Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


The play was published often: the first edition of 1597 was followed by several reprints before the First Folio edition, including a second edition in 1598 with the hyphenated Shake-speare name (Ogburn and Ogburn 1228, 1114) and a "newly augmented" third edition in 1603 (Anderson 399), all indicating the play's popularity. "The play is both tragedy and history, but it is an ironic rather than a romantic tragedy" (Wells 102). An anonymous play, The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, was published in 1594, and although orthodoxy refuses to consider it an earlier version of Shakespeare's own play, "Both plays repeat historical errors not found in the source material," and Shakespeare quotes the earlier play in Hamlet (Farina 146). Clark suspects that Richard III was written when Oxford was imprisoned in the Tower, especially since there are 26 references to the Tower in the play (Clark 417; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 320-321, 1114). The play then reminds Elizabeth of the part played by Oxfords in the establishment of the Tudor line (Ogburn and Ogburn 322), but not as prominently as in Famous Victories since "the terms of the [1586] grant had stipulated stringent anonymity" (Ogburn and Ogburn 713).

Shakespeare used pro-Tudor propagandistic works, the kind initially commissioned by Henry VII after 1485, and these vilified Richard III nearly beyond historical recognition with a campaign of personal defamation. Historically, Richard was small but not physically deformed; he revered his older brother Edward; Clarence was a perpetual jackass and traitor; Richard had nothing to do with Clarence's death and was deeply depressed by the news; Richard and Anne were childhood sweethearts and their marriage was a true love-match after the politically forced betrothal of Anne to Henry VI's son (who very likely was not his son); Richard protected the "Princes in the Tower," who were almost certainly murdered by order of Henry Tudor (Henry VII), possibly by Buckingham; and Richard would have proved a much better king than the rest of the 15th-century rabble if he had survived Bosworth instead of having been surrounded and butchered. After the death of Anne and his son, probably of tuberculosis, Richard appointed one of the De La Poles as his heir apparent. This would have been one of Chaucer's descendants as King of England!
Stupid bloody Tudors.

Despite the ahistorical dimensions, these history plays "far surpass the historical 'truth' in vividness and persistence" (Garber 132).

The play is considered early because of its stilted formalism in the speeches, and "almost the only action is provided by the formal movement of the verse" (Baker 750). The subtlety and ambiguities one expects of Shakespeare later are also largely missing in this play. And although Richard is a master of language rather than psychology, and we get more melodrama than in later plays, it's still "an immense improvement over the Henry VI ranting contests" (Bloom 64). Richard foreshadows Macbeth "but he lacks that character's introspection" -- "he comments ironically on himself rather than examining himself, often standing outside the action and acting as a chorus to his own play" (Wells 102). "Richard III is a grand parodist -- of Marlowe, of stage conventions, and of himself" (Bloom 65), "so wonderful a villain, with so much bravery and dry humor mingled with his monstrous behavior" (Asimov 681).



Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Shakespeare will later outgrow this tradition of starting with a blunt soliloquy by the main character. The "son" pun refers to Edward IV, Richard's oldest brother and now king, who also used a sun on his armorial crest. (The Yorkist faction, symbolized by the white rose, is currently in power, having ousted the red-rose Lancastrians.)
Notice that the speech begins with a characteristically duplicitous enjambment.... [T]he blank verse line ... plays against the syntax to make it clear that "now," still, at the present time in which he is speaking to us, Richard dwells in wintry discontent.... The tripartite division of this speech, with sections beginning "Now" (line 1), "But" (line 14), and "And therefore" (line 28), takes the form of a logical argument, although there is nothing logical about it. (Garber 134)

He rejoices in his opening soliloquy, and his words "plot" and "induction" have double meanings, theatrical meanings. (Garber 141)

The weather conceit seems to go a bit awry in the fourth line, but perhaps this twist can be said to show another type of "deformity."

* What makes Richard so evil?

He perversely dwells on his physical deformity (Tudor propaganda gave him a withered arm and made him a hunchback):

I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform'd, unfinish'd, 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....
He announces that "since I cannot prove a lover / ... I am determined to prove a villain" (I.i.28-30): "the joys of peace, such as dancing and love-making, are beyond him" (Asimov 683). But "the claim functions more as an excuse and as a metaphor than as a convincing interior motivation" (Garber 137). According to old-fashioned notions, outward ugliness was a manifestation of inward corruption. Additionally, the Machiavelli was a character type in Elizabethan drama, typified by "boundless ambition, egotistical action, masterful dissembling, defiance of God, great but misguided intellectuality" (Carey 59). Some may be tempted, steeped as we are in 20th-century psychology, to explore Richard sympathetically. We will see that his mother doesn't like him. And he has seen the brutality of the Wars of the Roses firsthand. "Psychologically, it [the play] renders superfluous most modern treatises on the inferiority complex" (Goddard, I 36). But Richard himself almost defies such a reading by his absolute overtness. He would play along with your analysis, then mock your sympathy and probably kill you.

