Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
. . .
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;
. . .
Why, I in this weak piping time of peace
Have no delight to pass away the time,
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
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Richard speaks these lines to the audience at the beginning of the play. His speech serves a number of important purposes. It sets the scene, informing the audience that the play begins shortly after the death of Henry VI, with King Edward IV restored to the throne of England. Richard speaks of recent fighting, and says that “All the clouds that loured upon our house”—that is, the house of York—have been dispelled by the “son of York,” King Edward, whose symbol was the sun. Richard paints a vivid picture in which the English have put aside their arms and armor and celebrate in peace and happiness, culminating in the image of the god of war smoothing his rough and fierce appearance and playing the part of a lover in a woman’s chamber. All of these images make it clear to us that Richard has no justification for seizing the throne. England is obviously not oppressed or subject to tyranny, and Richard’s own brother holds the throne. That Richard intends to upset the kingdom by seizing power for himself therefore renders him monstrously selfish and evil.
Richard offers a pretext for his villainy by pointing out his physical deformity. He says that since he was not made to be a lover, he has no use for peace, and will happily destroy peace with his crimes. We are not likely to accept this reasoning as a valid or convincing justification for Richard’s villainy. Instead of making Richard sympathetic, it makes him seem more monstrous, because he can so blithely toss aside all of the things that the rest of humanity cherishes. At the same time, Richard’s speech makes his true motivations seem all the more dark and mysterious.
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv’st,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends.
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be while some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils.
Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell.
Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb.
Thou loathèd issue of thy father’s loins.
Thou rag of honour, thou detested—
Margaret delivers this invective at the conclusion of her long diatribe of curses against the Yorks and the Woodevilles. The speech, and the scene that accompanies it, is extremely important to the play, because it foreshadows the ends of nearly all the major characters, including the deaths of the queen’s kinsmen and the fall from grace of Elizabeth. Here, Margaret foreshadows Richard’s end by cursing him to mistake his friends for enemies, as he ultimately does with Buckingham, and his enemies for friends, as he does with Stanley. She also curses him to sleeplessness, which he experiences the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, when the ghosts of those he has murdered visit him. As a prophetic curse, the speech is one of the most notable instances of supernaturalism in the play, and it also contains some of the play’s most forceful and memorable language (“Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog”) in the form of -Margaret’s insults.
Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower,
And was embarked to cross to Burgundy,
And in my company my brother Gloucester,
. . .
Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling
Struck me—that thought to stay him—overboard
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
Clarence delivers this speech shortly before the murderers come to kill him in the tower. Clarence says that he dreamed he escaped from the tower and fled with Richard (“Gloucester”) to France, but on the ship, Richard betrayed him and cast him overboard to drown. This is the first of several prophetic dreams in the play, and it contributes to our sense that supernatural forces are at work driving the plot. Clarence’s dream foreshadows his imminent death, as well as the fact that he will be drowned (in a barrel of wine). Psychologically, the speech is interesting because it reveals the depth of Clarence’s trust for Richard. Rather than take this strikingly prophetic dream in which Richard betrays and kills him as an omen, Clarence refuses to credit the notion that Richard wishes him dead. To us it may appear that Clarence’s unconscious mind is trying to tell him something, but if that is the case, Clarence’s conscious mind is not listening. Clarence’s disbelief in his own dream creates the impression that Richard’s evil is too monstrous for those around him to accept or imagine, and thus it amplifies our horror of Richard.
Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is.
Bett’ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse.
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.
Margaret makes this speech as she teaches the duchess and Elizabeth how to curse. Margaret says that to wrench the full power of anguish from language one must steep oneself in one’s misery, -staying awake at night, going hungry during the day, and even convincing oneself that one’s children were better than they actually were. This speech is an important insight into the character of Margaret, who has made it her life to experience the pain of loss. It is also an important insight into the plight of victimized women in the play, who have no weapon against their victimizers but language and who must continually inflict psychological violence on themselves in order to wield their weapon as effectively as they can. When Richard appears in the middle of this scene, the women, one of whom is his own mother, turn on him with ferocious insults, indicating that they have internalized Margaret’s advice and learned how to transform their pain into curses.
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why:
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain.
Richard makes this speech immediately after his visitations by the ghosts; it is perhaps the only moment in the play in which he reveals any self-doubt, conscience, or regret for his brutal actions. Richard seems to wake up, and he is so full of fear that he is sweating. To calm his fear, he reminds himself that he is by himself and therefore safe. But he is seized with renewed horror when he realizes that he himself is the most frightening person he could be left alone with. He asks himself rhetorically whether there is a murderer with him, and he realizes that he himself is a mass-murderer.
Frightened, Richard tells himself to run away, but he realizes that he cannot flee from himself. He asks himself whether he is frightened of his own revenge against himself. This idea is very interesting—the forces driving Richard have always been mysterious, and here he seems to allude to some inner demon from which even he is not safe. But he quickly moves past this thought to assert that he could not hurt himself because he loves himself. However, he immediately realizes that he does not love himself, because he has never done anything good that merits love. Instead, he hates himself for the evil he has done to others. In the first speech of the play, Richard declares that he is determined “to prove a villain” (I.i.30). He now declares that he has become one (“I am a villain”). But rather than feel that he has achieved his goal, Richard is suddenly afflicted with moral loathing and self-doubt, a psychological undermining that may contribute to his downfall during the battle.
Richard III is a fun read because the king is so evil. I'm reading all of Shakespeare by his 450th birthday, and this play gave me a great gift idea. See my blog about Richard III and a present for the Bard: