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ClassicsOnline Home » SHAKESPEARE, W.: King Richard III (Unabridged)
Kenneth Branagh heads an outstanding cast in playing one of Shakespeare’s strongest characters. The eighth production in the widely admired series of Shakespeare plays presented by Naxos AudioBooks in association with Cambridge University Press.
King Richard III
King Richard III was probably written in 1593, making it one
of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. He would have been 29 in that year. He had had
a success with his chronicle plays about the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI, parts
1, 2 & 3, and Richard III followed these as the culmination of the story.
This play however differs from its predecessors, being a more structured piece,
examining the development and motivations of a single character, Richard Duke
of Gloucester. Shakespeare was breaking new ground, testing his skills, though
the play’s structure owes much to the classical drama, and its characterization
to the early English morality and mystery plays. He hadn’t as yet, entirely
found his own voice.
His main source was Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III
written in 1513, with other material taken from the later histories of Edward
Hall: Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548)
and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England (1587). These later chronicles
were the same sources as for the Henry VI plays, but it is the ironic tone of
More’s History (often scorned now as mere Tudor propaganda) that seems to have
influenced Shakespeare’s style of writing in this play.
In structuring his play, Shakespeare seems to be attempting
to write a classical tragedy in the style of the Roman playwright Seneca. It is
a formal play using rhetoric and the classical device of choric odes (the
lamentations of Queen Margaret, Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth
particularly.) It has a clear classical pyramid shape charting the rise of
Richard to the point of his Coronation and then his fall. Certain scenes are
mirrored to emphasize the journey. Thus, the successful wooing of Lady Anne by
Richard (1.2) is balanced by the unsatisfactory attempt to woo Queen Elizabeth
to agree to Richard marrying her daughter (4.4). Clarence’s fearful vision of
the afterworld and the debate of his murderers about conscience (1.4) match
Richard’s own nightmare vision of the ghosts of his murdered victims and his
brief struggle with his conscience (5.3). Margaret’s soliloquy (4.4), marks the
change of Richard’s fortunes and echoes, in its imagery of changing seasons,
Richard’s own soliloquy at the beginning of the play:
So now prosperity begins to mellow
And drop into the rotten mouth of death.
Seneca’s plays were characterized by a use of ghosts and the
supernatural, prophecies, omens, violence and bloodshed, all of which pervade
Shakespeare’s play. Often, too, the central character of a Senecan tragedy was
a cruel tyrant. Seneca’s plays however, for all their sensationalism, were also
highly moral in their purpose; the pattern was set for a debate between good
and evil, often expressed in soliloquy, as in Shakespeare. It is also interesting
to note that Seneca’s plays were written at a time when play going was
unpopular with the Romans, so his plays were written to be read by a select
strata of Roman society. Perhaps Shakespeare too wrote the most
complete text we have, in the First Folio, to be read,
consisting as it does of 3,600 lines and 57 speaking parts as well as numerous
smaller parts, which would have been a challenge to the most accomplished
troupe of Elizabethan actors. The Quarto version of King Richard III may well
represent a slimmed down practical performing edition of the play.
As well as using the structure and devices of Seneca,
Shakespeare also drew on his own native tradition of drama, the Mystery and
Morality plays, which had been the staple theatrical diet available to the
public since medieval times. From the former, the re-telling of Bible stories
in dramatic form, he used the image of the three Marys at the tomb of Christ as
an echo for the trio of lamenting women (Margaret, Duchess of York and
Elizabeth). A contemporary audience would have recognized the reference. Their
function is to comment upon the action of the play, both past and present, and
draw attention to its moral consequences, a function shared with the classical
chorus. From the Morality plays, homely tales of virtue rewarded by God, he
took the recurring character of Vice, an allegorical figure who seeks to
subvert the virtuous, a comic devil who delights in his villainy, and grafted
it on to his main protagonist the tyrant-hero.
The result is the daring characterization of Richard III, a
man who can murder while he smiles and share with the audience his gleeful
relish in his actions. It is an audacious mixture of humor and evil, and
THE CENTRAL THEME
The central moral conflict of the play is expressed in the
the audience’s instinct to identify with the attractive and
characterization of Richard, and the objectifying of his
actions by the trio of
lamenting women, Elizabeth, the Duchess of York and
King Richard III represents the change from the old world to
the new. Medieval determinism represented by the women versus the unfettered
ideas of the Renaissance, represented by Richard.
