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The main theme of Richard III is the conflict between evil and good, with Richard embodying all that is foul, including the ability to mask evil with a fair face. Although times are still unsettled, it is Richard's psychopathology, his mad, self-destructive drive for power that moves the play forward. Neither Shakespeare nor Richard himself make any bones about the epicenter of the bloody, horrible events that take place. Richard's opening soliloquy in Act I, scene i, spells out the evil at hand in superbly disturbing words.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped 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,
Deformed, 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.
(I.i.1-4, 9-31)

Richard is a freak of nature, a self-proclaimed enemy to human kindness, bent upon destruction and the disruption of the commonwealth. As a result, Richard III is part morality play and part melodrama: Evil versus good. While Richard's Evil is writ large, the good side is sorely undermanned until the final Act. Richard is able to succeed because those who would otherwise oppose him are easily duped (e.g., Clarence), at odds with each other (notably the female characters of the play), or harbor their own political ambitions (as in Buckingham's case). Active good without tainted motive surfaces only with Richmond's appearance in Act V, although some of the nobles (Hastings and Stanley) prove to be of good character.

Ambition is a manifest theme of a play driven by its central character's evil quest for power. For Richard (as for all tyrants), this course is a lonely one. In Act I, scene ii, Richard tells us that he has "no friends to back my suit at all / But the plain devil and dissembling looks" (235-36). Richard, of course, has allies (Buckingham, Catesby) and hirelings (the murders and Tyrell), and he even takes Lady Anne as a wife. But as events show us and Richard himself is plain to admit, he has no relationship to anyone, his mother included: those who stand alongside him are mere tools that are best done away with after their usefulness is gone. Most stunning of all, Richard's ambition alienates him from his own self. Thus, after being visited by the ghosts of his victims in Act V, scene iii, Richard awakens in terror and says:

What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What,...

(This entire section contains 1194 words.)

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myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.

Ambition conjoined with an inherently evil nature cause Richard to embrace the role of villain, but he plays the part so fully that he eventually wreaks havoc on himself.

For Shakespeare's audiences, as dastardly as Richard's crimes against individual victims are, his larger crime is that Richard of Gloucester's reign led to a resurgence of what they still feared worst a century later, civil war. Following the conflicts between the houses of Lancaster and York as dramatized by Shakespeare in the three parts of Henry VI, England could have been at peace: as his opening speech denotes, it is only because of Richard's villainy that civil war breaks out again. In Act II, scene iii, in which the common citizens discuss the tide of events, they realize the danger associated with Richard of Gloucester, and that danger is a return to bloody, internecine strife that will reach down into the lives of the common man. On being branded a traitor by Richard and sentenced to death in Act III, scene iv, Hastings cries out, "Woe, woe for England! not a whit for me;" and prophesies that a "fearful time" lies ahead for "miserable England."

In the midst of his acclamation scene (III.vii), Richard projects a false humility and says, "I am unfit for state and majesty" (205). This is of course true, but it is only in Act V that we are given an alternative view of an individual who is fit to rule England in the person of Richmond. Here we see the contrast drawn sharply in the parallel speeches of Richmond and Richard to their respective armies on the eve of battle (V.iii.236-70, 314-41). Richmond speaks of God's justice and urges his men to fight against the foes of their country: Richard tries to embolden his troops by saying that their foes are "A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways / A scum of Britains, and base lackey peasants," who will ravish the daughters of his listeners. Richmond appeals to what is best in Englishmen, Richard to what is worst. In the end, Richmond triumphs and speaks the words that all Englishmen longed to hear in 1485 and still relished a hundred years later.

We will unite the White Rose and the Red:
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long hath frown'd upon their enmity!
What traitor hears me, and says not amen?
England hath long been mad, and scarr'd herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughter'd his own son,
The son, compell'd, been butcher to the sire:
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire division,
O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so.
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!

This is the conclusion not only of Richard III, but of the entire minor tetralogy. Civil strife would arise in England again after the death of Henry VIII in 1547; but by Shakespeare's time, with a new Queen Elizabeth on the throne, the realm was enjoying the fruits of internal peace, widespread prosperity, and a marvelous outburst of creative energy spearheaded by the play's author.

Advanced Themes

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In Act II, scene iii, of Richard III a group of English citizens worries over what will become of the nation now that King Edward IV has died and his heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, is still a child. The citizens know that a Protector will be appointed to govern for Prince Edward until he is old enough to rule by himself. They also know that several of the child's uncles are vying with one another to be Protector, and the citizens are frightened that the inevitable power struggle will throw the country into turmoil. They have already endured chaotic years during the Wars of the Roses, as the Houses of York and Lancaster have fought back and forth for England's throne, and they long for peace and order. Unfortunately, they get Richard instead.

The question of succession, or the order according to which a person lawfully and rightfully becomes monarch, was of much concern to the citizens of England during Shakespeare's time since their aging queen—Elizabeth I—was unmarried and had no heirs. Further, although Elizabeth was England's lawful queen, she had already weathered several challenges to her power, including those from Philip II of Spain, who had sent his Armada in 1588 in hope of defeating her; and from Mary, Queen of t Scots, a relative whom Elizabeth finally had to execute in 1587. Thus a play about an ambitious nobleman determined to become king was very relevant to Shakespeare's audience.

