Markland Taylor (review date 26 July 1999)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Markland. Review of Richard III.Variety 375, no. 10 (26 July 1999): 44.

[In the following review, Taylor praises director Tina Packer's 1999 Shakespeare and Co. production of Richard III as a “blessedly straightforward and vital telling of an endlessly bloody tale of a physically and psychically deformed man proving himself a villain.”]

The very great virtue of Shakespeare & Co.'s Richard III is that it projects the text with such clarity and sense that every word can be heard and understood—the tremendous impact of the play is boldly revealed through words as much as action. This is due primarily to the Shakespearean training offered by the troupe, but also to the excellent acoustics of the Duffin Theater, a new venue the company is using for the first time a couple of miles away from the Mount, Edith Wharton's estate and the company's home, where its many other productions are staged.

Leading the production are Jonathan Epstein, playing Richard as a tremendously agile, four-legged spider whirling about the stage on crutches, and Ariel Bock as a mightily powerful Queen Elizabeth. Their big scene together, after Richard has had Elizabeth's sons murdered in the Tower, is wonderful—Epstein and Bock are well-matched dramatically and vocally. The rest of the acting is sometimes uneven, with some minor roles performed gauchely. But none of this is damaging to the unstoppable forward thrust of this production.

Despite positive reviews, [Tina] Packer hasn't rested on her laurels. At its press opening July 10, the production ran for 3[frac12] hours. Two perfs later, it had been cut and tightened to a swift three. An absolutely complete Richard III could run for 4[frac12] hours, yet even with additional cuts in her production, Packer's contains material not always seen in others.

It also presents scenes depicting the ancient art of female lamentation rituals, including keening and ululation, as royal corpses pile up. This doesn't add up to much, and in any case, Shakespeare supplied quite enough lamenting in his text. Despite this and the bandying about of that dread word “deconstruction” prior to the opening of the production, Packer's Richard III is a blessedly straightforward and vital telling of an endlessly bloody tale of a physically and psychically deformed man proving himself a villain.

Apart from necessary cuts, Packer appears to have done little fiddling with the text, certainly far less than Laurence Olivier in his film version. She, however, has interpolated some dubious comic relief, as when the ever-scheming Richard asks his gullible henchman Buckingham (Jonathan Croy) whether he can act. The latter answers, “Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian,” and then launches into a comic imitation of Richard, as the atmosphere of the production makes a sudden lurch toward comedy. Fortunately, the production quickly gets back on track.

This is not the first production to draw upon the text's “bottled spider” description of Richard. Miguel Romero's set is a vast spider web, and with his two legs and two crutches there's nowhere that Epstein's headon Richard doesn't go between his opening and closing scenes at the heart of the web. Kiki Smith's low-key costumes have a lived-in look that nevertheless evoke the 15th century.

Indeed, everyone involved in the production is clearly at one with the joined vision of Shakespeare and Packer. The women in the play make a particularly strong impact. In addition to Bock's inimitable Elizabeth, there's Elizabeth Aspenlieder's tough Lady Anne, Annette Miller's disarrayed Mad Margaret, and Beverly Wideman's Duchess of York, the tragically sorrowing mother at whom Richard laughs when she curses him. Among other apt touches and...

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performances is the young blond punk Richmond (Henry David Clarke), only too ready to kill Richard and replace him on the throne.

R. Chris Hassel Jr. (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7115

SOURCE: Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “The Wooing of Elizabeth.” In Songs of Death: Performance, Interpretation, and the Text of Richard III, pp. 57-73. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Hassel asserts that Queen Elizabeth is smarter and less naive than some of her earlier critics have suggested, especially in her dealings with Richard.]

On this dialogue 'tis not necessary to bestow much criticism, part of it is ridiculous, and the whole improbable.—

Samuel Johnson

Dr. Johnson's opinion notwithstanding, its length, its placement, its carefully polished rhetoric and its concentration of ironies suggest that Shakespeare considered Richard's wooing of Elizabeth to be a fairly important scene.1 It is all the more ironic that when critics have stooped to interpret it, they have disagreed so radically about what finally happens. E. K. Chambers states one view: “In his last bout [Richard] is palpably outwitted. … Elizabeth is the deeper dissembler. She is already far in the plot with Richmond, and although her daughter shall be a queen, she shall assuredly not be Richard's queen.” Tillyard completely disagrees: “Are we to think, with E. K. Chambers, that Elizabeth had outwitted Richard and had consented only to deceive? That is so contrary to the simple, almost negative character of Elizabeth and so heavily ironical at Richard's expense that I cannot believe it.”2 Predictably, scores of critics, good readers and bad, have lined up on both sides.3 Despite Dr. Johnson's caveat, we obviously need to play more dexterously upon this scene, sound it from its lowest note to the top of its compass, the better to hear its contradictory music.

First, we need to test the stops of two of Tillyard's unproven assumptions about the scene. Does Elizabeth's deception make the scene “too heavily ironical at Richard's expense”? Can we agree that her character is “simple, almost negative”? Second, we might fret the sources again, Hall and Holinshed in particular, but also The true tragedie, to hear their music in consort with Shakespeare's. Elizabeth's line, “Shall I be tempted of the Divel thus” (3209; 4.4.418), coming as it does near the end of the scene, also deserves a better hearing.4 The rave reviews of Maggie Smith's and Lynne Porteous's enactments of the scene in 1977 and 1981 might further expand our sense of the possibilities of the scene, and its continuities with what precedes and follows.5 So should Olivier's decision to cut the scene entirely from his film. Listening to each of these tones might reveal that there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, even if we cannot pluck out the heart of its mystery.


First, Elizabeth's characterization is probably more complex than Tillyard is willing to concede. In her earlier scenes Elizabeth emerges as a tough, smart political creature. She holds her own fairly well in confrontations with Margaret and Richard. She is also clever enough to anticipate future events tending to the downfall of her house, and aggressive enough to try to manage them. The unusual malignancy and ruthlessness of Richard and Buckingham frustrate some of her efforts, but not all of them; she also survives Margaret's curses better than most, though obviously with major casualties. After all, Dorset escapes and her daughter will marry Richmond at play's end, keeping her family close to the center of political power for the next century. Finally, surrounded by many characters, Richard included, who either rationalize their relationship to divine providence or uncritically accept the old clichés about it, Elizabeth has the courage and the intellect to try to discover for herself what this God, this providence, must be like. Tempted by her own bitter experience to believe in Gloucester's sadistic gods in Lear, and by Margaret's apparently successful curses to believe in Shylock's ferocious God of judgment (three eyes for an eye, my daughter for a ducat), she finally chooses neither. Rather she either remains suspended in agnosticism, or settles on a god of “ignorant uncaring, of sleep.”6 The final music of her belief, or unbelief, is so muted it is not easy to hear. But the strenuous honesty of this woman who maintains a strong moral sensibility and powerful political ambitions for herself and her family, even after “all harmes” (472; 1.3.8) have befallen her, hardly suggests a “simple, almost negative character.” If there are negatives, they are the negatives of agnosticism, not of passivity or unimportance. In her is “most excellent music,” both before and during her duet with Richard.

Richard, albeit sarcastically, himself testifies to Elizabeth's political cunning and strength early in the play. She and Mistress Shore “Are mighty Gossips in our Monarchy” (87; 1.1.83). She may have engineered the imprisonment of Hastings (70-72; 1.1.66-68). She has definitely been a successful advocate for the political promotion of her family (99; 1.1.95). Most complimentary of all, she is perceived by Richard as a threat, however much he jokes about it. He honors her with his distrust, and with his frequent public confrontations. If he and Clarence are not “the Queenes abjects” (112; 1.1.106), they are also not as influential as they were before her accession to Edward's bed and the throne.

We first see Elizabeth in 1.3, lamenting the coming death of her husband: “If he were dead, what would betide on me?” These apparently pathetic, almost melodramatic words have done Elizabeth a disservice, for they establish in our minds a whimpering, weak Elizabeth we will not see again. A closer look reveals the depth of honesty behind her lament, which is brief by the play's standards. In political terms her power is her relationship to Edward. Thus, plainly, “The losse of such a Lord, includes all harmes.” The succession of her son to the throne guarantees little: “Ah! he is yong; and his minority / Is put unto the trust of RichardGlouster, / A man that loves not me, nor none of you” (469, 472, 475-77; 1.3.6, 8, 11-13). Always the realist, Elizabeth has seen and said the truth, no more, no less. She does so again, with clear political and philosophical wisdom, just thirty lines later: “Would all were well, but that will never be, / I feare our happinesse is at the height” (505-6; 1.3.40-41). She is too honest and too wise to rest on that tempting, false cliché. And so she corrects her note, and correctly perceives her precarious position at court and in this world of chance and change. Few around her are either as perceptive or as honest.

What else do we see of Elizabeth in this scene? She bristles under the insults of “the nobility,” people like Derby's haughty wife. She has “too long borne” Richard's “blunt upbraidings, and … bitter scoffes” (568-69; 1.3.102-3). She also stands up to Richard. No less than three times early in the scene she contradicts his baiting innuendoes (528-34, 539-41, 548-54; 1.3.62-68, 73-75, 82-88). The men in Henry VI's funeral procession showed far less courage. But the scene's major confrontation is between Richard and Margaret. Margaret, in fact, undercuts Richard's blatant lying here with an irony that nicely parallels Elizabeth's main weapon against him in her culminating scene.

When Elizabeth next appears, she is basically indistinguishable from the rest of the court. Richard appears and manipulates all of them equally well. But when Edward dies, and Elizabeth laments his death, we begin to hear neither pious platitudes nor thoughtless wailing but the beginning of what I submit is her serious questioning of transcendental things, particularly divine providence. Full of grief, she enters “with her haire about her ears,” threatening suicide: “Ile joyne with blacke dispaire against my Soule, / And to my selfe, become an enemie.” But if she will not “make an act of Tragicke violence,” not follow her Edward “To his new Kingdome of nere-changing night” (1306-20; 2.2.34-46, passim), she has in her own words given in to a theological despair that is suicide's close cousin. She has projected the dark night of her soul onto the Christian universe she has hitherto assumed, and found it dark indeed. “Nere-changing night,” not eternal life, is the kingdom she proclaims after death. The Duchess's comments, in contrast, are shallow, reserved for the affairs of this world only.

Elizabeth's son Dorset knows how close his mother is to the deeper grief of despair, and he tries to confront her lack of faith directly: “Comfort deere Mother, God is much displeas'd, / That you take with unthankfulnesse his doing.” It is much more “ungratefull, / … to be thus opposite with heaven, / For it requires the Royall debt it lent you” (1362-68; 2.2.89-95, passim). Elizabeth will no more respond to his attempted correction of her opposition to providence than she does to his attempted political and personal consolations which follow. “The dimming of [her] shining Starre” (1377; 2.2.102) is more than Edward's death. From that loss she will recover; from her loss of faith she will not. Her lack of response to Dorset, to Rivers, and to Richard henceforth in the scene is a crucial subtext, expressing a despair too deep for words. Elizabeth, in fact, will always distrust words; she will also never again completely trust providence.

We see Elizabeth only twice more until 4.4. In each scene small talk is interrupted by devastating news that provokes her brief but profound response. Learning of the imprisonment of Rivers, Vaughan, and Grey in 2.4 leads her to proclaim the amoral natural and political universe of an Edmund:

The Tyger now hath seiz'd the gentle Hinde,
Insulting Tiranny beginnes to Jutt
Upon the innocent and awelesse Throne:
Welcome Destruction, Blood, and Massacre,
I see (as in a Map) the end of all.

(1542-46; 2.4.50-54)

Apocalypse now, where innocents are ravaged by tyrants and beasts, tooth and claw. She has not moved far from the “nere-changing night” of her recent despair. In response to this vision, however, Elizabeth is not frozen. She immediately resolves upon sanctuary. She will try to remove herself and her other son from this world.

But the world affords her no sanctuary. Barred just a few scenes later from the Tower by the Lord Protector, a particularly apt political title given her present theological despair, Elizabeth knows the news to be “dead-killing,” to her sons and possibly also to her remnants of faith. England is truly a “slaughter-house,” and she is about to become “thrall of Margarets Curse, / Nor Mother, Wife, nor Englands counted Queene” (2514-26; 4.1.35-46, passim). This time she has more words, words of compassion for Anne, and a mother's desperate words of prayer. Desperate? She prays not to God, but to the Tower for her sons:

Pitty, you ancient Stones, those tender Babes,
Whom Envie hath immur'd within your Walls,
Rough Cradle for such little prettie ones,
Rude ragged Nurse, old sullen Play-fellow,
For tender Princes: use my Babies well;
So foolish Sorrowes bids your Stones farewell.

(2580-85; 4.1.98-103)

Prayers to stones could only be provoked by “foolish Sorrowes.” In Elizabeth's universe they are not likely to be heard, or heeded. They do suggest how long the impulse to pray, to something, anything, endures, even in a woman as disillusioned and as honest as Elizabeth.

And then “The tyrannous and bloodie Act is done.” How else could this Elizabeth respond to “The most arch deed of pittious massacre / That ever yet this Land was guilty of” (2705-7; 4.3.1-3) but by doubting again God's providence:

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

(2793-95; 4.4.22-24)

God, providence, not content with sleeping during this atrocity, seems to Elizabeth to have participated in it. Why? When? “Ah who hath any cause to mourne but wee?” (2805; 4.4.34). Such questions would be inescapable for anyone at such a moment, but for Elizabeth they have become characteristic. She has voiced such doubt since Edward's death. If “God is much displeas'd” with such unthankfulness, as Dorset earlier admonished her, so be it.

With Margaret continually gloating over the downfall of Elizabeth's house and the fulfillment of most of her own curses, Elizabeth must also confront her possible “thralldom” to Margaret's curses. She does concede an apparent potency to these curses, and evidences a certain curiosity about their power:

O thou did'st prophesie, the time would come,
That I should wish for thee to helpe me curse
That bottel'd Spider, that foule bunch-back'd Toad.

(2850-52; 4.4.79-81)

Unlike the other victims of Margaret's curses, however, Elizabeth concedes nothing about their efficacy in the destruction of her family. Her request, “Teach me how to curse mine enemies” (2888; 4.4.117) is as close as she comes to such a confirmation. Perhaps her pride refuses such a concession, such a further humiliation as Margaret's victory. Perhaps her silence transcends pride, and relates again to her continuing agnosticism about supernatural agency in human affairs. In such a world as this, where prayers for innocents are apparently denied, where beasts and tyrants destroy lambs and children, could curses really work?

Elizabeth directly confronts this question just before Richard enters the scene, and her answer is a resounding “No.” What are these words provoked by calamities, these curses, prayers, and lamentations?

Windy Atturnies to their Clients Woes,
Ayery succeeders of intestine joyes,
Poore breathing Orators of miseries,
Let them have scope, though what they will impart,
Helpe nothing els, yet do they ease the hart.

(2899-2903; 4.4.127-31)

Prayers, curses, lamentations have no supernatural power. They are air, wind, breath, insubstantial expressions of misery. They may “ease the hart,” but they “helpe nothing els.” Faced with all this evidence of the accuracy of Margaret's curses, Elizabeth will not concede their potency. Perhaps that is why she has no “spirit to curse” Richard in the sequence that follows. She has plenty of spirit to devastate him in debate. The Duchess of York gives cursing a try. Elizabeth remains “Tongue-tyed,” though she has “far more cause” to curse than Richard's mother (2904, 2976; 4.4.132, 197). She can hardly believe in the efficacy of curses when she has lost her faith in divine providence.


Like Edgar at the end of Lear, however, Elizabeth has not lost everything. She still believes in human decency, in standards of behavior to which she thinks all persons should attain, regardless of supernatural agency. She is still a moralist, and interestingly, she still bases her morality, in part at least, on the Judeo-Christian God who is often the basis of morality in Western thought. What results from this complex experience is an overwhelming sense of irony which she directs against the very character who has contributed most directly to its creation in her—Richard. Richard is powerless against her irony precisely because Elizabeth is so sure of the human values that endure even an apparently somnolent God and a vicious king. In fact, she must assert them all the more vigorously precisely because of her precarious human condition. Elizabeth clings tenaciously to her remaining children, to her remaining power, and to her remaining sureties. Richard has as grievously underestimated this woman as he will underestimate Richmond in the final act.

Paradoxically, Richard must fall victim to her ironies precisely because he has created them so well. He has driven her, like the evil characters in Lear drive Albany, Edgar, and Lear, to certain certainties beyond which she will not withdraw. “Nothing” is not enough for such characters. Richard has also created for himself a world in which all that might have value to him, to any human being, has been so wronged that it has been rendered inaccessible to him. Richard's vulnerability to Elizabeth's ironies in this scene is surely one of his most powerfully self-inflicted wounds in the play. If providence is directing this judgment against him through Elizabeth's second causation and his own, it is just indeed. Characteristically, Elizabeth says nothing about this possibility. But in the light of Elizabeth's present psychology and Richard's participation in it, her words cannot be “too heavily ironical at Richard's expense.”

Elizabeth's ironies are so overwhelmingly effective that they should require only the briefest recitation. In fact, even Tillyard concedes them. He questions only their appropriateness to her character and to the logic of the dramatic sequence. Elizabeth immediately throws off Richard's courtship with the crushing assumption that he could only wish to destroy that which is “Faire, Royall, and Gracious” (2984; 4.4.205). She has good cause. Then it is she, not Richard, who purposefully misunderstands his words in a relentless exposure of his dishonesty. Richard has turned double meanings and false appearances to his advantage throughout the play. Now she makes him their victims. The cousins are cozened; advancement is “up to some Scaffold.” His soul (he said it) is a shaky foundation for his promised love: “So from thy Soules love didst thou love her Brothers, / And from my hearts love, I do thanke thee for it” (3002, 3022, 3040-41; 4.4.223, 243, 260-61). Richard is aware that he is losing to Elizabeth's ironies, and he is as disconcerted as Wall or Moonshine by her rude but effective interruptions: “Be not so hasty to confound my meaning.” What a witless, impotent response. Elizabeth's suggested wooing strategy is similarly devastating to him (3055-67; 4.4.271-83), cataloguing as it does all of his atrocities against her family as seals of his love. Is this not the very technique he used so successfully against Anne?

But Elizabeth is now the creator of ironies and the aggressor. The atrocities, like the cutting words that derive from them, have become too many and too damaging for Richard's continued manipulation. He can only admit his loss of inventiveness and his vulnerability to the power of her words and wit: “You mocke me Madam.” He is right. Listing the murders of brothers Edward and York, uncles Clarence and Rivers, and good Aunt Anne is “not the way / To win [her] daughter.” “Say that I did all this for love of her” (3002-3073; 4.4.223-88, passim) will not work twice, and Richard is all the more impotent for thinking that it will. Elizabeth's effective ironies become the sere, yellow leaves of Richard's impending fall.

Of course, Richard still has some time and energy left to spill and spend. He turns to Elizabeth's self-interest, and it is considerable. The result? More irony:

What were I best to say, her Fathers 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?

(3122-25; 4.4.337-40)

There can be no answer, for Richard has forfeited all such titles of family relationship. So Richard retreats again, but only to expose other vulnerabilities. England's peace will be Elizabeth's war; Richard entreats that which God forbids; Elizabeth will only wail the title of queen; Richard's “everlastingly” will not last for ever, not if Richard can end “her sweet life” when he wills. Noble eloquence and honest plainness would both be obviously false from his lips. His George is profaned, his Garter dishonored, his Crown usurped.

Elizabeth's crescendo begins: “Sweare then by something, that thou hast not wrong'd” (3151; 4.4.366 ff.). Richard tries. Give him that. But the ironic litany is familiar to us all:

Then by my Selfe.
Thy Selfe, is selfe-misus'd.
Now by the World.
'Tis full of thy foule wrongs.
My Fathers death.
Thy life hath it dishonor'd.
Why then, by Heaven.
Heavens wrong is most of all.

(3160-67; 4.4.374-77)

Elizabeth is almost swept back to conventional belief as she undercuts each of Richard's answers. But if Richard has wronged Heaven most of all, Elizabeth says nothing of Heaven's avenging that wrong. “What canst thou sweare by now” announces the exhilarating victory she knows she has won. Richard's absolute forfeiture of all that is worth having, worth swearing by, of all that gives life meaning, has given him what he deserves, a life “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But Elizabeth can only promise judgment here. In fact, she knows only that children and parents will wail with her in the woes that Richard has stirred up for them in his “times ill-us'd repast.” If Elizabeth were ever going to invoke divine providence, this would be the time. She does not.

All of the bluster of Richard's final attempt to persuade Elizabeth seems to reinforce his utter devastation during their debate. Paradoxically, if Elizabeth will not curse him, he curses himself, to Heaven and to fortune: if “with deere hearts love / Immaculate devotion, holy thoughts, / I tender not thy beautious Princely daughter.” Since he does not so tender her, he tenders himself a fool. “Heaven, and Fortune” will “barre [him] happy houres” soon enough. And he will with their help “my selfe confound” as well. Then Richard tries blatant threats of physical violence against mother and daughter, “the Land, and many a Christian soule” (3188-3202; 4.4.396-411) if he is denied. For Elizabeth to yield at this point to the frustrated blustering of a thwarted bully would negate the purpose of the whole scene, thwart its climactic movement through Elizabeth's ironies, and make a shambles of their hitherto consistent if complex characterization. For Elizabeth to pretend to yield, to avoid Richard's suddenly threatened violence to herself, the land, and all Christian souls, makes eminently good sense and does no damage to her courage or her intellect. Richard has adduced no reasons to change Elizabeth's mind. And until his physical threats, she has had no reason to deceive him. The quick announcement of the engagement of her daughter to Richmond in the next scene demonstrates either that her mind is unchanged or that she is promising her daughter to both men (3349, 3355-56; 4.5.1, 7-8).

The final irony of the scene is that Elizabeth does not even have to be perceived as lying to Richard. If we look at the text carefully, Richard, not Elizabeth, “relents” at the end of the scene by deceiving himself, and then exulting in the self-deception. Elizabeth has only six lines after Richard's bullying peroration, which addresses, incidentally, none of her earlier objections and so concedes their validity. Her lines follow:

Shall I be tempted of the Divel thus?
Shall I forget my selfe, to be my selfe.
Yet thou didst kil my Children.
Shall I go win my daughter to thy will?
I go, write to me very shortly,
And you shal understand from me her mind. Exit Q.

(3209-20; 4.4.418-29, passim)

Where is her concession in the text? Three of these lines are rhetorical questions, the fourth a disgusted remembrance of the atrocities against her sons. She seems instead incredulous, obdurate even in the face of physical violence. If Richard is about to assault her physically, the lines could be said with uncertainty; but even that uncertainty might be a self-protective mask rather than weakness. The exit lines are also noncommittal, cleverly ambiguous perhaps but nothing more. Only a Richard desperate for another victory of any kind could be deceived by these final notes of their exchange. His confusion of mind in the following words with Ratcliffe and Catesby and the increasing threat of political chaos would seem consistent with this pattern. Without even having to lie, then, Elizabeth may have finally gulled this self-deluded Richard into believing her a “Relenting foole, and shallow-changing Woman” (3222; 4.4.431). If this is the case, Richard is really the fool here, and Elizabeth the overwhelming victor.

Though his remarks are ambiguous, Dr. Johnson must have nodded off at this moment. He seems to have assumed Richard the sudden victor and to have been offended by this “improbable” turn of events. Even worse, he may have considered Elizabeth's effective confrontation of Richard the most improbable dimension of the scene. After all, he elsewhere says of women: “Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to see it done at all.”7 This sentiment augurs poorly for his proper estimation of Elizabeth. Stylistically, the elaborate rhetorical exchanges may be too long and too formal for some tastes, even a bit “ridiculous.” Still, Maggie Smith and Lynne Porteous recently used these words and this formality to affirm the theatrical integrity, indeed the brilliance, of a strong-willed Elizabeth. I have tried to show that in the study as on the stage, the scene can be relentless in its probability. This, at least, is the “utterance of harmony” I would command it to, had I the skill.


Elizabeth responds to Richard's final bullying speech with the intriguing question, “Shall I be tempted of the Divel thus?” (3209; 4.4.418). Such interrogatives characterize most of her last responses to Richard. I have argued that they drive an ironic wedge between the true Elizabeth and the Elizabeth Richard desperately wants to perceive. But her question is of particular interest because it suggests that Elizabeth considers Richard's wooing to be analogous to the Devil's temptations of Adam and Eve or of Christ. Renaissance understandings of those temptations reveal interesting analogies between them and this courtship sequence.

Throughout most of 4.4, Richard is either defending himself against Elizabeth's scathing words, or offering to her as attractively as he can the allurements of the world, the first of Satan's traditional triad of temptations. Richard correctly senses the world to be Elizabeth's particular weakness, even after all of her reversals. Her early questions of him would seem to confirm this intuition, while revealing as well the new wisdom her suffering has brought her: “What good is cover'd with the face of heaven, / To be discovered, that can do me good” is one such question. Another: “Tell me, what State, what Dignity, what Honor / Canst thou demise to any childe of mine?” Unlike her final rhetorical questions, which are actually devastating answers, or clever equivocations, these seem to invite answers, and Richard tries to provide them: “Th'advancement of your children, gentle Lady / … Unto the dignity and height of Fortune, / The high Imperiall Type of this earths glory.” This is “the world” epitomized, and Richard the Tempter harps on it throughout the scene. Even the proffered sweetness of second motherhood may continue his worldly temptations, though it contains as well some appeal to the flesh, sensual delight: “To quicken your encrease, I will beget / Mine yssue of your blood, upon your Daughter.” This motherhood will hurt less (“save for a night of groanes”), vex less, comfort more: “mine shall be a comfort to your Age.” But when Richard adds, “And all the Ruines of distressefull Times, / Repayred with double Riches of Content” (3026-3109; 4.4.247-324, passim), we see that the world is still his primary thrust. Elizabeth will receive not “double Riches,” but “ten-times double gaine of happinesse” if only she yield to him.

But Richard does not stop here. He goes on to try to make Elizabeth her daughter's tempter, much as Satan used Eve to tempt Adam:

Go then (my Mother) to thy Daughter go,
Make bold her bashfull yeares, with your experience,
Prepare her eares to heare a Woers Tale.
Put in her tender heart, th'aspiring Flame
Of Golden Soveraignty: Acquaint the Princesse
With the sweet silent houres of Marriage joyes:
And when this Arme of mine hath chastised
The petty Rebell, dull-brain'd Buckingham,
Bound with Triumphant Garlands will I come,
And leade thy daughter to a Conquerors bed:
To whom I will retaile my Conquest wonne,
And she shalbe sole Victoresse, Caesars Caesar.

(3110-21; 4.4.325-36)

This time, Richard the Tempter has combined the world, the flesh, and the Devil. If young Elizabeth will share a conqueror's bed, the world and the flesh will be “retailed” to this “sole Victoresse, Caesars Caesar.” Teach her to aspire to sovereignty; acquaint her with the joys of sex; ask her if she would be “lord of all the world.” It has a familiar ring to it, this triple equation. The world, the flesh and the Devil, power and wealth, sexuality, and pride are all in Richard's package, as they are in the Devil's for Christ, Adam, and Eve.

Elizabeth devastates the proffered gift with her sarcasm. As we have already seen, her answer comes in the form of a series of questions (“What were I best to say … tender yeares?” [3122-27; 4.4.337-42] which cannot be answered. Richard tries anyway, but this simply adds to his frustration and his defeat. His wiles, his fraud, his guile have not worked. He has neither seduced Elizabeth nor convinced her to seduce her daughter to his will. Even with her recent disillusionment, she can still invoke God, law, honor, and love against Richard's temptations. Her daughter would apparently be even more likely to recoil at these unnatural, ungodly, illegal, immoral, and loveless suggestions. Elizabeth's “Reasons are too deepe and dead” for shallow, quick Richard, and she will “harpe on [them] … till heart-strings breake” (3147-49; 4.4.362-65). Richard has failed so completely that it takes him almost sixty lines to regain the offensive.

Even then, Richard has no new arguments, no counterarguments either. He asserts that he will “thrive,” and that Elizabeth will plead his case to her daughter. He will have his way, or else:

Without her, followes to my selfe, and thee;
Her selfe, the Land, and many a Christian soule,
Death, Desolation, Ruine, and Decay:
It cannot be avoyded, but by this:
It will not be avoyded, but by this.

(3198-3202; 4.4.407-11)

Elizabeth responds: “Shall I be tempted of the Divel thus.” With these words she clearly connects Richard's last thrust with the temptation of force, of violence, traditionally the last recourse of the Devil, his final and most desperate strategy. He uses it only when the other three have failed.

Elizabeth Pope discusses this final strategy in her book on ParadiseLost. As she suggests, “Many exegetes agreed that Satan did try to terrorize Christ,” as part of the temptation in the wilderness. But the more traditional time for the temptation of violence was later, during the Passion: “Satan can tempt either by ‘fraud’ or ‘violence’: that is, either by persuasion or by fear. In the wilderness, he assailed Christ with persuasion only; afterwards, at the time of the Passion, he tried to shake him through threats of death and torture.”8 Lancelot Andrewes describes the tradition in a sermon on the temptations of Christ:

Christ was too cunning for him in desputing: he meant therefore to take another course; for as James noteth, there be two sorts of temptations, one by enticement as a serpent, another by violence as a lion; If he cannot prevail as a serpent, he will play the lion.9

Elizabeth's allusion to the Devil's temptation just after Richard's crude threats of “Death, Desolation, Ruine, and Decay,” to Elizabeth, her daughter, himself, and the whole world, effectively suggests this theological tradition, and invites its application to the play. Richard, frustrated by the obvious failure of his enticing fraud, must finally resort to violence. Failing as a serpent, he must become a lion. But Elizabeth, “too cunning for him in disputation,” may also be too courageous for him in violence. Modifying a now-familiar rhetorical pattern, she may be understood to deflect his fury with a cleverly aimed series of questions, and deceive the dissimulator at the same time. Richard will no longer “thrive,” any more than he intended to “repent.” His last, threatening temptation of force has resulted merely in a potent curse against himself.


The most important source of Elizabeth in 4.4 of Richard III is Hall's The union of the two noble …families of Lancastre and Yorke. Two other sources are also worth our brief attention, Thomas Legge's Richardu Tertius (1579) and the anonymous The true tragedie of Richard the Third (1594). Considered together, the three provide another interesting perspective on Shakespeare's treatment of Richard's courtship of his potent adversary.

In Hall's account, Queen Elizabeth, courted by “diverse and often messengers,” “men bothe of wit and gravitie,” finally yields to Richard's proposals. She is not courted directly by Richard himself. Since Shakespeare so clearly uses Hall elsewhere in the play, and since Hall's account of the courtship is brief and revealing, it should be reproduced:

[Richard] clerely determined to reconcile to his favoure his brothers wife quene Elizabeth either by faire woordes or liberall promises. … Wherefore he sent to the quene beynge in sanctuarie diverse and often messengers, whiche first shoulde excuse and purge him of all thinges before against her attempted or procured, and after shoulde so largely promes promocions innumerable and benefites, not onely to her but also to her sonne lord Thomas Marques Dorsett, that they should brynge her yf yt were possible into some wanhope, or as men saie into a fooles paradise. The messengers beynge men bothe of wit and gravitie so persuaded the quene with great & pregnaunte reasons, then with fayre & large promises, that she began somewhat to relent & to geve to theim no deffe eare, in somuche that she faithfully promysed to submyt & yelde her selfe fully and frankely to the kynges will and pleasure. And so she putting in oblivion the murther of her innocente children, the infamy and dishonoure spoken by the kynge her husbande, the lyvynge in avoutrie [adultery, OED] leyed to her charge, the bastardyng of her daughters, forgettyng also ye feithfull promes & open othe made to the countesse of Richmond mother to ye erle Henry, blynded by avaricious affeccion and seduced by flatterynge wordes, first delivered into king Richards handes her v. daughters, as Lambes once agayn committed to the custody of the ravenous wolfe. After she sente letters to the Marques her sonne … willynge him in any wise to leave the earle [of Richmond] and without delaie to repaire into Englande, where, for hym were provided greate honoures and honorable promocions, asserteignynge hym ferther, that all offences on bothe parties were forgotten and forgeven, and bothe he and she highely incorporate in the kynges hearte. Surely the inconstancie of this woman were muche to be merveled at. … [K]ynge Rycharde had thus with glorious promyses and flatterynge woordes pleased and appeased the mutable mynde of quene Elizabeth.

(fol. xlviii)10

Hall is perplexed at her inconstancy and her avarice, not to mention her naiveté, but he has no question that she has changed her mind. This is clearly the version of the scene that Richard perceives. The strategies sound particularly familiar: the excuses for Richard's villainy, the promised preferment of Dorset, and her own “promes promocions innumerable and benefites.” The result is just what Richard hoped: “blynded by avaricious affeccion and seduced by flatterynge wordes,” Elizabeth “delivered” her daughter. The tempter prevails over a shallow and changing woman, by appealing to her love of things and her love of praise, the world and the Devil. But Hall's Richard is not responding to the scene we have just witnessed. Shakespeare has transformed the bland negotiations of Hall's account into a vivid confrontation between Richard and Elizabeth. This Elizabeth may be neither mutable nor gullible enough for his wiles.

The differences Shakespeare introduces may therefore be more significant than the similarities. In the first place, Richard himself courts Elizabeth in the play, and his precarious position by now, both with her and with us, hardly presages well for his efforts. Further, Shakespeare's Elizabeth is shown “somewhat to relent,” only if we mean deceitfully; she is never shown “faithfully … to submyt & yelde her selfe fully and frankely to the kynges will and pleasure.” At most she offers some ambiguous final questions. Before that she adamantly refuses to yield an inch. “Deffe eare” would best describe her responses to all of Richard's blandishments. That and “articulate tongue.” For Shakespeare's Elizabeth, unlike Hall's, is full of reasoned and emotional arguments which Richard cannot answer. Finally, the order of her final negotiations is reversed from Hall to Shakespeare. In Hall, Dr. Lewes, Richmond's physician, first proposes the Richmond-Elizabeth match to the queen in sanctuary. Her response is joyous: “lorde howe her spirites revyved, and how her heart lept in her body for joye and gladnes” (fol. xxxvii). She is thus all the more shallow and changing in Hall when she is later seduced by Richard's emissaries.

In Shakespeare, it is Richard who is quickly undercut by her subsequent agreement with Richmond, only a hundred lines after Richard proclaims victory. Her messenger Derby tells Sir Christopher, “tell Richmond this from me, … that the Queene hath heartily consented / He should espouse Elizabeth hir daughter” (3349, 3355-56; 4.5.1, 7-8). The close timing of this announcement would seem to emphasize Richard's self-deception, just like the intervening news of gathering rebellion by four messengers and Richard's confusion with Catesby and Ratcliffe. All of these “songs of death” are added to Hall by Shakespeare. All of them increase the probability of Elizabeth's successful deception of Richard at the end of the courtship scene.

The relationship between Legge's Richardus Tertius and Shakespeare's Richard III is ambiguous at best. Still, Legge's treatment of the essential action of 4.4 is interesting to compare to both Hall and Shakespeare. Legge conceives two wooing scenes, one in which Queen Elizabeth is persuaded by Lovell to yield to Richard's desires, and a second in which Princess Elizabeth resists Richard's personal proposals. Thus Legge, alone among the sources, may have provided Shakespeare with both a model for Richard's failure and a model for his success in this late courtship. In Legge, Lovell succeeds and then Richard fails, a further deflection. Young Elizabeth is given the glory of resisting the tempter. Not incidentally she is also insulated from her mother's past and present weaknesses in Legge by her direct victory. It is Princess Elizabeth who catalogues Richard's bloody crimes and his incestuous proposal with the most hyperbolic of classical allusions. Interestingly, when Legge's Richard see the futility of persuasion, he turns like Shakespeare's to devilish threats of violence: “There is a double way for ruling for a prince, love and fear. It is advantageous for kings to try both.” But this Elizabeth prefers not to consent, choosing death over dishonor. She even faces down a veiled threat of rape. Legge's Richard, unlike Shakespeare's, knows his impotence “in her madness” of honor, and decides to “postpone this business” until her fury diminishes. He is unequivocally defeated by her.11

From The true tragedie we receive only the most cryptic of notes about the scene from Lovell: “My Lord very strange she was at the first, / But when I had told her the cause, she gave consent.” Then Queen Elizabeth and her daughter appear after the battle and the queen seals an earlier vow with Richmond. Her dutiful daughter consents to her will, and England rejoices.12

The sources suggest that Shakespeare may have added considerable strength of wit and will to Queen Elizabeth during the wooing scene, inevitably deflating Richard in the process. At the same time, Shakespeare has left her decision at the end of that scene much more ambiguous than it is in any of the sources. In them she always yields, then vacillates toward Richmond after his victory. Legge's young Elizabeth provides a better model than her mother for Queen Elizabeth's relentless denials in Shakespeare. Far from moving gradually from denial to curiosity to assent, Hall's pattern and Legge's, Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth denies all of Richard's arguments with withering irony, names him the Devil he is in his final demands. Her hard-won skepticism about divine providence seems to have made Shakespeare's Elizabeth much more careful—provident if you will—about her remaining son and daughter than the gullible and frightened mother of Shakespeare's sources. We have in her the first worthy adversary of the Devil Richard since Margaret. Elizabeth can be seen to outwit him in cunning and controversy, assert over him moral superiority and courage to boot, and outlast him politically as well by returning with her daughter to Richmond's throne. In so doing she also survives some, though not all, of Margaret's curses. That survival, of kin and crown, reminds us of her stubborn refusal to credit their supernatural efficacy. This is a queen of which a descendant and a namesake, say Shakespeare's Elizabeth, could be justly proud.


