Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 361-450).
Timeline of the English Monarchy from the Plantagenets to the Stuarts
House of Plantagenet’s “Angevin” line
The line is so named in modern times due to the following lineage: Geoffrey Plantagenet, Fifth Count of Anjou, France married Matilda, daughter of English King Henry I (this king was one of William the Conquerors’ sons). Matilda’s son by Geoffrey Plantagenet became English King Henry II.
Henry II (1154-89; his queen was Eleanor of Aquitaine; see the film The Lion in Winter)
Richard I (1189-99; Berengaria of Navarre; Timeline of Richard I’s Reign)
John (1199-1216; Isabel of Gloucester; Isabella of Angoulême; Timeline of John’s Reign)
Henry III (1216-72; Eleanor of Provence)
Edward I (1272-1307; Eleanor of Castile; Margaret of France)
Edward II (1307-27; Isabella of France, who deposed him with the aid of Roger Mortimer)
Edward III (1327-77; Philippa of Hainault)
Richard II (1377-99; Anne of Bohemia; Isabella of Valois)
After this line comes the Plantagenet branch called Lancaster
The line was descended from John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son; Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster, daughter of Henry of Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster. Their son became Henry IV (who was born in Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, thus “Bolingbroke”).
Henry IV (Bolingbroke, 1399-1413; Mary de Bohun; Joan of Navarre)
Henry V (victor over the French at Agincourt in 1415; ruled 1413-22; Catherine de Valois)
Henry VI’s two interspersed reigns (1422-61, 1470-71, murdered; Margaret of Anjou)
Then follows the Plantagenet branch called York:
The line was descended paternally from Edmund of Langley, First Duke of York, who was the fourth son of Edward III; maternally descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence–this latter descent constituted their claim to the throne.
Edward IV (1461-70 [Henry VI captive], 1471-83 after Henry VI’s murder; Elizabeth Woodeville)
Edward V (briefly in 1483, perhaps killed)
Richard III (1483-85, killed at Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor’s forces; Anne Neville, widow of Edward Prince of Wales and daughter of the Earl of Warwick) The action at Bosworth largely ended the struggle between Yorkists and Lancastrians from 1455-85 known as the Wars of the Roses because the Yorkist emblem was a white rose and the Lancastrian a red rose.
The Tudor line begun by Henry Tudor runs as follows:
Henry Tudor’s grandfather was the Welshman Owen Tudor (who fought for Henry V at Agincourt in 1415 and lived until 1461, when he was executed by Yorkists led by the future King Edward IV). Henry’s father was Edmund Tudor, First Earl of Richmond (Edmund’s mother was apparently Henry V’s widow Catherine de Valois, whom Owen Tudor is said to have secretly married). Henry Tudor’s mother was Lady Margaret Beaufort, and it is from her that he claimed his right to the throne since she was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt by his third wife Katherine Swynford.
Henry VII (i.e. Henry Tudor; 1485-1509; Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter)
Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53; Catherine of Aragon through 1533; Anne Boleyn; Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleves; Catherine Howard; Catherine Parr)
Mary I (1553-58, co-ruler Philip of Spain)
Elizabeth I (1558-1603; never married)
Then come the Stuarts
The Stuarts’ claim to the English throne was initiated when in 1503, Scottish King James IV married English King Henry VII’s daughter Margaret Tudor, and they had a son who became Scottish King James V. His daughter Mary became Queen of Scots; Mary’s son by Lord Darnley (Henry Stuart) became English King James I.
James I, (1603-25; Anne, daughter of Frederick II of Denmark and Norway)
Charles I (1625-49; Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France), beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan forces during the English Civil War (1642-51).
After 1660, we have the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the person of
Charles II (1660-85, the Restoration; Catherine of Braganza).
A Brief Note on Richard III’s Era: The Wars of the Roses
Recommended Reading: Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. New York: Norton, 1956.
I will comment scene by scene, but a few initial remarks seem appropriate. I mentioned in class that Shakespeare, as one of my old UC Irvine professors used to say, usually prefers to deal with the dynamics of royal power at some historical distance. By Shakespeare’s time, the chivalric ideals, the feudal loyalties, of older times had long since disappeared. We need only consider the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York to see the truth of that statement: mid-C15 England was marked by savage infighting and betrayal between these two great branches of the Plantagenet line descended from Edward III. The modern courts of Elizabeth I and James Stuart are not generally Shakespeare’s subject. But the present play deals with an historical subject with which many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been familiar, and he borrows his story in the main from the Tudor Chronicles that portray Richard III as a monster. If we read modern biographies of Richard, most notably the one by Paul Murray Kendall, we have access to a more objective analysis of Richard’s career. But my sense is that Shakespeare was quite capable of reading between the lines of his chroniclers, and seeing that almost everyone involved in the action was deeply imbued with divided loyalties and mixed, selfish motivations.
That quality of ambivalence surely emerges in the play we are reading, but Shakespeare’s need to generate sympathy in the audience for some of the doomed characters results, I think, in an almost schizophrenic quality at times. Some of the worst rascals in the play get genuinely moving passages—Clarence, for example, was not exactly a picture of loyalty to Edward IV, his brother, moving back and forth between Edward and Warwick with astonishing facility when those two men were engaged in their deadly feuds. Clarence would just as well have deposed Edward and taken the throne for himself if he could, but fortune did not favor him and he never had Edward’s highest regard, which seems to have gone to the younger brother Richard. (Kendall’s biography of Richard covers Clarence’s behavior in some detail.) But in the play, Clarence speaks remarkably beautiful lines on the eve of his murder, moving us to pity him. As for Queen Margaret of Anjou, when she was trying to get her husband Henry VI reinstalled on the throne, she treated England like a foreign country, allowing her armies to rape and pillage their way through conquered territories. She was no angel—Kendall describes her conduct as “savagely dynastic.” But in the play, she is a figure of at least some respect, and speaks with prophetic accuracy about the villainous end of others. What I’m suggesting is that Shakespeare freely reconfigures the historical characters with which he is dealing, making them suit the needs of a play designed, after all, first and foremost to please an audience. Thus, if anything but a black-and-white portrait of King Richard III as a villain was available to him, he chose not to make use of it. The Richard we see, with his vicious asides and grim humor, is much more exciting and suits Tudor mythology. Queen Elizabeth I, after all, was the daughter of Henry VIII, who was the heir of the Lancastrian-related Henry VII, the hero of this play who emerges as an icon of early English nationalism of the sort Queen Elizabeth I would come to depend on during her reign (1558-1603).
