Richard III (Shakespeare's Play)

Study Guide for Richard III (=R3)


(1) Useful Books and Essays on Richard III:

The two basic books on the histories are E.M.W. Tillyard's work of the 1940s, Shakespeare's History Plays (rpt. NY: Collier, 1962) and Robert Ornstein's more recent A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1972). Let me suggest that you consult the sections relevant for each plays: Tillyard's Ch. 2 of Part II ("The First Tetralogy"), specifically the parts called "Introductory" and "Richard III" (II.2.1,5) and Ornstein's chs. 1, 3, and 10.

Other useful works: A.P. Rossiter, "Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard III," rpt. in Eugene Waith, ed., Shakespeare: The Histories (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965--in the fine Twentieth Century Views Series); D.A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 3rd edn., ch. I, section on Richard III; H.M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays, Part I, ch. 4; Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare & the Allegory of Evil (NY: Columbia U., 1958), pp. 386-407; on Richard as a cold-blooded villain, see Hardin Craig, "Shakespeare's Depiction of the Passions," PQ, IV, 289, 301; for Richard as a tyrant see W.A. Armstrong, "The Elizabethan Conception of the Tyrant," RES 22 (July 1946), 161, 181; for figuring out what in the world PQ and RES might be, see the index to journal abb. in the front of a recent PMLA annual bibliography.


(2) If you haven't already done so, consult now my "Handout for the History Plays." You should also consult a geneology to keep track of who's what in the play. For a complete background on Richard III, unfortunately, you'd have to get a quick over-view of English history from the time of Edward III until the 1590s. The probably isn't necessary, though: Shakespeare gives you most of the information you need. It also isn't necessary to keep very close track of the "cast of tens" in the play. Richard is undoubtedly the star, and the other characters group themselves in relationship to him. Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, is Richard's ultimate antagonist. Henry is helped by his step-father, Lord Stanley (the Earl of Derby). The others in the play are Richard's ineffective enemies, dupes, victims, and accomplices (the categories are not mutually exclusive). Richard's major accomplice for most of the play is the crafty Duke of Buckingham. (Buckingham isn't crafty enough, though: he is so foolish as to think that he's Richard's equal in villainy and becomes one of Richard's victims.) These two major villains are assisted by Catesby and an assorted crew of aides and murderers. Richard's (willing?) dupes are such weak-willed survivors as the Lord Mayor and the Cardinal who gets the young Duke of York out of sanctuary. (We have to suspect some willingness on the parts of all of Richard's "dupes"; Richard is a fairly open villain.) Richard's ineffective enemies are the Queen's party: the brothers and sons (by an earlier marriage) of Queen Elizabeth (i.e., Woodeville, Rivers, Dorset, Grey). Hastings becomes Richard's enemy when he opposes Richard's bid for the crown--an act Hastings correctly sees as a usurpation of the right of Edward IV's sons Edward, Prince of Wales. Richard's victims make a substantial list. They include Richard's older brother George, Duke of Clarence; Richard's nephews Edward, Prince of Wales (Edward V by some king counts), and the young Duke of York; Richard's wife, the Lady Anne; Hastings; and most of the Queen's party--and, ultimately, the Duke of Buckingham. Commentary on Richard is offered by various characters but most spectacularly by the three queens and Richard's own mother, the old Duchess of York. (The three queens in the play are Margaret, the widow of Henry VI, the last Lancastrian king; Elizabeth, the widow of Richard's oldest brother, Edward IV; and Anne, widow of Henry VI's son and wife to Richard.) Margaret is sort of the Ghost of Victims Past: she returns from exile in France to remind all the Yorkists that they have usurped (from her point of view) the rights of the House of Lancaster. She also reminds them of their numerous other sins and foretells their destruction at the hands of Richard. She is quite important for reminding us that Richard destroys a generation of vipers: as far as I can tell, only the young Princes are totally innocent victims of Richard; the rest may well deserve what they get. Note that most of the people in the play want to get the Wars of the Roses behind them and get down to enjoying their bloodily-got winnings. Neither Margaret nor Richard will allow them to do that in comfort. (Laurence Olivier's film version of Richard III was based on Colley Cibber's abbreviated script of the play and eliminated Margaret. Without her reminding the audience of the sins of Richard's victims, they still tend to cheer on Richard until the murder of the Princes. Consider why an audience might do that. What makes Richard so engaging a villain? Why might an audience delight in murders?)


(3) From A.P. Rossiter, "Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard III."

What we are offered [in Richard III] is a formally patterned sequence presenting two things: on the one hand, a rigid Tudor schema of retributive justice (a sort of analogy to Newton's Third Law in the field of moral dynamics . . . ); and, on the other, 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. (67 in Waith) . . .

