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The following material is based upon an audio lecture available on the web page for English 154.  Although this text material is not identical to the audio lecture, it is essentially the same information.  You should have read the play before you begin this lecture.  The text referred to is the Signet paperback edition of the play, a book you should have open as you read this material.


Richard III was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays.  As you study it after reading some of his more mature works, you can see where he came from as far as developing certain dramatic skills and character types.  The play was probably written in 1592 or 1593, within a few years of Shakespeare having arrived in London to work in the theater.  We do know that in the first performance of this play Shakespeare’s long-time partner, Richard Burbage, starred in the title role.  In Shakespeare’s career it was his first really big hit and it made Burbage’s reputation as the leading dramatic actor of the age.  In terms of the dramatic skill and the quality of the writing the play represented a real advance compared to the plays he had been writing before.  It lays the basis for Shakespeare’s more complex characters in both comedies and tragedies, people like Macbeth, Benedick or Iago in Othello


This great breakthrough in Shakespeare’s achievement actually began with a group of four history plays, of which Richard III is the final element.  Why was it in writing history plays that Shakespeare made such great advances? In the background lecture on Shakespeare’s life I explain how the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, just four years before this play, had led to the rise of the English history play.  Before the Armada there are few if any dramas in England that could be called histories or “chronicle plays.” After the defeat of the Armada, within just a few months, plays about English history began to appear. In the next ten years literally hundreds were written and performed; it became the most popular form of theater for a while.  It seems as if the defeat of the mighty invasion fleet triggered something in the collective psyche of the people and their culture so that they hungered to learn more about their own past. The other factor which influenced the creation of history plays was the fact that the Tudors -- the royal family of Elizabeth, her father Henry VIII, and grandfather Henry VII – had consciously and deliberately manipulated the history of England to justify the Tudor claim on the throne.  They created a whole web of mythology and elaborate interpretations of historical events to support their seizing the crown in 1485.  This master work of propaganda has come down to us as the “Tudor Myth,” and Richard III was a pivotal part of the myth.


The first thing to understand about the history Shakespeare used as the basis for his plays is that it was not written by objective, non-partisan historians.  History was not the carefully researched study of the past.  It was a way of using the story of the past to make a moral or political point about the present. What mattered was not the accuracy of the history but the relevancy of the lesson, so people who called themselves historians, or “chroniclers,” did not feel much compunction about altering or making up the story of the past.  The history Shakespeare began with was only a rough approximation of the past.  When Shakespeare and other playwrights got hold of this raw material, they added their own poetic touches.  Shakespeare had no problem changing the accounts he used for sources, sometimes in very significant ways, in order to tell a good story.


In 1485 the first of the Tudor kings, Henry VII, was crowned.  This Henry was one of the sharpest, most ruthless kings that England has ever seen, and he did a lot of very smart things to cement his hold of the throne.  One of his problems was that his claim on the throne was tenuous at best; it was a real stretch to say he was the legitimate successor to the English monarchy.  What he did was to hire the very first modern historians to rewrite and embellish the history of England to enhance his claim, especially the hundred years which led up to his assuming the crown.  These first historians were all from Italy, so he brought them to England to work as his public relations agents, his “flacks.”  One of the first major writers was Tito Livio.  In the next generation Sir Thomas More, who became a saint and was the subject of the great movie A Man for All Seasons, was a prominent chronicler of the events of the 1400’s; in fact one of the things which brought him to the notice of King Henry VIII was the fact that he was a historian.  Then in the mid-1500’s a key figure was Edward Hall who took the work of earlier historians and placed it in a clear, logical pattern to show the working out of God’s will in the history of England.  Finally, the most important historical source for Shakespeare who worked in the latter half of the 16th Century was Raphael Holinshed who wrote a very long and immensely popular history of England, Scotland and Ireland.  He was Shakespeare’s immediate source for the material of this play, as he was for many other histories and some tragedies that Shakespeare wrote.  What all these historians did was to take the events of the past and look for a pattern – it might be a divine plan or an elaborate expression of Fate or punishment for the wicked.  For example, Hall was very interested in finding examples of what he saw as “proto-Protestant resistance,” that is, cases where people resisted the Catholic Church before Luther started the Protestant Reformation.  Hall wanted to prove that Protestants had always been around before anyone knew what they were. 


One common theme among all these historians was to emphasize the message that people in a kingdom must never rise up against an anointed king.  For the Tudors this principle posed a problem because they only got the crown by overthrowing and killing Richard III, so they needed a historical account that proclaimed: “Never rise up against an anointed king, unless his name is Richard III, who was so monstrous everyone who knew him cursed him, including his own mother and who was God’s punishment of the English people for a sin that happened 85 years earlier.”  That was a big order!  What happened over the decades after the Tudors set this revision of history into motion was that everyone had a shot at blackening poor Richard’s reputation, until we get his final vilification in this play.  The other theme the historians pounded home was that no one could defeat the English, unless they were not unified.  England was vulnerable only when she was torn apart by civil strife.  We can see how both these themes served the political agenda of the Tudor monarchy.


Working with Holinshed, whose work encapsulated that of the earlier writers, Shakespeare started writing this set of four plays about the troubles of the 15th Century.  I believe he may have begun this tetralogy (a group of four works) right after the defeat of the Armada in 1588.  The first three plays are the first three parts of Henry VI; they aren’t really about King Henry, who was an exceedingly dull and incompetent ruler, but about the powerful men who rose to power and fell in their efforts to control the fate of the country during Henry’s long reign.  The first in the series catalogues the wars the English conducted in France during the latter stages of the Hundred Years War, culminating in the execution of Joan of Arc.  The second in the series focuses on the rise and fall of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was the protector of the young King Henry VI.  The third tells of the rise and fall of the Duke of York, whose heirs became kings of England, one of his sons being Richard III.  This period of time covering most of the 1400’ was an especially troubled time in English history.  The country came about as close as it ever would to collapse and anarchy.  What the Tudor historians declared, and what Shakespeare dutifully reported, was that the troubles were the result of a national sin.  God punished England because in 1400 the rightful king, Richard II, had been overthrown and later murdered.  As a consequence England had suffered by having a small child placed on the throne (Henry VI).  This was a continuing political problem because the fact that a child was the monarch left a power vacuum that ambitious men tried to take advantage of.  Then when Henry grew to manhood he was a very weak ruler. He not only failed to stop but encouraged a bloody civil war, the War of the Roses, which lasted about 30 years.  Everything that happened in England from 1400 to 1485 was a result, directly or indirectly, of God’s punishment. 


The historical reality was quite different.  What actually happened was that in the 1400’s the safe, secure social systems of the medieval period came to a halt.  The manor system, the old feudal organization of society in which most people were bounded to a plot of land and labored for the lord of the manor as serfs, fell apart for complex social and political reasons.  There had been a great upheaval in the labor market following the Black Death, the pandemic of bubonic plague, which swept Europe in the middle of the 1300’s.  The populations were decimated, especially in England, and as a result the laborers who survived were able to command wages for their work for the first time because there was more work than people to do it.  With financial security these former serfs were able to gain their independence. 


Another development was that landowners in parts of England discovered they could make much more money raising sheep.  They “enclosed” or fenced in what had previously been farmland and turned it into pasture.  It only took a few men to care for a large flock, whereas under the old method of subsistence farming, hundreds were engaged in cultivation on the big estates.  Owners harvested the wool, shipped it over the English Channel to France or Belgium, and sold it at high prices.  The only problem was that the people who were only longer needed for farming had no jobs and no place to go.  For generations there were dispossessed farm workers who wandered the countryside, surviving on menial work or petty crime.


The 1400’s also saw the end of a prolonged struggle in France for control of the French crown by English invaders.  This conflict lasted over a hundred years and has come down to us as the Hundred Years War.  The efforts to place an English king on the French throne ultimately failed, and the English army had to return to homeland.  Suddenly England was faced with a large number of unemployed soldiers who only knew how to fight, living off plunder and pillage.  When these soldiers came home there was an increased tension which led in part to the English civil wars.


Finally there was an increased tension in the country over the role of the Catholic Church in England.  There were increased calls for reform and a struggle began to develop between the political and religious authorities in England. 


All of these changes helped bring about the powerful upheaval of the 1400’s.  The most tangible expression of this national trauma was the War of the Roses.  This play covers the very end of the 30 year period of the war.  The War of the Roses sounds very romantic, and it was not continual combat as we might think.  However, in a series of very violent battles, separated by long periods of an uneasy truce, English society was torn apart.  The war was a struggle between two of the most powerful families in the country, both with a legitimate claim to the throne.  Henry VI was associated with the Lancaster family, represented by a red rose, in conflict with the family of York, whose symbol was a white rose.  Richard III’s father, the Duke of York, was the primary leader in the York cause.  During the prolonged struggle the loyalties of people were tested, and three generations of noble families were decimated.  The common people were less affected by the war, unless the battle took place in your neighborhood, or you were drafted to be a foot soldier.  The sons of the nobility were the ones who paid the price.  First one side would win a major battle and then the other side would triumph.  Loyalty became extremely tricky; you had to be ready to change sides quickly as the circumstances required.  We will see an example of this ambiguity of political allegiance even in the York family, with Richard’s brother Clarence.


Finally in 1485 an obscure family, the Tudors, emerged from the welter of warfare and established themselves upon the throne, bringing an end to the war.  The Tudors turned out to be more ruthless and more effective than any of the other combatants for the throne.


Shakespeare encapsulated all this history in his four history plays, called the first tetralogy.  What Shakespeare tries to do is to show a cycle of history from Henry V, who was one of the greatest of the English kings, defeating the French at Agincourt, but who only reigned for about ten years.  When he died in 1422 his successor was his six-month old son, Henry VI.  Shakespeare starts the tetralogy at this point, showing us the contrast between the great warrior king, Henry V, and his weak, vacillating son, Henry VI, who was not up to the demands of the throne.  In the ensuing plays Shakespeare shows the rise and fall of a number of powerful men and women until in the final play he shows us Richard, a king worse than Henry VI because he is evil incarnate.  There is a steady decline in the quality of leadership until the end of the play Richard III.  At the end of that play hope is reborn with the ascent of the first Tudor king, Henry VII.  All the historians who had written about Richard III since 1485 had added some details to vilify him.  Somebody had observed around 1485 that one of Richard’s shoulders was higher than the other; by the time we get to Shakespeare he has a huge hunchback with a twisted leg and paralyzed arm. 


In reality Richard was a fairly obscure figure who was only on the throne for a couple of years but who happened to be the man who was overthrown by Henry Tudor.  The historical revisions introduced by the Tudors required that he be made a monster.  However, at some point Shakespeare the artist takes over for Shakespeare the Tudor propagandist and discovers that Richard is much more interesting character than the boring good guys who would replace him.  Shakespeare chooses to write a play emphasizing the monster rather than the supposed heroes who prevailed.  In the earlier plays in the series Shakespeare had simply shown us the rise and fall of great men.  Now he takes us inside an interesting moral chaos inside the world of Richard.  He is amoral, without regard for the moral consequences.  He is clever and funny, a powerful superman surrounded by fools, weaklings and corporate climbers.  The figure of Richard III suggests a stock figure from the old medieval dramas, the character of Vice in the morality plays.  I once saw one of these morality plays performed by a modern acting company in the Elizabethan theater in Ashland.  The characters were straight-forward, the storyline transparent.   The most striking character was Vice, played by an actor who mugged and grimaced to the audience.  At one point he jumped down into the audience and chased a group of little kids around the theater.  In part it was good fun and in part had the appeal of mock terror, a lot like Richard. He doesn’t chase the little kids; he murders them.  Richard is a lot like an actor who makes up his own part as he goes along.  We will see him change his behavior as he seeks to manipulate and control other people. If he were simply a clever deceiver, he would remain just an interesting character.  It was Shakespeare’s genius to make the audience Richard’s accomplice; we enter into a criminal conspiracy with this ambitious climber.  He has no really close friends; the only person he confides in throughout the play is us.  Shakespeare does this by extensive use of soliloquies, speeches where the character speaks directly to the audience, and asides, places where he is speaking with other characters, but then turns aside and speaks so only we can hear him.  Both these devices let us know what he is thinking at all times.


Richard’s climb to the throne is really dangerous.  At the beginning his becoming king is only a remote possibility, so each of his victories becomes that much more exciting.  Then about two-thirds of the way through the play, after Richard achieves what he wanted, the crown, he becomes a lot less interesting.  From that point on he is just trying to hold on to what he has; it’s the struggle to become king that energizes him and makes him so much fun to watch.


So Shakespeare has a number of different models he uses for Richard.  There is the historical Richard who ruled for two years; there is the monster created by the Tudor historians; there is the figure of Vice from the old morality plays; there is Richard as the comic genius that Shakespeare created in his play.  Finally there is Richard as modeled on the description of the effective ruler created by Machiavelli, a sixteenth century Italian writer, the first modern political scientist, and a key figure in that time.  In an earlier play the young Richard, about to set out on his campaign to gain the crown, refers to himself as a Machiavelli.  His name is synonymous with political manipulation and deceit, a thoroughly bad character.  In reality he was a civil servant who worked for one of the city states in Italy.  In the 1520’s he lost his job in Florence and was anxious to secure another position.  To get the job he wrote a book called The Prince, aimed at impressing one of the powerful De Medici rulers.  In the book he simply told the truth – what it took to be a successful ruler of a country in the Italian Renaissance.  Essentially his message was that while others might believe in Fate or in God’s will or other higher power, a prince could not afford such fantasy if he was to survive.  You are what you choose to make yourself, and an effective ruler had to be as ruthless and calculating as necessary to gain and hold power.  You have to use the superstitions of the people in order to keep them in control, but you could not afford to believe in them yourself.   He advised that the prince not use excessive cruelty, only because it arouses opposition, but a little bit of terror practiced in a selective but unpredictable way kept people guessing and in control.  What was most important in his book was the message that the individual, regardless of his rank, was responsible for what he chose to make of his life.  This articulation of the doctrine of free will was very modern at the time and very subversive to the old order of belief.  When this idea was extended to ordinary people, it freed them to be whatever they wanted.  In Shakespeare’s plays it is most often associated with villains, who see themselves superior to the common crowd and are liberated to make up their own rules and practice whatever deceit they choose.  We see Machiavellian villains in Julius Caesar, King Lear and Othello, but the first and arguably the most clever is Richard III.


The play shows several features which identify it as an early work in Shakespeare’s career.  First, he is very dependent on his historical source, Holinshed’s Chronicle.  That means, compared to later history plays, he would cover a lot of events in too much detail.  There are 39 named characters in the play, but only ten are of any real significance to the play; that means Shakespeare was trying to make sure he mentioned nearly everyone that Holinshed had.  In his later historical plays Shakespeare would learn to minimize characters, combining several historical figures into just one or to leave out people altogether.  In his later plays he would also invent characters or events to help make a better story.  There are a lot of different events in this play; later he could learn to condense rather than allowing the history to get in the way of the drama.  Despite all the names and events, this is not accurate history.  Ever since this play was first performed historians have despaired because the fiction of the drama so dominates what people think actually happened.  Even in Shakespeare’s time there were people who realized that poor Richard got a bum deal.  It is not surprising to learn that the first work which attempted to resurrect Richard’s reputation was published soon after the death of the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth, when it became safe to tell the truth. 


In reading the play do not worry about knowing all the history.  Whatever relationship is important Shakespeare will tell you about.  If I think it’s necessary I’ll fill you in on the historical background.  In addition the film and stage versions of the play which you will see have been streamlined, so they will omit characters and events that are not essential to your enjoyment of the play.   If you really are interested in the royal family’s genealogy, there are charts which show all the relationships, but they are really not necessary.  Let me know if you would like a copy of the chart. Much of the material I used for this lecture was taken from a work by Desmond Seward called The War of the Roses, a very readable work.



Act I, Scene 1


The play opens with probably the most famous speech in the play, “Now is the winter of our discontent….” It takes place as the York family celebrates the final victory over their foes, the Lancasters.  The eldest of the York brothers, Edward, has just been crowned, Edward IV, while the old king, Henry VI, died in captivity following the last military victory.  Actually Henry had been murdered in the Tower of London by Richard, as had Henry’s son, the Lancaster heir, whose name was also Edward.  (This is one of the continuing confusions in the play; in the lecture I refer to Henry VI’s son as the Prince of Wales, the title of the legitimate heir, to keep him separate from Edward IV, the man who seized the throne.) At this point Richard has only the most remote chance of becoming king.  King Edward already has two sons who will be the heirs of his throne; after them there is George, Duke of Clarence, Richard’s older brother, in the line of succession.  So there are at least three people who have precedence over Richard for the crown. And yet  Richard sets forth in this scene his plan to make himself king.  Listen to his opening speech and see at what point he changes and begins to reveal his true character. [Act I, scene 1, lines 1 – 41]


The scene opens with a small pun: “Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” The Duke of York, Richard and Edward’s father, had been the driving force behind the rise of the family. The triumph and coronation of Edward represented a victory for the now-dead York by his “son,” whose emblem was the “sun.”

The first 13 lines of the speech celebrate this family accomplishment, but at line 14 things begin to change: “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks….” Richard for the next 18 lines or so focuses on his own physical deformity and how out-of-place he is in a time of peace.  Finally at line 32 he begins to reveal the details of the plots that he has set in motion: “Plots have I laid, inductions [beginnings] dangerous….”  So the opening speech falls into three segments as Richard shows us more and more of himself.  This interesting division is reflected in the Ian McKellen film version of the play: the first 13 lines are given as a speech to a roomful of political supporters, but line 14 suddenly shifts to Richard alone, in a toilet, unburdening himself to the audience behind the camera.  He takes a positive delight in the deceptions he has begun.


There is also a indirect jibe at Richard’s older brother, King Edward, who had a well-deserved reputation for sexual prowess.  After detailing all the suffering which the family endured in battle, at line 12 he describes the figure of War (and Edward) capering “nimbly in a lady’s chamber.” 


In the speech Richard might seem to be offering his physical deformity as an excuse for his evil, but yet this is one of the few places in the play where he even mentions his condition.  He is not like somebody who is arrested for shooting all his fellow workers at the post office and then uses as a justification the fact that he was dyslexic and couldn’t read the addresses.  Richard just seems to say, “This is who I am,” without any plea for sympathy or understanding.  He describes what he looks like to others and how they respond to him.  At line 23 he tells us, “The dogs bark at me as I halt [limp] by them.”  He does not offer this as a rationale for evil but simply a self-assessment.  Because he cannot caper in the bedroom, he will caper in the boardroom, in the arena of political power. 


There is also in the general tone of the language, and as he is most often portrayed in performances, a genuine enjoyment in being bad.  It’s the one thing in life that gives him pleasure. 


At the end of the speech he tells us he has laid plots to bring his brother George, Duke of Clarence, into apparent conflict with King Edward.  Richard doesn’t go into much detail about his plots, perhaps because this is an area in which there was no proof in the history books that Richard was involved at all.  Edward and Clarence already hated one another, and Clarence had for a while fought on the Lancastrian side.  Clarence had been persuaded to back King Henry VI, largely at the connivance of a powerful noble, the Earl of Warwick who had also double-crossed the York cause.  Clarence subsequently changed his mind again and returned to his family’s side, a defection that led to the death in battle of Warwick, who died cursing Clarence’s disloyalty.  Things weren’t much better for Clarence, for having betrayed his brother once, he was never trusted again. 


