King Richard the Third

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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Chronicles | More’s Richard III | “King under the Car Park” | 100 Years’ War Timeline | Historical Figures | Wars of the Roses | Key People | Edward III’s Family Tree

Introduction to Richard III’s Era: The Wars of the Roses (1455-87)

Shakespeare prefers to deal with the dynamics of royal power from a distance. By the Tudor-Stuart era, which featured a centralized royal court, the feudal infighting of older times had diminished, so it was reasonably safe to deal with the religious and dynastic struggles that had marked medieval Britain. Shakespeare took an especially strong interest in the stretch of history from Richard II (1377-99) to the Lancastrian King Henry IV (1399-1413) who deposed him and passed the kingdom on to his son Henry V (1413-22), victor of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415,[1] and on through the Wars of the Roses (1455-87). The fighting saw the Lancastrian King Henry V’s incapable successor Henry VI (1422-61, 1470-71)[2] and his strong queen, Margaret of Anjou, trying to hang on in the face of Yorkist opposition led by Richard Plantagenet, Third Duke of York (1411-60 and then by his sons Edward (the future Edward IV, 1461-70, 1471-83) and Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III, 1483-85).[3]

The backdrop of the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) is the wider Hundred Years War (1337-1453), which saw England and France (assisted by other European powers) fighting over which country should control France. That wider conflict started when Charles IV of France died in 1328 without male heirs, and his sister Isabella claimed the French throne for her son and Charles’s nephew, the young king Edward III of England (1327-77). The French Barons disputed this possibility because, in their reading, Salic law[4] provided grounds for disallowing succession to the throne by royals whose claim traced solely to a female. The French throne went to King Charles’s paternal cousin Count Philip of Valois instead, who was also (unlike Edward III) a native Frenchman. The English, for their part, never fully relinquished their claim to France, so war raged on in several phases across eleven decades. The final phase was the so-called Lancastrian War (1415-53), which began when Henry V invaded France and achieved stunning victories, only to die of dysentery in 1422[5] while in France and then have his son Henry VI lose nearly all of the territory that his father had won.

The English “Wars of the Roses” (1455-87) began in the wake of this last phase of The Hundred Years’ War. Social problems at home in late-feudal England, combined with the loss of territories and prestige in France, served to destabilize the English throne, paving the way for the fierce factional struggles to capture it which make up the Wars of the Roses. Mid-fifteenth-century England was marked by savage infighting and betrayal between these two great branches of the Plantagenet line descended from Edward III: the houses of Lancaster (named after an earldom created by King Henry III in 1267 for his second son) and York (named for the First Duke of York, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III). The action started in earnest in May 1455 when Richard, Third Duke of York, captured Henry VI during the First Battle of St. Albans and was granted the title of Lord Protector by Parliament. Then, in July 1460, the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, captured King Henry VI again during the Battle of Northampton. Richard, Third Duke of York tried to seize the throne, but ended up being killed at the Battle of Wakefield in late December 1460. Nonetheless, “York” met with dynastic success: from 1461-71, and then from 1471-83, his son reigned as Edward IV.

Briefly in 1471, thanks mainly to Warwick’s disillusionment and anger over the king’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and other issues, Edward IV was booted from the throne and replaced with Henry VI and Queen Margaret. But Edward came on with an army and killed Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471 and then won a decisive victory at Tewkesbury in May 1471. The captured Henry VI and his heir Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales ended up dead—the son in battle and Henry probably murdered at the behest of the reinstalled King Edward IV. This Yorkist king ruled securely from 1471-83, when he died of an illness, thereafter to be replaced, at least technically, by his young son Edward V.

Technically and very briefly, that is: in less than three months in 1483, the young heir’s Uncle Richard of Gloucester managed to move him out of the way and, along with the earlier judicial elimination by Edward IV of his brother George, Duke of Clarence (historically, in February 1478), the way was clear for Richard’s seizure of the crown in June 1483. Henry Tudor[6] became the focus of many English noblemen’s hopes for turning out the wicked King Richard III, which he did at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485. The Lancastrian Henry Tudor ruled as Henry VII (1485-1509), and united the claims of York and Lancaster by marrying Edward IV’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth. From 1485 through the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, we are in the Tudor Era. One might think that King Edward  III’s having produced five sons who survived to adulthood[7] would ensure continuity in the transferal of power, but that was not the case. In a dynastic order, should the sovereign or the immediate heir die, the intricate web of royal relations is touched, and it begins to vibrate. If multiple claims to the throne are plausible, the lurking spider Ambition soon comes out to prey. Essentially, the Wars of the Roses concerned the ambitions of a privileged group of men and women closely related to King Edward III.

While King Richard III ruled only for a little more than two rebellion-marked years and much—perhaps even all—of his evil reputation from 1485 onward is the product of authors such as Raphael Holinshed and Sir Thomas More, those two years from 1483-85 were all the time he needed to attract the attention of one William Shakespeare. From there, it was just a hop-skip to poetic immortality. The reign of Richard III deals with an historical subject familiar to many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The playwright borrows his story in the main from the Holinshed Chronicles and Sir Thomas More’s brief biographical account, both of which portray the king in a negative light.[8] Still, Shakespeare was capable of reading between the lines of the chroniclers, so he must have understood that nearly everyone involved in the action had divided loyalties and mixed, often selfish motivations.

The resultant qualities of backbiting, edginess, and ambivalence emerge in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, but Shakespeare’s skill as a storyteller drives him to generate sympathy for some of the doomed characters at strategic points in the action. The diabolical and strangely charming Richard of Gloucester aside, some of the worst rascals in the play are gifted with genuinely moving passages. The real Duke of Clarence, for example, was disloyal to his brother Edward IV—he shifted back and forth between Edward and Warwick the Kingmaker when those two men were engaged in their deadly feuds. Clarence would probably just as well have deposed Edward and taken the throne for himself, but fortune did not favor him and he never had Edward’s highest regard, which went to Richard.[9] All the same, in Act 1, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s play, Clarence speaks mesmerizing lines about a fearsome nightmare on the eve of his murder, moving us to pity him: from “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon …”[10] and forward for many lines, our attention belongs to Clarence.

As for Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430-82),[11] when she was trying to maintain her afflicted husband Henry VI on the throne and thereby preserve a path for his heir (the couple’s ill-fated son Edward, Prince of Wales), this Frenchwoman, who wielded great power in England during her husband’s frequent periods of infirmity, treated it like a foreign country, allowing her armies to pillage their way through conquered territories.[12] A deadly foe to the future Richard III’s father Richard, Third Duke of York, Margaret, as Kendall describes her, was a “dynast” to the core, her conduct invariably governed by a “savage instinct to protect the birthright of her child.”[13] In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and then in Richard III, however, she is accorded considerable respect, and in Richard III, shespeaks with prophetic accuracy about the villainous end of others. “These English woes,” says Margaret near the end of a lengthy diatribe, “will make me smile in France.”[14] This and many other passages show Shakespeare freely reconfiguring the historical characters in his play, suiting them to the needs of a production designed foremost to please an audience.

But again with regard to Shakespeare’s Richard,[15] this character, with his razor-sharp asides and flair for theater, is well-suited to the needs of Tudor mythology, even if the play as a whole hardly amounts to propaganda. Queen Elizabeth I, after all, was the daughter of Henry VIII, the heir of the Lancastrian Henry VII, 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). To be fair, perhaps we should attribute the subtlety and deviousness of Shakespeare’s Richard to the author’s understanding that in real life, Richard would have had a difficult childhood not unlike Elizabeth I’s harrowing youth. Worst of all, his father Richard, Third Duke of York rashly claimed the throne and paid with his life for the miscalculation. That kind of loss leaves a terrible mark upon an eight-year-old child. So the future Richard III’s Machiavellian qualities can to a great extent be put down to sheer necessity, the times being what they were. What Shakespeare’s Richard calls “Tear-falling pity”[16] was not encouraged, except perhaps when someone on one’s own side of the fence happened to be the victim, in which case the savagery of the mortal foe could be called out for what it was. Of course, one was already in search of opportunities to visit the same barbarity on the enemy.

All said, there was no place for naiveté or excessive tenderness in the heart of English sovereigns or their supporters. That seems to be true not only in Shakespeare’s dramatic creations but also in real life. Once we enter the character Richard of Gloucester’s world, which coincides with Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 2-3 and Richard III, we are, as he, “in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin”[17] and must bear witness to just how vicious things can become when a political culture is broken as badly as late-medieval England’s was. Aristotle nobly thought that politics was the way to the good life. Reading history and studying Shakespeare makes us painfully aware that it can pave the way to other places, too.

Act 1, Scene 1 (385-88, 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 (385, 1.1.1-41), which resembles his monologue at the end of Henry the Sixth, Part 3, where, in Act 5, Scene 6, he kills the defeated Henry VI In the Tower of London and offers a sinister prayer for future success: “since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.”[18] In Richard Loncraine’s film production starring Sir Ian McKellen,[19] 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 contorted body. Like that of many villains, his evil is fueled by a sense of injured merit and a demand for compensation. He is part of the illustrious House of York, and one of his brothers is no less than Edward IV, the present King of England.

The real Richard of Gloucester was loyal in action to his older brother Edward IV,[20] 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. Near the end of the Third Part of Henry the Sixth, Richard says starkly, “I have no brother, I am like no brother.”[21] He is by his own understanding an unappreciated outsider to his family and to the scene of joyous expectation that he describes. Others may enjoy the time, but Richard’s deformities and personality defects render that impossible for him. He was “stamped” (385, 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” (385, 1.1.24). He is a man “unfinished” (385, 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 embrace the gale-force winds of anarchy and chaos, staying always somehow ahead of his fellow royals. Richard lives in a time full of opportune chaos and confusion. These things are his very elements, and they will furnish him with everything he needs to advance his cause. That quality accounts for his ability to marshal “drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams” (385, 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 scheming ideas to hide themselves as his brother Clarence enters: “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul …” (385, 1.1.41). Although Richard can do little about his appearance, he is a master of disguise when it comes to language and moral sentiment. He is one of Shakespeare’s most skillful 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” (386, 1.1.62) After all, she has two young sons by Edward who stand to inherit the throne. Historically, Elizabeth Woodville, 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 Woodville faction and himself dating from the last two 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 kindred are made gentlefolks” (387. 1.1.93-95).

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” (388, 1.1.151).

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 whom the neoclassical moralist critic Samuel Johnson worries about—his ebullience doesn’t keep us from condemning him, but it carries us along to a disturbing degree.[22] 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, and whom fortune seems to have abandoned. Renaissance poets understood, as of course did the ancients from Homer onwards, that shunning the unlucky, although it’s cruel, is often the safest course of action. Bad luck is contagious, and incompetence loves company. No wonder we sometimes side with the villains for a time: knowledge gives us a sense of power and immunity. As modern critic Stanley Fish writes in discussing Paradise Lost, Christian poetry often labors to surprise us with our own propensity towards sinfulness, at our seemingly endless capacity—even knowingly—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.[23]

Act 1, Scene 2 (388-94, Anne laments the death of Edward and Henry VI, and is courted strangely by Richard, who marvels at his actorly performance.)

Anne Neville laments over King Henry VI’s body and remembers her slain husband Prince Edward (388-89, 1.2.1-30). 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 either killed during battle or upon discovery by Clarence’s men, and Warwick was killed during the battle. The widow Anne makes the first of several references to Richard as poisonous and monstrous, cursing him to greater ill than she can wish even “… to adders, spiders, toads, / Or any creeping venomed thing that lives” (389, 1.2.18-19).

