Richard III: KS5 essay 2


If this is the first time you’ve read an essay here, please take a look at this post before proceeding.

Without superstition, Richard III would have been reduced to a relatively mundane and propaganda-tinged retelling of the familiar Tudor ascent to power. Shakespeare’s skilful exploitation of the complex Elizabethan mix of secular and religious beliefs, via Margaret, transforms the play into compelling drama for contemporary and modern audiences.


“The population of Renaissance England was, by modern standards, fervently religious.  ‘Atheist’ was an insult too extreme and too ludicrous to be taken seriously.”  (Lisa Hopkins and Matthew Steggle: Renaissance Literature and Culture, 2006)

Despite an unwavering belief in the Christian God, the early modern period was remarkably superstitious.  Explore how and why Shakespeare uses superstition in the early parts of Richard III (Acts 1-2)  Indicative length: 1,000 words.

Success Criteria:

AO1:  Personal Response (30%)

AO2:  Analysis of Writer’s Methods (40%)

AO3:  Understanding of the role of and influence of Context (10%)

AO5:  Exploring different interpretations of the text (20%)

Modern audiences might struggle to appreciate how a devoutly Christian society could readily accommodate the superstitious, yet the Early Modern period managed just that. Dreams, prophecies and curses are only some of the tools that make superstition or the supernatural a convention of Shakespearean Tragedy (the best-known examples being, perhaps, Macbeth’s witches and the ghost of Hamlet’s father). In the early acts of Richard III Shakespeare exploits these tools through the character of Margaret, for a variety of dramatic purposes: to foreshadow later events; to create a sense of dramatic irony; to create tension; or, indeed, to release it through the use of unexpectedly black humour.

Initially, in Act 1 Scene 3, Shakespeare creates Margaret as overtly religious, appealing to God, in her first aside: “I beseech Him”. The verb ‘beseech’ implies the respectful courtesy of a servant or subordinate; capitalisation of the pronoun, ‘Him’ reinforces this deference.  Once Margaret reveals herself to the bickering factions, her language is equally holy; her insulting addresses to Richard create a semantic field which, by implication, places her firmly as a God-fearing Christian. She calls him ‘devil’, ‘cacodemon’ and interestingly, warns Buckingham ‘Sin, death and hell have set their marks on’ Richard. None would be used as an insult by a non-Christian – indeed to a devil-worshipper they would be compliments – so the semantic field creates unease and antipathy towards Richard. And yet she adopts the superstition of the curse as her mode of revenge.

The curses aimed at Richard are the most significant that Shakespeare writes here, foreshadowing Richard’s downfall, just as his nascent political manoeuvring is gaining momentum.  Richard receives three curses, three being the ‘magic number’ and mirroring the Holy Trinity of God: the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  The first seems absurd for the confidential, soliloquising Richard we know: “The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul”.  With this highly effective and horrifying metaphor, Shakespeare likens conscience to a maggot; a parasite eating its victim alive from the inside out.  It is a jarring juxtaposition of the positive (ie conscience) acting in the body of the evil.  The adverb ‘still’ suggests this will be a constant, subliminal process, whether Richard is aware or not, and the verb ‘begnaw’ amplifies the suggestion of Richard being consumed by guilt.  Given Richard has shown no remorse so far, the audience wonders with anticipation what will make him regret his actions.  Margaret’s second curse is equally fascinating: “Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv’st, And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends”.  This seemingly oxymoronic riddle also goes against our current knowledge of Richard.  The verb ‘suspect’ implies that at some stage Richard will be infected by senses of paranoia and poor judgement which he has not currently demonstrated, again foreshadowing later events and leading to dramatic irony.  The impression that there will be a 180-degree shift is created by the second line:  Richard is the ‘deep traitor’ pretending to be the ‘dearest friend’, as we have already seen in his treatment of Clarence in Act 1 Scene 1.  The repetition of the abstract noun, ‘traitors’ is significant as this was, effectively, the worst and most unforgivable act of a Renaissance nobleman.  Margaret’s final curse follows a well-trodden Shakespearean trope: “No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine, Unless it be […] some tormenting dream”.  The audience realises that, like Lady Macbeth and Brutus in Julius Caesar, the seemingly impervious Richard is going to suffer insomnia, and when he does eventually dream, he is going to experience the supernatural ‘fearful dreams’ and ‘ugly sights’ that his brother Clarence foreshadows his own death with in the next scene.

Politically, Shakespeare has an interest in demonstrating that none of the characters on stage are fit to be ‘God’s deputy’, paving the way for overly-pious Henry VII, Elizabeth’s grandfather, to assume the throne – in many ways, Richard III was a work of Tudor propaganda, cementing the dynasty’s legitimacy and authority. Shakespeare uses Margaret and her curses against characters of all factions to breathe suspense and tension into the audience’s perceptions of a well-worn tale.  Again and again, Margaret makes her curses the weapons of a vengeful God, assuming divine authority will redress the wrongs she has suffered. However, Shakespeare, to fulfil his purpose and please his political masters, must also make Margaret herself unfit to rule, and this is easily demonstrated in performance.

Film interpretations of the scene differ quite markedly. The BBC’s 1983 adaptation, faithful to the Early Modern view, presents a character who we would visually associate with notions of the Renaissance witch.  This plays explicitly to Richard’s pejoratives: ‘Foul wrinkled witch’ and ‘hateful withered hag’.  There appears to be an ironic emphasis on her appearance that the four adjectives create, given Richard’s opening complaints, but the character is visually presented as old, dishevelled in clothing, and subjectively ugly.  She is clearly frightening to the characters on stage, Buckingham excepted (to his cost, of course), and by implication to the Early Modern audience.  On the other hand, the 2016 BBC ‘Hollow Crown’ Margaret, played by Sophie Okonedo, is explicitly played to frighten not an Early Modern but a 21st Century audience.  Okonedo’s character deliberately flourishes a mirror in the faces of her victims, riffing on our enduring superstition about them. The characters flinch when the mirror is thrust in their faces, with cutaways showing earlier misdeeds or prophecied ends. As if to seal Margaret’s curses, the mirror is deliberately broken and ground underfoot. Our cultural notions about seven years bad luck create unease and tension in the audience.  What both interpretations clearly do is paint a visual picture of a disheveled woman driven insane and irrational by grief (Okonedo carries an icon of her murdered son).

Without superstition, Richard III would have been reduced to a relatively mundane and propaganda-tinged retelling of the familiar Tudor ascent to power. Shakespeare’s skilful exploitation of the complex Elizabethan mix of secular and religious beliefs, via Margaret, transforms the play into compelling drama for contemporary and modern audiences.

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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