The other thing that got Clarence into trouble with Edward was his open opposition to the marriage of the king to a woman named Elizabeth Grey.  She was a widow with grown sons and came from an impoverished family of minor nobility, so the marriage did not bring any political or financial advantage to the crown.  Even more disturbing was the fact that her late husband had fought against the York cause, at least according to Clarence and Richard.  Now she was married to the king, and all of her family, the Woodvilles, her brothers and grown sons, were reaping the benefits, rising rapidly in rank and honors.  In this next sequence listen to how Richard relates differently to different people.  First he’ll sympathize with the arrested Clarence.  Then he’ll bandy with Brackenbury, the man who takes Clarence into custody. Finally he will trade veiled attacks on the queen with Lord Hastings, the royal chamberlain.  Listen for the references to Jane Shore, a beauty married to a rich merchant in London, who was King Edward’s current mistress.  Unlike Monica Lewinsky of our age, Jane Shore was a bright woman who was able to parley her open affair with the king into advantages for herself.  Listen to how Richard will manipulate three different men who he wants to win over, using women as the tool of his deception.  {Act I, scene 1, line 43 – 162]


Richard is adept at using others’ prejudices.  He knows Clarence really hates the new queen and her upstart relatives, especially her brother, Lord Rivers, Anthony Woodville.

(You’ll notice almost all the characters in the play will have a title, like the Duke of Clarence, as well as their family name, George, so that although he’s identified as Clarence, he refers to himself as “George.”)  Richard seems to agree with the political views of the people he seeks to control, so he tells his brother at line 62, “Why, this it is when men are ruled by women./ ‘Tis not the King that sends you to the Tower./ My Lady Grey, his wife, Clarence, ‘tis she.”  Even in so simple a statement Richard’s sense of subtle sarcasm is at work: the queen had no title, like Duchess or Baroness, when she married the king but only the more humble “Lady.”  It is easy to sway Clarence into agreeing with Richard’s views.  Lord Hastings, a powerful figure at Court, is just getting out of the Tower after a confrontation with the queen and her brother, Anthony Woodville, and Richard uses the same technique of scapegoating women on him.


At line 84 Brackenbury interrupts the conversation between Richard and Clarence.  He is a good, decent man in charge of the Tower of London, and since so many of Richard’s victims end up in that establishment, we will see him from time to time.  He is the good civil servant, just doing his job, who warns the brothers that the king has forbidden any private conversation with the prisoner.  Richard changes and becomes plain-spoken and honest.  As he says at line 89,


            You may partake of anything we say.

            We speak no treason, man; we say the King

            Is wise and virtuous, and his noble queen

            Well struck [advanced] in years, fair, and not jealous:

            We say that Shore’s wife hath a pretty foot,

            A cherry lip, a bonny eye, a passing, pleasing tongue;

            And that the Queen’s kindred are made gentlefolks.

            How say you, sir? Can you deny all this?


There is a note of heavy sarcasm behind Richard’s direct comment here.  What he is implying is that Edward is not necessarily “wise” or “virtuous.”  Saying Edward’s queen is “well struck in years” is a polite way of saying she’s really old, at least older than her husband. Then Richard brings up Edward’s mistress, “Shore’s wife,” whose beauty is praised without directly stating that he and the king are romantically involved.  Finally the queen’s relatives are “made gentlefolk,” the implication being that they were commoners before the king favored their family.  Richard ends by challenging Brackenbury to contradict any of these assertions or find anything subversive in stating them.  Richard is, of course, being disingenuous, that is pretending that he is making innocent statements.


When Brackenbury quickly dismisses any suggestion that he has an opinion on any of these political matters, he says, at line 97, “With this, my lord, myself have nought to do.” Unfortunately for this earnest civil servant, the word nought, meaning “nothing, is the root for the word “naughty,” and Richard quickly sucks him into a bawdy joke in questionable taste: “Nought to do with Mistress Shore! I tell thee, fellow,/ He that doth nought with her, excepting one,/ Were best to do it secretly, alone.”  When Brackenbury, fearing that Richard is making some indirect reference to the king’s affair, asks who, Richard mocks s him at line 102: “Her husband, knave.  Wouldst thou betray me?” as if all the dirt innuendos were Brackenbury’s fault.  When Brackenbury leaves with Clarence, after his brother’s tearful farewell, Richard shares with us in short soliloquy at line 118 the breathtakingly cold-blooded observation “Simple plain Clarence, I do love thee so,/ That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,/ If heaven will take the present at my hands.”


In the third exchange Richard will hook his first active accomplice, Lord Hastings, the royal chamberlain.  This was a position of real power in the court, designating the official who had access to the king’s private chambers, functioning as his chief of staff.  Hastings, who had earlier tangled with the queen and been imprisoned, has now made his peace with her and has just been released.  However, he is still angry about it and Richard plays upon that anger.  Richard is like a person who has been hanging around the halls of power for years, always in the background as the third son of York, but picking up useful tidbits of information.  Here he makes common cause with Hastings.  He lets the Lord Chamberlain at line 127 voice an indirect threat against the queen and her family at line 127” “I shall live, my lord, to give them thanks/ that were the cause of my imprisonment.” It doesn’t sound like any thanks I would want to receive.  Richard quickly says Hastings’ persecutors have also locked up Clarence.  The chamberlain then makes a revealing social comment at line 132: “More pity that eagles should be mewed/ While kites and buzzards prey at liberty.” The eagle was considered a bird of royalty that hunted for food, while kites and buzzards were scavengers that fed on carrion.  Clearly Hastings sees himself on an elevated social plane, while Lady Grey and her upstart family were at the bottom of the pecking order. Someone once observed that Shakespeare makes Richard more sympathetic by showing his victims, like Hastings here, so easily manipulated through their prejudices.


Even though Hastings has just gotten out of prison, Richard asks him what the news is, as if he were unaware of any political dealings.  When Hastings reports at line 136 that the kings is “sickly, weak, and melancholy,” Richard quickly concludes, “O, he hath kept an evil diet long,” meaning that Edward has been careless of his health.  It is a theme that Richard will return to throughout the play, that Edward destroyed himself by overindulgence, especially sexual excesses, until he suggests that it should be grounds to deny his claim to the throne, much like Bill Clinton.


Now Richard reveals the next step in his plot.  At line 145, speaking of Edward, he says, “He cannot live, I hope, and must not die/ Till George [Clarence] be packed with post horse up to heaven.”  The “post horse” was a message service used for official business and the fastest means of transport in those days. Clarence’s days are numbered.  Then Edward, hopefully, will die and, at line 152, “leave the world for me to bustle in.”  At the same time Richard realizes he needs to make a political marriage, and he settles on the least likely candidate for his wife, Lady Anne, Warwick’s youngest daughter.  Warwick had been the most powerful noble in England, until the York army killed him in battle.  Warwick has cemented his alliance with King Henry VI by arranging the marriage of Anne and Henry’s son Edward, the Price of Wales.  Unfortunately Richard had killed both prince and king, which does pose some problems in winning the love of the young widow. Only Richard is so outrageous as to use an argument such as the one at line 154: “What though I killed her husband and her father [father-in-law]?/ The readiest ways to make the wench amends/ Is to become her husband and her father.”  He explains that he wants to marry her for some secret reasons he does not wish to reveal.  It is probably that Anne, as the wife of the last Prince of Wales, may be useful in helping Richard sway some of his former enemies over to his side when he makes his grab for power.




Act I, Scene 2


This scene opens with a funeral procession as the body of King Henry VI is being carried through the streets of London for reburial.  Shakespeare’s audience, who lived much closer to the reality of death than we do, would not have found this a strange event.  The main reason for the procession in dramatic terms is to give Lady Anne a chance to curse Richard, the man responsible, even before he appears in the scene.  At line 26 she prays to the spirit of her dead father-in-law, “If ever he have wife, let her be made/ More miserable by the life of him/ Than I am made by my young lord and thee!”  And, of course, that wish comes true in ironic fashion as Anne becomes Richard’s wife.  Richard bursts into this scene with a verbal onslaught that will sweep Anne off her emotional balance and will win her in a mere 264 lines.  How is Richard able to accomplish this remarkable transformation?  How is Lady Anne so quickly won? How is she able to change so emotionally and morally in the course of this scene? [Act I, scene 2]


Richard is attractive as a character because he is outrageous and he loves what he is doing.  There is a clear psychological manipulation going on throughout the scene as we watch Richard change his approach with each new victim that he confronts.  The key to his success with Lady Anne is that he throws her off balance.  In the opening section she curses him venomously, but when he answers her it is not with abuse but with the elaborate language of the courtly lovers of the Renaissance we have seen in other plays.  At line 49 he asks, “Sweet saint, for charity, be not so curst.” At line 74 he calls her “angel” and at 75 “divine perfection of a woman.”  Throughout the exchange he urges her to be “charitable,” which meant “kind and forgiving” in a Christian sense, but also had a meaning in the courtly language of love: “to take pity on a pleading lover by bestowing your sexual favors.”  He even tries to reason her out of her anger.  After he tries to weasel out of his past sins, she demands at line 101:


            Anne: Didst thou not kill this king?

            Rich:                                                    I grant ye.

            Anne: Dost grant me, hedgehog? Then God grant me too

                        Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!

                        O, he was gentle, mild, and virtuous!

            Rich:  The better for the King of Heaven that hath him.


Richard’s first response here, “I grant ye,” is a kind of throw-away line, as he was saying that he had “technically” killed Henry VI.  Anne pounces on this word “grant”, and after calling him a “hedgehog,” a prickly little rodent, she throws it back in his face by asking God to grant her wish for his damnation.  When she tries to shame Richard by going on about how good Henry was as a man, Richard simply says then he is better off in heaven.  At line 107 Richard even says Henry should thank him for helping him to eternity.  Anne, still trying to put Richard down morally, says he is fit only for hell, and Richard, springing his trap at line 110, says he is fit for one other place if she will allow him to name it.  She declares, “Some dungeon,” and he answers, “Your bedchamber.”  That must come as a complete surprise to Anne.  If she has understood his rather provocative answers to her in the last seventy lines, she has not registered the fact at all.  So when he drops this bombshell, her answer gives no indication of comprehending what he just said: “Ill rest betide the chamber where thou liest,” as if to say if you are looking for a bed, I hope it won’t bring you any rest.  Richard makes his sexual request clear, saying at line 113 that he will not rest until he lies with her.  She still doesn’t seem to understand the full import of his audacious remarks because all she can answer is “I hope so.”


Richard now shifts gears.  As he says at line 115, “To leave this keen encounter of our wits.”  That is to say, all the rage and anguish Anne has screamed at him for the last 75 lines was just playing around, a joke.  He asks her if the cause of the murder of her husband and father-in-law is not to blame for their deaths.  He killed the men closest to her because her beauty provoked him to it: “So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom” [line 121].  Her response is “If I thought that, I tell thee, homicide,/ These nails should rend that beauty from my cheeks.”  She would destroy what he says attracted him.  Once again Richard’s gambit is ultimately successful because he is so outrageous.


At line 141 when she complains that her dead husband had loved her better than anyone else could, Richard disputes that and says he will love her better than Prince Edward ever could.  In response she spits in his face and wishes it were poison.  To which, Richard, undeterred, tells her that poison never came from so sweet a place at line 146.  No matter what she says or does to discourage him, he turns it back upon her and uses it as evidence of how much he loves her.


And then he begins to cry.  He weeps to convince her of his sincerity.  Once again it is an unexpected reaction; men don’t usually cry.  He catalogues all the other occasions when he might have wept, when other men wept but he did not: when his youngest brother, the little boy Rutland was tortured and slain; or when his father was cruelly tormented and murdered in battle by Queen Margaret.  Even York’s enemies cried at the story of his horrible death, but his son Richard did not.  Now he cries, and cries so successfully that he will win the day.


To seal the deal on Lady Anne’s love he now makes his most flagrantly audacious move as he offers her a sword and his heart to stab at line 178:


            Rich:   Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry,

                        But ‘twas thy beauty that provoked me.

                        Nay, now dispatch; ‘twas I that stabbed young Edward,

            But ‘twas thy heavenly face that set me on.


At that moment of indecision she lets the knife fall, and he demands, “Take up the sword or take up me.”  He has managed to equate her unwillingness to murder him (as proper ladies would never do, no matter how provoked) with her acceptance of his love.  Then in the final step he offers to cut his throat himself if she will command him to, and Anne finally relents at line 192 when she muses, “I would I knew thy heart.”  When she expresses doubt, she has allowed the possibility that his love may be genuine.  It is only 10 lines later, at 201, that he gets her to wear his ring, tangible evidence of his victory.  She tries to equivocate the significance of her wearing the ring, but they both know he has won.  Richard’s final gesture reeks of hypocrisy, but he knows women are desperate to believe that their love has changed some man.  So he sends her ahead and assures her he will accompany Henry’s body to its final resting place where he promises to weep and pray for forgiveness.  As soon as she has left, he quickly dumps the body and sweeps on to his next victim.


But before he leaves the stage, he exults in his triumph.  Notice what his speech at line 237 reveals about his real feelings for Anne:


            Was ever woman in this humor [mood] wooed?

            Was ever woman in this humor won?

            I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.

            What! I that killed her husband and his father

            To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,

            With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,

            The bleeding witness of my hatred by [King Henry’s body],

            Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,

            And I no friends to back my suitat all

            But the plain devil and dissembling looks,

            And yet t win her, all the world to nothing!


There is no mention of Anne as an object of desire, no expression of love.  In fact, Richard tells us he won’t keep his wife for very long.  (And indeed she soon dies under mysterious circumstances.)  The speech is all about Richard and his triumph against all odds.  This provides an insight into our hero who does not love anyone except himself, but he is so outrageous and takes such delight in his manipulations that we find him attractive as a protagonist.


Richard goes on in his speech to mock Anne’s choice of himself over her dead husband who he acknowledges was clearly superior.  Having won the woman he now puts her down.  At line 252 he sarcastically declares


            I do mistake my person all this while.

            Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,

            Myself to be a marv’lous proper man.

            I’ll be at charges for a looking glass

            And entertain [employ] a score or two of tailors

            To study fashions to adorn my body.

            Since I am crept in favor with myself,

            I will maintain it with some little cost.

            But first I’ll turn yon fellow in his grave,

            And then return lamenting to my love.

            Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass

            That I may see my shadow as I pass.


With Richard we see the consummate villain as an actor, a character type Shakespeare would frequently employ.  Richard can play any part his evil plot requirements.  In this speech we see his self-awareness of playing a role, pretending to be grief-stricken after he has “turned” or dump King Henry’s body.  And when Richard does not have a mirror, he practices his craft by watching his shadow.


A word about Lady Anne.  Shakespeare shows her as a weak, vacillating woman, once Richard gets beyond her rage.  In historical reality the idea of the murderer of her husband marrying her was not that grotesque.  Anne was the daughter of Warwick, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the kingdom, and although he had died in battle, his daughter still represented access to that power.  In an age when marriage among the upper classes was foremost a matter of politics, Anne probably had little choice in the matter.  As the widow of a defeated enemy she was like the spoils of war.  Contemporary accounts suggest that Richard and Anne had a good marriage, although she did die soon after he was crowned.


Act I, Scene 3


This scene is like a family get-together from hell.  All the dysfunctional relationships are laid out.  What is the source of tension between the queen, her relatives, Lord Rivers, Grey and Dorset, and Richard, along with other members of the court?  Who is Queen Margaret and what is her beef with the rest of those present? [Act I, scene 3]


The scene opens with Queen Elizabeth confiding in her brother Lord Rivers (a.k.a. Anthony Woodville) that she worries about the fate of her young children, the children of King Edward, should the ailing monarch die.  The problem is that Richard has been named the Royal Protector, the official guardian of the princes in the event of the king’s death.  Two noblemen, Buckingham and Stanley, enter after visiting with the king.  Despite past hostility between the queen and these men they are eager to put that conflict behind them.  The king has urged them to make their peace with her.  Everyone is on their best behavior, at least until the fate of the king is determined.


At line 42 Richard enters, loudly protesting his innocence against vague accusations and playing the part of an aggrieved, plain-spoken Englishman:


            They do me wrong, and I will not endure it!

            Who is it 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 look fair,

            Smile in men’s faces, smooth [flatter], deceive, and cog [cheat],

            Duck with French nods [curtsies] and apish courtesy [ignorant imitation],

            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 [flattering], sly, insinuating Jacks [lower class knaves]?


While everyone else is trying to get along, Richard presents himself as the victim of a smear campaign conducted by unnamed people who are at once deceptive with their foreign fancy courtesy (“French nods’) and at the same time are low-bred pretenders (“insinuating Jacks”).  Ironically Richard describes the same kind of manipulations that he has been using on others but presents himself as a “plain man” with “simple truth.”  He is projecting onto other people the very things that he is guilty of himself.  His targets here are the queen and Lord Rivers whom he accuses of being involved in a conspiracy against him through their undue influence with the king.  Richard, on the other hand, projects himself as too honest and direct for his own good.  At line 112 he declares


            What! Threat you me with telling of the King?

            Tell him and spare not. Look what [whatever] I have said

            I will avouch [stand behind] in presence of the King.

            I dare adventure [risk] to be sent to th’ Tow’r.

            ‘Tis time to speak; my pains [hard work] are quite forgot.


Richard here aligns himself with his brother Clarence who is already in the Tower of London, the prison favored for political prisoners.  He implies that the queen and her relatives are behind this false imprisonment, although we know that Richard himself was responsible for his brother’s incarceration. While he talks bravely of facing the Tower, it is Richard’s victims who will be sent there.


He accuses the queen and Lord Rivers of being social climbers. At line 69 he says,


                                    The world is grown so bad

            That wrens may prey where eagles dare not perch.

            Since every Jack [lower-class person] became a gentleman,

            There’s many a gentle [upper-class] person made a jack [target in bowling].


We have seen the idea of the supposed social hierarchy of birds used before to indicate social distinctions among people.  Clearly the queen and her brother Rivers are the wrens who have taken over lofty positions, squeezing out truly noble persons, like Clarence, Hastings and Richard.  Richard blames the queen for Clarence and Hastings’ imprisonment at line 89, which she angrily denies.  Richard, between lines 90 and 101, plays on the Lord Rivers’ denial on his sister’s part that “Marry, she may” deny these charges, leading Richard to mockingly repeat the phrase ending with “What, marry, may she! Marry with a king,/ A bachelor and a handsome stripling too./ Iwis [For sure] your grandma had a worser match.”  Instead of backing up his accusation, Richard cleverly shifts to another familiar charge: that the older Elizabeth seduced the younger King Edward into marriage.  That marriage, implies Richard, was the best thing that ever happened to the Woodvilles, who were previously a family of little nobility.  Elizabeth angrily threatens to tell her husband about Richard’s “blunt upbraidings and your bitter scoffs” [l. 103].  Richard tells her to tell the king in the passage at line 112 quoted above; he is unafraid of the truth.  Richard wants Elizabeth in this state of rage, looking unattractive and scolding.  Richard’s real targets here are not the queen and her family but Buckingham, Stanley and Hastings who he knows harbor possible antagonism against the queen.  By articulating their possible grievances, he hopes to win them to his cause, at least temporarily.  He succeeds with two of them.  Richard is also at pains, as we see at line 148, to deny that he harbors any thought of the throne or exercising power.  As he says disingenuously at line 141, “I am too childish-foolish for this world.”  Poor little innocent Richard! (Of course, the queen had expressed similar sentiments at line 106: “I had rather be a country servant maid/ Than a great queen with this condition,/ To be so baited, scorned, and stormed at.”)


Throughout this scene Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow and murderer of Richard’s father, keeps offering ironic asides about the proceedings.  Apparently she is allowed to just wander around the palace.  Margaret is an interesting character.  She is the one figure who appears in all four plays in the tetralogy of which Richard III is the final installment.  We see her back at the beginning of the troubles, a young French princess who beguiles the naïve King Henry.  As a French woman she is already suspect in the eyes of the audience.  She takes over Henry’s life, runs the country, has a series of lovers, and gives birth to a son, Crown Prince Edward, Lady Anne’s late husband.  Margaret is the principal opponent to York cause.  In this scene we have Margaret in long speeches beginning at line 157 telling each one present what she thinks of them and predicting their unfortunate futures, predictions that turn out to be unfortunately accurate.  Those who are so cursed, even though they were fighting with each other just moments before, are united in their hatred of Margaret, blaming her for the death of the youngest York son, the innocent Rutland, and the torturous murder of York senior.  Margaret measures their alleged suffering by what she has suffered and dismisses their claims and accusations.  Richard trades insults with her for a number of lines.  She tells Buckingham that he will regret trusting Richard.  At line 288 she warns about Richard:


            O Buckingham, take heed of yonder dog!

