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Richard III


“Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one word” (3.1.82-83). Thus, Richard the Third, before his crowning known as Richard of Gloucester, reveals to us his facility with theatrical self-presentation and his penchant for twisting language. Richard is referring to the medieval stage tradition in these lines. Medieval performances featured a character known as the Vice who represented the evil in the world. But in adopting this persona, Richard also shows how hollow it is, how inadequate simply the label of “the Vice” is to apply to such a dark character as himself, one who is also deliciously compelling, and through his language, seduces us to his side.  


When we turn from Titus to Richard III, many elements feel familiar—a villain who uses asides and who delights in theatricality, the political, dynastic concerns of the nation abutting familial relationships, and women who must tread carefully around the masculine world of politics they are forced to inhabit. Central to our discussion today, I suspect, will be the nature of evil, a question that as Mackensie pointed out last class, is key to reading most of Shakespeare’s works.


Richard III is a strong case-study of evil, one located firmly in English history. To get at this understanding, then, and to begin to be able to query Shakespeare’s depiction in this play of a malignant figure who leads and then loses the English nation, we have to understand the historical circumstances surrounding the reception of Richard III in English history. We also, however, have to keep in mind that Shakespeare is rewriting his historical sources, elaborating upon or altering traditions. He is also centering history around a single, provocative character. This is also our introduction to a Shakespearean character negotiating stigma, the physical ailment that Richard points to directly (on Richard’s limp and humpback, and on stigma in this and other Shakespearean plays, see Jeffrey R. Wilson’s page at  


So my “approach” for this play is simply a historical one, and I want us to ask: how important is a more thorough historicizing of this play to our encounter with it now? Although I claim that we need to understand the history of the War of the Roses and of Richard’s reputation above, is that really the case? In other words, could we forego this historical reading in favor of a more psychological one? Or can the two approaches—Richard in history, Richard’s mind/motives—coexist? Do we need history for a history play? That’s the live question for us this week, one in which the role of dreams, prophecies, and language more broadly will play a role.


There’s another way to read this play, as simply the rise and fall of an ambitious man, one in which history is a force, a providential movement forward to the establishment of the Tudor line. I’m referring here to the medieval de casibus tradition, deriving from the author Giovani Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men). This refers to the idea that tragedy is marked by a great fall of a great man, a figure who moves from the height of one’s ambitions to the providentially sanctioned loss of everything. This moralistic, or didactic, approach, then would read Richard III as a warning tale, a parable of sorts regarding the emptiness of worldly vanity for human power or wealth.


Despite Richard identifying a moralistic tale in the lines with which we started, and despite the very providential reading we could apply to this narrative, it seems dissatisfying in part because of how complex and twisted Richard appears. Again we should think about performance, and how an actor portrays Richard’s devilishness will influence how much we buy into his motives for killing so many and reaching after the crown.

But unlike Titus, in this play such killings occur offstage, and despite how bloody the metaphorical stage is in Richard III, the actual stage sees little gore. Instead, we learn of horrors through language, through Richard’s delight in orchestrating the various murders of individuals who represent impediments to his ambitions. Part of what makes this play so painful, however, is that once Richard finally does obtain the crown, he is unable to, like the Macbeths, enjoy the fruit of his villainy. Increasingly erratic and unsure of his position, Richard suffers psychological torture and, depending on how we read the ghosts in this play, divine punishments for his presumption.


As you can see from these several potential routes (and these are by no means all of them), Shakespeare’s tragedy of Richard is provocative because it raises so many questions about history, divine intervention in the universe, and about human desire. Along the way, it also presents a stark image of feminine mourning (more so than in any other Shakespearean history, the women play a significant role as commentators on their historical moment and their own experiences under Richard’s reign). Hopefully we will have time to discuss all of the complexities of this history play.


