“Where it seems best to your royal self./If I may counsel you, some day or two/Your highness shall repose you at the Tower;/Then where you please and shall be thought most fit/For your best health and recreation.”

Richard III

Act Three

By Dennis Abrams


Act Three:  As Prince Edward arrives in London to be crowned the next king, Buckingham persuades the Archbishop of Canterbury to remove the Duke of York (Edward’s younger brother) from sanctuary.  Richard then conveys both princes to the Tower.  Attempting to build support, Richard sends Catesby to sound out Hastings and promises Buckingham high office when he becomes King.  Hastings refuses to support Richard, and after arriving in London to plan Prince Edward’s coronation, he is quickly executed on Richard’s orders.  Buckingham and Richard then convince the Mayor of London that Hastings was a traitor and suggest that Edward IV and his heirs are illegitimate.  In front of the Mayor and various hapless citizens, Richard feigns devoutness and seems reluctant to accept the throne, even when Buckingham insists it is his by right.


In Act Three, it seems to me that he have a fine example of Richard the consummate “actor” – performing first for the Mayor, dressed “in rotten armour, marvelous ill-favoured,” and suggesting that Hastings had been conspiring to murder Buckingham and himself, and then in his religious mode, entering between two bishops as Buckingham attempts to “convince” him to accept the crown.  Garber goes into this in greater detail:

“From the first, though, Richard has been staging plays.  The wooing of Anne is such a play, full of wit and gesture, as Richard offers her a dagger and bears his breast for her to stab him, confessing to the murders of her husband and her father-in-law King Henry, and adding:  ‘But ‘twas thy heavenly face that set me on.”  [MY NOTE:  One can only gasp at his audacity, blaming Anne herself for “forcing” him to murder her husband and father-in-law.  And getting away with it.]  While there are many pragmatic reasons why Anne would consent to this unwanted marriage – a woman alone at court needs a protector – there is a sense in which she wants to believe in his passion, wants to think of herself as the salvation of a ‘bad’ man who will be converted by the love of a good woman.  [MY NOTE:  Isn’t that a standard fantasy of many women – “He might be a bad boy to the rest of the world, but to me…”]  And he is undeniably exciting – as would later be said of Lord Byron, Richard is ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know.’  Still, the effect of the little play having succeeded, Richard coldly surveys the result and offers his own theatrical review:  ‘Was ever woman in this humour wooed?/Was ever woman in this humour won?’

In the council chamber scene in act 3, Richard manipulates exits and entrances to stage an accusation against his former friend Hastings.  First  he departs, and then, reentering on cue, brandishes his withered arm and twisted body as a kind of dumb show, supposed evidence of witchcraft practiced upon him:

See how I am bewitched.  Behold, mine arm

Is like a blasted sapling withered up.

And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,

Consorted with that harlot, strumpet Shore,

That by their witchcraft they have marked me.

‘If they have done this deed, my noble lord –,’ Hastings begins, and Richard deliberately mistakes his conditional ‘if’ for skepticism and disbelief:  ‘If?  Thou protector of this damned strumpet,/Talk’st thou to me of ‘ifs’?  Thou art a traitor. –/  Off with his head’  As the new lover and ‘protector’ of Jane Shore, Hastings is allegedly her co-conspirator.  We may notice the degree to which women are blamed by Richard, at least in public, for his situation.  The present queen and the former one, as well as Mistress shore, are labeled witches, and when he is not accusatory he is dismissive (‘Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman”).  Women in his world are conveniences and obstacles, mothers and strumpets.  Despite his success in wooing Anne, the contempt he shows for courtship and love in the opening soliloquy (‘To strut before a wanton ambling nymph’) resurfaces periodically, not as defensive overcompensation but rather as genuine disregard.

In many ways the most striking of Richard’s staged plays and contrived scenarios is his attempt to gain the assent of the people of London.  At the beginning of act 3, scene 5, he rehearses Buckingham for the all-important role of orator:  ‘Come, cousin, canst thou quake and change thy colour?’ – can you be as good a chameleon as I am?  ‘Tut,’ says Buckingham, ‘I can counterfeit the deep tragedian,…ghastly looks/Are at my service, like enforced smiles.’  Yet despite his avowed theatricality, Buckingham’s performance fails.  He has stocked his audience with shills, a hired claque of cheering men, but still the response is disappointing.  The scene is a characteristic Shakespearean ‘unscene’; it takes place offstage and is reported to an eager and impatient Richard:


And when my oratory drew toward end,

I bid them that did love their country’s good

Cry ‘God save Richard, England’s royal king!’

Richard Gloucester:

And did they so?


No, so God help me.  They spake not a word,

But, like dumb statues or breathing stones,

Stared each on another and looked deadly pale –

Which, when I saw, I reprehended them,

And asked the Mayor, what meant this wilful


His answer was, the people were not used

To be spoke to but by the Recorder.

