richard. Michael Manheim believes “her Richard III is not so effective in ‘descanting’ on a tyrant's evil” and that “other directors are more engaged with the inventions of the arch-villain than she” (138). Exactly, but this should not concede to any degree of failure on her part or of the production as a whole. Howell concerns herself with presenting a likable Richard wrought with pathos, a Richard very well suited to Ron Cook as well as the series in general. Susan Willis, who chronicled the taping of the BBC collection, notes that Cook shows signs of visible fatigue in the production. Indeed one might expect the actors to be quite tired by the time they got to filming Richard III, the last play of the tetralogy which was filmed in its entirety in twenty-eight days.9 Howell makes Cook's lethargy work for the production by placing extra emphasis upon it. Instead of a worn-out actor failing to measure up to Olivier's Richard, she presents a worn-out Richard both physically and mentally taxed from the civil war which has just ended. While this tactic perhaps becomes more evident when screening Richard III as the conclusion to the first tetralogy, a screening of Richard III on its own does indeed suggest Howell's approach. The final tableau of the film works to suggest a rather unsettling possibility, but one that supports Cook's weary Richard: the Richard of the BBC may in fact be the biggest victim of the play. Before we can fully appreciate such a claim, however, we must first look at Margaret and her role in this production.

As mentioned previously, Olivier chooses to eliminate Margaret, and in doing so sets Richard up as the only supernatural presence and surely the most powerful character in the play. Howell's production, remaining true to the BBC's mission to capture the unadulterated Shakespeare Canon on film, reinstates Margaret to her rightful role as supernatural and omniscient force. Margaret's commanding presence, in which she looks more like one of the weird three from Macbeth with her drab clothing and chin wrap, helps to further set our sympathies on Richard. While Richard still betters her by deflecting her curse, we see that he is uncomfortable with her presence. In the face of a Margaret even more disheveled than Cook's Richard, we happily defer our attention and sympathies back to him. We may wonder, however, what connection should be made between former Queen and future King: both are untidy in appearance; both reek with pathos; both hobble about suffering from physical setbacks (for Margaret limps about only with the help of a cane). While the final tableau of the play may only hint at some answers to this question, it most assuredly reminds us that our initial relationship with Richard is one based on our humanitarian response to Cook's presentation. The camera pans back and forth over a pile of corpses to rest upon Margaret cackling with hair in wild array cradling the lifeless Richard as a baby.10 Critics remain uncertain as to the precise meaning of this scene and tend to dislike it for its departure from Shakespeare's text.11 Perhaps this final image pushes the concept of Richard as scourge of a supernatural force for whom he serves as instrument and performs vile deeds to ensure the purification of England.12 Such interpretation aside, however, this image strongly reinforces the Richard offered from the beginning of the play by both Howell and Cook. The final image shocks us and forces us to think that, despite all of the trickery and careful acting, Richard might have been deserving of our compassion and pity after all. If the woman who curses Richard as “slave of nature and the son of hell” (1.3.227) can in fact comfort him in death, then perhaps we were right to extend our trust to this pathetic and wronged soul.

Though Cook appropriates Olivier's technique of direct address to the camera, he is not the only one to do so in the BBC production. In 1.4 Brackenbury peers into our eyes after Clarence recounts the terrors of his nightmare. The fact that another character has access to the audience is not an insignificant one. If another character in Olivier's film had turned to address us directly, much of Olivier's commanding and fixating hold over us would have dissipated. The reverse holds true in the BBC production. Brackenbury's lines spoken to us reveal the pathetic nature of Clarence:

Sorrow breaks seasons and reposing hours,
Makes the night morning and the noontide night.


Here Brackenbury channels Clarence's sorrow to us. The concern that Brackenbury shows for Clarence when he asks “Why looks your grace so heavily today?” (1.4.1) is reflected in his eyes as he stares directly into ours. We cannot but help feel sorry for knowing that the repentant Clarence is about to meet his death. This happens again as Buckingham speaks to us before fleeing in 4.2. Such scenes invite our sympathies to play a role in the film. In such cases Howell further establishes the convention which allows for the sense of compassion transmitted between Richard and his viewers.

Cook as Richard gladly takes the part of the bullied over the bully. He wears a sword but convinces us that he is too meek to wield it. Cook plays this pathetic Richard so congenially that we are loathe to turn on him. While we do eventually distance ourselves from him in the latter half of the play, Cook continues to give us glimpses of his pathetic Richard. He rouses our sympathies in 4.2 when Buckingham does not immediately agree to slaughter the Princes. He looks hurt and truly betrayed when Buckingham asks for “some little breath, some pause” (25); Olivier shrugs it off as mere inconvenience. When Olivier mounts the throne and openly projects his dominance, we see him for what he truly is. When Cook mounts his throne, he appears as a young child lost in a sizable chair. Our pity turns to concern: will he be able to fill the throne? Even when Cook takes the lives of the young Princes we can almost identify with his fear for preserving his rule. On the battlefield on eve of his death he is visibly frightened, a fear which invites us back into our relationship with him. Even the gratuitous slaughter of Richard appeals to our emotions. He fights death off valiantly, and when he does eventually yield it is with multiple spears jutting from his body like lifeless tentacles. Is it a coincidence that the initial blow comes from behind? That when he finally dies it is upon his knees in a position of prayer? The combination of these factors and the comments made above about the image of the final tableau seem to suggest that, despite his treachery and villainy, Cook's Richard may deserve our sympathies after all. Richard's evil acts can be rationalized:

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

(3 Henry VI 3.2.152-62)

While he is decidedly not the Richard Olivier constructs from the extended soliloquy in 3 Henry VI, he is in fact some variation of this “rudely stamped” (1.1.16) man.


Ian McKellen, under the direction of Richard Loncraine, presents yet a third characterization of Richard in the 1995 film adaptation of Richard Eyre's 1992 stage production. Many have suggested a connection between Olivier's Richard and Hitler,13 and indeed the theme of domination and oppression facilitates such a parallel. While the political message of Olivier's film remains implicit, McKellen's film, set in the 1930s, insists upon a Richard who undeniably mirrors the Fascist leader. With such an agenda, then, we might expect an overtly suppressive Richard; however, we find much to our surprise a romantic and soft Richard. Rather than conquer us by force and intimidation. McKellen's Richard persuades us with charm.

The film opens in the headquarters of King Henry: Prince Edward sits down to his dinner with a picture of his beloved Anne; a ticker-tape printout warns that “Richard Gloucester is at hand”; the King prays in his bedroom. Violence soon shatters this quiet scene, however, and the ground begins to shake. We are given a quick shot of Anne's picture as it symbolically topples over and then a tank rips through the fireplace. Soldiers in gas masks enter with machine guns and assassination follows. Edward is shot in the outer room and the camera cuts to Henry kneeling in prayer. A solitary man enters the room and we hear the report of his pistol as he shoots the King. He pulls off his mask and we catch our first glimpse of McKellen; his grin turns to full smile as if the murder was performed for our sake. Thus begins the courtship.

The next scene is set in an extravagant ballroom. The King and Queen dance the first dance of the evening which begins the celebration of peace. All of the characters are present, even Richmond, who dances with his future bride to the satisfaction of the King and Queen. Richard roams through the crowd and mingles with various guests; he shares a quick laugh with Buckingham. He not only stands out for his full military dress uniform, complete with a battery of medals and ribbons, but for the fact that when the camera zooms out we find him standing alone amidst the dancing couples. Though he speaks the first few lines (1-8) of the opening soliloquy into a microphone on a platform in front of the crowd, our relationship with him does not become fully established until he slinks off to the restroom: a rather unromantic place, but a private one. McKellen waits to make any further contact with us until we are quietly removed from the public affairs of the lavish ballroom. His Richard prefers solitude to Olivier's omnipresence. He continues the soliloquy as he enters the lavatory and begins to urinate. He apparently spots our reflection in the mirror in front of him, but does not directly address us until the last few lines of his speech. Rather than show annoyance at our eavesdropping, McKellen immediately warms in our presence and beckons us seductively with a wag of his finger to follow as he goes to meet his brother Clarence.

“In Shakespeare's play,” explains Phyllis Rackin, “Richard's monopoly of both male and female sexual energy is vividly portrayed in his seduction of Anne” (109). As we watch McKellen remove his ring, the key implement in this seduction, with his mouth we experience this sexual energy in full force. Tight camera work pervades this wooing scene and makes up for the extensively cut material.14 As McKellen kneels before Anne (Kristen Scott Thomas) to invite her revenge with his own blade (a blade perfectly suited to this “soft” Richard: it more resembles a steak knife than the hefty swords of Olivier and Cook), alternating close-ups of Richard and Anne direct our attention to their facial expressions and eye movements and replace the stichomythic dialogue of the original text. The result is a more relaxed and passionate wooing, not one marked by raised voices and resentment. McKellen's sleepy, bespectacled eyes and relaxed face sap all of Anne's anger. Such a face just could not be that of a killer, the camera insists. Working solely with his good arm, he transfers the ring to Anne's finger; she almost faints from the power of this gesture and can barely voice her rebuttal “To take is not to give” (1.2.190). Like his first soliloquy, this scene takes place in a most unromantic setting: a morgue filled to capacity with bodies. Once again McKellen transforms a most unexpected place into a lover's chamber.

If it appears that McKellen gives himself to Anne, his following actions convince us otherwise. He speaks to as if to say “Not to worry, I'll be rid of her soon enough” with his “Was ever in this humour wooed? / Was ever woman in this humour won?” soliloquy (1.2.215ff). He invites us again with a smile and a wink as music comes up to dance with him back to the ballroom. He wants us to see that he is in fact capable of dancing and celebrating given the right partner. As he skips and hops up the stairs we begin to realize that we are his chosen partners.

Certain other factors also contribute to our seduction by McKellen. The first half of the film is accompanied by colorful music arranged by Trevor Jones. “Come be with me and be my love,” invites the singer over close-ups of our seducer.15 The music proves almost subliminal with its message of love; we find our feet tapping along to the beat even as Richard mounts the stairs from the morgue in victory. We truly dance with McKellen in this scene. The music becomes the cue of McKellen's romantic endeavors. Whenever it begins to play we begin to expect an accompanying shot of his smiling face. The cigarettes which constantly dangle from McKellen's lips invite our attention; his squinting eyes draw us in behind tight glasses, and the swirling smoke which always seems to cloud his face mesmerizes us. The smoke which leaks from his mouth carries his words to us directly from the screen, and at the same time keeps his true nature hidden from us. We are dazzled by his eloquence and the dexterity of his good arm. This is a Richard who truly likes us and whom we want to like back.

While McKellen's relationship with his viewers begins as mere flirtation, it soon gains a sexual edge. When he sees proof of his victims' deaths he becomes visibly excited. McKellen receives some degree of stimulation when he holds Clarence's spectacles and later when he flips through photographs of Hastings's lifeless body. As he enjoys the proof of his brother's death, he spies Anne standing on a stair across the room in a sheer nightgown. As he smiles and gets up to walk to her we assume they will mount the stairs together. Yet, as if to display his faith to us, he reaches for a light-switch next to his wife, shuts it, and then leaves her to mount the stairs alone in darkness, embarrassment, and rejection. Moreover, when he examines the photos of Hastings, he puts on a recording of the same song from the end of the wooing scene and lies upon a couch dropping the photos on his body. Again he invites us to dance as he taps his foot, hums, and nods along to the music. Let there be no mistake, he assures us, we are the sole target of his affections.

If this relationship builds to suggest a love affair, it culminates in rape. For all of his romantic overtones and suggestive winks, McKellen's Richard finally demands our submission to his rule. We may have in fact been wooed, but we are not his equal. Just before his coronation he holds a rally from which he emerges as Fascist ruler and we as victims of our own ignorance. Row upon row of soldiers hail him as their leader and we are smacked in the face with reality.16 What we assume as innocent and seductive romance turns to utter horror as the camera pans up to reveal McKellen dressed in black smiling his biggest smile yet. We see, in those red banners and uniforms which remind us of Hitler, that Richard's love affair has been with power from the very beginning. We discover that we have been used by this monster now standing before us. Rather than demand our submission to his rule, he systematically ignores us except for a brief glance after he demands the deaths of the young Princes, yet even then he only seems to say “What did you expect?” From this point on, McKellen refuses to make eye contact with us, only reinforcing our feelings of isolation and betrayal.

Amazingly, it is the Richard who invites us as close companions into his lavatory and to celebrate his successes in dance—the Richard to whom we are most attracted—who becomes the most despised. Even to the end of the film when he is caught unarmed by a crazed Richmond and shot in cold-blood we cheer for his justice. While Olivier and Cook may disgust us, neither one becomes as much an object of our hatred as does McKellen. We feel violated, betrayed, and ignorant in his subversive manipulation of our emotions and feelings, and the final image of the play, unlike that of the BBC production, does nothing to resurrect him: he topples off a high scaffolding into the flames of hell below. Interestingly enough, however, this is not the end of the film. Perhaps with a nod to Polanski's Macbeth in which Donalbain seeks out the witches after Macbeth's death, the music comes up one last time and Richmond looks into our eyes and grins seductively. Will we find solace in the hands of this new King?


A young Orson Welles made the claim that “every single way of playing and staging Shakespeare—as long as the way is effective—is right” (27). Jay Halio shows a little more concern: “How can we know whether we are seeing Shakespeare performed or something that passes under the name of Shakespeare but is really something else, not Shakespeare at all?” (3). Olivier, Cook, and McKellen each play effective Richards, as put forth above, but is any one interpretation more authentic than another? Do any of the three play the role according to Shakespeare's original script? With little more than personal accounts of members from Elizabethan audiences we will never be able to tell who plays the “purest” Richard. One account seems to suggest a romantic Richard:

13 March 1601/2 … Upon a tyme when Burbidge played Rich. 3. there was a citizen grue so farr in liking with him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to come that night unto hir by the name of Ri: the 3.

(Chambers 212)

Such evidence may perhaps speak for McKellen's seductive Richard, yet such anecdotal references remain quite ambiguous. The patron may have just as easily been charmed by a powerful Richard much like Olivier's, or she may have been struck with pity for a Richard like Cook's. The appeal of this text to actors is the simple fact that Richard may indeed be played in any of these ways. The appeal to the audience is that we may be taken in by Richard in any number of ways; each time we watch the play, whether on-stage or screen, we do not know exactly what to suspect. Even as we watch cautiously for a forceful Richard, we may be caught off-guard by performances such as those by Cook and McKellen.

In the cinematic space Richard III becomes a performance in the purest sense: it becomes the chronicle of a private relationship between Richard and his viewer. On film the soliloquy, when spoken in direct address to the camera, becomes most intimate and most successful. While stage casts play to the general space of a collective audience, film casts play to the solitary eye of the camera, an eye which both reveals and conceals. It is no wonder that a play in which a villain-hero not only acts, but directs, manipulates, and deceives works so well on film, a medium itself given to manipulation and deception.


  1. (Co)incidentally the name emblazoned on Richard's airplane in which the Duchess of York (Maggie Smith) escapes to France in McKellen's film.

  2. See also Coursen's “The Bard and the Tube.” Shakespeare on Television. Ed. J. C. Bulman and H. R. Coursen.

  3. It is held that Thespis began this tradition on the Greek stage in 535 B.C.E. (Arnold 2).

  4. A decidedly different technique than that employed in the film version (as we will see below).

  5. Scott Colley (Richard's Himself Again: A Stage History of Richard III), among others, suggests that a 1750 New York production of Richard III was in fact the premier of Shakespeare in America, though he also directs us to Charles Shattuck (Shakespeare on the American Stage. Vol. 1) “for other possible ‘firsts’” (1).

  6. The elimination of Margaret is one of a number of changes to the original text made by Colley Cibber (1700) which Olivier chooses to keep; another is the substitution of Prince Edward's body for that of Henry VI.

  7. Olivier's costuming and physical appearance (black tights, black cloak, straight black hair, and darkened, sunken eyes) became the paradigm for future actors playing the role. Roger Manvell describes Olivier's Richard as having “crow-like feet, shod in black shoes with long, pointed toes” (48).

  8. Macbeth. Dir. Roman Polanski. Playboy Productions/Caliban Films, 1971.

  9. The taping dates were 13-19 October 1981 (1 Henry VI); 17-23 December 1981 (2 Henry VI); 10-17 February 1982 (3 Henry VI); 31 March-6 April 1982 (Richard III) (Willis 329-30).

  10. Hassel extracts certain “unmistakable” (28) Christ imagery in this final tableau, but the effect is the same: Margaret holds a powerless Richard.

  11. See Hassel (28), who also directs us to Warren (340) for support of his criticism, and Manheim (138).

  12. For extended discussion of Richard as scourge, see Hunter, Quinn, Rossiter, and Stampfer.

  13. See Brown (132-3) and Kenneth Tynan's 1966 interview with Olivier (The New York Times, Sunday, August 21, 1966, Sec. 2. p. 6).

  14. Of the three productions, McKellen's cuts the most material. A conservative estimate suggests that only a third of the 3600 lines are retained. The 250 lines of 1.2 are cut to 89.

  15. This number is an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's “The Passionate Shepard to His Love”: “Come live with me and be my love. / And we will all the pleasures prove.”

  16. The concept of a Fascist rally appears quite often in film; see, for example, Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) in which this same image is used to define the inverted peak of a character's descent into madness.

Works Cited

Filmography/Primary Sources

Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.

Henry V. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Renaissance Films, 1989.

Macbeth. Dir. Roman Polanski. Playboy Productions/Caliban Films, 1971.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Trans. Robert M. Adams. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992.

Pink Floyd: The Wall. Dir. Alan Parker. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1982.

Richard III. Dir, Laurence Olivier. London Film Productions, 1955.

Richard III. Dir. Jane Howell. BBC/Time-Life Television, 1983.

Richard III. Dir. Richard Loncraine. MGM/United Artists, 1995.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies. 2 vols. Ed. Thomas Newton. 1581, Rpt. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1927.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Mother Night. New York: Dell, 1961.

Secondary Sources

Arnold, Morris LeRoy. The Soliloquies of Shakespeare. Columbia U P, 1911. New York: AMS P, 1965.

Barthes, Roland. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives.” in Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Bazin, André. What is Cinema? Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967.

Brown, Constance. “Olivier's Richard III—A Re-evaluation.” Film Quarterly 20.4 (1967): 23-32.

Buchman, Lorne M. Still in Movement: Shakespeare on Screen. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1991.

Bulman, J. C. and H. R. Coursen, eds. Shakespeare on Television: An Anthology of Essays and Reviews. Hanover: U P of New England, 1988.

Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1930.

Colley, John Scott. Richard's Himself Again: A Stage History of Richard III. New York: Greenwood P, 1992.

Coursen, H. R. Watching Shakespeare on Television. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson U P, 1993.

Davies, Anthony. Filming Shakespeare's Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Davies, Anthony, and Stanley Wells, eds. Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1994.

Eagleton, Terry. William Shakespeare (Rereading Literature). Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Halio, Jay L. Understanding Shakespeare's Plays in Performance. Manchester: Manchester U P, 1988.

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

Hunter, Robert G. Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1976.

Jorgens, Jack. Shakespeare on Film. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1977. Manheim, Michael. “The English History Plays on Screen.” in Shakespeare and the Moving Image. 121-45.

Manvell. Roger. Shakespeare and the Film. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1971.

Oberlander, Marjorie J. Rev. of Richard III. Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, New York. Shakespeare Bulletin. (Winter 1993): 10.

Quinn, Michael. “Providence in Shakespeare's Yorkist Play.” PMLA 10 (1959): 45-52.

Rackin, Phyllis and Jean E. Howard. Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Rossiter, A. P. Angel with Horns. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961.

Shaltz, Justin. Rev. of Richard III. The Stratford Festival, Ontario. Shakespeare Bulletin 16.1 (Winter 1998): 43-4.

Shattuck, Charles. Shakespeare on the American Stage. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976.

Shaw, William P. Rev. of Richard III. RSC, London. Shakespeare Bulletin (November 1984/December 1985): 19-20.

Shurgot, Michael W. Rev. of Richard III. Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company, Portland, Oregon. 15.2 (Spring 1997): 28-9.

Singer, Sandra Sugarman. “Laurence Olivier Directs Shakespeare: A Study in Film Authorship.” Diss. NorthWestern U, 1978.

Smallwood, Robert. Rev. of Richard III. RSC, Stratford, 4 (1996): 326-9.

Sontag, Susan. Styles of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

Stampfer, Judah Leon. “Ideas of Order in Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies.” Diss. Harvard U, 1959.

Timpane, John. Rev. of Richard III. New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, Madison. Shakespeare Bulletin. 15.2 (Spring 1997): 19-20.

Welles, Orson. Everybody's Shakespeare. Woodstock, Il: Todd, P, 1934.

Willis, Susan. The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.


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Richard III

The fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, Richard III dramatizes the final episode in the English War of the Roses, a dynastic struggle between the rival noble houses of Lancaster and York for control of the English monarchy that raged between 1455 and 1485. Detailing the rise and fall of Richard, duke of Gloucester, Shakespeare's drama takes considerable liberties in the depiction of history, characterizing its protagonist as a deformed, fiendish, and manipulative murderer who is willing to dispose of any man, woman, or child who stands between him and the throne of England. Though crowned king through his skillful machinations, Shakespeare's Richard enjoys his power only briefly before the Lancastrian earl of Richmond mounts an invasion from France destined to depose him. Richard dies in the ensuing Battle of Bosworth Field, and Richmond takes his place as King Henry VII, first of the English Tudor monarchs. While some have noted that Shakespeare's unfavorable portrait of Richard suggests a likely political motivation to please the reigning Elizabeth I, a Tudor queen, most observe that the dramatist's brilliant study of evil in Richard III far outweighs its potentially propagandistic qualities. Nevertheless, a number of late twentieth-century scholars have endeavored to situate the drama within its cultural and historical contexts, while others have continued to focus on Shakespeare's compelling figure of Richard, and the thematic issues that surround him.

Character-aligned study of Richard III, and indeed the vast majority of scholarship regarding the drama, has principally concerned itself with the charismatic villain who dominates the play. Bettie Anne Doebler (1974) follows this tradition by analyzing Richard as an allegorical embodiment of Vice. While Doebler acknowledges that Shakespeare furnished his Richard with an internal dimension, she nevertheless argues that most of his actions and reactions follow conventional patterns and are accompanied by the stock iconography of medieval and early Renaissance drama. Actor Anton Lesser (see Further Reading), who performed the role of Richard in Adrian Noble's 1988 staging of Richard III and its precursor Henry VI, considers the character's psychological motivations and development, and additionally concentrates on Richard's human qualities and the task of winning audience sympathy for him. Richard Marienstras (1995) explores another key element in Richard's characterization: the status of his physical deformity as a humpback. Marienstras studies productions that exaggerate Richard's misshapen form to a monstrous degree, and uses relevant Renaissance texts to reconstruct a multifaceted, symbolic understanding of this horrifying, diabolic, and uncontained stage presence. Among the other characters in Richard III who have elicited significant criticism, the drama's four women—Queen Margaret, Lady Anne, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth—are often viewed collectively as the play's “grieving chorus.” Penny Downie (1993) describes her interpretation of Queen Margaret for Adrian Noble's production of Richard III in 1988. The actress relates her efforts to humanize Margaret—a figure generally remembered for her mad, cursing speeches—and to convey the emotional gravity of her suffering.

Mirroring the extensive critical focus on the figure of Richard in Richard III, stage production of the drama has traditionally concentrated on this title role, with the quality of Richard's performance generally seen as the major barometer of theatrical success. Additionally, the drama has occupied a unique position between stage and film since Laurence Olivier's pivotal celluloid adaptation of the work in 1955. Olivier, working as both the star and director, created one of the most highly acclaimed and influential Shakespearean films ever produced. In his 2000 study of Richard III on film, Christopher Andrews surveys Olivier's adaptation, as well as other film adaptations of the drama, and analyzes the paths taken by Olivier, and later by actors Ron Cooke and Ian McKellen, in cultivating audience sympathy for Shakespeare's notorious hero-villain. In another look at Richard III on film, Kathy M. Howlett (2000) probes director Richard Loncraine's 1995 adaptation, starring Ian McKellen. Regarding the work's imaginative reconstruction of the past and stylistic setting in fascist, 1930s Europe, Howlett notes a process of deforming and manipulating history suggested in the play and highlighted in Loncraine's film. Turning to Richard III on stage, director Michael Grandage mounted a major theatrical performance of the drama in 2002 at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield. Exploiting the enduring attractiveness of its central role to leading actors, the production featured noted film star Kenneth Branagh as a haughty, calculating, and amoral Richard. Critical assessments of the production generally focus on Branagh's performance. Reviewer Toby Young admires Branagh's repulsive, “reptilian” Richard, but contends that he felt no sympathy for the doomed king. Likewise, Matt Wolf credits Grandage with compiling a satisfying Richard III and lauds Branagh's fascinating stage presence and verbal agility. Stephen Brown sums up a consensus of the production by acknowledging that Branagh's Richard, while technically flawless, so completely dominated the stage that he detracted from the seriousness of the violence and suffering of the play. The result was, according to Brown, “a very good production, rather than a great one.”

Late twentieth-century thematic criticism of Richard III, while confronting a range of topics, has almost invariably maintained a link to the drama's protagonist and to the principles he represents. Primarily examining formal and structural elements in the work, L. C. Knights (1962) observes that Shakespeare combined the dramatic conventions of skilled orator, satirical commentator, Machiavellian schemer, and scorned villain into the psychological framework of Richard's character, and contends that the final product far exceeds the limitations of a traditional morality play. Probing Richard's psychology as well as the structural patterns of the drama, Michael Neill (see Further Reading) stresses the motif of self-division as the work's thematic touchstone, and applies the concept to individuals, family dynasties, and the entire English body politic. Building upon this argument, Neill finds that the internal ironies of Richard III should be viewed as cosmic rather than moral, as his ascent toward a worldly omnipotence ultimately invokes a Godly wrath upon Richard. Vance Adair (1997) applies the tools of Lacanian psychoanalysis to Richard III in order to draw symbolic associations between Richard's monstrous form and the problematic reconstruction of history. In his survey of the drama, Antony Hammond (see Further Reading) studies character, language, and imagery in Richard III, and additionally highlights themes that the work shares with the other plays of Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, such as the depiction of revenge and retribution, loss, and the providential progress of history. Lastly, John Jowett (2000) concentrates on prophecies of revenge, dream-visions, and pangs of conscience that culminate in the play's depiction of a sacred, redemptive English destiny temporarily perverted by Richard's profane acts of violence.

Penny Downie (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Downie, Penny. “Queen Margaret in Henry VI and Richard III.” In Players of Shakespeare 3: Further Essays in Shakespearian Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood, pp. 114-39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, actress Downie describes her interpretation of Queen Margaret for Adrian Noble's production of Richard III in 1988.]

Queen Margaret was the biggest Shakespearian role I had ever played—the biggest in emotional range and intensity, in spiritual dimension, in the length of the journey from youth to age taken by the character. I suspect it may well be one of the biggest parts in English drama. It became for me very much a single character over three plays, even though the three Henry VI plays, which were reduced to two, were written rather earlier than Richard III. There are differences, of course; the earlier trilogy seems very straightforward, very emblematic, with little of the psychological warfare within characters' minds which one finds in Richard III. Even so, in playing Queen Margaret there remains a powerful sense of a single character's life discovered as one travels over a young man's writing career.

I had little warning of being cast for the role, about two weeks at the most. I had been in Richard III before, in Bill Alexander's production, playing Lady Anne, and used often to wonder, listening to Queen Margaret's curses, how audiences could hope to know the names of all the people she goes on about. I made a pact with myself to try to make even those audiences who were there only for Richard III understand, to try to bring on the history of the Wars of the Roses with me. I remember that clearly as an early objective, but before rehearsals began I had hardly read through the plays, and though I knew the famous molehill speech, and was aware of the high reputation of the part, I did very much begin at the beginning as far as Henry VI was concerned.

I knew, of course, that my two Stratford predecessors in the role had been Helen Mirren (in 1977) and Dame Peggy Ashcroft (in 1963-64). Dame Peggy had been in her late fifties when she played Margaret, but was utterly convincing as a young girl at the beginning of the part and had then gone through an amazing ageing process. I talked a little to John Barton at the beginning and looked at some passages of the video of the 1964 version. We also occasionally consulted the Barton adaptation (The Wars of the Roses) as we prepared our version, but as he had done a good deal of rewriting as well as cutting, it was not often relevant to our particular needs. As our preparation time went on I found myself increasingly alone with the part, discovering many things between me and the page, and that I really enjoyed.

The main reaction to my news of having taken the part was always ‘O, mad Margaret. You're playing mad Margaret, are you?’ I'd recently played Sarah Sprackling in The Art of Success and so had some experience of playing a mad character, but it quickly became clear that to call Margaret simply mad is a crude reduction of her complexity: the same woman who cradles the head of her lover is capable of the atrocity and depravity of that molehill speech. She is altogether so original that labels are unhelpful.

An early idea that developed and remained was that of her foreignness. As an Australian living in England I think I have a notion of what it is to feel that one doesn't quite fit. Early conversations with Adrian Noble supported this idea, since he was very keen to present the sense of English xenophobia in the production. Poring over the text after I'd formally accepted the part increased this sense of her foreignness, her originality, her not-quite-belonging (in England, and later, when she returns there, in France too). She's out of place, and also out of time, particularly in Richard III. She's like that from her first entrance: she doesn't fit, and she never fits.

My most obvious response to this sense of her as an outsider was to give her a trace of a foreign accent. I knew that Dame Peggy had played it with intrusive French r's and I toyed around with that but finished up with my own version, not nationally specific, but I hope consistent (though dwindling as the trilogy progresses, since she has by then been longer in England) and marking her off as alien. I visited France early in the preparation period and enjoyed watching that French sense of superiority in action. I remember asking directions of a man in my very bad French. ‘Do you speak English?’ he asked: ‘perhaps we should try that then’. It isn't arrogance in any aggressive sense, it's an hauteur that comes from a natural acceptance of the belief that they are the most elegant, the most stylish people in the world. And that is there, it seemed to me, in Margaret's speeches, and the English hate her for it, hate her for being an alien, and especially for being a Frenchwoman. Many of her speeches, I felt, represent instinctive and immediate reactions coming from this sense of confident superiority.

As well as accent I worked hard also during rehearsals on my voice register. I wanted to be able to stress Margaret's emotional changes not just physically but with a vocal range that would move from the colours of youth to age, offering in the very sounds of the voice a reflection of the meanings of the verse. I did a great deal of work throughout the rehearsal period with Andrew Wade, the RSC voice teacher, and found, I think, vocal notes I had never used before, even though, to begin with, they were perhaps a little stiff and self-conscious.

