Shakespeare`s Richard III as History and Tragedy

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

24 Pages




I. Introduction

II. Basis for a definition of the history play
1. Fundamental Principles
2. Elizabethan Historiography
2.1 Humanist Philosophy of History
2.2 Medieval Christian Philosophy of History

III. The Play’s Patterns of Ritual
1. Ritual of Destruction
2. Disordered Scheme of Divine Justice
3. Predictions as a Means of Patterning
4. Patterned Speech

IV. Richard’s Independent Status and Individuality
1. Richard’s Agility of Speech
2. Richard’s Realness
2.1 Alliance with an Actor
2.2 Emphasis on Feelings - Richard’s Ambition
2.3 Emphasis on Feelings of Fear and Inferiority Psychological Motivation

V. Conclusion

VI. Works Cited

I. Introduction

To place the English history play (or history) in a time setting has always been the least difficult problem. Despite having its roots in the medieval drama, it reached its full development in the last decades of the reign of Elizabeth I., thus, belongs distinctly to the sixteenth century. Although a lot of efforts have been made, it has not been easy to define it as a distinct literary type. The endeavour to do so in a satisfying way has, at any rate, to take into account that a definition has to be formulated not only on the grounds of our present knowledge but also on the basis of contemporary Elizabethan conceptions. The grouping of Shakespeare’s plays in these days, though, does not reveal any basic comprehensible division into the genres whatsoever.

Looking atRichard III, one is confronted with a play that appears to be especially problematic to classify. This is not only because the First Folio had the title ‘The Tragedy of Richard III’, while the editors classified it as a history play dividing Shakespeare’s plays into tragedies, comedies, andhistories. It is quite conspicuous that a close interrelation betweenhistoryand tragedy has always existed and a clear distinction has never been possible. Basically, the history play is seen as a drama that is didactic having a serious historical and political purpose. In tragedies, in contrast, the emphasis is laid on an individual character, who throughout the course of the play (usually the rise to and the fall from a high position) achieves the stature of a tragic figure.

Apart from this ‘classification-conflict’ with tragedy, there is another irritating aspect of Richard IIIthat makes it difficult to call it ahistory. The main character Richard throughout the play proves to be a repulsive and almost diabolic villain, who stops at nothing. Recognizing that the main conception of history was that of a rational pattern which was inevitably good and affirmed by God’s justice one has difficulty to relate Richard to this pattern. And this is mostly because no reader or viewer can deny feeling, to a certain extent, sympathy for him. Despite the triumph of the good in the battle of Bosworth the didactic purpose of the play as ahistoryon the grounds of the Elizabethan moral system seems to be highly doubtful.

In the following, the task will be to incorporate critically main aspects of the history play as they can be deduced from the classical and humanist, as well as from the medieval Christian philosophy of history. It is not only to find out to what degreeRichard IIIfulfills the criterions of a history play but also to examine how it meets with the moral requirements which ahistoryin the Elizabethan era had.

II. Basis for a definition of the history play

1. Fundamental Principles

There can be no doubt that the English history play sprang into being with the upcoming of a strong national sentiment that had its origin in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The growing power of the English nation was accompanied by a new patriotic feeling and, consequently, a growing interest in the own history. As a result, patriotic plays, that is, plays dealing with historical events of England, became very popular. “But the descriptions of the history play as essentially the expression of the great patriotic ardor . . . ignore, strangely enough, the fact that with the exception of Henry V and perhaps Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s plays were written, not about the admirable rulers of England and their times, but rather about those rulers who had sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.”1

Further defining aspects that were mentioned are that the material of the history is drawn from chronicles treating it in such a way that the particularly chronological relations are brought out without the purpose of illustrating a character. “Der Held ist also gewissermaßen die Geschichte . . .”2Obviously, such a definition emphasizes only the form whereas a distinct political purpose is ignored.

Lily B. Campbell has recognized the serious historical purpose as the distinguishing feature of the history play. She differentiates between tragedy and history by looking at the distinction between private and public morals: “Tragedy is concerned with the doings of men which in philosophy are discussed underethics; history with the doings of men which in philosophy are discus sed underpolitics.”3But as private and public morals are related very closely together “the attempt to divide history and tragedy into mutually exclusive categories is both unrealistic and unnecessary.”4

Because of the fact that the sources of the history plays were chiefly the chronicles and the Elizabethans expected any work of history to act as a political mirror, the history play, as Lily B. Campbell has pointed out, was one which fulfilled what Elizabethans considered the serious purposes of history.5

2. Elizabethan Historiography

Due to the delay of English the renaissance in contrast to other European countries the English culture was able to adopt and assimilate a whole host of humanist ideas and models of the continent. Nevertheless, the Elizabethan historiography was characterized by uncertainty and reorientation because of new humanist notions being in competition with old established ideas stemming from the Christian medieval age. In this respect Tillyard’s opinion is of debatable value; he sees Shakespeare’shistoriesas grounding on Elizabethan chroniclers like chiefly Halle and Holinshed, and, therefor, as dramas adopting just their philosophical- historical conceptions of “a scheme fundamentally religious, by which events evolve under a law of justice and the ruling of God’s providence . . .”6

2.1 Humanist Philosophy of History

Beside the Reformation the revival of the humanism through the renewed knowledge of the classics is the great intellectual movement of the sixteenth century. Ancient histories were the model for an articulation and recording of a country’s own history. In a country newly roused to nationalism the search for fame was eagerly undertaken. The great work of humanist historiography in England was Sir Thomas More’s ‘The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York’ (1548) following the principles of such Italian humanists as Leonardo Bruni. Bruni and his followers sought to glorify their native counties; they abandonded the universal history of the Middle Ages and wrote national history instead. Obviously, also in England there was to be found a patriotic purpose for dramatists serving a nationalistic glorification of their own country.

