. . . 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, the duke of Gloucester, speaks in a monologue addressed to himself and to the audience. After a lengthy civil war, he says, peace at last has returned to the royal house of England. Richard says that his older brother, King Edward IV, now sits on the throne, and everyone around Richard is involved in a great celebration. But Richard himself will not join in the festivities. He complains that he was born deformed and ugly, and bitterly laments his bad luck. He vows to make everybody around him miserable as well. Moreover, Richard says, he is power-hungry, and seeks to gain control over the entire court. He implies that his ultimate goal is to make himself king.
Working toward this goal, Richard has set in motion various schemes against the other noblemen of the court. The first victim is Richard’s own brother, Clarence. Richard and Clarence are the two younger brothers of the current king, Edward IV, who is very ill and highly suggestible at the moment. Richard says that he has planted rumors to make Edward suspicious of Clarence.
Clarence himself now enters, under armed guard. Richard’s rumor-planting has worked, and Clarence is being led to the Tower of London, where English political prisoners were traditionally imprisoned and often executed. Richard, pretending to be very sad to see Clarence made a prisoner, suggests to Clarence that King Edward must have been influenced by his wife, Queen Elizabeth, or by his mistress, Lady Shore, to become suspicious of Clarence. Richard promises that he will try to have Clarence set free. But after Clarence is led offstage toward the Tower, Richard gleefully says to himself that he will make sure Clarence never returns.
Lord Hastings, the lord Chamberlain of the court, now enters. He was earlier imprisoned in the Tower by the suspicious King Edward, but has now been freed. Richard, pretending ignorance, asks Hastings for the latest news, and Hastings tells him that Edward is very sick. After Hastings leaves, Richard gloats over Edward’s illness. Edward’s death would bring Richard one step closer to the throne. Richard wants Clarence to die first, however, so that Richard will be the legal heir to power. Richard’s planned next step is to try to marry a noblewoman named Lady Anne Neville. An alliance with her would help Richard on his way to the throne. Lady Anne recently has been widowed—she was married to the son of the previous king, Henry VI, who recently was deposed and murdered, along with his son, by Richard’s family. Anne is thus in deep mourning. But the sadistic and amoral Richard is amused by the idea of persuading her to marry him under these circumstances.
In the play’s well-known opening lines, Richard refers to events that Shakespeare chronicles in his earlier plays Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, and with which he would have expected his viewers to be familiar. The Henry VI plays detail an exhausting civil war for the throne of England, which boiled down to a contest between two families: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. This civil war is known as the Wars of the Roses, because of the white and red roses that symbolized the houses of York and of Lancaster, respectively. Richard’s side, the House of York, eventually wins, and Richard’s oldest brother, Edward, is now King Edward IV.
This knowledge of the recent civil war helps us make sense of the opening lines, spoken by Richard: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York; / And all the clouds that loured upon our homes / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried” (I.i.1–4). Richard’s brother Edward is the “son of York” who has brought “glorious summer” to the kingdom, and Richard’s “winter of our discontent” is the recently ended civil war. The “house” is the House of York, to which Richard and his brothers Edward and Clarence belong, and which now rules the kingdom.
Richard’s opening speech explains important elements of his character. He says that because he cannot be happy—in part because he feels that he cannot be sexually successful with women—he has decided to ruin these prosperous times and make everybody else miserable: “[T]herefore 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” (I.i.28–31). He goes on to tell us how he has begun to spread rumors that should cause King Edward to suspect Clarence (Richard, and Edward’s brother), and to punish and imprison him—plans whose results become visible when Clarence walks onstage under guard.
But Richard is not really as simple and straightforward as his description of himself implies, however. The true motivations for his evil manipulations remain mysterious. In his speech, he speaks of his bitterness at his deformity; Richard is a hunchback, and has something wrong with one of his arms. But the play’s later action shows that Richard is physically very active, and that he is in fact quite confident in his ability to seduce women. Bitterness at his deformity also fails to explain his overpowering desire to be king or his lust for power. For these reasons, Richard may not seem like an entirely realistic and consistent personality to us. Moreover, for Shakespeare’s audience, Richard would have been strongly reminiscent of the two-dimensional “Vice” character of medieval morality plays, a character who was meant to illustrate man’s evil side rather than to present a psychologically realistic portrait. In fact, Richard explicitly compares himself to Vice (III.i.82). But Richard is much more than this stock figure—Shakespeare consistently creates the impression that there is more to Richard than we can begin to grasp.
Richard’s opening monologue also shows us what a masterful speaker he is. His speech is full of striking metaphors and images, such as his pun on “son” when he describes how King Edward has turned winter to summer (I.i.2). Most important, however, this scene shows us the deceptive way in which Richard interacts with the world. Richard has one persona when he speaks alone, but as soon as somebody else comes on stage, his attitude changes. In fact, he lies and manipulates so convincingly that we certainly would believe the sympathy and love he expresses toward his unhappy brother Clarence if we did not hear his earlier vow to destroy Clarence—a vow which he repeats as soon as Clarence leaves the stage. Richard’s remarkable skill at self-presentation has intrigued generations of actors and audiences alike. The character Richard is himself an actor, playing a role to the other characters on stage.
Finally, this scene hints at the complicated web of schemes and alliances that grows even more complex during the course of the play. In Richard’s scheme against Clarence, we see the first concrete result of his subtle and hypocritical designs. Additionally, in the symmetrical exchange of noblemen going in and out of the Tower of London we see how fleeting favor must have been in the royal court: Clarence falls from royal favor and is locked up, while Hastings regains it and is freed. This unpredictability of fortune and favor was a popular literary theme in Shakespeare’s day.
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: