Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Act 3, Scene 7 | Summary

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Summary

Buckingham has returned from his visit to Guildhall, where he attempted to convince the London citizenry to accept Richard as king. His speech, as he now reports to Richard, hit all of the important points: the illegitimacy of King Edward's children, the moral laxness of Edward himself, and Richard's suitability as a leader. He confesses the oration was poorly received: a few listeners voiced their support for Richard, but most just sat and stared "like dumb statues or breathing stones."

All, however, is not lost: the Lord Mayor is on his way to see Richard, accompanied by a delegation of city aldermen. In preparation for the visit, Buckingham urges Richard to go to his prayers with a pair of bishops at his side, so when he first appears before the mayor, he will seem to be a pious, unworldly man, reluctant to take on the mantle of kingship. Richard agrees to this scheme and leaves the stage just as the mayor's party knocks on the door.

An elaborate show ensues. Buckingham greets the mayor and complains he has been unable to gain an audience with Richard. Catesby, Richard's flunky, plays along, announcing Richard is busy praying and has no time for social calls. Buckingham, however, insists the mayor's business is urgent and implores Catesby to fetch his master. He then remarks on Richard's piety, contrasting him with the "lewd" and lazy King Edward IV.

Eventually Catesby succeeds in summoning Richard, accompanied by the two bishops. After an exchange of pleasantries, Buckingham asks Richard whether he would be willing to assume the crown. Richard refuses multiple times, with Buckingham's entreaties growing more passionate at each step. Finally, Richard (with carefully feigned reluctance) agrees to be king. To complete the illusion, he dismisses Buckingham and the mayor's delegation as soon as possible, ostensibly so he can return to his prayers.

Analysis

The political influence of Machiavelli on Shakespeare offers an additional lens through which to view Richard's political ambitions. Since the mid-16th century, Niccolò Machiavelli's statecraft manual The Prince (1532) had been translated and disseminated throughout Europe in a variety of languages, sparking fierce debate about the qualities that make an effective ruler. Although the word Machiavel is not actually used in Richard III, the concept was familiar enough to educated English playgoers of Shakespeare's time. In England as elsewhere, many took issue with Machiavelli's emphasis on political efficacy at any cost. In popular culture, followers of Machiavelli's precepts were dubbed "Machiavels" and stereotyped as amoral, self-serving schemers. Richard himself is the Machiavel par excellence of the first tetralogy and arguably of the Shakespearean canon as a whole; in Henry VI, Part 3 he brags about his ability to "smile, and murder whiles I smile." In this play he matches those words with deeds to attain supreme political power.

Over the past few scenes, the Duke of Buckingham has shown himself a more and more capable student of this school of thought. Convincing the cardinal to assent to York's abduction from the sanctuary (Act 3, Scene 1) was a promising start, but Buckingham still had much to learn at that point: in Act 3, Scene 5 Richard had to give him step-by-step lessons on how to trick the Lord Mayor. Now, Buckingham is taking initiative and coming up with his own wily schemes, staging the theatrical scene that will deceive others into believing Richard is a humble, pious soul without a lick of ambition. He even offers Richard some pointers on accepting the crown without seeming overeager.

The audience may well be wondering what will become of such a character: Will Buckingham prove to be just as incorrigibly wicked as Richard? Will he somehow manage to seize power for himself, either as king in his own right (a long shot, to be sure) or as a "power behind the throne"? As it happens, Buckingham will defect from Richard's cause just a few scenes later, motivated by a mixture of selfishness and moral queasiness. At this point, however, Buckingham is in a state that might be described as volatile: no longer a loyalist, not yet a rebel.

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