Probably, the most important aspect of the humanism in Elizabethan England was related to Italian humanist history: didactism. As history embodied the past experience of nations it, consequently, was the best basis for teaching. Rooting in the models of Greek and Roman history the didactism of medieval history meant that former events of the past could serve as examples of a better dealing with contemporary problems and for the guidance of political behaviour. It followed from this for Renaissance people that “history manifested the frickleness of fortune and at the same time enabled men to rise above fortune and be indifferent to it.”7

Machiavelli, Guicciardini and Bodin created the basis for and were the precursors of a conception which saw history as a studying object in order to learn universal laws for political affairs and institutions. At the same time, this purpose of history “ . . . became a part of the Renaissance heritage . . . In fact, the use of history for the exposition of political theory became one of the most significant purposes of the history play, . . .”8

2.2 Medieval Christian Philosophy of History

According to the tradition of the medieval Christian history there was still the belief in the will of God as the primary cause of all human events. Elizabethan historiography still took into account that God’s judgement in human affairs was above all omitting any individual judgement or will and that nothing was done by chance but everything by the divine providence of God. The most important aspect was that “it saw in history an intelligible and rational pattern which was inevitably good and which always affirmed the justice of God.”9Ribner emphasizes that it was this scheme of God’s providence which was especially taken up by Elizabethan dramatists for the history plays.10

At the same time, though, medieval Christian notions were also the basis for tragedies. In tragedies it was emphasized that the Fall of Princes was related to God’s revenge for crime also following a pattern that stresses the change of fortune of men by the eternal justice of God. “For the tragic fact is for ever found in the change from happiness to misery; such is the permanent and essential material of tragedy.”11It is quite obvious that according to the origin of conceptions for the tragedy and thehistorythese two genres of drama are closely linked together.

III. The Play’s Patterns of Ritual

Writers ofhistoriesused to organize the material with regard to the origins in a chronological order. This was just according to the purpose of emphasizing the historical events rather than any individual, personal actions.Richard IIIalso reveals a strong regularity of the arrangement and order of the scenes, and Shakespeare achieves this patterning by special means.

1. Ritual of Destruction

Looking at the stucture ofRichard III, it becomes very obvious that the first phase of the play (that is from the beginning up to the coronation of Richard) reveals a very stringent pattern of events. These events are Richard’s tactical moves in order to usurp the crown of England. Furthermore, all these events are characterized by physical and psychological violence: murders, executions and underhand deceptions alternate and become by repetition a pattern. One by one Richard overpowers his victims. After initiating the conspiracy against Clarence, the wooing of Anne is his first big demonstration of absolute evilness. Although this scene does not contain any murders it shows a fierce conflict which has its violent aspect only in language: “Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell.”12“Foul devil, . . .” (I, 2, 50) “Villain, thou know’st nor law of God nor man.” (I, 2, 70) In addition, on the climax Richard pulls his dagger and tries to make Anne stab him to death.

In the course of the play the murder of Clarence, the executions of Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan, and of Hastings follow and leave a trail of blood. What is presented here, of course, is a chain of historical affairs which are important requirements for the following usurpation by Richard. To some extent this can be seen as an accumulation of historical facts and, thus, can be related to the purpose of an history play to serve a strong popular desire of Elizabethan people to be instructed in the events of history. On the other hand, it comes to one’s mind that in these scenes the act of brutality and violence is underlined and not so much the political or historical relevance of the deeds. What comes to the fore are not the crimes of a tyrant against the law and order of a country. The audience is shocked by Richard’s bloody ruthlessness and the tragic fate of each of his victims. In same way, Richmond describes him: “For what is he they follow? Truly, gentlemen, / A bloody tyrant, a homicide; / One raised in blood, and one in blood established; . . .” (V, 3, 2246-248)

There can be no doub t that all his victims are persons of high status and have an important position in the hierarchy of the courts. Nevertheless, one is inclined to completely forget the consequences for the political state of the country because of the strong appeal to one’s emotions. This becomes most obvious when Richard decides with no hesitation at all to have the young princes killed in the Tower: “Shall I be plain? I wish the bastard dead, / And I would have it suddenly performed.” (IV, 2, 19-20), Richard says to Buckingham and leaves no doubt about his bloody intentions. Altough Tyrrel, the hired murderer, states both of the two aspects of this deed (“The tyrannous and bloody act is done, / The most arch deed of piteous massacre / That ever yet this land was guilty of. ” (IV, 3, 1-3)), his concise discription of the murder emphasizes above all the individuality and cruelty of this event as he cites the executioners’ words: “‘we smotherèd / The most replenished sweet work of nature / That from the prime creation e’er she framed’.” (IV, 3, 17-19)

