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A guide to reading "Richard III" with a critical and appreciative mind encouraging analysis of plot, style, form, and structure. Also includes background on the author's life and times, sample tests, term paper suggestions, and a reading list.
The context of the play
Richard Ⅲ is the final play in the cycle of eight plays Shakespeare wrote dramatising English history from 1398 to 1485. The plays are Shakespeare's version of the struggle for the crown of England. The following brief summaries will help you understand how Richard Ⅲ relates to the earlier plays (particularly events in Henry Ⅵ Part 3).
|-||The eldest York brother becomes King Edward Ⅳ, but his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville infuriates his younger brothers.|
|-||The middle brother, Clarence, perfidiously changes sides in the wars and is distrusted by Richard.|
|-||The youngest brother, Richard, determines to become King. He kills Henry Ⅵ and his son Prince Edward, and this makes Margaret, wife and mother of the two murdered men, an implacable enemy of the Yorkists.|
The Tudor myth
The claims of the new King Henry Ⅶ to the throne were insecure. At a time of patriarchy (where males are head of a family), he traced his royal ancestry back to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, through a female link. A significant male ancestor was an obscure Welsh squire, Owen Tudor (but Tudor had married the widow of King Henry V). With such a questionable claim to the English throne, it became essential for Henry to destroy Richard's reputation.
Under Henry Ⅶ and his son Henry Ⅷ, successive historians and writers established the now traditional view of Richard as an evil, unpopular King. Chroniclers related events from the Tudor point of view. This perspective emphasised the horrors of civil war, declared the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty and praised the Tudors as the bringers of peace and prosperity to England.
During the reign of Henry Ⅶ writers stressed that Richard was a usurper (a person who wrongfully seizes power) who had murdered Henry Ⅵ, the princes in the Tower and his wife Anne. One 'history' claimed Richard was born with teeth and with hair down to his shoulders. 'History books' of the time were more concerned with moral teaching than today's history books are.
Two such 'histories' written during the reign of Henry Ⅷ were responsible for the popular image of Richard as the evil hunchback. Sir Thomas More's History of Richard Ⅲ (written 1513-18) presents Richard as deformed, evil from his birth and plotting to become King. Polydore Vergil's Historia Anglia (1534) was written at the request of Henry Ⅷ to legitimise the Tudor dynasty. Vergil's argument expresses what has come to be called 'the Tudor myth'. It claims that Henry Ⅳ's illegal seizure of the crown from Richard Ⅱ broke the God-given order of the universe and resulted in all the disasters that followed: the early death of Henry Ⅴ, the bloody civil war known as the Wars of the Roses and Richard Ⅲ's murderous, despotic reign. Vergil claimed that England was rescued by Henry Tudor as God's instrument on Earth, bringing peace and plenty by uniting the houses of York and Lancaster.
Under Queen Elizabeth, the historians Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed incorporated the interpretations of More and Vergil so completely into their history books that by the end of the sixteenth century this very negative portrayal of Richard's appearance and actions was almost universally accepted. This version of history was Shakespeare's major resource as he wrote his play.
The world of the play
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List of characters
The royal family
RICHARD, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER (later King Richard Ⅲ)
DUCHESS OF YORK his mother
KING EDWARD IV
CLARENCE □ his brothers
ANNE his wife (earlier betrothed to Prince Edward, son of King Henry VI)
QUEEN ELIZABETH (wife of King Edward Ⅳ)
DUKE OF YORK □ her sons (the princes in the Tower)
GIRL □ Clarence’s children
QUEEN MARGARET (widow of King Henry Ⅵ)
EARL OF RICHMOND (later King Henry Ⅶ)
MARQUESS OF DORSET
LORD GREY □ sons of Queen Elizabeth
LORD RIVERS (brother of Queen Elizabeth)
Nobles, church and court
DUKE OF BUCKINGHAM
LORD STANLEY, Earl of Derby
SIR RICHARD RATCLIFFE
SIR WILLIAM CATESBY
TRESSEL □ attendants of
BERKELEY □ Lady Anne
|BISHOP OF ELY
ARCHBISHOP OF YORK
LORD CARDINAL, Archbishop of Canterbury
SIR CHRISTOPHER URSWICK
EARL OF OXFORD
EARL OF SURREY
SIR WALTER HERBERT
SIR JAMES BLUNT
DUKE OF NORFOLK
|KEEPER OF THE TOWER
LORD MAYOR OF LONDON
|(Who appear to Richard and Richmond at Bosworth)|
(son of King Henry Ⅵ)
KING HENRY VI
THE PRINCES IN THE TOWER
Lords, Attendants, Halberds, Messengers, Soldiers, Servants, Citizens, Gentlemen, Page, Guards, two Bishops.
The action of the play takes place in various locations in England.
Richard soliloquises on the end of the civil war and the pleasure of peace. He mocks his brother's sexual games and regrets he cannot enjoy similar pleasures.
1 A dramatic opening (in pairs)
The house of York has seized power and Edward ('this son of York') has been crowned king. In his opening lines 1-41 Richard reflects on how these events affect him.
