Thursday, February 8, 2007

Week 02, Richard III

Notes on Richard III.

Recommended Reading: Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. New York: Norton, 1956.

I will comment scene by scene, but a few initial remarks seem appropriate. I mentioned in class that Shakespeare, as one of my old UC Irvine professors used to say, usually prefers to deal with the dynamics of royal power at some historical distance. By Shakespeare’s time, the chivalric ideals, the feudal loyalties, of older times had long since disappeared. We need only consider the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York to see the truth of that statement: mid-C15 England was marked by savage infighting and betrayal between these two great branches of the Plantagenet line descended from Edward III. The modern courts of Elizabeth I and James Stuart are not generally Shakespeare’s subject. But the present play deals with an historical subject with which many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been familiar, and he borrows his story in the main from the Tudor Chronicles that portray Richard III as a monster. If we read modern biographies of Richard, most notably the one by Paul Murray Kendall, we have access to a more objective analysis of Richard’s career. But my sense is that Shakespeare was quite capable of reading between the lines of his chroniclers, and seeing that almost everyone involved in the action was deeply imbued with divided loyalties and mixed, selfish motivations.

That quality of ambivalence surely emerges in the play we are reading, but Shakespeare’s need to generate sympathy in the audience for some of the doomed characters results, I think, in an almost schizophrenic quality at times. Some of the worst rascals in the play get genuinely moving passages—Clarence, for example, was not exactly a picture of loyalty to Edward IV, his brother, moving back and forth between Edward and Warwick with astonishing facility when those two men were engaged in their deadly feuds. Clarence would just as well have deposed Edward and taken the throne for himself if he could, but fortune did not favor him and he never had Edward’s highest regard, which seems to have gone to the younger brother Richard. (Kendall’s biography of Richard covers Clarence’s behavior in some detail.) But in the play, Clarence speaks remarkably beautiful lines on the eve of his murder, moving us to pity him. As for Queen Margaret of Anjou, when she was trying to get her husband Henry VI reinstalled on the throne, she treated England like a foreign country, allowing her armies to rape and pillage their way through conquered territories. She was no angel—Kendall describes her conduct as “savagely dynastic.” But in the play, she is a figure of at least some respect, and speaks with prophetic accuracy about the villainous end of others. What I’m suggesting is that Shakespeare freely reconfigures the historical characters with which he is dealing, making them suit the needs of a play designed, after all, first and foremost to please an audience. Thus, if anything but a black-and-white portrait of King Richard III as a villain was available to him, he chose not to make use of it. The Richard we see, with his vicious asides and grim humor, is much more exciting and suits Tudor mythology. Queen Elizabeth I, after all, was the daughter of Henry VIII, who was the heir of the Lancastrian-related Henry VII, the hero of this play who emerges as an icon of early English nationalism of the sort Queen Elizabeth I would come to depend on during her reign (1558-1603).

Act 1, Scene 1.

The thing that keeps this play from slipping into melodrama is the brilliance and exuberance of Richard’s language. I suppose Richard is one of those villains Samuel Johnson worries about—his good qualities do not keep us from condemning him, but they carry us along to a disturbing degree. Like Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Shakespeare’s Richard is always in the know, always ahead of the pack. No one likes to side with losers who are in the dark, who never have the right word for the right occasion, whom fortune seems to have abandoned. The Renaissance poets understood, as of course did the ancients from Homer onwards, that shunning the unlucky, although cruel, is often the safest course of action. Bad luck is contagious, and incompetence loves company. No wonder we often side with the villains, at least for a time: knowledge gives us a sense of power and immunity. As modern critic Stanley Fish says in discussing Paradise Lost, Christian poetry labors to “surprise” us at our own propensity towards sinfulness, at our seemingly endless capacity to get taken in by situations we should recognize as dangerous, and by the rhetoric and charming personalities of villains we know to be such.

