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.
(Act 1, Scene 1, lines 1–40)
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.