2. Disordered Scheme of Divine Justice

Taking into account the three parts ofHenry VI, one could be inclined to consider Richard IIIas being the suitable end in order to round off and bind together a seemingly epically conceived sequence of history plays about the Wars of Roses. On first sight, the events inRichard IIIseem to be guided by a simple process of divine justice, dispensing rewards and punishments, and with Richard as God’s instrument and executor. In fact, there is nothing wrong with that. All of the people Richard is deceiving during the play have sinned in some way, yet some of the sins go back to former times. Along the play, Richard proceeds in a ritual of destruction that grows in power until he himself as the destroyer is destroyed. And there is at least one striking incident that can be called “a divine sign of disapproval against him [Richard]. When he approaches Anne and the dead body of Henry VI, Henry’s wounds start bleeding afresh in accordance with the traditional belief of bier right, according to which the corpse of a murdered man would bleed if approached by his slayer.”13The fact that Anne desribes this state of the body can be seen as an objective authorization of this phenomenon:“O gentlemen, see, see, dead Henry’s wounds / Open their còngealed mouths and bleed afresh. / Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity, / For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood . . .” (I, 2, 55- 58)

There can be no doubt that the play contains decisive events of history. But it is most conspicuous that the emphasis put on the various events is not in accordance with the historical importance. One example for this is the final act of usurping the crown. It is not Richard’s coronation that is shown, but the proceedings of the election by which he reaches the crown. Instead of putting stress on the historical fact that Richard is appointed to be the king of England, Shakespeare shows to the audience in what a blasphemous act of deception Richard climbs to the throne. It is almost a parody of an election that shows Richard entering the scene accompanied by two bishops while he is secretly mocking not only the Mayor and the people of the court but also and above all the church and, thus, intensifying his image of an unscrupulous villain.

Another example for this ‘unhistorical’ emphasizing is the depiction of Clarence in the Tower. Of course, he is an important person, and, without doubt, his death is a very relevant fact for the events at that time. However, in some way it seems quite exaggerated to show his last hours in these details. One gets to know a nightmarish dream that he tells the keeper and witnesses the conversation between his two murderers and the final discussion with Clarence. Instead of giving straight facts, Shakespeare develops two of the major themes of the play in these scenes: conscience and remorse. It shows not only how Shakespeare gives expression to the murderers’ primitive and materialistic way of thinking when talking about conscience but also how deeply Clarence is involved in guilt and sin. “In der großen Auseinandersetzung mit Clarence, in der dieser sich nun in der Tat, gemäß der Voraussage seines Bruders, als “well- spoken” erweist (I, 3, 348), werden nicht nur die Anklagen, die vorher - im zweiten Teil der Traumerzählung - aber auch schon in I, 3 (135) auftauchten, nochmals aufgenommen, sondern es wird auch das Problem des Rechts und der Gerechtigkeit von verschiedenem Standpunkt aus beleuchtet.”14

This interchange between Clarence and the two murderers is also very informative when it comes to the reason for his murdering Henry VI’s son:

“First Murderer: Who made thee, then, a bloody minister / When gallant-springing brave Plantagenet, / That princely novice, was struck dead by thee? - Clarence: My brother’s love, the devil, and my rage. - First Murderer: Thy brother’s love, our duty, and thy faults / Provoke us hither now to slaughter thee.” (I, 4, 209-214)

It is suggested here that Clarence is not in any way an instrument of God’s justice, and “it seems likely that we are not meant to regard Clarence’s death as the result of divine justice.”15

Furthermore, the fact that Shakespeare presents this scene (I, 4) in a very humourous and ironic way takes one’s mind off the actual deed of violence. For example, Clarence’s request “Give me a cup of wine” (I, 4, 151) is highly ironic in regard to his later death in the “malmsey-butt”.

3. Predictions as a Means of Patterning

The most significant aspect of this formal ritualism is the fact that everything that happens is exactly foretold. As Kristian Smidt notices, “Shakespeare made liberal use of prediction in all his history plays, but never as much as inRichard III.”16All these curses, prophecies and dreams are especially summed up in the Richard’s introductory line “I am determined to proove a villain” (I, 1, 30). When he goes on about the plots which he has laid, we are precicely informed about his first devilish plan to invent an intrigue between King Edward and Clarence. Whatever machinations Richard is planning in the following parts of the play, we are told about it every time before it happens. Such a narrative pattern seems to have the effect to enable the audience to exactly follow the carrying out of a plan in practice. Thus, we are witnesses o the breathtaking performance of a villain in top form. The fact that he not only informs the audience in advance about his intentions but also regularly confides in the audience about the success of his cruel deeds, makes it partner to his conspiracy. As a consequence, one is inclined to feel, to some extent, a symphathy or respect for Richard as his undertakings also reveal a certain genius.

