Shakespeare’s presentation of the character of Richard III
If an actor wants to star as Richard III in a play he must first know all there is to know about the character of Richard III. For example Richard’s behaviour, the way he thinks and reacts, these are all aspects of Richard’s character. The actor must know these because Shakespeare gave very few stage directions in his plays, therefore if an actor wants to make an impressionable performance he must understand the way Richard’s character, to understand this one must look at how Shakespeare was trying to portray the character of Richard III.
The first soliloquy is split into three parts. The first part deals with his clever word play ‘our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments’ which is a fancy way of saying we no longer use our weaponry. Another example of his word play would be when he uses ‘man’ to address Brackenbury. Brackenbury uses ‘your grace’ implying some sort of respect towards the person being addressed but Richard uses ‘man’, which is mocking or at least degrading as Brackenbury is being referred to as a common man. Not only this but a few lines further down Richard puns on the word ‘nought’, meaning nothing, with the word ‘naught’, meaning to have sex with. Therefore mocking Brackenbury again as Richard is implying Brackenbury’s sexual exploits. These examples clearly show how much control Richard has over his speech and also his disliking of Brackenbury. In this part of the play Shakespeare also expresses Richard’s disliking for the Queen as Richard refers to her as ‘My lady Grey’ because before the Queen was married to the king she was the widow of Sir Thomas Grey therefore in a way Richard hasn’t accepted the fact that Elizabeth is now Queen he still classes her as someone not of royalty.
The first part of the soliloquy starts with ‘now is the winter of out discontent’. The usage of the word winter implies the end of the ‘discontent’ as winter is the last season before the new-year. Yet the first line can be interpreted in a different way. Winter is a dark season, literally speaking. It has long nights and so it could be associated with crime/evil as it is commonly believed that satanic powers have more power in the dark as they are away from the light of goodness/God. Could Richard be implying that the worst ‘winter’ of our ‘discontent’ was yet to come? Before you have had the chance to fully comprehend the line and what it actually means, Richard says ‘made glorious summer by thee son of York’ which means that the son of York, Edward, made the discontented winter into glorious summer; this is purely panegyric. Since the first line is a part of this second line it makes the sentence, most probably, also panegyric and not deceitful. However there is another example of where Richard’s words definitely have a double meaning. ‘Well, your imprisonment shall not be long’ is what Richard says to Clarence when they are talking in scene one. Richard is implying that he will try to achieve his freedom while in actual fact he wants to kill Clarence and so have one of the potential successors to the throne out of the way.
The second part of the soliloquy displays Richard’s feelings of betrayal by fate because of his deformity. Richard feels cheated by fate, he has never had the opportunity to enjoy sexual ventures ‘sportive tricks’ because he hasn’t been given good looks and the sex appeal associated with good looks ‘I that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty’. He feels jealous of his brother Edward’s exploits ‘he capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber’. However this scene is in contrast to another scene when Richard woos Lady Anne, because of this contrast and the fact that throughout the rest of the play Richard is portrayed as an evil man who is not trust worthy, for example when Richard is tying to win over Elizabeth to try and woo her daughter, Elizabeth, the Queen rejects Richard’s oaths calling them worthless. Because of this reputation I believe that in Richard’s first soliloquy, when he was talking about how deformed and that he was ‘not shaped for sportive tricks’ shows to me that he was simply just trying to acquire the sympathy of the audience. However, I do not think that Richard was solely trying to achieve sympathy I believe that Richard himself feels that he has been cheated by fate ‘cheated of feature’ and that if he wasn’t deformed he would have had a better life which wasn’t filled with so much hate ‘that dogs bark at me when I halt by them’.