THE CHARACTERIZATION OF KING RICHARD III
Richard III is a self-motivating character who defies
determinism (a life preordained by God), and sets his life on a course chosen
by his own will and desire, as he puns in the opening soliloquy:
I am determined to be a villain
Determined by birth and god, and determined in the other
sense, by his own will
This essential aspect of the characterization of Richard
owes much to the writings of the Italian politician Niccolo Machiavelli
(1469-1527). In his book, The Prince (1513), he proposes that politics and
ethics should be separated. That morality be of secondary importance to strong
government, which should be achieved by any means. The state matters more than
conscience. The Elizabethan dramatists who created the
amoral self-centered Machiavellian villain, who became familiar to Elizabethan
audiences, though most of them had never read Machiavelli first hand, exploited
these ideas. Richard III is one of the best examples. He makes choices with a
cool intellectual logic. He rejects love, as being physically unsuited for it,
and brotherhood, because he finds no sympathy with his fellow man. Instead he
embraces self-aggrandizement and personal success.
This is where the ‘tragedy’ of Richard III lies, (of all the
History plays, this is the only one called a Tragedy), that a man of such
enormous intellectual powers, who is a natural leader of men, should choose to
use his energies for evil rather than good. As the play progresses, he strips
himself of potential supporters and allies so that by the time he reaches the
night before the
battle of Bosworth (5.3), he is an isolated figure, trapped
in his own egotism, his language, so florid and self-confident in the early
scenes of the play, now reduced to almost monosyllabic sterility:
Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
This soliloquy of self-discovery represents the final moment
of choice for Richard; his instinct to ask for salvation (‘Have mercy, Jesu!’)
is quickly rejected for a re-assertion of his will. He has no ‘pity’ or love
for himself, so why should he expect any from God. He must live or die by the
course he has determined for himself.
The language of the play falls into two distinct styles. The
formal language exemplified in the speeches of the royal women contrasts
starkly with the casualness of Richard’s speeches. Once again, Shakespeare is
showing the conflict between their conformity and his individualism. Richard’s
tone is often proverbial and homely: ‘But yet I run before my horse to market’
(1.1), yet he is capable of the cut and thrust of legal debate, as is seen in
his exchanges with Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth.
He also employs rhetoric, with its device of repetition to
emphasize a point in argument:
‘Our bruised arms hung up for monuments
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings’ (1.1)
Consistently throughout, images of animals are used to
describe Richard. He is at times a dog, a toad, a spider, a boar, emphasizing
his brutality. Other recurring images of trees, orchards, fruit and leaves are
linked to the Royal family and its destiny. References to the Tower of London
also add to the mood of darkness and threatening times.
THE CHARACTERS OF THE PLAY
As we have seen, it is Richard who dominates the play, at
the expense of any development in the other characters. The other most
developed character is Queen Margaret, who stands as a challenge to Richard’s
progress. She is not in any sense a fully naturalistic character, but
represents a commentator on the action, reminding the audience of recent events
and prophesying the future destruction of Richard and his allies. Her energetic
denunciations and fiercely angry curses are a good balance to Richard’s
represents the over-confident loyal follower, blind to his own
danger in a tottering state. Clarence too, is shown as a
typical victim of Richard’s, deceived by his smooth tongue to the last. His is
the only murder to be shown on stage, a symbolic image. Buckingham is seen as
an opportunist, hitching his fortunes to Richard’s star, even resembling his
master in his duplicity, but finally lacking his ruthlessness.
In general, most characters in the play react to Richard and
illustrate his skills of manipulation and superior intellect. This enforces the
formality in the play’s structure. It is a ritualistic play of expiation. All
the characters are tainted by their, or their family’s involvement in the wars
of York and Lancaster. There is a collective guilt. The years of corruption
exemplified by Richard must be purged away by Richmond.
But if this is Shakespeare bolstering up the Tudors’ shaky
claim to the crown, his characterization of Richmond seems to be weak. Though
representing the chosen instrument of God, he is matter-of-fact, practical and
one-dimensional, and at the end of the play, we look back with regret for the
loss of the colorful, albeit evil, Richard. For, in the final analysis, this
play belongs to Richard, Duke of Gloucester. It is no surprise that actors
consider Richard one of the best Shakespearean roles, for Richard himself is a
consummate actor, ever ready to turn on the tears or the laughter to suit his
ends. He is an attractive villain and the thrill of the play finds us drawn
ineluctably into the web of this ‘bottled spider’ and, taken into his
confidence, made to feel complicitous in his evil deeds. It accounts for the
continuing power of the play 400 years after it was written.
SYNOPSIS OF THE PLAY
Act 1 Scene 1: Richard, Duke of Gloucester tells us that the
recent civil wars are over, but he, at odds with the peace, is determined to be
a villain. He has evolved plots to cause dissension between his brothers,
Edward IV and the Duke of Clarence. Clarence enters, escorted by guards,
towards the Tower. Richard feigns sympathy, implying the Queen and her family
are the true enemies. Hastings, newly released from the Tower, arrives and
informs Richard that Edward IV is gravely ill. Richard, in soliloquy, reveals
more of his plans.