            Look when he fawns he bites; and when he bites,

            His venom tooth will rankle to the death.

            Have not to do with him, beware of him.

            Sin, death, and hell have set their marks on him

            And all their ministers attend on him.


The warning turns out to be too true. Richard is often referred to in the play in animal terms, the two most common being, as here, the rabid dog and the boar, which is the animal on his insignia.  Almost all the animal images are meant to be disparaging.  Margaret ends with a general warning at line 301: “Live each of you the subjects to his [Richard’s] hate/ And he to yours, and all of you to God’s.”  For Margaret the morality of the situation is clear: she and her party are in the right and all who opposed her will be punished by God.  However, one of the terrible realities for those caught in a civil war is that the moral waters are much more murky.  Loyalty , like morality, for people trying to survive  must be ambiguous.


Margaret no sooner leaves than Richard at line 305 says, “I cannot blame her.  By God’s holy mother,/ She hath had too much wrong, and I repent/ My part thereof that I have done to her.”  This is just the most rank hypocrisy imaginable.  He has killed her husband and her son, and yet he “repents” what he did, with the implication that others have done much worse but are unwilling to admit it.  In his book The Prince Machiavelli had advised the ruthless leader to use displays of public piety as a way of manipulating the minds of the gullible public.


After everyone leaves Richard has a soliloquy at lines 323 – 337.  It is unusual in the sense that it is a frank and revealing admission of his tactics of evil.  In every play where there is a villain who deceives others, play-acting a part, Shakespeare will have at least one speech like this where the bad guy tells us directly that he is bad.  The reason was that Shakespeare’s audience consisted of people at many different levels of awareness.  Furthermore, as several thousand crowded into the theater there were a lot of distractions, and some were not paying close attention at all times.  So somewhere early in the play Shakespeare will have his villain explain his guilt, his process of evil, so that even the dumbest person who has not been paying attention will “get” the point that this character is not what he appears to be with others.  This might be called “getting the groundlings focused.”  The groundlings were those who paid the least and might be as fooled by the villain’s act as the other characters are.  Richard explains to them and to us what he’s doing:


            I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl.

            The secret mischiefs that I set abroach [begin]

            I lay unto the grievous charge of others.

            Clarence, who I indeed have cast in darkness,

            I do beweep to many simple gulls [fools],

            Namely to Derby, Hastings, Buckingham,

            And tell them ‘tis the Queen and her allies

            That stir the King against the Duke my brother.

            Now they believe it, and withal whet me

            To be revenged on Rivers, Dorset, Grey [Queen’s brother and two older sons].

            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 villainy

            With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,

            And seem a saint when most I play the devil.


This blunt description of evil was necessary for Shakespeare’s diverse audience, but many modern productions cut a lot of self-revelations like this because, even with the difficulties in the language, most audience members understand what Richard is up to.


The scene ends with Richard arranging the murder of his brother, Clarence, with two ordinary cut-throats that he has hired off the street.  He gives them a warrant, an official document allowing them to enter Clarence’s cell in the Tower.  At line 345 he warns them


            But, sirs, be sudden in the execution,

            Withal obdurate [entirely insistent], do not hear him plead;

            For Clarence is well-spoken, and perhaps

            May move your hearts to pity if you mark [listen to] him.


So Richard is worried that these men he hires will, unlike him, allow moral considerations to interfere with what needs to be done.  The First Murderer, who is the more cold-blooded of the two, assures him at line 350, “Talkers are no good doers; be assured/ We go to use our hands and not our tongues.”  Richard likes this can-do spirit:

“Your eyes drop millstones when fools’ eyes fall tears./ I like you, lads; about your business straight.”  There is a camaraderie of evil here, as Richard, the mighty lord, calls his hit men “lads.”


Act I, Scene 4


How does the dream Clarence has had in his prison cell foreshadowed his own death?

The description of this dream is also a powerful passage of descriptive beauty. What makes it so effective?  What is the source of the guilt Clarence apparently feels?  Why should he feel apprehension about the fate of his wife and children? [Act I, scene 4, lines 1 – 75]


Most of those in Shakespeare’s audience believed that dreams could reveal the future. Clarence’s dream is a common kind of nightmare in which the dreamer falls or drowns.  What makes his dream special is that it reveals the agent of his death, his brother Richard. Although Clarence fails to see the significance, the audience gets it.  In the dream of an escape across the English Channel, Richard accidentally knocks Clarence overboard and he drowns.  The poetic passage which follows the prophetic act (lines 21 – 33) really doesn’t add any more details to the storyline, but it reveals an intense interest about what lies on the floor of the ocean, the riches from sunken ships and the images of death transformed.  It was an unusual subject which Shakespeare returned to in several plays, including The Tempest, one of his last plays, where the images of riches and death are intermixed in a beautiful song.  Furthermore this passage gives Shakespeare a chance to parade his ability to write passages of poetic beauty.  He starts with what it must sound like to drown at line 22, “What dreadful noise of water in mine ears!”  He then catalogues the sights of death and destruction at lines 24-25: “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks;/ A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon.”  At lines 26 – 28 he lists the riches that he imagines scattered on the floor of the sea.  Finally, in the most unusual images in the passage, the jewels become part of the transformation of death at lines 29 – 33:


            Some [the jewels] lay in dead men’s skulls, and in the holes

            Where eyes did once inhabit there were crept,

            As ‘twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems

            That wooed the slimy bottom of the deep

            And mocked the dead bones that lay scatt’red  by.


This passage gives us an insight into how Shakespeare worked.  He could create a scene where he establishes the character of Clarence, foreshadow his impending death (remember, he will be drowned in a big barrel of wine), and allow the audience to grasp the full meaning of a dream that eludes the character.  But then he takes some time off from being the master playmaker in order to indulge his own fascination and our imaginations about what lies hidden under the sea.  The poetic addition makes the whole experience that much more vivid.


Clarence dream extends until he arrives in the land of the dead.  Interestingly it is not a traditional Christian account of the afterlife but rather reflects the ancient Greeks’ view of what happens after death.  Charon ferries the souls of the dead across the River Styx in the underworld, where we are destined to meet all those whom our life had touched.  So Clarence is greeted by his wife’s father, the mighty Warwick, whose death was a direct result of Clarence’s treachery.  Then he sees “an angel, with bright hair/Dabbled in blood” at line 53.  This is the former Prince of Wales, Henry VI’s son Edward, who was Lady Anne’s first husband.  Clarence now takes responsibility for his death.  Curiously Richard told Lady Anne that he had killed her husband.  Apparently it was a joint project by the York brothers.  Filled with guilt for his past crimes, Clarence dreams he is seized by demons (“foul fiends”) and carried off to spend eternity in a Christian-sounding hell. At the end of his life, the night before the final battle, Richard will have a dream similar to Clarence’s, except Richard will be confronted by a lot more victims of his treachery, and like Clarence he will experience profound despair.


Clarence admits to his jailer at line 66 that he is guilty, but he rationalizes that he committed his crimes in the service of his brother King Edward who he believes is behind his imprisonment.  Finally at lines 71 – 72 we get a chilling reminder of what was at stakes during this War of the Roses.  With the rightful succession to the throne in doubt, anyone related to the royal family was potentially at risk.  Whoever seized power would usually set about to eliminate any possible claimant, as Richard will do with the heirs of King Edward.  Belatedly, Clarence worries about what may happen to his family after his death.


The rest of this scene is the prolonged death of Clarence.  Why is the second murderer reluctant to go ahead with the killing?  What is ironic about Clarence’s attempt to persuade the murderers not to kill him? [Act I, scene 4, lines 76 – 286]


Brackenbury, a decent civil servant doing a terrible job, is in charge of the prisoners in the Tower.  He is concerned about their well-being, but the political struggles which swirl around him constrain what he can do to help.  He has a philosophical speech at the opening of this sequence, lines 76 – 83, in which he points out to the audience that people at the top of the social pyramid suffer just like those at the bottom, what he calls at line 79, “An outward honor for an inward toil.”  Despite his concern when the two murderers enter with a warrant from Richard, directing that they have access to Clarence, Brackenbury cannot stop them, telling us at line 94 that he will leave them alone with the noble duke “Because I will be guiltless from the meaning” of the directive.  The First Murderer applauds his decision not to get involved at line 98: “’tis a point of wisdom.”


From line 100 to 160 the Second Murderer has an attack of conscience about committing murder.  In discussing the consequences of killing Clarence, the Second Murderer evokes the image of Judgment Day, which in turn reminds him that although they have a warrant to commit the murder, it will not protect them from the judgment of God.  He asks his associate to wait while he gets over his attack of conscience.  At line 120 he explains that it usually only lasts as long as it take to count to twenty.  When he still has some “dregs of conscience” at line 122, his friend helps him get over them:


            First Murderer:     Remember our reward when the deed is done.

            Second Murderer: Zounds, he dies! I had forgot the reward

            First Murderer:     Where’s thy conscience now?

            Second Murderer:  O, in the Duke of Gloucester’s purse.


In order to make clear that his monetary attack is definitely over, the Second Murderer uses the “taboo” word “Zounds,” the shortening of “God’s wounds” to show that he is serious.


At line 136 the Second Murderer explains the problem with having a conscience:


            I’ll not meddle with it [conscience]; it makes a

            man a coward. A man cannot steal, but it accuseth

            him; a man cannot swear, but it checks him; a man

            cannot lie with his neighbor’s wife, but it detects

            him. ‘Tis a blushing shamefaced spirit that mutinies

            in a man’s bosom.  It fills a man full of obstacles.

            It made me once restore a purse of gold that, by

            chance, I found.  It beggars any man that keeps it.

            It is turned out of town and cities for a dangerous

            thing, and every man that means to live well

            endeavors to trust himself and live without it.


This passage is charmingly cynical, and we can see how people in any age might see a conscience as an impediment for advancement in the world, why it would be considered a “dangerous thing.”  There is a special force in this argument for amorality in this historical context.  In a kingdom in which the people see the monarch as god’s representative on earth, any uncertainty about who is the rightful king must affect the subjects’ definition of good and evil.


The murderers wake Clarence and exchange very heavy ironies with him for over 100 lines (lines 164 – 273).  This is a mark of the young Shakespeare’s learning how to handle scenes like this.  In later plays he would be able to convey the essence of a situation like this in just a few lines.  At line 197 Second Murderer says that they are just following orders of their king.  Clarence warns them: “Erroneous vassals! The great King of kings/ Hath in the tables of his law commanded/ That thou shalt do no murder.”  The murderers are no deterred, and at line 205 they remind Clarence of his acts of treason and murder, crimes against God, when he violated his sacred trust and went over to the enemy for a time.  They may be only lower-class cutthroats, but even they know all the details of Clarence’s moral failures and throw them up to him as moral evidence that  he deserves to die.  Is it any wonder that the common people find themselves facing serious quandaries of good and evil in such a morass of amorality?  This passage also reminds us how dysfunctional the struggle for power has made the York family.  In the early days they were united in their efforts to win the throne for their father.  However, the struggle and the moral compromises have undermined that unity and family loyalty.  Clarence had double-crossed his brother Edward out of envy.


When poor Clarence, still believing that it is King Edward who has ordered his death urges the murderers to go to his brother Richard of Gloucester who will pay them more to save his life than the kings has promised to give for his death, the murderers get the last laugh.  They tell him the truth about Richard beginning at line 235.  Clarence disputes this disturbing revelation for another 20 lines.  At  line 250 the First Murderer even argues that Richard is so concerned about his brother’s soul, he is sending him to heaven early.  It’s a cynical argument that Richard will use several times in the play. Clarence argues so forcefully against their killing him that the Second Murderer changes his mind once again, relents, and tries to warn Clarence of the First Murderer’s fatal attack at line 272.  As Clarence dies, the impatient First Murderer drags him off into the next room to finish the job by drowning the wounded man in a huge barrel of malmsey wine.  (The bodies of famous people were sometimes preserved temporarily in alcohol.)  This means of death also allows us to see how Clarence’s dream earlier in the scene was a foreshadowing of his death.  He does die by drowning.  The Second Murderer regrets what has happened and compares himself to Pilate at line 275 and wishes he could wash his hands of the crime.  The First Murderer has no such qualms and runs off to get his payment from Richard.


Act II, Scene 1


Back at the palace King Edward up from his sick bed calls all his courtiers and his queen together and attempts to resolve all the conflicts that swirl around his throne.  Everyone is on their best behavior, including Richard.  How is he able to undermine the concord of the occasion?  [Act II, scene 1]


The King has spoken to each the combatants separately and has resolved their animosities, he thinks.  The principal conflict is the jealousy that most of the members of his court feel for the queen and her family, whom they see as interlopers.  The king foolishly believes that he can settle the struggle for power that must occur when he dies by simply forcing the antagonists to promise to get along.  At line 7 we see his efforts:


            King:   Rivers [Queen’s brother] and Hastings, take each other’s hand;

                        Dissemble [disguise] not your hatred, swear your love.

            Rivers: By heaven, my soul is purged from grudging hate,

                        And with my hand I seal my true heart’s love.

            Hastings: So thrive I as I truly swear the like!


Even the Queen is required to participate, and she makes up with Hastings at line 21 and then with Buckingham, an ambitious noble who will become Richard’s staunchest ally. Despite the public show, the hatred does not disappear, and soon after the King dies, nearly every character in this scene will be killed.  We can say that they deserve their deaths, because they so clearly violate the oaths that they take in this scene.


Richard enters at line 47 and joins into the festivities and announces his eagerness to be at peace with everyone, even as he gets a last few zingers in aimed at the Queen and her family.  Notice how in the following passage at line 53 he “innocently” sows the seeds of discord within the court:


            A blessed labor, my most sovereign lord.

            Among this princely heap [gathering, meant with sarcasm] if any here

            By false intelligence [information] and wrong surmise

            Hold me a foe;

            If I unwittingly, or in my rage,

            Have aught committed that is hardly borne [resented]

            By any in this presence, I desire

            To reconcile me to his friendly peace.

            ‘Tis death to me to be at enmity;

            I hate it, and desired all good men’s love.

            First, madam, I entreat true peace of you,

            Which I will purchase with my duteous service;

            Of you, my noble cousin Buckingham,

            If ever any grudge were lodged between us;

            Of you and you, Lord Rivers and of Dorset,

            That all without desert [without justification] have frowned on me;

            Of you, Lord Woodville, and, Lord Scales [Queen’s relatives] of you;

            Dukes, earls, lords, gentlemen; indeed of all.

            I do not know that Englishman alive

            With whom my soul is any jot at odds

            More than the infant that is born tonight.

            I thank my God for my humility.


Richard appears to encompass all in his general plea for peace and friendship, but at line 54 he refers of the collective company as a “heap,” not a very flattering designation.  At line 70 he subtly reminds everyone that some present, such as himself, hold high rank as a duke, while others, such as the Queen’s relatives are lords or other low nobility or simply “gentlemen.”  At line 68 he forgives Rivers and Dorset for their hatred which he slyly claims was unfounded.       He concludes the long speech proclaiming his own innocence and humility.  Only we in the audience understand how far this is from the truth.


The Queen at line 75 asks that the general accord be extended to poor Clarence whom the King had ordered locked in the Tower.  At the suggestion Richard, at line 79, explodes in mock rage:


            Why, madam, have I off’red love for this,

            To be so flouted in this royal presence?

            Who knows not that the gentle Duke is dead?

            You do him injury to scorn his corse [corpse].


This bombshell catches everyone by surprise, and they comment on how pale they all look.  The King at line 88 reveals that he had originally ordered Clarence killed but had subsequently sent a countermand.  Richard gloats as he holds the King responsibility for their brother’s death, even as he suggests that the Queen’s relatives are behind the act.  At line 93, after explaining that Edward’s order of execution was delivered speedily but the pardon arrived too late, Richard destroys all the previous peace-making efforts:


            God grant that some, less noble and less loyal,

            Nearer in bloody thoughts, and not in blood [family title],

            Deserve not worse than wretched Clarence did,

            And yet go current from suspicion [unsuspected]!


At line 97 Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby, rushes in, throws himself upon his knees before the King and begs for the pardon of one of his servants who has killed a member of another noble’s entourage.  Talk about lousy timing!  Edward holds forth from line 104 down to line 135 pointing out that no one tried to petition him on behalf of Clarence when he ordered his death.  The irony gets pretty thick.  At the end of the speech Edward says that he fears God’s retribution for allowing his brother’s death will fall on him and all those present.  He clearly accepts Richard’s explanation and feels the guilt so powerfully that he almost collapses and has to be helped from the stage.  Richard is left to tell everyone that this was the “fruits of rashness” on the King’s part and to point out how guilty the Queen and her relatives looked at the news, suggesting that they pressured Edward into doing it.  The proof he offers is that they looked pale at the news; however, we were told back at line 85 that everyone looked pale.  Richard counts on his hearers’ selective memory.  This whole scene is another triumph for Richard!


Act II, Scene 2


This scene shows us the next step in Richard’s campaign.  He is an equal opportunity abuser.  How has he manipulated the children of Clarence?  Who is the first person in the play who has an accurate sense of Richard’s real character?  After Edward’s death, what is the first political goal Richard has to achieve?  Who is his principal accomplice and why? [Act II, scene 2]


Richard has even gone out of way to manipulate the children of Clarence, whose death he has arranged.  We see the kids with their grandmother York, Richard’s mother, complaining that King Edward ordered their father’s death.  They know this because, at line 20, the boy describes how Richard revealed the truth:


                        For my good uncle Gloucester

            Told me the King, provoked to it by the Queen,

            Devised impeachments [accusations] to imprison him;   

            And when my uncle told me so, he wept.

            And pitied me, and kindly kissed my cheek;

            Bade me rely on him as on my father,

            And he would love me dearly as a child.


He must be telling the truth – he wept!  Of course, Clarence told the Murderers the same thing in the Tower: that his brother cried when he was sent to prison.  Apparently if Richard weeps and kisses your cheek, it’s a good idea to make sure your life insurance is paid up.  We can see how thorough Richard is because he goes to the trouble to scam the children of his victim, even though they are too young to pose any danger to him.


But Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, knows the truth. At line 27 she laments

            Ah, that deceit should steal such gentle shape [assume a kind disguise]

            And with a virtuous visor [mask] hide deep vice!

            He is my son, ay, and therein my shame;

            Yet from my dugs [nipples] he drew not this deceit.


The boy is unconvinced, but the mother knows, the first in the play to guess the truth, appropriately.  When your own mother is against you, you’re pretty bad.


Queen Elizabeth enters at line 34 with the announcement that Edward is dead.  She declares that her sorrow is overwhelming.  The children of Clarence declare their mourning surpasses her.  And in a strange kind of contest of grieving, the Duchess of York asserts that she weeps for both her sons and is therefore the winner.  This extended sequence handles the experience of grief in a rather mechanical manner.  Notice, for example, the passage between lines 59 and 79 has the statements of lamentation take on a kind of choral effect, as each of the three mourners proclaim their passion until the Duchess says she grieves most and, at line 86, invites the others to use her as a grief counselor: “Alas, you three on me, threefold distressed,/ Pour all your tears! I am your sorrow’s nurse,/ And I will pamper it with lamentation.”  Later in his career Shakespeare would handle such scenes of grief much more succinctly and emotionally effectively.