The rehearsal period was an extraordinary one for the RSC with eighteen weeks to prepare three plays rather than the usual six weeks to prepare one. It meant that designs for set and costume could emerge organically from the rehearsal process instead of being, as is normal, preordained. It was a period of desperately hard work, often tiring, sometimes despairing, sometimes exhilarating. Above all it was a profoundly collaborative process, full of people's good will and excellence in a way that plays should be but often aren't. Many of the company were known to me before we started—indeed, I realized I had been in England for as long as I have when I walked into the rehearsal room on the first day and I knew half the people in it. I have particularly vivid memories of doing pike drill in the Bancroft Gardens in front of the theatre with forty other actors carrying pikes, and Malcolm Ranson, the fight director, trying to explore the notion of how you could make an image for a battle without going in for the standard battle scenes. The women in the cast were particularly impressive in this work, doing as much fighting as the men, as much forming part of either (or both) of the armies, though often without the reward of small, speaking roles that the men had. Their willingness to make do with just being ‘the war’ was a register of the commitment and good will that the company showed through the rehearsal (and performance) of the production.

The text came to us little by little, with Adrian and his assistant Stephen Raine often working late into the night after rehearsals, cutting, arranging, and restoring. Actors demanding lines back were always reminded of the ‘three evenings of three hours’ project we were embarked on, but there were occasions when it had to be agreed that the coherence of the narrative or of a character meant that cut lines must be restored. There were some heated debates and at times some aggrieved actors, but the enterprise demanded an act of faith and the occasions when we would all get very excited about what we could see beginning to emerge in the rehearsal room gradually came to outweigh the problems. We workshopped various aspects of war, then started on Henry VI and rehearsed that for about four weeks, moving on to Edward IV for the same length of time, then back to Henry VI, then to Richard III. Scenes worked on the day before would come back the next morning with textual revisions worked out overnight by Adrian and Stephen, sometimes to a universal groan, sometimes to great excitement. The energy in the rehearsal room was huge, and as we worked Malcolm Ranson was coming up all the time for fight calls. Returning to Henry VI after Edward IV made it seem more simplistic than Edward IV, and moving from play to play meant that I and many others were having to make huge emotional jumps all the time, and great age adjustments too. When we went back to scenes we'd worked on we would find that something had been lost from what had seemed solid, that the ground had shifted. But one had to allow it to be fluid and that, again, was an act of faith.

All through this time the designer Bob Crowley was sitting watching rehearsals and for the first ten weeks we didn't see a design, though all through that period we were exploring visual images in our work. Bob sat there taking it all in, discussing ideas with Adrian after rehearsals; many dinners at the Dirty Duck later we had a design which had (for once in the RSC) grown naturally out of the actors' rehearsal work. Everybody was greatly excited by it: a solution to our needs derived from much hard work which nevertheless seemed so simple. Costumes, too, evolved directly from the work we were doing. Bob Crowley came to me one day early in the rehearsal period and asked me, as he asked everyone in the cast, what I thought about Margaret's appearance. I remember saying that I didn't know exactly what I should look like, but that I thought Margaret should be sinewy, sexy, a great body under very simple frocks. I felt sure that the statement of all her clothes should be very, very simple, but that the whole sexuality of the writing of the role of Margaret should be reflected in her dresses. A couple of weeks into rehearsal, we had a long weekend break and I paid my visit to Paris and looked at the statues in the Luxembourg Gardens. And among them was this woman in an enormous tall hat, hugging a little boy to her chest and pointing a finger as if laying down the law. I looked and saw to my amazement that it was ‘Marguerite d'Anjou’. Then at the Musée de Cluny I went and gazed on all those wonderful tapestries, the lady and the unicorn and the rest, and bought a book which I took back to Bob and we fell in love with one of the designs, a small female figure in cascading gold material. ‘If only I could find that sort of material’ (we hadn't yet seen the designs, but the French were clearly going to be in gold—armour, horse cloths, etc.), and a little while later I walked into the wardrobe department and they had found this amazing golden material and Bob had designed a very simple medieval dress, in a very flattering form. For my first appearance in France we had this idea of Margaret's youth, her real youthfulness, providing a complete contrast to all the warfare and bloodshed, so for that scene Bob chose a very pale olive green. After being a bleached blonde for some years, I had decided for this role to be chestnut red and short-haired; the feeling of liberation allowed me to do a lot of ‘head acting’ in rehearsals, later incorporated into the performance and forming an element in the presentation of that French hauteur which I was instinctively seeking. I was determined not to wear wigs for the part but hair extensions and the chestnut and olive green made a powerful visual statement for the first entrance. For later scenes Bob designed an exquisite black dress, still with a splendidly French sense of style, beautiful, simple, elegant, walled right up under the chin. For the war costumes there were no extension hair-pieces, so that it looked as if she had just grabbed her long elegant tresses and scissored them through to fit her head into the camail that now encased her, a further extension of the walling-up process. The shortness of her hair, when it reappeared during her faint at Tewkesbury, crown and camail falling off as she lay in agonized grief at the death of her son, revealed the head of an exhausted and plain old woman. Even through her hair, then, Margaret's spiritual journey can be charted; the production's thoroughness brought home to me the importance of acting with every sense you have—and also, of course, the joy of working with someone as talented as Bob Crowley and the RSC wardrobe department. Costumes are more than clothes to wear; they can and should be part of the creation of the character.

As the rehearsal period was drawing to its close we were jumping from a day on Henry VI, to a day on Edward IV, to a day on Richard III. For the final run-through of the plays the concentration in the rehearsal room was extraordinary, actors sometimes in tears as they watched, so profound was the involvement. The technical rehearsals when we reached the stage were long, much longer than most technicals, and terribly laborious. The set appeared deceptively simple, but there was an enormous amount under and over the stage, with hydraulics, and flying, and what not. Technical problems, sadly, meant that we had to cancel the first preview, which was a great disappointment, but since we had three plays to present in preview it was the right decision, or all the work could have been upset. Our first audience for Henry VI seemed to have a reasonably good time, but slowly it all began to take off and by the time we were previewing Edward IV there was an extraordinary buzz, with people stopping us in the street to say they'd never had such a good time in the theatre. We did one press day of all three plays of the trilogy, reeling (from exhaustion and from excitement) after a week of nine performances and a new dress rehearsal of Henry VI because we hadn't done it for three weeks. That somehow encapsulates the spirit of the venture. Some people talked of the cycle as an Elizabethan ‘soap opera’, but that seems to me to be rubbish. As we opened them to the press I felt we were presenting one of the most profound human sagas that have ever been written for the theatre and that, in spite of early doubts about cutting, and loss of some of the poetry, and of worries about getting from beat to beat in our abbreviated text, what we were finally showing vindicated and validated the choices we had made.

To describe Margaret of Anjou's journey through the plays is to describe a journey from extreme youth to extreme old age. Historically I think she was fifteen when she married Henry and fifty-three when she died, but the plays seem to deal in broader concepts than this. We set out initially to present ‘youth’, ‘mother-figure’, and ‘aged revenger’, with the idea of ageing fifteen years in the gaps. But I realized early on that there was a spiritual ageing that went on within as well as between the plays, and that this had to be shown physically too. So we couldn't simply show, say, seventeenish, thirty-fiveish, and then as old as I could manage; a somewhat more complex route became desirable. …

We had a lot of discussion about Margaret's age in Richard III. The original notion was fifteen-year jumps between the three plays, starting Henry VI at fifteen to twenty, Edward IV at thirty-five to forty, and Richard III at fifty-five or so. The historical Margaret of Anjou was fifty-three when she died, but she did not return from France after the defeat at Tewkesbury. Shakespeare brings her back and is here playing a double time scheme; it is only three months since the battle, but the prince (then unborn) and his brother are shortly to appear as about ten years old. Playing Margaret I needed to decide where I was coming from. When she walks on in the third scene of Richard III it is as if she brings with her all the memories of everybody's blackest deeds in the battles of the past, all that they've tried to sweep under the carpet. There is a certain detachment and wry humour about her in this scene, a sense that she is really enjoying being there. I more or less decided that she had not been back to France, but that she had been in a little garret somewhere in somebody's castle with an old retainer to bring her food—except that she doesn't eat, she just walks, night and day, reciting the catechism of hate. When we started work on the scene in rehearsals the thing I wanted, more even than trying to create the sense of Margaret's age, was to have the audience understand what I was talking about, to bring the images of the past to them as fresh as possible, to make the history as specific as I could, especially for those who were seeing Richard III without the other plays. We talked a lot about age, too, of course; fifty-five became seventy-five, which wasn't a lot of use to me as a 34-year-old. Then finally Adrian Noble came up with the idea that she is 200 years old and of course that provided the key to it and one could see her as this ageless figure of moral nemesis, who brings on to the stage the entire Wars of the Roses and who has herself been purified by suffering to play this final moral role.

Her cursing speeches in this first scene follow such a rhythm that I found I had to work hard on my breathing. You have to push through to the end, take four-line thoughts on one breath, or it won't make sense. The speeches felt like arias to me, and if you take on board their energy you are sustained by it. There was an odd thing that came up in rehearsal one day: Richard reminds Margaret of what she did to his father, and I couldn't remember. Then he brings in Rutland, and it comes back to her; she remembers York's curse on her for Rutland's death and now she asks ‘Did York's dread curse prevail so much with heaven?’ (I.iii.190). It is as though Richard, in reminding her of York's curse, has admitted that cursing works:

Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?
Why then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses!


She heard and now remembers York's curse and it has come true for her. People have to hear the curse if it is to work: no amount of pacing round the garret will help. Like an aborigine pointing the bone—you have to believe you are going to die if you are going to die. And the fact is that they all do believe in these curses, none more so than Richard. What we were looking for in the scene was a logical progression: not that she came in with a ready-made plan to curse them all, but that she has responded to what happens in the scene which then moves in a moment-to-moment way. We found, I hope, a narrative journey within the scene—otherwise it ends up as just this silly old bag-woman. Margaret has been depraved; she has also been brave. She has caused suffering and she has suffered. Here, as she stands, 200 years old, calling down curses on them all, there is something tribal, something prehistoric, about her. To mark this, for the last of her curses, on Buckingham, on the line ‘O princely Buckingham, I'll kiss thy hand’ (line 279), I took his hand and put it on my breast. Since Oliver Cotton, playing Buckingham, had also played Suffolk, this gave a resonance back through the trilogy and gave me the vaguely tribal feeling I wanted for this moment.

Margaret's second scene in Richard III, her last appearance in the cycle of plays, is with Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, three women who have carried the emotional weight of events and whose suffering now gives them the right to function as a kind of moral chorus. We talked endlessly about this scene and how to play it until Joanne Pearce (Queen Elizabeth) came up with the idea of refugees, of women in black wandering round Europe after the last war. It seemed appropriate that there might be this mass exit of women from Richard III's London, with Elizabeth and the Duchess of York being joined by Margaret. Interestingly she is not going to stay to the end, to see all her curses come true:

                    I am hungry for revenge,
And now I cloy me with beholding it.


I used to get a sort of buzz in rehearsal as I heard her prophecies come true—Rivers and Vaughan, Stanley, Buckingham—a sense of Margaret ticking them all off on her list. So why does she not stay to see Richard's doom? Why is she ‘cloyed’ with revenge?

One of our aims in this scene was to avoid its becoming just an impersonal commentary. The formal structures of the writing must be used, the repetitions of names, of rhythms, of line beginnings, of questions and answers. It was exquisite to play, provided one didn't get in the way of it. But one did have to find some sense of personal need to be part of the scene. Why does Margaret stop to speak to them, to join their lament? Their grief is now, hers is much older; in a sense she is elevated by her grief and by her satisfaction that, incredibly, all the things she predicted have come to pass. She has a need to relish that, to show them she was right. But there's a growing sense, now, that it's all empty: ‘Bear with me, for I am hungry’, she says—it's as near as she ever gets to an apology. On some occasions audiences would laugh as the names were listed—‘I had an Edward, till Richard killed him … I had a Richard too … I had a Rutland …’. These were laughs of recognition, recognition of the events of the past and of the terrible absurdity of it all, of what people, including these three women, have done to each other. During the scene, Elizabeth wakes up and the Duchess of York with her. They are both so earth-bound at the beginning: ‘What can we do, we are in such pain?’, they seem to ask. Margaret comes in and, in a curious way, by the time she leaves the stage they are on their feet, ready to face up to Richard. She uses a remarkable series of animal images for Richard—‘bottled spider’, ‘bunch-backed toad’—and Elizabeth starts to pick them up. Together they recall the past: ‘I called thee then vain flourish of my fortune’ (line 82); ‘Ah, yes, I was really witty that day’, she seems to say and Elizabeth remembers. And in a strange way they become one. That whole long speech beginning ‘I called thee then’ leads up inevitably and in one movement to its conclusion. ‘Thus hath the course of justice wheeled about’ (line 105) and ‘Now thy proud neck bears half my burdened yoke’ (line 111). Then she passes it all to Elizabeth:

From which even here I slip my weary head
And leave the burden of it all on thee.

(lines 112-13)

That is where she leaves; the transference has occurred. If you break up the speech you might as well not say it at all; it all leads in one sweep to this moment. She passes the burden to the next woman whose babies are also dead; everybody's dead, and in some way Margaret is free. The speech has an eerie quality; it's hard to touch it lightly enough without destroying the quality of it. It is a wonderful piece of writing and as it progresses it gets more double in its focus, so that she is talking simultaneously about herself and about Elizabeth. And then at the end she passes it all over. She's tired, she's free, and now she can leave.

Elizabeth pulls her back and asks her, to ‘teach me how to curse mine enemies’ (line 117)—‘you can't just leave like that’. There's something about Margaret's reply which says ‘Ah, yes, but you weren't at the Somme’, but she tells her ‘This is what you do, for all the good it's going to do you. But you have to do it, because we all have to’:

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

(lines 117-19)

It's a detached, objective, ironic shopping-list, and she knows—I'm sure she knows—that it's somehow empty. As she leaves the stage she leaves her whole spirit with these women; and they actually get up and are ready to turn on Richard. She walks off and goes back to France, or at least she says that she is going back to France, though it always seemed to me that she just disappears into the ether.

‘O, you're playing mad Margaret’ people would say to me when I was cast. I spent a lot of time scraping away the preconceptions, coming up against the huge ideas of the mind that created this part, this enormous arc of a role that moves from one play to the next. I know that I had to discover more of myself in taking on the role of this woman who tells us so much about things universal through her particular journey. Surely it is one of the greatest parts ever written.

Janis Lull (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Lull, Janis. Introduction to King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by Janis Lull, pp. 1-41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpted introduction, Lull probes the sources of Richard III and studies Shakespeare's depiction of history, women, the figure of Richard, and the play's theme of determinism.]

In the histories section of the First Folio, only Richard III is called a ‘tragedy’.1 It unites the chronicle play, a form Shakespeare had developed in the three parts of Henry VI, with a tragic structure showing the rise and fall of a single protagonist. Like Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, written at about the same time, Shakespeare's play concerns the damnation of an unrepentant soul, but Shakespeare also grapples with the problem of determinism. In his opening soliloquy, Richard says he is ‘determinèd to prove a villain’ (1.1.30), and the play develops this ambiguous statement into an exploration of determinism and choice appropriate to both history and tragedy.2


Richard III is the last in a series of four plays—following three about the reign of Henry VI—that dramatise the English Wars of the Roses. As he had in the Henry VI plays, Shakespeare used the chronicles of Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed as sources of historical material for Richard III.3 Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York (1548) incorporated a version of Sir Thomas More's History of Richard III (written about 1513). Holinshed's Chronicles of England (second edition, 1587) adapted More's History from Hall, so that More should be regarded as the primary historiographic source for Shakespeare's Richard III. More's unfinished work, however, deals only with Richard's rise to the throne. Shakespeare relied on Hall and Holinshed for Richard's decline and final defeat at Bosworth, and those chroniclers had relied on the early Tudor historian Polydore Vergil. Nevertheless, it is More's ironic attitude toward Richard that pervades both the chronicle sources and Shakespeare's play.

Much has been made of the tendency of early Tudor historians to vilify Richard III in order to glorify Henry VII (Richmond) and his descendants.4 It is true that the concept of history writing in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries included the selective use of historical events to teach political and moral lessons, a practice most modern historians would reject. However, many of the stories of Richard's villainy originate in accounts written in Richard's own time or soon after.5 It is impossible to tell whether these early narratives consciously promote propaganda or merely reflect the traditional literary and didactic aims of medieval historiography. The earliest known portrait of Richard as a usurper (first discovered in 1934) was recorded by the Italian priest Dominic Mancini. It cannot have been intended to advance an established Tudor dynasty, since Mancini wrote in 1483, when the victory of Henry Tudor over Richard III was still two years in the future. Neither can this early date guarantee Mancini's objectivity. Yet no matter how the reign of Richard III was perceived by those who lived through it, by Shakespeare's time, and probably much earlier, stories of Richard as a tyrant and a child-murderer were accepted as fact.

In addition to the chronicle sources, Shakespeare's Richard III draws upon a wide range of literary influences, especially the cycle plays and moralities of the native English drama. The influence of classical drama can be seen, not only in the women of Richard III, who have been compared to Seneca's Trojan women, but also in the play's formal rhetoric, its ghosts, its villain-hero, perhaps even in Richard's stoic end. Closer to home, Shakespeare drew inspiration from other sixteenth-century English dramatists writing in the Senecan tradition, especially Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. A Mirror for Magistrates, a sixteenth-century collection of verse ‘tragedies’ about the fall of historical figures, was available to Shakespeare. He may have read it for passages spoken by Richard, Clarence, Hastings, Edward IV, the Duke of Buckingham, and even Jane Shore, although he does not dramatise her story. An unpublished Latin play, Thomas Legge's Ricardus Tertius, which was composed around 1579, does not seem to have been used by Shakespeare, though he may well have known it.6

The True Tragedie of Richard The Third, an anonymous English play, was published in 1594 but probably composed several years earlier.7 There seem to be passages in which The True Tragedie anticipates Shakespeare, notably in Richard's call for a new horse (scene 18):

A horse, a horse, a fresh horse.
A flie my Lord, and saue your life.
Flie villaine, looke I as tho I would flie

It is possible that the anonymous playwright borrowed from Shakespeare rather than the other way around. Even if The True Tragedie was written first, the printed version could have picked up this famous exchange from Shakespeare's later but more popular play, perhaps via a copyist. Yet the text of The True Tragedie, often disparaged as a ‘bad quarto’8 or merely ‘contaminated’,9 emerges in Laurie E. Maguire's recent analysis as a coherent play with few of the traditional signs attributed to pirated scripts or ‘memorial reconstructions’.10 It appears more likely, then, that Shakespeare echoed The True Tragedie rather than the other way around.

Another parallel, in George Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (1594), offers a triangle of possible influences for the ‘horse’ passage:

A horse, a horse, villain a horse
That I may take the river straight and flie.
Here is a horse my Lord.


As Antony Hammond has pointed out, this dialogue seems more remote from Shakespeare's than that of The True Tragedie,12 not so much because of the differences in the famous line itself, but because Peele's Moor wishes to fly, while in The True Tragedie, as in Richard III, the protagonist has no intention of escaping. A possible line of descent for this passage, then, runs from Peele to Anonymous to Shakespeare. In addition to the verbal echo of ‘a horse, a horse’, George Bosworth Churchill, Geoffrey Bullough and John Dover Wilson all trace structural parallels between The True Tragedie and the last four acts of Shakespeare's play. Emrys Jones and Hammond, on the other hand, stress how much The True Tragedie and Richard III differ in their emphases. As Jones puts it, ‘one is surprised to find out how undominating, by comparison, another playwright's Richard could be’.13 A reasonable supposition might be that Shakespeare used ‘a horse, a horse’ from The True Tragedie and borrowed whatever structural elements he thought would work, just as he did from many other literary sources.

Shakespeare's own earlier plays also provided him with source material, especially Henry VI, Part 3, where Richard first emerges as an arch-villain. In Henry VI, Part 2, Richard appears as a warrior trying to take the crown away from Henry VI and give it to his own father, the Duke of York. Richard's enemies mention his deformity, but his chief characteristics in this play are devotion to his father and warlike anger: ‘Sword, hold thy temper; heart, be wrathful still: / Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill’ (5.2.70-1). In Henry VI, Part 3, Richard adds to his loyalty and wrath a certain cunning. He persuades York to break a promise of peace because the oath was not sworn before a ‘true and lawful magistrate’ (1.2.23), then plunges eagerly into the next round of civil war. After York is killed by Queen Margaret, Richard begins to assume the character of a universal antagonist. Although he continues to fight fiercely to avenge his father and to put his brother Edward on the throne, he also mocks Edward's love of women, Elizabeth Grey in particular (3.2), and begins the process of fashioning himself into the monster he will be: ‘Ay, Edward will use women honourably. / Would he were wasted, marrow, bones, and all, / That from his loins no hopeful branch may spring, / To cross me from the golden time I look for!’ (3.2.124-7). As Philip Brockbank points out, when Richard ‘takes the stage for his first exercise of the soliloquy-prerogative he inherits from York’, he immediately begins to speak of his ambitions in terms of birth, or rather of rebirth, since his first has proved unsatisfactory:14

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.


Just as he does in Richard III, Richard blames his inability to love on his abnormal birth—and, by extension, on his mother—and invents a new self-birthing process that will make him king:

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.


The personality Richard reveals or creates in this passage is much like the one he displays in the opening soliloquy of the present play, and actors from Colley Cibber in the eighteenth century to Laurence Olivier in the twentieth have freely borrowed lines from Henry VI, Part 3 for productions of Richard III. From the middle of Henry VI, Part 3 on, Richard appears as a full-blown villain, confiding his treacherous self-absorption to the audience even as he pretends to support the new Yorkist king, Edward IV. At the end of the play, Richard murders King Henry in the Tower, and the audience understands that he has killed not for his brother, but for himself: ‘I have no brother, I am like no brother; / And this word “love”, which greybeards call divine / Be resident in men like one another / And not in me: I am myself alone’ (5.6.80-3).

Richard III is a sequel to Henry VI, Part 3, and was probably written soon after it. Henry VI, Part 3 must have existed before September 1592, when the dying playwright Robert Greene parodied a line from the play in his pamphlet, Greenes Groatsworth of Witte, in which he criticised Shakespeare. Greene transformed York's bitter words to Margaret, ‘O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!’ (3 Henry VI 1.4.137), into an attack on the playwright, whom he called ‘an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you’ (sig. F1). Greene probably saw Henry VI, Part 3 performed in London some time before June 1592, when the London theatres were closed because of plague. For Greene to suppose that his parody of Shakespeare would be effective, he must have believed that many in his audience had seen Henry VI, Part 3 and that the line he chose to burlesque was a memorable one. Although a London acting company may have taken the play on tour in the provinces during the summer of 1592, Greene's confidence in a theatrical experience shared with his readers suggests a milieu of city theatre-goers and repeated performances rather than of plays glimpsed out of town. Whether Henry VI, Part 3 was a finished play in the spring of 1592 or was written that summer, however, the continuity between the two plays implies that Richard III was developed immediately after Henry VI, Part 3, even if Shakespeare was also working on other projects at the same time.15Richard III was probably completed by 1593, although it may not have been performed in London until the next theatrical season in 1594.

There is very little evidence to help establish the earliest date at which Richard III could have been written. Shakespeare's career as a playwright was already well under way, and he had written Henry VI, Part 3, but whether these things happened in the early 1590s or before is a matter of conjecture.16 Since both Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III use material from the 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, they cannot have been written earlier than that date. Sidney Shanker conjectured that Shakespeare used the character Sir James Blunt to flatter the Blunts of Stratford, even though a Blunt of that family was not actually knighted until 1588.17 If this guess is right, 1588 would be the earliest date for Richard III. Harold F. Brooks argues that Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, probably Marlowe's penultimate play, echoes Richard III.18Richard III, by this argument, must have existed long enough for Marlowe to borrow from it and write both Edward II and Dr Faustus before his death in the spring of 1593. Hammond agrees with Brooks's speculation and suggests a date of 1591 for Shakespeare's play,19 but as Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor point out, the verbal parallels Brooks finds between Edward II and Richard III are mostly commonplace and may derive from other sources.20 Marlowe's Dr Faustus also seems to echo Shakespeare's ghosts (‘despair and die’), and this borrowing, if it is one, can be reconciled with a composition date of 1592-3 for Richard III.


The civil conflicts portrayed in Shakespeare's first tetralogy extended from the death of the Lancastrian Henry V in 1422 through the chaotic reign of his son, Henry VI, Henry's overthrow by the house of York, the rule of the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III, and finally to Richard's defeat in 1485 by the Earl of Richmond, who then became Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Scholars once believed that Shakespeare and most of his contemporaries saw the calamitous wars between the house of Lancaster (whose supporters wore a red rose) and the house of York (white rose) as divine punishment for the unlawful deposition of Richard II in 1399. According to this view, Shakespeare's Richard III reflects the ‘Tudor Myth’, which held that the Wars of the Roses resulted from a divine curse that was finally purged by Henry Tudor. Later critics, however, have generally rejected the idea that Shakespeare wrote his plays simply as Tudor propaganda, and most have also rejected the notion that there was any widespread Tudor consensus about God's will and the Wars of the Roses.21 Disagreement continues over whether Shakespeare's plays generally tended to support or undermine the Tudor-Stuart political order.22

As a descendant of the man who overthrew Richard III, Queen Elizabeth I certainly benefited from the impression that Richard had been a wicked king. Yet this villainous portrait of Richard was not a Tudor invention. It had been developing since Richard's own time, gradually taking on the characteristics that critics would later associate with the Tudor Myth.23 For Shakespeare, the most influential disseminator of Richard's bad reputation was Sir Thomas More—not an Elizabethan but a contemporary of Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII. More's account, which he took from fifteenth-century chroniclers and probably from the personal reminiscences of people still living who remembered Richard, was borrowed by the sixteenth-century chroniclers Hall and Holinshed, and thus became an important source for Shakespeare's play. It was More who first made Richard a character suitable for drama by concentrating on vivid events in his reign and further enhancing his reputation as a criminal tyrant.

Whether More saw Richard's rule as divine punishment is open to question, but there is no question that this interpretation is available in Shakespeare's play.24 It is articulated by Queen Margaret, who proclaims the justice of Richard's turning on his own family: ‘O upright, just, and true-disposing God, / How do I thank thee, that this carnal cur / Preys on the issue of his mother's body’ (4.4.55-7). According to Margaret, however, the crimes avenged by Richard's murders are specific acts taken against her family by the house of York, not ancestral political crimes. Margaret gives voice to the belief, encouraged by the growing Calvinism of the Elizabethan era, that individual historical events are determined by God, who often punishes evil with (apparent) evil. Yet her vision of Richard as providential agent or ‘scourge of God’ is both limited and biased, representing only part of what it means for Richard to be ‘determinèd to prove a villain’.

While Margaret regards Richard as the instrument of God's vengeance for crimes against the Lancasters, Richard attributes Margaret's suffering to her own crimes against the Yorks, and others agree with him:

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
Steeped 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.
So just is God, to right the innocent.
Oh, 'twas the foulest deed to slay that babe,
And the most merciless, that e'er was heard of.
Tyrants themselves wept when it was reported.
No man but prophesied revenge for it.


Shakespeare uses such curses and prophecies as dramatic devices to represent both the long conflict between Lancaster and York and the particular conflict—Richard against everybody—embodied in Richard III. Repeated invocations of providence also raise the general question of historical causation, reminding the audience that human events may be viewed as the thoughts of God made visible, manifestations in time of the timeless divine will. The play presents the issue of historical determinism—inseparable in Shakespeare's time from issues of religion—not as an assertion, but as one side of an argument.

On the other side stands Richard himself, representing a secular theory of history that finds the causes of human events in individual actions rather than in providential will. Richard is both a stage ‘Machiavel’ and a personification of the Machiavellian view of history as power politics.25 Richard delights in confiding his intentions to the audience and then demonstrating how he can accomplish even the most outrageous of them:

For then I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter.
What though I killed her husband and her father?
The readiest way to make the wench amends
Is to become her husband and her father.


At the end of the ‘wooing of Anne’ scene (1.2), Richard again turns to the audience to crow over his victory: ‘Was ever woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever woman in this humour won?’ (1.2.231-2).