  1. Quoted in Furness, ed., New Variorum, note 210, p. 337. Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard the Third, agrees, p. 190.

  2. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey, p. 18; Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 214.

  3. See note 210, p. 337 in Furness, ed., New Variorum, for early disagreement. Cf. Hudson's comment, in hud1, note 450, p. 355 (most critics to 1872 think “Elizabeth is really beguiled”; he does not). See also Tanner, “Richard III Versus Elizabeth: An Interpretation,” pp. 468-72; Dollarhide, “Two Unassimilated Movements of Richard III: An Interpretation,” pp. 40-46. The former finds Richard deceived, the latter Elizabeth. See also Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage, pp. 75, 78, and Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard the Third, who thinks Elizabeth may pretend to yield.

  4. The first Folio; see introduction, note 1.

  5. See discussion in chapter 1, and note 23.

  6. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments, p. 74.

  7. In Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1:463.

  8. Pope, Paradise Regained: The Tradition and the Poem, p. 88. See also Stein, Heroic Knowledge, pp. 118-19; Tillyard, Milton, p. 263; Lewalski, Milton's Brief Epic, p. 305.

  9. Andrewes, Ninety Six Sermons, 5:483.

  10. Hall, The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke.

  11. Legge, Richardus Tertius, pp. 441-42. See also Bullough, 3:310-12. The last two phrases are quoted from Bullough's more dramatic translation. Lordi has “foolishly” and “put off these things.”

  12. The true tragedie of Richard the Third, sigs. G1 H4.

Textual Bibliography

Editions Fully Collated, with Abbreviations

F1 Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623.

HUD1 Works. Edited by Henry Hudson. 11 vols. Boston: James Munroe & Co., 1851-[56].

Andrewes, Lancelot. Institutiones piae, or Directions to pray. London: Henry Seile, 1630.

———. Ninety Six Sermons Reprint of 1843 ed. 5 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1967.

Boswell, James. The Life of Johnson. Edited by G. B. Hill. Revised by L. F. Powell. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934.

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957-75.

Chambers, E. K. Shakespeare: A Survey. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1951.

Clemen, Wolfgang. A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III. Translated by Jean Bonheim. London: Methuen, 1968.

Dollarhide, Louis. “Two Unassimilated Movements of Richard III: An Interpretation.” Mississippi Quarterly 14(1960): 40-46.

Hall, Edward. The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of ancastre & Yorke. … [London], 1548.

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

Legge, Thomas. Richardus Tertius. Translated by Robert J. Lordi. New York: Garland Press, 1979.

Lewalski, Barbara. Milton's Brief Epic. Providence: Brown University Press, 1966.

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

Pope, Elizabeth. Paradise Regained: The Tradition and the Poem. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1947.

Stein, Arnold. Heroic Knowledge. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1965.

Sutcliffe, Matthew. The practice, proceedings, and lawes of armes. London: Christopher Barker, 1593.

Tanner, Stephen L. “Richard III Versus Elizabeth: An Interpretation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 468-72.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Milton. London: Longmans Green, 1959.

———. Shakespeare's History Plays. New York: Macmillan, 1947.


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Richard III

Richard III (c. 1592-93), the fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, dramatizes the final episode in the English Wars 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. The play chronicles the rise and fall of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is depicted 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. Critics have noted that Shakespeare's unfavorable portrait of Richard III suggests a likely political motivation to please the reigning Elizabeth I, a Tudor queen. The vast majority of scholarship regarding Richard III has focused on the play's diabolical titular character, whom many critics consider as one of Shakespeare's most brilliant portraits of evil.

Richard's villainous yet charismatic character is compelling to actors, audiences, and especially critics. Scholars such as Mary Ann McGrail (2001) have attempted to determine how Richard's wickedness functions as a response to his own deformed body and to the world in which he lives. McGrail contends that Richard's decision to play the usurper and tyrant is a direct result of his resentment of nature's malformation of his body, and argues that Richard's belief that no one can love his deformed body is what drives him to seek vengeance against his world and the people in it. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1987) focuses on two of the play's female characters: Queen Elizabeth, mother of the two young princes (whom Richard orders assassinated), and the younger Elizabeth (whom Richard wishes to marry). Hassel asserts that Queen Elizabeth is smarter and less naive than some of her earlier critics have suggested, especially in her dealings with Richard. The critic notes that although it appears that Richard successfully persuades Queen Elizabeth to hand over her daughter in marriage in Act IV's “wooing scene,” the Queen is in fact protecting her daughter and herself with language that might sound like acquiescence, but is actually delay.

Richard III, one of Shakespeare's most popular plays on the stage, has long been a favorite of audiences as well as actors, who consider the character of Richard to be one of the most desired Shakespearean roles. Markland Taylor (1999) praises director Tina Packer's 1999 Shakespeare and Co. production of Richard III as a “blessedly straightforward and vital telling of an endlessly bloody tale of a physically and psychically deformed man proving himself a villain.” Patrick Carnegy (2001) commends Michael Boyd's 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production for achieving “a play balanced as Shakespeare intended it.” Carnegy notes that Boyd focused less exclusively on the character of Richard so that the other characters received their proper due, particularly the female characters. In a review of Barry Kyle's 2003 production for the Globe Theatre, Sheridan Morley (2003) points out that while Kyle held to the tradition of Richard's physical deformity as a key to his character, he opened up the possibilities of the play by using an all-female cast. The critic notes that “[t]his Richard III asks whether the king is inherently evil, or just the intelligent but warped product of an unloved and unloving family.”

Many critics, such as Jack E. Trotter (1993), contend that an important theme of Richard III is Richard's disgust with the world of flesh and his attempt to conquer the inadequacies of nature, particularly as they are revealed by his own body. Trotter sees strong evidence of this theme in Act I during Richard's courtship of Lady Anne. The critic suggests that Richard's contempt for Lady Anne, once he easily convinces her to be his wife, is not simply an indication of his hatred of women, but more importantly is a symbol of his disgust with the flesh in general. Similarly, Marie A. Plasse (1995) argues that Richard uses his malformed body as an excuse to behave wickedly. In other words, Plasse explains, Richard feels that he is trapped in a twisted body and is therefore ideally shaped for twisted acts, such as imprisoning or murdering his enemies. Richard W. Grinnell (1997) argues that Richard III can be read as a critique of Renaissance society. Grinnell compares the transforming powers of the theater with those of witchcraft and observes that while Richard relies on both to destroy his enemies, Shakespeare employed them as metaphors through which he critiques his society. Ramie Targoff (2002) connects the repeated use of the word “amen” in the play with the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty and attempts to determine whether the “amens” at the end of the play represent “an enthusiastic or only halfhearted endorsement of Henry's rule.”

Jack E. Trotter (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Trotter, Jack E. “‘Was Ever Woman in This Humour Won?’: Love and Loathing in Shakespeare's Richard III.Upstart Crow 13 (1993): 33-46.

[In the following essay, Trotter contends that an important theme of Richard III is the protagonist's disgust with the world of flesh and his attempt to conquer the inadequacies of nature, particularly as they are revealed by his own body. Trotter sees strong evidence of this theme in Act I during Richard's courtship of Lady Anne.]

Typical of nineteenth-century assessments of what is perhaps the most debated scene in Shakespeare's Richard III, the wooing of Lady Anne in Act I, is Henry Hudson's remark that Richard's remarkable triumph is due “not so much to any special vice or defect in [Anne] as to his witchcraft of tongue and wit, so put into play as to disconcert all her powers of resistance.”1 Like S. T. Coleridge before him, whose own estimation of Richard sets the tone for much of the century's criticism of the play, Hudson is enthralled with Richard's intellectuality, displayed above all by the almost demonic verbal pyrotechnics which have tried the skills of the best leading men down through the centuries. More recent critics are not so enamoured as their predecessors with the Promethean man of will. Robert Ornstein, among others, has noted that some of the supposed victims of Richard's verbal “witchcraft” are better described as willingly self-deceived. Yet even Ornstein is dazzled by Richard's powers of improvisation, and he views the seduction of Anne as a not altogether serious jeu d' esprit meant to showcase Richard's talents.2

Several feminist critics have attempted to redress what in their view has been a consistent overemphasis on Richard's triumphant prowess. At its worst this line of criticism has resulted in the kind of reductive psychologizing which prompts Marguerite Waller, for instance, to claim that Richard is “politically and intellectually stupid, cowardly and boring. … He is a relatively common species of manipulative narcissist.”3 A more productive feminist view is seen in the history plays in general, and in Richard III in particular, a movement away from the feminine toward a dominant and even ultramasculine principle. Thus Richard is not simply a garden variety chauvinist, but is the very embodiment of an increasingly misogynistic world-view.4

In what follows, I hope to show that Richard's hatred for women is indeed a key thematic factor in the play, but I will argue that his misogyny is best perceived as an expression of loathing for the flesh itself, the flesh understood as a sign of creaturely dependence. Over against the flesh, Richard opposes in dualistic fashion a counterworld, a deathless world spun out of the vacuity of an imaginary self, a radically autonomous self unconditioned by time or history. And whatever the weaknesses of earlier generations of critics, they were surely justified in detecting an element of the uncanny in Richard's performance. For there is in his revolt against the order of nature something bordering upon the heroic. That revolt is in essence, I will argue, a gnostic quest, an antithetical ritual of self-begetting. If, as philosopher Hans Jonas has suggested, there is a “hidden gnosticism” in the modern mind, it is possible to see in Richard of Gloucester's emergence upon the Elizabethan stage the originary model for a long line of gnostic heroes, or antiheroes—from Milton's Satan to Percy's Lancelot—whose nihilistic longings for the knowledge (gnosis) of the abyss remind us of the undercurrent of displaced religiosity which has shaped, and continues to shape, our modernity.

Before turning to the wooing scene which will be the focus of this essay, it will be useful to glance at Richard's opening soliloquy and its invocation of a number of themes analogous to those of gnostic myth as analyzed by Jonas and others. Most important is the overarching motif of catastrophic birth, about which cluster the themes of exile-in-time, of the imprisoning power of the world and the flesh, of cheating nature, of a sense of the self as essentially alien, of a secret call from the “beyond” and a response in the form of heroic defiance.5 The malformed body Richard presents to his audience is the very image of the gnostic tibil, the body-prison: “Who has thrown me into the body-stump?” laments a second century gnostic seeker of the Mandean sect, expressing thus a radical dualism of “flesh” and “spirit” which enters into the Christian psyche by way of Augustine. So, too, does Richard seem to despair, as his repeated use of the passive voice well illustrates:

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 …(6)

That Richard has been “cheated of feature” is his lament, but it is also, we suspect, his secret pride; his want of “fair proportion” may be, paradoxically, the sign of his election. For as Jonas has argued, the suffering of the gnostic self-in-exile “is at the same time a mark of excellence, a source of power and of a secret life unknown to the environment and in the last resort impregnable to it” (50). Of this election or “call,” Richard offers a mysterious hint in the reference to “dissembling Nature.” If his frightening aspect is the very emblem of reprobation, that emblem may be read (as Richard reads it) in antithetical fashion as a veiled sign of gnosis or special knowledge. As the passage continues, we sense Richard's apparent passivity giving way to a new will to power born of the conviction of absolute difference:

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair, well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots I have laid, inductions dangerous.

(I. i. 20-30)

If his “rudely stamped” form sets him apart from others, from “this breathing world” (emphasis added), it also masks an inward superiority. Jonas has noted that the gnostic vision of a radically transcendent “beyond” inevitably demarcates “this world” from “that world”—the world in which one's omnipotence is realized: “The demonstrative pronoun has thus become a relevant addition to the term world; and the combination is … a fundamental linguistic symbol of Gnosticism, closely related to the primary symbol of the alien.”7 I might add that a disturbing ambiguity hovers about the penultimate recurrence of the first-person pronoun: “I am determined to prove a villain.” In what sense is Richard “determined”? What are we to make of an assertion of freedom predicated upon necessity? An answer may emerge if we consider what the above-quoted passage reveals about Richard's sense of time.

Into “this breathing world” Richard has been thrown prematurely (“sent before my time”) and “scarce half made up.” Born, we will recall, “legs foward” (3 Henry VI, V. vi. 71), his sense of time is wholly dualistic; his movement is headlong out of the past, out of the catastrophe of his birth, irreversibly toward the future. Between the two lies a vacuous present in which Gloucester cannot, or will not, “delight to pass away the time.” The modernity of this future oriented sense of time will be evident to most readers; less familiar may be its similarity to the gnostic concept of time enunciated in the following formula attributed to the heresiarch Valentinus: “What makes us free is the knowledge who we are, what we have become; where we were, wherein we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed.”8 In terms that might well apply to Richard's opening soliloquy, Jonas notes the affinity between the Valentinian formula and Pascal's lament at having been “cast into the infinite immensity of spaces,” or Heidegger's “flungness” (geworfenheit): “The term … expresses the original violence done to me in making me be where I am and what I am, the passivity of my choiceless emergence into an existing world which I did not make and whose law is not mine.”9

To achieve the gnosis or redemption held out in the Valentinian formula (the unlimited freedom or omnipotence that beckons out of the future), a crisis must be provoked—the vacuity of the “now” must be filled with frenetic plotting, or, rather, counterplotting against the conspiracy of this world. Richard must have a “world” to “bustle in” (I. i. 152), but it will be a world fashioned in his own image. That he could choose otherwise and follow the traditional Christian pattern of heroism, the model which offers itself equally to cripples and the fair proportioned, is evaded here. Richard embraces the material sign of his reprobation as the emblem of an inward and unconditional freedom. As Georges Battaille has said of the pattern of gnostic revolt, “it is a question above all of not submitting oneself, and with oneself one's reason, to whatever is more elevated, to whatever can give a borrowed authority to the being that I am.”10 Thus in Richard's “I am determined to prove a villain,” we can hear an echo of the threat of the unrepentant Adam in the heresiarch Mani's misreading of the Eden narrative. Having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam learns the truth of his imprisonment and cries, “Woe, woe unto the shaper of my body, unto those who fettered my soul.”11 Richard's punning “determined” is the rhetorical equivalent of an inward evasion of the very possibility of grace, that is, of a sacramental redemption within the order of nature. He is determined to avert his eyes from the mortal shadow cast by the sun—ever the symbol of all “true” representation—and to “prove” himself a villain. We should not, therefore, be misled by the ironic “since I cannot prove a lover,” for two scenes later he proves himself a liar.

In the often discussed wooing scene (I. iii) in which Richard engages the Lady Anne in an inverted Petrarchan rhetorical duel, a gnostic structural pattern, or dialectic, emerges which may be described in terms borrowed from Harold Bloom, a literary critic whose use of the gnostic paradigm is by now well known. According to Bloom, “[W]hat a Gnostic or strong poet knows is what only a strong reading of a belated poem or a lie-against-time teaches: a freedom compounded of three elements, and these are: negation, evasion, extravagance (emphasis added).”12 Negation may here be understood as a figurative severance from, and a flight out of, a dead and imprisoning time past—time understood beneath the sign of the flesh (that which decays). Evasion follows upon negation and appears as improvisation, as a will to deception which would preclude the redemptive possibility of time present. On the “rhetorical level,” according to Bloom, evasion “is always misinterpretation or misreading.”13 And, finally, extravagance as the ultimate term of the dialectic, may be understood as the confident assumption of gnosis or omnipotence.

The wooing, or better yet, seduction of Anne begins with a powerful symbolic negation of the traditional Christian ceremonial “binding” of profane time by way of sacramental ritual and ceremony. Following in solemn procession the bearers of the royal corpse, Anne mourns the death of the saintly King Henry VI. The rhythm of the verse in these opening lines is the rhythm of sacred time, of the plenitudo et extensio which binds the living and dead, a bond now sacralized by ritual incantation:

Set down your honorable load—
If honor may be shrouded in a hearse—
Whilst I awhile obsequiously lament
The untimely fall of virtuous Lancaster.

(I. ii. 1-4)

The emotional weight of the passage falls squarely upon the word “untimely,” which is of course a reference to Henry's murder at the hands of Gloucester, whose fate it is to be untimely. And at the thought of Richard, Anne's lament rises toward a crescendo of curses barely restrained by formal repetition. Here she addresses the slain king:

Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost
To hear the lamentations of poor Anne,
Wife to thy Edward, to thy slaught'red son
Stabbed by the selfsame hand that made these wounds!
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!
Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!

(I. ii. 8-16)

Despite the considerable critical ingenuity expended upon this scene, no one has noticed that Anne's curses are themselves a violation of the norms of Christian charity, and thus already a profanation of this funeral rite. Richard is waiting in the wings, taking her curses—so full of the venom upon which he feeds—for his cue. Indeed, the curse which follows repeats the emphasis upon Richard's untimeliness, for Anne wishes upon him an offspring who will be—just as he was—“abortive … prodigious, and untimely brought to light” (I. ii. 21-22).

But Anne's violation of the sanctity of the funeral rite is not of the same order as Richard's violent and impious intrusion:

Villains, set down the corse, or, by Saint Paul,
I'll make a corse of him that disobeys!
My Lord, stand back, and let the coffin pass.
Unmannered dog! Stand thou, when I command!
Advance thy halberd higher than my breast,
Or by Saint Paul, I'll strike thee to my foot
And spurn thee, beggar, for thy boldness.

(I. ii. 36-42)

We would do well to remember just how sobering an iconographic presence this royal corpse must have been for an Elizabethan audience. For as Kantorowicz reminds us, in his funeral procession, “for the last time, the dead king acts out the person of the Dignity,”—that is, the corpus mysticum, the body mystical which was believed to contain the spiritual substance of the king's subjects.14

Richard's intrusion upon the scene is thus a double violation, for he flaunts the ceremonial strictures of both Church and State—negating, or rending with one brash thrust of his sword the fabric of ritual time. Anne does not fail to recognize his satanic aspect:

Avaunt thou dreadful minister of hell!
Thou hadst but power over his mortal body;
His soul thou canst not have. Therefore, begone.

(I. ii. 46-48)

Like Lucifer, Richard is a hunter of souls. But, of course, it is not Henry's soul that this “minister of hell” is out to ensnare. That Anne does not immediately recognize the danger suggests something less than the vigilance counseled by the Apostle Paul, whose name Richard has sworn by, as we have seen, only a few lines earlier.15 Unlike Eve, whose seduction by the Serpent in the Garden may be a model for this temptation scene, Anne cannot claim prior ignorance of the reality of evil.16 In any case, Richard responds to her rebuff with all the evasive and insinuating flattery traditionally attributed to the Serpent:17 “Sweet saint, for charity, be not so curst” (I. i. 49). This is Richard's first parry in the dialectical swordplay which will end, quite literally, with Anne's refusal to take up Richard's proffered sword and plunge it in his breast. With that refusal she makes her fatal assent to the devil's bargain. But given the nature of her opponent, we might argue that by entering into the debate at all she has tacitly assented here at the outset.

To Anne's passionate curses, Richard returns Petrarchan conceits—that is, a series of verbal evasions or improvisations which might be termed misreadings, not merely of the “text” Anne provides, but of the Petrarchan text as well:

Lady, you know no rules of charity,
Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.
Villain, thou know'st nor law of God nor man:
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.
But I know none, and therefore am no beast.

(I. ii. 68-72)

While his logic leaves something to be desired, Richard's misreading is not without some truth. Anne, with a mouthful of curses, has forgotten the “rules of charity.” And perhaps her vulnerability on this point is what tempts her farther into this “keen encounter of wits”—an encounter which can only lead to entrapment. For the moment, however, she proves an able opponent:

O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!
More wonderful, when angels are so angry.
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,
Of these supposed crimes to give me leave
By circumstance to acquit myself.
Vouchsafe, diffused infection of a man,
Of these known evils, but to give me leave
By circumstances t'accuse thy cursed self.
Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.

(I. ii. 74-82)

Anne is no mean rhetorician, but silence would be her best argument. Instead, she enters with a certain gusto into this semantic jousting; and in so doing she is already participating in a fiction of Richard's design. Yet punning upon his fawning “divine perfection” with her own “diffused infection,” Anne does inadvertently provide us with a clue to the nature of Richard's power, which lies precisely in his ability to manipulate the narratives that others construct in an attempt to define him, or, more importantly, to define themselves. Shakespeare's audience would have been particularly sensitive to the subtle identification between Richard and a plague-like “infection.” For believing in nothing—save his own secret omnipotence—Richard insinuates himself almost invisibly into the lives of his victims. Unburdened with the common sense conviction that language bears some essential relation to the world, to truth, Gloucester manipulates words with an unsettling ease. Even the “truth” that he was in fact the murderer of King Henry becomes an element of the fiction which insidiously undermines Anne's pious resistance. Admitting his guilt, Richard nonetheless pretends to have done the deed out of love: “He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband / Did it to help thee to a better husband” (I. ii. 138-39).

Of course, Anne's revulsion for Richard is for the moment understandably whipped into a white heat; she spits at him and commands him to withdraw: “Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes” (I. ii. 148). But Richard has now drawn Anne precisely to that point where revulsion reaches its extremity and may begin, if carefully prompted, to spill over into its opposite. But if that is to occur, Richard must simulate genuine passion, and do it so well that he becomes pitiable.

Thus in the climactic passage of the scene, Richard narrates a moment out of his past in such a way as to invest his demonic fatality (that which Anne hates and fears) with a tragic hue (that which she may find piteous):

Those eyes of thine from mine have drawn salt tears,
Shamed their aspect with store of childish drops:
These eyes, which never shed remorseful tear—

(I. ii. 153-55)

Even when those hardened warriors—his father and Edward—wept at the death of Rutland, the youngest of the York brothers, Richard in his pride disdained to shed a tear. Not even the death of his own father, though it caused him sorrow, could wrest from his “manly eyes” a “humble tear.” In short, Richard represents himself as a victim of his own pride. Beneath this cruel aspect, he seems to say, I have carried a lonely burden of loss and sorrow. But “what these sorrows could not then exhale / Thy beauty hath, and made them blind with weeping” (I. ii. 165-66).

When Richard concludes this solemn speech (of some eighteen lines in length) Anne is, for the first time, silenced. And behind that speechlessness lies the beginning of, if not love, then pity—and thus surrender to the power of Richard's supreme evasion. What had seemed bestial cunning and satanic malice in Anne's (and our) prior reading of Richard's character, may now be read anew as a mask behind which the true Richard suffered and longed for just such an opportunity to offer up his pride at the altar of love. So convincing is his performance at this point that even we, his intimates in deception, are half willing to believe it.

With regard to this transformation of Anne's response—one many critics have found implausible—the doctrines of one of Shakespeare's most notorious contemporaries, Giordorno Bruno, may not be irrelevant. Though best known for his theory of infinite worlds—which eventually brought him to the attention of the Inquisition—Bruno was in fact the foremost purveyor of gnostic doctrine in the Renaissance.18 One of the most important elements of Bruno's teaching was an erotic psychology—perhaps better termed an erotic magic—designed, with a cynicism astonishing even in the age of Machiavelli, to gain for its practitioner an unlimited power over others. In one late treatise, the Theses de Magia, Bruno anticipates Freud in identifying erotic energy as the raw force shaping all human behavior. The These de Magia is, in fact, a practitioner's manual for the manipulation of that raw energy. It demonstrates the means of creating the vinculum, or bond, which will able the magus practitioner to gain control over the will of his victim, and Eros is his tool:

All affection and bonds of the will are reduced to two, namely aversion and desire, or hatred and love. Yet hatred itself is reduced to love, whence it follows that the will's only bond is Eros. … As regards all those who are dedicated to philosophy or magic, it is fully apparent that the highest bond, the most important and most general, belongs to Eros; and that is why the Platonists called love the Great Demon.19

It should be apparent that Bruno is using the terms “love” and “Eros” synonymously; they represent simple raw desire. The job of the manipulator, or hunter of souls, is to remain detached from any real emotion, while nevertheless simulating the passion by means of which he hopes to control his victim. Such a manipulator, a skillful one like Richard of Gloucester, may transmute the Eros of aversion into the Eros of desire (or pity).

Indeed, Richard's manipulative technique so resembles the strategy counseled in Bruno's work that one may suggest, if not a direct influence, then at least an illuminating analogue. Shakespeare could not have been unaware of Bruno and his teaching, as Frances Yates and others have suggested.20 Moreover, Bruno's Heroici Furori published in England in 1585 and dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, established a memorable precedent for Shakespeare's parodic treatment of the Petrarchan love lyric. For the sonnet sequence of which the Heroici is composed imitates Petrarch in a subversive manner, misreading the Italian poet's amorous conceits as emblems of gnostic liberation from the bestiality of the flesh. In the dedication to Sidney we find an attack upon Petrarch's idolatry of woman so virulently misogynistic that we must wonder whether, given the other parallels already noted, it may have inspired Shakespeare's conception of Gloucester. The poet who sighed for his Laura, Bruno writes, lacking the intelligence to apply himself to higher things, cultivated a bestial idolatry, all for the sake

of these eyes, these ears, this blush, this tongue, this tooth, this hair, this dress … this little shoe, this sun in eclipse … this slut, this stench, this deathbed, this privy, this menstruation, this corpse … which, by means of a superficial appearance, a shadow, a phantasm, a dream, a Circe-like charm in the service of procreation, deceives us by taking the form of beauty.21

If the seduction of Anne offers us nothing so explicit as this, most readers would agree that a troubling undercurrent of hostility informs the scene—that is, a hatred of the flesh which takes woman as the emblem of all that is degrading in man's creaturely status. Indeed, the seduction is immediately preceded by Richard's suggestion of “another secret close intent / By marrying her which I must reach into” (I. i. 158-59)—words that in retrospect seem decidedly obscene. We may also recall in this context Richard's encounter with Queen Elizabeth in Act IV when, replying to the Queen's reminder that he murdered her children, he retorts that

… in your daughter's womb I will bury them,
Where, in that nest of spicery, they will breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.

(IV. iv. 423-25)

If the imagery here seems at first glance inviting, it is upon closer inspection grotesque. Moreover, it should be read within the context of a pattern of allusions throughout the play which depicts Richard as the “slander of [his] heavy mother's womb” (I. iii. 230).22 The most telling is the lament of the Duchess of York herself:

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

(IV. i. 52-55)

In short, Richard's deadly career has been a repudiation of the life-giving goodness of the womb. Once alerted to this pattern of allusion, it is difficult to read the overture to Elizabeth cited above as anything other than maliciously ironic. For Richard as for Bruno, the womb is an object of fear and loathing, at once a burial and a breeding ground.

If Richard's deepest desire is, as I have argued, the gnosis, or knowledge of his own omnipotence, then it may be reiterated that the capture of Anne is not primarily a political maneuver, but rather an attempt to free himself from the threat of bondage. In short, the emblem of creaturely desire and dependence must be degraded if the gnostic manipulator is to avoid being himself “enchained” by Eros; that freedom is the guarantee of his control over the wills of others, and thus of the success of his evasion of grace—that is, of the possibility of redemption within time present. When Anne capitulates, Richard produces a sign of the bondage into which she has fallen. He slips a ring upon her finger: “Look how my ring encompasseth thy finger / Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart” (I. ii. 204-06). But, of course, the reverse is true. It is Anne who is encompassed by the insinuating web of fictions which Richard has spun—with a calculated spontaneity—out of the vacuity of an already negated present.

The scene closes with another of Richard's soliloquies, and we find him in an exultant mood of half-feigned astonishment at his victory over the hapless Lady Anne: “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” (I. ii. 227-28). But we must be cautious of his apparent candor; for he conceals as much as he reveals:

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 fashion with myself,
I'll maintain it with some little cost. …
Shine out fair sun, til I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.

(I. ii. 255-59, 262-63)

This is Richard's moment of sublime extravagance; the passive sufferer of the play's opening soliloquy has made good on his promise. Of special note is the subtle reorientation toward that crucial symbol, the sun. Before, Richard paid at least an indirect homage to a law higher than the self. His delight had been “to see [his] shadow in the sun / And descant upon my own deformity.” Now, he audaciously commands the sun to shine so that, having bought a looking-glass, he may see only the restless passage of that shadow.23 If the sun is the preeminent symbol of a “true” representation, of a world of real objects with meaning outside the confines of the self, then Richard in effect declares here his denial of that world. The looking glass, traditionally an image of self-knowledge—that is, of the knowledge of one's mortality—is here transformed into an image of imaginary self-creation. It captures only what Eric Voegelin, in a study of gnostic self-creation, has called “the flight from the self's non-essential facticity toward being what it is not.” The nature of the freedom it reflects is “the necessity of making a choice which will determine one's own being” (emphasis added).24

For Richard, the “flight from the self's non-essential facticity” is a flight from the center of existential gravity that is the body, a flight into absolute difference or otherness. He aspires to the Throne under the mistaken conviction that absolute power, in the worldly sense, will guarantee the radical autonomy that is his deepest aim. But the Throne stands symbolically and existentially at the center of life, and the King—if rules successfully—must bind his will to the will of the people. He must attain their trust. Little surprise, then, when upon ascending the Throne, Richard immediately begins to falter and hesitate. Only when the forces of retribution begin to move against him does he become his old self again—full of “that alacrity of spirit” that he was “wont to have” (V. iii. 73). And in his final, doomed speech he reveals that nihilistic longing for the abyss that has been his guiding star from the beginning: “I have set my life upon a cast / And I will stand the hazard of the die” (V. iv. 9-10).


  1. Henry Hudson, Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, 2 vols. (Boston: Ginn and Co.: 1872; rpt. New York: AMS Reprint 1973), pp. 149-150.

  2. Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 71.

  3. Marguerite Waller, “Usurpation, Seduction, and the Problematics of the Proper: A ‘Deconstructive,’ ‘Feminist’ Rereading of the Seductions of Richard and Anne in Shakespeare's Richard III,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 160.

  4. See, for example, Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982); Margaret Ranald Loftus, “Women and Political Power in Shakespeare's English Histories,” Shakespeare Newsletter, 30 (1980), p. 25; and Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Summit Books, 1981).

  5. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958). See ch. 3, “Gnostic Imagery and Symbolic Language,” pp. 48-99. Jonas' study remains the standard general work on ancient gnosticism and is especially interesting in suggesting the analogue with modernity which I have noted (see pp. 320-40). Others who have entered the dialog over the relationship between gnosticism and modernity include Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1968); Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983); Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism, trans. Robert M. Wilson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987); and Gregor Sebba, “History, Modernity and Gnosticism,” The Collected Essays of Gregor Sebba, eds. Helen Sebba, Anibal A. Bueno and Hendrikus Boers (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1991). Of these the most cogent analyses are those of Voegelin and Blumenberg. The latter draws upon Voegelin's contention that modernity is best described as a reemergence of the gnostic world-view brought about by the break-up of the medieval synthesis. However, Blumenburg differs in arguing that modernity is in fact a “second overcoming of gnosticism.” The point is debatable, but the present essay assumes the truth of Blumenberg's suggestion that Christianity absorbed, by way of Augustine and St. Paul, a hidden dualism never wholly overcome by subsequent theological development. That gnostic element, according to Blumenberg, is contained for the better part of the Middle Ages only to resurface with the advent of nominalism—especially with Ockham's speculations on the radical Otherness of God. This gnostic turn becomes operative across a wide spectrum of Christian experience as it is mediated, inadvertently, through the theologies of Luther and Calvin—particularly through their doctrines of the Hidden God and predestination. For an argument which lends some support to this position, see Paul Ricoeur, “Original Sin: A Study in Meaning,” The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. Don Ihde (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1974). For a discussion of the gnostic / Manichaean element in Luther's thought (and his followers), see Theobald Beer, Der frohliche Wechsel und Streit (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1980). Since a discussion of the mediatory role played by nominalism and Reformation thought in nurturing the gnostic influences permeating northern Europe in the sixteenth century would require lengthy treatment, I have passed over the problem. However, readers familiar with Reformation theology of election will immediately notice relevant parallels. A view which attempts to absolve Luther and Calvin of any gnostic “taint” is to be found in Philip J. Lee's Against the Protestant Gnostics (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987). However, Lee's treatment of modern gnosticism as essentially an anthropological concern—i.e. the emergence of the autonomous self—agrees with my own.

  6. William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: The Viking Press, 1969); all subsequent quotations from the play will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  7. Jonas, p. 51.

  8. Attributed to Valentinus by Clement of Alexandria in his Excerpta ex Theodoto. I have used Jonas' translation, The Gnostic Religion, p. 334.

  9. Jonas, pp. 334-35

  10. Georges Batailles, “Base Materialism and Gnosticism,” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 49.

  11. Jonas, p. 87.

  12. “Lying Against Time: Gnosis, Poetry, Criticism,” Agon: Toward a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), p. 59.

  13. Bloom, p. 67.

  14. See Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, p. 424. Kantorowicz's study demonstrates how the figure of the king evolved from its early association with Christ's “royal priesthood” toward the complete absorption of the symbolism of the corpus mysticum formerly associated exclusively with the Church.

  15. I refer to Paul's advice to the Ephesians to “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers against the rulers of the darkness of this world against spiritual wickedness in high places” (6:11-12).

  16. See Calvin's remarks on Eve's temptation scene in Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1, trans. John King (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948) pp. 145-46.

  17. I am thinking particularly of the Mystery tradition still alive—albeit in a much diminished form—in Shakespeare's childhood. One account of the Temptation was performed by the Grocers of Norwich in 1565. There the Serpent first approaches Eve with the following address: “O lady of felicite, beholde my voice so small!” See The Creation of Eve, with the Expelling of Adam and Eve out of Paradise in Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, ed. John Quincy Adams (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), p. 90.

  18. For an overview of the specifically “gnostic” element in Bruno's teachings see Stephen A. McKnight “Understanding Modernity: A Reappraisal of the Gnostic Element,” The Intercollegiate Review, Spring (1979), pp. 107-17.

  19. As translated in Ioan P. Couliano's Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, trans. Margaret Cook (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 91. Bruno's Theses and his De Vinculum, a crucial companion text, were composed in Latin in 1590-91. Neither have been translated into English to date. For the authoritative Latin texts see Jordani Bruni Nolani, Opera Latine Conscripta, vol. 3 (Florentiae 1893; rpt. Stuttgart Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Fromann, 1962).

  20. For a brief summary of Bruno's work and travels, including his stay in England in the 1580's, see Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979). For the most recent discussion of Bruno's possible influence on Shakespeare, see Hilary Gati, The Renaissance Drama of Knowledge (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 114-64. Gati makes no reference to Richard III, but he does make a convincing case for the availability to Shakespeare of several of Bruno's most important works and demonstrates an influence on Hamlet. It is unlikely that the Latin texts of the Theses made its way into England before Shakespeare composed Richard III, but the erotic psychology espoused there is already hinted at in earlier texts.

  21. This translation of the passage is from Ioan P. Couliano's Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, trans. Margaret Cook (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 68. For the full text, see The Heroic Frenzies, trans. Paul Eugene Memmo, Jr., University of North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, vol. 50 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1964).

  22. See also Margaret's curse at IV. iv. 47 and 54 and the Duchess of York's at IV. iv. 137-39.

  23. I am indebted to Harold Bloom for this insight into the passage. See his introduction to Elizabethan Dramatists, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986). To my knowledge, Bloom is the only other critic to have noticed the persistent undercurrent of gnostic imagery in the play.

  24. Eric Voegelin, “The Eclipse of Reality,” in Phenomenology and Social Reality, ed. Maurice Natanson (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), p. 185.

Patrick Carnegy (review date 5 May 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858

SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. “Epic Conclusion.” Spectator 286, no. 9013 (5 May 2001): 47-8.

[In the following review, Carnegy commends Michael Boyd's 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard III for achieving “a play balanced as Shakespeare intended it.” Carnegy notes that Boyd focused less exclusively on the character of Richard so that the other characters received their proper due, particularly the female characters.]

A year after the RSC launched its Shakespeare Histories cycle at Stratford it has completed it in London with Richard III, celebrating by offering audiences the experience of all eight plays in the course of a few days. Four directors have been at work, ranging from the white-box modernist Steven Pimlott (Richard II) to the relatively conservative Michael Attenborough (Henry IV). The second tetralogy of the three Henry VIs and Richard III has however been entrusted to a single director, Michael Boyd, and the continuities between these plays have justified his treatment of them as a four-part epic.

Following the Henry VIs through into Richard III rescues that play from its too frequent fate as a showcase for a star. This is not to suggest that Aidan McArdle's Richard is anything less than a powerfully crafted performance, but it is to say that he is able to show us a more complex and interesting villain precisely because he is in the company of equally strong colleagues whose roles have not been decimated so that they should not eclipse his.

The result is a play balanced as Shakespeare intended it, with the denunciations of the women (Fiona Bell, Deirdra Morris, Elaine Pyke and Aislin McGuckin all outstanding) given proper space. No less rewarding is to see how Boyd nurtures the large-scale theme of the saintly Henry VI versus the diabolical Richard, each responsible for as much civil chaos as the other. Boyd's fondness for resurrecting the dead to haunt the living, tellingly used in the Henrys, finds natural fulfilment in Richard III, where at his coronation the tyrant, perched on his nursery throne, relishes the homage of both the surviving courtiers and those mown down along his route.