[As an example of this pattern of retributive justice--or "God's vengeance," APR offers the following from Holinshed: The Lancastrian Prince has been handed over to Edward IV on a promise of safety. Edward IV asks the young man what he's up to, and the Prince replies that he's there] "To recover my father's kingdom and heritage". . . . "At which words king Edward said nothing, but with his hand thrust him from him, or (as some saie) stroke him with his gantlet; whom incontinentlie, George duke of Clarence, Richard duke of Glocester, Thomas Greie marquesse Dorset, and William lord Hastings, that stood by, suddenlie murthered; for the which cruell act, the more part of the dooers in their latter daies dranke of the like cup, by the righteous iustice and due punishment of God." . . . [T]hat is what Richard III is about: what it is composed of. A heavy-handed justice commends the ingredients of a poisoned cup. This notional pattern of historic events rigidly determined by a mechanical necessity is partly paralleled by, partly modified by, the formal patterns of the episodes (or scenes) and the language. [68]***

Far more important . . . [than the historical details spelled out in Henry VI, Part III] is the simple overriding principle derived from the Tudor historians: that England rests under a chronic curse--the curse of faction, civil dissension, and fundamental anarchy, resulting from the deposition and murder of the Lord's Anointed (Richard II) and the usurpation of the House of Lancaster. The savageries of the Wars of the Roses follow logically (almost theologically) from that. . . . It is a world of absolute and hereditary moral ill [in Richard III], in which everyone (till the appearance of Richmond- Tudor in Act V) is tainted with the treacheries, the blood and the barbarities of civil strife, and internally blasted with the curse of a moral anarchy which leaves but three human genera: the strong in evil, the feebly wicked and the helplessly guilt-tainted (such as the Princes, Anne--all those despairing, lamenting women, whose choric wailings are a penitentional psalm of guilt and sorrow: England's guilt, the individual's sorrow). . . . The play-making framework is Senecan revenge, the characterization largely Marlovian; but the orchestration is not only original, but unique. [Lucius Annacus Seneca: 4 B.C.-A.D. 65, Stoic philosopher and author of revenge tragedies that combined philosophy and sensationalism. Christopher Marlowe: Elizabethan playwright, famous for impressive (and morally ambiguous) characters. Seneca & Marlowe influenced Shakespeare.]***

Richard Plantagenet [as Richard III] is alone with Macbeth as the Shakespearean version of the thoroughly bad man in the role of monarch and hero; he is unique in combining with that role that of the diabolic humorist. It is this quality which makes it an inadequate account to say that the play is "moral history," or that the protagonists are the personality of Richard and the curse of Margaret (or what it stood for in Orthodox Tudor thinking about retributive justice [="an eye for an eye"] in history)--for all that these opposed "forces" are central throughout. . . . It is a conflict between a spirit and a ghost: between Richard, the spirit of ruthless will, of daemonic pride, energy, and self-sufficiency, of devilish gusto and Schadenfreude (he enjoys wickedness even when it is of no practical advantage to his ambitions or to securing himself by murder: it may be only wickedness in words, but the spirit revealed is no less evilly exultant for that) and the ghost, as I called her--for what else is Margaret . . . but the living ghost of Lancaster, the walking dead, memorializing the long, cruel, treacherous, bloody conflict of the years of civil strife and pitiless butchery? [76-77] [Schadenfreude="joy in harms"="malice."]***

But Richard himself is not simply the last and most important (and worst) of the victims--if those justly destroyed can be called "victims." That is just where the label "moral history" [for Richard III] is inadequate. For Richard has grown a new dimension since his abrupt and remarkable development in Henry VI, Part III: he has become a wit, a mocking comedian, a "vice of kings"--but with a clear inheritance from the old Vice of the Moralities: part symbol of evil, part comic devil, and chiefly, on the stage, the generator of roars of laughter at wickedness (whether of deed or word) which the audience would immediately condemn in real life. . . . [T]he Christian pattern imposed on history gives the simple plot of a cast accursed, where all are evil beings, all deserve punishment. Look, then, with a believing Tudor eye, and ought you not to approve Richard's doings? Per se, they are the judgment of God on the wicked; and he [is a part of that (demonic) Power which always wills evil and yet always brings about good]. . . . Richard's sense of humour, his function as clown, his comic irreverences and sarcastic or sardonic appropriations of things to (at any rate) his occasions: all those act as underminers of our assumed naive and proper Tudor principles; and we are on his side much rather because he makes us . . . "take the Devil in [our] mind," than for any "historical-philosophical-Christian-retributional" sort of motive. [77-78]***

[On Richard's promise in Henry VI, Part III to "set the murderous Machiavel to school":] M.R. Ridley notes here that "Machiavelli . . . seems to have been to the Elizabethans a type of one who advocated murder as a method of cold- blooded policy." It is true that that marks off one point of difference between "Senecan" tyrant-villainy (which is primarily for revenge) and the "Machiavellian" (which is for power, or self-aggrandizement . . .): though I do not think that the distinction can be maintained, if you read Seneca [try The Thyestes for a sample--Erlich]. But surely Ridley's notes misses the point, in its context? What the "Machiavel" allusion represents is, I believe, Shakespeare's recognition that the programme set before the Prince in [Machiavelli's The Prince] . . . is one that demands exactly those histrionic qualities I have just described [as being possessed by Richard]: a lifelong, unremitting vigilance in relentless simulation and impenetrable deception. There, precisely, lies the super-humanity of the Superman. The will-to-power is shorn of its effective power without it. He is an artist in evil. [79-80]***