Dorset and Rivers urge Queen Elizabeth to take steps to make sure her son, Prince Edward, heir to the throne, is brought to court and protected until he can be crowned.  Before they can act Richard bustles in at line 101, reassuring everyone that all will be well.  He is especially good with his mother at line 104 when he finally sees her there weeping:


            Rich:  Madam, my mother, I do cry you mercy;

                        I did not see your Grace. Humbly on my knee

                        I crave your blessing.

            Duch:  God bless thee, and put meekness in thy breast,

                        Love, charity, obedience, and true duty!

            Rich:    Amen! [Aside] And make me die a good old man!

                        That is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing;

                        I marvel that her grace did leave it out.


He goes through the motions of being a dutiful son, even kneeling to ask his mother for her blessing.  But what he shows us in his aside is that he is mocking her behind her back, laughing that she has left out the stock ending of a standard parental wish that children will lead a virtuous life.


Now a new player enters the scene.  The Duke of Buckingham assumes a kind of control and urges that Prince Edward be brought from the town of Ludlow, northwest of London where he is at present, to court by a small group of men.  Rivers is immediately suspicious about why only a small group would be sent, but Buckingham gives a plausible explanation: that too big a group would expose the prince to possible dangers from those who are not reconciled to the truce at the palace.  Rivers agrees, and Richard asks his mother and the Queen to add their support.  Left alone Buckingham reveals that he and Richard have discussed a plan to separate the Queen’s relatives from Prince Edward.  Richard is perfectly happy to allow this sly schemer Buckingham to think he is in charge, as he tells us at line 151:


            My other self, my counsel’s consistory [group of advisors],

            My oracle, my prophet, my dear cousin,

            I, as a child, will go by thy direction.

            Toward Ludlow then, for we’ll not stay behind.


Richard will be successful in his quest for the throne because he is adaptable, using each person he needs in whatever way works best for his purposes.


Act II, Scene 3


This brief scene shows us the effect on society as a whole of all the great political upheaval that is about to take place.  How does each of the three citizens in this scene see the future of their country in the days ahead? [Act II, scene 3]


The First Citizen hopes for the best and sees in Prince Edward the promise of a good king when he comes of age.  The Second Citizen believes that his guardians will rule wisely in his stead until he is old enough to assume the throne himself.  Having a child on the throne is a ticklish proposition; First Citizen at line 16 reminds them that Henry VI was crowned when he was only nine months old, and his uncles ruled well in his childhood.  But Third Citizen is not as optimistic.  At line 25 he predicts there will be a contest among the Prince’s relatives about who should be in charge:


            For emulation [rivalry] who shall be nearest [to the prince]

            Will touch us all too near, if God prevent not.

            O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester,

            And the Queen’s sons and brothers haughty [haughty] and proud!

            And were they to be ruled, and not to rule,

            This sickly land might solace [take comfort] as before.


Third Citizen uses a series of homey comparisons to cite the warning signs of future trouble as at lines 32 – 35 with references to storm clouds, coming night and falling leaves presaging the coming winter.  At line 44 he concludes that “The water swell before a boist’rous storm./ But leave it all to God.”  Whatever they fear of the future, there really isn’t much that they can do about it except leave it to God.  The ordinary people are powerless to stop what is about to happen to them.






Act II, Scene 4


This short scene at the palace provides a brief respite of comic relief and then news of Richard’s next step in seizing the throne.  What actions are the Queen and the Archbishop of York prompted to take and why? [Act II, scene 4]


As he developed his skills in writing tragedies, Shakespeare came to include scenes of what were called “comic relief.”  These were scenes where Shakespeare lightened up temporarily before plunging into more tragic events, thereby giving the audience a chance to catch its breath and recharge its emotional batteries.  In the first 36 lines of this scene the comic relief is provided by a precocious child with some wisecracks; ironically the child, the young Duke of York, the Queen’s younger boy, will soon die. (Shakespeare would use the kind of character and situation in a late tragedy, Macbeth.) Here he makes a couple of jokes about being taller than his older brother, a fact which had prompted his uncle Richard to observe using an old folk saying, “Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace [rapidly].”  Uncle Richard is apparently a real favorite with the kids! This gives the boy’s grandmother a chance to give her son Richard another maternal zinger at line 16:


                                    The saying did not hold

            In him that did object [rebuke] the same to thee.

            He was the wretched’st thing when he was young,

            So long a-growing and so leisurely,

            That, if his rule were true, he should be gracious [virtuous].


Richard’s mother once again knows him better than anyone else, despite the objection of the Archbishop of York, one of England’s most powerful churchmen, at line 21.  The little boy now recalls another story about Richard’s childhood, the common folklore that he had been born with teeth, suggesting he was some kind of an animal.  When the Duchess questions the child about where he heard this story, he tells her from his uncle’s nurse.  When his grandmother tells him that was impossible because the nurse died before he was born, the boy confesses he does not know where he heard it then, as is usually the case with pieces of folklore or urban myths.  The Queen is upset with her son’s “shrewd” tongue, his wisecracks that could be misinterpreted in this time of political upheaval, but his grandmother says he is all right.


A messenger enters at this point, line 37, with the shocking news that the Queen’s brother, Rivers, her son from her first marriage, Lord Grey, and their friend Sir Thomas Vaughan have all been taken prisoners at the order of Buckingham and Richard and sent to Pomfret Castle.  No charges or reasons for the actions have been made public.  This is a momentous event for three reasons.  First, Pomfret is a place with very frightening associations, being the prison where the earlier king Richard II had been murdered without a trial.  Second, the fact that Buckingham and Richard have simply circumvented the legal system shows that they have seized power.  Finally, the Queen realizes that she no longer has a champion to protect her.  At line 49 she laments,


            Ay me! I see the ruin of my house [family].

            The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind [deer];

            Insulting tyranny begins to jut [encroach]

            Upon the innocent and aweless [powerless] throne.

            Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre!


If the powerful dukes of the kingdom have done this to three well-connected noblemen, there is no hope that the young prince, who is in their custody, will ever be able to stop them.  She quickly decides to take her remaining children and flee to sanctuary at line 66.  In those bloody days the church offered a refuge for people who were in danger in the outside world.  If you met the criteria for a legitimate refugee, you could stay in the church under its protection.  The Queen decides to move quickly.  The Archbishop of York also sees the handwriting on the wall.  He was entrusted with the Great Seal of England upon the death of King Edward.  He gives it up to the Queen as a sign that he believes her to now be the only legitimate power in the kingdom.  It’s a political act that could cost him his life.  He accompanies the Queen and her children to sanctuary.


Act III, Scene 1


Richard gets his hands on two more victims of his bloody rise to the top.  Everyone in Shakespeare’s audience knew the story of the two sons of King Edward who were murdered in the Tower.  This is the only scene where we see these two boys who might have ruled England if their evil uncle had not interceded.  In the first 94 lines of the scene what sense do we get of the young prince who should have become Edward V?  What is Buckingham’s role in moving Richard’s plot along here? What is the purpose of Richard’s ironic asides in this passage? [Act III, scene 1, lines 1 – 94]


Richard welcomes young Prince Edward to London.  The heir to the throne asks why his other uncles, such as Rivers, are not there to greet him.  Richard answers at line 7 in a speech filled with irony that only the audience picks up on:


            Sweet Prince, the untainted virtue of your years

            Hath not yet dived into the world’s deceit;

            Nor more can you distinguish of a man

            Than of his outward show, which, God he knows,

            Seldom or never jumpeth [corresponds] with the heart.

            Those uncles which you want were dangerous;

            Your Grace attended to their sug’red words,

            But looked not on the poison of their hearts.

            God keep you from them, and from such false friends!


We see immediately that Richard has accurately portrayed himself here.  The young Prince is smart enough to know that his other uncles were not false at line 16, but he fails to see that the falsest friend of all is standing next to him.


The Prince then asks where his mother and brother are, why Lord Hastings, as the royal  chamberlain, has not brought them to meet him.  Hastings enters at line 26 brings news of the Queen’s decision to seek sanctuary.  He says he has no idea why she has done this, but that the young Duke of York wanted to come and greet his brother, although his mother would not let him.  Buckingham understands the necessity of having both boys in custody, and he angrily orders the Cardinal who is with them, as the ranking prelate in England, to go and get the boy. He tells Hastings to go along and if the Cardinal is unable to convince the Queen to give up the boy, he is to take him by force.  When the Cardinal declares he will never allow the sacred privilege of sanctuary to be violated, Buckingham becomes the attorney for Richard’s cause, arguing at line 44


            You are too senseless-obstinate, my lord,

            Too ceremonious and traditional.

            Weigh it but with the grossness [coarseness] of this age,

            You break not sanctuary in seizing him.

            The benefit thereof [sanctuary] is always granted

            To those whose dealings have deserved the place

            And those who have the wit to claim the place.

            This prince hath neither claimed it nor deserved it,

            And therefore, in mine opinion, cannot have it.

            Then, taking him from thence that is not there,

            You break no privilege nor charter there.

            Oft have I heard of sanctuary men,

            But sanctuary children ne’er till now.


This passage is a prime example of the importance of having a good lawyer working for you.  Buckingham is able to persuade the Cardinal himself to revoke the Church’s protection for Prince Edward’s younger brother and to deliver him into Richard’s hands.  The great irony is that Buckingham’s clever legal argument will result in the death of the boy.


While they wait for the young Duke of York to be delivered, Edward asks where he will be staying while in London, and his Lord Protector, Richard, makes a sinister suggestion at line 63:


            Where it seems best unto your royal self.

            If I may counsel you, some day or two 

Your Highness shall repose you at the Tower,

Then where you please, and shall be thought most fit

For your best health and recreation.


The Tower was already infamous as a place of dreadful imprisonment and death for important people in the realm, not the sort of place where you would “repose” with any peace of mind.  But it was, and still is to this day, a royal palace.  The young Prince doesn’t like it, but being the King in training means you have to go along with what your guardian suggests.  He quickly changes the subject and questions Buckingham about the origin of the Tower, which, according to folklore, had been originally built by Julius

Caesar.  Evidencing a real interest in history, the Prince wants to know what proof clearly establishes that Caesar was the builder.  At line 75 he observes that even if the fact were not written down in a chronicle, the fame of Caesar would be passed down from generation to generation.  It’s a small point, but it demonstrates that the young man is serious and has a sense of his place in history.  He would probably have made a good king.  However, Richard sarcastically observes at line 79, “So wise so young, they say do ne’er live long.”  It’s a chilling reminder of what Richard plans for his nephews.  But Edward hears his uncle say something under his breath and asks him what he said.  Richard, at line 81, quickly makes up something: “I say, without characters [written letters] fame lives long,” essentially agreeing with what the Prince had said at lines 76 – 78.  Then Richard says to us, “Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity,/ I moralize two meanings in one word.”  Richard asks us to see him as a character from one of the old morality plays which had been popular throughout Shakespeare’s boyhood.  The most popular character in those old dramas about good and evil was always the villain called Vice, who was presented as an attractive, funny immoralist, a lot like Richard.  Richard sees his character as Iniquity or evil, who is able to deceive by hiding his real meanings behind apparently innocent words, as Richard has done with all his victims up to this point.


Edward continues to talk with Buckingham and says at line 91 that he hopes he can emulate Caesar as a great military leader who will once again fight for the English dominion over France.  Again, the suggestion is that the boy would have made a good king, had he been allowed to succeed his father.  But Richard, at line 93, makes another sinister aside: “Short summers lightly have a forward spring,” or people who accomplished as children often don’t last until adulthood.


In the remainder of this scene the young Duke of York cracks wise with his older brother and his Uncle Richard.  How has his relationship with his brother changed?  Why are some of the younger boy’s wisecracks politically incorrect?  Whom do Richard and Buckingham blame for the boy’s inappropriate comments?  What is the principal obstacle that Richard faces as this scene ends?  How does he seek to ensure Buckingham’s allegiance in the future? [Act III, scene 1, lines 95 – 200]


Since they last saw each other the boys have lost their father, and now young York has to call his brother “my dread lord” at line 97 because Edward will be king.  When he observes how much his older brother has grown, he asks Uncle Richard if he still believes “great weeds grow apace.”  He challenges Richard to say again that those who grow fast are “idle,” but of course the Lord Protector cannot insult the king to be.  Continuing his precocious comedy York now asks Richard for his dagger, and Richard, perhaps too eagerly, offers to give it to him “With all my heart [line 111].”  Is that too subtle a threat? 


As York continues to joke Prince Edward tells Richard that he must simply “bear with him,” that is, put up with his humor.  The younger boy now turns this into an insult at line 129: “Uncle, my brother mocks both you and me./ Because that I am little, like an ape,/ He thinks that you should bear me on your shoulders.”  People who had hunchbacks, as Richard does, were sometimes said to be carrying an ape on their shoulder, under their shirt.  Even Buckingham in an aside at line 132 marvels at how cleverly the little boy managed to scorn his uncle while appearing innocent.  In the wonderful film version of this play starring Ian McKellen, at this point Richard reveals his true nature for a frightening second as the little boy jumps on his back.


As the boys are sent off to the Tower for the night, the younger one says he will fear the ghost of his uncle Clarence, but the older one, still learning how to rule, announces that he fears no uncles who are dead.  Richard, at line 147, asks, ”Nor none that live, I hope.”  It is too late to warn the boys.


At line 151 Buckingham, once the boys are gone, immediately declares that York’s insults were deliberate and were probably the result of his mother’s prompting.  Richard agrees that the youngster favors his mother, not a hopeful sign for the kid’s survival.  Richard and Buckingham have taken Catesby, a minor nobleman, into their confidence and will use him as a messenger and spy to advance the cause.  Buckingham now sends Catesby off to sound out Hastings, the Royal Chamberlain, on the idea that Richard should assume the throne.  He tells Catesby to be careful about revealing his own sympathies and not alarming Hastings if he finds him opposed to the idea.  Buckingham is as sly and deceitful as Richard.  Catesby guesses that Hastings will object to the children of King Edward being passed over.  Richard tells Catesby how to manipulate the Chamberlain at line 181:


            Commend me to Lord William. Tell him, Catesby,

            His ancient knot of dangerous adversaries [Queen’s relatives]

            Tomorrow are let blood [will bleed] at Pomfret Castle,

            And bid my lord for joy of this good news,

            Give Mistress Shore one gentle kiss the more.


The way to appeal to a man like Hastings is to remind him of enemies which you have in common.  If I execute the people who were behind your imprisonment, the least you can do is support my bid to be king.  The other way is to flatter his ego as a man.  Jane Shore, the wife of a rich London merchant, was a great beauty and had been King Edward’s favorite mistress, his Monica Lewinski.  On the king’s death, Hastings had quickly taken up with her.  Richard sees women as political spoils, much as he did with Lady Anne.  But he will also use men’s weakness for women as a tool of manipulation, as we’ll see when Richard accuses Shore of being a witch and Hastings’ affair becomes the basis for his death.


Buckingham has assumed the leadership role in gaining the throne for Richard.  Richard reciprocates by promising at line 195 a lavish reward once he is crowned: “The earldom of Hereford and all the movables [possessions]/ Whereof the King my brother was possessed.”  Their next major obstacle is Hastings, and at line 192 Buckingham wonders what they will do if he decides not to go along with their plot.  Richard’s answer at line 193 is quintessentially Richard: “Chop off his head!” No euphemism or pussyfooting around the subject – just the brutal act of someone who will not be deterred.  Throughout these scenes it’s important to remember that while Buckingham and Richard have a commonality of interest at this point, Richard’s ultimate agenda is not the same as Buckingham’s.  Richard will allow him the illusion that he is running things, but once Richard has the power, his ally will become the next victim.


Act III, Scene 2


We know that the life of Hastings hangs in the balance,  This scene is designed to show us how many warning signals he will fail to heed before plunging to his doom – omens, portents, dramatic ironies and revealing asides.  Shakespeare is like an amateur writer in this scene: if one of these foreshadowings is good, a whole lot will be better. (Not necessarily so; later in his career he would handle these kind of scenes more economically and effectively.)  How many times in this scene does Hastings miss a warning signal? [Act III, scene 2]


We begin with a messenger from Stanley, Hastings’ friend, who brings word early in the morning that he has had a dream in which “the boar” (and remember that the boar is the animal on Richard’s coat-of-arms) had “rased off his head” or decapitated him.  People in Shakespeare’s time would see this as a warning; today we would seek a therapist to explain the significance of the dream to us. In addition, Stanley is troubled by the fact that there will be two separate council meetings this day at the Tower – one which all the principal nobles will attend, including Stanley and Hastings; the other a private council with just Richard, Buckingham and Catesby.  Stanley proposes that they get out of town quickly.  Hastings dismisses the warning, saying at line 20 that his good friend Catesby will certainly let him know what goes on at the second council meeting.  As for fleeing from the danger posed by Richard, Hastings, at line 28, says that such a precipitous action would only arouse Richard’s suspicion and wrath.  He sends the messenger back.


Catesby enters at line 35 and Hastings greets him with the joking question “What news, what news, in this our tott’ring state?”  Catesby gets right to the point: “It is a reeling world indeed, my lord,/ And I believe will never stand upright/ Till Richard wear the garland of the realm.”  At line 41 Hastings is astonished by the suggestion, asking if Catesby means the crown and adds, “I’ll have this crown of mine [his head] cut from mine shoulders/ Before I’ll see the crown so foul misplaced.”  This is the visceral reaction of a man who has spent his life in service to his king, Edward, and to the absolute principle that Edward’s child must succeed his father.  But then he asks Catesby if Richard aims at the throne, suggesting that Richard has effectively disguised his ambition up to this point.  Catesby reveals that Richard does seek to be crowned king and had hoped that Hastings would support his efforts, and toward that end Richard has authorized Catesby to tell the Lord Chamberlain that his enemies at Pomfret Castle will die that very day.  At line 51 Hastings shows he understands the “quid pro quo” which is expected:


            Indeed I am no mourner for that news,

            Because they have been still my adversaries;

            But that I’ll give my voice on Richard’s side

            To bar my master’s heirs in true descent,

            God know I will not do it, to the death!


To which Catesby simply says, “God keep your lordship in that gracious mind!”  In other words, if you would rather die than see Richard take the throne from some little kid, then by all means, don’t change your mind.  Is that too subtle?  Apparently it is for Hastings, because the dramatic irony goes right by him.


From line 57 Hastings returns to his pleasure over the news about Rivers and the others, telling Catesby that in a year he will still be laughing at the people who tried to smear him have been brought down. In fact, he adds rather ominously at line 60 that he has other people he intends to send “packing,” that is get rid of.  Catesby answers “’Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord,/ When men are unprepared and look not for it.”  There’s another warning implicit in this statement if only Hastings would heed it.  But he plunges ahead, agreeing that Rivers, Vaughan and Grey are badly in need of spiritual comfort today, and so are “some men else that think themselves safe/ As thou and I, who, as thou know’st, are dear/ To princely Richard and to Buckingham” [lines 66 – 68].  Catesby reassures him: “The Princes [Richard and Buckingham] both make high account of you --/ [Aside] For they account his head upon the Bridge.”  Traitors were beheaded and their heads displayed on London Bridge as a warning to others.


Stanley now enters at line 72 and Hastings greets him derisively, “Where is your boarspear, man?” mocking his dream.  Stanley continues to express concern about the meetings scheduled to plan for the coronation, the fact that there is will two different council meetings. (It is just such a concern that led our forefathers to impose what we call the Brown Act which prohibits secret meetings of public agencies.) When Hastings again exults about the executions and his personal triumph, Stanley reminds him at line 82,


            The lords at Pomfret, when they rode from London,

            Were jocund [happy] and supposed their states were sure,

            And they indeed had no cause to mistrust;

            And yet you see how soon the day o’ercast.