Immediately, she is confronted with the devil himself when Richard appears from nowhere to charm her in a long and famously improbable dialogue (389-93, 1.2.32-211). 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 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” (391, 1.2.127-28). 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 (392, 1.2.151-56). He treats her like the Helen of Greek myth: Helen, in Christopher Marlowe’s telling in Doctor Faustus, possessed “the face that launched a thousand ships.”[24]

At 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” (392, 1.2.169), which elicits not violence but only, “Though I wish thy death, / I will not be the executioner” (392, 1.2.170-71). What follows is even more improbable, with Richard offering Anne a ring, and Anne ambivalently offering him hope of success and even expressing some gladness to see that this bad man has “become so penitent” (393, 1.2.207).

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 to join Shakespeare the playwright in patting himself on the back: “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” (393, 1.2.214-15) As the Norton textual gloss implies, the word “humor” logically refers both to the fact that Anne is grieving and to Richard’s strange, theatrical way of courting her.

Does Richard believe the lady finds him “a marvelous proper man” (394, 1.2.240) and that he has now become fashionable? Perhaps the fashionable thing is power, which, as the late diplomat Henry Kissinger said, is “the great aphrodisiac.”[25] The most generous way to construe Anne’s apparent fickleness is to acknowledge that although she is not personally weak, by position she is a pawn in a deadly dynastic chess game. In truth, the wedding between Richard and Anne took place in July 1472, whereas the battle during and after which Edward, Prince of Wales and King Henry VI died occurred a little over a year earlier, in May 1471. But strict timelines aside, Anne’s sudden, implausible change of heart may be Shakespeare’s way of characterizing the devastating effects of the dynastic violence of the Wars of the Roses on even the deepest human feelings and loyalties. Richard seems to understand that Anne, who is coveted as a ward by Clarence because he wants her estates as Countess of Warwick, is incapable of opposing him. We should note here that the historical Anne Neville was a girl of about sixteen at the time, not an adult counter to the also young but wily Richard. Thus, his gesture of offering her a blade with which to kill him may be less risky than it appears.

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” (385, 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” (394, 1.2.248-49). This is Richard at his best and worst: protean, ebullient, unpredictable, a rider of chaos involving events and the human heart. In the theater of cruelty and 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 3), 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.[26] 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 (394-402, Dysfunctional family dinner: Richard and Queen Elizabeth Woodville 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 Woodville and Richard go at each other’s throats with intensity. The reason for her anger is palpable: she says to Richard, “You envy my advancement and my friends’” (396, 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 the 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” (397, 1.3.122-125).

Queen Margaret of Anjou, the indomitable widow of Henry VI and mother of the slain Edward, Prince of Wales, puts in an appearance, serving as a dire example of one who has held and lost great power and place. She herself is not innocent, 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” (388, 1.3.157-58). Her cutting prophecy regarding Elizabeth Woodville will turn out to be truer than she can guess: “after many lengthened hours of grief, / Die neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen” (399, 1.3.204-05).

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 Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.”[27] 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” (402, 1.3.332-34; see 401-02, 1.3.320-34). The pair of murderers he has summoned now arrive, waiting for Richard’s orders to make away with George, Duke of Clarence.

Act 1, Scene 4 (402-08, Clarence has a strange vision and is murdered by Richard’s agents.)

This scene contains the remarkable dream vision of Clarence (402-03, 1.4.9-60). 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.[28] In this speech, he is given beautiful poetry of the sort that one wants to detach from its context 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.”[29] Clarence dreams of a sea-change, but one of a more dreadful aspect: “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon. / Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, / Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels” (403, 1.4.23-26). 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 stumbling / Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard…“ (402, 1.4.17-18). That is a classic piece of dramatic irony since we know something Clarence doesn’t. His dream is strangely beautiful, but it does not yield him clarity about the end of his life. It 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 (403, 1.4.32-33).

The second part of the speech (403, 1.4.40-60) 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” (403, 1.4.50) invokes the ghost of Edward, Prince of Wales, who demands retribution for his death, supposedly by Clarence’s own hand.

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 (404-05, 1.4.91-40). These two men are operating at a much lower level than 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 seems to lack, 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 to his assassins, “Give me a cup of wine” (405, 1.4.147). 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 religious rhetoric (406-07, 1.4.182-205). In sum, Shakespeare may be playing with our sympathies in his handling of Clarence. Doubtless the fine poetry this character is given generates 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 person’s penitence is situational does not necessarily render it thoroughly false—perhaps penitence is always to some extent situational. Still, it 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.”[30] The Wars of the Roses were about insidious divisions between interrelated feudal houses.

Act 2, Scene 1 (408-11, 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 …” (409, 2.1.48). 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 noble Duke is dead?” (409, 2.1.77) At the scene’s end, Richard even insists to Buckingham that the pale visages of everyone around should be interpreted as an emblem of guilt (411, 2.1.133-36). 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” (411, 2.1.129-30). 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, once shed, draws more blood: violence and sin generate spirals of still more violence and sin. That is a lesson Shakespeare surely learned from the Bible, which teaches it from Genesis onward: “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” and God reproached him for it with, “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me, from the earth.”[31]

Act 2, Scene 2 (411-14, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, 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 Woodville, and the children of murdered Clarence engage in a lamentation-fest (412-13, 2.2.33-87). One-line or stichomythic exchanges of the sort we find from lines 71-77 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 moans. / Their woes are parceled; mine are general” (413, 2.2.79-80).

All the same, we should not discount the genuine pathos of the scene; it functions at two heterodox levels. Shakespeare’s first goal must have been to please an audience, and so it is unlikely that he would completely undercut a good tearjerker scene like the present one. His audience members were not historians, after all, though it would be wrong 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 his 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 (414-15, 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 kindred haughty and proud” (414, 2.3.27-28), and as for the general atmosphere, his pronouncement is, “By a divine instinct men’s minds mistrust / Ensuing dangers …” (415, 2.3.42-43). Dynastic and inter-dynastic change will come, but it is something to be feared.

Act 2, Scene 4 (415-17, Queen Elizabeth Woodville 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 (415, 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 King Edward IV? 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: “Ay me! I see the downfall of our house. / The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind” (416, 2.4.48-49).

Act 3, Scene 1 (417-22, Richard makes conversation with the young princes on their way to the Tower, and convinces the cardinal 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 and carefully managed theater shown by Richard and Buckingham; they advance Richard’s cause by means of sophistical arguments and false 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 …” (419, 3.1.76). Buckingham makes easy work of the Cardinal’s scruples about snatching the youth out of sanctuary with his mother (419, 3.1.44-56). The effect is comic since it shows how simple a thing it is to take advantage of those who—unlike Richard and Buckingham—take the rules seriously. But of course Cardinals were by no means non-political figures, so another way to interpret the Cardinal’s complacency 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 been written down for posterity. Richard is right in the middle of staging his own inevitable accession to power in front of everyone who matters, no doubt 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 (419, 3.1.91-93). Most appropriately, his little brother York fears that he “shall not sleep in quiet at the Tower” (420, 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 willingness” (422, 3.1.195; see lines 188-97).[32]

Act 3, Scene 2 (422-25, 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 (422, 3.2.7-12), 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” (422, 3.2.31). Perhaps more so than anyone else in the play, Hastings seems incapable of discerning Richard’s true character. Even so, 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 / Ere I will see the crown so foul misplaced” (423, 3.2.41-42).

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, and 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,[33] 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. It is mainly villains like Edmund in King Lear who scorn such powers of prophecy, witchcraft, and the like.[34] 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.[35]

Act 3, Scenes 3-4 (425-28, 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 (425, 3.3.1-23). 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 ridiculous 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 in council, “I pray you all, what do they deserve / That do conspire my death with devilish plots / of damnèd witchcraft, and that have prevailed / Upon my body with their hellish charms?” (427, 3.4.64-67) Hastings’s conditional response beginning with an “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 the conspirators. 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, leaving the hapless Hastings by himself, awaiting execution.[36]

Act 3, Scene 5 (428-30, Buckingham and Richard dupe the Lord Mayor about Hastings’s sudden execution, and trashes his deceased brother Edward IV’s reputation.)

Yet another excellent 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 (429, 3.5.38-43). The scene may remind us 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.[37] Many of Richard’s accusations revolve around sexual innuendo, and we may suppose this topic is especially satisfying to him, if we recall his opening soliloquy. Here, his character assassination of Edward IV is particularly vicious, as he rehearses the claim that his own brother Edward was not the legitimate issue of their father Richard, Third Duke of York (429-30, 3.5.82-91).

Act 3, Scene 6 (430, 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: “Why, who’s so gross / That sees not this palpable device? / Yet who’s so bold but says he sees it not?” (430, 3.7.10-12) Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir John Harington (a godson of Queen Elizabeth I) puts the matter succinctly in one of his epigrams: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.”[38] 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 (430-35, Theater of Power: Buckingham woos Richard to accept the crown; Richard accepts with false modesty and reluctance.)

Here Shakespeare has outdone himself in the representation of villainy: Buckingham’s quip about Richard’s role being that of a woman who must “Play the maid’s part: say no, but take it” (431, 3.7.45) is followed by some fine stagecraft in which Richard of Gloucester walks 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 these cares on me?” (433-34, 3.7.133-34, 182) By reverse logic, the 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 their 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 stones” (435, 3.7.202), 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.[39] It isn’t only the living bodies of his rivals that he must deal with; their posthumous image and report must be degraded 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 King Edward IV and the princes. Story and spectacle are enormously significant accompaniments to the getting and maintaining of power, and Shakespeare, a reader of Holinshed’s Chronicles especially but also of some other accounts 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 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 to avoid becoming not simply feared rather than loved, but outright hated, and he willingly uses religious props and language to achieve that goal.

Act 4, Scene 1 (435-37, Anne Neville explains her acceptance of Richard’s suit; Queen Elizabeth Woodville 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. Anne Neville, who is now married to Richard,[40] claims that her “woman’s heart / Grossly grew captive to his honey words” (437, 4.1.73-74) so that he won her over on the spot, improbable as that may seem. In the First Folio version (but not in the Quarto version that the Norton editors use), Elizabeth Woodville ends the scene with haunting lines about her two vulnerable sons imprisoned in the Tower of London: “Pitty, you ancient Stones, those tender Babes, / Whom Envie hath immur’d within your Walls, / Rough Cradle for such little prettie ones….”[41] In the Quarto version, the aged Duchess of York gets the final word, and she longs for peace in death, after a life filled with grief upon grief (437, 4.1.88-91).

How right is Elizabeth Woodville to fear for her sons? Did Richard really order the princes killed? It was common speculation that he had the princes murdered when he became king, but there is no solid evidence to prove it. Certainly, he stood to benefit from the deed, but as Paul Murray Kendall points out in his biography of Richard III,[42] so did Buckingham (i.e., Henry Stafford). The bodies were never definitively discovered (though some remains were discovered in 1674 and then in 1789), so the whole affair remains a mystery.[43]

Act 4, Scene 2 (438-40, 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 Woodville’s daughter; Richard chooses Tyrrell as his agent and declares himself immune to “tear-falling pity.”)

The newly crowned Richard III 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 honors for a day?” (438, 4.2.5) and fuming to himself when Buckingham hesitates in consideration of his own selfish interests: “Buckingham / No more shall be the neighbor to my counsel” (439, 4.2.41-42).