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The third part is his declaration ‘I am determined to prove a villain’ this also suggests that Richard knows he is evil. This would be a new thing for people in Shakespearean times. Not only new but also very strange because if Richard knew he was evil then he would have also accepted that he would pay for his sins in the afterlife. But Richard does try to justify himself and so gets a hint of pity from the audience because you feel as though the man went through a lot of self-disgust and feelings of betrayal and cheating. Richard’s justification is ‘since I cannot prove a lover…’ He then continues by explaining to the audience his plans ‘by drunken prophecies…that ‘G’ of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be’. This basically means that he told the king that while he was drunk a prophecy was told to him that someone, whose name begins with ‘G’ shall kill his sons. Because Richard shared his plan with the audience it shows his boastful nature, he takes pride in his deceit but he still tried to gain some sympathy from the audience by explaining to them that he cannot be a hero because of the way he looks.
So in the first soliloquy on its own we can establish that Shakespeare is trying to portray a man that went through self disgust or self pity because of his physical deformation to become a clever and witty individual who boasts about his wit and deviousness by sharing it with the audience. Unfortunately this charismatic person has declared himself the villain.
Shakespeare does try to get some sympathy for Richard but what ever he does achieve for him is very little and is wiped out as the play commences. The ground on which he achieves sympathy is the fact that Richard was deformed from birth and never had the pleasures of a normal childhood. Then again in Shakespearean time, a superstitious time, being born deformed meant a sign from God that he was an evil child. This is one aspect of the play which Shakespeare explores, he explores the feeling based around those people who are deformed and, superstitiously speaking, therefore have committed sin or work for the devil. By the end of the play Shakespeare has clearly portrayed how he feels, all the characters in the play which show trust towards Richard and speak the truth around Richard are betrayed or killed for example Hastings, he trusted and even liked Richard but would not betray the princes and so Richard had him killed. Throughout the whole play it seems that Richard has always been deformed and evil, he was born with teeth and ever since he was a child he was bad, according to his mother.
The next important scene is the wooing of Lady Anne this expresses a number of characteristics owned by Richard III. The first characteristic that you come across is the depiction of Richard as a murderer. Holinshed wrote that Henry IV’s corpse was seen to bleed at both St Paul’s and Blackfriars, because of this superstition evolved saying that a murdered body bleeds again in the presence of the murderer. In the play, Anne declares that the corpse is bleeding ‘dead Henry’s wounds open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh’ through this Shakespeare is emphasising that Richard was a murderer.
Although Richard is shown to be a murderer his mastery over language I displayed very well in this scene. Richard and Anne have a fierce verbal battle where Anne is talking about satanic things while Richard talks about angelic figures, for example when Anne says ‘when devils…’ Richard replies ‘when angels…’ this shows that Richard could come up with opposites to what ever Anne cursed at him, this style of verbal communication is called stichomythia. But his most brilliant turn around comment is when Anne wishes that her eyes were ‘basilisks’. Basilisks were monsters which could kill with a single look and therefore wishes his death ‘would they were basilisks, to strike thee dead’ but Richard turns this insult around and says that ‘I would they were’. This, instead of taking the insult as an insult is taken as a prayer, he wishes that they were those monsters so that he could be dead, so that he wouldn’t have to live a life where her eyes torment him and create a ‘living death’.
Later on in scene 2 Richard admits to adopting another line of approach to try and woo Anne:
‘To leave this keen encounter of our wits
And fall something into a slower method’
Now he changes from trying to win Anne over by showing her that he is witty to blaming her beauty for all the wrong doings that he has done. He is now trying to gain sympathy from Anne, not the audience as he has already shared his plans with the audience. The audience is merely more impressed and also enjoy what is happening because they know what is going on and so can relish in his wit.
A significant part in the play is when Anne spits at Richard; however I could only spot one part of his character being portrayed at this point. I could see that Richard does not loose his temper at that point in the play and throughout the play he doesn’t really loose his temper, to me this shows that he is in control of his emotions and can manipulate them when necessary. Finally Richard woos Anne; I’m not sure, is Anne gullible in the sense that she was able to be won over by this murderer whom she hated so much or does this scene display Richard’s irresistibility and charisma.