From the first word of the play, Richard woos the audience as he woos Anne, with the strength of his personality: his wit, his confidence, his ‘bustle’. His evil-yet-appealing character has ancestors in both classical and native English drama. In addition to the Machiavel, he is related to the Senecan criminal-hero, the Herod-tyrant from the medieval ‘mystery’ or religious cycle plays, and the Vice from the morality plays. Scholars have disagreed about the direct influence of Seneca on Elizabethan drama, but as Jones says, ‘Whenever tyrants are in question in Shakespeare, there is likely to be a Senecan feel somewhere in the diction’, as there certainly is in the patterned rhetoric of Richard III.26 Certainly Elizabethan revenge tragedy shares many conventions with the plays of Seneca, including, as James E. Ruoff lists them, ‘the revenge theme, the ghost, the play-within-the-play, the dumb show, the soliloquy, the declamation and bombast, the emphasis on macabre brutalities, insanity and suicide’.27 Shakespeare's Richard, however, displays what A. P. Rossiter calls ‘a most un-Senecan sense of humour’.28 The idea of the tyrant who is both evil and funny probably came to Shakespeare through the native English drama. Herod, familiar from the Bible as an angry tyrant (see Matt. 2), had achieved popularity in medieval religious plays as a figure almost comic in his ranting violence.29 But it was the secular moral drama of the same period, and especially its leading character, the Vice, that brought to the English stage a full-blown conception of comic evil. According to Robert Weimann, the Vice, an allegorical figure with a name such as Iniquity or Mischief, combined ‘magician, doctor, and fool all in one’. Like Richard, this character manipulated others in the play while interacting, as though on another plane, with the audience. To the delight of spectators, the Vice would introduce himself and his schemes directly, sometimes moving among the audience asking for money.30 Vice characters were noted for puns, audience rapport and a subversive energy that the morality plays quashed in the end, often by banishing the Vice to Hell.31

The hybrid tradition of the morality-play Vice prefigures the audacious combination of tragic and comic that marks Shakespeare's Richard III. When Richard tells the audience that he is ‘determinèd to prove a villain’, he summarises the tragic conception of the play in a joke. His primary meaning is that he controls his own destiny. His pun also has a second, contradictory meaning—that his villainy is predestined—and the strong providentialism of the play ultimately endorses this meaning. Yet in spite of characters like Margaret who insist that God is on their side, the divine determinism at work in Richard III does not seem to be the ‘special providence’ that minutely arranges each event in human history; God does not necessarily contrive or even notice the fall of every sparrow. Queen Elizabeth, for example, rails against divine indifference to the deaths of her sons: ‘Wilt thou, O God, fly from such gentle lambs / And throw them in the entrails of the wolf? / When didst thou sleep when such a deed was done?’ (4.4.22-4). Margaret immediately answers that injustices have happened before: ‘When holy Harry died, and my sweet son’ (25). The providence of Richard III is rather the grand design of human salvation and damnation. God's will is shown not by the victory of one faction or another, but by the fate of the human soul—in this case, Richard's.32 He is in this sense a tragic hero, opposing the will of the universe with his own, ‘all the world to nothing’.33


In the first three acts of Richard III, Shakespeare almost seems to be on Richard's side, showing us the world of the play from Richard's point of view. Eventually, however, the play and presumably the audience withdraw their sympathy from Richard, turning instead to his victims, especially the relatively ‘flat’ female characters. Like Richard himself, the prophesying women in the play have links to characters in both classical and English drama. The scene of the ‘wailing queens’ (4.4), for example, has been compared to the lamentations of Helena, Andromache and Hecuba in Seneca's Troades.34 In addition, patterns of audience identification grounded in the English religious plays probably helped shift the attention of Shakespeare's spectators away from Richard and toward the women. In their scenes together, the female characters in Richard III suggests responses conditioned by the Resurrection plays, specifically by the motif of the three Marys—Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary the mother of James—at the tomb of Jesus. Like the raging tyrant Herod and the crowd-pleasing Vice, the three Marys formed part of the native theatrical heritage for playwrights and playgoers of Shakespeare's generation.35 In contrast to these male figures, however, the three Marys were associated with solemnity and the central mystery of Christianity, the Resurrection of Jesus. Shakespeare makes use of these conventions to direct the audience's sympathy away from Richard in the second part of the play.36

Each of the surviving Resurrection plays portrays three fundamental actions: the lamentation of the three Marys, the women's approach to the tomb—where they learn of the Resurrection from an angel or angels—and finally their testimony about what they have learned. The three female-group scenes in Richard III—all composed of triads or quasi-triads of women—echo these three traditional elements of the Resurrection plays. In 2.2, three women (and a boy) lament for Richard's victims, in 4.1, three women approach the tomb—here the ominous Tower of London—and in 4.4, after another great lamentation, three women bear witness to Richard's evil.37 The most important of these scenes is 4.4, but the female characters' contributions in that scene depend on associations developed in the earlier female-group scenes that link them to the Marys and to the revelation of divine will. As the tradition of the Vice helped influence the Eliabethan audience's reaction to Richard, so the tradition of the three Marys helped turn them away from Richard's individualism toward acceptance of the final act's stately determinism.

The first of the play's two parts—1.1 through 4.1—focuses on Richard and his evil energy. In 4.2, however, the protagonist begins to decline. As Wolfgang Clemen puts it, ‘There is a restless urgency about IV, ii, a quickening of tempo; one is conscious of the approaching catastrophe. The rise must now be followed by the fall.’38 The interest of the audience is directed away from Richard's perversely appealing personality toward the enormity of his crimes and ultimately to the opposing virtues embodied in Richmond. Several earlier scenes prepare the audience for this turning. In 1.4, both Clarence and the Second Murderer speak movingly of repentance, a double contrast to Richard's incorrigible joy-in-wickedness. In 2.2, the Duchess, Clarence's children and Queen Elizabeth lament their losses—which the audience knows to be Richard's work. In 3.3, Rivers, Vaughan and Grey endorse Margaret's prophecies just before they are put to death.

The strongest preparation for the play's major turn occurs in 4.1. The entire scene presents an inverse analogue of the approach to Jesus's tomb in the Resurrection plays. The Duchess, Elizabeth and Anne salute each other as ‘daughter’ and ‘sister’, approach the Tower, and bewail rather than celebrate what they learn there—that Richard holds the princes captive and will soon be king. This scene, with its formal rhetoric and its links to the motif of the Marys, probably evoked religious contexts for Shakespeare's audience much more readily than it does today. In Elizabethan England, with its Calvinist emphasis on predestination, these associations must have suggested that the women in the play are not only on the side of right, but also on the side of destiny.

In the cycle plays, the three Marys—often almost indistinguishable as individual characters—act as stand-ins for the audience in their personal discovery of the Resurrection. So the Duchess, Elizabeth and Anne, by interrogating Richard's crimes and their own involvement with him, represent Shakespeare's spectators and help detach them from their earlier sympathy for the devil. Anne repents that she ‘Grossly grew captive’ to Richard's persuasions, and Elizabeth emphasises the innocence of Richard's victims, while the Duchess acknowledges her own ‘accursèd womb’. Recent critics have stressed the psychological effects on Richard of his mother's rejection, sometimes blaming her for his deformed character.39 In the play, however, the emphasis falls not on Richard's suffering in his relationship with his mother, but on the Duchess's grief and shame at her own intimacy with evil. The Duchess's clear-eyed acknowledgement of her role in nurturing Richard and her rejection of what he has become match the audience's initial identification with and ultimate repudiation of the protagonist.

The most significant female triad in the play occurs in 4.4. In the preceding scenes, Richard has begun to lose his Vice-like confidence, sinking into himself rather than reaching out to the audience in his monologues: ‘I must be married to my brother's daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass’ (4.2.61-2). And Tyrrel, himself a villain, has denounced the ‘tyrannous and bloody’ murder of the princes. In 4.4, three grieving women—Margaret, the Duchess and Elizabeth—again lament their losses at Richard's hands. Like Rivers, Grey and Hastings, Elizabeth comments on the accuracy of Margaret's earlier predictions:

Oh, thou didst prophesy the time would come
That I should wish for thee to help me curse
That bottled spider, that foul bunch-backed toad.


As Margaret has predicted, her final function in the play is to teach the other women how to curse.40 In her curses, Margaret speaks as the voice of destiny, but she stands outside the action of the play. Richard cannot hurt her, nor can she hurt him, at least not directly. When she transfers her cursing power to the other two women, however, that power comes as a kind of revelation. The Duchess and Elizabeth, who have feared and avoided Richard, now denounce him to his face for the first time in the play:

Thou toad, thou toad, where is thy brother Clarence,
And little Ned Plantagenet, his son?
Where is the gentle Rivers, Vaughan, Grey?
Where is kind Hastings?


By confronting Richard (and the audience) with what he is and what he has done, the women relieve the tension and dread described by the Scrivener (3.6):

Who is so gross that cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world, and all will come to naught
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought.


The Duchess and Elizabeth carry the bad news of Richard's crimes, but the fact that they speak out is good news. They bear witness to an evil heretofore only ‘seen in thought’ by most of those at court (always excepting Margaret). The Duchess vows to pray for Richard's adversaries, and Elizabeth holds her own against him as he seeks her daughter's hand. Although the Duchess and Elizabeth cannot overthrow Richard, the tide has turned. To reinforce the sense of relief that the women's testimony brings, Shakespeare has constructed a pattern of association between the play's major female characters and an ancient and solemn dramatic structure of lamentation, discovery and affirmation. If such associations are lost today, actors and directors must find ways to suggest their dramatic tone as part of an artistic context for the women in Richard III. When the women's parts are shortened or eliminated, both the female characters and the providential resolution of the plot can seem inadequate as foils to Richard's vitality.


Richard must lose everything unless he repents, and like Marlowe's Dr Faustus he refuses to repent. All the ghosts of Richard's victims order him in his sleep to ‘despair and die’, the same words Faustus says to himself when he abandons hope (scene 12). In spite of the ghosts' repeated commands, however, Richard does not despair. Starting out of his dream, he momentarily shakes off the theological dilemma of repentance versus despair and veers instead into a state Harold Bloom calls ‘self-overhearing’. Bloom suggests that some characters in Shakespeare overhear their own speeches ‘and pondering those expressions, they change and go on to contemplate an otherness in the self, or the possibility of such otherness’.41 In Richard III, Shakespeare portrays this self-contemplation for the first time:

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 not dead midnight.
Cold, fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What? Do I fear myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.
Is there a 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?
Oh, 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 in the highest degree,
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree,
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng all to th'bar, crying all ‘Guilty, guilty!’
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if I die no soul shall pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?


Many critics have seen in this passage the beginnings of modern tragedy. As Robert Weimann says, in Richard III ‘It is not Schicksalsdrama, not the inscrutable workings of the gods, that finally tips the scales of life and death but the Charakterdrama of an individual passion and a self-willed personality.’42 ‘[D]eterminèd to prove a villain’ from the first, Richard unexpectedly confronts the possibility of repentance (‘Have mercy, Jesu!’), then reaffirms his earlier course. He makes this choice not from despair, but as an assertion of will. Finding no pity in himself, he will ask for none, not even from God.

Richard does not really love Richard, in the sense that he harbours no tender feelings for himself, but neither will he hate himself. His remarkable self-overhearing on the day of battle results in the same outcome as if he had despaired, fallen into self-hatred, and so taken revenge on himself, as Anne once predicted (1.2.86-7). He will die and be damned. Yet psychologically, there is a difference. By electing to remain himself, Richard insists on free will in the face of determinism. As Coriolanus banishes Rome rather than passively suffer banishment, so Richard assumes his predestined identity as his own choice. This interior moment is the play's final gloss on the paradoxical pun of the opening soliloquy. Richard is—he always has been—‘determinèd to prove a villain’, and he refuses to surrender his own part of the pun, his human determination, to cosmic determinism. He has no choice, but he chooses anyway, and in this gesture against fate he partakes of tragic heroism.

Following Richard's monologue on Bosworth morning, he regains his ruthless courage and dies bravely. Meanwhile, the female characters, whose ritualised formality and association with providence helped distance the audience from Richard, have disappeared from the play. The result is a curiously flat triumph by Richmond, who says all the right things—pardons Richard's soldiers, promises peace and does not forget to ask after young George Stanley—but somehow evokes no joy. It is not Richard we mourn for, exactly, but his tragic defiance, and Richard III makes space for such mourning at the end. As Jones points out, the play supports determinism from the outset, not only by dealing with historical events of known outcome, but also by repeatedly reminding us of what we know (Origins, pp. 222-3). Throughout the wooing of Elizabeth, for example (4.4), ‘the terms in which the dialogue is couched are such as to induce us to contemplate the future—the real future—of the Queen's daughter, “young Elizabeth”, who we know will marry Richmond’.43 Yet Richard's heroic end, like the sketchiness of Richmond's part and the withdrawal of the women from the end of the play, allows playgoers to leave the theatre a little defiant themselves, still a little on the side of choice, although mainly reconciled to determinism. Perhaps, as Jones says, a play in which the appearance of free will yields to a sense of higher determinism ‘can achieve its fullest effect only in a society officially committed to a belief in God’.44 Some such opinion about the changing faith of the audience may inform the many productions of Richard III that reduce the play's emphasis on providential destiny and overplay Richard's delicious wickedness. But perhaps in an era committed to a belief in science and natural law, the conflict between determinism and human will can be as relevant to audiences as it must have been in a climate of official Protestantism. Questions that arise in Richard III trouble philosophers still: do people create themselves, or are they created by chains of causation reaching back to a first cause? If determinism is true, is anyone really free?45 Like Richard, we want to believe that we are ourselves alone, but like the play Richard inhabits, the universe we live in seems to hint that we are no such things.


  1. The play is called The Tragedy of Richard III on its first page in the Folio, but subsequent pages carry the running title ‘The Life and Death of Richard the Third’. The word ‘tragedy’ may have been taken from the printed quartos, all of which use it.

  2. On Richard's pun as a play on providential determinism, see David S. Berkeley, ‘”Determined” in Richard III, Li.30’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 14 (1963), 483-4.

  3. Shakespeare may also have used the Chronicle At Large of Richard Grafton (1569), but this repeats Hall almost word for word, making it impossible to tell which one Shakespeare employed.

  4. See Tillyard, Campbell and Ribner.

  5. See Dominic Mancini, The Usurpation of Richard III (c. 1483), ed. C. A. J. Armstrong, 2nd edn 1969; The Crowland Chronicle Continuations, 1459-1486 (c. 1486), ed. Nicholas Pronay and John Cox, 1986; and John Rous, Joannis Rossi Antiquarii Warwicensis Historia Regum Angliae (c. 1487-91), ed. T. Hearne, 1745.

  6. Shakespeare's contemporary, Francis Meres, names Legge along with Shakespeare as among ‘our best for Tragedie’ (Palladis Tamia, 1598). See Jones, pp. 139-40.

  7. The True Tragedie of Richard the Third, 1594; reprinted by the Malone Society as The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, ed. W. W. Greg, 1929.

  8. See Wilson, p. xxix.

  9. Hammond, p. 83.

  10. Maguire, pp. 317-18.

  11. See W. W. Greg, Two Elizabethan Stage Abridgements: ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ and ‘Orlando Furioso’, 1922.

  12. Hammond, p. 83.

  13. Jones, p. 196.

  14. See Philip Brockbank, ‘The frame of disorder—“Henry VI”’, in Early Shakespeare, ed. J. R. Brown and B. A. Harris, 1961, reprinted in Brockbank, On Shakespeare, 1989, p. 102.

  15. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor argue, using rare word analysis, that 1H6 was written after 3H6 (William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, p. 217). They also agree with Marco Mincoff, who says in Shakespeare: The First Steps, 1976, that Shakespeare wrote Titus between 3H6 and Richard III (p. 115).

  16. See Honigmann, Shakespeare, theLost Years’, 1985.

  17. Sidney Shanker, ‘Shakespeare pays some compliments’, Modern Language Notes 63 (1948), 540-1.

  18. Harold F. Brooks, ‘Marlowe and early Shakespeare’, in Christopher Marlowe, ed. Brian Morris, 1968, pp. 65-94.

  19. Hammond, p. 61.

  20. See Wells and Taylor, p. 116.

  21. For a strong argument against reducing Shakespeare's histories to the ‘Tudor Myth’, see Ornstein.

  22. Linda Charnes, for example, has recently argued that Shakespeare used the received portrait of Richard III as one of the themes of his play: ‘[N]o matter how engaged the play may be with the ideological uses to which Richard's legend can be put, it is even more engaged with what it would feel like to be subjected by and to that legend, with what it would be like to have to be Richard III, surrounded by the language and signification of a hundred years of writings about oneself.’ According to Charnes, Shakespeare's Richard is a character trying to escape the determinism not of natural causation but of historiography—the works of ‘Rous, Morton, More, Holinshed, and other “historians” whose authority cannot and must not, in the reign of Elizabeth, be denied because the playwright himself is subject to the immediate political constraints of his material’. See Charnes, Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, 1993, pp. 68-9. For a portrait of Shakespeare as an underminer of political orthodoxies, see Thayer.

  23. See Kelly for an account of the gradual development of Richard's reputation.

  24. If More intended his History of King Richard III to promote the interests of the Tudor dynasty, he made no use of it, for he left it unfinished and never published it. See Richard S. Sylvester's introduction to More.

  25. Niccolò Machiavelli appeared in the Elizabethan popular imagination as an advocate of tyranny and on the stage as a type of the villain. Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, for example, written in 1589, uses Machiavelli as a character. He speaks the prologue to the play and introduces his disciple, the villain Barabas.

  26. Jones, p. 270.

  27. See James E. Ruoff, Crowell's Handbook of Elizabethan and Stuart Literature, 1975, p. 404.

  28. A. P. Rossiter, ‘Angel with horns: the unity of Richard III’, from Angel with Horns (1961), reprinted in Shakespeare The Histories: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Eugene M. Waith, 1965, p. 83.

  29. Weimann, p. 67.

  30. Ibid., p. 114.

  31. For the Vice in relation to Shakespeare see Spivack and Weimann. On the mystery plays, see Rossiter.

  32. Camille Wells Slights points out that Margaret, too, is an unrepentant soul, and that she seems already to be suffering a kind of purgatory in this play. See ‘Cases of conscience in Shakespeare's tragedies’, in The Casuistical Tradition in Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and Milton, 1981, pp. 67-132.

  33. As Robert G. Hunter explains it, ‘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.’ See Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments, 1976, p. 100.

  34. See E. Koeppel, ‘Shakespeares Richard III. Und Senecas Troades’, Shakespeare Jahrbuch 47 (1911), 188-90. For other perspectives on Seneca and the women's scenes, see Harold F. Brooks, ‘Richard III: unhistorical amplifications: the women's scenes and Seneca’, Modern Language Review 75 (1980), 721-37.

  35. The cycle plays, which were associated with Roman Catholicism, were discouraged by the Protestant authorities under Elizabeth, but they were still being performed in Shakespeare's youth. Alan C. Dessen compares Shakespeare's borrowings from the morality plays to contemporary filmmakers' use of conventions from the classic cinematic Western. See Shakespeare and the Late Moral Plays, 1986, p. 8. As Dessen says, the conventions of earlier English drama—the religious cycle plays as well as the secular ‘moralls’—continued to form part of the heritage of the Elizabethan theatre long after these plays had subsided as popular forms.

  36. Dessen discusses the two-phased structure of Richard III against the background of a similar two-part action in the late morality plays. He argues that the second phase of Richard III, as it draws away from Richard and toward Richmond, would have been familiar and acceptable to Shakespeare's audience because of the still-remembered conventions of the moral drama (Shakespeare and the Late Moral Plays).

  37. J. F. Royster, while also recognising Senecan parallels, pointed out similarities between Richard III 4.4 and the planctus of the three Marys in Resurrection plays from several of the mystery cycles. See ‘Richard III, IV.4 and the Three Marys of mediaeval drama’, Modern Language Notes 25 (1910), 173-4. E. Koeppel (‘Shakespeares Richard III. Und Senecas Troades’) disagreed, arguing that the discord between Elizabeth, Margaret and the Duchess made them too unlike the three Marys for the medieval motif to have been a source.

  38. Clemen, p. 164.

  39. See, for example, C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development, 1986, pp. 86-124; Bernard J. Paris, Character as a Subversive Force in Shakespeare, 1991, pp. 31-52; and Adelman, pp. 1-10.

  40. As Madonne M. Miner points out, these women, united in cursing, display a concord achieved by no other major group of characters in the play. See ‘“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, 1980, pp. 35-55.

  41. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994, p. 70.

  42. Weimann, p. 160. See also Normal Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, 1967, p. 251: ‘At this moment, crucial both in the play and in Shakespeare's career, the play turns to tragedy.’ Not all critical readers agree. Adelman, for example, says that in this passage ‘the effect is less of a psyche than of diverse roles confronting themselves across the void where a self should be’ (p. 9).

  43. Jones, p. 223.

  44. Ibid., p. 199.

  45. For a non-technical treatment of such issues by a contemporary philosopher, see Ted Honderich, How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem, 1993.

Work Cited

Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's ‘Histories’: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy, 1947

Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's ‘Richard III’, first published in German, 1957; trans. Jean Bonheim, 1968

Antony Hammond (ed.), King Richard III, 1981 (Arden Shakespeare)

Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare, 1977

Henry Ansgar Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories, 1971

Laurie E. Maguire, Shakespearean Suspect Texts: The ‘Bad’ Quartos and Their Contexts, 1996

Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, 1957

Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil, 1958

C. G. Thayer, Shakespearean Politics: Government and Misgovernment in the Great Histories, 1983

E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, 1944; reprinted 1962

Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, 1978

Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, 1987

J. Dover Wilson (ed.), Richard III, 1952 (New Shakespeare)

John Jowett (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Jowett, John. Introduction to The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett, pp. 1-142. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Jowett presents a thematic overview of Richard III, highlighting such motifs as prophecy, curses, dreams, and conscience.]

Prophecy of Revenge. It is a distinctive quality of Shakespeare's representation of reality that, though the physical and social world is tangible and real, it is at the same time subject to intrusion and redefinition from something the plays' characters experience as beyond the material. For all its immediacy and solidity, the world's epistemological foundations are shifting and insecure. When Richard declares that he is ‘determined to prove a villain’ (1.1.30) he seems to speak of his autonomy of will, but the words might mean that his villainy is predetermined, an effect of destiny. The individual events in Richard III are not simply events in themselves. They are subject to prophecy, prefiguration, and repetition. They fall within larger patterns of symbolic meaning.1

In the opening scenes the action seems subservient to Richard's will. Clarence enters on cue: ‘This day should Clarence closely be mewed up ❙ About a prophecy … Dive, thoughts, down to my soul; here Clarence comes.’ Lady Anne's first entry similarly follows hard on Richard's announcing his intention towards her. The action begins to assume a dynamic that is independent of Richard only in 1.3, when we are suddenly in the thick of court factions. The contrast between 1.2 and 1.3 is clear. In the wooing scene Richard develops plans he has announced in advance, and so takes control over what seem to be the last remnants of the house of Lancaster, the corpse of the king and its solitary mourner. In 1.3 the Yorkists and the Greys are busy squabbling over the present and the immediate future. Richard surprises and confuses us too with his disruptive and sudden entry, ‘They do me wrong and I will not endure it’. For the first time Richard's plots are beyond our immediate knowing. But no sooner has Richard stamped his fractious authority on the scene than Margaret enters, reframing the scene within a perspective that is far from that of Richard's choosing. Like Anne, she belongs to the house of Lancaster and comes into the play burdened with grievance. In other ways they will decisively contrast.

Even an audience member familiar with the chronicles might not know who this alien figure is, for Margaret had died in France. The play has already led us to assume her absence, for in 1.2 only Anne attends the corpse of Margaret's husband. Her presence is both ahistorical and ghostly. It is an extreme paradox that this figure, a fictive intrusion on the historical events, should be the guarantor of Tudor ideology and indeed of history itself. Because she preserves the past and makes it actively meaningful during the course of the play, she in effect preserves the future. Her interventions ensure that Richard's wrongdoings are remembered and avenged, and so ensure that the Tudor dynasty will finally be installed.

From the outset she cryptically defines herself in relation to past events that no one else wishes to remember. To the Queen she says, ‘Thy honour, state, and seat is due to me’ (1.3.112), and to Richard,

Thou slewest my husband Henry in the Tower,
And Edward, my poor son, at Tewkesbury.


In winning the hand of Anne, Richard has not quite eliminated the past, nor mastered the future.

Margaret might appear to be a pathetic war victim in hostile surroundings, someone who needs to believe that God, if only God, will hear, understand, and respond to her laments. Her belief in the efficacy of cursing might be evidence of crazed desperation. Yet her curses relate very closely to what will happen. The implications are unnerving. She sees Richard as a ‘cacodemon’ from hell (1.3.143-4), yet it is he who will fulfil her petition to God for vengeance against all the others. To the Protestant theologian Calvin ‘it is no absurdity that one self act be ascribed to God, to Satan, and to man’ (Institution, 2.4.2). There is no question of conspiracy; rather, there are different levels of explanation. Calvin recognized the challenge to common sense, admitting that ‘the sense of the flesh scarcely conceiveth how he [God] working by them [Satan and the reprobate] should not gather some spot of their fault’ (1.18.1). Understanding God's righteousness in inflicting natural disasters posed similar challenges. Richard III was probably written just before or during one of the worst outbreaks of the plague in Elizabethan London. Confronted with arbitrary suffering and death, potentially evidence of a cruel God, the pious could respond only by seeing plague as evidence of God's wrath at the depravity of the society upon whom he unleashes plague as just punishment.

As Margaret asserts that there is a machinery of divine retribution, Richard attempts to puncture such claims as mere rhetoric. Indeed, he takes the offensive, shifting the blame for Queen Margaret's misfortunes away from the immediate perpetrators: ‘And God, not we, hath plagued thy bloody deed’ (1.3.178). The piety is a barefaced use of religion for political ends. More subtly, it anticipates and compromises Margaret's attempts to enlist God on her side. Richard identifies Margaret as a ‘wrinkled witch’ (1.3.164), a monstrously cruel woman without pity for children, cursed by the patriarch of the York family, and the victim of God's wrath. He succeeds in rallying the court factions against her:

HASTINGS (to Margaret)
O, 'twas the foulest deed to slay that babe,
And the most merciless that e'er was heard of.
RIVERS (to Margaret)
Tyrants themselves wept when it was reported.
DORSET [Grey] (to Margaret)
No man but prophesied revenge for it.
BUCKINGHAM (to Margaret)
Northumberland, then present, wept to see it.


These accusations imply that it is Margaret rather than Richard who is the unnatural and cruel tyrant whose overthrow is anticipated in curses and prophecies. For a moment Margaret and Richard seem similar, caught in the symmetries of killing and counter-killing, rhetoric and counter-rhetoric, curse and counter-curse, patterns that typify the Henry VI plays. She has fallen prey to the curses poured on her when she tormented and killed Richard's father; her own curses will ruin him. The ‘hateful, withered hag’ fights it out verbally with the ‘elvish-marked, abortive rooting-hog’ (1.3.212, 225; …). Hog and hag both belong to a frightening supernatural twilight. Richard as much as Margaret is ‘hateful’ and ‘withered’, and it is even possible to see a symbiotic alliance between them. But politically at least Margaret is a spent force. Only a new tyrant can be subject to new curses and prophecies. The roles are rapidly demarcated along the lines of gender, with Richard as the aggressor and Margaret as the female voice of lamentation, curse, and prophecy.

The anti-Richard play has its origin here in 1.3 with Margaret's curses. Their rhetorical power depends on the comprehensiveness with which every person is caught within the mode of subjunctive petition for death. Margaret comes as it were from beyond the grave, breathing death on the living. Richard is last in her catalogue, and is cursed most fully. Yet this final catalogue of imprecation remains incomplete, for Richard returns her insults on the speaker, interrupting her ‘… thou detested—’ with ‘Margaret’ (1.3.230-1). It is a childishly glib intervention, but it unseats the speaker. Can curses pierce the clouds if they are so easily bounced back by the human respondent?

In fact their potency as predictions cannot be deflected. Richard shows no sign of caring that the machinations by which he kills Rivers, Vaughan, Grey, Hastings, and Buckingham enact not only his own programme but also Margaret's. By the logic that they die, so will he. We should probably understand that the drowning of Clarence brings about the King's death, and certainly the murder of the young princes causes the state of sorrow that Margaret so particularly describes as the property of their mother the Queen. The play, in particular the action that Richard orchestrates, is an almost comprehensive enactment of Margaret's prophecy, as was made particularly clear in Sam Mendes's production of 1992, in which Cherry Morris as Margaret was allowed to reappear hauntingly as each of Richard's victims went off to his death. Richard's interruption of Margaret's curse by replacing his name with hers implies that he can evade the larger syntax of prophecy with its final term ‘Richard’. But by 4.2, the scene after his coronation, he is muttering nervously about the ‘Rougemont’ prophecy (ll. 103-7). Like Henry VI's more formal prophecy, it might mean Richmond will be king: ‘perhaps, perhaps’ (l. 99).

Unquiet Slumbers. From Clarence to the Grey faction to Hastings to the young princes to Buckingham, Richard's victims process from confinement to the grave. The staged episodes all have relevance, indirectly, to the episode Shakespeare does not put on stage at all, the murder of the young princes. Repeatedly the audience sees what it is like to be a victim of abusive political power in a fragile interim before death, when the order has been given but the execution has yet to come. The depiction of Clarence's death in 1.4 gives particularly full amplitude to a Christian spiritual area of experience that can then be given more summary presentation later on. It allows those later and shorter episodes to resonate with understated implication.

Clarence dreams an imaginary version of his death, awakes to tell his dream, sleeps, and then awakes to face death itself, as though the whole sequence were an inescapable nightmare. His account of his dream is a richly intertextual passage, with echoes in its phrasing of journeys to the underworld in Virgil, Seneca, the Englished Seneca of Thomas Sackville, in his additions to Mirror for Magistrates, and Thomas Kyd, in The Spanish Tragedy. These are interwoven with recollections of drownings at sea in Ovid and the Cave of Mammon in Spenser's Faerie Queene.2 There are also biblical allusions and echoes of Marlowe. Clarence's identification of the ‘grim ferryman’ Charon as a figure ‘which poets write of’ (1.4.43) affirms the allusive quality of the episode, and is in itself a formulaic literary tag. The very text dreams beyond itself. Harold Brooks writes of ‘a molten confluence of influences fusing together at high temperature and pressure of creative imagination, to yield the most eloquent poetry in the play’.3 At some overarching level the play is diversifying its status as a retold myth of English political nationhood, claiming its part in a new English vernacular literature that could comfortably assimilate the classical influence. The Plantagenet duke becomes a consciousness through which a poetic, visionary, and primarily pagan conception of death is transmitted to the audience of the popular theatre.

But it is the imaginative force of Clarence's account of his dream that is of most immediate impact. There is dream within dream, death within death, as the man about to die both in reality and in his dream sees the fantastical vision of those already dead mocked by the artificial life of glittering gems. Shakespeare's debt to Spenser's Cave of Mammon might alert us to the possibilities of moralizing the vision as an emblem of the vanity of earthly acquisitions, including power. It should also suggest that the vision is grotesque, not only as usually understood today, but also in an etymological sense of the word that relates it to the idea of a grotto or artificially ornamented cave. The dream goes on to become a vision of the death agony itself, and then goes on further as it is ‘lengthened after life’ (1.4.40). The drowning now alters to the ‘tempest to my soul’, and, in a very dreamlike transition, the underwater setting is transformed into a journey over the surface of the ‘melancholy flood’ (1.4.41-2). If this recalls Clarence's imagined escape from England in the opening of the dream, his companion Richard has now been translated into Charon, the Virgilian ‘grim ferryman’ who takes Clarence to the kingdom of perpetual night. Here the ghosts of Warwick and Edward of Lancaster confront Clarence before the tormenting fiends seize on him. The ghosts are a sharp anticipation of ghosts that later visit Richard as he confronts his imminent death.

The only sustained passage of prose occurs in the Executioners' dialogue as Clarence once more sleeps, a passage of grim humour shedding a grotesque but moralized light on death from the point of view of its agents. There are analogues such as the semi-comic tortures of Christ in medieval pageant plays such as the Wakefield ‘Coliphizacio’,4 but in such episodes the range of tone and subjective experience is, by virtue of the dramatic form, much narrower. As with the Porter scene that unexpectedly disrupts the brooding intensity after Duncan's murder in Macbeth, the comedy is far more complex than light relief. In this case the episode builds tension, and it develops the theme of conscience in a different key. Both here and in Tyrrell's account of the killing of the princes, Shakespeare contrasts Richard's radical amorality with the ‘dregs of conscience’ that remain in his henchmen. Conscience is as yet inexpressible in Richard's mind, though it will have its day after he is confronted by the ghosts of Clarence, the princes, and all the rest.