In the first scene, Richard, still the Duke of Gloucester, makes his famous “winter of our discontent” speech. In the Ian McKellen film version, this speech is partly public rhetoric, but in the text, it is spoken as a soliloquy. Richard justifies his wicked ways by pointing to his crooked body. Like most villains, his evil is fueled by a sense of injured merit or a demand for compensation. He is part of the illustrious House of York, and his brother is no less than Edward IV, the present King of England. The real Richard of Gloucester, from what I have read, was remarkably loyal to his older brother Edward IV, but Shakespeare’s Richard, as the second part of his soliloquy makes clear, cannot truly be part of the “we” to which the first part of his speech refers. Others may enjoy the time, but his deformities and defects render that impossible for him. He was “stamped” in a certain unfortunate way, and so his course must be separate. Where others revel in strength and victory, he sees only a “weak piping time of peace” (1.1.24). He is a man “unfinished,” as he says, and just as his own physical elements seem to have been mixed up and confused from birth, his peculiar genius is to run with the tides of chaos, staying always ahead of everyone else. Richard lives in a time full of opportune chaos and confusion, and these things are his very elements, so he has no trouble working with them. That quality accounts for his ability to marshal “drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams” against his brothers Clarence and Edward IV, setting them off against each other. Another thing to notice about this soliloquy surfaces at its end—when Richard bids his thoughts to dive “down to my soul”; although Richard can do little about his ugly appearance, he is apparently a master of disguise when it comes to the various registers of language and moral sentiment. He is one of Shakespeare’s greatest “actor Kings.”

How does Richard play upon his brother Clarence? Well, his underlying assumption is that anyone close to power wants still more of it and therefore cannot be trusted. This assumption he applies to Queen Elizabeth, Edward’s wife. After all, she has two young sons by Edward who stand to inherit the throne. Historically, Elizabeth Woodville, whose first husband was Sir John Grey, seems to have been a Machiavellian upstart. She understood power and wanted to augment her family’s influence; Edward’s marriage to her, in fact, had already made her powerful enemies. Her family has been newly planted in the soil of English royalty, and its only real chance, as we can see from the vicissitudes of the great houses of York and Lancaster, is to grow quickly and strongly. That is the way Richard portrays her, for the most part. He makes witticisms at her expense, carrying forward the grudge between the Woodville faction and himself from the three parts of Henry VI. At line 94, Richard refers to what he considers the unseemly advancement of Elizabeth Woodville, and at line 93, he refers sarcastically to one of the king’s mistresses, Jane Shore.

Towards the end of the first scene, Richard tells us in good stage-villain fashion precisely what he plans to do. Clarence must be executed just before King Edward dies; with this elder brother out of the way, Richard will be free to marry Anne Neville, the daughter of the late famous kingmaker Warwick (Richard Neville) for political advancement.

Act 1, Scene 2.

In this second scene (Henry VI died, or rather was snuffed out, in 1471 after having been out of power for a decade, with one very brief restoration by Warwick), Anne protests a great deal, lamenting over Henry’s body and remembering the young Prince Edward. She makes the first of many references to Richard as poisonous and monstrous. And immediately she is confronted with the devil himself—Richard appears from nowhere to charm her. What follows is a contestation of absolutes, with the lady declaring her supreme disgust for Richard, and he playing up the absoluteness of her beauty and even claiming it spurred him on to kill the Prince and Henry VI. Anne has been dangerously left in the lurch by the death of these powerful men, so underlying the invective are the mechanics of power. Richard is offering her a place in the new order of things. He tries to make her believe in her own individual, personal charm as a moving force behind great events. Her tears, as he tells her following line 150, have moved him to weep when even the pitiful story of his father the Duke of York’s murder by Queen Margaret and her faction previously failed to do so.