*Note on Names: Richard of Gloucester becomes King Richard III by Act 4, Scene 2; I sometimes just call him “Richard” for brevity’s sake. As for Henry Earl of Richmond, I sometimes call him Richmond, Henry, or Henry Tudor: at the very end of the play, he becomes King Henry VII.
Act 1, Scene 1 (370-73, Richard soliloquizes about his lot, puts on a duplicitous show of affection for brother Clarence, and informs us of his plans to “bustle” in a brotherless world and marry Anne Neville, widow of Edward, Prince of Wales)
To open the first scene, Richard, still the Duke of Gloucester, makes his famous “winter of our discontent” speech (370, 1.1.1-43). In the Ian McKellen film version, this speech is partly public rhetoric, but in the text, it is spoken as a soliloquy. Richard justifies his wicked ways by pointing to his crooked body. Like that of many villains, his evil is fueled by a sense of injured merit or a demand for compensation. He is part of the illustrious House of York, and his brother is no less than Edward IV, the present King of England. The real Richard of Gloucester, from what I have read, was remarkably loyal to his older brother Edward IV, but Shakespeare’s Richard, as the second part of his soliloquy makes clear, cannot truly be part of the “we” to which the first part of his speech refers. Others may enjoy the time, but his deformities and defects render that impossible for him. He was “stamped” (370, 1.1.16) in a certain unfortunate way, and so his course must be separate. Where others revel in strength and victory, Richard sees only a “weak piping time of peace” (370, 1.1.24). He is a man “unfinished” (370, 1.1.20), as he says, and just as his own physical elements seem to have been mixed up and confused from birth, his peculiar genius is to run with the tides of chaos, staying always ahead of everyone else. Richard lives in a time full of opportune chaos and confusion. These things are his very elements and will furnish him with everything he needs to advance his cause. That quality accounts for his ability to marshal “drunken prophecies, libels and dreams” (370, 1.1.33) against his brothers Clarence and Edward IV, setting them off against each other.
Another thing to notice about this soliloquy surfaces at its end—when Richard bids his thoughts to dive “down to my soul” (370, 1.1.41). Although Richard can do little about his ugly appearance, he is a master of disguise when it comes to the various registers of language and moral sentiment. He is one of Shakespeare’s greatest “actor kings.”
How does Richard play upon his brother Clarence? His underlying assumption is that anyone close to power wants still more of it and therefore cannot be trusted. This assumption he applies to Elizabeth, Edward IV’s queen, and blames her for Clarence’s imprisonment: “Why, this it is when men are ruled by women” (371, 1.1.62) After all, she has two young sons by Edward who stand to inherit the throne. Historically, Elizabeth Woodeville, whose first husband was Sir John Grey, seems to have been a Machiavellian upstart. She understood power and wanted to augment her family’s influence; Edward’s marriage to her, in fact, had already made her powerful enemies. Her family has been newly planted in the soil of English royalty, and its only real chance, as we can see from the vicissitudes of the great houses of York and Lancaster, is to grow quickly and strongly. That is the way Richard portrays her, for the most part. He makes witticisms at her expense, carrying forward the grudge between the Woodeville faction and himself from the three parts of Henry VI. While keeper Brackenbury’s discomfort grows, Richard takes shots at Elizabeth and her kin as well as at the king’s mistress Jane Shore: “We say that Shore’s wife hath a pretty foot … / … / And that the Queen’s kin are made gentlefolks” (372. 1.1.90-96).
Towards the end of the first scene, Richard tells us in good stage-villain fashion precisely what he plans to do. Clarence must be executed just before King Edward IV dies; with his elder brothers out of the way, Richard will be free to marry Anne Neville, the daughter of the late kingmaker Warwick (Richard Neville) for political advancement. His troublesome relatives, he says, must pack off and “leave the world for me to bustle in” (373, 1.1.152).
The thing that keeps this play from slipping into melodrama is the brilliance and exuberance of Richard’s language, as evidenced in the scheming passage just alluded to. Richard III is one of those villains Samuel Johnson worries about—his ebullience doesn’t keep us from condemning him, but it carries us along to a disturbing degree. Like Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Shakespeare’s Richard is always in the know, always ahead of the pack. No one likes to side with losers who are in the dark, who never have the right word for the right occasion, whom fortune seems to have abandoned. The Renaissance poets understood, as of course did the ancients from Homer onwards, that shunning the unlucky, although cruel, is often the safest course of action. Bad luck is contagious, and incompetence loves company. No wonder we often side with the villains, at least for a time: knowledge gives us a sense of power and immunity. As modern critic Stanley Fish says in discussing Paradise Lost, Christian poetry labors to “surprise” us at our own propensity towards sinfulness, at our seemingly endless capacity to be taken in by situations we should recognize as dangerous, and by the rhetoric and charming personalities of villains we know to be such.
Act 1, Scene 2 (373-79, Anne laments the death of Edward and Henry VI, and is courted strangely by Richard, who marvels at his actorly performance)
Anne laments over Henry’s body and remembers her slain husband Prince Edward (373-74, 1.2.1-32). Henry VI died, or rather was snuffed out, not long after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 after having been out of power for a decade, with one very brief restoration by Warwick. Edward, Prince of Wales was executed upon discovery by Clarence’s men, and Warwick was killed during the battle. The widow makes the first of many references to Richard as poisonous and monstrous, cursing him to greater ill than she can wish even “… to wolves, to spiders, toads, / Or any creeping venomed thing that lives” (374, 1.2.19-20).