Richard also gives an oblique order to Catesby to make away with Anne, his queen: “Rumor it abroad / That Anne my wife is sick and like to die” (439, 4.2. 48-49). 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. It was a Renaissance commonplace that a well-born person’s formation should be oriented towards action. Unlike, say, Shakespeare’s Richard II, 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 his alleged murder of Anne: “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass” (439, 4.2.58-59). But Richard’s mastery is short-lived, and his own words suggest the reason Shakespeare offers for his failure to hang onto the kingdom he has stolen for more than a few years: “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (439, 4.2.61-63). A man who admits that his soul is dead cannot hope to remain unhated for long, and when political rulers make themselves hated, they are not far from disaster.

James Tyrrell is King Richard’s choice for the matter of the princes currently being held in the Tower of London, and this bad man is quick to pledge his assistance: “’Tis done, my gracious lord” (439, 4.2.79), he tells Richard in advance of the deed. The scene ends on a sour note between the king and distrustful, impatient Buckingham, who has already returned to claim the Earldom of Hereford that Richard had promised him in exchange for his support (440, 4.2.87-90). 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” (440, 4.2.116), prompting Buckingham, once alone, to ask himself, “Made I him king for this?” (440, 4.2.120) And with that, the allegiance of Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham to King Richard III is at an end.

Act 4, Scene 3 (441-42, 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 his subordinates Dighton and Forrest to effect the murders—this is information from Holinshed and/or Thomas More’s study of King Richard III[44]—and are treated to another of the play’s more lyrical passages, this time about the piteous nature of the princes’ death: “Their lips were four red roses on a stalk, / Which in their summer beauty kissed each other” (441, 4.3.12-13; see lines 1-22). Richard promises Tyrrel a great reward, and moves on to sum up his own accomplishments, among which are that “The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom, / And Anne my wife hath bid the world goodnight” (441, 4.3.38-39). Buckingham has by now turned traitor to him with an army in the field along with the Bishop of Ely and Henry, Earl of Richmond. 

Act 4, Scene 4 (442-53, Queen Margaret scorns Elizabeth Woodville, 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 (from pp. 441-45, 4.4.1-141, until Richard enters), this time with bitter effect: Queen Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s widow, stands beside Elizabeth Woodville, 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” (445, 4.4.109), France being the erstwhile center of Margaret’s hopes for power in England. 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 …” (445, 4.4.112-13, see lines 112-17).

The real Margaret died in August 1482 in France, so she didn’t 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 that nobody in the disintegrating order Shakespeare describes 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.[45] Still, whatever the historical inaccuracies of the play Richard III 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” (446, 4.4.184-85), and then it’s on to the business at hand with Elizabeth Woodville. It takes King Richard a good long time to convince Elizabeth of absolutely nothing (446-50, 4.4.188-347). 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 bloodlines 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.[46] 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” (450, 4.4.333-34). 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 about the impending battle, and pins down Lord Stanley, or so he thinks, by holding his young son hostage: “Look your faith be firm, / Or else his head’s assurance is but frail” (452, 4.4.409-10). 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.[47]

Act 4, Scene 5 (453, Lord Stanley learns about the augmentation of Henry, Earl of Richmond’s supporters; Stanley asks Sir Christopher to tell him the vital news that Elizabeth Woodville 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 (453, 4.5.1-20). Stanley also wants Sir Christopher to pass along secretly the news that Elizabeth Woodville consents to the proposed match between Henry, Earl of Richmond and her young daughter Elizabeth (453, 4.5.17-19).

Act 5, Scene 1 (454, Buckingham is executed at Richard III’s order.)

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” (454, 5.1.29).

Act 5, Scene 2 (454-55, Henry, Earl of Richmond addresses the lords in his army confidently.)

Richmond addresses his lords, expressing moral disgust at the usurping reign of “The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar, / That spoiled your summer fields and fruitful vines …” (454, 5.2.7-8) and radiating confidence on the eve of battle: “In God’s name, cheerly on, courageous friends, / To reap the harvest of perpetual peace / By this one bloody trial of sharp war” (455, 5.3.14-16). If we place pro-Tudor and Lancastrian bias aside (for the battle being recounted did,at least, mostly end the gut-wrenching Wars of the Roses), Shakespeare and his audience must have felt the hollowness of any such statement made about ending humankind’s propensity to settle their differences by extreme violence. We in the twenty-first century look back with sadness upon the serial carnage that followed the conclusion of “the war to end all wars” in 1918, and we have little reason to predict that things will become more peaceful in the near future.

Act 5, Scene 3 (455-63, Richard speaks with Catesby and Norfolk, expressing confidence; Richmond draws up battle plans in his tent; Richard fires off a threat to Stanley, and asks his men to help him arm for battle; Stanley praises Richmond; Richmond prays for victory and sleeps; meanwhile, Richard suffers a guilt-ridden nightmare, and awakens in a panic; Richard confesses his fear to Ratcliffe; Richmond wakes up refreshed by a dream and delivers a speech to his troops; Richard broods, but harangues his army with a defiant speech; Richard is told that Stanley has deserted him; battle is imminent.)

In the third scene, Richard expresses confidence of his own, saying to Catesby and Norfolk, “the King’s name is a tower of strength, / Which they upon the adverse party want” (455, 5.3.12-13). He gives Norfolk and Catesby their final orders and sends with a herald’s attendant a threat to Stanley reminding him that his little son’s life hangs in the balance: “Bid him bring his power / Before sun-rising, lest his son George fall / Into the blind cave of eternal night” (456, 5.3.58-60). Around midnight, Ratcliffe is to come and help Richard suit up for battle.

Meanwhile, Richmond’s mind is also directed towards the struggle at hand: “I’ll draw the form and model of our battle …” (456, 5.3.39). As the battle looms, Stanley offers Richmond encouraging words, though he must be circumspect in his movements because King Richard still holds his son hostage: “on thy side I may not be too forward …” (442, 5.3.92; see lines 81-100). Richmond intends to lie down for a nap soon, but not before he prays for success, asking God, “Make us Thy ministers of chastisement / That we may praise Thee in the victory” (457, 5.3.111-12). He will rest well, enjoying the “sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams / That ever entered in a drowsy head,” (460, 5.3.225-26), as he tells his lords, and in that dream will “their souls whose bodies Richard murdered” (460, 5.3.228) visit him to cheer him on to victory.

By contrast, around the same hour, King Richard’s tortured conscience rears, forcing him to confront the same ghosts that come so pleasantly to the sleeping Richmond. All the king’s victims constitute a nightmare that at least  momentarily shakes the practiced warrior’s confidence. Visiting him in succession are eleven shades: those of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the little princes, Hastings, Anne Neville, and Buckingham (443-44). Buckingham’s final couplet speaks sufficiently for all the injured parties: to Richard he says sternly, “Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death. / Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath” (459, 5.3.169-70), while to Richmond he is kind: “God and good angels fight on Richmond’s side, / And Richard falls in height of all his pride” (459, 5.3.173-74). Richard wakes up and tries to sort through his confused thoughts, saying, among other things, “And if I die, / no soul will pity me. / And wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (460, 5.3.199-201)[48] Then Richard confesses his terror to Ratcliffe (460, 5.3.210-17), and his 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 will stand 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” (460, 5.3.220). He hopes by this shift to allay his fear.

As Shakespeare pans, so to speak, from the horrid scene that reveals King Richard III’s terror, Richmond is shown haranguing his assembled 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 usurper and tyrant: “if you fight against God’s enemy, / God will, in justice, ward you as His soldiers” (461, 5.3.251-52).

Richard, too, now harangues his troops in set-piece style. Before he addresses them, he says to Norfolk, “Conscience is but a word that cowards use” and “Let us to it pell mell; / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell!” (5.3.307, 310-11). To the whole army, Richard’s language is a combination of stubborn possessiveness and strong contempt for the enemy. The opponents, he says, are “A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways, / A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants …” (462, 5.3.314-15). Shall such trash, asks Richard of his men, “enjoy our lands, lie with our wives, / Ravish our daughters?” (463, 5.3.334-35) This is the last hurrah of a desperate rogue addressing men who already hate him. Aside from what he says to his great lords, Richard really makes no appeal to camaraderie between him and his troops: since when has this selfish monarch ever done anything for common Englishmen? He served Edward IV’s cause for a time, but otherwise, Richard’s only concern has been for himself, and he is leading hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of men to their deaths to extend his own wicked reign.

Act 5, Scene 4 (463-64, the battle rages, with Richard now fighting on foot: “My kingdom for a horse!”)

One thing we can’t say of Richard is that he is a physical coward: Shakespeare grants him a king’s death, betrayed by many but hacking his way valiantly through a host of false Richmonds to get to the real one: he twice shouts out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (463-64, 5.8.7, 13)[49] What does this famous call mean? Probably not, in the fashion of irrational exuberance, that he would trade his entire kingdom for a horse, but instead that “My entire kingdom, my reign as king, depends on whether I can get my hands on a horse right now.” Richard III needs something simple and material without delay, or all is lost—such is the fragility of human strength, and such the power of fate, or providence. Then, too, this interpretation honors the turn-on-a-sixpence nature of many medieval battles, at least as Shakespeare represents them: strategy and tactics matter just as they do today, but the king’s personal courage is also considered a major factor in how a battle turns out. Richard III is diabolically plucky, but in spite of his pluck, he cannot commandeer the beast he desperately requires, and so will end his brief, troublesome reign. The scene concludes with Richard, on foot, still seeking out the real Henry, Earl of Richmond for single combat.

Act 5, Scene 5 (464-65, King Richard III goes down fighting Henry, Earl of Richmond; Stanley presents Henry with the crown; Henry issues a pardon to all who return and promises to unite the houses of Lancaster and York, and end the long spell of violence in England.)

At last, as they fight on Bosworth Field,[50] Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, cuts down the Yorkist Richard III, and proclaims the time of troubles at an end: “The day is ours; the bloody dog is dead” (464, 5.5.2). Henry will pardon all those who are willing to be reconciled, and marry princess Elizabeth of York, the daughter of the deceased King Edward IV by Elizabeth Woodville, and thereby unite the houses of Lancaster and York: “Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again. / That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’” (465, 5.5.40-41). This happy union is what keeps Shakespeare’s play from being a tragedy: its centering on Richard of Gloucester finally gives way to the triumph of Tudor history.

However crafty and bold King Richard III may have been, in the arc of Shakespeare’s play he becomes the creature of his own evil deeds, doomed to repeat them with less and less control over the outcome, until disaster can 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 conveyed seems strongly Augustinian: 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 things evil, Shakespeare’s model of badness Richard of Gloucester ultimately has no substance, no staying power.[51]

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

Copyright © 2012 / 2024 (Revised) Alfred J. Drake


[1] A major victory for England during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). The basic historical narrative in this introductory account claims no originality, and the author has where necessary drawn upon various sources such as Wikipedia, Britannica, and several sites covering the history of the United Kingdom.

[2] Henry VI was born in December 1421, so he was a baby when his father Henry V died in 1422. The boy’s uncle Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester (1390-1447) functioned as Lord Protector during Henry VI’s minority.

[3] Richard, Third Duke of York was the son of Richard of Conisbrough, Third Earl of Cambridge and the grandson of Edward III’s fourth son Edmund of Langley, First Duke of York.

