“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York”

Richard III

Act One

By Dennis Abrams


Major Characters:

Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III)

Richard’s brothers:  King Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence

Duchess of York, their mother

Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV’s wife, later widow

Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, Queen Elizabeth’s brother

The two young princes:  Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York, sons of King Edward and Queen Elizabeth

Marquis of Dorset and Lord Gray, Queen Elizabeth’s sons by a previous marriage

Lady Anne (later Anne, Duchess of Gloucester), widow of Henry VI’s son, Edward

Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow

William, Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain

Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby, Hasting’s friend

Henry, Earl of Richmond (later King Henry VII)

Richmond’s followers:  Earl of Oxford, Sir James Blunt, Sir Walter Herbert

Richard of Gloucester’s followers:  Duke of Buckingham, Duke of Norfolk, Sir Richard Ratcliffe, Sir William Catesby, Sir James Tyrrel

Cardinal Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop of York

Lord Mayor of London

Sir Robert Brackenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower

Ghosts of King Henry VI, Prince Edward, Clarence, Lady Anne, Buckingham and Hastings


Date:  Presumably written after 1 Henry VI was finished, Richard III is likely to have been completed around 1592-93, perhaps for the newly formed Lord Pembroke’s Men.

Sources:  As with the previous Henry VI plays, two Tudor historical accounts – Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and Halle’s Union (1548) – provide the basic subject matter and man of its colorful details.  Both sources report

Texts:  Notoriously complicated.  There’s a quarto edition (Q!, 1597) that was reprinted seven times, but many believe it’s actually a later version of the play than the 1623 Folio one – possibly revised for touring.


Act One:  (Action continued from Henry VI Part III)

Edward Plantagenet is now King, but his brother Richard is already busy plotting against him.  Having turned Edward against his brother Clarence, Richard now audaciously proceeds to woo Lady Anne, widow of the Lancastrian Prince Edward – despite having had a hand in her husband’s murder, he somehow manages to seduce her over the coffin of her father-in-law, King Henry VI.  With the King now ill, Queen Elizabeth fears that Richard will seize the throne if he dies.  Richard and Elizabeth are arguing when Queen Margaret makes a dramatic entrance, denouncing her Plantagenet usurpers.  In the Tower, Clarence’s nightmares turn to reality when two murders in Richard’s pay appear.


So much to talk about.  It should be clear I think, just from reading Act One, that Richard is Shakespeare’s first great villain.  He’s also Shakespeare’s lengthiest early role onstage for fifteen of the play’s twenty-five scenes, Richard speaks more lines (1,145 in F) than any other character in a single Elizabethan play (Barabas in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta has 1,138) except Hamlet – a third of the play’s lines are his.  And because of this, and Richard’s extremely theatrical villainy, the role has long been a gift for actors – all of the greats have played him, and each has made the irresistibly evil king their own.  To many, it’s his breathtaking theatricality, his audacious enjoyment of his own plotting, that makes him what he is – the smiling murderer, the seductive humpback, the man who engages the audience outside the action yet nevertheless seems to control it until the play’s final moments.

Yet, in some ways, Richard is a stock villain, a sort of fusion between the medieval “Vice” character and the Elizabethan “Machiavel” of Marlowe and others, yet he is an extraordinarily convincing one – so much so that Shakespeare’s Richard has obliterated the real King Richard from the historical record.  Stepping out from the carnage and devastation of the Henry VI plays and the wreckage of the Wars of the Roses, Shakespeare seems to make of Richard the embodiment of a new and even more brutal age of politics, one in which the laws of society (even God) seem to have no relevance.  And even though we as readers (or as an audience) are well aware that Richard’s brutal and violent reign will come to an end – that “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third,” as the play was first printed, will culminate in England’s deliverance – it somehow proves more difficult to lay Richard’s ghost to rest, as the play’s fascinating performance history testifies, than the Tudor chroniclers could have ever suspected.