Richard's first display of Machiavellian dissembling occurs as he feigns filial concern for his older brother George, Duke of Clarence. A prophecy warning Edward IV against "G" has been taken to mean George rather than Gloucester (Richard's dukedom). Richard shows some jaunty spirit about Clarence being imprisoned because of his name:

Alack, my lord, that fault is none of yours;
He should for that commit your godfathers.
O, belike his Majesty hath some intent
That you should be new christ'ned in the Tower.
Clarence will indeed be new christened there, with malmsey. Historically, "George of Clarence had some of the characteristics in reality that Richard was later slanderously described as having (Asimov 683).

Richard tells Clarence that not the King, their brother, but Edward IV's wife Queen Elizabeth (from the Woodville family) is to blame. Hastings, the "Lord Chamberlain" (I.i.77) -- the reference is interesting to Oxfordians (Clark 426) -- has been released from prison but is bitter; he may prove useful later. Richard indulges in witty and lurid banter with Lieutenant Brakenbury, punning bawdily on the word "naught" (I.i.98-99) in reference to Jane Shore, the King's mistress. Richard promises to try to help Clarence, and, when Clarence is escorted away, Richard remarks privately, "I do love thee so / That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven" (I.i.118-119).

A brief exchange with Lord Hastings yields some bird metaphors (I.i.132-133) and Richard's insinuation that Edward IV's self-indulgences have brought him to the brink of death.

Richard alone ends the scene, telling us of his nasty plans. He'll have Clarence killed, then "God take King Edward to his mercy, / And leave the world for me to bustle in!" (I.i.151-152). He plans to marry Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the "Kingmaker" and widow, according to Shakespeare, of Henry VI's son Prince Edward. The greatest originality in the play is Richard's "startlingly intimate relationship with the audience. We are on unnervingly confidential terms with him" (Bloom 70). On the other hand, we are impressed that Richard seems unstoppable; we almost have to recognize the Machiavellian touches in our own natures.


Anne here is the widow of Henry VI's son. Historically, she was only 15 years old when Prince Edward died at Tewkesbury and probably not really married to him but only betrothed (Asimov 691). Also, "Richard's son never appears in the play, since there is no opportunity in that connection to vilify Richard" (Asimov 691). "Lady Anne at times resembles de Vere's first wife Anne Cecil" (Farina 150), but the elder Ogburns detect a reflection of Seymour's operating on the teenage Elizabeth, as hypothetically described by the Queen to Oxford in later years (Ogburn and Ogburn 324).

In history, Richard and Anne were childhood sweethearts before she was fobbed off on Henry VI's son by a politically strong enemy of the Yorks. In the play, Richard has killed the former king Henry VI and shares the blame for his son's death also in the battle at Tewkesbury. Despite the melodramatic artificiality of some of Anne's lamenting and curses (e.g., I.ii.14-16), including a curse that will prove self-directed (I.ii.26-27). the real drama here is Richard's brashness in this rapid and untimely courting, and in the face of her venomous, albeit deserved, insults. But Richard prides himself in successfully pushing the envelope. Note the use of animal imagery and Anne's use of "thou" and "thee" to indicate contempt.

* What on earth wins Anne over under these extremely tasteless circumstances?!

In accord with a medieval superstition, Anne has occasion to note regarding the corpses that, in Richard's presence, "see dead Henry's wounds / Open their congeal'd mouths and bleed afresh!" (I.ii.55-56). She persistently damns Richard, and in the midst of a discussion of a place fit for Richard -- a dungeon? Hell? -- he announces to Anne: "Your bedchamber" (I.ii.111). That's brashness!

Richard implicitly compliments her with reference to "this keen encounter of our wits" (I.ii.115), as if they are matched intellectually in this repartee, and he offers a sort of faux empowerment, playing the abject Petrarchan lover at Anne's mercy and insisting that her beauty is responsible for both the slaying and the humanizing of him emotionally (I.ii.121ff, 179f). His repentance is supposed to be attractive too. Richard gives her the opportunity to kill him with his sword, which of course she doesn't do. He is able to slip a ring on her finger. Thus with horrifying speed and efficiency, Anne is essentially won over.

While there are many pragmatic reasons why Anne would consent to this unwanted marriage -- a woman alone at court needs a protector -- there is a sense in which she wants to believe in his passion, wants to think of herself as the salvation of a "bad" man who will be converted by the love of a good woman. (Garber 142)
Richard promises to inter the late King at Chertsey monastery and weep. "Tressel and Berkeley, go along with me" (I.ii.221). Elizabeth Trussell was Oxford's grandmother, who married the 15th Earl (Clark 420). When Anne departs, Richard, immediately breaking his vow concerning the burial of the old king (I.ii.214 vs. 226), gloats over his unorthodox success with her:
Was ever woman in this humor woo'd?
Was ever woman in this humor won?
I'll have her, but I will not keep her long.
He revels in his amorality for a while, ending with,
Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.
Richard, in these final lines of the scene, in a way defines himself negatively.


