Character Of Richard III

The character of Richard III #

Shakespeare introduces Richard, the duke of Gloucester, to us directly so that we share his most intimate thoughts by having him speak to the audience directly. The effect of this is multiple; it is a fundamental alienating device to simultaneously engage us and yet detach us from him. We feel close to him, admire his candour, yet ambivalently despise him for his naked aggressive machinations and treachery.

Shakespeare is the master pf the Soliloquy, helping us to get inside the mind of his characters, creating the illusion of real people. This is a blunt selfie - more a monologue than a soliloquy.

Enter GLOUCESTER, solus


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.


His first words reveal his shadenfreuden (sad joy), His side has won the latest skirmish and peace has broken out to his regret as he yearns for the thrill of combat.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,*
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
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,
Deformed, 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;
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 mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
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:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.
*Act I Sc. 1

House of Cards:

Totally honest with us and himself, he makes no apology for his devious chicanery and reveals the motivation and agenda he has in mind. He is not a hero but revels in his villainy. There is no self-pity; he actually likes himself. A Donald Trump.

He is capable of drawing out and exploring everyone else’s faults (basically becomes exquisitely in tune with them) and takes advantage of them and plays off them as they arise, later “repaying their deep service” with contempt by dispensing with them.


I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl.*
The secret mischiefs that I set abroach
I lay unto the grievous charge of others.
Clarence, whom I, indeed, have laid in darkness,
I do beweep to many simple gulls
Namely, to Hastings, Derby, Buckingham;
And say it is the queen and her allies
That stir the king against the duke my brother.
Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

Throughout the play we seldom identify with Richard and his schemes and feel more sympathy, empathy and pathos for his victims.

I have principles; if you don’t like them, I have others. Groucho Marx

In this sense the play is not a tragedy; rather an historical tragedy as we watch heads roll at the whim of a crazed power mongering madman who happens to wear the heavy crown.

An earlier play in this tetralogy (series of 4 plays), Henry IV, Part II contains this notable quote:

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ (Act III, Scene i)

Besides the young defenceless princes, we feel the most empathy or pathos for Hastings, a loyal subject of the Yorks who though he does his best to demonstrate his dutiful service, haplessly loses his head to a paranoid capricious and ruthless tyrant:


Good morrow, Catesby; you are early stirring*
What news, what news, in this our tottering state?


It is a reeling world, indeed, my lord;*
And I believe twill never stand upright
Till Richard wear the garland of the realm.

Even Richard’s allies recognise the temporality of their success and the inevitability of their demise at his capricious hands.


O monstrous, monstrous! and so falls it out*
With Rivers, Vaughan, Grey: and so ’twill do
With some men else, who think themselves as safe
As thou and I; who, as thou know’st, are dear
To princely Richard and to Buckingham.

No one knows when or where you might meet your fate:


The lords at Pomfret, when they rode from London,*
Were jocund, and supposed their state was sure,
And they indeed had no cause to mistrust;
But yet, you see how soon the day o’ercast.
This sudden stag of rancour I misdoubt:
Pray God, I say, I prove a needless coward!
What, shall we toward the Tower? the day is spent.


Come, come, have with you. Wot you what, my lord?*
To-day the lords you talk of are beheaded.


They, for their truth, might better wear their heads*
Than some that have accused them wear their hats.
But come, my lord, let us away.

A few moments before he is sentenced to death Hastings feels confident, self-assured and secure.


I tell thee, man, ’tis better with me now*
Than when I met thee last where now we meet:
Then was I going prisoner to the Tower,
By the suggestion of the queen’s allies;
But now, I tell thee–keep it to thyself–
This day those enemies are put to death,
And I in better state than e’er I was.


I thank his grace, I know he loves me well;*
But, for his purpose in the coronation.
I have not sounded him, nor he deliver’d
His gracious pleasure any way therein:
But you, my noble lords, may name the time;
And in the duke’s behalf I’ll give my voice,
Which, I presume, he’ll take in gentle part.
(Act III Sc. IV)


Than my Lord Hastings no man might be bolder;*
His lordship knows me well, and loves me well.


I thank your grace.



His grace looks cheerfully and smooth to-day;*
There’s some conceit or other likes him well,
When he doth bid good morrow with such a spirit.
I think there’s never a man in Christendom
That can less hide his love or hate than he;
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.


What of his heart perceive you in his face*
By any likelihood he show’d to-day?


Marry, that with no man here he is offended;*
For, were he, he had shown it in his looks.


I pray God he be not, I say.



I pray you all, tell me what they deserve*
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d
Upon my body with their hellish charms?


The tender love I bear your grace, my lord,*
Makes me most forward in this noble presence
To doom the offenders, whatsoever they be
I say, my lord, they have deserved death.


Then be your eyes the witness of this ill:*
See how I am bewitch’d; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, wither’d up:
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.


If they have done this thing, my gracious lord–


If I thou protector of this damned strumpet–*
Tellest thou me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor:
Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.
Lovel and Ratcliff, look that it be done:
The rest, that love me, rise and follow me.

Off with his head! becomes Richard’s signature phrase signifying the absolute power of the monarch in his time. Despite the guarantees of the Magna Carta 1215, it will take another major civil war, 25 years after the death of Shakespeare before the Divine Right of Kings is restrained and until 1680’s before a bill of rights is enacted.