As they approach the Tower Hastings greets and jokes with a Pursuivant, a kind of royal processor server.  When last they met Hastings was on his way to be locked in the Tower. Now he gives the man a tip to buy a drink in celebration of Hastings’ triumph.  Then at line 103 Hastings greets a priest he knows and exchanges some pleasantries with him, just as Buckingham arrives for the meeting.  He kids Hastings that he’s talking with a priest like a condemned man, like the prisoners at Pomfret.  As they go in to the meeting Buckingham tells Hastings that the Chamberlain will be staying longer, and Hastings agrees, saying at line 119 that he has been invited to stay for dinner [lunch]. In an aside Buckingham, who knows already that the Lord Chamberlain won’t be leaving the Tower alive, says sardonically in an aside at line 120 that Hastings will be staying for the evening meal as well.  They go into the fateful meeting at the Tower.


Act III, Scene 3


In this short scene we say farewell to the prisoners at Pomfret.  Rivers, Grey and Vaughan protest their innocence and loyalty.  They recall the bloody history of Pomfret Castle which had seen the murder of King Richard II.  Most of all they evoke the memory of Queen Margaret, wife of King Henry VI.  She had been the principal opponent of the York family and had killed Richard’s father, the former Duke of York, on the battlefield.  They York faction had murdered her own son, the Prince of Wales, when he was a captive.  At that time Margaret cursed Richard, Buckingham and Hastings for the killing and then cursed Edward’s family, including Rivers and Grey, for standing by during her son’s death.  The condemned men see their present deaths as the result of her curse, and they hope Queen Elizabeth and the two young princes will be spared.


Act III, Scene 4


Richard is successful because he picks off his victims one at a time and because he is breathtakingly audacious.  No where do we see that more than in this scene where the next victim, Hastings, is dispatched.  He had been given a chance to play ball with Richard and passed on it.  He walks into the council meeting at the Tower with no idea of the danger he is in.  Buckingham and Richard’s deceit is masterful.  They make everything seem calm and non-threatening, but when they make their move it is quickly fatal.  What does Richard accuse Hastings of being guilty of in this scene?  [Act III, scene 4]


Richard is like a consummate actor who is able to control his emotions to create a necessary illusion.  The scene opens with peace and seriousness of purpose: setting the date for the coronation of young Prince Edward.  When Buckingham is asked what Richard’s thoughts are on the matter, he denies that he knows what is in the Lord Protector’s heart at line 10.  Hastings agrees to speak for his good friend Richard on the details, and when Richard enters at line 21, he does not seem upset that Hastings would do so.  The conspirators have invited a ranking churchman, the Bishop of Ely, to attend the council, to give the appearance of civility and decorum.  At line 31 Richard makes a seemingly innocent request of Ely, to send for some strawberries which Richard had seen growing in his garden.  With the bishop out of the way, Richard tells Buckingham the news from Catesby.  They leave the meeting.  While they are gone, Ely returns with the requested strawberries.  Hastings at line 51 makes this observation about Richard: “I think there’s never a man in Christendom/ Can lesser hide his love or hate than he,/ For by his face straight shall you know his heart.”  Boy does he get that wrong!


Richard comes back at line 58 with a startling charge:


            Richard: I pray you all, tell me what they deserve

                           That do conspire my death with devilish plots

                            Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevailed

                            Upon my body with their hellish charms.

            Hastings: The tender love I bear your Grace, my lord,

                            Makes me most forward in this princely presence

                             To doom th’ offenders, whosoe’er they be.

                             I say, my lord, they have deserved death.

            Richard:  Then be your eyes the witness of their evil.

                            Look how I am bewitched.  Behold, mine arm

                             Is like a blasted sapling withered up;

                             And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,

                             Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,

                              That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

            Hastings:  If they have done this deed, my noble lord –

            Richard:   If? Thou protector of this damned strumpet,

                             Talk’st thou to me of if’s? Thou art a traitor.

                              Off with his head! Now by Saint Paul I swear

                              I will not dine until I see the same.  

                              Lovell and Ratcliffe, look that it be done.

                              The rest that love me, rise and follow me.


Like an accomplished actor, Richard returns in apparent anguish, shaken by an assassination attempt upon his life.  He gets his good friend Hastings to say that those responsible should be executed.  And then Richard holds up the evidence – his withered arm.  There’s only one problem – it’s been that way since he was born!


Richard may simply assume everyone is too afraid of him to raise any objections.  It may also be that he is counting on people’s morbid fascination with his deformity.  No one ever speaks to him about it, and this is one of the few times in the play when he mentions it.  Whatever people think of his accusation, it gives him a chance to blame his favorite scapegoats, women, specifically the Queen, whom he had earlier accused of bewitching his brother, and Mistress Shore, with whom Hastings is regularly sleeping.  Richard is the kind of man who often blames women for alleged crimes. 


Hastings’ fatal mistake is simply to use the word “if “ at line 72.  It is enough to condemn him.  Actually he was dead regardless of what he said.  Richard accuses him of protecting that “damned strumpet” his mistress and orders his head chopped off before he will have that dinner Hastings had been expecting to share.  Even as he issues his ultimatum and orders two of his henchmen to carry out the execution, he evokes one of the holiest of the figures of Christianity, Saint Paul.


Hastings, from line 79 to 92, recounts all the missed omens and ironic conversations he had had: Stanley’s dream, the priest he spoke to, the pursuivant to whom he bragged about the death of his enemies.  We even get a new one at line 83 when we learn the horse baring his emblem had stumbled three times as it approached the Tower.  And at the end of the sequence he also evokes the memory of Margaret’s curse.  At line 95 Hastings shares with us the lesson he has learned, alas too late to save his life:


            O momentary grace of mortal men,

            Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!

            Who build his hope in air of your good looks

            Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,

            Ready with every nod to tumble down

            Into the fatal bowels of the deep.


Hastings had foolishly believed that the approval of other men was what was most important in life.  Now he realizes it was hardly a solid foundation upon which to build. The comparison to a drunken sailor falling into the deep also recalls Clarence’s dream just before his death.


Hastings’ final speech is another prediction which the events of the play will bear out:


            O bloody Richard! Miserable England!

            I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee

            That ever wretched age hath looked upon.

            Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head.

            They smile at me that shortly shall be dead.


In the eyes of the Tudor historians whose work I described back in the introduction to this lecture, the period under Richard III was indeed the most wretched in English history, and England suffered mightily until the Tudor kings were able to undo God’s curse upon the nation in the form of the monster Richard.  But we secretly applaud his daring and single-mindedness up to this point.


Act III, Scene 5


Richard and Buckingham have eliminated their greatest obstacle, Hastings.  Now they must justify their action and pave the way for Richard to supersede his nephews as the next monarch.  The key person they must convince is the Lord Mayor of London.  Although not a nobleman, the mayor is the official representative of the ordinary citizens of London.  Richard knows he must win them over or at least neutralize their potential opposition.  How do Richard and Buckingham seek to convince the mayor that Hastings deserved to die?  Then Richard seeks to lay the groundwork for taking the throne from King Edward’s legitimate heirs.  What arguments does he put forth? [Act III, scene 5]


Throughout history leaders have used national security as a cover for their own political ends, and so it is here.  Richard and Buckingham put on a public show on the battlements of the Tower to show the onlookers that the nation is under threat from some unspecified danger. (It’s the sort of thing done these days by color-coded terror alerts.)  They have deliberately put on old rusty, or “rotten,” armor to suggest the threat is so immediate they just grabbed what was at hand.  In the first 12 lines they compare techniques for creating the appropriate emotional response, as if they were professional actors:


            Rich:    Come, cousin, canst thou quake and change thy color,

                        Murder thy breath in middle of a word,

                        And then again begin, and stop again,

                        As if thou wert distraught and mad with terror?

            Buck:   Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian [serious dramatic actor ],

                        Speak, and look back, and pry on every side,              

                        Tremble and start at wagging of a straw [harmless movement],

                        Intending [pretending] deep suspicion.  Ghastly looks

                        Are at my service, like enforced smiles;

                        And both are ready in their offices [functions]

                        At any time to grace my stratagems.


The two cynically describe how they will convince an audience of their terror.  Richard favors catching his breath and interrupting his own words.  Buckingham goes for significant looks and trembling.  They are both very proud of their abilities.


When the Lord Mayor enters they put on a great show.  From line 14 to 21 they act as if they were about to be attacked by enemies, ordering their men around and listening for signs of imminent attack.  When Ratcliffe and Lovell return from their errand, Richard says with a sense of relief at line 21, “Be patient, they are friends,” as if they might have been terrorists. Of course the two arrive with Hastings’ head.  Rather than allowing the horror of that object to dominate, Richard goes into his best phony grief act at line 24:


            So dear I loved the man that I must weep:

            I took him for the plainest harmless creature

            That breathed upon the earth a Christian:

            Made him a book [notebook], wherein my soul recorded

            The history of all her secret thoughts.

            So smooth he daubed [covered up] his vice with show of virtue

            That, his apparent open guilt omitted [if he hadn’t revealed his crime],

            I mean his conversation with Shore’s wife,

            He lived from all attainder of suspects [above suspicion].


Rather than asking, “What did this guy do to get his head chopped off?” the Mayor is probably asking, “How could this villain have betrayed his friend Richard?”   Richard is quick to blame Jane Shore, and the men all nod their heads in agreement about the power of evil represented by a promiscuous woman.


Buckingham takes up the justification for Hastings’ death and at line 38 drops the bombshell that Hastings had sought to murder Richard and Buckingham that very day.  When the mayor, at line 40, speaks in the subjunctive, “If they did this,” Richard explodes.  It’s the same kind of expressing of doubt that got Hastings beheaded, but they can’t kill the mayor; they need his support.  So Richard launches into a marvelous rationale at line 41:


            What! Think you we are Turks or infidels?

            Or that we would, against the form of law,

            Proceed thus rashly in the villain’s death

            But that the extreme peril of the case,

            The peace of England, and our persons’ safety

            Enforced us to this execution?


They are civilized Englishmen and would never have violated the legal traditions of their beloved country if the situation and the security of the realm hadn’t forced them to act thus.  The very act itself becomes further justification for its rightness.  It’s unthinkable that two dukes would have taken the law into their own hands without a good reason.  Buckingham, after one more shot as Mistress Shore, offers an additional reason for Hastings’ execution at line 52: he and Richard had wanted to wait for the Lord Mayor to hear Hastings’ confession with his own ears, so he could have told the citizens what had happened.  Unfortunately their subordinates, out of love and concern, acted hastily in chopping off his head.  The mayor falls for the ploy at line 62: “But, my good lord, your Grace’s words shall serve/ As well as I had seen and heard him speak.”  In other words, I’ll take your word for the confession.  He goes off to break the news to his constituents.


Richard now takes over leadership of the conspiracy.  He orders Buckingham to follow the mayor to the Guildhall, the original city hall for London, and to start a campaign of disinformation aimed at discrediting his late brother King Edward and Edward’s heirs, all in preparation for his seizing the throne, despite the laws of lawful succession.  In modern political parlance it’s called “going negative,” and Richard is a master.  This play is a reminder that political dirty tricks and manipulation of public opinion are nothing new.

Buckingham is to suggest that Edward was not the real father of his two sons.  (In the days before paternity testing, parentage was a matter of opinion.)  At line 76 Richard tells Buckingham to use the story of the unjust execution of a citizen who owned a business at the sign of the Crown and proclaimed that he would make his son the heir to the Crown and was promptly arrest and killed for treason.  (It’s a bit of a stretch, but Shakespeare took the story from an account by Sir Thomas More.) Then Buckingham at line 80 is to play “the Clinton card” and remind everyone how horny Edward had been and how many servants, wives and daughters he had sexually abused in his “luxury,” or lechery.  At line 85 he really gets dirty and tells Buckingham to suggest that Edward wasn’t really the son of the original Duke of York, who had been fighting in France when his eldest son was born and could not have fathered Edward; besides, Edward looked nothing like York.  After authorizing this bombshell, Richard adds a proviso at line 93 – “Imply it but play it down since my mother is still alive and might object.”  What a good son!


Buckingham promises to use all his oratorical skills as if he were arguing for the crown for himself.  Richard says to bring the citizens to Baynard’s Castle, a public building near the Thames, where he will be with a couple of noted churchmen.  Buckingham goes off to do his part.  At line 106 Richard reveals to us that he had his own agenda:


            Now will I go to take some privy order [make private arrangements]

            To draw the brats of Clarence out of sight,

            And to give order that no manner [no sort of] person

            Have any time recourse unto the Princes.


Richard will not stop with the crown.  He intends to eliminate anyone who could conceivably contest his claim.  Under the law of succession to the throne, the royal title would pass to Edward’s older son and then to his brother and then to the children of Edward’s brother Clarence.  Richard is way down the line.  So he begins his process of elimination by denying access to the potential victims.


Act III, Scene 6


In case we needed more evidence of how illegal the execution of Hastings was, Shakespeare throws in this scene, again taken from historical records.  A scrivener or law clerk comes in with the formal charges against Hastings which will be read to the public at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  However, this lowly functionary knows the truth: he was given the charges and rationale for the execution hours before Hastings was apparently guilty of doing anything.  As he points out at line 10, “Here’s a good world the while! Who is so gross [stupid]/ That cannot see this palpable device [trick]?/ Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?”  Everyone knows what’s going on but is too afraid to say anything.


Act III, Scene 7


In order to overcome the final obstacle, possible opposition by the citizens to Richard’s taking the crown, Richard and Buckingham must stage another piece of political theater.  In the first 54 lines of this scene how does Buckingham fail in his efforts to sway the common folks?  [Act III, scene 7, lines 1 – 54]


This scene takes place in Baynard’s Castle, a public hall in London built to resemble an old-fashioned castle near the Thames.  Richard is eager to find out what Buckingham said to the citizens at the Guildhall and how they responded.  Buckingham pulled out all the stops.  He reminded the citizens that Edward had been contracted to two women, including Lady Bona, a princess of France.  Some would argue that such contracts were legally binding, so that his subsequent marriage to the widow Elizabeth was illegal and his children by her illegitimate.  He recalled how Edward enraged the citizenry by his womanizing, how he was tyrannous over trifles, small offenses.  He emphasized the issue of Edward’s parentage, the fact that his father was in France when he was conceived.  He urged that Richard, hunchback and all, looked a lot more like his father York.  Finally he argued that Richard had won great victories, was good-looking and noble in mind and generally had all the virtues people would want in a monarch.  He ended his speech by shouting, “God save Richard, England’s royal king!”  And yet the people said nothing.

At line 25 he describes them standing like “dumb statues.”  It is likely the people of London were reluctant to be stampeded into upsetting the line of succession, and so they fall back on technicalities.  The Lord Mayor tells Buckingham that they are not used to being addressed directly as he had done.  They will only listen to the Recorder, the city’s chief legal official. This functionary has to repeat everything Buckingham had said before, making it clear that these were Buckingham’s opinions.  At the conclusion to the repeated speech, Buckingham has about ten followers at the back of the room who shout “God save King Richard” and throw their hats in the air.  It’s an old political technique to generate the appearance of support in a situation where people are generally neutral.  If you got the band wagon moving, people would jump on board.  (The old-fashioned demonstrations at political conventions were designed to do just this; now it is done electronically, as we saw in the surge of support for Howard Dean on-line.)  Buckingham seized the moment and thanked the crowd for their “strong show of love” for Richard.  It has all the appearance of a failed political rally.


Buckingham has brought the mayor and the citizens to meet with Richard.  He advises Richard at line 45 “Be not you spoke with but by mighty suit;/ And look you get a prayer book in your hand/ And stand between two churchmen, good my lord.”  By playing hard to get, Richard may still gain the throne.  As he says at line 50, “Play the maid’s part; still answer nay, and take it.” The presence of the churchmen reminds us that every politician worth his salt has always wrapped himself in piety; that has been the function of people like Billy Graham and Jesse Jackson in our elections for years.


In the latter part of this scene Buckingham and Richard put on a consummate example of political theater.  The central question facing the citizens of London ought to be “Should Richard be our king?”  Instead Buckingham makes what the central question?  How many times does he say Richard will not accept the crown?  Why is this effective in advancing Richard’s agenda?  Find at least three places where Richard engages in false piety.  [Act III, scene 7, line 55 – 246]


Richard and Buckingham make Richard’s reluctance to serve the central issue, rather than his qualifications as king.  Richard refuses to see Buckingham, the mayor and the citizens, pleading that he is at his devotions.  Buckingham keeps telling everyone that it may be hopeless to try and change his mind about the throne.  At line 70 Buckingham points out how unlike the horny King Edward Richard is: “Ah ha, my lord, this prince is not an Edward!/ He is not lulling on a lewd love-bed,/ But on his knees at meditation.”  Richard’s reluctance to even talk with the delegation continues at line 83 where he won’t come out because he is uncomfortable with the great mob of people seeking to see him.  Buckingham has to cajole him at line 87.  Richard finally appears above the crowd on the battlements of the castle, with a famous churchman on either side of him. As Buckingham says at line 95, “Two props of virtue for a Christian prince,/ To stay [support] him from the fall of vanity [from falling into sin].”


Richard reacts to the intrusion with exaggerated piety and humble language.  We see this in his simple salutations to Buckingham at line 104:


            I do beseech your Grace to pardon me,

            Who, earnest in the service of my God,

            Deferred the visitation of my friends.

            But, leaving this, what is your Grace’s pleasure?


Buckingham is addressed by his formally polite title as “your Grace.”  Even the common citizens who have come are referred to as “my friends.”  And he apologizes for allowing his prayers to keep him from seeing his friends when they first arrived.  At line 110 he apologizes again because he assumes he has committed some offense that has brought all these people to see him.  When, at line 113 Buckingham says he has committed a fault and asks Richard to amend it, he answers at line 115, “Elsewhere breathe I in a Christian land?” In other words, Richard’s only purpose as a Christian is to correct his faults.  Is this getting a little deep?


Buckingham now launches into a lengthy speech at lines 116 – 139.  Richard’s fault is that he is allowing the “lineal glory of your royal house” to be corrupted by “a blemished stock.” At line 129 he makes the pitch explicit:


                                    we heartily solicit

            Your gracious self to take on you the charge

            And kingly government of this your land;

            Not as protector, steward, substitute,

            Or lowly factor [agent] for another’s gain,

            But as successively, from blood to blood,

            Your right of birth, your empery [power], your own.


Is Richard happy with this invitation?  He is not.  He is shocked and appalled.  At lines 140 – 154 he uses flowery language to express his predicament.  He doesn’t want to offend his friends by chastising them or by walking away and saying nothing.  At line 155 he explains why he cannot become king:


            First, if all obstacles were cut away

            And that my path were even to the crown

            As the ripe revenue and due of birth,

            Yet so much is my poverty of spirit [lack of self-confidence],

            So mighty and so many my defects,

            That I would rather hide me from my greatness,

            Being a bark to brook [small boat to challenge] no mighty sea,

            Than in my greatness covet to be hid,

            And in the vapor of my glory smothered.


Behind all the metaphors about gardening, ships and gases, Richard is saying he is just not up to being the king.  Of course there is one little sinister note: “if all obstacles were cut away,” like Edward’s sons or Clarence’s children.  They are just a legal impediment to be “cut away”!   At line 164 he returns to the issue of the rightful heirs, again using the terminology of the garden: “The royal tree hath left us royal fruit,/ Which mellowed by the stealing hours of time,/ Will well become the seat of majesty.”


But Buckingham is having none of it.  He goes through all the arguments we have heard before about Edward being a bastard and his sorry record with marriage betrothals.  At line 182 he describes Edward’s eventual and illegitimate bride:


                                    a poor petitioner,

            A care-crazed mother to many sons,

            A beauty-waning and distressed widow,

            Even in the afternoon of her best days,

            Made prize and purchase [tempted] his wanton eye,

            Seduced the pitch [highpoint] and height of his degree [social station]

            To base declension [social inferiority] and loathed bigamy.

            By her, in his unlawful bed, he got

            This Edward, whom our manners call the Prince.