Immediately, she is confronted with the devil himself when Richard appears from nowhere to charm her in a long and famously improbable dialogue (374-78, 1.2.33-212). That dialogue is a contestation of absolutes, with the lady declaring her supreme disgust for Richard and he playing up the absoluteness of her beauty and even claiming it spurred him on to kill the prince and Henry VI: “As all the world is cheerèd by the sun, / So I by that: it is my day, my life” (376, 1.2.129-30). Anne has been dangerously left in the lurch by the death of powerful men, so underlying the invective are the mechanics of power. Richard is offering her a place in the new order of things. He tries to make her believe in her own personal charm as a moving force behind great events. Her eyes, as he tells her, have moved him to weep when even the pitiful story of his brother Rutland’s death, or the murder of his father the Duke of York by Queen Margaret’s faction, failed to do so (377, 126.96.36.199-12; Folio only).
The center of this strange argument between Anne Neville and Richard of Gloucester is the latter’s stagey insistence (after a first call to die by her hand) that she “Take up the sword again, or take up me” (377, 1.2.171), which elicits not violence but only the line, “I will not be thy executioner” (377, 1.2.173). What follows is even more improbable, with Richard offering Anne a ring, and Anne ambivalently offering him hope of success and even some gladness to see that this bad man has “become so penitent” (378, 1.2.208).
Towards the end of the second scene, Richard again speaks only to himself and the audience, expressing nothing short of disbelief at his success—or rather at the success of his performance. He waxes metadramatic, seeming almost to join Shakespeare the playwright in patting himself on the back: “Was ever woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever woman in this humour won?” (378, 1.2.215-16) As the Norton textual gloss implies, the word “humour” logically refers both the fact that Anne is grieving and that Richard’s way of courting her is nothing if not bizarre.
Does Richard believe the lady finds him “a marv’lous proper man” (379, 1.2.241) and that he has now become fashionable? Perhaps the fashionable thing is power, which, as Henry Kissinger says, is the greatest of all aphrodisiacs. The most generous way to construe Anne’s apparent fickleness is to acknowledge that she is little more than a pawn in a deadly dynastic chess game, so her sudden, incredible change of heart may be Shakespeare’s way of characterizing the devastating effects of the dynastic violence that constituted the Wars of the Roses on even the deepest human feelings and loyalties.
My understanding is that Anne’s father the Earl of Warwick had betrothed her to none other than our Richard, before Warwick, angry with the way the Yorkist King Edward IV was treating him, switched sides and gave her to the Lancastrian Edward, Prince of Wales (the son of Henry VI’s strong-willed queen, Margaret of Anjou). So in a sense, Richard is simply restoring her to that original pledge, not proposing a bold new thing. Moreover, he seems to understand that Anne, a pawn who is coveted as a ward by Clarence, who wants her estates as Countess of Warwick, is incapable of taking action: we should probably note here that the historical Anne Neville was a girl of fourteen at the time, not the adult counter Kristin Scott-Thomas to McKellen’s Richard. Thus, his gesture of offering her a blade with which to kill him may be less risky than it appears. There’s also the fact that the wedding between Richard and Anne actually took place a bit over a year after Tewkesbury, not almost instantaneously, as it seems to do in Shakespeare’s play.
Well, all these historical matters aside, Richard is exuberant, and why shouldn’t he be delighted with himself? He that is “not shaped for sportive tricks” (370, 1.1.14) and whose villainy is stamped, as he and everyone else says, into the very fabric of his body, now plays the rogue in precisely the guise he had said was forbidden to him: that of a lover: “Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, / That I may see my shadow as I pass” (379, 1.2.249-50). This is Richard at his best and worst: protean, ebullient, unpredictable, a rider of chaos in events and in the human heart. In the theater of power, the clever can represent themselves as they would be, and stand a good chance of carrying their “audience” with them. The overt meaning of the language here is straightforward: the villain is so delighted with his performance as a great actor on the stage of life that he wants to watch himself as he goes to work on his hapless fellow beings. But perhaps Richard is also recalling to himself his opening soliloquy’s “son / sun” metaphor, a usage that may in turn remind us not only of his alleged attitude towards his brother Edward IV but also of a moment in Shakespeare’s earlier effort, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry VI (Henry VI, Part III), wherein three suns mysteriously appear in the sky, prompting Richard and Edward to wonder if it betokens unity amongst the sons of the great Duke and claimant of the throne (see Norton Histories, 229-30, 2.1.20-42). Might Richard’s present reference to the shining sun be an oblique allusion to Clarence, shortly to be dimmed forever thanks to his younger brother’s unholy ambition?
Act 1, Scene 3 (379-87, Dysfunctional family dinner: Richard and Queen Elizabeth Woodeville savage each other, Margaret curses the lot of them; Richard admits in soliloquy that he’s responsible for the dissent he says others are creating)
In this long scene, the royal family gather and bicker over old crimes and divided loyalties. Queen Elizabeth Woodeville and Richard go at each other’s throats with great intensity. The reason for her anger is palpable: “You envy my advancement, and my friends’” (381, 1.3.75). Richard dares them all—Elizabeth, Rivers, and Gray—to go straight to Edward IV and air their grievances, reminding them pointedly that while their faction for a time supported the cause of Lancastrian Henry VI, he remained loyal to his elder brother: “I was a packhorse in his great affairs … / … / To royalize his blood, I spent mine own” (382, 1.3.122-125).
Queen Margaret of Anjou, the indomitable widow of Henry VI, puts in an appearance, serving as a horrible example of one who has held and lost great power and place. She herself is, of course, no angel, having been responsible for the death of Richard of Gloucester’s father the Duke of York when he tried to get himself crowned king. What we have at present is not so much a solution to the power struggle between the great houses of York and Lancaster as an uneasy truce. In any event, Queen Margaret rails at all assembled: “Hear me, you wrangling pirates, that fall out / In sharing that which you have pilled from me” (382, 1.3.158-59). Her cutting prophecy regarding Elizabeth Woodeville will turn out to be truer than she can guess: “after many lengthened hours of grief / Die, neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen” (383, 1.3.205-06).
