In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard is undoubtedly a monstrous villain set out to seize the throne of England for himself in any way possible. He does this by ruthlessly killing people in line for, or even anything to do with, the throne. Shakespeare, however, albeit historically inaccurate, has created a man much more than what meets the eye. Behind his physical deformities lies a man of extreme intelligence and wit, who is very shrewd and crafty. He is a villain, but much more than an average villain.
He is a deeply malicious monster yet significantly wise and perceptive. He gains the throne not simply by butchery but by intelligence and exploiting the weaknesses of those around him. The play tells us lots more about him. The opening speech made by Richard, probably one of the most famous speeches, informs us initially of the background to the play and sets the scene. It is a soliloquy – a speech delivered by a character alone on the stage to the audience.
The opening four lines, containing at the start one of the two most well known lines in plays, tell us that the War of Roses between the House of Lancaster and the House of York is now over, and that Richard’s house (the House of York) has prevailed and triumphed as the ruling house of England: Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried
In these four lines, Richard’s eldest brother Edward is the ‘sun of York’ who has brought ‘glorious summer’ to the kingdom because the recently ended civil, shown by ‘the winter of our discontent’, war has brought about the House of York to the throne of England. The ‘house’ is therefore the House of York that Richard and his brothers, Edward and Clarence, belong to as opposed to the House of Lancaster, which was defeated. The last two lines refer to the fact that all evil has been annihilated and the bad things prior to the House of York winning have been removed and forgotten, according to Richard anyway.
Already we have seen an example of Richard’s quick thinking and intelligence, as the word ‘sun’ can mean two things here, thus making it a pun. It can be ‘sun’ as in weather terms or ‘son’ as in family terms and the audience would have to assume which one Richard was conveying across. Another example of a pun that Richard uses appears several lines later: Now are brows bound with victorious wreaths; Our bruised arms hung up for monuments; These two lines explain how the House of York has shown off its victory. Like the Romans, they bind laurel wreaths on their brows.
Here, the word ‘arms’ can mean one of three things and again the audience cannot be sure which one Richard is conveying across. Meaning either weapons, limbs or coat of arms, each which appeared in the battle, it begins to give us more evidence of Richard’s quick wittedness. One or two lines later, Richard relates war and peace to music: Our dreadful marches to delightful measures This is another example of Richard’s use of language in metaphors, as the words ‘marches’ and ‘measures’ relate to bars of music and transmit a vivid picture of the war that has just been won in contrast to the period subsequent to it.
Also we see, in part, some alliteration because both ‘dreadful marches’ and ‘delightful measures’ begin with the letters ‘d’ then ‘m’. Even further, if we look closely, there is some assonance at the end of each syllable on ‘dreadful’ and ‘delightful’ and a bit of it at the end of each syllable on ‘marches’ and ‘measures’. Richard goes on saying more: And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds To fright the souls of fearful adversaries, He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber To the lascivious pleasing of a lute
Richard has already painted a clear picture in which the English have put aside their weaponry (indicated by the clever pun of ‘arms’ in line six) to celebrate peace and happiness after the war, for the House of York is in power. This culminates in the god of war toning down his terrifying and brutish appearance and playing the part of the lover for the women. It is another great example of Richard’s descriptive nature but leaving us to guess what he is truly getting at. All of this, one would surmise, makes it clear that there can be no justification for him seizing the throne.
England is not in tyranny by any means. That Richard intends to grasp power all for himself therefore makes him monstrously evil. He has initially given us a barrage of strong words that no one would dream to use in writing, let alone speaking. Yet there is more to Richard than meets the eye. His attractive mentality has already lured us into looking behind his physical appearance and made us his ally, something we see happen to people later on in the play. His true motivations still remain a mystery to us though and that is another one of his true assets – deceit.
The pace of the monologue changes and important elements of Richard’s character and his aims are revealed starting from line fourteen. In lines ten to thirteen, he started to criticise the soldier (although we didn’t know it until we look on further), saying that they succumb to women after war. These are the first signs of Richard’s jealousy that we are able to see ourselves: But I – that am not shap’d for sportive tricks Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass – Richard is envious of this behaviour and certainly shows it my using strong words such as ‘capers’, ‘nimbly’ and ‘lascivious’, all showing effeminacy, greed and passion.
We can tell already Richard despises the average man and does not like them straying at all from their masculinity. However, there must be a reason for his envy. We are able to see this a few lines on. Richard is physically deformed and very ugly looking. No one likes him and we see this by the powerful language he uses to describe himself and display his bitterness towards his body: I – that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty To strut before a wanton ambling nymph- I – that am curtail’d of this fair proportion, Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time Into this breathing world scarce half made up, And that so lamely and unfashionable That dogs bark at me as I halt by them Words such as ‘rudely stamp’d’, ‘deform’d’ and ‘unfinished’ show that Richard does know the extent of his looks and physical deformities. He knows about his withered arm and his hunchback, and how they hinder him in life. This array of words and the way he expresses them makes us feel sorry for him. But Richard, later in the play, is physically active and his motivations are hardly reminiscent of his physical deformity.
He is able to seduce women very well indeed, with evidence from him with Lady Anne later on in the play. Bitterness from his deformity also fails to explain his lust for power and desire to become the king. He conjures up plans one would not dream of thinking of and hides his tracks superbly, even cracking jokes at times one could not hold their nerve. There is much more to Richard than one can immediately grasp. He has decided to make everyone miserable and ruin these prosperous times, as he cannot dwell on his physical deformities for any longer: Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time, Unless to spy my shadow in the sun And descant on my own physical deformity. He goes on to say what he is planning to do, in his own unique style that only the cleverest and shrewdest of us can really come to terms with: And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days. Here, he is telling us that he is not a normal person. He cannot live a normal life with women but he is a born villain – ‘determined to prove a villain’. The word ‘villain’ is understated, however.