Infer the bastardy of Edward’s children:*

Moreover, urge his hateful luxury*
And bestial appetite in change of lust;
Which stretched to their servants, daughters, wives,
Even where his lustful eye or savage heart,
Without control, listed to make his prey.
Nay, for a need, thus far come near my person:
Tell them, when that my mother went with child
Of that unsatiate Edward, noble York
My princely father then had wars in France
And, by just computation of the time,
Found that the issue was not his begot;
Which well appeared in his lineaments,
Being nothing like the noble duke my father:
But touch this sparingly, as ’twere far off,
Because you know, my lord, my mother lives.

Richard uses a number of devious underhanded tactics to manipulate situations to his advantage. A main one is to stir the pot; play on people’s hatred for each other by the ruse of divide and conquer. Let other people do the dirty work for you. Today this divisive tactic is known as dog whistle politics also known as wedge politics. You take an emotive issue such as racism and obliquely raise public awareness of it and people will strongly react viscerally rather than intellectually.

Richard also uses unfounded rumours spread by others to undermine or subvert his opponents, such as requesting Buckingham to question the legitimacy of the two Princes. It was well known that Edward IV had many mistresses, but that the heirs to the throne were bastard children had little substance. This smearing made it easier to dispose of their claim to the throne.


Enter a Messenger

What says Lord Stanley? will he bring his power?


My lord, he doth deny to come.


Off with his son George’s head!* *Act V. Sc. iii

But it is too late, the battle is about to begin and Richard’s last order is not carried out.

Contrast of Speeches #


Why, then ’tis time to arm and give direction.

His oration to his soldiers

More than I have said, loving countrymen,
The leisure and enforcement of the time
Forbids to dwell upon: yet remember this,
God and our good cause fight upon our side;
The prayers of holy saints and wronged souls,
Like high-rear’d bulwarks, stand before our faces;
Richard except, those whom we fight against
Had rather have us win than him they follow:
For what is he they follow? truly, gentlemen,
A bloody tyrant and a homicide;
One raised in blood, and one in blood establish’d;
One that made means to come by what he hath,
And slaughter’d those that were the means to help him;
Abase foul stone, made precious by the foil
Of England’s chair, where he is falsely set;
One that hath ever been God’s enemy:
Then, if you fight against God’s enemy,
God will in justice ward you as his soldiers;
If you do sweat to put a tyrant down,
You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain;
If you do fight against your country’s foes,
Your country’s fat shall pay your pains the hire;
If you do fight in safeguard of your wives,
Your wives shall welcome home the conquerors;
If you do free your children from the sword,
Your children’s children quit it in your age.
Then, in the name of God and all these rights,
Advance your standards, draw your willing swords.
For me, the ransom of my bold attempt
Shall be this cold corpse on the earth’s cold face;
But if I thrive, the gain of my attempt
The least of you shall share his part thereof.
Sound drums and trumpets boldly and cheerfully;
God and Saint George! Richmond and victory!


Richard’s call to arms is consistent with Shakespeare’s portrayal of a Machiavellian tyrant. He first resorts to denigrating Richmond’s followers as desperate nobodies who are guilty of envy and then appeals to his followers by assuring them of his secure protection for their lands and wives as long as he remains their sovereign. After derisively referring to Richmond as a paltry fellow and milksop, he turns to the device used by all insecure tyrants – FEAR. The threat that these rats will lie with our wives and ravish our daughters. It is more of a rant, an abusive diatribe rather than an uplifting or inspiring call to arms.

His oration to his Army

What shall I say more than I have inferr’d?*
Remember whom you are to cope withal;
A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,
A scum of Bretons, and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o’er-cloyed country vomits forth
To desperate ventures and assured destruction.
You sleeping safe, they bring to you unrest;
You having lands, and blest with beauteous wives,
They would restrain the one, distain the other.
And who doth lead them but a paltry fellow,
Long kept in Bretagne at our mother’s cost?
A milk-sop, one that never in his life
Felt so much cold as over shoes in snow?
Let’s whip these stragglers o’er the seas again;
Lash hence these overweening rags of France,
These famish’d beggars, weary of their lives;
Who, but for dreaming on this fond exploit,
For want of means, poor rats, had hang’d themselves:
If we be conquer’d, let men conquer us,
And not these bastard Bretons; whom our fathers
Have in their own land beaten, bobb’d, and thump’d,
And in record, left them the heirs of shame.
Shall these enjoy our lands? lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?

Looking for Richard -

There is no evidence that at any time Richard experiences any crises of conscience or self revelation puncturing his self illusions. Even his last night when he is visited by the ghosts of his past, he shows little self-knowledge. Richard is very much a product of his environment or conditioning; he has seen all his uncles and cousins claw their way to the top to grasp the crown and has no compunctions in doing the same. At the end we feel no remorse for the deserved death of this tyrant.

The final word goes to Richmond, who assumes the title of Henry VII after his victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field:


Fellows in arms, and my most loving friends,*
Bruised underneath the yoke of tyranny,
Thus far into the bowels of the land
Have we march’d on without impediment;
And here receive we from our father Stanley
Lines of fair comfort and encouragement.
The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,
That spoil’d your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your embowell’d bosoms, this foul swine
Lies now even in the centre of this isle

Shakespeare succeeds in demonising Richard and elevating Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s Grandfather, as a champion of justice and virtue. If only history were that clear cut. As a work of art, Richard III ranks very highly.