Up to this point McCardle, who recently played Puck, has shown us a Richard whose comic flair and lightning swings of mood are the obedient servants of his malignity. His intently staring black eyes, curled lip and swarthy hair give him an air of cartoon oriental villainy. When he asks ‘Think you we are Turks or infidels?’ you are inclined to assent. Once he's attained the crown the charm and hypocrisy are abandoned. They have been his raison d'être as much as his ambition and without their support his confidence plummets. On the eve of Bosworth, Richard is on his knees desperately trying to salvage his morale by using a bag of stones, just as other Yorks had done before him, to lay out his line of ‘rightful lineage’ in the dust. Thereafter he is killed without the usual absurdly protracted histrionics and the emphasis rightly passes to Richmond's closing speech, finely delivered by Sam Troughton. At the end the luminous shade of Henry VI once more reappears, and Richard resurrects to look him in the eye. The red rose and the white have taken their leave of each other. It is time for Richmond to become Henry VII and for the Tudors to build a new world on the lessons learnt from a century of chaos and confusion.

Whether the Histories have anything to teach us about England and Englishness today was the not inconsiderable question aired by the RSC in a public debate on the eve of St George's day (and Shakespeare's birthday). The panel's credentials as quondam juvenile actors just couldn't help slipping out: politician Paul Boateng who'd once played Othello, writer Maureen Duffy Richard II, while director Steven Pimlott confessed to having been Gertrud to historian Michael Wood's Hamlet. Chairman Nick Higham owned up to having been the Pedant in The Taming of the Shrew, ‘probably why I now work for the BBC’. Sam West, the Richard II of the cycle, had no need of such advertisement. One and all were agreed that the Bard should no longer be regarded as the epitome of Victorian and C of E patriotism, with Olivier's Henry V as its postwar expression. We should not imagine, said Pimlott, that there ever was a ‘Real England’, that of Shallow and Silence, to be mined from the plays. Shakespeare was never endorsing any single view; the business of his art had only ever been to hold ‘the mirror up to nature’.

Boateng and Bryan Appleyard, however, argued that Shakespeare could help us rebuild our national story and lost sense of identity. Everyone was comfortable with him as the universal Questioner, asking always, said Michael Wood, ‘What's right? What's wrong? What is a just society?’ And it is of course Shakespeare's language and not his plots that enables those questions to be put most acutely. It is his English, insisted Pimlott, that ‘empowers people, whether they're kings or bawds like Mistress Quickly’. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the RSC's millenial Histories will have needed no reminding that Shakespeare remains an undiminished and humanising force.

Mary Ann McGrail (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14682

SOURCE: McGrail, Mary Ann. “Richard III: That Excellent Grand Tyrant of the Earth.” In Tyranny in Shakespeare, pp. 47-76. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001.

[In the following essay, McGrail argues that Richard's belief that no one can love his deformed body is what drives him to seek vengeance against his world and the people in it.]


Richard III is the only play by Shakespeare that begins with the title character on stage speaking alone. Without the repeated insights into Richard's energetic malevolence, which this and his later soliloquies afford us, the play would make most sense as a straightforward dramatization of the Tudor myth.1 Richard offers us just such an oversimplification of historical fact in the first few lines of the play: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”2 This is the official version of how the Henry VI plays might conclude had there been no Richard. The Yorkists have rightly recovered the throne. But in the fourteenth line the outrageous sarcasm of this panegyric becomes apparent as Richard turns to his most interesting subject, himself: “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks.” He speaks of the action of the play being motivated and controlled from within him:

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


As critics of all persuasions have continually noted, the interest of this play lies mostly in the character of Richard. This interest depends on the contradiction of self with soul in Richard that surfaces, devastatingly, in his final soliloquy on the night before the battle of Bosworth Field. Richard reveals that he does not know whether to regard himself as having a soul (and therefore a conscience), which connects him with the cosmos, or as being a self—a material being without any responsibility to man, nature, or a divinity.

Richard's “schoolmarmish” soliloquizing (as Laurence Olivier termed it)3 suggests how much more self-aware he is than Macbeth. Macbeth depends on his relations to the supernatural (the witches) and to Lady Macbeth to reveal his quality and his destiny to him. Richard, by contrast, appears to understand himself fully and appreciate his deformities and limitations from the beginning. He even appears to accept being “Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature” (19). This acceptance, however, would seem to arise from the opinion out of Machiavelli which Shakespeare embodies in his character's every action: that it is possible to circumvent or conquer nature and achieve one's ends by bringing to perfection imperturbably a private villain and a public tyrant. This requires that he regard himself as a man without hidden or uncontrollable longings, without a soul. He must see clearly that the opinions (about conscience, guilt, and the watchfulness of some divinity) that restrain most men from complete criminality are false. He must possess a clinical understanding of how to get what he wants. This is what makes the courtship scene between Richard and Anne so chilling. It is not only that he woos her over the corpse of her father-in-law, but that he shows us afterwards that his success is all due to technique.

As a consequence of this realism, Richard has none of the sense of guilt or loss of Macbeth when he speaks of “mine eternal jewel / Given to the common Enemy of man” (III.i.67-68). Instead, in his final moment of supreme crisis Richard does not confess or express regret: he debates himself. He does not discover himself in a quagmire of guilt, but in what Machiavelli calls a “confusion of the brain.”4 After his murders of Duncan and Banquo, Macbeth finds himself “in blood / Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er” (III.iv.135-137). He resigns himself stoically to stand firm through what may be eternal torment (like a chained bear, V.vii.1-2). Richard, on the other hand, speaks knowingly of the unending cycle of crime that usurpation entails, just before he orders the murder of the young princes “But I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin; / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (IV.ii.63-65). Unlike Macbeth who has little foresight, less prudence, and only a few late glimpses of self-understanding, Richard, self-aware, always has a plan. We know already in Henry VI, Part 3 that he plots to ascend the throne.

Is Coleridge correct in classing Richard with Iago and Falstaff, as a consummate and perfectly unrepentant villain?5 Is he a poor draft of the later “mature” tragic heroes and so not psychologically real?6 Freud, by contrast, finds him convincing. His interpretation points up the internal conflict Richard faces. On the one hand, it is Richard's intellectual understanding that the world is there to be manipulated, that it regards human beings indifferently, that there is no such thing as either divine or natural right, and so there is no possibility that conscience is anything more than a “convenient scarecrow.”7 On the other hand, he finds in nature a deliberate malevolence towards himself that suggests that nature or divinity takes an interest in human affairs.8 In his last soliloquy, Richard understands that he may have made a mistake about his own nature and falls into confusion: Why do I feel in danger? Am I in danger from myself? Who loves me? Do I love myself? This soliloquy has been overlooked or ignored by critics fascinated with Richard's psyche, including the first to offer a psychological interpretation of him, Sigmund Freud. Freud rests his argument (about Richard's sexual perversion and power complex) on the opening soliloquy, concluding that he is “a figure in whose character the claim to be an exception is closely bound up with and is motivated by the circumstances of congenital disadvantage.”9 Freud rephrases this soliloquy as follows:

Nature has done me a grievous wrong in denying me the beauty of form which wins human love. Life owes me reparation for this and I will see that I get it. I have a right to be an exception, to disregard the scruples by which others let themselves be held back. I may do wrong myself, since wrong has been done to me.10

Freud's summary, with its reference to “right,” injects into Richard's speech a moralism, which it is not clear that he possesses. I will argue that what Freud overlooks in his insightful analysis is that Richard is actually struggling with the notions of “soul” and “right.” Richard's definitions are uncertain rather than static. Richard's determination to be a villain is not the same as a conviction of the “right to be an exception.” Instead, Richard attempts to move, as he believes Machiavelli teaches, beyond notions of moral right and wrong.

The psychoanalytical approach of Freud (and those who borrow from and interpret him11) is particularly useful in pointing to a greater complexity in the protagonist than was earlier appreciated.12 But because it does not consider that Richard calls into question the nature and existence of his psyche, it is incomplete. Freud does not discuss Richard's character in the light of his final tortured soliloquy on conscience, because the speech is a speech about the existence of soul. The question that should precede the psychoanalysis of Richard is: Does Richard have a conscience or even a soul? One indication that this is a concern of the play is that “soul” is spoken of more in Richard III than in any other Shakespearean play.

A version of Richard's project is to “set the murderous Machiavel to school” (Henry VI, Part 3, III.ii.193). Richard seems, for much of the play, to be a perfect machiavel. Machiavelli is referred to twice in the first tetralogy (Henry VI, Part 1, V.iv.74 in reference to the Duke of Alençon, and Richard's boast that he will “set the murderous Machiavel to school,” Henry VI, Part 3, III.ii.193).13 It is reasonable to suspect that Richard III represents a Shakespearean comment on whether it is possible for a man to be completely evil to further his own ends—for a man to be a true “machiavel.”14

In addition to the difference in characterization, Macbeth and Richard III contrast politically. Macbeth shows usurpation at an historically early point in the establishment of divine right, and Richard III shows usurpation at a time when the much abused myth of divine right begins to require radical revision or reinforcement. This accounts, in part, for the discrepancy between the carefully crafted arguments for legitimacy in Richard III and the simple assertion of a right to rule in Macbeth.

Richard is not, then, simply a “scourge,”15 nor is he dismissable as an example of an immature Shakespearean tragic hero. Does Richard have a conscience or even a soul? This overlooked question seems to be behind all critical debate about the play.


Dive, thoughts, down to my soul.

Richard admonishes himself at the end of the opening soliloquy. He consigns “thoughts” of his fraternal treachery to the repository of his “soul” just before he is to encounter and sympathize with his doomed brother, Clarence. The “soul” that his thoughts inhabit is an unusual one. He speaks as though his soul were a place in which to hide what he does not wish known. This conception is the antithesis of the Christian conception of soul, which may always and everywhere be examined by God.16 This is not a theological error on Richard's part because, of course, he knows well how to profess belief and “clothe” his “naked villainy” with scripture (I.iii.336-7). Far from fearing divine scrutiny, Richard appears to regard his soul as like the body in that it gives him individuality and separates him from all other souls.17 Richard's final non-rhetorical reference to “soul” suggests, too, that the soul is like the body (V.iii.217), a separate entity, with no connection to anything outside itself. As he goes through his Protean changes, what he terms his “soul” (I.i.41) is where he keeps his self-consciousness and his own counsel. He notes that his “counsel” is his “shield” (IV.iii.56)—his intellect (rather than any divinity) protects him.

The word “soul” is used more often in this play than in any other, a third again as many times as in Hamlet or Othello. And Richard speaks of it more often than any other character in the play.18 It is spoken of so much, I contend, because its existence is in constant doubt. Richard speaks of his own soul eight times, altogether. With two exceptions (the first and last usages, I.i.41 and V.iii.217), he makes reference to his soul only in the context of deceiving others, as to the court: “I do not know that Englishman alive / With whom my soul is any jot at odds,” II.i.71, also I.ii.180, III.v.27, III.vii.225, IV.iv.256, IV.iv.263. Elizabeth later catches him up on this rhetorical usage as he tries for the hand of her daughter in order to consolidate his power and unite the kingdom:

K. Rich.
Then know that from my soul I love thy daughter.
My daughter's mother thinks it with her soul.
K. Rich.
What do you think?
That thou dost love my daughter from thy soul;
So from thy soul's love didst thou love her brothers, [the slain Princes]
And from my heart's love I do thank thee for it.
K. Rich.
Be not so hasty to confound my meaning:
I mean that with my soul I love thy daughter,
And do intend to make her Queen of England.


Richard is forced to rephrase his profession: he does not love “from” his soul (in the sense of “apart from” or “at variance with”),19 but “with” his soul. His deceitful, pietistic language of love no longer works with the woman whose sons he has killed. He is reduced to speaking not of his “soul” but of his “self.” This scene is an inversion of the earlier wooing scene between Richard and Anne, where he draws her into his syntactic constructions and so gains her consent.20 But here, Elizabeth reverses the linguistic game and forces Richard to use her formulations, challenging his every oath and finally asserting “Thy self is self-misus'd” (376). Richard realizes it would be too ambiguous for him to swear by his “soul” at this point, and so he begins to speak openly of his “self” and the “selves” he will produce with Elizabeth's daughter (425). He is willing to say anything to convince her, and he offers his most extreme pledge yet, if he does not fulfill his promises, “Myself myself confound” (399). Words are only words, but Richard's have turned on him.

Richard, in his manipulations of women, appears inhumanly frigid. He laments his incapacity to fully delight in romantic or sexual play (Henry VI, Part 3, III.ii.146-164 and Richard III, I.ii.16-31). As he sees it there are two alternative lives open to a noble: the life of the lover and the life of the politician. Given his enforced choice of a political life, it is particularly interesting that he is shown wooing two women in the play, Anne and Elizabeth. The women in the play, the Duchess of York, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Anne, are all without political power, but Richard's three longest dialogues in the play are with Margaret, Elizabeth, and Anne. They alone confront him with his villainy (I.ii.70; I.iii.221, 330; IV.iv.144, 195-6). Unlike his male victims, they are permitted to survive and reflect on Richard because they pose no threat to him politically or militarily. His attitude towards the curses of women is simply reflected in his response to his mother's disowning him:

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


For Richard the ultimate arbiter is war, which can silence all speech. Why then do the speeches of “tell-tale women” have such importance in this play? They are temporarily protected by their powerlessness and so able to observe Richard's machinations, learn from them, and comprehend them. It is through the women in the play, especially Elizabeth, that we can understand Richard's struggle to achieve selfhood and to void himself of soul. Coppelia Kahn argues in Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare that “the patriarchal world of Shakespeare's history plays is emphatically masculine. Its few women are relatively insignificant, and a man's identity is determined by his relationship to his father, son, or brother.” She argues that the play emphasizes, negatively, the importance of the mother in the “formation of masculine identity” and that the entire tetralogy traces “the decline of the father-son bond.”21 This approach slights the importance of the women in the play, not as participants in the action of the plot, but as knowers of its significance.

The women in Richard III know Richard through their relations with him as mother, wife, mother-in-law, and tormentor more completely than any of his male allies or challengers. As Madonne M. Miner puts it, they represent a “humanity apparent nowhere else in the play.”22 Miner understands the increasing camaraderie of the women in the play as a “counterprocess, one that insists on the inherently positive value of women,” against Richard's destructive momentum.23

Elizabeth is the only one of these women who, having understood Richard's ambitions and intentions, is able to act on this understanding. The second wooing scene of the play in act 4, scene 4 is a dramatic revision of the earlier courtship of Anne. Richard begins by attempting the same tricks with Elizabeth in seeking the hand of her daughter. But rather than slip into Richard's rhetoric she forces him into one of his most self-damning lines: “Myself myself confound.” How is she able to entangle him in his own rhetoric?

Elizabeth's conversation with Richard in act 4, scene 4 shows her drawn quickly into his rhetorical power, as Anne was:

K. Rich.
Wrong not her birth; she is a royal princess.
To save her life I'll say she is not so.
K. Rich.
Her life is safest only in her birth.
And only in that safety died her brothers.
K. Rich.
Lo, at their birth good stars were opposite.
And only in that safety died her brothers.
K. Rich.
All unavoided is the doom of destiny.
True, when avoided grace makes destiny.


She is soon trapped within Richard's language and syntax, just as Anne was (343-353). But she manages to escape his rhetorical stratagems. By speaking in Richard-like riddles of his professions of “soul's love,” she compels him to untangle his own verbal tropes.

The flow of Richard's repartee is interrupted, and he, having failed at the game of courtship in which he seduced Anne, speaks to Elizabeth more plainly than he does to anyone else in the play. If she has lost sons, she should welcome their replacement with grandchildren, and grandchildren are better since she will be spared the physical labor of children. Richard relies on his standard repertoire of oaths, which Elizabeth challenges one by one until he attempts to swear by his “self” and Elizabeth points out, “Thy self is self-misus'd.” She assumes mastery of the exchange by line 418.

It is indicative both of Richard's underestimation of women and his final hopefulness that he is confident at the end of Elizabeth's submission (“Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!”). But as is apparent in Richmond's speech after his victory at Bosworth, she has made other arrangements for her daughter as well (V.v.29-31). Elizabeth understands her weak position, unlike Anne, but does not rail against it, as Margaret does. She exposes Richard's appeals to her desire for security and political power and reduces him to the argument that his political survival coincides with hers. This is the only point in the play where a character understands the action better than Richard himself.

In the first courtship, Richard offers himself as a replacement for her father and her husband and she accepts. In the second courtship scene, Richard offers to replace Elizabeth's children with the promise of grandchildren who are, from the political perspective of lineage, just the same, he argues. His argument makes sense on the level of rational self-interest, but it makes no sense on the level of the heart (Elizabeth's “heart-love,” 261). Richard's soulless soul, the repository of his thoughts, is capable only of rational affiliation. He allies with Elizabeth and her daughter out of political necessity. Elizabeth, however, possesses not just “soul” in Richard's unchristian sense of the word, but also “heart.” She remains unpersuaded by the cold logic that substitutes grandchildren for children.

From the first we see of him, Richard is interested to separate himself from natural and conventional ties, which, for him, are most strongly represented by women. In Henry VI, Part 3, act 5, scene 6, after killing King Henry VI in cold blood (having become impatient with Edward's inconvenient and impolitic compunctions, V.v.49) Richard says that he has “neither pity, love, nor fear”—that he has “no brother”, and is “like no brother.”24

He concludes the self-reflective part of the soliloquy “I am myself alone,” affirming his selfhood. He says he wins Anne with “dissembling looks” (Richard III, I.ii.241). The description is ironic, since his looks—how he appears physically—cannot be dissembled and exclude him from ladies' chambers. He has managed, through his art of speech, to disguise his true nature (both physical and mental), defeating “dissembling Nature” (I.i.19) itself. He describes how he foments civil strife: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ, / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil” (I.iv.336-8). And, finally, after the dialogue confusion of the nightmare in act 5, scene 3, he echoes his first self-revelatory speech in Henry VI, Part 3: “I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself” (203-204). What his remarks about himself all have in common is that they all state what Richard is not. He is most obviously not a saint, but neither is he a devil—he merely plays one. He is incapable of pity, love, or fear—rejecting love as beyond his natural capacities. He can also play comedian, tragedian, Mermaid, basilisk, Nestor, Ulysses, Sinon, chameleon, Proteus, and Machiavelli's master. Given that we know all he is capable of playing, all he is capable of metamorphosing into—son, brother, friend, lover, husband, father, king—we are led to ask who or what he is.

For a character who so frequently explains himself in soliloquy and asides, there is remarkable critical disagreement about just who he is. The problem behind this critical uncertainty is the questionable status of “soul” for Richard. Commentators such as Sir Thomas Whately and John Philip Kemble refer to his “character”;25 E. M. W. Tillyard and Lily B. Campbell speak of symbolic accoutrements; Freud understands him as possessing a psychology;26 David L. Frey refers to the “internal process”; and Robert N. Watson discusses the “internal logic” of Richard as a symbol.27 But the difficulty is that they do not fully explore why Richard is at odds with himself—what the contradictions between his first and last soliloquies mean. Richard attempts to understand himself outside the Judeo-Christian framework, and outside the Aristotelian/Platonic framework, as a being who consists in self rather than soul. Unlike Marlowe's Faustus, he does not wait until his last desperate moments to ask, “Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?” (V.ii.182).28 Richard tries, at least from the beginning of his ascent to the crown, to see himself as without soul in the classical or theological sense.

Richard, instead of understanding himself as possessing a soul, which can be watched over by an omnipotent, all-seeing dispenser of divine justice, views himself as in possession of a “self.”29 He is a selfhood rather than a body and soul in tension with one another. The very existence of a soul implies a disjunction between material and spiritual being. Richard wishes to escape this notion, which brings along with it notions of love, pity, guilt, and conscience. To escape “soul” means that he must understand it as an externally imposed religious, or philosophical, construct and liberate himself from the notion. This means that there will be no constraints on his actions imposed from without.

A notable instance of this new, Machiavellian way30 of looking at the world is his public denunciation of conscience just before the final battle in act 5, scene 3: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use / Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe” (310-311). This is quite a different notion from Hamlet's regretful, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (III.i.83).31 For Hamlet conscience is an innate impediment to forceful action. Richard argues to his captains that it is an external construct imposed by the weak on the strong.32 If conscience exists, then to escape detection for a crime is not to escape punishment for it—this is what Richard, along with Machiavelli's prince, wishes to go beyond.33

Given Richard's level of metaphysical competence, it is surprising to learn that he is subject to nightmares. Anne refers to his “timorous dreams,” which keep her awake (IV.i.82-84). And it is even more puzzling when Richard, on the eve of the decisive battle of his reign, is woken into his final soliloquy on conscience. His troops outnumber Richmond's three to one (V.iii.11). He is nearly certain of military triumph. Yet he finds himself in the throes of what is generally taken to be an attack of conscience, but what is actually confrontation with deep uncertainty.

Richard has a consistently clear view of himself, which is shattered only on his awakening from a nightmare of ghosts charging his “soul” to despair and die. The difficulty is that this clear view of himself includes a deep contradiction that Richard does not recognize until too late; it is one that he never resolves. We are not presented, as in Macbeth, with the destruction and loss of a soul, but with the rupture of a man's belief about who he is. Richard discovers a contradiction in his understanding of human nature and its relation to external nature.

Richard is even utterly indifferent to guilt, referred to more in this play than in any other. Whether or not guilt exists is a question central to the play. Guilt, Richard argues, need not necessarily exist. It is not necessary to feel guilty for assassinating a brother, a wife, a cousin, kings, small children, friends. In fact, the truly strong and successful man must dispense with such feelings, understanding them to be conventions built into men by rulers and priests and given support by religion or superstition. Richard is so good at adopting the appearance of piety to persuade others because he himself is not at all pious.

One instance in which our attention is drawn to this dramatically is in the quiet entry of Prince Edward and Richard into London. Richard, with typical convoluted but perfectly accurate logic, warns the Prince “Nor more can you distinguish of a man / Than of his outward show, which—God knows—/ Seldom or never jumpeth with the heart” (III.i.9-11). Hastings enters immediately after with the news that the Queen and the young Duke of York have taken sanctuary and Richard uses the same oath, “On what occasion God he knows, not I” (26). Richard explains himself—only God knows that a man's professions and his actual intentions are never the same. But, of course, Richard believes that he, rather than God, knows this of himself. The doomed Hastings repeats the oath sincerely and unthinkingly.

If Richard has succeeded in ridding himself of guilt, though, how does he understand himself? Only a soul (fearing some justice) is subject to guilt or attacks of conscience; a self is free of them. A self, unlike a soul, has no links with others—it can be hidden behind different masks (religious, romantic, loyal, patriotic).

My interpretation starts from the premise Richard gives us in the opening soliloquy: that guilt is unnecessary and that the soul, otherwise empty, is simply the private repository of thought or consciousness.34 From this perspective the price for the success of Richard's project of usurpation is nothing; he has no “jewel” to lose like Macbeth.

Just before the summary execution of Hastings, Buckingham—the last to be betrayed—describes what is most dangerous about Richard:

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


He means to cast aspersions on Hastings's loyalty, to make his execution seem less precipitous to the Bishop of Ely; but, like so many deliberately prophetic moral pronouncements in the play (Queen Margaret's curses), it falls back on the speaker. He can no more read Richard than Hastings can. His allusion to the masks of conspiracy comes very close to Machiavelli's advice in The Prince, chapter 18, “In What Mode Faith Should Be Kept by Princes”:

Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinions of many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court to appeal to, one looks to the end.35

Most men never penetrate beyond appearances to the truth about another, or their motivations. Most men cannot “touch” Richard's essence, or see him for what he really is behind his various masks. Machiavelli concludes that because you cannot know the essential truth about motive you can only adequately judge the ends or results. Richard notes of Buckingham, after he has sounded him on the murder of the Princes, “none are for me / That look into me with considerate eyes” (IV.ii.29-30). He understands how rare and dangerous those who can “touch” are and accordingly dooms Buckingham. Richard is a master of appearances—of being seen rather than touched—as we learn when he first reveals his ambition in his first significant soliloquy in the tetralogy:36

Why I can smile and murder while I smile,
And cry ‘Content!’ to that that grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I'll drown more gazers than the basilisk;
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut! Were it further off, I'll pluck it down

Henry VI, Part 3 (III.iii.182-195).

Richard claims he is capable of being anything, and makes here the one direct reference to the author of The Prince in all of Shakespeare. It is significant that he refers to the Florentine himself, rather than to the bastard creations that took his name on the Renaissance stage. Richard will not simply rival the followers of Machiavelli, but will strive to outdo Machiavelli himself. He is Shakespeare's version of a true student of Machiavelli, rather than the static stage machiavel of the period. He is a brilliant political and military strategist who understands Machiavellian policy and holds with Marlowe's Machevill “there is no sin but ignorance” (The Jew of Malta prologue, 15).37

At one point, Richard is described by Buckingham as a “Christian Prince” (III.vii.95), one of three figures in Shakespeare's dramas to receive that honor (the other two are Henry V at; and Henry VI pt. 1 at V.iii.172). The epithet might be chosen with the teachings of Machiavelli's Prince in mind since Richard uses the appearance of humility and charity to achieve power. Though this mask wears thin, it enables him to become Protector under his simplistically pious brother, King Edward IV. It is Machiavelli's understanding that the pretense of complete humility and virtue may be the most effective way to power—that Christianity has much to teach the modern prince. The tragedy is, on this level, a philosophical response to the implicit Machiavellian contention that such rare and wholly evil men must be politically successful.38

John F. Danby speaks of the “prime significance of Machiavellianism” for the Elizabethans: “there is a new sense of the fissuring of man, of a gap between the external and the internal, a possible dichotomy between the social and the spiritual.” The man who is conscious of the mask of society “will be the hypocrite—a man superior in degree of consciousness to his fellows.” Danby sees Richard's final fit of guilt as a criticism of this type of new man.39 In part, this is true, but the criticism is not that bad men will always have their comeuppance, despite Machiavelli's teaching. Instead, the criticism is directed at the forwardness of Machiavelli and the openness with which he teaches political realism. This openness invites imitation by those not suited to, or capable of, being fit princes. Machiavelli addresses his Prince to those who are princes and his Discourses to those who ought to be. This does not mean that he could not be understood and used by those who neither were nor ought to be princes. Harry V. Jaffa calls Richard “a nearly perfect symbol of Machiavellian modernity.”40 He falls short of perfection because he is not a perfect student of Machiavelli.

He does, however, seem to have studied “policy.” He reminds himself to attend to the reality of the moment—not to count on tactical success until he is certain of it (I.i.120, “but yet I run before my horse to market,” I.i.160). He knows how to get the crown, how to foment civil strife, who to befriend, who to test, who to execute, who to marry, who to ally with and when to drop the alliance—all from the very beginning of the play, even before Edward is assured of the crown (Henry VI, Part 3, It is as though he has heeded Machiavelli's admonition in his chapter “On Conspiracies” in Discourses on Livy:

But that lust for domination, which blinds men, blinds them yet again in the way they set about the business: for, if they knew but how to do their evil deeds with prudence, it would be impossible for them not to succeed.

(Discourses, 404)

Richard seems to possess this complete prudence.

For Richard, there is a question as to the efficacy of the means, never the desirability of the end. Macbeth, by contrast, likens the murders that he must commit to secure his throne to the crossing of a river—a finite act (III.iv.135-7). Richard speaks more matter-of-factly. The chain of crimes to usurpation, once begun, continues on indefinitely—that is political realism. “Sin will pluck on sin” (IV.ii.63-65). He accepts assassination, execution, and private murder as a way of life. Macbeth is first concerned with the corruption/temptation of Macbeth to the crime of usurpation.41Richard III takes this for granted in the opening soliloquy.

Richard is always conscious of how he presents himself; he speaks in theatrical terms, and directs scenes with Buckingham. But this self-consciousness makes him self-aware rather than self-knowing. Richard's numerous revealing asides have the effect of making the audience co-conspirators in his project. Since he can confide his true plans to no other character, the silent audience, like the Scrivener, knows but says nothing. Despite all Richard's revelations, Macbeth is still more accessible to us as a moral being. Richard remains multiplicitous and ambiguous, yet nonetheless representative of the ambitions of modern political man (according to Machiavelli's account).

There is a dimension of self-consciousness that Richard does not have, and that is regard for his “fame”—a concept introduced by the young Prince Edward before he is imprisoned and killed in the Tower. He describes his royal aspirations to the Protector and questions him closely about the Tower and how it came to be believed that Julius Caesar built it:

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 register'd
Methinks the truth should live from age to age,
As 'twere retail'd to all posterity,
Even to the general all-ending day.
[Aside] So wise so young, they say, do never live long.
What say you uncle?
I say, without characters fame lives long
[Aside] Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.
That Julius Caesar was a famous man:
With what his valour did enrich his wit,
His wit set down to make his valour live;
Death makes no conquest of this conqueror,
For now he lives in fame, though not in life.


How is the fame of a great conqueror sustained? Does it depend on “character”? That is, does it depend on writing or, as Richard puns, on character—the moral substance of a leader? The Prince argues innocently that the truth lives on without writing—a political actor is rewarded with fame or infamy. History brings about justice.

Again, Machiavelli's Prince is helpful on this point. In chapter 8 “Of Those Who Have Attained a Principality through Crimes,” he tells the story of Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse. Unfortunately, despite Agathocles' “virtu”—his military prowess and leadership—“his savage cruelty and inhumanity, together with his infinite crimes, do not allow him to be celebrated among the most excellent men.”42 It is not enough to gain fame: one must avoid infamy as well. This is the risk that a tyrant always runs, and is the point of the Prince's questioning concerning Julius Caesar.43

This is the problem facing Richard as well. If he is concerned with glory (the highest goal for man in Machiavelli), he must be concerned with his reputation. The irony is that Shakespeare's presentation of this conversation keeps alive Richard's reputation as cruel murderer of the Princes. There has been much scholarship on whether Richard himself was actually responsible for having the princes killed, an event shrouded in mystery. Shakespeare seems unconcerned with keeping open the possibility of Richard's innocence or even obscuring his complicity—the point being that, whether or not Richard actually had the princes killed, he was widely believed to have killed them. In matters of historical record, written or oral, it is one's reputation rather than the unrecoverable or little known facts of accurate biography that should concern a man who aspires to greatness and glory, according to Machiavelli. The conversation between Richard and Prince Edward emphasizes this point nicely. It may not be the truth that lives from age to age (as the Prince somewhat naively asserts), but the report of what was believed or wished true that persists. The perfect criminal/prince commits a crime that is wholeheartedly believed to be someone else's doing. Richard obviously is not able to relieve himself of the burden of blame for what may have been (from the coldly political point of view of securing the crown for the House of York) entirely necessary murders. Richard, most pleased with his own cleverness, ignores the importance of the question of how fame is created, and fails historically. The full irony is, of course, that Shakespeare's record of Richard keeps alive his reputation as a tyrant and killer of innocents. Our attention is called to another aspect of Richard's imperfect machiavellianism.

Richard's debate with himself in act 5, scene 3 is closer to disputation than to moral dilemma. It raises again the implied question of the first soliloquy: Is nature indifferent to man? If nature is indifferent to man, then it provides no guidance for human beings, no natural foundation for constraints on man's treatment of man, no necessity that all men have consciences. If nature, however, can be shown to provide guidance in human affairs, then there is a possibility of a moral standard available to all. Every man might then possess a conscience and Richard might merely have suppressed his. Given Richard's bravado after his nightmares (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe,” 310-311), he seems to have concluded on the side of nature's indifference.

But Richard answers the question differently in his first soliloquy. There is a rationale behind nature—it may be malevolent (as in his case), but nature knows what she is doing and why. If nature is “dissembling,” she possesses a deliberate intention to mislead. This unresolved contradiction between the first and last soliloquies explains why Richard finally fails, and why he is a less than perfect student of Machiavelli.


Richard boasts at the end of act 5, scene 6 in King Henry VI, Part 3 that he has “neither pity, love, nor fear” (68). In his final soliloquy, he comes to experience all three when he is afflicted by “coward conscience” (V.iii.178-207).44 By placing this scene at the end of the play, Shakespeare has tempted us to consider that Richard's first accounts of himself are complete and true. The soliloquy is his attempt, intellectually, to convince himself that he has no conscience. If we have allowed ourselves to believe that Shakespeare's most villainous protagonist is a man without guilt or fear of retribution (discounting Anne's reference to Richard's “timorous dreams” [IV.i.84]), we must now rethink his character.

At first, Richard tries to explain away his fear and dismiss it as groundless. The only justifiable reason for fear is imminent physical danger. From whom is he in danger? Himself? He is after all a murderer. That cannot be, unless he seeks revenge against himself. But, though he is moved to revenge himself for wrongs done him by nature (I.i.30), his desire for revenge is limited by self-love. “Richard loves Richard.” He is no suicide. In another sense, he is in danger of himself; his fears may cause him to betray himself, lose heart. “Alack, I love myself” (188). But this directly contradicts the claim on which he has built his usurping and tyrannical career—that he does not possess the capacity to love.

Richard has believed himself totally devoid of love or any human attachments, but in the dream sequence he is brought to face his experience of the emotions that attach men to other human beings (love, pity, and fear) as they all surface. His unconcern with the consequences of his crimes has been based on his conviction that he is altogether indifferent to others. But, if he is self-loving and therefore sensitive to injustices done to himself (the wrongs done him by nature), he cannot be entirely indifferent to injustices done to others. Can one feel these emotions about oneself and be completely unmoved by what happens to others? To feel the injustice of the world strongly is to expect justice from it. If nature owes something to him, then nature must owe something to others. His ability to harm others and his cruelty (an example of which is his request that Tyrrel give him details of the princes' deaths, IV.iii.31-32) suggest that he is emotionally attached to other men in an important way. To be concerned with harming others is to be concerned with them, however perversely. In a sense, Richard must go out of his way to emphasize the injustice done him by nature in order to motivate and justify cruel actions.

Richard, unlike Clarence, is not consumed with guilt, but with the debate about guilt and conscience.45 He acts on the erroneous belief that he is a creature solely of intellect,46 capable of making himself entirely into a selfhood with no human attachments. He tries to debate his way out of a self-contradiction—to dismiss his very real nightmares, tangible evidence of his guilt. Shakespeare stages Richard's dreams, not Clarence's, to emphasize that the emotional experience (of someone who claims to have no such emotions) has substance, and that, for a human being who does not acknowledge inner struggle, the dilemma must be displaced to the outside. For Richard to be able to dismiss this experience he must believe that there is no natural reason that a human being may not, as Proteus, recreate himself into anything he pleases. Men need not necessarily feel love, pity, or fear—men may be creatures solely of intellect. In fact, Richard believes such men are by far superior, as is suggested by his contempt for all those (particularly women), who do not operate exclusively on this level. He, unlike the rest of mankind, claims to have seen through the superstitions governing men, and freed himself from the fear of divine justice, and so from conscience. Why then is he troubled with these dreams? Afterwards he says that these shadows have struck terror to his “soul.” Has Richard discovered that he has a soul?

The Murderers of Clarence (I.iv) provide the best anticipatory commentary on Richard's final soliloquy (V.iii.178-207). They puzzle over whether there exists such a thing as conscience, what its origins are, and whether it can be escaped, avoided, or circumvented. Each takes a side of the debate Richard has with himself later on.47

The Second Murderer feels some pangs of conscience—he is worried by the “urging of that word, ‘Judgment’” (104), but at the mention of a reward he theorizes:

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, shamefaced 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 turned out of towns and cities for a dangerous thing; and every man that means to live well endeavors to trust to himself, and live without it.


Conscience is an unnecessary impediment to self-interest. He concludes by advising that man should “trust to himself”—serve his own ends, rather than heed conscience. Conscience is, then, another voice, one not governed by self-interest. The Second Murderer describes it as a separate individual. This is true of the experience of conscience. It is external to the individual in some way. It links man to standards beyond himself. Conscience relates man to given political or natural or theological standards.

The murderers continue accusing conscience; the Second Murderer perverts proverbial wisdom, likening conscience to the devil: “he would insinuate with thee but to make thee sigh” (I.iv.142)—it deceives men against their own best interest. Caught in this exchange of witticisms when Clarence wakes, they “reason” with him, in order to justify to themselves his execution.

Clarence, in response, appeals to divine law over human law: “The great King of kings / Hath in the table of His law commanded / That thou shalt do no murder” (184-186). This sentiment is echoed, to as little effect, in the next scene as King Edward IV attempts to reconcile his Court: “Lest He that is the supreme King of kings / Confound your hidden falsehood, and award / Either of you to be the other's end” (II.i.13-15). The idea is repeated again in the next scene (just after Clarence's murder), by Clarence's son: “God will revenge it, whom I will importune / With earnest prayers, all to that effect” (II.ii.14-15). The argument for divine vengeance is put in the mouths of the weak who seek protection, ineffectually, from the strong.

The Second Murderer has second thoughts, having failed to rid himself of conscience.48 He does little to prevent the assassination, though, and afterwards compares himself to Pilate—another guilty bystander. He is termed a “coward” by his companion (269), echoed later by Richard's denouncement of coward conscience at Bosworth. How can cowardice be distinguished from conscience by an onlooker?