. . . Richard is a hypocrite and (like other stage villains) tells us so . . . he acknowledges his theatrical-historical legacy from the old Moralities: "Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one word" (III.i.82-3). [81]***

On the face of it, he [Richard] is the demon-Prince, the cacodemon born of hell, the misshapen toad, (etc.) all things ugly and ill. But through his prowess as actor and his embodiment of the comic Vice and impish-to-fiendish humour, he offers the false as more attractive than the true (the actor's function), and the ugly and evil as admirable and amusing (the clown's game of value-reversals). . . . But he is not only this demon incarnate, he is in effect God's agent in a predetermined plan of divine retribution: the "scourge of God." Now by Tudor-Christian historical principles, this plan is right.***

The paradox is sharpened by what I have mainly passed by: the repulsiveness, humanely speaking, of the "justice." God's will it may be, but it sickens us: it is a pitiless as the Devil's (who is called in to execute it).*** This overall system of paradox is the play's unity. It is revealed as a constant displaying of inversions, or reversals of meaning: whether we consider the verbal patterns (the peripeteias or reversals of act and intention or expectation); the antithesis of false and true in the histrionic character; or the constant inversions of irony. . . . .

But, start where you will, you come back to history; or to the pattern made out of the conflict of two "historical myths." The orthodox Tudor myth made history God-controlled, divinely prescribed and dispensed to move things towards a God-ordained perfection: Tudor England. Such was the frame that Shakespeare took. But the total effect of Shakespeare's "plot" . . . [is very different from that of the historian Edward Halle and the "Tudor Myth"].

The other myth is that of Richard the Devil-King: . . . whom Shakespeare found as a ready-made Senecan tyrant and converted into a quite different inverter of moral order: a ruthless, demonic comedian with a most un-Senecan sense of humour and the seductive appeal of an irresistible gusto, besides his volcanic Renaissance energies. They are themselves demoralizing: . . . ["To be bold is good"] is the antithesis of a Christian sentiment.

The outcome of this conflict of myths was Shakespeare's display of constant inversions of meaning: in all of which, two systems of meaning impinge and go over to their opposites. . . .

The "Christian" system of retribution is undermined, counterbalanced, by historic irony. (Do I need to insist that the coupling of "Christian" and "retribution" itself is a paradox? That the God of vengeance is not a Christian God; that his opposite is a God of mercy who has no representation in this play. If I do, I had better add that the so-called "Christian" frame is indistinguishable from a pagan one of Nemesis in which the "High all-seer" is a Fate with a cruel sense of humour.)

But do not suppose I am saying that the play is a "debunking of Tudor myth" or that Shakespeare is disproving it. He is not "proving" anything. . . . This historic myth offered absolutes, certainties. Shakespeare in the Histories always leaves us with relatives, ambiguities, irony, a process thoroughly dialectical. Had he entirely accepted the Tudor myth, the frame and pattern of order, his way would have led, I suppose, towards writing moral history (which is what Dr. Tillyard & Dr. Dover Wilson & Prof. Duthie have made out of him). Instead, his way led him towards writing comic history. The former would never have taken him to tragedy: the latter (paradoxically) did. Look the right way through the cruel-comic side of Richard and you glimpse Iago (of Othello). Look back at him through his energy presented as evil and you see Macbeth.


(4) Vice Business: The development of the Elizabethan Vice-figure is quite complex and not totally understood. For our purpose, though, it'll be ok if I give you the following over-simplified and much too neat summary. (It is much too simple to be historically correct.)

In the beginning (say, in the early 15th century), there were huge municipal productions of full-scale Morality plays like The Castle of Perseverance. These plays gave the life-story of Humankind and featured a battle for the human soul (a psychomachia) by the various virtues and vices. Even in these early plays, the vices tended to be comic. This was not only good theatre but good theology: from a God-like view human vice is a kind of folly and ultimately comic. In time, this municipal theater declined (and/or was suppressed), and English drama became, primarily, the province of traveling professional companies: very small bands of, say, "Four Men and a Boy." In such production circumstances one could hardly expect a full psychomachia. Instead, the virtues coalesced into one or a couple of good characters. The vices coalesced into the Vice: a comic tempter. In these small companies, the "star" would play the tempted youth ("Humankind," Humanus Genus [Humanity]). The "second banana" would play the Vice--and the other members of the company would double (and triple and quadruple) all the other parts. By the late Tudor period, the stage had become more secular, and the story of the Salvation of Mankind (or his Damnation in more Calvinist plays) gave way to more secular themes: e.g., the education of a young man--with the virtue figures trying to get him to study and the Vice-figure trying to get him to mess around.

