That opening soliloquy.  Let’s get elbow deep, shall we?  Just so we’re all on the same page (or web-browser screen, as it were), here’s the opening speech Richard the Third:


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.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, 5
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds 10
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass; 15
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time 20
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them —
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time, 25
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain 30
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other; 35
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mewed up
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be. 40
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes!


Forty-one lines.  By my text (the Pelican Shakespeare, edited by Peter Holland), seven sentences.

the ol’ crookback gets on a heckuva roll there mid-speech

The first sentence is pretty straightforward, proclaiming that after a time of war and “discontent” (1), a shining new day has been ushered in by Edward (the “son of York” [2] who used the SUN as his emblem).  He also notes that the Lancastrian threat (“the clouds that lowered upon our house” [3] of York during the War of the Roses) is now dead and “buried” (4).  We see, too, Richard’s love of language and rhetoric, as he uses opposites to tell his tale: winter/summer, discontent/glory, son-sun/clouds and ocean.

Metrically, a couple of things of note.  The speech, the scene, the play, begins not with an iamb, but with a trochee, a stressed syllable, and what a syllable and word it is:

\  ~   ~   \  ~  \   ~   \  ~  \
Now is the winter of our discontent

NOW.  It’s a bold word, one that wipes clean the past.  This won’t be a simple history as the three plays before it… this is The Tragedy of Richard the Third (its full title).  The fourth line, the last of the opening sentence also shows some variance from straight iambic pentameter (to which lines 2 and 3 conformed):

\   ~   \    \ ~  \   ~  \  ~   \  ~
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Here, we have a trochee, followed by a spondee (two stressed syllables), and then an extra unstressed syllable at then end of the line (a feminine ending).  Again, the trochee pops the line to a start, and the spondee forces us to realize that the Lancastrian threat is just buried, it’s buried DEEP.  And for the feminine ending, it’s as if he has too many ideas to be contained in a single line.

The second sentence, too, consists of only four lines, and it continues the first sentence’s oppositional rhetoric in its declaration of the changes Edward has brought: battered weapons (“bruised arms” [5])/monuments, stern/merry, calls to arms (“alarums’ [6])/meetings, dread/delight, marches/measures.  And if Richard’s oppositional line of discourse isn’t enough to show his love of language, check out the sounds he uses (at the end of the first sentence and) in this sentence to show the transition of war to peace: Brows Buried Bruised uPMonuMents alaruMs Merry Meetings Marches Measures.  The plosive “B” sounds are onomatopoeic of bombs and explosions, while the nasal “M” sound approximates the murmuring silence after the battle has ended.  It’s quite beautiful, when you think about it.

Metrically, the four lines are fairly regular, save for the occasional trochee (adding emphasis to one of those plosive “B”s in “bound” [5]); the last two lines of the sentence also have feminine endings, accentuating the feel of more ideas than a regular line can hold.

So it’s no surprise that the next sentence is slightly longer, five lines this time.  And if the second sentence was all about the political and social differences between war and peace, the head and the heart as it were, then this third sentence aims a bit lower to discuss the interpersonal and sexual changes as England transitions into peace.  Snarling, grimacing (“grim-visaged” [9]) war has smoothed his face (“front” [9]), and is now ready to play the lover.  Again, it’s the sounds near the end of the sentence that carry the weight, maybe not of meaning this time but of tone: nimbLy Lady’s Lascivious pLeasings Lute.  la la la la la… sing-songy, almost — no, not almost, FULLY — derisive.

Why is Richard so derisive of the warrior-turned-lover?

He has his reasons, and outlines them in the fourth sentence.  Where the first three sentences added up to a total of 13 lines, the fourth line by itself is FOURTEEN lines long.

too bad it doesn’t have a sonnet’s rhyme scheme… how cool would that have been!

