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Richard III is not one of Shakespeare's best works, in fact few of the History plays are really great, but it has its moments.  It has one of the most extraordinary openings in all of Literature:

    GLOUCESTER (Richard was the Duke of Gloucester prior to assuming the Crown):

    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
    Clarence comes.

and one of the most recognizable final scenes, when Catesby finds him unhorsed on Bosworth Field (August 22, 1485):

    CATESBY:

    Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue!
    The king enacts more wonders than a man,
    Daring an opposite to every danger:
    His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
    Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
    Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!

    Alarums. Enter KING RICHARD III

    KING RICHARD III:

    A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

    CATESBY:

    Withdraw, my lord; I'll help you to a horse.

    KING RICHARD III:

    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!

    Exeunt
 

In between, Shakespeare achieved something novel by making the "hero' of the play a figure of sheer malevolence.  For most of the play this succeeds because Richard is the only character who is really developed and because the very audacity of his schemes and his own joy in them makes him nearly sympathetic.  The best expression of this comes when he determines to marry Anne, widow of Prince Edward whom he murdered.  Even as he hatches the scheme, he seems truly disbelieving of his own duplicity:

    GLOUCESTER:

    Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?
    Was ever woman in this humour won?
    I'll have her; but I will not keep her long.
    What! I, that kill'd 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!
    Ha!
    Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
    Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
    Stabb'd in my angry mood at Tewksbury?
    A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
    Framed in the prodigality of nature,
    Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
    The spacious world cannot again afford
    And will she yet debase her eyes on me,
    That cropp'd the golden prime of this sweet prince,
    And made her widow to a woful bed?
    On me, whose all not equals Edward's moiety?
    On me, that halt and am unshapen thus?
    My dukedom to a beggarly denier,
    I do mistake my person all this while:
    Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
    Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
    I'll be at charges for a looking-glass,
    And entertain some score or two of tailors,
    To study fashions to adorn my body:
    Since I am crept in favour with myself,
    Will maintain it with some little cost.
    But first I'll turn yon fellow in his grave;
    And then return lamenting to my love.
    Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
    That I may see my shadow as I pass.

But eventually the play suffers from a couple of structural problems.  First, there is no one opposing Richard who is equal to him in terms of stature and dramatic heft.  The closest anyone comes is Queen Margaret, widow of the Henry VI and mother Prince Edward, who gets off some pretty funny curses at Richard:

    QUEEN MARGARET:

    What were you snarling all before I came,
    Ready to catch each other by the throat,
    And turn you all your hatred now on me?
    Did York's dread curse prevail so much with heaven?
    That Henry's death, my lovely Edward's death,
    Their kingdom's loss, my woful banishment,
    Could all but answer for that peevish brat?
    Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?
    Why, then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses!
    If not by war, by surfeit die your king,
    As ours by murder, to make him a king!
    Edward thy son, which now is Prince of Wales,
    For Edward my son, which was Prince of Wales,
    Die in his youth by like untimely violence!
    Thyself a queen, for me that was a queen,
    Outlive thy glory, like my wretched self!
    Long mayst thou live to wail thy children's loss;
    And see another, as I see thee now,
    Deck'd in thy rights, as thou art stall'd in mine!
    Long die thy happy days before thy death;
    And, after many lengthen'd hours of grief,
    Die neither mother, wife, nor England's queen!
    Rivers and Dorset, you were standers by,
    And so wast thou, Lord Hastings, when my son
    Was stabb'd with bloody daggers: God, I pray him,
    That none of you may live your natural age,
    But by some unlook'd accident cut off!

    GLOUCESTER:

    Have done thy charm, thou hateful wither'd hag!

    QUEEN MARGARET:

    And leave out thee? stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me.
    If heaven have any grievous plague in store
    Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
    O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
    And then hurl down their indignation
    On thee, the troubler of the poor world's peace!
    The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
    Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest,
    And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!
    No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
    Unless it be whilst some tormenting dream
    Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!
    Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!
    Thou that wast seal'd in thy nativity
    The slave of nature and the son of hell!
    Thou slander of thy mother's heavy womb!
    Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins!
    Thou rag of honour! thou detested--

However, she does not have the political strength to counterbalance him and is given little else to do but wander around spewing venom.  One of the reasons that Silence of the Lambs works is because the audience, though fascinated and amused by the evil Hannibal Lecter, sides with Clarice Starling.  Shakespeare offers no similarly strong and sympathetic rival to Richard, which means that we're pretty much rooting for him the whole time.  Even when he has the two princes killed, they are ciphers to us, so it's hard to be horrified by the crime.

Which brings us to the second structural flaw; having created such an engaging monster in Richard, the Bard stumbles badly when he renders him as a man tormented by conscience just before the battle.  This is depicted after a series of visitations by the ghosts of his victims:
 

    KING RICHARD III starts out of his dream

    KING RICHARD III:

    Give me another horse: bind up my wounds.
    Have mercy, Jesu!--Soft! I did but dream.
    O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
    The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
    Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
    What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:
    Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
    Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
    Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
    Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
    Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
    That I myself have done unto myself?
    O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
    For hateful deeds committed by myself!
    I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
    Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
    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.
 

This sort of self-pity rings hollow given the rest of the play and makes Richard seem more pitiful than pitiable.

Ultimately one gets the sense that Shakespeare actually likes Richard, certainly better than the characters surrounding him, but is forced to have him lose by the dictates of history and must tar his image because of the dictates of Elizabethan politics.  Elizabeth was after all a descendant of Richard's Lancastrian foe Henry Tudor (Henry VII).  Historians (and Josephine Tey in the very fine mystery Daughter of Time--see review) have pretty much demolished the relentlessly negative portrait of Richard, even down to denying that he was physically deformed.  Shakespeare's Richard III is intended (like the Thomas More hatchet job on which it's based) to legitimize the current ruling dynasty of England--which had assumed power following this final victory in the war of the Roses--but this propaganda purpose tends to work against the effectiveness of the drama.

We're left with a play that is somehow less than the sum of its parts.  It's enjoyable but not quite top notch.  Still, second tier Shakespeare is better than just about anyone else's best.  I particularly recommend Laurence Olivier's 1955 movie version.  It certainly beats whatever else you were going to rent the next time you go to the Video Store.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
SHAKESPEARE:
    -please check the general collection of Shakespeare links above

RICHARD III:
    -ETEXT: KING RICHARD III
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE:  Richard III by William Shakespeare (SparkNote by Susannah Mandel)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: your search: "richard iii"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "Bosworth Field"
    -The Richard III and Yorkist History Server
    -The Richard III Foundation, Inc
    -Richard III: British Monarchs (Britannia)
    -ESSAY: The History of Richard III: Chapter 2, "The History of Richard III" from my English Ph.D. dissertation (Romuald Ian Lakowski)
    -IULAW LegalTalk - Trial of Richard III (Indiana School of Law)
    -Dr. Macro's Richard III Page
    -The Unofficial Richard III Enthusiast's Page
    -Teresa's Richard III and Wars of the Roses Page
    -ESSAY: THE STATUTES OF RICHARD III'S PARLIAMENT (D. W. de Bogert)
    -EXCERPT: from The History of King Richard III by Sir Thomas More
    -DISCUSSION: William Shakespeare Richard III  (Hatteras Campfire)
    -REVIEWS: from (Epinions)
    -LINKS: Richard III Essays | Annotated Links

FILM:
    -William Shakespeare's RICHARD III  IN FILM AND TELEVISION HISTORY (American Film Institute)
    -BUY IT: VHS: Richard III (1955) (amazon.com)
    -INFO: Richard III (1955)(Internet Movie DataBase)

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