Throughout his history the Vice-figure was very popular. He had the following characteristics: (1) An innate disposition to do evil and attack good. (Incarnate vice needs no special cause to oppose good: it's part of vice's nature.) (2) A marked tendency to tempt people into doing evil. (3) A humorous hypocrisy. (4) A tendency to pretend to cry over the misfortunes of others--misfortunes usually caused by the Vice. (5) An artist's delighted in an elegant job of messing over a victim. (6) A tendency to address the audience in monologs.

Note well that the Vice-figure was also an incarnation of a standard character in folk-lore: the Trickster. Originally, his main "trick" was tempting humans to Damnation. As the drama became more secular, the Vice lost his specialization and became indistinguishable from other Trickster figures. This process was speeded up when English drama became less allegorical and more realistic--when it would seem hopelessly oldfashioned to stage a "formal Vice" named "Iniquity." So instead of blatantly allegorical Vices like "Iniquity" we get moderately realistic Tricksters, with "a local habitation and a name"--and with some hint of human motivation. Still, though, a Vice- figure (even in more realistic drama) is basically a comedian of evil: a funny enemy of everything good and decent (like Barabas in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta).

Finally, we get quite realistic characters like Shakespeare's Richard of Gloucester: a character who can tell us important things about human evil (and not Evil in the abstract)--but a character who occasionally betrays his decent from the old Vice of the Morality Plays. (For a full discussion of the Vice, see Spivack's book, cited above in #1: for Richard of Gloucester/Richard III as Vice, see Spivack and/or my study guide for the History Plays.)




.1-40: Richard is bored during peace-time and is looking for some outlet for his energies. Since he cannot "prove a lover" he wills to become a villain. Is Richard right about not being good at sexual seduction? See 1.2. Also refer back to the quotes in the Study Guide for the History Plays--from Henry VI, Part III on Richard & love.

.115: Note Richard's playing with words; this is a typical Vice trick.

.126 f.: Hastings wants vengeance, a very Unchristian failing in him. Richard can use such failings for his own purposes. (Also, Hastings is the first we see of the "generation of vipers" left over from the civil wars; he's not very wicked--but neither is he very good.)

.145-end: Richard talks to us, the audience, here. Note his energy, humor, and chuzpah. Note that Richard is willing to speak of God, but this God is in his heaven, which is fine with Richard so long as he and Edward IV "leave the world for me to bustle in!" (my emphasis).


.14 f.: Anne curses Richard here. This is the first of a number of curses. Note them all well; figure out which ones come true.

.43-114: Anne calls Richard "devil," "minister of hell," "lump of fould deformity," etc. Such epithets pick up two themes from Henry VI, Part II & III and from Richard's opening soliloquy: Richard is deformed, unnatural, brutal, and demonic--or so most people (including Richard) say.

.115-182: This whole scene is highly rhetorical. The first part is what we might call "a one-sided flyting": i.e., an insult contest in which only Anne participates. This next part is more of a "debate," with Richard arguing that he is fit for Anne's bedchamber and Anne trying to retain her contention that Richard is fit only for a dungeon or hell. Note throughout the theatrical device of stichomithia: a "cut-and-thrust" sort of dialog where characters alternate very short speeches (sometimes only a line or a word). Note very well Richard's "weeping" and his presentation of himself as the Plain, Blunt Englishman whose "tongue could never learn sweet smoothing word." The Plain Man role is one of Richard's favorites; the I'm-no-orator business is one of the oldest tricks of rhetoric. Last point: try to picture the stage business here--it's quite impressive. Anne spits at Richard; Richard "lays his breast open"; Anne wants to stab him, but can't and "falls [=drops] the sword."

.185-226: Anne knows that Richard is a dissembler and a murderer of Lancastrians (her husband and father-in-law to name two). Why does she succumb to Richard's seduction? Is she just the Weak Woman?

.227-end: Note the arrogance and the rhetorical brilliance of this monolog. Richard reminds us of just how great his achievement was in the seduction of Anne. Here Richard is the archetypal performer: as George Carlin tells us, the performer's whole game is "Hey, look at me!". Consider, though, how the seduction of Anne undermines Richard's view of himself as cut off from love. If he is cut off from love, it's because he wills to be; he could certainly get all the sex he wanted.



.36-41: Two things: Edward IV wants to make peace in his court, and Q. Elizabeth sees her family's "happiness . . . at the height"--and, pat, "like the catastrophe of the old comedy," in walks Richard to destroy any chance for peace and happiness of his enemies (=the world). Note Shakespeare's lack of subtlety here: such directness is typical of him. Note also the idea of "tragedy" as a fall from the heights of power and happiness. (This is called De Casibus tragedy [from the title of Boccaccio's famous book De Casibus Virorum Illustrium: "Concerning the Falls of Illustrious Men"]. "Tragedy" in medieval usage just meant the story of the fall of a great person. In Elizabethan usage a "tragedy" was usually just a play in which the hero ends up dead.)