This is also our first time to encounter Shakespeare’s “Histories” as a genre, and we have to also acknowledge the fluidity of the term history in the period and its modern imposition on Shakespeare’s works. We have already seen the play-within-the-play in Taming described as “a kind of history.” Shakespeare’s early career is marked by history plays. The First Folio, published in 1623 (so after Shakespeare’s death) grouped all of Shakespeare’s plays included into three genres—comedies, tragedies, and histories. We thus have to acknowledge that this generic distinction is not Shakespeare’s own. Those plays grouped under “Histories” include what are known as Shakespeare’s two tetralogies: the first one written in the early 1590s, which consists of Henry VI Part One, Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three, and Richard III. The second covers an earlier historical period, and includes Richard II, Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V. Other histories by Shakespeare include King John and Henry VIII or All Is True. Scholars have contested these generic divisions, however, and some argue that plays based on historical figures, such as Macbeth or King Lear, should also be considered history plays. And what about the Roman plays in which Shakespeare is clearly following historical sources like Plutarch?


Complicating these designations, too, is the fact that the quartos of plays juggle the terms history and tragedy freely. Consider the title-page to the First Quarto of Richard III.

















































The full title here reads The Tragedy of King Richard the third. Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his innocent nephews: his tyrannicall vsurpation: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserued death. Here we have the entire action summarized for us, with the exception (and I think it’s a notable one) of Richmond’s ascension to the crown at the end of the play as Henry VII. History, as genre, is contested.


            For our purposes, we can at least admit that to title something as a Shakespearean history play means that the subject of the drama is an English one; the history play represents and reflects upon the past rulers of England and primarily the conflicts they confronted through both foreign and civil wars. Scholars are divided, too, on whether we read Shakespeare’s histories as propaganda or critical…or perhaps both at the same time. It’s generally true that the history plays celebrate Englishness with a capital E, the nationalistic fervor that triumphs, for example, over the French. But there are also popular English rebellions in these plays, alongside many devious English noblemen and women, and I’m interested in hearing your perspective on Shakespeare and history once we finish Richard III. Do you think this play is lauding the Earl of Richmond, the grandfather of Elizbeth I? Or is Richmond a relatively banal character or even simply a symbol? What does the play teach us about the ethics of political representation on the stage?


The War of the Roses

I’m going to give us a snapshot of the historical circumstances that led up to Richard III. I’m less concerned that you be able to memorize all of these details and more interested in how you think the broad strokes of this historical outline might condition our understanding (and by extension, Shakespeare’s audiences’ grasp) of Richard’s manipulation of other figures on the political stage.


            The War of the Roses was named after the two colors of roses that individual sides adopted in an English civil war that occupied the majority of the fifteenth century. Nobility from the House of Plantagenet separated into two factions—the House of Lancaster (the red rose) and the House of York (the white rose). The contention over who should inherit the throne arose when the famous King Henry V died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-six. His son, Henry VI, was a child when he was crowned, and various noble factions vied for influence at court throughout Henry VI’s reign. Many viewed him as a weak king, though in Shakespeare’s representation Henry VI is not so much weak as susceptible to others because he is religious, less concerned with the worldly stage of power and influence. In any case, the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions arose, each debating their proximity to the crown should Henry VI die.


            Henry VI was married to Margaret of Anjou and they had a son named Edward. The Lancastrians would fight for Henry’s right to the crown and his son Edward’s right to inherit it, despite Henry’s perceived mental weakness and his inability to control his nobles. One the other side were the Yorks, led by Richard of York but also supported by the powerful and popular Warwick. A series of battles take place, in which the Lancasters typically suffer. Henry is captured and forced to name Richard, Duke of York his heir to the crown. In another battle, Richard dies, and it is up to his three sons—Edward, Clarence, and Richard—to overcome their enemies. They are responsible for killing King Henry and his young son Prince Edward. This is what Margaret complains of in the play we are reading, and she shows no remorse for having killed a younger brother to the Yorks, Rutland. Edward is crowned as Edward IV, and that is where we start our play. There are literal and figurative ghosts of the past haunting this narrative, but it’s a narrative that Richard tries to make us forget by focusing on his own theatricality, his own entry on the stage that requires we look not to a cast of political actors but to the titular character of the play.


Richard III

Moving from history to history play, let us think about these events as Shakespeare reframes them. Startling, is the fact that this play, unlike any other Shakespearean play, begins not with individuals meeting or discussing the current state of affairs. There is no signal that this is an event of epic proportions. Instead, Richard III begins with a soliloquy. It’s effective because it’s spoken by the titular character himself, and it only works onstage if it is over-played, if it acknowledges the extremes of Richard’s character right at the beginning. Let’s look at it in detail. In our reading, notice that unlike the typical iambic pentameter, the speech begins with an accent on the very first word: “Now.” That “now” has particular resonance given that this is a history play reflecting on the past and Shakespeare’s own cultural moment. The “now” points us to both the telos of history—history will lead to the “now” of Shakespeare’s day, in which a Tudor monarch sits upon the throne. But it also highlights history’s circularity. “Now” and again and again will Richard return to the stage he thrives upon, recounting his ploys to those of us who may be drawn in at the start of the play by the sole character demanding our attention.


Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York,

And all the clouds that loured upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,

Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,

Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,

Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

Grim-visaged War hath smoothed his wrinkled front;

And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds

To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,

He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;

I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time

Into this breathing world scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—

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.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,

By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,

To set my brother Clarence and the King

In deadly hate the one against the other;

And if King Edward be as true and just

As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,

This day should Clarence closely be mewed up

About a prophecy, which says that G

Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.

Dive, thoughts, down to my soul. 1.1.1-41.


This is a long, bold soliloquy. Immediately, we are being invited to see history through Richard’s eyes. Whether we want to or not, his presence and language demand we see him—both his physical deformity and his malignant goals. “Now!” he asserts, “now, look at me!” Richard acknowledges that this transition to peace-time is no place for him, for he is “not shaped for sportive tricks.” But in the very next scene we will witness a troubling display of sportive tricks in his wooing of Anne. Perhaps, if Richard is not made for such tricks, he nonetheless can mimic them, to adopt the posture of the lover, of the religious man, of the jocular uncle, and finally of king.


            Richard, as we’ve already noted, has been stigmatized by others for his physical appearance. In the play that precedes this one in terms of historical (though not necessarily authorial) chronology, Richard gives us further insight into how others perceive him:


Ay, Edward will use women honourably.

Would he were wasted, marrow, bones and all,

That from his loins no hopeful branch my spring,

To cross me from the golden time I look for!

And yet, between my soul’s desire and me—

The lustful Edward’s title buried—

Is Clarence, Henry, and his son young Edward,

And all the unlook’d for issue of their bodies,

To take their rooms, ere I can place myself:

A cold premeditation for my purpose!

Why, the, I do but dream on sovereignty;

Like one that stands upon a promontory,

And spies a far-off shore where he would tread,

Wishing his foot were equal with his eye,

And chides the sea that sunders him from thence,

Saying, he’ll lade it dry to have his way:

So do I wish the crown, being so far off;

And so I chide the means that keeps me from it;

And so I say, I’ll cut the causes off,

Flattering me with impossibilities.

My eye’s too quick, my heart o’erweens too much,

Unless my hand and strength could equal them.

Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard;

What other pleasure can the world afford?

I’ll make my heaven in a lady’s lap,

And deck my body in gay ornaments,

And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks.

O miserable thought! and more unlikely

Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns!

Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb:

And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,

She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,

To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;

To make an envious mountain on my back,

Where sits deformity to mock my body;

To shape my legs of an unequal size;

To disproportion me in every part,

Like to a chaos, or an unlick’d bear-whelp

That carries no impression like the dam.

And am I then a man to be beloved?

O monstrous fault, to harbor such a thought!

The, since this earth affords no joy to me,

But to command, to cheque, to o’erbear such

As are of better person than myself,

I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,

And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell,

Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head

Be round impaled with a glorious crown.

And yet I know not how to get the crown,

For many lives stand between me and home:

And I, —like one lost in a thorny wood,

That rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns,

Seeking a way and straying from the way;

Not knowing how to find the open air,

But toiling desperately to find it out,—

Torment myself to catch the English crown:

And from that torment I will free myself,

Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,

And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,

And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,

And frame my face to all occasions.

I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;

I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;

I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,

Decieve more slily than Ulysses could,

And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.

I can add colours to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?

Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.


These lines show us many qualities to Richard, and it’s useful to think about how there are promises in these lines from an earlier play that are then fulfilled in Richard III. What is your impression of Richard in this passage? What knowledge about him do we gain? And what are we still left asking? Does this passage reveal a motive? If so, what is that motive? Is it one grounded in Richard’s body, or is there something else going on here?

