Commentary

Richard III seems at first glance to be a fairly simple work in its general outlines: a drama with a striking central character whose rise and fall provide a straightforward entertainment, set within a context that lends moral weight to the tale. This description is adequate up to a point, and it suggests the playwright's interest in individual human capacities for good and evil, a characteristic concern of the Renaissance. But because our experience of the play is dominated by its protagonist, we may lose an appreciation of its primary theme, which is a social one: the redemption of English public life through the coming of the Tudor Dynasty. Only secondarily, in the magnificence of its dazzling villain-hero, does it concern individuality. 

Richard's immense capacity for crime is a final climactic instance of the disruptive aristocratic ambitions that have spurred the action in all the plays of the minor Tetralogy. Thus Richard exemplifies something larger than his own fascinating personality Further, even more important than his negative relationship to peace and public order is the role of fate which inexorably brings Richard's dominance to an end Divine providence punishes the fractious Plantagenets through the crimes of their own last representative' and grants England a restoration of grace with the advent of the Tudors. The workings of fate are revealed in the developments of the plot, of course but they are also reflected in the organization of the drama. The play is powered by subtle tensions, generated by contrasting its bold protagonist with its equally bold structural symmetry. 

In Richard III Shakespeare twice used the potent device-a favorite of his—of two matching scenes one early in the play and the other late. The second scene echoes the first but diners in revealing ways In one instance, Richard's attempt in 4.4 to gain Queen Elizabeth's approval of his plan to marry her daughter recalls his courtship of Lady Anne in 1.2 This time, however, Richard is in decline; not only have we seen his downfall begin in earlier scenes, but here he is not the same wooer. He apologizes for his deeds, in 4.4.291-298, whereas with Anne he had boldly attributed them to his love (1.2.125ft.). Elizabeth baffles him with rejections of his oaths, stifling his assertions until he is reduced to wishing ill on himself (4.4.397-409). Elizabeth suspends the conversation in 4.4.428-429. leaving its resolution in doubt, where Anne was told where to await Richard's later visit (1.2.214-220). We feel the difference and know that Richard will not have his way this time- in fact, as soon as Elizabeth departs, his downfall resumes with quickened speed. The repetition of motifs increases the strength with which we respond to the differences in situation; we feel that there lurks something fateful in the coincidences linking success and failure. 

Similarly, the appearance of the Ghosts to the sleeping Richard in 5.3 reminds us of Clarence's dream in 1.4. Again, a situation where Richard's downfall is imminent is compared with an earlier one in which his villainy is triumphant. In using this device, Shakespeare took each later incident from his sources and invented the earlier ones, which makes his intention very clear. These links unite the different stages of the narrative, 

This quality in the play is heightened by the repeated presentation of fulfilled predictions. For instance, the dreams of Clarence and Richard both deal with the dreamer's later death. Moreover, much is made of specific forecasts. Queen Margaret in particular is used by Shakespeare as 'a prophetess' as she calls herself in 1.3.301. In 1.3 she predicts a rash of deaths. As Richard's victims fall, they allude to Margaret's prophecy, and, when she reappears in 4.4 we recollect the the truth of her predictions (which she refers to, in case we don't) with some degree of awe. When she asserts that Richard nears 'his piteous and unpitied end' (4.4.74), we believe her Similarly, characters predict the future even when they are unaware of it, as when Richard names his own fate to Elizabeth, even as he thinks he is warding it off, in 4.4.397-409. 

Omens are equally evocative of a world governed by fate, and Richard HI is rife with them. Hastings' tendency to ignore them is almost comical. A Citizen of London couches his uneasiness about the political future in terms of augury (2.3.32-35); the young Duke of York's request for Richard's dagger has a foreboding quality, as Richard's reply (31111) makes clear. The strawberries so pointedly introduced in 3.4 had an emblematic association with serpents and the devil that was quite familiar to Shakespeare's audiences. Most ominous of all are the omens that had attended Richard's birth, which are mentioned several times. 

All of these devices create an air of myth that is supported by the uniform tone that persists throughout the play. There is no sub-plot, nor faintest evidence of romantic interest. Aside from Richard's sardonic enthusiasm for his own villainy, there is very little humour. Even the violence takes place off-stage, for the most part. The plot and themes unfold largely through talk—however absorbing and varied—rather than action. The only exceptions are the stabbing of Clarence (though not his drowning) and Richard's death in single combat, each of which constitutes a climactic moment in the play's development. Each is fairly stylized. Such a restrained rendering, despite the many opportunities for bloody tableaux—which were as popular in Shakespeare's day as they are now—produces a pronounced solemnity. Combined with the flavour of sorcery discussed above, the play's pervasive calm contributes to a sense of ritual, of magical demonstration. This surreal aura supports the mythic denouement: Richard and Richmond—opposing paragons of Evil and Good—face each other in a grand trial by combat. 

These ideas might in lesser hands have yielded a set of sermons illustrating the inevitability of divine providence. However, Richard III is animated by the presence of Shakespeare's first great protagonist, Richard himself. Not only does this astonishing villain speak nearly one-third of the play's lines, but he delivers all of the major soliloquies as well. Significantly, many of his prominent speeches appear early in the play so that we become accustomed to his point of view. Thus he seems to be in control of the action, until fate intervenes. His wit, his acute political acumen, and his energy enthrall us at the same time that we are appalled by his diabolical sadism. The final defeat of this extraordinary figure makes the power of fate seem all the more awesome. 

Richard was a product of a newly established 16th-century tradition of magnificent villain-heroes that stemmed from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Marlowe's works were wildly popular when Richard III was written, and Shakespeare was not the only playwright to exploit the example they set. Shakespeare's superior talent produced a greater character, a figure whose language is not only more credibly idiomatic but also has greater lyrical power. However, Richard's dominance of the play reminds us of the somewhat derivative character of the young playwright's work. He was later to develop the capacity to create believable characters of greatly varying types in a single play, thereby surpassing Marlowe utterly. 

In fact, a number of the lesser characters in Richard III testify to that developing talent. Buckingham's woolly rhetoric marks him as a politician who prefers evasiveness to clarity; if he were not malevolent, he would be funny. Clarence is a moving psychological portrait of a tormented sinner whose fear of hellfire makes him writhe in agony. The unfortunate but fatuous Hastings inspires both disdain and pity. None of these figures is fully developed, but each animates effective episodes. 

Richard III is a very unreliable guide to the history of the period it purports to describe. As he did in all of the History Plays, Shakespeare took liberties with his sources, and these were themselves biased and unreliable. The last 12 years of Edward's reign are compressed into 1.1-2.1 as a cluster of related incidents. Richard's career has been notably distorted, first by Tudor historians, especially Thomas More, whose account was the basis for much of the tale as Shakespeare received it, and then by the playwright himself, who was concerned not with historical accuracy but rather with the aggrandisement of his villain. At the end of the play, Richard's two-year reign is collapsed into a few frantic weeks, as the success of the usurper is immediately superseded by his fall. Thus the sequence of plays that began with / Henry VI comes to its close. Where King Henry V had just been lost to England at the beginning of the cycle, Richmond arrives to play the part of a new hero at its end. The death of Talbot, accompanying the loss of English hopes in the first play, is balanced by Richard's death and their renewal in the last one. Patriotic history is combined in Richard III with grand entertainment, creating a drama that has always been popular.

 

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Main Play Page      Play Text     Scene by Scene Synopsis     Character Directory     Commentary  

 

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