Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Elsewhere in London, a funeral procession takes place for King Henry VI, murdered by Richard in the previous play. Among the mourners is Lady Anne, his daughter-in-law, who urges the pallbearers to set down the coffin so she can lament the king's death and call down curses on his killer. Just as the funeral march is resuming, Richard enters and orders the bearers to set down the corpse once more. Anne calls him a "fiend" and a "devil" and urges the others to ignore him.

At this point, things get weird: Richard, who has killed not only her father-in-law, but her husband, Prince Edward, begins flirting with Anne, rebuffing each curse with a compliment. Calling her an "angel" of surpassing beauty, he swears he killed Prince Edward out of jealousy ("Your beauty was the cause of that effect"). Anne rejects his advances and even spits on Richard, but he doubles down by offering her a sword: if she cannot forgive him, he says, she should stab him through the heart to put him out of his misery. Anne, however, cannot bring herself to kill him.

Slowly (and despite the audience's barely restrained cries of "Don't do it!") Anne seems to warm up to Richard: she even allows him to place a ring on her hand as a pledge of peace. He then offers to escort the funeral procession as a sign of his repentance; Anne accepts this favor, too. Once she has left, however, Richard orders the pallbearers to take the king's body to Whitefriars instead of Chertsey. He then lets loose with a self-congratulatory speech about his upcoming marriage to Anne. Giddy with triumph, he jokes he must be handsomer than he thinks, or she would never have wasted her time on him. He decides to buy a mirror and get some new clothes.

Analysis

The exchange between Richard and Lady Anne is as tense as one might expect: he has killed both her husband and her father-in-law, so it's beyond bizarre he would now attempt to woo her. Their verbal sparring takes the form of stichomythia, a rhetorical device in which speakers alternate lines, each repeating and distorting what the other has said, often using oppositions or reversals. When Richard calls Anne a "sweet saint," she calls him a "foul devil"; when he calls her "fairer than tongue can name," she retorts he is "fouler than heart can think." Stichomythia was widely employed in classical Greek drama; Shakespeare uses it in several of his best-known works, including Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Richard, as Anne repeatedly points out, is not an attractive man. In addition to devil and beast imagery, she throws a few specifically hunchback-themed insults his way, calling him a "toad" and a "lump of foul deformity." As if to compensate for his physical disability, however, Richard has been gifted with extraordinary powers of persuasion, which he proceeds to use for his own aggrandizement. Anne is not the first to fall for his flattering speeches. Clarence, in Act 1, Scene 1 left the stage firmly convinced Richard would help him, when in fact Richard plans to have him murdered at the earliest opportunity. As the play unfolds, Richard's uncanny eloquence will be a key asset, allowing him to outmaneuver his enemies and smooth over objections to his plans.

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