From Bloom:

“Still not emancipated from Marlowe’s influence, Shakespeare nevertheless achieved a permanent success in Richard III, an immense improvement over the Henry VI ranting contests.  This melodrama retains astonishing vitality, though it is far more uneven than its reputation suggests.  Richard is his play, no other role matters much, as Ralph Richardson seemed to learn in Laurence Olivier’s effective film of Richard III, where Richardson did what he could with Buckingham, not a rewarding part.  Clarence has some limited interest, but this drama centers more fully upon its hero-villain than anything by Shakespeare composed up to 1591, unless the first Hamlet (MY NOTE:  More about this when get to Hamlet) indeed existed by then.  Marlowe seems to be taking back his own from the Henry VI plays in his Edward II, and it is very difficult to decide whether Richard III parodies Marlowe or Edward II counter-parodies Shakespeare’s play.

We do not know, but it is a safe surmise that the two rival dramatists consciously exchanged influences and suggestions.  Tradition has left us no anecdotes concerning any encounters between Marlowe and Shakespeare, but they must have met frequently, sharing the leadership of the London stage until Marlowe’s murder by the government in early 1593.  Marlowe personally may have frightened Shakespeare rather in the way that Richard III shocks audiences.  Shakespeare was anything but personally violent, while Marlowe was a veteran street fighter, a counterintelligence agent, and generally bad news, in ways that can remind us of Villon and Rimbaud, neither of them pillars of society.  I tend to interpret Shakespeare’s Richard III as another parody of Barabas, Jew of Malta, like Aaron the Moor, and so as another step toward the brilliant portrait of the then long-dead Marlowe as Edmund in King Lear.  Marlowe personally may have been fiercely parodistic, if we can believe the testimony extracted from Thomas Kyd under government torture.

What is certain is that Richard III is a grand parodist – of Marlowe, of stage conventions, and of himself.  That is the secret of his outrageous charm; his great charm over the audience and the other figures in his drama is a compound of charm and terror, hardly to be distinguished in his sadomasochistic seduction of the Lady Anne, whose father and father-in-like he has slaughtered.  His sadistic pleasure in manipulating Anne (and others) is related to his extreme version of skeptical naturalism, in no way like Montaigne’s but perhaps like Marlowe’s own.  Richard’s skepticism excludes piety; his naturalism makes us all beasts.  Far cruder than Iago and Edmund, Richard nevertheless is their forerunner, particularly in his self-conscious triumphalism.”


And from Garber:

“Shakespeare’s Richard III is arguably the first fully realized and psychologically conceived character in his plays.  Like the god Proteus, who could change his shape at will, like the chameleon that changes its colors to conceal itself from view – both common images of human shape-shifting in the works of writers like the Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola – Richard is a consummate actor, able, as he exults in Henry VI Part 3, to ‘add colours to the chameleon,/Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,/And set the murderous Machiavel to school’  Like the stage “Machiavel” of Elizabethan drama, patterned after an early modern interpretation of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, Richard will often speak to the audience in soliloquy, confiding in us his real plans and thoughts while he pretends to those on stage that he is loyal, compliant, and benign.  The device of the soliloquy is made for such intrinsic doubleness, and functions in Shakespeare either – as here – to allow villains to manifest their hypocrisy or – as in Hamlet – to produce the effect of voiced thought, as if the audience were inside the mind of the protagonist.  For Richard, both of these effects are often in play.  In fact, as we will see, throughout the play Richard speaks in two voices, two personae, public and private.  It is not until the play’s last moments, when he loses his audience and confides his fears and hopes only to himself, that Richard’s two voices collapse into one on the field at Bosworth.  In order to appreciate the full power of that inward collapse, we should consider first the consummate power of rhetoric and stagecraft that is his as the play begins.