Towards the end of the second act, Richard again speaks only to himself and the audience, expressing nothing short of disbelief at his success—or rather the success of his performance. (The word “shadow” bears as one of its connotations “actor.”) Does Richard believe the lady finds him “a marvelous proper man,” and that he has now become fashionable? Well, perhaps the fashionable thing is power, which, as Henry Kissinger says, is the greatest of all aphrodisiacs. I suppose the most generous way to construe Anne’s apparent fickleness is to acknowledge that she is little more than a pawn in a deadly dynastic chess game, so perhaps her sudden, incredible change of heart is Shakespeare’s way of characterizing the devastating effects of the dynastic violence that constituted the Wars of the Roses on even the deepest human feelings and loyalties. Richard seems to understand that Anne is incapable of taking action—thus, his gesture of offering her a blade with which to kill him may be less risky than it appears. Well, Richard is exuberant—and why not? He that is “not shaped for sportive tricks” and whose villainy is stamped, as he and everyone else says, into the very fabric of his body, now plays the rogue in precisely the guise he had said was forbidden to him: that of a lover. This is Richard at his best and worst: protean, ebullient, unpredictable, a rider of chaos in events and in the human heart. In the theater of power, the clever can represent themselves as they would be, and stand a good chance of carrying their “audience” with them.

Act 1, Scene 3.

In this scene, the royal family gather and bicker over old crimes and divided loyalties. Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI, puts in an appearance, serving as a horrible example of one who has held and lost great power and place. She herself is, of course, no angel, having been responsible for the death of Richard of Gloucester’s father the Duke of York when he tried to get himself crowned king. What we have at present is not so much a solution to the power struggle between the great houses of York and Lancaster as an uneasy truce. In any event, Queen Margaret’s prophecy regarding Elizabeth Woodville comes true later on. What do these people really want? we might ask, since it’s obvious that power does not bring security in its train. Their pursuit of ultimate power sometimes resembles the quest for sexual experience as described in Shakespeare’s famous sonnet: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.” At the end of the scene, around line 324, Richard yet again steps in with a soliloquy explaining how he is behind the vicious maneuvering he ascribes to others.

Act 1, Scene 4.

This scene contains the famous dream vision of Clarence, and it illustrates well the multiple purposes a passage of this sort can serve in Shakespeare. One purpose is clearly to generate some sympathy for Clarence, who in historical terms doesn’t seem to have been a particularly warm and fuzzy character. In this speech, he is given sublimely beautiful poetry beginning around line 20. Such passages are so fine that they seem almost detachable from the plot. We may remember Shakespeare’s song in The Tempest, “Full fathom five thy father lies: / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange. / Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.”

Clarence dreams of “a sea-change into something rich and strange,” but here there is a more dreadful aspect to the vision. The Keeper may be injecting a little humor when he asks Clarence how he had time to notice so much detail while drowning in his vision. Well, the rest of the speech shows that Clarence is riddled with guilt over his betrayal of brother Edward IV in favor of Warwick , at least for a time. And we may see another meaning of that word “shadow” in this scene—the term invokes the ghosts still wandering about since the beginning of the bad blood between York and Lancaster with the 1399 deposition of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke (a Lancastrian with no great claim to the crown when closer descendents of Edward III were available; see Wikipedias’s Wars of the Roses entry. But Clarence never really sees to the bottom of his brother’s deceitful behavior—this is shielded from him even in his dream.

At line 84, two unnamed murderers enter to make away with Richard’s brother Clarence. They may remind us of characters from a medieval morality play in their anxious banter regarding a half-personified Conscience which, as Hamlet will later say, “does make cowards of us all.” These two men are operating at a much lower level than is Richard or the other noble characters in the play, and the inferior quality of their station renders them profoundly insecure. They show a spot of genuine moral conscience—something Richard of Gloucester seems to lack altogether, judging from his soliloquies so far.

Also on display in this part of the scene is Shakespeare’s typically macabre sense of humor; Clarence, about to be drowned in a cask of wine, says, “Give me a cup of wine” (164). Playing the penitent, Clarence tries to sweet-talk the two killers out of their plan, but as they point out, a man who has done such things as he has done has no business employing such religious rhetoric. I find it interesting how Shakespeare may be playing with our sympathies and his handling of Clarence—doubtless the beautiful poetry this character is given generates some sympathy for him, but Shakespeare at least partly undermines that sympathy with several mentions of the role that the historical Clarence played in the Wars of the Roses. That a man’s penitence is partly situational does not necessarily render it thoroughly false—perhaps penitence is almost always partly situational. But it certainly complicates matters, a thought we may carry forward when, at the beginning of Act 2, King Edward IV takes on the role of reconciler. It is difficult to put much stock in Edward’s pious declaration that he is, to borrow a phrase, “a uniter, not a divider.” The Wars of the Roses were all about insidious divisions between closely interrelated feudal houses.