Can one completely rid oneself of conscience? The argument between the murderers represents two opposing ideas about conscience and divine justice presented in the play. Either conscience is the reasonable fear of punishment from a just God (or gods), or it is merely timidity in the face of convention, based on the incorrect opinion that justice is at work in this world or another. These are the positions of Clarence and Edward on the one hand, and Richard on the other.

Queen Margaret's cursing refrains remind us, if we had forgotten, of the murders committed by all three in order to establish the House of York on the throne. From the moral perspective, they deserve the torments of conscience. Clarence and Edward do experience these as they near death, but Richard strives, with near success, to escape them up until his nightmares in act 5, scene 3.

Clarence, sensible of the dangers of his imprisonment, ultimately comes to the belief that God does punish villains, however successful. He describes to the Keeper a complex dream in which he envisions being called to account by his victims and punished by Furies (pagan exacters of vengeance). The experience of conscience has, for him, a psychological complexity. In Edward, by contrast, conscience shows itself as simple fear of divine retribution. Worried by the thought of imminent death and judgment, Edward spends his last days arranging artificial reconciliations between nobles, for the more certain salvation of his soul. Later, he fears God's wrath for his part in Clarence's death (II.i.132-3).49

Richard, however, does not evince belief in a deity who concerns himself with punishing human evil. Guilt and conscience have their roots in groundless superstitions. The only punishment he understands is failure, and failure is the avoidable consequence of imprudence. What, then, are the roots of his apparent attack of conscience in act 5, scene 3? Why is he able to ignore the concerns that afflict his brothers about the usurpation of Henry VI? Either conscience is innate, an immutable part of us that connects us with the world (human and divine) beyond ourselves, or it is a convention (like divine right), carefully contrived by men to discourage questioning of political or religious authority.

Unlike Clarence's “unfelt imaginations” (I.iv.80), Richard's torments are externalized and staged. Despite these tangible manifestations (the ghosts that burden his “soul” and charge him to “despair and die”), Richard publicly denies the power of conscience (V.iii.310). But his debate with himself remains precariously unresolved. This lack of resolution is due to his conflicting views of nature, which cause him confusion about whether there is some natural standard for human behavior.


The murderers show the terms of the debate, but this does not explain why Richard, so apparently unconcerned with moral right and wrong, is divided before the decisive battle of his reign. This division is rooted in his conflicting views about nature. Richard believes he has been “cheated of feature by dissembling Nature” (I.i.19):50

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 sit Deformity to mock my body.


To explain his misshapenness, Richard says that nature has been corrupted by love. Consequently, he believes that nature has done him an injustice. To believe in the injustice of nature implies the attribution of intention to nature. How can a nature indifferent to man be spiteful, envious, dishonest, and dissembling? How can it intend anything towards an individual man?

Richard's egocentric view of nature requires that there be some rationale behind nature that gives men different physical natures for different ends. There must be some motivating intelligence behind it all, however malicious, or incomprehensible to human reason. According to Richard, nature gives lovers beautiful shapes. Since it has deprived him of beauty, he cannot be a lover and must pursue villainy—nature has indirectly determined his course of action. There are three choices, as he sees it in this soliloquy. He might have been a lover, but nature has precluded that (I.i.14-24). He might become philosophic or poetic, gazing at his “shadow” or attempting to describe his “deformity” (I.i.26-27), but there is no satisfaction in this. Finally, he might become what society would call a “villain” (I.i.30-31). Richard, then, is not entirely a creature of his own creation. He cannot simply make what he wants out of himself: nature has imposed certain limitations on him—limitations that he understands as guiding him, negatively, to villainy. There is some kind of natural standard, then, even if it is only as crude as beauty of form.

The other outstanding Shakespearean villain who contemplates nature as a supreme power is Edmund in King Lear:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true;
As honest madam's issue?


Edmund stands in the “plague of custom,” and so vows to serve nature instead,52 which has given him all her gifts: dimension, mind, and shape. He will worship her as a goddess, because he recognizes in nature rational standards by which to judge men: quality of form and mind.

Edmund is society's bastard while Richard is the bastard of nature. Edmund is deprived only by custom of the status that he might naturally claim. He intends to circumvent with his “invention” (20). He is the thrall of “custom,” Richard is “the slave of nature” (I.iii.230). He notes the superiority of others in this respect: Edward, Prince of Wales is “Fram'd in the prodigality of Nature” (I.ii.248). In Richard's case nature does not reveal his true qualities in his outward form. The truth about him and his capacities is hidden. In Edmund's case custom obscures his excellent nature, his form and mind. Both attribute their misfortunes to forces external to themselves, forces they believe may be overcome by “invention” or “villainy.”

Edmund decides to take nature alone as his standard for action—he is superior, therefore he deserves all the honors and opportunities appropriate to that superiority. We might suspect that, like Richard, he seeks a kind of revenge—but against custom, rather than nature—for instance, by engaging himself to both Goneril and Regan. Richard's alternatives are, first, to create a “self” in opposition to, or apart from, nature, which will enable him to achieve happiness through conquering nature. Second, to fulfill the purpose nature has given him: he is ugly, therefore he must be villainous. He vacillates between these two opinions. Richard desires to revenge himself for what nature has done to him and finds that nature has given him a form that instructs him in this desire for vengeance. He reflects on accounts of his birth:

And so I was, which plainly signified
That I should snarl, and bite, and play the dog.
Then since the heavens have shap'd my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother.


But can one be revenged on nature from within nature? Richard wants both to discover that nature determines that he will seek vengeance and to believe that he is capable of triumphing over nature by revenging himself in some way. His quest for such revenge raises the question: How should one regard one's own natural deficiencies?

Richard finds biblical guidance on this subject from St. Paul. He is the only character in all of Shakespeare to swear by this saint (six times: I.i.138, I.ii.36, I.ii.41, I.iii.45, III.iv.76, V.iii.277).53 It is a highly unusual oath. Paul, too, suffered from imperfection of physical form and was an outsider (a Pharisee and Roman citizen converted to Christianity). Paul writes in his letters of having an invisible ailment (“a thorn in the flesh,” 2 Cor. 12:7), which afflicts him terribly. In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul speaks to Richard's problem:

Do ye look on things after the outward appearance? If any man trust to himself that he is Christ's, let him of himself think this again, that, as he is Christ's, even so are we Christ's. For though I should boast somewhat more of our authority, which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for your destruction, I should not be ashamed: That I may not seem as if I would terrify you by letters. For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible. Let such an one think this, that, such as we are in word by letters when we are absent, such will we be also in deed when we are present.

(2 Corinthians 10:7-11)54

Outward appearances are deceptive, so we should not look to outward form as an indicator of inner power. Nature dissembles the truth. Richard's motto might be Paul's defiance about his infirmity in 2 Corinthians 12:10: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I most strong.”

This is true, in caricature, for Richard; his pretense of humility carries him far with Edward IV who makes him Lord Protector; with Clarence, who trusts him to gain his freedom; with Anne, who refuses to kill him when he is most vulnerable; and with the people of London who quietly watch him refuse and then accept the crown (echoes of Julius Caesar). It is the case with Richard that, when he appears most weak, he is most strong and most dangerous. Like Machiavelli he understands the power of seeming weakness in the political arena.

Richard twice refers to himself as “ordain'd” for his political role. Both times in King Henry VI, Part 3,—as he kills Henry—and V.vii.23; “This shoulder was ordain'd”. Richard uses the word in the sense of being chosen by the superior power that has deformed his shoulder, so Paul is chosen by a higher power, Acts 26.

Nature, by deforming Richard, has suited him for the role of “That excellent grand tyrant of the earth / That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls” (Margaret's epithet, IV.iv.51). According to the Queen, Richard has achieved his revenge. He tyrannizes or “reigns” in the tears of those he has injured; his victory is in their pain. More simply, he is in the “eyes of weeping souls” because he is reflected in their eyes as they look at him, fixing on the source of all their unhappiness.

Nature has taken away from Richard the possibility of private pleasures, and so he retreats into public life. Richard's political and public stance is that Nature does not determine political success or failure. One's nature (physical form, mental endowments) may always be used to advantage—as Edmund perceives.

Anne's submission to Richard (I.ii) gives him the thought that he may recast (clothe) his natural deformity with convention (tailoring) in such a way that others do not notice it. He will “entertain a score or two of tailors / To study fashions to adorn my body” (I.ii.261-2). This suggests how hopeful Richard is that man may conquer or circumvent nature. Just as deformity may be disguised by clever tailors, so the highest political ambitions may be hidden underneath the appearance of piety or weakness: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ,” I.iii.336-7.


Why is Richard interested in creating a “self”? He is trying to find a point outside of nature from which to revenge himself on it. On the one hand, he cannot escape his natural deformity, and so takes it as indicative of his purpose in life—to be as hideous in thought and action (“let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it,” King Henry VI, Part 3, as in form. On the other, nature has cheated him and so he must get beyond nature (“clothe” his natural deformity), in order to gain happiness. But to go beyond nature requires that he not look to nature for an end or purpose in life.

Macbeth resolves to “jump the life to come” (I.vii.7). Richard is beyond or, alternatively, below, such a concern with divine retribution. His concern in act 5, scene 3 is with whether conscience, a thing intangible, and existing only in the soul or mind (Macbeth's “dagger of the mind”), does or ought to have any effect on his actions. His debate is interrupted by preparations for battle and we never learn that he resolves it satisfactorily. One form of this debate over conscience asks whether it is possible to be entirely evil.55 Richard's first understanding is that, if there is no natural standard for right or justice, conscience or guilt is merely conventional. Even an individual brought up in a religious society might be able to liberate himself from such conventions, by seeing them as merely imposed by a particular society in a particular historical period. If, however, there is reason to suspect that nature is not simply indifferent to man, (either that there is some divine plan, though we may not comprehend it, or that there is a natural order), then there may be more solid grounds for believing in the existence of conscience or the experience of guilt. Richard fails, in part, at what he tries to become (a self rather than a soul), because he cannot resolve himself as to whether his final pangs of conscience over those he has slain are merely the shadows of an externally imposed social morality, or whether they are rooted in some kind of natural law. Is there natural right or no?

A simple moral reading of the play would interpret it as Shakespeare's assertion that everyone has a conscience, no matter how villainous he may appear. But, as Richard's imperfect self-understanding shows, he is not the perfect villain. His flaw points to a possibility beyond himself—a tyrant who is not simply excellent, but perfect. Such a tyrant would have no nightmares.

Richard's motivation, to revenge himself for wrongs done him by nature, is based on a sense of injustice—nature has cheated him. Desire for such vengeance presupposes that the affliction is deliberate. Richard's anger against nature is rooted in an unarticulated belief that nature is not indifferent to man. Consequently, he cannot avoid entertaining the suspicion that there is a standard for human behavior. Richard, after all, acknowledges the natural standard by which he is considered deformed, by which his end (villainy rather than love) is determined.

Richard is the prototypical modern man in this sense: he believes he can conquer nature entirely by means of his intellect, forcing everyone to acknowledge him as most powerful (even imperial), despite his natural disadvantage. But by the end of the play, Richard actually believes that he “may despair” (V.iii.201). To despair in the religious sense is utterly to doubt God. For Richard, despair is the discovery that his hopes for the crown, for the House of York, and above all for revenge are utterly unrealizable. This hope ignores the fact that he believes intermittently that nature has determined his end to be that of villain rather than lover.

On a political level, an answer to the general question of whether nature provides standards for human action would influence an answer to the question posed in act 4, scene 3 of Macbeth: Is formal legitimacy the most important aspect of political rule, or is justice necessary as well? Malcolm argues that the tyrant is tyrannical because of his injustice rather than because of his illegitimacy. Richard, like Macduff in that scene, limits the question of rule to the question of legitimacy. By slandering his parents and removing everyone between him and the throne, he can provide himself with formal legitimacy. In this sense he is the prototypical modern tyrant and a good student of Machiavelli. He is that political gambler, offering a kingdom for a horse: “I have set my life upon a cast / And I will stand the hazard of the die” (V.iv.9-10).56

Xenophon, in his Hiero and Education of Cyrus, sets forth two classical models of tyranny. Respectively, they are the tyrant who pursues unlimited private pleasure and the tyrant who pursues unlimited honor and glory. In Macbeth, we have a usurper motivated by the desire for the highest honor (the Scottish throne), and he, like Cyrus, knows that he deserves it. In The Winter's Tale, Leontes, like Hiero, is tyrannical in the realm of private desires—especially love. He desires to be loved absolutely and provably by Hermione. Richard III follows neither classical model of tyranny: he does not seek honor or love, but revenge.

This play is the core of Shakespeare's criticism of Machiavelli, or Machiavellianism. The deformed Richard parodies Machiavelli's favorite examples of potential and actual princes—those who are not favored by nature or society (bastards, for example, Cesare Borgia). Shakespeare sees the possibility of a new species of tyrant arising from the teachings of the Prince and Discourses. Machiavelli's openness invites imitation by all sorts of brilliant but perverted minds. He may even have particular appeal to a man, like Richard, who desires to revenge himself on the world. Shakespeare's character demonstrates how an aspiring tyrant of this sort, using Machiavelli's “new modes and orders,” goes very far towards achieving his ends, without understanding them.

But what does Richard want? Is it that his nature impels him towards villainy? Unlike Macbeth, Richard does not regard himself as deserving of the high honors of kingship, but only as clever enough to get them, and he has contempt for those who will not try. He desires revenge against nature because of his deformity. Yet he believes he has freed himself from the notion that there is a natural standard (natural law, natural right)—freed himself from the ferocity of conscience—which distinguishes good and evil. It emerges that Richard is driven by an unacknowledged sense of injustice: nature has injured him. As it turns out, Richard's new way of looking at the world ruptures when he cannot decide whether he is within nature or able to be outside it. This rupture occurs as he faces death.

If Richard's actions are not inspired by some belief in his natural right as a superior intellect, what moves him? It could be said that he simply wants mastery over others and over nature. It appears that he desires power for its own sake. But how is this desire for power to be distinguished from a desire for revenge, a hatred of the world? That distinction cannot be made from outside a person: no one can “touch” what another is.

If Richard does not acknowledge a standard in nature which, well understood, may offer guidance on human action, is there some other guide? Another such standard might be history. Does Richard wish to be judged by history as the unifier of England, the originator of empire, like the builder of the Tower, Julius Caesar? If so, and there is some reason to credit him on these grounds, he fails utterly, attracting instead the reputation of cruel tyrant (ironically reinforced by the surface presentation of Richard in this play).

Richard and Macbeth are not so far apart finally. There is a connection between the desire for vengeance and a love of honor (most fully explored in Coriolanus). Richard's desire to be revenged on nature comes out of his sense that nature owed him something in particular that he has been forced to obtain in another way: by perfect manipulation of his world, by science. But already, in his drive for mastery, Richard concedes that his invented “self” is incomplete: he needs something from the rest of the world, even if that something is infamy. For Machiavelli the desire for power is coeval or identical with the desire to conquer fortune. But Shakespeare probes this desire in order to expose the human anger at natural deficiencies—a power-seeking anger which, because he underestimates it, Machiavelli guides recklessly.


  1. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Henry James registered dissatisfaction with the play on this account. H. C. Robinson's Diary records that Coleridge believed Shakespeare “wrote hardly anything of this play except the character of Richard: he found the piece a stock play and re-wrote the parts which developed the hero's character,” from Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. T. Ashe (London: George Bell & Sons, 1900), 27. The play was for James “a loose, violent, straddling romance …—a chronicle for the market-place, a portrait for the house wall.” From a review in Harper's Weekly quoted in Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare, ed. Gamini Salgado (Sussex: Sussex University Press, 1975), 104.

  2. All citations from Richard III will be taken from the Arden Shakespeare, ed. Antony Hammond (New York: Methuen, 1981) and noted in the text. This edition will be cited in notes as Hammond.

  3. “Ronald Berman remarked after a screening of Richard III on Public Television that Richard is the only character in the play who thinks very much. At times he seems to be thinking about his own double performance (one for characters, one for us),” Jack J. Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 143. This running self-conscious commentary accounts, in part I believe, for the attraction/obsession of this part for contemporary actors. Antony Sher records this in Year of the King (London: Chatto & Windus, 1985).

  4. In Discourses III.6. Translated by Bernard Crick (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 414.

  5. Coleridge, 487.

  6. Michael Neill cites E. A. J. Honigmann in “Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III,” in Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 99. This is also argued by L. C. Knights in Shakespeare, The Histories (Essex, Longman Group Ltd., 1965); and Norman Rabkin in Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967); and Bridget Gellert Lyons, “’King's Games’: Stage Imagery and Political Symbolism in Richard III” in Criticism 20.1 (Winter 1978): 17-30.

  7. Colley Cibber, “Richard III. a Tragedy” in The Dramatic Works of Colley Cibber, Vol. 2 (New York: AMC Press, Inc., 1966), 322. Cibber introduces the association of conscience and cowardice early on in his revision of Richard III and abbreviates the speech on remorse from act 5, scene 3. In his version, interestingly, Gloucester complains of “tyrant Conscience” but believes himself too evil to be capable of repentance (much like Marlowe's Faustus). Cibber creates a safer Richard, more cowardly and less ruthlessly competent.

  8. Francis Bacon's Essay XLIII “Of Deformity” states this view of nature as follows: “Deformed Persons are commonly euen with Nature: For as Nature hath done ill by them; So doe they by Nature: Being for the most part, (as Scripture saith) void of Naturall Affection; And so they have their Reuenge of Nature.” Essays, (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).

  9. “Richard III” in The Design Within, ed. M. D. Faber (New York: Science House, 1970). Afterwards cited as Faber.

  10. Faber, 345.

  11. Examples of such criticisms are: James T. Henke's The Ego-King: An Archetype Approach to Elizabethan Political Thought and Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays; Marjorie Garber's Dreams in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis, pp. 15-25; Murray Krieger's “The Dark Generations of Richard III” in Faber; and Michael Neill's “Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III,” in Shakespeare's Studies 8 (1975): 99-129.

  12. For example, Sir Thomas Whately, in his excellent essay, “Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare” overlooks entirely the effect of Richard's deformity on him. In Shakespeare Criticism: 1623-1840, ed. D. Nichol Smith (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 125-126. Freud recognizes the force of Richard's resentment and its connection with his misshapenness.

  13. The first reference is particularly interesting since it suggests one source of Shakespeare's knowledge of Machiavelli, as Edward Meyer points out in Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama (1897; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1969), 58. The Duke of Alençon was the noble to whom Gentillet dedicated his famous commentary on Machiavellian thought in Discours Contre Machiavelli [eds. A. D'Andrea and P. D. Stewart (Firenze: Casalini Libri, 1974)]. Meyer notes no less than 395 references to Machiavelli in all of Elizabethan literature. There are three in Shakespeare. The third instance is in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the Host of the Garter asks “Am I too politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?” III.i.92-93, just before undeceiving two potential combatants. Gentillet's diatribe against Machiavelli ironically did much to popularize his thought in England before the first published English translation of The Prince in 1666. But Felix Raab completely dispels the myth of Gentillet's version of Machiavelli as the definitive English Machiavelli in The English Face of Machiavelli (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964): “The common form of this myth is that those who manufactured these masters [stage machiavels] had not read Machiavelli at all and had created their villains on the basis of Gentillet's hostile distortion of his writings. … In the first place, although Simon Patericke translated the Contre-Machiavel in 1577, only a year after it was written, the translation was not printed until 1602, by which time the Machiavellian villain had been a stock figure for some time. To argue that Patericke's translation exerted this tremendous influence in manuscript is clearly ridiculous in view of the proliferation of Machiavelli's work in England, nor is there any evidence that the French edition of Gentillet was being more widely read than Machiavelli in Italian, Latin, and English before 1602 or, for that matter, afterwards” (56). For another discussion of how Shakespeare might have known Machiavelli, see Hardin Craig's introduction to Machiavelli's The Prince: An Elizabethan Translation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944). There were manuscript translations of The Prince available before 1666 (the date of the first published English translation). Wyndham Lewis bases his otherwise interesting discussion in The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare on the assumption that Shakespeare knew Machiavelli exclusively through Gentillet (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, n.d.). See also chapter 1, note 46. The comprehension of Machiavelli's new political science in Richard III suggests that, one way or another, Shakespeare knew more than a caricatured version of Machiavelli.

  14. David L. Frey argues similarly in The First Tetralogy: Shakespeare's Scrutiny of the Tudor Myth (Paris: Mouton, 1976), 139-154. Citing Coleridge, he concludes that Shakespeare “has carefully built up the successful Machiavellian, and removed all the external causes of his defeat, in order to show us the internal process that points to the real flaw in the writings of the crafty Italian” (174). But Frey, too, stops short of explaining adequately what this “real flaw” is.

  15. This interpretation is supported and elaborated by Lily B. Campbell's Shakespeare's Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938) and E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays (New York: Collier Books, 1944) as well as by an editor of the Arden edition, Antony Hammond. Frey argues against the thesis and then, inadvertently, affirms it.

  16. See St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica questions 75-87, especially question 75, which is a refutation of the objections that the soul is corporeal, in Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, Inc., 1948), 280-428. Also St. Augustine in The City of God makes a good point, pertinent to Richard's case, that the cause of evil in the fallen angels was “their turning away from him who supremely is, and their turning toward themselves, who do not exist in that supreme degree” Book XII, chapter 6, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Pelican Books, 1972), 477.

  17. See Matthew 16:24-25 for the biblical use of self and soul synonymously. Richard is caught between trying to escape the strong Christian division between body and soul, coyly expressed by Andrew Marvell in “A Dialogue Between Body and Soul,” and recoiling from viewing himself in solely material terms. The former view he believes deluded and the latter places him in a very unattractive light (his deformity). He relies on the concept “self” to accommodate his new view of individuality.

  18. Richard refers to soul seventeen times (I.i.11, 41, 119; I.ii.180; I.iii.179; II.i.71; III.v.27; III.vii.225; IV.iv.251, 256, 263, 311, 408; V.iii.202, 204, 218, 309). The question of his soul's existence is most at issue when he tries to persuade Elizabeth (IV.iv) and then when he faces death in battle (V.iii). Clarence refers to soul eight times (I.iv.38, 44, 48, 67, 74, 240, 242, 246) as he wrestles with the issue just before his murder. Elizabeth, Anne, King Edward, and, notably, Richmond all speak of “soul.” Richard's soul is referred to sixteen times in the play. The word is used sixty-one times altogether.

  19. Hammond, 287, n. 259.

  20. As the wooing scene progresses, Anne begins using Richard's syntactic constructions. Richard controls the structural power of her language, that is, her phraseology, and so controls her responses. This situation is reversed in act 4, scene 4 as Richard comes to use Elizabeth's rhetorical structures.

  21. Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 47, 63-64, 49. See also Marguerite Waller's illuminating attempt to synthesize deconstructive and feminist readings of Richard's courtship of Anne in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), 159-174.

  22. Madonne M. Miner, “Neither Mother, Wife, nor England's Queen: The Role of Women in Richard III,” Lenz, 45. One would have to except from this remark the Scrivener (, the citizens (II.iii), and even Tyrrel (IV.iii).

  23. Lenz, 52.

  24. Andrew S. Cairncross, ed. King Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd. [parts 1 and 2], 1962, [part 3] 1964). All citations from the plays will be taken from this edition.

  25. See Whately, 125-126. John Philip Kemble responded spiritedly in defense of Macbeth in Macbeth and King Richard III: An Essay (London: John Murray, 1817).

  26. See above, n. 15. J. Leeds Barroll in the first chapter of his book Artificial Persons is helpful: “Even if Hamlet does strike us as ‘Freudian,’ Shakespeare nevertheless had not read Freud; and while Shakespeare may have observed traits that modern psychology generally accepts as extant in human nature, the structure of ideas by which he sought to account for such phenomena would have been quite importantly different” (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1974), 21.

  27. Robert N. Watson, The Hazards of Ambition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 20.

  28. Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, ed. J. B. Steane (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 337. Future references to this edition will be to Marlowe.

  29. Richard refers to “self” generally three times (II.ii.151; III.i.63; IV.iv.425) and his “self” is referred to five times by Anne, Richard, Buckingham, and Elizabeth (I.ii.80; II.ii.151; III.vii.131; III.vii.194; IV.iv.376). But Richard speaks of “myself” twenty-seven times, far more than any other character in the play (I.ii.77, 82, 85, 190, 259, 263; I.iii.79, 319; III.i.137; III.vii.52; IV.iv.249, 376, 399 [2x], 407; V.iii.183, 186, 187 [2x], 188, 189 [2x], 190, 191, 203, 204 [2x]). It is easy to see that the question of his “selfhood” is most at issue when he faces death in act 5, scene 3. There are more references to the self in Richard III (85) than in any other of Shakespeare's plays.

  30. Machiavelli never uses the word anima (soul) in either The Prince. or Discourses on Livy.

  31. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, the Arden edition, ed. Harold Jenkins (New York: Methuen, 1982).

  32. This argument is made by Callicles in Plato's Gorgias, 482c-486c. Translated by Terrence Irwin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

  33. As Machiavelli says in the Discourses: “To threaten to shed blood is, in fact, extremely dangerous: whereas to shed it is attended with no danger at all, for a dead man cannot contemplate vengeance and those that remain alive usually leave you to do the contemplating” (40).

  34. When Richard refers to “conscience,” it has the sense of “consciousness” as well as the modern sense of “knowledge or feeling of right and wrong.” Jonathan Goldberg observes with reference to the writings of King James I: “The questions raised by James's language thus bifurcate into a complex set of relationships between self-perception and other perception. In the Jacobean period the area in which these conflicts occur was conveniently housed in a single word, “conscience,” a word that contains both the idea of the knowledge of self and the knowledge of others (“conscious” in a modern vocabulary). The unity between conscience and consciousness that the word conscience declares is in James's thinking divided—both in himself and his audience,” James I and the Politics of Literature (115). Richard is profoundly aware that the word “conscience” unites a moral and a metaphysical meaning. To have a conscience is to be aware of the opinions of others, most importantly to be conscious of the opinion of God on one's actions. This “consciousness,” the root of moral restraint, he believes to be wholly artificial and unnecessary. See part 3 of this chapter, “The Dregs of Conscience.”

  35. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 71. Hereafter referred to as Prince. Compare this excerpt, too, with the Scrivener's speech two scenes later:

    Here is a good world the while! Who is so gross
    That cannot see this palpable device?
    Yet who's 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.


  36. Soliloquies and asides of Richard III throughout the tetralogy. Soliloquies: 2H6 V.ii.66-71; 3H6 III.ii.124-195,; R3 I.i.1-41, I.i.117-121, I.i.145-162, I.ii.232-268, I.iii.324-338, V.iii.178-207. Asides: 3H6 IV.i.82, IV.i.123, IV.vii.25-26, V.vii.21-25, V.vii.33-34; R3 I.iii.318-319, II.ii.110-111, III.i.79, III.i.82-83, III.i.94, IV.iv.431.

  37. Marlowe, 347.

  38. See especially Discourses I.27 and III.6.

  39. Danby, 61-62, 66.

  40. Harry V. Jaffa, “The Unity of Tragedy, Comedy, and History: An Interpretation of the Shakespearean Universe,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, eds. John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), 287.

  41. Interestingly, although it is a play about the corruption of Macbeth's soul, the word “soul” is used only four times in this play. This is because the existence of soul is not in question in Macbeth.

  42. Prince, 35.

  43. The question of the importance of establishing reputation for a great political man is a main concern of Julius Caesar, a play in which the titular character has few lines and is killed a third of the way through. The play is more about the reputation of Julius Caesar than the man.

  44. Again, a problem word in the play, used thirteen times, Richard himself uses it most, six times: I.i.239; III.vii.225; V.iii.179, 194, 310, 312. The word most closely associated with “conscience” in the play is “guilt,” referred to seventeen times, six times by Richard: I.ii.100 (2x); II.i.137; III.v.30; V.iii.200 (2x). He is referred to as guilty six times.

  45. See note 34.

  46. Coleridge speaks of Richard as a man who depends on his “superiority of intellect”—who has placed “the moral in subordination to the mere intellectual being,” Lectures, 147, 273.

  47. As Jan Kott notes, “Only two people in this tragedy reflect on the order of the world: King Richard III, and a hired assassin. The one who is at the top of the feudal ladder, and one placed at its very bottom.” In Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1964), 26-27. This scene in the Tower is the one in the play that comes closest to the clown scenes in the later tragedies, such as the Porter scene in Macbeth—grisly, comic relief.

  48. “‘A very bad murderer,’ I said, ‘like Shakespeare's Second Murderer in that scene in King Richard III. The fellow that had certain dregs of conscience, but still wanted the money, and in the end didn't do the job at all because he couldn't make up his mind. Such murderers are very dangerous. The have to be removed—sometimes with blackjacks.’” From Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler.

  49. H. M. Richmond in Shakespeare's Political Plays misreads this speech and suggests that Edward, of all the characters, comes closest to the “heroic self-recognition that is to mark such characters as Othello and Lear” (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1977), 91. This ignores the fact that Edward (portrayed as pleasure-loving and impolitic throughout the tetralogy) begins by blaming everyone but himself for Clarence's death. He fears God's wrath for his injustice to Clarence (along lines suggested to him by Richard), blames everyone in his court (except Richard), and then laments: “O God, I fear Thy justice will take hold / On me, and you, and mine and yours for this” (II.i.132-133). His deathbed remorse, given his actions earlier in the tetralogy, is hard to regard as “heroic.”

  50. There were many versions of Richard's reign from which Shakespeare could have chosen in constructing his villain-king. He preferred an account that included Richard's deformity, a detail introduced by St. Thomas More in his History of King Richard III. There is no factual evidence for it. “Richard, the third son, of whom we now entreat, was in wit and courage equal with either of them, in body and prowess far under them both; little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favored of visage, and such as in states called warly, in other men otherwise,” ed. Richard Sylvester (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 8. Shakespeare, like More, uses physical deformity to symbolize a flawed nature. See Richard's comments, especially King Henry VI, Part 3, III.ii.153-163,, and Richard III, I.i.14-27.

  51. All citations to Lear are from the Arden edition, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1975).

  52. Note the classical distinction (taken from Greek philosophy) made here, between nomos (convention/law) and physis (nature). Richard makes the same distinction.

  53. I follow the Quarto readings of Richard's oath as “by Saint Paul” at I.i.138, rather than the Folio “by Saint John,” which is Hammond's choice in the Arden edition. Richard is very consistent in his oaths. The rare exception being his “by God's holy mother” (I.iii.306), which is spoken, appropriately enough, of a woman—Queen Margaret.

  54. See also Romans 7:18-19: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Richard perversely interprets Paul's teaching of the limitations of the body. All citations of the Bible are from the King James Version. For a different take on the dichotomy between soul and body which Richard, with Paul, wishes to escape, see Andrew Marvell's poem, “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body” where the body complains: “O who shall me deliver whole, / From bonds of this tyrannic soul?” The Poems of Andrew Marvell, ed. Hugh Macdonald (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 15.

  55. “But, as has already been remarked, men know not how to be either wholly bad or wholly good,” Discourses, 185.

  56. See the end of Prince, chapter 25, “How Much Fortune Can Do in Human Affairs, and in What Mode It May Be Opposed”: “I judge this indeed, that it is better to be impetuous then cautious, because fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down. And one sees that she lets herself be won more by the impetuous than by those who proceed coldly. And so always, like a woman, she is the friend of the young, because they are less cautious, more ferocious, and command her with more audacity,” 101.


Primary Sources

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. Antony Hammond. London: Methuen, 1981.

Secondary Sources

Barroll, J. Leeds. Artificial Persons: The Formation of Character in the Tragedies of Shakespeare. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1974.

Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1986.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Coleridge's Complete Poetical Works. Vol. 2. Ed. Hartley Coleridge. Oxford. The Clarendon Press, 1912.

———. Lectures on Shakespeare. Ed. T. Ashe. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900.

Danby, John F. Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear. London: Faber and Faber, 1949.

Garber, Marjorie. Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

———. Shakespeare's Ghostwriters: Literature as Uncanny Causality. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Henke, James T. The Ego-King: An Archetype Approach to Elizabethan Political Thought and Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays. No. 74. Salzburg: Institut für Anglische Sprache Und Literatur, 1977.

Krieger, Murray. “The Dark Generations of Richard III.” Criticism 1 (1959): 32-48.

Lenz, Carolyn R. S., Gayle Greene, and Carol T. Neely, eds. The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Comedies of Machiavelli. Ed. and trans. By David Sices and James B. Atkinson. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985.

———. The Discourses. Ed. Bernard Crick. Trans. Leslie J. Walker, S. J. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1976.

———. Machiavelli's The Prince: An Elizabethan Translation. Ed. Hardin Craig. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

———. The Prince. Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Complete Plays. Ed. J. B. Steane. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Meyer, Edward. Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama. New York: Burt Franklin, rpt. Of Weimar Literarhistorische Forschungren, 1897.

Neill, Michael. “Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play Politics, and Psychology in Richard III.” In Shakespeare Studies 8. (1975): 99-129.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9406

SOURCE: de Somogyi, Nick. Introduction to The Shakespeare Folios: Richard III, edited by Nick de Somogyi, pp. xxvii-xlix. London: Nick Hern Books, 2002.

[In the following essay, de Somogyi provides an overview of Richard III, tracing the play's performance and textual history as well as providing Richard's family tree.]


The lank black hair and sharply prominent nose are unmistakable; so is the limp, as the hunchback King turns towards the camera's slow zoom, and (to the sound of a gently strummed lute) delivers, in that inimitably clipped bark, some of the most famous opening lines in the world: ‘It has been a hard day's night, and I have been working like a dog …’1 Peter Sellers's sublime impersonation of Laurence Olivier as Richard III (as John Lennon), recorded for a 1965 TV Beatles ‘spectacular’, is variously true to the play he didn't quote. The pleasure of Olivier's iconic performance—premièred on the London stage in 1944, immortalized on film in 1955—has been shrewdly located in ‘watching Olivier the consummate actor play Richard the consummate actor’;2 how apt, then, that Sellers, the arch-mimic, should add his own twist to the sequence of eerily accurate impersonations by which Shakespeare's hero-villain usurps the throne. From the very first, Richard III has provided a ‘peerless vehicle for a virtuoso actor’,3 a tradition embodied in John Gielgud's gift to Olivier, ‘in appreciation of his performance’, of the sword Edmund Kean had worn in the rôle in 1814, which had in turn been presented to Sir Henry Irving in 1873.4 The theory that Sellers pinched Olivier's own wig for the part may represent a suitably Goonish extension of this tradition.5

‘Come, cousin,’ says Richard in Shakespeare's play, in a brief backstage masterclass with his protégé Buckingham,

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

(3.5, pp. 128-9)

‘Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian,’ replies Buckingham. Richard's range is broader: he can counterfeit the faithful brother (1.1), the wooing lover (1.2), the political loyalist (1.3), the indulgent uncle (3.1), the persecuted innocent (3.4), and—perhaps his finest performance—the pious Christian prince, reluctantly enthroned (3.7). The play—his play—is indeed, as a recent editor has called it, ‘conspicuously a performance piece, and in many ways it is about the nature of performance’.6 Impersonation lies at the heart of the story Richard III tells, as one of Shakespeare's most influential sources acknowledged: ‘[King Richard] was of a ready, pregnant, and quick wit, wily to feign, and apt to dissemble.’7 And the seed—or better, perhaps, the replicating germ—of the play's conceit seems to have occurred to Shakespeare midway through its predecessor, the play known in the First Folio as Henry VI, Part Three. ‘I can add colours to the chameleon,’ boasts Richard in that earlier play, towards the end of a 70-line soliloquy that suddenly propels him centre-stage (3.2). Olivier shared in that boast, inserting this section of the speech into Richard III's opening soliloquy (see ‘The Story So Far’ below, pp. li-liv).

Richard III is often described as Shakespeare's most popular play, a statistic borne out by its enduring profile in the twentieth century, the era of mass entertainment—and mass murder. A scene from the play was among the first pieces of drama to be televised by the BBC (in 1937);8 and when Olivier's film was broadcast on NBC in 1956, American television audiences were estimated at over 60 million, a record number, and ‘more … than had seen the play in the theatres of England since it was first performed in 1592’.9 Olivier had partly modelled his performance in that film on the same detested individual—the theatre director Jed Harris—as had inspired the Big Bad Wolf in Walt Disney's cartoon, Three Little Pigs (1933).10 The other influence, of course, was Hitler—though Olivier's biographer revealingly detects ‘echoes of the mannerisms caricatured by Chaplin in The Great Dictator’.11 Film, television, Chaplin, Disney, Hitler, the Goons, the Beatles: it is entirely fitting that the vast celebrity of each of these twentieth-century phenomena finds a place in the cultural history of Richard III. For the play was Shakespeare's first smash-hit, his first ‘Number One’; it also laid the foundation of his twenty-year partnership with Richard Burbage. The massive popularity of Richard III—an unbeatable combination of Burbage's starring performances and Shakespeare's masterpiece of script—accordingly prompted a sequence of parody, pastiche, and anecdote that place Richard III at the heart of sixteenth-century pop culture.