Up until this point, we can debate all we want as to whether Richard is talking to himself, to us, or just releasing his thoughts to the wind.  But in the fourth sentence, we get to the core, the root of his argument for his induction, his motives for all actions to come, raison d’être for his character:  his deformity.  And he is most definitely saying all this to us, the audience, as he sets himself off as “I” repeatedly…

The opening word of the sentence is telling: “But” (14).  In other words, all that came before this means nothing, and here’s why…   He goes on to discuss his deformity, but check out the way he does it:  he sets up three arguments, all with an introductory “I” (14,16,18), but instead of making them independent clauses, where we would get a verb following the “I,” we get a “that” (14,16,18, too) which builds a dependent clause.  He doesn’t want independent sentences, he wants these to roll on, to build to a crescendo (definitions below taken from the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0):

  • he is deformed (“not shaped for sportive tricks” [14])
  • he is ugly (“nor made to court an amorous looking glass” [15])
  • he is poorly created, like a badly printed coin (“rudely stamped” [16])
  • he is either without or is without AND desires (“want” [16]) the “impressive stateliness” of love (“love’s majesty” [16])– Interesting that whether he desires love or not, he equates it with the state, of politics, when he is not a politician, but a warrior…
  • he is unable–because of his lack of love’s majesty–to court a sexual woman (“nymph” [17])
  • he is short (“curtailed of this fair proportion” [18])
  • he is ugly, cheated of good form or shape (“feature” [19])
  • he is “deformed (and) unfinished” (20) because of his premature birth (“sent before [his] time” [20)
  • he has a limp because he is lame (“halt” [23]; the word did not take on its meaning of “stop” until the next century)

It’s quite the list.  And the conclusion to it is that Richard, because of all these things, in this new era without war (“weak piping time of peace” [24])–has nothing to do in these times–except to look at his own shadow and “discourse at large” (OED) on his own ugliness (“descant on (his) own deformity” [27])… which is EXACTLY what he’s doing in this fourth sentence.

As far as the meter is concerned here, the first few lines have only two non-iambs:

\  \   ~   \   ~    \     ~    \ ~      \
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
\    ~  ~   \   ~   \       ~   \    ~      \ ~  \
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love's majesty

The spondee in line 14 and the trochee in line 16 are there primarily to emphasize the “I”s… but note, too, that line 16 has six, not five, poetic feet… again, too many ideas for the line…. you can feel him about to explode, and when he does, it’s not the line lengths, it’s the metric deviations from blank verse that’s interesting:

\    ~  ~   \  ~     \    ~   \     ~ \  ~ \
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
\  ~  ~   \  ~    \  ~  \   ~    \ ~
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
\ \      \  \ ~       \    ~ \    ~  \
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
\  ~   ~    \   ~    \       \     \    ~   \
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
~    \   ~  \   ~  \  ~  \  ~  -\-
And that so lamely and unfashionable
~   \    \   ~   ~  \ ~  \    \   ~
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them --
~   \  ~    \   \    \ ~    \   ~   \
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
~    \  ~ \     ~  \   ~ \   ~   \
Have no delight to pass away the time,

The lines are filled with multiple trochees and spondees, stretched-out words and extra feet (line 18’s pro-POR-shee-UN), swallowed syllables (line 22’s un-FA-shun-BOL); this is a man intensely unsettled.  The meter begins to come back to blank verse in line 25 after his final “I” (24).  The rest of this sentence, as he talks about “descant(ing)” on deformity, is all regular iambic pentameter.  Just the idea of consciously talking about it, can calm him from the actual talking of it.

Sentence five of the speech returns to the short(er) construction of a four-line sentence, and it is the culmination of his descant (it even begins with “And therefore” [28]).  It also brings back the opposition rhetoric: lover/villain, entertain/hate.  If the fourth sentence builds to a crescendo, then the fifth sentence is the cool, calm, and quiet ringing truth that follows:  Richard is making the conscious decision (“determined” [30]) to be a villain.

Metrically, four items are of note here: “lover” at the end of the line gives it a weaker, feminine ending; line 29’s spondee highlights “well-spoken” (and isn’t that what Richard is); line 30’s opening trochee again emphasizes Richard’s “I” and the stretching out of “determined” (de-TER-min-ED) heightens the listener’s anxiety leading to the word “villain,” after which the final line of the sentence is regularly iambic pentameter.

