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Richard III

During last night's performance of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), the sum total of Richard III was the bellowing of what is perhaps his most famous quote: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" On the one hand, it makes sense, being such a famous line; on the other, it says nothing about Richard's character, really, and little about the play or the actual history of Richard III (those last two being, most probably, quite different things).

Will the real Richard III please stand up?

According to scholars of history, Richard III of England was the last of the Plantagenet/York kings who fell to the Lancastrian/Tudor man who would later be the first Tudor king, King Henry VII, in the final battle of the War of the Roses. He died in battle on August 22, 1485, in the Battle of Bosworth Field, "fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies" (per Polydore Virgil, the official biographer of Henry Tudor, aka King Henry VII). Richard was a beloved, popular figure in northern England, and had proven exceedingly loyal to his brother, King Edward IV. He was an accomplished military strategist and commander.

He married Anne Neville, whose first husband, Edward, Prince of Wales (son of Lancastrian king Henry VI) was killed by men who served Richard's brother, the Earl of Clarence. (The Earl of Clarence was killed by Edward IV for treason, having shifted allegiance to the Lancastrians for a while; rumor is that he was "drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine", most likely a joke based on his notorious penchant for alcohol; it's possible, however, that it occurred - the "butts" or barrels were certainly large enough - or that his remains were placed inside an empty wine cask, for which there was precedent. But I digress.)

Anne's father, the Duke of Warwick, was killed by Richard's other brother, King Edward IV. Richard and Anne had known one another as children, and were only 4 years apart in age. They married in 1472, and had one child, who died when he was only eight years old. Thereafter, Anne "adopted" her nephew, Edward (son of Richard's brother, the Earl of Clarence, and Anne's sister, Isabel), whom Richard designated as his heir. In 1485 (two years into Richard's reign as king), Anne died. Richard then named a different nephew (his sister's son) as his heir.

Richard acceded to the throne in 1483 after his two nephews (the sons of King Edward IV and his Queen consort, Elizabeth) were declared illegitimate. Turns out that Edward IV had a contract of marriage with someone other than Elizabeth, so his marriage to Elizabeth was technically illegit, as were the children of that marriage. The two young boys were under the protection of Elizabeth's brother, Anthony Woodville, 2d Earl of Rivers - a Lancastrian who had switched sides to aid the Yorks. He was imprisoned in Pontefract Castle with others by Richard and accused of conspiring to kill Edward V, one of the two sons of Edward IV. The Earl of Rivers was beheaded for treason on June 25, 1483, three days after Richard announced that he would be the next king.

Richard took the two young "bastard" princes to the Tower (then a residence), where they lived just fine for a while. Rumors of their deaths began to circulate in England by Easter of 1484, and there was some speculation that Buckingham had killed them (thereby resulting in his beheading in November of 1483). Other likely suspects include Richard III and Henry VII (who had a penchant for killing possible rivals with rights to the throne, male and female alike). Recent historians seem to believe it more likely that it was someone other than Richard who killed the young princes (whose bodies were believed to have been found in the 1600s under a stairwell to the chapel at the Tower).

The Tudor version, as elaborated and embellished by the Bard

Shakespeare was writing plays during the reign of Elizabeth I, a Tudor queen who happened to be the granddaughter of Henry VII, the man who won the crown when Richard III was killed in battle by Henry VII's men. (Richard III's last words are reported to have been "Treason, treason, treason, treason, treason.") The "official" Tudor position on Richard III had been written by Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, prior to Henry having him beheaded when More refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the Church of England (for which More was sainted by the Pope four hundred years later - take that, Henry VIII!) More's History of King Richard III, although an unfinished work, was well known during Shakespeare's time, and its unflattering portrait of Richard III - including giving him a crippling deformity, and making him responsible for a vast number of deaths, not all of which were actually attributable to him in real life - made the perfect jumping-off point for Shakespeare, who took the already unflattering story and ran with it in an almost madcap manner: he assigned Richard the role of deliberate villain, and gave him a lusty and vengeful disposition that borders on kinky, really, in a sadomasochistic sort of way.

