1. Richard III is a superb actor. Shakespeare created his first great historical figure out of the theater as much as the history books (such as they were). It's not clear whether Shakespeare knew the degree to which Richard had been slandered by the historians who wrote for the approval of the Tudor dynasty, the family of his Queen Elizabeth. He found the dramatic truth of Richard in a character type called the "Machiavel," popularized by Christopher Marlowe a few years earlier.

2. In fact, Shakespeare introduced the character in Part Three of Henry VI, so vividly that Laurence Olivier spliced in parts of the earlier play in his great film of Richard III. The Richard we meet in the first scene has been fermenting in the author's brain for some time before the first word, "Now," was written. His first speech is technically a soliloquy, since he is alone, but it's really an extended aside, a direct address to the audience inviting us to become his co-conspirators.

Notice how Olivier talks directly to the camera:


In his famous Hamlet, part of which we will see later in the course, the camera seems to burrow into his head, reading his mind, not acting as his mirror. But the mirror, or "glass," is critical to his Richard, who is always in search of an audience. Some of the speeches of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew were these same kinds of "aside" soliloquies, but in the BBC production Petruchio looks away from the camera lens. Other Petruchios brag directly to the audience or camera.

3. For four centuries audiences have marveled at this stylish villain. Richard III remains one of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays, and many aspiring classical actors cut their teeth on the role:

The midwife wonder'd and the women cried
'O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!'
And so I was; which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word 'love,' which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me: I am myself alone.

- 3 Henry VI, 5.6.74-83

Richard's soliloquy from 3 Henry VI

Richard murders Henry

This is Shakespeare's immediate preparation for Richard III (from the BBC "An Age of Kings" [1960]), and leads us to a significant question: How can an audience not only tolerate such a monster, but find pleasure in watching him relish his evil acts?

Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. The play sems to fall into two halves: Acts 1-3, where Richard is ascendant, and Acts 4-5, where he collapses progressively. We might consider different angles of vision on Richard as we try to uncover the dual mystery of his charismatic attraction for audiences and his rather sudden decline. Let's look first at Al Pacino's film, Looking for Richard, for a sense of the initial portrait:


This documentary film highlights important manifestations of Richard's character: his deformity, his desperate need to compensate. He cloaks his intentions with an actor's flair, winning over successive audiences both large and small, within the confines of the stage and in the audience as well. We become complicit in his bloody rise to the throne because we are fascinated by it—one impossible leap after another, over or through a pawn, a victim, an enemy.

5. Actors can take different directions with Richard. Olivier makes him a decided hunchback, limping, black-haired, feral. In the BBC production, directed by Jane Howell, the emphasis is on Richard's common appearance and accent. He seems to step off the street and into the backstage set where he opens the play by chalking his wished-for title, Richard III, on the call board. This alerts us that theatrical moments will drive the play:


6. After Richard tells us of his impending plots in the opening speech, he practices his acting craft on his brother, Clarence. George, Duke of Clarence is completely taken in by Richard's sympathy and resolve to help him. In truth, Richard has engineered Clarence's arrest by prompting his superstitious elder brother, King Edward IV, to fear Clarence because of "a prophecy which says that G/ Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be" (1.1.39-40).

7. Richard reveals his hypocrisy as his brother is taken away to the Tower:

Go tread the path that thou shalt ne'er return.
Simple, plain Clarence, I do love thee so
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,
If heaven will take the present at our hands. (1.1.117-120)

We see Richard's mask drop here, but we also see him put another on, that of a cynical theologian who reasons that Clarence will be happier in heaven. This is Richard's favorite joke; he will use it again and so will the murderers he sends to dispatch his brother:

Clarence. O, do not slander him, for he is kind.

First Murderer. Right as snow in harvest. Come, you deceive yourself.
'Tis he that sends us to destroy you here.

Clarence. It cannot be, for he bewept my fortune
And hugged me in his arms and swore with sobs
That he would labor my delivery.

First Murderer. Why so he doth, when he delivers you
From this earth's thralldom to the joys of heaven. (1.4.244-251)

Even Richard's hirelings take on his demonic sense of humor.