Beside Richard’s conspiratorial statements there is especially the seemingly superhuman figure of Margaret and her overall curses which can be seen as structural devices. “Mit ihren Flüchen weist Margaret gleichsam jeder wichtigeren Person im Stück ihren Platz an; sie gibt eine Art von neuer Exposition, nach der nun das weitere Drama abrollen wird.”17Margaret’s plea to God to take revenge for the injustice she had to suffer - the murder of her relatives and her banishment - on every person directly or indirectly involved is going to be exactly fulfilled in the course of the drama. The fact that her curses reveal a certain precision and exactness shows her remoteness from reality. In her last great curse against Richard she foresees his upcoming nightmares and his affliction with ghosts: “No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine, / Unless it be while some tormenting dream / Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils.” (I, 3, 223-225)

With Margaret’s cursing Shakespeare establishes an interrelation not only between the present events and the future. In her curses she also refers to the past and revives memories of the struggle between York and Lancaster and the personal feuds at court in which everyone is involved (I, 3, 195-212). As her predictions have the artificial character of constructions for the play, the conception of Providence can be seen as an ideational background for the structure which is exposed here. The fact that Rivers, Grey, Hastings and Buckingham will remember Margaret’s words just before their deaths underlines not only the effectiveness of the curses but also emphasizes impressively the intervention of God: “Grey: Now Margaret’s curse is fall’n upon our heads, / When she exclaimed on Hastings, you, and I / For standing by when Richard stabbed her son. - Rivers: Then cursed she Richard, / Then cursed she Buckingham, / Then cursed she Hastings. O remember God, / To hear her prayer for them, as now for us.” (III, 4, 14-20)18

However, this inclusion of God as Divine Justice is quite questionable. The reason for this is that divine justice here becomes an instrument of revenge of a man who is burdened with a huge amount of guilt and whose victims are also innocent persons like Edward IV’s sons. “[Margaret’s] zutiefst unchristlicher Dank verweist weniger auf den barmherzigen, neutestamentarischen Erlösergott als vielmehr auf einen alttestamentarischen Rächergott, der nach dem Motto verfährt: “Auge um Auge, Zahn um Zahn”, . . .”19

Although this depiction of divine justice as the motivating force behind history is here to some extent quite unsatisfying, Margaret, nevertheless, relates with her remarks to the tearing apart of the state’s order as a gradual process. Thus, the conception of an inevitable cycle of sin and punishment, crime and revenge is stated. The stiff arrangement of stated intententions, curses and prophecies serve very well to demonstrate the working-out of a rational plan that affirms the ‘supra-individual’ running of history and, though not very convincingly, the justice of God’s vengeance. One gets the impression that history becomes an impersonal force that rolls on beyond the lives of individ ual men. However, it remains still to be seen how Richard can be subordinated to such a form which emphasizes such an ‘un- individual‘ course of life.

4. Patterned Speech

It is generally accepted that Margaret rather than Richmond is the only serious adversary for Richard in the play. She is the only one beside Richard to do asides and, what is most important, her prophetic speech in I, 3, 195-212 contains predictions of all the events of which the rest of the play is simply a fulfillment. Her detachment from the other figures in the play is based on her status as an unrealistic character symbolizing the spirit of revenge. This is not least because of her language that “is formal and ritualistic, based not only on ceremonial conceptions but also on a view of life in which justice (or at least retribution) operates, which is controlled by Divine Providence, and in which actions have their just and logical reactions.”20

While the actions of men accumulate in destruction, the lamentations of women mount in chorus. The most obvious example of stylized language is in IV, 4 when Margaret, Elizabeth and the Duchess lament about their losses:

“I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him; / I had a husband, till a Richard killed him. / Thou hadst an Edward till a Richard killed him; / Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him.” (IV, 4, 39-42)

What is revealed here is, in fact, “an exact and scientific game with language.”21Many lines are interlinked by accord, by parallel construction, by repetition of the same words or by rhyme. It is conspicuous that the actual situation of dialogue is not any more apparent. Each of the lamenting women does not refer any more to the other but to the deceased person. “Die Individualität der Frauen ist fast ausgelöscht; sie sind nur Stimmen im Chorus.”22

Furthermore, it is hard for the audience to follow to which of the deceased the women refer to. Even if one had studied the cast lists extensively, one cannot remember who all the Henrys and Edwards were. As the women speak, the names just roll on in ritualized accumulation. Although the deaths and murders mentioned point to a particular event, it is not possible to recapitulate the knowledge about that. Instead, these dead individuals loose their identy and are weaved in a larger pattern; they become mere generalizations in the course of history.

In addition, as Clemen points out, the fact that the same name is meant for different bearers creates not only a great confusion, but also gives and increases the impression of an interconnection in guilt: “Die Vergangenheit, alle Ermordeten und Schuldiggewordenen werden durch die Nennung ihrer Namen aufgerufen und erscheinen in dieser großen, sich immer mehr ausweitenden Abrechnung und Überschau.”23

The lamentation ends with all the heavy weight of the great misfortune in the very clear and detailed characterization of Richard as the responsible man of nearly all the atrocities: “From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept / A hell- hound that doth hunt us all to death: / That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes / To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood, . . .” (IV, 4, 47-50)

IV. Richard’s Independent Status and Individuality

Of course, the play’s central and single focus is laid on Richard. The fact that most theatrical performances concentrated exclusively on Richard himself over the years is not only due to many directors‘ intentions. As Rossiter notices, the play itself offers “a huge triumphant stage-personality, an early old masterpiece of the art of rhetorical stage-writing, a monstrous being incredible in any sober, historical scheme of things - Richard himself.”24Without doubt, the dominant role of Richard can be assimilated if he is seen solely as the instrument of divine retribution on a guilty society. And regarding the play itself with its tendency to ritual patterning it would not be erroneous at all to considerRichard IIIas a formal conclusion to the series of plays about the Wars of Roses putting stress on the impersonal force of history and retributive justice. Nevertheless, it is not possible to overlook the fact that Richard stands out from the rest of the play in an excessive way. The impetus to such consideration is most of all the contradiction that lies in the figure of Richard. On the one hand, he is so repulsive a villain that his punishment in the end causes great satisfaction. On the other hand, though, one has to admit feeling some delight in the genius of his machinations and his absolute ignorance of all morals and authority.