Then he was urged to tell my tale again:

‘Thus saith the Duke…thus hath the Duke inferred” –

But nothing spoke in warrant from himself,

When he had done, some followers of mine own,

At lower end of the Hall, hurled up their caps,

And some ten voices cried ‘God save King


And thus I took the vantage of those few:

‘Thanks gentle citizens and friends,’ quoth I;

‘This general applause and cheerful shourt

Argues your wisdoms and your love to Richard’ –

And even here brake off and came away.

Buckingham’s vivid description incorporates patterns of speech and silence, indirect and direct discourse, ‘dumb statues’ and the speaking Recorder (a person with legal knowledge appointed by the mayor and alderman to ‘record’ the customs of the city, and to offer an oral statement of these as evidence of fact).  But it is also a discomfiting account of a broken play, a theatrical stratagem gone awry, as the ‘some ten voices’ of the hired shills,  hurling their caps in the air, are transformed by the desperate stage manager Buckingham into ‘general applause and cheerful shout.’  This attempt to manipulate the people, second-hand, fails dismally, and it is decided that a different kind of spectacle is needed, one that will feature a silent Richard and a dumb show interpreted by confederates:  Richard enters ‘aloft, between two bishops.’  The Mayor arrives and is told that Richard cannot be spoken to – he is too deep in his meditations, unlike his lascivious brother Edward:  ‘He is not lolling on a lewd day-bed,/But on his knees in meditation:/Not dallying with a brace of courtesans,/But meditating with two deep divines’.  [MY NOTE:  How did Richard and Buckingham keep a straight face?]  This staged appearance, like a modern ‘photo-opportunity,’ is glossed by interested parties for the benefit of the candidate.  ‘See,’ says the Mayor, ‘where his grace stands ‘tween two clergymen,’ and Buckingham is quickly there to interpret the dumb show:

Two props of virtue for a Christian prince,

To stay him from the fall of vanity;

And see, a book of prayer in his hand –

True ornaments to know a holy man.—

Costumes and ornaments, a dumb show and a set piece.  In this case the props (modern ‘stage properties’) include tame clerics, modeling conspicuous piety and virtue [MY NOTE:  We’d never see anything like this today of course.], as Buckingham offers the crown, and Richard refuses it, first with indignation, then with sorrow – Richard the humble, Richard the plain man:  ‘Alas, why would you heap this care on me?/I am unfit for state and majesty’.  A note of comedy is injected when the citizens accept his refusal at face value and have quickly to be rounded up again.  (‘Will you enforce me to a world of cares?’ Richard says with a fine show of reluctance.  ‘Call them again.  I am not made of stone.’  And to the people he says, ‘For God doth know, and you may partly see,/How far I am from the desire of this.’  ‘Partly’ is the key word; they do indeed see only ‘partly’ how eager he is for the crown and for kingship.  But he works his magic here for the first time more in dumbness than in speech; he has to try a little harder, and enlist the aid of more assistants, to achieve his Machiavellian ends.”


Now, I know I said I’d discuss the role of the women (Margaret and Elizabeth in particular) in today’s post, but I found something I’d like to get to first – one that will lead into a look at the women of Richard III in my next post.  From Harold Bloom, who has a very different take than I do:

“Another blemish is the ghastly Margaret, widow of Henry VI, for whom Shakespeare never could compose a decent line.  Since Richard III is of exorbitant length, Shakespeare would have been much better without the long-winded Margaret, who curses in triplicate and beyond.  [MY NOTE:  I’m not buying this for a second (how Cibber of him) – what do you all think?]  But then Richard III is any actress’s nightmare, for none of the women’s parts are playable, whether poor Anne’s, once Richard has seduced her through terror, or those of Elizabeth, Edward IV’s queen and widow, or the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother.  Declamation is all Shakespeare allows them, almost as though Margaret’s rantings have set a gender style.  From Juliet on, Shakespeare was to surpass all precursors, from the Bible to Chaucer, in the representation of women, but no one could surmise that on the basis of Richard III.  The male characters of the play, except for the malformed Richard, are not particularly individualized either, the one exception being the Duke of Clarence, who is rendered vivid by his account of an astonishing dream.  We remember Clarence for his unfortunate fate, first stabbed and then finished off by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine, but also for his great dream – Shakespeare’s dream, as I would prefer to call it, since it is the most powerful in all his work.  Pent up in the Tower, Clarence tells the dream to his Keeper:

Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower,

And was embark’d to cross to Burgundy;

And in my company my brother Gloucester,

Who from my cabin tempted me to walk

Upon the hatches, hence we look’d toward England,

And cited up a thousand heavy times,

During the wars of York and Lancaster,

That had befall’n us.  As we pac’d along

Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,

Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling

Struck me (that thought to stay him) overboard,

Into the tumbling billows of the main.

