The history of this period dating from the reign of Richard II to the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485 was dramatized in two tetralogies. The first includes Richard II
(1595), the two Henry IV
plays (1597-98), and Henry V
(1599). In these plays Shakespeare presented the tragic fortunes of Richard II, which culminated in his deposition and murder: the rebellions which harassed the reign of the usurper and regicide, Henry IV; and the triumph of Henry V, who escaped punishment in this world for the sins of his father because he engaged English forces in a war against a foreign enemy, France, winning his famous victories. The second tetralogy includes the three Henry VI
plays (l590-92) and Richard III
(1593). Obviously, the latter plays predate those comprising the first tetralogy, but there is sufficient evidence, external and internal, that Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, saw in the deposition of Richard II, a lawful anointed ruler, the source of England's troubles during the entire period. This is a point worth keeping in mind because it makes understandable why the descendants of Lancastrian Henry IV as well as the members of the Yorkist party should be made to suffer grievously.
The first Quarto of Richard III (1597) provides the only external evidence for dating the play, but internal evidence is sufficiently great to point to the earlier date of composition cited above. Certainly the close relation to Henry VI, Part 3, wherein the character of Richard of Gloucester is fully established, indicates that the play was written soon after that chronicle history reached an appreciative public. The style is unmistakably that of early Shakespeare — the poet-dramatist who was still under the influence of his predecessors. As Sir Edmund K. Chambers pointed out (William Shakespeare, Vol. I. 1930, p. 302), it is a highly mannered, rhetorical style marked by frequent exclamations, violent and vituperative speeches, cumulative passages of parallel lines with parisonic endings and beginnings, as in these lines spoken by Queen Margaret:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
I had a husband, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him. (IV. iv. 40-43)
The elaborate imagery, repetitions, quibbles, and conceits in the wooing scene (I. ii) provide good examples of the early playwright who is rather pleased with his cleverness rather than wholly concerned with character portrayal. All of these stylistic devices may be found in later Shakespeare, to be sure, but never in such abundance. Significant also is the fact that the blank verse in this play is largely end-stopped — that is, there is a grammatical or rhetorical pause at the end of most lines rather than an overrunning of sense from one line to another, which gives a more naturalness to the discourse. The student will find it useful to read aloud and to compare Richard's opening soliloquy with any of those in the late tragedies to appreciate the stylistic difference.
Certain elements of style in Richard III are to be traced to the Roman dramatist Seneca, and these merit notice here. The ten tragedies attributed to Seneca were available in translation by 1581; indeed, the first dates from 1559. These had great influence upon many of Shakespeare's predecessors and contemporaries. The tone and temper of the Roman's works, his sensationalism and moralizing, his stress on the tragedy of the individual had wide appeal. Comparatively ignorant of the Greek tragic writers, Shakespeare's generation found in Seneca inspiration and, to an appreciable extent, the model for their own tragedies. As for style, the self-revealing soliloquy, the long speeches characterized by full-blown rhetoric, the often epigrammatic alternating lines of speech and reply called stichomythia (as in the dialogue between Richard and Anne beginning "I would I knew thy heart," I. ii. 193 ff.) all found a place in Elizabethan tragedy, including Richard III. Likewise with reference to the sensationalism in developing the theme of murder and revenge. Indeed, Elizabethans went beyond Seneca, in whose plays violence is reported or described, not presented onstage. More often than not, such violence was depicted before the eyes of Elizabethan audiences. Among the Senecan trappings of tragedy are ghosts, foreboding dreams, signs and omens of impending catastrophe — all of which appear in Richard III.
With the stress on the individual, Seneca pointed the way to the one-man play, the drama in which the protagonist almost completely dominates the action. Because Shakespeare followed this lead, he achieved a unity theretofore unknown in chronicle history plays. The Henry VI plays, for example, are notably epic in structure. The shifted emphasis to the titular hero makes justifiable the title The Tragedy at Richard III. This brings us to the hero-villain and the second line of influence, a knowledge of which adds appreciably to an understanding of the play. The reference is to the stage Machiavel. It has been argued that Machiavelli, author of The Prince (1513), was actually an early political idealist seeking to unify Italy by appealing to the ambitions of the Renaissance princes. But for most Elizabethans, the Machiavellian was practically equated with the Devil. Political cunning, overreaching by diplomacy, and intrigue came to be known as Machiavellianism, the philosophy of which seems to have been that the end justified the means, however cruel they may be. Christopher Marlowe brought the Machiavellian villain to the stage in his The Jew of Malta and The Massacre of Paris. In Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3 (III. iii. 124-95), Richard of Gloucester soliloquizes, identifying himself as one whose criminal ambitions will lead him to "set the murderous Machiavel to school." He thus early emerged as the complete Machiavellian villain-hero.
The dramatized story of Richard had wide appeal, and Shakespeare's play was not the only one based upon his career. Other versions were performed in the public theaters and at Cambridge University. As late as 1602, Ben Jonson started to write a play entitled Richard Crookback. It is not only the fact that the evil character of Richard was bound to be fascinating for so many and that the accompanying sensationalism had quite as great an appeal; English history had its special attraction for the Elizabethans. And was not the queen's grandfather the man who defeated Richard and established the Tudor dynasty? Most Englishmen were deeply interested in plays which dealt with the dynastic question, for Elizabeth I never had named her successor. Dissension and civil war, it was feared, might well follow the death of the aging queen.