.42-107: Here Richard combines the Plain, Blunt Englishman with another role he likes: Injured Innocence. We also get Richard's ironically true comment on how bad the word has grown--plus a fair amount of simple exposition, telling the audience about Q. Elizabeth and her family and how they got to where they are.

.108-156: Note the exposition on the Wars of the Roses. Richard &

Q. Margaret remind the Yorkists of a past they want to forget. Note Richard's beautifully ironic "I am too childish-foolish for this world." If Tillyard is right about there being a providential scheme in Richard III then there is a sense in which Richard is a fool: when he's finished with it/him, God throws his Scourge into the fire. (More generally, in a Christian world wickedness is folly: you'll get punished for it.) Whatever the metaphysics of Richard III, though, this line is funny in context and makes us sympathize with Richard in his playing with the less clever people around him. Note also Rivers' lines on following the de facto king--whoever he is. Such an action might be good, orthodox Tudor behavior--or it might be mere cowardice or opportunism.

.155-323: There's a lot more exposition here on the sins of the Wars of the Roses. Don't worry if you get a little confused about the details: all you really have to know is that there were a lot of atrocities on both sides (esp. the murder of children). Note very well that the murders of "pretty Rutland," "lovely Edward," et al. are used mostly for rhetorical purposes: none of these people shows much pity. Note Margaret's curses. Most--or all-- of them come true. Consider why they come true. Does God hear these curses and answer them? Does Margaret just have good insights about her enemies? Does Shakespeare just know that curses-that-come-true make an effective theatrical device? Note Margaret's descriptions of--and epithets for--Richard. Consider why Margaret refrains from cursing Buckingham. What's her system for judging the good or evil of political actions? Note very well that Richard carefully refrains from cursing himself; others aren't so careful.

.323-end: Again, Richard recapitulates the action of the scene (and his actions so far in the play--and before). Note how he brags of his evil actions--and of how he fools the simple gulls (notably including Buckingham) who make up his world. We know from this scene that Richard's intended victims are not nice people. Still, we may sympathize with Richard primarily because he is smarter than they are--and because he lets us in on his schemes. This may say something about our morality: the scene ends with Richard's conversation with two murderers and his letting of a "contract" on the life of his own brother. It's possible that we morally approve of "Simple plain Clarence"--but identify with clever, energetic Richard.



.1-75: Clarence makes clear his membership in what I've called the "generation of vipers" (quoting Jesus). Still, his repentence is real and he seems very sympathetic here. Note that this is the only death we see--until Richard gets his at the end of the play (in battle).

.76-97: Note Brakenbury on the "outward fame" of princes: it's a standard theme and one which Shakespeare will use again, most notably in Henry V. Note that Brakenbury doesn't ask questions and doesn't interfere: he would be "guiltless from the meaning" of the murderers' commission. The First Murderer finds this "a point of wisdom." How should we view it? Brakenbury seems like a good man. Is his goodness too passive to prevent evil in a world like that of Richard III? Are we supposed to approve of his "Tudor orthodoxy" in following orders without question?

.100-end: Note the murderers on "judgment," "conscience," and "remorse" (a word close to "pity"). Are the common people in Richard III totally corrupt? Are these two malicious (enjoying evil almost for its own sake), or do they do evil for something that they see as a good (as in money)? Is the Second Murderer very evil? Is he good enough to try to prevent evil? Is he good enough and/or effective enough to prevent evil? Consider carefully the debate between Clarence and the Murderers. Should we obey the king if his commands go against those of "the great King of Kings" (i.e., God)? Does God act outside of the law? Should the king go against due process? Is it "cowardly and womanish" to show pity--or is murder "beastly, savage, devilish"?


2.1: Note the oaths here; they become curses. Does Richard indulge in such self-deceiving hypocrisy? Do we like Richard because he's the only honest hypocrite around? Also: How is it that Richard fools these people? He's a pretty open villain--why don't people call his bluff? (Ornstein has some excellent comments on this question.) Note that this scene gives mostly just the appearance of reconciliation. Still, it's just possible that these people might have made peace, if it weren't for Richard. Alternatively, Richard may attack even the appearance of peace, order, and reconciliation. (If Richard is a Vice-figure, he's got a problem: there's precious little good around for him to attack. Maybe he has to make do with what there is: just some appearances of good.)



.1-34: Has Richard fooled his mother, the old Duchess of York?

.125-end: Note how Richard allows Buckingham to think that Richard is willing to follow Buckingham's lead. Note also how soon Richard and Buckingham move to break whatever peace Edward IV might've made before he died.


2.3: This is a sort of "choric" scene and one of the few chances we get to see the common people. Note that they trust neither Richard nor the Queen's family. They think the land will remain "sickly" so long as Richard and "the queen's sons and brothers" try to rule and are not content to "be ruled." Consider the implications of Third Citizen's "All may be well; but if God sort it so, / 'Tis more than we deserve or I expect." What have they done wrong to deserve ill?


