By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Buckingham is captured by Richard’s allies and is executed. Meanwhile, Richard, marching to meet Richmond, pitches camp at Bosworth. The night before the battle, he is visited by the ghosts of those he has killed on his road to power. Richard’s forces are defeated in battle when Stanley switches to Richmond (his son-in-law). Richmond kills King Richard in single combat and Stanley (the kingmaker) presents him with the crown. Richmond (now Henry VII) proposes to restore peace and unite the Houses of York and Lancaster (and gets the last word in the play) by marrying Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter.
So, is the ending of the play satisfying? I think it is, but here are two opposing viewpoints. First, Garber, who says, continuing from a discussion of omens and dreams says:
“All this inexorable patterning of dream and omen will culminate on the field of Bosworth, when Richard comes face-to-face with the ghosts of all those he has had murdered. For these omens, which so closely anticipate modern theories about the split and divided self, are also part of a pattern of unnaturalism that stretches from the beginning of the play to the end. A rhythmic interplay of the natural and the unnatural, the healthy and the sick, has been set in place, and in action, from the very beginning of Richard’s soliloquy, when ‘winter’ is ‘made summer,’ battle cries turned to ‘merry meetings,’ warlike ‘marches’ to the ‘delightful measures’ of the dance – all to the displeasure of the soldierly, ambitious, and vengeful Richard. Although these changes – summer, sociability, dance – suit a comic world, they are at odds with Richard’s spirit, and with the play of history and tragedy in which he is protagonist…
By the beginning of the fourth act the disorder [MY NOTE: King Henry VI’s wounds bleeding and other omens] Richard has engendered in the state has begun to affect his own situation and his own rule. We have already noted Buckingham’s thinly veiled horror at the prospect of murdering the Princes in the Tower. Now, rejected by Buckingham, his chief co-conspirator and a fellow nobleman, Richard turns elsewhere for advice – to his page:
Know’st thou not any whom corrupting gold
Will tempt unto a close exploit of death?
And so Tyrrell is hired to kill the children, to massacre the innocents. There could hardly be any more evident sign of disorder in Richard’s interior world than his seeking political guidance from a page. Some pages were in training to be squires and knights (Sir John Falstaff in the Henry IV plays alludes to his earlier, slimmer days as a page), but pages were, if wellborn, still low-ranking among the king’s servants. Since the intended murder is of two young princes, presumably of about the same age as the page boy, the dramatic irony is double: a child advises a king, and aids in the assassination of children. Bear in mind that the slaughter of the Princes is, as Buckingham tries to argue, an entirely gratuitous act. Richard has falsely but successfully discredited their birth, and has had himself crowned King of England. All he needs to do now is reign. But it not in his nature to do so. His nature remains that of an antagonist, and the habit of murdering has taken hold of him. He murders now for the sake of murder:
I must be married to my brother’s daughter
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.
Murder her brothers, and then marry her?
Uncertain way of gain, but I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.
This statement, occurring as it does early in the fourth act, is a central pivot point for the play. When we hear lines like these again in Shakespeare they will be spoken by a very similar murderer, and a very similar usurping king: Macbeth.
I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
[MY NOTE: A lovely demonstration of Shakespeare’s formidable growth as an author.]
It is also of Macbeth that it is said ‘Macbeth has murdered sleep,’ just as Margaret’s curse has prophesized for Richard (‘No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,/Unless it be while some tormenting dream/Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils’). The two plays are comparable in numerous ways, from language to plot. But in Richard III there is no Lady Macbeth to share the protagonist’s growing sense of guilty disaster, and so the entire range of emotions, from (over)confidence to fear to disintegration and then again to bravado, will descend upon Richard. As old Margaret will chortle in her familiar choric voice of revenge,
So now prosperity begins to mellow
And drop into the rotten mouth of death.
The Latinate word ‘prosperity,’ akin to the transactions of the busy, bustling Richard, is here literally surrounded and swallowed up by the open-voweled, open-mouthed personage of death. Notice the verbal sequence from ‘now’ to “mellow’ to ‘drop,’ ‘rot,’ and ‘mouth,’ before the short e sound of ‘death’ picks up, and undoes, the second syllable of ‘prosperity.’ And we might remember as well that a ‘hell-mouth’ was a familiar stage property from the medieval and early modern London stage. The diary of theater manager Philip Henslowe, listing all the properties of the Lord Admiral’s Men on March 10, 1598, includes, for example, ‘Item, i rock, i cage, i tomb, i Hell mouth…i bedstead.’ Engravings from the period show devils onstage exiting from the gaping mouth, which opens wide, like a door or a cave. Richard, by this conceit, is entering the same gaping maw. Again, the image draws upon the notion of Fortune’s wheel. Richard’s prosperity is now about to drop, like an overripe apple from a tree.
No index or disorder in the play’s world is more telling, though, than Richard’s increasing loss of control over various modes of language. It is not that he cannot speak – to the last he is charming, splenetic, vehement, and eloquent, by turns – but that his language does not transform others, or himself, as once it did. By the end of the fourth act, almost all of Richard’s most distinguished allies have left him, by one route or another, via the execution block or the path of defection. Hastings, Buckingham, and Stanley are gone, and Richard is left with a far more motley crew: Sir Richard Ratcliffe, Francis, Viscount Lovell; and Sir William Catesby…It is to Ratcliffe and Catesby that Richard turns, in desperation, when he receives the unwelcome news that Richmond is already in the harbor, and that Buckingham – of all people – is expected to welcome him. The confusion of the scene that follows is most uncharacteristic of the formerly smooth and unflappable Richard:
Some light-foot friend post to the Duke of Norfolk.
Ratcliffe thyself, or Catesby – where is he?
Here, my good lord.
Catesby, fly to the Duke.
I will, my lord, with all convenient haste.
Ratcliffe, come hither. Post to Salisbury;
When thou com’st thither – (to Catesby) dull, unmindful
Why stay’st thou here and goest not to the Duke?
First, mighty liege, tell me your highness’ pleasure:
What from your grace I shall deliver to him?
O, true, good Catesby….
What, may it please you, shall I do at Salisbury?
Why, what wouldn’t thou do there before I go?
Your highness told me I should post before.
My mind is changed.
Nothing could be more unlike the Richard of the earlier acts than this indecision, capped with the uncharacteristic admission ‘My mind is changed.’ Richard, once actor, director, stage manager, and prompter, has lost control, not only of events, but even of his own plans and his sense of self. If this scene were not so desperate, it would be farcical. As the forces of Richmond close in upon him, and his former friends, following the prediction of Margaret’s curse, desert him one by one, Richard is left without a role to play. And this is the condition in which we find him as the battle lines are drawn on Bosworth Field.
The scene at Bosworth is staged in a way that is deliberately both theatrical and symmetrical. Two tents, two camps, two would-be kings, each with a legitimate claim to the throne, face each other across the wide expanse of the stage. The time is night, and we hear that Richmond will nap until dawn, the time appointed for the battle. Richard, on the other hand, is still consumed with disorder. ‘I will not sup tonight, ‘he says, asking for a bowl of wine. Peaceful sleep will elude him – as it later will Macbeth – but on the darkened stage there now appears a pageant, a moving procession of ghosts, who will speak in turn to Richard and to Richmond. These are the ghosts of Richard’s victims: Prince Edward; King Henry; Clarence; Hastings; the murdered Princes in the Tower; the Queen’s relations; Rivers; Gray, and Vaughan; the Lady Anne; and Buckingham. These shadowy figures are modeled on an aspect of early English drama, the procession of seven vices and seven virtues in the medieval morality plays, whispering in the ear of mankind. It is likely that the doors on either side of the Elizabethan stage would have been useful in staging this procession. In the opening moments of Richard III the same doors would have let in, and let out, the funeral procession of Henry VI. Now they permit the entrance of the ghosts, their visits to both camps, and their noiseless exit. In an important sense the ghosts are entering not only the stage, or the field, but also the mind. These are psychological prompting, embodied guilt and embodied memory. The in-between world that is the world of the stage is their perfect venue. And the message of each ghost is the same. To Richard, ‘Despair and die.’ To Richmond: ‘Live and flourish.’ Are they real or imaginary? By this point in the play, Richard’s world has become so much the world of his mind and thought that it is difficult to make a distinction between inside and out. As the stage direction instructs, ‘Richard starteth up out of a dream.’ And the dialogue of the two voices, which in earlier scenes was deployed as a way of fooling others, now moves inside Richard, and manifests itself as another kind of civil war:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer her? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly? What, from myself? Great reason. Why?