Much of the comedy lies in illogical shifts between a very literal Christianity learnt from the pulpit and the grim materialism of the needy:

SECOND Executioner
I pray thee, stay a while; I hope my holy humour will change, 'twas wont to hold me but while one would tell twenty.
                                                  [They wait]
FIRST Executioner
How dost thou feel thyself now?
SECOND Executioner
Faith, some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.
FIRST Executioner
Remember our reward when the deed is done.
SECOND Executioner
Zounds, he dies. I had forgot the reward.
FIRST Executioner
Where is thy conscience now?
SECOND Executioner
In the Duke of Gloucester's purse.


Conscience is absurdly alienable from the person. It is materialized as the equivalent of the drainable dregs of a barrel, or coins that can be enclosed in someone's purse. It is like a spirit or demon that can afflict a person unless it is turned away or safely contained elsewhere. One moment it is conscience who is ‘at my elbow persuading me not to kill the Duke’; the next moment it is the Duke himself. The Executioners and Clarence are in effect the voice of each other's conscience.

Accepting that the King has ordered his execution, Clarence argues that God ‘holds vengeance in his hands ❙ To hurl upon their heads that break his law’ (ll. 180-1), recalling God's words in Deuteronomy 32:35, ‘Vengeance and recompense are mine’. Even the ‘Homily against Disobedience’ advised that rulers should be disobeyed ‘if they would command us to do anything contrary to God's commandments’.5 Clarence has a strong and simple case, but he is not well placed to urge it. In the Executioners' account, his guilt is twofold. He is a perjured turncoat who betrayed his brother Edward by swearing an oath of allegiance to the Lancastrians, and then reverted to the Yorkist cause. Clarence's second guilt puts him in line with his brother from the beginning, for both of them were implicated in butchering Edward of Lancaster at Tewkesbury. Thus Clarence, though in other circumstances he broke his loyalty, went along with a command that was against God's laws. One ‘bloody minister’ (1.4.200) can scarcely argue his case against another on the basis of the divine injunction.

When the truth is declared Clarence realizes that it is not King Edward who has arranged the killing but his other, more trusted, brother Richard. The excuse that ‘he that hath commanded is the King’ (1.4.175) collapses. But if the debate on disobeying royal command is redundant in relation to the Executioners, it raises the spectre of Richard in authority as king: what then would be the case? Principled disobedience is hard to find in the world ruled by dagger and purse. Moreover, the debate in 1.4 and the Homily both fail to provide a rationale for moving beyond disobedience to something that will materialize at the end of the play, forcible resistance and rebellion. There is no vindication of Richmond in prospect here.

Much is at stake in the debate, but nothing can detract from the foreground: the sense of a human existence, a man imprisoned, helpless, and struggling towards knowledge of what is most to be feared. The dream and the mock-trial offer both premonition and false hope. In theory at least a dreamer can awaken from nightmares; in theory an accused can be acquitted if innocent. It is not so in the world of terror. Here the riches of life's experience lie as relics amongst dead men's skulls. The murderer's blow and death by drowning are implacable and close, despite the momentary grotesque richness and grotesque comedy of the interim.

The word ‘dream’ and its cognates appear more often in Richard III than any other Shakespeare play.6 There are the prophetic ‘dreams’ that Richard unleashes on the King in 1.1, the butcheries that exclusively occupy Richard's dreams according to Anne in 1.2, the tormenting dreams of devils Margaret prophesies for Richard in 1.3 that are actualized in Anne's account in 4.1, Clarence's dream of drowning in 1.4, Stanley's emblematic vision of the boar razing his helm relayed to Hastings in 3.2 and mentioned again in 3.4, the Queen's reduction to ‘A dream of which thou wert a breath, a bubble’ (4.4.83), and Richard and Richmond's visions of the ghosts in 5.4, these probably the ‘babbling dreams’ Richard attempts to dismiss at 5.5.37. Though none of them is sweet, these dreams signify in a variety of ways, sometimes indeterminately. Some are prophetic, some reflect the dreamer's state of being; sometimes there is little distinction.

The dreams that have specific content are those of Clarence, Stanley, Richard, and Richmond. Stanley's is told indirectly by a messenger, and is no more than a single image. Hastings, when told of Stanley's dream, cannot see or accept its implication, preferring, like Clarence, to be lulled by another kind of illusion. In what they express and what they cannot express, dreams can be understood as expressions within the individual consciousness of the effect of political violence. They are expressions of political suffering—and even, in Richmond's dream, of resistance.

Details such as Stanley's dream, Hastings's coincidental meeting with the Pursuivant he previously encountered when going to the Tower under arrest, and his later recollection of his horse presciently stumbling on his way to the Tower, anticipate the omens of Caesar's fall in Julius Caesar. Hastings, like Caesar, is fed knowledge he chooses to reject; he leaves home and walks to his doom in voluntary ignorance. The imaginative experience of those facing entrapment, arrest, or murder by politicians and their henchmen, or betrayal by patrons in high office, would have registered in late Elizabethan London as much as a modern totalitarian state. In the play, dreams and omens represent the point at which nothing less than reality impinges on the life we think we lead.

Upon Record. In 3.1 Prince Edward formally enters the capital city as king-to-be. It is his first and last scene, unless one counts his reappearance after death as a ghost. The overall movement of the scene is to conduct him to join his brother in the city's oldest and most oppressive building, the Tower. It is a moment of hollow welcoming and contrived political manoeuvre. The princes themselves are not the innocent babes depicted by Tyrrell after they are murdered, but adolescents who are outstripping childhood and, in a vulnerable, gangly way, beginning to confront those who have control over them. There is a stage tradition going back as far as Colley Cibber's 1699 adaptation of the Duke of York or both princes being performed by women; indeed in the Victorian period the practice was invariable, and it continued into Frank Benson's 1910 film. George Bernard Shaw complained about the role of Prince Edward being taken in Henry Irving's revival by an assertive actress, Lena Ashwell: ‘he [Richard] is obviously addressing a fine young woman … who treads the boards with no little authority and assurance as one of the younger generation knocking vigorously at the door’.7 Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps the surprise arose because audiences had been brought up on Cibber's adaptation in which the princes are more simply pathetic figures.

What the Victorian stage did not reflect was the requirement in the Elizabethan theatre whereby the princes would be played by the same actors, boys, as some of the women. Mendes's 1992 production brought together the two traditions by having actresses double the princes with two of the female roles: Annabelle Apsion played both the Duke of York and Anne, whilst Kate Duchêne doubled Prince Edward and the Queen. Such an arrangement can inconspicuously bond the community of Richard's victims.

The princes are presciently mindful of their uncle. In 2.4 the Duke of York remembers Richard correlating physical growth and moral worth, ‘Small herbs have grace; gross weeds grow apace’ (2.4.13), an ironic variation on Richard's attitude to his own warped body, as his mother's comment makes clear:

He was the wretched' st thing when he was young,
So long a-growing and so leisurely
That if this were a true rule he should be gracious.


But the received memory of Richard's infancy suggests otherwise:

Marry, they say my uncle grew so fast
That he could gnaw a crust at two hours old.
'Twas full two years ere I could get a tooth.
Grannam, this would have been a biting jest.


Young York discloses Richard as the gross weed, as the infant with teeth, and then in 3.1 as the Vice with his hand on his dagger, as the grotesque hunchback, all these being the trademarks of the Richard whose picture departs from verisimilitude to join with political mythology. He imagines himself as the ape on the shoulder-saddle of Richard as the lopsided showman:

Uncle, my brother mocks both you and me.
Because that I am little, like an ape,
He thinks that you should bear me on your shoulders.


This can be a painful moment for Richard, and a correspondingly dangerous one for the future of his young adversary. In Sam Mendes's 1992 RSC production, York climbed up on Richard's shoulders. Henry Irving as Richard responded to the quip with a silent glare of concentrated hatred, and John Wood lunged murderously at a York who was parodying his gait. York's mock might suggest that he is a diminutive version of his uncle, and when Buckingham notes his ‘sharp, provided wit’ (3.1.132) he confirms that they share some qualities. The audience knows that Young York will never grow up to be his father or his uncle. But though Richard can do away with the princes, he cannot do away with the hunch that symbolizes his criminality in that act.

York's elder brother shows a more intellectual precocity, appearing as a ruler in the making who is educating himself, with a little ostentation, into a sense of his own place in history. He knows something about the past of London's main edifice representing coercive rule. It is a building he should ultimately control as king, but, reflecting his lack of real power, he has been consigned into it against his will—‘For your best health and recreation’, as Richard reassures him. His glance back in time to the founding of the Tower by Julius Caesar bears comparison with metatheatrical moments such as Shakespeare's glance forward in time from the period of Julius Caesar itself,

                                                            How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

(Julius Caesar 3.1.112-14)

Cassius refers directly to the way he and his fellow conspirators are making history by killing Caesar. More allusively, when the Prince hails the originatory moment of the Tower he prompts us to remember that an edifice bears the memory of the events that have happened in it. We might reflect that he is being literally, physically placed within the civic history and history of oppression associated with the Tower. It is not after all a monument like the bruised armour Richard describes as disarmedly hanging on the walls,8 for its malign potency continues.

It is relevant too that the Prince's own concerns with recuperating the classical past, interrogating documentary evidence, and establishing a polity based on scholarly learning identify him as a humanist in the tradition-to-be of More himself—the More of Utopia with its carefully regulated dispersal of power as well as the More of The History of Richard III. From this point of view, Richard's assassination of the Princes delays the emergence of humanist culture itself. Richard's England is no place for Erasmus, whose visits to England are celebrated in Sir Thomas More, a play written at about the same time as Shakespeare's Richard III, and perhaps commissioned by Lord Strange's Men.9 Humanist culture might seem one way in which the Tudor regime ushered in with Richmond's victory contrasts with the twilight medieval past. Here again, though, it might be remembered that More himself would suffer imprisonment in the Tower and execution at the hands of Henry VIII, epitome of the Tudor king.

The Prince has managed to pick up on a topical controversy about the past of the building in which he is about to be incarcerated and destroyed, as though the knowledge he has acquired might offer some purchase over the place and its ability to do harm. Yet the attempt to ward off the ominous presence of the Tower by positioning it as an object of knowledge is undermined by the very uncertainty to which the Prince refers. Interrogation of the truth about legendary figures such as Julius Caesar is symptomatic of an age witnessing the growth of antiquarian historical study, to whom oral tradition was no longer straightforwardly acceptable. The issue in question, whether Julius Caesar's building of the Tower is a matter of record or legend, was debated at the time Shakespeare was writing Richard III by that industrious recorder of London's past and England's, John Stow. In the 1592 edition of his Annals of England, Stow remarks as follows: ‘John Lydgate, John Rous, and others write that Julius Caesar builded in this land the castles of Dover, of Canterbury, Rochester, and the Tower of London; but it is not like that Caesar remained any such time here, neither do the Roman histories make mention thereof’ (B3v).

The note of scepticism corrects Stow's own earlier naivety, for in his Summary of English Chronicles of 1565 and his Chronicles of England of 1580 he transmits the account of Caesar building the Tower without the qualification ‘but it is not like …’, as if it were undisputed.10 The Prince's question as to whether it is recorded or reported history seems to show Shakespeare's knowledge of Stow's newly acquired rigour, whether directly or by report. Buckingham assures the Prince that Caesar's building of the Tower is ‘Upon record’. No such record exists, so the Prince is suitably dissatisfied with the answer. Though he does not challenge Buckingham's supposedly superior knowledge, he continues to talk on the supposition that, as is the case, the records from the Roman period are silent on the matter:

But say, my lord, it were not registered,
Methinks the truth should live from age to age,
As 'twere retailed to all posterity,
Even to the general all-ending day.


The principle is exactly that attributed to Caesar for his edifications in the 1565 Summary, ‘for a perpetual memory, to put his name in remembrance’ (C3v). For the Prince, the absence of a record does not mean the absence of a truth.

As Hammond notes, similar questions surround the play's own historical foundations. After all, Stow questions the authority of Rous, a determined vilifier of Richard whose manuscript Historia Regum Angliae was a major written source for More's History. In the play, the Prince's comments bring into close association the ideas that ‘succeeding ages have re-edified’ the Tower and that ‘truth should live from age to age’ (3.1.71, 76). The processes are correlated through the verb ‘re-edify’, as ‘edify’ can and could mean ‘to give instruction’. The truth, like the building itself, can be re-edified ‘from age to age’. And, to acknowledge again the interweaving of memory and document, the image of re-edification is conspicuously apt in relation to the retrospective retelling of Richard's life by More, in the chronicles, and in the play itself.

This idea of re-edified knowledge applies pre-eminently to Richard's responsibility for the two Princes' deaths. The Prince's seemingly intuitive wisdom carries with it an implication that is, presumably, beyond his conscious knowledge. When the Princes are murdered, Richard will silence the historical record, but he cannot silence the oral record that will have the story ‘retailed to all posterity’. Richard himself forces the issue by responding with the grimly joking aside ‘So wise so young, they say, do never live long’ (3.1.79), as if the principle of truth itself could be killed. By appealing to proverbial oral wisdom, ‘they say’, he unwittingly admits, however, that shared knowledge is not so easily silenced. It is one of those moments when the play has the last say over Richard himself. The very act of retelling or retailing the events of his life, as the play does, testifies that the murders will stimulate rather than silence his notoriety.

Ironically, John Stow, the touchstone for documented information about the Tower, was himself responsible for the transmission of an oral tradition concerning Richard III that was far more favourable than the chronicle account from More that he himself retails in print. As D. R. Woolf records, ‘Sir George Buck, whose dogged attempt to rescue the character of Richard III from a century of Tudor vilification was published only several years after his death, and even then in a bowdlerized, watered-down form, based his case not only on scrupulous scholarship but on traditions. Much of his information came orally from the octogenarian John Stow, who had himself spoken in the mid-sixteenth century with old men who recalled Richard in a favourable light.’11 Might Shakespeare have been aware that what Stow said about Richard on record differed from the inadmissible accounts he later retailed to Buck? That is conjecture, but a wider cultural anxiety about the foundations of historical knowledge, specifically knowledge relating to these events, is clearly feeding into the play and posing questions as to the security of documented historical truth.

The concern with absent record is balanced out when the play considers too what is the truth in the presence of documentation. The quasi-judicial murder of Hastings becomes a matter of falsified record. A little scene introducing a new character specially makes the point. In so far as he is simply a copyist, the Scrivener in 3.6 is a nonentity. He acquires status as a contestatory voice behind the official declaration whose personal knowledge, like Stow's, conflicts with the document he has prepared. He is indignant but self-repressing, aware that the mechanics of repression flow directly and traumatically from politics to the inward experience of the divided self.

The Scrivener explains to the audience that Richard's henchman Catesby brought him a legal indictment of Hastings ‘yesternight’ and it has taken him eleven hours overnight for him to produce the copy in the ‘set hand’ of an official legal document. He infers that the ‘precedent’ from which he copied must have taken just as long to write. As Hastings was alive and unaccused just five hours ago, Catesby, or whoever wrote the original, must have begun penning the account of his execution and the reasons for it more than seventeen hours before Hastings was executed.

The Scrivener's speech is a protesting meditation on the manuscript he is carrying, on its position within a historical sequence of events and its function as a documentary falsification of those events. His words highlight the ironies of the situation. An ‘indictment’ (3.6.1) would usually be an accusation that would lead to trial by a jury, but in this case it is clearly a proclamation issued after Hastings's execution as a justification for what has already happened. In the sequence of things it has slipped from pre-trial to post-execution. When he draws attention to how the ‘sequel’ hangs together (3.6.4), the Scrivener's unusual choice of term draws attention to the lack of due order in the events as they have happened: this is a sequence without proper sequels. The bringing together of the scrivening terms ‘fairly’ and ‘engrossed’ at 3.6.2 brings out their moral connotation. This becomes even clearer when the Scrivener asks, ‘Why, who's so gross ❙ That cannot see this palpable device?’ (3.6.10-11). Richard earlier pointed out that ‘gross’ weeds grow apace. Here the large and elaborate ‘gross’ handwriting, part of the manuscript's character as a ‘fair’ legal document, draws attention to the palpable device that it tries to pass off. The truth of the matter, like the building of the Tower, is not on record. Indeed it cannot even be spoken of.

However, it can be ‘seen in thought’ (3.6.14). The play's very existence once again testifies to the durability and final prevailing of this kind of memory, at least when it can be translated into words by those who believe they have nothing further to lose. The critique of textual record and the vindication of thought and memory are exactly appropriate to a stage work that breaks free from chronicled history, creates the illusion of events re-membered, and depends on the actors' memories as the conduit from script to audience.

Woe's Scene. The play is punctuated by successive scenes, beginning with the killing of Clarence, that show Richard's victims just before their deaths. In these claustrophobic episodes the audience itself bears witness, and is the most immediate and effective vehicle of memory. Each death is private but monumentalized. The scenes show the living, sentient, aware person, and the person is set within an emblematically moralized frame. These are portraits in a gallery of the missing that moves through dramatic time. Sam Mendes's production made the point effectively by having each executioner make the same gesture of lowering his hand in front of the victim's face to represent his death. A choric Margaret (Medea Chakhava) evidently performed a similar gesture on the victims in Robert Sturua's production some thirteen years earlier. The ghost scene will later compress this procession into a single dramatic event. Meanwhile, as the executions take place, individuation of the victims is held in check by a growing sense of echo and repetition between their situations and between their belated condemnations of Richard.

Something more effectual emerges in the second and final scene where Margaret appears, 4.4. In her soliloquy that begins the scene there are specific echoes of Richard's soliloquy at the beginning of the play, not least in their shared theatrical vocabulary. Richard's ‘inductious’ plots set the cycle of murders in motion;12 Margaret reformulates the murders themselves as an ‘induction’ to the tragedy of Richard's fall.13 From this point, Margaret as a figure of Nemesis will preside over the action, in spirit at least. Despite the rhetorical language and the abstract frame of reference, it is Margaret and the other women rather than the men who are attuned to the reality of the larger historical process. Indeed the loaded patterning of the rhetoric is, in line with classical tradition, a kind of artificial memory that signifies the retention of historical knowledge.14 The women unflinchingly see the past and the future, and construct choric narratives that make the past and the future manifest. Shakespeare empowers them as chroniclers, the voices of those who understand and know. They apprehend meaning in the dismal chaos of the moment. Through them the tragic complexion becomes bifocal. There is the tragedy of Richard, but also there is tragedy as a theatrical experience that moves the audience towards grief because of his deeds. These women are a stage audience: witnesses, interpreters, and, in contrast with Anne, points of resistance to the seductive masculine energies of Richard.15

Margaret knows exactly where the tragedy is going. Richard's latest murders offer her the opportunity for grim triumph over him. They are inexcusable even to someone who welcomes vicarious vengeance on behalf of the Lancastrians, and the scene shows how the Princes' deaths bring an unpredictable alignment between the representative mother figures of Lancaster, York, and the Greys. Having presided over this new configuration, Margaret can disappear for good. The ghosts of the dead will later follow the women's example, aligning themselves in their cry of outrage against Richard, calling on him to despair and die.

This magniloquent scene 4.4 is significantly shorter in Q1 [the first Quarto] than in F [the Folio],16 and in the vast majority of productions it is shorter still. Arguably the full weight of at least the Quarto version is needed, in that too much further diminishment of Margaret's role and the Queen's trenchant verbal resistance leaves Richard without any significant opposition. The thin presentation of ‘shallow Richmond’ (5.4.198) in Act 5 finds compensation in the almost excessive and static lamentation of 4.4. Richmond is the effect. The cause and meaning can be seen to lie in the interstices between political and military reality, in Richard's confrontation with the women.

Barber and Wheeler suggest that in the web of curses ‘verbal play releases and seems to confirm aggression and destruction by uncanny power, suggesting an under-the-surface or enveloping force beyond the control of will and executive intelligence’.17 The challenges for performers are to find a dramaturgical style that will allow the opening episode of 4.4 to give expression to this power, to recognize the simultaneous ugliness and necessity of retribution, and to allow the humanity of the women's suffering its place too.

An effect of tableau is indicated by the simple device of having at least two of the three women sit on the ground.18 They are at once stationary, abjected, and placed in choric equivalence one to another. As mourners, they will wear black. The repetition of names, at its most extreme in ll. 37-43, can resound impressively if the play is performed as the last of a cycle, as in Peter Hall's production, where one reviewer thought the passage particularly effective because the dead were remembered by the audience too.19 In a freestanding Richard III Margaret will be more of an inexplicable outsider, an ironic contaminator of the play's world. Many of the dead will not be remembered by an audience which has not seen the Henry VI plays, and there will be relatively little sense that the rhetoric matches a momentous reality spanning a large sequence of history. In this situation the incantatory quality of the women's patterned repetition of names of the dead is just as much to the point as the specific people and events mentioned. The circumstance that three victims happen to have been called Edward allows the word ‘Edward’ to become in itself a token in the female memory of kinship, princeliness, and loss. Facts and discriminations are levelled out, for, as Margaret prophesies, they share victims who have suffered ‘like’ untimely violence (1.3.198) just as they have the like names. This is memory at its most selective. It foregrounds the figuration of grief as an emotional artifice over the events that gave rise to it. It bleeds away the actual detail of narrative to reveal a skeletonic poetic structure of willed similarities.

In some stage performances—Bill Alexander's was an example—the ‘three queens’ all remain on stage to confront Richard. Three can be a portentous number, and to a modern audience the visual echo of the three witches meeting Macbeth and Banquo might make its own point. The early texts are clear, however: Margaret leaves before Richard enters. The effect is to put her beyond reach of his insult and insinuation. As elsewhere, Richard's entry is disruptive. He arrives in military haste with drums and trumpets. He will sneer at his mother, and he will seduce the Queen, as he thinks, into promoting the marriage he intends to the Lady Elizabeth. But this time he will not be able to confute Margaret's rhetoric with cheap interruption. Her encounter with Richard's mother and the Queen has achieved its effect, which is to forge the matriarchal commonality of grief that binds these women, and ultimately almost everyone else, against Richard. She has taught the Queen, furthermore, that she has become a second Queen Margaret, ‘For queen, a very caitiff crowned with care’ (4.4.95). This new caitiff must learn, like her, to curse. That is Margaret's final exit. The rest of the scene will provide fitting final exits for the other two women, and will intimate that Anne has already made hers.

Richard attempts to deal with his mother and the young Princes' mother by drowning out their accusations with trumpets and drums. Just as he seems about to march away, he instead implores the women to ‘be patient and entreat me fair’ (4.4.145), and so he enters into the endgame in his relationship with his mother. The Duchess of York exists primarily so that she can definitively reject him in this scene. Before she curses Richard and invokes a bloody death for him, she sketches the life-history of a son offensively violent and unlovable from his birth onwards (4.4.160-4). In many stage productions Richard becomes childish in this exchange. Though the use of a drum to drown out intercession has classical precedent, as a response to one's mother it is purely infantile. Richard is given no verbal response to his mother's curse, but in some productions he appears shaken.20

The imagery of the scene develops the Duchess's earlier description of her womb as ‘the bed of death’ (4.1.49) and Margaret's account of Richard as a ‘hell-hound’ crept from ‘the kennel of thy womb’ (4.4.44-5).21 She cannot retrospectively make the womb a ‘bed of death’ to Richard himself, but her curse as mother can perhaps be equivalent:

KING Richard
Who intercepts my expedition?
A she that might have intercepted thee
By strangling thee in her accursèd womb …
Thou cam'st on earth to make the earth my hell.
Therefore take with thee my most heavy curse,
Which in the day of battle tire thee more
Than all the complete armour that thou wear'st.
Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end.

(4.4.130-2, 159, 177-9, 184)

After this desertion, Richard solicits the Queen for the hand of her daughter Lady Elizabeth in order to consolidate his right to the throne. It is a long exchange, and the Queen proves a fierce debater, suggesting that there is more to her than the vapid, suffering ‘Poor painted queen’ of Margaret's account (1.3.241).22 She drives Richard round in circles, making him return to repeat almost the same protestation he had uttered over a hundred lines earlier (see 4.4.211-12 and 317-19). What breaks the deadlock is Richard's urging of necessity, with an implied threat:

Without her follows to this land and me,
To thee, herself, and many a Christian soul,
Sad desolation, ruin, and decay.
It cannot be avoided but by this,
It will not be avoided but by this.
Therefore good mother—I must call you so …


A short passage of stichomythia follows this speech, reminiscent of Richard's seduction of Anne in 1.2. The exchange takes on a bizarre erotic coloration as Richard attempts to turn the woman on stage, already his sister-in-law, into a new mother figure.23 Not long after addressing the words ‘good mother’ to the Duchess he is (in Q1) using the same phrase to the Queen. Despite his political aim, there are hints now that his earlier claims to self-fashioning might have been played out against a then invisible background of maternal dependency. It is only after rejection (by the Queen as well as his mother) that he can be existentially perturbed by the thought that ‘There is no creature loves me’ (5.4.179). His attempt to stave off this conclusion takes him through a contorted vision in which his offspring will bring his dead victims back to life:

THE Queen
But thou didst kill my children.
KING Richard
But in your daughter's womb I bury them,
Where in that nest of spicery they shall breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.


The reference to the passive and sacrificially nurturing ‘nest of spicery’ invokes the legend of the Phoenix that dies by burning its nest, to be reborn in the ashes. The imagined act of sexual ingression supposedly compensates for the act of murder. In fancying that his own children might be new selves for his dead victims, by implication he proposes that he too can be re-mothered, by Lady Elizabeth the daughter as well as her mother. When he invokes the Phoenix he brings to mind new birth as resurrection and spiritual salvation. This is a desperate hope indeed. Moreover, from the Queen's point of view, nothing could be less plausible than the suggestion that this re-fathering of the children on their sister might transmute infanticide into a happy outcome. She may well take refuge in evasions and make her escape, though in some productions the eroticized intensity of Richard's language at last mesmerizes and subdues her. However enigmatic the Queen's response, the audience knows that it will be his rival Richmond who will breed new princes by marrying Elizabeth.

In 4.4 we therefore see a new version of ‘Love forswore me in my mother's womb’. As a consequence of his acts, women representing the gynocratic powers of motherhood, sexual love, and hope of dynastic succession forsake Richard. Something similar happens in King John at virtually the same stage in the action: in a single speech John hears that both his mother Eleanor and his sister-in-law Constance are dead (4.2.119-24). The concluding scenes of both plays are exclusively male.24 In King John, however, there is no dynastic consequence, for a son mysteriously materializes in the final scene. For Richard the desertion is absolute. It is Richard's rejection by his mother that causes his overthrow from a psychological standpoint, and it is the Queen's off-stage resistance to Richard that secures the political outcome. She transfers her allegiance and her daughter to Richmond. She will be his ‘mother’,25 and the conditions are ripe for him finally to come into being as a dramatic character.

Conscience. Richard first mentions Richmond by referring to two prophecies. One of them is about the castle called Rougemont, whose name Richard now imagines to be a bardic pun on ‘Richmond’. If such puns indeed mean anything, we might be disconcerted by the similarity between ‘Richmond’ and ‘Richard’ itself, as though Richmond were a kind of doppelgänger. They compete for both the hand of Lady Elizabeth and the crown itself. The whole of Act 5 is arranged as a series of episodes contrasting the two ‘Rich … d's, the present and future kings. Throughout, Richard has been associated with the inhuman, with the bestial and monstrous. He is a dog, a hell-hound, a charnel-cur, a hedgehog, an abortive rooting hog, a bloody boar. Richmond, in contrast with Richard, is associated with calm, goodness, and blessing. He is less vital and personable than Richard: he can be metallic and icy, or a calmly militant angel. In Alexander's production, Christopher Ravenscroft played him ‘humane, thoughtful, reaching out with love’.26 His conversation flows unperturbed, more a form of quiet leadership than personal interaction. This effacing self-assurance acquires value because it represents what Richard is not.

The ghost scene bears witness to a disintegration of self—that is to say, of Richard's earlier self, the figure of unquenchable exteriorization, the man of wit and will. By a horrible irony, the self that now emerges is that of Christian polemics: the renegade soul seeing itself as in a mirror and despairing at what it sees. Now he is beyond cheering; wine, a white horse, and sound staves will do little for him, and his death might be, as several productions have suggested, a form of suicide. Alan Bates's Richard gave Richmond his dagger so he could kill him.

Perhaps surprisingly, Shakespeare keeps his presentation of Richard at a distance from the forms of subjectivity that were available to him even early in his career as dramatist. More's account provided plenty of hints that Richard was an ambitious villain tormented by bad conscience. In this respect Shakespeare's Richard subtly parts from Sir Thomas More's. It is distinct too from Colley Cibber's later Richard. Nor is Richard akin to Shakespeare's own conscience-plagued tyrant, Macbeth.27 The play insists from early on, in its representation of other figures such as Clarence, that a more inwardly and spiritual sense of being is possible, but for most of the play it is not so for Richard. At least until he is king, his temperament is buoyant and sanguine. Even Richard's self-perceptions are so ironic and bemused that it is impossible to secure from them a residue of safe and serious content. His character is performative and phenomenological. Through that gambit Shakespeare hints at the experience of inner self behind the mask. This indirect, elusive, and unverifiable depiction of subjectivity is a technique to which he would return in presenting other role-playing figures, such as Rosalind in As You Like It, and Hamlet. But the hints from Richard are not reassuring. We may wonder whether the startling outwardly figure is of the same order of humanity as, for example, his brother Clarence.

But Richard does eventually wake up in his sleep and discover that, after all, he too partook of humanity as others experienced it. It could even be argued that the entire play's vantage point is that of Richard on the eve of the battle, a Richard on the point of death who meditates on the sequence that has brought him to where he is. By the end, the carefully patterned repetitions, implausible in themselves, might be understood as a retrospective narrative of self. After all, the ghosts are a condensed recapitulation of the longer story. If the viewpoint is Richard's, we might better understand why the logically absent Margaret is actually present in the play, why it can be coherent for Richmond, as an element in Richard's own account, to have a simultaneous dream in which he is simultaneously visited by the ghosts, and why the material world and the otherworld seem perfectly conjoined against Richard. To develop the speculative view that a subjectively based reading would be available to the early audiences, one might invoke Elizabethan forms of writing such as lamentation, complaint, spiritual autobiography, repentance, and deathbed meditation. For an audience familiar with the story, the play might be experienced as a horrible and remorselessly patterned unfolding of events that reached towards a moment of nemesis as well as a moment of triumph.