Richard speaks thirty-two percent of the plays lines, outpaced only by Hamlet in terms of number of lines. He dominates the stage. But he is also surrounded by figures who orbit him, some repelled and others drawn in as if to a magnet. In this light we need to consider the strangest wooing scene in all of Shakespeare, when Richard demands Anne’s favor while they stand by the corpse of Henry VI, her dead father-in-law. Anne, like many of the women in this play, utilize the language of the curse. Curses in early modern England carried particular weight as potent language that requires divine retribution for wrongdoers. So when we first meet Anne, she is curing the very figure who is about to enter. In an ironic moment, Anne’s curse turns into a demonic invocation: she conjures the devil she has been declaiming against:


Oh, cursed be the hand that made these holes!

Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it!

Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!

More direful hap betide that hated wretch

That makes us wretched by the death of thee

Than I can wish to wolves, to spiders, toads,

Or any creeping venomed thing that lives! 1.2.14-20


When Richard stops the mourning train, Anne demands “What black magician conjures up this fiend / To stop devoted charitable deeds?” (1.2.34-35). But she herself, through her cursing, has perhaps inadvertently invited this demonic figure of Richard. Their exchange is one of rapidity, like we saw been Katherine and Petruccio. But the insults Anne hurls at Richard ring more poignant because true. Richard in this interaction quickly changes his tune, first denying and then admitting his role in killing King Henry and his son Edward. Defeated, Anne hears his protestations with doubt: “I wish I knew thy heart” (1.2.195). We as audiences, of course, know Richard’s heart, and we can read Anne as cornered into an impossible situation, wavering because of Richard’s flattery, or simply immobile in this political game that Richard has begun, unable to resist his powers of persuasion because Richard himself is so unreadable to others.


            Richard’s response to this victory over Anne highlights his delight in improvisation, in the art of meeting the challenge of others’ resistance to him. We might imagine Richard in this soliloquy prancing on the stage, barely able to contain his surprise. Or, another way to act this would be to downplay any astonishment and instead simply acknowledge Richard’s versatility.


            Was ever woman in this humor wooed?

            Was ever woman in this humor won?

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

            What? I, that killed her husband and his father,

            To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,

            With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,

            The bleeding witness of my hatred by,

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

            And I no friends to back my suit withal

            But the plain devil and dissembling looks?

            And yet to win her! All the world to nothing!


            Hath she forgot already that brave prince,

            Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,

            Stabbed in my angry mood at Twekesbury?

            A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,

            Framed in the prodigality of nature,

            Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,

            The spacious world cannot again afford.

            And will she yet abase her eyes on me,

            That cropped the golden prime of this sweet prince

            And made her widow to a woeful bed?

            On me, whose all not equals Edward’s moiety?

            On me, that halts and am misshapen thus?

            My dukedom to a beggarly denier,

            I do mistake my person all this while.

            Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,

            Myself to be a marv’lous proper man.

            I’ll be at charges for a looking glass

            And entertain a score or two of tailors,

            To study fashions to adorn my body.

            Since I am crept in favor with myself,

            I will maintain it with some little cost.

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

            And then return lamenting to my love.

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

            That I may see my shadow as I pass. 1.2.230-266


At this early point in the play, we should notice how much Richard focuses on his own body. He continually reminds us of his exterior, perhaps as a further clue to his motives. In Sigmund Freud’s words, Richard is “an enormously magnified representation of something we can all discover in ourselves. We all think we have reason to reproach nature and our destiny for congenital and infantile disadvantages; we all demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism, our self-love” (Freud, “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work,” 4.322-3). In our class discussion, we thought about how Richard points us to his body. You might read/approach the play through the lens of disability studies, thinking about how Richard is cast as marginalized even before the play has begun.


            Another marginalized figure is one Shakespeare brings onstage ahistorically: Queen Margaret. Like Anne, she utlizies the rhetorical force of curses and serves as a type of choric figure. She reminds the other characters that they enjoy honors that once were hers. Despite Richard’s insistence on the “now” in his opening soliloquy, Margaret points continually to the past. In The Hollow Crown version of the play, Queen Margaret carries around a mirror, demanding that characters look at their reflection and acknowledge both their past deeds and their present, though transitory, status.


Day Two

Today in reading the second half of the play, we see Richard finally getting what he wants. But the play is a lesson in the dangers and disaffections associated with worldly vanity, and of course Richard remains discontent (returning to the first line of the play) even with a crown.