Many Shakespeare plays, as we have already noticed and as we will continue to see, begin with a small scene of secondary characters who set the themes and the tone for the greater events to follow.  In Richard III the stage belongs, from the first, to Richard, whose great opening soliloquy likewise contains the seeds for all the plot development to follow.  Although the speech is long and familiar, it is useful to look at it in detail, as much for its rhetorical sweep and driving rhythms as for the themes – sun and shadow, war and love, men and women, virtue and villainy, proportion and deformity – that will recur in the scenes that follow:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York;

And all the clouds that loured upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,

Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,

Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,

Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,

And now – instead of mounting barbed steeds

To fright the souls of fearful adversaries –

He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass,

I that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph,

I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time

Into this breathing world scarce half made up –

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them –

Why, I in this weak piping time of peace

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to spy my shadow in the sun

And descant on mine own deformity.

And therefore since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.


Dive, thoughts, down to my soul:  here Clarence comes.


Notice that the speech begins with a characteristically duplicitous enjambment.  Its syntax seems, blamelessly, to say that ‘the [former] winter of our discontent,’ when the Plantagenets were defeated and eclipsed by the Lancastrians and by Henry VI, is ‘now…made glorious summer’ by the rise of Edward IV, the ‘son’ and ‘sun’ of York.  But the blank verse line – “Now is the winter of our discontent” – plays against the syntax to make it clear that “now,’ still, at the present time in which he is speaking to  us, Richard dwells in wintry discontent, even though, or perhaps because, his brother is on the throne.  The rhythms of this long speech – forty lines but only five sentences – are insistent, and solipsistic.  Richard is the supreme egotist, and his world is all within himself.  He speaks rhetoric, rather than simple truth, even to himself.  The tripartite division of this speech, with sections beginning “Now” (line 1), “But” (line 14), and “And therefore” (line 28), takes the form of logical argument, although there is nothing logical about it.  And this pseudological structure is reinforced by strategically placed cue words of an escalating power:  “Now,” “Now,” “And now,” at the beginnings of line:  “But I,” “I,” “I,”  and “Why, I,” culminating in a “therefore” and in a “proof”:  “And therefore since I cannot prove…I am determined to prove…”

We have heard Richard say that he has become a villain, a Machiavel, because he is not made for love:  “I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks/Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass,/I that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph.”  And yet in the very next scene we see him “prove a lover” – the thing he says he cannot do – under the most difficult circumstances possible.  He proposes marriage to the widow of a man he has had murdered.  He does so in the presence of the corpse of her father-in-law.  And his proposal is accepted.  The Lady Anne, widow of the slain Edward, Prince of Wales, agrees to marry Richard.  The coffin of her father-in-law, the ‘key-cold figure of a holy king,’ Henry VI, is onstage throughout the wooing scene.  (In some modern productions the ‘lovers’ have perched familiarly upon it as if it were a park bench.)  The moment Anne leaves the stage Richard exults, again, to himself and to us:  “Was ever woman in this humour wooed?  Was ever woman in this humour won?/  I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.””



It is, I think, still a shocking scene – what’s going on there?  Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne over her father-in-law’s coffin is a ridiculously satisfying piece of theatrical daring – and in fact, a literalization of the argument put forward by the real-life Machiavelli in The Prince, that “fortune is a woman, and if you want to control her, it is necessary to treat her roughtly.”  We watch in amazement as Richard’s power over words continuously remakes and reworks Anne’s terms of abuse – again, swelling on his physical deformity – into flirtatious banter, reworking a situation in which he seemingly can’t win into one that he has no chance of losing:

Lady Anne:

            Never hung poison on a fouler toad.

            Out of my sight!  Thou dost infect mine eyes.


Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.

Lady Anne:

Would they were basilisks to strike thee dead.


I would they were, that I might die at once,

            For now they kill me with a living death.