What Richard experiences after his nightmare of the ghosts is loss of grace, and in this the play is theologically orthodox. Richard is a sinner who knows himself as such and who cannot repent. Without grace there is no essential self: ‘I myself ❙ Find in myself no pity to myself’ (5.4.181-2; …). His dialogue with himself grows from the premiss that ‘There's none else by’ (5.4.161): specifically, no murderer about to kill him. He realizes that this is untrue, for spiritual despair makes him potentially his own self-assassin. John Donne wrote that ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God; but to fall out of the hands of the living God is a horror beyond our expression, beyond our imagination.’28 In Christian thought reaching back to St Augustine, the spiritual self finds validation in the knowledge of God's love. The consequences could be dire for those, following Calvinist assumptions, whose knowledge of God depended in the first place on interrogating the inner self. At worst, awareness of self could be experienced as rupture, the pain of exclusion from God.29

After his call ‘Have mercy, Jesu’ uttered in sleep, Richard's dialogue with himself is pointed in its failure to mention God as the ultimate source of love and affinity. God speaks his judgement through the courtroom of Richard's conscience, which anticipates the Last Judgement itself, but in so doing actually signifies his absence. The absent God has left a record of his departure in the form of a morally aware self, and that self now joins with his victims in seeking his death. Richard has attempted to fabricate himself as an autonomous being, but his recognition of conscience is a discovery that he has done so within a larger scheme of creation.

Richard fended off any responsibility for his own actions for as long as he could blame himself on his ontological beginnings, and hence on his mother. Her rejection of him signifies not only that humanity as a whole has turned against him, but also that he must take new account of himself. Before, his self-awareness fed on the death of others, specifically those within the bonds of kinship. Now there is a vacuum of otherness of every kind. Richard's annihilation of form, kinship, and law has turned back on him.30 ‘Richard loves Richard’ is a last-ditch gesture towards self-engendering through a narcissistic embrace of self, as well as a sad parody of God's love for humanity.

On the page Richard's soliloquy after his dream can seem disjointed and without eloquence, but as a script for performance its fragmentation is the whole point. In performance it can be and often has been the apex of the entire play. The speech occupies the space between what is no ordinary dream and the waking world of the battlefield. Though Richard revives impressively to fight his last battle, the speech is spiritually in extremis, poised between life and death. It is the critical moment in the play as a tragedy, as Richard attains theology by knowing of God's absence, and attains ironic self-awareness by seeing lost possibilities for selfhood.

Succeeding Ages. He is a figure about to die, and Richmond a figure ready to succeed. Shakespeare's dramatic elaborations on his sources throughout the play converge with historical hindsight in making this a certainty. Before the battle Richard is brave, monstrously: ‘A thousand hearts are great within my bosom’ (5.5.76). Off stage, in the battle itself, he ‘enacts more wonders than a man’ (5.6.2) as he kills phantom Richmonds who are really other soldiers in disguise.31 In Cibber's version especially, he can face Richmond heroically, even if that means enlisting on his side the ghosts that haunted him. Edmund Kean, playing Cibber's ‘aspiring soul’ for full, ‘fought like one drunk with wounds: and the attitude in which he stands with his hands stretched out, after his sword is taken from him, had a preternatural and terrific grandeur, as if his will could not be disarmed, and the very phantoms of his despair had a withering power’.32 Yet a staging of the combat that reflects Richard's mortal and spiritual desperation in Shakespeare's text might find his will finally disarmed. Sher's stooped Richard looked unable to fight; Richmond approached him ceremonially from behind and thrust his sword down on him.

Richmond's final speech is usually considered to be persuasive to the audience and sincere, though Wilbur Sanders calls it ‘a pious shell and a hard core of prudential self-interest’.33 He also remarks that it is ‘tenuously integrated’ with the rest of the play.34 Is it, as in Bogdanov's production, a smooth exercise in public relations, scarcely ruffled by the darkly ambiguous and repeated injunction ‘Let them not live’? Is it irrelevant because dissociated from the areas of emotional involvement that have typified the play? Or is this seedling of civic peace exactly what is most needed after Richard's manic and Herculean wrenching of England? At all events, by the end of the play Richmond is, as it were, remembering the future, speaking with the inflections of Elizabethan polity. The 1559 pageant celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth had established the connection between the two new reigns at the earliest opportunity. Its theme, ‘Unity’, referred specifically to a concord aimed at healing the strife between church reformers and Catholics. The pageant stage was decorated with red and white roses illustrating ‘The Uniting of the Two Houses of Lancaster and York’, and the narrator, a child, petitioned that:

Therefore, as civil war and shed of blood did cease
When these two houses were united into one,
So now, that jar shall stint and quietness increase,
We trust, O noble Queen, thou wilt be cause alone.(35)

As the pageant looks to the past, Richmond's speech looks towards the original audiences' present, which has been made possible by his own impending marriage to an earlier Elizabeth. He himself has been all along a product of Elizabethan hindsight. This is a strong closure, to the tetralogy as well as the play, because it confirms an effective alignment between the projection forwards and the projection back in time. In contrast with the coronation pageant, where a child could usher in a new age even as it speaks of the past, Shakespeare's play is locked into a circular dialogue between the past it depicts and its own present moment, for by then Queen Elizabeth was without an heir and long past childbearing.

The play as a whole perhaps presents a conflict between what Richard P. Wheeler calls ‘a redemptive destiny’ that ‘makes history sacred’ and a profane history in which Richard's ‘terrible presence is a source of fascination’.36 At narrative and thematic levels, the sacralizing myth prevails, and the play accords with Walter Benjamin's enigmatic thesis: ‘As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history.’37 In terms of the play's emotional impact, the effect might be otherwise. For in the conflict between the singular and the dispersed, between the demotic and the formal, between charismatic evil and bland virtue, the singular, the demotic, and the charismatic are likely to work theatrically in Richard's favour.

The reader's play of the mind might be able both to celebrate Richard as a creature of the theatre and to denounce him as an actor in an imagined political world. It might, correspondingly, both trace the ‘secret heliotropism’ of retelling the past so as to vindicate the present, and find in Richard an explosive figure whose very theatricality reveals the artifice and gives away the secret. As a whole, these are extravagant expectations to have of any one production. But theatre has its own purposes. For the very reason that stage performance is capable of challenging and reshaping our understanding of the play, the practices of theatre cannot be bound by prior assumptions as to the text's potential, let alone one editor's summary of it.


  1. Compare Kristian Smidt, Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays (1982), pp. 53-71.

  2. Harold Brooks, ‘Richard III: Antecedents of Clarence's Dream’, Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): pp. 148-50.

  3. Brooks, ‘Antecedents’, p. 150. See Commentary to 1.4.9-19, 25, 41-8, etc. [in The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000].

  4. The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. A. C. Cawley (Manchester, 1958), pp. 78-90.

  5. Certain Sermons or Homilies (1547), and A Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion (1570), ed. Ronald B. Bond (Toronto and London, 1987), p. 167.

  6. Twenty-five occurrences in dialogue, plus one stage direction. The next play is Midsummer Night's Dream, with sixteen occurrences (a lower count, though an admittedly higher frequency, as it is a shorter play).

  7. George Bernard Shaw, in Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (1962), p. 168.

  8. Compare Sigmund Freud's commentary on the monuments of London as ‘mnemic symbols’, in ‘Five Lectures in Psycho-Analysis’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey et al., 24 vols. (1953-74), xi. 16-17.

  9. The play was written by Anthony Munday, probably with Henry Chettle. A passage in it influences a passage in Richard III, or vice versa: see Commentary to 1.4.2-65 [in The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000]. Shakespeare helped revise Sir Thomas More if, as many scholars believe, the ‘Hand D’ additions to the manuscript are his, but the revisions may have been a decade later (see T. H. Howard-Hill, ed., Shakespeare and ‘Sir Thomas More’ [Cambridge, 1989]).

  10. Stow had edited one of his sources of information, Lydgate's Serpent of Division (1559). Lydgate uses the verb ‘edified’, which survives in Stow's Summary in the same passage to describe the building of Chichester.

  11. D. R. Woolf, ‘The “Common Voice”: History, Folklore and Oral Tradition in Early Modern England’, in Past and Present, 120 (1988), 26-52, p. 37.

  12. On the reading ‘inductious’, see Appendix D, Note 4 [in The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000].

  13. A later play with a similar structure is Henry Chettle's Tragedy of Hoffman (1602-3), where the first revenge sequence begins with Hoffman's opening soliloquy and the counter-revenge begins two-thirds of the way through the play with the entry of Martha, the widowed Duchess.

  14. On Renaissance memory machines and their antecedents in classical rhetoric, see Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (1966).

  15. Howard and Rackin [Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation (London and New York, 1997)] argue that the women are subordinated to Richmond's patriarchal agenda (pp. 113-18). I suggest, less retrospectively and more with a sense of the play as it develops in action, that Richmond is virtually a mere outcome of the feminized process, an agent for the voice of motherhood and a future king whose wife will carry the stronger right to the throne. Richmond's mother is mentioned long before he is (1.3.20), and the first mention of him identifies him as a figure free of Margaret's curse on the Queen as a mother whose name is ominous to children (4.1.34-42).

  16. See Appendix A for the Folio-only material [in The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000].

  17. C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The Whole Journey (Berkeley and London, 1986), p. 107.

  18. Margaret might sit on the throne (see Commentary, headnote to 4.4, and 4.4.455.2 n. [in The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000]) or remain standing.

  19. Julie Hankey, Plays in Performance: Richard III (1981); 2nd edn. (Bristol, 1988), p. 213, citing Financial Times, 13 January 1964.

  20. See …, pp. 108-9, on Troughton's interpretation [in The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000].

  21. Like ‘dream’, the word ‘womb’ appears more often in Richard III than any other Shakespeare play. On every occasion it is in connection with Richard, and that connection gives the word a strong negative connotation.

  22. R. Chris Hassel, ‘Context and Charisma’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 36 (1985), p. 636, approves of Frances Tomelty's portrayal of the Queen as ‘a tough, smart, skeptical, worldly woman’ in Alexander's production, and cites reviews of other productions where she has proved ‘a strong adversary’ (n. 31). In Al Pacino's film Looking for Richard (1996), the actor playing the Queen, Penelope Allen, argues keenly for presenting her thus.

  23. As noted by Barbara Hodgdon, The End Crowns All (Princeton and Oxford, 1991), pp. 104-11.

  24. Compare also Portia's reported death and the all-male end of Julius Caesar.

  25. As Richard recognizes in the ‘Freudian slip’ of 5.5.53: see Commentary [in The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000].

  26. Hassel, ‘Context’, p. 638.

  27. Nevertheless, Richard III is an important precursor of Macbeth. Comparison of Richard and Macbeth played a central part in the development of eighteenth-century character criticism; see Joseph W. Donohue, Dramatic Character in the English Romantic Age (Princeton, 1970), pp. 189-215.

  28. John Donne, Sermons, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley, 1953-62), v. 266.

  29. John Stachniewski, The Persecutory Imagination (Oxford, 1991), p. 70.

  30. See William C. Carroll, ‘Desacralization and Succession in Richard III’, Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West, Jahrbuch 1991, 82-96.

  31. See 5.6.11. This detail, not in the sources, gives Richmond a touch of the Machiavel, though the role-playing works on the opposite principle to his opponent's earlier single-handed performance of many roles.

  32. William Hazlitt (1820), in Jonathan Bate, ed., The Romantics on Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, 1992), p. 510.

  33. Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1968), p. 73.

  34. A reader who considers it important to uphold the speech's detachment from the rest of the play may wish to reject the editorial emendation at 5.7.28.

  35. The Passage of our most Dread Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth through the City of London to Westminster, the Day before her Coronation (1558 [1559]), sig. B1.

  36. Richard P. Wheeler, ‘History, Character and Conscience in Richard III’, Comparative Drama, 5 (1971), 301-21; pp. 303, 304.

  37. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, written 1940, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York, 1968), p. 255.

Kathy M. Howlett (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Howlett, Kathy M. “Vivid Negativity: Richard Loncraine's Richard III.” In Framing Shakespeare on Film, pp. 128-48. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Howlett appraises director Richard Loncraine's film adaptation of Richard III and the problems of historical representation that it addresses.]

Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1995) sets Shakespeare's play about a medieval tyrant's rise to power within the material trappings of a 1930s fascist England, a transformation that troubles some film critics, who call the film “a time-travel experiment gone wrong,” with “Fascist regalia” that “seems oddly beside the point.”1 Even those critics who are impressed with the film's fascist spectacle remain skeptical that it is still Shakespeare. Richard Bowman, film critic for The American Spectator, praises the film's “consistent cleverness of its setting,” finding that “in some ways [it is] the best film adaptation of Shakespeare there has ever been.” Yet, paradoxically, he concludes that the film “is not Shakespeare.”2

The film's varied collection of images from the Third Reich includes some breathtaking visuals, most notably Richard's Nuremberg-styled rally, but Hollywood's familiarization of audiences with the clichés of fascist spectacle has so trivialized their meaning that the representation of Richard as fascist seems less historical than cinematic. That, of course, may be Loncraine's point. As Thomas Elsaesser observes of Hollywood's stereotyping of fascist imagery, “its very inauthenticity might be its truth as history.”3 The question of how the film ought to represent sociopolitical and historical processes that constitute the historical rise of Richard III, or even the spectacle of the Nazi past, is not this chapter's concern. Instead, its interest lies in investigating the notion that cinema itself can play the role of historical agent by conjuring images that reproduce the fascination of the viewing subject. The film aligns the myths, sentimentality, horror, and spectacle of fascism with the film industry itself, so that Richard's story is as much a part of cinema as cinema is part of the Nazi past.

Loncraine credits Ian McKellen, who plays Richard III in the film and who cowrote the screenplay, with setting the play in a fascist 1930s, but Loncraine admits that he had to change nearly everything in McKellen's original screenplay. Using what he calls “the grammar of film,” Loncraine approaches Shakespeare's play “from the point of view of a storyteller.”4 However, as Marjorie Garber observes, Richard's history, like all history, is a “story that the teller imposes upon the reconstructed events of the past.”5 As the story of Tudor ascendancy, Richard's history bears the marks of reconstruction, a story told to justify the current regime. Loncraine's film illuminates how twentieth-century culture reshapes the vagaries of history and reconstructs its own villains, by showing the viewer that Richard's history is deformed from the outset, whether as a reconstruction that justifies Tudor orthodoxy or one that justifies our late twentieth-century political orthodoxies.

As Loncraine claims, “We tried, and I think we've succeeded, to do something different with Shakespeare. Something that's never been done before.”6 The film's difference lies less in its fascist-era setting than in the way the camera establishes the viewers' experience of the aesthetic frame. For Loncraine not only fills the frame of Richard's story with vividly negative anecdotal similitudes to a Nazi past but suspends those images—and the temporality of Richard's story—within the timeless absence of historicity of the Hollywood gangster film. The transformation of Shakespeare's Richard III to a form recognizable within twentieth-century political and cinematic experience allows the audience to perceive Richard's history as an act of retroactive reconstruction and mythologizing similar to our cinematic reconstruction of twentieth-century criminals and tyrants. The film engages the audience through analogies to a tyrant in recent history to demonstrate how the audience participates in its culture's mythmaking. The key, according to Loncraine, is to “forget you're watching Shakespeare.”7


Certainly McKellen's is not the first fascist Richard. Ever since the 1930s, when the public became aware of the threat of fascism, theatrical practice transformed Richard into an unheroic Hitler-styled schemer. Even Laurence Olivier admitted that his stage performance of Richard III was shaped by such an awareness: “One had Hitler over the way, one was playing it definitely as a paranoiac, so there was a core of something to which the audience would immediately respond.”9 But when Olivier claimed that audiences “immediately respond” to the Hitler characterization, what did he mean? For when one scans theatrical performances of the role, it becomes clear that conceptions of Hitler changed over time—and so, consequently, did characterizations of Richard III.

In 1942 Donald Wolfit played Richard in a “blood-and-thunder” approach that accorded with current perceptions of Hitler as an old-fashioned and unself-conscious tyrant, which appealed to London audiences “bracing against nightly bomb attacks.”10 As the public's knowledge of Hitler's regime grew, however, its idea of the tyrant altered, so that by the time McKellen assumed the role on stage in a 1990 production, Hitler had become “one of us.” As one reviewer said of McKellen's performance, “there is no missing the Sandhurst accent. … He comes stiffly across the bare, black stage in his general's uniform and talks of ‘wintah’ and ‘myajestea’ in a blend of drawl and blimpish staccato. It is one of our own.”11 The theatrical production suppressed Richard's deformity and emphasized the self-mythologizing quality of fascism. Similarly, reviewers of Loncraine's film detect in McKellen's Richard “a Sandhurst-trained man's man, well versed in the terse, fraternal idiom that gives him equal access to hired thugs like Tyrrel … and backroom politicians like Buckingham.”12 The recognition that McKellen's Hitleresque Richard … “is one of our own” resonates with the ironies of history, for Goebbels concluded Hitler's 1933 birthday address with a similar phrase: “We give you our hands and vow that you will ever be for us what you are today: ‘Our Hitler!’”13

In fact, Loncraine's film's fascist context coincides with how Shakespeare scholars discuss the play, in political terms that reflect his vision, describing Richard as “the play's resident (and Tudor historiography's requisite) monster fascist.”14 But just as significant to the play's investigation of the soul of a tyrant and the darker side of human nature is the connection between audience and villain. As Morton Frisch speculates, “It is even conceivable that the gulf which separates Richard Plantagenet from the rest of the world is not as great as might be imagined at first appearance.”15

The problem of an audience's relationship with its historical villains has, not unexpectedly, been a hotly contested topic among Germany's traditional cultural elites, who have been distressed to find that televised American versions of German history, such as Marvin Chomsky's series Holocaust, generated more national reflection than German films on the subject. Attempts in German films and television drama of the 1960s to deal with the subject of Germany's fascist past had failed to awaken dormant responses to the Nazi regime, largely because the narratives seemed conceived primarily to unburden the younger generation of inherited guilt while indicting the parent generation. On the other hand, the American television series Holocaust concentrated on the complementarity of terror and civilized behaviors that gave German society its illusion of normalcy. That a product of popular and commercial culture awoke long dormant responses to the Third Reich suggests, as Anton Kaes wryly observes, that the German people only recognized themselves “in the mirror held up by Hollywood.”16

The efforts of current German cinema to abandon “Papa's Kino” and its participation in what Thomas Elsaesser describes as the “binary lines and exclusionary formulations of the postwar period in politics,” affords an interesting comparison between Loncraine's and Olivier's versions of Richard III.17 Olivier's Richard III also works to prevent ruptures between the viewer and the past by visualizing Shakespeare's protagonist as legend, a manufactured thing. The film blocks the process of history by creating a rhetoric of binary oppositions that split the past from the present, thereby polarizing Richard as a monster in a bygone era. This point is confirmed in the film's opening scene, in which the viewer sees a two-dimensional drawing of a crown, beneath which appears the announcement of the film's intention—to portray a “legend.” The film's frequent processionals and orderly stream of victims also suggest order and pattern in the chaos that is history, while a variety of distancing techniques separate the audience from its enjoyment of Richard's crime, including the theatrical sets that allow the audience to perceive Richard's crimes as performance, the incorporation of the exaggerated qualities of a cartoon character (the Big Bad Wolf) in Richard's portrayal that reduce the serious implications of the play, and the camera's manipulation of spatial depth, which, as Davies observes, “invariably” consigns Richard's victims “to the depth of the frame.”18 The overall effect of the film's imaginative framework is to dislocate the film from the historical burden of responsibility in its depiction of tyranny, and to distance the viewer from the past that is Richard's story.

Yet the fascist past in which Loncraine's film establishes Richard's story is every bit as much a stylized, self-invented, and replicated history as the theatrical “medievalism” that Olivier conjures. In fact, at times Loncraine's film seems to be little more than an unstable play of costumes and settings that fail to connect the viewer to any clearly realized past or to establish any real historical grounding. Loncraine's film transcodes its fascist spectacle within the seamless moment of Hollywood's reductive historicism, in which the structures of history are replaced with representations that do not represent. For despite the film's twentieth-century dressing, Loncraine presents the viewer with a fantastic and overdramatized spectacle that erases its own representation as historical present.

Loncraine's Richard III makes vivid the problem of representation, in which fragmentation and alienation make unintelligible historical events as recent as the rise of fascism and a Nazi past. As Erving Goffman warns, “issues which turn on events that occurred in the distant past are especially vulnerable” to the viewer's misframing; so are historical events that are charged with a “vivid negativity.”19 German historian Ernst Nolte underscores that “the vivid negativity of a historical phenomenon represents a great danger for the discipline of history. A permanent negative or positive image necessarily has the character of a myth, which is an actualized form of a legend.”20 When the past assumes powerful negative representations, it threatens to become legend. And “without doubt,” Nolte adds, “the Third Reich is cut from the cloth from which legends are made.”21 The only corrective to misframing, Goffman asserts, is by reexamining the meaning of our experience, and by rupturing the distance between ourselves and the mythologized past.

Interestingly, when German historians recently debated how to physically represent the artifacts of German history in a museum, they too resisted chronological or linear models of representation.

Around a central space, which has as its theme a historical nodal point or the explanation in depth of the selected historical problem, other rooms can be arranged, which are devoted to comparisons, flashbacks or flashforwards, the presentation of controversial points of view or the connections with non-German history. The architectonic form might be conceived of as a “serpentine,” “spiral,” “honeycomb” …22

The design reflects the problem of how to confront “vivid negativity” in historical representation. The model is especially intriguing in its conception of history in cinematic terms, as “flashbacks” or “flashforwards,” cinematic devices that work against linear or chronological models. The visitor to this museum would experience history as subjective truth, perceived according to one's experience of the architectural design or aesthetic frame of the building itself, and disconnected from temporal constructs that link it to a German past or present.23 However, the museum's critics note that the spatialization of German history creates ossification and distance between the observer and the objects of history. As Eric Santner laments, the Deutsches Historisches Museum may end up being a “house of mirrors, an enclosed space in which Germans may go to see themselves reflected and thereby reinstated in an imaginary plenitude and wholeness.”24

The issue of how cinema reflects history, particularly the vivid negativity of German history, is the concern of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's 6-hour 45-minute film Hitler, A Film from Germany (1977), later retitled Our Hitler, which announces itself from the start as not a historical film nor a historical construction of the Third Reich, but as history as theater. Of Syberberg's film Susan Sontag observes that “historical reality is, by definition, unrepeatable. Reality can only be grasped indirectly—seen reflected in a mirror, staged in the theatre of the mind.” In an ironic insight, Syberberg's film suggests that all history is cinematic, for it is “one of the film's conceits … that Hitler, who never visited the front and watched the war every night through newsreels, was a kind of moviemaker. Germany, a Film by Hitler.”25 Syberberg's film makes clear that Hitlerism cannot be contained within a single thesis but, as Anton Kaes observes, is “a subject that becomes concrete and comprehensible only in the distorting mirror of others, a hollow center that is filled to the degree that we project ourselves into it.”26

Loncraine also formulates Richard's story on the ruins of modern history, in a world that is not a model of history but a reflection of the cinematic experience that is history. As Loncraine's set designer maintains, “We were creating our own world and our own sort of history; we had the flexibility to take the reality and heighten it. … Obviously, we didn't slavishly stick to the 30s.”27 The time period is nebulous, the locations seem uncertain. The film's visualization of place suggests how the problem of continuity and discontinuity in history, of recurring cycles and the return of the repressed in opposition to humanity's desire for new beginnings and breaks from the past, constitute the material of Richard's story. These concerns are illustrated in the play itself, in that Richard's story is absorbed within the history of the Tudor ascension and the process of providential history that conceals contradictions. Loncraine's film also positions Richard's story at a symbolic moment of social transformation which absorbs the abnormal back into a sense of order. The film traces the process by which Richard's story moves from a period of liminality to incorporation by portraying Richard's journey to power as a literal movement of the liminal outsider through a threshold.

In the opening scene of the play Richard signals to his audience that his presentation is a mode of acting that breaks through the play's self-contained illusionist frame. In the film, that scene begins with Richard's opening address to the large formal gathering of Yorkists and moves to the viewer's claustrophobic encounter with Richard in the repulsive intimacy of the toilets, where we hear him detail his bodily deformities and planned villainies. The camera follows the movement of Richard's speech as it travels from the political and social sphere to the personalized space of his body. The camera movement works in unison with Richard's mode of direct address, moving from public space to private musings, puncturing the boundaries of outside and inside, just as in the play Richard's rhetorical asides puncture the play's dominant rhetorical style and its conventions of theatricality. The camera is central to the viewer's experience of Richard, in that the viewer enters Richard's inner space through the camera, subject to his own proportions and projections.

Richard addresses the first lines of his famous opening soliloquy to a ballroom filled with elegant aristocrats. As he speaks to the crowd through the microphone, the camera dollies forward and focuses in tight close-up upon McKellen's face, drawing closer and closer to the gnashing and yellowed teeth until the camera seems to enter into the maw of the fascist monster himself. The film then cuts from a close-up of Richard's hard mouth to a private space that he inhabits alone, where being “rudely stamped,” “deformed,” and “unfinished” take on specific sexual overtones when he stands before the urinal. When Richard admires his image in the mirror and descants upon his deformity, he acknowledges his audience for the first time, although there is no other reflection in the mirror than his own. Richard discovers his audience when he spies his “shadow in the sun,” suggesting that the audience is necessary to the image he projects, and signals the possibility that he may reconstruct himself as a projection in terms of showing himself showing himself.


The film's stylistic indebtedness to the gangster film of the 1930s and 1940s has led film critics such as Richard Corliss to call the film “Hitler as Scarface” and “all movie.”29 In specifying the historical rise of a particular film genre (the gangster film), Corliss touches upon an intriguing aspect of this film's realization, in that its representation of history is ultimately cinematic, and enables Loncraine to achieve a blend of popular entertainment and historiographic inquiry that Shakespeare's Richard III also accommodates. Since viewers are largely interested in the real crimes of real criminals, Leo Braudy observes, “the crime film has constantly maintained an effort to connect in some way with a real and contemporary social history.”30 Arising from the same period of financial and political crisis that created fascist Europe, gangster films emphasize the historical realities of crime while celebrating the criminal protagonist. Not surprisingly, gangsters and fascist thugs bear certain similarities to one another, in that the Freicorps and Hitler's Brown Shirts were versions of the same malaise, the violence of the antisocial. Weimar Germany witnessed gangsterlike assassinations of public figures such as Walter Rathenau, Germany's brilliant foreign minister, who was murdered Chicago style (machine-gunned and hand-grenaded) in 1922.

However, as Bertolt Brecht warned, “too close a coupling of the two plots (gangster plot and nazi plot)—that is, a form in which the gangster plot is a symbolic version of the other plot—would be unbearable, not least because people would constantly be looking for the real-life model for every figure.”31 Brecht's reservations alert us that, like Richard himself, the film gangster is not contained by the specific historical moment that occasioned the criminal's rise to prominence in journalistic headlines or on the cinematic screen. On the contrary, the film gangster exists in what Eugene Roscow calls “kairotic time,” those propitious moments that mark the deeper meaning of time.32 Contemporary audiences' continuing fascination with the gangster arises, according to Roscow, not from interest in the historical moment that spawns the criminal but in the social dislocations that characterize his rise. The gangster's story, like Richard's, flourishes in the subjective space of popular fantasy. As Susan Bennett observes, Shakespeare's popularized historical theater should not be confused with historical representation, for “unlike History, the history play can perform the discourses of the past as fantasies, posing characters and events in the realm of ‘what if?’”33 McKellen echoes Bennett when he claims that in Richard III Shakespeare “was creating history-which-never-happened. Our production was properly in the realm of ‘what might have been.’”34

The result of recording Richard's story with an ensemble of reality effects that satisfy Hollywood cinematic conventions of the gangster film is that the film takes the traumatic material of twentieth-century history, as inscribed within the well-established images of the Third Reich, and makes it into an old movie. The film ironically reflects upon the Third Reich's unshakable belief in the demagogic power of images and upon Propaganda Minister Goebbels's prediction that “in a hundred years' time they will be showing a fine color film of the terrible days we are living through.”35 The Nazi era, memorable to audiences in photographs of Nazi rallies, gas chambers, mass murders, is reduced to mere iconography, “a set of disposable, interchangeable, dehistoricized images that can be inserted into any historical narrative, no matter how trivial, to give it a simulated authenticity and a sense of tragic depth.”36

The fascist spectacle is only one aspect of the multilayered cultural strands that label this film cultural fantasy. Yet even in its stylized and hybrid representation, the vivid negativity of the images associated with a Nazi past gives special prominence to the role of subjectivity in the film's historicizing. For in a story in which the tyrant's demise is certain and without suspense, Loncraine turns to familiar and formulaic scenarios and images that seduce the audience by their affect. Loncraine knows about seduction, for he has made his career in the world of television advertising for over twenty years. Loncraine admits, “I really enjoy the discipline [of advertising]. I do a lot of car ads.”37 The director's familiarity with the seductive powers of the advertising medium made his alliance with Royal Shakespeare Company actor Ian McKellen an unlikely but appropriate one for the film they were to produce together. As Loncraine recognizes, “I feel the version we came up with is absolutely the product of both of us.”38 Their union suggests a fluidity between mercantile values and cultural perspectives, imported from the world of television advertising, and the genre that is Shakespeare, enshrined as an artifact of moral and cultural instruction. Loncraine claims this melding of approaches to Shakespeare is also an aspect of his cultural and family inheritance, having descended from a family of “traveling show people. Half gypsy, half Jewish,” who “had the last franchise to do Shakespeare in Regent Park's open-air theatre in the '50s.”39

Shakespeare's Richard III bears witness to the shifting material conditions and social relations of a new market economy from which Richard emerges as the central figure of Shakespeare's play. As Linda Charnes observes, Shakespeare situates the figure of Richard III within the marketplace of the new relations between “literary genres devoted to moral instruction and social description” and those resonant with the new money-based economy, a “moveable, fluid activity” that invaded both the social and spatial surfaces of social interactions.40 Loncraine situates Richard's rise to power as an effect and symptom of the materiality of the early 1930s, and emphasizes the bankruptcy of society at a palpable, material level. At the beginning of the film the song that resonates throughout the gathering of the victorious Yorkists—“Come live with me and be my love and we will some new pleasures prove”—is Christopher Marlowe's materialistic vision of love set to a melody befitting the mood of easy self-indulgence indicative of a period eager to forget the trauma of war. The smooth melody and glib sentiments of the lyrics, along with the camera's invitation to imbibe the dazzling visual spectacle of a nation embracing a period of sensual gratification after the experience of war, suggest to the viewer that Richard's world is one that dwells upon the beautiful surfaces but fails to perceive its inner deformities. Marlowe's lyrics translate naturally into the material opulence of Loncraine's set, as the queen's family arrives to join in the Yorkist victory celebration. This scene also emphasizes social anxieties that Shakespeare's contemporaries would have understood as moral ones, in that the gathering represents a blurring of boundaries in social space between mercantile interests (in the guise of American interlopers to royal prerogative and power) and aristocratic forms. The play interrogates this problem in its characterization of Queen Elizabeth's family and in its repeated references to Mistress Shore, a mere burgher's wife and the king's mistress. But it is in the character of Richard himself that the issue of boundaries becomes detrimental.