‘A boat! A boat!’ cries a character in the City Comedy Eastward Ho! (1605), ‘A full hundred marks for a boat!’12 John Marston was particularly fond of this deflationary gag—the speaker is here merely hailing a river-taxi—and his earliest version of it appeared in his 1598 satire The Scourge of Villainy (1598).13 A few years later, in 1601, students at St John's College, Cambridge, went a little further. At around the same time that the Lord Chamberlain's Men were presenting their touring production of Hamlet in the town,14 they wrote and performed a play (a satire on the London literary scene known to scholarship as The Second Part of The Return from Parnassus) that features in its cast the real-life figures of Dick Burbage and Will Kemp. These glamorous figures (the leading actor and the clown of the Lord Chamberlain's Men) audition some dim-witted Cambridge undergraduates: ‘I like your face and the proportion of your body for Richard the 3,’ says Burbage, rather archly, to one of them; ‘I pray … let me see you act a little of it.’ ‘Now is the winter of our discontent,’ obliges his hapless protégé. ‘Very well I assure you,’ comments Burbage; ‘we see what ability you are of.’15

By this time, of course, Burbage and Shakespeare's abilities were very well known to London audiences. So much so, in fact, that they featured in a racy piece of theatrical gossip, first recorded in a diary entry (by the law-student John Manningham) in March 1602. ‘Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III,’ it relates, a star-struck member of the audience (a ‘groupie’, so to say) ‘grew so far in liking with him’ that she arranged an illicit liaison with him. Burbage was to announce himself ‘by the name of Richard III’ when he called; but:

Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that ‘Richard III’ was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III’.16

The punchline for twenty-first-century audiences might better read ‘William the Conqueror came before Richard III’, but the story's modern status is plain: Burbage and Shakespeare are the subject of celebrity gossip—and, significantly, it is Richard III that underpins the joke. Burbage was as long identified in the rôle as Olivier remains to this day;17 and it was on the title-page of Richard III's second Quarto edition that Shakespeare's name was first used to advertise a printed play.18 Contemporary readers and playgoers alike testify to its vast popularity. Between 1597 (when its first edition appeared) and 1623 (when it was published as the ninth play in the Folio's ‘Histories’), no fewer than six separate Quarto editions were printed.19 But the play that Heminge and Condell laboured to procure for their discerning readership in 1623 was, in a thousand various ways, quite different to the play those readers and playgoers had known for the previous thirty years of its celebrity.

Modern students of pop-culture are familiar with the lavish boxed sets, anthologies, and re-issued CDs that continue to re-package the music of the 1960s. The inclusion of first takes, demos, ‘out-takes’ from rehearsal sessions, and ‘original’ tracks shorn of subsequent ‘overdubs’ are obligatory; one such re-issue boasts of the ‘intensive archival research to find the original masters’ from which it was produced.20 Heminge and Condell would have recognized the principle (if not the vocabulary) of such claims. The preface to their collection, after all, claims to have restored to their readership the authoritative texts of previously bootlegged editions of some plays (‘cured and perfect of their limbs’), and ‘all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them’ (see above, p. x). The following section is designed to explain what exactly it was that Heminge and Condell unearthed from the archive at their disposal, and how precisely they re-mastered The Tragedy of Richard the Third.


‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III’: Heminge and Condell arranged the second section of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies on the very same principle, sequencing its ten history plays in the chronological order of their reigns rather than in the order of their composition. Their procedure made grand sense of Shakespeare's achievement—an unbroken dramatic chronicle of England's history from 1398 to 1485, topped and tailed by related episodes from both her distant (King John) and recent (Henry VIII) past;21 but it skewed the astonishing trajectory of his creative development. For the so-called second tetralogy (Richard II to Henry V) there precedes the first (1 Henry VI to Richard III); and Richard III, the ninth in the Folio sequence (occupying pp. 173-204, sig. q5r-t2v)22 comes immediately before Henry VIII—despite the twenty years separating their theatrical premières. More confusing still is the fact that Henry VI, Part One is what we would nowadays call a ‘prequel’: it seems to have been written after the plays known in the Folio as The Second and Third Part of King Henry the Sixth;23 and to make matters worse, Henry VI, Part Two was originally known (in its 1594 Quarto edition) as The First Part of the Contention of the two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster.

Something of the same dizzying perspective closely attends the textual history of Richard III itself: for its earliest printed edition (the First Quarto, 1597) preserves a much later version of the play than the one Heminge and Condell subsequently published in their 1623 collection. The Folio, as it were, came before the Quarto. The following chronological narrative represents (more or less) the expert consensus surrounding what has been called ‘the most difficult question which presents itself to an editor of Shakespeare’,24 based on a minute analysis by generations of scholars of the seven editions of Richard III that were published between 1597 and 1623. (Scholarly consensus being what it is, however, it should be noted that almost every detail in the following account has been challenged.)

In around 1592, fresh from completing work on the three-part Henry VI sequence, Shakespeare decided to resume the historical chronology by developing the character of Richard, Duke of Gloucester into a play of his own, and so fulfil Richard's stated vow ‘to catch the English crown’ (3 Henry VI, 3.2. A modernized text of this originating soliloquy can be found below, pp. li-liii). Possibly he was influenced—perhaps even irritated—by an anonymous play on the same subject, The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, first performed around 1591.25 Working from the chronicle sources of Edward Hall (1550) and Ralph Holinshed (1587), Shakespeare sat down to write the longest play he had so far written—and the second longest of his entire career.26 Shakespeare presented this bundle of manuscript—possibly a fair copy he had prepared for the purpose, tinkering and tweaking as he went—to the theatrical company to which he was then attached: either Lord Strange's Men or Lord Pembroke's Men, depending on when precisely it was that he completed the play. (He certainly seems to have taken care to introduce gratuitously flattering references to both lords' descendants into the historical record that his script condensed.)27

Shakespeare's Richard III probably first reached the stage in 1592-3, whereupon it swiftly established the simultaneous celebrity of both its author and its star (Richard Burbage). Both men joined the newly formed Lord Chamberlain's Men in the early summer of 1594; with them went the successful script of Richard III—but in a form already substantially removed from the manuscript draft Shakespeare had submitted, which would merely have formed the raw material from which to assemble (via a process of ensemble reading and collective rehearsal) the so-called ‘prompt-book’ (or ‘theatre copy’, or ‘play-book’): a ‘definitive’ transcript of the performed play, incorporating cuts, additions, and revisions, and marked up with the stage-directions, effects, and props necessary to ensure a smooth performance. The play remained in the repertoire of the Chamberlain's Men, and its enduring success led others to seek reflected glory: The True Tragedy of Richard the Third (the play it had outshone) was entered for publication in June 1594.

Just over three years later, in July 1597, the fragile relationship between London's players and its government violently broke down when news reached the Privy Council of the performance on Bankside of a scandalous, lewd, and seditious play called The Isle of Dogs.28 That play—by Thomas Nashe and a young Ben Jonson—is lost, so it is impossible to know why it caused such a fuss. What is known is that on 28 July, the Council ordered the immediate closure—and subsequent demolition—of all London's theatres. In fact the theatres survived, and the storm had blown over by mid-October, when Philip Henslowe resumed his recording of box-office receipts at the Rose.29 Meanwhile, however, faced with the collapse of their principal source of income, Shakespeare's company went on tour, mainly around the southern coast of England.30 And now the textual history of Richard III gets complicated. For this play—by now a slightly dusty jewel in their crown—was evidently among those presented during this enforced touring season. But somehow, somewhere along the way, the prompt-book (the performance-text of the play that had been adapted from Shakespeare's original manuscript) went missing.

And so, in around August 1597, the assembled company gave a private performance of Richard III, at dictation-speed (by the seaside at Rye or Dover, it is pleasant to imagine), reconstructing from their collective memory the version of the play they were then touring. These speeches were written down, and an approximation of the prompt-book reproduced—an ‘approximation’ because not only did this transcript rely on the fallible memories of its cast, but the laborious recital of their parts would also necessarily have incorporated the fully rehearsed adaptation of the play that had been prepared in advance so as to cater for the more limited resources available to the smaller troupe that was touring it.31

The Chamberlain's Men's provincial tour came to an end in October, when news may have reached them that the Admiral's Men—their chief rivals in the city—had resumed performances at the Rose. They were certainly back in London by the 20th, when ‘The tragedie of kinge Richard the Third wth the death of the duke of Clarence’ was entered in the Stationers' Register for publication. The version of the play they submitted for publication was the ‘memorial reconstruction’ of the touring script they had only recently compiled.

A play's publication generally signalled the end of its box-office pull. The formal rhetoric of Richard III must indeed have come to seem rather creakily old-fashioned by the time its First Quarto (‘Q1’) appeared a few months later—certainly by contrast with the supple naturalism of the Henry IV plays that Shakespeare was now in the throes of composing. Still, the appearance on London's book-stalls, in 1597, of the paperback of Richard III (‘As it hath beene lately Acted by the Right honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants’) can scarcely have done the company's profile or reputation any harm. Unusually, the publisher (Andrew Wise), divided the printing work between two separate workshops, possibly in an effort to rush forward the publication date.32

The book was a phenomenal success. A second edition appeared (this time under Shakespeare's name) within the year (Q2, 1598), and further reprints (Q3-Q8) were regularly issued until 1634. Each of these editions was laboriously typeset from its predecessor (the possibility of ‘Saving to Disk’ remaining an unimaginable luxury for the next four centuries). So although the odd ‘typo’-correction was here and there made by each new generation of compositors, each of these successive Quartos introduced errors of its own—rather as, these days, when photocopies are made of photocopies, each successive print displays a sometimes illegible degeneration. (It seems, however, that someone was well enough aware of the entropy of this process to insist that Q5 (1612) was set from a copy of Q3 (1602) that had been marked up with corrections.)33

Shakespeare's Richard III was being read in paperback throughout his subsequent career—even as Much Ado About Nothing (1598), Hamlet (1602), King Lear (1605), and The Tempest (1612) were being performed. By the time of its Sixth Quarto in 1622, however, both its presiding geniuses (Burbage and Shakespeare) were dead; and their literary and theatrical heirs (Heminge and Condell) were well advanced in preparing their edition of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. The editorial policy they adopted transformed the play from the ‘Tragedy’ by which it had been known and praised, into the volume's penultimate History;34 but their work did not stop there. True to the pledge they made in the Folio's preface, Heminge and Condell took care to provide their readership with something new: ‘and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them’ (see above, p. x).

Their easiest course would simply have been to reprint the play from one or other of its many previous Quarto editions (as they more or less did, for example, with Much Ado About Nothing).35 Instead they worked hard to improve on that variously distorted abridgement. The Life & Death of Richard the Third (as the play is called on the Folio's contents page) presented to its readers a version of the play previously unknown to more than a handful of professional actors: the manuscript bundle that Shakespeare had originally compiled. But the clarity of Shakespeare's handwriting seems to have been erratic; and besides, these pages were by now close to thirty years old. And so, rather than risking a fresh sequence of errors and misreadings at the printer's, Heminge and Condell devised a means by which to combine the legibility of the Quartos with the variant original text of Shakespeare's manuscript. What is certain is that a copy of Q3 (1602)—possibly also a copy of Q6 (1622)—was used as a sort of convenient template against which Shakespeare's original manuscript was checked, and onto which its variant readings were transplanted. From these two—or three—separate texts was created (or better, perhaps ‘recreated’) the ‘authoritative’ text of Richard III that appears in the First Folio. What is less certain is how this ‘collation’ was managed—what material, in other words, was presented to the Folio typesetters (‘compositors’) in early 1623. The two main alternative opinions are as follows.

The play was either typeset from a scissor-and-paste composite of the Quarto play, systematically annotated from Shakespeare's manuscript (‘insert’, ‘delete’, ‘substitute’, and so on); or from a fresh transcript prepared (by a ‘collator’) from the mess of correction such a process would have entailed. Whatever the truth, in around March 1623, two separate compositors, identified by scholarship as ‘A’ and ‘B’,36 began work on typesetting the play. The text they prepared was the closest so far published to the play Shakespeare had conceived in the early 1590s. That is the text which this edition exactly reproduces—the version presented as definitive by its first editors. Yet (as the last four pages have sought to demonstrate) every step of a reader's way stands upon a shifting quicksand of gradually yielding authority. A single leaf of this 1623 edition may usefully illustrate the complex process of textual mediation that lies behind it.

Pages 181-2 (r3r-v) of the ‘Histories’ section of the First Folio advances the action of Richard III from the moment that the Duke of Clarence's murderers resolve to set about their work (1.4, pp. 60-61) to the public announcement of that murder at the meeting King Edward has convened (2.1, pp. 74-5). The second page (r3v) is reproduced in facsimile below, p. 274.

Certain elements of this 250-line sequence clearly found their way into the text at the time of its 1623 printing. The play's division into acts and scenes, for example (‘Actus Secundus. Scœna Prima.’), is unique to the Folio, and was probably introduced to smoothe the play's transition from stage to page: the sumptuous Folio is a book to read rather than an acting edition.37 Other unique features were less helpful. As, for example, in the careless slip (by Compositor ‘B’) in the first line of r3r, when the First Murderer characterizes conscience as the devil: ‘'Tis euen now at my elbow, perswading me not to kill the Dkue [sic]’ (1.4, pp. 60-61). Readers would be able to correct this mistake (‘Duke’) without recourse to a Quarto version of the play; but if they did consult one, they would be faced with a more complicated problem. For in all its Quarto editions, the line reads (in modernized form), ‘Zounds it is even at my elbow, persuading me not to kill the Duke’. The word ‘Zounds’ (or ‘'Swounds’) is a conflation of ‘By God's wounds’, a reference to Christ's wounds on the cross and so an expletive of some force. Both Murderers use the word—but only in the Quarto; so does Buckingham, as part of the marvellous set-piece (3.7) in which Richard pretends to piety—but, again, only in the Quarto:

—Come, citizens. Zounds, I'll entreat no more.
—O, do not swear, my Lord of Buckingham.

The Folio omits both the expletive and Richard's superb rejoinder (see below, pp. 148-9), all of which suggests that, somewhere along the way, Shakespeare's original manuscript was systematically ‘toned down’, expurgated of all its more offensive slang. Some scholars explain the pattern by reference to the Act passed by James I in 1606 for ‘the avoiding of the great Abuse of the Holy Name of God in stage-plays’. It would certainly be ironic if Richard's fictional prohibition (‘O, do not swear’) itself fell foul of a real one by a later king; but James's Act did not extend to printed plays (which is why Q1-Q6 retain the sequence), and so, for its effect to be visible in the Folio, the manuscript underlying that text would need to have been edited for performance at some point after 1606—which seems to contradict the otherwise solid theory that F was based on Shakespeare's original manuscript. The alternative view is that these changes were specifically introduced under the prestigious auspices of Heminge and Condell's 1623 project, and that its more extreme oaths were excised on the grounds of late-Jacobean literary taste rather than early-Jacobean censorship.

Whatever the reason, our single Folio-page may also have minded its language at the moment when Clarence turns on his Murderers, by cutting the line italicized here: ‘I charge you, as you hope for any goodness, / By Christ's dear blood, shed for our grievous sins, / That you depart and lay no hands on me’ (1.4, pp. 62-3). On the other hand, of course, the line may simply have been omitted by mistake (whether by Compositor ‘B’ or the hypothetical ‘collator’), as seems may have happened in Clarence's subsequent plea:

Tell him, when that our princely father York
Bless'd his three sons with his victorious arm,
And charg'd us from his soul to love each other,
He little thought of this divided friendship.

(1.4, pp. 64-5)

The italicized line is again unique to Q—but can we be as certain as one recent editor in thinking that the ‘missing’ line is ‘essential to the sense’?38 Or, indeed, if it is essential, that the same thought did not occur to the actors who first rehearsed the scene from Shakespeare's original script, and then prevailed upon him to add the line in order to spell out that sense?

That question is worth asking because this may well be the process by which one of the play's most famous sequences found its way into Quartos, but not into the Folio: the so-called ‘clock dialogue’ in 4.2, in which Buckingham's persistent interruption of King Richard's meditation prompts a vehement retort (see Textual Note 67 below). Compositor ‘B’, after all, must have been staggeringly negligent to have omitted these twenty-odd lines by mistake. A full range of theories has been proposed,39 but the present consensus holds that the passage was added (probably by Shakespeare) to his original draft in the course of the play's first rehearsals in around 1592—in the name of suspense, perhaps, or to provide Tyrrell with a more credible period of time than originally afforded him in which to receive and carry out his orders (the murder of the Princes), and then return to report on the outcome (4.2, pp. 163-7).

This sequence is the only substantial passage that is unique to the play's Quarto texts. There are, however, around 200 lines that only appear in the Folio, thanks to the efforts with which Heminge and Condell prepared that volume, and which counted among its unique selling-points. Many of these extra lines (including their longest sequence) appear in the course of Richard's extended interview with Queen Elizabeth in 4.4 (pp. 182-97). Like most latter-day ‘bonus tracks’, however, to read these lines is partly to understand why they were never originally released. For it has been well-pointed out that Richard ends the previous scene with the injunction, ‘We must be brief when traitors brave the field’ (4.3, pp. 168-9)—but then speaks ‘with his mother for some 66 lines, and then debates with Elizabeth for another 257’.40 It is generally agreed that the scene was probably cut at more or less the same time as the ‘clock dialogue’ was added, but for an opposite reason: to speed up the play's theatrical pace at a time when audiences' energies might fairly be thought to be at risk of flagging. It is not that such cuts would substantially reduce the playing-time of Richard III (its First Quarto was still the longest play ever printed);41 rather that ‘Shakespeare's youthful judgement’ significantly benefited from the judicious editing of his professional elders and peers.42 Not all the passages unique to the Folio necessarily represent this process; indeed, some scholars hold that Shakespeare at some point in fact added some of these passages rather than reluctantly conceding their deletion.43 What does seem clear, however, is that modern productions that feature material from both Folio and Quarto versions present a mix-and-match play that neither Shakespeare nor his company would necessarily have recognized.

‘Either/or but not both’: that editorial rule of thumb would certainly hold good were a modern editor simply limited to treating Q as an accurate script of the play's touring production, and F as the originating authorial manuscript, and then having to choose between them. Such is the byzantine nature of Richard III's textual pedigree, however, that such a straight choice is often compromised. To return to our sample Folio page, for example, the First Murderer follows up the speech detailed above (p. xxxv) with the assertion, ‘I am strong fram'd, he [the devil] cannot preuaile with me’ (r3r; 1.4, pp. 60-61); in the Quarto he claims to be ‘strong in fraud’. Both readings are vivid: ‘strong-framed’ (F) carries the sense made of sterner stuff, while ‘strong in fraud’ (Q) comprises a suitably perverse adaptation of scripture (Abraham being ‘strong in faith’).44 But whichever was Shakespeare's, the other is almost certainly a mistake for it, by a scribe or a compositor along the way (see our Series Introduction above, p. xx). It has been calculated that such variants account for fully 10 per cent of the play's words,45 each of which summons a bewildering range of possible causes—compositorial or scribal error, authorial revision, theatrical adaptation, fallible memory, posthumous editorial intervention—that contaminates the distinct identity of the play's two principal texts.

In 3.1, for example, the little Duke of York asks his Uncle Richard for his sword. ‘What, would you haue my Weapon, little Lord?’ ‘I would’, replies York, ‘that I might thanke you, as, as, you call me’ (3.1, 104-5). The repetition (‘as, as,’) is an obvious slip (or ‘dittography’ as the jargon has it)—at first glance by the Folio compositor, since Q1 corrects the inadvertent stutter: ‘I would, that I might thanke you as you call me’. Further examination, however, traces the source of the blunder to Q3 (1602), which uniquely gives ‘I would that I might thanke you as as you call me’. The odds against two separate compositors (in 1602 and 1623) making an identical error in the same line are enormous (which in part explains why scholars identify Q3 as the partial ‘copy-text’ for F); furthermore, ‘the commas inserted by the F compositor suggest he was setting what he saw and perhaps trying to make sense of it through punctuation.’46 At least on this occasion, then, the Folio presents to its readers a third-hand version (at the very least) of Shakespeare's manuscript original.47

All of which is to assume, of course, that Shakespeare's manuscript original is the ideal to which the play's editors, following in the footsteps of Heminge and Condell, must aspire. That assumption is far from safe. We have already noted, for example, that one of its most famous exchanges (the ‘clock dialogue’) may have been added to that script as an afterthought; and that, despite their ‘pretty rhetoric’,48 the eighty-odd lines that seem to have been cut from F's version of 4.4 may reasonably be considered superfluous, their removal streamlining the scene's pace and energy. The same might also be said for some of the pruning and conflation of the play's originally huge cast-list, that seems to have been effected in advance of the company's provincial tour of 1597.49 Such opinions remain a matter of subjective taste; but the same cannot be said for the terms in which Richard seeks forgiveness of the assembled company in 2.1:

Of you and you, Lord Riuers and of Dorset,
That all without desert haue frown'd on me:
Of you Lord Wooduill, and Lord Scales of you,
Dukes, Earles, Lords, Gentlemen, indeed of all.

(2.1, pp. 72-3)

The third line here is unique to our Folio sample page; rather embarrassingly so, in fact, as cross-reference to one of Shakespeare's chronicle sources confirms: ‘The governaunce of this younge Prince was committed too lord Antony Woodvile earle Ryvers and lorde Scales,’ reads Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble … Families of Lancastre and Yorke (1550), ‘brother to the quene, a wise, hardy and honourable personage’.50 Shakespeare, in the creative flush of his youthful inspiration, seems not to have noticed the second part of this sentence: for Anthony Woodville (1442-83) was both Earl Rivers and Baron Scales. To restore the ‘authentic’ and ‘original’ text is in this case to restore a schoolboy ‘howler’. ‘We learn from Horace, “Homer sometimes sleeps”’:51 it is perhaps reassuring to discover, from the text of Richard III that was typeset from his manuscript, that Shakespeare, too, occasionally snores.52

Around midway through Richard III sits a short little scene (3.6, pp. 134-5), often cut in performance, that suddenly features an anonymous and entirely fictional character: the Scrivener. Scriveners were professional copyists of formal documents, and this particular member of the trade enters (according to the play's first Quarto) ‘with a paper in his hand’—‘the indictment of the good Lord Hastings / Which in a set hand fairly is engross'd’. But matters are not quite as they seem. For the Scrivener tells us he has spent the last eleven hours transcribing into his specialist calligraphy the terms of Hastings's capital impeachment, in readiness for its public proclamation (‘That it may be today read o'er in Paul's’); and the finalized text he has worked from must itself have taken at least another eleven hours to prepare (‘The precedent was full as long a-doing’), and yet—

And yet within these five hours Hastings liv'd,
Untainted, unexamin'd, free, at liberty.
Here's a good world the while!

The document publicly announcing Hastings's indictment, conviction, and execution has (in other words) been drafted, authorized, and copied before any legal processes have been instigated against him.

The Scrivener's account of this topsy-turvy chronology is profoundly acute, both as a grimly enduring meditation on the nature of totalitarianism, and as a disarming interrogation of the ‘truth’ of history.53 But he is also perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for the textual chronology of the play itself: just as his account of Hastings's execution precedes that man's trial, so the 1623 Folio text of Richard III largely pre-dates the material published in Quarto a quarter-century before.

It has been well observed that the Scrivener's soliloquy—the first and last we hear of him—amounts to fourteen lines, the last two of which rhyme: ‘a quasi-sonnet’, Janis Lull calls it, marking out its speaker as ‘a bookish, thoughtful person’.54 Such a person, perhaps, as William Shakespeare, some of whose own Sonnets may date from the same period.55 Recent computerized research has advanced the theory that Shakespeare originally played the part himself.56 If so, the ‘paper in his hand’ closely resembles the Folio text of Richard III, simultaneously the play's earliest and latest authoritative version. That script, ‘in a set hand … fairly engross'd’, is the version reproduced in the following pages.


Richard III is a play devoted to what a recent editor calls ‘repetition-with-variation’—the serial mimicries and serial crimes of its protagonist, the Edwards, Richards, and Henrys of its bewildering dynasties, and the numbing rhetorical method of its verse:57

I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
I had a husband, till a Richard kill'd him.
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him.

(4.4, pp. 172-3)

The two names, recited by one former Queen of England to another, refer to four different people: Edward, Prince of Wales (the murdered son of Henry VI); Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York (the sons of Edward IV—the Princes murdered in the Tower); and—of course—Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the son of Richard, Duke of York, and subsequently Richard III (the murderer in question). Shakespeare seems to have built such potential confusions about names into the texture of his play: the Quarto even goes to the trouble of providing a surname for the Pursuivant with whom Lord Hastings converses at 3.2 (pp. 116-17): he is called Hastings.58 The principle of repetition-with-variation extends to the play's own texts.

It is the duty of an editor of the Folio play both to clarify its action and negotiate that tangled relationship with its Quarto forebears. The constant policy of our modernized parallel editions is to let the Folio speak for itself whenever it speaks sense. The procedural guidelines of our necessary intercessions are listed in our Series Introduction above, pp. xvii-xxi; such is the variously complicated nature of Richard III, however, that a further set of editorial procedures has been adopted that requires explanation here.

The first of these concerns our introduction of consistent speech-prefixes (‘SPs’). To take the obvious example, in the Folio Richard himself usually speaks as ‘Rich[ard]’, but sporadically does so as ‘Glo[ucester]’ in 3.1, and as ‘King’ in 5.3. (This is because those passages were apparently set directly from Quarto copy, where he is Gloucester until his coronation, and King thereafter.) In fact, many of the play's characters are referred to by more than one name. Richard's opening soliloquy, for instance, explains that he has engineered Clarence's imprisonment by convincing Edward of ‘a prophecy which says that “G” / Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be’ (1.1, pp. 4-5): ‘G’ is for ‘George’, the Duke of Clarence's first name. Other characters come to share the same title or rank in the course of the play: it features five successive Kings of England, three successive Queens, and the ghosts of two Princes of Wales.

We have already commented on Shakespeare's inadvertent creation of those phantom figures ‘Lord Woodville’ and ‘Lord Scales’; similar confusions elsewhere punctuate the Folio apparatus. Queen Elizabeth, for example, the wife of Edward IV, makes her first entrance as ‘the Queene Mother’ (1.3, pp. 30-31), a rank (the sovereign's widowed mother) to which she is not entitled until Edward's death, and which she then only holds until her son, the uncrowned Edward V, is murdered in the Tower. By the same token, an unwary reader of the Folio might come away with the impression that Lord Stanley and the Earl of Derby are two separate characters, since the lines properly belonging to Thomas, Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby are evenly distributed, in both Q and F, between ‘Stanley’ and ‘Derby’.

Our modernized edition seeks to avoid such pitfalls by referring to a character's name rather than their rank (Lady Anne, later Duchess of Gloucester and later still Queen, is Anne throughout); or by shortened forms of their title, when those titles remain unchanged through the play (Clarence, Buckingham, Dorset, Grey, Stanley, Hastings, Richmond). One further explanation should be made. Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, retains her title throughout the play, and the Folio's SPs consistently refer to her as Dut[chesse]’. Since the play's Duke of York (‘York’, as we call him) is the Duchess's grandchild, and since Anne is briefly Duchess of Gloucester, we have decided to forestall confusion by affording her the same courtesy as we extend to Margaret, Elizabeth, and Anne by calling her by her proper historical name, Cicely, despite the fact that Shakespeare nowhere calls her by that name. The editorial imposition is justified, we feel, since our modernized edition runs in parallel to a scrupulous reproduction of the Folio text itself.

In a further bid to clarify the complications of the play's action, we have also compiled a pedigree of its royal family, above, that is designed to complement the conventional dramatis personae we provide on p. lv. This ‘family tree’ uses capitals to designate the form in which the character appears in the apparatus of our modern edition: ‘George, Duke of CLARENCE (later his GHOST)’; normal lettering to indicate those characters to which others refer during the course of the play: ‘Richard, Duke of York’; and square brackets to indicate extraneous but explanatory figures: ‘[Edmund Tudor]’.

As we have discovered, however, the textual genealogy of Richard III is no less complicated than Richard III's dynastic ambition within it. It is therefore also necessary to explain the measures we have taken in our modern edition of the Folio to accommodate its (often substantial) departure from the play's Quarto version. The most immediate difference between those two texts may be seen in the series of passages that are unique to one or other of them—the various result of the play's composition, rehearsal, revision, and adaptation. We have therefore extended our system of Textual Notes to include full reference to those sequences where Q provides substantially unique material—most notably the so-called ‘clock dialogue’ at 4.2, discussed above. On the other hand, F includes a full series of passages that are unique to it, and so, rather than troubling our readers with further end-notes, our modern edition discreetly encloses those lines within angle-brackets—‘‹Brief abstract and recòrd of tedious days,›’ (4.4, pp. 172-3). These marks may variously represent a conscious deletion, a revised insertion, or a mistaken omission; scholarly consensus is thin on the ground, however, and we prefer to flag this ‘extra’ material to our readers in as simple a form as possible, inviting them to ponder (should they wish to) the possible reasons for the lines' unique status. (Further comment is occasionally made, however, via our Textual Notes.)

Finally, a word should be said about two particular sequences. As we have already explained, two sections of the Folio play seem to have been set from a late Quarto with none of the usually careful cross-reference to and correction from Shakespeare's manuscript copy (see p. xlviii, n.47 below). So while it remains our policy to signal by a Textual Note every substantial discrepancy between our Folio reproduction and its parallel edition, it is sometimes the case that we silently ‘correct’ an F-reading from Q1, even when that reading makes an independent sense. At 3.1, for example, the young Prince asks his uncle where he and his brother should stay ‘till our coronation’. ‘Where it think'st best vnto your Royall selfe,’ he replies in F, as he also does in Q3-Q6. In Q1-2, however, the line begins, ‘Where it seems best’ (my emphasis). It is intrinsically unlikely that Shakespeare's authoritative manuscript would have duplicated this change independently of the ‘contamination’ inevitably arising from the Quartos' successive reprintings from each other. And since these Folio sequences seem not to have been checked against that original manuscript (which is why it is ‘Glo[ucester]’ rather than ‘Rich[ard]’ who speaks the line here), it is indeed ‘particularly tempting’ to treat such variants as unwanted corruptions, as Janis Lull admits in her 1999 modernized edition of the Folio text.59 We have decided, however, to make the best of both worlds, and allow our readers to make up their own minds. Since the Folio text is scrupulously reproduced on the right-hand side of our page-spreads (a luxury denied to Lull's edition), we think it is both judicious and appropriate to balance that text with a modernized version more than usually indebted to Q1, from which F may very well have mistakenly deviated. This policy only extends to the two sequences that seem not to have been checked against Shakespeare's originating manuscript.

A summary of the editorial procedures we have followed in preparing our parallel editions may be found at the end of this introduction, p. 1.

The theatre is one of the few professions to have retained a sense of dynasty. It is appropriate that Shakespeare's Richard III, with all its impersonations, genealogies, and ghosts, should have so often embodied a sense of direct theatrical inheritance—sometimes literally so. In the nineteenth century, for example, the principal rôle passed from father to son—from Junius Brutus Booth (New York debut, 1821) to his son Edwin (London debut, 1878),60 from Edmund Kean (Drury Lane, 1814) to his son Charles (Drury Lane, 1838). Henry Irving wore Edmund Kean's sword during his first performance as Richard in 1873, the same sword as was later presented to Laurence Olivier on the stage of his production in 1944 (a production and film that, remarkably, included additional material first inserted into Shakespeare's text by the actor-dramatist Colley Cibber in 1700).61 Ian McKellen's performance in the part on 14 June 1991 (four hundred years after Shakespeare had first conceived the play) featured an unlooked-for curtain-call:62 standing hand-in-hand with the youngest member of the cast (the little Duke of York) to his left, and the oldest (Queen Margaret) to his right, McKellen announced the death of Peggy Ashcroft—herself a celebrated Queen Margaret in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Wars of the Roses (1964). The following parallel text of Richard III aims to provide a similar bridge across the generations.


  1. The Music of Lennon & McCartney (Granada TV), broadcast 17 December 1965 (Mark Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Chronicle (Pyramid Books, 1992), p. 204).

  2. Jack Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington, Indiana, 1977), p. 142.

  3. King Richard III, ed. Janis Lull (Cambridge, 1999), p. 41. This introduction, and our parallel texts themselves, are particularly indebted to four recent modern-spelling editions of Richard III. Antony Hammond's Arden edition (1981) provides a thorough ‘conflated’ text, based on the Folio (‘F’), but incorporating material unique both to it and the 1597 First Quarto (‘Q1’). John Jowett's authoritative Oxford edition (2000) is based on Q1—what he calls the ‘performance text’ (p. 129)—and relegates to an appendix those passages that are unique to the Folio. Peter Davison's 1996 and Janis Lull's 1999 editions for the New Cambridge Shakespeare series respectively treat Q1 and F Richard III as fully independent plays.

  4. Anthony Holden, Olivier (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), p. 192.

  5. See Roger Lewis, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (Century Books, 1994), p. 231, which airs the view that Sellers wore ‘Olivier's actual Richard III wig’ for a still photograph in the rôle taken in around 1958. ‘It is hard to credit it isn't Olivier,’ comments Lewis.

  6. The Tragedy of Richard III, ed. John Jowett (Oxford, 2000), p. 1.

  7. Raphael Holinshed, The First and Second Volumes of Chronicles (2nd edition, 1587), quoted in Richard III, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (1968, rev. ed. 1995), p. 9.

  8. Richard III, ed. Jowett, p. 94, n. 2.

  9. Holden, Olivier, p. 286.

  10. Olivier recalled that Harris ‘transformed himself, like a chameleon, into the most hurtful, arrogant, venomous little fiend that anyone could meet’ (Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor (Hodder and Stoughton, 1983), p. 100). On Disney's shared inspiration, see Holden, Olivier, p. 78.

  11. Holden, Olivier, p. 193. Hitler—and Nazism in general—continue to influence productions of the play. See Antony Sher, Year of the King: An Actor's Diary and Sketchbook (Metheun, 1985), pp. 106-8; and Ian McKellen's Richard III (dir. Richard Loncraine, 1996).

  12. Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston, Eastward Ho!, ed. C. G. Petter (New Mermaids, 1973), 3.4 (p. 67). The same play superbly features the tiny rôle of a nervous footman called Hamlet, who is interrupted in his duties by the immortal question, ‘'Sfoot, Hamlet, are you mad?’ (3.2, p. 47).

  13. ‘A man! A man! A kingdom for a man!’: see Richard III, ed. Jowett, p. 81.

  14. The First Quarto of Hamlet (1603) advertises on its title-page its recent performances ‘in the two Vniuersities of Cambridge and Oxford’.

  15. The Three Parnassus Plays (1598-1601), ed. J. B. Leishman (Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1949), p. 343 (lines 1835-41).

  16. E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, 2 vols (Oxford, 1930), 2, 212 (modernized text). It was John Manningham—a law student at the Middle Temple in London—who recorded the anecdote, which he heard from his room-mate Edward Curle. Manningham's interest in such lubricious backstage gossip may have been pricked by his enjoyment of the same author's Twelfth Night a month or so before, recorded in the same diary.

  17. Burbage's name was synonymous with Richard III's as late as 1647, according to a travel-guide to England published that year (see Richard III, ed. Jowett, p. 81).

  18. Q2 (1598). Two other Quartos printed that year (Love's Labour's Lost and Richard II) also advertised Shakespeare's name on their title-pages.

  19. Q1 (1597), Q2 (1598), Q3 (1602), Q4 (1605), Q5 (1612), and Q6 (1622). Two further individual Quarto editions were issued after the Folio, namely Q7 (1629) and Q8 (1634).

  20. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (1966) (‘Collector's Edition’), (n.d., Columbia 480417-2, sleeve copy). It might be added that eyebrows were raised in the same highbrow quarters at such monuments to ‘pop ephemera’ as once deprecated Ben Jonson's inclusion of his plays (of all things) in his 1616 Workes: Folios of ‘Complete Works’ more properly belonged to Classical scholarship than vulgar Bankside entertainments; musical boxed sets more properly to opera than pop.

  21. Their inclusion of an authoritative text of Edward III (Q1 1596), between King John and Richard II, might have perfected that editorial scheme.

  22. Technically speaking, the First Folio is a ‘folio in sixes’, by which three sheets of paper, folded once (<<<), were bound into a single three-sheet, six-page, twelve-sided ‘quire’ (or ‘signature’). This ‘quire’ was identified by a letter of the alphabet (e.g. ‘M’), whose pages were numbered from 1-6 (e.g. ‘M4’), the two sides of which are known as the ‘recto’ (on the right-hand side of the page-spread: ‘M4r’) and the ‘verso’ (on the reverse of that page: ‘M4v’). When the letters of the alphabet were exhausted, successive quires used variants such as lower-case letters (‘h5r’), and double letters (‘bb6v’).

  23. For a summary of the chronology of 1 Henry VI, see The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, gen. ed. Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (Oxford, 2001), pp. 200-201. A performance at the Rose of the play is thought to be the ‘harey the 6’ recorded in Henslowe's Diary for 16 January 1593, reproduced on the cover of this edition.

  24. The 1863-6 editors W. G. Clark, J. Glover, and W. A. Wright, quoted in Richard III, ed. Hammond, p. 1.

  25. See Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957-75), 3, 237-40. The influence was probably a negative one, since Shakespeare may have deliberately avoided treating certain events dramatized there, such as the on-stage murder of the Princes. Hamlet misquotes one of the play's lines (‘The screeking Raven sits croking for revenge’) during the play-scene: ‘Come: “The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.”’ (3.2).