Act 2, Scene 1.

This scene plays with some irony. Here we have Edward IV trying desperately, in the most unpromising of circumstances, to practice the art of dying well, and it comes off badly. He wants his factious relatives to embrace and to exchange loving words; he apparently even wants them actually to mean those words and gestures. Once again, Richard masterfully sows the seeds of chaos and discord, injecting at just the right point to deflate Edward’s piety the fact that Clarence is dead, supposedly by order of the King himself. Richard even insists that the pale visages of everyone around should be interpreted as an emblem of their guilt. The King’s penitence may be genuine, but it cannot prevent the consequences of past violence. It is a commonplace in Shakespeare that “blood draws on blood,” that violence and sin generate spirals of still more violence and sin. That is probably a lesson he learned from the Bible and from St. Augustine. We will come upon it often in his tragedies.

Act 2, Scenes 2-3.

Again, what seems to be genuine grief is undercut by a long history of unkindness and injustice. Richard’s mother, the old Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and the children of murdered Clarence engage in a lamentation-fest. Exchanges of the sort we find around line 72 through line 78 are often said to be typical of early Shakespeare. That is surely true, and it seems that the form of the dialogue works very well in this case since the point seems to be to draw out the shallowness or inadequacy of the characters’ grief, the essentially self-centered and factional nature of it. The children will not weep for Elizabeth because she did not weep for the death of Clarence, while the Duchess insists that her grief is alone general while everyone else’s is merely particular. But I would not discount the genuine pathos of the scene—it probably functions at two heterodox levels.

It’s good to keep our eye on the fact that Shakespeare’s first goal must have been to please an audience; therefore, it is unlikely that he would completely undercut a good tearjerker scene like the present one. His audience were not historians, after all, though it would be an overstatement to claim they were unsophisticated peons. Many people in attendance were probably quite capable of catching the subtleties in Shakespeare’s handling of historical and emotional registers. And there’s always Richard, of course, with those mean-spirited asides of his, making it plain just how insincere he is when he trots out the moralistic rhetoric and protestations of good will. Shakespeare will often counterpoint statecraft, violence, and villainy on a grand scale with small-scale, intimate domestic scenes showing the consequences for the powerless—but we will have to wait for the fourth scene to witness anything of that sort. In the third scene, three citizens air their thoughts and anxieties about Edward’s death and what is to come. In this, they function like a chorus, and they sense that the great will not be able to restrain themselves from seeking still greater power. Dynastic and inter-dynastic change will come, but it is something to be feared.

Act 2, Scene 4. This scene rehearses the old Tudor propaganda about Richard’s monstrosity and hideous evil, the better to underscore the genuine pathos of Queen Elizabeth’s situation—if even a tough cookie like Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s widow) has been sidelined by the loss of her men, what will happen to Elizabeth and her children by Edward? She senses with dread that she and hers are caught up in the “bottled spider’s” web of intrigue and blood, and there’s no way out.

Act 3, Scene 1.