This opening soliloquy reveals a brilliant and witty mind within a deformed body as Richard begins the plots and deceptions that will fool successive characters. The soliloquy is in three parts:
Lines 1-13 The change from war to peace and the character of the new Yorkist monarch, Edward. Delighting in clever wordplay, Richard tells how, just as the hardships of winter give way to the glories of summer, so the harshness of war has changed to the pleasures of peace. The war over, King Edward enjoys amorous pleasures.
Lines 14-27 Richard's physical deformity prevents him from enjoying sexual exploits ('sportive tricks'). He is imperfectly shaped ('rudely stamped') and lacks the sex appeal that good looks give ('want love's majesty').
Lines 28-41 Because he cannot be a lover, Richard resolves to be a villain and gain power. His first move is to plot the imprisonment of his brother, Clarence.
Take turns to speak the soliloquy, then work out how you would stage the lines to greatest dramatic effect. There is more help on page 8 and on page 66. As you work through your presentation, write down what you learn of Richard's attitude to the end of the war, his deformity and his future plans.
King Richard III
Act 1 Scene 1
Outside the Tower of London
Enter RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER
|RICHARD Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York,
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
|Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,||5|
|bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
|And now, instead of mounting barbèd steeds||10|
|To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks
|Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass,||15|
|I that am rudely stamped and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph,
I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
|Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time||20|
|Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them,
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
|Have no delight to pass away the time,||25|
|Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
Richard determines he will be evil. He tells the audience that he has arranged for King Edward to find his brother Clarence a threat and imprison him in the Tower. He jokes at Clarence's plight.
Richard as villain and actor
In line 30, 'I am determinèd to prove a villain', Richard declares his intention to be evil. Many people think that Shakespeare's portrayal of villainy resembles the character of Vice in medieval morality plays (see p. 250). Vice was a villainous servant of the devil who trapped people into sin by charm, wit and double-dealing. Like Richard, Vice often confided with the audience, encouraging them to delight in his cleverness.
Richard often refers to plays and acting techniques, relishing his skills as an actor throughout the play. For example, 'inductions' (line 32) were the dramatic prologues to plays. Step into role as director of the play and write notes advising the actor playing Richard what gestures and expressions he might use to show how Richard delights in such imagery as he invites the audience to share in his plots. Start listing other images as they occur in the play. You will find help with imagery on page 245.
Almost all of what Richard says to Clarence is ironic; he does not want him to have a 'good' day and already knows the answers to the questions he asks. Even his joke about christening is ironic in view of what happens later in the play. Christening uses water as a symbol of rebirth, but Clarence will shortly be drowned in a cask of wine. As you read on, watch for the many other examples of irony and make a note of them. You will find help with irony on page 249.
|And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
|I am determinèd to prove a villain||30|
|And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams
To set my brother Clarence and the king
|In deadly hate the one against the other.||35|
|And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mewed up
About a prophecy which says that 'G'
|Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.||40|
|Dive, thoughts, down to my soul, here Clarence comes.
Enter CLARENCE and BRAKENBURY, guarded
Brother, good day. What means this armèd guard
That waits upon your grace?
CLARENCE His majesty,
Tend'ring my person's safety, hath appointed
|This conduct to convey me to the Tower.||45|
|RICHARD Upon what cause?
CLARENCE Because my name is George.
RICHARD Alack, my lord, that fault is none of yours.
He should for that commit your godfathers.
Oh, belike his majesty hath some intent
|That you should be new christened in the Tower.||50|
|But what's the matter, Clarence? May I know?
CLARENCE Yea, Richard, when I know, but I protest
As yet I do not. But as I can learn,
He hearkens after prophecies and dreams,
And from the cross-row plucks the letter 'G',
|And says a wizard told him that by 'G'
His issue disinherited should be.
And for my name of George begins with 'G',
It follows in his thought that I am he.
These, as I learn, and suchlike toys as these
|Hath moved his highness to commit me now.|
Richard claims that Queen Elizabeth has caused King Edward to imprison Clarence, and that she and Jane Shore have become powers behind the throne. Brakenbury's unease is dismissed with innuendo and sexual puns.
1 'Men are ruled by women' (line 62)
In line , Richard mockingly refers to Queen Elizabeth as 'My lady Grey' because before her marriage to King Edward in 1464 she was the widow of Sir Thomas Grey. Elizabeth used her position as Queen to gain power and influence for her large family, the Woodvilles, and in so doing aroused much jealousy.
Jane Shore's name occurs frequently throughout the play, though she never appears. She is the mistress of both King Edward and Lord Hastings, and was believed to be a witch. Clarence hints that Hastings was responsible for keeping her out of prison.
Richard Ⅲ has often traditionally been regarded as a 'male' play, yet Richard frequently refers to both these women as a source of trouble, as if they possessed real power. As you work through the play, try to identify the extent of women's power and influence. You will find help with women in the play on page 236.
2 Making Brakenbury feel inferior? (in pairs)
Brakenbury greets Richard and Clarence as 'your graces' (line 84) because they are royal dukes, but Richard calls him 'man' (line 90) and makes jokes at Brakenbury's expense by punning on 'nought' and 'naught', meaning 'nothing' and 'to have sex'. Does Richard deliberately use his position to make Brakenbury feel inferior? Give reasons why you think Richard appears so light-hearted.
Posted March 2, 2001
The book Richard the third really got me into Shakspeare. It was good to say the least and I could not put it down until i was finished and I hardly ever read books.
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Posted March 8, 2013
Posted June 29, 2011