Mass Confusion: The Fall of Richard

As we’ve noted before, Richard is never the same after Richard Duke of York mocks him in Act Three, Scene One of Richard the Third.  At the time, we looked at how his speeches change and move away from soliloquies (and thus, us as an audience).  But it’s not just his speech that changes; his mental faculties atrophy as well.

Before the tipping point, he is quick, able to make decisions at a flash when an opportunity arises:

  • after Anne refutes his claim to be innocent of the murder of Edward, he immediately says that he was “provoked” (I.ii.97) by Margaret’s words
  • when Elizabeth mentions Clarence at the family reconciliation meeting, Richard immediate pounces, announcing his brother’s execution (II.i.80)
  • after the death of king, Richard takes charge to “determine // Who” (II.ii.141-142) to escort Prince Edward back to London

After, his decision-making becomes less acute, at times even abdicating control:

  • he is overly blunt, speaking in front of Catesby and disparaging the late King Edward IV (III.i.156)
  • he is overly blunt, again, speaking of Hastings: “Chop off his head” (III.i.193)
  • he is late to the coronation counsel, then overshares, saying he had been “long a sleeper” (III.iv.23)
  • he sends out the Bishop of Ely on a hunt for strawberries for no apparent reason (III.iv.31)
  • he presents as criminal charge against both Elizabeth and Mistress Short, a ham-handed (pun intended) accusation of witchcraft (III.iv.70)… when his arm had been this way all along; fear is the only thing that keeps others from attempting to refute this obvious lie
  • he suddenly calls for Hastings’ head (III.iv.760); a decision that will force an awkward explanatory sequence in the next scene
  • he proposes a whispering campaign that goes too far: accusing even his own mother of infidelity (if she fathered an illegitimate son in Edward BEFORE Richard, how hard would it be to make the same accusation of his own birth); admittedly, Richard realizes this and asks Buckingham to “touch this sparingly” (III.v.93)
  • he gives up control of the “play within a play” to Buckingham (III.vii)
  • he is overly blunt and coarse in calling for the princes’ (the “bastards” [IV.ii.18]) murders and in the banishment of Buckingham from “(Richard’s) counsel” (IV.ii.43)
  • he decides to marry his own “brother’s daughter” (IV.ii.59); this is a ludicrous decision.  If his whispering campaign concerning Edward’s bastardy WAS successful, then young Elizabeth’s hand in marriage is useless; if the campaign WAS NOT successful, then this is full-on incest.
  • he seems distracted by the thought of Richmond, as Buckingham attempts to take possession of the titles of Hereford (IV.ii) [admittedly, it IS possible that Richard is toying with Buckingham here… but I just don’t think so]
  • he, a formerly exceptional wordsmith, denigrates language after hearing of Ely joining forces with Richmond: “I have learned that the fearful commenting // Is leaden servitor to dull delay” (IV.iii.51-52)
  • he is clumsy at best–at worst disastrous–in his second wooing scene with Elizabeth (see yesterday’s entry)
  • he is clearly confused in how to use his messengers to respond to the incoming (and conflicting) military news (IV.iv.440-455), culminating in his own admission of his mental state: “My mind is changed” (IV.iv.456)
  • he loses control, striking a messenger (IV.iv.508)
  • he begins to create logical impossibilities: “A royal battle might be won AND lost” (IV.iv.536; emphasis mine)
  • he leaves decision-making up to his men, calling for “some one” (IV.iv.537) take the Buckingham order, failing to direct his men fully

All of these lead to complete decay of Richard’s faculties in his last major scene in the play, Act Five, Scene Three.  Here, the confusion reaches a crescendo:

  • he is uncertain of the future: “But where tomorrow? Well, all’s one for that” (line 8); worse yet, he doesn’t seem to care
  • he repeats call for drink (63 and 72) and ink and paper (49 and 75)
  • he admits to not having “that alacrity of spirit” (73); he no longer has the “liveliness” of that “incorporeal or immaterial being, as opposed to body or matter; being or intelligence conceived as distinct from, or independent of, anything physical or material” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0])
  • he repeatedly calls out (note the use of exclamation points) for people who are already in the tent with him (58, 66, and 282)
  • he is confused after his dream, not knowing (or becoming frightened by) Ratcliffe (209)
  • he is filled with fear (183, 213, 215, 218)
  • he is reduced to becoming an “eavesdropper” (222), spying on his own men

This is not the same man as we met at the opening of the play.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the heart of that third scene of Act Five: those doggone ghosts and that last soliloquy…