1. Richard’s Agility of Speech

When in the end of III, 1 only the conspirators Richard, Buckingham and Catesby are left dealing with further action, it is Richard’s statement on Hastings that is surprisingly terse, if not almost shocking: “Chop off his head. / Something we will determine.” (III, 1, 196-197) Obviously, they are talking about a serious matter, and Richard’s treatment of that is, indeed, informal. Whereas most of the time he is shown as someone with great abilities and wit in speech, there are, on the other hand, sometimes these deviations of formal language. This kind of flexibility is reserved for him while other characters seem to be reduced to some extent.

The effect is even more surprising in II, 2 in which the level of language is highly rhetorical. After receiving blessings from his mother Richard replies in an aside: “And make die a good old man, / That is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing; / I marvel that her grace did leave it out.” (109-111) The remark is not only rude, but it also reveals, in contrast o the elaborated speech, a kind of brutality that underlines Richard’s true nature. Nevertheless, it can also be seen as more human and real in comparison to the rhetorical formality of the other characters. In order to give expression to the different tones of slight irony, of cynical, veiled hints and of rough slanders, it is necessary, as Clemen points out, to apply a loose and flexible style, to introduce a mundane level far from the rhetorical pitch at which the scenes are generally proceeding.25

Howeve r, it is his quick-wittedness and the masterly use of irony due to which he stands out from the rest of the antagonists. Richard especially proves to be a “Meister der versteckten Ironie, die, vom Sprecher bewußt angewandt, wohl dem Publikum, aber nicht vo m Gesprächspartner verstanden wird.”26When he, for example, is told by Clarence about his arrest in the Tower Richard reminds the audience of his already arranged plans of getting rid of Clarence with hidden and mean irony: “O, belike his Majesty hath some intent / That you should be new christened in the Tower.” (I, 1, 49- 50) Poor Clarence, of course, cannot have the slightest presentiment of the danger, nor of the repulsion lying in this remark. Like him there is almost nobody (except, maybe, Margaret) who can keep up with Richard’s caustic wit of speech.

The wooing of Anne, then, is undoubtedly a great triumph of rhetoric showing Richard in a supreme performance. In contrast to a stylized verbal patterning it contains superb variations in pace as the balancing lines are longer or shorter and variations by the contrast of long solo speeches. It seems like Richard is watching carefully to see the effects of his words, always calculating his next move and being ready to change his way of proceeding immediately. There is just nothing Anne can do as she is trapped into a reversal of feeling on which Richard builds his performance:

“Anne: I would I knew thy heart. - Richard: ‘Tis figured in my tongue. - Anne: I fear me both are false. - Richard: Then never man was true.” (I, 2, 197-200) “Those reversals of intention (heart-tongue; false-true) are on precisly the pattern on the repeated reversals of human expectation, the reversals of events, the anticipated reversals (foreseen only by the audience), which make ‘dramatic irony’.”27After having succeeded, Richard almost makes fun of his own rhetorical performance revealing the magnificence and the falsity of the rhetorical mode: “Was ever woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever woman in this humour won? / I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.” (I, 2, 231-233)

It becomes obvious that regarding the language Richard stands somehow above the play and that there is an enormous difference between the general tone of the play and Richard’s very own speech.

2. Richard’s Realness

2.1 Alliance with an Actor

It is very obvious that Richard is an actor of outstanding qualities. We see him slipping into many roles - playing from the yearning wooer to the humble church scholar a multitude of roles - in order to deceive the other characters and to achieve and consolidate the King’s power. Whereas Rossiter sees Richard as “the spirit of ruthless, of daemonic pride, energy and self- sufficiency”28 and, thus, as an unrealistic construction of evil there is definitely a dimension in his character to be added. In spite of all these deceptions and disguising he can, nevertheless, be seen as the only real character of the play. The main reason for this is that Richard is in permanent and close contact to the audience, though this ma y seem to be paradoxical.

Asides in a drama usually have the effect of alienation. The illusion of a play in which the actors take part creating a world beside the audience’s reality is torn apart by the asides. This is not the case inRichard IIIfirst of all because of a new modulation of the aside mentioned by Clemen. He explains the situation when Prince Edward catches Richard speaking an aside: “Richard [Aside]: So wise so young, they say, do never live long. - Prince Edward: What say you, uncle?” (III, 1, 79-80) “Daß das erste aside- Sprichwort (79) vom Prinzen halb mitgehört wurde, ist ein neuer Kunstgriff der Dialogführung, der das Unrealistische des „Beiseitesprechens“ mindert und dieses in die Gesprächssituation stärker einbezieht.”29

Furthermore, however, the asides inRichard IIIcontribute to the fact that the audience is made an ally with Richard, though it might be to some extent with mixed emotions. Right from the beginning in his opening soliloquy he informs the audience about his plans and plots making them, thus, to his partners of conspiracy. Although it is not so much taking the audience into his confidence as describing himself, it is, nevertheless, an address to them when he talks to what extent he approves of the present situation:

“But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks / Nor made to court an amorous lookingglass, . . .” (I, 1, 14-15) It is a clear evidence of his honesty, a revelation of true feelings and a confession of personal shortcomings. “Er läßt uns immer wieder gleichsam augenzwinkernd einen Blick in seine Karten tun und schafft so eine Beziehung des geheimen Einverständnisses, ja geradezu der Vertraulichkeit.”30

Richard alone is in contact with the audience. Although the other characters are factually the more pitiful victims than Richard they have no chance of winning real symphathy.

