The Answer Man Loses It and Turns into the Great Equivocator

A couple of weeks back, when we discussed the Lady Anne wooing scene in Act One, Scene Two of Richard the Third, we called him the Answer Man for his ability to both “answer” Anne’s arguments as well as wear her down with both rhetoric and pronouns.

In Act Four, Scene Four, we have another wooing scene, in which Richard unsuccessfully attempts to win Queen Elizabeth’s approval for (and assistance in) a wooing of Princess Elizabeth, the Queen’s daughter with his own brother Edward IV.  Let’s see what goes wrong in this wooing.

Richard is immediately put on the defensive when, after he has asked Elizabeth to stay so that he can “talk a word” (IV.iv.199) with her, she preemptively strikes:

I have no more sons of the royal blood
For thee to slaughter.  For my daughters, Richard,
They shall be praying nuns, not weeping queens,
And therefore level not to hit their lives.

— IV.iv.200-203

She doesn’t know what he wants, but she does know what she has left to offer Richard: daughters, and here she tries to stop him before he can even start.  Obliviously, however, Richard trudges forward like a history-set (as opposed to comic) Petruchio: “You have a daughter called Elizabeth, // Virtuous and fair, royal and gracious” (IV.iv.204-205).  And here begins a wooing answering series, like the earlier with Anne:

R: "royal and gracious"
E: "must she die for this? ... veil of infamy"
R: "wrong not her birth... a royal princess"
E: "to save her... say she is not so"
R: "safest only in her birth"
E: "in that safety died her brothers"
R: "their birth... opposite"
E: "contrary"

Richard cannot answer this last line of Elizabeth’s “No, to their lives ill friends were contrary” (IV.iv.217), so he changes tactics:  “All unavoided is the doom of destiny” (IV.iv.218).  Again, Elizabeth can answer back (using “destiny”, but at the end of her speech, Richard again must change his approach: “You speak as if that I had slain my cousins” (IV.iv.222).  Elizabeth, again, answers back with a 13-line speech that begins with “Cousins indeed, and by their uncle cozened // Of comfort, kingdom, kindred, freedom, life” (IV.iv.223-224).  Here, not only does she answer him, but she gains control of the dialogue and scene through both uninterrupted speech and poetic use of language (the consonance of hard K sounds: Comfort Kingdom Kindred).  And for a moment, we feel as if she has taken control, as Richard had in the earlier scene with his long speech.

At the end of this speech, Richard has no choice but to change tactics again, and we then get two back-to-back answer streaks:

R: "I intend more good"
E: "What good...?"
R: "advancement"
E: "Up to some scaffold"
R: "height... glory"
E: "report of it... what state"
R: "all I have"

then after a prompting speech by Elizabeth:

R: "from my soul"
E: "thinks...with her soul"
R: "think"
E: "soul... it"
R: "meaning... Queen"
E: "King"
R: "queen... who"
E: "thou"
R: "how think you"
E: "how canst you"
R: "that ... learn of you"
E: "wilt thou learn of me"
R: "with all my heart"
E: her methodology
R: "this is not the way..."
E: "there is no other way... hath done all this"
R: "I did all this"

Elizabeth’s final answer is pretty unequivocal: “Nay, then indeed she cannot choose but hate thee, // Having bought love with such a bloody spoil” (IV.iv.289-290).  Such a statement cannot be answered, so again Richard must change subjects.  But now, taking a page from his own Act One playbook (and Elizabeth’s playbook of just a few dozen lines back, Richard launches into a long speech of his own.  But unlike his earlier masterpiece, this one has no sentences that grow in length, or leave his sparring partner speechless.  No, this one just feels clumsy and incompetent.  He begins, “Look, what is done cannot be now amended” (IV.iv.291).

wow, that‘s underwhelming…

What follows is a series of short, choppy sentences (none longer than four lines, most less) that argues a very weak case:

Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes,
Which after-hours give leisure to repent.
If I did take the kingdom from your sons,
To make amends, I'll give it to your daughter.
If I have killed the issue of your womb,
To quicken your increase, I will beget
Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter,
A grandam's name is little less in love
Than is the doting title of a mother.
They are as children but one step below,
Even of your mettle, of your very blood,
Of all one pain, save for a night of groans
Endured of her, for whom you bid like sorrow.
Your children were vexation to your youth,
But mine shall be a comfort to your age.
The loss you have is but a son being king,
And by that loss your daughter is made queen.