Poor Queen Elizabeth is reduced to an aging seductress who bewitches the king into an unlawful marriage so that none of their children has a right to the crown.  They only call young Edward a prince because they are polite.  If Richard doesn’t intervene to become king, he will besmirch his family’s name. 


Poor Richard is driven to his final defense at line 203: “Alas, why would you heap this care on me?/ I am unfit for state and majesty.”  Using the reverse psychology Buckingham has set up, Richard should make an excellent king because he strives so mightily to avoid the throne.  Buckingham now makes his final argument to convince Richard at line 207:


            If you refuse it, as in love and zeal

            Loath to depose the child, your brother’s son –

            As well we know your tenderness of heart

            And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse [tender-hearted pity],

            Which we have noted in you to your kindred

            And egally [equally] indeed to all estates [social classes] –

            Yet know whe’r you accept our suit or no,

            Your brother’s son shall never reign our king,

            But we will plant some other in the throne

            To the disgrace and downfall of your house;

            And in this resolution here we leave you.

            Come, citizens. Zounds, I’ll entreat no more!


If Richard refuses to become king, because he is so kind-hearted, not just to his own family but to everybody, then the citizens, supposedly led by Buckingham, will install someone else on the throne, thereby disgracing Richard’s family.  To make his point as emphatic as possible, he uses the taboo word “Zounds” on the final line.  When characters in a Shakespearean play use a word like this it is done to emphasize the importance of the utterance.  Buckingham storms out.  Richard’s first objection at line of 219 is “O, do not swear, my lord of Buckingham.”


At line 232 Richard finally gives in: “Will you enforce me to a world of cares?/ Call them again.  I am not made of stone.”  Was anyone ever so reluctant to accept what he had been working so hard for?  Richard agrees to be king and to crowned the very next day, but he extracts a condition of his own at line 227:


            Since you will buckle fortune on my back,

            To bear her burden, whe’r I will or no,

            I must have patience to endure the load;

            But if black scandal or foul-faced reproach

            Attend the sequel of your imposition,

            Your mere enforcement shall acquittance me

            From all the impure blots and stains thereof;

            For God doth know, and you partly see,

            How far I am from the desire of this.


Richard does want to do it; in fact his language at 227 makes it sound as if being king was like a second hump on his back.  However, if anyone has any complaints about what he does as king, they should always remember that he didn’t want to do it.  The country forced him to do it and that fact alone will acquit him of all blame.  It’s kind of like Richard getting a pardon ahead of time, sort of like Richard Nixon.  Richard and Buckingham have managed to change the terms of the political debate and hide their ambition for power so that the people have apparently forced them to do what they wanted to do the whole time.


Act IV, Scene 1


In this short scene the three principal women in the play gather before the Tower of London, seeking to get in to see the young princes, and lament their losses.  How do you account for Anne’s reaction when she learns she will be crowned queen?  What alternative to Richard’s cruel reign do we learn of in this scene?  What role do these royal women play in the political struggles of this world?  [Act IV, scene 1]


Queen Elizabeth, her mother-in-law of York and Lady Anne, Richard’s wife, meet at the Tower to see the imprisoned princes.  They are accompanied by the daughter of the slain Clarence and Dorset, Elizabeth’s son by her previous marriage.  The Lieutenant of the Tower, Brackenbury, has to tell the distraught mother and the other noble women at line 17 that they may not see the boys: “The King hath strictly charged the contrary.”  Elizabeth erupts in anger and demands to know what King has done so.  When Brackenbury quickly reverses himself and says he meant the Lord Protector gave the order, the Queen at line 19, “The Lord protect him from that kingly title,” a play on words that demonstrates her utter opposition to Richard as king, although it is worded in a way that softens her feelings – for his own safety Richard should avoid the throne.  This also serves to remind us of how quickly the power struggle has moved.  Brackenbury knows Richard is about to be crowned; the women didn’t even realize he was in the running.


Stanley, the Earl of Derby, enters and tells Anne she must report immediately to Westminster Abbey be crowned Queen of England.  The Abbey is the site of all royal coronations.  Elizabeth is devastated and at line 33 says, “Ah, cut my lace asunder,/ That my pent heart may have some scope to beat,/ Or else I swoon with this dead-killing news!”  Elizabethan ladies wore dresses with lace bodies wrapped tight, so that if a noble woman felt as if she were fainting, the prescribed remedy was to cut their lace so they could better breathe.  Her reaction is understandable; Anne’s at line 36 is a surprise: “Despiteful tidings! O unpleasant news!”


Elizabeth’s immediate concern is for her son Dorset.  Now that Richard is on the throne, it will only be a question of time before any surviving male relatives of the former queen will be locked in the Tower.  At line 42 she tells him to flee to France and live with Richmond.  The Earl of Richmond was supporter of King Henry VI who fled into exile when the York family took power.  Now, because of the continuing blood-letting over the throne, he is one of the few alternatives to Richard’s power.  It turns out that Stanley is his step-father and urges Dorset to get out while he can.  He offers him letters to Richmond that will ease his transition in France.  At the end of the play Richmond, with the help of Stanley, will lead an army to overthrow Richard’s tyranny.  The Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, urges Dorset to leave and at line 53 uses a most unusual metaphor to describe her maternal feelings: “O my accursed womb, the bed of death!/ A cockatrice hast thou hatched to the world,/ Whose unavoided eye is murderous.”  The cockatrice was another name for a basilisk, a mythological monster that could kill men just by looking at them.  Ironically back in the second scene of the play, when Richard praised Lady Anne’s eyes, she said she wished they were the eyes of a basilisk to kill him on the spot.  The Duchess’ description of her son is accurate, but it’s pretty cold when you own mother sees you as a monster.


For her part Anne is hardly happy at the prospect of becoming queen.  She uses unusual comparisons at line 58, wishing that the golden crown that will be placed upon her head would be red-hot steel to sear her to the brain and the sacred oil with which she is anointed will be poisonous venom.  She is not a happy person.  The Duchess of York expresses her sympathy for Anne and what she must endure.


Anne tells us in detail from line 65 to 86 what it is like to be married to Richard.  She recalls how when Richard first approached her while she was escorting the corpse of King Henry that she had cursed him by saying that when he married, she hoped his wife would be made as miserable as she had been by the loss of her husband and father-in-law, both of whom Richard murdered.  Alas, her curse has come true.  At line 78 she tells us about wedded bliss with the man who will now be king:


            Within so small a time, my woman’s heart

            Grossly grew captive to his honey words

            And proved the subject of mine own soul’s curse,

            Which hitherto hath held mine eyes from rest;

            For never yet one hour in his bed

            Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep,

            But with his timorous dreams was still awaked.

            Besides, he hates me for my father Warwick,

            And will, no doubt, shortly be rid of me.


Why did Anne succumb to Richard’s seduction?  She tells us it was because of his “honey words,” and we have seen lots of examples of Richard’s skills with language to manipulate people.  But she also blames her own weakness as a woman, her eagerness to believe her feelings.  As a result she has known no rest in his bed; we would say she has gone from one stressful situation as a widow to another as an unhappy wife.  We are forewarned about Richard’s nightmares, which we’ll see first-hand in a few scenes.  Finally Anne predicts her own imminent death, which she says is because of her father Warwick, one of Richard’s staunchest enemies.  Richard will arrange his wife’s death, but not because of the past.


The scene ends with the Duchess of York sending everyone to their destinations and then a final, poignant speech by Elizabeth as she bids farewell to her sons in the Tower


            Pity, you ancient stones, these tender babes

            Whom envy hath immured within your walls.

            Rough cradle for such little pretty ones!

            Rude ragged nurse, old sullen playfellow

            For tender princes, use my babies well!


All she has of her doomed sons is the exterior of the prison in which they are held.


What we see clearly in this scene is that the women of the upper classes are either political prizes, as Lady Anne and Jane Shore were, or victims, as Queen Elizabeth was.  They do not control the events which affect them.  They function to provide heirs or to serve as scapegoats, as Elizabeth and Shore were for Richard’s invented charges of witchcraft.




Act IV, Scene 2


With Richard’s coronation he has what he has been striving for throughout the play.  What is now his political priority and what steps does he take to achieve that end?  Do Richard’s changed circumstances in this scene alter how you feel about him as a character?  Why?  [Act IV, scene 2]


As he ascends his throne Richard and Buckingham perform one last piece of political theater.  Richard takes Buckingham’s hand as he mounts the throne, saying, at line 3,


            Give me thy hand.

                        Trumpet [He ascends the throne.]

                                                Thus high, by thy advice

            And thy assistance, is King Richard seated.

            But shall we wear these glories for a day?

            Or shall they last, and we rejoice in them?


Richard has his dream but he doesn’t waste a moment being contented.  He charges right on to the next thing he wants.  Behind the two questions in the quotation above is a not so subtle request: Richard cannot feel at ease as long as the princes, the legitimate rulers, are alive.  He wants Buckingham to arrange for their murders, and the longer Buckingham pretends not to understand this request, the more direct Richard becomes, as at line 18: “I wish the bastards dead.”  Buckingham, who helped get rid of Hastings and fool the citizens of London, suddenly develops scruples and five times fails to answer the king’s request.  Richard observes at line 17, “Cousin, thou wast not wont to be so dull,” as if to say “You didn’t have to have it explain to you.”  Buckingham asks for time to consider his answer, and Richard realizes he can no longer count one his number one ally.  At line 42 he comments, “The deep-revolving witty Buckingham/ No more shall be the neighbor to my counsels”; that is, he won’t trust him any more.  Richard wastes no time in recrimination and simply sends for someone else to use to do his dirty business, asking a discontented, impoverished nobleman named James Tyrrel to kill two enemies for him.


Richard also learns from Stanley that Dorset has fled to Richmond.  He immediately adopts a plan to head off any possible challenge by the exiled champion of the Lancastrian cause.  At line 49 he tells Catesby to spread the rumor that his wife Anne is terribly ill and not likely to live.  He has instantly realized that to strengthen his claim on the throne he needs to marry Edward’s daughter, his own niece.  She will be the next heir to the crown with the death of her brothers.  Richard neutralizes the daughter of Clarence by arranging for her to marry some “mean poor gentleman,” that is someone who will not be in a position to advance any claim the girl could make for the crown, being the legal heir of a man whose descendents should have ruled before Richard.  He realizes that pulling off the marriage to Queen Elizabeth’s daughter will be tough at line 59:


            I must be married to my brother’s daughter,

            Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.

            Murder her brothers and then marry her!

            Uncertain way of gain! But I am in

            So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.

            Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.


For the first time in the play Richard seems to recognize that he is committing sin after sin in his rise to the top, but he is doing it consciously.


At line 82 Buckingham returns, ready to give his answer to Richard’s question about killing the princes.  But now that Richard no longer needs his assistance, he is not in any hurry to acknowledge his former ally.  Just as Buckingham had put Richard off at the beginning of this scene by pretending not to understand the implications of Richard’s request, so Richard will put off Buckingham by pretending to be preoccupied.  Notice how many times he manages to ignore Buckingham’s request for the reward that Richard had promised him.  At line 84 he wants to talk about Dorset’s flight to Richmond.  At line 86 he warns Stanley that he knows Richmond is her son.  Buckingham makes his request for the earldom of Hereford and all the movables or possessions at line 87, but Richard is still fixated on Stanley’s wife and he threatens Stanley at line 91 that if she writes to her son, he will pay for it. Buckingham asks for an answer, but Richard now shifts to a prophecy which Henry VI had made when Richmond was a child that he would become

a king.  At line 99 Richard makes a sardonic joke that he wished the prophecy had contained a postscript – that he would kill Richmond!  Continuing to ignore Buckingham Richard now recalls at line 102 another prophecy and a premonition involving a castle in Exeter whose name was pronounced almost like “Richmond.” When an angry, impatient at line 107 demands an answer, Richard demands twice to be told the time.  When an exasperated Buckingham asks why he wants to know about the time, Richard says at line 113 “Because that like a Jack thou keep’st the stroke/ Betwixt thy begging and my meditation./ I am not in the giving vein today.”


Buckingham knows Richard well enough to realize the implications of this deliberate snub.  At line 118 he has a short soliloquy:


            And is it thus? Repays he my deep service

            With such contempt? Made I him king for this?

            O, let me think on Hastings, and be gone

            To Brecknock while my fearful head is on!


It’s a little late in the game for Buckingham to realize that what happened to Hastings could just as easily happen to him.  “Brecknock” was Buckingham’s ancestral home in Wales, in the western part of the island, where he can gather people to support him.


A significant shift has occurred in this scene.  Up to this point Richard has been striving to overcome obstacles.  Once he has achieved his goal, he is not nearly as interesting.  He is simply another cold-blooded killer.  His determination to kill the innocent princes, even though he has hinted at it throughout the play, strikes us as evil.  His off-hand decision to eliminate his wife is chilling, and his plan to marry his own niece is sick.  From this point on Shakespeare begins to shift the audience’s sympathies to Richard’s enemies.  One of the first examples of this shift is Buckingham’s final soliloquy.  This is the first time in the play someone other than Richard gets this kind of prominent location to make a comment on the action.


Act IV, Scene 3


This scene provides a moral context for the revelation of the murder of the princes in the Tower.  Continuing the emergence of characters who oppose Richard we saw with Buckingham in the previous scene, the first 22 lines in this scene are given to James Tyrrel, the man who arranged the boys’ death.  How do those directly involved in the murderers feel about them?  How do their reactions differ from Richard’s reaction?  What additional justification does Richard offer for wishing to marry his niece?  What two developments reveal the growing opposition to his reign?  What is Richard’s philosophy about dealing with challenges?  [Act IV, scene 3]


Tyrrel’s soliloquy opens the scene, still one more example of Shakespeare shifting the focus to others’ perceptions from Richard.  Tyrrel is appalled by what he was responsible for.  At line 1 he tells us, “The tyrannous and bloody act is done./ The most arch [extreme[ deed of piteous massacre/ That ever yet this land was guilty of.”  When the man who carries out the act is morally repulsed by it, you know it is evil.  The actual killing was carried out by two professional killers, Dighton and Forrest. (These names appear in Sir Thomas More’s account of the crime.)  Even they “Wept like to children in their death’s sad story” [line 8].  The two murderers reconstruct the actual killing by recreating it in pantomime at line 9—10.  The physical description of the victims emphasizes their innocent beauty: their “alabaster innocent arms”; their lips like “red roses on a stalk”; the prayer book on their pillow.  Just as the Second Murderer changed his mind before killing Clarence, so Forrest tells Tyrrel that he almost refused to go through with the smothering of “The most replenished [complete] sweet work of Nature” [line 18].  The killers have left, overcome with remorse at their crime.  Tyrrel is left to bear the news to the “bloody King,” as he calls Richard at line21.  There is no doubt that everyone, except Richard, condemns this foul, unnatural murder.  When Richard asks at line 24, “am I happy in thy news,”  Tyrrel answers very pointedly, “If to have done the thing you gave in charge/ Beget your happiness, be happy then,/ For it is done.”  We can hear Tyrrel’s hidden but clear condemnation in his carefully chosen words.  Richard, on the other hand, tells Tyrrel at line32 that he wants to hear all the details of their death.  He is not morally repulsed at all.


Tyrrel tells Richard that he saw the bodies himself, but he does not know where the chaplain of the Tower buried them.  Here’s a piece of historical trivia:  about 300 years after the event, about 150 years after this play, the skeletons of two boys were found on the grounds of the Tower.  People knew the princes had been murdered, but until that time they did not know where the bodies had been hidden.  Richard’s crime finally came to light.


Richard, at line 36, runs through his list of “things to do”: he has imprisoned Clarence’s son; he has arranged the marriage of Clarence’s daughter to some powerless groom, we are told again; he has had the princes murdered; and his wife Anne “hath bid this world good night,” which is a nice way of saying he’s had her killed.  Now at line 40, he turns again the question of marrying his niece, young Elizabeth:


            Now, for that I know the Britain [Breton, from Brittany in France] Richmond                             aims

            At young Elizabeth, my brother’s daughter,

            And by that knot [marriage] looks proudly on the crown,

            To her go I, a jolly thriving wooer.


This young girl, about the same age as the princes, is a political prize for both Richard and Richmond in attempting to bolster their claims of legitimacy as ruler.  Richard wants to bolster his reign, but he also sees his new marriage as a pre-emptive strike to keep Richmond from getting the girl.


As the scene ends Richard receives news of two more defections: Morton, the Bishop of Ely, whom we met earlier in the play at Hastings’ murder, has fled to Richmond; Buckingham has returned to Wales and raised an army to oppose Richard.  The king immediately assesses Morton’s having gone over to his enemies as the more dire threat; he doubts that Buckingham’s rag-tag army will be much of a danger to him.  He concludes by giving us his philosophy of how to deal with such crises at line 51:


            Come, I have learned that fearful commenting

            Is leaden servitor to dull delay;

            Delay leads impotent and snail-paced beggary.

            Then fiery expedition [speed] be my wing,

            Jove’s Mercury [fleet-footed messenger of the gods], and herald for a king!

            Go muster men. My counsel [those he looks to for advice] is my shield;

            We must be brief when traitors brave the field.


Richard’s philosophy is to act and ask questions afterwards.  He will raise an army and take on his enemies before they have a chance to act against him.  We certainly have seen him act expeditiously earlier in the play, as in seducing Lady Anne or arranging Clarence’s and Hastings’ deaths or deciding to marry young Elizabeth.  In point of historical fact, it was just this tendency to act without thinking that ultimately led to Richard’s death on the battlefield when he led an ill-advised charge against a numerically superior force.


Act IV, Scene 4


This very long scene begins with an emotional examination of the crimes of the past, shows us Richard’s second courtship of a reluctant spouse and concludes with the growing political and military crisis that confronts the king.  The first section of the scene shows us the three women who have suffered most during the protracted wars over who should rule, Queen Elizabeth, Duchess of York and, in a special guest appearance, Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow and curse-maker against the York family.  In the first section what is the competition these three women engage in?  Who wins, in you estimation?  The characters are doing a series of lamentations, formal verbal expressions of grief.  Given the emotional traumas they have undergone, how realistic are their expressions of loss?  On what points are they united?  [Act IV, scene 4, lines 1 – 135]


In the first sequence we see the long-vanquished Queen Margaret who has snuck back into the palace to watch the effects of her curse on her enemies.  They had apparently not thought to change the locks on the palace doors since she was living there.  Margaret will remind the audience of the body count of slaughtered children and husbands who have died in this play and the previous play in the tetralogy, King Henry VI, Part 3.  You probably can guess that Margaret’s appearance is a piece of historical fantasy invented by Shakespeare; in reality Margaret was long gone from the scene by this time.  She watches why first Queen Elizabeth and then the Duchess of York mourn for the murdered prince Edward.  Margaret reminds us that she too lost a son named Edward, Henry VI’s heir and the Prince of Wales.  In their grief and lamentation first the duchess and then Queen Elizabeth sit on the stage to bewail their loss.  Then Margaret at line 39 joins them in sitting on the stage and begins the process of comparing losses:


            If sorrow can admit society, [Sits sown with them.]

            Tell o’er [count] your woes again by viewing mine.

            I had an Edward [her son], till a Richard killed him;

            I had a husband [Henry VI], till a Richard killed him;

            Thou hadst an Edward [murdered prince], till a Richard killed him;

            Thou hadst a Richard [the younger murdered prince], till a Richard killed him.


Shakespeare wants to establish for the audience the common theme of Richard’s blood-thirsty treatment of friends and enemies who stand in his way to the throne.  However, what he has done in this prolonged scene of lamentation is to turn human grief into a kind of mechanical bookkeeping of loss.  “I’ll match your murdered sons with my murdered husband and son.”  The Duchess now adds her claims at line 44: “I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;/ I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st [helped] to kill him.”  The duchess is reminding the audience that in the previous play her husband, named Richard, had been tortured and murdered on the battlefield by Margaret herself.  She also had a very young son, Rutland, whom Margaret ordered killed and then used his body to torment his father before killing him.