Richard is a usurper: he becomes king illegally and he knows that if he doesn't at least appear to be England's lawful ruler, then there will be endless challenges to his power. The string of murders which Richard commits before and after he becomes king can be seen as attempts to legitimize his rule.

Of the three brothers—King Edward IV; George, Duke of Clarence; and Richard, Duke of Gloucester—Richard is the youngest and farthest from succession to the crown. Clarence is before him and could also become Protector of Edward's heir, the Prince of Wales, should King Edward die. So when the king falls seriously ill, Richard plots to have Clarence die first—thus removing in one stroke a possible Protector and a potential claimant to the throne.

Richard's next move is to make certain that he alone becomes Protector to his nephew, the Prince of Wales. He eliminates Rivers, who is the prince's uncle on his mother's side, and also murders Lord Grey, the prince's half-brother. (The prince's remaining half-brother, the Marquess of Dorset, escapes to join the Earl of Richmond.)

Once Richard becomes unchallenged Protector, it is easier for him to take the throne for himself. He murders Hastings because that nobleman has sworn to remain loyal to Prince Edward's right to the throne. Then, by suggesting that the Prince of Wales and his younger brother, the Duke of York, are illegitimate and therefore unqualified for succession, Richard and Buckingham convince the citizens that Richard is the only one left who by lineage and virtue deserves to be king.

Even after Richard becomes king, he knows that his power is vulnerable to challenge as long as the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York remain alive; although imprisoned and thus hidden from sight, these two rightful heirs to King Edward can still serve as a rallying point for dissatisfied or ambitious subjects. So Richard adds the two young princes to his list of victims.

Still, Richard does not feel secure. He imprisons Clarence's son because that child has a better claim to the throne than he, and he marries Clarence's daughter to a commoner to destroy any possibility of royal claimants coming from that line. Finally, Richard hears that his enemy the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond intends to marry Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth and thus unite the royal families of York and Lancaster. Richard hopes to forestall this union and strengthen his own claim by marrying King Edward's daughter himself, which is why in Act IV, scene iv, he tries to convince Queen Elizabeth to consent to such a marriage.

Richard's attempts to legitimize his power through bloodshed fail when he is killed in battle by the Earl of Richmond, who begins a new line of succession— the Tudors—and is crowned Henry VII.

Language: Oaths, Curses, and Prophecies
Language is a potent weapon in Richard III, particularly as a source of retribution. Prophecies and curses are delivered and fulfilled. Oaths that are made but later broken cause disaster. Curses, prophecies, and false or imprudent oaths indeed occur so frequently and are so powerful in Richard III that they profoundly affect the play's outcome.

As early as Act I, scene iii, Margaret influences the action by cursing virtually every principal character in the play. She prays for the death of King Edward as well as his heirs and for a life of misery for Queen Elizabeth. She curses Hastings and Rivers with early death, and Richard with sleepless nights and ruin. She finishes by prophesying that Buckingham will be betrayed by Richard: "O Buckingham, take heed of yonder dog!/ Look when he fawns, he bites; and when he bites/ His venom tooth will rankle to the death." By the end of the play, nearly all of Margaret's predictions and curses have been carried out.

Ironically, many of the characters bring destruction upon themselves by reinforcing Margaret's curses with their own false oaths and self-curses. For example, in Act IV, scene iv, Richard swears to Queen Elizabeth that he loves her daughter, and he supports this oath with a self-curse that is meant to take effect if his oath proves false: "God and fortune, bar me happy hours!/ Day, yield me not thy light, nor, night, thy rest!" Richard's oath is indeed false: he does not love Elizabeth's daughter but hopes to marry her to consolidate his power. His self-curse—ruin and sleepless nights—is identical to Margaret's curse in Act I, and by the end of the play, it is fulfilled.

Dark Comedy
A persistent thread of comedy runs through Richard III. Since the play is mostly about treachery and vengeance the comedy it contains is appropriately dark, consisting of dramatic irony as well as parody. Some of the humor comes from Richard's self-ridicule, but much of it comes when he mocks the confidence which others mistakenly place in him.

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience understands the real significance of a character's words or actions but the character or those around him or her do not. Richard's sympathetic comments to his brother Clarence as he is being taken to prison (Act I, scene i) result in dramatic irony because we know from the start that Richard is responsible for having Clarence jailed. Dramatic irony occurs again, in Act III, scene ii, when Catesby suggests that Richard should be crowned king in lieu of the Prince of Wales, and Hastings declares: "I'll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders/ Before I'll see the crown so foul misplac'd." We already know from Richard's conversation with Buckingham one scene earlier that Hastings will indeed lose his head if he opposes Richard. Both of these incidents are intended to make us smile—although perhaps grimly—at Richard's trickery and his victims' naivete.

Parody is the use of exaggerated imitation to ridicule someone or something that was meant to be taken seriously. Richard mocks both himself and Anne when he parodies a preening lover in Act I, scene ii, after Anne—against all odds—accepts his ring: "I'll be at charges for a looking-glass,/ And entertain a score or two of tailors/ To study fashions to adorn my body." Part of the humor comes from Richard's ability to laugh at himself.

Richard's most triumphant parody occurs when he fools the citizens of London into petitioning him to be their king. By imitating a holy man (which he most certainly is not) and appearing reluctant to accept the crown, Richard succeeds in getting the power he wants.


Act Summaries