In the film's opening sequence at the Battle of Tewkesbury, the fragile forms of civilized behavior collapse when confronted with Richard's raw aggression. In the battlefield war room of the reigning king's camp, a large black dog quietly chews his bone before the fireplace, a fire roars in the hearth behind him, and the lighting creates a warm glow on the bookshelves lined with volumes on either side of the fireplace. A large pastoral painting hangs on the wall behind Prince Edward, and a grandfather clock stands beside it. However, these vestiges of civilization conveyed through the prince's leisurely meal (wine poured into crystal glasses and food artfully prepared on the plate, a picture of his wife, Anne, nearby) are suddenly shattered when Richard's tank abruptly and violently penetrates the wall of the prince's headquarters, emerging with its gun erect and pointed at the audience from the space directly behind the fireplace. … The entrance effectively destroys any sense of civilized engagement with war, for, as the film makes vivid, Richard threatens to overrun all boundaries. The succession of events that follow rapidly upon this dramatic entrance underscores Richard's challenge to civilized codes: the murder of the prince, with a brief cut to his blood splattering on the painting behind him, and the non-diegetic execution of an old, white-haired king at his prayers, registered in the loud crack of gunfire as Richard's name appears on screen in large red letters. Only then does Richard remove his gas mask and reveal the man behind the monster.

As the film's opening sequence makes clear, Richard's monstrosity is political, not providential. The film does not stigmatize Richard's bodily deformities as God's mark upon the sinful any more than it suggests that the murder of innocent babes is an act of divine retribution. In the film's twentieth-century context, audiences reject the rationalization that attributes physical abnormalities or the sufferings of innocent people as a sign of God's justice. Hence the erasure of the play's ghosts who appear to judge Richard in his dreams in Act V, and to applaud Richmond in his. No divine judgment or supernatural explanation can justify the tyrant's rise to power, any more than Tudor moralizing could sufficiently explain the slaying of the princes in the Tower.

Although film critics decry the film's “swanky costumes and decor” for creating “more distractions than revelations,” style and costume are important elements of Loncraine's portrayal of Richard III.41 Loncraine presents a Richard who, in the context of his world, is its best dresser and smoothest talker. The film presents the elegance of dress as its central symbol of the surfaces that hide the body and give the illusion of wholeness, just as Richard's deformed arm is always plunged deep into the front pocket of his pants, an erotically suggestive gesture that gives his body an uneven swagger of masculine bravado. In this film Richard's physical abnormalities are well disguised by the civilized veneer of his elegant dress and only noticeable when he calls attention to them in abrupt and perverse ways, such as when he singles out Hastings for a bloody example to others who may block his path of power. When Richard gestures obscenely at Hastings with his deformed arm, and smacks him across the back of the head with it, we see how he employs his deformity as hidden weapon against the truth. Richard uses his deformity in a number of ways, as erotic object, as weapon, and as instrument of obscenity. In the superficialities of the world of the film, his deformity is his mode of dress, an outward sign that tells us little of the inner man but much about the people and society he controls with it, through his manipulation of the signs of what the body means.

Richard assumes various roles as if he were assuming another mode of dress, his performity itself like another sort of clothing, which McKellen emphasizes in Richard's rise to power as projections of an image, much as Hitler's public appearances were contained within a cultural frame that was highly theatrical and cinematic. As German historians point out, “Hitler, in reality a master of the art of the theatrical, was profiled [by Goebbels] as a man ‘whom it was impossible to imagine posing.’”42 Historians agree that the “Hitler myth” was consciously devised as an integrating force by a regime acutely aware of the need to manufacture consensus, in pursuit of which the German cinema was an important tool. Hitler's descent from the clouds in his propaganda film Triumph of the Will reveals how self-dramatization was a crucial element in his control of the state, much as Loncraine's film depicts Richard watching a film of his own coronation as he mandates the deaths of the princes. Sitting in the dark projection room, Richard watches his black-and-white image assume the robes of royal power again and again, tirelessly performing his ascent to the throne on the cinematic screen. The film record of the coronation represents the past as a projection of the image Richard wishes to appear, even as Riefenstahl's documentaries projected Hitler and his war in images Hitler wished to appear, blurring the boundaries between Richard's past and the myth he becomes, enabling him to deceive the audience through seductive similarities.

Deformity can also be performative in Richard III in that Richard's deformity becomes projected upon others. As the play reveals, Richard's image escapes its own borders to contaminate the viewer's perspective of others, as when Richard accuses Queen Elizabeth of witchcraft or blames the tardy cripple for failing to deliver Clarence's pardon on time to forestall his execution. In Loncraine's film, not only does the audience become a projection of Richard's self, but Richard's perversity finally infects an entire nation, in which the condition of deformity is transferred to the diseased polity itself:

The noble isle doth want her proper limbs;
Her face defaced with scars of infamy,
Her royal stock graft with ignoble plants,
And almost shouldered in the swallowing gulf
Of dark forgetfulness and deep oblivion.


A striking instance in which the film reworks the other characters' relations to Richard is in the death of Rivers (Robert Downey, Jr.). Decidedly unlike his offstage death in the play, Rivers's eroticized death in Loncraine's film is a completely fabricated scene. Rivers's right arm is tied to the bed as he passively enjoys erotic pleasures in non-diegetic space, while the camera remains focused upon his face and naked torso. Rivers shares similarities with Richard at this moment, in that the outward sign of Richard's erotic proclivities—his useless arm—is replicated in Rivers's representation, and reminds the viewer, at least subliminally, of Richard's deformity.43 When he suddenly registers a startled cry, the viewer is almost as shocked as Rivers to discover that he cries out not from pleasure but from the deadly thrust of the bayonet that protrudes from his belly.

Rivers's death is confusing in that it seems to be caused by a mysterious internal source. It is unlikely that Richard or his henchman is lying beneath the bed awaiting this particular moment to murder him, though we know that Richard and Buckingham are later credited with the murder. The scene is more symbolic than realistic, for it perpetuates the myth of Richard's murderous aggression in a way that replicates the viewer's experience in the opening moments of the film, in which Richard's unruly masculinity bursts through the walls of Prince Edward's headquarters. The method of Rivers's destruction in some ways resembles a perverse birth, of which Richard is the play's outstanding example (born too late and too soon). In the visual logic of the film, death and birth are the same sign, a blurring of boundaries that Richard understands when he proposes an incestuous marriage to his niece. He tells her mother, Queen Elizabeth, whose sons he has also killed, “If I have killed the issue of your womb, / To quicken your increase, I will beget / Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter” (IV.iv.296-98). In Richard's logic, the womb is source of both life and death.

Projecting his own deformities upon others is essential to Richard's strategy for acquiring power through the scapegoating of others. In terms of the play, Richard is most successful in scapegoating women, invoking the differences of gender to cloak his own physical (and moral) difference from other men.44 This becomes quite clear in the scene in which he condemns Hastings to death when he refuses to join with Richard and the other men in blaming Queen Elizabeth for Richard's physical deformity, for Richard, like the women he excoriates, is aware of what bodies can be made to mean. Tellingly, Phyllis Rackin comments that “the power that Richard takes from women is not only the power to curse and seduce; it is also the power to transcend the frame of historical representation.”45

Richard's infamous wooing of Anne also poses the question of blame and responsibility, when Richard asks her who is “the causer of the timeless deaths / Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward, / As blameful as the executioner?” (I.ii.117-19). The scene represents an act of scapegoating that reminds us of the play's earlier account of the circumstances surrounding Clarence's murder, which, as Michael Mooney points out, “is in an important sense symbolic of the moral state of England, a land in which everyone wishes to be ‘guiltless.’”46 Loncraine underscores how the nation actively flees from responsibility in Clarence's death in a stunning visual moment at the sun drenched seashore. When Richard breaks the news of Clarence's execution, King Edward is so overwhelmed that he collapses. Although Richard blames the death on a tardy cripple who delivered the pardon too late, the film reveals how the group staves off guilt. Looking diminished and insignificant, together they scurry toward the exotic and massive edifice of Brighton Pavilion that looms ahead, the low-angle shot capturing their desperate flight toward a symbol of their material opulence and away from their moral culpability. It is an image that shares elements of the fantastic one associates with Dorothy's flight with her entourage to the gates of the Emerald City, to an impossible illusion of wholeness and escape from the dangers behind them.

If a fantasy of wholeness and plentitude is the landscape toward which they flee, Richard's encounter with Anne in the morgue makes explicit how Richard stands as a distorting mirror of their putative lack. The film sets Anne's capitulation in a morgue, a scene imbued with the ghostly quality of a nether world as light filters through the basement windows behind her. … When Richard descends the stairs to this grisly underworld, the numbers of bleeding bodies and corpses that strew the halls emphasize that his crimes extend well beyond the murder of one man. Consequently, Anne's position as mourner becomes less exclusive, more representative, when she walks past the multitudes who claim the bodies of their loved ones. Her yielding therefore seems less singular, less the weak capitulation of an inexperienced and frightened young woman than the commingling of fascination and revulsion. The setting implies that Anne cannot condemn Richard without blaming herself. For although she excoriates Richard for “infecting” her eyes, Richard ruptures the boundaries between guilt and innocence by proving Anne a murderer: “Thou wast the cause and most accurst effect” (I.ii.123).

Even as the film reveals how Anne's capitulation is an evasion or even an erasure of critical thought by her acceptance of Richard's distorted representation of events, the film's depthless, historical grounding in some imaginary fascist England, and in the dehistoricized style of the Hollywood gangster film, similarly “infects” the viewer's perspective of the complexities of history. In this regard, Richard's story replicates the pattern of myth as the intertwining of history and fiction as a way out of responsibility, “as though one could be indemnified by regret for once-upon-a-time acts of struggle in phrases such as ‘the end of an era.’”47 And although at the end of Loncraine's film we witness Richard's defeat, the viewer's experience of Richard's death keeps his story open and unresolved. Loncraine's camera opens the surrounding context by underscoring the contradictions that propelled Richard to become king, and reveals the film's distrust of narrative closure. Loncraine, indeed, may agree with the young prince who declares “Methinks the truth should live from age to age, / As 'twere retailed to all posterity” (III.i.76-77).

The final scene of the film is staged as a version of the siege of Berlin, as Richard attempts to flee the burning and bombed out city. … Pursued by Richmond, Richard grasps whatever weaponry lies in his way and indiscriminately fires upon friend and foe. At one point he seizes upon an enormous gun and holds it erect as he fires off volley after volley in an image almost comically suggestive of critical assessments that Richard's masculine aggression as “perpetually engaged in erecting himself.”48 Yet for all these monumental images, Richard is a figure greatly diminished at the end of this film, almost grotesquely so. When his jeep becomes stuck, McKellen weakly moans “My kingdom for a horse,” and shoots the driver who urges him to safety through the head. With Richmond in hot pursuit, Richard finds himself trapped upon the outermost reaches of metal scaffolding atop a ravaged building, when he turns and faces Richmond and extends him his arm. Yet almost in the same gesture, Richard flings himself backwards into the flaming depths below, a mesmerizing final glimpse of the man who went laughing to hell.

Richard's fantastic end is the film's most conspicuous homage to the gangster film genre, specifically Jimmy Cagney's fiery end in White Heat (1949).49 Just as Cagney's unrepentant Cody Jarett triumphantly shouts “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” amidst an apocalyptic explosion of chemical tanks, McKellen's Richard gleefully plunges to his fiery end to the tune of “I'm sitting on top of the world.”50 In evoking Cagney's now-famous ending from the gangster film genre, Loncraine underscores the moralizing impulses evident in Shakespeare's play, in which Richard's story fulfills the pattern of a cautionary tale. Richard, like the gangster, climbs the ladder of success only to plunge (literally) from great heights back to his place of origin, his descent into a flaming abyss an appropriate (symbolic) end for a man dominated by what Ian Moulton calls a “surfeit of masculine heat.”51 Yet the moralizing impulse of Richard's fiery end strains hard against the tendency of film audiences to identify with the criminal who lives out the dark side of our dreams of power, wealth, and ambition. As Bob Sklar observes, Depression-era audiences “identified with the movie gangsters, despite printed prologues in Scarface and The Public Enemy reminding viewers of how evil the characters were.”52 McKellen's portrayal of Richard carries with it a similar double view of the film's central figure, in that viewers both identify with and morally disdain the murderous villain whose violence fuels the action of the film. In consciously invoking past cinematic forms that recall the histories of bizarre and dangerous men, Loncraine involves the viewer in a complex awareness of how our own dreams contribute to the imaginative landscape in which Richard rises and falls. If Cagney's character's end, as one critic suggests, presents an “unsettling metaphor of the derangement of our nuclear age,” in which the demise of a remorseless, psychotic killer with grandiose dreams reveals similarities with the madness of our modern age, then perhaps in Richard's end we witness the failure of the late twentieth century to liberate itself from a complex, contradictory, and fascinating mythology that indemnifies a culture from the pain of recognition.53

Richard's end leaves the viewer asking, like the Scrivener, “Who is so gross / That cannot see this palpable device? / Yet who's so bold but says he sees it not?” ( For if Shakespeare writes history backwards, Loncraine projects Richard's end as our future. That future, of course, lies in the sudden awareness and startling directness of Richmond's expression as it now addresses the camera that had been dominated by Richard. The viewer's fascination with Richard as a figure both intimate and external, both inside and outside, is transferred at this moment to Richmond. The film cuts the long epilogue that gives the play its illusion of closure, leaving the viewer to ponder the meaning behind Richmond's expression and its implication for an historical narrative that seems incapable of advancing “politically into a new terrain.”54 The final shot resists the polarizations that divide the past and the future by implicating the viewer when Richmond turns and addresses the camera with a look that punctures the boundaries of inside and outside. The viewer experiences not simply the unreality of Richard's end but also a disruptive face-to-face interaction with Richmond, an experience of the interpenetration of frames that is what Goffman calls the “manufacture of negative experience.”55 Jarred from a protective psychological distance when Richmond squarely faces the camera, the viewer, at least momentarily, grasps the connection between the circumstances of Richard's story and his own ambiguous context as viewing subject.

In his demonic laughter Richard also breaches the psychological distance between the audience and himself, in that in his fantastic end, recorded by the camera as a long distance shot into an inferno, he bursts the boundaries of realistic representation. When the viewer discovers inherent weaknesses in the framing process, as in Richard's laughter or in Richmond's enigmatic smile, it follows that the viewer's sense of what is going on will also be found vulnerable.56 Richard's laughter, like Richmond's look, denies the viewer's need to exclude and totalize, in that it forces the viewer retrospectively to reassess the continuity of the present with the past.

Leah Marcus observes that “our recovery of the past is always interpretation and self-interpretation.”57 In the mirror held up by Hollywood we begin to understand our relationship to our monsters, but only when the materials of the film's imaginary style and “past” break down. The logic of the cinematic form itself liberates the viewer from an interpretative closure that brackets the past from the present. “Only by facing the past,” writes German historian Richard Leicht, “can we be free. We are our own past.”58 Loncraine's film gives us a view into the experience of that past, not as a realistic record of life in fascist Europe in the 1930s, but as the cinematic experience of history. Richard's story is a projection of that which the civilized world demonizes as monstrous and perverse, in that what the viewer sees is not the image itself but what exists in the “space between image and viewer, a meeting point of desire, meaning, and interpretation.”59


  1. Terrence Rafferty, “Time Out of Joint: The Hyperkinetic ‘12 Monkeys’ and a Fascist-Era ‘Richard III,’” The New Yorker, January 22, 1996, p. 86. Olivier, however, was a similarly ruthless expunger of the text and incorporated many of Colley Cibber's eighteenth-century emendations in his film adaptation of Richard III.

  2. James Bowman, “Bard to Death,” The American Spectator 29 (March 1996): 58.

  3. Thomas Elsaesser, “The New German Cinema's Historical Imaginary,” in Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television, ed. Bruce A. Murray and Christopher J. Wickam (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), p. 305.

  4. Loncraine quoted in Porter's “Bringing Shakespeare to a '90s Audience: Loncraine, McKellen Join Forces for Richard III,” Interview with Richard Loncraine, The Film Journal 99.1 (1996): 34.

  5. Marjorie Garber, “Descanting on Deformity: Richard III and the Shape of History,” in The Historical Renaissance: New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture, ed. Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 96.

  6. Loncraine quoted in Porter, “Bringing Shakespeare to a '90s Audience,” p. 42.

  7. Loncraine quoted in Porter, “Bringing Shakespeare to a '90s Audience,” p. 42.

  8. Ian McKellen, William Shakespeare's Richard III (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1996), p. 65.

  9. Laurence Olivier, quoted in Scott Colley, Richard's Himself Again: A Stage History of Richard III (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), p. 172. Colley observes that by the late 1950s directors of theatrical productions “could not take delight in the merry pranks of Richard III in an era of Nazis and in the aftermath of millions of deaths in concentration camps. Olivier's histrionics must have seemed out of touch with grim post-war reality” (p. 184).

  10. Colley, Richard's Himself Again, p. 169.

  11. Benedict Nightingale, “A Very Modern Nightmare,” Times (26 July 1990), quoted in Colley, Richard's Himself Again, p. 258.

  12. Ben Brantley, Review of Richard III, New York Times, Sunday, January 21, 1996, p. 25.

  13. Goebbels, quoted in Ian Kershaw, The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 59.

  14. Linda Charnes, Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 65.

  15. Morton J. Frisch, “Shakespeare's Richard III and the Soul of the Tyrant,” Interpretation 20.3 (1993), p. 283. Frisch echoes Sigmund Freud in “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work,” in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), who observes of Richard's opening soliloquy that when the “bitterness and minuteness with which Richard has depicted his deformity make their full effect … we clearly perceive the fellow-feeling which compels our sympathy even with a villain like him.” Freud concludes that “we feel that we ourselves might become like Richard, that on a small scale, indeed, we are already like him” (p. 593).

  16. Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 221.

  17. Elsaesser, “The New German Cinema's Historical Imaginary,” p. 286.

  18. Davies, Filming Shakespeare's Plays, p. 71.

  19. Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 450.

  20. Ernst Nolte, “Between Historical Legend and Revisionism? The Third Reich in the Perspective of 1980,” in Forever in the Shadow of Hitler?: Original Documents of the Historikerstreit, The Controversy Concerning the Singularity of the Holocaust, trans. James Knowlton and Truett Cates (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1993), pp. 3-4.

  21. Nolte, “Between Historical Legend and Revisionism?,” p. 15.

  22. Sachvertändigenkommission, Konzeption für ein “Deutsches Historisches Museum,” p. 17, quoted in Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 132.

  23. Holocaust denial has been one response to German history's “vivid negativity.” In 1976 Arthur R. Butz, a tenured engineering professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, published The Hoax of the Twentieth Century in an attempt to win historical and scholarly legitimacy for Holocaust denial. It is particularly ironic (when one considers that Hitler effectively used the film media in his own propaganda campaign) that Butz blames historical revisionism on the mass media in Western democracies, which he calls “a lie machine of vaster extent than even many of the more independent minded have perceived” (quoted in Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory [New York: Plume, 1994], p. 132).

  24. Eric L. Santner, “On the Difficulty of Saying ‘We’: The Historians' Debate and Edgar Reitz's Heimat,” in Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television, ed. Bruce A. Murray and Christopher J. Wickam (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), p. 269.

  25. Susan Sontag, Preface to Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Hitler: A Film from Germany, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982), pp. x-xi.

  26. Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat, p. 57.

  27. John Calhoun, “Richard III” (film review), TCI: Business of Entertainment Technology and Design 30 (April 1996): 34.

  28. McKellen, William Shakespeare's Richard III, p. 249.

  29. Richard Corliss, “Pulp Elizabethan Fiction,” Time, January 15, 1996, p. 67.

  30. Leo Braudy, Native Informant, p. 231.

  31. Bertolt Brecht, Journals, 1934-1955, trans. Hugh Rorrison, ed. John Willett (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 137.

  32. Eugene Roscow, Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 310.

  33. Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia, p. 33.

  34. Ian McKellen, William Shakespeare's Richard III, p. 13.

  35. Erwin Leiser, Nazi Cinema, trans. Gertrud Mander and David Wilson (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 124.

  36. Michael E. Geisler, “The Disposal of Memory: Fascism and the Holocaust on West German Television,” in Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television, ed. Bruce A. Murray and Christopher J. Wickam (Cardondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), p. 233.

  37. Loncraine quoted in Porter, “Bringing Shakespeare to a '90s Audience,” p. 34.

  38. Loncraine quoted in Porter, “Bringing Shakespeare to a '90s Audience,” p. 34.

  39. Loncraine quoted in Porter, “Bringing Shakespeare to a '90s Audience,” p. 34.

  40. Charnes, Notorious Identity, p. 6.

  41. Rafferty, “Time Out of Joint,” p. 86.

  42. Kershaw, The “Hitler Myth,” p. 72. Between 1933 and 1942, Goebbels consolidated the crisis-prone German film industry as a vehicle for propaganda, so that during the 1930s Hitler's Propaganda Ministry had the best technical facilities in Europe. According to Marc Silberman, “Shooting Wars: German Cinema and the Two World Wars,” in 1914/1939: German Reflections of the Two World Wars, ed. Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1992), “the Nazi cinema remained one of the strongest European producers through the onset of war in 1939, with an average of 80 feature-length films per year, as well as documents, shorts, and newsreels” (p. 121).

  43. This fabricated scene also recalls Michel de Montaigne's translation of a Greek proverb, “The lame man doth it best,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, ed. Donald M. Frame (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1943), p. 791.

  44. Although Hitler did not “scapegoat” women in the way he did Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals, he did blame women in the workforce for many social problems, including the unemployment of men. However, Hitler also recognized the significance of women in his drive to power, as Richard does. He insisted that Goebbels advertise his celibacy “as the sacrifice of personal happiness for the welfare of the nation,” which Hitler regarded as a “functional necessity directed at avoiding any loss of popularity among German women, whose support he saw as vital to his electoral success.” As Kershaw points out, “All this was closely related to Hitler's known views on the ‘psychology of the masses,’ already expounded in Mein Kampf” (The “Hitler Myth,” p. 3).

  45. Phyllis Rackin, “History into Tragedy: The Case of Richard III,” in Shakespeare: Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 40.

  46. Michael E. Mooney, Shakespeare's Dramatic Transactions (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 42.

  47. Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, p. 159.

  48. Ian Frederick Moulton, “‘A Monster Great Deformed’: The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III,” Shakespeare Quarterly 47.3 (1996): 267.

  49. The production designer for Loncraine's film, Tony Burroughs, confirms in an interview in TCI 30 (April 1996) that “When Richmond arrives at the set (which happens to be a power station) and the two of them have their confrontation atop the girders, the end recalls the climax of Jimmy Cagney's White Heat” (p. 37).

  50. McKellen says of Richard's death, “I relished the double irony of the Al Jolson song which he [Loncraine] had overlaid on the final frames of his film. Richmond and Richard simultaneously feel, in the moment when their fates collide, that they are sitting on top of the world” (William Shakespeare's Richard III, p. 286).

  51. Moulton, “‘A Monster Great Deformed,’” p. 260.

  52. Robert Sklar, Movie Made America (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 181.

  53. John McCarty, Hollywood Gangland: The Movie's Love Affair with the Mob (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), p. 98. McKellen similarly observes of Loncraine's Richard III that “if the action of the play often looks back, the film is centred on the living moment and then looks forward” (William Shakespeare's Richard III, p. 17).

  54. Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, p. 162.

  55. Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 420.

  56. Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 439.

  57. Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: University of California, 1988), p. 217.

  58. Robert Leicht, “Only By Facing the Past Can We be Free. We Are Our Own Past,” in Forever in the Shadow of Hitler?: Original Documents of the Historikerstreit, The Controversy Concerning the Singularity of the Holocaust, trans. James Knowlton and Truett Cates (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1993), p. 244.

  59. Ron Burnett, Cultures of Vision: Images, Media and the Imaginary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 136.

Richard Marienstras (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Marienstras, Richard. “Of a Monstrous Body.” In French Essays on Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Jean-Marie Maguin and Michèle Willems, pp. 153-74. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1990, Marienstras studies the cultural tradition and symbolic significance of Richard's deformed body in Richard III.]

In Bill Alexander's 1984 production of Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company,1 the “monstrous” aspects of the protagonist were particularly emphasized. Antony Sher, who acted Richard, used crutches and, insectlike, hopped on four legs. Sometimes, with his huge hanging sleeves reaching down to the floor, he would assume the hallucinating appearance of a six-legged giant spider. The guiding idea of the production was to magnify the “animality” of Richard, a choice that Antony Sher settled upon after rejecting several other conceptions:

As he found himself growing intuitively into the role, Sher's trial impressions of the arch-demon altered drastically. His Richard would metamorphose—indeed Shakespeare's writing demanded it—from human being to animal and back again.2

Thus Richard would be the “bourgeoisie invaded by gargoyle.”3 Sher built up the character with reference to the images of the “bottled spider,” the “poisonous bunch-back'd toad,” the “lump of foul deformity,”4 and these quotations are to be found, in bold type, in the central double page of the production's program under the title “Richard in Performance.” There are also two references to Richard's demoniac character (“Foul devil” and “thou cacodemon”5), although this aspect was not particularly stressed by the actor's attitudes or his makeup. I might add that Antony Sher

began his informal research at nursing homes where he could observe at first-hand the ravages of spinal disease and how it affected movement in its victims. Sher found his subjects to be prisoners of incapacity and smoldering frustration. Tempted as many were “to see inside themselves,” they could only be met with distortion. Their monstrosity constantly stared back at them with a hollow gaze and a shrunken presence.6

Hence Antony Sher's conviction that the magnetic powers of Richard are founded on a number of gestures and words “so deadly and eccentric that they cannot be got used to, or predicted, or repelled.”7 In short, better than any actor before him, Sher strove to embody Richard's malignant impetus by making his formidable vitality a consequence of his infirmities rather than a way of overcoming them. His crutches seemed to increase his swiftness, making it almost supernatural and demoniac: now he seemed a giant spider striking his prey at a lightning speed; now he would assume the ominous shape of a vulture. As S. P. Cerasano writes, “What came across was not that he had to have the crutches to function, but that he was much better off with them.”8

Sher gave an immense symbolic importance to the image so often found in the text of the play, that of Richard contriving his treacheries as a spider spins its web: his father, the Duke of York and a wily know-how, had already boasted about it in 2 Henry VI: “My brain, more busy than the laboring spider, / Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies.”9 The image of the mortal, “tedious” net is taken up again in Richard III by Queen Margaret when she evokes this “bottled spider, / Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about” (1.3.241-42).

Animality is again made especially prominent in the mute scene of Richard's coronation (mute because it is not to be found in Shakespeare's text, being invented by the director,) a scene in which Richard with his bare, pale chest like that of a blind larva, crawls towards the throne, giving the nearly physical sensation of some foul and obscene desecration.

Sher thus revived a tradition10 which, along with historical narratives, dramatic works, Seneca's plays, memories of the morality Vice, and political treatises on tyranny or Machiavellianism contributed to the fashioning of Richard's fictive personality. I refer to the various stories—dramatic, homiletic, biblical—concerning Herod the tyrant, or rather the three Herods11 whose lives are often confused in different medieval or Renaissance writings. These are Herod the Great; his son, Herod Antipas, who mocked Christ and ordered the execution of Saint John the Baptist; and his grandson, Herod Agrippa, who imprisoned Saint Peter and died of a horrible disease. Herod is often described as suffering many pains, afflictions, and illnesses, which sets him in glaring opposition to Jesus and his healing powers:

My legges roten and my armes;
that now I see of feindes swarmes—
I have donne so many harmes—
from hell comminge after me.(12)

Moreover, a Herod afflicted by a swarm of infirmities appeared in illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows:

Herod's verbal gymnastics in the drama match his weird anatomical positions in art. … [He holds] his hands in such a way that the joints bend back on themselves in all directions … [his] anger and arrogance are expressed pictorially through the iconography of physical disorientation.13

The tradition according to which Richard had the physical traits which likened him to a monster and a fate evoking that of Antichrist was established very soon after the death of King Richard III. In his Historia Regum Angliae,14 John Rous, who died in 1491, states that Richard stayed two years in his mother's womb, that he was born with teeth and hair grown as low as his shoulders, and that like the scorpion (which Rous wrongly declares to be Richard's astrological sign, though he was born under the sign of Libra), he had a genial demeanor and a poisonous sting. Rous adds that he was short of stature, with his right shoulder higher than the left.

This detail is taken up by Thomas More, who adds that Richard was a hunchback (“croke backed”—“extanti dorso”).15 More also gives the following details:

It is for trouth reported, that the Duches his mother had so much a doe in her trauaile, that shee could not bee deliuered of hym uncutte: and that he came into the world with the feete forwarde, as menne bee borne outwarde, and (as the fame runneth) also not vntothed, whither menne of hatred reported aboue the trouthe, or ells that nature chaunged her course in hys beginning, whiche in the course of his lyfe many thynges vnnaturallye commited.16

The amazing statement that says Richard stayed two years in his mother's womb is to be found neither in Thomas More nor in Hall, or Shakespeare. The latter, however, has him delivered prematurely17 and suggests that he might have been born with teeth (2.4.27-28). More's allusion to what was probably a cesarian birth is possibly alluded to by King Henry before he is murdered by Richard in 3 Henry VI. Henry also mentions that Richard “was not vntothed”:

Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou cam'st to bite the world.

(3 Henry VI 5.6.49-54)

And Shakespeare emphasizes the unlicked, unfinished, formless, and chaotic aspect of his limping hero. It is also Thomas More who wrote the episode of the council that met on 13 June 1485, where Richard offered for all to see his arm blighted—so he said—by magic, an episode that Shakespeare developed with great gusto (3.4). But here is More's narrative:

he plucked up hys doublet to his elbow vpon his lefte arme, where he shewed a werish withered arme and small, as it was never other. And thereupon euery mannes mind sore misgaue them, well perceiuing that this matter was but a quarrel.

(P. 48, lines 9-13)

Physical deformities, then, greatly contribute to the fictive image of Richard III, an image boosted up by the historical tradition that helps create the impression of an incontrovertible truth. As fiction seems to feed on history, it acquires absolute verisimilitude. Shakespeare will use this “truth effect” to give the tyrant a compelling presence on the stage, without exceeding the limits beyond which the character would lose his truthfulness and be launched into an unthinkable—or at least a hardly credible—unnatural space.

