‘The tragedy of Richard III lies in the progressive isolation of its protagonist.’ Discuss.
There are many ways throughout the play that Shakespeare shows isolation in Richard Gloucester, the protagonist, but there is some debate over whether or not it is this which leads to tragedy. This partly occurs due to the dubious understanding of the term ‘tragedy’ itself. It is a term used widely to describe a variety of different plays and even situations: from Romeo and Juliet to Death of a Salesman, even to true-life events such as the terrorist attacks on September 11th this year.
It would appear to us that tragedy is all around us, in every news bulletin and on virtually any television program but, if this is true, why is it that ‘tragedy’ is so hard to define? Aristotle once claimed:
‘In order to be a tragic hero, you have to be important.’
If this is true, then it would also be true that tragedy can be defined as a fall from power and happiness to death and destruction. Obviously, this tragedy is greatened as the person in question becomes more powerful, as they have further to fall from – as they build the metaphorical scaffolding higher, the ground becomes further away. This indeed means that if a pole secured further down the tower breaks, the scaffolding above would break too, leaving the person further to fall, and increasing the likelihood that they will break their neck on impact. If the person had spent more time securing the poles further down, and then fallen, the effects would be less catastrophic. This essay will be based on tragedy defined as ‘something happening that is sad, although inevitable’ and ‘a powerful person falling from power due to a flaw’.
Richard’s isolation becomes apparent from the very beginning of the play when he enters the stage alone and speaks directly to the audience rather than any character on stage. After this, he spends the entire duration of the play severing every single link that he has with any other person or object in the play in order to gain power. His main ambition in life is to be a villain and become a king:
‘To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain…’ (I.i.)
In fulfilling this successfully, he knows that he must be heartless and not let emotions interfere with his ‘work’.
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However, Richard does not outwardly appear to suffer emotions anyway, at least not ones that would obstruct the path to success. He does not appear to have a conscience, as he has no qualms with the brutal murder of his immediate family, let alone people he had absolutely no connection to. It is obvious that Richard has deep contempt for his family and the people around him. This could be partly to do with the way they discriminate against him because of his deformity. He obviously feels separated from them in all respects:
‘Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes.’ (I.i.)
It may be due to this isolation from them that he feels that he suffers from such contempt for them. He cannot improve this situation with his family by sharing his thoughts with them, as he is plotting against them.
In addition to this social isolation, Richard also suffers from physical isolation and hates himself for it. He wants, much like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman to be popular, loved and successful, yet he knows that he never can be due to his deformity. It evidently plays on his mind, as he makes constant references to it during the play, particularly during his opening soliloquy:
‘Rudely stamp’d… Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, / Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce made up…’ (I.i.)
This deformity could be meant as a sign to the audience of the fact that Richard has been frowned upon by Mother Nature from the very beginning, and therefore must be bad person. This taken into account, Richard shows obvious signs of social, spiritual and physical isolation from the very beginning. But despite these hints, Richard still considers himself an indispensable part of the House of York by continued use of the word ‘our’.
Moreover, Richard’s physical isolation is reinforced throughout the rest of the play. His encounter with Anne in Act I scene ii is a prime example of this. As he ventures to woo her after killing her beloved husband, she insults him and his deformity by calling him a ‘foul devil’ and ‘a foul lump of deformity’. However Richard is quick-witted and, after choosing to ignore her comments, twists her words around:
‘ANNE: Ill rest betide the chamber where thou liest!
GLOU: So will it, madam, till I lie with you’ (I.ii.)
This eventually works with Anne: Richard manages to woo her, and by the time he leaves, Anne has accepted his wedding proposal. A while later, after Richard has successfully claimed the throne, he actually manages to bring isolation upon himself as he asks the crowd to ‘stand all apart’ (IV.ii.). Indeed even after this, the night before his big battle, Richard has a dream in which he is all alone. This is another sign of his isolation.
However, although Richard’s physical condition is definitely a prominent cause for his isolation, it is also a cause for the audience to feel sympathy for Richard. Richard himself uses his condition against the other characters in the play to create the idea that he is not to blame – he is actually victimised by them, not vice versa. Because of this, the tragic element of the play is reduced by Richard’s actions, although his isolation may be becoming increasingly worse.
In addition to Richard’s physical predicament, his psychological condition plays a large part in his isolation. The first sign of any psychological problem is when he does not show any distress when murdering people, apart from in Act V scene iii, when his conscience appears to return to him for the first time in the whole play, and he shouts:
‘Have mercy, Jesu! / O coward conscience how dost thou afflict me!’