At the point in which Lady Anne enters the play, it is as the mourner of her husband and her father-in-law, one of the female voices of lamentation and remembrance that dominate Richard III.  (More on this in my next post.)   But in persuading Anne to be his wife, Richard actually rewrites her role.  Instead of defusing the situation, he redirects it, casting her as a scornful mistress and himself in the role of wounded lover.  His creative potential even redefines the ring he instructs her to wear:  “Look how my ring encompasseth thy finger:/Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart.”  The conventions are twisted completely around – Richard, with his words, claims that she is in control, but it is his ring that is on her finger and his heart that is in her breast.  Despite Richard’s malign persuasiveness, Anne’s capitulation, gruesome as it, has infinite capacity to shock – as Shakespeare obviously intended.  It is simply as if Richard’s willpower and ability with words – and here his will is sexual – simply overcomes all opposition, no matter how righteous and strong.

As Bloom points out,

“All of u s, his audience, require periodical rest and recharging; Richard incessantly surges on, from victim to victim, in quest of more power to hurt.  His alliance of gusto and triumphalism allows Shakespeare a new kind of nasty comedy, as in Richard’s rejoicing after the seduction of Anne:

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d

Was ever woman in this humour won?

I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.

What, I that kill’d her husband and his father:

To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,

With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,

The bleeding witness of her hatred by,

Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me –

And I, no friends to back my suit at all,

But the plain devil and dissembling looks –

And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!


This (the whole speech) recapitulates Richard’s speech that opened the play, where “I…/Have no delight to pass away the time,/Unless to spy my shadow in the sun.”  But now Richard has taken command of the sun, and genially invites us to share in his triumph over Anne’s virtue, expressed as only another element in the world’s hypocrisy:  “And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!”  That subsequent “Ha!” is intoxicating, a grand expletive for a great actor.  Richard’s gusto is more than theatrical, his triumphalism blends into theatricalism, and becomes Shakespeare’s celebration of his medium, and so of his rapidly developing art.  To invent Richard is to have created a great monster, but one that will be refined into Shakespeare’s invention of the human, of which Iago, to everyone’s delight and sorrow, will constitute so central a part.”


Our next reading:  Richard III, Act Two

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning


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12 Responses to “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York”

  1. artmama says:

    Yes, the wooing scene…I would like to watch all of the filmed versions of this scene to try to better understand exactly how he does it!

  2. lxp says:

    Kevin Spacey’s take on the wooing scene (now at the BAM in Brooklyn with the Bridge Project) is very physical. He gets in very very close to her and almost seems to be overpowering her. She kind of withers under his intensity – both verbal and physical. I recommend the production for anyone who is in the New York City area.

  3. lxp says:

    Some mugging and lots of tics. Enormously amusing from beginning to end. Check out the BAM website for a clip which gives you a good idea of Spacey’s take on Richard 3. bam.org

  4. Catherine says:

    Welcome back, Dennis! I have to admit I’m now only an occasional visitor, but I’m loving Shakespeare so thanks for getting me started. I’m going in the same order as you projected but at my own speed which apparently is faster than the group is going as I just finished Midsummer Night’s Dream.

    • HEY! Stop racing ahead! I hope you’ll join us when we get to the major tragedies and such…how did you like Midsummer Night’s Dream?

      • Catherine says:

        You’re right I should slow down. I’m like a train going downhill with my enjoyment of Shakespeare and hate to lose my momentum. Certainly didn’t have that problem with Proust as it was all I could do to keep up. I liked Midsummer Night’s Dream and found parts laugh out loud funny. It’s probably the play I was most familiar with prior to your influence to read all of them.

  5. Chris says:

    Artmama, you must see Ian McKellen in this role. The wooing (and, boy, is that the wrong term) scene is replete with erotic degradation and domination by the reptilian force of his desire for power over her. Since he keeps his lame hand in his pocket at all times, he uses his mouth and tongue to remove his ring from his good hand , so he can place it on her finger…all the while looking into her eyes. Brrrrrrrrrr.

  6. artmama says:

    Thanks, Chris, I saw Ian McKellan version last week and will watch it again to get every detail. Also thanks for the tip on the BAM production, lxp. I’m on it.

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