After he has confided some details of his first plot against Clarence his multiple role- playing begins immediately. Richard, of course, is playing one role for Clarence and the other figures, as well as one for the audience. However, the fact that the audience is fully informed about all his intentions, that is, his different roles creates a new situation. Richard plays a mean game with his opponents and by presenting it to the audience it becomes a play that is undisguised and can be seen from his point of view.

It follows from this that he, in spite of the alienating asides, is more real and, consequently, taken out of the play. Richard is the only individual, who acts, while the others become mere supernumeraries who just react to his undertakings. The enforced individuality of his character which is revealed does not just fit into a pattern of God’s retributive justice any more, reducing him to a mere intrument, but emphasizes an autonomy and a personal responsibility. The stress on the figure of Richard with all his readiness of wit which is sardonic and even blasphemeous, as well as his self- gained power, makes him the only one responsible for the events in the play. Also, in the play, he is referred to not as God’s instrument but as “hell’s black intelligencer” (IV, 4, 71).

2.2 Emphasis on Feelings - Richard’s Ambition

There can be no doubt that Richard’s deeds are historically relevant and fatal. Moreover, the dominating sins he himself realizes after awakening from the nightmare the night before the battle of Bosworth are perjury and murder: “Perjury in the highest degree, / Murder, stern murder in the direst degree, / All several sins, all used in each degree, / Throng all to th’bar, crying all ‘Guilty, guilty!’” (V, 3, 199-202) So, perjury and murder are sins that brand Richard a sinner against the moral order. However, these are not sins which identify him as a regicide, an usurper or a tyrant. Shakespeare’s depiction suggests something else: “It is notable that it is his personal qualities that receive the most direct attention; he is ambiguous, like Macbeth, and having achieved his ambition, fear leads him to murder to protect himself.”31

Already in I, 3 ofIII Henry VI32there is a hint of Richard’s ambitions when he convinces his father of the pleasures of the crown. It is not until III, 2 of that same play that he is more concrete:

“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, / Deceive more slily than Ulysses could, / And, like a Sinon, take another Troy. / I can add colours to the cameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel to school. / Can I do this, and cannot get the crown? / Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.”33

Obviously, his lines do not express mere political ambition but also his need to impress the audience with his abilities.

The posing character of this remark is taken up again in the open soliloquy ofRichardIII, merely repeating and elaborating his designs. The emphasis is again put on his ambition to commit atrocities, “to prove a villain” (I, 1, 30). On the way to the crown the political and historical events are dismissed as almost irrelevant whereas the demonstration of his evil abilities is in the fore.

2.3 Emphasis on Feelings of Fear and Inferiority - Psychological Motivation

As Clemen remarks, “[t]here is the feeling of fear and uncertainty running like a keynote through almost all the scenes of the play and finding expression in various characters and ways.”34Up to the last act, this is especially true for all the other characters. Apart from Clarence‘s terrible dream which is the most detailed and a linguistically high established outline of a frightening experience, this atmosphere of uneasiness and fear is not only to be recognized by citizens in the streets of London (“I fear, I fear, ’twill prove a giddy world.” (II, 3, 6)). Even early in the play, Queen Elizabeth also seems to feel something of the general mood of imminent danger: “Would all were well, but that will never be. / I fear our happiness is at the height.” (I, 3, 40-41)

It is not just until act V, when Richard has his dreadful dream with the appearance of the ghosts of his murdered victims, that he shows any signs of fear. Most notable is the fact that Anne tells us Richard sleeps badly: “For never yet one hour in his bed / Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep, / But with his timorous dreams was still awaked.” (IV, 1, 83-85)

Very soon after Richard has become King of England it is conspicuous that he is already overcome by agitation about keeping the throne. He confides first in feelings of insecurity and his next seemingly rash plans to his conspirator Buckingham: “Thus high, by thy advice and thy assistance, / is King Richard seated. / But shall we wear these glories for a day? . . . Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead, . . .” (IV, 2, 4-7; 19)

In the following course of the play we see Richard getting more and more nervous. One cannot fail to see that before fate does turn with all its strokes against him a feeling of uncertainty slowly creeps into his mind. Moreover, there are no signs of joy or satisfaction due to his achieving the throne. It can be followed that, as mentioned before, his ambition was most of all to show his abilities in deceiving his opponents. As Paris sees it “Richard seems . . . to find the possession of the throne a disappointing experience; and this may increase his uneasiness about the crimes he has commited to achieve it.”35Such a view refers back to a basic psychological characterization. And looking at the beginning of the play, or even further back, there are some hints which reveal certain general weaknesses.