What do these people really want? we might ask, since it’s obvious that power does not bring security in its train. Their pursuit of ultimate power sometimes resembles the quest for sexual experience as described in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.” Near the end of the third scene, Richard yet again steps in with a soliloquy explaining how he is behind the vicious maneuvering he ascribes to others, hiding it all the while with false piety: “thus I clothe my naked villainy … / And seem a saint when most I play the devil” (386, 1.3.335-36; see 322-36). The pair of murderers he has summoned now arrive, waiting for Richard’s orders to make away with one George, Duke of Clarence.
Act 1, Scene 4 (387-92, Clarence has a strange vision and is murdered by Richard’s agents)
This scene contains the detailed, remarkable dream vision of Clarence (387-88, 1.4.9-63). One purpose it serves is to generate sympathy for Clarence, who in historical terms doesn’t seem to have been a particularly warm and fuzzy character, or even a trustworthy one for that matter. In this speech, he is given sublimely beautiful poetry of the sort that one almost wants to detach from its context altogether and enjoy for its own sake. We may remember Shakespeare’s song in The Tempest, in which Ariel whispers to Ferdinand that his supposedly drowned father Alonso of Naples “… doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange” (Norton Romances and Poems 386, 1.2.404-05).
Clarence dreams of a sea-change, but one of a more dreadful aspect: “Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / … / Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels, / All scattered in the bottom of the sea” (387, 1.4.24, 27-28). He never really sees to the bottom of his brother’s deceitful behavior—this is shielded from him even in his dream, as we can tell from the way he describes Richard’s part in his vision: “Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling / Struck me—that sought to stay him—overboard… “ (387, 1.4.18-19). That is a classic piece of dramatic irony since, of course, we know something Clarence doesn’t. His dream is strangely beautiful, but it does not yield him clarity about the end of his life, does not rise to the level of full prophecy. The keeper may be injecting a little humor when he asks Clarence how he had time to notice so much detail while drowning in his vision (387, 1.4.34-35).
The second part of the speech (388, 1.4.43-63) shows that Clarence is riddled with guilt over his betrayal of brother Edward IV in favor of Warwick and his complicity in the death of the Prince of Wales. The word “shadow” (388, 1.4.53) invokes the ghosts still wandering about since the beginning of the bad blood between York and Lancaster with the 1399 deposition of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke (a Lancastrian with no great claim to the crown when closer descendants of Edward III were available; see Wikipedia’s Wars of the Roses entry).
After Clarence has recounted his dream, two unnamed murderers enter to make away with him. They may remind us of characters from a medieval morality play in their anxious banter regarding a half-personified Conscience (389, 1.4.101-43). These two men are operating at a much lower level than is Richard or the other noble characters in the play, and the inferior quality of their station renders them insecure. They show a spot of moral conscience—something Richard of Gloucester seems to lack altogether, judging from his soliloquies to this point, but it doesn’t go very far.
Also on display in this part of the scene is Shakespeare’s macabre sense of humor: Clarence, not knowing that he is about to be dumped into a cask of wine to make sure he’s dead, says, “Give me a cup of wine” (390, 1.4.152). Playing the penitent, Clarence tries to sweet-talk the two killers out of their plan, but as they point out, a man who has done such things as he has done has no business employing such religious rhetoric (391, 1.4.189-213). In sum, Shakespeare may be playing with our sympathies in his handling of Clarence—doubtless the beautiful poetry this character is given generates some sympathy for him, but Shakespeare at least partly undermines that sympathy with several mentions of the role that the historical Clarence played in the Wars of the Roses. That a man’s penitence is situational does not necessarily render it thoroughly false—it may be that penitence is almost always situational. But it certainly complicates matters, a thought we may carry forward when, at the beginning of Act 2, King Edward IV takes on the role of reconciler. It is difficult to put much stock in Edward’s pious declaration that he is, to borrow a phrase, “a uniter, not a divider.” The Wars of the Roses were about insidious divisions between interrelated feudal houses.
Act 2, Scene 1 (392-95, Edward IV tries to make peace amongst all factions; Richard blurts out that Clarence is dead, devastating Edward)
This scene plays with some irony. Here we have Edward IV trying desperately, in the most unpromising of circumstances, to practice the art of dying well, and it comes off badly. He wants his factious relatives to embrace and to exchange loving words; he apparently even wants them actually to mean those words and gestures. As he tells Richard, who plays along initially with magnificent rhetoric of amity, “Brother, we have done deeds of charity …” (393, 2.1.50). But once again, Richard masterfully sows the seeds of chaos and discord, injecting at just the right moment to deflate Edward’s piety the fact that Clarence is dead, supposedly by order of the King himself: “Who knows not that the gentle Duke is dead?” 394, 2.1.80) At the end of the scene, Richard even insists to Buckingham that the pale visages of everyone around should be interpreted as an emblem of guilt (395, 2.1.136-39). Edward IV is shattered, and announces in the presence of all assembled, “O God, I fear thy justice will take hold / On me—and you, and mine, and yours, for this” (395, 2.1.132-33). The king’s penitence may be genuine, but it cannot prevent the consequences of past violence. It is a commonplace in Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays that blood draws on blood: violence and sin generate spirals of still more violence and sin. That is a lesson Shakespeare learned from the Bible.
Act 2, Scene 2 (395-99, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodeville, and Clarence’s children all lament their griefs, but not in unison or harmony: the Duchess says only her grief encompasses all the sad events)
Again, what seems to be genuine grief is undercut by a long history of unkindness and injustice. Richard’s mother, the old Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodeville, and the children of murdered Clarence engage in a lamentation-fest (396-97, 2.2.34-88). One-line or stichomythic exchanges of the sort we find from lines 72-78 are typical of early Shakespeare. The form of the dialogue works very well in this case since the point seems to be to draw out the shallowness or inadequacy of the characters’ grief, the essentially self-centered and factional nature of it. The children will not weep for Elizabeth because she did not weep for the death of Clarence, while the Duchess insists that her grief is alone general while everyone else’s is merely particular: “Alas, I am the mother of these griefs. / Their woes are parcelled; mine is general” (397, 2.2.80-81).