  26. Shakespeare's longest play turned out to be the Second Quarto of Hamlet.

  27. For a fascinating analysis of Shakespeare ‘hedging his bets’, see Richard III, ed. Jowett, pp. 6-8.

  28. See Charles Nicholl, A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 242-56.

  29. Documents of the Rose Playhouse, ed. Carol Chillington Rutter (2nd edition, Revels, 1999), pp. 121-4.

  30. For an exhaustive account, see The First Quarto of Richard III, ed. Davison, pp. 38-46.

  31. The scholarly consensus assumes that Shakespeare himself was for some reason absent from the 1597 tour—else why should he not have challenged the wording of the occasionally mangled text his fellows recited?

  32. Richard III, ed. Jowett, pp. 112-15.

  33. Richard III, ed. Hammond, pp. 30-32.

  34. All Quarto editions describe it as a Tragedy, and it was under this grouping that Francis Meres praised the play in his literary survey Palladis Tamia (1598).

  35. See Much Ado About Nothing, ed. A. R. Humphreys (Arden, 1981), pp. 80-84.

  36. As many as eight (perhaps nine) separate compositors are thought to have worked on typesetting the First Folio. They are known to scholarship by the initial letters A to H (or I), and distinguished by the distinct characteristics of their work. The most prominent members of this team, Compositors ‘A’ and ‘B’, worked on Richard III. It has been argued that while ‘A’ had a propensity for misreading the copy he was setting, ‘B’ had a ‘greater liability to carelessness’: see King Henry V, ed. T. W. Craik (Arden, 1995), p. 106, n.1. See also Peter Blayney's Introduction to the second edition of Hinman's Norton Facsimile (1996), pp. xxxiv-xxxvii.

  37. The Classical five-act structure may also have found renewed purpose when adult companies began regular performances at indoor theatres, around 1607, so that candles might be conveniently trimmed or replaced between the acts.

  38. Richard III, ed. Hammond, p. 183

  39. For a useful summary, see Richard III, ed. Hammond, pp. 334-5.

  40. Richard III, ed. Hammond, p. 14.

  41. Richard III, ed. Jowett, p. 120.

  42. Richard III, ed. Hammond, p. 14.

  43. See, for example, Richard III, ed. Hammond, pp. 333-4.

  44. Richard III, ed. Jowett, p. 201.

  45. Richard III, ed. Davison, p. 1.

  46. Richard III, ed. Lull, p. 214.

  47. Two sections of the Folio play seem for some reason to have been typeset from Q3 without corrective cross-reference to that manuscript: all but the last 36 lines of 3.1 (pp. 96-106: to ‘In the seat royal of this famous isle?’); and much of Act Five, from Catesby's ‘It's supper time, my lord, it's nine o'clock’ (5.3, pp. 212-13) to the end of the play.

  48. Richard III, ed. Hammond, p. 14.

  49. As when, for example, the Quarto conflates the Folio rôles of the Keeper of the Tower and its Lieutenant, Sir Robert Brakenbury (1.4); or those of the Archbishop of York (2.4) and Cardinal Bourchier (3.1). Lovell, the Sheriff, Surrey, Oxford, and Herbert are all parts unique to F. It is probably for the same logistical reasons that the Ghosts of Richard's victims appear ‘out of sequence’ in Q1. See Richard III, ed. Davison, pp. 27-9, and Textual Notes 27, 58, 66, 88, 92, and 93 below.

  50. Narrative and Dramatic Sources, ed. Bullough, 3, 255. See Richard III, ed. Hammond, pp. 17-18.

  51. Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto III, Stanza 98. The reference is to Horace, Ars Poetica (‘Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus’), translated by Ben Jonson as ‘Sometimes, I hear good Homer snore’ (Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (Penguin, 1975), p. 368, line 536).

  52. Shakespeare was repeatedly bested by this family's genealogy: his play contains a series of references to Queen Elizabeth's ‘brothers’ (plural), though Rivers (alias Woodville alias Scales) is the only member of her family to be so addressed. The Marquess of Dorset is referred to as her son, but the exact identity of Lord Grey is left rather vague. For a further inadvertent blunder, see Textual Note 98 below. On the preferred form of the title of ‘Marquess’ (as opposed to ‘Marquis’), see The Complete Peerage … of Great Britain, ed. V. Gibbs and H. A. Doubleday, vol. 5 (1926), pp. 798-9.

  53. See for example Richard III, ed. Honigmann, pp. 15-16; Richard III, ed. Jowett, pp. 53-60.

  54. Richard III, ed. Lull, p.141.

  55. Edward III (c. 1591-4) includes a scene that dramatizes the composition of love-poetry, and contains a line verbatim with Sonnet 94: ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds’. See Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Arden, 1997), pp. 13-18; and King Edward III, ed. Giorgio Melchiori (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 3-9.

  56. The theory derives from the ‘Shaxicon 2.0’ project: Richard III, ed. Davison, pp. 15-18. It is tempting to compare Shakespeare's (debatable) cameo rôle with the discreet self-portraits that Renaissance artists often included within crowd scenes. The Scrivener's ‘quasi-sonnet’ perhaps most strongly resembles the tiny, central reflection of the painter himself in Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage (painted 1434).

  57. Richard III, ed. Lull, p. 22; see also Richard III, ed. Jowett, p. 66.

  58. See Textual Note 53 below.

  59. Richard III, ed. Lull, p. 42.

  60. See Alice I. Perry Wood, The Stage History of Shakespeare's ‘King Richard the Third’ (Columbia, New York, 1909), pp. 152-9. John Wilkes Booth was another of J. B. Booth's sons: he ‘played Richard with all the ferocity of his father’ (p. 164), but found immortal fame by assassinating Abraham Lincoln.

  61. Jonathan Croall, Gielgud: A Theatrical Life (Methuen, 2000), p. 322. The non-Shakespearean elements by Cibber that Olivier retained include Richard's response to Catesby's news that Buckingham ‘is taken’ (4.4, pp. 202-3): ‘Off with his head! So much for Buckingham’; and his later exclamation, ‘Conscience, avaunt! Richard's himself again’, replacing Shakespeare's ‘Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law’ (5.3, pp. 230-1). See Richard III, ed. Honigmann, pp. 44-5, and Richard III, ed. Jowett, p. 95.

  62. The present author was in the audience on this occasion; the precise details are therefore subject to the fallibility of his memory.

Authorities Cited

Q1: The Tragedy of King Richard the third. Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittieful murther of his iunocent nephewes: his tyrannicall vsurpation: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserued death (1597)

Q2: The Tragedie of King Richard the third … By William Shakespeare (1598)

Q3: The Tragedie of King Richard the third (1602)

Q4: The Tragedie of King Richard the third (1605)

Q5: The Tragedie of King Richard the third (1612)

Q6: The Tragedie of King Richard the third (1622)

F: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies [The First Folio] (1623)

F2: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies [The Second Folio] (1632)

F4: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies [The Fourth Folio] (1685)

Rowe: The Works of Mr. William Shakespear, ed. Nicholas Rowe, 6 vols (London, 1709)

Pope: The Works of Shakespear. Collated and corrected by the former editions, ed. Alexander Pope, 6 vols (London, 1723-5)

Theobald: The Works of Shakespeare. Collated with the oldest copies and corrected, ed. Lewis Theobald, 7 vols (London, 1733)

Hanmer: The Works of Shakespear, ed. Thomas Hanmer, 6 vols (Oxford, 1743-5)

Heath: Benjamin Heath, A revisal of Shakespear's text, wherein the alterations introduced into it … are considered (London, 1765)

Johnson: The Plays of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Johnson, 8 vols (London, 1765)

Capell: Mr William Shakespeare his Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, ed. Edward Capell, 10 vols (London, 1767-8)

Steevens: The Plays of William Shakespeare … with … Notes by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, 10 vols (London, 1773)

Rann: The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, ed. Joseph Rann, 6 vols (Oxford, 1786-94)

Malone: The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. Edmond Malone, 10 vols (London, 1790)

White: The Works of William Shakespeare. The plays edited from the folio of MDCXXIII, ed. Richard Grant White (Boston, 1857-66)

W. S. Walker: W. S. Walker, A Critical Examination of the Text of Shakespeare, ed. W. N. Lettsom, 3 vols (London, 1860)

Clark & Wright: The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. William George Clark, John Glover, and William Aldis Knight, 9 vols (Cambridge and London, 1863-6)

Furness: The Tragedy of Richard the Third, ed. H. H. Furness (New Variorum edition, Philadelphia, 1908)

Patrick: David Lyall Patrick, The Textual History of ‘Richard III’ (Stanford, 1936)

Alexander: The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (Collins, 1951)

Alice Walker: Alice Walker, Textual Problems of the First Folio (Cambridge, 1953)

Wilson: Richard III, ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge, 1954)

Honigmann: King Richard the Third, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (Penguin, 1968; rev. ed., 1995)

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

Taylor: Gary Taylor, ‘Humfrey Hower’, Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982), 95-7

Oxford: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1986)

Textual Companion: Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, etc., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford, 1987)

Davison: The First Quarto of King Richard III, ed. Peter Davison (Cambridge, 1996)

Lull: King Richard III, ed. Janis Lull (Cambridge, 1999)

Jowett: The Tragedy of King Richard III, ed. John Jowett (Oxford, 2000)

Marie A. Plasse (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5153

SOURCE: Plasse, Marie A. “Corporeality and the Opening of Richard III.” In Entering the Maze: Shakespeare's Art of Beginning, edited by Robert F. Willson Jr., pp. 11-25. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

[In the following essay, Plasse argues that Richard uses his malformed body as an excuse to behave wickedly.]

The opening scene of Richard III, unique among Shakespeare's plays in its call for the leading character to appear onstage alone and deliver a lengthy monologue, represents a marked departure from the crowded scenes that open the other three plays in the first tetralogy. Next to the heavily populated and eventful scenes with which those plays begin,1 the opening of Richard III seems remarkably stark. The expansive representation of historical events offered in the first scenes of the Henry VI plays is replaced in Richard III by a more narrowly focused representation of a single figure into which the scope of English history seems to compact itself. As Bernard Spivack has noted, this shift in perspective is discernible in the Henry series, but is not fully achieved until Richard III:

By the end of Henry VI Richard has only begun to emerge from the press of men and events which diversifies that trilogy, although we become aware that already he has magnetized a change in dramatic perspective: the mural of national history in a succession of panels, its large population crowding through multiple phases of war and politics, by degrees surrenders foreground and focus to his looming portrait. In Richard III this portrait monopolizes the canvas. …


The first bold strokes of this “looming portrait” in Act 1, Scene 1 of Richard III are crucial in that they both foreground Richard's deformed body as a compelling stage presence and inaugurate the play's characteristic mode of representing in corporeal images and references Richard's impressive power over people and events. As has often been noted, this first scene offers both a highly effective introduction to the play's leading character and political themes as well as an irresistible opportunity for crowd-pleasing showmanship on the part of the actor who plays Richard. But this first scene should also be recognized as the initial iteration of an important pattern in the play which, by systematically thematizing corporeality and dramatizing the manipulation and destruction of bodies, represents the growth and ascendancy of Richard's power. In what follows, I want first to suggest some of the special features and effects of Richard's physical presence in the opening scene and then examine several other scenes to show how the thematization of the body which Richard performs in Act 1, Scene 1 operates beyond the opening moments of the play.

Every play necessarily depends on the corporeal medium of the actors' bodies to hold the audience's interest and to make meaning. As Michael Goldman has aptly observed, “An actor's profession and desire are to interest people with his body … Our response to what the actor does with his body, to the strains that are put upon it and the graces it reveals, are very strong components of our response to the play as a whole” (4). The actor who plays Richard, however, inherits an extra charge of corporeal affect by virtue of the preconceptions his audience is likely to harbor about the body of the character. Long before Shakespeare's Richard went onstage, the image of Richard as an evil, misshapen monster was firmly established in the popular imagination. Owing chiefly to Sir Thomas More's portrait of Richard as “little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, crokebacked, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard fauored of visage … malicious, wrathfull, enuious … a deepe dissumuler … not letting to kisse whom hee thought to kill” (7-8), a characterization later incorporated into chronicles by Hall, Holinshed, and others, Richard's physical deformity had gained considerable notoriety by the time Shakespeare's version of him appeared. It seems likely, therefore, that many members of Shakespeare's audience would have been predisposed to pay particular attention to Richard's physical presence and to anticipate with interest the theatrical representation of his legendary deformity. What would this notorious monster look like? Sound like? What would he do?

Modern audiences, too, are likely to approach this play with preconceptions about Richard which dispose them to fix their attention on his body. The stockpile of facts, legends, and images which furnishes modern theatergoers with their vision of the character is, if anything, even larger than that from which Shakespeare's audience might have culled its notion of Richard. The ideas available for us to bring to the play include not only the legend of Richard's deformity and some knowledge of Shakespeare's sources, but also some past experience, however vague, with Shakespeare's play itself, and any number of different performances of the role, parodies, and passing references to Richard in countless other texts.

The dramaturgy of Act 1, Scene 1 of Richard III suggests a playwright keenly aware of and prepared to exploit his audience's preset attention to the body of the leading character by putting Richard onstage alone and giving him a forty-line speech. Simply by virtue of the amount of time required for their performance, Richard's entrance and speech virtually guarantee several moments of sustained attention from the audience, certainly enough time for Richard's physical presence to register strongly. The performance history of the play also suggests that the corporeal energies which inhere in Richard's first moments onstage are strong enough to have preoccupied actors and audiences for several centuries.2 In addition, the fact that Richard speaks as a prologue here, filling in past action, describing the present situation, and setting the play in motion with a frank declaration of villainous intent, would also compel the audience to be especially attentive. Richard offers information that they need as they begin to focus on the world of the play unfolding.

As the prologue gives way to soliloquy at line 14, Richard's explicit references to his body reinforce the emphasis on his physical presence fostered through the staging and strengthen whatever resonances of Richard's legendary deformity may be at play in the minds of the spectators:3

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,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.


In addition to highlighting Richard's corporeal self and alerting the audience to the thread of the plot, these lines perform another important inaugural function in the play in that they present Richard as a moralizer of his own deformities. When, after describing his misshapen body, Richard goes on, with a definitive but sophistic “therefore,” to explain his villainous intentions, he encourages us to believe that there is a causal relationship between his deformities and his wickedness. In his illogical appropriation of physical deformity as cause for his treachery, a fallacy that was commonplace in contemporary moralizations of deformity,4 Richard designates his body as an outward sign of his moral depravity. In so doing, he also establishes himself as a self-conscious manipulator of corporeal signs. This ability to recognize powerful corporeal signs and to influence the way others construe them is central to Richard's treacherous rise to the throne.

As the plot swings into action after Richard's opening monologue, incidents gradually accumulate which develop and complicate the foregrounding of the body and of corporeal signs executed in Act 1, Scene 1. Richard's clever, calculated attacks on those who block his path to the throne, for example, are repeatedly registered through an emphasis on corporeal images, both in the language and in the staging of the play. Although Richard's subtle capacity to outwit his opponents is presented as formidable and his psychological insights acute, the full measure of his power is most impressively conveyed in his relentless pursuit of and control over the bodies of his foes. Unlike Iago, another self-conscious, ambitious villain, Richard, for the most part, is not particularly interested in toying with his victims, leading them to destruction through repeated encounters, insinuations, and exhortations which occur over a long period of time. Richard's style, by and large, is much more precipitous and direct. His characteristic method of controlling and defeating his enemies is to remove them bodily from the public sphere in which he so effectively “bustles.” He knocks his foes out of action by imprisoning them, one after the other, like so many forfeited chess pieces. Gradually, the body count grows.

Richard's conversation with “the new-deliver'd Hastings” in Act 1, Scene 1, immediately after we see Clarence led away to prison, lingers suggestively over Hastings' recent incarceration:

Good time of day unto my gracious lord.
As much unto my good Lord Chamberlain:
Well are you welcome to the open air.
How hath your lordship brook'd imprisoment?
With patience, noble lord, as prisoners must;
But I shall live, my lord, to give them thanks
That were the cause of my imprisonment.
No doubt, no doubt; and so shall Clarence too:
For they that were your enemies are his,
And have prevail'd as much on him, as you.
More pity that the eagles should be mew'd
While kites and buzzards prey at liberty.


This exchange suggests that the risk of imprisonment is a common danger in the factionalized world which Richard and Hastings inhabit. But as the number of bodies consigned to prison at Richard's behest grows, their imprisonment also becomes a sign of Richard's increasing command over that world: in Act 2, Scene 4 we hear that he has sent Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan to Pomfret; in Act 3 he sequesters the young Duke of York and young Prince Edward in the Tower; in Act 4 he orders his queen to “keep close” in her chamber as he spreads rumors of her sickness and impending death, and he arranges to have Clarence's son “pent up close” (4.3.36).

Once he removes enemies from his path by imprisoning them, Richard eventually arranges for their murders or executions. Such action is, like imprisonment, a common move for Shakespearean villains and power-seekers who wish to eradicate their foes. But the play's sustained attention to the physical details of Clarence's murder (l.4), the pathos of Tyrrel's slaughter of the Princes in the Tower (4.3), and the repeated references to beheadings feared, defied, threatened, and accomplished (3.1.193; 3.2.41; 3.2.69; 3.2.89; 3.4.38; 3.4.76; 3.4.96; 3.4.106; 4.3.122; 3.5.22ff.) all characterize Richard's climb to power as a reign of terror over the bodies of his enemies. These aggressive moves against the bodies of his foes resonate strongly with the forceful corporeal effect of Richard's first appearance onstage. They are integral features of Richard's body-centered modus operandi.

Richard's habit of incarcerating his enemies and having them killed comes into better focus as part of a systematic deployment of corporeal references and images representing the fact and the mode of Richard's ascendancy when seen alongside several other successful stratagems through which Richard consolidates his power. Each of these victories depends on Richard's ability to manipulate the force and meaning of his own body. Richard's startling strike against Hastings during the strawberry council scene (Act 3, Scene 4) is a case in point. Having withdrawn with Buckingham from the council chamber at line 41, Richard re-enters around line 59 in an agitated state, asking those assembled to “tell me what they deserve / That do conspire my death with devilish plots / Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail'd / Upon my body with their hellish charms?” (59-62). When Hastings, who takes this question seriously, answers that “they” deserve death, Richard holds up his withered arm and accuses Edward's wife and Mistress Shore of bewitching him: “See how I am bewitched! Behold, mine arm / Is like a blasted sapling wither'd up! / And this is Edward's wife, that monstrous witch, / Consorted with that harlot, strumpet Shore, / That by their witchcraft thus have marked me” (3.4.68-72).

Richard's invocation of the deforming effects of witchcraft and his display of his withered arm seem to accord him an uncanny power here. Even though the assembled lords must know that Hastings is being set up, no one protests the trumped up charge against him. They seem paralyzed. Richard's control over this event stems not only from the velocity of his surprise attack, but also from the contradictory and confusing messages his words and gestures send in the scene. Ostensibly, Richard plays the innocent victim of “damned witchcraft,” displaying his deformed limb as a sign of evil done to him by others. In so doing, he seems to be giving up the power he claims at the beginning of the play, where, in his opening monologue, he identifies his physical defects as the source of his own wickedness. At the same time, however, as he brandishes his deformed arm, shouts about witchcraft, and precipitously condemns Hastings, Richard retains the aura of deadly aggressiveness which many previous readings of his body have projected in the play.5 By playing both victim and aggressor here, and by using his deformed arm to project both roles, Richard seems to “moralize two meanings” in one body. This doubleness allows him to exercise enormous power in the scene while seeming to give it up. As Richard flashes these contradictory messages, potential opposition is effectively neutralized.

Richard's winning over of the Lord Mayor and the citizens in Act 3, Scene 7 also depends, in part, on his control over how others understand his body. Working through his mouthpiece Buckingham, Richard spreads rumors challenging the legitimacy of his brother Edward and Edward's children in order to block their claim to the throne. Buckingham tells the citizens that Edward's bastardy can be confirmed by the fact that he does not physically resemble his father, while, on the other hand, Richard's rightful claim to the throne is signalled by his being the “right idea of [their] father, / Both in … form and nobleness of mind” (3.7.13-14). Richard's complicated seduction of the citizenry is based, in part, on the notion that he should be king because he looks like he should be king.

The most striking demonstration of Richard's power to manipulate bodies to his advantage, however, comes in Act 1, Scene 2, when he interrupts Lady Anne's lamentations over the corpse of Henry VI in order to carry out his plan to woo her. The success of Richard's wooing of Anne depends on, among other things, several moves by which he skillfully dissolves the connections that Anne seeks to enforce between Richard's corporeal self and Henry's murdered body—connections which, for a time, seem to ward off Richard's advances.

Although she is ultimately won over by Richard's relentless arguments, petitions, and posturings, Anne is an aggressive opponent at the outset. She answers Richard's pious request, “Sweet saint; for charity be not so curst,” with a vehement diatribe against his crimes:

Foul devil, for God's sake hence, and trouble us not;
For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell,
Fill'd it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.
If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.
O gentlemen! See, see dead Henry's wounds
Open their congeal'd mouths and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,
For 'tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells.
Thy deed inhuman and unnatural
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.
O God! which this blood mad'st, revenge his death;
O earth! which this blood drink'st, revenge his death;
Either heav'n with lightning strike the murderer dead,
Or earth gape open wide and eat him quick,
As thou dost swallow up this good King's blood
Which his hell-govern'd arm hath butchered.


In her declaration of Richard's victory over Henry's “mortal body” (1.2.47) and in her accusatory description of the fresh blood which flows from Henry's wounds, Anne summons up powerful signs of Richard's guilt. But in identifying Richard as Henry's murderer, she also acknowledges Richard's power over the highly potent corporeal sign which lies silent at their feet—the body of King Henry VI. Anne's earlier apostrophe to Henry's corpse, “Poor key-cold Figure of a holy king, / Pale ashes of the House of Lancaster, / Thou bloodless remnant of that royal blood” (1.2.5-7), suggests the formidable weight of signification which the King's wounded body bears.6 The “keycold Figure” over which Anne laments figures not only a human corpse, but also the living Henry, and, most importantly, the immortal “body politic” of the King.7 The dried blood on Henry's wounds signifies on several levels as well, representing not only the violence of his death, but also his noble lineage, his claim to the throne, and, metonymically, the collective blood of all English subjects.8 Anne's articulation of Richard's power over the King's mortal body is an ominous indication of Richard's growing power over all bodies, including her own.

While the corpse over which Anne laments here bears witness to the violence of Richard's corporeal operations, a more subtle and insidious aspect of his ability to appropriate bodies for his purposes is displayed as the scene progresses and Anne is drawn deeper into Richard's web. After several denials, Richard finally admits his role in Henry's murder (1.2.105), and then abruptly shifts the discussion into a sexually charged mode, bluntly declaring his desire for Anne:

He is in Heaven, where thou shalt never come.
Let him thank me that holp to send him thither,
                              For he was fitter for that place than earth.
And thou unfit for any place but hell.
Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
Some dungeon?
Your bedchamber.
Ill rest betide the chamber where thou liest.
So will it madam, till I lie with you.


From this frank assertion of his desire to possess Anne sexually, Richard moves to a more subtle appropriation of her body into his controlling discourse, asking, “Is not the causer of the timeless deaths / Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward, / As blameful as the executioner?” (1.2.121-123). Anne replies, “Thou wast the cause, and most accurs'd effect” (1.2.124). Richard's answer contradicts Anne and asserts, “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 an hour in your sweet bosom” (125-128).9 Anne has already posited a causal connection between Richard's body and Henry's murdered corpse: When Richard stops the funeral procession and Henry's wounds bleed, Anne exhorts him to “Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity; / For 'tis thy presence that exhales this blood” (57-58). A few lines later she invokes Richard's “hell-govern'd arm” (67) as the agent of Henry's death. By contradicting Anne in his reply and invoking her beauty as “the cause of that effect,” Richard challenges the causal connection which Anne has anounced and reconstructs it, removing his body as the purported cause and substituting for it Anne's beauty.10 By positioning Anne's beauty this way, Richard aligns Anne's body with the “hell-govern'd arm” and the “lump of foul deformity” which she has identified as the cause of Henry's death. In Richard's representation of the crime, Anne not only replaces him as Henry's murderer, but her beauty replaces his own monstrosity.

Anne resists this appropriation of her corporeal self by fantasizing a self-mutilation that would annihilate the beauty which Richard has adduced as a cause of Henry's murder: “If I thought that, I tell thee, homicide, / These nails should rend that beauty from my cheeks” (129-30).11 Anne never actually carries out this threat to mutilate herself, however, and when she tries to turn her aggression outward at Richard instead of directing it against her own body, she can do nothing more than spit at him as he persists in declaring his amorous intentions, boldly asserting that he loves Anne better than her husband could. Anne's gesture of spitting, which highlights her impotence in the face of Richard's growing power, recalls the similarly ineffectual bleeding of the “congeal'd mouths” on Henry's corpse in a different but equally futile effort to protest Richard's domination.

Richard's triumph over Anne's resistance, however, is a result not only of his rhetorical manipulation of her beauty to implicate her in his crimes, but also of his physical gestures of self-abasement when he kneels before her, bares his breast, and begs her to kill him with his sword (1.2.178-187). Richard's gestures force a shocking reversal in the structure of dominance which has organized the encounter thus far. As in the council scene with Hastings, Richard seemingly gives up power here to assume the role of a victim. With Richard's sudden assumption of a submissive posture, Anne becomes the wielder of the sword which is the emblem of Richard's power and of the instrument by which Henry and Edward have died. As Richard pleads with Anne to kill him, reiterating the role of her beauty in his violent crimes, Anne is unnerved: to seize the power offered to her and kill Richard would be to assent to his insistence on the connection between her corporeal self and the murders of her loved ones and, in a sense, to re-enact them by participating in the cycle of violence which these murders constitute (“Nay, do not pause; for I did kill King Henry, / But 'twas thy beauty that provoked me. / Nay, now dispatch; 'twas I that stabbed young Edward, / But 'twas thy heavenly face that set me on” [1.2.179-182]). Not to murder Richard, on the other hand, leads Anne into another trap, since, in the discursive frame which Richard has constructed, her refusal to take his life implies acceptance of Richard's professed devotion to her by suggesting that her hesitation to kill him stems from his flattering invocation of her “beauty.” The syntactic parallel in Richard's “Take up the sword again, / Or take up me” (188) after she lets the sword fall (182) falsely limits the choices open to Anne at this moment to two actions, both of which signify acceptance of Richard. Anne chooses to “take up” Richard, not the sword (“Arise, dissembler; though I wish thy death, / I will not be thy executioner” [188-189]), which would make her, according to Richard, an “accessory” to his murders of her loved ones. Richard's rhetorical appropriation of Anne's “beauty” into the discussion of murderous “causes,” combined with his uncharacteristically submissive posture (kneeling, breast bared), seem to thwart Anne's ability to formulate and execute her own desires to such a degree that she finally accepts his ring.

Anne appears to be distracted from any further protests against Richard by his final petition, which he quickly appends to his heavily Petrarchanized admiration of the ring she now wears (1.2.207-212). As Anne agrees to Richard's request that she “leave [her] sad designs / To him that hath most cause to be a mourner” (210-11) and allow him to supervise Henry's interment, the body which she has repeatedly invoked as a potent sign of enmity between them is transferred to Richard, as will soon be all the powers that Henry's body represents. Although this final triumph is at best anti-climactic after the extraordinary drama of the wooing scene, the image of Richard as custodian of Henry's body and overseer of his burial, the ultimate form of bodily incarceration, constitutes the play's most frighteningly potent sign of Richard's body-centered mode of claiming power.

As King Henry's corpse is removed from the stage at Richard's request, Richard's own body looms once again into the foreground as he delivers a speech that counterbalances his opening soliloquy. In the earlier speech, Richard laments his physical defects as detriments to his erotic appeal, but here, in a self-consciously ironic reversal of his former mood, Richard marvels at his amorous triumph over Anne and playfully celebrates his body as a primary factor in his success:

Upon my life she finds—although I cannot—
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
I'll be at charges for a looking glass,
And entertain a score or two of tailors
To study fashions to adorn my body:
.....Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.

(1.2.258-62; 267-78)

Richard's desire for a mirror in which to look at himself, and his plan, meanwhile, to watch his shadow, suggest both the intensity and the necessity of his corporeal self-consciousness as he embarks on the next phase of his rise to power. He needs to keep his gaze intermittently fixed upon his body, not only in order to admire the vehicle of his most recent success, but also to perfect his next moves.


  1. The funeral of Henry V, the alarm among the English over losses in the French war, the presentation of Queen Margaret at court, discontent among the English nobles over the new treaty with France, and the confrontation between Henry VI and his Yorkist foes are among the events depicted in the opening scenes of the Henry VI plays.

  2. David Garrick, for example, reportedly played this entrance in such a way that “the moment he entered the scene, the character he assumed was visible in his countenance.” W. C. Macready remembers Edmund Kean's Richard as “a little keenly-visaged man” who “rapidly bustled across the stage” in this scene. Another description of Kean's entrance avows that “He waddles in a sort of dogtrot, and all at once without any apparent reason, he stops short to give a disquisition.” Walt Whitman writes of Junius Brutus Booth's “quiet entrance from the side, as with head bent, he slowly and in silence (amid the tempest of boisterous hand-clapping), walks down the stage to the footlights with that peculiar and abstracted gesture, musingly kicking his sword which he holds off from him by its sash. … I can hear the clank and feel the perfect following hush of perhaps three thousand people waiting.” W. A. Darlington reports that Olivier's Richard came in “at the back” and made “his progress downstage a thing of so many artfully contrived hesitations, of so much play of expression, that it seemed as if the time that elapsed before he spoke could be reckoned by minutes rather than seconds.” Ramaz Chikvadze's Richard, like Olivier's, was, according to Steve Grant in The Observer (26 August 1979), “a creature of terrifying physicality … a swaggering Napoleonic toad … the mouth evil in its pencil thin arrogance, the eyes bulging the compact topheavy body stalking the landscape, hands behind back or twisting round a swordstick, half clown, half psychopath.” These performance descriptions are quoted from Julie Hankey's edition of Richard III. See also C. P. Cerasano's discussion of Anthony Sher's preparation and performance of Richard for the RSC in 1984.

  3. For this and all subsequent quotations, I have used the Arden edition of Richard III, Antony Hammond, ed. (London: Methuen, 1981).

  4. See, for instance, Francis Bacon's essay, “Of Deformity,” quoted in the introduction to the Arden edition, 101-102.

  5. I am thinking here not only of Richard's own earlier interpretations of his body, but also of Margaret's references to him as a “Poisonous bunch back'd toad” and a “bottled spider” in Act 1, Scene 3.

  6. Robert Ornstein, in A Kingdom for a Stage, suggests the following range of significations for the King's body:

    Whatever role the Prince may play, magus or scapegoat—the King's body is the living presence of the nation and his royal We a communion of multitudes. He is the Host upon which a people feed, in whose veins flows the blood of twenty thousand or a hundred thousand men, and whose illnesses infect his meanest subject. His sacred right is a mystery of blood that raises the throne above the gross purchase of political ambition but that makes the commonwealth subject to accidents of birth and death.


    Along similar lines, Francis Barker, in The Tremulous Private Body, explains that “the body has a central and irreducible place” (22) in the social order of the period. “The social plenum is the body of the king” (31).

  7. See Ernst Kantorowicz's account of the theological antecedents of the juridical conception of the King's double body in The King's Two Bodies. See also Marie Axton's account of the diffusion of the concept through legal documents drawn up during the reign of Elizabeth I in The Queen's Two Bodies.

  8. On the significance of blood in Shakespeare, see Berkeley.

  9. Spivack's assessment of Richard's strategy with Anne is remarkable for the sexual rhetoric which it musters in order to describe what Richard does in this scene. According to Spivack, Anne “submits to an imperious skill that thrusts against her mood at its fiercest, engages it with flexible pressure while it struggles, and grasps it with careless, rough control when it melts” (406). Ornstein names that which Spivack only implies, suggesting that Richard's triumph over Anne is “more of a rape than a seduction, for though he seems to cringe and fawn, he bullies and intimidates and mocks her high moral tone by appeals to Christian charity … He answers her hyperboles of outrage with hyperboles that are outrageous” (76).

  10. Madonne Miner has noted the way that Richard's invocation of Anne's beauty “directs culpability from himself onto the female figure” (37) and thereby “constructs a bond of alliance between Anne and himself against the House of Lancaster, rendering her powerless” (38). But she does not read this scene in terms of the shifting corporeal significations generated by the bodies of Richard, Anne, and Henry.

  11. Anne displays a similar desire for self-mutilation in 4.1., when she refers to the crown she wears as Richard's queen: “O would to God that the inclusive verge / Of golden metal that must round my brow / Were redhot steel, to sear me to the brains” (4.1.57-59).

Works Cited

Axton, Marie. The Queen's Two Bodies. London: Royall Historical Society, 1977

Barker, Francis. The Tremulous Private Body. London: Methuen, 1984.

Berkeley, David S. Blood Will Tell in Shakespeare's Plays. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1984.

Cerasano, C. P. “Churls Just Wanna Have Fun: Reviewing Richard III.Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 618-29.

Goldman, Michael. Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Hankey, Julie, ed. Richard III. Plays in Performance Series. Barnes and Noble Books: Totowa, N.J., 1981.

Kantorowicz, Ernst. The King's Two Bodies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Miner, Madonne. “’Neither mother, wife, nor England's queen’: The Roles of Women in Richard III.The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Carolyn Ruth Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

More, Thomas. The Complete Works of St. Thomas More. Richard Sylvester, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.

Ornstein, Robert. A Kingdom for a Stage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Spivack, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Richard W. Grinnell (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5036

SOURCE: Grinnell, Richard W. “Witchcraft and the Theater in Richard III.Upstart Crow 17 (1997): 66-77.

[In the following essay, Grinnell compares the transforming powers of the theater with those of witchcraft and observes that while Richard relies on both to destroy his enemies, Shakespeare employed them as metaphors through which he critiques his society.]

When Shakespeare created Richard of Gloucester, he created a master manipulator of character, one born, it seems, for the dangerous realm of the theater as conceived by Puritan critics. At the end of 3 Henry VI Richard tells us that he can “change shapes with Proteus for advantages” (III. ii. 192), and at the beginning of Richard III that his political aspirations rest upon “the plain devil and dissembling looks” (I. ii. 236).1 Richard's equation for success seems clear; it is demonic and theatrical. The shape-shifting god Proteus that Richard so confidently invokes is simultaneously the devil—as John Cotta describes him, for example, in his 1616 pamphlet The Triall of Witchcraft as “that old Proteus”2—and the actor.

For Renaissance England, the ability to change one's shape is a dangerous power. Renaissance England valued the ability to read an individual by his or her surface, and assumed a direct relationship between internal quality and external display. Anxiety over the violation of this relationship erupted in a variety of ways, including formal sumptuary codes that regulated clothing, royal proclamations against improper representation, sermons preached against cross-dressing, and an active and often virulent pamphlet industry that sought to uphold representational codes by demonizing—both metaphorically and often literally—social groups who violated those codes.3

Late sixteenth century writers reflect this anxiety over people who do not conform to legal and cultural codes of appearance. For example, Linda Woodbridge, in her Women and the English Renaissance, quotes a wonderfully suggestive letter from John Chamberlain in 1620 that addresses one particularly disturbing breakdown in sumptuary expectations.

Yesterday the bishop of London called together all his Clergie about this towne, and told them he had expresse commaundment from the king to will them to inveigh vehemently and bitterly in theyre sermons, against the insolencie of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimd hats, pointed dublets, theyre haire cut short or shorne, and some of them stillettaes or poinards, and such other trinckets of like moment; adding withall that yf pulpit admonitions will not reforme them he wold proceed by another course.4

The external appearance of the body is an important site for mediating power in this society. As many social historians have noted, Queen Elizabeth's concern over the representation of her own body was central to her political power; her physical iconography was an active part of her rule. Leonard Tennenhouse tells us, “the features of Elizabeth's body natural were always already components of a political figure which made the physical vigor and autonomy of the monarch one and the same thing as the condition of England.”5 Because social and political power were read on the body, the public theaters became the target of much sumptuary anxiety as well. One of the essential fears driving the Puritan attacks on the theater was the insecurity inherent in a world where anyone could transform identity—both personal and political—simply by putting on a costume.6 A world in which appearance does not reflect something real, where one can appear to be something or someone that one is not, is a dangerous world. Actors often seemed at the heart of this danger.

For many people in the late sixteenth century, the public theater was inherently a demonic space. John Northbrooke makes that clear in his A Treatise wherein Dauncing, Vaine Playes or Enterludes … are reproved.

