King Richard Iii-The Character Of An Upsurper Essay, Research Paper
Richard III The Character of a Usurper The Tragedy of Richard the Third was first published in quarto in 1597 with the title: The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Containing, his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews: his tyrannical usurpation;with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserved death. Through his development of the evil character of Richard III, Shakespeare attempts to justify the existence and rule of the Tudor dynasty. For the Tudors, who supplanted Richard III, continued to rule in Shakespeare’s time in the person of Elizabeth I. The Tudor version of their accession was necessarily the official one. In order to make a case for his queen–and against the Yorkist claim–Shakespeare studied the history books available to him at that time (Edward Hall: Union of Two Noble and Illustr Houses of Lancaster and York; Raphael Holinshed: Chronicles; and Sir Thomas Moore: Life of Richard). Human motivation, which he wanted to examine, was not recorded in them. All he could find were outlines of events. Few written documents remained from the period of Richard III. Many had been destroyed by his successors, while others had simply disappeared. The history books financed by the Tudor court sang the virtues of Richmond and portrayed Richard III as an evil man. After all, if there were threats to the legitimacy of the Tudors as monarchs, the whole question of the right to the throne might be opened up again in another bloody war like the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare used Tudor history to construct a drama that would sustain audience interest in the story of Richard’s villainy. He juggled historical facts by rearranging people and places to support dramatic tension. In the hands of Tudor historians, Richard III was molded into a powerful myth which not only served to legitimize the new regime, but also coincided with the new political and moral attitudes. It was this vision which William Shakespeare stamped indelibly into the consciousness of later generations–a vision of the fifteenth century as a drama, in which Act I sees the deposition of Richard II, subsequent acts chronicle the rise and fall, and the bloody feuding of the houses of Lancaster and York, the crisis is the battle of Bosworth, and the blessed resolution is the establishment of peace and harmony under the Tudors. The Elizabethan attitude toward nature, a holdover from medieval times, was as structured and formal as an organizational flow-chart is today. Nature consisted of a universe in which there was an established hierarchy. When the natural order was upset, the bottom moved toward the top. As a result, chaos set in. The symbol of chaos was the monster. Richard is frequently called the monster and related to monstrous acts. Richard’s personal position–low down on the scale of animal life–and his political position at the top are at odds. His removal from the throne and humiliating downfall in the mud of Bosworth Field resolve the unnatural state of events. Shakespeare’s Richard III was a traitor, a murderer, a tyrant, and a hypocrite. The leading characteristics of his mind are scorn, sarcasm, and an overwhelming contempt. It appears that contempt for his victims–rather than active hatred and cruelty–was the motive for murdering them. Upon our meeting him, he sounds the keynote to his whole character–that of contempt–in the celebrated apostrophe to his own person: I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion, Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time Into this breathing world scarce half made up.[1.1.20-23] The task which Shakespeare undertook was to mold the hateful constitution of Richard’s moral character. Richard had to contend with the prejudices arising from his bodily deformity which was considered an indication of the depravity and wickedness of his nature. Richard’s ambitious nature, his elastic intellect, and his want of faith in goodness conspire to produce his tendency to despise and degrade every surrounding being and object, even (as just quoted) his own person. He is never sincere except when he is about to commit a murder.
Shakespeare used the tradition of the morality play. The character of Richard III is the picture of a demonical incarnation. Of his isolated and peculiar state of being, Richard himself seems sensible when he declares, ‘I am alone.’ Richard, stripped as he is of all the softer feelings and all the common charities of humanity, possessed of ‘neither pity, love, nor fear,’ and loaded with every dangerous and dreadful vice, is insufferably revolting. Richard is insatiate in his ambition, envious and hypocritical in his disposition, cruel, bloody, and remorseless in all his deeds. He is a villain, a fiend in human shape with a mingled sensation of intense curiosity and grateful terror. From Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s Richard gives that rationale of the ambitious villain that the Elizabethans made of Machiavelli’s thought. Shakespeare harps throughout the play on Richard’s prenatal existence and the circumstances of his early years to create the impression that Richard is intrinsically evil. Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, cries out: O my accurse’d womb, the bed of death!A cockatrice hast thou hatch’d to the world, [4.1.53-54] Queen Margaret calls Richard:Thou that wast seal’d in thy nativityThe slave of nature and the son of hell,Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb,Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins,[1.3.228-231] Richard is a scourge who has been cursed from conception. One of the most prominent and detestable vices in Richard’s character is his hypocrisy. He is one who can ‘…frame his face to all occasions,’ and accordingly appears, during the course of his career, under the contrasted forms of a subject and a monarch, a politician and a wit, a soldier and a suitor, a sinner and a saint; and all with such apparent ease. Most important of all, the plot of the play is woven as a web of curses and their fulfillment, and the sense of a divine vengeance exacting a measured retribution for each sin is ever present. Shakespeare pictured the dominating sins in the play as perjury and murder-sins against the moral order. He portrayed and analyzed the passion of ambition that caused Richard to sin and the passion of fear that at the same time punished him for his sins and forced him to wade still further in blood. He inserted non-historical scenes developing the Elizabethan philosophy of revenge. He used the supernatural to enhance the horror of the play and to contribute to the impression of a divine vengeance handing out punishment for sin. The ghosts of those whom he has murdered disturb Richard’s dreams and give comfort to his foe the night before Bosworth Field. He showed God’s revenge exacted through the agency of the evil Richard, who was nevertheless held to account for his evil-doing. Richmond, of course, as the rightful ruler is presented as the instrument of divine will. His language is restrained, conventional and disciplined: O Thou, whose captain I account myself,Look on my forces with a gracious eye;Put in their hands Thy bruising irons of wrath,That they may crush down with a heavy fallThe usurping helmets of our adversaries!Make us Thy ministers of chastisement,That we may praise Thee in the victory!To Thee I do comment my watchful soulEre I let fall the windows of mine eyes.[5.3.109-117] Even though Richmond’s army is much smaller than King Richard’s, right is on his side. The ghosts who curse Richard tell Richmond to ‘live and flourish!’ [5.3.131] and to, ‘Arm, fight and conquer, for fair England’s sake.’ [5.3.150] Richard is slain by Richmond on Bosworth Field, ‘Now civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again.’ [5.4.53] Long live the Tudors!