[4] See Britannica’s entry on the millennium-old Salic Law, which (at least as it came to be adapted and interpreted) barred the succession to the throne of anyone whose claim came from a woman. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[5] Henry V was just short of his 36th birthday when he died.

[6] Henry Tudor was the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and descended from John of Gaunt through his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort.

[7] The sons were Edward the Black Prince (Duke of Cornwall, Prince of Wales), Lionel of Antwerp (Duke of Clarence), John of Gaunt (First Duke of Lancaster), Edmund of Langley (First Duke of York), and Thomas of Woodstock (Duke of Gloucester).

[8] See the exact beginning of the Holinshed account at Holinshed’s Chronicles (Holinshed Project), and Sir Thomas More’s Richard III. ( For an interesting account of Richard III’s recent exhumation, examination, and reinterment in a place befitting his status and historical significance, see “Richard III: The King under the Car Park.” Matthew Morris. University of Leicester. Accessed 2/23/2024. (YouTube).

[9] Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. New York: Norton, 1956. The author covers Clarence in some detail. See in particular 92-96, 142-49.

[10] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465. 403, 1.4.23-24.

[11] Queen Margaret plays a key role in Henry VI, Parts 2-3, Shakespeare’s setup plays for Richard III.

[12] Kendall, ibid. 43.

[13] Kendall, ibid. 31.

[14] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465. 445,4.4.109.

[15] Richard of Gloucester becomes King Richard III by Act 4, Scene 2; he is sometimes called simply “Richard” for brevity’s sake. Henry Earl of Richmond will at various points be called Richmond, Henry, or Henry Tudor: by the end of the play, he becomes King Henry VII.

[16] Shakespeare, ibid. 439, 4.2.63.

[17] Shakespeare, ibid. 439, 4.2.61-62.

[18] Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96. 5.6.78-79.

[19] Shakespeare. Richard III. Film dir. by Richard Loncraine. United Artists et al. 1995.

[20] Murray, ibid. See Ch. 6, “The King’s Man.” 89-106.

[21] Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96. 294, 5.6.80.

[22] Johnson, Samuel. “Preface to Shakespeare.” Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/4/2024. Johnson the moralist writes sternly of Shakespeare, “His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.”

[23] Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2­nd ed. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

[24] Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[25] Kissinger, Henry. “Power is the great aphrodisiac.” Quoted in The New York Times, Jan. 19, 1971. Accessed 2/23/2024.

[26]  Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96.229-30, 2.1.20-42.

[27] Shakespeare. The Sonnets. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 656-709. 700, “Sonnet 129,” lines 1-2.

[28] Kendall, ibid. The author covers Clarence in some detail. See in particular 92-96, 142-49.

[29] Shakespeare. The Tempest. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 397-448. 386, 1.2.404-05.

[30] The phrase belongs to President George W. Bush.

[31] See Genesis 8:8, 8:10. The 1599 Geneva Bible. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[32] Kendall, ibid. 299-300. Buckingham already possessed half of the Earl of Hereford Humphrey de Bohun’s huge estate, but he wanted the rest of it, which had gone to King Henry IV. Kendall explains that when Henry VI and the Prince of Wales died, Buckingham felt the rest of the estate belonged to him by right. Richard apparently granted this wish, but made it provisional upon an act of Parliament for somewhat complicated reasons relating to Henry VI’s lost title to the estate. Kendall says that Buckingham “must have been satisfied with this provision” (300). In Shakespeare’s play, Richard balks at his subordinate’s urging, thereby angering him. The playwright has clearly taken this information from Holinshed’s account of Richard’s reign: “And forsomuch as the title, which he claimed by inheritance, was somwhat interlaced with the title to the crowne by the line of king Henrie before depriued, the protector conceiued such indignation, that he reiected the dukes request with manie spitefull and minatorie words.” This makes dramatic sense; but then, Holinshed also airs an equally plausible supposition: “Verie truth it is, the duke was an high minded man, and euill could beare the glorie of another; so that I haue heard of some that say they saw it, that the duke, at such time as the crowne was first set vpon the protectors head, his eie could not abide the sight thereof, but wried his head another way.” Gutenberg e-text. (Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles … “Richard the Third.”) Accessed 3/8/2024.

[33] See Mirror for Magistrates, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Hathitrust. 3/4/2024.

[34] Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund shows contempt for his father’s naïve faith in astrology, saying in soliloquy, “I should have been that / I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on / my bastardizing.” Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. 774, 1.2.118-20.

[35] King James I. Daemonology. 1597. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[36] Such shows are common under authoritarian regimes. Stalin’s infamous “show trials” come to mind, as might, more recently, a chilling 1979 video showing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, then VP, seizing power and brutally condemning his enemies one by one. Accessed 2/28/2024..

[37] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Macbeth. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 917-69. 935, 2.3.103-04.

[38] Harington, Sir John. “Of Treason” from The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington. Accessed 2/24/2024.

[39] The maxim, “It is not enough that I should succeed; others must fail” has been attributed to any number of authors.

[40]  In real life, that event occurred in late spring 1472.

[41] Folger Shakespeare Richard III. Act 4, Scene 1. First Folio, 1623. Lines not numbered. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[42] Kendall, ibid. See Appendix 1: “Who Murdered the Princes?” 465-95. Kendall briefly discusses Henry VII, but finds the case for his guilt weak; he appears to consider Buckingham the most likely culprit.

[43] With regard to this question about the fate of the young princes Edward and Richard, the debate continues. One interesting conversation is logged at Ars Technica, “We now have evidence….” (Jennifer Ouellette, 2/9/2021. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[44] Sir Thomas More. The History of King Richard III. 1513. Accessed 3/4/2024. See also Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles … “Richard the Third.”) Accessed 3/8/2024.

[45] Shakespeare. The Life of Henry the Fifth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 790-857.

[46] Ernst Kantorowicz, W. C. Jordan, et al. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016; orig. pub. 1957.

[47] Kendall, ibid. 95-96.

[48] Richard III’s fearful attack of conscience renders his thoughts in a way that does not really call upon any sense of interiority. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), Harold Bloom cites this orderly, speechified rendering of conscience as characteristic of Shakespeare’s earlier period; from Hamlet onward, circa 1600-01, says Bloom, the playwright learned to convey a sense of interiority that—where necessary—avoided such grammaticality and logical coherence in favor of silences and broken or partial but suggestive utterances. Sometimes, as the romantic poets would later insist, the fragment, the part, signifies more than the whole. See Bloom’s chapters “Shakespeare’s Universalism” (1-17) and “Richard III” (64-73).

[49] Perhaps the best rendition of this famous line comes from a modern production directed by Richard Loncraine: Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard III shouts it as the wheels of his 1930’s-era jeep spin uselessly in battlefield mud.

[50] See “The Battle of Bosworth Field.” Accessed 2/29/2024.

[51] Augustine of Hippo. The Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love. See Ch. IV, The Problem of Evil, which provides a useful summary. Trans. Albert C. Outler, 1955. Accessed 2/29/2024.. See also Augustine’s The City of God, Vol. 1, Book Twelve. Trans. and ed. Marcus Dods. Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 2/29/2024.


Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 323-424).

Preliminary Notes on Hamlet  

Theology. In Christian terms, revenge amounts to usurpation of God’s providential prerogatives. But this interpretation of revenge clashes with a more ancient one that’s easily seen at work in Classical literature: in The Oresteia, for instance, Orestes would be wrong not to take vengeance on his father Agamemnon’s killer. How could Orestes not kill Clytemnestra? He and we know that such an act will bring the Furies down upon his head, but it must be done in spite of the penalty incurred. The Elizabethans love a good Senecan-style revenge tragedy, as the popularity of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy shows, but Shakespeare, who revels in the form just as much as anyone else (Titus Andronicus, anyone?) seems to face most squarely the theological dilemma it entails.

Skepticism. There is something to the idea that Hamlet is a man out of his time, someone not quite fit to be a tragic hero. That’s true even if his problem isn’t really “delay,” although he accuses himself of it. He makes his share of false assumptions and rash mistakes. I say only half in jest that the Prince’s problem may be that he has read Montaigne’s Essays and soaked in some of their epistemological skepticism. The play’s proddings towards revenge don’t seem solid to Hamlet: there is only a ghost who tells him what he wants to hear: Claudius is stealing his mother’s attention and his kingdom, so the man must be paid back.

Recognition. At what point in the play does Hamlet attain clarity about the nature of his actions? He must have come round to the idea that he needs to let things shape up as they may. But exactly how he has come that far isn’t entirely clear. Perhaps his realization is due to a number of experiences (facing the shock of Ophelia’s death, meditating on that army going to its death “even for an eggshell,” bantering with the Gravedigger and encountering Yorick’s skull as an object of meditation, escaping from the ship that was taking him to his death in England, being ransomed by pirates at sea, his conflicted feelings about Ophelia and his mother, etc.) In The Poetics, Aristotle says that well-crafted tragedies turn upon the hero’s arriving at some fundamental insight (anagnorisis, recognition, “un-unknowing”) about the mistake he or she has made. Characterize Hamlet’s insight into his situation—what is the insight, and what has led him to it? Connect this question to the gravedigger scene. What finally makes the play’s resolution possible—is it that Hamlet has been unable to act and something now makes him able to act? (Oedipus Rex, for example, combines recognition with “reversal”—expecting good news from a messenger, Oedipus instead learns that the guilt lies squarely on his own shoulders.)

Specific Notes on Hamlet

Act 1, Scene 1. (336-40, Guesses about a ghost)

The watchmen and Horatio offer some surmises: Horatio suspects that the ghost’s appearance “bodes some strange eruption to our state” (338, 1.1.68). They’re on watch because young Fortinbras is planning to take back the territory his father had lost to Hamlet Sr. Barnardo supposes the same thing when he says, “Well may it sort that this portentous figure / Comes armed through our watch so like the King / That was and is the question of these wars” (339, They feel foreboding, a sickness at heart; but they have only general knowledge, and Horatio’s idea (340, 1.1.150-52) is to seek out Hamlet and have him interact with the ghost; it seems logical to him that the young Prince will be able to attain particular, intimate knowledge of the spirit’s purpose.

Act 1, Scene 2. (340-46, Hamlet’s grief schooled, soliloquized; suspicions; ghost info!) 