Richard’s wife Anne, too, finds no joy in the crown. As we discussed on Tuesday, Anne’s motives in the wooing scene are difficult if not impossible to read. But in Act 4, Scene 1, we at least learn that political advancement was not one of those motives. In fact, Anne reveals that she fell for Richard’s language:


Within so small a time, my woman’s heart

Grossly grew captive to his honey words

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

Which hitherto hath held mine eyes from rest;

For never yet one hour in his bed

Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep,

But with his timorous dreams was still awaked.

Besides, he hates me for my father Warwick,

And will, no doubt, shortly be rid of me. 4.1.78-86


Anne’s premonitions prove to be correct, for Richard fulfills the promise made to us earlier in the play that “I will not keep her long” (1.2.232). And Richard does view women as dispensable. As if to outpace his earlier victory over Anne, he now plans to marry his niece, the daughter of King Edward and Queen Elizabeth. As he reveals to us:


            I must be married to my brother’s daughter,

            Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.

            Murder her brothers, and then marry her—

            Uncertain way of gain! But I am in

            So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.      

            Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye. 4.2.60-65.


Richard’s only route to secure his throne, he believes, is to continue eradicating any threats to his seat while also solidifying his claim by marrying the daughter of his brother. For the first time, and it’s important that it’s also the first we see Richard in a crown, we notice that Richard is not as canny or shrewd as he initially seemed. We too, as audiences, are past the wooing stage. Richard no longer courts us and delights in his ability to manipulate political players. Instead, these lines ring desperate. And just as the play’s conflict rests in part on the killing of children (Prince Edward and Rutland from the previous play in the tetralogy), Richard now turns to doing away with the younger branches of his family tree. He intended to marry Clarence’s daughter to a lower-class gentleman and pays Tyrrel to kill the two princes in the Tower.


            As we also covered on Tuesday, the women in this play are sometimes bound by their familiar ties to the point where they can only use language rather than action to navigate English politics and attempt to remain safe from the grasp of Richard. Anne is unfortunately poisoned by Richard, but Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and Queen Margaret remain to bemoan the new King’s crimes. Margaret, as a figure not quite in the present, however, focuses initially on her revenge, offering a type of numeric logic to the bodies Richard has sacrificed. In Act 4, Scene 2, she encounters the Duchess and Elizabeth, and once again points to the deaths of her husband and son. But there is also the sense that she enjoys playing the furious witness to these events. As she turns to Elizabeth, she reminds her pointedly of the honors Margaret and she both once had:


            I called thee then vain flourish of my fortune;

            I called thee then poor shadow, painted queen,

            The presentation of but what I was,

            The flattering index of a direful pageant,

            One heaved a-high to be hurled down below,

            A mother only mocked with two fair babes,

            A dream of what thou wast, a garish flag

            To be the aim of every dangerous shot;

            A sign of dignity, breath, a bubble,

            A queen in jest, only to fill the scene.

            Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?

            Where by thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?

            Who sues and kneels and says, ‘God save the Queen’?

            Where be the bending peers that flattered thee?

            Decline all this, and see what now thou art:

            For happy wife, a most distressed widow;

            For joyful mother, one that wails the name;

            For one being sued to, one that humbly sues;

            For queen, a very caitiff crowned with care;

            For she that scorned at me, now scorned of me;

            For she being feared of all, now fearing one;

            For she commanding all, obeyed of none.

            Thus hath the course of justice whirled about

            And left thee but a very prey to time,

            Having no more but thought of what thou wast

            To torture thee the more, being what thou art.

            Thou didst usurp my place, and dost thou not

            Usurp the just proportion of my sorrow?

            Now thy proud neck bears half my burdened yoke,

            From which even here I slip my weary head

            And leave the burden of it all on thee. 4.2.82-113


It’s an impassioned speech, and notice all of the repetitions. Pointing both back in time and to the present, Margaret indicates that now, like herself, Elizabeth is out of time, out of history. While she is firmly within this history play, the women in the drama also seem to traverse different periods, to serve as the memento mori to the men in this world, who quickly dismiss their prophecies and curses. Surprisingly, Elizabeth does not once again dismiss Margaret, but asks for her help in cursing. We notice a slippage here, though, when the Duchess asks “Why should calamity be full of words?” (4.2.126). Why, in other words, should we speak our pain? What effect does it have, if any? And that, to me, is a key question of the play. What can these rhetorical devices achieve in the face of evil?