The scene now descends into the rough-handed comparison of loss.  If we count the winner in the grief derby by sheer number, Margaret would have two slain loved ones, the duchess would score a total of five dead male relatives, and Queen Elizabeth would win with a total of seven slain relatives or close friends.  However measuring the loss by the length and power of the lamentation, Margaret wins hands down with her protracted lamentations for her loss.  Plus Margaret gives the duchess a real zinger at line 47:


            From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept

            A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death.

            That dog that had his teeth before his eyes

            To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood.


You gave life to the “hellhound” who has caused all of them so much grief.  Notice that she evokes the story again about Richard being born unnaturally with teeth.  The duchess at line 60 tries to end this morbid game and assures Margaret that she has wept in the past for her losses.  But Margaret is on a roll, saying she is “hungry for revenge, and from line 61 to 78 she runs through one more time how the people who had killed her husband and son, or who had simply stood by, are all being killed because of her curse.  At line 71 she calls Richard “hell’s black intelligencer” and says his sole function is to send the other guilty people to hell.  Now only Richard remains and at line 75 she prays, “Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray,/ To have him suddenly conveyed from hence” [to hell].  Queen Elizabeth joins her and asks for help in cursing “That bottled spider, that foul hunch-backed toad” [line 81].  But Margaret is not ready to make peace.  From lines 82 –115 she revels in Elizabeth’s fall from power and her losses, detailing just how far she has fallen.  As she says at line 105, “Thus hath the course of justice whirled about/

And left thee but a very prey of time.”  At the end of her long speech she declares, “Farewell, York’s wife and queen of sad mischance!/ These English woes shall make me smile in France,” as she gets ready to leave the country.  Rather than saying good riddance to a very negative person, Queen Elizabeth asks her for help in learning how to curse.  The champion curser in all of Shakespeare’s plays offers her advice at line 118:


            Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;

            Compare dead happiness with living woe;

            Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were

            And he that slew them fouler than he is.

            Bett’ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse;

            Revolving [thinking about] this will teach thee how to curse.


 In other words, accentuate the negative!


Margaret leaves and a few lines later, at line 136, King Richard enters. We now get 160 lines of the bitterest curses ever laid by a mother on her son!  What are the two principal ways that Richard responds to the verbal attacks by his mother?  In the eyes of the Elizabethan audience, what important political purpose is served by this scene?  [Act IV, scene 4, lines 136 – 198]


When the duchess stops Richard’s royal process, he demands to know who is interrupting him.  His mother answers bitterly at line 137: “O, she that might have intercepted thee,/ By strangling thee in her accursed womb,/ From all the slaughters, wretch, that thou has done!”  This sets off a non-stop attack by the duchess and Queen Elizabeth reminding Richard of all his sins and the people he has murdered.  One of the most powerful is found at line 166 where the duchess responds to Richard’s assertion that he was born to bring comfort to his mother:


            Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell!

            A grievous burden was thy birth to me;

            Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;

            Thy schooldays frightful, desp’rate, wild, and furious;

            Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous;

            Thy age confirmed [maturity], proud, subtle, sly, and bloody,

            More mild, but yet more harmful, kind in hatred.

            What comfortable hour canst thou name

            That ever graced me with thy company?


Leave it to Richard’s mother to gives us a complete catalog of what a rotten human being he has been since his birth!  After giving us his history, the duchess in a second long speech, lines 184 – 196, provides us with a kind of prophecy of Richard’s future as he marches off to war:


            Either thou wilt die by God’s just ordinance

            Ere from this war thou turn [return] a conqueror,

            Or I with grief and extreme age shall perish

            And never more behold thy face again.

            Therefore take with thee my most grievous curse,

            Which in the day of battle tire thee more

            Than all the complete armor that thou wear’st!

            My prayers on the adverse party fight!

            And there the little souls of Edward’s children

            Whisper the spirits of thine enemies

            And promise them success and victory!

            Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end;

            Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend.


She realizes this moment is a turning point in her relationship with her son, probably her last words to him.  Those words are a curse to make him more tired on the day of battle that the heavy suit of armor he will wear.  She prays his enemies will win and the souls of the murdered princes will bring support and hope to his enemies.  The last two lines above are especially powerful.


How does Richard respond to his mother and Elizabeth’s recriminations?  At lines 149, 160, 178 and 181 he in effect refuses to listen to these “telltale women,” ordering the drums played to drown out their words at one point.  His second kind of response is sardonic humor at lines 158 and 176.  When his mother ask him what comfortable hour he ever provided her in his life, he answers at 176 with a really stupid joke: “Faith, none but Humphrey Hour [or “Hower”] that called your Grace/ To breakfast once forth my company.” Richard alludes here to a servant who apparently was in his employ named appropriately to serve as an example of a “comfortable hour.”  Besides getting less interesting, Richard’s wicked sense of humor is failing.


What is the purpose of this sequence?  At one level we see more people turning implacably against Richard.  At a larger political level material like this was one of the key elements in the “Tudor Myth,” that elaborate justification created by historians like Sir Thomas More to help explain away the fundamental contradiction of the Tudor claim of legitimacy.  Remember, the official line was always, “You must never overthrow an anointed king,” with Richard being the only exception.  The apologists argued that Richard’s overthrow and death were acceptable because he was God’s punishment of England, he was so evil, so unnatural, even his own mother condemned and cursed him and wanted the Henry Tudor to win the pending battle.


At the conclusion of the sequence of cursing, Queen Elizabeth adds her two cents’ worth of agreement and turns to leave at line 197.  But Richard keeps her behind to launch into one of the strangest courtship in all of literature.  What are the principal points Richard makes to convince Queen Elizabeth to support his efforts to win her daughter?  How does she counter his arguments?  What finally seems to win the argument?  What previous scene in the play does this one remind you of?  How is the process in this scene different?  [Act IV, scene 4, lines 199 – 431]


This sequence as Richard seeks to woo Queen Elizabeth to help in his plan to marry her young daughter is remarkably like the scene back in Act I, scene 2 where he woos Lady Anne to be his wife.  In both cases Richard hides his political agenda behind a mask of love and selfless concern.  In both Richard must overcome an initial revulsion because he has slaughtered this beloved’s male relatives.  And in both the object of his efforts does not at first recognize what he is aiming at.  When Richard first tells the grieving queen that she has a daughter he is interested in, she assumes he means to murder her as well.  At line 206 she pleads,


                                    O, let her live,

            And I’ll corrupt her manners, stain her beauty,

            Slander myself as false to Edward’s bed,

            Throw over her the veil of infamy;

            So she may live unscarred of bleeding slaughter,

            I will confess she was not Edward’s daughter.


To protect her daughter from the butcher of her sons and brothers, Elizabeth is prepared to go to an extreme by publicly proclaiming that her daughter (whose name is also Elizabeth, just to make things confusing) had a father other than King Edward.  When Richard protests that her safety lines in being a royal princess, the queen points out that royalty did not save her two sons.  Richard, at line 216 and 219, tries to suggest that the boys were just fated to die; it was no one’s fault.  But the queen won’t let him wiggle away from his responsibility, and when he denies that he murdered them, she declares at line 227, “No doubt the murd’rous knife was dull and blunt/ Till it was whetted on thy stone-hard heart/ To revel in the entrails of my lambs.”  You made it happen. (Notice that she has no idea how her sons actually died  -- remember, they were smothered.)  Richard is brazen and declares at line 238 that when he returns from the wars, “I intend more good to you and yours,/ Than ever you and yours by me were harmed!”  Richard, remember, has killed two of the queen’s brothers, her brother-in-law Clarence and her two sons, but he’ll make it all up to her!  When he says he will advance her children, she says sardonically at line 243 he will advance them “Up to some scaffold, there to lose their heads!”  When he insists that he will give all he has, even himself, to one of her children, she still doesn’t understand it.  When at line 256 he insists that he loves her daughter “from his soul,” she turns this declaration into a wordplay that says in effect, “You love my daughter in the same way you loved my sons.”  It isn’t until line 267, over 50 lines after he started his declaration of love, that Elizabeth finally understands what he is talking about.  Now this initial confusion about Richard’s message is just like his seduction of Anne, with one important difference. This time the woman makes all the smart remarks; he’s just the straight man.  Shakespeare has subtly shifted the focus of the persuasion effort, and we see Richard at a psychological disadvantage for the first time.


In the next short sequence the queen wonders how Richard plans to woo her daughter, and he explains he is asking her first so she can advise him how to approach this delicate subject. (Besides the fact he has killed her family members, there’s the problem that she is just a child and his own niece!)  So Elizabeth does advise Richard how to win the girl’s heart at 271 – 283.  Send the man that killed her brothers to present her with a pair of bleeding hearts engraved with their names.  If she cries at this, give her a handkerchief stained in their blood, much as Queen Margaret had done with a rag soaked in the blood of young Rutland to torment Richard’s father.  If that doesn’t work, send her a letter detailing Richard’s achievements in murdering her uncle Rivers or her aunt Anne, Richard’s wife.  What the queen does by this sarcastic answer is to force Richard to confront his past crimes, not to allow him to pretend that he can just start all over whenever he chooses.  When Richard tries the old line that he used with Anne, that he had killed her husband and father-in-law out of love for her, the queen tells him at line 289, “Nay, then indeed she cannot choose but hate thee,/ Having bought her love with such a bloody spoil.”  This is the answer Anne should have given Richard back in Act I, scene 2.


So now at line 291 Richard tries to convince the queen that such a marriage makes sense for her as well:


            Look, what is done cannot be amended.

            Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes,

            Which afterhours gives leisure to repent.

            If I did take the kingdom from your sons,

            To make amends I’ll give it to your daughter.

            If I have killed the issue of your womb,

            To quicken your increase [give life to your children] I will beget

            Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter.


In the first three lines here Richard comes as close as he ever will to repenting the death of the princes, making it sound now as if it were an accident.  However, he is such a sociopath that he treats the carnage he has caused as some kind of bloody bookkeeping, trading the lives of the children lost for the lives of future children.  He goes on to argue that being the grandmother of royal children will be even better for her since she won’t be bothered by the messy details of child-rearing! (Only Richard could use such a callous argument with a grieving mother!)  Finally at line 311 he sweetens the deal by promising to welcome her son Dorset home from exile and treating him as a brother.  Then from line 317 all the way to 336 he summarizes his arguments again, emphasizing how much happier both Elizabeth and her daughter will be and urging the queen to prepare her child for the joys of the marriage bed.  You can sense Richard’s smug assurance: that should do it!


But it doesn’t do it.  At line 337 Queen Elizabeth raises another sticky obstacle:


            What were I best to say?  Her father’s brother

            Would be her lord? Or shall I say her uncle?

            Or he that slew her brothers and her uncles?

            Under what title shall I woo for thee

            That God, the law, my honor, and her love

            Can make seem pleasing to her tender years?


And here the queen plays the incest card, coupled again with those pesky murder charges.  Elizabeth is no Lady Anne, and Richard isn’t the same audacious outsider we admired at the beginning of the play.


From line 343 to 367 Richard trades wits with the queen and comes out second best in 12 different exchanges, most of them bitterly amusing one-liners.  Every argument he tries, she counters.  At line 343 he offers peace with this alliance; a peace, she counters, her daughter can only “purchase with lasting war.  At line 345 he points out that as king he could command, but instead he’s asking nicely; she reminds him that the King’s King, that is God, prohibits the marriage, alluding to the incest issue again.  At line 349 when he swears he will love her everlastingly, Elizabeth wonders how long the “ever” will last.  After a few more insults and reminders of those dead boys, Richard finally grows exasperated at line 366 and swears, “Now, by my George, my garter, and my crown--”

Richard, as a powerful noble, was a member of the world’s most exclusive fraternity, the Order of the Garter, two of whose symbols were the garter the members wore and a figure of St. George, patron saint of England.  It is revealing that when he swears by what is most important to him he would include his membership along with his crown.  Elizabeth repudiates even his oath, pointing out at line 369, “Thy George, profaned, hath lost his lordly honor;/ Thy garter, blemished, pawned his knightly virtue;/ The crown, usurped, disgraced his kingly glory.”  Having lost all basis for personal honor, what, she demands to know, can Richard swear by that he has not already wronged?


The answer to that question proves very difficult for the man she had called a “foul hunch-backed toad” at line 81.  From line 374 to 387 he offers to swear by himself, the world, his father’s death and God, and each effort Elizabeth quickly shoots down, showing how he has wronged each one.  At line 388 he offers to swear by the time to come, the future, and she catalogues how he has wronged his future by his sins in the past.  Finally at line 407 he is reduced to playing his trump card, his power as king to make people do what he wants:


            Without her [young Elizabeth] follows to myself and thee,

            Herself, the land, and many a Christian soul,

            Death, desolation, ruin, and decay.

            It cannot be avoided but by this;

            It will not be avoided but by this.


So ultimately Richard gets his way by threat.  Marry me or the whole country will suffer.  Back at the conclusion of his bold winning of Lady Anne he had bragged, “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?/ Was ever woman in this humor won?”  Now he has a similar repetitive refrain in the last two lines above, but how different the spirit is behind the statement.  With Lady Anne, Richard used the threat of killing himself to catch her off-guard.  Now Richard’s become just another bully.  Elizabeth tries to wiggle out of this horrible dilemma, but she has no choice.  When she reminds him for the umpteenth time of the murdered princes, Richard answers her at line 423 in what I consider to be the sickest passage of this whole sick sequence: “But in your daughter’s womb I’ll bury them [the dead boys],/ Where in that nest of spicery they will breed/ Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.”  As your notes explain, the “nest of spicery” refers to the nest of the mythical phoenix bird, but it also calls forth the image of Richard impregnating his innocent little niece to resurrect her dead brothers.  It’s not a pleasant picture in so many ways.  Elizabeth at last promises to sound her daughter out about this match made in heaven and tells Richard to write soon and find out how it goes.  Trying to be suave and romantic, Richard gives Elizabeth a “truelove’s kiss,” for her daughter, a singularly inappropriate thing to do, especially to the woman who would be his mother-in-law.  This is an especially compelling moment in the Ian McKellen film of this play.  As she leaves Richard shares with us his contempt for her at line 431: “Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!”  We’ll see in a few scenes how foolish and shallow Queen Elizabeth really was.


The last sequence of this long scene provides details about the growing crises which Richard faces and how he proposes to meet the multiple challenges.  What change do you notice in Richard’s ability to meet these external threats?  How does he ensure the loyalty of people like Stanley?  [Act IV, scene 4, lines 432 – 538]


Once people start defecting from Richard’s tyranny, things fall apart very quickly in about 100 lines.  At line 437 Richard learns that Richmond is approaching the English coast with a powerful navy, seeking to link up with Buckingham’s army. Whereas Richard was very sure of himself and acted decisively earlier in the play, now he seems undone by the threat of his enemies.  At line 442 he orders his minion Catesby to speed to the Duke of Norfolk but gives him no message.  When he angrily asks Catesby why he has left yet at line 445, the messenger has to tell him he has not been given directions.  He makes a similar mistake with Ratcliffe at line 455 and has to cover his lapse of focus.  Shakespeare shows us with these two minor episodes a leader spinning out of control.


Stanley enters at line 457 and we see the antagonism between the king and the cautious stepfather of Richmond.  When Richard forces Stanley at line 469 to state the obvious, that Richmond is coming to seize the English throne, the king has a powerful rejoinder:


            Is the chair empty?  Is the sword [symbol of power] unswayed?

            Is the King dead, the empire unpossessed?

            What heir of York is there alive but we [the royal we]?

            And who is England’s King but great York’s heir?

            Then tell me, what makes he upon the seas?


Richard articulates his fear of betrayal by Stanley, but the earl defends his allegiance and offers to return to his home in the north and raise an army to fight on Richard’s behalf.  The king allows him to leave, but only after he has left his son George as a hostage to ensure that his father will be true to Richard’s cause.  Once again we see how Richard has become simply another thug using force or the threat of force to get his way.


From line 498 to the end of the scene Richard will receive six different critical reports about the situation in the kingdom, some of the reports contradictory.  He is under tremendous pressure as various messengers run in with mostly bad news: Sir Edward Courtney and the Bishop of Exeter have risen against him and a powerful family called Guilfords has rebelled.  So when a third messenger starts to tell him about Buckingham’s army, he assumes the worst and strikes the bearer of bad news, only to discover at line 510 that the news is good:  Buckingham’s troops have been dispersed by floods and Buckingham is wandering the countryside alone; Richard has to ask pardon from the abused servant.  Then he receives more bad news of uprisings in the north of the country.  A messenger brings a detailed story of Richmond having lost his nerve and sailed back to France, which brightens Richard’s spirits.  But a subsequent messenger tells him that while Buckingham has been captured, Richmond and his army have landed in the western part of the island.  The overarching theme in this final section is that Richard is beset by enemies and he must operate on incomplete and incorrect information as he seeks to defend his throne.  He marches off for Salisbury, west of London.


Act IV, Scene 5


In this short scene we learn that Stanley does support Richmond’s cause but must put up a show of fighting for Richard, least his son George is killed.  Queen Elizabeth, rather than giving into Richard’s plans to marry her daughter, has made an agreement to marry her to Richmond instead, thereby helping to strengthen the claim to the throne of what will be the first Tudor king.  [Act IV, scene 5]


Act V, Scene 1


In this short scene we witness the last words of Buckingham who was such an eager accomplice of Richard’s until after the coronation.  How many different omens, prophecies or predictions does Buckingham allude to in this scene? [Act V, scene 1]


The scene opens with the captured Buckingham in Salisbury pleading to be allowed to speak with Richard one last time before his execution.  The king is not sentimental, and although this man has been closer to him than any other we know of, Richard leaves him to his doom.  Buckingham is repentant for his crimes.  In fact at lines 3 – 5 he lists eight people who have been victims, directly or indirectly, of his evil.  At line 7 he addresses their spirits: “If that your moody discontented souls/ Do through the clouds behold this present hour,/ Even for revenge mock my destruction!”


Like almost all the other victims of Richard, Buckingham finds ironic significance in the circumstances of his death.  At line 10 he connects the fact that he is dying on All Soul’s Day, which will be his “body’s doomsday.”  Secondly he recalls that he had pledged an oath before King Edward (Act II, scene 1, lines 32 – 40) in which he wished for just what has happened to him if he ever betrayed his loyalty to Edward’s wife and children.  Thirdly, at line 25 Buckingham recalls Queen Margaret’s curse upon him back when her son was killed and he just stood by.  So Shakespeare’s audience, much like the folks who read the tabloids today, got the signs and portents they so dearly loved that promised divine justice even for the rich and powerful.


Act V, Scene 2


At last we meet the guy is causing all the trouble, the Earl of Richmond.  He will be the hero of this play, at least in political terms, since he will overthrow the tyrant that Richard has become.  There is no better example that this character to illustrate an important truth about Shakespeare’s plays: the villain is always more interesting than the hero on stage.  Richmond in the text is just a super-nice guy who saves England.  In historical reality Richmond, who became King Henry VII, was a fascinating character, at least as ruthless as Richard, but politically much more effective.  Shakespeare, however, couldn’t give us the real King Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings.  He was, after all, the grandfather of the powerful woman who ruled Shakespeare’s age, and the playwright had learned that you had to be careful not to offend the powerful.  In this scene what unusual comparison does Richmond use to describe Richard?  [Act V, scene 2]


Richmond is marching from the western part of the island where he landed to meet Richard in battle near the center of the country.  This scene gives us a quick overview of the geography of the coming conflict.  Richmond uses the figure of the wild boar, which we already know is the emblem on Richard’s coat-of-arms, to describe the bloody king at line 7:


            The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,

            That spoiled your summer fields and fruitful vines,

            Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough

            In your emboweled [ripped open] bosoms, this foul swine,

            Is now even in the center of the isle.


