The Usurpation of Richard III in 1483
Whereas with the Princes in the Tower the events are questioned rather than motivations, it is the opposite with Richard’s usurpation in 1483. The death of Edward IV left an atmosphere of dangerous uncertainty. His heir apparent, Edward V, was in the hands of the Woodville family. The Woodville’s had risen to the pinnacle of the English political hierarchy of England under Edward IV and they naturally were keen not to diminish their position, thus making them unlikely to acquiesce to Richard as regent or King. In April 1483, it seemed inconceivable that on July 6th Richard would be crowned King of England. In order to understand how and why he took the throne, three events must be assessed: The actions of the Woodville faction and events leading up to Stony Stratford, Richard’s actions during his brief tenure as protector, and the delegitimising of his nephews leading to his eventual coronation.
The Woodville’s were naturally opportunistic following the death of Edward. The will of Edward IV, as described by Vergil stated that Richard would be the protector of his brother’s children. Elizabeth resided in London exerting influence over the council and Antony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, had custody of Edward V in Ludlow Castle Scotland. Annette Carson, a vehement defender of Richard against all accusations, interprets the events of April 1483 as a sign the Woodville’s were “determined to seize the initiative”. Moreover, the very existence of a council during this period is in the eyes of Murray Kendall “unlawful in its own existence” as a prerequisite for a Council was the presence of a monarch on the throne. Mancini corroborates the Woodville manoeuvring, stating there was a split in the council between those who supported Richard “because Edward in his will had so directed” and those “who favoured the queen’s family” suggesting that such a conflict was known to the lay people who would have informed Mancini. Thus, there is evidence that the Woodville family sought to exploit the death of the king for their political gain. This is important because if true, it provides a legitimate motive for the actions which Richard took.
In the immediate aftermath of the death of Edward IV, Richard III’s behaviour “had been impeccable”. He had offered “submission fealty and all that was due to King Edward V.” In other words, Richard was displaying tendencies of someone who understood what the role of Lord Protector entailed and the precedent in place, mainly set during the minority of Henry VI. Stony Stratford was meant to be a moment of unification between the two factions. Yet, upon arrival there was a notable absence: Edward V. It is odd that the very king whom Richard was going to pledge loyalty to was absent, this is important because if we are to believe Richard acted in what he believed was the right way, it provides some justification for his odd actions at the rendezvous. After Rivers and Grey sat “at the duke’s table for dinner… in pleasant conversation”, the next morning Richard arrested Rivers, Grey and Vaughan citing an alleged conspiracy and then took Edward V into his own custody. John Rous, an early Tudor Chronicler who rewrote his account of Richard from a positive view to a significantly negative portrayal, dramatically states “the new king was removed from his loyal servants and received with kisses and embraces, like an innocent lamb falling into the hands of wolves”. This embellishing certainly points to bias, showing the sensationalism of Tudor history. It is contradicted by the Crowland Chronicler, possibly the most important source for Richard’s reign. The anonymous writer was a government insider, probably a member of the council, but his partisan account was written to favour Elizabeth Woodville. He writes that “Richard took an oath of fealty to the king, because this promised best for future prosperity, it was performed with pride and joy for all”. As the chronicler wrote after Bosworth, he has the advantage of hindsight and of not being influenced by Tudor propaganda. We can conclude that it would seem at Stony Stratford, Richard was acting in response to the machinations of the Woodville Council. Thus, the interpretation of Colin Richmond, a fiercely anti-Richard historian writing in response to Kendall’s vindications, that “Richard feared for his personal safety if Edward was crowned” does not seem to be validated by primary evidence as it is unlikely Richard would have taken steps to organise the Coronation so early. We can conclude that after Stony Stratford, Richard intended for Edward V to become king.
Richard’ actions in June 1483 are hardest to defend. At a “carefully managed” council meeting on 13th June Richard accused Hastings, Stanley, Morton and the Archbishop of York of plotting treason against him. Buckingham is said to have ambushed the chamber and arrested Hastings. Hastings was then immediately killed. Fabyan’s Great Chronicle of London describes how he “led Lord Hastings out to the green and without any long confession struck off his head”. Mancini describes how “Hastings fell killed by a friend whom he had never doubted”. The use of extrajudicial methods should be the most robust ground upon which Richard can be labelled as morally wrong, because even if the treasonous plot Richard alluded to were true, a public trial and killing would have surely being a more effective way to garner the support of the people. Carson, a staunch Ricardian, argues that “the narrative is tainted by the fact he believed Richard had motivations for the throne from the death of Edward IV, he acted in response to a threat to his life”. I disagree, as it does seem that he took the initiative carefully planning this specific event. Thus, instead of agreeing with Carson’s view that “his actions were a sudden response to threat, rather than a calculated move in a diabolical game of chess” I instead incline towards Ross’ view that Richard “moved with speed and efficiency towards establishing his own claim to the throne”. It does not seem possible to believe that Richard did not carefully plan the events of June 13th – whether it be for his advantage or safety. The removal of the sons of Edward IV as rightful heirs occurred after preaching from Ralph Shaw, a theologian, alleged that “Edward V and his brother were bastards, because their parents hadn’t been properly married or because Edward IV had himself being illegitimate”. There is debate surrounding the legitimacy of these allegations but in the context of this debate it suffices to know that such controversy exists. It is difficult to judge whether the commoners believed these rumours, if they were true it does give justification to Richard’s ascension. However, it does seem convenient that these rumours arose from nowhere, the simple truth is that just over two months after the death of Edward IV, Richard was now in a position to ascend to the throne. He did on the 26th June before being crowned on the 6th July.
Characters trying to escape their own past or the theme of memory in Richard III
‘A play so preoccupied with memory and the past’ Paul Prescott (‘Richard III’ a guide to the text and its theatrical life 2006)
How far and in what ways is this true of Act One?
In Act One it would be true to state that Richard III is ‘a play so preoccupied with memory and the past’. From the beginning of the play, various characters make references to their pasts that some have tried to escape. Additionally, numerous contrasts are made between the characters’ past, present and future. This focus on memory a theme of guilt for previous undertaken actions and this creates a concentration on the theme of religion.
It must be said the ‘memory and the past’ are true within the play to a somewhat large extent in Act 1, Scene 1 during Richard’s soliloquy. The dramatic opening to the soliloquy in scene 1 establishes that The family of York’s (‘our’) ‘discontent’ has come to an end. Shakespeare further establishes this by contrasting winter to a new ‘glorious summer’ where ‘clouds that loured upon’ the ‘house’ of York have been ‘buried’ in the ‘deep bosom of the ocean’. This use of weather imagery implies the change from war to peace. Continually, Richard describes the actions that have been taken during this change. ‘Our Bruised arms hung up for monuments’ and ‘our stern alarums changed to merry meetings’. The repetition of the personal pronoun ‘our’ could perhaps suggest a feeling of unity and collectivity between the family of York regardless of wartime or peacetime. Furthermore, the Richard reminds the audience of alternatives, which was the role of a Machiavellian villain.
It must also be stated that ‘memory and the past’ are true within the play to a great extent due to Anne’s description of Richard’s actions. She says that Richard ‘hast made happy earth thy hell’ and has ‘filled it with cursing cries’. This implies that Richard’s murderous and villainous ways have caused grief for Anne and her family due to her husband’s death. The alliteration of the letter ‘h’ in ‘hast’, ‘happy’ and ‘hell’ emphasises her spite for Richard. Furthermore, Anne asks for her fellow gentleman to ‘see, dead Henry’s wounds. Open their congealed mouths and bleed’. This suggests that even Henry’s dead body is disturbed by Richard’s presence and therefore Richard is somewhat devil-like. Furthermore, it references a belief during the Plantagenet era that when a murderer would come near to the corpse of whom they had killed, the body would spurt with blood.
Additionally, at the end of scene 2, the play concentrates on ‘memory and the past’, when Richard exclaims ‘Ha!’ and consequently asks the audience if Anne hath … forget already that brave prince…whom I stabbed in my angry mood’. The word ‘Ha!’ breaks the rhythm of the monologue. The use of sarcasm of throughout the whole extract suggests Richard to be humoured by Anne’s idiocy in they manner in which her ‘humour’ was ‘wooed’. Furthermore, the phrase ‘angry mood’ suggests that it was unnecessary to kill Henry, but it was done in rage, as Richard feels he is extremely powerful. This establishes Richard to be a vice figure. In this case, Richard get ‘he wants’ through the ‘shameless push’ of his ‘sharp though warped intelligence’ (CWRD Moseley).
In correspondence to Prescott’s statement that Richard III is a’ play preoccupied with the past’, Clarence shows signs of guilt and deceit in the past, in Scene 4. Clarence talks of his dream in which he dreams of hell in which he sees a ‘sour ferryman’, where he sees his father in law ‘Warwick’ who calls Clarence ‘false’ and accuses him of ‘perjury’. The ferryman in the dream could be a euphemism for the ‘grim reaper’ who is an embodiment of death possibly foreshadowing Clarence’s death. Furthermore, it could also be a reference to ‘Charon’ who ferried souls across the river Styx to Hades in Greek mythology. Clarence’s father in law accuses Clarence of ‘perjury’, as Clarence abandoned his in laws for his who he swore on oath to fight for, in return for fighting with his brother. This form of deceit is significant to Paul Prescott’s statement, as it shows the actions Clarence partook in the past coming back to haunt him in the future. Ultimately before his death, he asks for absolution and asks him to ‘spare’ his children and wife. This lack of hope for Clarence’s survival creates a sense of sympathy for his character.
However, it must be said that ‘memories and past’ are perhaps not as important as other themes within the play. For example, it could be argued that the future, plays a considerably greater role in the play than the past. For example, Anne uses curses against Richard the 3rd in scene 2. She commands Richard to ‘Avaunt’, and curses his ‘heart that had the heart to do it’. She also wishes for any of his children to be ‘abortive’. The word ‘avaunt’ implies Richard to be monster-like as it is a word in used to banish supernatural beings. Furthermore, the curses she uses implies that she has no physical power against him due to lower status as a female but she uses curses to torture him.
In conclusion, Richard III, is a play preoccupied with memory and the past in Act one to a significant degree. Each character seems to have committed crimes and other vices in the past, that seem to constitute towards their troubles later in the play. Anne uses prophecies and curses against Richard in vengeance for the murder of her husband, however it makes her more culpable in the future. Nonetheless, these curses and prophecies are less obvious in terms of their foreshadowing of later events in the play and are therefore not as effective as the theme of memory.
The Duchess of York’s appearance in Richard III, an unusual empowered woman for those times
Mother Warrior and Sorceress
In the realm of Shakespeare, few women are given the opportunity to exhibit any traditional form of power. Such is the case of Richard III, the telling of a psychopathic king who uses murder and deceit to become king. When he is prepared to embark on the ill-fated battle with enemy Earl of Richmond, he faces a more personal foe: his mother Duchess of York. In her final appearance, the Duchess issues a farewell to her son in the form of a curse, ensuring a defeat in battle and the souls of those Richard had murdered to be avenged. Their weapons are their words and their ultimate battle plan is to not only instill fear in Richard, but to also symbolize his death to him figuratively and literally. Though this moment is fairly brief, the Duchess’s farewell curse to Richard before battle is powerful with the Duchess, Elizabeth, and Margret serving as their own army. This form of power the Duchess takes on is not only for herself, but also for those who cannot speak for themselves; something expressed at its finest when the history and sharpness of her curse remain complete.
In the play, the Duchess is a mother and a widow with little power to her name; her legacy rests on her children. Richard’s birth has been a “grievous burden” toward the Duchess considering how Richard’s behavior worsened as he matured. This contrasts with the notion of motherly love as Richard was born to “make [the Duchess’s] earth her hell.” (Cambridge School Shakespeare 173) Contrasting again with the normative form of feminine traits is the Duchess, Margret, and Elizabeth joining forces as an army to face Richard and his soldiers. Together, they are stronger and united by a common bond of being childless and widows. Margret and the Duchess of York, especially, are familiar with losing husbands and children and its lasting effects, and it is through this where they form a deep hatred of one another. It was Margret who killed the former Richard’s son, and it was the Duke of York’s family who killed her husband, which lead to Margret becoming a grieving and hysterical widow, the Duchess’s family becoming powerful through Edward IV, and consequentially Richard III being crowned by the play’s fourth act (Cambridge School Shakespeare 167). Though they share a sordid history of murder within their own circle, their contempt for one another is put aside for a greater cause. The use of sorrow, anger, and haunting memories from each of them (specifically the Duchess) to curse Richard before he leaves for battle creates a shift in female power and solidarity. As a result, the women become soldiers and sorceresses. Through this, the Duchess’s final farewell to Richard ensures victory for his enemies, but also that of reversing the tarnishing of a royal family. Words, in turn, are turned into weapons more powerful and defensive than a traditional soldier’s armor.
A key factor in Shakespeare speeches is the diction chosen for whatever situation the characters face. After being fully acquainted with the treachery Richard is capable of, those who have suffered are bound to come together and declare the injustice they have been forced to witness. Though Margret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess are bonded through their status as former mothers and widows, they put aside their bloody history to fulfill their desire to proclaim, “The dog is dead.” With Margret’s help, the Duchess and Elizabeth are able to berate and infantilize Richard in front of his army. The switching of the possessives “thou” and “thy” reduce Richard’s status further (Cambridge School Shakespeare 169, 173-5). As a king and a soldier, his masculinity and competency as such are important to him considering his deformity. Rather than a traditional goodbye and promise to go come to his kingdom with open arms, Margret, Elizabeth, and his mother impede him and with Margret’s help, she seals her farewell and banishment of Richard in hatred and hopes in Richard’s enemies to defeat him.
Recurring themes in the Duchess’s curse encompass violent and substantial images of directed toward her son as she describes him (and possibly his actions) as “bloody.” Whatever his final actions may be, will end with bloodshed. Through a multilayered perspective, the Duchess is being truthful; soldiers die in battle, and Richard takes part in killing enemy soldiers, but it is on the battlefield where Richard meets his end. His bloodshed is his end and he has died by “God’s just ordinance” before he could become a conqueror (Cambridge School Shakespeare 175). Truly the souls of Edward’s children and the prayers of Richard’s mother were with the Earl of Richmond to promise him and his soldiers success and victory. The Duchess with her old age and grief can be more at ease with the treachery that had taken place, and can hope for a new start with the Earl of Richmond marrying Elizabeth’s daughter. As the marriage of the Earl and young Elizabeth take place, the language turns to self-reflection, God, and peace. Blood is mentioned, but only to symbolize the deaths of those who tried to “make poor England weep.” (Cambridge School Shakespeare 227) The end brings the living together to start a new history.
The “Hollow Crown” series carefully and chronologically retells the complete history of the monarchs; bloodshed, deceit, and all. In the adaptation of “Richard III”, there was an equal balance of portraying both men and women along with an even ratio of keeping a majority of lines intact. The overall Gothic exterior of Richard’s castle sets the scene for the murder and corruption bound to take place, with the women being used to provide the audience with a raw emotional aspect to the effects of murder. They bury their slain loved ones and mourn over their bodies whereas the men do not. While the men are confronted with death and take part in the act, it is the women who bear the lasting effects. Therefore, they are seen banding together hoping to remain protected (PBS). The Duchess, Margret, and Elizabeth know all too well how fragile their status as a woman is, and what their status relies on. It is when they have little else to lose when they come together and block Richard, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his men. As the Duchess, played by Dame Judi Dench, stands in the middle, she faces her son directly. Richard tries to act indifferent to his mother and the other women glaring at him, as he holds a higher ground literally as a king and soldier riding on a dark horse (PBS). Meanwhile, the women stand on the ground without any form of elevation. Though he could easily move around him, Richard’s need to come across as in control and superior to his men supersedes the logical choice of leaving the women behind. Furthermore, leaving out of fear of the women would prove him to be a coward. Instead, listening to his mother disown him through him dying in battle or herself dying from “grief and extreme age” make him appear to be the fiercer warrior of the two (Cambridge School Shakespeare 175). Dame Judi Dench’s portrayal of the Duchess provides an air of royal sophistication. Her delivery of the farewell curse is spoken with calm intensity, making the audience come closer and heed the power of her words. Given how her curse was kept intact, it ensured emotions and intensity of language in the play was authentic while staying true to Judi Dench portrayals of kind, no-nonsense women with commanding power in male-dominated sectors. Unfortunately in the 1994 reimagining of Richard III, women’s roles are considerably reduced. With this choice, the movie becomes male-dominated and centered on the action of war.
True to it’s advertising, the 1994 film’s central focus is the military and the war. Additionally, the war takes places in a fascist-era England complete with propaganda films. Throughout the film, there is the constant awareness of death, frequent fourth wall breaks by Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Richard, and more time dedicated to the murdering of characters. As a result, the representation of emotions and the women is perceived as an afterthought. Dame Maggie Smith’s rendering of the Duchess is limited to being an angry mother. In the few instances she is seen, she is with others, specifically her family. While starting as a loving mother—dressing formally and smartly, sitting with her family, smiling, and applauding when Richard begins his victory speech—she quickly becomes spiteful. With a majority of her lines and scenes with Anne and Elizabeth being cut, the Duchess comes across as one-dimensional. Additionally, with Margret’s character being cut out of the film entirely, Maggie Smith’s Duchess is bitter and her anger not as pivotal to the history of her family rise and fall. The closest she becomes is through her curse, but even her curse is reduced. She begins with openly stating her curse and Richard’s involvement in the murder of Edward’s children; the latter coming off as personal as she, too, is a mother. What remains intact from the original play are the lines “Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end; shames serves thy life and doth thy death attend.” (MGM) Unfortunately, the Duchess in this rendition of the film leaves the remaining women, Elizabeth and her young daughter, for France. This possible act of abandonment does come across as cowardly. However, this action is heartbreaking; the Duchess has little to no family left in the end and she wishes to escape the constant presence of death.
After facing England’s embodiment of death, the Duchess and the widows she stood beside are the more powerful characters in Shakespeare’s Richard III. It is their collective curse and them taking on the role of sorceresses that ensure the lives of their husbands and children weren’t going to be ignored, cause Richard his final downfall, and give England a new and better start. The women will be there to remember those taken from them, and it is the Duchess who can bury her treacherous son with a light heart and die in peace. England can now prosper again, live long with “civil wounds” stopped, and unite as the Duchess laid upon Richard his curse. “God say amen.” (Cambridge School Shakespeare 227)
Underlining the main theme of death by foreshadowing the fates of characters in Richard III
The Foreshadow in the Death of Richard III in Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s tragedy of Richard III is a play where death is one of the central themes. It is therefore essential that Shakespeare makes this theme obvious to the audience even before characters die, and his primary way of doing this is through the foreshadowing of these deaths. He does this through dreams, language forms, imagery, curses, character and broken oaths. Due to these devices, the audience is already aware that certain characters will die, enabling Shakespeare to create dramatic irony. The context of the play is fundamental in ensuring that foreshadowing is taken seriously. Richard III would have been originally performed in front of an Elizabethan audience, an audience who would have believed that foreshadowing, both obvious and discreet, would have been extremely important. In addition they would have taken dreams, one of the principal devices that Shakespeare uses in Richard III to foreshadow death, very seriously.
Dreams in Richard III play a vital role in ensuring that the plot moves along, moreover they play a significant part in the foreshadowing of death. ‘So full of fearful dreams and ugly sights’. Clarence’s dream in this scene is one of the more evident techniques Shakespeare uses to foreshadow death. Clarence interprets his death as being an accident, however, as the audience is very much aware of Richard’s true character, it becomes evident that it was not
an accident at all. ‘What sights of ugly death within mine eyes. Shakespeare makes very obvious references to Clarence’s death in this dream, as well as using very morbid imagery, particularly of the sea, which strongly connotes the idea of drowning within the context of the dream. In addition throughout Clarence’s retelling of the dream, he uses words which are synonymous with death and pain; ‘drown’ ‘dreadful’ ‘fearful’ ‘gnawed’ ‘pain’ ‘dead men’. The use of these words aids Shakespeare in creating an ominous feeling which surrounds the character of Clarence. This ties in heavily with the context of the play, as an Elizabethan audience would have taken these signs seriously. This results in the audience becoming aware of Richard’s true character, creating successfully dramatic irony within the play.
Furthermore the audience is already aware by this point in the play that Clarence is likely to die in the play, as his death has been previously foreshadowed through that character of Richard, ‘Well your imprisonment shall not be long’. Shakespeare has previously used Richard’s opening soliloquy to establish Richard as a character, so the audience is able to see the hidden meaning behind these words; that in fact his imprisonment shall not be long because he is going to die, not because he is going to be released. This succeeds in adding heavy irony to the play, as Clarence is very much unaware of the hidden meaning behind Richard’s words.
In addition to Clarence, Hastings is another character whose death is very much foreshadowed, primarily through the ‘loyalty plot’ set up by Richard. One of the first instances when it becomes evident that Hastings’ death is being foreshadowed is when he reveals his trust in Catesby, ‘And at the other is my good friend Catesby. However the audience is very much aware by this point, due to the dramatic irony created by Shakespeare that Catesby is in fact plotting against Hastings, so the revelation of his trust in him is a very ominous sign for Hastings. Also, Hastings believes himself very much to be safe. ‘With some men think themselves as safe as thou am I’. However as the audience is aware that Hastings is being trapped the line becomes extremely ironic, and Catesby’s previous line seems to confirm this, ‘Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord when men are unprepared and look not for it.’ This introduces the irony into the situation, and this enables Hastings demise to be successfully foreshadowed. Also, Hastings’ death is foreshadowed more literally, ‘I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders before I’ll see the crown so misplaced.’ As the audience is aware that Richard does eventually become king, this oath prefigures the fate of
Hastings, with the crown being a pun for Hastings’ head, (the crown of his head) and the royal crown, Hastings’ curse then comes true at the end of the play. Moreover, the dream by Stanley serves as a warning to Hastings ‘He dreamt the boar had razed off his helm’. The boar here is symbolic of Richard, although in its literal context this is neutral, this symbolism of Richard as a boar has been used throughout the play, particularly by the women, in a negative context, along with other bestial imagery used for Richard, ‘The tiger hath seized the gentle hind’. This therefore results in the audience realizing that when Richard is being compared to an animal, than it is in a negative sense, thus the audience realizing that the dream cannot be dismissed. However Hastings dismisses this dream, not only subsequently foreshadowing his death in the sense that the dream needs to be taken seriously, but it is effective, as it serves to show to the audience that Hastings is blind to Richard’s villainous behavior, and he therefore will not be watching out for Richard.
Additionally Shakespeare uses curses to a great extent in Richard III, and they become a fundamental technique in the foreshadowing of death. Anne is a character who manages to curse, and consequently foreshadow her own death. ‘if ever he have wife, let her be made more miserable by the death of him’. The audience then becomes aware that Richard manages to successfully woo Anne, and she is therefore foreshadowing her own unhappiness, and implying her death. Anne later acknowledges this curse ‘Lo, ere I can repeat this curse again’. Here the audience can see Anne’s change in perspective, as at the time, she was merely speaking of her misery towards the deaths of Henry VI and Prince Edward, but now she realizes that anyone would be ‘mad’ ‘and be they wife, if any be so mad’ to marry Richard. Anne’s death is also foreshadowed after her curse with the ominous line ‘I’ll have her but I will not keep her long’ this line strongly signifies death for Anne. Anne’s death is also slightly foreshadowed through Richard ‘That Anne my queen is sick and like to die.’
However, even though Anne’s death is foreshadowed through her curse, Margaret’s character is used more principally with regards to curses. Richard is the first character whom Margaret manages to curse. ‘Hie thee to hell for shame, and leave this world’. Margaret is being very blunt here, and is literally damning Richard to hell. She then goes on to curse Richard further, ‘The sorrow that I have by right is yours’. As the sorrow that Margaret has is the death of her husband and son, this would suggest that the only way that Richard can have this ‘sorrow’ is through his own death. She also puts Richard in the same context as words such as ‘venom’ ‘sin’ and ‘death’, and by doing this she is consequently relating Richard to death, and subsequently foreshadowing his death. Margaret then manages to curse everyone who is of the York family. ‘That none of you may live his natural age, But by some unlooked accident cut off’. The use of the word ‘unlooked’ implies that none of the characters will expect their death, or know when they are going to die, which not only succeeds in foreshadowing their death, but also the means surrounding their deaths. This adds further to the heavy irony surrounding the situation, as the characters do not believe in her curses. ‘False-boding woman’, however this is ironic in the sense that Margaret is ‘false-boding’ in that she predicts Richard’s falsity to Hastings, Buckingham and the others. Margaret also foreshadows Buckingham’s demise in this scene, however not through curses as such, ‘O Buckingham, take heed of yonder dog…Have not to do with him, beware of him’. Margaret is here warning Buckingham of Richard, however Buckingham dismisses Margaret’s warning ‘Nothing that I respect, my gracious lord.’. This therefore implies that Buckingham will become subject to Richards treachery, as dramatic irony has previously been created so that the audience is aware of Richards true nature, and therefore know that Margaret’s words are in fact of truth. Even though the context of the play means that the audience will already take the curses that Margaret has put upon the characters seriously, Margaret herself seems to confirm that they are to be taken seriously ‘And say poor Margaret was a prophetess’. This further emphasizes the importance of her curses. Margaret’s curses also serve to show to the audience that anybody who has killed (the York family) will imminently die, highlighting significance in the fact that those who have done a wrong will be punished. In addition the fact that it is written in third person emphasizes Shakespeare’s message that the curses should be taken seriously.
Furthermore Buckingham’s demise is very much foreshadowed within Richard III. It seemingly becomes first apparent prior to the battle, when Richard and Buckingham have fallen out, ‘True, noble prince/O bitter consequence’. The split line implies an unusually quick response by Richard, ‘That Edward still should live, true noble prince’. Richard then reveals that Buckingham’s response is bitter to him because he says that Edward is the ‘true noble prince’, the fact that Buckingham has angered Richard is enough to partially foreshadow his death, as the audience is very much aware of Richards true character. ‘High-reaching Buckingham grows circumspect’, Richard is aware by this point that Buckingham is not fully on his side, as he says he has become wary, which is very portentous for Buckingham’s character. Additionally, references to clocks are used to foreshadow both the deaths of Buckingham and Richard. The dialogue about the clock in act four is in accordance with Shakespeare’s dramatic use of clocks throughout Richard III, the first occurring when Hastings is awoken by a messenger at an ominous hour. ‘What is’t o’clock?/Upon the stroke of four’. Buckingham is later associated with the clock when he is promising Richard to persuade the citizens to support him. ‘I go, and towards three or four o’clock Look for the news that Guildhall affords’. This mildly foreshadows the death of Buckingham, however with regards to Richard, he asks the time just before his nightmare on the battlefield, ‘What is’t o’clock?/It’s supper time, my lord; it’s nine o’clock.’.
The clock the actually strikes, which is a signal of the sun’s absence, and Richard’s impending doom, ‘Tell the clock there. Clock strikes Give me a calendar. Who saw the sun today?’
Edward is another character whose death is very much foreshadowed throughout Richard III. The audience is very much aware by the second act that Edward is very ill anyway, however Edward’s death is one of the first to be clearly foreshadowed. ‘And says a wizard told him that ‘G’. His issue disinherited should be’, dreams are used here to foreshadow the death of Edward. In addition he, along with the rest of the York family gets cursed by Margaret.
In addition to curses, imagery is also a vital technique used throughout the play to foreshadow the death of characters in Richard III, ‘That cropped the golden prime of this sweet prince’. This language suggests a premature harvesting of the ‘golden’ and ‘sweet’ young prince, and thus his death. This harvest imagery is also used to reflect Richard, ‘Right as a snow in harvest’. The first murderer intuitively links Richard to Winter, a symbol of death, and in the context of the play harvest imagery is a metaphor for death rather than fruition, thus foreshadowing the death of Richard, as the ‘snow’ (Richard), has been but with the ‘harvest’ (death).
Furthermore, shadow imagery is another technique used in Richard III to foreshadow death, ‘Unless to see my own shadow in the sun’. Richard had previously in scene one expressed his hatred of the ‘glorious summer’ and Richard claims that the only use for the sun is to see his own shadow, this shadow imagery is continued throughout the play, ‘Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, That I may see my shadow as I pass’, this echoes Richards previous shadow references. The use of this imagery is very dark, and is somewhat reflective of the theme of tragedy, and therefore death, principally of Richard.
In the final scene of Richard III, his death is foreshadowed for what appears to be the final time, right before the battle, however this foreshadowing just emphasizes his impending death, as the audience is very much aware by this point that Richard will imminently die. His death is finally foreshadowed through the use of the ghosts, principally through the comparison of what the Ghosts say to Richmond, whom the audience know will be victorious, and what they say to Richard, whom the audience know will die. The Ghosts use very ominous language when talking to Richard, and the phrase ‘Despair and Die’ is repeated many times, which goes to further accentuate Richard’s impending death.
Considering these ideas it can be concluded that from Richard’s first appearance, the entire play has been veiled with death, which is foreshadowed throughout the play of Richard III using techniques such as imagery which reflects the theme of tragedy, and using it to associate characters with seasons. Techniques such as these are fairly discreet; nevertheless they are still evident to the audience. However here are techniques used that are clearly apparent to the audience, for example Margaret’s curses which are sometimes very literal in their meaning, and often straight to the point.
The Progressive Isolation of Richard III
From the very opening of William Shakespeare’s tragic historical drama Richard III, the isolation of the main protagonist is made quite clear, for Richard progressively separates himself from the other main characters and gradually breaks the natural bonds between man and society through his at times well-conceived plan to gain the power of the English throne via the extermination of all those who stand in his way.The first scene in Richard III begins with a soliloquy which emphasizes Richard’s physical isolation as he addresses the audience. This idea of isolation is then heightened by his references to his deformities, such as “rudely stamp’d. . . cheated of feature by dissembling Nature. . . ,” an outward indication to the audience of his disharmony from society and the viciousness of his inner spirit. As he despises “the idle pleasures of these days” and speaks of his plots to set brother against brother, Richard separates himself from those in his orbit who perhaps view him as an outsider due to his physical deformities. His separation from his family is emphasized with “Dive, thought’s down to my soul” when he observes his brother approaching. Thus, Richard provides hints of his physical, social and spiritual isolation which is progressive throughout the play. But despite these hints, Richard still refers to himself as part of the House of York, as shown in his repeated use of “Our.”The concept of Richard’s physical isolation is reinforced in his dealings with Anne in Act One, Scene II, where she calls him “thou lump of foul deformity” and “fouler toad” during their verbal exchanges. Yet Anne still takes the time to speak to Richard and by the end of their exchange she had taken his ring and been “woo’d” by him. In Act IV, Scene II, when Richard has successfully gained the throne, he isolates himself again when he orders the crowd to “stand all apart,” and later, during a dream, Richard ends up completely alone, yet his physical deformities manage to win sympathy from the audience as they pity his condition. But Richard utilizes his deformities “as a tool against the other characters via his portrayal of them as victimizers” (Cheetham 146). Thus, the sense of tragedy is lessened by his actions, even though his isolation becomes greater as the play progresses.Richard’s psychological isolation is conveyed through his lack of conscience via his murderous acts. Nowhere does he feel remorse for his actions, until in Act V, Scene III when he exclaims “Have mercy, Jesu!” and “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!” With this, Richard’s division from his self is evident, especially when he declares “Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am!” The audience and the reader, however, never is allowed to see into the true mind of Richard, for he is always playing some kind of a role, a loving brother to Clarence, a lover to Anne or a victim of the others in his orbit. The audience feels sympathy for him as he realizes his vulnerable position and for the first time acknowledges the evil which he has done. But since Richard only reveals his feelings of guilt in the last act of the play, the audience/reader is not privy to his internal turmoil and thus the sense of psychological tragedy cannot be built upon.Socially, Richard is isolated from both the upper and lower classes of English society, for in Act I, Scene III, Richard sarcastically calls Elizabeth “sister” and she contemptuously calls him “brother of Gloucester,” a swipe of mockery at his familial bonds. Margaret refers to him as “cacodemon” and “devil,” which highlights that any unity between the characters is temporary and superficial. In Act III, the citizens are said to be “mum” and “deadly pale” which reflects a sense of quiet opposition to Richard’s dastardly activities. Thus, Richard is separated from all those around him, yet temporarily, we see Richard and Buckingham share a kind of bond as Richard denotes him as “My other self,” “My Oracle” and “My prophet.” But they part when Buckingham hesitates to kill the young princes as a result of Richard saying “I wish the bastards dead.” This is the only time that the audience/reader sees Richard truly interact with any other man, but the realization soon comes that this interaction is for purely political purposes and that the union only exists while Buckingham remains useful to Richard. Our sympathy for Richard is limited as we discover he has no true friends and does not genuinely care for his family. Yet even with this increasing isolation, the sense of tragedy upon Richard’s death is not truly saddening to the audience/reader, due to feeling no sense of waste at his loss.Richard also isolates himself from God as he claims to be above the laws of God and utilizes religion as another tool in order to appear holy and just before he becomes king. As the murders accumulate, so does Richard’s separation from God and the need for his death increases. But ironically, being closer to death brings him closer to being in the presence of God.However, Richard does not increasingly isolate himself from the audience/reader, for from their omniscient position, they share in “Richard’s wit, sarcasm and the dramatic irony brought about when the other characters are not fully aware of the implications of his words” (Cheetham 256). Richard also shares his feelings with the audience/reader, although they are not always reliable. But the fact that he enjoys his villainy to such a great extent and feels no remorse for his murders, reduces him to a figure of vice and corruption which detracts from a tragic figure of great proportions.The most poignant part of the play occurs when we see the young princes talking of happy things to their uncle and “Lord Protector.” York says “I shall not sleep quiet in the tower,” and we pity them as they are young and frightened and are forced to occupy the Bloody Tower because “My Lord Protector needs will have is so.” This appears to be the greatest tragic loss in the play which is heightened by the youth and innocence of the two princes. The true tragedy of Richard, at least to the audience/reader, is gained via his attractiveness of a villain who is not constrained by the rules of proper society. In essence, Richard’s isolation appears to increase throughout the play via his villainy and tyranny, but in reality, it is firmly based upon his own inner demons which control his twisted mind and lead him inexorably towards the grave.BIBLIOGRAPHYCheetham, Anthony. The Life and Times of Richard III. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. New York: Routledge, Kegan and Paul, 1988.
Angels of Wrath – The Women of Richard III
And lived with looking on his images;But now two mirrors of his princely semblanceAre cracked in pieces by malignant death,And I for comfort have but one false glassThat grieves me when I see my shame in him.Thus does the Duchess of York lament the birth of her own son, Richard III, perhaps Shakespeare’s most evil creation. A machiavellian who delights in governing with fear and force, his evil is only offset by his ready and cunning wit. As his talents lead others to self-destruction, the audience too succumbs to Richard’s wit and egoism until finally his cruelty appears repulsive and destructive. Yet Shakespeare does provide a counterpoint, a sharp contrast, to Richard’s villainy. The women of Richard III function as voices of protest and morality. They often see through Richard’s intrigues and predict the dire consequences of his acts. Shakespeare uses the women to point out moral truths and emphasize general principles of the Elizabethan worldview of “moral and political order” (Tillyard 108). Whereas Shakespeare’s Richard III pursues his malevolent intentions wielding a disarming wit and a bloody, conscience-less sword, the women of the play derive what power they have from sincere verbal poison and from raw, unbridled sentiment. Lady Anne, the Duchess of York, Margaret and Elizabeth, subverted in their roles as queens, mothers and wives, each contribute to the furthering of Shakespeare’s moral themes in several ways—through their roles as victims as expressed in their intense lamentations, in their cries for revenge through divine retribution, and in “alluding to a higher moral order that transcends the actions of the men” (Tillyard 107). In each of these ways, the women of Richard III help illustrate how destruction comes about when order, both political and moral, is violated, either by the weakness of a reigning king, or through the machinations of those who cause civil war by wanting to take the king’s place. Such instability and chaos devastates the individual, the family, and the nation, resulting in moral decay, treachery, anarchy and a profound level of human suffering.”The world that Shakespeare portrays in Richard III is a man’s world” (Asimov 313). The women are presented as sideline characters that function only to grieve, complain, or bury the dead. Richard himself views women as tools, as shown by his various asides to the audience when he announces his plots, in which the marrying of Anne or Elizabeth are only moves in his elaborate games of intrigue and power. Shakespeare further emphasizes the woman’s inferior role as Richard invariably “allocates his own guilt along sexual lines so that women are the root his evil” (Tillyard 111). He declares to his condemned brother Clarence that “this it is when men are ruled by women,” implying that it was Queen Elizabeth who “tempted” her husband into the “harsh extremity” of executing his own brother, thereby deflecting blame from himself, the true perpetrator of the plot. “Simply, plain Clarence,” laughs Richard. I do love thee so that I will shortly send thy soul to heaven.”Overwhelmingly, the women are victims of such political machinations, and though their vulnerability allows their manipulation, the eloquent expressions of their grief shows not only that Richard’s schemes are played out on people whose agony of body and spirit can be intensely real, but also shows that the state of civil turmoil, disorder, and treachery that has prevailed since the War of the Roses began leaves no one untouched by suffering.Anne, the first woman we are introduced to, is grief stricken by the deaths of her husband Edward and his father King Henry VI, both slain by the hand of Richard. “Poor key-cold figure of a holy king, / Pale ashes of the house of Lancaster,” she cries. “Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost / To hear the lamentations of poor Anne.” In portraying this genuine heartbreak, Shakespeare gives the audience its first taste of the despair wrought by his villain-hero’s handiwork. At the same time, the “allocation of guilt” is further evident. When Anne charges him with the bloody murders of her loved ones, Richard initially scrambles for a surrogate, blaming Edward IV and Margaret) before hitting upon a far more effective line, accusing Anne as the primary “causer” of the deaths (Tillyard 111). “Your beauty was the cause of that effect! / Your beauty that did haunt me in my sleep! / To undertake the death of all the world, / So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom. Shakespeare expands scope of the grief in the second scene of Act II, in which both Elizabeth and the Duchess lament and enumerate similar losses of loved ones. The Duchess cries in agony, “Was never mother had so dear a loss. / Alas! I am the mother of these griefs! / …Alas! You three on me, threefold distressed, / Pour all your tears! I am your sorrow’s nurse, / and I will pamper it with lamentation.” The Duchess here laments that Richard, her “false glass” of comfort, “has plucked my two crutches from my feeble hands,” the crutches being her sons Clarence and Edward. She calls for the former Queen Margaret, who has lost her husband and son, for the Queen Elizabeth who has lost her husband, and for the orphaned children of Clarence, to pour their collective grief onto her, for she is the mother of the fiend that wrought this avalanche of distress.Act IV contains some of the play’s most poignant lines when Elizabeth looks back on the Tower, suspecting she may never see her imprisoned sons again. “Ah my, poor princes! / If yet your gentle souls fly in the air, hover about me with your airy wings / And hear your mother’s lamentation.” It is in this moment, as Richard condemns the young and innocent princes to die, that the audience finally finds Richard’s cruelty to be repulsive, and thus turn their sympathy toward the victim’s of his villainy. In the same scene, the Duchess sums up the state of despair all the women find themselves in when she says, “I to my grave, where peace and rest lie with me! / Eighty odd years of sorrow have I seen, and each hour’s joy wracked with a week of teen.” Though one can call the Duchess and the former Queen Margaret monotones of complaint, the point is made that this individual devastation is the result of the disaster that has befallen the nation as a whole. Everyone is tainted–even the women are not entirely guiltless in the struggle between the warring houses. Through their passive acceptance, as in Anne’s acceptance of Richard’s proposal, to Margaret’s very active part as a soldier in the battlefield, the blood and barbarities of civil strife have reduced everyone, but especially the women, to helpless creatures who can only recite psalms of grief, guilt, and sorrow.Finally, in the fourth scene of Act IV, “the wailing queens” Margaret, the Duchess, and Elizabeth unite in their mournings. Again, Shakespeare uses the women to emphasize the woeful state of the nation. Elizabeth asks Margaret to teach her how to curse, cursing being the only outlet for these women, powerful in title but impotent in reality, incapable of stemming the tide of sorrow and suffering the disorder of the times has wrought. “Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days / Compare dead happiness with living woe… / Bett’ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse; / Revolving this will teach thee how to curse,” replies Margaret to Elizabeth’s plea. As the women lament their loss, the audience is once again made aware of how destructive Richard’s vengeful crimes against the world have been. Shakespeare uses their sorrow to finally illuminate Richard as the villain that he is.In considerations of the way women employs women as scapegoats and currency, younger females have received the most attention (Succio 51). However, when we consider how Richard uses women as ciphers, three older women—Queen Elizabeth, Margaret and the Duchess of York—step reluctantly into the foreground. All of these women suffer, on one level, a loss of definition at the hand of Richard. “Not only does Richard subvert the role of queen, he also undermines the roles of mother and wife” (Tillyard 117). For example while the death of Edward robs Elizabeth of a husband, it robs the Duchess of York of a son. Her “stock” now depleted by two-thirds, the Duchess turns to Elizabeth commenting that unlike her, “Thou art a widow, yet thou art a mother / And hast the comfort of thy children left. In addressing Elizabeth’s yet current claim to motherhood, the Duchess appears to abjure her own; it is as if she no longer wants to assume the title of mother if Richard is the son who grants her this right; accepting “motherhood” means accepting responsibility for “all these griefs,” for the losses sustained by Elizabeth and by Clarence’s Children. It is not enough for one mother to abandon her claim to the title of mother; Richard pursues a course of action that eventually forces Elizabeth to relinquish her claim also. As this process is set in motion, the “Protector” refuses to grant Elizabeth her status as mother, refusing to admit her to the Tower to see her children. Elizabeth cries in protest, “Hath he set bounds between their love and me? / I am their mother; who shall bar me from them?” Yet after the deaths of young Edward and Richard, Elizabeth is forced to perform an about-face in order to protect her remaining child. Because of Richard’s manipulations, a “mother’s name is ominous to children”; hence, she must deny her title of mother in order to express her genuine identity a mother concerned for her children’s welfare. She dispatches her son Dorset to France—“O Dorset, speak not to me, get thee gone!”—and expresses her willingness to deny the legitimacy of young Elizabeth’s birth to save her marriage from Richard. “I’ll corrupt her manners, stain her beauty, / Slander myself as false to Edward’s bed …/ I will confess she was not Edward’s daughter.” It is the love of a mother for her daughter, which prompts Elizabeth’s offer; she willingly renounces her titles of both wife and legitimate mother (Tillyard 118). In these examples, Richard’s general course of action is such to encourage women to abandon traditional titles, to de-identify themselves. Both the womens’ resistance and passivity to this desire endures them to the audience as victims undeserving of Richard’s seemingly interminable malice.When the women are not grieving, they are often venting their hate. The expressions of Margaret’s thirst for revenge are her curses, and she levels them generously on all who contributed to her personal losses: while she also evokes the mechanical aspect of justice when she prophesizes their destruction. “Can curses pierce clouds, and enter heaven?” she cries. “Why then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses.” After foretelling the fates of all the “lords, ladies, queens, princes and kings” that she feels have perpetrated her downfall, she turns her wrath on Richard (Succio42). “On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace! / The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul! / Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest, / And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends! / No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine, / Unless it be while some tormenting dream.” Here the audience first glimpses the scope of the destruction that vengeful hate will cause. The already damned former queen will watch with only a tempered satisfaction as all of her curses are fulfilled with startling clarity. Each of the women join Margaret in cursing Richard, the most concentrated representation of the evil and illness that pervades the country, but it is interesting to note how often the curse reverses on the curser. Anne acknowledges this, thus admitting to her own duplicity in the mess everyone finds themselves in. As she stands before the corpse of her murdered father-in-law, she condemns herself unknowingly. “If he ever have a wife, let her be made / More miserable by the death of him / Than I am made by my young lord and thee!” Of course, as she succumbs to the sweetened words of Richard and accepts his offer of marriage, the curse she has made falls upon her. “Within so small a time, my woman’s ear / Grossly grew captive to his honeyed words / And proved the subject of mine own soul’s curse.” Richard loses any shred of sympathy or support when his own mother curses herself for hatching a “cockatrice” whose “unavoided eye is murderous.” Thus, Shakespeare once again demonstrates that even to the perpetrator, revenge is ultimately destructive in its very nature. This theme is constantly apparent, as by the end of the play, the description “alive—but neither mother, wife nor England’s queen” applies to Margaret, Elizabeth and the Duchess. All the scenes of female lamentation are riddled with curses, “calling for justice when all are guilty” (Succio 45). Shakespeare uses the women to illustrate how England itself is under a curse of “civil dissension and moral ill” (Tillyard 113). The ring of curses and the cries for justice directly reflect how deep the morass of blood, treachery, and disorder has become, and how urgently rightful order needs to be restored.But does vengeance belong to man or God? Shakespeare uses the tension created by Margaret’s curses and cries for personal revenge to answer this question in the person of Richmond. Throughout the play a “moral order that transcends men’s actions” is eluded to but never given full expression until the last act. It is to this moral order, this “immutable form of divine justice,” that all the women are appealing when they cry to the heavens for their wrongs to be righted, especially poignant in the “wailing queens'” scene (Tillyard 113). In this scene, Margaret points out to Elizabeth how temporal life is: “For happy wife, a most distressed widow;; / For joyful mother, one that wails the name; …/ Thus hath the course of justice whirled about / And left thee but a very prey to time.”However, though Margaret uses this allusion to temporality to emphasize the maxim “what goes around comes around,” she confuses the fulfillment of her wishes with divine justice. “Her curses come true because they should have, not because she wants them to” (Succio 45). She, like the other women, tend to be morally myopic in their cries for justice, unable, or unwilling, to recognize their own guilt. Shakespeare makes Margaret the incarnation of the wrong sort of justice, derived from the Old Testament style of retributive justice, but he contrasts her with Richmond who submits himself to a higher order and incorporates forgiveness into his idea of justice (Succio 48). “In God’s name, cheerly on, courageous friends,” Richmond humbly says to his army. “Reap the harvest of perpetual peace, / By this one trial of bloody war.” Here it is clear that Richmond is not fighting a war for the sake of personal gain. He is fighting in order to rid England of Richard, that “wretched, bloody, usurping boar.” The fact that Shakespeare portrays Richmond as the nation’s savior, not bringing him into the play until the last scene and making plain that Richmond alone is untainted by the treachery that has gone before, endorses the fact that Shakespeare himself felt that vengeance belonged to God, made plain when Richmond submits himself to this higher order (Tillyard 141).In the last scene when Richard and Richmond present their soliloquies, the contrast between submission to order and extreme individualism is very clearly the contrast between good and evil. Here Shakespeare makes it clear that “there is an existence beyond the realm of men that nevertheless has a profound effect on human life and experience” (Succio 51). Margaret and the other women of the play serve to bring about this realization, through their lamentations and cries for revenge, that something over and above the world of men is needed to right the state of the country. They cry to this higher order and bring the need for its intervention to our attention, and this is their greatest contribution. Only their own participation in furthering the state of disorder prevents them from benefiting significantly from order’s restoration in the form of Richmond’s victory.Cicero once said, “Justice is the essential virtue and moral right is the basis of action.” In Richard III, Shakespeare shows how the existing order of England has been violated and presents the conflict and turmoil that results on both the individual and national levels. Order is restored only by the eradication of the forces that originally violated it and Shakespeare shows that these forces were essentially immoral in nature. The female characters are the major vehicles of this view, by voicing the sorrow that results from the disruption of moral order, through their cries for retributive justice, and through their appeals for this justice from a divine realm. They are the essential contrast to Richard’s evil, and through their struggles against his dominance they serve not only to illustrate the necessity of the restoration of order, but also to bring about that restoration. In moral terms, the women of the play thus serve to mitigate the natural destructiveness inherent in a male dominated world.Works CitedAsimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. New York: Avenel Books, 1958.Succio, Peter. “Manipulations of Curses in Richard III.” Meanings of Shakespeare. Ed. Richard S. Sylvester. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968. 39-48.Shakespeare, William. Richard III. New York: Washington Square Press, 1960.Tillyard, E.M.W. “The Personal Dramas of Richard III” William Shakespeare: The Histories. London: Greenhaven Press, 1971.
Deformity of the Mind: Richard’s Source of Villainy
In William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard opens the play by informing the audience that, since he is “not shap’d for sportive tricks ” (I.i.16) that are expected in the peacetime following the York’s victory, he can only prove a spiteful, scheming villain. He goes on to describe his incompatibility with the leisure of peacetime in terms of his deformity his hunched back and shriveled, weak arm naming this as the source of his wickedness. Like Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light In August, Richard struggles with his mental and emotional identity in terms of his physical identity; Is Richard’s physical condition a manifestation of his evil nature which further emphasizes the depravity already present in Richard’s mind, or is his evil behavior a result of years with a physical deformity in a superstitious, intolerant society? After carefully reading and analyzing of the play, it becomes evident that the latter is true. In a sense, Richard’s deformity is the cause of his vile nature; Richard’s villainy is derived from his belief that his physical deformity and the effects of that deformity prevent him from being a good person. In this respect, Richard’s condition limits him and leads to his ultimate emotional break down in the final act. By carefully analyzing Richard’s opening soliloquy and his much later battlefield soliloquy, the effects of his physical deformity are evident.Richard’s opening soliloquy establishes Richard’s character and status as a villain for the entirety of the play “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain” (I.i.30-32). Through this speech, he acknowledges the audience as his confidant, so that his schemes are always communicated and it is clear when he is being false to other characters. This is also the moment when he reveals his motives for his evil deeds, which he attributes wholly to his physical deformity, “Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, / Have no delight to pass away the time, / Unless to see my shadow in the sun/ And descant on mine own deformity” (I.i.26-29).Since Richard needs to establish his antagonist status in light of the recent tranquility that has settled over England, it leads us, the audience, to assume that he neither considered himself nor was considered by others to be a villain during the former period of hostilities. Bearing in mind that he was the warrior who is given the credit for King Henry’s death and that of his son’s, thereby placing Richard’s brother on the throne and winning the war for his family, Richard in fact may have been considered a hero. Margaret, the former regime’s queen, echoes Lady Anne in the previous scene as she names Richard the murderer of her husband and son, “Thou kill’dst my husband Henry in the Tower, / And Edward, my poor son, at Tewksbury.” (I.iii.124-125).This indicates that his actions were not always malicious, indicating a different “Richard” A Richard compatible to some degree with his surroundings. This “other Richard” surfaces again in his interactions with Lady Anne in the second scene. Although Richard has convinced the audience that he is merely acting for Anne, his performance contradicts his previous conviction that he is unable to “prove a lover” (I.i.30). Richard proves to be a very convincing “lover” as he successfully woos her to his own surprise, over the body of her dead husband, whom he killed, “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? / Was ever woman in this humour won?” (I.ii.241-242). Richard wears the lover’s facade as easily as he wore that of the villain in the first scene. He is also shown to be a very convincing, supportive brother, uncle, and politician in later parts of the play. In fact, the more that the play progresses, and the more roles that Richard plays, the less credible his opening convictions seem to be. Obviously, Richard has the capability to be anything he wishes, so why does his physicality dominate his idea of what he should be?Returning to the concept of Richard as a Yorkist war hero and being his family’s champion, one might naturally ask why he developed the homicidal attitude toward them. The source of his state of mine may lie in the attitude of his mother, who never shows Richard any maternal love or affection, even in the beginning of the play before he has committed any atrocities. Without stepping outside the fictional realm of the play, it is safe to theorize that Richard’s mental perversity may be an indirect result of his mother’s and perhaps other characters’ treatment of his physical deformity. Through her later speeches, the audience discovers that the Duchess has abhorred Richard since his birth, “Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell. / A grievous burden was thy birth to me” (IV.iv.172-173). The audience may assume that Richard was taught to consider himself evil through his mother’s attitude. During this time period it was superstitiously believed that one’s body mirrored the soul. In this way, Richard’s crooked and hideous form consigns him to being thought of as “evil” or at least treated as such whether or not this is his true nature. Without having a violent outlet like the war, Richard falls into a deeper isolation from his family than he had experienced before. If he cannot win acceptance through success in battle, Richard chooses to embrace his isolation and strike out against them. The combination of his alienation and years of being treated as a deformed devil convince Richard of his own maliciousness and indicate vile behavior as his expected and natural disposition.If there is any question concerning Richard’s identity crisis, it is confirmed by his soliloquy the Act five, Scene three. Here, Richard awakens from a nightmare, in which all of his victims curse him. Shakespeare indicates Richard’s heightened anxiety through the short exclamatory statements in this speech, which contrast with the long, grand sentences exhibited in his earlier soliloquy (I.i.1-43). These statements confirm that Richard is loosening his grip on his sense of self. After playing so many diverse roles in his climb to the throne, Richard is unable to come to terms with his actions and his identity. He addresses himself in the third person and names himself a murderer; the resulting confusion of the audience on the level of language signifies his own psychological turmoil, “Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. / Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I amO! no: alas! I rather hate myself / For hateful deeds committed by myself,” (V.iii.202-209). This speech indicates that he finally realizes the consequences of his murders and his treacheries; none love him and none will mourn his death, “Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (V.iii.221-222).The audience sees Richard’s self-depreciation exposed as he admits to the immorality of his crimes. He describes himself as being “condemned” as a villain (V.iii.214), which is a stark contrast to his embracing attitude toward the antagonist distinction in his soliloquy in the first act. This is also an example of Richard’s crumbling resolve and dulled cunning, revealing a more awkward and more anxious Richard than had existed in the first act. This soliloquy indicates that Richard’s villainous facade is unraveling. Moreover, the audience sees that this façade was just another role in Richard’s search for identity. As he reaches his goal his family dead and his allies traitorous all that remains is himself, a man who he never understood and a role that is finally deserting him.Richard’s villainous character crumbles in Act Five, scene three. It is now obvious that his villainy was merely a role, which he adopted from the beginning of the play. The source of his villainy, as he claims, is his deformity, which prevents him from being anything else. However, this claim is shown to be false when Richard proves himself to be a dashing lover, a loyal brother, a compassionate uncle, and the many other roles that he assumes in subsequent scenes. Richard’s physical circumstances, therefore, only hinder him mentally, controlling what he thinks he is, instead of what he actually could be. Shakespeare indicates that this idea may theoretically spring from his mother’s verbal abuse of him in later scenes. Therefore, the combination of Richard’s first soliloquy, his mother’s treatment, and his final soliloquy support the argument that Richard’s villainous tendencies originate from his physical deformity. This identity crisis is immediately addressed and finally answered, framing the play and becoming one of the play’s most dynamic and subtle conflicts.
Speculation on Richard III’s Malignity
‘Distortum vultum sequitur distortio morum.'[Distortion of character follows a distorted countenance.] –Thomas MoreShakespeare’s Richard III from the so-titled play shares the unsettling characteristic of being expressly “determined to prove a villain” (I.i.30) with other Shakespeare creations, most notably, Iago of Othello, and Aaron the Moor of Titus Andronicus, who, like Richard is quite obviously a physical outsider. Richard’s statement, which Shakespeare includes in the first scene, carries an ambiguous, double-edged meaning. First, Richard is saying by this that he is resolved to “prove” himself “a villain.” This interpretation requires that the reader imbue Richard with free will. The OED’s definition of “resolving” as the act of “making up one’s mind” shows why. If life is pre-ordained then a man can never make up his own mind, only destiny can. Being resolved is the subject’s demonstration of free will. The second possible interpretation directly contradicts the first. That is, Richard might be saying that he is “determined” as by fate (or perhaps his author, Shakespeare) to “prove a villain.” In this case, he has no choice, no freedom. When we examine the most obvious question that Richard III raises — ‘What motivates Richard to be evil?’ — we must remember that the question, as revealed in Richard’s opening soliloquy, might not be applicable. In a world of fate, personal motivation doesn’t exist.This said, Richard’s dense line only half suggests that the tragedy takes place in a universe controlled by fate. And, there are some interesting methods of trying to understand Richard without immediately resorting to describing him, as Granville Barker reductively described Richard’s descendent, Iago, as “only a poisoned and poisonous ganglion of cravings after evil” (Spivack 3). Firstly, most easily, Richard himself gives a reason from the start for acting as he does. He characterizes himself as “deformed,” “unfinished,” “unfashionable,” and this ugliness, he claims, keeps him from being a “lover,” keeps him “want[ing] loves majesty.” So, he justifies, “to entertain these fair well-spoken days,” he is “determined to prove a villain” (I.i.20-30). Superficially this makes sense until, in the very next scene, he successfully seduces the single woman, Lady Anne, who is (or, at least, should be) the absolutely most difficult one for him to get. If her last match counts for anything, she is presumably very pretty, but, more importantly, she is the widow and daughter-in-law of two men whom Richard himself murdered. If this doesn’t yet prove that, while his physique leaves something to be desired, his charisma is overwhelming and makes being a “lover” potentially easy for him, we see him sexually attract the only other woman who should be as difficult as Anne for him to get in a later scene. This is the “Queen,” his dead brother’s widow, whose sons, brothers, and brother-in-law Richard himself has killed. After a witty banter between the two, Richard and the Queen, wherein he convinces her to marry her own daughter to him, he bestows on her a “true love’s kiss” (IV.iv.349). She too succumbs to him as a lover, despite his known evil and his physical deformity. Additionally, when Lady Anne has the opportunity to bewail her marital conditions, she complains that “never yet one hour in his bed have I enjoyed the golden dew of sleep… Besides, he hates me” (IV.ii.78-81). She specifically doesn’t complain about his prowess in bed while awake, and doesn’t even say that she has fallen out of love with him, rather, she only notes that he is not in love with her. It seems, if anything, that Richard is a fantastic lover (insofar as being such classically requires none of the true emotion). Through these two examples of nearly impossible, and yet successful, seductions, Shakespeare’s audience sees that Richard III’s tragic evil star is unreliable in the motives he attributes to himself. He can, if he wants, be a lover. Having dismissed the possibility that Richard himself provides us wth an answer, we come back to what we started with. Either Richard doesn’t possess any motives as such, or else, they aren’t so obvious as to be defined by him or anyone else directly. The latter of these two options leaves us open to a more intriguing answer than Richard’s own to the question of Richard’s motivation.It is a paradox — plausible in a piece of literature that employs such paradoxical lines as “Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it” (I.ii.15). Richard, being ugly, is classically equated with being evil. Thomas More, in his History of King Richard III, the text upon which Shakespeare primarily based his play, makes the connection between appearance and reality clear, when More describes Richard as having “evil-featured limbs, crook-backed, the left shoulder much higher than the right.” As Jowett points out, “More’s vocabulary is telling in itself: the limbs are, as it were, wicked of feature rather than simply ugly; crook or crooked can mean ‘deviating from rectitude,’ and the left side of the body, here dominating, was associated with evil. (Jowett 32)”Shakespeare’s own secondary characters make similar equations. Margaret, the old Queen, curses Richard with dreams of “a hell of ugly devils” and goes on to cry, “thou elvish-marked…Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity the slave of nature and the son of hell” (I.iii.224-7). Not only does she paint her devils as ugly, thereby implying the connection between ugliness and treachery, she makes the more outright connection in the phrase, “elvish-marked,” which, as Jowett cites in his footnote to the phrase, “Refers to a belief that physical defects were left by malignant elves to mark an infant out for wicked deeds.” Margaret categorically sees Richard’s physical body as a testament to his soul’s sinfulness, and she tells him so. Likewise, Richard’s own mother draws a link, saying, “He [Richard] was the wretched’st thing when he was young” (II.iv.18). Rather than using a less powerful word than “wretched” that might refer solely to his physical being, the Duchess employs this strong one with many negative connotations. Finally, in Richmond’s last speech, he closes the play calling England a “fair land” (V.vii.39, italics mine). Like More, Richmond uses a word that simultaneously means something moral and something superficial. In this case, the single adjective brings together justice and attractiveness. Knowing, as Richard does, that the nature of someone’s true person is commonly derived from his outward appearance, and knowing, as Richard does, that he is ugly, it makes sense that he should want to undermine the equation. This conjecture would explain his will to deception. If he can trick people, he will effectively demonstrate that appearance does not reveal reality, in fact, he will prove just the opposite. Logically, this would show that his ugliness does not make him evil. One of Richard’s shining moments comes when he gives advice to his nephew, “Your Grace attended to their [your uncles] sugared words,” he says, “But looked not on the poison of their hearts” (III.i.13-14). In expressing this sentiment, he is simultaneously able to deceive magnificently by taking the Christian moral high-ground, and expounding the basic philosophy he wants to convey, that appearance does not necessarily reflect reality. His co-conspirators, Buckingham and Catesby, both recognize the importance of deception as well, “I can counterfeit the deep tragedian” (III.v.6), declares the first, while the latter states, “My heart is ten times lighter than my looks” (V.iii.3). And, Richard’s skill in deception successfully teaches his lesson to his enemies. Hastings, for instance, realizes, as he goes to his Richard-ordained death, “Who builds his hopes in air of your [worldly man’s] fair looks Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast, Ready with every nod to tumble down Into the fatal bowels of the deep” (III.v.103-6). Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, makes a similar statement when she sees that her son has duped his nephew, her grandchild, “O that deceit should steal such gentle shapes,” she laments, “and with a virtuous visor hide foul guile!” (II.ii.26-7). Even Richard’s brother, Clarence, unwittingly has a visually powerful revelation along the same lines the night Richard incites his death. Here, he sees in a dream, “Some [jewels] lay[ing] in dead men’s skulls, and in those holes where eyes did once inhabit there were crept… reflecting gems” (I.iv.27-9). Although Clarence himself is unaware of his dream’s meaning, the audience knows it is a prophesy of his near death. It is also a clue as to what he has failed to see up to that point, that what something seems to be is the opposite of what it really is inside: the skull, impoverished of life and humanity on the outside is rich with “unvalued” items on the inside just as Richard is brimming with kindness on the outside while he is a deceiving “wretch” within.Ironically though, Richard’s method of proving the appearance / reality opposition by “seem[ing] a saint when I most play the devil” (I.iii.338) actually proves the initial assumption he was working against. That is, he shows himself to be terribly evil, and this perfectly reflects his physical deformity on the traditional level Margaret so callously outlines. As Aaron the Moor “makes his heart black like his face,” so too does Richard make his heart crooked like his body. The night before Richard’s “bloody death” on the battlefield, his mostly successful attempts to divide himself into opposing factions, one inner, the other outer, comes to haunt him in wakefulness. “Is there a murderer here?” he asks, alone, terrified, “No. — Yes, I am,” he replies, “Then fly.” he orders, “What, from myself?” he again retorts. His ability to divide himself has not only crushed those around him, it has also crushed and hurt himself. The unnatural division he inspired in himself to try make a point to those around him results in being the beginning of the end for him.This all aside though, it might be, as Bernard Spivack implies in his book, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil, and, as Richard himself accounts for in his opening soliloquy, that looking for a motivation in Richard to account for his acting evil is unnecessary and unfounded. Spivack draws our attention to the fact that Richard compares himself to “Iniquity” (III.i.79), the popular name of for the comic character that represented vice in the old morality plays. Spivack further says that Richard draws his “unmistakable vocabulary” from “the morality play,” and this shows Richard III’s “cradle in allegory” (399). Specifically, Richard is a brilliant user of homily, albeit ironically, which is the principal technique morality plays adopted in order to achieve their aim of spiritually edifying their audiences. Spivack reminds us that “Elizabethan drama was preceded and deeply influenced by [this] popular dramatic convention that was not naturalistic” (453). Perhaps looking for Richard’s motives is simply a Freudian anachronism.Works CitedShakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard III. Ed. John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Including Jowett’s Introduction and notes.Spivack, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: the history of metaphor in relation to his major villains. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.
King Richard III: Historical vs. Shakespearean Versions
The Tragedy of King Richard III, a historical play written by William Shakespeare, depicts the story of a murderously scheming Machiavellian king and his rise to power, and subsequent short reign as king of England. Richard, during the play, wreaks havoc as he overthrows his brothers and nephews for the throne and eradicates all those who were against his reign. Although entertaining for both Elizabethan Era and modern audiences, and while some elements are accurate, there are numerous aspects to Shakespeare’s story that did not occur in real life. In fact, of the six major villainous acts Richard supposedly executed in Shakespeare’s recount of history, four have been disproved, while the other two cannot be proved conclusively.
The Shakespearean play begins during the brief period of rest England experienced during the Wars of the Roses, which occurred between 1455 and 1485. The Wars of the Roses was a series of English civil wars for the English throne fought between two branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet; the House of Lancaster, whose heraldic symbol was the red rose, and the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose. The play begins on a victorious note, as King Edward IV and his brothers, of the House of York, had removed King Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, off the throne. Similar events did occur in the past, however, Richard’s infamous soliloquy which immediately follows these events seem to be fiction, intended for dramatic and entertainment purposes.
Shakespeare describes Richard as a deformed hunchback who plans to prove himself a villain because of his birth defects. In his opening soliloquy, he explains to the audience that he is “rudely stamp’d […] cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before [his] time, Into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” He explains his deformities to the audience, describing his hideousness in full detail, and even saying, “dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” He uses these deformities as an excuse to become a villain, saying, “I am determined to prove a villain.” However, his appearance in the play does not coincide with his appearance in real life, proving that Shakespeare’s description is false. Shakespeare most likely wanted to make him as evil physically as he supposedly was mentally. In 2014, though, when his remains were discovered, they were examined by osteoarcheologist Dr. Jo Appleby, of Leicester University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, who concluded that, although Richard did suffer from spinal scoliosis, it was not severe enough to cause any major physical deformities.
Afterward, in the Shakespearean version, Richard plans to woo Anne Neville, the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales. He admits to killing her father, king Henry VI, and her husband, “I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter., What, though I kill’d her husband and her father?” However, the written accounts of Edward and king Henry VI’s death do not prove that king Richard III killed them. In fact, The Arrivall of Edward IV, the official account of the House of York’s events in1470/1471, does not detail Edward being stabbed by Richard, “… Edward, called Prince, was taken, fleigne to the towne wards, and slayne in the fielde.” Additionally, king Henry VI actually died in the Tower of London. Richard was said to be in the tower when he died, however, no official written record states that Richard killed him. Richard was most likely in the tower because, as Constable of England, it was his responsibility to deliver the official warrant to the Tower. Richard could not have killed Henry, as only another monarch, being Edward IV, could legally order a king’s death. Therefore, Richard is actually innocent of the deaths of king Henry VI and his son, Edward.
Following these events in the play, Richard then orders two murders to kill Clarence. Richard had delighted in the fact that he had arranged Clarence’s murder by tricking his other brother, Edward IV. He then sends two murderers to the tower to kill Clarence, saying ‘… Clarence hath not another day to live.” However, again there is no substantial evidence showing that Richard was behind Clarence’s death. In fact, the Crowland Chronicle recounted that, “… the execution, whatever form it took, was carried out secretly in the Tower of London”. Allegedly, Clarence and Edward’s relationship had been tense prior to 1478 ever since Edward thwarted Clarence’s plans to marry a Burgundian heiress. Clarence then began to question and ignore king Edward’s orders and authority, which caused Edward to arrange for Clarence’s execution on charges of treason. In fact, Jeremy Potter stated that, “There is no evidence … to connect Richard with the death of his brother Clarence, who was later executed on King Edward’s orders after a public slanging match.” This execution was believed by many to have upset Richard greatly, and Dominic Mancini recalled Richard was, “…so overcome with grief for his brother … that he was overheard to say he would one day avenge his brother’s death.”
Furthermore, Shakespeare wrote that Richard III killed his wife, Anne, after he acquired what he needed from her, and killed his brother’s two sons. Again, there is no substantial proof that would suggests Richard was responsible for Anne’s murder. After her death, many of his enemies spread rumors stating that she was killed by her husband, Richard III, and that he had plans to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. However, he made a public announcement quelling these rumors, stating that they were false. Also, after the princes disappeared in 1483, rumors again began to circulate with Richard as the one to blame for their deaths. Bones were found in the Tower of London, and after scientific examination, were determined to be of the same age as the princes. However, modern scientists determined that to be false, stating that the princes would have been younger.
Many theories have been created in order to understand the reasoning behind Shakespeare’s false accusations. A popular theory is that he wrote Richard III is a villain in order to perpetuate the Tudor myth. Shakespeare wrote the play around 1953, during that time that Queen Elizabeth I was in reign. Queen Elizabeth I, being a Tudor herself and the granddaughter of Richard’s replacement, king Henry VII, would not have taken light to Shakespeare writing about Richard as a valiant hero who did great things for England. Many people speculated that she and her predecessors wanted everyone to believe that the Tudor reign brought about peace and prosperity in England, and before they took the throne there was chaos, bloodshed and anarchy.
Although the play The Tragedy of King Richard III written by Shakespeare holds many false accusations regarding Richard’s crimes and villainy, the play and its characters was loved by many. Critic Katherine Blakeney even calls him a brilliant schemer and entertaining villain. However, the modern audiences who either watch or read the famous play knows that Richard’s villainous personality and the crimes he allegedly commits did not occur in the past.
A First for Everything: Richard III (1750 Production) and Shakespeare’s American Debut
Despite the fact that William Shakespeare enjoyed prominence across the pond in the 16th and 17th centuries, his influence hadn’t made its way to the American stage until the late 18th. While the information surrounding the first Shakespearean performance in America is unfortunately somewhat scattered, there still remains a plethora of dots to connect. Could we attribute this scarcity of information to the residual tenacity of religious fervor? What about the mounting tensions leading up to the Revolutionary War? In order to answer these questions among others, it’s necessary to do a little digging through some of the cultural norms and ideals that were prevalent at the time, such as the predominance of Puritanism and the fact that theatre in America began as more of an undercover affair than anything else.
The time was just before the Revolution and America wasn’t exactly America yet as we were still under the thumb of British imperialists. It would seem reasonable to assume that Shakespeare would have already been everywhere considering his infectious popularity around Europe and elsewhere, right? Wrong. Come to find out, Shakespeare didn’t take the American stage until 1750 with a performance of Richard III. Little is known about the individual performance save for that it was carried out on March 5, 1750, in New York. Noteworthy about this tale is that it is widely speculated that the members of this company were largely amateurs who had come over from London in the hopes of planting roots in America. A company formed by actors/managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean had set up shop “a large room in a building owned by [one] Rip Van Dam and converted it into a theatre” (Hornblow 45). Early details are rife with confusion but signs tend to point to this building being known as the First Nassau Street Theatre which was situated between John Street and Maiden Lane, housing roughly 280 people making it slightly smaller than a modern cinema auditorium. Though Richard III was the debut play at the First Nassau Street Theatre, it also served as the showplace for the first documented comedy performance in New York. In A History of the New York Stage, T. Allston Brown describes the place in detail: It was a two-storied house with high gables. The stage was raised five feet from the floor. The scenes, curtains and wings were all carried by the managers in their ‘property’ trunks. A green curtain was suspended from the ceiling. A pair of paper screens were erected upon the right and left hand sides for wings. Six wax lights were in front of the stage. The orchestra consisted of a German flute, horn and drum players. Suspended from the ceiling was the chandelier, made of a barrel hoop, through which were driven half a dozen nails into which were stuck so many candles. Two drop scenes representing a castle and a wood, bits of landscape river and mountain comprised the scenery. (Brown 2)
This quaint albeit reasonably elegant illustration runs in sharp contrast to most other performance halls of the time and region, which were often composed of little more than crude wooden setups devoid of most of the accoutrements of the theater. Why is this so? An incredibly toxic intermingling of church and state may be to blame. While the South was beginning to develop a thirst for dramatic theatre, “in the North the playhouse was still considered the highway to hell and was everywhere fiercely condemned if not actually forbidden under the severest penalties” (Hornblow 24). For example, legislation was passed in 1750 by the General Court of Massachusetts that “prohibit[ed] stage plays and theatrical entertainments of any kind” with similarly authoritarian laws being passed in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Unfortunately, the First Nassau Street Theatre was eventually bought up, converted into storage space, and finally demolished to make way for a church. Theatre was treated like a vice tantamount to drugs, alcohol, and all manner of other harmful transgressions though given the time, residual Puritanism was largely to blame for the hysteria.
As Puritanism made its way from across the Atlantic into pre-Revolution America so too did its mode of thought. They believed in a literal interpretation and application of Biblical thought completely absent of even the most abstract temptations. In the time leading up to early theatre in America, these “temptations” translated into music, poetry, and you guessed it: drama. Each of these was considered at best not conducive to receiving God and at worst a pathway to a lifetime of immortality worthy of damnation. Sounds like these folks really didn’t know much about having fun. Just half a century before the conception of the First Nassau Street Theater, the number of Puritans in American colonies rose six-fold “from 17,800 in 1640 to 106,000 in 1700. Religious exclusiveness was the foremost principle of their society. The spiritual beliefs that they held were strong. This strength held over to include community laws and customs” (Kizer par 4). Puritanism was infectious as it was antiquated, much like much of our current governing body, though such a discussion would need another essay entirely if not its own book. Before going too far off the rails, one could easily ascertain the significant impact religiosity had on theatre prior to the Revolution. Church and state danced together in a waltz atop a dancefloor made of most everything we take for granted as fun. This religious permeation resulted in newspapers and journals being heavily discouraged from including writings about most anything related to the goings-on of the dramatic stage. It was even custom at the time “for the actors themselves to distribute handbills at the houses of prospective theater goers” (Hornblow 23). Much like the modern denizens of indie musicians performing without the promotion of a record label, theatre in the North was largely an underground affair. America was stuck holding onto religious strings better left to fray.[BL1] [BL2] Despite the hostility, this didn’t stop actors from performing under special permits from local authorities seeing as laws against theatre were very loosely enforced in some of the more densely populated colonies. This can be quite considerably attributed to “a large and growing class in the important centres [sic] who were burdened with no such [Puritan conviction]—people of means and leisure who had only recently crossed the Atlantic…” (Hornblow 26). People crossing over brought with them fantastic accounts of the English theater, which left many of them thirsty for a taste of home upon reaching the colonial shores. Another aspect worth considering, complimentary to the time’s prevailing religious doctrine is the glaring lack of a distinctly “American” literary and dramatic identity. This ties back into the influence of Puritanism as well as the fact that America had yet to fully unify as a country.
Digging further into colonial religiosity, the rules surrounding drama and theatre were becoming lesser and lesser as the areas grew more populous. This in turn begs the question: why was Richard III the first documented Shakespearean work performed in an American theatre? Think of the time in which the play was performed as well as the surrounding political climate. America was in a groaning, churning state of uneasiness against the British regime with the play’s performance taking place just 26 years before the start of the Revolutionary War. One of the primary themes in Richard III is usurpation. See where this is headed? It would appear as though the choice of Richard III amidst the oppressive regime and Puritanical perforation was a conscious one. Within the context of the play, Richard is an articulate, astute tyrant suffering from a deformity. In the eye of the American audience, Richard could perhaps serve as an allegorical figure for imperialist Britain. Analysis suggests “[Richard’s] ugliness is an aesthetic attribute that symbolizes his evil, but at the same time, Richard artfully crafts false appearances of goodness” (Slotkin 10). This posits the idea that the character of Richard is not merely inebriated by evil and a lust for power; he is fully conscious of the malleability of people beneath him. “In the development of [this] dramatic action, theatricality and deformity become sources of erotic attraction. Richard uses his two contradictory modes of seeming—alternately displaying his virtuous visor and his deep vice to generate two different kinds of appeal” (Slotkin 11). Richard, like the British rule over American colonies, painted a picture of greatness but was ultimately motivated from selfish intent. His charisma stemmed from instilling fear as opposed to exuding genuine swagger. Could Richard’s usurpation and demise at the end of the play represent early thoughts of rebellion and revolution on the parts of the playwrights of the First Nassau Street Theatre? Let’s take a look at the play. In the fifth act of Richard III a climactic storm is brewing between the tyrannical King Richard and one Richmond, who serves as a symbol of goodness and honorability. A duel is about to take place and in a speech to his soldiers, Richmond ejaculates: God and our good cause fight upon our side. / The prayers of holy saints and wronged souls, / Like high-reared bulwarks, stand before our faces. / Richard except, those whom we fight against / Had rather have us win than him they follow. / For what is he they follow? Truly, gentlemen, / A bloody tyrant and a homicide; / One raised in blood, and one in blood established; / One that means to come by what he hath, / And slaughtered those that were the means to help him; (5.3.240-249)
In this passage, Richmond is asserting the righteous necessity to overthrow the despotic rule enacted by King Richard by suggesting that divinity is on his side backed up by the blessing “of holy saints and wronged souls.” Quite possibly these “wronged souls” could be a reference to the people whom Richard had killed off in his lascivious pursuit of the throne of England. Further credence is lent to this concept by the text’s repetitious use of the word “blood” with each instance positing a slightly different meaning. Richard being referred to as “a bloody tyrant and a homicide” characterizes his cruelty, inaugurating him as death incarnate. Him being “raised in blood” could be read as an allusion to his deformity; Richard is marked by that the way others are marked by blood while finally him being “in blood established” insinuates that all Richard has known and will know is violence. The fact that “blood” appears three times in this specific tract could be read as an antithesis of the Holy Trinity, Richard serving as the grotesque amalgamation of the three. Conversely, Richmond is rallying himself as a Godlike figure; a savior to oppressed people. He refers to “our good cause” rather than “his” cause conceivably as an intentional contrast to the bleak and selfish conquest of Richard. Richmond’s endeavor is successful as he winds up overthrowing and killing Richard, a classic example of good overcoming evil. Nearly 300 years later and America is left under a similarly oppressive state being subject to both the rule of imperialist Britain and the influence of colonial Puritanism. It should seem as more than a mere coincidence that Richard III served as America’s Shakespearean debut.
In the years immediately following the performances at the First Nassau Street Theatre, America was starting to see perpetual upheaval. 1754 saw the start of the French and Indian War and in October of 1760, King George III took over rule of the British Empire and “favor[ed] new political leaders and advisors who follow[ed] a stricter policy toward the colonies” (“Timeline” par 5). Perhaps the decision to perform Richard III in 1750 served as a not-so-cryptic reflection of the thoughts of certain people looking for their Richmond. Years later[BL3] following the American Revolution, performances of Shakespeare began to enjoy a great deal of proliferation. “[Starting around 1800], Shakespeare accounted for one-quarter of all dramatic productions in cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard. [People] could see 21 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays” (Grimes par 2). Americans simply couldn’t get enough and the trend continues today.
With America groaning and growing like an angst-ridden teenager, one might often wonder why the works of William Shakespeare took so long to make it to the American stage. Despite a relative scarcity of available information, evidence suggests that religious zeal contributed to a lack of early understanding of literature and drama. Rather than enlighten and enrich their collective cultural palate, people of the time opted to cast off most artistic mediums as salacious temptation. Pairing America’s lack of a unified identity with a predominant religious ideology and the picture gradually becomes clearer: we simply weren’t cultured in the way England and other countries were. We didn’t have literature or dramatic art that was distinctly “American.” There’s a first for everything, whether it be a Shakespearean performance or an armed revolt that leads to unity and developing an independent identity.
Brown, Thomas A. A History of the New York Stage. Vol. 1, Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1903.
Grimes, William. “Measuring America’s Shakespearean Devotion.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Mar. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/03/20/books/measuring-americas-shakespearean-devotion.html.
Hornblow, Arthur. A History of the Theatre in America. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1919.
Kizer, Kay. “Puritans.” University of Notre Dame, www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/puritans.html.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 7th ed. Pearson, 2014. 696-7. Print.
Slotkin, Joel Elliot. “Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III.’”Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2007, pp. 5–32. JSTOR.
“Timeline: Toward a Revolution, 1750-1783.” Timeline: Toward a Revolution, 1750-1783, The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site, www.history.org/history/teaching/study_visits/resources/timeline.cfm.