Richard Burbage, distinguished tragedian in Shakespeare's company, won wide acclaim for his creation of the title role, and the king's exclamation "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" was much admired and was imitated by Shakespeare's fellow dramatists. Further evidence of popularity is the fact that no less than six Quarto editions of the play were published between 1597 and 1622. Throughout the years, it has remained a favorite among the history plays. If it must relinquish first place to Henry IV (thanks especially to the presence of the incomparable Falstaff), Richard III has held its own very well. During the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, it was often the choice of leading actors because the titular hero dominates the action and because the rhetorical school of acting still flourished. There are other reasons, of course. Bernard Shaw, reviewing Sir Henry Irving's production for the Saturday Review in 1896, wrote as follows:
The world being yet little better than a mischievous schoolboy, I am afraid it cannot be denied that Punch and Judy holds the field still as the most popular of dramatic entertainments. And of all its versions . . . Shakespeare's Richard III is the prince of Punches: he delights Man by provoking God, and dies unrepentant and game to the last.
This is sound criticism. Especially, Shaw's remarks stress the fact that the spectacle of the unconscionable, dedicated sinner, one possessed with inordinate ability and endowed with a fine wit, is irresistibly fascinating.
Quite accurately the blank verse of Richard III has been described as simple. As has been stated above, it is early Shakespearean blank verse. But already the distinctive Shakespearean accents are noticeable. It would do the playwright an injustice to underestimate the effects he attains or to dismiss the style as predominantly one of rant, bombast, fustian. In the first place, the standards of realism, as we understand the term today, are no more applicable to the style of the play than they are to much of the action and the portrayal of character. Surely no one would step forth and, voicing his thoughts aloud, declare that he is determined to be a villain. Nor would it be possible for the most gifted individual to effect the complete volteface which we witness when Richard, first excoriated by the grief-stricken widow of Edward, Prince of Wales, succeeds in winning the hand of that lady even as she follows the hearse of the murdered Henry VI. Shakespeare did not offer all this as a slice of life. His audiences were familiar with the story of Richard conceived as the arch-villain whose nemesis was the first of the Tudors. It had been told by Sir Thomas More, whose vividly written tragic history in prose was printed complete in 1557; and More's work had been used by the chronicle historians, Richard Grafton, Edward Hall, and Raphael Holinshed, the latter being Shakespeare's chief source.
In Richard III, one does not have any great difficulty in finding lines which manifest the sure touch of a superior poet. Consider, for example, the fourth one of the opening scene: "In the deep bosom of the ocean buried." Or take the following memorable lines spoken by Queen Elizabeth, whose daughter Richard wishes to marry:
Send to her by the man that slew her brothers
A pair of bleeding hearts; thereon engrave
Edward and York: then haply will she weep.
Therefore present to her, — as sometimes Margaret
Did thy father, steep'd in Rutland's blood, — A handkerchief; which, say to her did drain
The purple sap from her sweet brother's body;
And bid her wipe her weeping eyes withal. (IV. iv. 271-78)
Finally, listen to Gloucester's reply when he is warned to beware of falling:
Our aery buildeth in the cedar's top
And dallies with the wind and scorns the sun. (I. iii. 264-65)
These are as attractive as poetry as they are dramatically effective.
All this is not to deny that the formal verbal patterning seems to be excessive and to pose a special problem for modern readers and members of the audience. Yet such a style is consistent with the basic pattern of retributive justice which provides the major theme of this historical tragedy — God's inexorable punishment visited upon those guilty of the heinous crimes of murder and perjury. The first example is found in Act I, Scene 2, when the distraught Lady Anne laments the death of Henry VI, the "holy king":
O cursed be the hand that made these holes!
Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let his blood from hence. (14-16)
The device is especially prominent in the speeches of Queen Margaret, one example of which has been quoted above.
In keeping with the major theme, Richard of Gloucester functions as the Scourge of God before he himself is scourged for his heinous crimes. If Shakespeare remained faithful to the received interpretation of Gloucester's character, he nevertheless manifested his originality and ability as a dramatist throughout the play. Most of the best-known speeches are his creations. These include the opening soliloquy, Clarence's impassioned outbursts, and the long tirades of Queen Margaret. Similarly with reference to much of the action and shorter dialogue. The wooing scene between Richard and Anne, for example, is original with Shakespeare, as is the ironic exchange between the titular hero and the young Duke of York. If Holinshed gave him the lead for depicting the villain's hypocritical display of religiosity when the mayor appeared and when the well-schooled Buckingham offered Richard the crown (III. vii), it remained for Shakespeare to make the most of the hint; the chronicle historian reported no more than that Richard appeared "with a bishop on every hand of him."
In order to concentrate our interest, the poet-dramatist crowds into the space of a few days the funeral of Henry VI (1471), the murder of Clarence (1478), and the death of Edward IV (1483). The historic time from the burial of Henry VI to the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) was more than fourteen years. The dramatic time was some eleven or twelve days with four intervals — between I. ii and I. iii; II. iii and II. iv;
IV. v and V. i; and V. ii. Shakespeare thus achieved a degree of unity unknown to the episodic Henry VI plays and helped to justify the title The Tragedy of Richard III.