Already inIII Henry VIRichard mentions his physical deformities and lays bare a feeling of inferiority as he intents “. . . to command, to check, to o’erbear such / As are of better person than myself.”36Later, deformity still weighs heavily on his mind: “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, . . .” (I, 1, 18-21) Furthermore, he is convinced that he “cannot prove a lover” (I, 1, 28) and, of course, that nobody loves him. It is a recognition that can make him utterly desperate and leaves him with the conclusion that he is alone. As a result of this isolation, he dispenses with all kinship with humanity and, as will be clearly shown, recognizes no authority at all beyond himself. It is, furthermore, surely a tenable claim to say that due to his exclusion from love Richard begins to live in his own world of morals and to respect no rectitude, authority and religion except his own. “Since he is not part of the human community, he is no subject to his laws. . . [In addition, h]is loveless state at once generates enormous rage and provides him with a rationale for acting it out.”37

So, we see him not only compensating for his frustrations but also, and above all, how he acquires a taste for acting while realizing that it is his outstanding gift which makes him stand out from the others. Nevertheless, his encounter with the ghosts of his murdered victims brings forth the old recognition that nobody loves him as he himself in the end does not love himself either: “I shall dispair. There is no creature loves me, / And if I die no soul shall pity me. / Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (V, 3, 203-206) What is focused in this last act is not Richard’s defeat against Richmond (as a representative for the established world of morals). It is the decay of a personality, the tragic fall of man, “der in individualistischer Vermessenheit Mitleid, Liebe und Furcht aus seinem Innern verbannt und sich damit außerhalb der Gesellschaft gestellt hat”38

Although most examples for an argumentation for a psychological motivation are to be found inIII Henry VI, there are enough hints inRichard IIIthat put stress on an impetus of his action to be grounded on psychological reasons. Throughout most of the play Richard is in absolute focus. He is brought so close with all his intentions and also feelings that the realness of his character is most provable. One cannot deny that the emphasis is strongly put on him as an individual acting and being responsible for the course of events.

V. Conclusion

As I stated in the introduction above, Shakespeare’s playRichard IIIseems to be in itself highly contradictio nary. On the one hand, there is the working-out of a rational pattern of the course of events by God’s determination. To some extent it can be agreed that there is Richard as God’s instrument to fulfill his just revenge on all the people who have sinned and, finally, revenge is taken on himself as the greatest sinner of all. The events take place like a stiff and unevitable ritual with Margaret and her curses representing an entity of Nimesis. Formal patterns of arrangement and speech show the course of history as supra- individual force which one cannot influence. The end of the play seems to fulfill all these conditions as Richmond defeats the mean and morally reprehensible Richard. He seemingly receives his just punishment not only for his atrocities against individuals but, above all, for his causing harm to the country. In this respect the play can be seen as a morally correct history fulfilling its didactic purpose, as well as it takes up the theme of revenge that was a defining feature of the Elizabetha n revenge tragedy.

The only simple objection one could put forward is, in a word, Richard. What we have got here is old established ideas facing new heretical notions for which he is the representative. Of course, this is in accordance with the Elizabethan conception of the world being especially valid for art, literature and philosophy. However, as I see it, for Shakespeare it is the basis for a dialectic conception which constitutes the whole play. The universal course of history is set against by an individual being responsible for the events. On the one hand, there are the stiff patterns and rituals and, on the other hand, there is Richard demonstrating an emormous flexibility and unpredictablity. On the surface, God’s justice is at work and there is punishment for every sin. Richard is the punishing executive and his status as an evil man, abundantly deserving of his bitter end, is evident. However, the character of Richard is very real. Obviously, there are to some extent understandable reasons for his actions. One cannot deny that Shakespeare establishes enough hints which suggest or even put stress on a psychological motivation. In addition, by the asides a very special relationship between the audience and Richard is created. As a result, empathy or even sympathy is built up for Richard as he is not simply the villain but also an ally with extraordinary capablities.

Consequently, a didactic purpose in the sense of vindicating the traditional morality is very doubtful. In my opinion,Richard IIIreceives by Shakespeare’s very special depiction of the figure of Richard a subversive moment. Although the traditional values and a belief in retribution are established in the end, the play as a whole makes one think the opposite. It is no accident that during the play the audience gets amused about Richard’s disgraceful deeds and is almost inclined to admire them. Very striking is the fact that despite Richard’s inner collapse and his final defeat Shakespeare grants him an impressive exit that makes the moral fade into insignificance beside it.

It is not possible to distinctly call the play either a history or a tragedy in an orthodox sense. It is very obvious that the figure of Richard ensures that the play moves us with some sense of tragedy while the play as a whole, especially the structure, is characteristic for a history play. As has been considered very often, “Richard IIIseems to be a hybrid of these two types of play.”39I think that the reader gets the impression that the play was not planned from the start to be either of these two genres. Taking into account the opposed scales of value, Shakespeare’s idea behind the play is likely to have been to establish and develop a dialectic moment that was characteristic for the Elizabethan time. AsRichard IIIat first sight seems to be representing conformist notions the actual masterly achievement lies in the fact that Shakespeare organizes the new ideas (being embodied in the personality of Richard) in a hidden and subtle way and, nevertheless, accomplishes an emphatic revelation of these.

