To understand Richard, Duke of Gloucester, you must know him. Really know him …
And to know him, I think it’s essential we don’t look at his eponymous play in isolation. Think of it as a season finale. And like Margaret of Anjou, Richard’s character has been developing towards this climax – in my read-through, I’ve likened his journey to that of Anakin Skywalker from ‘freckled whelp’ to Sith Lord …
This feels like my last Richard III post for a while – I shan’t be teaching it next year, at least at A Level. If I can drag myself away, I’ll share my close readings a little more democratically amongst the plays.
First visit to Forensic Friday? The rules can be found here. For the link-averse, the challenge is based on one of the A-Level questions my students have to attempt, with the added spice of a minuscule 250-word limit.
Before we get stuck into this little extract, we need to set the scene, and perhaps I need to declare some interest/bias. Firstly, 3 Henry VI. The extract is taken from the longest soliloquy in Shakespeare’s plays (which to me evidences just what an interesting character Richard is, if you make room for him and try to see beyond the monster).
Because Richard is a special type of monster, absolutely akin to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, Heathcliff and Caliban. There’s a case to be made for all four to be morally neutral in nature; it’s their nurture that turns them to the dark side.
In III.ii, the ebb and flow of the Wars of the Roses suggests that things are finally heading irrevocably towards the Yorkists, but not without some serious casualties along the way, including Richard’s beloved father, tormented and murdered by Clifford and Margaret.
Richard has been ennobled by his brother Edward, notably asking not to be made duke of Gloucester because it is an ill-omened title (a bit like Thane of Cawdor might become, in Macbeth?). Then he’s just witnessed how being king adds an extra dimension of sexiness to his already well-equipped brother – approached by the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville, the kind of woman Richard can only dream of … So here’s our anti-hero, alone again, considering his future, if and when the civil war is won.
In this answer, for the benefit of my students, I’ve underlined any appropriate subject terminology and emboldened my use of the author’s name. Quotations used are italicised.
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Shakespeare uses this part of the soliloquy to evidence and attempt a rationale for Richard’s misogyny. The 10-line complex sentence implies the importance of his disability and its consequences to him; this is strengthened by two notable disruptions to the meter. Externally, Richard appears controlled – perhaps verbalising a recurrent argument – but the subject matter is intimate and emotive. Shakespeare personifies the conventionally female abstract nouns, ‘love‘ and ‘nature‘, and Richard lays a number of accusations at their feet, their malicious purpose intensified by the anaphoric repetition of ‘to‘. ‘Foreswore’ has interesting connotations not only of crime but of betrayal too. Richard hyperbolises his hump into a ‘mountain’, the adjective ‘envious’ implying that he has inner qualities which will never be recognised, because he is mocked by (again personified) ‘deformity‘. Richard appears realistic about his appearance: self-loathing is indicated by the disruption to the meter which ‘deformity’ causes. The sentence subtly underlines how isolated and unloved Richard feels after the loss of his beloved father: we might wonder whether his relationship with his mother contributes to his misogyny. Shakespeare has bookended the sentence with maternal references. Contextually, birth defects were blamed on the mother, and his extended simile, comparing himself to an ‘unlick’d bear whelp’ is highly significant – as indicated by disruption to both the meter and the iambic pattern. The adjective strongly suggests rejection as an infant, and dehumanising himself as a ‘bear‘ repositions Richard as a passive victim, ‘baited’ by the world – especially women – for his ugliness.
Source text from www.opensourceshakespeare.org