Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Act 3, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

On the walls of the Tower, Richard and Buckingham are preparing for the arrival of the mayor of London. The two wear old armor to suggest they are on guard against a sudden assault; Richard instructs Buckingham to appear "distraught and mad with terror" after his encounter with Hastings. The mayor arrives at the gates, accompanied by Catesby, and is ushered in. As Buckingham greets the mayor, Richard pretends to be frightened by the approach of Lovell and Ratcliffe, who enter bearing Hastings's head. He then pretends to realize they are friends and weeps over the death of Hastings, saying he is shocked by Hastings's treason. Buckingham agrees.

The mayor, taken in by this show, asks whether Hastings really plotted to murder Richard and Buckingham. They answer yes, and Richard voices regret he was unable to leave Hastings alive until the mayor arrived to hear his confession. Satisfied that Richard and Buckingham have acted lawfully, the mayor agrees to convey their version of events to the London citizenry.

Having now tricked the mayor into advancing his cause, Richard gives Buckingham instructions for addressing the rest of London's civic leaders at Guildhall. He tells Buckingham to sow uncertainty about the parentage of both Prince Edward and that of his father, the late King Edward IV, making them appear illegitimate. In his speech, Buckingham, he says, should also harp on Edward's lustfulness and his cruel actions as king. Buckingham readily agrees to "play the orator" on Richard's behalf.

Analysis

In the first half of this scene, Richard takes Buckingham to "villain school"; the day's lesson is "How to Look Like a Victim When You're Really the Aggressor." This is a strategy with which Richard is intimately familiar: in Act 1, Scene 2 he swears his love for Anne drove him to murder, then ups the ante by giving her a sword and offering to die at her hands. Less histrionic but no less deceitful is Act 1, Scene 3 in which Richard has the gall to complain Queen Elizabeth's family is harassing him, rather than the other way around. Even the scene immediately preceding this one (Act 3, Scene 4) is an exercise in playing the victim: Richard's arm, one might safely assume, has been "withered" since birth—in fact, he complains about it in Henry VI, Part 3—but he manages to reframe his disability as the result of witchcraft. (To be fair, Richard has been dealt a rough hand in the physique department, but witches had nothing to do with it.)

The current scene is yet another variation on the victim theme, albeit with a few additional props and extras. The stage directions call specifically for "rotten armor," meaning disused, rusted-out stuff which nobody would wear unless they were in real distress. By itself, this costume goes a long way toward creating the impression Richard and Buckingham armed themselves in haste, to fend off a surprise attack from Hastings. Richard, however, does not stop there: he instructs Buckingham in every aspect of the performance, right down to details of speech, breathing, and facial expression. Richard understands people are often impressionable—they are likely to believe what they hear, especially if it is presented convincingly. With this in mind, he handles his schemes as if he is putting on a play: Richard is playwright, actor, director, and producer all at once. In this way, Richard III provocatively equates the acquisition of power with the act of putting on a play, inviting its audience to look behind the curtain to see just how artificial and, by extension, manipulative, politics really is.

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