I am persuaded that Satan hath not a more speedie way and fitter schoole to work and teach his desire, to bring men and women into his snare of concupiscence and filthie lustes of wicked whoredome, than those places and playes, and theaters are; And therefore necessarie that those places and Players shoulde be forbidden and dissolved and put downe by authoritie, as the Brothell houses and Stewes are.7

The theater was seen in many quarters as a hotbed of sedition and immorality. Fostering all manner of sin and degradation, the theater violated codes of conduct as well as sumptuary codes, and was presented as a place in which the devil's work was effectively carried on. Northbrooke's treatise is typical of the anti-theatrical literature of the time. From the end of the sixteenth century and into the beginning of the seventeenth the theater was often seen in terms of its wickedness, and its association with the world of the demonic.8

In an interesting way, the theater's opponents characterized it in much the same terms as witchcraft was being characterized during this period. The connection between witchcraft and the theater was a semiotic one; for Renaissance England, witches were signs of the violation of cultural rules just as actors were. Though witchcraft was a very complex social phenomenon, witches were almost always defined in terms of the taboos they violated, the social boundaries that they crossed, and by their failure to contain themselves within the loosely defined social costume allowed them in their community. Witches were accused of violating the boundaries of their own and other people's bodies, of violating the connection between appearance and reality, of appearing to be one thing, and actually being something else, and of transforming others into different shapes and genders. They were powerless old women, from the most powerless strata of society, who wielded unexpected, and unauthorized supernatural power.9 Like an actor, the witch could change her shape to suit her needs.10 She is one who quite literally “changes shapes with Proteus for advantages.” The great skeptic, Reginald Scot, writing in 1584, credits witches with the power to change themselves into the shapes of animals, and the shapes of other people,11 and this malleability of body connects them iconographically with the Renaissance theater and the actors whose business it was to transform themselves every day.

Shakespeare acknowledges the conflation of witchcraft and theatricality, and the dangerous political ramifications of a world in which individuals cannot be identified by their exterior surfaces, when he presents Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Shakespeare connects Richard with witchcraft throughout the play: in the iconography of his body; in the language used to describe him by characters who know him; and in Richard's own awareness and use of the damnable power inherent in witchcraft accusations. But whereas Shakespeare had presented stage witches before (Joan la Pucelle and Margery Jourdain are notable in their efficacy and conventional supernatural power), in Richard III, witchcraft is no longer a supernatural power.12 It is a political power, a symbolic and metaphoric power ushered in by the iconography of Richard's body. Though witchcraft is an important part of the iterative imagery that surrounds him, Richard is explained equally by the imagery of the theater as it was constituted by anti-theatrical writers.

Richard's body is at the center of his identity. In his opening monologue he tells us that the shape of his exterior has determined his actions, that his body has determined his soul.

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;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time
.....And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasure of these days.

(I. i. 14-31)

Richard tells the audience that his body is to blame for his inability to operate benevolently in the new, peaceful, world, that his appearance has determined a role from which he cannot escape. But even this claim turns out to be an illusion, an act, as we see when, one scene later, he intercepts Lady Anne as she takes the corpse of Henry VI to burial.

Richard's seduction of the Lady Anne, with the corpse of her father-in-law bleeding at their feet, shows the audience that Richard is more than “grim-visaged war” with whom he has associated his misshapen body in the opening monologue. Using the rhetoric of seduction, Richard reinvents himself as a desperate lover. His success in this role shows us that his blasted body is no block to his participation in what he earlier called “this weak, piping time of peace” (I. i. 24). Indeed, his chameleon-like power to be the lover of his adversary's widow marks for both the audience and, in an interesting way, Richard himself, his fitness to survive in a world that judges itself by appearance. In such a world, the demonic Proteus is the figure of the ruler. Shakespeare gives us Richard's exultation as he realizes the extent of the power he wields.13

Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever woman in this humor won?
I'll have her, but I will not keep her long.
What! I that killed her husband and his father
To take her in her heart's extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of my hatred by,
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I no friends to back my suit at all
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!

(I. ii. 227-37)

To win Anne, Richard uses theater. He is no longer trapped by a body that shapes him for villainy; instead, he shapes himself to fit his chosen role. Richard moves from arguing that his body shapes his identity, to actively transforming himself theatrically. Once a limiting factor, his body now becomes a fluid ally, shaped by his rhetorical ability into a body capable of playing multiple characters.

Richard's body, then, is central to this play, but it is central because it is an actor's body, a witch's body, a body that can be shaped to appear to be anything that he wants it to be. The iconography of Richard's body bears out the dangerous instability in his identity. He is born “like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear whelp / That carries no impression like the dam” (3 Henry VI, III. ii. 161-62), and he tells us in his opening monologue that his body is unnatural, “deformed, unfinished.” Richard cannot be controlled because he cannot be clearly defined. As Marjorie Garber has pointed out, Richard is both prematurely born (“sent before my time / Into the breathing world scarce half made up” [Richard III, I. i. 20-21], and born overly mature [with teeth in his head, 3 Henry VI, V. vi. 75]),14 the nature of his body resisting definition and stability from the start.

Symbolically, then, Richard's body is a body that is not controlled by its physical boundaries; it is a grotesque body, a body that overflows its edges to take on new shapes. Interestingly, women's bodies, as well, were considered transgressing bodies, bodies that did not remain within the boundaries set for them by patriarchal culture. As Peter Stallybrass has argued, for Renaissance England woman is “that treasure which, however locked up, always escapes. She is the gaping mouth, the open window, the body that ‘transgresses its own limits.’”15 Richard's uncontrolled body is iconographically linked to this feminine body. Similarly, Mikhail Bakhtin in his now classic study of popular carnival, Rabelais and His World, emphasizes the grotesque, transgressive nature of the lower class mass body, particularly as it is seen from the perspective of dominant aristocratic culture. “The unfinished and open body (dying, bringing forth and being born) is not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries; it is blended with the world, with animals, with objects” Bakhtin says.16 “Scarce half made up,” Richard is precisely that unfinished body (Richard III, I. i. 21). Richard, then, carries in his own body the symbols of the popular and the feminine, the two distinguishing characteristics of the witch.

The first description that we get of Richard by another character reinforces those semiotics and paints him as a fiend, as a demon conjured from hell. As Richard interrupts the train taking the slain Henry VI to burial in the first act of Richard III, Anne responds:

What black magician conjures up this fiend
To stop devoted charitable deeds?


What do you tremble? Are you all afraid?
Alas, I blame you not, for you are mortal,
And mortal eyes cannot endure the devil.—
Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!
Thou hadst but power over his mortal body,
His soul thou canst not have. Therefore be gone.
Sweet saint, for charity, be not so curst.
Foul devil, for God's sake hence, and trouble us not,
For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell,
Fill'd it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.

(Richard III, I. ii. 33-52)

Throughout the play, Richard triggers language that defines him as demonic. In an aside, the banished Queen Margaret says, “hie thee to hell for shame, and leave this world, / Thou cacodemon, there thy kingdom is” (I. iii. 142-43); Richard's reach is compared to “the reach of hell” by Queen Elizabeth (IV. i. 42); Queen Margaret tells the Duchess of York, “from forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept / A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death” (IV. iv. 47-48), and she finally calls him “hell's black intelligencer” (IV. iv. 71).17 Between the iconographic semiotics of Richard's body and the direct language involved in plot-line descriptions of him, Richard becomes a symbolic witch: dangerous, evil, cloaked in the demonic with an almost supernatural power to change his aspect. But he is never an actual witch in the popular or traditional sense of the word. Shakespeare asks the audience to note the language, to be aware of the witchcraft that seems to run through the play, but in the end Richard himself teaches us how we should read that witchcraft and the illegitimacy that has been encoded in his body.

While Richard's enemies (and indeed his critics) describe him in terms of devils and hell, Richard fashions himself as the victim and the enemy of the demonic, and is careful to locate witchcraft beyond his own sphere of power, in the sphere of his political enemies.

I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail'd
Upon my body with their hellish charms?
The tender love I bear your Grace, my lord,
Makes me most forward in this princely presence
To doom th' offenders, whosoe'er they be:
I say, my lord, they have deserved death.
Then be your eyes the witness of their evil.
Look how I am bewitch'd; behold, mine arm
Is like a blasted sapling, wither'd up;
And this is Edward's wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot, strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

(Richard III, III. iv. 59-72)

Richard is poised at a critical moment in his quest for the throne. All that now stands between him and the crown are the young Princes in the tower and the Queen herself. Here in his council, Richard launches a political attack on the Queen and her followers, including Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain, whom he knows will staunchly support the crowning of Prince Edward as Edward V. Though we have learned earlier, and his council would certainly have known, that Richard's physical defects are congenital and not the result of witchcraft, it is nonetheless an effective and powerful ploy.18

If they have done this deed, my noble lord—
If? Thou protector of this damned strumpet,
Talk'st thou to me of “ifs”? Thou art a traitor.
Off with his head!


Hastings is linked to the witchcraft of the Queen and Jane Shore, to the destabilizing force that Richard claims is threatening him. Hastings is charged with treason and executed.

Shakespeare's audience knows that this is simply political expediency on Richard's part. Richard has intended to take off Hastings' head since learning that he would not support Richard's bid for the crown. But the charge of witchcraft resonates with the imagery that has surrounded Richard throughout the play, and this moment in which Hastings loses his head to a politically orchestrated witchcraft accusation is a central one to the understanding of Shakespeare's use of witchcraft in this play. Witchcraft is dangerous because it is secret and theatrical. Among other things, it manipulates its appearance in the service of power. Being accused of witchcraft links Hastings to the destabilizing representational power of witchcraft and immediately makes him dangerous. Linking Hastings with witchcraft provides Richard with an excuse for Hastings' removal from the political scene and gives Richard another effective form of theatrical power.

But Richard's use of witchcraft to undermine and destroy Hastings asks us to make one further interpretive move. Richard's use of witchcraft as a self-conscious political tool parallels Shakespeare's own use of witchcraft in this play. As Richard connects Hastings to the damned and dangerous witchcraft of the powerful women in his world, so Shakespeare connects Richard himself with the semiotics of witchcraft. Richard forcefully locates Hastings in the demonic realm and has him taken away to be executed. No less forcefully, Shakespeare locates Richard in a demonic position and has him executed at Bosworth field. Both are represented as political uses of a particular kind of coded language which illegitimizes and damns those described in its terms.

Richard's self-conscious use of witchcraft as a tool of power forces us to look critically at Shakespeare's use of witchcraft in this, and other plays. If witchcraft can be, after all, simply a cynical tool for illegitimizing one's enemies, as Shakespeare indicates in Richard's use of it, then the demonic language that surrounds Richard himself, and tangentially, the iconographic signs that Shakespeare uses to make Richard illegitimate, are also simply tools. A mastery of theater enables Richard to condemn Hastings, and a mastery of theater enables Shakespeare to condemn Richard. In Richard III, both acts are equivalent. Theater enables the charge of witchcraft and through that charge, reveals itself as a powerful and dangerous force in the world of Richard III. As history was considered a glass wherein theater-goers saw themselves, theater reveals itself as an equally powerful and potentially dangerous force in the Elizabethan world through which this play made its way.

By using the language of witchcraft and by demonstrating the semiotic overlap between witchcraft and the theater, Richard III acknowledges the political nature of both witchcraft and theater. By demonstrating Richard's use of witchcraft as political and cynical, as metaphor and rhetoric rather than as supernatural power, Shakespeare enables his audience to recognize the application of theater and witchcraft in other social venues. Whether in the Elizabethan court, or the villages of rural England, the language of witchcraft, Shakespeare tells us, is linked to the practice of theater and marks a social and political, rather than a supernatural, struggle.

Describing English culture in the sixteenth century, Jonathan Dollimore has said that “not only manuals of court behaviour but handbooks of rhetoric emphasised culture as theatre, as dissimulation and feigning, advising on the construction of an artificial identity in the service of power.”19 Since Stephen Greenblatt's groundbreaking work, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, scholars have acknowledged the inherently theatrical nature of power in Renaissance England.20 Shakespeare clearly recognized it as well. And though Shakespeare's business was the theater, and he was a master practitioner of it, Richard III gives us an ambivalent portrayal of theatricality. “I can add colors to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel to school” Richard says (3 Henry VI, III. ii. 191-93), and we recognize in him and his ability both a conventional Elizabethan mode of power, and something that is dangerous and potentially evil. In anybody's hands, even the hands of the legitimate governors, theatricality, Richard III tells us, has the potential for chaos, disorder and danger.

The language of witchcraft helps to define the dangerous theatricality that underlies Richard's character. In Richard III there is no supernatural witchcraft. Instead there are political tools, and language that hides under the guise of witchcraft. This is a change in Shakespeare's use of witchcraft and marks an important moment in his development as a playwright. With the help of the language of witchcraft, we can see in Richard III the increasing complexity of Shakespeare's political vision and his acknowledgment that his own profession, like the witchcraft prosecutions in England, was powerful and inherently political. By the time Shakespeare gets to Richard III, Joan la Pucelle, Margery Jourdain, and Roger Bollingbroke have disappeared and given way to Richard of Gloucester, and witchcraft has become primarily a political tool in a politics of fear, a cynical, though powerful set of signifiers in a political arsenal.21 Though witchcraft retains its demonic definition, it is emptied of all but political power. For Richard III, the witch is a role one might act in a theater of alienation and damnation, and more importantly, it is a role one might assign, forcibly, to another. Shakespeare draws upon the inherently theatrical nature of historical witchcraft and locates witchcraft and the theater in a demonic, political realm.

Shakespeare borrows language and imagery from the anti-theatricalists and combines it with the language of the witch-hunt to fashion the political language of Richard III. In a sense, then, Shakespeare gives us an anti-theatrical argument in Richard III, and in the figure of Richard shows us the potential danger in the act of theater. But Richard III is not, finally, an anti-theatrical text. Though Richard is constructed of anti-theatrical discourse, Richard does not have the final say in Richard III. As many critics have pointed out Richard III has, in addition to Machiavellian individualism, a providential shape.22 Through Richard's agency—political and Machiavellian though it is—Tudor history is written. The houses of York and Lancaster are punished for their civil brawls, and the Tudors are ushered onto the throne. This providential impulse ultimately controls the anti-theatrical language that is used to construct Richard and his world. In Richard III, theater is dangerous, but ultimately controlled by, and a servant of, providence.

In Richard III Shakespeare uses the theater and the language of witchcraft to expose the dangers of theatricality and the political nature of witchcraft persecution in his society. In doing so he also exposes the theatrical and dangerous nature of Elizabethan power itself, a subtle social observation that is hidden by the comforting providential ending of the play. As Tudor providence depends upon the demonizing of Richard III, however, a move that Shakespeare's play demonstrates is political and intentional in nature, the play serves, finally, to highlight the power of language and of theater. In Richard III, contemporary witchcraft and theatricality are powerful systems of language and dangerous political weapons. By wrapping them in the controlling assumptions of providential history, he gives us a text that both critiques and affirms Tudor history, while foregrounding the dangerous theatricality of the late Elizabethan age.


  1. All references to Shakespeare's texts are from The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt, 1972).

  2. John Cotta, The Triall of Witch-Craft (1616; rptd. in The English Experience, 39, New York: Da Capo Press, 1968), p. 92.

  3. Current critical practice has invested the word “demonize” and “demonic” with a variety of meanings. For my purposes, to demonize is to link an individual or practice with the devil (or devils) either metaphorically or actually.

  4. Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 143.

  5. Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986), pp. 102-03. The relationship between power and display are clearly articulated in Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980) and Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), in Louis Montrose's The Purpose of Playing (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996), in Steven Mullaney's The Place of the Stage (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), in Christopher Pye's The Regal Phantasm (New York: Routledge Univ. Press, 1990), and in Theodora A. Jankowski's Women in Power in the Early Modern Drama (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1992) among others.

  6. See Richard Grinnell, “The Witch, the Transvestite, and the Actor: Destabilizing Gender on the Renaissance Stage,” Studies in the Humanities, 29 (1996), 163-84.

  7. Quoted in Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge Univ. Press, 1994), p. 25.

  8. For some discussions of the anti-theatrical argument see Laura Levine's excellent Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization 1579-1642 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), Jean E. Howard's The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England, and Louis Montrose's recent The Purpose of Playing.

  9. For these definitions of witchcraft see Christina Larner's Enemies of God: The Witch-hunt in Scotland (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1981) and Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief (New York: Blackwell, 1984), Joseph Klaits' Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1985), G. R. Quaife's Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), Alan Macfarlane's Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study (London: Routledge Press, 1970) or, for contemporary formulations of the witch, see William Perkins' “Discourse on the Damned Art of Witchcraft,” (in Works, 3 vols. London: 1616-18), Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584; ed. Montague Summers, New York: Dover, 1972) or the more famous continental treatises on witchcraft, particularly Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum (1486-87, trans. Montague Summers, 1928; rptd. New York: Dover, 1971) or Jean Bodin's De la Demonomanie des Sorciers (Lyon: 1580) among others.

  10. Note that I use the female pronoun here because studies indicate that in England from ninety-five to one hunded percent of prosecuted witches were women (Larner, Witchcraft and Religion, p. 85).

  11. Scot, p. 6.

  12. The old Queen Margaret exhibits many witch-like and arguably supernatural behaviors. I discuss her role in the play in note 17.

  13. That the monarch is, essentially, an actor, is borne out particularly by Elizabeth I herself when, as Holinshed reports, she tells her parliament “we princes … are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world dulie observed; the eyes of manie behold our actions” (Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1808; rptd. New York: AMS Press, 1965, vol. 4, p. 934). Critics have actively developed this equation. See particularly Leonard Tennenhouse's Power on Display, Christopher Pye's The Regal Phantasm, and most recently, Louis Montrose's The Purpose of Playing for clear arguments about the relationship between the monarchy and the theater.

  14. Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 32.

  15. Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson et al. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 128.

  16. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1968; trans. Helene Iswolsky, Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984) pp. 26-27. Leonard Tennenhouse summarizes this figure in Power on Display: “Bakhtin's twin figures of the grotesque body and the mass body offer us a way of imagining an alternative social formation to our own that has all the features of this essentially anti-aristocratic discourse” (p. 41). Richard of Gloucester is symbolically connected to this anti-aristocratic figure.

  17. Margaret occupies a particularly resonant position in this play. In many ways she is the character most easily recognized as a witch: an older woman who, because of wrongs done to her by her community, resorts to curses that have efficacy. Margaret, however, is a tool of the providential history being worked out in this play, a subject of a divine authority that has punished her, and will punish her opponents, and though that does not discount her from witch-ness, it does force us to see her as much in political as supernatural terms. This play is, as we shall see, more interested in political power than the supernatural, and Margaret's apparent witch-ness comes under the play's critique of this power, as will be clear by the end of this discussion.

  18. As Holinshed says: “Herevpon euerie mans mind sore misgaue them, well perceiuing that this matter was but a quarell. For they well wist that the queene was too wise to go about anie such follie. And also, if she would, yet would she, of all folke least, make Shores wife of hir counsell; whome of all women she most hated, as that concubine whome the king hir husband had most loued. And also, no man was there present, but well knew that his arme was euer such since his birth” (in Holinshed's Chronicle: As Used in Shakespeare's Plays, ed. Allardyce and Josephine Nicoll, New York: Dutton, 1927, pp. 151-52).

  19. Jonathon Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 179.

  20. As Greenblatt argued in a later book, “Elizabethan power … depends upon its privileged visibility. As in a theater, the audience must be powerfully engaged by this visible presence and at the same time held at a respectful distance from it” (Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 64).

  21. Shakespeare will not return to witchcraft as supernatural power until Macbeth, a play inspired by and in all likelihood written for the new king James I, whose interest in witchcraft was common knowledge in England. James, after all, had been involved personally in high profile witchcraft trials in Scotland in the early 1590's, and was the author of an influential volume on witchcraft entitled Daemonologie. Even in Macbeth, however, witchcraft is secondary to the human and political passions represented by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

  22. For an almost notorious discussion of Shakespeare's history plays as providential history see E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus Press, 1961). For discussions of the conflict between providential and Machiavellian interpretations of history, see Phyllis Rackin's Stages of History (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990) or Mathew Wikander's The Play of Truth and State (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986) among others.

Sheridan Morley (review date 30 June 2003)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “A Breath of Fresh Air.” New Statesman (30 June 2003): 48.

[In the following review, Morley positively assesses Barry Kyle's 2003 all-female production of Richard III at the Globe Theatre, noting that “[t]his Richard III asks whether the king is inherently evil, or just the intelligent but warped product of an unloved and unloving family.”]

There are few London treats more delicious than a beautiful evening, a good picnic, and Shakespeare in the open air.

At Shakespeare's Globe this summer, you can find a most unusual Richard III. It seems unlikely that Shakespeare meant Richard III to be a comedy, nor for almost every line to be delivered as if by a stand-up comedian, but it sort of works as long as it wasn't Shakespeare you wanted.

There's the small matter of an all-female company, for a start. If there has to be a group of women playing, perversely, some of Shakespeare's most macho men, we could have done a great deal worse than Kathryn Hunter's ironic and humorously amoral Richard.

Hunter starts as she means to continue, with a risky strategy of playing the murderer king against the modern convention that his deformity is in his mind. Hunter's body is so twisted that she lollops along at a sometimes horizontal angle which barely keeps her from toppling over. With not just a hump but an inverted hand and a withered arm, her body becomes her most useful prop.

The director Barry Kyle's light touch with the production, and his willingness to use the entire Globe, bring actors to every part of the pit. The mainly young audience becomes drawn into Richard's machinations, cheering his highly amusing (in this instance) claim to become king.

Richard is not the only villain here. Kyle's production brings out treachery in almost every character, emphasising Shakespeare's point that England had the monarchy it deserved, a weak and whining aristocracy, a craven and grasping Church, and an incurious and greedy populace. Among this lot, Richard fits in nicely.

There are a couple of other outstanding performances, too—among the women playing women. Linda Bassett's frighteningly powerful Queen Margaret thunders her curses at the diminutive Richard. And Meredith MacNeill is an interesting choice for Lady Anne, whom she plays as a daft woman who doesn't have a clue what she's doing when she accepts the proposal of the repulsive Richard over the body of her dead husband.

This Richard III asks whether the king is inherently evil, or just the intelligent but warped product of an unloved and unloving family.

Ramie Targoff (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Targoff, Ramie. “‘Dirty’ Amens: Devotion, Applause, and Consent in Richard III.Renaissance Drama, no. 31 (2002): 61-84.

[In the following essay, Targoff connects the repeated use of the word “amen” in Richard III with the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty.]

Like the twelve curses of Deuteronomy, the four Gospels of the New Testament, and endless petitions and benedictions in the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare's Richard III ends with the word “amen.” In the final scene of the play, the Earl of Richmond attempts to sanctify his right to the throne by soliciting a series of “amens” from both God and his people. First, upon receiving the crown from his stepfather, Lord Stanley, Richmond responds by seeking divine blessing: “Great God of heaven, say ‘Amen’ to all.” Second, after asserting his plan to “unite the white rose and the red,” and thereby bring to an end the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster, he boldly declares, “What traitor hears me and says not ‘Amen’?” Finally, Richmond ends the play with a petition for peace: “Now civil wounds are stopped; peace lives again / That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’” (5.8.8, 22, 41).1

The notion that England's formal transition into the peaceful reign of Henry VII would begin with the simple utterance of “amen” may seem a perfectly reasonable, and perhaps unremarkable, affair: “amen” was the most familiar means of affirming the prayers of the priest and by the late sixteenth century had become a common term for indicating approval and consent in political as well as religious transactions. In his English and Roman history plays, Shakespeare characteristically intertwines secular and sacred uses of the word, whereby changes in rulers or kingdoms are symbolically effected through the act of saying “amen.” At the end of Henry V, for example, the French queen Isabel confirms the union between England and France by declaring, “That English may as French, French Englishmen / Receive each other, God speak this ‘Amen’” (5.2.339-40). Since God was generally thought to remain silent during theatrical performances, all who are present on stage dutifully repeat the queen's “amen,” as if on behalf of the divine (“all” say “Amen”). In the pre-Christian world of Coriolanus, Coriolanus's proposed election to consul is at least initially met with unanimous “amens” from the citizens who declare in perfect unison, “Amen, amen. God save thee, noble consul!” (2.3.126). Or, just before Richard II hands over his crown to Bolingbroke, the deposed king ironically cries out, “God save the King! Will no man say ‘Amen’? / Am I both priest and clerk? Well then, Amen. / God save the King, although I be not he. / And yet Amen, if heaven do think him me” (4.1.163-66).

These representations of all-too-earthly transfers of power, “elections” earned less by the mysterious workings of God than by what Marvell will slyly describe in Cromwell as “industrious Valour,” seem to be authorized by the utterance of a single liturgical term.2 More than any other word from scripture, “amen” was understood throughout the centuries to seal or confirm whatever had been previously spoken. And yet, despite its central role in the Protestant as well as Roman Catholic liturgy, “amen” no longer remained an unproblematic or uncontested form of response in the period following the Reformation. In their efforts to strip all traces of what they considered Catholic superstition and idolatry from the practice of daily worship, English Protestants openly worried about the conditions in which “amen” could be legitimately and effectively spoken.

There is a modern explanation of how and when certain verbal formulas work that helps explain, and in important ways reproduces, some of the struggles that early modern Englishmen faced in considering the efficacy of “amen.” In How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin established a critical vocabulary for describing the power of “performatives,” linguistic structures that would later come to be known as “speech acts.”3 Austin defines the performative as an utterance in which saying and doing are identical; the speaker does not describe an action but instead performs the action through the verbal utterance itself. Among the examples Austin provides are “I do (take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife …)”; “I name this ship (the Queen Elizabeth)”; “I declare war.” In each of these cases, the performative will not be “felicitous”—Austin's term for “effective” or “successful”—unless the persons and circumstances are appropriate; an already married man within monogamous societies cannot be remarried even if he says “I do” to a second wife in a church, nor can an ordinary civilian declare war on a neighboring country.

So far, so good. The complications for Austin begin to arise, however, when he considers the thorny question of intention.4 Initially Austin contends that performatives do not depend upon a prior internal state in order to be felicitous but need only to be properly executed. Hence, in the context of promises, Austin explains that although “we are apt to have a feeling that their being serious consists in their being uttered as (merely) the outward and visible sign … of an inward and spiritual act,” this mistaken presumption leads down a slippery slope until the promise simply describes an internal disposition rather than performing the act itself.5 Instead, Austin insists that the sentence “I promise that …” operates on the principle that “our word is our bond”: if the promise was made in bad faith and remains unfulfilled, it does not mean that the speech act itself was false, only that it did not yield the outcome that was expected.

And yet, as his argument proceeds, Austin retreats from the implications of this position: namely, that the successful function of a performative, in a narrow technical sense, can be entirely separated from both the speaker's internal will and the external consequences of the utterance. When he articulates the six fundamental requirements for performatives to be “happy,” he assigns a significant role to intention:

Where, as often, the procedure is designed for use by persons having certain thoughts or feelings, or for the inauguration of certain consequential conduct on the part of any participant, then a person participating in and so invoking the procedure must in fact have those thoughts or feelings. …6

Not strictly operating on the principle that “our word is our bond” regardless of our intentions, these utterances depend for their felicity upon a correspondence between the speaker's insides and outsides. Stanley Fish's claim that in speech-act theory the realm of the “‘inward performance’ is simply bypassed” is only half true: the utterance may be successfully spoken without attention to the interior realm of the speaker, but Austin holds that both the “procedure” and its consequences can be profoundly altered by inappropriate internal conditions.7 This type of performative is neither void nor felicitous: it is “hollow.”

One of the strange omissions in Austin's text is the category of devotional performatives. In lectures devoted to utterances in which to say is also to do, why does Austin fail to consider the rich examples of an explicit performative like “I pray,” or an implicit performative like “amen”?8 No doubt a range of explanations might be given, explanations that would require a far deeper inquiry into Austin's life and work than I am prepared to undertake here. But one possible reason relevant to our purpose lies in the complications that arise when the only confirmation of felicity lies in the largely unknowable or imperceptible response of the divine. Austin's general disregard for the aftermath of an infelicitous performative, and his particular indifference to theological utterances, make it difficult to address these complications within the terms of his work. However, they raise important questions for early modern devotional practice. Can God be said to hear prayers that are uttered without the full engagement of the speaker? Do worshipers benefit from saying “amen” when they have not adequately understood or do not agree with the words that the minister has uttered? And can we predict what might happen when conventional acts are performed irresponsibly or under coercive pressure?9

Although Austin avoids the murky terrain where such questions inevitably lead, these concerns were of the utmost exigency to early modern churchmen, for whom the ambiguous status of “amen” as a devotional performative was a source of real uneasiness. It is this uneasiness, I want to argue, that Shakespeare exploits in Richard III, a play keenly attuned to the questions of consent that surround both devotional and political practice in the public sphere. In Richard III, Shakespeare stages the act of conferring the English kingship not once, but twice. Although the circumstances for these two instances are very different—the first involves the fraudulent “election” of Gloucester, the second, the crowning of the worthy and victorious Richmond—both scenes strikingly, and perhaps unsettlingly, depend for their resolution upon a collective response of “amen.”10 And if in the first instance, this response, however contrived, ultimately succeeds, in the second instance, “amen” lingers on the stage unanswered. Given the position of Richard III as the play that historically reenacts the origins of the Tudor dynasty, a dynasty whose claims to the English monarchy were hardly unproblematic, the silence with which its characters meet Richmond's repeated requests for “amens” poses a peculiar dilemma.11 For Henry VII's right to the throne to be validated within the play's construction of kingly election, Shakespeare would seem somewhat daringly to require an unscripted, voluntary gesture of either theatrical or devotional assent from the audience: the clapping of hands or the utterance of “amen.” As we shall see, these two modes of communal response are by no means unrelated.


What did it mean to utter “amen” in sixteenth-century England? And how was this Hebrew word so effortlessly assimilated into the vernacular tongue? In the state-issued Bibles and Common Prayer Books of the English church, “amen” was one of very few words that resisted translation. Despite the fervor with which Protestants insisted upon rendering the entirety of the Old and New Testaments into English, it seems unlikely that many sixteenth-century Englishmen or women would even have recognized “amen” as originating outside of their native language. Just as the Vulgate treated “amen” as if it were a proper Latin word, so English texts erase all traces of difference when printing this Hebrew term.12 Even the Bible translated by John Eliot for the native tribes of Massachusetts in the early 1660s retains the use of “amen” rather than attempting to find an approximate term in the Algonquian tongue.13 Among Protestant Bibles, only the staunchly Calvinist Geneva Bible draws attention to the foreignness of the word. Most of its Old Testament uses are replaced with the phrase, “so be it”; or in the case of Revelation 3.14—“And unto the Angell of the Church of the Laodiceans, write, These things saieth the Amen, the faithfull and true witnesse, that beginning of the creatures of God”—the editors provide a marginal gloss explaining that “Amen soundeth as much in the Hebrewe tongue as Truely, or Trueth it selfe.”

Derived from the Hebrew three-letter root AMN, which developed into terms such as “Emuna” (faith) “Amin” (reliable), “Amnam” (“really, as I said it”), “amen” can best be translated as an adverbial expression meaning “certainly,” “verily,” or “surely.” In the Hebrew Bible, “amen” was used primarily as what Austin calls an implicit performative, which affirmed a prior utterance.14 With few exceptions, it is typically spoken by a second party, whether individual or corporate, and not by the speaker of the prayers or injunctions himself; according to the rabbis, the purpose of saying “amen” was not simply to confirm the priestly blessing but to appropriate the blessing as one's own. In several instances in the scriptures, it serves to introduce an individual's answer to the previous speaker, as when the prophet begins his speech in Jeremiah 28.6, “Amen: the LORD do so”; or in I Kings 1.36, “And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada answered the king, and said, Amen: the LORD God of my lord the king say so too.”15 During the Babylonian Exile and post-Exile period, the term seems to have evolved into a formula of consent in congregational prayer, spoken by the people in response to the petitions of the priests, and the additional words of the answer—“the LORD do so,” “the LORD God … say so”—were generally omitted.16

The foundational example of this liturgical use surfaces in response to curses, and not to benedictions. In the “Exhortation to Obedience” in Deuteronomy, each of the Levites' curses—“Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image” (27:15); “Cursed be he that setteth light by his father or his mother” (27:16); “Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way” (27:18); and so on—is followed by the injunction: “and all the people shall answere and say, Amen.” The “shall” here has the force of a liturgical imperative, whereby worshipers have no choice but to perform their obedience to the law.17 According to classical sources, the response of “amen” became so crucial a part of congregational worship that in the large synagogue in Alexandria, where not all members of the congregation could hear when a prayer or blessing had concluded, an official would wave a flag from a platform in the middle of the synagogue in order to signal exactly when “amen” ought to be said.18

The use of “amen” in liturgical worship was by no means limited to Jewish worship: it was adopted in the Christian church's earliest recorded prayer, in The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.19 The second-century Roman Justin Martyr describes in his First Apology the role of “amen” at the end of the Eucharist service: “When the bishop has finished the prayers and the thanksgiving service, all the people present conclude with an audible voice, saying Amen.” He then translates the term for those unfamiliar: “Now Amen in the Hebrew tongue is, ‘So it be.’” Justin's emphasis on the congregation's “audible voice” suggests the crucial role that the worshipers played in sealing liturgical texts; later in his account, he explains that after the “bishop, as before, sends up prayers and thanksgivings with all the fervency he is able … the people conclude all with the joyful acclamation of Amen.”20 As is consistent with Austin's account of speech acts, the affirmation itself performs the approval of the individual worshiper, whose word functions as his or her bond.

As an alternative to performing one's approval or appropriation of liturgical prayers with the “joyful acclamation of Amen,” the people may have chosen a parallel response that is also described in the Hebrew Bible: to clap their hands in applause. Hence Psalm 47 begins: “O Clap your hands, all ye people shout unto God with the voice of triumph.”21 This notion of applause as a means of expressing gladness surfaces both in images of humans as well as in metaphorical accounts of trees and bodies of water, which are said to celebrate the Lord through clapping their hands. Thus in Isaiah 55.12, the prophet describes a time in which “the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Or in Psalm 98, David enjoins the sea to roar, and the floods to “clap their hands” as signs of “joyful noise before the LORD.”

According to the mid-seventeenth-century chronicler of manual gestures John Bulwer, applause belongs to the category of natural uses of the hands. “To clap the raised hands one against another,” Bulwer explains, “is an expression proper to them who applaud, congratulate, rejoice, assent, approve, and are well-pleased, [an expression] used by all nations. For applause, as it is a vulgar note of encouragement, a sign of rejoicing, and a token and sign of giving praise and allowance doth wholly consist in the hands.” Although in this preliminary definition applause serves simply as an outward “sign” or “token” of an inward act [of rejoicing, assenting, approving], Bulwer explains that it performs a crucial affective function. “This public token has been of old and is so usual in the assembly of the multitude,” he continues, that “when [the people] cannot contain their joy in silence … there is nothing more common with them than by clapping their hands to signify their exceeding joy and gladness of heart.”22 Here applause becomes a means of releasing emotional excess: the clapping does not passively reflect an internal state but actively relieves the overflow of the individual's heart.

Although Bulwer describes the gesture of applause as entirely separate from verbal utterance, in the example that he provides from the Hebrew Bible, clapping is accompanied by vocal confirmation: “When Jehoiadah the priest caused Joash the son of Ahazia to be crowned king and had brought him out and given him the testimony, they made him king and anointed him, and they clapped their hands and said: God save the King” (2 Kings: 11.12).23 The meaning of this concluding phrase, “God save the King (or Queen)” has been so deeply absorbed into a formulaic greeting that it has lost its original charge. Poised between a shout of affirmation and a prayer, “God save the King” invokes divine sanction for the choice of one's earthly ruler. The force of this declaration as prayer was not lost on Shakespeare, however, who uses it, along with “amen,” as a rhetorical means to sanctify royal power. We might recall, for example, Richard II's lines before handing over his crown—“God save the King! Will no man say amen? / Am I both priest and clerk? Well then, Amen. / God save the King, although I be not he. / And yet Amen, if heaven do think him me” (4.1.163-66). Here the response of “amen” replaces the biblical role of applause as the gesture that would affirm either Bolingbroke's or Richard's right to the throne. In its mingling of applause and prayer, the verse Bulwer cites from 2 Kings also resonates with Prospero's requests in the Epilogue to The Tempest: he asks both that the audience “release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands,” and relieve him “by prayer, which pierces so, that it assaults / Mercy itself and frees all faults” (Epil. 9-10, 16-18).24

The resonances between “amen” and applause connect to wider parallels between the roles of the congregation and the audience in the two preeminent spheres of public performance in early modern England. In the theater and the church, respectively, the immediate success of a play, sermon, or prayer would largely have been determined by the willingness of those in attendance either to affirm or consent to what had transpired. To applaud as a sign of indicating approval in the theater dates back at least to classical drama and seems to have been a deeply habituated, if not, as Bulwer imagines, a “natural” response, to a pleasurable dramatic performance.25 Within the history of the English stage, the role of applause seems to have shifted in the mid-sixteenth century with the opening of commercial playhouses. As Andrew Gurr has explained, the commercial theaters marked the end of a system in which players would have collected payment in a hat following performances in marketplaces or would have made private payment arrangements with an innkeeper for plays done in innyards but would not have received direct and standardized income from the audience. In this earlier system, money combined with applause as the spectators' means to convey their approval or disapproval of the play.26 Once the practice of paying for admission before the performance had been introduced, the acts of judging and paying were permanently severed, and applause became the primary vehicle of response following a theatrical performance. Despite Ben Jonson's comical efforts in the “Induction” to Bartholomew Fair to limit the audience's right to criticize the play based on the relative price of their tickets, playgoers enjoyed the freedom to clap, or hiss, at their discretion.27

In the English Protestant church, the congregation would similarly have been offered the opportunity to respond to the prayers and sermons that were uttered, although in this case their responses were far more prescribed. Many of the prayers in the English liturgy required responsive readings on the part of the congregation, a practice that engaged the worshipers in a manner without precedent in either the Catholic Church or the Elizabethan theater. However, in answer to those prayers that were uttered by the minister alone, as well as in response to sermons or state-issued homilies, the congregation was asked to show its consent not by an act of applause, as they may have done in the early church, but instead by the uniform utterance of “amen.”28 As the minister John Browning contends in his 1636 defense of public prayer: “Every he that is a private man (as in the Church, besides the Ministers, all are) must and ought to set to his Seale, and to subscribe, as it were, making it his owne deed, by his owne Amen.” The analogy of the vocal “amen” to a “Seale,” whereby the utterance pledges the speaker's commitment to the terms of the minister's prayers, suggests the personalization, or privatization, of otherwise collective devotional property: just as the deed transfers the possession of land, so the “amen” appropriates the prayers for individual worshipers. Moreover, Browning continues, the sheer act of affirming the minister's prayers helps stimulate the congregation's devotional fervor: “for hereby (namely by the voice and our outward gestures) we stir up our owne devotions, we drive away drowsinesse and sleepinesse; we rouse up our spirits, we cheere our mindes, we quicken and kindle our zeale.”29 Outward assent becomes not simply a reflection but a vehicle for affective piety.