Indeed the only time Richard is entirely serious in the play is just before he is about to murder someone.
It is about the time of the return of Richard’s conscience that he realises that he has become so detached from the people around him he has forgotten who he himself is:
‘Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. / Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am’ (V.iii.)
He obviously has two different views of himself: the evil villain, and the self he was as an innocent child. The people around him could not have helped him with his identity crisis, even if they had wanted to: Richard had never shown them his true self as he had always been playing a part:
‘Play the maid’s part, still answer nay, and take it.’ (III.vii)
Richard realises that nobody actually likes him. This means that he has not fully succeeded in his dreams, as he previously thought he had. He had succeeded in success but in love and popularity, he was a failure. As Richard wakes up from his dream in Act V Scene iii, the audience feels sorry for him has he is in a highly insecure position and for the first time he realises exactly how many people he has killed and what this may mean for him. However, Richard does not actually admit to feeling deep, burning guilt until the very last scene in the play. This means that although the audience should feel the sense of Richard’s psychological isolation slightly at the end of the play, it has not been in effect throughout the entire play, and therefore is not as striking as the effect of his physical isolation.
Richard is also isolated in society of all descriptions. The upper class, his family, despises him, perhaps for his appearance, his behaviour or both. An example of this is in Act I scene ii when Richard refers to Elizabeth as ‘sister’ in a sarcastic way. However Elizabeth makes her distaste obviously known when she replies by mocking Richard’s family ties by calling him ‘Brother of Gloucester’. Margaret and the other female characters are also blunt with their comments, as they call him ‘devil’ and ‘cacodemon’ to his face, not caring about his feelings. His ostracism from even lower class society is portrayed in the faces of the citizens in Act III when they are said to be ‘mum’ and ‘deadly pale’. This would suggest that they are silently opposed to Richard’s actions. At some points during the play, Richard may seem to have formed bonds with Bucking ham, due to comments from Richard such as ‘My other self’ and ‘my oracle’. However these bonds, if even in existence at all are purely political, and Richard abandons Buckingham as soon as he is no longer useful. The audience’s minimal sympathy for Richard is diminished here, as he has no real friends, and his social isolation is mainly his own doing. Because of this, the sense of tragedy at Richard’s death, despite increasing isolation, is low because no living person is really suffering any loss.
Another form of isolation that Richard suffers from is his self-imposed isolation from God. He claims that he is too important to have to worry about God’s law – indeed he uses it as a device to help him become king when he pretends to be holy to win people’s support:
‘And look you get a prayer-book in your hand, / And stand betwixt two churchmen’ (III.vii.)
Furthermore, every time Richard kills somebody (I.e. sins) he separates himself further from God and his need to kill increases. However, as Richard nears his death, he becomes closer to judgement day. Richard is a tyrant: he killed his brother, King Henry VI. This means that has disturbed the divine right of Kings, chosen by God. Naturally, this, according to Elizabethan belief, made God angry, and He showed this by causing the Was of the Roses. Richard, in being a tyrant, has condemned himself to an afterlife of eternal hell and torture, therefore distancing himself from God even further.
However, there is one aspect of Richard’s role on stage that he does not isolate: the audience. He makes them his allies right from the very beginning. The audience understand a lot more of Richard’s wit, sarcasm and dramatic irony than the other characters involved do, and therefore feel in league with Richard in a detached, secretive sort of way. Richard also shares some of his feelings, real or otherwise, with the audience. However, Richard seems so evil a villain, hardly caring about all the murders and sins he commits, he does not seem a person associated with extreme tragedy.
The greatest loss in the play is actually more likely to be that of the young princes, rather than that of Richard. In Act III scene i, the Princes talk happily with their trusted Uncle and ‘Lord Protector’, whom the Uncle know is a multiple-faced villain. The audience feels deep sympathy for the Princes, who are naively trusting but also afraid of being forced to stay in the Tower. Also, one of the Princes also manages to outwit Richard, from which the audience gains extreme respect because many fully mature adults have not been able to achieve this. The princes were happy, witty and intelligent before their murder, and their death seems multiple times worse than the death of Richard – a twisted, villainous, death-driven old man.
To conclude, the tragedy of Richard III’s protagonist is perceived because of Richard’s attractiveness as a villain and also by the way he defied society’s rules and expectations. However, the audience always recalls his wickedness – the murdering, the lying and the corruption. Therefore, despite Richard’s attractiveness, we never really feel any great loss or waste when he dies.