2.4: Note that the young Duke of York is a cute kid; we're going to miss him when he's gone--and think poorly of Richard for killing him. Note also the Duchess of York's lines on the vanity (=emptiness) of striving for a crown in a world that seems to be under the control of Fortune and her wheel. (The goddess Fortune has a wheel like a ferris wheel. You get on at the bottom, rise to the top--and it's back down from there, probably to your destruction. This pagan idea had long been incorporated in Xy. Fortune was within God's Providence--and a good Christian stayed off her wheel.)



.1-15: Richard hypocritically brings up the theme of appearances vs. reality. Note how he "projects" his own sins upon the Prince's other uncles (not that they lacked sins of their own).

.37-58: The Cardinal (and Hastings?) is being weak here. A man of God is supposed to follow the Law of God and oppose "the grossness of this age." Note Buckingham as Richard's "hatchet man."

.75-94: Prince Edward is also a good kid--and, potentially, a good king (smart, courageous, etc.)--we're going to miss him. . . . Note Richard's saying that he is like "the formal Vice, Iniquity": he's not an old Vice, like Iniquity, but he is similar to one.

.191-end: Note Richard's suddenness and the promise of a substantial reward for Buckingham. Buckingham, like the Murderers, is in Richard's schemes for profit. Richard, on the other hand, wants power but also delights in evil almost for its own sake. ("Evil, be thou my good" is the Devil's line; no human being can be quite that malicious. Still, Richard is pretty demonic and at least gets a kick out of the artistry with which he messes people over; and he enjoys the sense of power and superiority that he gets through messing people over.) We might say that Buckingham is a straightforward Machiavel: a politician who'll use any means to get his ends. Richard is a Vice/Trickster figure: as concerned with means as much as with the ends themselves. Moreover, Richard is a man in a state of malice: a human condition in which one suffers from hatred for others (all others, or nearly) and doesn't have to be deceived by the false appearance of good or a mistaken value system to do evil. (Most sin is the result of some sort of mistake. Usually, one gets overcome by some passion and can't think straight; so you choose some lesser good [like sex or money or power] over a greater good [like Salvation]. More advanced sinners don't need to be deceived like that. They've gotten into the habit of sin, and they habitually choose the lesser good--without being overcome by passion or having someone deceive them. In the most advanced forms of sin, passion is almost totally eliminated--as in Richard's cold-blooded murders--and the sinner sins from habit, hatred [a "cold" passion], and almost a joy in sin for its own sake. When Richard proclaims in Henry VI, Part III that he'll make his "heaven to dream upon the crown" of England, he's just making the Machiavel's standard mistake: valuing an earthly crown over the Heavenly Crown of Salvation. When Richard brags of his crimes and joyously plans more, he's into malice.)


3.2: Note Hasting's confidence and the irony of "the boar will use us kindly." In Elizabethan English "kindly" means bot "with kindness" and "according to his kind." Richard, the boar (a very dangerous animal), will, indeed, "use" Hastings that way: he'll kill him.

Also: Note Hasting's satisfaction at the murders at Pomfret castle and how this lulls him into overconfidence. The ironies in this scene are very stark (downright heavy-handed). The only one you might miss is Hastings' failure to see that once a politician gets away with summarily executing one set of enemies, he might use the technique on any new enemies that turn up (and for most politicians, "Those who are not with me are against me").


3.3: If you like Tillyard and the Tudor-Myth approach to Richard III, here's your prooftexts: the reference to Richard II's murder at Pomfret. (Still, one brief reference isn't much of a proof.)


3.4: Note Hasting's comments on his De Casibus "tragedy": his ride on the Wheel of Fortune has been a brief one.


3.5: Why does the mayor conclude that Hastings "deserved his death"? Consider the proverb used by Bob Dylan, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Consider also the arguments that Richard and Buckingham use to make the Mayor's decision easier for him.


3.6: An important little "choric" scene. It throws a lot of light into the murky corners of people's motivations in the play--most particularly that of the Lord Mayor and of the people in the preceding and following scenes. Note well that this scene immediately follows Richard's decision to "draw the brats of Clarence out of sight. Political cowardice may be complicity in the murder of kids.


3.7: This scene is very funny in performance. Still, it's a comic rendition of serious sort of political Fall. In case we've forgotten, the Princes are in the Tower--and we all know what that means.


4.1: The main function of this scene is to make sure we don't forget about the Princes. Shakespeare, though, is up to other things here as well. We first hear of Richmond in this scene: a touch of hope in a darkening world. We also learn of what's become of Anne, and we get the odd news that Richard doesn't sleep well. (Shakespeare probably erred in that. The Richard-to-come, the tyrant-king, won't sleep well; that's a traditional aspect of stage tyrants. The Richard we've seen in the play so far looks quite well-rested.) Note Anne on the outcome of her curse.



