Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

On a street in London, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, addresses the audience. He announces the Yorkists have won the Wars of the Roses, making his brother Edward ("this son of York") the new king of England. Now that the war is over, Richard notes with cynical amusement, Edward is free to enjoy his preferred pastime of "caper[ing] nimbly in a lady's chamber." Deformed and ill-favored as he is, Richard has little hope of charming any of the ladies at court; consequently, he finds peacetime thoroughly tedious. To relieve the boredom, he jokes, he will have to find a new hobby—for example, overthrowing the kingdom and seizing the crown:

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.

The first step in Richard's evil scheme is to convince King Edward that their brother, the Duke of Clarence (first name: George), is plotting to murder the heirs to the throne. To accomplish this, Richard has secretly arranged for a fortune-teller to predict that "'G' / Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be." Will the trick work? It depends, Richard says, on how gullible Edward is.

The answer does not take long. As Richard is wrapping up his soliloquy, Clarence comes onstage, escorted by Brackenbury, the lieutenant of the Tower of London. Asked why he is under guard, Clarence replies Edward has ordered him to the Tower in response to a prophecy concerning the letter "G." Richard scoffs at the king's superstition and suggests Edward has been egged on by his wife, Queen Elizabeth (formerly Lady Grey). Richard promises to do all he can to set his brother free, but once Brackenbury and Clarence are gone, he has a cynical laugh about Clarence's imminent death. Perhaps "gullible" is what the "g" stood for. It could also stand for "Gloucester."

Lord Hastings, an influential courtier who has just been released from jail himself, arrives a moment later. He brings grave news: King Edward is ill and bedridden, and his doctors "fear ... mightily" that he will die soon. Richard says he will go and see the king shortly, but he urges Hastings to go on ahead. Then, in a closing speech, Richard reveals his plan to wed Lady Anne, the daughter of the late Earl of Warwick and widow to the previous crown prince. To keep the audience from getting the wrong idea, he announces he will marry her not for love, but for a "secret close intent" which he declines to explain.

Analysis

Richard's opening soliloquy is one of Shakespeare's more famous speeches, and for good reason: it accomplishes the twin tasks of exposition—or conveying information—and character development without sounding inelegant or contrived. In terms of plot, the speech gives audiences a richly figurative recap of events from the previous play, echoing back to the "discontent" felt by the Yorkists and casting Edward's eventual triumph as a "glorious summer" that will thaw out the realm. In terms of character, the speech presents Richard as a malevolent schemer who is not only willing to pit brother against brother, but seems to enjoy doing so.

In several adaptations of the play, including the two major film versions (1955, 1995), this soliloquy is combined with material from the "chameleon speech" in Henry VI, Part 3—the tetralogy's first sustained glimpse of Richard's villainous nature. In the earlier soliloquy, Richard likens himself to a shape-shifter in his ability to

smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry "Content" to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.

Richard III revisits these themes of disguise and deception, showing the title character's ability to move between publicly acceptable sentiments (e.g., "hooray for Edward") and private wishes (e.g., "let's kill Clarence"). Richard is a master of using his facial expressions and his considerable verbal skills to mask his true motives and manipulate reality. In the 1995 film, this is deftly dramatized by having Richard utter the opening lines as part of a celebratory speech in Edward's honor; when the criticism of Edward begins, the camera cuts to a bathroom, and Richard delivers the remaining lines in front of a mirror. Not even the audience is exempt from Richard's fondness for keeping secrets: his "secret close intent" in marrying Anne, for example, is never fully explained within the play.

Richard blames his visible physical deformity, foisted upon him by "dissembling nature," for turning him into a dissembler himself, someone who conceals his true intentions behind a mask of pretense. He describes how his disability, which has rendered him unattractive, has deprived him of a love life, made him a social outcast, and turned him to the dark side: "Since I cannot prove a lover ... / I am determinèd to prove a villain." He claims he gets no peace because he can't hide his disability. His body is a constant spectacle: even dogs bark at Richard as he limps by. On the one hand, Shakespeare relies upon an established stereotype about disability in western literature to portray the play's protagonist: a deformed body is proof of a deformed mind. On the other hand, whether this is truly what causes Richard's lust for power and deceptive manipulations is open to question as the play continues.

Richard's main goal at this point is the overthrow of his brothers, both of whom have serious weaknesses he will proceed to exploit. Edward, the oldest, is paranoid, superstitious, and something of a womanizer. The former two traits set him up to believe the sham prophecy about Clarence—essentially trusting a Ouija board over the word of his own brother. His reputation as a ladies' man is another holdover from Henry VI, Part 3, where the newly crowned King Edward propositions—and then immediately agrees to marry—the widow of a knight. It is no surprise (not to Richard, anyway) Edward is now given over to "caper[ing] nimbly" with various lady friends, including Mistress Shore. This fact will become useful in Richard's eventual rise to power.

Clarence's faults, meanwhile, are less conspicuous than Edward's; his main problem is he is simply too trusting. This makes him easy prey for Richard, who mocks Clarence's naïveté behind his back:

Simple, plain Clarence, I do love thee so
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,
If heaven will take the present at our hands.

This morbid show of brotherly "love" is confirmed in Act 1, Scene 3 when Richard meets with a couple of hired killers to finalize the plans for Clarence's assassination. The crime itself will take place in Act 1, Scene 4 with Clarence insisting right up to the end Richard is too "kind" to betray his own brother. In the end the murderers show more pity for Clarence than Richard does.

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