VI. Works Cited

CAMPBELL, LILY B.Shakespeare’s‘Histories’: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy. San Marino, Calif.: The Hunting Library, 1968.

CAMPBELL, LILY B.Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes. Slaves of Passion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1930.

CHEPIGA , MICHAEL J.Politics and the Uses of Language in Shakespeare’s English History Plays. New York: Xerox University Microfilms, 1975.

CLEMEN, WOLFGANG. “Anticipation and Foreboding in Shakespeare’s Early Histories.” Shakespeare Survey 6. Cambridge, 1953. 21-32?.

CLEMEN, WOLFGANG.Kommentar zu Shakespeares‘Richard III’. 2. Durchgesehene u. ergänzte Aufl. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969.

GEISEN, HERBERT.Die Dimension des Metaphysischen in Shakespeares Historien. Frankfurt a. M.: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1974.

KELLY, HENRY ANSPAR.Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare’s Histories. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1970.

MOSELEY, C. W. R. D.Shakespeare’s Richard III. London: Penguin, 1989.

PARIS, BERNHARD J.“Character as a Subversive Force.”Shakespeare - The History and Roman Plays. London and Toronto: Ass. UP, 1991.

REESE, M. M. “Origins of the History Play.”Shakespeare - The Histories. A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Eugene M. Waith. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1965.

RIBNER, IRVING. “The Tudor History Play: An Essay in Definition.”PMLA69, I. 1954. 591-609.

ROSSITER, A.P. ‘Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard III.’Angel with Horns and other Shakespeare Lectures. Ed. Graham Storey. New York: Theatre Art Books, 1961.

SCHABERT, INA.Shakespeare-Handbuch. Die Zeit - Der Mensch - Das Werk - Die Nachwelt. 3. Aufl. Stuttga rt: Kröner, 1992.

SCHLÖSSER, ANSELM. “Shakespeares erste Tetralogie.”Shakespeare-Jahrbuch102. 1966. 168-208.

SCHIRMER, WALTER F. “Über das Historiendrama in der englischen Renaissance.”Klein Schriften. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1950.

SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM.King Richard III. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM.The Third of King Henry VI. Ed. Michael Hattaway. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

SMIDT, KRISTIAN.Unconformities in Shakespeare’s History Plays. London and Balingstoke: Macmillan, 1982.

TILLYARD, E. M. W.Shakespeare’s History Plays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.


1Lily B. Campbell, “Shakespeare’s ‘Histories’: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy” (San Marino, Calif.: The Hunting Library, 1968) 11.

2Walter F. Schirmer, “Über das Historiendrama in der englischen Renaissance,”Kleine Schriften(Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1950) 116.

3Campbell 17.

4Irving Ribner, “The Tudor History Play: An Essay in Definition,”PMLA69, I (1954) 594.

5 Campbell 15.

6E. M. W. Tillyard,Shakespeare’s History Plays(London: Chatto & Windus, 1947) 320.

7 Campbell 20.

8Ribner 600-601.

9Ribner 601.

10Ribner 602.

11Lily B. Campbell,Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes. Slaves of Passion(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1930)


12 William Shakespeare, King Richard III (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999) 62. Subsequent references to the play will appear in the text.

13Henry Anspar Kelly,Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare’s Histories(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1970) 281.

14 Wolfgang Clemen, Kommentar zu Shakespeares ‘Richard III’, 2. Durchgesehene u. ergänzte Aufl. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969) 125.

15Kelly 280.

16Kristian Smidt,Unconformities in Shakespeare’s History Plays(London and Balingstoke: Macmillan, 1982) 54.

17 Clemen 86.

18See also III, 4, 91-92; V, 1, 25-27.

19 Herbert Geisen, Die Dimension des Metaphysischen in Shakespeares Historien (Frankfurt a. M.: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1974) 173.

20Michael J. Chepiga,Politics and the Uses of Language in Shakespeare’s English History Plays(New York: Xerox University Microfilms, 1975) 60.

21 A. P. Rossiter, ‘Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard III,’ Angel with Horns and other Shakespeare Lectures, ed. Graham Storey (Theatre Art Books: New York, 1961) 4.

22Clemen 251.

23Clemen 253.

24 Rossiter 2.

25 Clemen 34.

26 Clemen 31.

27Rossiter 5.

28Rossiter 13.

29Clemen 175.

30 Anselm Schlösser, “Shakespeares erste Tetralogie,”Shakespeare-Jahrbuch 102, (1966) 200.

31 C. W. R. D. Moseley, Shakespeare’s Richard III (London: Penguin, 1989) 28.

32William Shakespeare,The Third of King Henry VI, ed. Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993).

33Shakespeare,III Henry VI, I, 3, 186-195.

34 Wolfgang Clemen, “Anticipation and Foreboding in Shakespeare’s Early Histories,” Shakespeare Survey 6, (Cambridge, 1953) 27.

35Bernhard J. Paris, “Character as a Subversive Force,”Shakespeare - The History and Roman Plays(London and Toronto: Ass. UP, 1991) 47.

36 Shakespeare, III Henry VI, I, 3, 166-167.

37Paris 36.

38 Schlösser 206.

39 Moseley 28.

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Shakespeare`s Richard III as History and Tragedy
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