The first sentence delivers a state-of-the-union overview, the second an overview of the political and social changes, the third a derisive broadside at the interpersonal and sexual environment, the fourth an outline of his deformities, and the fifth his declaration what he is going to do (be a villain).  Now we turn from what to how; the sixth sentence presents Richard’s methodology.  It’s all very straightforward.  The only thing of note (save the oppositional rhetoric of Edward/Richard) is the alphabetical point.  Richard says that Clarence will be imprisoned (“mewed up” [38]) because of a prophecy that someone with a name that begins with the letter “G.”  The Duke of Clarence’s given name is actually “George” and thus he will be arrested.  The wonderful irony (and one completely lost on Al Pacino and his company in his documentary Looking for Richard) is that Richard’s title is the Duke of Gloucester.  The prophecy is true (or as real as one can be)… it’s even funnier that in The Third Part of Henry the Sixth, it is Edward himself that gives each brother his title).

To explain all this, Richard needs to slow down, and except for the sentence’s opening trochee (line 32’s “Plots have I laid…”) and an anomaly in line 38, this sixth sentence is thumpingly regular iambic pentameter.   (btw, the anomaly in line 38 is a trochee to emphasize “THIS day” and a spondee to highlight “MEWED UP” a the end of the line)

The seventh and final sentence is a single line, a comic throw-away of him telling us that his verbalized thoughts must dive down to his soul because Clarence is coming, a wonderful transition from soliloquy to dialogue.

It’s all pretty straightforward, right?  Because he’s deformed, he’s going to be a villain.


Yeah, but that’s too easy… because it’s not just the deformity that gets to him.  After all, he doesn’t say,

And therefore, since I'm one messed-up looking dude,
I'm gonna be a villain.

no, he says:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

— 28-31

He’s determined to become a villain because he cannot be a lover.  Sex is out of the question.  It’s NOT just the deformity, it’s the TYPE of deformity.  There must be a greater physical reason that he “cannot prove a lover,” that he cannot “to have experience of” (OED) being a lover.

[CONTENT REDACTED: In this blog entry, I made reference to Dr. Pauline Kiernan’s work and book on bawdy in the Bard, Filthy Shakespeare; in doing so, I have offended her by my tone and use of her material. I apologize for the offense, and have thus redacted the reference.]

and could it be that this is why McKellen (in his 1995 film adaptation) performs this section of the speech in a restroom, at a urinal, no less?!?

Richard does say that because he cannot be a lover, he will be a villain.  If it was just a hunchback, just a withered arm, that wouldn’t stop him from having sex.  A noble of his status would have no problem securing a mistress, a courtesan, or even a whore for those needs.  So a sexual dysfunction does have some logic.

Regardless of the reason, he feels he cannot have sex.  With that in mind–and with that on HIS mind–the sexualized language that comes before his deformity tirade becomes much more interesting.

What sexualized language? you ask?

the sophomore boy in me is soooooo glad you asked!

As early as line 3, we get double meanings.  While bosom can mean breast or chest, bosom can also mean “the womb” (OEM).  And isn’t it interesting that Richard revisits this womb/sepulcher imagery later when speaking to Queen Elizabeth: “But in your daughter’s womb, I bury (Queen Elizabeth’s murdered children)” (IV.iv.423).

It’s not too difficult (for the more bawdy-minded) to imagine the brow and the victorious wreath as the male and female genitalia, respectively, in line 5.

If war is a primarily male endeavor (probably so in the mind of Richard, at least), the physical analog for war would be that which is quintessentially male:  the flaccid penis is wrinkled with folded skin; upon erection, those folds are stretched smooth (“Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front”… and if you don’t want to go with the war-as-cock metaphor, note that while “front” can mean face, it can also mean “the foremost part” [OED]).  War then dances skillfully in a “lady’s chamber” (12)… symbolically, vaginal sex.

Even the horse imagery is filled with bawdy allusions: “Mounting” barbed steeds?  Puh-lease.  The “wanton ambling nymph”?  To amble is “to move in a way suggesting the motion or pace of an ambling horse,” rhythmical, jaunty.  Sexual.

oh, the mind reels at the psycho-sexual possibilities of this…

Could it be that Richard (and here, of course, we’re talking Shakespeare’s Richard and NOT the historical Richard, who not only married Lady Anne, but fathered a son as well) is unable to have sex, and the frustration which arises from that inability becomes the pathology of the villain?

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