Jean Céard points out that after defining monsters as things that “arise against the normal course of nature,” Ambroise Paré changes his mind and writes “beyond the usual course of nature,” and even “beyond the usual run of things,” thus agreeing, as Céard puts it, with the capital statement of Saint Augustine, that strictly speaking, “nothing is against nature.”18

For how can an event be contrary to nature when it happens by the will of God, since the will of the Great Creator assuredly is the nature of every created thing? A portent, therefore, does not occur contrary to nature, but contrary to what is known of nature.19

This conception was not unfamiliar at the end of the Renaissance. At least it was not unfamiliar to Montaigne:

Those which we call monsters are not so with God, who in the immensitie of his worke seeth the infinitie of formes therein contained. And it may be thought, that any figure [which] doth amaze us, hath relation unto some other figure of the same kinde, although unknown unto man.20

In a book whose first edition was published in Zurich in 1554, De conceptu et generatione hominis, but which was translated into English and published not earlier than 1637, Jacob Rueff (James Rueff in the translation) wonders why certain children are born flawed or monstrous. His answer is in keeping with a providential view of history:

But if it be demanded of the causes of such conceptions and birthes, we must know before all things that they come not to passe without the providence of the Almighty and Omipotent [sic] God; but also that they are permitted oftentimes by his just judgement for to punish and admonish men for their sinnes.21

Richard is monstrous both in his appearance and his deeds; his being, will, and infirmities account for one another not only because of their individual essence but also because of the place assigned to him by Providence in the history of England, where he plays the part of Nemesis or the Scourge of God. Moreover, as will be seen later, he is not a monster in the legal sense of the word. Historical tradition, which made him into an archetype of the tyrant, endowed him with a number of traits that the real Richard did not possess. It used a sufficiently discriminating creative force to produce, for all his deviant characteristics, a political being whose malicious inventiveness made him an ever self-fashioning being, that had the ability and power to change history in his own image—that is to say, to make it crippled and baleful.

The Baynard's Castle scene (3.7) is a good example of his perverse powers. Richard appears on the upper stage with two bishops and indulges in saintly meditation between these pillars of virtue. Buckingham, who has staged this comedy, presents Richard as the only legitimate (but reluctant) heir, who must be implored to accept the crown. But as Marjorie Garber points out,22 his description of the commonwealth is paradoxically inappropriate if applied to the kingdom and pertinent only if applied to Richard:

The noble isle doth want her proper limbs;
Her face defac'd with scars of infamy,
Her royal stock graft with ignoble plants,
And almost should'red in the swallowing gulf
Of dark forgetfulness and deep oblivion.
Which to recure, we heartily solicit
Your gracious self to take on you the charge
And kingly government of this your land:
Not as protector, steward, substitute,
Or lowly factor for another's gain;
But as successively, from blood to blood,
Your right of birth, your empery, your own.


So the crippled isle would receive her “proper limbs” from a cripple. She should heal the “scars of infamy” that deface her face and get rid of the grafted “ignoble plants” by the grafting of as healthy and unscarred a sovereign branch as Richard, resist those who shoulder her towards the opaque oblivion of the past. But the term “should'red” metonymically refers to the hunchback who gives the push. Most of the quoted lines must be understood as antiphrases: the repetitive “your,” for example, precisely refers to what does not belong to Richard, just as the phrase “royal stock” cannot be understood as Richard's origin.

If Richard's combined infirmities make up the visible side of his physical (and political) being, one can wonder what each of them separately expresses with an unobtrusiveness that adds to their patent iconic meaning.

Let us first see how monsters were understood in those days. A book by Fortunius Licetus, published in 1616 and translated into French in 1708, has an interesting discourse on the subject:

One generally calls Monsters and considers with admiration anything which occurs rarely and greatly surpasses, in a good or evil way, the order and the laws of its own kind. Thus one has called Monsters the great men who, after achieving distinction by many heroic deeds, seemed to have overreached the forces of human nature and drawn very close to those of the Gods. Conversely such men were called monsters who, living like beasts, seeme to have shed their natural habits to put on those of the animals. Lastly, the same name was given either to women of surpassing beauty or to those whose deformities were a cause of fear. Yet one speaks thus but metaphorically and in vulgar talk, when, in proper speech—like that of a physician—one calls monsters any of those, among the animals, which come to life with limbs organized and ordered in a way different from and contrary to the Nature of their genitors; as, for example, a footless child, a girl with two heads, a child with the head of a dog, a Centaur and the like. … Lastly, I do not call Monsters the animals who differ in kin from their genitors because of some superfluous organ, such as hunchbacks, persons with a limp, or having elongated heads and so on … because such are a common sight and cause neither surprise nor admiration.23

How and why do monsters appear? One can distinguish about ten causes, some of which would sometimes combine:24

  1. The divine will
  2. The will of devils
  3. Astrological configuration or “aspect”
  4. The male seed
  5. The menses (when too abundant or too scarce)
  6. Unnatural or depraved copulation
  7. The effects of the imagination
  8. Unfortunate or awkward mechanical action
  9. The diseases of the embryo
  10. Heredity

The substantial number of possible “causes” clearly indicates that the real or fictional existence of monsters or of uncanny phenomena raised philosophical, theological, medical, and legal problems. As early as the thirteenth century, Henry Bracton, whose treatise De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae was still an authority in the sixteenth century, had written that if a woman gave birth to a monster or a prodigy deprived of human shape, that creature could not be considered as a free subject nor as an inheritable one. The same legal restrictions applied if the woman gave birth to an offspring that turned out to be a monster, as when it uttered a roar when it ought to utter a cry. Bracton, however, would not call an offspring “monstrous”

although nature may have diminished or amplified its members: diminished them, as in the defects of fingers or such like; amplified them, as if it has more fingers or joints, as six or more, when it ought not to have more than five; if nature has rendered the members useless, as if it has been crooked or humpbacked or has had twisted limbs.25

From a legal point of view, Richard, though he limps, is humpbacked, and has a shortened or withered arm, is not a monster. Yet one must point out that after his coronation, Richard becomes—as Francis Bacon puts it—a persona mixta cum sacerdote.26 The Church, following biblical prohibitions, barred from sacerdotal functions all those whose bodies were too visibly blemished:

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron, saying, Whosoever he be of the seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is broken-footed, or broken-handed, or crookbacked, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.

(Leviticus 21: 16-21, King James version)

Though Shakespeare's character was neither legally nor even physically a monster (he had “blemishes”), yet because of the position he coveted and the way he conquered it, because of his distorted self and the way he experienced and controlled his own body, and because of the number of his physical and moral flaws, he probably inspired the awe, horror, and fascination of a monstrously warped and misshapen creature.

If a humble human being was disabled, misshapen, or crippled, the sight was upsetting enough, for even a beggar was a microcosm in the days when people were considered a mirror and an epitome of the universe. A human being's measurements were regarded as symbolic:

The manner of measuring [a man] agreeth two ways: for look how much a man is betweene the ends of his two longest fingers streching hys armes out. So long is hee betweene the sole of hys foote and the crowne of his head: and therefore the naturall Philosophers deeme man to be a little world.27

This was all the more reason for a king to have, ideally, a body free from any blemish if he was to carry out adequately his kingly functions: to dispense justice, preserve the king's peace, maintain the coherence of the body politic, and cure the king's evil. The king's body as well as the body politic were supposed to symbolize the natural order of things. In 1558 John Knox expressed this concept as follows:

Augustine defines order to be that thing by the which God has appointed and ordained all things. Augustine will admit no order, where God's appointment is absent and lacks. And in another place, he says that order is a disposition, giving their own proper place to things that be unequal, which he terms in Latin Parium et Disparium, that is of things equal or like—or unequal and unlike. … He has set before our eyes two … mirrors and glasses, in which He wills that we should behold the order, which He has appointed and established in nature:

  • a. the one is the natural body of man
  • b. the other is the politic or civil body of that commonwealth, in which God by his own word has appointed an order.28

The accession to the throne of a misshapen and criminal king in the fictional kingdom of a dramatic work made credible by its references to history was a means to create the archetypal figure of a fabulous and oversize tyrant, so fabulous indeed that it freed most real monarchs from the suspicion that they might be tyrants.

We must then examine more closely the rather strange circumstances attached to Richard's birth: he has been—so he says in the drama—

                    … 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—


“Before my time” and “scarce half made up,” as well as “unfinish'd” imply unachievement and incompleteness. Rueff, in his book of obstetrics, discusses the question of premature births. He asserts that in its seventh month “the infant is alwaies moved to the birth,” but if “hee remaineth in the womb” and comes forth to birth “the eight moneth following, hee cannot live at at all.” First he has been weakened by his attempt to come forth in the seventh month, and second, “the eight moneth is proper to Saturne, an enemy off all things which receive life.”29

Although premature birth could be either favorable or unfavorable, Shakespeare, using two different versions of Richard's birth, indicates two “baneful” kinds of birth: a premature one (as indicated in Richard's speech) and a late one as implied in the young Duke of York's rejoinder to his grandmother, who has just said that Richard was “so long a-growing …” (2.4.19).

Marry (they say) my uncle grew so fast
That he could gnaw a crust at two hours old;
'Twas full two years ere I could get a tooth.


He seems to imply what Jean Rous reported, a belated and abnormal birth. Though obviously considered an ominous sign by Thomas More and in the play, it was not so in Pliny's Natural History, nor in the books of some authors who referred to it.30

But for a child to be born “with the feete forwarde,” as Thomas More put it, was unquestionably a disastrous sign whose ominous meaning had an ancient tradition.31 In Rome, children thus born were called “Agrippa,” which Pliny explains as “aegre partos”—that is, painfully born. Du Cange's Glossarium elaborates on this idea: “Qui in pedes nascitus inversus, quasi aegre parto” (he who is born in an inverted position with the feet first in a way [is born] painfully).32 Nicole Belmont, from whose book I borrow this information,33 adds a quotation from Pliny, who considers that in the right order of nature a child should come into the world with its head first and leave the world with its feet first. This idea seems to have been rather widespread. In The Spanish Mandeuile of Miracles one can read:

Others come to be borne with their feet forward, which is also passing dangerous. … Of these cam the linage of Agrippas in Rome, which is as much to say as Aegre parti, brought forth in pain, and commonly those that are so born, are held to be vnlucky, & of short life. Some say that Nero was so borne of his mother Agrippina.34

A pamphlet published in 1580 and attributed to Antony Munday contains the following story:


A woman of lix.yeeres olde, named Margaret, her husband called John Bobroth the Clark of the Town. This woman for the space of xxv. weeks was diseased and no help could be had, but through this present accident shee was deliuered of three Children, their mouthes replenished with teeth as Children of three yeeres olde, the first borne spake saying. The day appointed which no man can shun. The second said. Where shall wee finde living to bury the dead? The third said. Where shall we finde corne to satisfie the hungrie?35

An ancient tradition or rather a topos discussed by Ernst Curtius and William R. Elton is the convention of the “puer senex”: some children or teenagers have wisdom much above their age that compels admiration. Curtius points out that the convention was established by the beginning of the second century a.d. and continued at least to the seventeenth century.36

Shakespeare gives the convention a strangely ironic slant. In Richard III Richard and Buckingham comment on the wisdom and wit of the young prince and his brother York:

[Aside] So wise so young, they say do never live long.


[Aside] Short summers lightly have a forward spring.


With what a sharp-provided wit he reasons!
To mitigate the scorn he gives his uncle,
He prettily and aptly taunts himself:
So cunning and so young is wonderful!


Richard, one could say, has also been a “puer senex,” but his qualities were far from being wise and understanding. Just as his birth produced an overgrown and frightening child, his adult traits denote the overgrowth of the animal part that in most men is balanced by the spiritual:

The midwife wonder'd and the woman 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.

(3 Henry VI 5.6.74-79)

The inversion between heaven and hell is clearly indicated here, to match, as it were, the inversion suggested by his birth. According to Nicole Belmont, since “the order of the world demands that one should enter the world head first and leave the world with one's feet forward,” to be born with one's legs forward is like a kind of death.37 This belief was linked to the fact that in ancient times, “dead people [in Europe] were laid on couches with their feet oriented towards the door.”38 The newborn babe appears inside the house without actually coming into it. In relation to birth, the house is both the place where the child appears without coming in and a place whose issue (for one who wishes to go out) has an analogy with the mother's womb.39 But, Belmont continues, “a child which is born with its feet forward has already accomplished the reverse motion which denotes the end of its life. Even if it lives, it does not belong to this world: metaphorically speaking, it is already in after-life.”40 Thomas More used a very apt phrase indeed when he wrote that Richard came into the world “as menne be borne outwarde.” In the play the Duchess of York speaks of her womb as of a deathbed:

O ill-dispersing wind of misery!
O my accursed womb, the bed of death!
A cockatrice hast thou hatch'd to the world,
Whose unavoided eye is murtherous.


Richard, to whom she gave birth, is indeed in the beyond, and in a way the beyond is hell (the word hell or its compounds appear sixteen times in the play). Moreover, judging by the way he describes himself in 3 Henry VI,

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.


He is a being entirely merged with himself. One can hardly say that he was ever delivered from his mother's womb: rather, he was let loose from “the kennel of [her] womb” like an “alien,” like an animal created with an instant ability to kill, a deadly creature or a hunter whose function is to devour the living and spread terror among them:

From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood,
That foul defacer of God's handiwork,
That excellent grand tyrant of the earth
That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls,
Thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves.


According to Elias Canetti, the living always react strongly to the obscure life of the dead. They experience fear and terror, for the dead are jealous of life and they want to ensnare or devour the living. Dying tyrants want to take their followers along with them into death: they are ready to unpeople the world so that no one should outlive them.

Those who have murdered a tyrant fear the revenge of their victim. They try to completely abolish the times when the tyrant lived. They give the world a new start and proclaim the emergence of a new era, beginning with year one of a new calendar.

It is frequent for the living, even when they lament the dead, to feel elated because they have outlived them. One can imagine a tyrant who exults at finding that he outlives his victims and yet lives in fear of them. Richard III is a murderer full of alacrity who gloats as much about the murders he has committed as about his being once again a survivor, indeed the survivor. Part of the gruesome comedy in Richard III derives from Richard's jubilant humor when he has made yet another victim and rejoiced at his own victory and survival.41

Richard's deformities, then, are significant in a variety of ways. His limping gait can have several meanings, the most obvious and least convincing being a metaphor of castration. It is noticeable that the leg, foot, or thigh have considerable significance in a variety of texts, whether biblical, ancient, medieval, or modern. After the sacrifice of an animal, the shoulder is one of the choice pieces reserved for God (Exod. 29:22-27; Lev. 10:14-15). Homer writes that the same parts are fit for sacrifice (Iliad 1.460, 2.423, 7.240; Odyssey 3.455). He also implies that the knee is a source of strength (Iliad 4.314, 19.354, 22.388). Ancient and medieval anatomy taught that the veins coming from the kidneys and the genitalia joined at the heel. In medieval literature, a king with a wounded leg could become sterile, which made him responsible for his kingdom turning into a wasteland. In Richard II Shakespeare explicitly links the moral sickness of the king and the waste that has spread throughout the kingdom:

Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land,
wherein thou liest in reputation sick,
And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Commit'st thy anointed body to the cure
Of those physicians that first wounded thee.
A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger than thy head,
And yet, incaged in so small a verge,
The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.


Gloucester's limp is mentioned in his opening soliloquy, then he stands by himself, gloating on his easy seduction of Lady Anne. He had reason to gloat, for according to popular beliefs, bodily flaws were thought to be evil signs and major obstacles to sympathy. So they were described in The Kalendar of Shepherdes, an almanac translated from the French in 1503 and reissued “at least seventeen times during the ensuing century and a half.”42 Portions of The Kalendar were pirated in The Compost of Ptolemus in which, among many pieces of advice concerning the future, one can read:

beware of all persons that have default of members naturally, as of foot, hand, eye, or other member; one that is crippled; and especially of a man that hath not a beard.

(Sig. H7)43

Of course, stumbling was also a bad omen and in Richard III Hastings remarked on it after being arrested: “Three times to-day my foot-cloth horse did stumble, / and started when he look'd upon the Tower” (3.4.84-85). Yet limping also had its better side, so to speak, as Montaigne noted in his essay “Of the lame or crippel”:

Whether it be to the purpose, or from the purpose, it is no great matter. It is a common Proverbe in Italie, that He knowes not the perfect pleasure of Venus, that hath not laine with a limping Woman. Either fortune, or some particular accident have long since brought this by-saying in the peoples mouth: and it is well spoken of men as of women: For the Queene of the Amazons answered the Scithian, that wooed her to love-embracements. … The crooked man doth it best.44

What is striking, however, in Montaigne's essay is that the lame or cripple are rather briefly dealt with, the main theme of the essay being the questionable character of human convictions. Here are the opening lines of the essay:

Two or three years are now past, since the yeere hath beene shortned tenne days in France. Oh how many changes are like to ensue this reformation! It was a right remooving of Heaven and Earth together, yet nothing remooveth from its owne place.45

To associate the calendar with limping or halting—even if only by making those notions adjacent—is a way of commenting on time. As Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out:

A normal gait, by which the left foot and the right foot move in a regular alternative way, offers a symbolic representation of the recurrence of the seasons. [But if the recurrence is disrupted, if time is perturbed] a limping gait caused by two legs of unequal length, provides, according to the terms of the anatomic code, an appropriate signifier.46

Now, Richard is a man in a hurry (“Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste [to come into the world], / And seek their ruin that usurp'd our right?” (3 Henry VI 5.6.72-73). He constantly confronts, or pits himself, or tries to overcome time. He was “sent before [his] time / Into this breathing world” (1.1.20-21). Most of his actions cause time to deviate from its natural course: Anne bemoans “th' untimely fall of virtuous Lancaster” (1.2.4). The moment Gloucester choses to court her is shockingly improper, for it associates courtship with funerals. Clarence's death warrant was delivered faster that it was revoked. Richard swiftly orders the illegal executions of Vaughan, Grey, and Rivers, as well as the beheading of Hastings, while the warrant for the execution is not yet written down: the brief scene in which the scrivener delivers his soliloquy (3.4.1-14) is perhaps one of the most telling dramatic comments on Richard's misappropriation of time. Another typical instance is the scene in which Richard, after the coronation, asks Buckingham to approve the murder of the princes, the latter answering that he needs some time to catch his breath and reminding Richard that he should now obtain the promised gift, the earldom of Hereford:

My lord—
K. Rich.
Ay—what's a'clock?
I am thus bold to put your Grace in mind
Of what you promis'd me.
K. Rich.
Well, but what's a'clock?
Upon the stroke of ten.
K. Rich.
Well, let it strike.
Why let it strike?
K. Rich.
Because that like a Jack thou keep'st the stroke
Betwixt thy begging and my meditation.
I am not in the giving vein to-day.


Richard's living against the tide of time confirms him in his role of political and spiritual enemy of the Kingdom of God, where the course of time is tuned according to the order of nature. John Rous explicitly compares him to Antichrist:

This king Richard, who was excessively cruel in his days, reigned for three years [sic] and a little more, in the way that Antichrist is to reign. And like the antichrist to come, he was confounded at his moment of greatest pride.47

Thomas More also alludes, though less directly, to Richard as an antichrist figure. As Richard Sylvester points out, in the Latin version of More's Richard III,48 Doctor Shaa designates himself as a saint, John the Baptist, who will expose the illegitimate marriage of Edward IV and open the way to Richard's coming, Richard being the “verus & indubitatus filius” (67/20-30). Even more striking, in Sylvester's view, is the ironic passage of the English text where Richard, “as a goodly continent prince clene & faultles, sent out of heauen into this vicious world for the amendment of mens manners” (54/24-26), chastises Jane Shore. Books and pamphlets concerning the Antichrist are indeed numerous in the sixteenth century. Dozens of them—mostly anti-Catholic, with the pope of Rome being described as the Antichrist—were circulated before 1600.49 According to one of those, written by George Sohn, the Antichrist “is adversarie onelie to one parte of the doctrine of Christ, or else almost to the whole bodie thereof.”50 Sometimes the Antichrist is described as a more secular figure, a tradition that has its roots in texts of the first or second century, when the Antichrist was a type of a God-opposing tyrant. Some of these texts contain a psychological description of this “man of sin,” as did the one found in a French translation of Saint Hippolytus.51 The Antichrist, in the early days of his coming, will be kind, amiable, peaceful, quiet, hate injustice, loathe gifts [bribes], love the Scriptures, revere priests, honor old age, and show himself full of mercy. He will help the widow and the orphan, love all his neighbors, restore friendship between men at war with one another. He will not possess gold nor covet riches; in fact, he will hate money. But all the while his true self will be hidden, for he will use perfect dissimulation to deceive people in order to become their king. When people see such conspicuous apparent virtue, they will all say: we shall obey you, for we recognize in you a just man. And this lawless, iniquitous, and malicious creature will mendaciously proclaim that he is unable, unfit, and unwilling to accept so great an honor but he will nevertheless accept it with counterfeited reluctance.

The Antichrist can thus be an antitype of the Christian prince. It is not surprising that a number of features described by Saint Hippolytus apply so well to Richard, whose representations by Thomas More and Shakespeare were guided by an imaginary silhouette of the political and spiritual archenemy.

Other abnormalities are in keeping with these features, such as Richard's shortened, weakened, or withered arm. Shakespeare does not say whether it is the right or the left one, but the matter is not important since the symbolism of both arms and hands is very rich and complex. God's left hand is related to justice, his right hand to mercy. In the act of blessing, the right hand symbolizes priestly authority. The left hand, when raised, can typify royal power. In Celtic mythology, Balor of the Evil Eye was a king or hero of the legendary Formorians,52 a deformed race said to have held Ireland in subjection. The Formorians were variously mutilated. Balor had one evil eye, so swollen that in battle, assistants had to lift the eyelid open with a hook. Richard, mutilated by nature, is compared to a basilisk or a cockatrice because he is thought to have an evil eye (and other less obvious powers), for a mutilation or a deformity is a price to be paid for the acquisition of magic gifts.53

Richard's unbalanced and twisted body and his disposition, which make him incapable of having any natural rhythm in his life, prevent him from experiencing any form of bodily and spiritual integration, making him akin to a nonliving creature, or as someone living in the realm of the undead. As Ambroise Paré put it, the hand “is the organ of all organs and the instrument of all instruments.”54 It would be impossible to give even a simplified idea of the many layers of meaning attached to the image of hands. Two aspects, however, can be pointed out: the healing power of the royal hand and the mediating attributes of human hands.

About healing “by touche alone” there is nothing I can add to Marc Bloch's definitive study.55 Let me merely note that the power to cure the King's Evil was not a gift bestowed indiscriminately on each and every king:

The Apostles and primitive Christians did heale by touche alone. … The power of curing the Kings Evill is by the blessing of God granted to the Kings of Great Britain, and France, which is denied to other Christian Kings. And so Edward the Confessor, for his singular piety, cured not only the Kings Evill (which prerogative redounded to his Successors after him) but also other ulcers by touch alone, which his successors could not doe. …

… it is to be noted, that the … kings on whom God hath bestowed that favour, have it upon a certain condition, nor is it derived unto their successors, unlesse they be lawfull heires, and abide by the Christian faith. For if an Usurper (as there have bee suche in times past, and God knowes what shall be the destinies of Kingdoms) should depose a lawfull Prince from his Imperiall Throne, he should not with the Kingdome obtain this prerogative to himself.56

Richard's shortened arm and his metaphorical kinship with Herod—whose diseases clearly meant that he could not be a healer—made the usurping king the opposite of a wonder-worker. Richard had only the hateful prerogative of spawning woe. His withered arm was a sure sign that, as bound up as he was within himself, he could never defeat his alienation, his utter solitude, for a proffered hand or two extended arms are mediators between oneself and the world. This notion is so self-evident that conclusive proof is not possible. A commentary from the Talmud may throw some light on concept since it examines the legality of actions consisting in transporting objects from private to public ground or vice versa, which are forbidden on the Sabbath: “See, for that the Lord hath given you the Sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days: abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day” (Exod. 16:29).57


The poor man stands without and the master of the house within.

1. If the poor man stretches his hand within and places [an article] into the hand of the master of the house; or 2. if he takes [an article] from it and carries it out, the poor man is liable [for desecrating the Sabbath], and the master of the house is exempt.a

again 1. if the master of the house stretches his hand without and places [an object] in the poor man's hand,

or 2. takes [an object] therefrom and carries it in, the master is liable while the poor man is exempt.

3. if the poor man stretches his hand within and the master takes [an object] from it, or places [an object] therein and he carries it out, both are exempt.

4. if the master stretches his hand without an the man takes [an object] from it, or places [an article] therein and he carries it inside, both are exempt.b

a. because the poor man performs the two acts which together constitute “carrying out” in the Biblical sense. The master, on the other hand, is quite passive, performing no action at all.

b. in 3. and 4. each performs one act only, either removing from one domain or depositing in another.


Abaye said: I am certain that a man's hand is neither like a public nor like a private domain:c it is not like a public domain—[this follows] from the poor man's hand;d it is not like a private domain—this follows from the hand of the master of the house.e

c. If a man stands in one and stretches out his hand into the other, the hand is not accounted the same as his body, to have the legal status of the domain in which the body is.

d. For the Mishnah states that if the master takes an article from the poor man's hand stretched within, he is exempt.

e. If the poor man takes an object from it, he is not liable.

Since the hand belongs neither entirely to the private person nor to the public domain, it is an excellent mediating instrument between the two spheres: Richard's withered arm is the signifier of his incapacity to mediate between the sacred and the secular, between his body politic and his body natural.

Another infirmity evidencing Richard's lack of any quality of or capacity for integration is his hump. And while his limping gait, unusual birth, and being constantly off balance58 aroused persistent rumors, gossip, and reports, Richard's withered arm was a known fact (it “was never other,” wrote Thomas More), so his claim that it had been shrunk by witchcraft was just another sign of formidable ability to deceive. Both his arm and his hump constantly recall the essential incompleteness of Richard's deeds and his existence.

A collection of several Italian comedies performed in France during the reign of Henri III has a number of illustrations, among them drawings of traditional characters of the Commedia dell'Arte. One of them is a hunchback. He is surrounded by a score of smaller characters that obviously have just been hatched.59 His hump is like a pregnancy displaced backwards: it resembles human pregnancy, but at the same time suggests the laying of eggs. This inversion connotes bisexuality or hermaphroditism.60 Richard (“I am myself alone”) ends up believing that he will be able to produce posterity through incest. Incest here can be understood as a means of self-reproduction, a snare to attract and avoid death, and a way of bringing the dead to life again, or to the state of undeath. The allusion to the Phoenix is Richard's morbid dream of self-sufficiency, Richard's chaotic body breeding deadly copies of himself. These various themes seem to emerge rather clearly during Richard's confrontation with Queen Elizabeth whose daughter—his niece, also named Elizabeth—he wants to marry. First, here is the theme of incest:

Q. Eliz.
What were I best to say? Her father's brother
Would be her lord? Or shall I say her uncle?
Or he that slew her brothers and her uncles?
Under what title shall I woo for thee,
That God, the law, my honor, and her love
Can make seem pleasing to her tender years?


Next comes the temptation of the devil, meaning oblivion of the past and death:

Q. Eliz.
Shall I be tempted of the devil thus?
K. Rich.
Ay, if the devil tempt you to do good.
Q. Eliz.
Shall I forget myself to be myself?
K. Rich.
Ay, if yourself's remembrance wrong yourself.


And lastly the return of the dead to a limbo before birth, the theme of the Phoenix:

Q. Eliz.
Yet thou didst kill my children.
K. Rich.
But in your daughter's womb I bury them;
Where, in that nest of spicery they will breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.


The egg, strongly suggested by Richard's hump, is frequently a symbol of the universe and is linked to the creation of the world. But Richard's hump, as he implies himself in his first soliloquy, is rather an image of chaos. And chaos—imminent and nearly victorious—is a central, secret, and obvious conceit in Richard III.

It is then fitting and admirably cogent that Richard should end divided against himself, self-love turning into self-hatred, as is evident in his last soliloquy. One could then envisage that the tetralogy has a strong and logical construction, if not a structure: the murderous conflict begins by encompassing distant enemies in a foreign land, continues in opposing rival families, pits close relatives and friends against each other, and ends in the self-division of the very character who personifies the evil and the violence spread throughout the nation and within the families.


  1. Played for the first time at the Royal Shakespeare Threatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 14 June 1984, with Antony Sher in the role of Richard. For a review of recent productions, see Lois Potter, “The Actor as Regicide: Recent Versions of Richard III on the English Stage,” in Le tyran: Shakespeare contre Richard III, ed. Dominique Goy-Blanquet and Richard Marienstras (Amiens: Sterne, Presses de l'UFR Clerc, Université de Picardie, 1990), 140-150. For an exhaustive survey of critical reactions to this production, see R. Chris Hassel, Jr., “Context and Charisma: The Sher-Alexander Richard III And Its Reviewers,” Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (Winter 1985): 630-43.

  2. S. P. Cerasano, “Churls Just Wanna Have Fun: Reviewing Richard III,Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (Winter 1985): 619.

  3. Antony Sher, Year of the King (London: Chatto and Windus, 1985), 21, quoted by Cerasano in “Reviewing,” 619.

  4. 1.3.241; 1.3.245; 1.2.57.

  5. 1.2.50; 1.3.143.

  6. Cerasano, “Reviewing,” 620-21. The author refers to pp. 144-47 of Antony Sher's Year of the King.

  7. Ibid., 621.

  8. Ibid., 623.

  9. 2 Henry VI 3.1.339-40.

  10. On Richard's literary kinship with the morality Vice, his deliberate inversion of all Christian values, his function as a Scourge of God, and his relation to other literary, biblical, or political texts, see the penetrating discussion of Antony Hammond in his introduction to the Arden edition of King Richard III, (London: Methuen, 1981) 99-115.

  11. On some of these influences, as well as on the importance of the medieval cycles in the re-creation of Richard, see Scott Colley, “Richard III and Herod,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (Winter 1986): 451-58. See also S. S. Hussey, “How Many Herods in the Middle English Drama?” Neophilologus 48 (1964): 252-59.

  12. The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), lines 422-25, quoted by Scott Colley, “Richard III and Herod,” 456.

  13. Patrick Collins, The N-Town Plays and Medieval Picture Cycles (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1979), 37, quoted by Colley, “Richard III and Herod,” 456.

  14. Ed. Thomas Hearne (Oxford, 1745), after a manuscript copy in the Bodleian. The manuscript of the author (John Rous, or Ross) is in the British Library. The text has also been edited and translated by Alison Hanham in Richard III and His Early Historians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

  15. Sir Thomas More, The History of King Richard the Third, ed. Richard Sylvester, vol. 2 of The Complete Works of Sir Thomas More (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963). English and Latin texts are printed on facing pages. The quoted phrases are, respectively, p. 7, line 20 (English text) and line 16 (Latin text).

  16. Ibid., p. 7, lines 23-29 (English text), lines 19-25 (Latin text). The words “as menne bee borne outwarde” are in the English text only. The Latin text merely mentions Agrippa: “Quin Agrippam etiam natum eum pedibusque prealatis exigisse ferunt” (Sylvester, p. 167, note 7/20-21).