Hamlet’s grief seems impolitic, self-indulgent, even prideful—at least to Claudius, who must govern. But Claudius’ rhetoric betrays a “schizoid” sense of his own conduct. He sees with “one auspicious, and one dropping eye” (341, 1.2.6-14), which is of course unnatural and nearly impossible even to imagine. The new King’s grief over his brother’s death is pushed aside by his evil ambition to retain the crown he has unfairly won, and his scoffing at young Fortinbras’ supposition that Denmark is “disjoint and out of frame” (341, 1.2.20) is ironic since, as we later find out, there’s nothing but disorder in Claudius’ realm. At this point, however, if we are a first-time audience, we don’t yet know that Claudius is a murderer, i.e. that the ghost’s story is true, so the new king is entitled to be annoyed with the excessive grief and surliness of Prince Hamlet. As Claudius points out, he has the backing of the citizenry, and Gertrude’s advice to her son is not without wisdom: “Thou know’st it is common, all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity. / … Why seems it so particular with thee?” (342, 1.2.72-75)

Soon thereafter, Hamlet speaks his first soliloquy, lamenting that “the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (343, 1.2.131-32), reproaching the general run of females in the person of Gertrude—“Frailty, thy name is woman!” (344, 1.2.146)—and profoundly disparaging Claudius in comparison with Hamlet, Sr. The latter was, says the Prince, “Hyperion” to Claudius’ “satyr” (344, 1.2.140), which makes Gertrude’s choice to remarry all the more contemptible. Hamlet’s imagination at this point, even before he hears the ghost’s damning information, seems morbid: he sees the whole world as “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed” (344, 1.2.135-36), one inhabited entirely by “things rank and gross in nature” (344, 1.2.136). Hamlet seems to play with the amount of time that has passed between the old king’s death and Gertrude’s marriage, and that she was apparently in genuine sorrow for her first husband only makes her subsequent conduct more unacceptable. Hamlet is already obsessed with the dark intimation that people are not what they seem: Gertrude is not the loyal wife she seemed, and Claudius is not the rightful successor the court and the people apparently believe he is. But Hamlet also knows that he must repress this obsession in public: “But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (344, 1.2.159). Privately, things are different: he already seems to suspect that “some foul play” (346, 1.2.255) was involved in his father’s death or that “foul play” is now afoot, even though his questioning of Horatio about the ghost’s appearance indicates genuine uncertainty about its provenance and mission. The stage is set for Hamlet’s moral mission, if we call “revenge” a moral mission. Indeed, the question will trouble Hamlet as the play proceeds. But for now we hear the sententia, “[Foul] deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” (346, 1.2.256-57). To me, this line indicates that the “deeds” to which Hamlet refers have already been committed, in his estimation. There is an ambiguity in this last passage of Act 1, Scene 2, a bit of shuffling between matters of state (“My father’s spirit—in arms!” 344, 1.2.254) and essentially private thoughts about the suspicious loss of a dear father.

Act 1, Scene 3. (346-49, Laertes and Ophelia lecture each other about virtue) 

Laertes has evidently been taught well in the arts of windbaggery by his father Polonius since he lectures Ophelia sententiously about the dangers of giving in to the importunate suit of a lustful young man far above her station. (346-47, 1.3.5ff) This advice is sound enough as such things go—Hamlet is, after all, a Prince, so he is not free to love as he wishes without thought of Denmark; but as Gertrude later admits when Ophelia is dead, she had hoped the two lovers would in fact marry. But in any case, Ophelia holds her own, showing that while circumstances may constrain her, she is not lacking in understanding or the courage to speak her own mind. (347-48, 1.3.45ff) Polonius soon comes onto the scene and offers similar advice, accusing Ophelia of naivety about Hamlet’s intentions and showing that he reads the character of others as a function of stereotypes: Hamlet is a young, lusty bachelor, and is therefore not to be trusted, quite aside from his status as a prince. (348, 1.3.88ff)

Act 1, Scene 4. (349-52, Ghost beckons to Hamlet) 

At the beginning of Scene 4, Hamlet discusses the Court of Denmark’s fondness for alcohol, declaring that his country is “traduc’d and tax’d of other nations” (350, for this weakness. In his 1948 film adaptation of the play, Laurence Olivier chooses to quote directly from this passage and apply the words to the Prince himself, who by implication suffers from “a vicious mole of nature” (350, in that he simply cannot “make up his mind” (Olivier’s voiceover). But this is an overstatement, perhaps, since there is good reason to doubt the purposes of a ghost such as the one Hamlet sees here for the first time: “What may this mean, / That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel / Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon . . . ?” (351, 1.4.32-34)

Act 1, Scene 5. (352-56, Ghost commands, Hamlet vows: resentment, strategy) 

The Ghost then recounts in bloodcurdling detail exactly what happened to him and who is responsible for it, eliciting an excited “O my prophetic soul!” (353, 1.5.41) from the Prince, as if he had suspected all along that Claudius had killed his father. The terms the Ghost uses to describe both Claudius and Gertrude are strongly reminiscent of the very ones Hamlet had used shortly before. I think we may be certain that the Ghost exists in the play-world, but at the same time, it’s almost as if Prince Hamlet is talking to himself. He is utterly convinced at this point, begging the Ghost that he will, “Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift / As meditation, or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge” (352, 1.5.29-31).

There is a problem with the Ghost’s demand for vengeance, however: God says in Deuteronomy, “To me belongeth vengeance and recompense” (32:35). Why, then, should a soul in purgatory (a Catholic concept, by the way) be fixated on revenge? Revenge is an ancient pagan demand, and it seems petty. But Hamlet Sr. was a warrior king, so perhaps his demand that his son should punish Claudius seems reasonable in that context: the latter is a “traitor to his lord” and a dishonorable wretch who has corrupted the state. The Ghost insists that “the royal bed of Denmark” be redeemed from its current status as “A couch for luxury and damned incest” (353b, 1.5.82-83), but his call still seems mostly a private affair. It strains the “fatherly king” framework, and would require the son to set himself against the current order of the State, most likely at the cost of his own life. The Ghost has laid upon the Prince an extremely difficult set of demands—not only must he kill the new king without damning himself, but he must deal with Gertrude in such as way as not to damn her: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught” (353b, 1.5.85-86). How is the young man to do these things? He was already “tainted” in his mind before he ever saw the Ghost, we might say, and what’s more, since the Ghost deals in the ancient imperative of revenge, it makes sense to remind ourselves that even the most righteous acts of revenge in ancient literature entailed pollution that had to be atoned for afterwards. One thinks of Odysseus purifying his great hall after the slaughter of those mannerless suitors who have beset Penelope, or the dreadful punishment incurred by Clytemnestra when she killed Agamemnon, or the penalty threatened against Orestes by the Erinyes after he in turn killed Clytemnestra. In either the pagan or the Christian context, to take revenge is to pollute oneself in the doing. Had Shakespeare written a mindlessly celebratory “revenge tragedy,” we wouldn’t need to think any of these things, but there seems to be a metageneric dimension in Hamlet that positively demands such consideration.

One might take the Ghost’s appearance as a general protest against Denmark’s rotten condition, but the Prince doesn’t seem certain of much yet, as we can see from his words and actions after the Ghost bids him farewell. On the one hand, we hear that Hamlet is determined to take revenge: “Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / . . . And thy commandement all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain” (354, 1.5.98-99, 102-03). His wax-writing-tablet metaphor seems sincere, although it’s perhaps slightly comic in that Hamlet, a young man who has (accurately or otherwise) become a byword for deferral and delay, speaks of writing at the very instant when he’s most certain of his desire to act: “make a note to myself, take revenge,” so to speak. His indecisiveness or resentment at the task to which he has been called shows much more strongly, of course, in his concluding words during this scene: “The time is out of joint—O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (356, 1.5.189-90). That abrupt remark suggests anything but a determination to proceed “with wings as swift / As meditation” to a “sweep[ing]” revenge, the precise manner of which has been left to his own devising. One other useful thing to draw from Hamlet at this point is his remark to Horatio and the Watchmen that he may, at some points, “think meet / To put an antic disposition on” (356, 1.5.172-73). He has already hit upon the strategy of feigning something like lunacy to accomplish his great task. It may be difficult to tell at some points just how much control Hamlet has over his speech and his actions, but here, at least, we see that he puts his wildness down to strategy.

Act 2, Scene 1. (356-59, Polonius gathers intelligence from Ophelia) 

Polonius is both an endearing character, full of well-intentioned, if comically delivered, advice to his children (and the royal couple) and a meddling intelligencer who deals with those same children in a sneaky, underhanded way. He sets spies on Laertes to find out if the young fellow is behaving (356-57), and, after having commanded Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet, he tethers her near him like a sacrificial goat to find out what’s eating him and inform Claudius and Gertrude of it. But at this point, Polonius’ assumption that the Prince’s distraction is “the very ecstasy of love” (358, 2.1.103) seems reasonable, based upon what Ophelia has told him about Hamlet’s bizarre sighing and strange state of undress.

Act 2, Scene 2. (359-72, C & G & Polonius ponder Hamlet’s behavior; Hamlet greets R & G, hears players rehearse; adapts Gonzago to trap Claudius) 

Everybody’s favorite nobodies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their first appearance in the play (359-60, 2.2.1-18), and Voltemand brings what seems to be good news about that troublesome issue of young Fortinbras “sharking up” an army of ruffians to take back what his father lost to the Danes—now the young blade wants only to use Denmark’s territory as a marching ground on his way to Poland, where he has other fighting to do. (360-61, 2.2.60-79) Polonius’ insistence that he has “found / The very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy” (360-62, 2.2.48-49) excites Claudius, who says, “O, speak of that, that do I long to hear!” (360, 2.2.50) Together these remarks suggest that Hamlet has been putting on a good show, taking up his “antic disposition” early in the game since “lunacy” would not be the right term with which to describe he initial surliness and melancholia in Act 1. The Prince must, we presume, act in such a manner as to draw Claudius beyond his semi-comfortable geniality towards Hamlet, and into the active agent’s circle of consequence and blood revenge. Polonius is certainly moved to act: he declares to the King and Queen, “I’ll loose my daughter to [Hamlet]. / Be you and I behind an arras then, / Mark the encounter. . .” (362, 2.2.163-64). This determination is made stronger still when Hamlet wanders into the scene and Polonius engages him (sans Ophelia as yet) in a strange conversation that is afterwards carried on with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after Polonius exits. Not realizing the irony of his formalistic amazement at Hamlet’s “pregnant replies,” Polonius admiringly says, “Though this be madness, yet there is / method in’t” (363, 2.2.203-04).

Hamlet kindly receives his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he deftly, but rather gently, unmasks their dishonesty preparatory to his later, much harsher dealings with them. After the pair admit that they were indeed “sent for” (365, 2.2.284), Hamlet suggests that the King and Queen are worried about his mopishness, nothing more, and he immediately utters one of the most famous invocations of Renaissance humanism and aliveness to the beauty of a world people were beginning to see afresh after centuries of otherworldliness (that’s the stereotype, anyway—the Middle Ages weren’t as drab as we like to suppose). “What a piece of work is a / man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in / form and moving, how express and admirable in / action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a / god!” (365, 2.2.293-300) He says all this only to bring the whole “majestical roof” (365, 2.2.291) down on our heads, reminding us that we are but the most refined dust in the cosmos, a “quintessence of dust” (365, 2.2.298). The letdown is deepened by Rosencrantz’s dirty-minded interpretation of Hamlet’s words, and the whole thing leads directly to the announcement that a troupe of actors (“players”) is on the way to Elsinore. (366, 2.2.304-07)

Hamlet comments briefly on the state of late Elizabethan theater, saying that the mannerisms of child actors (he refers to the current craze for plays put on by children) have become an object of mockery—there’s too much affectation, too much pandering to the crowd, too much willingness to break the dramatic illusion. (366, 2.2.331-51) Denmark is disturbed as well; things aren’t what they seem, and the stage “chronicles” the age. Hamlet listens with rapt interest to the player’s interpretation of the tragic ending of the Trojan War. (369-70, 2.2.448-98) In The Aeneid, Book 2 (lines 675ff, Fagles translation) Achilles’ son Pyrrhus (called Neoptolemus in The Iliad and The Odyssey) has the simple task of revenging his father, and he proceeds with all swiftness to his bloody deed. (Odysseus’ brief account of the young man’s career in The Odyssey at 11.575ff has Neoptolemus behaving with great forthrightness throughout the War, too.) It is the Trojan Prince Aeneas who is filled with horror at the sight of his king Priam’s corpse because it puts him in mind of his wife Creusa and his father Anchises. Aeneas’ rage flows at once to perfidious Helen, and is only cooled by a vision of his mother Venus, who tells him to look to his family in their time of need. As for Hecuba’s grief at the murder of her husband, the player makes it seem so natural that even he gets worked up imitating it. Hamlet beholds the real article—he has a murdered father to avenge—so why doesn’t he act at once? (371, 2.2.536-39) Things are so much simpler in fiction; a noble lie or mere representation may allow us to perpetuate our highest ideals, but real life is weighed down with epistemological uncertainties, Machiavellian considerations, and “vicious mole[s] of nature” such as indecisiveness. Hamlet’s revenge imperative is hindered by Christian scruples and by doubts about the Ghost’s purpose and provenance, as his soliloquy from line 550 onwards shows: “The spirit that I have seen / May be a [dev’l], and the [dev’l] hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps, / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / . . . Abuses me to damn me” (372, 2.2.575-80). Basing his plan on the literary gossip that “guilty creatures sitting at a play / Have by the very cunning of the scene / . . . proclaim’d their malefactions” (371, 2.2.566-69), he invests much hope in his augmentations to The Murder of Gonzago as a means of discovering certainty in the guilty visage of Claudius. (372, 2.2.571-75) This plan does not give us license to despise fiction as the mere opposite of “real life”—in this instance, the public, political realm, the world of cold, hard reality and necessity, is exactly what allows Claudius to keep his murderous nature hidden from everyone but himself.