.1-31: Richard is at his height here. Note, though, that he's "wriggling" on the throne--still not satisfied. This is necessary for the historical story (the Tudor historians had Richard killing the Princes); it is also appropriate for a De Casibus tragedy, in which the hero rises to a shaky height only to fall (and "wriggling" is going to make you lose your balance). Still, E.G. Fogel used to suggest that "wriggling" is a constant with Richard: as in the image of one "lost in a thorny wood" in Henry VI, Part III. Also, it's possible that an earthly crown isn't what Richard really wanted, in which case it'd be appropriate that that crown doesn't satisfy him. And, of course, Richard is no damn good; if there's more villainy to be done, he'll want to do it.

.32-81: Note that Richard gets a boy to suggest someone "whom corrupting gold / Will tempt"--and the kid comes up with a possibility immediately. Corruption seems to be everywhere. Yet Richard's evil is beyond the mere corruption of his world: Buckingham has hesitated on the murder of the Princes; Catesby is slow in figuring out what Richard is up to with Anne. These mere politicians seem unable to grasp Richard's idea that work remains to be done. That's a good indication, I think, that there really is no political work remaining: Richard's actions from now on are gratuitous evil-- the sort of sheer villainy that a Machiavellian (as opposed to a stage Machiavel) ought to avoid.

.82-end: Buckingham, the truer Machiavellian, wants his reward. Richard denies it. This is a major political mistake. It is unmotivated by anything except Richard's anger at Buckingham and his desire to put Buckingham in his place. It is an exercise in power for Richard--and Buckingham won't stand for it.


4.3: Note "tyrannous" in Tyrel's opening line. Richard changes in through here from a good, conscious actor to a man living the role of Tyrant. The Princes probably do disturb Richard's sleep (or did). Richard can, without irony, compare himself with Jove and talk of "traitors."



.1-135: We might call this "The Score-Card Section" of this scene. It is formal choric commentary on the action of the play, featuring the pitiless Margaret and her careful count of who's been knocked off (all according to the plan, she thinks, of an "upright, just, and true-disposing God"--at least so far as the deaths of Yorkists go). Note well how impressive Shakespeare at least intended this business to be: Three (Count 'em, 3!) royal lamenters: ex-Q. Margaret, ex-Q. Elizabeth, and the old Duchess of York. Note the rhetorical balance, matching the balanced deaths. Question: Should we agree with Margaret on the justice of all this carnage? (Maybe so. For all the rabbinic and Churchly modifications and softenings, the biblical text is "an eye for an eye.")

.136-96: Richard orders noise so that the heavens won't hear "these telltale women / Rail on the Lord's anointed." This is ironic, but the irony doesn't seem to be Richard's. He's living the part--a very bad idea for a politician-actor. Note also the Duchess' summary of Richard's moral development, ending in "Thy age confirmed proud, subtle, sly, and bloody / More mild but yet more harmful--kind in hatred." Richard seems to have moved "up" the scale of the deadly sins, moving from wrath to fraud and then pride (the deadliest sin) and ending "kind in hatred," which I see as a punning combination of hypocrisy (his "kindness" masks his hatred) and the state of malice: hatred becomes Richard's kind, the essence of his being.

.197-end: This attempt to seduce Q. Elizabeth parallels the earlier seduction of Anne. Several points here: (1) Elizabeth seems to be much more on top of the situation than Anne ever was. (2) Richard is reduced to the sort of self-curses he so scrupulously avoided earlier. (3) Richard's argument is notably unconvincing. (4) Richard displays here no recognition whatever of the human implications of what he's done. His arguments seem to get down to "Look, everyone makes mistakes," "What's done is done," and "I'm really sorry about killing your sons, and I'd like to make it up to you: How about giving me your daughter?". The only real question in this section is whether Richard really convinces Elizabeth or whether she's fooling him. Actually, it'll work either way. Richard's final line on Elizabeth is "Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman." If Richard has convinced Elizabeth and is correct in his assessment of her, then he's made a serious mistake here: this "shallow, changing woman" might change again, and he ought not to just let her go her way, where someone else can get to her. I suspect the scene is better played with Elizabeth's fooling Richard: that fits in better with Richard's obvious confusion in his dealings (immediately following) with Ratcliffe and Catesby.


4.5: This brief scene makes clear that either Elizabeth fooled Richard or that someone has worked on her head: she has "heartily consented" that Richmond (=Henry Tudor) "should espouse . . . her daughter."


5.1: This is the last of the De Casibus type "tragedies" of Richard's adult victims. Shakespeare makes sure, though, that we see that more is at work in this world than an amoral Wheel of Fortune. Buckingham, at least, is convinced that a sort of divine justice has worked in his case and comes to the general conclusion that God will "force the swords of wicked men / To turn their own points in their masters' bosoms . . .".


