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.
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, 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,...
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