Act 3, Scene 1. (372-76, Players! “To be …”; Hamlet breaks Ophelia’s heart) 

The King tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to encourage this new business of the players’ coming to Elsinore. (372, 3.1.27-28) Perhaps it will draw out the reason for Hamlet’s eccentric behavior. He and Polonius will conceal themselves to hear Hamlet talk with Ophelia. (373, 3.1.45) Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy, the main point of which is to state that our ignorance of what comes after death keeps us from acting on our resolutions in this life. Hamlet’s wild words to Ophelia concern mainly the impossibility of virtue maintaining itself in a corrupt world: “get thee to a nunnery” probably means just that—remove yourself from this wicked world, and seek shelter from the “arrant knaves” who go about in it. Hamlet denies that he ever established any relationship with Ophelia, that he ever made any promises. (374, 3.1.119-20) He asks Ophelia where her father is (375, 3.1.130), a line usually taken to indicate that he knows he’s being overheard. At line 142, Hamlet seems to lose his composure in a way that is not entirely scripted, and he utters words that frighten Claudius: “I say we shall have no moe marriages, etc.” (375, 3.1.142-48) Claudius derives from this outburst the thought that Hamlet’s disturbed state of mind is “not like madness” (375, 3.1.163), so he must be watched even more closely. The Prince’s “melancholy,” says Claudius (whose guilt had already been spurred by Polonius’ unwitting words about “sugar[ing] o’er” (373, 3.1.50) the most damnable deeds with piousness), “sits on brood” (375, 3.1.164) over something still darker, and that is what he finds most troubling about the young man’s hostility towards him.

Act 3, Scene 2. (376-85, Hamlet lectures players; Gonzago & D-Show outs Claudius; Hamlet lashes out at R & G, anger flows against Gertrude) 

Hamlet admonishes the players about their craft: his key bits of advice are that they “o’erstep not the modesty of nature” (20) and make certain “to / hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue / her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (377, 3.1.14-40). In part, this is a moral statement akin to what we may find in Samuel Johnson much later—actors should display virtue as it is, and force vice to confront itself head on. Hamlet means to do just that by means of his spectacle: simply showing and then speaking Claudius’ sin should make that sin’s effects register on his countenance. (378-82, 3.2.123-238) No embellishment is necessary for such a hideous sin as his. Hamlet’s words strike home when he tells the offended Claudius, “No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest—no offense i’ th’ world” (381, 3.2.214-15). The King has consistently failed to take the measure of the consequences entailed by his evil conduct; his stability of mind depends on repressing consciousness of that conduct. Hamlet is cruelly merry with Ophelia in this scene—he seems to be baiting her, blaming her for the sins of his mother. (378, 3.2.101-15) The dumb show soon follows (379, 3.2.122ff)—it is an eerie scene that shows Claudius what he has done, no more, no less. But the dialogue also plays up the absolutely binding quality of the oath that Gertrude has violated, in Hamlet’s view: “Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife, / If once a widow, ever I be wife!” (381, 3.2.202-03). That sort of language equates Gertrude with a villainess such as Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Forced to watch “himself” commit the same dark sin twice, Claudius howls out, “Give me some light. Away!” (382, 3.2.247) With the King out of the scene, Hamlet’s anger turns first towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he disabuses of any hope that they may “play upon” him like a musical instrument (384, 3.2.341), and then to Gertrude, who is perhaps the main target of the whole scene, so savage is the representation of her role in the bloody affair. The Prince’s rejection of “instrumentality” is interesting in its own right—what Hamlet seems to need most of all, at this point, is to take control of events, and we will see that he must let go of this desire to control what happens around him before his revenge can be effected. But with respect to Gertrude, Hamlet’s words are even harsher than were those in The Murder of Gonzago; he says, “Now could I drink hot blood, / And do such [bitter business as the] day / Would quake to look on” (385, 3.2.360-62). Perhaps this violent thought is directed towards Claudius only, but it’s hard to avoid supposing from what follows that it also applies to Gertrude: “Let me be cruel, not unnatural; / I will speak [daggers] to her, but use none” (385, 3.2.365-66).

Act 3, Scene 3. (385-87, Claudius decides to send Hamlet away; bootless prayer) 

The King has decided in his anger that Hamlet must be off to England, and Rosencrantz speaks more truly than he knows when he says to Claudius, “The cease of majesty / Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw / What’s near it with it” (385, 3.3.15-17). These two flatter the King that what he does is necessary to protect the welfare of the state and the people: “Most holy and religious fear it is / To keep those many bodies safe / That live and feed upon your Majesty” (385, 3.3.8-10). The political realm is like an exoskeleton protecting Claudius from the ravages of introspection, and even from the guilt that comes when one knows one is putting off such inward-tending thoughts. This is the same sort of “tyrant’s plea” that accounts for the magnificent hollowness of Satan’s rhetoric in Paradise Lost. Confronting Adam and Eve in Book 4, Satan says, “. . . Melt, as I doe, yet public reason just, / Honour and Empire with revenge enlarg’d, / By conquering this new World, compels me now / To do what else though damnd I should abhorre.” At line 36 and following, Claudius kneels and tries to confront “the visage of offense” (386, 3.3.36-72), but he cannot because he won’t give up the crown, the effects of his sin. It’s doubtful if we are to understand this attempt at repentance as sincere—doesn’t it seem as if Claudius isn’t so much sorry for killing the king as determined to indulge himself in remorse? Is he just “feeling sorry for himself”? Most likely, to judge from the results of his kneeling prayer: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (387, 3.3.97-98). Hamlet looks almost as much the villain as the King at this point, when he reveals his earnestly un-Christian desire that Claudius’ soul at death “may be as damn’d and black / As hell, whereto it goes” (387, 3.3.94-95). But just at this point, the King relieves Hamlet of the need to contrive such an outcome by showing that he is completely unable to repent for his mortal sin, or even to take the first necessary steps that would reclaim his chance at salvation.

Act 3, Scene 4. (387-92, Polonius killed, Gertrude forced to look within) 

After himself slaughtering the hidden Polonius, Hamlet goes so far as to accuse Gertrude of taking part in Claudius’ plot to murder Hamlet, Sr. when he blurts out, “A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king, and marry with his brother” (388, 3.4.27-28). She seems genuinely shocked at the suggestion. Hamlet has little time now for a “wretched, rash, intruding fool” (388, 3.4.30) like Polonius, a man everyone else held in high regard and with whom they showed considerable patience, and he drives onward to make Gertrude confront her sinfulness as directly as he made Claudius behold his during the “Gonzago” scene. Hamlet suggests that Gertrude’s lust is not even excusable by reference to the heat of youth; at her age, he insists, “The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble, / And waits upon the judgment” (389, 3.4.68-69). His efforts succeed without too much trouble since Gertrude cries, “Thou turn’st my [eyes into my very] soul” (389, 3.4.79). At this point, Ernest Jones’ “Oedipal reading” of the play comes into its own, if it hadn’t already: Hamlet can scarcely stand to imagine—and yet can’t help but imagine—his mother in bed with Claudius, where they spend their time “honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty!” (389b-90, 3.4.82-84) The obsession is so deep that the Ghost must step in to admonish Hamlet about his “almost blunted purpose” (390, 3.4.101) of taking revenge against Claudius.

As for Polonius, to the thought of whom Hamlet now returns, there is some remorse, but it’s quickly smoothed over with philosophizing: “For this same lord, / I do repent; but heaven hath pleas’d it so / To punish me with this, and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister” (391, 3.4.156-59). Hamlet tells Gertrude not to let on that he’s not exactly insane, and he confides in her, at least to a degree, what he has in mind. Knowing he cannot trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he says nonetheless, “Let it work, / For ‘tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petar, an’t shall go hard / But I will delve one yard below their mines, / And blow them at the moon” (392, This is an odd exclamation since Hamlet knows only that he’s being “marshal[ed] to knavery” (392, of some sort; he can’t know the precise plan, but speaks with almost military precision, promising to turn their evil back upon them.

Act 4, Scene 1. (393-94, Claudius is dismayed about Hamlet’s conduct) 

The King is by now “full of discord and dismay” (394, 4.1.40) at the turn of events; he knows Hamlet’s sword was meant for him.

Act 4, Scene 2. (394-94, Hamlet mocks R & G as instruments of Claudius) 

Hamlet calls Rosencrantz a “sponge” (394, 4.2.11, 14-16) who “soaks up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities” (15-16). As for Claudius, he is “a thing,” says Hamlet, “of nothing.” His odd remark that “The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body” (394, 4.2.25-28) most obviously refers to Polonius’ corpse, but it might be interpreted along the lines of the longstanding political doctrine that the king has both a civil or corporate body (imperishable) and a natural, mortal one. In this sense, perhaps Hamlet is making an oblique threat against Claudius.

Act 4, Scene 3. (394-96, Hamlet mocks Claudius, who has commanded his death) 

Claudius realizes the desperate state in which he stands: “Diseases desperate grown / By desperate appliance are reliev’d, / Or not at all” (395, 4.3.9-11). Then follows Hamlet’s quizzical “fishing” conversation with the King, which culminates with the fine demonstration that “a king may go / a progress through the guts of a beggar” (395, 4.3.30-31). The adornment and aggrandizing of this decaying body, so easily inducted into the dark processiveness of nature, is what Claudius has traded his soul for, so in this respect he truly is “a thing . . . nothing.” Hamlet calls Claudius “dear mother” (396, 4.3.51), a slip-up that seems sincere since he has had trouble keeping the two apart in his mind. Claudius is increasingly disturbed by Hamlet’s presence, and even by his very existence: requesting “The present death of Hamlet” (396, 4.3.66), Claudius says, “Do it, England, / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me” (396, 4.3.66-68). But what the King seeks most of all is security: “Till I know ‘tis done, / Howe’er my haps, my joys were ne’er [begun]” (396, 4.3.68-69).