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie: I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. – Fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Here the Machiavel meets the Machiavel, the looking glass is finally turned inward. The mellifluousness of the play’s opening soliloquy is replaced by a set of short, choppy phrases, lines cut up into two and three pieces – a language of extreme fragmentation. ‘Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.’ This tortured language is at the furthest remove from either the balanced rotundity of Queen Margaret’s incantations or the energetic originality of Richard’s speech in the preceding scenes. Eleven ‘I’s’ and nine ‘myselfs’ burden these fourteen lines, and the breakdown of language is the final clue to the breakdown of character. The real war is now staged within Richard, rather than between him and his rival for the throne.”
But for Harold Bloom, on the other hand, Richard’s speech is an unmitigated disaster:
“I cannot think of another passage, even in the tedious clamor of much of the Henry VI plays, in which Shakespeare is so inept. Soon enough, the playwright of Richard III would transcend Marlowe, but here the urge to modify from speaking cartoon to psychic inwardness finds no art to accommodate the passage. Even if one alters line 184 to ‘Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I,’ it would remain dreadful, and the half dozen lines following are even worse. The peculiar badness is difficult to describe, though the fallacy of imitative form is nowhere better illustrated. The disjunctions in Richard’s self-consciousness are meant to be reflected by the abrupt rhetorical questions and exclamations of lines 183-89, but no actor can salvage Richard from sounding silly in this staccato outburst. We can see what Shakespeare is trying to accomplish when we study the speech, but we cannot do for the poet what he has not yet learned to do for himself.’
What are your thoughts? Who is right – Garber or Bloom?
From Garber regarding the conclusion:
“It is left to Richmond, soon to be Henry VII, the first Tudor king and the grandfather of the reigning Queen Elizabeth of Shakespeare’s time, to restore order to the land. As Richard had spoken in images of disorder and decay, so Richmond will declaim in a language of fruitfulness and plenty. The first time the audience encounters him, he speaks of ‘summer fields,’ of ‘fruitful vines,’ of the ‘harvest of perpetual peace.’ Behind the lively, vivid play of political manipulation is the implacable rhythm of seasonal change and renewal. Richmond speaks of fertility and procreation, as the playwright deliberately balances this new harvest against the ‘winter of…discontent’ that was the natural habitat of Richard III. In Richmond’s victory at Bosworth, we hear once more the voice of unification, reconciliation, and forgiveness, together with a return to hierarchy and order: ‘Inter their bodies as becomes their births…We will unite the white rose and the red.’ And then:
England hath long been mad, and scarred herself;
Thy brother blindly shed the brother’s blood;
The father rashly slaughtered his own son;
The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire…
These images of civil war within the family recall the horrifying scene in 3 Henry VI that begins with the harrowing stage directions ‘Enter at one door a Soldier with a dead man [his father] in his arms’ and ‘Enter at another door another Soldier with a dead man [his son] in his arms.’ In that play the onstage spectator, transfixed and unable to intercede, was the king himself, Henry VI. But this new King Henry, Henry VII, will, he says, heal the internecine warfare of the past. His marriage to Elizabeth, the daughter of King Edward (and the woman Richard tried and failed to marry himself), will ‘Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace./With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days.’ The sun, the King of England, is back where it, and he, belongs.”