I would not discount the genuine pathos of the scene—it probably functions at two heterodox levels. Shakespeare’s first goal must have been to please an audience; therefore, it is unlikely that he would completely undercut a good tearjerker scene like the present one. His audience were not historians, after all, though it would be an overstatement to claim they were unsophisticated. Many people in attendance were probably capable of catching the subtleties in Shakespeare’s handling of historical and emotional registers. And there’s always Richard, of course, with those mean-spirited asides of his, making it plain just how insincere he is when he trots out the moralistic rhetoric and protestations of good will. Shakespeare will often counterpoint statecraft, violence, and villainy on a grand scale with small-scale, intimate domestic scenes showing the consequences for the powerless, but we will have to wait for the fourth scene to witness anything of that sort.
Act 2, Scene 3 (399-400, citizens share their anxieties about the future: to them, the changes to come portend danger and uncertainty)
Three citizens air their thoughts and anxieties about Edward’s death and what is to come. In this, they function like a chorus, and they sense that the great will not be able to restrain themselves from seeking still greater power: says the third citizen, “full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester, / And the Queen’s sons and brothers haught and proud” (399, 2.3.27-28), and as for the general atmosphere, his pronouncement is, “By a divine instinct men’s minds mistrust / Ensuing danger…” (400, 2.3.42-43). Dynastic and inter-dynastic change will come, but it is something to be feared.
Act 2, Scene 4 (400-01, Queen Elizabeth Woodeville is informed that Rivers and Gray have been sent to the Tower; she sees “the ruin of our house” and no escape from Richard)
While the princes are on the way to London, the Duchess of York subtly reinforces the old Tudor propaganda about Richard’s evil nature (400, 2.4.16-20), the better to underscore the genuine pathos of Queen Elizabeth’s situation—if even a tough woman like Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s widow) has been sidelined by the loss of her men, what will happen to Elizabeth and her children by Edward? When Elizabeth hears that Gloucester and Buckingham have slyly committed Lord Rivers and Lord Gray to Pomfret, she senses with dread that she and hers are caught up in Richard’s web of intrigue and blood, and there’s no way out: “I see the ruin of our house. / The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind” (401, 2.4.48-49).
Act 3, Scene 1 (402-06, Richard makes conversation with the little princes on their way to the Tower, and convince the cardinal that it is acceptable to separate them from their mother; Richard and Buckingham resolve either to bring Hastings over or chop off his head)
The third act as a whole hinges upon the sense of pageantry shown by Richard and Buckingham; they advance Richard’s cause by means of sophistical arguments and shows of religious piety.
Here in the first scene, Richard has a merry-seeming conversation with the young Prince Edward, and among the most striking parts of it is the one in which the prince declares, “Methinks the truth should live from age to age …” (403, 3.1.76) Buckingham makes easy work of the Cardinal’s scruples about snatching the youth out of sanctuary with his mother (43, 3.1.44-56). The effect is comic since it shows how simple a thing it is to take advantage of those who actually take the rules seriously. But of course Cardinals were by no means non-political figures, so another way to interpret the Cardinal’s complacence is that he knows which way the wind blows.
Obviously, what everyone wants is the settled appearance of legitimacy, and they are likely to go along with the plans of whoever seems most likely to deliver it. Prince Edward’s comment about “the truth” particularly rankles Richard because the child has the temerity to insist that the deep truth should live on from age to age, and that historical truth is not simply a matter of what has written down for posterity. Richard is, of course, right in the middle of staging his own inevitable accession to power in front of everyone who matters, certainly believing that so long as he can arrange the visual feast to everyone’s liking, the near-term historical record will break his way. By implication, perhaps, we are to understand that those who look on while Richard schemes his way to the kingship know what is really going on, and will one day find the courage to say so. Prince Edward also sets himself up as the future king who will wash away England’s humiliation over the loss of French territory originally procured by Edward III and Henry V (404, 3.1.90-92). Most appropriately, his little brother York fears that he “shall not sleep in quiet at the Tower” (405, 3.1.142) thanks to the unhappy ghost of uncle Clarence.
Towards the end of the first scene, Richard and Buckingham engage in an almost obscene exchange whereby Buckingham accedes to the murder of William Lord Hastings and may claim when Richard is king the earldom of Hereford, “And look to have it yielded with all kindness” (406, 3.1.195; see 188-97).
Act 3, Scene 2 (406-09, Lord Hastings reacts angrily to Catesby’s suggestion that Richard should be king, unsuspectingly sealing his own fate)
Lord Stanley has a fearful dream about Richard the boar and fears the separate councils by which decisions are being taken (406, 3.2.7-11), but Hastings will have none of it. By messenger, he tells Lord Stanley that once they reach the Tower, “he shall see the boar will use us kindly” (407, 3.2.30). Perhaps more so than anyone else in the play, he seems incapable of discerning Richard’s true character. But his response to Catesby’s insinuation that Richard should become king is swift and unmistakable: “I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders / Before I’ll see the crown so foul misplaced” (407, 3.2.40-41).
This is not to say that Hastings is an admirable or innocent man—any such notions are quickly rendered impossible by the way he takes the condemnation of his enemies in this scene. Hastings considers himself secure in Richard’s good graces; he supposes there is a place for him in the new order heralded by Richard. The way Shakespeare handles Hastings resembles something straight from The Mirror for Magistrates, or from an old morality play—prideful and triumphant one moment, humiliated and cut down the next. We notice that as so often, Shakespeare gives both sides of the argument regarding the validity of prophecy—on the whole, his plays give the nod to popular superstition, don’t they? It is mainly thorough villains like Edmund in King Lear who scorn such powers of prophecy, witchcraft, and the like. Throughout the second half of his career, Shakespeare wrote during the reign of King James I, who was a great believer in witchcraft and even wrote a learned treatise on the subject.
