It is both fortunate and unfortunate that Shakespeare has so eclipsed his fellow playwrights and other writers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Age that we read, study, and occasionally perform only him. It is fortunate in that we get to know this one writer very well. It is unfortunate in that, in not knowing his contemporaries, or his friends, or the plays he saw or the books he read, we do not get to know this one writer at all. It may be an important thing to say that the play Richard the Third was Senecan, or influenced by Marlowe, or that the main character was Machiavellian, unless the one speaking and the one listening had not read Marlowe, or had no clue who Seneca was, or did not know a Machiavelli from an Erasmus. Then one is talking foolishness to foolish ears, or, more accurately: one is taking a university course on the matter.
When I studied literature, I had the good fortune and bad luck to stumble upon an old form of writing from Shakespeare's time that had survived to our time known as the tract wars. In modern terms, the tract wars are like a debate in a combox, only back then it was carried out through pamphlets. Self proclaimed experts wrote pamphlets on any subject, and were rebutted by other self proclaimed experts, often with as much vituperation as we see today, but also with more style. It was good fortune for me to find a series of pamphlets debating poetry and theatre, in that it gave me what I took to be great insight into the beliefs of the poets and playwrights of the time, and bad luck, in that I was the only one of my peers who had read them, and therefore my peers declared they were either of no importance or did not exist.
What my reading told me was that Elizabethan poetry and plays were based on the idea of exemplum: the writers were providing examples, or types, of certain kinds of behaviour, in order to warn their readers and watchers to embrace virtue and shun vice. Whereas modern critics told me that Renaissance drama had grown out of Morality plays, which told the story of how Everyman shunned temptation and prepared for the grave, and had abandoned that style of dry, pedantic representation for the more nuanced and lifelike mimesis, the pamphleteers, some of them playwrights themselves, told me that playwrights were still writing morality plays, merely of a more sophisticated nature.
To come back to the matter at hand, namely Richard the Third, I put it to you that Shakespeare had no intention of writing an accurate history of Richard the Third. The idea of writing an accurate history was utterly foreign to that time. What he wrote was a study of a certain kind of murderous villainy, which he named Richard III, the events of which bore a certain superficial resemblance to the life events of a monarch of that name.
That Richard is a villain is something that we know from the very first words of the play. He tells us so himself. In this, he is a typical Renaissance villain. Most of them come out onstage and introduce themselves to the audience rather like a waiter introduces himself to a table of customers: "Hello and good evening. My name is X, and I will be your villain this evening." Richard's speech is among the most famous in the Shakespearean canon, so I will quote the whole thing, but breaking it into its four parts:
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.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
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
Richard has laid out his motivation as a syllogism wrapped in beautiful language. First: Now is the time for love, not war; Second: But I am made for war, not love; Third: Therefore, since I cannot be a lover, I will be a villain; Fourth: I have put a plan in motion: watch how it plays out.
This speech is rich in symbolism and imagery, with meanings wrapped within meanings. However, for the purpose of keeping this post within bounds, (lest I run the risk of burying Richard under another parking lot of words) I will point out two things: First, Richard has, without saying so, told us that his motivation is jealousy. He is an embodiment of one of the seven deadly sins. Secondly, he has identified his method of villainy as words. He is also a master of language.
We can see this mastery most clearly when, in the very next scene, Richard does exactly what he said he could not do in his opening speech, and becomes lover and woos the widow of his hated rival, even over the coffin of her husband's father. It does not begin well:
The linguistic trope here is called Stychomythia. (I expect all my readers to learn that word and use it often). A second speaker responds to someones words by turning them around and sending them back the the first. It is how these two speak.
It comes at a price: Anne may be refuting Richard, but her words are based on Richard's. He is the one in control of the scene.
While Anne is responding to Richard, she s responding in Richard's terms. Anne's responses are so dependent on Richard, that when he offers her a choice, she cannot get out of it.
Take up the sword again, or take up me.
And thus Richard finds a wife.
Richard's domination of language continues throughout the play. He takes over every scene he enters, and none can stand against his tongue. Her rises on the power of his tongue, and when his tongue fails to persuade and provoke, he falls. His tongue even turns on himself, yet to know avail.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murder'd
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
To-morrow's vengeance on the head of Richard
Richard's life lies in his tongue. It is no accident on Shakespeare's part that Richard speaks no words in his final scene.
Alarum. Enter KING RICHARD III and RICHMOND; they fight. KING RICHARD III is slain. Retreat and flourish. Re-enter RICHMOND, DERBY bearing the crown, with divers other LordsRichard is silenced, then he is Silenced.
In Richard Shakespeare has created a type of villain: He is motivated by jealousy and hatred of all around him, (eventually loathing even himself) and, through his jealousy and hatred of others, brings about his own destruction. He is a less complicated portrayal of villainy than, say Macbeth, which I consider to be Shakespeare's masterpiece. Richard comes out and tells us why he is a villain and why he does the things he does; Macbeth tells us why he almost doesn't do it. But complicated or not, beautiful language or not, Shakespeare's Richard is only real upon the stage and in the lessons we may learn from him, which is to say: he is not real at all, in any historical sense, nor was he meant to be. He is here to teach a lesson about the evils of evil, and the punishments meted out to the wicked.
However, there is this distracting fact about a historical figure who shares his name with the play, and who peeks around the corner, or up from the grave, to peak at us from time to time. We live in the age that found his bones, and put a sober face on his grinning skull.
His grave reveals a mean end to his great legend: he was tossed, naked, without a coffin, hands bound into a grave too small for him and buried in haste. His brave conquerors had even stabbed him through a buttock, probably as he lay naked strapped over the back of a horse. Those who know his foes could do so much, cannot believe that they may have had him buried without ceremony and without funeral rites. It is planned for Richard, who as Duke of Gloucester sought to ensure that the poor people of his dukedom all had access to a priest, will have an ecumenical memorial service as his bones are re-interred.
Richard's conqueror, Henry VII, died the most hated man in Christendom, according to some chroniclers. He would be remembered more villainously, were he not overshadowed by his more famous and bloodier son, and now he is hardly remembered at all. If Richard was, as many say, the last medieval king of England, then Henry is the first modern one. To see the difference between medieval and moder we need only look to the difference between how Henry and Henry 's son treated Richard, and how Henry and how Henry's son treated Richard.
Henry VII was not the first Henry to take a crown from a Richard, that honour goes to Henry IV. That Henry buried a Richard, but his son, Henry V, had Richard dug up again. We turn to Shakespeare to put words in Henry V's mouth:
Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard's body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow'd more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither'd hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Henry V lived with the guilt of Richard's murder, and tried to atone for it, and prayed for the peace of Richard's soul. Henry VII buried Richard III in an unmarked grave in a church, which Henry VIII expropriated and tore down, and then enjoyed stories about how evil Richard had been, while he began a massacre that would eventually take 30,000 souls. His daughter's were no slouches in blood either. Elizabeth had a few thousand executions. Mary sent over 800 to the gallows, yet, Mary, the least murderous of the lot, is known as "Bloody". Truly, murder is acceptable, as long as you murder the right people, and have the right people celebrate your deeds, and make examples out of your enemies.