And with that, we finish our reading of the Minor Tetralogy, the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III – the ever-so bloody Wars of the Roses. I want to end our study of these plays with an excerpt from Jan Kott’s landmark 1964 study, Shakespeare our Contemporary:
“A careful reading of the list of characters in Richard III is enough to show what sort of historical material Shakespeare used in order to illustrate facts relating to his own period and to fill the stage with his real contemporaries. Here, in one of his earliest plays – or rather in its historical raw material – one can already see the outline of all the later great tragedies: of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. If one wishes to interpret Shakespeare’s world as the real world, one should start with the reading of the plays with the Histories…
Let us begin with the list of dramatis personae:
King Edward IV – deposed the last Lancastrian king, Henry VI, and imprisoned him in the Tower, where he was murdered by Edward’s brothers, Gloucester and Clarence. A few months earlier, at Tewkesbury, the only son of Henry VI had been stabbed to death by Richard.
Edward, Prince of Wales, son to Edward IV, afterwards King Edward V – murdered in the Tower, on Richard’s order, at the age of twelve.
Richard, Duke of York, Edward IV’s other son – murdered in the Tower, on Richard’s order, at the age of ten.
George, Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV – murdered in the same gloomy Tower, on Richard’s order.
A son of Clarence – imprisoned by Richard immediately after his coronation.
A daughter of Clarence – imprisoned by Richard immediately after his coronation.
The Duchess of York, mother of two kings, grandmother of a king and a queen – her husband and youngest son killed, or murdered in the Wars of the Roses; another of her sons stabbed to death in the Tower by hired assassins; her third son, Richard, responsible for the murder of both her grandsons. Of all her offspring, only one son and one granddaughter died a natural death.
Margaret, Henry VI’s widow – her husband murdered in the Tower, her son killed in battle.
Lady Anne, the wife of Richard III, who had killed her father at the battle of Barnet, and her first husband at Tewkesbury and had even earlier let her father-in-law be murdered in the Tower – imprisoned by Richard immediately after their wedding.
The Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s confidant and right-hand man in the struggle for power – beheaded on Richard’s orders within a year of the coronation.
Earl Rivers, brother to Queen Elizabeth; Lord Grey, son of Queen Elizabeth; Sir Thomas Vaughan – all executed on Richard’s orders at Pomfret, even before the coronation.
Sir Richard Ratcliff, who organized the Pomfret executions and the coup d’etat – killed at Bosworth two years later.
Lord Hastings, a nobleman and follower of the House of Lancaster – arrested, released, then arrested again and beheaded by Richard on the charge of plotting against him.
Sir James Tyrrel, murderer of Edward IV’s children at the Tower – later executed.
We are nearing the end of the list of characters, or, rather – victims. There is Sir William Catesby, executed after the battle of Bosworth, and the Duke of Norfolk, who died in the table. There are one or two other lords and barons who saved their heads by fleeing abroad. And the last few lines of the list; characters without names of their owns. It is enough to quote the end of the list: ‘Lords, and other Attendants; a Pursuivant, Scrivener, Citizens, Murderers, Messengers, Soldiers, etc. Scene – England.’
Shakespeare is like the world, or life itself. Every historical period find in him what it is looking for and what it wants to see. A reader or spectator in the mid-twentieth century interprets Richard III through his own experiences. He cannot do otherwise. And that is why he is not terrified – or rather, amazed – at Shakespeare’s cruelty. He views the struggle for power and mutual slaughter of the characters far more calmly than did many generations of spectators and critics in the nineteenth century. More calmly, or, at any rate, more rationally. Cruel death, suffered by most dramatis personae, is not regarded today as an aesthetic necessity, or as an essential rule in tragedy in order to produce catharsis, or even as a specific characteristic of Shakespeare’s genius. Violent deaths of the principal characters are now regarded rather as an historical necessity, or as something altogether natural…
Shakespeare’s History plays take their titles from the names of Kings:…Shakespeare’s Histories deal with the struggle for the English crown that went on from the close of the fourteenth to the end of the fifteenth century. They constitute a historical epic covering over a hundred years and divided into long chapters corresponding to reigns. But when we read these chapters chronologically, following the sequence of reigns, we are struck by the thought that for Shakespeare history stands still. Each chapter opens and closes at the same point. In every one of these plays history turns full circle, returning to the point of departure. These recurring and unchanging circles described by history are the successive kings’ reigns.