Scene 2: Lady Anne mourns the death of her husband and
father-in-law, Henry VI, during the civil wars, and curses their murderer,
Gloucester. Gloucester interrupts her obsequies and skillfully woos her against
Scene 3: Queen Elizabeth, wife to Edward IV, is concerned
for the future of her family, should the King die. Her family and Stanley and
Buckingham, who reports that the King wishes to reconcile all hostile factions
in the court, comfort her. Richard enters and stirs up the conflicts between
the old aristocracy (his family) and the new (the Queen’s). This quarrel is
compounded by the appearance of old Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI, who
has been watching them. She denounces them all as traitors to her, the rightful
Queen, and curses, and prophesies their destruction. The court is summoned to
the King. Two murderers arrive to get the warrant from Richard for the murder
Scene 4: Clarence, in the Tower, awakes and recounts to his
Keeper his nightmare of drowning and visiting the underworld, and being accused
perjury by his dead relations. He resumes sleep. The two
murderers enter and, by means of the warrant, are left alone with Clarence.
They debate with him upon the justness of their instructions. One murderer
appears to relent, but the other kills Clarence.
Act 2 Scene 1: Edward IV, mortally ill, struggles to
reconcile the opposing factions of his court. The Lords unconvincingly swear
their friendships for each other, and Richard, with a display of mock, humility
joins with them. Queen Elizabeth unwittingly pleads for Clarence’s release.
Richard tells a stunned court that Clarence is dead. Lord Stanley enters and
asks the King to pardon his servant who killed a man in a brawl. The incongruity
of having the power to give or take life as a King yet not save his brother
affects Edward, who is led away to his deathbed. Richard suggests the Queen and
her family are responsible for Clarence’s death.
Scene 2: Clarence’s children question their grandmother, the
Duchess of York, about their father’s death. They believe Richard’s version of
events, but his mother, the Duchess, is not so sure of her son’s honesty. Queen
Elizabeth enters in distress with the news of the King’s death. She and the Duchess
lament their circumstances. Richard and the other nobles arrive, and Buckingham
suggests the immediate dispatch of a small escort to bring the young Prince
Edward to London to be crowned. Old suspicions surface in Rivers, the Queen’s
brother, at this suggestion, but Buckingham prevails. Buckingham allies himself
with Richard, who plans to bar the Queen’s
relatives from access to the young Prince.
Scene 3: Three citizens of London discuss uneasily the
changing fortunes of the state since Edward IV’s death. Portents abound, and
there are rumors of dangerous factions that could make a bid to rule.
Scene 4: Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, the
Archbishop of York and the young Duke of York (brother to Prince Edward)
eagerly await the arrival of the Prince. The Duke of York shows himself to be
witty and precocious. A messenger arrives to report the imprisonment of the
Queen’s relatives, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan. Elizabeth foresees the downfall of
her house, and decides she and the young Duke of York will take sanctuary.
Act 3 Scene 1: Prince Edward arrives in London to be greeted
by Richard and Buckingham. He is unhappy about the arrest of his mother’s
relatives. Hastings arrives with news that the Prince’s brother, the Duke of
York, is in sanctuary. Cardinal Bourchier, who is present, is persuaded by
Buckingham to fetch the Duke, with force if necessary. Richard suggests to
Prince Edward he could stay at the Tower. York arrives, released from
sanctuary, and exercises his wit at Richard’s expense. Reluctantly, the Princes
go to the Tower. Richard and Buckingham send Catesby to discover whether
Hastings will support Richard’s bid for the throne. Richard says if he doesn’t,
he will be executed. He promises Buckingham the Earldom of Hereford as his
reward for helping him.
Scene 2: A messenger from Stanley tells Hastings of
Stanley’s dream about Richard’s ambitions. Hastings laughs off the omens and
sends the messenger to bid Stanley to go with him to the council that is to be
held at the Tower. Catesby arrives but Hastings refuses to accept his
suggestion that Richard should be King. Stanley arrives, full of foreboding,
but accompanies Hastings to the council.
Scene 3: Rivers, Grey and Vaughan, the Queen’s relatives,
are led out to execution. They reflect on Margaret’s curses coming true and
hope this will be the case for others.
Scene 4: Stanley, Buckingham, the Bishop of Ely and Hastings
are met at the council to discuss the Prince’s coronation. Richard arrives and
privately informs Buckingham that Hastings is not going to support them.
Richard accuses the Queen and Mistress Shore, Hastings’ mistress, of witchcraft
against his person. Richard accuses Hastings of treason and orders his
immediate execution. All leave, whilst Hastings laments the
future of England and his own folly.
Scene 5: Richard and Buckingham, in great high spirits,
elaborate charade to convince the Lord Mayor of London that
a plot against their lives justified the hasty execution of Lord Hastings.