The play, in short


Scene 1: A street in London

The play opens with a monologue by Richard of Gloucester (his title before becoming King). It famously begins "Now is the winter of our discontent". The remainder of the opening phrase is "Made glorious summer by this son of York". He's really talking about his brother Edward IV's victory in retaking the thrown from Henry VI. Later in the speech, though, he clues the audience in to what he's up to:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

He tells the audience how it's his idea to set up his brother, the Earl of Clarence, for treason, and thus begins his movement toward amassing an impressive body count in this play, converses with Clarence as if he's a devoted brother, and establishes in another conversation that Edward IV is ailing. In a parting monologue, Richard tells us that he intends to have Clarence killed off, and that he intends to marry Anne, widow of Henry VI. He makes, in essence, a "to do" list (note the creepy way he talks about Anne here):

For then I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter.
What though I kill'd her husband and her father?
The readiest way to make the wench amends
Is to become her husband and her father.
The which will I; not all so much for love
As for another secret close intent,
By marrying her which I must reach unto.
But yet I run before my horse to market.
Clarence still breathes; Edward still lives and reigns;
When they are gone, then must I count my gains.

Scene 2: a different street in London

Lady Anne is mourning for her father-in-law, Henry VI, recently killed, who is being carried through the streets. Richard stops the funeral procession to chat with Anne, who just finished a monologue cursing the hands of the man who slew her husband, Edward. She calls Richard a "dreadful minister of hell" to open, then follows with "foul devil" and "lump of foul deformity". Richard is exceedingly courteous (and courtly) to her throughout the scene, replying "Lady, you know no rules of charity,/Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses." When she continues to call him a devil, he counters by calling her an angel. Their wordplay is exquisite - each time he says something to her, she uses the same form to invert it and argue with him.

Richard of Gloucester
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,
Of these supposed-evils, to give me leave,
By circumstance, but to acquit myself.

Lady Anne
Vouchsafe, defused infection of a man,
For these known evils, but to give me leave,
By circumstance, to curse thy cursed self.

Richard of Gloucester
Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.

Lady Anne
Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make
No excuse current, but to hang thyself.

Richard of Gloucester
By such despair, I should accuse myself.

Lady Anne
And, by despairing, shouldst thou stand excused[.]

Richard tells Anne the truth (historically speaking) - that Edward IV killed her husband - but she refuses to believe him, accepting instead the word of Queen Margaret (Lancastrian). He also extols Edward (Anne's dead husband) as fit for heaven, then offers himself as fit for Anne's bed-chamber. When she wigs on him for that comment, he shifts to flattery based on her beauty.

Richard of Gloucester
These eyes could never endure sweet beauty's wreck;
You should not blemish it, if I stood by:
As all the world is cheered by the sun,
So I by that; it is my day, my life.

Lady Anne literally spits in his face shortly thereafter, but Richard remains silken and undeterred. Instead, he continues to offer himself as her husband, saying "Teach not thy lips such scorn, for they were made/For kissing, lady, not for such contempt." He then hands her his sword and kneels before her so that she can run him through, then taunts her about how he killed her husband and her father-in-law, again urging her to kill him. When she doesn't, and when she refuses to tell him to kill himself, he gives her his ring to wear. Although she has expressed her opinion that he may prove false, she goes along with him - takes the ring, leaves to wait for him, and bids him farewell.

Richard of Gloucester
Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever woman in this humor won?
I'll have her; but I will not keep her long.
What! I, that killed her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart's extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by;
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I nothing to back my suit at all,
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!

Scene 3: the palace

Queen Elizabeth talks with her brother, Lord Rivers, about how she loves the king, that her sons are to be under Richard's protection if the king dies, and that Richard loves neither her, her children, or her brother. Richard enters, spouting off about people who slander him by saying he doesn't love the king, the queen, or her family:

Richard of Gloucester
They do me wrong, and I will not endure it:
Who are they that complain unto the king,
That I, forsooth, am stern, and love them not?
By holy Paul, they love his grace but lightly
That fill his ears with such dissentious rumours.
Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.

When Rivers asks of whom Richard is speaking, Richard rails and the queen disclaims (even though she was just talking smack about him earlier in the scene). In reply, Richard says "I cannot tell: the world is grown so bad,/That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch."