Each of these great historical tragedies begins with a struggle for the throne, or for its consolidation. Each ends with the monarch’s death and a new coronation. In each of the Histories the legitimate ruler drags behind him a long chain of crimes. He has rejected the feudal lords who helped him to reach for the crown; he murders, first, his enemies, then his former allies; he executes possible successors and pretenders to the crown. But he has not been able to execute them all. From banishment a young prince returns – the son, the grandson, or brother of those murdered – to defend the violated law. The rejected lords gather round him, he personifies the hope for a new order and justice. But every step to power continues to be marked by murder, violence, treachery. And so, when the new prince finds himself near the throne, he drags behind him a chain of crimes as long as that of the until now legitimate ruler. When he assumes the crown, he will be just as hated as his predecessor. He has killed enemies, now he will kill former allies. And a new pretender appears in the name of violated justice. The wheel has turned full circle. A new chapter opens. A new historical tragedy:
Edward the third, my lords, had seven sons:
The first, Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales;
The second, William of Hatfield, and the third,
Lionel Duke of Clarence; next to whom
Was John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster;
The fifth was Edmund Langley, Duke of York;
The sixth was Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester;
William of Windsor was the seventh and last.
Edward the Black Prince died before his father
And left behind him Richard, his only son,
Who after Edward the Third’s death reign’d as king
Till Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster,
The eldest son and heir of John of gaunt,
Crown’d by the name of Henry the fourth,
Seiz’d on the realm, depos’d the rightful king,
Sent his poor queen to France, from whence she came,
And him to Pomfret, where, as all you know,
Harmless Richard was murthered traitorously.
(2 Henry VI, II, 2)
In each of the Histories, there are four or five men who look into the eyes of the dying monarch, watch his trembling hands. They have already laid a plot, brought their loyal troops to the capital, communicated with their vassals. They have given orders to hired assassins; the stony Tower awaits new prisoners. There are four or five men, but only one of them may remain alive. Each of them has a different name and title. Each has a different face. One is cunning, another brave; the third is cruel, the fourth – a cynic. They are living people, for Shakespeare was a great writer. We remember their faces. But when we finish reading one chapter and begin to read the next one, when we read the Histories in their entirety, the faces of kings and usurpers become blurred, one after the other.
Even their names are the same. There is always a Richard, an Edward, and a Henry. They have the same titles. There is a Duke of York, a Prince of Wales, a Duke of Clarence. In the different plays different people are brave, or cruel, or cunning. But the drama that is being played between them is always the same. And in every tragedy the same cry, uttered by mothers of the murdered kings, is repeated:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill’d him.
Duchess of York
I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st to kill him.
Thy Edward he is dead, that kill’d my Edward;
Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward;
Young York he is but boot, because both they
Match’d not the high perfection of my loss.
Thy Clarence he is dead that stabb’d my Edward,
And the beholders of this frantic play,
Th’ adulterate Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey,
Untimely smother’d in their dusky graves.
Emanating from the features of individual kings and usurpers in Shakespeare’s History plays, there gradually emerges the image of history itself. The image of the Grand Mechanism. Every successive chapter, every great Shakespearean act is merely a repetition:
The flattering index of a direful pageant,
One heav’d a-high to be hurl’d down below…
It is this image of history, repeated many times by Shakespeare, that forces itself on us in a most powerful manner. Feudal history is like a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall. One will soon be able to snatch it.
…There is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap…
From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them – good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile and noble, naïve and cynical – tread on the steps that are always the same.”
Sorry if this went long, but…I found it fascinating. What are your thoughts? On Richard? On the four plays we just finished? On Kott’s take on Shakespeare and history? And am I the only one who thought about Nixon’s last days in office while reading about Richard III’s?
My next posting Sunday night – a sonnet.
We’ll start reading A Comedy of Errors next week. I’ll have an introductory piece posted Tuesday night.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.