Richard the Third opens differently than any other play we’ve read thus far.
- Comedy: entrance of Duke of Ephesus with prisoner; court proceeding
- Titus: entrance of nobles/political discussion (or funeral procession)
- Taming: entrance of two travelers into a city scene
- 1HenryVI: funeral procession
- 2HenryVI: wedding procession
- 3HenryVI: entrance of Yorkists into palace
Enter Richard Duke of Gloucester solus.
We get our first opening soliloquy thus far in our readings… and what a soliloquy it is. Save for possibly Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy or Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” funeral oration, this is possibly the most famous of all of Shakespeare’s speeches.
say it with me, people
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
As we noted before a couple of days back, this speech by Richard hearkens back to a victorious speech by his brother Edward IV back in The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. And we’ll dissect this speech to a much greater depth later in the month (to fail to do so would be a major dereliction of our duty here), but suffice to say, we’re either hearing Richard’s thoughts or he’s talking to us.
in the words of Megadeth: Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? … not Richard
He tells us that a time of war is over (winter turned “glorious summer”): “Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front” (I.i.9) in victory. This is a good thing, right?
It’s no longer a time for warriors, but one for lovers, for “the lascivious pleasing of lute” (I.i.13) and the “wanton ambling nymph” (I.i.17). But Richard (as he has intimated in the last play) feels that lacks or “wants love’s majesty” (I.i.16). Why? Because he is “not shaped for sportive tricks” (I.i.14), “rudely stamped” (I.i.16), and having “no delight to pass away” this “weak, piping time of peace” (I.i.25, 24). And since he “cannot prove a lover,” he is “determined to prove a villain” (I.i.27, 30).
He has set into motion a plot by which he means to “set (his) brother Clarence and the king // In deadly hate the one against the other” (I.i.34-35)… though it’s hatred BY Edward AGAINST George Duke of Clarence that is Richard’s primary goal. But in the midst of his revelation of how he’s attempting to do all this, he interrupts himself to tell us that “here Clarence comes!” (I.i.41).
and what glee and joy is deposited in that exclamation point!
As Richard talks to his brother, he discovers his plan has begun to work: Edward has sent George “to the Tower” (I.i.45) because his “name is George” (I.i.46). George, of course, cannot understand why this is happening to him, but Richard, toying with his brother, offers a deflection of blame: Women are to blame. The Queen (Lady Grey) has sent Lord Hastings into captivity (from which he’s being released only today, and only because Richard has petitioned Edward’s “Mistress Shore” [I.i.73] for his release).
ah, yes… guess Margaret was right in The Third Part about “wanton” Edward…
When Brackenbury tries to warn Richard against speaking to George (whom Edward has apparently put under a gag order), Richard feigns innocence then lets slip with a couple of bawdy jokes at the expense of Mistress Shore. Richard then, before George can be led away, tells his brother that he “will deliver (him), or else lie for (him)” (I.i.115). This “lie” is a delicious double-meaning: to George, Richard is willing to go to prison in his place; but for we who’ve heard Richard’s plans, that “lie” will be the one Richard tells about his brother to his other brother.
As George is taken off, Richard–again in soliloquy–pushes his inverted rhetoric even further: “I do love thee so // That I will short send thy soul to heaven” (I.i.118-119). But, again before we are privy to any more thoughts, he interrupts himself to introduce us to the recently released Hastings, who is out for revenge on those who “were the cause of (his) imprisonment” (I.i.128).
Of greater note, though, is the news Hastings brings from the Tower: Edward is sick and “his physicians fear him mightily” (I.i.137). After Richard registers no surprise (since Edward has “kept an evil diet long // And overmuch consumed his royal person” [I.i.139-140], the wanton scamp), he sends Hastings on his way, and ends the scene how he began it: alone and revealing to us his plan.
Edward, he says, “cannot live… and must not die // Till George be packed with post horse up to heaven” (I.i.145-146). Richard has a plan, but Edward must live long enough for it to work: he will present arguments to Edward to “urge his hatred more” (I.i.147), which should lead to a death sentence for George. Then death will need to give way to other matters: he will need to marry “Warwick’s youngest daughter” (I.i.155), the widow to King Henry’s son Prince Edward… even though Richard himself killed both father and son.
A great first scene: a charming anti-hero, shrewdly comic in his villainy; the exposition of the interpersonal political landscape; an outline of villainies to come. We are off and running.
Running a marathon: this first act is the longest in all of Shakespeare… 1063 lines… that’s over half the length of the entirety of The Comedy of Errors… this may be some slow sledding for the first part of the month…