            And yet we might argue that indeed they are more potent than even those delivering the curses and lamentations realize. Margaret celebrates the power of her words to bring pain to those who have hurt her, and Elizabeth responds that they at the very least give relief to the one articulating them. The Duchess takes this image further, planning to oppress Richard with her words: “in the breath of bitter words let’s smother / My damned son that thy two sweet sons smothered” (4.2.133-134). The Duchess curses Richard, but then leaves the stage so that Elizabeth is forced to hear Richard’s new plot to marry her daughter. He tests the same strategy he used with Anne, namely that he committed so many crimes because of his love for Elizabeth’s daughter. He turns, grotesquely, to the image of childbirth (and notice how prevalent such an image is in this play). It’s a long speech, but I want us to now critique Richard’s supposed rhetorical prowess, which here seems to overshoot the mark:


            Look what is done cannot be now amended.

            Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes,

            Which after-hours gives leisure to repent.

            If I did take the kingdom from your sons,

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

            If I have killed the issue of your womb,

            To quicken your increase I will beget

            Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter.

            A grandam’s name is little less in love

            Than is the doting title of a mother;

            They are as children but one step below,

            Even of your metal, of your very blood,

            Of all one pain, save for a night of groans

            Endured of her for whom you bid like sorrow.

            Your children were vexation to your youth,

            But mine shall be a comfort to your age.

            The loss you have is but a son being king,

            And by that loss your daughter is made queen.

            I cannot make you what amends I would;

            Therefore accept such kindness as I can.

            Dorset your son, that with a fearful soul

            Leads discontented steps in foreign soil,

            This fair alliance quickly shall call home

            To high promotions and great dignity.

            The king that calls your beauteous daughter wife

            Familiarly shall call thy Dorset brother;

            Again shall you be mother to a king,

            And all the ruins of distressful times

            Repaired with double riches of content.

            What? We have many goodly days to see.

            The liquid drops of tears that you have shed

            Shall come again, transformed to orient pearl,

            Advantaging their love with interest

            Of ten times double gain of happiness.

            Go then, my mother, to thy daughter go.

            Make bold her bashful years with your experience;

            Prepare her ears to hear a wooer’s tale;

            Put in her tender heart th’aspiring flame

            Of golden sovereignty; acquaint the Princess

            With the sweet silent hours of marriage joys.

            And when this arm of mine hath chastised

            The petty rebel, dull-brained Buckingham,

            Bound with triumphant garlands will I come

            And lead thy daughter to a conqueror’s bed;

            To whom I will retail my conquest won,

            And she shall be sole victoress, Caesar’s Caesar. 4.2.291-336.  


To use the language of “womb,” “quicken,” and “beget” is likely not the best move for Richard to make in this moment. But perhaps we can read this as his inability to see that this rhetoric does not always prove effective. But Elizabeth pushes back against the imagery that Richard conjures in this moment, demanding to know which title—uncle, murderer, usurper—she should call him. And again we are reminded of history, of the cyclical nature of wars and overthrows. Richard swears by “The time to come” (4.2.387) but such an oath is unfitting in a play so concerned with history and yet also working to undo that history. Again and again, the tensions among past, present, and future in this drama point to the unstable category of history itself. In Elizabeth’s words, Richard cannot swear by the future because he has degraded the past.


            That thou hast wronged in the time o’erpast;

            For I myself have many tears to wash

            Hereafter time, for time past wronged by thee.

            The children live whose fathers thou hast slaughtered,

            Ungoverned youth, to wail it in their age;

            The parents live whose children thou hast butchered,

            Old barren plants, to wail it in their age;

            Swear not by time to come, for that thou hast

            Misused ere used, by times ill-used o’erpast. (4.2.388-396)


 Richard cannot escape his past, and his protestations that he looks forward to a happy future are ludicrous given that he is marching to meet Richmond in battle. Of course, for Elizabethan audiences, they would recall that Richmond would win the battle of Bosworth Field, becoming Henry VII. He would marry Edward and Elizabeth’s daughter instead of Richard, and he would begin a new dynasty that would lead up to the current queen of Shakespeare’s England, Elizabeth I.