Although Richard has already shared his plans to kill Clarence with the audience the murder of Clarence comes next, in scene 4 but actually starts at the end of scene 3. Clarence’s murder just shows Richard’s ruthlessness and his willingness to stop at nothing to gain the crown. Not only this but when the murderers ask for the death warrant for Clarence I believe that it is significant that Richard had enough forward planning to already have the death warrant in his possession shows his planning and therefore his intelligence. Or it shows just how much his mind is devoted and even paranoid about the idea of gaining the crown that he already has the death warrant ready. I believe the most significant thing about Clarence’s murder, apart from the fact that his brother killed him, is his dream. Clarence’s dream is essentially his own self exploration which is split into four parts. The first part is about the pain of drowning, the second; the wealth on the sea bed. The third is about the uselessness of this wealth and the fourth; his return to pain. But there is also the very significant part about the fact that in his dream Richard pushes him into the sea. I believe that at this point Clarence is subconsciously accusing Richard of killing him, which we know is true. In Elizabethan times dreams were held with great importance and often connected with messages; in this way, I believe, Shakespeare was trying to convey the fact that Clarence’s dream was a message telling Clarence the truth but unfortunately Clarence did not understand the message as he though Richard tripped ‘Methought that Gloucester stumbled’. It is also ironic that Clarence should drown in his dream and he is also left in wine when he is killed.
Next is act 2 scene 1, this starts with King Edward wanting to make peace between his family and although Richard does ask to be reconciled with those he might have offended I believe that on stage the actor playing Richard III must act that particular scene without sincerity. I do not believe that Richard is trying to ask for forgiveness or handing out forgiveness to the Woodvilles because as it is very clear in the rest of the play Richard hates Queen Elizabeth’s family, he kills her brothers, he kills her sons. As far as the first scene Richard mocks Queen Elizabeth by referring to her as ‘my Lady Grey’. I believe that Richard just apologises and makes alliances to gain a front; that he had tried or he had extended his hand of friendship. If not that then definitely to keep on the right side of the king, his brother, Edward.
Scene 5 in act 3 expresses a lot of Richard’s character, he tries to set about fooling the Lord Mayor and the public. Again the audience know Richard’s plans and so can relish in the carrying out of the plans. Richard’s and Buckingham’s plan is to convince the Lord Mayor and the public that Richard is an orthodox Christian man and is fit to be king. Buckingham repeatedly asks Richard to come out and address the audience and to declare himself the king but the thing that is highlighted in this scene is the unwillingness of Richard to become king:
‘So mighty and so many my defects,
That I would rather hide me from my greatness,
Being a bark to brook no mighty sea,
Than in my greatness covet to be hid’
In these lines Richard argues that he has so many defects that are so large. He continues by saying that he would rather hide himself from his own greatness and then compares himself to a ship ‘bark’ which is unfit for sea travel. He then says that he would avoid the crown ‘greatness’ than desire it. These lines are in a formal tone and hide Richard’s ambition; in fact they imply his utter unwillingness to become king. This same idea is expressed in act 1 scene 3 when Rivers says that the Woodville’s loyalty lies with the king even if that king was Richard ‘So should we you, if you should be our king.’ At this point Richard replies that the last thing he wants is to be king ‘If I should be? I had rather be a pedlar’. These scenes again just unfold some more of Richard’s deviousness and his hypocrisy. Deviousness by the fact that he is lying to everyone and hypocrisy by that he wants what he is saying he doesn’t want.
The killing of the princes in the tower show much of the same characteristics which were uncovered through the killing of Clarence however now he has gone much further, he has killed two innocent children in his obsession with gaining the crown. It is clear now that Richard will stop at nothing to gain the crown.
In act 4 scene 4 Richard tries to convince Queen Elizabeth to persuade her daughter to marry him or at least prepare her so that he can woo her. We can a very close match between this scene and the wooing of Lady Anne. Again Richard defends himself from the cursing of Queen Elizabeth by saying that it was his love for her that caused him to commit al those crimes ‘say that I did all this for the love of her’. I believe that because Richard is repeating his old tactics, which were used on Lady Anne, the audience would feel a bit disappointed with Richard. I did because although he was still witty and matched wits with the Queen he was repeating himself and so lost the excitement which he had while wooing Lady Anne. I think that Shakespeare has done this deliberately to show a slip in Richard’s character he is no longer the same witty and sharp minded person he was, still very sharp yes, but not quite as sharp. Maybe Shakespeare did this to show that he felt all of Richard’s evil crimes had something to do with his loss of wit. More of this ‘loss’ is shown later on in the same scene. When Richard is giving out orders it seems that his mind has started to wander, he doesn’t finish his command and then forgets what he was saying:
RICHARD Catesby, fly to the duke.
CATESBY I will my lord, with all convenient haste.
RICHARD Ratcliffe, come hither. Post to Salisbury.
When thou com’st thither – Dull, unmindful villain,
Why stay’st thou here, and go’st not to the duke?
CATESBY First, my liege, tell me your highness’ pleasure.
What from your grace I shall deliver to him.
RICHARD Oh, true, good Catesby. Bid him levy straight
The greatest strength and power that he can make
And meet me suddenly at Salisbury.
CATESBY I go.
RATCLIFFE What, may it please you, shall I do at Salisbury?
RICHARD Why, what wouldst thou do there before I go?
RATCLIFFE Your highness told me I should post before.
RICHARD My mind is changed.
That part of the scene amply depicts Richard giving incomplete orders and then forgetting his original orders, this shows his absentmindedness, which he did not have before. To me this shows how Richard is slowly slipping away from his original sharp minded, witty and humorous self.
The penultimate thing which is shown in Richard is the exact oppositeness to Richmond. Richmond’s camp is shown to be orderly and overall alright but Richard’s camp is in dismay and Richard himself isn’t his usual self. Not only this but Richmond’ camp pray before the battle while Richard’s do not. Through the direct comparison between the two camps I feel that Richard is the exact opposite to Richmond.
The final this which is shown in the play is Richard fighting to his death. Throughout the whole play everyone doubts Richard as a nice person, as a trustworthy person but no one doubts Richard’s place in the battle field. That is the one positive image that Shakespeare leaves us with, that Richard had a place on the battle field. But after close scrutiny it becomes ironic that Richard killed the previous king to help his brother get the throne and now he is killed himself, so maybe Shakespeare is trying to say that the one place where there are no lies or deceits is the battle fields.
In the Olivier version of the film I, however, believe that in this play Shakespeare is asking the question is Richard evil because he is deformed or is he deformed because he is evil? Because of his constant referral to Richard’s evil crimes, through the various characters, and the fact that Richard’s deformity is also highlighted, through various characters including his mother. The first image is that of the crown and so this emphasises the crown and its worth, then the next person is Richard, this is connected with the crown scene and therefore you have the impression of a lust for the crown. The fact that Olivier chose to emphasise the crown so much clearly depicts Richard’s total obsession with it and that this obsession is the main point of the play according to Olivier. The McKellan version of the film portrays Richard as Hitler this in itself shows how ruthless and willing to kill Richard I thought to have been. Having said this, Richard never committed any of the murders himself and he also had nightmares where all the people that had bee murdered through him haunted him. I believe that Shakespeare was trying to display a slight amount of humanity left in Richard through these two facts.
I, however, believe that in this play Shakespeare is asking the question is Richard evil because he is deformed or is he deformed because he is evil? Because of his constant referral to Richard’s evil crimes, through the various characters, and the fact that Richard’s deformity is also highlighted, through various characters including his mother.
Finally I would like consider the historical influences that could have shaped Shakespeare’s writing. Henry VII claims to the throne were insecure. His ancestral lineage was through a woman. Therefore it was essential for Henry VII and his son Henry VIII to destroy Richard’s reputation. During Henry VII’s time writers stressed that Richard was a usurper and a murderer. In Henry VIII’s time two histories were written Sir Thomas More’s and (through request from Henry VIII) Polydore Vergil’s history. These versions of the facts were Shakespeare’s resources, all written through the Tudor’s, all considering God’s involvement. Since they were superstitious times I believe Shakespeare would have believed that the ‘historical documents’ were correct as Henry VII did gain the throne, he wouldn’t have if he didn’t deserve to. Another major factor in Shakespeare’s writing was the fact that he was also writing during the reign of a Tudor and so wouldn’t write anything negative about her father.