— IV.iv.292-308

Sometimes a guy does some bad things that he later repents (not that Richard repents… he’s just heard that that happens from time to time).  Then he unleashes a pair of “if”s: IF I stole the kingdom… IF I killed your sons… I’ll then make it right by your daughter.  This fictional Richard has no concept of parental love; he says that a grandmother’s love is almost that of a mother’s, only the grandmother doesn’t have to bear the pain of childbirth (“a night of groans”… though if we’re looking at Richard through the prism of sexual dysfunction, that COULD be sex).  These statements are so off the mark, they can most definitely be played for laughs.  But unlike earlier in the play, we’re not laughing with Richard, we’re laughing at his ineptitude here.  The Duchess of York hasn’t exactly been a loving mother to Richard (at least not in our experience of her character), so maybe this is what he thinks.  But it’s certainly not what WE think, and this just goes to distance him further from us (a process already begun an act earlier).

From here in the speech, he goes on to urge Elizabeth to “prepare (daughter Elizabeth’s) ears to hear a wooer’s tale” (IV.iv.327), one that will be of “(Richard’s) conquest won (over the ‘dull-brained Buckingham’ [IV.iv.332]” told on “a conqueror’s bed” (IV.iv.335, 337).  This argument is so badly constructed, it’s laughable… conceivably, it might work on the girl, but the girl’s mother.  Not likely.

Make that not at all.

Elizabeth can only respond — after all this talk of family: sons, daughters, mothers and grandmothers — with a familial question:

What were I best to say? Her father's brother
Would be her lord? Or shall I say, her uncle?
Or, he that slew her brothers and her uncles?

— IV.iv.337-339

What begins here, and NOT with an answer to her question, is a series of answers, more akin to the rhyming section of The Comedy of Errors, in which Richard posits a position (for example, “Infer fair England’s peace by this alliance” [IV.iv.343]), Margaret answers or refutes it (“Which she shall purchase will still-lasting war” [IV.iv.344]), and Richard is forced to move on to a new supposition.  This section begins with three single-line call-and-responses, then grows to multi-line passages:
R: "peace"
E: "war"

R: "king"
E: "king's King"

R: "queen"
E: "title"

R: "everlastingly"
E: "'ever' last"
R: "life's end"
E: "life last"
R: "as long as"
E: "as long as"

R: "subject"
E: "sovereignty"

R: "eloquent"
E: "honest"
R: "plainly"
E: "plain and not honest"

Richard concludes that Elizabeth’s “reasons are too shallow and too quick” (IV.iv.361).  Here, he is being the Great Equivocator, allowing multiple interpretations for his statement (all definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]).  He could mean that her arguments are

  • “lacking depth, superficial” and “mobile, shifting”
  • “wanting in depth of mind” and “hasty, impatient, hot-tempered”
  • “lacking resonance” but “chiefly of qualities, feelings, etc”
  • “not deep” and “able to act with speed or rapidity”

Of course, one of the meanings of “quick” that he leaves out is “full of vigor and acute reasoning” … he has thrown these multiple meanings at her because he doesn’t respect her intellect.  This is an attempt to either dazzle her with brilliance (or baffle her with bullsh!t).  He fully expects this to slow her down.

He is wrong:  she responds immediately with “O no, my reasons are too deep and dead — // Too deep and dead, poor infants, in their graves” (IV.iv.362-363).  Here, she turns yet another meaning of “quick” — “In a live state, living, alive” (OED) — back on to Richard’s argument.  The obvious interpretation of her response “deep and dead” is “solemn, grave” (OED, deep) and — well, duh — dead.  And that is the meaning to which Richard responds when he says, “Harp not on that string, madam; that is past” (IV.iv.364).  But here, he is the one dazzled/baffled as he doesn’t see two other meanings that were apparent to Shakespeare’s audience… her reasons are:

  • “hard to fathom” and “profound in craft or subtlety”
  • “deep-rooted in the breast; that comes from or enters into one’s inmost nature or feelings” and “bereft of sensation or vitality; benumbed, insensible”

She is both crafty and hard (for Richard) to figure out, AND speaking from a now dead heart.  He won’t understand, she’s saying, but he’s dead to her now and will receive nothing of emotional value for him.  She has no intention of giving him her daughter Elizabeth.

Within lines, Richard attempts to move on, trying tie his argument to some higher, more believable power.  He begins with entities that he takes “possession” of: “my George, my garter, and my crown… by myself” (IV.iv.366, 374).  Elizabeth refutes each.  He calls upon “(his) father’s death… by God” (IV.iv.376-377); each of the last four attempts are cut off mid-line by Elizabeth.  Not only is she successful in countering his arguments; she’s not even letting him finish his attempts.