What makes all this so interesting is that Richard, who has already told us what a bad guy he is in scene 1, and then cued us in that his courteous behavior to Anne in scene 2 is a pretext, since he wishes to marry her just to toy with her, then kill her off, manages to get the audience to side with him anyhow, largely through this scene, where he recounts his own loyal behavior and scolds everyone else for being a pack of turncoats. His argument with Queen Margaret (consort of Henry VI) is wickedly funny (I think). She goes on at length, cursing him (and one ought to note that when Queen Margaret curses someone, bad things are sure to follow), during which he calls her a "hateful withered hag". Still, in the pause between everyone leaving him alone and two hired murderers turning up for a chat, Richard reminds us yet again what a bad guy he is:

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 villainy
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

And seriously, I still love him for it, and am nearly cheering when he engages the murderers to go and off his brother, Clarence.

Scene 4: London Tower
Clarence tells of a nightmare he had in which Richard bumped against him on board a ship and he fell overboard and drowned:
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea.

Thereafter he was approached by Henry VI and scolded for his role in Henry's fall. After telling Brakenbury about his dream, he falls asleep.

The two murderers turn up with a warrant that allows them to kill Clarence. Says one of the murderers to Brakenbury, "O sir, it is better to be brief than tedious." After Brakenbury leaves, the murderers enter into conversation about the upcoming murder both between themselves and with Clarence, prior to his death. One of them eventually stabs him, then stuffs him into a barrel of wine.

Act II

Scene 1: In the palace in London

King Edward IV makes Hastings, Rivers, the Queen and others kiss and make up before Richard turns up and joins the forgiveness party, only to reveal that Clarence is dead, causing the King to pitch a bit of a hissy fit, and causing the Queen and all her kinsmen to feel guilty.

Scene 2: Same

The Duchess of York (mother of Richard, Edward and Clarence) tells Clarence's children that their father is dead, and that Richard is to blame, only to be interrupted by Queen Elizabeth who turns up to tell everyone that King Edward IV is dead. Wailing and bemoaning ensues on everyone's part, and Richard turns up in time to add his name to the party being put together to go and fetch Edward V.

Scene 3: A street in London

Citizens in the street talk about Edward IV's death, how Edward V will be king next, and how nobody likes or trusts Richard of Gloucester.

Scene 4: Back at the palace in London

Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York discuss Edward V and his younger brother (who is present); the scene includes plenty of comical bits at the outset between the two women and the younger son. The queen sends her son away, saying "A parlous boy: go to, you are too shrewd." The Archbishop of York advises her not to be angry, to which she replies "Pitchers have ears." (And you thought your grandmother came up with that on her own, right?) A messenger arrives to tell the women that Rivers and others have been arrested by Richard of Gloucester and Buckingham and sent to Pomfret.


Scene 1: A street in London

Prince Edward V arrives in London with Richard and wants to know where his mother is. Turns out she's skivved off with his brother to find "sanctuary". (Cue the hunchback crying "SANCTUARY!") Edward asks someone to have his brother sent to keep him company, and Richard advises him to stay in the Tower. His brother turns up and is horrible to his Uncle Richard; the boys end up going to the Tower. Quoth Richard about the princes, "So wise, so young, they say, do never live long."

Scene 2: In front of Hastings's house

Stanley sends a messenger to warn Hastings that he believes Richard is going to seized the crown, based on a dream he had.

Scene 3: Pomfret Castle

Rivers, Grey and Vaughn are to be sent to their deaths.

Scene 4: The Tower of London

Richard claims that Queen Margaret cursed him, resulting in his crippled hand. Hastings balks at his pronouncement, and Richard is displeased. Hastings says he should've listened to Stanley's warning. Says Richard, "Off with his head!"

Scene 5: The Tower-walls

Buckingham and Richard walk the tower walls. Catesby turns up with the Lord Mayor, who arrives in time to see Hastings's head, but too late (alas! - wink, wink) to hear Hastings's confession. The Lord Mayor takes their word for it that Hastings was plotting treason and heads off. Richard sends Buckingham after the Lord Mayor to start to spread rumors that the young princes are illegitimate. Richard tells the audience of his intention to sequester the princes.

Scene 6: Same place

A Scrivener talks about the indictment of Hastings that he's been made to write out, saying it's obviously a set-up.

Scene 7: Baynard's Castle

Buckingham reports back to Richard about his efforts to sway the Lord Mayor and the populace; the Mayor remains unconvinced. Buckingham advises Richard on how to conduct a publicity campaign, and they manage to bring the Lord Mayor to heal through a deception involving Richard, a prayer book, two bishops, and a staged conversation where Buckingham asks Richard to reconsider his decision NOT to be king. Et voilà, the Lord Mayor is on board.


Scene 1: Before the Tower

Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and Anne (now Richard's wife) come to visit the princes, but are told they may not see the boys. Lord Stanley turns up to take Anne to be crowned Richard's Queen, but advises Dorset (Elizabeth's son from a prior marriage) to go to his son Henry, the Earl of Richmond. Anne tells the other woman what her current situation is in a rather heartbreaking speech, the second part of which is here:

O, when, I say, I looked on Richard's face,
This was my wish: 'Be thou,' quoth I, ' accursed,
For making me, so young, so old a widow!
And, when thou wed'st, let sorrow haunt thy bed;
And be thy wife--if any be so mad--
As miserable by the life of thee
As thou hast made me by my dear lord's death!
Lo, ere I can repeat this curse again,
Even in so short a space, my woman's heart
Grossly grew captive to his honey words
And proved the subject of my own soul's curse,
Which ever since hath kept my eyes from rest;
For never yet one hour in his bed
Have I enjoyed the golden dew of sleep,
But have been waked by his timorous dreams.
Besides, he hates me for my father Warwick;
And will, no doubt, shortly be rid of me.

Scene 2: The palace in London

Richard has been crowned king. He says he wants the princes killed, but Buckingham pauses instead of agreeing immediately. Stanley arrives to tell Richard that Dorset has fled to join Richmond. The king tells Catesby to put it about that Anne "is sick and like to die". In a soliloquy, he lets us in on his thoughts:

I must be married to my brother's daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.
Murder her brothers, and then marry her!
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin:
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.

He immediately engages a gentleman named Tyrrel to "dispatch" the young princes. Buckingham comes back to claim a boon, but the king, fixated on Dorset and Richmond, is in no mood. He tells Buckingham that he is "not in the giving vein to-day" and exits. Buckingham believes the jig, she is up.

Scene 3: Same place

Tyrrel enters and give a monologue describing the deaths of the young princes, who were smothered by two men he hired. Tyrrel tells Richard that the deed is done, for which Richard promises to reward him. Richard enumerates his success: 1) Clarence's son penned up - check, 2) Clarence's daughter married to somebody unworthy - check, 3) young princes murdered - check, 4) Anne dead - check. Knowing that Richmond wants to marry Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth, to help bolster his claim to the crown, he vows to woo her himself. Catesby rushes in to tell thim that Ely has fled and is now serving Richmond, and Buckingham is out in the field as well.

Scene 4: Before the palace

Queen Margaret is joined by Queen Elizabeth, mourning her sons, and the Duchess of York. There's a long litany of "who killed whom" amongst the women. My favorite exchange, however, is this:

Queen Elizabeth
O thou well skilled in curses, stay awhile,
And teach me how to curse mine enemies!

Queen Margaret
Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were fairer than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse:
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.

Queen Elizabeth
My words are dull; O, quicken them with thine!

Queen Margaret
Thy woes will make them sharp, and pierce like mine.

Duchess of York
Why should calamity be full of words?

When Richard turns up, the Duchess of York says lovely maternal things about how she should have strangled him inside her womb and telling him how much pain he caused her with his birth. (Heh.) Not only the Duchess of York, but also Elizabeth curses him. Once the Duchess huffs off, Richard tells Elizabeth that he wants to marry her daughter. And then there's this rather squicky bit:

Look, what is done cannot be now amended:
Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes,
Which after-hours give leisure to repent.
If I did take the kingdom from your sons,
To make amends, I'll give it to your daughter.
If I have killed the issue of your womb,
To quicken your increase, I will beget
Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter.

Later in that speech he says, "I cannot make you what amends I would,/Therefore accept such kindness as I can."

Ooh - and there's this later, squickier exchange:

Queen Elizabeth But thou didst kill my children.

King Richard
But in your daughter's womb I bury them,
Where in that nest of spicery they shall breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.


Elizabeth promises to pass Richard's message along and let him know her daughter's mind, most likely in order to get the hell out of there. Ratcliff and Catesby arrive with word that Richmond has a bunch of ships just off the coast and Buckingham is apparently going to join him; they are variously dispatched to rally troops for Richard. Stanley arrives to give Richard further military intelligence. He promises to muster his troops to help Richard, even though Richmond is his nephew. Richard worries that he'll prove false, and keeps his son George hostage. Additional battle-related news follows.

Scene 5: Lord Derby's house

Lord Derby (another of Queen Elizabeth's sons from a prior marriage) gets a status check on troops rallying to Richmond's side, and says he can't join Richmond just yet out of fear for young George's life. But he passes along a message saying that Queen Elizabeth has given her blessing to Richmond marrying her daughter.


Scene 1: Salisbury - an open place

Buckingham has been captured by Richard's men and is being sent to his execution.

Scene 2: The camp near Tamworth

Richmond gives a wee speech, and everyone agrees that nobody likes Richard, and that "He hath no friends but who are friends for fear./Which in his greatest need will shrink from him."

Scene 3: Bosworth Field

At Richard's camp, they tally up the troops, and say that Richard's forces outnumber Richmond's 3 to 1. At Richmond's camp, Richmond sends a note to his uncle, Stanley. Over at Richard's camp, he's rallying troops, planning for tomorrow and sending a threat to Stanley. Back at Richmond's camp, Derby promises to defect to Richmond when he can, but he's worried about Stanley's son. The ghosts of Prince Edward, King Henry VI and Clarence come in, blessing Richmond and cursing Richard. The ghosts of Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, the young princes, Queen Anne, and Buckingham turn up to do the same thing.

King Richard wakes up and has a massive anxiety attack. It's overwrought, and not really Shakespeare's finest writing - he's trying to convey Richard's internal conflict, but at this point in his career, he just hadn't mastered it. Yet. But given that this was probably only the fourth play he wrote (following the three Henry VI plays, which didn't really attempt conveying internal psychology) he got close, and within a few years, he was able to completely nail the self-doubt thing.

After that Ratcliff turns up and tries to reassure Richard. Meanwhile, Richmond is all "I slept wonderfully, you guys, and I dreamed that the ghosts of all those folks Richard killed came to bid me victory!", then proceeds to give a "God's on our side - let's do this thing!" speech. Richard opts to go with this approach:

Go, gentleman, every man unto his charge
Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls:
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
March on, join bravely, let us to 't pell-mell
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

Richard follows this bit by yelling that a bunch of Richmond's guys came from France, and the French are scum, and hey, do you want French scum to ravish your daughters? When word comes that Stanley has gone over to Richmond, Richard says "Off with his son George's head!", but that is deferred until after the battle.

Scene 4: Another part of the field

Catesby bellows that the king is amazing, but has been unhorsed.

Richard enters, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Catesby offers to help him find a horse, and Richard says this before he exits:

Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die:
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Scene 5: Another part of the field
The scene opens with sword-fighting between Richmond and Richard, in which Richard is slain. Richmond reenters the stage to say "God and your arms be praised, victorious friends,/The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead." After ascertaining that young George Stanley is still alive, and getting a report on dead nobles (all ordered buried in accordance with their positions), Richmond (who will be Henry VII) has a longer speech, which includes this bit about the end of the War of the Roses:

And then, as we have ta'en the sacrament,
We will unite the white rose and the red: —
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frowned upon their enmity!

Tomorrow - erm, make that later today, the clock having just turned to the new day - we'll move on to As You Like It. I promise it will be funnier than Richard III.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 22nd, 2009 11:26 pm (UTC)
Squicky was the word I kept coming back to. He's almost gleefully malevolent at the start, and there's something very interesting about that.

His "courtship" of Lady Anne is pretty disturbing, too, but he really goes all the way to full-on stomach-turning when he makes his case with Queen Elizabeth. *shivers*
Jun. 26th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
This is one that comes particularly alive for me in performance. It's amazing how you end up cheering on Richard even though he's so dreadful. And I love the bitter cursing of Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York, and the spirited yet squicky wooing of Anne.
Jun. 26th, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC)
He's so gleeful about being a villain (particularly in the first half of the play, before all the responsibility of being king and trying to defend his position on top of the heap kicks in) that it's hard NOT to be swept up by him, I think. The wooing of Anne is, however, really squicky. It's hard not to feel vaguely kinky about liking it, and hard not to like it. That's some good writing, I think.
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