Act 4, Scene 4. (396-98, Another resolution from Hamlet over Fortinbras’ march) 

Young Fortinbras seeks conveyance through Denmark on his way to Poland, and the Captain Hamlet speaks to doesn’t think much of his assignment: “We go to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” (397, Hamlet takes the point to heart, making yet another resolution that his mind will contain only thoughts of vengeance from now on: “O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (398, But this one is no more permanent than the ones he made earlier in the play—this is fundamentally not Hamlet’s nature, if we may endow a literary character with such a thing. Part of the interest in Hamlet is, of course, that not only is the time “out of joint,” but the hero himself is “out of joint,” not immediately adapted to the dreadful role he must play. In this way, I think the romantic reading of the tragedy, in which Hamlet is too aloof and philosophical to carry out such a task as revenging a murdered father briskly, is worthy of respect.

Act 4, Scenes 5-7. (398-408, Ophelia’s madness and death; Laertes’ rage; Hamlet is back in Denmark; Claudius and Laertes plot revenge) 

Ophelia brings dismay to the Court when she shows clear signs of madness. (398-99, 4.5.23-70) Perhaps her condition should not be much of a surprise since she has been used as an agent against Hamlet, dangled before him like a piece of meat. A love match has been perverted by the general condition of Denmark, as embodied in the selfish behavior of Polonius and the King. As for Ophelia’s references to flowers, well, flowers are natural beauties, things we use to express a whole range of human experience and sentiment. Ophelia’s mind is disordered, and she registers the corruption all around her, trying pathetically to beautify it with floral symbolism and songs. She has lost her father, and Gertrude will wear her “rue with a difference” (401-02, 4.5.163-179) because she has lost her son to England. Ophelia is the blighted flower of the kingdom, the beauty and innocence that has been sacrificed for the sake of its ambition and lust. Her demise shows the consequences of Denmark’s degeneracy even more clearly, perhaps, than all the play’s violence. Even Claudius seems genuinely stricken at this latest step in the march of events: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, / But in battalions” (399, 4.5.74-75), he laments to Gertrude, and no sooner has he said it than Laertes bursts in with the common folk at his back, shouting him up for the new king. His main function is, of course, to present an obvious contrast with Hamlet—Laertes will, unlike the Prince, “sweep to his revenge” without much delay; he has no scruples about the concept. Claudius speaks with amazing irony when he promises Gertrude that Laertes will not harm him: “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will” (400-01, 4.5.120-22). Clearly, this truism afforded Hamlet, Sr. no protection from Claudius. Sailors pass a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, explaining how he managed to board a pirate ship that attacked the vessel bound for England. (403, 4.6.11-25) In Scene 7, the King explains to Laertes that so far, he has had to avoid confronting Hamlet because Gertrude and the people are fond of him. He temporizes: “I am guiltless of your father’s death” (401, 4.5.147). Hamlet’s letter to the King is ominous: “High and mighty, You shall know I am set / naked on your kingdom” (405, 4.7.42-43). This tone is no less alarming for the promise Hamlet tenders to explain how he has returned.

The King has come to see in Laertes his earthly salvation; the young hothead promises that he would do no less to Hamlet than “cut his throat ‘i th’ church” (406b, 4.7.98), and Claudius lays out the plot he has partly contrived (406, 4.7.84-88), only to find that Polonius is able to add a master stroke with the introduction of “an unction” (407, 4.7.113) he bought from some itinerant medical charlatan, which he will use to envenom the tip of his rapier. As surety, Claudius will offer Hamlet a poisoned chalice during the fencing match. (407, 4.7.130-31)

The scene concludes with the news that Ophelia has drowned. Gertrude’s beautiful, ekphrastic description of Ophelia’s death (4.7.166-83) honors her loss, but doesn’t redeem the faults that caused it. The death isn’t described as suicide, really; it seems that Ophelia simply stops resisting and is dragged down by her water-logged clothing. Another function of this episode is that it gives Hamlet space for the recognition that he must attain.

Act 5, Scene 1. (408-15, Gravedigger jests, Hamlet’s Yorick; Ophelia’s funeral) 

The Gravedigger scene works as comic relief, but it also gives us and Hamlet a broader perspective on events up to this point. (408-12, 5.1.1-199) The Gravedigger calmly goes about his business in the face of death, and even makes jests about it—jests that, as the Riverside editors inform us, refer to an actual law case, that of Hale v. Petit. (See The Shakespeare Law Library’s account of that case.) We will get no maudlin speeches or meditative musings over Yorick-skulls from him; he’s full of riddles about the sturdiness of the “houses” that gravediggers build. Hamlet appreciates by means of his experiences in this act (and in the fourth act) that the earthly prize of a kingdom, of reputation, of a patch of land, is a joke: “Imperial Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away” (412, 5.1.196). If the sought-for revenge is to be accomplished, it can only happen when Hamlet’s mind isn’t tainted by pride or earthly attachment, so his meditation on Yorick the Jester’s skull is vital. (412, 5.1.171-80) Why, indeed, should we cling to life? the skull seems to ask the Prince, who promptly aims this intuition at womankind: “Now get you / to my lady’s [chamber], and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come; make her laugh at that” (412, 5.1.178-79). Soon follows the funeral procession of Ophelia, the quibbling of the Churchmen over what rites to accord a possible suicide, and the preposterous one-upmanship between Laertes and Hamlet in and on Ophelia’s uncovered grave. (413-15, 5.1.200-84) This is obviously not the way Hamlet had meant to reveal himself to the King, but events have gotten the better of him for the moment, and he vents his grief. It almost goes without saying that the two men have ruined Ophelia’s funeral altogether. It’s just one final, if unintended, insult to this long-suffering character.

Act 5, Scene 2. (415-24, Hamlet’s recognition, challenge, fight, death) 

Killing Polonius got Hamlet shipped off to England to face execution, but now he recounts to Horatio how on the ship he learned an important lesson: “Rashly— / And prais’d be rashness for it—let us know / Our indiscretion sometime serves us well / When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us / There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will . . .” (415, 5.2.6-11). It seems that this speech refers to Hamlet’s insomnia-induced impatience to know the contents of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s letter. (415, 5.2.13ff) What exactly, he wants to know, is their “grand commission” (415, 5.2.19)? This known, he forges a new commission purporting that his old pals R & G should be executed on the spot, once they make it to the English King’s presence. His justification of this rather harsh turnabout is simply, “[Why, man, they did make love to this employment,] / They are not near my conscience. . . . / ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites” (416, 5.2.58). Perhaps this as an injustice on Hamlet’s part, an act of disproportionate violence against men who know nothing of the evil Claudius has done, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for them; perhaps our minds are too thoroughly poisoned by listening to Hamlet for that to be possible. They serve the interests of the King against their friend, they are “sponges” just looking for preferment, and to Hamlet they are utterly insignificant pawns in the deadly game of chess between himself and Claudius. Well, if they’ll just be patient for about four centuries, Tom Stoppard will make it up to them by writing that witty play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, so “all’s well that ends well,” right?

Hamlet brings up a new motive (though in speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he had already hinted at 384, 3.2.311 when he said, “I lack advancement”): he says that “He that hath kill’d my king and whor’d my mother” has also “Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes” (416, 5.2.66). In other words, Claudius’ hasty marriage with the Queen has deprived him for now of the succession. The Oedipal significance of this remark is not difficult to see. (On the theme of “inheritance,” see Anthony Burton’s “Further Aspects of Inheritance Law in Hamlet.”)

When the foppish Osric enters (417) bearing the King and Laertes’ challenge, Hamlet calmly accepts it, overriding Laertes’ misgivings with the grand statement, “[W]e defy augury. There is special / providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be [now], / ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if / it be not now, yet it [will] come—the readiness is all” (419, 5.2.157-61). This match is not of his making, but whatever happens, Hamlet accepts the outcome. This may be the insight or right attitude he has needed all along; he must become an instrument of God’s vengeance, which will turn the schemes of Claudius and Laertes against them. We might recall that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, although all too willing to prostitute themselves to the designs of earthly rulers, nonetheless go to their deaths as instruments of forces larger than they can imagine, so in this sense they show Hamlet the way. Claudius’ plan is frustrated, and his union with Gertrude nullified when she drinks from the poisoned chalice: “I will, my Lord” (421, 5.2.234) There’s a Christian lesson to be drawn: the wicked will ultimately will find a way to destroy themselves; they are remarkably consistent in the patterns of their evil. Hamlet gains no earthly reward but death. Young Fortinbras enters the kingdom almost by accident (423, 5.2.305), in the wake of the old order’s self-destruction: he and other onlookers will hear from Horatio of “purposes mistook, / Fall’n on the inventors’ heads” (424, 5.2.324-29). There’s really no question of Fortinbras’ being a better ruler than his predecessors, though Hamlet’s final thoughts commend him. He is simply an opportunist in the right time at the right place. This hardly amounts to a strong purification of the State, though it’s fair to say that that was never really the play’s emphasis.

To return to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (423, 5.2.313-15), some critics see them as loose ends that Shakespeare has deliberately left hanging at the play’s conclusion—have they really deserved their harsh fate, considering that they are only minor players in a grand tragedy? Does their taking-off mean that God’s providential design is a bit “rough-hewn,” or at least that his justice is not self-evidently “just” to us? Perhaps, but in my view, this messy fact (along with Ophelia’s lamentable and unfair demise) doesn’t necessarily destroy the “providential” reading to which I have generally subscribed. At the least, Hamlet is a curious revenge play in that it ultimately denies agency to the very character who is most responsible for ensuring that the play’s villain gets what he deserves, and yet the revenge “gets itself accomplished” nonetheless, in the most hideously appropriate manner, as if Shakespeare’s God has much the same sense of “poetic justice” as Dante’s did. The play involves two levels of meaning: there’s something petty, intimate, and even sordid about the royal family, yet providence seems to guide Hamlet in carrying out his revenge. Hamlet is caught in the middle: a revenger whose nature and doctrine work against his mission.

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

King Richard the Third

Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 361-450).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, Richard starts the play off with his remarkable “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy (speech delivered alone, not to other characters). How does he represent himself in this passage, and indeed throughout the first scene? How does he characterize his own nature and ambitions, the times in which he lives, and his powerful relatives?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, Richard woos, and apparently wins, the unfortunate Anne Neville, who mourns Henry VI and her betrothed, his son Edward Prince of Wales. Richard is complicit in their deaths. How does he go about this delicate task? What accounts for his success?

3. In Act 1, Scene 3, The royal dysfunctional family gather over a meal to bicker. What are some of their complaints? In particular, how does Queen Margaret (Henry VI’s widow) reproach Queen Elizabeth and Richard, and what warning does she make to Buckingham about Richard? How does Richard represent himself to others in this scene?

4. In Act 1, Scene 4, Clarence, about to be murdered by a pair of thugs on the order of Richard, offers a starkly beautiful rendition of his uneasy dream — what happens in that dream? What does it reveal to him? To us? To what extent does this scene generate real sympathy for Clarence, and to what degree do his remarks more generally suggest his complicity in the less savory side of power politics?


5. In Act 2, Scene 1, what figure does the soon-to-be-departed Edward IV, Richard’s Yorkist elder brother, cut in this scene: namely, what hopes does he express for the future of his dynasty? What does he expect of his family? And to what self-analysis is he driven when Richard deftly undercuts him with the news that Clarence is dead?

6. In Act 2, Scene 2, what quality breaks the unitary effect of Elizabeth, Clarence’s children, and the Duchess of York’s lamentation over Clarence and Edward IV? Still, to what extent is the grief expressed in this scene genuine, and the scene effective as an expression of sorrow?

