'In his depiction of Richard III Shakespeare has created much more than a simple theatrical villain' Discuss

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‘In his depiction of Richard III Shakespeare has created much more than a simple theatrical villain’  Discuss

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,

Join now!

                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 ...

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