Edward IV's wife, Elizabeth, frets about the king's health with members of her family the Woodvilles (this batch were historically raised in status by Elizabeth's manipulations) and various others. The advice that one pretend to be cheery to hide from the sick man one's knowledge of his poor prognosis (I.iii.3f) is interesting in a play about dissembling. Buckingham and Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby (ancestor to Oxford's son-in-law William Stanley) enter the discussion about the King's health. "Derby is Sir Thomas Stanley ... an extraordinarily successful opportunist, for in those changeable times of civil war he managed always to shift to the winning side" (Asimov 692). Elizabeth's statement, "I fear our happiness is at the height" (I.iii.41), signifies awareness of the wheel of Fortune (Garber 146).

Richard stirs up trouble wildly, blaming the Woodville clan for Clarence's plight and his own supposedly questioned loyalty, claiming,

Because I cannot flatter and look fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive, and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
He refers to "silken, sly, insinuating jacks" (I.iii.53), unable to "keep the hissing serpent out of the final line" (Garber 138-139). And he seems to have stolen Hastings' bird metaphor (I.i.32f) for commentary on the lamentable state of the world (I.iii.69ff).

The former Queen enters: "Another blemish ... is the ghastly Margaret, widow of Henry VI, for whom Shakespeare never could compose a decent line" (Bloom 66). But perhaps none of the women's parts are very easily playable. "The male characters ... are not particularly individualized either" (Bloom 66). With a rather large list of characters, this makes the play difficult to follow closely at times. But here, "Margaret is reduced to, or transformed into, something like a living ghost, a revenant of things past" (Garber 147). Margaret curses the lot, especially Richard, and all that she says will come true later. Although historically she should have been dead by this point, and at least in France, Margaret voices the theme of God's judgment, and, somewhat surprisingly, this play has been called the most religious one Shakespeare ever wrote.

Richard tries to paint himself as too sensitive for his own good, and as politically squeamish (I.iii.139ff). But the railing Margaret curses him: "The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!" (I.iii.221). Her calling Richard "Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!" (I.iii.227) alludes to the boar that was Richard's armorial symbol, although the elder Ogburns see Robert Cecil in the depiction of Richard (Ogburn and Ogburn 323). One clever line is this: "O, let me make the period to my curse!" (I.iii.237) -- indicating that Margaret wishes to complete her interrupted diatribe, but also that she hopes to "make the period," or live long enough, to see her curse come to pass.

"Richard's disguise, the role he chooses to play here, is that of a man incapable of disguise, incapable of playing a role.... Alone upon the stage, he addresses the audience and himself once more in soliloquy, describing his methods, and making us co-conspirators in crime" (Garber 139). He admits, "thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol'n forth of holy writ, / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil" (I.iii.335-337). Finally, Richard speaks with two assassins, arranging the murder of the imprisoned Clarence and warning them not to talk with the prisoner, who may use his powers of persuasion to get their pity. "We go to use our hands, and not our tongues" (I.iii.351), assures one of them.


Clarence's dream is a "set piece." He tells the jail-keeper of his dream of drowning after being accidentally knocked by Richard off a ship, and he sees human futility symbolized in skulls and gems on the ocean floor.

Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wracks;
A thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatt'red at the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls, and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept
(As 'twere in scorn of eyes) reflecting gems
That woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatt'red by.
The dreaming Clarence in the underworld encountered Warwick who reminded him of his political betrayal, and the spirit of a victim at Tewkesbury also haunted him among other hellish fiends.
This passage has a striking resemblance to the dream speech given by Arden in the anonymous play that anticipates his murder. Arden's wife conspires with their servant Michael in hiring two killers to commit the deed, just as Richard arranges with Tyrrel to hire two assassins for George in Shakespeare's play. Curiously, the names of [the] two killers in Arden of Feversham are "Shake-bag" and "Black Will," possibly intended as a practical joke against Will Shakspere. (Farina 147)
When Clarence sleeps again, a lieutenant, Brakenbury remarks,
Princes have but their titles for their glories,
An outward honor for an inward toil,
And for unfelt imaginations
They often feel a world of restless cares;
So that between their titles and low name
There's nothing differs but the outward fame.
A pretty privileged perspective!

The assassins enter and give Brakenbury a document commanding the delivery of Clarence to them. "I will not reason what is meant hereby, / Because I will be guiltless from the meaning" (I.iv.93-94). He leaves.

One of the murderers has twinges of conscience, and their interchange is filled with dark humor, especially about what a bother a conscience can be. Clarence awakens, calling for wine. He soon detects the purpose of the presence of these men and appeals to religious doctrine; but he is baffled by their report that "You are deceiv'd, your brother Gloucester hates you" (I.iv.232) and that "'Tis he that sends us to destroy you here" (I.iv.243). One murderer insists that to repent is "cowardly and womanish" (I.iv.261), while Clarence claims, "Not to relent is beastly, savage, devilish" (I.iv.262). Clarence is stabbed and his body dumped in a vat of malmsey -- a sweet fortified wine produced in Cyprus, Italy, and Spain (Asimov 698) -- in what one critic calls a parody of the communion sacrament (Bloom 70). "Clarence's underworld visit is mock-epic, rather than epic, and ends with his inglorious drowning in a butt of malmsey, a cask of wine.... Richard glances jokingly at this fate when he remarks that Clarence may be 'new-christened' in the Tower (I.i.50)" (Garber 151).

Act II

Shakespeare Index