8. Two scenes earlier, Richard's conquest of Lady Anne stretches his actor's pose to the utmost. Vanessa Redgrave calls this an unactable scene, as Richard turns Anne from hatred to surrender in just a few moments. As if to take up the challenge, Al Pacino shows us how the scene might work:


In a more convincing style than the Olivier version we saw earlier, Anne succumbs to Richard's "rap." As soon as she leaves, the mask drops again:

I do mistake my person all this while:
Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
I'll be at charges for a looking-glass...
Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass. (1.2.252-255,262-263)

Richard needs the mirror as his constant reminder that he is always on stage, never alone, never a genuine self.

9. Richard's entrances are carefully scripted. To a hostile group he will enter aggressively:

Richard. They do me wrong, and I will not endure it!
Who are they that complains unto the King,
That I, forsooth, am stern, and love them not?
By holy Paul, they love his grace but lightly
That fill his ears with such dissentious rumors.
Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
With silken, sly, insinuating Jacks? (1.3.42-53)

In this scene, he is opposed by Queen Elizabeth, his sister-in-law, and old Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI. In the BBC production the women have considerable strength:


But Richard jokes and weaves his way out of the line of fire. When he is alone, he once again revels in his villainy and welcomes the murderers who will dispatch Clarence. Just before they enter, Richard remiinds us that he is both a hypocrite and an actor, dressing himself in the appearance of good:

But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

The long scenes with Queen Margaret are often pared down or cut entirely, eliminating her character. Richard III is Shakespeare's second longest play (next to Hamlet). Margaret is crucial to Shakespeare's theme of divine vengeance in the play, however. She ritually curses Edward IV, his eldest son, Elizabeth, Rivers, Dorset, and Hastings (1.3.193-213). Only Elizabeth eludes part of Margaret's curse, since she and her daughter (also named Elizabeth) survive. Margaret warns Buckingham and curses Richard, and her words are recalled later as her enemies die.

10. Richard completes his rise to power when Clarence is murdered, Edward IV dies, and his two young sons are put in the Tower for protection, later to be murdered at Richard's orders. Ian McKellan's Richard operates in a 1930s milieu with echoes of Nazism:


The image of Richard in a screening room, watching his own coronation, conjures up a fascist dictator, framed on his balcony by massive state architecture. Richard's triumph is complete but soon will turn to disaster, and we become increasingly repelled by this sociopathic monster.

11. How and why Richard falls is a complicated matter. Surely Shakespeare must follow history, and Richard must be defeated by Richmond at Bosworth Field. And the play will have an orthodox vision of God's justice. But does Shakespeare show us the causes of Richard's collapse, or just manipulate the events? Clearly Richard loses control rapidly, and can no longer act or direct his scenes competently. Can we see the political and psychological factors that underlie Richard's downfall?

12. Successful coups (or revolutions) need either popular support or a police state to endure. Even though Richard is often described as Machiavellian, he fails to see the basic requirements for survival sketched out in The Prince (which Tony Soprano hilariously mixes up with the perfume, Prince Matchabelli). Richard has no popular support; common citizens fear him and associates live in mortal terror, yet Richard has no real means of controlling them. An anonymous citizen remarks:

O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester! (2.3.27)

When Richard sends Buckingham out to drum up popular support for a new king, the people are stunned and silent:

I bid them that did love their country's good
Cry, "God save Richard, England's royal king!"

Richard. Ah! and did they so?

Buckingham. No, so God help me, they spake not a word,
But like dumb statues or breathing stones
Stared each on other and looked deadly pale. (3.7.21-26)

And Hastings toys with Richard at his peril. When he will not endorse Richard's taking the crown, Richard weaves a web of false accusations, then strikes:

Off with his head! (3.4.75)

13. As forces gather in opposition, Richard begins to unravel. With the crown as his goal, he was sharply focused. But what will he do with the power he has seized? Having a title is not the same as governing, and all Richard can think about is his survival. He hears that Richmond is landing with an army and intuits that he will gather followers daily, and Richard is rattled:

King Richard. Some light-foot friend post to the Duke of Norfolk:
Ratcliff, thyself—or Catesby; where is he?