            Of course, we have to look at the scene that features the most visible reminders of the past, Act 5, Scene 3. In a series of parallels, the ghosts of Prince Edward, Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan, Hastings, the two young Princes, Anne, and Buckingham appear to both Richard and Richmond, occupying two separate sides of the stage. Let’s look at what is happening in this scene together.

            For the rest of class, we will consider the discussion questions posed by the Class Discussion Leaders, which is below:


Section One Discussion Questions:


Group discussion of Richard III

  1. What themes have you seen in Richard III that remind you of the other plays we have read so far?

    1. 1.4.100-276 (revenge: how is revenge different in this play vs. Titus Andronicus)

    2. 1.2 (representation of women)

    3. 5.8 (Lucius vs. Richmond: two well-liked men)

  2. How do you believe people in Shakespeare’s time people viewed people with disabilities? How does having a physical deformity affect our perception of Richard III? Does his potential deformity justify his deceitful actions?

    • 1.1.20-27

    • 1.2: If he was not meant to be a lover, how did he woo Anne?

    • P. 699

  1. How influential were the curses throughout this play? How do the curses being cast by women relate to gender roles in the play and stereotypes during the time?

    1. 1.2.14-30

    2. 1.3.197-233

    3. 4.4.80 (Elizabeth asks Margaret to teach her to curse. How does this scene contribute to the image of woman as evil?)

  2. To what extent is fear utilized by Richard throughout the play? Can you effectively rule a kingdom and army if there is only fear and no loyalty?

    • 3.5.46-49

    • 5.3.7-18

  3. Is there a hero in this play or is it just a competition to see who is the biggest villain?

  4. Why do you think Richard III wants to claim the throne? The general public does not seem to approve of the Young Prince Edward or Richard III? Who should be king?

    • 3.1

    • 4.1.23-36

  5. Childhood

    • How would your interpretation of the play change if Richard III did not have a disability?


Section Two Discussion Questions:


  1. In scene 4.4 (lines 166-175) Richard’s mother produces a scathing account of Richard’s childhood, and severely reprimands him for his actions in the play. How does her description of Richard as a difficult, burdensome child affect your reading of his character, if at all?

  2. What do you make of Richard’s convincing of Elizabeth in Scene 4.4? What is it about Richard’s character that allows him to be so manipulative and convincing?

  3. Does Richard’s monologue in Scene 5.3 (lines 177-206) provoke any pity for Richard? Do you believe he truly feels remorse for his actions? Why do you think Shakespeare chose to include the lines “I shall despair. There is no creature loves me, / And if I die no soul will pity me.”

  4. Building off of our discussion from last class, the noblewomen of the play all seem powerless at the hands of Richard be that through forced marriages or taking sanctuary from him.  Their one act of defiance were instances of cursing him (ex. scene 4.4).  Do you believe that these curses actually worked or where they coincidences when they became fulfilled?

  5. What are the effects of Richard’s soliloquy, what is Shakespeare's aim in incorporating these?

  6. Why do you think that Shakespeare did not develop Richmond as a character, even though he was the protagonist?  Did he want to ensure that the focus of the play surrounded Richard?

  7. The ‘Tudor Myth’ is an English tradition in historical writings of the 15th century to portray the time as being full of anarchy, bloodshed and barbaric rulers.  King Richard the III was subject to several pieces of literature, including this play, that grossly exaggerated his appearance, personality and actions in order to demonize him.  Does this change your view on the work as a whole knowing that Shakespeare intentionally distorted the actions of a former King?  At the time, would this have been acceptable in your eyes?

  8. When Richard hands the mourning Queen Elizabeth his sword to kill him if she wanted to, do you think he did it knowing that she wouldn’t be able to kill him or unknowingly? In other words, was this action calculated?

  9. In Act 4, Scene 4, Queen Elizabeth is convinced by Richard to allow him to marry her daughter. We see Shakespeare pushing the concept of Richard’s entire strategy being like a chess game with the characters around him as pawns. With these characters being so easily convinced by Richard, they are proving to be pawns after all. Do you think the ability for characters to be swayed by Richard’s words alone or usage of “eloquent language” is Richard’s only weapon and is he dependent upon it in his plans?

  10. What themes can we draw from Buckingham and his transition in the play from being loyal to Richard, then to his rebellion, and to his final execution? (i.e. loyalty, love, respect)

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