The third act as a whole hinges upon the sense of pageantry shown by Richard and Buckingham; they advance Richard’s cause by means of sophistical arguments and shows of religious piety. Here in the first scene, Buckingham makes easy work of the Cardinal’s scruples about snatching the young Prince Edward out of sanctuary with his mother. The effect here is comic since it shows how simple a thing it is to take advantage of those who actually take the rules seriously. But of course Cardinals were by no means non-political figures, so another way to interpret the Cardinal’s complacence is that he knows which way the wind blows. Obviously, what everyone wants is the settled appearance of legitimacy, and they are likely to go along with the plans of whoever seems most likely to deliver it. Prince Edward particularly rankles Richard at this point because the child has the temerity to insist that the deep truth should live on from age to age, and that historical truth is not simply a matter of what has written down for posterity. Richard is, of course, right in the middle of staging his own inevitable accession to power in front of everyone who matters, certainly believing that so long as he can arrange the visual feast to everyone’s liking, the near-term historical record will break his way. By implication, perhaps, we are to understand that those who look on while Richard schemes his way to the kingship know what is really going on, and will one day find the courage to say so. Prince Edward also sets himself up as the future king who will wash away England’s humiliation over the loss of French territory originally procured by Edward III and Henry V. Towards the end of the first scene, Richard and Buckingham engage in an almost obscene exchange whereby Buckingham accedes to the murder of William Lord Hastings and may claim when Richard is King the Earldom of Hereford.

Act 3, Scene 2.

Lord Stanley has a fearful dream about Richard the boar and fears the separate councils by which decisions are being taken, but Hastings will have none of it. Perhaps more so than anyone else in the play, he seems incapable of discerning Richard’s true character. This is not to say that Hastings is an admirable or innocent man—any such notions are quickly rendered impossible by the way he takes the condemnation of his enemies in this scene. Hastings considers himself secure in Richard’s good graces; he supposes there is a place for him in the new order heralded by Richard. The way Shakespeare handles Hastings resembles something straight from The Mirror for Magistrates, or from an old morality play—prideful and triumphant one moment, humiliated and cut down the next. We notice that as so often, Shakespeare gives both sides of the argument regarding the validity of prophecy—on the whole, his plays give the nod to popular superstition, don’t they? It is mainly thorough villains like Edmund in King Lear who scorn such powers of prophecy, witchcraft, and the like. Throughout much of his career, Shakespeare wrote during the reign of James I, who was a great believer in witchcraft and even wrote a learned treatise on the subject.

Act 3, Scenes 3-4.

In these two scenes, Richard’s enemies meet their end. Informed that William Lord Hastings will not assent to shoving aside the young Prince in favor of his so-called Protector, Richard devises a delightfully ridiculous little piece of theater, which ends with the present death of Hastings. Anyone who doubts Richard’s claims about the malignant conspiracy of the Queen’s party against him is neatly aligned with them. The real purpose of this mini-drama is, as we can see, to force others in the room into a show of support. This is no time for bet-hedging, and even Lord Stanley must follow along in Richard’s train of sycophants.

Act 3, Scene 5.

Yet another delicious piece of theater is here—Buckingham and Richard nicely allay suspicion, taking in the Lord Mayor with their feigned alarm and specious claim that Hastings’s execution was untimely. The scene reminds me a little bit of the one in Macbeth where Macbeth has just killed the two servants who will falsely be blamed for Duncan’s murder. He claims to repent what he has done rashly. Many of Richard’s accusations seem to revolve around sexual innuendo, and we may suppose this topic is especially satisfying to him, if we recall his opening soliloquy. His character assassination of Edward IV is particularly vicious.

Act 3, Scene 6.

The Scrivener makes a point I mentioned earlier. He cannot believe that anyone else could possibly believe Richard’s transparent absurdities in justification of his conduct. But as he suggests, the problem is not that nobody perceives the truth; it is that no one dares to acknowledge it openly. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Harington puts the matter succinctly: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” Had Richard succeeded as King, what record of him would have come down to Shakespeare’s time? Certainly not the one Shakespeare offers us here since, after all, he writes in defense of Elizabeth’s Tudor line, founded by the illustrious Lancastrian Henry VII.

Act 3, Scene 7.

Here Shakespeare has outdone himself in the representation of outrageous villainy: Buckingham’s quip about Richard’s role being that of a maid who must “still answer nay and take it” is followed by a little stagecraft in which he minces around with his bible, flanked by priests. By reverse logic, that taking of power is once again compared to an aggressive sexual act—the very thing Richard sounded so resentful about in his opening soliloquy. While Buckingham and Richard’s exchanges are often short to the point of stichomythia (one-line exchanges), the dialogue becomes fittingly prolix as the two rogues finish off the whole pageant in front of the Lord Mayor and some leading citizens. As so often, Shakespeare’s supposed prolixity turns out to be situational; it’s needed here because the characters must not say too frankly what they really mean, aside from blunt assertions about the Princes’ illegitimacy and Edward IV’s depraved dalliances.

