Richard the Third by William Shakespeare

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I watched the movie starring Laurence Olivier. I read the play. I read some analysis on the play. I thought about it for two weeks. I read the play again. And yet, I still don’t understand why anyone believed Richard’s sincerity from the beginning. I believe Shakespeare intended Richard’s power to be in his words, but as it is, I felt Richard’s sincerity lacking and his speeches unconvincing.

William Shakespeare’s Richard the Third (written early 1590s), opens with a lone Richard, Duke of Gloucester, on stage revealing his ultimate power-hungry plan to the audience. His reasons are unsatisfying.

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. (I.i.28-32)

He’s a villain just to entertain himself? Blah. In all he says and does to those around him thereafter, it seems clear to me that he is untrustworthy. Why does everyone like him? Yet, his “honeyed words” ensnare the rest, and their downfall leads to his kingship, just as he had planned. All Richard has to do is “urge [Kind Edward IV’s] hatred” (I.i.147), for example, and Clarence is doomed. It’s too easy.

Note that this post contains spoilers for Richard the Third.

I finally began to like Richard the Third when King Richard began to fail. When Buckingham finally showed his displeasure at the planned murder of the young princes, I wanted to cheer for him. When the women scorned and cursed Richard, I waited for their curses to come true. I love the nightmare sequence on the eve of the battle on Bosworth Field; Richard’s victims got to curse Richard, even though they never stood up to him in life. And then, as I watched Laurence Olivier yelling for a horse, I laughed. So end the power-hungry!

My thoughts on the play have been colored by the two essays I read. First I read Columbia professor Harold Bloom’s essay in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and then I read former Yale professor Mark Van Doren’s essay in his collection of essays on Shakespeare. Bloom, with his characteristic biting critique, essentially dismissed Richard III as amateur writing: he found the play unbalanced, Richard’s character unconvincing, and Richard’s speeches at the end (such as his “I am I” speech) weak.

Shakespeare’s greatest originality in Richard III, which redeems an otherwise cumbersome and overwritten drama, is not so much Richard himself as it is the hero-villain’s startlingly intimate relationship with the audience. (page 70, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom)

Mark Van Doren’s essay was a bit less arrogant. He focused on the power of words in Richard the Third. Richard may have been a liar, and the play as a whole had its faults, but his words had an unbelievable power behind them, and throughout the play he worried that other’s words would reveal their power as well.

The form of hypocrisy in Richard which keeps him constantly asserting his innocence is so obvious that one would expect it to fool nobody … The assertions of his innocence are always supported by elaborate acting.” (page 25-26, Shakespeare, Mark van Doren)

During my second reading of the play, I didn’t feel so bad in finding Richard rather boring because of his lack of humanity. I have to agree with Bloom’s opinions to some extent about Richard’s faults. And yet, much as I hated him, King Richard was still fascinating to me. He reminded me of Cathy from East of Eden: Cathy did not have a conscience, and yet people constantly trusted her because of her innocent face. Likewise, Richard seemed to lack a conscience (until the “I am I” speech) and yet people loved him. In contrast to Cathy, Richard was an ugly man (apparently deformed in some way); his power came from what he said.

I hated Richard. Why were his words so much more powerful than anyone else’s? Why did people believe what was said and not do their own research? Because of Professor Van Doren’s essay, as I reread the play, I was struck by all the ways in which words are given power.

He proclaims his innocence time and again. One time, he tells Hastings and others:

Richard. 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.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abus’d
By silken, sly, insinuating Jacks? (I.iii.42-53)

He claims the others’ complaints are strong and he “cannot flatter and speak fair.” Yet it is Richard who does convince people. He’s lying once again. In Act I, scene ii, he had flattered Anne, who declares nothing but hate for Richard for the majority of the scene. She later says “…my woman’s heart / Grossly grew captive to his honey words” (IV.i.78-79). Queen Elizabeth knows he’s not a friend (“a man who loves not me,” I.iii.13) and even Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, says as she thinks of his actions that “mothers doubt” (II.iv.22).

I liked the parts where the women talked back to Richard. Margaret curses him throughout the play, and Queen Elizabeth requests lessons in learning how to curse. Then the gathered group of women do curse Richard in Act IV, scene iv, but it is too late. Richard is too powerful to be overcome. He drowns out the women. He does worry about the power of their words but he has reached a place where he is untouchable: he’s king now.

KING RICHARD III. A flourish, trumpets! strike alarum, drums!
Let not the heavens hear these tell-tale women
Rail on the Lord’s enointed: strike, I say! (IV.iv.149-151)

Richard, as king, no longer has to listen to his mother. He can drown out her lamentations, and since all the women know he is a murderer, they may then be a bit concerned for their own lives. They lack any force with him. And then, although Queen Elizabeth begins strong in resisting Richard’s newest marriage plan, she is convinced in the end.

“Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!” Richard declares as Queen Elizabeth departs (IV.iv.431). I can only agree. I hated Shakespeare’s representation of the women as such. Is this Shakespeare’s own lack of respect for women in portraying them as weak, or was it truly the winning power of Richard’s words that convinced the women? The only words I heard were not that powerful.

