Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Allure of Evil
When Richard claims that his deformity is the cause of his wicked ways, he seems to be manipulating us for sympathy, just as he manipulates the other characters throughout the play. As a result, Richard III does not explore the cause of evil in the human mind so much as it explores its operation, depicting the workings of Richard’s mind and the methods he uses to manipulate, control, and injure others for his own gain. Central to this aspect of the play is the idea that Richard’s victims are complicit in their own destruction. Just as Lady Anne allows herself to be seduced by Richard, even knowing that he will kill her, other characters allow themselves to be taken in by his charisma and overlook his dishonesty and violent behavior. This tendency is echoed in Richard’s relationship with the audience for much of the play. Even though the audience is likely to be repulsed by Richard’s actions, his gleeful, brilliant, revealing monologues cause most viewers to like him and even hope that he will succeed despite his obvious malice.
The Connection Between Ruler and State
The so-called window scenes in Richard III—the conversation of the common people in Act II, scene iii; Buckingham’s speech to the masses and Richard’s acceptance of the crown in Act III; and the scene of the Scrivener in Act III, scene iv—provide a glimpse of how the drama in the royal palace affects the lives of the common people outside its walls. As a history play, Richard III is at least somewhat concerned with the consequences of the behavior of those in power, and with ideas of good rulership and governance. It is significant that the common people come to fear and distrust Richard long before most of the nobles in the palace, and that the opposition of the common people to Richard is one of the main forces that enables Richmond to overthrow him. In these ways, Richard III explores a theme Shakespeare later revisited in Hamlet and Macbeth—the idea that the moral righteousness of a political ruler has a direct bearing on the health of the state. A state with a good ruler will tend to flourish (as Denmark does under King Hamlet), while a state with a bad ruler will tend to suffer (as Scotland does under Macbeth).
The Power of Language
An interesting secondary theme of Richard III is the power of language, or the importance of language in achieving political power. Language may not always be a necessary instrument of power, but for Richard, it is a crucial weapon. His extraordinary skill with words enables him to manipulate, confuse, and control those around him. Richard’s skill with language and argument is what enables him to woo Lady Anne, have Clarence thrown in prison, keep the Woodvilles off his track, blame the king for Clarence’s death, and achieve Hastings’s execution, all at very little risk to himself. Interestingly, language also seems to be the only defense against Richard, as is shown when the princes match his skill at wordplay and thus indicate their ability to see through his schemes. In such cases, Richard simply uses violence as an expedient and has his enemies, including the princes, put to death.
The Birth of the Tudor Dynasty
Richard III dramatizes a key turning point in English history: the end of the Wars of the Roses and the rise to power of the Tudor dynasty in the figure of Henry VII. The Tudors continued to rule England in Shakespeare’s day—Queen Elizabeth I, who sat on the throne when Richard III was written, was a Tudor. As a playwright in sixteenth-century England, Shakespeare had to court the favor of those in power, who literally could make or break his career. As a result, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III as a vile, hateful villain is in part designed to set up a glorious ascension for Henry VII at the end of the play. Henry overthrew Richard, after all, and the worse Richard seems, the better Henry will seem for defeating him; moreover, the better Henry seems, the more likely the Tudors are to approve of Shakespeare’s play. Had Shakespeare portrayed Richard as a hero, then Henry might have seemed villainous for usurping his throne, and Shakespeare might have fallen from favor with Queen Elizabeth. Of course, these political considerations are by no means the main focus of the play—Shakespeare’s exploration of the psychology of evil stands on its own and transcends mere propaganda. Still, it is important to realize that the history Shakespeare recounts in his story was still very much alive when he wrote it, and that the considerations of his own time strongly affected his portrayal of the past.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
For a play supposedly based on actual history, Richard III involves an extraordinary number of supernatural elements. Some of these elements are Margaret’s prophetic curses, Clarence and Stanley’s prophetic dreams, the allegations of witchcraft Richard levels at Elizabeth and mistress Shore, the continual association of Richard with devils and demons (for example, he is often called a hellhound), Richard’s comparison of himself to the shape-shifting Proteus, the Princes’ discussion of the ghosts of their dead uncles, and—most significant—the parade of eleven ghosts that visits Richard and Richmond the night before the battle. These supernatural elements serve to create an atmosphere of intense dread and gloom that matches the malice and evil of Richard’s inner self, and also serve to heighten the sense that Richard’s reign is innately evil, transforming England into a kind of Gothic netherworld.
The motif of prophetic dreams is part of the play’s larger preoccupation with the supernatural, but the idea of dreams emerges as its own separate motif after Stanley’s dream about Hastings’s death. Clarence and Stanley both have dreams that not only predict the future, but that are also heavy with important symbolism. For example, Clarence’s dream involves Richard causing his drowning at sea. Immediately after it, he is drowned in a cask of wine by murderers hired by Richard. In addition, Stanley’s dream involves Hastings being gored by a boar—Richard’s heraldic symbol. Immediately after it, Richard orders Hastings’s execution.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The boar is Richard’s heraldic symbol, and is used several times throughout the play to represent him, most notably in Stanley’s dream about Hastings’s death. The idea of the boar is also played on in describing Richard’s deformity, and Richard is cursed by the duchess as an “abortive, rooting hog” (I.iii.225). The boar was one of the most dangerous animals that people hunted in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and Shakespeare’s audience would have associated it with untamed aggression and uncontrollable violence.
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