Dynastic rivalry can be a nasty, root-and-branch extirpatory affair just as much as it can be a matter of delicate intermarriages and intricate understandings between rival houses. Here, it isn’t enough that Richard should succeed; he must appear holy while others are slimed beyond recognition and utterly destroyed. It isn’t only the living bodies of his rivals that he must deal with; their posthumous image and report must be altered for his benefit. How powerful an anxiety this business of popular image and report was for Richard is highlighted by ordinary people’s failure to respond to the lies fed them by Buckingham regarding Edward IV and the Princes. Story and spectacle are enormously significant accompaniments to the getting and maintaining of power, and Shakespeare, a great reader of Holinshed especially but also of some other chronicles of English royal history, must have understood how important a force popular images and “oral history” were as a potential threat to the official stories set forth by the monarchs and their supporters. They could result in direct rebellion on the part of the people themselves, or they could serve the interests of rival factions. Richard, a Machiavel before Machiavelli, is striving mightily to avoid becoming not simply feared rather than loved, but outright hated. Machiavelli, incidentally, is one of Shakespeare’s sources for analyzing the workings of political power, just as Montaigne’s philosophical skepticism seems to have struck a cord with him.

Act 4, Scene 1.

This act begins with a concentration on the misfortunes of the women in the play. (Richard married Anne Neville in 1472.) She declares that Richard’s “honey words” won her over on the spot, improbable as that may seem. See my comments on Act 1, scene 2. Elizabeth Woodville ends the scene with remarkably lyrical lines about the “tender babes” in the Tower of London—it was common speculation, of course, that Richard of Gloucester had them murdered when he became king, but there is no solid evidence to prove that he did. Certainly, he stood to benefit from the deed, but as Kendall points out in his biography of Richard (see Appendix 1), so did Henry Tudor, whose claim to the throne wasn’t rock-solid and who didn’t even advance the argument that Edward’s son was illegitimate. Or it might have been Buckingham presenting Richard with a fait accompli. The bodies were never discovered (at least not with any certainty—some remains were discovered in 1674), so the whole thing must remain a mystery.

Act 4, Scenes 2-3.

Richard compounds his wickedness as the pace of events picks up, broaching the need with Buckingham of doing away with the young Edward V, and fuming when Buckingham hesitates, no doubt to consider his own selfish interests. Then we are told that a certain James Tyrrel has contracted with his subordinates to effect the murders—this is “information” straight out of Thomas More’s study of Richard—and are treated to another of the play’s more lyrical passages about the piteous nature of the princes’ death. Richard also makes away with Anne his queen—again there’s no evidence in the historical record aside from popular suspicion and Tudor propaganda. But Shakespeare’s villain glosses his actions revealingly: always a major concern with Shakespeare is that those who fail to act instead of just talking and planning quickly end up on the sidelines, or worse. (Consider the fate of that most poetical ruler, Richard II.) It was a Renaissance commonplace that a well-born person’s formation should be oriented towards action. Richard III is a master of words and deeds; he isn’t one to be caught sitting on his hands when something needs doing. But Richard’s mastery is short-lived, and his own words suggest the reason Shakespeare proffers for his failure as a king of only a few years’ reign: “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (4.2.63-5). However courageous and crafty Richard may be, he has become the creature of his own evil deeds, doomed to repeat them with less and less control over the outcome, until disaster can no longer be kept at bay. Only his death at the hands of Henry Tudor, and Henry’s marriage as Henry VII to the Yorkist King Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth, will put an end to the bloody chaos of The Wars of the Roses. This lesson seems to me starkly Augustinian: sin begets sin, and free will negates itself thereby, so that all of Richard’s cunning schemes and furious action come to naught. Shakespeare’s “speaking picture” (Sidney’s phrase) of incarnate evil, like all evil, ultimately has no substance, no staying power.