O Lord!  Methought what pain it was to drown:

What dreadful noise of waters in my ears;

What sights of ugly death within my eyes!

Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;

Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;

Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,

Inestimable stones, unvalu’d jewels,

All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea.

Some lay in dead men’s skulls, and in the holes

Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept –

As ‘twere in scorn of eyes – reflecting gems,

That woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep,

And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by.


Had you such leisure in the time of death

To gaze upon these secrets of the deep?


Methought I had; and often did I strive

To yield the ghost, but still the envious flood

Stopp’d in my soul, and would not let it forth

To find the empty, vast, and wand’ring air,

But smother’d it within my panting bulk,

Which almost belch it in the sea.


Awak’d you not in this sore agony?


No, no; my dream was lengthen’d after life.

O, then began the tempest to my soul:

I pass’d, methought, the melancholy flood,

With that sour ferryman which poets write of,

Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.

The first that there did greet my stranger-soul

Was my great father-in-law, renowned Warwick,

Who spake aloud, ‘What scourge for perjury

Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence?’

And so he vanish’d.  Then came wand’ring by

A shadow like an angel, with bright hair

Dabbled in blood, and he shrik’d out aloud,

‘Clarence is come:  false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence,

That stabb’d me in the field of Tewkesbury!

Seize on him, Furies!  Take him unto torment!’

With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends

Environ’d me, and howled in mine ears

Such hideous cries, that with the very noise

I trembling wak’d, and for a season after

Could not believe but that I was in hell,

Such terrible impression made my dream.

I have quoted all of this because its completeness defies selection; nothing else in Richard III matches it in poetic quality.  Clarence, an unstable turncoat in the Henry VI plays, prophetically dreams his own death.  He cannot drown by water, despite his own desire, but will ‘burst to belch’ in the hellish wine of a parodistic sacrament of communion.  Richard of Gloucester, still too deep for Clarence consciously to unravel, ‘stumbles,’ and in aiding the fiend, Clarence is pushed into the sea.  The irrealistic gold wedges and precious stones are emblematic of Clarence, a Trimmer, or political turncoat, many times bought and sold, and also hint at an Hermetic ‘near-death experience,’ ironically parodied.  When the Prince of Wales, whom Clarence helped slaughter, shrieks an invocation to avenging Furies, they respond with howls that wake Clarence up to confront his own actual murders, sent by Richard.  In the world of Richard III, your dreams are overdetermined by the evil genius of the nightmare Crookback, diabolic archon of his own play.

Shakespeare’s greatest originality in Richard III, which redeems an otherwise cumbersome and overwritten drama [MY NOTE:  I’m not sure I all together accept this] is not so much Richard himself as it is the hero-villain’s startlingly intimate relationship with the audience.  We are on unnervingly confidential terms with him; Buckingham is our surrogate, and when Buckingham falls out into exile and execution, we shudder at Richard’s potential order directed at any of us:  ‘So much for the audience:  Off with its head!’  We deserve our possible beheading, because we have been unable to resist Richard’s outrageous charm, which has made Machiavels of us all.  [MY NOTE:  Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s narrative strategy in Psycho:  After Norman murders Marion Crane, we, the audience, are put in the position of hoping that he gets away with it.]   Tamburlaine the Great bellows mighty cascades of blank verse at us, but Barabas again is Richard’s authentic forerunner.  The gleeful Jew of Malta, who skips about with proud ferocity as if he had just invented gunpowder, insists upon telling us everything, but still would rather provoke than seduce us.  Richard leaps far beyond Barabas, and makes us all into the Lady Anne, playing upon the profound sadomasochism that any audience creates merely by assembling.  We are there to be entertained by the sufferings of others. Richard co-opts us as fellow torturers, sharing guilty pleasures with the added frisson that we may join the victims, if the dominant hunchback detects any failure in our complicity.  Marlowe was sadomasochistic, but rather unsubtly, as in the gruesome execution of Edward II, murdered by the insertion of a white-hot poker into his anus.  Shakespeare, reasonably free of such cruel prurience, shocks more profoundly by rendering us incapable of resisting Richard’s terrifying charms.”


And finally, from Samuel Johnson, one of Shakespeare’s greatest critics:

“This is one of the most celebrated of our author’s performances; yet I know not whether it has not happened to him as to others, to be praised most, when praise is not most deserved. That this play has scenes noble in themselves, and very well contrived to strike in the exhibition, cannot be denied. But some parts are trifling, others shocking, and some improbable.

I have nothing to add to the observations of the learned criticks, but that some traces of this antiquated exhibition are still retained in the rustick puppet-plays, in which I have seen the Devil very lustily belaboured by Punch, whom I hold to be the legitimate successor of the old Vice.”


So what do you think of the play so far?  What’s your take on the role of the women?


Our next reading:  Richard III, Act Four

My next posting:  Tuesday night/Wednesday morning


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