5.3: Enter the Hero! Richmond may be less exciting than Richard, but, as Tillyard correctly points out, he says all the right things. Richmond opposes tyranny, usurpation, and slaughter, and supports love, friendship, hope, God, and peace.



.1-46: Note the stage directions. Technically, we don't have "simultaneously action" in this scene--but it's the closest thing to it in the Elizabethan plays I know. Throughout the Ghost Scene, Richmond's tent is on the stage, and Richmond is as visible to the audience (I assume) as Richard is. If we see something of a "double action" in this play--the rise of Henry Tudor as well as the fall of Richard--then this is nicely indicated by the staging of this scene. We also see here the two forces working on Richard: the external one of Richmond et al. and the internal, psychological forces--both manifest in this scene.

.46-79 and .80-118: Richard talks with the nasty Ratcliffe and Catesby (and some others), renews his threat to kill someone's child, and needs some wine before bed to cheer him up. Richmond talks with the noble Derby (who will betray the tyrant Richard for the good of England), receives his mother's blessings, and prays before he goes to sleep. (As I said earlier, subtle Shakespeare ain't.)

.176-207: The ghost of Buckingham sets Richard up for a De Casibus "tragedy," balanced by the comic resolution for Richmond and England: "God and good angels fight on Richmond's side, / And Richard falls in height of all his pride!" Note very well Richard' soliloquy (to himself, not to the audience) after the ghost's speeches. Note how he calls on Christ for mercy and complains of a "coward conscience" afflicting him. In Henry VI, Part III Richard claimed to have "neither pity, love, nor fear" and willed that "this word 'love,' which greybeards call divine, / Be resident in men like one another, / And not in me. I am myself alone" (V.1.68, 81-83). Now Richard fears and laments that nobody loves him; indeed, he can no longer love himself. He will get no pity in his fall; he can't even pity himself. Richard will soon be his wicked old self again, but for this moment he implicitly admits his humanity and admits his need for such human things as pity and love--and his being subject to fear. Power and cleverness are not enough even for Richard; Shakespeare thereby implies that they're not enough--period.


5.4: Again, note Richmond's saying all the right things. Also note Richard's famous call for a horse. He worked so hard for his kingdom--and it turned out to be all vanity and a chasing after wind: now he'd trade his kingdom for a decent horse.

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Study Guide Richard III (BBC, 1983)



FULL CITATION (for Works Cited):

Richard III. Dir. Jane Howell. UK: British Broadcasting Company, 1983. USA: Public Broadcasting Service, 1983. Shaun Sutton, prod. Oliver Bayldon, designer.



Richard III. Dir. Jane Howell. UK: British Broadcasting Company, 1983.


MAJOR CAST (from J. C. Bulman and H. R. Coursen, eds., Shakespeare on Television [Hanover: UP of New England, 1988]):

Richard: Ron Cook

Queen Margaret: Julia Foster

Lady Anne: Zoe Wanamaker

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Study Guide for Laurence Olivier's Richard III



Richard III. Laurence Olivier, dir., prod. UK: Laurence Olivier in association with London Films (prod.) / Lopert Films (dist.), 1956. 155 min. Music: William Walton. (A couple of additional lines from Colley Cibber's production of R3 in 1700, plus the cuts of the Cibber production.)



Richard: Laurence Olivier

Buckingham: Ralph Richardson

Clarence: John Gielgud

Lady Anne: Claire Bloom

Edward IV: Cedric Hardwicke

Hastings: Alex Clunes

Catesby: Norman Woodland

Norfolk: John Phillips

Elizabeth (Queen to Edward IV): Mary Kerridge

Duchess of York (the Queen Mother): Helen Hayes

Mayor of London: George Woodbridge

{Jane Shore: Pamela Brown}




1. The prolog, so to speak, gives us Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III) directly us and bringing us into his scheme to take over, killing off much of his family on the way. If you don't find all of his lines in your script for Richard III, try 3 Henry VI.

Note the bright colors and the Medieval pomp. How does Richard both fit into this setting and stand isolated from it? (Cf. and contrast Hamlet at the opening of Hamlet.) How does the crown function?

2. The cuts Olivier makes in Shakespeare's script eliminate the Lancastrian Queen Margaret, who is kind of the Ghost of Victims Past. They also eliminate the choral women and children. What are the effects of these cuts, both good and ill? (For a fuller presentation of Shakespeare's script, since the excellentbut very longBBC version.)

3. In A Kingdom for a Stage, Robert Ornstein expresses his admiration for the way Oliver captures Richard, especially Richard's snobbery in dealing with the Queen's family: new aristocrats, made who they are by Richard's brother, King Edward. Note Olivier's fastidious pronunciation. "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him" Professor Henry Higgins will tell us; Richard classifies himself as very much the aristocrat.

4. Note structure of Shakespeare's play and Olivier's movie as a series of episodes showing us Richard. During which episodes do you sympathize with Richard? Why? When, if ever, do we stop sympathizing?

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