7. In Act 2, Scene 3, three citizens air their thoughts and anxieties about Edward’s death and what is to come. What does this chorus of citizens apparently think of the great events and noble “actors” to which they are partly witness? What are their fears and expectations?

8. In Act 2, Scene 4, this scene in which Queen Elizabeth foresees the destruction of her family (the Woodvilles) rehearses Tudor propaganda about Richard’s ill-favored appearance and wicked ways from childhood onwards. Do some brief research on the Internet and set down what you can find about Richard’s character as modern historians represent it, or as it appears on websites devoted to Richard III. What opinion seems to prevail today?


9. In Act 3, Scene 1, describe the exchange between the young Prince Edward (Edward IV’s heir), his little brother York, and Richard: how does Edward size up his current situation? Why do Edward’s observations in particular disturb Richard, as we may discern after the boys have been sent to the Tower?

10. In Act 3, Scenes 2-3, how does this scene set Hastings up for what is to come in scene 4 (his execution) — what does he think of his prospects at this point? How does he react to the undoing of his own enemies? What does he say in response to the Messenger who tells him about Stanley’s ominous dream?

11. In Act 3, Scene 4, in a meeting to discuss matters pertaining to the coronation, what piece of stagecraft does Richard contrive to get rid of the troublesome Hastings? What is the further point of this brief drama — what does Richard accomplish thereby?

12. In Act 3, Scene 5, how do Richard and Buckingham dupe the Mayor of London into accepting their version of events surrounding Hastings and his sudden execution? Shakespeare makes it clear that the Mayor accepts their claims — why, in your view, might such a public figure accept what seems to us such a spectacle and justification for judicial murder?

13. In Act 3, Scene 6, the Scrivener enters with an indictment of the condemned Hastings. How does this ordinary fellow sum analyze the nature of the great events taking place in his midst? What lies at the root of the problem, as far as he is concerned?

14. In Act 3, Scene 7, analyze the “theatrics” of the episode in which Buckingham and Richard make a show of the latter’s alleged reluctance to accept the crown. What reasons does Buckingham employ to advance the cause of Richard’s acceptance, and what reasons does Richard give in feigning to decline it? What logic or assumptions about power and about the audience underlie this piece of political theater?


15. In Act 4, Scene 1, three of the play’s women (Elizabeth, Anne, and the Duchess of York) gather to consider their plight. How does Anne, once betrothed to Edward IV’s heir, explain her acceptance of Richard’s offer of marriage? Does her explanation seem credible? Explain.

16. Act 4, Scenes 2-3, in these scenes, Richard moves with great speed to consolidate his power, commanding the murder of the young princes in the Tower of London and taking other vital actions. How do Buckingham and Tyrrel, respectively, react to Richard’s demands to do away with the princes? What accounts for the difference in their reactions? How does Richard take Buckingham’s response?

17. Act 4, Scenes 4-5, what role does Queen Margaret play in her exchange with Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess (Richard’s mother)? What accusations do these three level at one another, and to what extent is there any understanding between them about their sufferings or their position as women in a world of dynastic intrigue?

18. Act 4, Scene 4, what logic and rhetorical emphasis does Richard employ to try to win over Queen Elizabeth to his desire for the hand of her daughter (also named Elizabeth) in marriage? How does she respond to him?


19. Throughout Act 5, contrast the language and actions of Richard and Richmond: what state of mind does each appear to be in on the eve of their fateful meeting? How do they justify the upcoming battle to their followers?

20. Act 5, Scenes 3-5, how does Richard conduct himself during the Battle of Bosworth, up to and including his death? In what sense is his comportment at the end characteristic of his life? What future does Richmond (soon to become Henry VII) lay out as the play concludes?

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


Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 323-424).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, Marcellus and Bernardo looked to Hamlet’s friend Horatio to interpret the apparition they have seen. What assumptions does Horatio make, and what leads him to make such assumptions?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet speaks with bitter irony to Gertrude and Claudius. So far, what is apparent about Claudius from his remarks? To what extent does the King “speak reason” to a grieving son, and to what extent does his speech reflect upon him in ways he may not recognize?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet offers a soliloquy (i.e. speaks to himself) after he talks with Claudius and Gertrude. What seems to be his state of mind — what lies at the bottom of his depression? Does the famous “Oedipal interpretation” of the play begin to earn its stars at this point? If so, how?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Hamlet receive the news of his father’s appearance as a ghost to Horatio and the two watchmen?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Ophelia first listens to her brother’s departing sermon about chastity and politics, and then faces her father Polonius. How does this counselor understand Hamlet’s attentions to Ophelia? What advice does he give his daughter?

6. In Act 1, Scenes 4-5, the ghost beckons Hamlet to a private audience. On what grounds might the ghost’s demands be considered reasonable? On what grounds might they be considered unreasonable? (Is it appropriate for a Christian to take revenge? Where does the revenge code come from?)

7. In Act 1, Scene 5, follow Hamlet’s response to what he has just seen and heard. How much of this response do you consider appropriate in the circumstances and how much is jarring, contradictory, or unintentionally revealing? Explain your rationale.


8. In Act 2, Scene 1, Polonius keeps tabs on Laertes and is sure Hamlet has gone mad for love of Ophelia. Polonius is often portrayed to match Hamlet’s estimation of him as a “foolish, prating knave.” How would you stage this character, and why? (You might also consider Act 2, scene two, where Polonius lays out a plan for Claudius.)

9. In Act 2, Scene 2, evidently without prompting from Polonius, Claudius and Gertrude summon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to sound out the cause of Hamlet’s disturbance. What does Claudius suspect — why should he be so concerned about Hamlet’s behavior?

10. In Act 2, Scene 2, Voltimand informs Claudius that the King of Norway has rebuked young Fortinbras for trying to get his hereditary lands back from Denmark. What is the rest of the news from Norway? What does Claudius’ response to this news suggest about his powers of statecraft?

11. In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet enters reading, and Polonius questions him. Then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try their luck at getting the Prince to talk. Hamlet obviously knows he’s being spied upon, and so he manipulates his auditors. But to what extent, and where, does he perhaps reveal more about his mental state than he knows? Are there some unintended ironies and evidence of obsession here? Explain.

12. In Act 2, Scene 2, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that his favorite acting troupe is on the way to Elsinore. What connections does the Prince begin to make between drama and the rest of life? And how does his taste for speeches about the Trojan War reflect on his own situation and underlying motives? (Consider “Pyrrhus” as a possible point of comparison.)

13. At the end of Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet (alone) reproaches himself for his failure to act even though he (unlike an actor) has real-life motivation for taking revenge. But what doubts about his course of action does Hamlet betray? Where do these doubts seem to have come from — have the audience been adequately prepared to hear them? Explain.


14. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet speaks his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy. He has already rejected suicide as un-Christian, so what exactly is the point of this speech — what does he admit? Does that admission entirely account for his failure to act so far? Explain.

15. In Act 3, Scene 1, Polonius and Claudius conceal themselves to hear Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia. The scene has been variously played, based on the director’s surmises about what Hamlet knows and when. How would you suggest an actor play the scene — to what extent does Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia seem sincere? When, if at all, does he become aware that he is being spied upon? Is he carried away, utterly sane, or somewhere in between? Explain with specific reference to the text.

16. In Act 3, Scene 2, why should there be a “dumb show” preceding the main play The Murder of Gonzago (or, in Hamlet’s revision, The Mouse Trap)? Why would this representational doubling up be the most effective way to “catch the conscience of the king”? Why does Hamlet need this confirmation anyhow? (You may want to refer to the end of Act 2, scene 2 for Hamlet’s explanation.)

17. In Act 3, Scene 3, Claudius (having decided to send Hamlet to England), privately assesses his spiritual state. Hamlet decides that killing the King just now would amount to “hire and salary, not revenge.” Based on what the audience hears, is Hamlet correct — what has Claudius come to understand about his spiritual condition? How does this scene also represent a clash between the play’s revenge plot and its Christian overtones?

18. In Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet confronts Gertrude, mistakenly killing Polonius in the process. What accusations does Hamlet level against his mother? Are they accurate? How does Gertrude respond to them? Also, how much of this scene, as you would play it, has to do with Hamlet’s private obsessions, and how much of it has to with matters of marriage and state? (Consider the appearance of the Ghost in this regard.)

19. At the end of Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet at first demands that Gertrude avoid Claudius and not reveal to the King that her son is “but mad in craft” rather than actually insane, but then he changes his mind and advises her to go to the King. What seems to be Hamlet’s strategy at this point — how is he trying to outmaneuver Claudius?


20. In Act 4, Scenes 1-4, Claudius deals with the aftermath of Polonius’ death, sending Hamlet off to England with a sealed death sentence. In scene 4, Hamlet catches sight of Fortinbras’ troops on their way to war in Poland. What insight does Hamlet gather from this incident — is the resolution he draws from it convincing, or unconvincing? Explain.

21. In Act 4, Scenes 5-7, Ophelia’s madness is on display and then she drowns in a brook. What has caused Ophelia’s insanity, and why do you suppose it takes the particular form it does — bawdy songs and obsession with the symbolism of flowers? Also, why is it appropriate that Gertrude should offer such a beautiful, elaborate description of Ophelia’s death? (Act 4.7.166-83 is one of Shakespeare’s finest flights of verse, aptly memorialized in Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite painting “Ophelia.”)

22. In Act 4, Scenes 5-7, Laertes bursts into Elsinore Castle demanding revenge for his father’s death, and Claudius steers him towards what appears to be a foolproof plot against Hamlet’s life. How has Laertes (here and elsewhere) served as a foil for Hamlet’s character and his relationship to the heroic revenge code?


23. In Act 5, Scene 1, Hamlet, having made his escape at sea and been set ashore by pirates, now joins Horatio in an extended and partly comic confrontation with a punctilious gravedigger (“First Clown”) and several visual reminders of death (memento mori). In what sense does this scene advance the play’s action — at least indirectly — rather than just amounting to comic relief? What insight does Hamlet draw from talking to the gravedigger, meditating upon the skull of “poor Yorick,” etc.?

24. In Act 5, Scene 1, Ophelia’s funeral party arrives at the cemetery, and Hamlet competes with Laertes for the title of “Denmark’s most ridiculous grieving person.” Aside from bringing the major characters together, what does this scene accomplish structurally and thematically?

25. In Act 5, Scene 2, Hamlet explains to Horatio how he has managed to return to Denmark. If the beginning of this scene marks Hamlet’s recognition (in Aristotelian terms, his anagnorisis), what is that recognition and where does it seem to have come from? How do Hamlet’s utterances about “divinity” (providence) reflect on his adherence to an ancient revenge code that demands blood for blood?

26. In Act 5, Scene 2, the foppish courtier Osric makes the necessary sporting challenge, and Hamlet accepts. To what extent does the succession of events leading to four deaths (Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet) reconcile the revenge plot to Christian misgivings about revenge and Christian insistence on providence as the ruling order?

27. In Act 5, Scene 2, Fortinbras (having finished his bloody task in Poland), marches into Elsinore takes command of the situation — what does he make of the carnage that greets him? Why is it appropriate that Horatio should insist on a public display of the corpses to accompany his explanation of the tragic events?

28. In Act 5, Scene 2, theater-goers and critics have long noted the bizarre quality of Hamlet’s final scene — aptly embodied in the line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” (Tom Stoppard has written a play by that title, starring none other than “R and G.”) How do you account for such a comic line at the culmination of a tragedy?

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