Act 3, Scenes 3-4 (409-12, Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan are executed at Pomfret; Richard corners Hastings at a meeting and orders him beheaded: forcing allegiances on the eve of irrevocable action)
In these two scenes, several of Richard’s enemies meet their end. In the third scene, Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan go to their deaths at Pomfret (409, 3.3.1-24). In the fourth scene, Richard, informed that the Lord Chamberlain, William Lord Hastings, will not assent to shoving aside the young Prince in favor of his so-called Protector, devises a delightfully ridiculous little piece of theater that ends with the present death of Hastings. This man’s crime is failing to respond appropriately to Richard’s rhetorical question, “I pray you all, tell me what they deserve / That do conspire my death with devilish plots …” (411, 3.4.59-60). Hastings’ conditional “if” costs him his head. Anyone who doubts Richard’s claims about the malignant conspiracy of the queen’s party against him is thereby tagged as neatly aligned with them. The real purpose of this mini-drama is, as we can see, to force others in the room into a show of support. This is no time for bet-hedging, and even Lord Stanley must follow along in Richard’s train of sycophants.
Act 3, Scene 5 (412-14, Buckingham and Richard dupe the Lord Mayor about Hastings’ sudden execution, and trashes his deceased brother Edward IV’s reputation)
Yet another delicious piece of theater is here—Buckingham and Richard nicely allay suspicion, taking in the Lord Mayor with their feigned alarm and specious claim that Hastings’s execution was untimely (413, 3.5.39-44). The scene reminds me of the one in Macbeth where Macbeth has just killed the two servants who will falsely be blamed for Duncan’s murder, and he claims to repent what he has done rashly (Norton Tragedies, 843, 2.3.103-04). Many of Richard’s accusations seem to revolve around sexual innuendo, and we may suppose this topic is especially satisfying to him, if we recall his opening soliloquy. His character assassination of Edward IV is particularly vicious, as he rehearses the claim that the future Edward IV was not the legitimate issue of Richard’s father the Duke of York (414, 3.5.84-90).
Act 3, Scene 6 (414-15, a scrivener explains why Richard’s plot is going so smoothly: “none dare call it treason,” as John Harington would say)
The scrivener can’t believe that anyone is taken in by Richard’s transparent absurdities in justification of his conduct. But as he suggests, the problem is not that nobody perceives the truth; it is that no one dares to acknowledge it openly: “Who is so gross / That cannot see this palpable device? / Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?” (415, 3.7.10-12) Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir John Harington (a godson of Queen Elizabeth I) puts the matter succinctly in one of his many epigrams: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” Had Richard succeeded as King, what record of him would have come down to Shakespeare’s time? Certainly not the one Shakespeare offers us here since, after all, he writes in defense of Elizabeth’s Tudor line, founded by the illustrious Lancastrian Henry VII.
Act 3, Scene 7 (415-20, Theater of Power: Buckingham woos Richard, who accepts with false modesty and reluctance)
Here Shakespeare has outdone himself in the representation of outrageous villainy: Buckingham’s quip about Richard’s role being that of a maid who must “still answer ‘nay’—and take it” (416, 3.7.51) is followed by some fine stagecraft in which Richard of Gloucester minces around with his bible, flanked by priests, and utters ridiculous bits of false piety such as, “my Desert, / Unmeritable, shuns your high request” and “Alas, why would you heap this care on me?” (418-19, 3.7.144-45, 194) By reverse logic, that taking of power is once again compared to an aggressive sexual act—the very thing Richard sounded so resentful about in his opening soliloquy. While Buckingham and Richard’s exchanges are often short to the point of stichomythia (one-line exchanges), the dialogue becomes fittingly prolix as the two rogues finish off the whole pageant in front of the Lord Mayor and some leading citizens. As so often, Shakespeare’s supposed prolixity turns out to be situational; it’s needed here because the characters must not say too frankly what they really mean, aside from blunt and repeated assertions about the Princes’ illegitimacy and Edward IV’s depraved dalliances. Finally, Richard is able to utter his supremely comic line, “I am not made of stone” (419, 3.7.214), and the affair is ended successfully with the coronation planned for the next day.
Dynastic rivalry can be a nasty, root-and-branch extirpatory affair just as much as it can be a matter of delicate intermarriages and intricate understandings between rival houses. Here, it isn’t enough that Richard should succeed; he must appear holy while others are slimed beyond recognition and utterly destroyed. It isn’t only the living bodies of his rivals that he must deal with; their posthumous image and report must be altered for his benefit. How powerful an anxiety this business of popular image and report was for Richard is highlighted by ordinary people’s failure to respond to the lies fed them by Buckingham regarding Edward IV and the Princes. Story and spectacle are enormously significant accompaniments to the getting and maintaining of power, and Shakespeare, a great reader of Holinshed especially but also of some other chronicles of English royal history, must have understood how important a force popular images and “oral history” were as a potential threat to the official stories set forth by the monarchs and their supporters. They could result in direct rebellion on the part of the people themselves, or they could serve the interests of rival factions. Richard, a Machiavel before Machiavelli, is striving mightily to avoid becoming not simply feared rather than loved, but outright hated. Machiavelli, incidentally, is one of Shakespeare’s sources for analyzing the workings of political power, just as Montaigne’s philosophical skepticism seems to have struck a chord with him.
Act 4, Scene 1 (420-22, Anne Neville explains her acceptance of Richard’s suit; Queen Elizabeth Woodeville fears for her princes in the Tower: royal women’s perspective)
This act begins with a concentration on the misfortunes of the women in the play. (Richard married Anne Neville in 1472.) She declares that Richard’s “honey words” (422, 4.1.79) won her over on the spot, improbable as that may seem. See my comments on Act 1, scene 2. Elizabeth Woodeville ends the scene with remarkably lyrical lines about the “tender babes” (422, 188.8.131.52-7) in the Tower of London—it was common speculation, of course, that Richard of Gloucester had them murdered when he became king, but there is no solid evidence to prove that he did. Certainly, he stood to benefit from the deed, but as Kendall points out in his biography of Richard (see Appendix 1), so did Henry Tudor, whose claim to the throne wasn’t rock-solid and who didn’t even advance the argument that Edward’s son was illegitimate. Or it might have been Buckingham presenting Richard with a fait accompli. The bodies were never discovered (at least not with any certainty—some remains were discovered in 1674), so the whole thing must remain a mystery.