The power, then, behind King Richard in Shakespeare’s play is meant to be in the words: Richard must have given powerful speeches in order to convince everyone he was sincere when he was not. But, as the professionals argue, maybe Shakespeare was not writing at his best yet. Richard is a “rigidly constructed villain” (page 27, Van Doren). Give the Bard a few more years writing plays and he may be able to write speeches that have the power he wanted King Richard to have. As it is, I can’t say Richard the Third is a favorite play of mine. I did feel a lack of clout behind the King’s speeches.

Now I am looking forward to stepping backwards and reading Shakespeare’s first three plays: Henry VI part 1, part 2, and part 3. I’m hoping that is an enjoyable experience. I’m not going to stress over understanding it. I’m just going to read it and see what I get out of it.

Reviewed on March 7, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’ve always loved Will but can’t say this has been a favorite for me. I do like his comedy a bit better than his tragedy or history.

    • Pam, this was the first history (although it’s also been classed a tragedy) I read but I’ve read a number of the tragedies and always enjoy them. I’ve watched the comedies live, but haven’t read them yet…

  • As I was reading Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order, Richard III was the first one where I felt like I was hearing anything from the Shakespeare I knew. Don’t necessarily expect greatness out of the parts of Henry VI. His writing sharpens considerably by the time he gets around to Richard. And I say this as a girl totally convinced the real Richard III did not really actually kill his nephews.

    • Jenny, I’ve decided to read them in chronological order from now on — so hence I’m going back to Henry VI. Thanks for the warning that they aren’t great. Someone else mentioned they were funny so got excited, but I’ll try to lower my expectations. You say Richard III is sharpened writing, oh dear, I’m really not excited any more. I just was not all that impressed. Although, of course, I still think it’s a good play…

  • Mark Van Doren’s essay was a bit less arrogant

    LOL, not too hard to be less arrogant than Harold Bloom.

    I think the other characters’ willingness/desire to believe Richard has a lot to do with the fact that 1) he is their brother/uncle/son/family member, and 2) he is a war hero. He fought bravely and effectively on the York side in the civil wars that have just ended. So it is both emotionally and politically difficult for Richards’ two brothers to believe that he’s about to turn around and double-cross them after just fighting so hard to install the family in power. It’s easy for Margaret to see him as the mangy cur he is, because she was on the other side in the civil war, and Richard killed her son and husband. Though to be fair, she also killed his brother and oversaw the death of his father, so she’s no saint herself.

    I make a habit of disagreeing with Bloom, so I’ll go ahead and admit that I’m not so sure Shakespeare’s villains got any better than Richard. Iago is certainly at least as “rigid” in his evil, with less of a motivation behind him—Richard at least had a kingdom to win, whereas Iago just wanted to pointlessly ruin the lives of two people. And Richard does seem to become overwhelmed by his own villainy as the play goes on, unlike Iago; even before the “Richard loves Richard” speech, there’s the point when he says he’s in so deep that “sin will pluck at sin” (after he orders Anne’s death). I’m intrigued by the way in which this embryonic, malformed conscience is born in him so late in the play, when it’s far too late for it to have any noticeable effect.

    • Emily, yes, I do recall you are NOT a fan of Harold Bloom. I think it takes guts to have such strong opinions…..I like reading him, even though I disagree with a lot of it. Harold Bloom, I think, worships Iago, from just the little bit I’ve read. Anyway, your insights into WHY they like Richard really is why I think knowing the context would help. I should have read Henry VI first but, well, three parts makes it very much longer. I’ll definitely revisit Richard III some day. Maybe it will make more sense after I know all the historical context.

  • What’s the need for a motive, exactly? Iago and Richard III are evil. In the case of Iago, especially, evil turns out to be quite complex in some ways, but not in its motivation. Chaos, destruction, despair.

    As if you need more to do with this Rebecca – but have you seen Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard documentary? Simply amazing, and it works on exactly some of what you discuss. Pacino, thinking about acting the part, is asking the same questions – how do I, the actor, convince you, the audience, that I am as charming or convincing as everyone thinks I am. He sees this as a great difficulty, but also a thrilling challenge.

    I’m with Bloom – or maybe not – the best part of the play, my favorite part, has nothing to do with Richard at all. It’s the underwater dream of Clarence – “That wooed the slimy bottom of the deep” and so on.

    • Amateur Reader, true, motives aren’t entirely necessary. It just bugged me that everyone seemed to accept Richard. As Emily pointed out, though, the context gave them reasons to. I just kept missing that context and being annoyed. I’m not really ready to READ more about it, but that Al Pacino documentary sounds very interesting,. I too loved the Clarence bit. I was disappointed that there was so much MORE play after him.

  • I saw Sir Ian McKellen as RIchard III in the Richard Eyre production at the National Theatre in the early ’90s and he really brought the character and the play alive for me. It was one of the finest Shakespeare productions I have ever seen. It was later made into a film, also with Sir Ian.

    • Falaise, I didn’t watch the movie of it because I saw it was an alternative setting — which just seemed weird. So many people praise his portrayal, though, so I really must give it a try.

  • I’m really interested in reading Shakespeare’s take on Henry VIII. I haven’t read any of his ‘histories’ yet. 🙂

    • Jillian » I am interested in his take on all the historic figures! Richard III was a history, but it almost seemed a tragedy. I think Shakespeare considered it a tragedy. I do need to read more!

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