So complete is her domination that she even taunts him with a half-line of her own: “What canst thou swear by now?” (IV.iv.387).  And when Richard responds, “The time to come” (IV.iv.387), Elizabeth unleashes her culmination:
That thou hast wronged in the time o'erpast;
For I myself have many tears to wash
Hereafter time, for time past wronged by thee.
The children live, whose parents thou hast slaughtered,
Ungoverned youth, to wail it in their age;
The parents live, whose children thou hast butchered,
Old withered plants, to wail it with their age.
Swear not by time to come; for that thou hast
Misused ere used, by time misused o'erpast.

— IV.iv.388-396

This is a wonderful response, complex in thought and structure (and rhyme in the last six lines: AB AB CC): He cannot swear by the time to come because of what he had done in the past… the children of those parents killed in the past, and the parents of those children killed in the past (including herself implicitly) will not allow Richard to swear by a time to come because he has already misused that time to come by how he has “ill-used” the past.

[for those thou/you fans out there, notice her consistent use of the more derogatory pronoun…]

Richard cannot respond to her argument, and his next speech seems to come out of nowhere:

As I intend to prosper and repent,
So thrive I in my dangerous attempt
Of hostile arms. Myself myself confound,
Heaven and fortune bar me happy hours.
Day, yield me not thy light; nor, night, thy rest.
Be opposite all planets of good luck
To my proceedings, if, with pure heart's love,
Immaculate devotion, holy thoughts,
I tender not thy beauteous princely daughter.
In her consists my happiness and thine.
Without her, follows to this land and me,
To thee, herself, and many a Christian soul,
Death, desolation, ruin and decay.
It cannot be avoided but by this;
It will not be avoided but by this.
Therefore, good mother--I must can you so--
Be the attorney of my love to her:
Plead what I will be, not what I have been--
Not my deserts, but what I will deserve;
Urge the necessity and state of times,
And be not peevish-fond in great designs.

— IV.iv.397-417

Here, he begins by promising to repent, and curses (“confound”) himself if he does not “tender” (either “to offer or advance in due and formal terms” or “to cherish, foster; to take care of, look after”) young Elizabeth.  He ties his future military success to his ability to marry Elizabeth.

a Shakespearean prophesy, perhaps?

Without this marriage, everyone (himself, and both Elizabeths included) and England will face “death, desolation, ruin and decay.”  He ends by calling Elizabeth “mother” and pleading for her to consider what he will be (as opposed to what he has been), what he will deserve (as opposed to what he now deserves).  Of course, Richard has only promised to repent; he hasn’t actually repented.  In reality, then, the verb tense means nothing: he will be and is now a villain; he will deserve and deserves now damnation.

When Elizabeth responds, we again get a pair of “answers”:

E: "Shall I be tempted of the devil thus?"
R: "devil"

note that in the Act One wooing, Anne changes from calling Richard a “devil” to “dissembler”; here, even after Richard’s best/last/most desperate line of attack, Elizabeth is still calling Richard a “devil”

E: "forget...myself"
R: "remembrance...yourself"

She reminds Richard, “Yet thou didst kill my children” (IV.iv.422).  His response is disturbing, to say the least:

But in your daughter's womb I bury them,
Where in that nest of spicery they shall breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.

— IV.iv.423-425

Here, we revisit an image from the opening soliloquy: womb as a place for burial.  But saying this to us, obliquely, in a soliloquy is one thing; saying it explicitly to a woman is quite another, especially a woman who is the MOTHER of the woman you’re trying to “woo.”  It’s a disturbing image made only worse by the use of “nest of spicery”: a place to hold spices.  If that wasn’t disturbing enough, consider that the alternate definitions of “spice” include “species” and “a slight touch or trace of some physical disorder or malady.”

[for the pop psychologists in the house, this could also tie into psycho-sexual aspects of Richard’s dysfunction…]

Elizabeth has had enough, and using two rhetorical strategies that the defeated Anne employed in Act One, Scene Two–calling for Richard to send her a message to which she will respond with her decision; the use after all this back-and-forth of the more neutral pronoun “you”–to exit the scene.

Richard obviously thinks he was won, as upon her exit he calls her “Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!” (IV.iv.431).  We, as an audience, though, should suspect otherwise… suspicions realized when we hear that she has given consent for Richmond to marry her daughter in the next scene.

Not only does Richard lose the verbal battle, but he ends cursing himself (though there is not made much of that in the resolution of the play…).