Buckingham goes to persuade the citizens that Richard has the only true right
to the crown.
Scene 6: A scrivener, who has been given the job of copying
indictment for Lord Hastings, reflects that it was given him
to do many hours before Hastings was accused.
Scene 7: Buckingham reports to Richard that the Mayor and
citizens have not responded enthusiastically to Richard’s claim. The Mayor and
citizens arrive, however, willing to be convinced. Richard pretends to be at
his religious devotions, and though Buckingham urges him on behalf of the
citizens to accept the crown, he refuses twice. With feigned reluctance he
finally accepts, and the Mayor and citizens hail him as their king.
Act 4 Scene 1: Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, Lady
Anne and Dorset arrive at the Tower to visit the young Princes. Brakenbury
refuses them access on the orders of Richard, the Lord Protector. Stanley
arrives with orders for Lady Anne, now Richard’s wife, to accompany him to
Westminster to be crowned Richard’s queen. The women lament the prospect of
Richard as King and the future of the Princes. Elizabeth urges Dorset to flee
to join Richmond abroad.
Scene 2: Richard, now King, ascends his throne. He suggests
to Buckingham that his position will only be sure if the young Princes are
disposed of. Buckingham hesitates, and Richard, angry, decides Buckingham is no
longer trustworthy. He enlists the help of Tyrrel to carry out the Princes
murder. Stanley brings news of Dorset’s flight to Richmond. Richard orders
Catesby to spread the rumor of his wife Anne’s death, while at the same time
planning to marry Elizabeth’s daughter. Buckingham returns to claim his
Earldom, but Richard treats him with contempt. Left alone, Buckingham reflects
on Hastings’ fate and decides to leave the court.
Scene 3: Tyrrel soliloquizes on the brutality of the murder
of the two Princes. Richard is pleased at Tyrrel’s efficiency in carrying out
his orders. Ratcliffe brings news of the Bishop of Ely’s flight to Richmond and
Buckingham’s uprising. Richard prepares for war.
Scene 4: Whilst Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York
lament their woes, Margaret sees them as a just retribution for her sorrows.
The Duchess and Queen Elizabeth, who curse him for his deeds, interrupt
Richard’s military progress. Richard presses Elizabeth to woo her daughter on
his behalf, and she leaves apparently agreeing to his demands. Ratcliffe brings
news of Richmond’s navy arriving in the West. Stanley, Richmond’s
confirms this, and is accused of disloyalty by Richard.
Richard orders him to raise his forces but leave his son behind as hostage.
More messengers bring news of further uprisings. Catesby brings news of
Buckingham’s capture. Richard orders his army to march to meet Richmond.
Scene 5: Stanley meets his chaplain Sir Christopher Urswick,
and learns of the strength of Richmond’s army. He sends a message by Urswick
saying he cannot openly support Richmond whilst his son is held hostage.
Act 5 Scene 1: Buckingham is led out to execution. He
reflects on the justness of his death for his treachery, and that Margaret’s
curses are being fulfilled.
Scene 2: Richmond enters and speaks of their unhindered
success. He has received Stanley’s message of support, and he and his army
optimistically march on to meet Richard.
Scene 3: Richard sets up his camp to intercept Richmond, and
sets off to study the lie of the land. Richmond sets up his camp, sending a
secret message to Stanley. In Richard’s camp, Richard sends an order to Stanley
to bring up his forces or lose his son. He then retires into his tent to sleep.
Stanley secretly visits Richmond to pledge his support in the battle. Richmond,
left alone, prays for victory and then sleeps. The ghosts of all those Richard
has murdered visit the two camps, promising destruction to Richard and victory
to Richmond. Richard awakes in terror, conscience-stricken. Ratcliffe comes to
tell him it is morning and time to arm. Richmond’s followers come to his tent
and wake him from a peaceful sleep. He makes an encouraging oration to his
army. Richard sets out his battle plans, calling for Stanley to bring his
powers. He also makes an oration to his army. News that Stanley refuses to join
his army coincides with Richmond’s advance, so Stanley’s son is spared. Richard
and his forces go to meet Richmond’s army.
Scene 4: The battle of Bosworth is raging. Catesby speaks of
Richard’s incredible courage, yet fears the day is lost. Richard appears
seeking a horse to regain the advantage in the field.
Scene 5: Richard and Richmond meet face to face in single
combat. Richard is killed. Stanley presents the crown to Richmond. Richmond
congratulates his soldiers on their victory. He says that by marrying Edward
IV’s daughter, he will unite the warring houses of York and Lancaster. He prays
that after the madness of civil war, England will enjoy a period of peace and
Notes by David Timson
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SHAKESPEARE, W.: King Richard III (Unabridged)