What underlies Browning's position is the assumption that only those worshipers in possession of inward faith could successfully pledge themselves in external acts of devotion; without the requisite foundation of belief and piety, the individual's outward performance would simply fail to be felicitous. Hence George Downame, in his 1640 Godly and Learned Treatise of Prayer, contends that the sinner is physically “not able to utter one word [of the Lord's Prayer] aright”; and Bulwer argues that “hypocrites, entangled in vain cares or wicked cogitations, lie groveling on the earth and by a contradiction of gesture bear witness against themselves.”30 Shakespeare cannily stages these symptoms of sinfulness in act 2 of Macbeth, when Macbeth finds himself incapable of responding “Amen” to the “God bless us” that he overhears as he stands outside the chamber of Duncan's sons. “But wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’?” the murderous Thane of Cawdor, with Duncan's blood on his hands, anxiously asks his wife, “I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ / Stuck in my throat” (2.2.29-31). Here the speech act misfires not for lack of intention—Macbeth is desperate to possess the prayers as his own—but due to what Austin would explain as “the total situation in which the utterance is issued,” or what Protestants might simply regard as a lack of grace.31

At the same time that some churchmen sought to narrow the conditions for a felicitous utterance of “amen,” others feared that once it was dislodged from the throat and released into the world, it might assume real devotional power. Among the vast array of liturgical utterances in the Prayer Book that were imagined to require the worshiper's full participation and consent in order to be devotionally effective, “amen” threatened to be the peculiar exception to the rule. What if, in the manner of Austin's most straightforward performatives, the congregation's utterance of “amen” in the right time and place would indeed send the minister's prayer directly to God? Although the ramifications of disturbing God with hollow prayers were not typically specified, the horror of these speech acts loomed large in the early modern Protestant conscience.

Whereas parishioners in the Catholic Church were expected to issue their “amens” in response to the priest's often inaudible or uncomprehended Latin prayers, Protestant worshipers were instructed to respond to the minister's petitions only when they had fully understood and approved his words. The problems that might arise from the utterance of “amen” without full understanding or assent motivate the late-seventeenth-century preacher Samuel Annesley to encourage his fellow ministers to preach clearly to their congregations, forgoing all “overstudied phrases and singular notions of their own fancies.” “Any unintelligible or doubtful expressions,” he warns, “do but lay a stumbling-block in the way, to hinder the hearers giving readily their AMEN,” whereas plain language based on scripture will more easily reach the people's hearts, and receive their vocal consent. Unless the minister uses all possible “diligence of mind” in forming his petitions, the congregation “cannot consent to every part”: “for a man who is to set his hand and seal to an Indenture, will hear all the conditions, that he may know what he binds himself to; so we, being to seal all the Prayers with our lips and hearts, had need mind what we seal to.”32 Once again, the language of legal contract blurs with the language of liturgical practice: in order to assent to the minister's prayers, the worshiper must be fully familiar with the prayers that the minister offers. Without this depth of understanding, the congregational utterance will lack what Austin describes as the “thoughts and feelings” required for a felicitous performative, and the “amen” will at best be hollow.33

The danger of this hollow utterance rests less upon the shoulders of the congregation than upon those of the minister. For, Annesley continues, when the worshipers no longer follow the public prayers, they “indulge their thoughts in vanities, [and] like a wanton spaniel from his Master's walk … come in from this false scent to the quest, with full cry, and a dirty AMEN.”34 A “dirty” amen is doubly threatening, we might imagine, because it is presumably indistinguishable from its “clean” alternative: the minister may think he has received corroboration in his prayers, and yet the basis of this support might be fraudulent in ways that lie beyond his perception. Hence the speech act itself seems felicitous: it was spoken by the appropriate people at the appropriate time in the appropriate place, and yet it is fatally unhappy or flawed. Moreover, although the minister cannot easily determine whether the “amens” given to his prayers are wholesome or tainted, the same cannot be said of God. If a unanimous pronunciation of “amen” in good faith carries “an assurance that God will accept our praises, and answer our prayers,” then a hollow performative, a dirty amen, certainly diminishes God's willingness to bend his ear.


In the highly corrupt world of Shakespeare's Richard III there are no meaningful distinctions between a clean and a dirty “amen.” Although Richard, Duke of Gloucester, recognizes the political expediency of obtaining the citizens' outward, vocal consent before becoming king, he assigns no significance to their inward disposition toward his rule. “How now, how now!” he addresses Buckingham, who has come from a meeting with the Mayor and people of London, “What say the citizens?” (3.7.1). In response to Buckingham's description of the meager enthusiasm voiced in support of Richard's assumption of the throne—no more than “ten voices cried ‘God save King Richard,’” and those were none other than Buckingham's supporters—Gloucester exclaims with utter disgust: “What tongueless blocks were they! Would they not speak?” (3.7.42-43).

The two eminent theatricalists proceed to stage what is surely the most cynical scene of “election” in Shakespeare's works, a scene whose cynicism depends upon the absolute intertwining of devotional and political fraudulence. Buckingham instructs Gloucester to “get a prayer book in your hand / And stand between two churchmen” (3.7.47-48), a posture that is repeatedly confirmed in the dialogue that follows. First, we are told by Catesby that Richard cannot meet the citizens and Mayor who await him. “He doth entreat your grace, my noble lord / To visit him tomorrow, or next day,” Catesby proclaims to Buckingham, no doubt exceedingly loudly, “He is within with two right reverend fathers / Divinely bent to meditation / And in no worldly suits would he be moved / To draw him from his holy exercise” (3.7.59-64). After urging Catesby to return to Richard and beg once again his presence, Buckingham repeats to the crowd the devout behavior of the duke:

Ah ha! My lord, this prince is not an Edward.
He is not lolling on a lewd day-bed,
But on his knees at meditation;
Not dallying with a brace of courtesans,
But meditating with two deep divines;
Not sleeping to engross his idle body,
But praying to enrich his watchful soul.


These secondhand descriptions of Richard receive ocular proof when he finally appears on the stage, as promised, between two clergymen, which the Mayor and Buckingham gloss for the crowd as if narrating a royal entry:

See where his grace stands 'tween two clergymen.
Two props of virtue for a Christian prince,
To stay him from the fall of vanity;
And see, a book of prayer in his hand—
True ornaments to know a holy man.


Richard now assumes the theatrical role of a resistant heir, piously dismissing Buckingham's offers of the throne on behalf of “all good men of this ungoverned isle” (3.7.110). After a series of these exchanges, culminating in Buckingham's departure from the stage, Richard yields to the request of Catesby and perhaps “another” to recall Buckingham and accept the throne.35 If we follow the Folio version of the play, the scene concludes with “All” asserting their consent to Buckingham's triumphant declaration, a variation on the biblical formula, “God save the King”: “Then I salute you with this royal title: Long live [king] Richard, England's worthy king!” (3.7.230).36 In the first Quarto, the response to Buckingham is made by the Mayor alone, while the citizens remain stonily silent. In both texts, however, the utterance that is used to confer legitimacy upon Richard is the simple, and here unmistakably dirty, term “Amen.”37

Shakespeare's careful attention to the very thin veneer of popular consent that Richard manages to receive follows closely upon his primary source for the play, Thomas More's History of King Richard III.38 More's version of this story recounts an even lengthier series of events staged to authorize Richard's assumption of the throne, and it draws more directly upon the manipulation of religious as well as political performances. The episodes begin with a contrived public sermon at St. Paul's given by the popular preacher Dr. Shaw, whose subject was the illegitimacy of King Edward's two heirs: “Spuria vitulamina non agent radices altas, that is to say bastard slippes shal never take depe roote.” According to Buckingham's instructions, Shaw was to proceed from this condemnation of the little princes as bastards to praise of Gloucester; just as Shaw began his elaborate panegyric, Gloucester was meant to enter the grounds, “to thend that those words meting with his presence, might have been taken among the hearers, as thoughe the holye ghost had put them in the preachers mouth, & should have moved the people even ther, to crie king Richard king Richard, that it might have been after said, that he was specially chosen by god & in maner by miracle.”39

This planned coincidence, as it were, depends for its success upon precise timing, which Shaw and Gloucester spectacularly fail to achieve. For while Gloucester tarried along the way, nervous that he would arrive too early, Shaw for his part feared that the duke would arrive too soon and rushed quickly through the earlier parts of the sermon. The result was that Shaw had long finished his praise of Gloucester and moved onto other matters before Gloucester came, “whom when he beheld coming, he sodainly lefte the matter, with which he was in hand, and without ani deducion thereunto, out of al order, & oute of al frame, began to repete those wordes again: this is the verye noble prince,” etc. Shaw's unfortunate repetition, not surprisingly, stripped his words of their intended effect; behind the botched “miracle” lay only bad theater. Far from crying out “king Richard” as had been hoped, the people “stode as thei had beene turned into stones, for wonder of this shamefull sermon.” So ashamed was Shaw of his performance that “within fewe daies after he withered & consumed away.”40

More's fascination with Richard's ascent to the throne turns repeatedly on its shaky foundations in theater. The “mockishe eleccion” that More describes rests upon neither divine nor earthly authorization; there are no signs of the Holy Ghost and no voices of collective human consent. Instead, Richard's coronation results from elaborately crafted, if unconvincing, theatrical performances. For the play they stage does not require more than the passive complicity an audience might give to a performance, the (perhaps) willing suspension of disbelief that need only last until the actors take their final leave.41 In the second scene of this drama, Buckingham speaks at long length to the people of Richard's virtues and waits expectantly for cries of approval, but he is met only with silence: the people stand “husht and mute” (75). Even those men whom he believed the Mayor had “framed” to cry out “King Richard” seem impervious to the message of his speech. Buckingham eventually turns the podium over to the Mayor himself, who once again entreats the people to answer whether they will have Richard as their king. At this point, the people began to whisper among themselves secretly, in a voice that was neither loud nor distinct, but instead resembled the “sounde of a swarme of bees.” Finally, in the far end of the hall a “bushement,” or secretly concealed group of the duke's servants, begin to cry out, “king Rycharde kinge Rycharde.” In spite of all this, More recounts, “they that stode before, cast back theyr heddes mervailing thereof, but nothing they sayd” (76). Undaunted by this persistence of silence, the Mayor and the duke turn what little they had “to theyr purpose” and invite all present to join them the next day in beseeching Richard to accept the throne.

The final scene in this three-act farce follows a similar pattern of solicitations, silences, and minimal confirmations. After the elaborate rituals of Buckingham's offering the crown to Richard, and Richard's grudging yet dutiful acceptance, there was “a great shout, crying kyng Richarde king Rychard,” upon which “the lordes went up to the kyng (for so was he from that time called) and the people departed” (80). More does not specify here who made the “great shout”; in the preceding scene, he reported that Buckingham had appointed a “bushement” of the duke's men to shout “as lowde as their throtes would gyve” (76) while the rest of the people said nothing. But what matters in the end is not who gave the single cry that served to conclude this particular drama, nor how many of the people this cry legitimately represented. The act of declaring Richard “king,” an act devastatingly reduced by More to a parenthetic observation—“(for so was he from that time called)”—has no claim whatsoever to either mystical power or popular will. The people understand instinctively that what they have seen is no more than a elaborate charade. They depart “marveil[ing] of the maner of this dealing” as if neither Buckingham nor Richard had communicated with one another beforehand, although there was no one so “dull” that he knew not that the matter had been well arranged between them. “Howbeit,” More continues, “somme excused that agayne, and sayde all must be done in good order though. And menne must sommetime for the manner sake not bee a knowen what they knowe” (80).

More invokes two analogies for this act of willful unknowing. First, he compares witnessing the consecration of a bishop, who turns down the office twice before accepting it upon the third offer, as if everyone present were unaware that he had paid for the position in advance. Second, he describes watching a local craftsman perform the role of a sultan in a play. No matter how certain the audience may be that the sultan is none other than their shoemaker, no one would dare interrupt the play to greet this acquaintance or request some new soles. In exactly this manner, More concludes, the people were not actually fooled by the facade of popular consent that authorized Richard's rule but instead said to one another that “these matters bee Kynges games, as it were stage playes, and for the more part plaied upon scafoldes” (81). In the sinister pun on “scafoldes” as gallows and stage platform, More's commoners reveal their political savvy: better to remain silent than to interfere with the treacherous operations of the state. Far from vainly imagining that their voices possess real power, the poor men understood they were “but the lokers on” (81).

I have already suggested how More's account of the people's passive compliance informs Shakespeare's dramatization of this scene. More surprising, however, is the similarly passive role that Shakespeare assigns those who surround the Earl of Richmond when he is given Richard's crown in the final scene of act 5. Here Shakespeare subtly departs from the account provided in Edward Hall's Union of the Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (which reprints Hall's account more or less verbatim), which are likely to have been his primary sources for the conclusion of the play.42 According to Hall, after the battle at Bosworth Field, the victorious Richmond prays devoutly to God and then ascends to the top of a small mountain, where he thanks his loyal soldiers and promises them ample recompense for their valiant deeds. The people then “rejoysed & clapped handes criyng up to heaven, kyng Henry, kyng Henry.” When Lord Stanley saw the people's joy, here manifested through their applause and shouts, he took Richard's crown, which he found among the spoil in Bosworth Field, and placed it upon Richmond's head, “as though he had byne elected king by the voyce of the people as in auncient tymes past in divers realmes it hath been accustomed.”43 Although the subjunctive construction, “as though he had byne elected king,” underscores the fictional or counterfactual nature of this election—we are well aware that Richmond's claim to the throne does not depend upon the people's cries at this moment, nor does this moment constitute his lawful coronation—the scene nonetheless performs the ritual process of choosing the king according to the people's will.44

In Shakespeare's play, there is no popular upswelling of support from the “voyce of the people” which incites Richmond's crowning at Bosworth Field; no citizens clap hands or rejoice, crying out Henry's name. Instead, Stanley delivers the recovered crown on his own initiative, declaring “wear it, enjoy it, and make much of it,” to which Richmond alone replies with a simple request for divine and not human consent: “Great God of heaven, say ‘Amen’ to all.”45 Unlike the parallel moment in Henry V, however, the absence of God's response does not provoke the others present to echo the “amen”: the “[divers] other lords” mentioned in the play's stage directions remain strikingly mute.46

Given the sources' emphasis on Richmond's enormous support from the men surrounding him, why does Shakespeare deny all voices of consent to his rule save that of his stepfather, Stanley? Why, in other words, is Stanley's gift of the crown not only unprompted but also unanswered by those present on stage? If, as criticism has long maintained, the play is meant to authorize the Tudor state, we might reasonably expect a ritualized undoing and rerighting of the earlier, factitious election of Richard, whereby Richmond's merit would be confirmed by the genuine enthusiasm of his fellow soldiers and lords.47 Instead, we find nothing other than an attempt at self-ratification, or a ratification that is only implied rather than felicitously performed. For in order to effect the transfer of power convincingly, the scene would ideally include a performative utterance declaring Richmond as England's new ruler. Instead, Stanley does not address Henry as anything but “my lord” in the lines that follow, and Henry himself asks, but does not receive, confirmation from either the heavens or his fellow men. If no one but Stanley directly affirms Richmond's wearing of the crown, how does the play secure his position as the rightful king?

We are left with two possibilities. First, that the play establishes Richmond's legitimacy by denying its basis in popular support. Unlike Richard, who works tremendously hard to obtain even the appearance of the people's consent as if England were ruled by an elective monarchy, Richmond's claim to the throne is not subject to the voices of the people but rests on God's will alone. In this respect, the play enforces the Elizabethan and Jacobean suspicion of elective monarchy; as the Earl of Salisbury explained to the House of Commons in 1610, “for his kingdom, [King James] was beholden to no elective power, neither doth he depend upon any popular applause.”48 Here the gesture of applause directly corresponds to the act of election: both acts become vulgar substitutions for the principle of divine right.

Richmond has been shown, moreover, to have a clear spiritual advantage over Richard in his ability to pray. Whereas Richard's “devotions” earlier in the play were exposed as entirely bankrupt, meant to make a public impression among the people rather than to generate sympathy from God, Richmond engages in a sincere act of prayer unseen by any of his men. In the scene preceding his victory, he beseeches God for his army's protection in an act of private devotion: “O Thou, whose captain I account myself / Look on my forces with a gracious eye. … Sleeping and waking, O defend me still!” (5.5.61-62, 70). This humble act of piety is followed by a strange but powerful form of supernatural confirmation: the appearance of the ghosts of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the two little princes, Lady Anne, and Buckingham. All express their hopes for Richmond's victory and assure him, as Buckingham's ghost exclaims, that “God and good angels fight on Richmond's side” (5.5.129). Of course, the tainted careers of most of these figures and the uncertain metaphysical status of ghostly apparitions in general hardly instill our confidence in their authority as spokespersons for the divine. However, notwithstanding these ambiguities, the unambiguous fulfillment of Richmond's prayer in his decisive victory conveys what Elizabethan Protestants would certainly recognize as the sign of godly election.

The second possible source for sanctioning Richmond's rule, and one that subtly redeems the power of both popular election and theatrical applause, lies in the role of the audience itself. Here it is useful to recall that Richard III is the only Shakespeare play that ends with an “amen” and that there is no precedent for this term in any of Shakespeare's sources for the battle at Bosworth Field and its aftermath. Why should the felicitous performance of Richmond's “election” turn so heavily upon whether a single liturgical term has been uttered? Perhaps these “amens” speak to the playwright's tremendous ability to feel his way inside, and borrow from, his culture's most conditioned modes of public response. For when Henry concludes with the lines, “Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again / That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’,” Shakespeare invokes a liturgical context in which many members of his audience, well trained in confirming the prayers issued by their clergy, would have likely been overwhelmed with the impulse to respond “amen” and thereby ratify Richmond's accession to the throne. Indeed, the decision to close the play with the word “amen” may well have been produced out of the impulse, ingrained in Shakespeare as well as in his audience, to effect closure through liturgical reflexes. Hence the playwright ensures that Henry's request will be confirmed, if not from the players on stage, then at least from the crowd in the pit.


The audience's hypothetical consent to Henry's rule at the end of Richard III may seem to operate as a ringing endorsement as well as a ritual commemoration of the origins of the Tudor state; the participants in that ritual are joined both to their ancestors and to one another in affirming Richmond's election. And yet, here as elsewhere in the play, Shakespeare remains deeply sensitive to the possible ambiguities of speech acts, the ways in which saying and meaning are not necessarily intertwined. This potential for infelicity arises most interestingly in a short and seldom discussed moment in Henry's final speech, where he requests heaven's blessing—“smile, heaven, upon this fair conjunction / That long have frown'd upon their enmity”—and then asks of no one in particular: “What traitor hears me and says not Amen?” Because no provision is made for anyone on stage to answer (the Arden editors, perhaps uncomfortable about this, gloss the unanswered “amen” with a note that “presumably the on-lookers pronounce the word in response” [line 22], although which onlookers—onstage or off—is not specified), Henry continues with his final speech uninterrupted, and the first occasion for an answer arises in the immediate aftermath of the play.

“What traitor hears me and says not Amen?” The question cuts in two ways. On the one hand, and in keeping with the Tudor myth, it suggests that even former traitors will become loyal subjects by the prospect of serving so lawful and just a king. In a manner consistent with both Austin's notion that “our word is our bond” and Richmond's generally unswerving confidence, the sheer fact of a traitor's uttering “amen” ought to be taken as a sincere declaration of renewed conversion to the English state. On the other hand, we find the less cheery possibility that even traitors can and will say “amen,” that our word is not necessarily our bond, that no correspondence necessarily exists between the traitor's affirmation of Richmond's request and his sincere belief in his right to rule. Like the declaration of “amen” by uncomprehending or listless parishioners in the church, or by the disgruntled citizens who witnessed Gloucester's “mockishe eleccion,” the “amens” that may issue forth at the end of the play can hardly be assured to be clean.

But why, we might ask, does it matter whether these “amens” represent an enthusiastic or only halfhearted endorsement of Henry's rule? In the political and devotional world that the play encompasses, what is the purpose of distinguishing between sincere and cynical acts of consent? Certainly in his treatment of Richard, Shakespeare comes close to a Hobbesian disavowal of the necessary correspondence between internal will and external performance. As Hobbes will describe in the Leviathan, all that the ruler demands of his subjects lies in the outward show of obedience. “As for the inward thought, and beleef of men,” he observes, “they are not voluntary, nor the effect of the laws, but of the unrevealed will, and of the power of God; and consequently fall not under obligation.”49 So long as the private will remains “unrevealed,” its expression lies beyond the scope of the subject's responsibility to the state. However, in his staging of Richmond's ascent to the throne, Shakespeare seems to solicit a more Austinian response in which verbal acts of consent would correspond to the speaker's inward condition or affect. Unlike the earlier scene with Richard and the citizens, no fraudulent or hollow speech acts are performed at the end of the play, when the silence on stage can be superseded only by the voice of God, to whom Richmond appeals, or by God's earthly substitute, the audience.

At the end of Richard III, Shakespeare makes clear that what potentially confers legitimacy on Richmond, whose historical claims to the throne were by no means self-evident, was precisely what the theater could offer. Although James I might dismiss both the people's “election” and their applause, Henry Tudor could not afford that luxury. Hence Richard III placed the Elizabethan audience in the position of approving the history it witnessed, so that the subjects of Henry VII's granddaughter are mythically imagined to elect the first Tudor king.50 And at the same time that the audience's “amens” affirm Richmond's right to the throne, they may also precede, and serve to intensify, the spectators' expression of approval for Shakespeare's own play. As we have seen, Shakespeare was keenly aware of the resonances among religious, secular, and theatrical modes of performing consent, and he knew how to manipulate one form into another to serve his own ends. It is no coincidence that the repeated petitions for sacred consent emerge at the very end of Richard III, when the “amens” for the king and the applause for the play become less easily separable or distinct. As the hands join together in the motion of clapping before separating again, the spectators might realize they have involuntarily assumed the posture of prayer.


  1. This and all subsequent Shakespeare references are to Stephen Greenblatt, ed., The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

  2. Andrew Marvell, “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel's Return from Ireland,” in The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, 3d ed., 2 vols., ed. H. M. Margoliouth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 1:33.

  3. Austin does use this term, but not consistently, in How to Do Things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmon and Marina Sbisà, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975); see, for example, 52.

  4. Stanley Fish first raises, only to dismiss, this problem in Austin. See Fish, “How to Do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech-Act Theory and Literary Criticism,” in Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 197-245.

  5. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 9. See also his discussion of promises in “Other Minds,” reprinted in J. L. Austin, Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), 67-71.

  6. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 15.

  7. Fish, “How to Do Things with Austin and Searle,” 203-4.

  8. “Amen” functions as an “implicit” performative in that what it assents to or enacts is made explicit antecedently; as I discuss subsequently, it can best be translated as “so be it.” For Austin's discussion of “explicit” versus “implicit” performatives, see How to Do Things with Words, 32-33, and passim.

  9. I am thinking here in particular of Fish's problematic characterization of intention as “a matter of what one takes responsibility for by performing certain conventional (speech) acts” (“How to Do Things with Austin and Searle,” 203).

  10. It is worth noting that Austin also ignores the category of collective performatives; as he repeats throughout his work, he is interested only in “first person singular present indicative active” verbs (How to Do Things with Words, 5).

  11. It was Gloucester as the son of the Duke of York, and not Richmond, from the Welsh family of the Tudors, who had a legitimate claim to the throne. Indeed, the Tudors had only a very weak connection to the house of Lancaster, through the marriage of John of Gaunt. Gaunt had four children with his mistress, whom he later made his third wife and legitimized their (Beaufort) children. The daughter of this marriage, Margaret Beaufort, married Edmund Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, and gave birth to Henry Tudor. For details of this genealogy, see J. D. Mackie, The Earlier Tudors, 1485-1558 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 46-63. Much of the work done by More's History of Richard III, which I discuss later in this essay, was meant to delegitimize Gloucester, a project that was further embraced by the sixteenth-century chroniclers Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed.

  12. Hence “amen” is included, for example, in Richard Mulcaster's “Generall Table” of all English words, where he claims to have “gathered the most of those words, which we commonlie use in our hole speche” (First part of the Elementarie [London, 1582], 163, 172). In his 1598 Italian-English dictionary, John Florio lists “amen” as both an Italian and an English word: the Italian “amen” is translated into the English as “amen, so be it” (A Worlde of Wordes, or Most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English [London, 1598], 16). Thomas Blount's 1656 dictionary of English “hard words” acknowledges the etymological origins of “amen” in Hebrew but notes that it is now “used in most languages; in Turkey they use (Homin) instead of it” (Glossographia: Or a Dictionary, Interpreting all such Hard Words … [London, 1656], sig. C4r).

  13. John Eliot, trans., The Holy Bible: Containing the Old Testament and the New. Translated into the Indian Language (Cambridge, Mass.: Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, 1663).

  14. See note 8.

  15. These and all subsequent scriptural references are from the King James Bible.

  16. See H. W. Hogg, “‘Amen’: Notes on its significance and use in Biblical and Post-Biblical Times,” Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 9 (London: Macmillan, 1897), 1-23; Haim Gevaryahu, “Amen and Hallelujah: Their Development as Liturgical Responses,” Dor-le-Dor 13, no. 2 (1984-85): 93-97; W. O. E. Oesterley, The Jewish Background of the Christian Liturgy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), 70-71.

  17. Other examples of collective sanctioning through the utterance of “amen” include: I Chronicles 16.36, “Blessed be the Lord God … and all the people saide, Amen, and praised the Lord”; Nehemiah 5.13, “And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the Lord”; Nehemiah 8.6, “all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands”; and I Esdras 9.47: “And all the people answered Amen, and lifting up their hands they fell to the ground, & worshipped the Lord.”

  18. Oesterley, Jewish Background, 71.

  19. Kirsopp Lake, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols., Loeb Classical Library (London and New York: William Heinemann and Macmillan, 1912), 115-17.

  20. Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (London: Griffith, Farran, and Co., 1912), 86-87, 93.

  21. For the role of applause within the early church, see H. F. Stander, “The Clapping of Hands in the Early Church”, Studia Patristica, vol. 26 (Leuven: Peeters Press, 1993), 76. Stander points out that although the early church fathers recognize the possible scriptural bases for clapping, many of them frequently condemn this activity as pagan. Chrysostom in particular argued fervently against applause.

  22. John Bulwer, Chirologia: or the Natural Language of the Hand, and Chironomia: or the Art of Manual Rhetoric, ed. James W. Cleary (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974), 34.

  23. Ibid.

  24. There is a similar moment in the prologue to The Two Noble Kinsmen in which an appeal for applause unfolds into an appeal for salvation: “Do but you hold out / Your helping hands and we shall tack about / And something do to save us” (Prol. 25-27). I am indebted to Jeffrey Masten for drawing this to my attention.

  25. The Oxford Latin Dictionary, for example, lists “to clap the hands in applause (in requests for applause at the end of a play)” as entry “3b” for “plaudo” and provides citations from Horace and Cicero, among others.

  26. Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 11.

  27. For an account of Shakespeare's more subtle attempts to manipulate the “postscriptural future” of his plays, see Robert Weimann, “Thresholds to Memory and Commodity in Shakespeare's Endings,” Representations 53 (winter 1996): 1-20.

  28. See Stander, “Clapping of Hands.”

  29. John Browning, Concerning Publicke-Prayer; And the Fasts of the Church. Six Sermons, or Tractates (London, 1636), 73, 75.

  30. George Downame, A Godly and Learned Treatise of Prayer (Cambridge, 1640), 39; Bulwer, Chirologia, 28.

  31. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 52.

  32. Samuel Annesley, The Proper Use of the Word Amen, abridged from a Sermon of Dr. Samuel Annesley, (Sheffield: J. Crome, 1805), 9. Annesley, a nonconformist preacher expelled from the Church of England in 1662, was the grandfather of John Wesley.

  33. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 15; Annesley, Proper Use of Amen, 4.

  34. Annesley, Proper Use of Amen, 8.

  35. The Folio gives two lines to Catesby: “Call him again, sweet Prince; accept their suit. / If you deny them, all the land will rue it.” In the Quarto text, a version of the second line is assigned to “Another” and reads, “Do, good my Lord, least all the land do rew it.”

  36. Here I follow the Folio and depart from the Norton text, which emends “king” to “kind” due to the redundancy of “king” in the Folio's text. See Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 243.

  37. Oliver Arnold acutely observes that the line is restricted to the Mayor in all six of the Quartos for this play (The Third Citizen: Shakespeare's Theater, the House of Commons, and the Ideology of Political Representation [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming]). I am greatly indebted to this study for its rich and original readings of related scenes of election in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.

  38. According to Antony Hammond's introduction to the Arden edition of Richard III, Shakespeare is likely to have read More's History in its reprinted form in Hall's chronicle and not in the 1557 edition of More's Works published by William Rastell (King Richard III, ed. Antony Hammond [London: Routledge, 1981], 79).

  39. Richard S. Sylvester, ed., The History of King Richard III, vol. 2, The Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963), 68.

  40. Ibid.

  41. Of course, within the antitheatrical tradition, the consequences of this passive complicity are considered far more dangerous than they may initially seem. See, for example, Augustine's disciple Salvianus's account of theatrical spectatorship, as translated by the Elizabethan Anthony Munday in his polemical Second and Third Blast of Retrait from Plaies and Theatres: “Al other evils pollute the doers onlie, not the beholders, or the hearers. For a man may heare a blasphemer, and not be a partaker of his sacriledge, inasmuch as in minde he dissenteth. And if one come while a roberie is a doing, he is cleere, beccause he abhors the fact. Onlie the filthiness of plaies, and spectacles is such, as maketh both actors & beholders giltie alike. For while they saie nought, but gladlie looke on, they al by sight and assent be actors.” Reprinted in Jonas Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 80 n. 1. Page numbers in parentheses in this and subsequent paragraphs refer to Sylvester, History of King Richard III.

  42. More's account of Richard's history ends before Richard's death, with the flight of Buckingham; Hall's primary source for the rest of the narrative included in the play was Polydore Vergil's Urbinatis Anglicae Historiae (Basle, 1556).

  43. This portion of Hall's chronicle is reprinted in Horace Howard Furness, ed., The Tragedy of Richard the Third, New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1908), 499. Holinshed's identical text for this passage can be found in Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 vols. (reprint; London: J. Johnson et al., 1808), 3:446. Francis Bacon, in his History of the Reign of King Henry VII, repeats Hall and Holinshed's version of the story, describing the scene as follows: “The King immediately after the victory, as one that had been bred under a devout mother and was in his nature a great observer of religious forms, caused Te Deum Laudamus to be solemnly sung in the presence of the whole army upon the place, and was himself with general applause and great cries of joy, in a kind of military election or recognition, saluted King” (History of the Reign of King Henry VII and Selected Works, ed. Brian Vickers [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 5). Bacon also specifies that the crown Richard wore to battle, and hence the crown Stanley places upon Richmond's head, was only a “crown of ornament” (8).

  44. In the anonymous True Tragedie of Richard The Third, an early play that Shakespeare may have seen but for which we have only a contaminated copy, Richmond is “elected” to the throne by the peers in Parliament. According to Lord Stanley, “the Peeres by full consent, in that thou hast freed them from a tyrants yoke, have by election chosen thee as King.” In response to this news, Oxford calls out, “Henry the seventh, by the grace of God, King of England, France, and Lord of Ireland, God save the King,” to which “all” respond, “Long live Henry the seventh, King of England.” Reprinted in Furness, Tragedy of Richard the Third, 546.

  45. Although in both the Quarto and Folio Richmond remains “Ri,” “Rich,” or “Richm” throughout the last scene, in the Norton Shakespeare, the speech prefixes shift with these lines from “Henry Earl of Richmond” to “King Henry VII,” an editorial decision that is explained as follows: “QF ‘Richmond’ becomes in our speech-prefixes ‘HENRY EARL OF RICHMOND’ so that in the final scene he can speak, after being crowned, as ‘KING HENRY’” (Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987], 232). Hence readers of this edition are asked to take Stanley's crowning as authorizing Richmond's rule in a manner that the play does not unambiguously endorse, as I argue here subsequently. Indeed, to the extent that the Quarto and Folio serve as textual “witnesses,” as Jeffrey Masten has wonderfully suggested to me, they seem to resist Richmond's ratification.

  46. The Folio reads “divers other lords”; the first Quarto has “other Lords, & c.

  47. According to the so-called Tudor myth, Richard was the scourge of God sent to punish England for dethroning the divinely appointed king, Richard II; the Tudor regime that begins with Henry VII represents the end of this period of violence, with the restoration of God's anointed ruler. The classic account of this position can be found in E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1974), which argues that “in Richard III Shakespeare pictures England restored to order through God's grace. … For the purposes of the tetralogy and most obviously for this play Shakespeare accepted the prevalent belief that God had guided England into her haven of Tudor prosperity” (204).

  48. J. P. Kenyon, ed., The Stuart Constitution, 1603-1688 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 12. I am indebted to Oliver Arnold for this citation.

  49. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. MacPherson (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 500-1.

  50. See Joel Altman's brilliant account of similar modes of engagement in Henry V: “‘Vile Participation’: The Amplification of Violence in the Theater of Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 42, no. 1 (1991): 1-32.

I am grateful to Oliver Arnold, Stanley Cavell, Sarah Cole, Stephen Greenblatt, Jeffrey Masten, Annabel Patterson, Joseph Roach, Gustavo Secchi, and Gordon Teskey for their immensely helpful responses to this essay. I also wish to thank the Department of English at Princeton University for inviting me to deliver a version of this paper in February 2001.

Further Reading

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Berry, Ralph. “Richard III: Bonding the Audience.” In Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, edited by J. C. Gray, pp. 114-27. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Examines the reason for the play's continued popularity with audiences.

Cox, Catherine S. “Sons of Eve: Ambiguity and Gender in the First Tetralogy.” Upstart Crow 17 (1997): 53-65.

Discusses the shifting religious and sexual roles that Margaret and Elizabeth play in Richard III.

Davison, Peter. Introduction to The First Quarto of King Richard III, edited by Peter Davison, pp. 1-49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Provides a detailed history of the different versions of Shakespeare's Richard III.

Dubrow, Heather. “‘The Infant of Your Care’: Guardianship in Shakespeare's Richard III and Early Modern England.” In Domestic Arrangements in Early Modern England, edited by Kari Boyd McBride, pp. 147-68. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 2002.

Examines how the abuse of guardianship is reflected in Richard III.

Endel, Peggy. “Profane Icon: The Throne Scene of Shakespeare's Richard III.Comparative Drama 20, no. 3 (fall 1986): 115-23.

Speculates on the disturbing image of Richard's throne scene, which reveals the new king privately forming evil plots.

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

Traces the publication history, dates, sources, performances, and critical reactions to Richard III.

Hankey, Julie, ed. Introduction to Richard III, pp. 9-83. London: Junction Books, 1981.

In this edition of the Plays in Performance series, Hankey examines the ways in which the portrayal of Richard has evolved over the centuries.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Military Oratory in Richard III.Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 1 (spring 1984): 53-61.

Contends that Richmond's oratory to his troops is more inspiring and less bland than many critics have claimed.

Jackson, Russell. “Two Silent Shakespeares: Richard III and Othello.Cineaste (spring 2003): 48-51.

Positively reviews a restored, DVD version of James Keane's 1912 silent production of Richard III.

Levine, Mortimer. “Richard III—Usurper or Lawful King?” Speculum 34, no. 3 (July 1959): 391-401.

Argues that Richard III was a usurper.

Moseley, C. W. R. D, ed. “The Figure of Richard.” In William Shakespeare: Richard III, pp. 43-57. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

Analyzes the complexity of Richard's character.

Oestreich-Hart, Donna J. “Therefore, Since I Cannot Prove a Lover.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 40, no. 2 (spring 2000): 241-60.

Asserts that Richard uses the strategies of courtly love to win Anne.

Wilson, J. Dover. “Shakespeare's Richard III and The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, 1594.Shakespeare Quarterly 3, no. 4 (October 1952): 299-306.

Examines the sources of Shakespeare's Richard III.


Richard III (Vol. 73)