Act 4, Scenes 4-5.

The play’s women again congregate, this time with bitter effect: Queen Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s widow, is right there beside Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV, to sharpen the pangs of her grief over the death of her husband and the disappearance of her two sons by the king. Margaret feels Elizabeth’s pain, and feeds upon it: as she says, it will make her smile in France (erstwhile center of her hopes for power in England). The real Margaret died in August, 1482 in France, so she didn’t actually live to see Richard III’s demise, but Shakespeare situates her so as to sharpen our sense of the cruelty of the times, with their fierce dynastic rivalries and constant betrayals: the old feudal, chivalric order had long since begun the process of ripping itself apart, with the nobility casting aside all responsibility to their subjects and ravaging the land in a quest for individual and familial gain. It seems nobody in the disintegrating order Shakespeare describes here is willing to serve for the correct reasons; nobody’s place is acknowledged by anyone else as rightful and permanent—all is scheming and self-interest. Shakespeare is perfectly capable of idealizing the old order—consider his favorable treatment of Henry V, victor of Agincourt in 1412. But whatever the historical inaccuracies of the play and leaving aside its Tudor bias, the overall picture it presents of this final episode of The Wars of the Roses seems just.

Another thing to notice in this scene is the curious dilation of Richard’s rhetoric even as its effectiveness diminishes to nothing: after hearing his mother the Duchess of York’s terrible curse in a relatively short space (we notice that Elizabeth had sought to know more of this art of cursing from her nemesis Margaret) it takes him a good long time to convince Elizabeth of absolutely nothing. Their at times stichomythic, at times long-winded exchange amounts to wrangling over Richard’s desire to marry the widowed queen’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, lest the girl’s hand be given to Richmond, i.e. Henry Tudor. Richard ends up rather pathetically swearing by the future, when, of course, he will become as mild as mother’s milk. The almost tedious repetition of the words “myself” and “yourself” in this exchange play up, respectively, Elizabeth’s distrust of dynastic bloodline as a measure of safety (they portend peril as much or more than safety, in her experience; the language of fealty, honor, and birth has become a mere cipher), and Richard’s need for others to regard not his personal misconduct but the majesty of the king’s “other body,” the one that symbolizes or incarnates the whole people. Richard’s cynical way of expressing this doctrine of “the king’s two bodies” is to say, “be not peevish-fond in great designs” (4.4.417). He wants Elizabeth to act with regard for the imperatives of statecraft and policy—namely, his own safety as a dynast.

In the fifth scene that concludes Act 4, Richard receives mixed news on the impending battle, and pins down Lord Stanley, or so he thinks, by holding his young son hostage. (The real Stanley, by the way, seems to have been quite a slippery character, as evidenced by his dubious loyalties to both Edward IV and Warwick when those two feuded.)

Act 5, Scene 1.

Buckingham (Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham) goes to the block at last, with a morality-play-style flourish, Queen Margaret’s curses on his lips.

Act 5, Scenes 2-5.

The final act is an exercise in counterpoint—Richard’s tortured conscience rears, forcing him to confront the ghosts of all his victims in a nightmare and at least momentarily shaking his confidence, while Richmond’s apparently spotless mind is directed towards the battle at hand. Both men harangue their troops in set-piece style: Richmond’s is the language of moral right, spoken by a man who’s certain that Providence is on his side; Richard’s is that of insouciance, spoken by a desperate rogue—protect what’s yours, he tells his men, and “Let us to it pell-mell; / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell” (5.3.312-13). One thing we can’t say of Richard is that he is a coward—Shakespeare grants him a king’s death, betrayed by many but hacking his way valiantly through a host of false Richmonds, until at last the real Henry Tudor cuts this last of the Plantagenet kings down, and proclaims the time of troubles at an end: he will marry princess Elizabeth, the deceased Yorkist King Edward IV’s daughter, and thereby unite the houses of Lancaster and York.


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