Catesby. Here, my good lord.

King Richard. Catesby, fly to the duke.

Catesby. I will, my lord, with all convenient haste.

King Richard. Ratcliffe, come hither.Post to Salisbury.
When thou com'st thither—[To CATESBY] Dull, unmindful villain,
Why stay'st thou here, and go'st not to the Duke?

Catesby. First, mighty liege, tell me your Highness' pleasure
What from your grace I shall deliver to him.

King Richard. O, true, good Catesby. Bid him levy straight
The greatest strength and power thathe can make
And meet me suddenly at Salisbury.

Catesby. I go. Exit.

Ratcliffe. What, may it please you, I shall do at Salisbury?

King Richard. Why, what wouldst thou do there before I go?

Ratcliffe. Your highness told me I should post before.

King Richard. My mind is changed. (4.4.440-456)

14. Richard's self-confidence is badly shaken, and his judgement becomes clouded. His attempt to marry his niece, Elizabeth, is dramatically parallel to his wooing of Anne in Act 1, but he misjudges his sister-in-law's response. This sequence from Richard Loncraine's film reminds us that Richard's own mother has turned against him and that Queen Elizabeth is devastated by the fate of her two young sons:


Elizabeth and her daughter are those rarest of Richard's intended victims—they get out of the room alive. Part of this doomed family at least is saved; Shakespeare had shown that even hardened criminals were horrified by the kiling of the two princes in the Tower:

Tyrrel. The tyrannous and bloody act is done,
The most arch deed of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.
Dighton and Forrest, whom I did suborn
To do this piece of ruthful butchery,
Although they were fleshed villains, bloody dogs,
Melted with tenderness and kind compassion,
Wept like to children in their death's sad story.
"O thus," quoth Dighton, "lay the gentle babes."
" Thus, thus," quoth Forrest, "girdling one another
Within their innocent alabaster arms.
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk
And in their summer beauty kissed each other.
A book of prayers on their pillow lay.
Which once," quoth Forrest, "almost changed my mind;
But O, the devil"—there the villain stopp'd;
Whilst Dighton thus told on: "We smotherèd
The most replenishèd sweet work of Nature
That from the prime creation e'er she framèd."
Hence both are gone with conscience and remorse
They could not speak; and so I left them both,
To bring this tidings to the bloody King. (4.3.1-22)

15. With Richard's world collapsing around him, Shakespeare now marshalls supernatural forces against the tyrant. Richmond is the savior who is calm and blessed before the battle, while Richard is tormented by the ghosts of his victims:


Whether we see the ghosts as true spirits or a nightmare vision, they echo Lady Anne's revelation earlier that Richard has uneasy nights:

For never yet one hour in his bed
Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep,
But with his timorous dreams was still awaked. (4.1.82-84)

Richard fights fatalistically, like Macbeth, but goes down without a final speech, traditionally the villain's end. The victory speech of Richmond knits the land back together under a divine providence:

O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!
Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloody days again
And make poor England weep in streams of blood!
Let them not live to taste this land's increase
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace!
Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again;
That she may long live here, God say amen! (5.5.29-41)


There is an enormous amount of background information available in print and on the web for Richard III, such as the society dedicated to rehabilitating his historical image:

Richard III Society, American Branch

Another site reviews The War of the Roses. Click on key names and places.

Royal Genealogy of England

Wikipedia House of Plantagenet

A Complex Chart

And that's just a sampling. As you think about your response paper, read the fine essays by Rossiter, Ornstein, and Kahn in the Signet edition. On our course web page, sample the websites I've given you. There are many questions about Richard to consider, and you should follow the path you find most interesting as you write your essay. "Essay" means "try" in French; we can work together and rewrite.

Remember to quote your sources, and give the page number or web address. Here's a section from the bottom of my home page:

Citation Guides

Research and Documentation Online

A Guide for Writing Research Papers (MLA style)


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