Act 4, Scene 2 (422-25, Now king, Richard solicits Buckingham’s complicity in murdering the princes; Buckingham balks and deserts when Richard refuses him Hereford; Richard tells Catesby to float a rumor that Anne is dying—he must marry Elizabeth Woodeville’s daughter; Richard chooses Tyrrell as his agent and declares himself immune to “tear-falling pity”)
Richard compounds his wickedness as the pace of events picks up, broaching the need with Buckingham of doing away with the young Edward V and his brother: “shall we wear these glories for a day?” (422, 4.2.6) and fuming to himself when Buckingham hesitates in consideration of his own selfish interests: “Buckingham / No more shall be the neighbour to my counsels” (423, 4.2.43-44).
Richard also gives an oblique order to make away with Anne his queen: “Come hither, Catesby. Rumour it abroad / That Anne, my wife, is very grievous sick” (423, 4.2. 52-53). There is no historical evidence for this assertion aside from popular suspicion and Tudor propaganda, but it makes for compelling drama. Shakespeare’s villain Richard glosses his actions revealingly: always a major concern with Shakespeare is that those who fail to act instead of just talking and planning quickly end up on the sidelines, or worse. (Consider the fate of that poetical ruler, Richard II.) It was a Renaissance commonplace that a well-born person’s formation should be oriented towards action. Richard III is a master of words and deeds; he isn’t one to be caught sitting on his hands when something needs doing. It’s easy to see this when he sums up the logic underlying is alleged murder of his queen: “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass” (424, 4.2.62-63). But Richard’s mastery is short-lived, and his own words suggest the reason Shakespeare proffers for his failure as a king of only a few years’ reign: “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (424, 4.2.65-67).
James Tyrrell is King Richard’s choice for the matter of the princes in the Tower, and this bad man is quick to pledge his assistance: “I will dispatch it straight” (424, 4.2.83), he tells Richard. The scene ends on a sour note between King Richard and Buckingham, who has already returned to claim the earldom of Hereford that Richard had promised him in exchange for his support (424, 4.2.91-94). The answer from a distracted Richard (who is more concerned at the moment with recollecting Henry VI’s prophecy about Richmond becoming king) is a contemptuous no. Richard simply says, “I am not in the giving vein today” (425, 4.2.119), prompting Buckingham, once alone, to ask himself, “Made I him king for this?” (425, 4.2.123) And with that, his allegiance to King Richard is at an end.
Act 4, Scene 3 (425-26, Tyrrell has had the princes killed; Richard tallies his villainous accomplishments; Buckingham has turned traitor and joined Richmond’s army)
We are told that James Tyrrel has contracted with subordinates Dighton and Forrest to effect the murders—this is “information” straight out of Thomas More’s study of King Richard III—and are treated to another of the play’s more lyrical passages about the piteous nature of the princes’ death: “Their lips were four red roses on a stalk, / And in their summer beauty kissed each other” (425, 4.3.12-13; see 1-19). Richard promises Tyrrel a great reward, and moves on to sum up his accomplishments, among which are that “The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom, / And Anne, my wife, hath bid this world goodnight” (426, 4.3.38-39). Buckingham has by now turned traitor to him with an army in the field along with Ely and Henry Earl of Richmond.
Act 4, Scene 4 (427-38, Queen Margaret scorns Elizabeth Woodeville, yet advises her how to curse her enemies; Richard works at convincing Elizabeth to agree to a match with her daughter)
The play’s women again congregate (427-29), this time with bitter effect: Queen Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s widow, is right there beside Elizabeth Woodeville, widow of Edward IV, to sharpen the pangs of her grief over the death of her husband and the disappearance of her two sons by the king. Margaret feels Elizabeth’s pain, and feeds upon it at length: as she says, it will make her glad on foreign soil: “These English woes shall make me smile in France,” the erstwhile center of Margaret’s hopes for power in England (429, 4.4.115). In response to Elizabeth’s request for advice on how to curse deeply, Margaret speaks chillingly: “Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days; / Compare dead happiness with living woe …” (429, 4.4.118-19, see 118-23).
The real Margaret died in August, 1482 in France, so she didn’t actually live to see Richard III’s demise, but Shakespeare situates her so as to sharpen our sense of the cruelty of the times, with their fierce dynastic rivalries and constant betrayals: the old feudal, chivalric order had long since begun the process of ripping itself apart, with the nobility casting aside all responsibility to their subjects and ravaging the land in a quest for individual and familial gain. It seems nobody in the disintegrating order Shakespeare describes here is willing to serve for the correct reasons. Nobody’s place is acknowledged by anyone else as rightful and permanent—all is scheming and self-interest. Shakespeare is perfectly capable of idealizing the old order: consider his favorable treatment of Henry V, victor of Agincourt in 1412. But whatever the historical inaccuracies of the play and leaving aside its Tudor bias, the overall picture it presents of this final episode of The Wars of the Roses seems just.
Another thing to notice in this scene once King Richard enters is the curious dilation of his rhetoric even as its effectiveness diminishes to nothing. He first endures his mother the Duchess of York’s terrible curse: “Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end; / Shame serves thy life, and doth thy death attend” (431, 4.4.195-96), and then it’s on to the business at hand with Elizabeth Woodeville. It takes King Richard a good long time to convince Elizabeth of absolutely nothing (431-36, 4.4.199-362). Their at times curt, at times long-winded exchange amounts to wrangling over Richard’s desire to marry the widowed queen’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, lest the girl’s hand be given to Henry Earl of Richmond. Richard ends up pathetically swearing by the future, when, of course, he will become as mild as mother’s milk. The frequent repetition of the words “myself” and “yourself” in this exchange play up, respectively, Elizabeth’s distrust of dynastic bloodline as a measure of safety (in her experience, they portend peril as much or more than safety since the language of fealty, honor, and birth has become a cipher), and Richard’s need for others to regard not his personal misconduct but the majesty of the king’s “other body,” the one that symbolizes or incarnates the whole people. Richard’s cynical way of expressing this doctrine of “the king’s two bodies” is to conclude his pitch, “Urge the necessity and state of times, / And be not peevish-fond in great designs” (435, 4.4.347-48). He wants Elizabeth to act with regard for the imperatives of statecraft and policy—namely, his own safety as a dynast.
Finally, King Richard receives mixed news on the impending battle, and pins down Lord Stanley, or so he thinks, by holding his young son hostage: “Look your heart be firm, / Or else his head’s assurance is but frail” (437, 4.4.426-27). The real Stanley, by the way, seems to have been a slippery character, as evidenced by his dubious loyalties to both Edward IV and Warwick when those two feuded.
Act 4, Scene 5 (438-39, Lord Stanley learns about the augmentation of Henry Earl of Richmond’s supporters, asks Sir Christopher to tell him the vital news that Elizabeth Woodeville consents to a match with her daughter)
Stanley gathers information from the priest Sir Christopher regarding Henry Earl of Richmond’s movements and the addition to his ranks of those nobles who are falling away from King Richard (438-39, 4.5.1-15). Stanley also wants Sir Christopher to pass along secretly the news that Elizabeth Woodeville consents to the proposed match between Henry Earl of Richmond and her young daughter Elizabeth (439, 4.5.17-19).
Act 5, Scene 1 (439-39, Buckingham is executed at Richard III’s order)
Buckingham (Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham) goes to the block at last, with a morality-play-style flourish, Queen Margaret’s curses on his lips: “Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame” (439, 5.1.29).
Act 5, Scenes 2-4 (439-41, Henry Earl of Richmond addresses his troops confidently, and so does Richard III, though without talk of moral right; Henry draws up his battle plan)
In the second scene, Richmond addresses his men, publicly expressing moral disgust at the usurping reign of “The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar, / That spoils your summer fields and fruitful vines …” (440, 5.2.7-8), and exuding confidence on the eve of battle. In the third scene, Richard expresses confidence of his own: “the King’s name is a tower of strength, / Which they upon the adverse faction want” (440, 5.3.12-13), and in the fourth scene, Richmond’s apparently spotless mind is directed towards the struggle at hand: “I’ll draw the form and model of our battle …” (441, 5.4.22).
Act 5, Scene 5 (441-46, Henry Earl of Richmond has slept well on the eve of battle: he’s ready; Stanley encourages him; King Richard III’s conscience sends him a nightmare peopled by his scolding victims; Henry addresses his troops with moral confidence)
As the battle looms, Henry Earl of Richmond has slept well and his spirits are steady. Lord Stanley offers him encouragement, though he must be circumspect because King Richard still holds his son hostage: “on thy side I may not be too forward …” (442, 5.5.47; see 47-49).
By contrast, King Richard’s tortured conscience rears, forcing him to confront the ghosts of all his victims in a nightmare and at least momentarily shaking his confidence. Visiting him in succession are the ghosts of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the little princes, Hastings, Lady Anne Neville, and Buckingham (443-44). Buckingham’s final couplet speaks sufficiently for the injured parties all: “God and good angels fight on Richmond’s side, / And Richard falls in height of all his pride” (444, 5.5.129-30). Richard’s life now takes on its final, medieval shape, that of a pride-induced fall from the height of Fortune’s wheel to the plummet of sin and wretchedness. He stands alone in the midst of an army of men who do not love or honor him, and there’s no way out of his fatal predicament—at least none that an unrepentant sinner such as he could accept. King Richard bids Ratcliffe follow him on an eavesdropping tour of the camp tents, the purpose of which will be to discern “if any mean to shrink from me” (445, 5.5.176).
Meanwhile, Henry Earl of Richmond harangues his troops in set-piece style: his is the language of moral right, spoken by a man who’s certain that Providence is on his side and that his enemy is a mere tyrant: “if you fight against God’s enemy, / God will, in justice, ward you as his soldiers” (446, 5.5.207-08).
Act 5, Scenes 6-8 (446-50, King Richard speaks insouciantly to his troops one last time; the battle comes and he fights bravely, but Henry Earl of Richmond kills him; Henry will marry Princess Elizabeth (Elizabeth Woodeville’s daughter) to unite his Lancastrian line with York: peace at last)
Richard now harangues his troops in set-piece style: his language is that of insouciance, spoken by a desperate rogue—protect what’s yours, he tells his men, and “Let us to’t pell mell; / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell” (5.6.42-43). One thing we can’t say of Richard is that he is a coward—Shakespeare grants him a king’s death, betrayed by many but hacking his way valiantly through a host of false Richmonds: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (449, 5.8.13) Best rendition of this famous line ever: Ian McKellen’s riveting pronouncement of it as the wheels of his 1940’s-era jeep spin uselessly in the battlefield mud.
At last the real Henry Tudor cuts down this last of the Plantagenet monarchs, and proclaims the time of troubles at an end: “The day is ours. The bloody dog is dead” (449, 5.8.2). Henry will marry princess Elizabeth, the deceased Yorkist King Edward IV’s daughter, and thereby unite the houses of Lancaster and York once and for all: “Now civil wounds are stopped; peace lives again. / That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’” (450, 5.8.40-41).
However courageous and crafty King Richard III may have been, in the arc of Shakespeare’s play he became the creature of his own evil deeds, doomed to repeat them with less and less control over the outcome, until disaster could no longer be kept at bay. Only his death at the hands of Henry Tudor, along with Henry’s intra-dynastic marriage, puts an end to the bloody chaos of the Wars of the Roses. The lesson thereby inculcated seems to me strongly Augustinian, if indirectly so: sin begets sin, and free will negates itself thereby, so that all of Richard’s cunning schemes and furious action come to naught. Like all evil, Shakespeare’s “speaking picture” (Sidney’s phrase) of incarnate badness, Richard of Gloucester, ultimately has no substance, no staying power.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake