Richard III

Richard III September 5, 2018

Here are some highlights of Marjorie Garber’s essay on Richard III in Shakespeare After All.

1) Garber suggests that Richard is the “first fully realized and psychologically conceived character” in Shakespeare’s plays. Richard’s character is fully realized because he is complex, protean, chameleon and Machiavellian (cf. 3 Henry VI 3.2.191-193). Throughout the play, he speaks with two voices, a public and a private, though ultimately these voices collapse together in Richard’s schizophrenic “monologue” on Bosworth Field.

2) Garber points out that Richard, like many of Shakespeare’s politicians, is a consummate rhetorician, opening the play with a brilliant speech that sets the terms for the remainder of the play. The speech functions on at least two levels simultaneously. “Now is the winter of our discontent” is completed by the following line, “made glorious summer by this son of York,” but the first line feels as if it stands alone, as if Richard were not announcing the end of winter but its beginning. And that is surely how Richard feels with his brother, Edward IV, now on the throne.

The opening speech is structured, Garber notes, as an argument, with a “but” at line 14 and a “therefore” at line 28. But in fact it is no argument at all, but an effort at manipulative persuasion. Richard’s gift for persuasion is even more stunningly successful in his seduction of Lady Anne, whose husband, Edward the Prince of Wales, Richard has murdered. As Garber points out, Shakespeare includes a later attempted seduction, this time of Queen Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth, which is singularly unsuccessful. These two speeches mark the poles of Richard’s height and decline, and the poles are marked by successful or unsuccessful rhetoric.

3) Freud saw in Richard a universal human impulse to compensate for early slights and disadvantages: “Richard is an enormous magnification of something we find in ourselves as well. We all think we have reason to reproach Nature and our destiny for congenital and infantile disadvantages; we all demand reparation for early wounds.”

Garber shrewdly observes that, while this is Richard’s claim, he really is using his “congenital disadvantages” for his own advantage: “He cries ‘exception’ when it suits him, but in fact he is quite pleased with himself.” She adds, “Our post-Romantic sensibility may wish to see pathos in these oppositional figures, but in fact for Shakespeare’s Richard self-pity is only a tool, a guise, and a ploy.” He is the first professional victim, using his deformities to worm his way to power.

4) Garber sees Richard as a combination of various stage conventions. He is Vice (3.1.82-83), with a comic delight in disorder for the sake of disorder: “Certainly up to the moment when he becomes king he is consistently witty, ironic, droll, and self-mocking.” In medieval drama, Vice is often the Devil’s assistant, and Richard is also described as “devil” and “fiend” and “hell-hound.” Like any unscrupulous rhetorician, however, he presents himself as absolutely non-rhetorical. Despite his self-consciousness that he is a villain, he presents himself to the other characters as a child, a plain-spoken and straightforward man “rejecting flattery, artifice, and deception.”

As Garber notes, “Richard’s disguise, the role he chooses to play . . . , is that of a man incapable of disguise, incapable of playing a role.” He pretends to be utterly loyal, but is plotting to betray hosts of friends and confidants, including his close friend Hastings. He also cloaks himself in the garb of a pious Christian king, which sometimes makes for ironic effects that are not lost on Richard himself. He expresses the hope that God would forgive the murderers of his brother Clarence, which is of course a hope that God would forgive him.

Garber calls attention to the biblical chords echoing through Shakespeare’s portrayal: “When Buckingham urges him to go after the young Princes and separate them from the Queen’s relations, Richard replies, ‘I, as a child/ Will go by thy direction.’ His is a malign parody of the biblical injunction ‘and a little child shall lead them’ (Isaiah 11:6), as well as of the instruction of Jesus: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.’ But Richard is not Christ but Antichrist. Cloaking himself in the language of infancy and childhood, he perpetrates a massacre of innocents by calling for the murder of the Princes in the Tower.” He is a Herod, murdering children.

5) Richard is playing the role of non-actor, yet he acts. He pretends to be carried by events and by the advice of others, but throughout he is as much director as he is actor. He informs the audience early on that he has laid “plots” and “inductions” (1.1.32-35), the latter term referring to “an acted prologue to a play” (as in Taming of the Shrew). He stages a dramatic seduction scene with Lady Anne, and then, as Garber says, gives himself “his own theatrical review” “asking the audience, in effect, how convincing he was. He sets the king against Clarence in order to remove a potential rival. He sets up Hastings for a fall, and even attempts to win over the people of London through Buckingham’s announcement of Richard’s coronation, though the latter’s performance falls flat (3.7.20-41).

As the play progresses, however, the actors that Richard attempts to direct turn against him; Buckingham plays dumb when Richard, now crowned, hints that the King’s son, “young Edward,” is a threat that must be removed (4.2.9-26). As Garber says, “The play is not proceeding as King Richard intends, and Buckingham refuses to take direction.”

6) Richard’s ability to stage-manage the events of the play is limited primarily by the presence of Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI, who pronounces curses against Queen Elizabeth and Richard (1.3.192-224) that essentially lay out the plot of the whole play. As Garber points out, “The cadences of Margaret’s language deliberately recall the biblical rhythms of lex talionis, the law of retaliation . . . . Margaret’s sonorous demand, ‘Edward thy son, that now is Prince of Wales, For Edward my son, that was Prince of Wales,’ emphasizes the degree of similarity and repetition involved in this conflict between Lancaster and York (cf. 4.4.40-41, 44-45).”

As a representative of the older, departing generation, Margaret’s role is similar to that of the ghost of King Hamlet, a reminder that the crimes of the past have not been sorted out. Margaret is a prophetess, as a number of the characters recognize (3.3.14-18; 5.1.25-27), and her premonitions are buttressed by various omens, dreams, and portents throughout the play. Clarence dreams of drowning after Richard knocks him from a ship; Stanley dreams that a boar – “Richard’s sign“ – will attack (cf. the boar that undoes the vineyard of Israel in Psalm 80). Omens are ignored, with predictable consequences.

7) As always in Shakespeare, the reign of a villain upsets both natural (2.3.32-34) and social order. As Richard contemplates what to do with the Princes, sons of the dead king, he turns to his page for advice (4.2.33-36): “pages were, if well-born, still low-ranking among the king’s servants. Since the intended murder is of two young princes, presumably of about the same age as the page boy, the dramatic irony is double: a child advises a king, and aids in the assassination of children.”

Like Macbeth, Richard wades so far into blood that there is no turning back. The most telling sign of disorder is the collapse of language, the failure of Richard’s rhetorical strategies. Richard is confused (4.4), and eventually declines into nonsensical babbling (5.5.136-149). Order is restored by Richmond, the future Henry VII, who marries Edward’s daughter Elizabeth and establishes the Tudor line. He speaks of the restoration of “summer fruit,” closing out the “winter of discontent” that opened the play; and he speaks of England’s sacrifice (5.8.23-26) that has led to England’s rebirth. Richmond comes as “a Christian ruler who defeats . . . the energetic anarchy of Antichrist, the devil Richard.”

Browse Our Archives