  17. Richard thinks himself “unfinish'd, sent before [his] time / Into this breathing world scarce half made up” (King Richard III 1.1.20-21).

  18. Jean Céard, “Tératologie et tératomancie au XVIe siècle,” in Monstres et prodiges au temps de la Renaissance, ed. M.-T. Jones Davies, Centre de Recherches sur la Renaissance (Paris: Touzot, 1980), 5. The quotations of Ambroise Paré come from Des Monstres et prodiges, ed. Jean Céard (Geneva: Droz, 1971), 3.

  19. Saint Augustine, City of God, ed. David Knowles, trans. Henry Bettenson, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 980 (bk. 21, chap. 8), quoted in part by Céard, “Tératologie,” 5-6.

  20. The Essayes of Montaigne, trans. John Florio, ed. J. I. M. Stewart (New York: Modern Library, 1933), bk. 2, chap. 30, p. 640.

  21. James Rueff, The Expert Midwife, or An Excellent and most necessary Treatise of the generation and birth of Man. Six bookes. Tr. into English (London, 1637), bk. 5, p. 153.

  22. Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (New York: Methuen, 1987), 39-40.

  23. De monstrorum causis, natura et differentiis (Padua, 1616) trans. into French by Jean Palfyn as Description Anatomique des Parties de la Femme qui servent à la génération, avec un Traité des Monstres (Leiden, 1708), 1-3.

  24. The alleged causes of deformities are given with some details by Cesare Taruffi, Storia della Teratologia, 8 vols. (Bologna, 1881), 1:176-280.

  25. Henrici de Bracton, De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae, ed. and trans. Sir Travers Twiss, 6 vols. (London, 1878), 6:458-60. See also 1:34-36 and 1:554-56. Sir Edward Coke confirmed this ruling at the beginning of the seventeenth century: “a monster not having the shape of mankind, but in any part bearing resemblance of the brute creation, has no heritable blood and cannot be heir to any land, even though it be brought forth in marriage; but although it hath deformity in any part of his body yet if it has human shape, it may be heir.” quoted by C. J. S. Thompson, The Mystery and Lore of Monsters (London: Williams and Norgate, 1930), 126.

  26. The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath, 14 vols. (London, 1857-74), 2:645.

  27. Pomponius Mela, The rare and singular worke of P. Mela, Whereunto is added, that of J. Solinus Polyhistor (London, 1590).

  28. John Knox, The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women ([Geneva], 1558). I use the text annotated and edited by Philippe Cerf for his unpublished master's dissertation, “John Knox, John Aylmer: A Controversy about the Acceptability of Women Ruling,” Université Paris VII, U.F.R. d'anglais Charles V, 1977, 76-77.

  29. Rueff, The Expert Midwife, bk. 1, p. 65.

  30. “Certaine it is also, that some children are borne into the world with teeth, as M. Curius, who thereupon was surnamed Dentatus; and Cn. Papyrius Carbo, both of them very great men and right honorable personages. In women the same was counted but unluckie thing, and presaged some misfortune.” The Historie of the World commonly called The Naturall Historie of C. Plinius Secundus, trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1601) 164 (bk. 7, chap. 16).

    A similar opinion occurs in The excellent and pleasant Worke of Iulius Solinus Polyhistor, trans. out of Latin into English by Arthur Golding, Gent. (London, 1587), sign. Dv. Anthonio de Torquemada also writes, “Children to be born toothed, is a thing so common, that we have seen it often, among the auncients, as Pliny and Soline writeth,” in The Spanish Mandeuile of Miracles. Or The Garden of curious Flowers (London, 1600), fol. 8.

  31. Shakespeare refers to this ominous manner of birth in 3 Henry VI. After murdering Henry VI, Richard says, “I came into the world with my legs forward” (5.6.71).

  32. Du Cange, Charles du Fresne, Glossarium mediae and infimae latinitatis, 10 vols. (Paris, 1883), s.v. “Agrippa.”

  33. Nicole Belmont, Le signes de la naissance (Paris: Plon, 1971), 131-35. Belmont refers to Pliny, Natural History, bk. 7, chap. 4, p. 8.

  34. Polyhistor, translated by Arthur Golding, writes, “it is against nature for the birth to come forth with his feete forward. … Such as are so borne are for the most parte unfortunate and shorte liued.” The excellent and pleasant worke of Iulius Solinus Polyhistor (London, 1585), fol. 8, sig. Dv.

  35. [Antony Munday], A view of sundry Examples, Reporting many straunge murthers, sundry persons periured, Signs and tokens of Gods anger towards vs. What straunge and monstrous children haue of late beene borne … (London, 1580), sig. C4 (STC 18281).

  36. W. R. Elton notes, following Curtius, that it was Gregory the Great who gave the “puer senex” topic a lasting life by writing at the beginning of his Vie de Saint Benoît: “He was a man whose life was venerable … already when a child he had the understanding of a mature man” (“Fuit vir vitae venerabilis … ab ipso suae pueritiae tempore cor gerens senile”), quoted by Ernst R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. from the German by W. R. Trask (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), 98-101. See William R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1968), 319-20, 322.

  37. Belmont, Les signes de la naissance, 132.

  38. Ibid., 135-36.

  39. Ibid., 138-39.

  40. Ibid., 145.

  41. Here I follow rather closely Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. from the German by Carol Stuart (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), 305-06, 316-17.

  42. On the popularity of almanacs and similar literature, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), 295-96. The quotation is on 295.

  43. The Compost of Ptolemus (London, 1532?). I owe this reference to Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 296.

  44. The French version of “The crooked man doth it best” is “Le boiteux le faict le mieux.” The Essayes of Montaigne, 935. This idea seems to have been rather widespread. Pierre Petit, in his Traité historique sur les Amazones, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1718), 1:265-67 repeats it, tracing it to Erasmus, Athenaeus, and Aristotle.

  45. The Essayes of Montaigne, 928. Pope Gregory XIII reformed the Julian calendar by “leaping” from 9 to 20 December 1581.

  46. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mythologiques 2: Du miel aux cendres (Paris: Plon, 1967), 399-400. For various meanings attached to the lame or to lameness, see the admirable articles of Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Ambiguïté et renversement: Sur la structure énigmatique d'Oedipe-Roi” and “Le Tyran boiteux: d'Oedipe à Périandre,” in Oedipe et ses mythes, ed. Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (Brussels: Editions Complexe), 1988.

  47. “Iste rex Ricardus diebus suis ultra modum crudelis trienno & parum ultra ad instar Antechristi regnaturi regnavit. Et sicut Antichristus in futuro in maxima sublimitate sua confundetur.” John Rous, Historia Regum Angliae, 218, Trans. A. Hanham Richard III, p. 123.

  48. P. lxxii, note 2.

  49. Christopher Hill made a survey of later literature in Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Oxford University Press, 1971). For an earlier period see Richard K. Emmerson, Antichrist in the Middle Ages (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981).

  50. George Sohn, A Briefe and Learned Treatise conteining a true description of the Antichrist, who was foretold by the Prophets and Apostles [trans. from the Latin] (Cambridge, 1592), facing p. 2.

  51. Saint Hippolyte, De la venue de l'Ante-Christ (Paris, 1602), 13, facing 14, 14.

  52. I owe this information to Edward S. Gifford, Jr., The Evil Eye: Studies in the Folklore of Vision (New York: Macmillan Co., 1958), 15.

  53. On this idea, and on the role of the basilisk in the play, see the remarkable article of Ann Lecercle-Sweet, “Corps, Regard, Parole: Basilisk and Antichrist in Richard III” in Le tyran: Shakespeare contre Richard III, ed. Goy-Blanquet and Marienstras, 38.

  54. Les oeuvres d'Ambroise Paré, Conseiller et premier chirurgien du Roy (Paris, 1579), book 2, chap. 20, p. 205.

  55. Marc Bloch, Les Rois thaumaturges (1924; reprint, Paris: Gallimard, 1983).

  56. James Primrose, Popular Errours: Or the Errours of the People in Physick (London, 1651), 437-38, 439. Other authors assert that if a king has the power to cure the scrofula, he is ipso facto a lawful king and must not accept papal censure: see William Tooker, Charisma sive donum sanationis. Seu Explicatio … de solemni & sacra curatione strumae (London, 1597), 91.

  57. The Babylonian Talmud, gen. ed. I. Epstein, Treatise Shabbath, vol. 1, trans. H. Freedman (London: Soncino Press, 1938), 1-2, 6.

  58. On this aspect of the character, see Lecercle-Sweet, “Corps, regard, parole,” esp. 38-39.

  59. Agne Beijer, Recueil de plusieurs fragments des premières comédies italiennes qui ont esté representées en France sous le règne de Henri III. Recueil dit de Fossard (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1928).

  60. This interpretation owes much to my old and dear New York friend, the distinguished psychoanalyst Dr. Sheldon Bach. Again, many thanks to him.

Toby Young (essay date 23 March 2002)

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SOURCE: Young, Toby. “Of Kings and Witches.” Spectator 288, no. 9059 (23 March 2002): 66.

[In the following review of Richard III starring Kenneth Branagh at Sheffield's Crucible Theater, Young praises Branagh's technically flawless performance as Richard, but acknowledges that the actor failed to elicit audience sympathy.]

I was quite fired up by the prospect of seeing Kenneth Branagh at the Sheffield Crucible, let me tell you. Branagh is arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation and his return to the stage after a ten-year absence to play the lead role in Richard III is a source of huge excitement for theatre critics like me. Consequently, I eagerly made my way to St Pancras last Tuesday and caught the 3.25 p.m. to Sheffield. I was going to be present at an historic occasion!

At 10.50 p.m., after Ken had taken his final bow, I wasn't disappointed, exactly, but I wasn't in a state of post-orgasmic euphoria either. His performance as the hunchbacked king is technically faultless and it's thrilling to watch. I was reminded of Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who scored a perfect ten at the 1976 Olympic Games. But Branagh's Richard is so pleased with himself, so completely untroubled by doubts or insecurities, it's impossible to feel any sympathy for him. In his struggle to give the character some contemporary resonance, Branagh has turned Richard into a cold-blooded yuppie murderer, a Shakespearean version of Patrick Bateman, the serial killer in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. The upshot is that he never really connects with the audience.

I expressed these reservations to a fellow critic during the interval and he said, in Branagh's defence, that he was clearly modelling the character on Peter Mandelson. Watching him in the second half, I thought my colleague might well be right. Branagh has given Richard a reptilian air that is eerily reminiscent of New Labour's dark prince. When he drops his façade and talks directly to the audience, Richard is almost unbearably smug, a preening, self-satisfied clever clogs who revels in his ability to manipulate people. Branagh even manages to incorporate Mandelson's trademark sneer into Richard's repertoire of repulsive mannerisms. For an actor who's previously been identified as a New Labour luvvie, this is a courageous interpretation.

Unfortunately, while this may explain what Branagh's up to, it doesn't alter the fact that his Richard lacks the necessary humanity to draw in the audience. As a theatrical spectacle, this production of Richard III is spellbinding; as a piece of drama, it left me cold.

Matt Wolf (essay date 25 March 2002)

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SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of Richard III.Variety 386, no. 6 (25 March 2002): 45.

[In the following review of Michael Grandage's production of Richard III at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, Wolf focuses on Kenneth Branagh's outstanding Richard, and briefly assesses the performances of the supporting cast.]

Shakespeare's envenomed Richard strips himself naked—emotionally speaking—in the opening soliloquy of Richard III, so why shouldn't Kenneth Branagh's remarkable “foul toad” first appear before us attired only in underwear, Richard's misshapen body literally stretched out on what seems to be some kind of rack? The opening of Michael Grandage's new production of this often produced yet rarely satisfying play makes the audience sit up, and it's to the credit of a creative team firing on all cylinders that the interpretive excitement rarely abates. We all know that Shakespearean drama's most renowned “hedgehog” (in the final scene, Branagh is even dressed as one, albeit in Liberace-style flaming red) can be funny and fierce, but I've never before clocked a Richard so consumed by pain. “There is no creature loves me,” he cries, determined as a result to engender hate. And as Branagh speaks the line, his delivery totally lacking in self-pity, the play takes on a new-found sting, as befits a ruler who has spent a life on the rack, psychically speaking, well before Grandage's fearless imagination places him there.

Richard III was more or less sold out prior to its press night at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, south Yorkshire, the same venue where Grandage—the theater's associate director in charge of programming—lured Joseph Fiennes to play Marlowe's Edward II this time last year. And while it could be argued that bagging Branagh for his first stage role since starring as a decidedly dry Royal Shakespeare Co. Hamlet a decade ago marks an arguably greater coup, no casting gambit really matters if you don't deliver the goods. Branagh et al. succeed not so much by reinventing the play—the production is far less radical, for instance, than the Richard Eyre/Ian McKellen version that subsequently fueled McKellen's filmed Richard III—but by investigating it truthfully from scratch. The result: a character famed for possessing an arm like a “blasted sapling” is seen to have a soul like one, too. Suffice it to say that as a “foul defacer of God's handiwork,” Richard acts from experience as a man whom God long ago defaced.

It was pretty much a given that Branagh could handle the verse. The play's actorish comedy emerges easily and sometimes with bruising force—the quick dismissal of Richard's “He cannot live” to an early victim: No crisis of conscience there!—while his admission to himself that “Sin will pluck on sin” suggests the actor as a potentially mighty Macbeth. More surprising are the currents of feeling, coupled with an unusual degree of bodily self-disgust, that exert a perverse fascination beyond even Antony Sher's celebrated crutch-wielding perf of the same role in 1984. Stripped of the garments that camouflage his disfigurement, this Richard isn't the hunchback of legend but a pasty figure, at once stooped and sad, with a putty-like physique that demands of Branagh a series of punishing contortions in order to bring home the severity of Richard's physical estrangement from his own self.

For much of the play, Branagh walks the stage with one leg encased in a contraption, which is why it's a particular shock when he drops to the ground to crawl after Queen Margaret (the supreme Barbara Jefford) seeking repentance. Or, earlier on, hurls off him the young lords whose lives he will later cut short when they dare to roughhouse with so wretched a specimen of flesh. And though his left arm lies limply by his side, Richard's right one is at the perpetual ready for a fight, with Branagh snapping to physical life just as startlingly as he allows himself to droop—as if the sheer price of playing the rampaging ruler were worming away at Richard from within. (Remarking “I am not in the giving vein,” he hurls Buckingham to the ground with just his good arm.)

So revelatory is its central perf that one risks overlooking the able support of a distinguished cast, among whom Jefford sets herself apart as a trembling termagant of the highest order. If the other women aren't in her league (Avril Elgar's Duchess of York is especially pro forma), the men are excellent down the line. Danny Webb's Buckingham makes an unusually moving cohort-turned-victim, his realization that All Soul's Day is also his own doomsday coming too late to help. Among an ensemble made up to some degree of longtime Branagh colleagues, Gerard Horan (Clarence) and Jimmy Yuill (Hastings) remind us that what can sometimes seem like thespian clubbishness has a basis in reason: Both men are very good.

Still, it's hard to imagine attention placed anywhere else once Branagh stalks Christopher Oram's sparely appointed stage, lit with its own distinctive bite by Tim Mitchell to the alternately ceremonial and elegiac strains of Julian Philips' original score. This play is popular in the same way that villainy (especially in the theater) so often is: Richard III is the malformed miscreant you love to hate. How often, though, is a character's external capacity for the horrific achieved without sacrificing a sense of the pain that begins within? Let's hope it isn't another 10 years before this actor—here playing a character “made blind with weeping”—leaves a Shakespearean perennial looking blindingly new.

Stephen Brown (essay date 5 April 2002)

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SOURCE: Brown, Stephen. “Do We Like Him Now?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5166 (5 April 2002): 24-5.

[In the following review of Richard III directed by Michael Grandage in 2002, Brown analyzes Kenneth Branagh's Richard, finding his performance intelligent and complex. The critic concludes, however, that Branagh's characterization contributed to “a very good production, rather than a great one.”]

Michael Grandage's production of Richard III at the Sheffield Crucible is built around Kenneth Branagh. There are few “concepts” and the only major one, as we shall see, relates to Branagh's characterization. The costumes are non-specific medieval-modern hybrid, tunics and greatcoats with the young princes in trainers. The set, by Christopher Oram, a bare, grey stone floor on the thrust stage with a backdrop of pillars, is similarly generic and unobtrusive. The characters move swiftly across the open playing space, scenes almost overlapping. Tim Mitchell's grand schematic lighting, with banks of spotlights carving up the stage, does most of the work of differentiating spaces and keeps the action moving. The company are variable, though Danny Webb makes a fine, weaselly Buckingham, and Barbara Jefford delivers Queen Margaret's vengeful curses with real stature. Branagh, in his first proper stage appearance since his acclaimed 1992 Hamlet for Richard Eyre, is not a selfish actor; but there is never any doubt of where the focus lies. Everything depends on him.

The play opens with Richard crucified. Branagh, wearing only underpants, is wheeled on, strapped into a steel frame, his arms outstretched, his head held by bolts in a vicious metal ring—his crown of thorns. He begins his soliloquy, reciting emptily, lying almost horizontal. Then, as he reveals his true intentions, he is tipped forward onto the stage. Without the frame to straighten his body, Richard hunches forward crouched on the cold grey floor. His withered left arm hangs useless, his right leg is jammed out in front of him and he must struggle alone into his clothes. But the hermit crab is just moving from shell to shell. His clothes will train him again, with callipers down one trouser leg and a tightly strapped casing around his torso. Once dressed, he appears almost without disability, moves about the stage with great speed and only a slight limp, his useless arm tucked neatly into his tunic. He is handsome (we can imagine him courting an “amorous looking-glass”) and he may be “curtailed of this fair proportion”, but only privately so.

This startling opening image, performed with such force that it makes you wince, gives the play a defining motif and a ballast of repressed pain in what is a very comic production. Branagh is following on from his smiling, chuckling Iago in Oliver Parker's 1995 film of Othello and his brisk Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Final Solution, in the recent television drama, Conspiracy—performances which begin to answer the question, how does an actor, known for his mild good looks, physical grace and decency, play evil? The answer is a performance of surfaces.

The most important is the one he shows to us, full of bonhomie and confidence, which plays on his image as an actor. Even as he emerges from the frame (“But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks / …”), his tone is conversational and frank (this is a man, after all, quite exposed to us), save for a savage bellow on the last word of “And descant on mine own deformity”. He strolls along the perimeter of the Crucible's big thrust stage, working the audience, asking us “What?”, daring us to censure him. This knowing irony runs through almost every moment, at least until Richard begins to lose control of events in the second half of the play. It is an immediately attractive stance, friendly even, based on the certainty of, rather than a demand for, our involvement.

To the other characters on stage, he is the consummate actor, switching styles from moment to moment: jovial, sharp, wheedling, forceful and mocking. In the first wooing scene (Act One, Scene Two), he actually straddles Anne on the ground, forcing her to kiss him. Instructing the two murderers to kill Clarence, he suddenly hits them for no reason. His delivery of Shakespeare's verse is, as ever, dazzlingly fluent, fresh and irreverent. When Derby says that Richmond is on his way to claim the crown, Richard's dry riposte, “Is the chair empty?”, delivered very slowly, as if to an idiot child, gets a big laugh. His note of wounded sincerity (in Act One, Scene Three and elsewhere) and his protestations of unwillingness to be king (in Act Three, Scene Seven) are often hilarious. There is more than a touch of pantomime. After he has appeared before the citizenry with his two fake bishops, he chucks the bible to one of them. Before the interval, he turns back to look at the audience and enjoy one last smirk of complicity. This Richard III has been the fastest-selling show in the Crucible's thirty-year history, mostly, one imagines, on the back of Branagh's popularity. “Do you like me now?” he seems to be asking.

Part of the reason why this is a very good production, rather than a great one, is that our answer may be, a little too easily, “Yes”. Since 1945, Richard III has lived under two shadows: the defining memory of Laurence Olivier's production of that year, later made into his 1955 film, and the sense that, after Hitler et al, Shakespeare's ironical tragedy had become a great deal blacker and more contemporary. Yet here in Sheffield, the play seems to have regained a great deal of its lightness. Morally and emotionally, Richard's crimes do not register so strongly. There is nothing of the political and historical specificity of, for example, Richard Eyre's 1991 production, with Ian McKellen as Richard, set in a nightmarish alternative history of the fascist aristocracy—Oswald Mosley, Diana and Unity Mitford, even Edward VIII—that Britain never quite had. There is no suggestion of the symbolic force of Richard's killings (as in Sam Mendes's 1992 production with Simon Russell Beale), and no attempt to bring more of them on stage. Richard's victims are not particularly sympathetic either: the court is presented as a place of rivalries and Realpolitik, and even the two princes are brats who, albeit by accident, inflict terrible pain on Richard. Infanticide doesn't seem so bad. Part of the problem is that, because Branagh's performance so dominates and energizes the whole production, his victims seem quite diminished. Too much of the horror gets lost in the vaudevillean tone.

So, how evil is Branagh's Richard? He has moments of genuinely frightening violence and his sangfroid is itself chilling. But he doesn't have the touch of the demonic that you get from Olivier or McKellen or Al Pacino in his 1996 movie Looking for Richard. One hesitates to say that Branagh needs to show us more. His excellence as a television and film actor is based on his ability, not universal among theatre actors, to do almost nothing. Evil is, after all, the name we give to a kind of silence, a gap in motive—as Shakespeare himself recognized in the figures of Iago and Aaron. Both of those characters, like Richard, can trace their ancestry well outside ordinary psychological motivation to the symbolic figures of Vice and Machiavell. It may also be the case that, like Steven Pimlott's RSC Hamlet (2001) and the Almeida's recent King Lear, Branagh's Richard is an attempt to think through Shakespeare's dynastic politics for an age of spin and appearances—smile politics.

Yet there is still something lacking. Metaphorically speaking, Richard's deformity is too well braced; it is difficult to understand how a character with such stores of ease can also be so driven or full of self-hatred. The different levels of Branagh's performance need to seep more into each other. The very suddenness of his transitions (in all their virtuosity) suggests a characterization that, deep down, does not fully cohere.

Branagh does begin to develop this kind of complexity. As already mentioned, after Richard greets the two princes, there is a deeply uncomfortable sequence in which they knock him to the ground and play over him, pulling off his brace and clambering onto his back. In McKellen's film Richard, something similar happens, but there it is played for fear—of Richard's fury. Branagh's roar of pain is pitiable as well as frightening, and the whole episode illuminates, like a flash of lightning, a history of degradation and anger. As many productions have emphasized, almost as soon as Richard has got the crown, things start to go wrong for him. He sprawls uncomfortably on the throne, his rigid leg thrust out in front of him. A note of fear creeps more often into Branagh's performance and his personae begin to blur.

The second wooing scene (Act Four, Scene Four), when he must try to persuade Queen Elizabeth that he should marry her daughter, having killed her two sons, is particularly powerful. What begins as another piece of bravura sparring from Richard builds to a terrible crescendo as Elizabeth eliminates, one by one, the things by which Richard may swear—himself, the world, his father's death, God—until Richard, by now sprawled on the floor, cries that he will swear by “The time to come”. He means the future of the kingdom (the end that justifies the means), but the agony of Branagh's delivery suggests a much deeper need to believe in the future, a need related to his own private project to remake his body and escape his birth, “Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up”. Like a shark, Richard must always be moving forward, away from what he is and what he has done. When she gives in and leaves, Richard's typically dismissive volte face from sincerity to “Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman” is funny, but no longer entirely convincing. He has revealed too much of himself. Later, when he wakes from his terrible nightmare before the battle of Bosworth Field, he collapses onto the floor like a pinched Caliban, his face twisted in fear and pain.

The final scenes of Richmond's invasion and the battle of Bosworth Field contain, surprisingly for Michael Grandage, a few lapses of directorial judgment. The ghosts of Richard's victims, gathering around his sleeping frame and then spinning it as he sleeps, look silly rather than frightening. The battle scenes, too, are a little under-powered. Richard's battle armour, a flayed torso of raw red musculature and an exposed spinal column, is an uneasy, isolated element of symbolic costume. Perhaps Grandage is struggling to fit Branagh's complicated, highly individual Richard into a larger structure.

What is most striking is how the production deepens the character through pathos and a sense of the wounded animal within. Suffering is its strongest note. Branagh's characterization is not crassly psychological—there is no sense of a nice, vulnerable Richard on the inside—but it has a modern understanding of trauma and interiority. Richard's death—encircled, outnumbered and then speared viciously—is pitiable; he has made the journey from one form of highly symbolic death (crucifixion) to another. If Branagh has still not quite escaped his own likeability, he has given us a remarkable, intelligent Richard. If he could find more of the Antichrist in his crucified King, it would be a great one.

Further Reading

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Alleva, Richard. Review of Richard III.Commonweal 123 (19 April 1996): 18-19.

Review of director Richard Loncraine's film adaptation of Richard III that contends the work offers a fascinating abstract of Shakespeare's drama, but forsakes too many of its original details.

Bridges, Linda. Review of Richard III.National Review 49 (15 September 1997): 80.

Includes a brief comment on a 1997 production of Richard III at Stratford, Ontario. Comparing it with the famous Laurence Olivier film version, the critic finds this stage production truer to Shakespeare's text but less energetic and vibrant.

Brooke, Stopford A. “Richard III.” In On Ten Plays of Shakespeare, 1905. Reprint, pp. 100-26. London: Constable and Company, 1954.

Considers Richard III to be unique among Shakespeare's dramatic works, particularly in its presentation of a completely isolated hero and as the thematic finale to his English historical sequence.

Brooks, Harold F. “Richard III, Unhistorical Amplifications: The Women's Scenes and Seneca.” Modern Language Review 75, no. 4 (October 1980): 721-37.

Argues that similarities can be traced between the four women in Richard III and characters in Seneca's classical drama Troades.

Buhler, Stephen M. “Camp Richard III and the Burdens of (Stage/Film) History.” In Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, pp. 40-57. London: Macmillan, 2000.

Appraises Richard Loncraine's film version of Richard III in terms of the postmodern, pop sensibility of “camp,” exploring its preoccupation with eroticism, vulgarity, artifice, and style.

Burton, Dolores M. “Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III.Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 55-84.

Offers a rhetorical analysis of the early scenes of Richard III, suggesting that Richard demonstrates a gradual mastery of verbal persuasion as the play's first act progresses.

Desens, Marliss C. “Cutting Women Down to Size in the Olivier and Loncraine Films of Richard III.” In Shakespeare Performed: Essays in Honor of R. A. Foakes, edited by Grace Ioppolo, pp. 260-72. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2000.

Emphasizes the generally negative view of women and female power indicated by the extensive cuts in women's roles undertaken by Laurence Olivier and Richard Loncraine for their film adaptations of Richard III.

Fergusson, Francis. Introduction to The Laurel Shakespeare: “Richard III,” written by William Shakespeare, edited by Francis Fergusson, pp. 7-18. New York: Dell, 1953.

Contains historical background information and a plot analysis of Richard III.

Garber, Marjorie B. “Dream and Plot.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's ‘Richard III,’ edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 5-14. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Discusses the motif of prophetic dreaming in Richard III.

Hammond, Antony. Introduction to King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by Antony Hammond, pp. 1-119. London: Methuen, 1981.

Concentrates on the characterization of Richard in Richard III, and surveys the drama's structure, themes, imagery, and relationship to the Henry VI plays.

Holland, Norman N. “Richard III.” In Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, pp. 260-63. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

Brief survey of Freudian elements, such as incest motifs, sublimated sexual desires, and dreams, in Richard III.

Lesser, Anton. “Richard of Gloucester in Henry VI and Richard III.” In Players of Shakespeare 3: Further Essays in Shakespearian Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood, pp. 140-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Describes the nuances of character that Lesser explored while performing Richard in Adrian Noble's 1988 production of Richard III.

Loehlin, James N. “‘Top of the World, Ma’: Richard III and Cinematic Convention.” In Shakespeare, The Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video, edited by Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt, pp. 67-79. London: Routledge, 1997.

Study of Richard Loncraine's film adaptation of Richard III that recounts the work's successful exploitation of the celluloid medium.

Neill, Michael. “Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's ‘Richard III,’ edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 15-43. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Investigates patterns of dissimulation, ironic mirroring, and self-division found in both Richard III's internal characterization and the thematic structuring of the play.

Oestreich-Hart, Donna J. “Therefore, Since I Cannot Prove a Lover.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40, no. 2 (spring 2000): 241-60.

Centers on Richard III's character in relation to the courtly love tradition.

Plasse, Marie A. “Corporeality and the Opening of Richard III.” In Entering the Maze: Shakespeare's Art of Beginning, edited by Robert F. Wilson, Jr., pp. 11-25. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Evaluates the dramatic “manipulation and destruction of bodies” as a thematic parallel to Richard's increasing political power in Richard III.

Rackin, Phyllis. “History into Tragedy: The Case of Richard III.” In Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, pp. 31-53. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Witnesses Shakespeare's sympathetic depiction of women in Richard III when compared to the preceding Henry VI plays and King John, but finds them likewise disempowered and de-individualized.

Richmond, Hugh M. “Richard III and the Reformation.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 83, no. 4 (October 1984): 509-21.

Describes the ways in which Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard in Richard III complicates the traditional representation of the morality play Vice figure.

Siemon, James R. “Between the Lines: Bodies/Language/Times.” Shakespeare Studies 29 (2001): 36-43.

Draws on two hundred years of performance history to suggest the significance of theatrical pauses to the stage characterization of Richard III.

Sinyard, Neil. “Shakespeare Meets The Godfather: The Postmodern Populism of Al Pacino's Looking for Richard.” In Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, pp. 58-72. London: Macmillan, 2000.

Assesses Al Pacino's efforts to reconnect postmodern audiences with Shakespearean drama in his film Looking for Richard.

Torrey, Michael. “‘The Plain Devil and Dissembling Looks’: Ambivalent Physiognomy and Shakespeare's Richard III.English Literary Renaissance 30, no. 2 (spring 2000): 123-53.

Studies Richard's deformity in the context of Renaissance books of physiognomy in order to focus on the relationship between external appearance and internal reality presented in Richard III.

Weimann, Robert. “Performance-Game and Representation in Richard III.” In Textual and Theatrical Shakespeare: Questions of Evidence, edited by Edward Pechter, pp. 66-85. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996.

Probes Shakespeare's use of the morality play tradition of the Vice figure in his characterization of Richard III.

Zamir, Tzachi. “A Case of Unfair Proportions: Philosophy in Literature.” New Literary History 29, no. 3 (summer 1998): 501-20.

Explores Richard's ethical justification for his villainy and vengeance in Richard III.


Richard III (Vol. 62)


Richard III (Vol. 84)