Richmond picks up here on the destructive habits of wild boars, such as tearing up crops and swilling down hogwash, to characterize the human counterpart.  Richmond and his men based their hopes for victory on their moral superiority and their fervent hope that those fighting for Richmond will come over to their side in the battle, as indeed they do.  At line 33 young Richmond articulates this hope: “True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings;/ Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings,” like himself.


Act V, Scene 3


This long scene set the night before the battle at Bosworth Field is the climax of the play. In the first sequence we see the armies of Richard and Richmond on the stage, side-by-side, as they prepare to spend the night.  What difference do you notice between Richard and Richmond as they prepare for battle?  What differences do you see in the way each man lies down to sleep?  Does Richard have any premonition about the outcome of the battle?  [Act V, scene 3, lines 1 – 108]


Richard and his army enter first and set up a tent in which the king will rest.  It’s telling that Richard ask some of his men about their dark looks, as if they, at least, have some doubts about the outcome.  Even Richard, at line 7, betrays a doubt with a quetion: “Up with my tent! Here will I lie tonight;/ But where tomorrow?”  Now throughout the preparations for battle we see that Richard has been doing this most of his life and knows the business of warfare.  At line 10 he wants to know the size of the enemy forces.  At line 15 he goes to survey the lay of the land and orders his best leaders to provide discipline in the battle.  At line 50 he asks about a repair of his beaver, the face-guard of his battle helmet.  At line 54 he checks on camp security and urges trusty sentinels be set out.  At line 64 he orders a horse for the battle, named White Surrey, to be saddled and even checks on the condition of the staves or lances to be used.  He leaves instruction that Ratcliffe will awaken him early and help him with his armor, which could be a daunting challenge to put on.  In other words, we see a professional soldier who has fought in many battles for the York cause.  Nevertheless, he is concerned about the loyalty of his army and sends, at line 60, a reminder to Stanley that if he doesn’t bring his men to fight, his young son George will “fall into the blind cave of eternal night,” a nice way of saying Richard will have him killed.  At line 73 he has a premonition just before he lies down to rest: “I have not that alacrity of spirit/ Nor cheer of mind that I was wont to have.”


By contrast Richmond is young and inexperienced, but he seems supremely confident.  Most of his concerns before the battle are on an interpersonal level.  He knows, at line 26, that his army is small as he prepares plans for the battle.  He comments on the sunset that suggests the next day will be nice and greets all his captains by name.  He even sends a messenger to bid his wishes for a good night to the Earl of Pembroke who cannot attend the final meeting.  Most importantly Richmond sends a secret message to his step-father

Stanley who will be the key to his victory.  The earl enters at line 80 and they have an emotional meeting.  Stanley does not go into details about what he will do the next day.  Instead he reassures Richmond about the love of his mother and advises him to risk everything on the outcome of the battle.  He will help his step-son in whatever way he can, without arousing the suspicion of Richard.  Richmond lies down at line 105 to “strive with troubled thoughts” so that he can be fresh and alert the next day when he will “mount with wings of victory.”



In the next sequence we see Richmond and Richard lying on either side of the stage, as if  on opposite sides of the battlefield.  In their sleep the ghosts of many of Richard’s victims will appear first to Richard and then to Richmond.  How many ghosts appear and what is their message?  What does this sequence tell us about the size of Shakespeare’s acting company?  What does Richmond do before he sleeps that Richard does not do?  What is the difference in the reaction of the two men to their dream?  [Act V, scene 3, line 108 – 237]


Before he sleeps Richmond prays to God at lines 108 – 118:


            O thou whose captain I account myself,

            Look on my forces with a gracious eye!

            Put in their hands thy bruising irons of wrath,

            That they may crush down with a heavy fall

            The usurping helmets of our adversaries!

            Make us thy ministers of chastisement,

            That we may praise thee in the victory!

            To thee I do commend my watchful soul

            Ere I let fall the windows of mine eyes,

            Sleeping and waking, O defend me still!


Richmond’s prayer suggests that the victory against a superior, more experienced force will be a win for God.  The most important thing here is that there is no comparable prayer from Richard.  Given what we know of him, we understand why he cannot and would not pray.  The contrast between Richmond’s genuine piety here and the false piety of Richard in Act III, scene 7 could not have been more stark.


Now begins the procession of the ghosts, as all the victims of Richard’s evil parade across the stage.  There are 11 ghosts in total who appear between line 119 and 177, so many you need a traffic director back stage to get them all on in the proper sequence.  We gain two insights into Shakespeare’s craft as a playwright.  The first is a sense of the size of his acting company: we have Richard and Richmond on stage, asleep, and we have 11 ghosts who cross the stage.  This shows us that Shakespeare’s company had about 13 members, all of whom are involved in this scene.  Shakespeare knew his audience was excited by the presence of supernatural beings like ghosts, and you can see the young playwright thinking, “Gee, if one ghost is good, 11 will be super!”  He would come to learn that less is often more when it comes to dramatic effects.  The much more restrained use of ghosts in plays like Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Macbeth show that he learned that lesson.  Each of the ghosts, beginning with Prince Edward, Henry VI’s son, and running through Buckingham delivers the same message over and over.  To Richard they briefly recall their murder and intone the key line: “Despair and die.”  And to Richmond they offer words of comfort and encouragement.


Before the two men lay down to sleep we heard Richmond’s earnest prayer for success, so it is only fitting that after Richard’s nightmare vision we get his reaction at line 178:


            Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!

            Have mercy, Jesu! Soft! I did but dream.

            O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

            The lights burn blue.  It is dead midnight.

            Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

            What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.

            Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.

            Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.

            Then fly.  What, from myself? Great reason why!

            Lest I revenge.  What, myself upon myself?

            Alack, I love myself.  Wherefore? For any good

            That I myself have done unto myself?

            O no! Alas, I rather hate myself

            For hateful deeds committed by myself.

            I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.

            Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.


Richard wakes from his dream calling for another horse and asking help to bind up his wounds.  This is, of course, a foreshadowing of his death in the next scene and his famous last words calling for another horse.  At line 179 for the first time in the play he seriously calls upon Jesus and acknowledges his conscience before he realizes the vision was all just a dream.  Now Richard begins to wrestle with himself.  It may have been a dream, but he notices that the candle next to his bed burns blue and it is exactly midnight, two sure signs of the presence of ghosts in the folklore of that time.  At line 182 he tells us his own physical reaction, an indication that the ghosts’ message has affected him.  From line 183 down to line 189 he poses a series of seven questions which reveal just how conflicted he is.  He tries to deal with his own guilt and then tries to dismiss it out of self-love.  But he is a murderer, and his crimes make him contemplate the possibility of self-destruction; he is dangerous to be around.  He concludes this sequence at line 193 arguing that he must speak well of himself and then immediately realizing that to do so is a form of flattery.


From line 194 on Richard gives way to despair.  The Elizabethans saw despair as the most dangerous of spiritual conditions because it meant the individual had abandoned hope in his own redemption.  Without that hope, the person was incapable of saving his soul.  At line 201 Richard tells us, “I shall despair.  There is no creature love me;/ And if I die, no soul will pity me.”  It’s kind of late in the game for Richard to look for love, especially since he has it on very good supernatural authority from the ghosts that he will die in the battle.  Ratcliffe comes in at line 208 and scares Richard.  (We can tell because he uses the taboo word “Zounds,” short for “God’s wounds,” usually indicating extreme emotional reaction.)  Richard tells Ratcliffe that he had a “fearful” dream although he doesn’t go into details about the ghosts.  Instead he comes back to the question of the loyalty of his troops.  He and Ratcliffe go off to eavesdrop outside the tents of his men to see if they reveal their real feelings.


In contrast Richmond awakes refreshed and tells his men about the contents of his dream as evidence of their success in the coming battle.


In the next sequence Shakespeare will have the two leaders address their armies just before they go into battle.  In almost every battle scene which he wrote, and Shakespeare wrote a lot of them, he followed this same pattern: there is much more verbal hostility before the fight starts than in the actual battle.  The reason for this has to do with the limitations of the stage and acting company Shakespeare wrote for. The physical stage was limited in size, and he only had about 13 actors to create the illusion of thousands of soldiers.  Therefore, he generally substituted verbal violence for combat.  The scenes in the actual battle tended to be short vignettes of some isolated confrontation off on the periphery of the larger clash of mighty armies.  In the two orations by the leaders here what elements do they have in common?  What one aspect of Richmond’s speech is totally missing from Richard’s?  [Act V, scene 3, lines 238 – 352]


Richmond emphasizes throughout his speech that it is a holy crusade his men are on.  At line 242 he tells the, “The prayers of holy saints and wronged souls,/ Like high-reared bulwarks, stand before our faces.”  He is, of course, alluding to those ghosts that appeared in his dream, and he makes it sound as if they have extended a supernatural shield to protect his outnumbered army.  The reference to “holy saints” may well be to King Henry VI, who was a lousy king but a very pious Christian.  At line 244 he characterizes the enemy: “Richard except, those whom we fight against/ Had rather have us win than him they follow.”  The leader usually tried to dehumanize the enemy, but Richmond makes the soldiers in Richard’s larger army sound like potential allies, which some of them turn out to be.  The dehumanizing is saved for Richard whom he calls at line 247 “A bloody tyrant and a homicide.”  At line 251 Richmond uses a very unusual comparison to explain Richard’s connection to the throne: “A base foul stone, made precious by the foil/ Of England’s chair, where he is falsely set;/ One that hath ever been God’s enemy.”  Richard is nothing more than a phony gem which had been illegally placed on the throne which serves as a “foil” or dark background to make him look better than he is.  Once again Richmond asserts that the tyrant is the enemy of God, reinforcing the idea that it is a holy crusade they are about to undertake.  From line 254 to 263 Richmond asserts a series of five logical propositions (“if….then”) which appeal to those things men hold sacred: “Then if you fight against God’s enemy,/ God will in justice ward [protect] you as his soldiers.” The other four propositions appeal to the defeat of tyranny and the love of country, wives and children.  Military leaders in this time customarily urged their followers to fight to the death, but faced with defeat the leaders usually surrendered themselves and paid a ransom for their freedom.  Those under them were often killed.  But Richmond at line 266 makes clear what he has at stake in the battle: “For me, the ransom of my bold attempt/ Shall be this cold corpse on the earth’s cold face.”  In other words, he will not surrender but fight to the death.


Richard’s turn comes at line 272 when he enters with his henchman Ratcliffe and asks him what two of his leading captains, Northumberland and Surrey, had said about their prospects in battle.  Ratcliffe reports that they are hopeful of victory against such a novice soldier.  This is positive news indeed, until you remember that the last time we saw the despairing Richard he was off to spy upon his own soldiers to see if they would be loyal.  It’s not the most encouraging view we could have of a leader.  But even Richard himself is having second thoughts.  At line 278 he is struck by the fact the day is overcast and does not bode well for his cause.  He has to remind himself that Richmond faces the same weather conditions.  At line 294 he outlines his detailed plan for the battle, once again emphasizing that he is the professional soldier and Richmond is not.  One of his captains, Norfolk, at line 305, shows him a crude warning that had been left on his tent: “’Jockey of  Norfolk, be not so bold,/ For Dickon thy master is bought and sold.’”  “Jockey” is a familiar form for “Johnnie” and “Dickon” refers to the king, a dismissive name, like calling him “Dickey,” and the message suggests that the king has already been betrayed.  Richard laughs at this as an attempt to undermine his cause, but it doesn’t look good when your own men are left in doubt about who will fight and who will go over to the other side.


At line 308 Richard addresses his captains.  Just as Richmond alluded to the dream indirectly, so the king does:


            Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;

            Conscience is but a word that cowards use,

            Devised at first to keep the strong in awe

            Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!


Richard’s dismissal of “conscience” echoes arguments that tyrants like Hitler and Stalin made in their day when “Might” did indeed make “right.”  However, as traditional Christians, and almost all of Richard’s soldiers were, this argument rings a little hollow. And the reference to “babbling dreams” that “affright” doesn’t strike the listeners as being really confident. 


At line 315 Richard addresses all his troops, and we see some of the same elements as we found in Richmond’s oration.  He dismisses their opponents, although in very insulting terms at line 317: “A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,/ A scum of Britains (Bretons from Brittany in Northern France) and base lackey peasants,/ Whom their o’ercloyed [overfull] country vomits forth.”  Richard in effect urges his men to hate the enemy in personal terms. Just as Richmond used that striking image of the king as a bad gemstone, so here Richard has a strikingly negative image of the rebels being the vomit of France.  Just as Richmond appealed to love of country, peace, wives and children, so Richard does as well at lines 321 – 323 and again at 337 – 338, although again he is more coarse and inflammatory, urging defeat of the rebels to protect the soldiers’ wives and daughters from rape, a frequent argument of military demagogues.  Finally, just as Richmond dehumanized Richard, so he does to Richmond, calling him a “paltry fellow….A milksop one that never in his life/ Felt so much cold as over shoes in snow.”  Richmond is so spoiled and protected, his idea of a tragedy is getting his feet cold in snow.  Finally Richard returns to that sense of national empowerment and dismisses the idea that a group of Frenchmen could defeat the cream of England.  After all, in the Hundred Years War the forefathers of Richard’s soldiers had completely defeated the French army.  So Richard argues his men can’t let their country and their history down.  They must win.


Now the one thing that Richard never mentions is God, nor does he make any effort to put his war in a moral context.  Richard’s is not a holy crusade but just one based on the base appeal to men’s emotions.  It is not surprising that Richard will lose against the holy warriors.  What is most surprising is that Richard chooses to fight at all.  In a time of great belief in superstitious signs, this most superstitious of men knows all too well that he will lose the battle.  And yet he continues to fight.  In the values of Shakespeare’s time, Richard chooses to die a heroic death, no matter how flawed the morality of his cause.  In some respects the most noble thing in Richard’s life is how he chooses to die.  In common with all Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes, Richard is perhaps at his best just before his death.


 At line 345 Richard learns that Stanley refuses to bring his men to the battle.  When the king orders young George, Stanley’s son, murdered, the Duke of Norfolk warns Richard that he does not have time to indulge in his favorite activity, killing people.  There will be time enough after the battle.  One senses that perhaps Norfolk thinks that Richard may lose the battle and may be making a deal for himself by saving young George’s life, however temporarily.  Off the troops go to decide the fate of the country.


Act V, Scene 4


As I had indicated earlier, the actual battle of Bosworth is shown in two very brief scenes of intense but localized action.  What has happened to Richard that he is so desperate for a horse?  What does he mean when he says he has killed five Richmonds already?  [Act V, scene 4]


In the terrible hand-to-hand combat of the battle, Richard has had his horse killed and so he is on foot.  A noble warrior fought on horseback, wearing heavy armor, but if he was unhorsed he was at a real disadvantage in trying to fight less heavily armed but much more mobile foot soldiers.  No wonder that Catesby is trying to get Norfolk to ride in and rescue the king in this scene.  Catesby calls to Richard and urges him to retreat to where he can be remounted on a steed.  But Richard is so impetuous, that he will not leave the battle once he has started it.  Apparently in historical reality Richard had lost his life and the battle when he rashly charged off to attack some of the enemy that he saw breaking through the lines.  Before he realized it, he was outnumbered, surrounded and killed.


Richard has been performing heroic deeds all over the battlefield.  Leaders in those days knew that if they were killed, their men would stop fighting.  So the leaders were marked men in the confusion of battle.  What they would do to protect themselves was to get volunteers to dress in the same kind of armor to serve as decoys in the fighting.  Richard complains that he has already personally killed five such decoys trying to eliminate his rival, Richmond.


Richard’s last words in the play are probably his most famous: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” echoes this heroic but desperate attitude of someone fighting against fate.  He will not retreat but is instead willing to give up all he has striven for, his kingdom, if someone will bring him a horse and help him remount so he can continue to fight. Richard is seen at the end as a physically courageous warrior.


Act V, Scene 5


The final scene opens with Richmond defeating and killing Richard in single combat.  So much for Richard’s heroic defiance of Fate and his vaunted military experience!  In historical reality Richard’s death was not so dramatic.  He was killed in the general slaughter on the field at Bosworth where thousands died.  Besides his victory over Richard, how is Richmond made more heroic in this scene?  What are his political priorities in this scene?  How might Shakespeare’s audience, a century after the event, have reacted to this famous victory? [Act V, scene 5]


In this scene of only 41 lines Richmond invokes the name in one form or another seven times!  He is intent upon casting this victory as a win for God, as the Tudor historians insisted it was.  Richard is dismissed at line 2 as simply “the bloody dog is dead.” Stanley is quick to place a crown taken from Richard’s body on Richmond’s head, symbolically crowning the next king.  For his part Richmond’s first question at line 9 is about the safety of young George Stanley, who has indeed survived; Richmond, as a true king, is shown being concerned about all his subjects.  We see this again in his next question, at line 12: what men of the nobility on both sides were slain?  Four names are listed.  This is another aspect of Shakespeare’s staging of battle scenes.  In the aftermath of a fight, he will list the names of the dead, but only those with titles.  If you were one of the thousands of unfortunate foot soldiers killed in action, you got hardly a mention.  This body count is part of the process of substituting verbal violence for the reenactment of battle on the stage that we saw in the business of the pre-battle orations.  It also reflects the records which were available to him from the historical sources where only the really important people were named.  Richmond honors these fallen warriors on both sides by ordering them to be buried with honor, something that was often not done for those who fought on the losing side.  He extends this gesture of reconciliation by proclaiming a pardon for all who fought against him, if they will submit to his rule. 


Richmond is focused not on the fall of Richard but on the larger significance of the victory. He reminds everyone that he has “ta’en the sacrament,” that is sworn a solemn oath to finally “reunite the White Rose and the Red” [line 19].  This was the last battle of the bloody civil conflict called the War of the Roses, although Richmond could not have known it at that time with any certainty.  He evokes one of the bitterest memories of that terrible bloodletting at line 23:


            England hath long been mad and scatted herself;

            The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood,

            The father rashly slaughtered his own son,

            The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire.


Shakespeare had created this scene where two sets of common men, drafted by the York and the Lancaster armies, fought in a terrible battle and discovered that a father had killed his son and a son killed his father.  For Shakespeare’s audience this was a metaphor for the risks of a civil war.  Richmond will heal the breach by marrying young princess Elizabeth as the heir to the York fortunes, thereby, at least symbolically, uniting the warring factions.


At line 32 Richmond, soon to be crowned as King Henry VII, the first of the Tudor rulers, looks to the future with a prayer and a reminder to those in Shakespeare’s audience of what is to come:


            And let their heirs [Richmond and Elizabeth], 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 [sword] of traitors, gracious Lord,

            That would reduce [bring back] 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!


Back in the introduction to this play I had described the purpose of history in Shakespeare’s time as being to use the past to create moral lessons for the present.  There is perhaps no better example of this process in all of the plays than this final passage from Richard III.  Following Bosworth England underwent a period of rapid growth and prosperity, which the Tudor monarchs (Henry VII, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I) were quick to take full credit for.  The Tudors had faced many threats from inside and outside the country and were on the lookout for potential treason everywhere.  Such opposition was perceived as returning the country to “these bloody days again” [line 36].  That powerful image at line 37 of England weeping streams of blood was a warning to the general population of what could happen to their country.  At the time the play was written the question of who would succeed the aging Queen Elizabeth was very much on the minds of the people.  This play serves as a cautionary tale of what kind of a king the nation could get if they weren’t careful.  Peace and prosperity in lines 38 – 39 are only possible if the country can avoid another civil war.  So the play ends with the first Tudor king in effect issuing a warning to the subjects of the last Tudor and evoking the deity one last time.  Richard has served his purpose in the politics of the Elizabethan age one hundred years after his death.


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