As we can see later in the play, he is much more than a simple villain. He is a graceful villain. He carries out all his deeds and crimes in a slick and shrewd way so that no one suspects what he is up to but the audience. Being extremely witty, he is more of a criminal mastermind than a simple villain. People may be suspicious of him but never fear him, as he is too devious to catch their attention to what he is actually up to. Through his various captivating talks to the audience, he is attractive, intimate and conspiratorial, telling us what is going to happen when his soon-to-be victims have very little clue indeed.
However, he is a monster of evil and is determined to achieve his goal whatever the human cost. This shows he is incredibly heartless but no one knows it as yet because Richard is hiding it very well through his charisma and alluring attractive personality. His opening monologue also, although it is full of striking metaphors, elegant phrases, vivid imagery and an exceptional overall understanding of the English language, shows us how Richard interacts deceptively with the world around him.
He has one specific personality when he speaks alone, but as soon as someone comes on stage his attitude changes, depending on whom it is. He lies and manipulates these different people so convincingly that we certainly would believe the sympathy and affection that he displays towards Clarence if we had not heard his vow to destroy Clarence prior to his fake feelings. Richard is an actor within an actor, playing varying roles to the people he meets, intriguing generations of actors and audiences with his ever-changing demeanour.
More than in any other play written by Shakespeare however, we see the audience experiencing a complex, ambiguous and very unpredictable relationship with the main character – Richard. Richard is clearly a villain – he declares this in the initial speech and that he intends to never stop until he has achieved his goal. But despite this evil, he is such a charismatic and fascinating figure that, for the part where he is not king, we are likely to sympathise with him, or be impressed with him. In this way, our relationship with Richard is similar to the other characters’ relationships with him, showing the powerful force of his personality.
Even characters such as Lady Anne, who have had previous knowledge of his wickedness, allow themselves to be seduced by his brilliant wordplay, his skilful arguments and his persistent pursuit of his selfish desires. Richard’s fascinating monologues, in which he outlines his plans and acknowledges all his evil thoughts, are directed straight at the audience. Shakespeare uses these monologues brilliantly to control the audience’s impression of Richard. In the opening monologue, for example, Richard claims that his hatred towards other people stems from the fact that he is unloved and that he is unloved because of his physical deformity.
This argument, which directs the other characters of the play as villains for punishing Richard for his appearance, makes it easy to sympathise with Richard during the scenes before him becoming king. The last part of his monologue tells us the foundations to his complicated web of schemes, alliances, plots and so forth that he will eventually achieve his ultimate goal – to become king of England. The complexity and sophistication involved in it is the one big reason why Shakespeare has created such a monster of evil yet attractive to watch his plans all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Richard draws in friends when he so wishes, and just like that makes them his enemies. This is an example of his deceptive nature, previously mentioned: Plots that I have laid, inductions dangerous, By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, He realises his power when it comes to villainy. His forte is ‘inductions dangerous’, saying that people cannot resist his power of enticement and bribery, only then to fall beneath his feet. He goes on to reveal the first part of his master plan to us, involving him turning his brother, Clarence, against his other brother, Edward, who happens to be king at present:
To set my brother Clarence and the King In deadly hate the one against the other; And if King Edward be as true and just As I am subtle, false, and treacherous, This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up, – About a prophecy which says that G Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be. In this, Richard relates Edward’s honesty and the way he believes everything to his own subtlety and deceit. Again, we see in the last two lines of this that Richard adds some ambiguity that only the really observant people, like him, would spot.
‘G’ stands for, one would first think, George Duke of Clarence. Everyone thought it was that but think harder and it can also stand for Richard Duke of Gloucester. Richard could have easily written out the name but, being as clever as he is, he wanted to give people a chance, albeit very small. This is another example of Richard’s use of puns, giving further evidence that his physical appearance does not match his mental one. After the soliloquy, the play runs straight into the scene in which Richard sends Clarence to the Tower of London, having been suspected by King Edward IV.
Richard’s rumour planting on Clarence going to murder Edward has worked, as Clarence enters, guarded by an armed guard. He is being led to the Tower of London, where political prisoners were traditionally executed. We all know this is Richard’s fault and the first part of his master plan, but his deceptive nature and ability to not fall under pressure in the hardest of situations completely fools Clarence. His ability to change from one role to another is used to great effect here, as his monologue to the audience runs into seeing his brother with armed guards.
He pretends to very sad and surprised to see Clarence made a prisoner: RICHARD: What means this armed guard That waits upon your grace? CLARENCE: His Majesty, Tendr’ing my person’s safety, hath appointed This conduct to convey me to th’Tower. RICHARD: Upon what cause? CLARENCE: Because my name is George. RICHARD: Alack, my lord, that fault is none of yours: Richard disgusts us at how he is indirectly killing one of his family members, yet we are intrigued and fascinated at his ability to hide his feelings and play different roles. He knows what he is doing, but still does it.
In one respect he is an evil monster and in another he is an elegant swan. Richard, later on to Clarence, tells him that the women who surround the king are the ones to blame in all of this. Being another part of his plan, he suggests to Clarence that his wife, Queen Elizabeth, or his mistress, Lady Shore, might have influenced Edward to become suspicious of him: Why, this it is when men are rul’d by women: ‘Tis not the King that sends you to the Tower; My Lady Grey his wife, Clarence, ’tis she That tempers him to this extremity. This shows how Richard is sly and cunning, as one small part of his plan leads into another.