Summary and Analysis
Appearing on a London street, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, soliloquizes, providing much exposition and revealing a great deal about himself. The long years of the Lancastrian supremacy are over, and the house of York is now rising to prominence. Those who have distinguished themselves in the grim arts of war are relaxing in the pleasure of love. Richard refers particularly to his brother Edward IV.
The thought of his handsome brother reminds Richard of his own deformity. He has one withered arm and a hunched back and so concludes that he is unfit for love. Therefore he will play the villain. The first of his wicked plots is already under way: He has told Edward about a prophecy that says that someone with a name beginning with "G" will murder Edward's heirs. The king has taken this to mean his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence.
Richard's thoughts are interrupted by the entrance of Clarence, who is guarded by Brackenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower, much to the apparent surprise and concern of Richard. Clarence explains that he is being sent to the Tower because Edward has listened to the prophecy about the letter "G." Richard is quick to attribute the king's action to the fact that he is ruled by his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, who with her brother had had Lord Hastings imprisoned. He declares that the king's blood relatives and supporters are no longer safe.
Richard and Clarence then talk disparagingly of the queen and of the king's mistress, Jane Shore, whom they accuse of ruling the kingdom by gossip. Brackenbury intervenes, not wishing to overhear such dangerous talk. Insisting that there is no question of treasonable discourse, Richard then demonstrates his wit and sense of irony as he slyly speaks of the "noble Queen" and catalogues the attractions of Jane Shore. With resignation, Clarence agrees to accompany Brackenbury, and his brother assures him that he will either deliver him from prison or take his place as a prisoner. Alone, however, Richard restates his determination to have his brother's soul sent to heaven.
Hastings, newly released from prison, enters. He vows that he will avenge himself upon those responsible for his imprisonment and brings news that the king is ill. Richard blames this illness on Edward's self-indulgence and promises to follow Hastings to his bedside. The scene ends with another soliloquy in which Richard elaborates his evil plans. Clarence must be disposed of at once, before King Edward's death. Then Richard will marry Warwick's daughter Anne, though he had killed her husband, Edward, Prince of Wales, and her father-in-law, Henry VI. He explains that the marriage will further his ends. Aware that his plans are barely started, he goes off to take definite action.
Lady Anne, second daughter of the Earl of Warwick, appears onstage, following the funeral cortege of the slain Henry VI, whom she identifies as her father-in-law. She is escorting the body of this "holy King," last great member of the house of Lancaster, to Chertsey in Surrey for burial. Making reference also to herself as the wife of Edward, the "slaughtered son" of the dead ruler, she calls upon the ghost of Henry to hear her lamentations. Heaping curses on the murderer, she implores God to punish him: Let any child of his be born prematurely and prove to be monstrous; if he marry, let his wife endure the misery of his death, even as Anne herself now suffers.
At this point, Richard enters and violently stops the procession in order to speak to Anne. She denounces him vehemently and utters the prophetic cry, "Thou hast made the happy earth thy hell." She points out that King Henry's wounds have started to bleed again as a result of Richard's presence. Gloucester appeals to her charity. In a dialogue of quick and studied repartee, she heaps more curses upon him, while he parries with flattering words and begs for the chance to explain himself. Though she scorns him and even spits upon him, he is not to be deterred. He presses his suit, declaring that if he was guilty of Henry's and Edward's death, he had been motivated solely by his desire to possess her beauty. When she denounces him as a "foul toad" that infects her eyes, Richard insists that the beauty of her eyes makes him weep — he, who remained dry-eyed when his brother Rutland and his father had been slain. This recital merely excites her scorn; so he bares his bosom, gives her his sword, and — admitting that he indeed killed Henry and Prince Edward — invites her to kill him. When Anne refuses to be his executioner, he urges her to tell him to kill himself, but to do so not in rage. At last Anne is in some doubt and says: "I would I knew thy heart." Richard is quick to press his advantage and prevails on her to accept a ring. When she takes it, she states that she promises nothing in return. Nevertheless, when he asks her to repair to Crosby Place, his London residence, and there to wait for him while he buries King Henry with his "repentant tears," she promptly agrees to do so.
Alone, Richard gloats over this conquest of Lady Anne made when the odds were so great against him — the fact that she changed from a mood of venomous hate to one of ready acquiescence and found him "to be a marvelous proper man," particularly in contrast to her dead husband, whom he had killed at Tewkesbury some three months earlier. He reveals his plan to "have her . . . but not keep her long." In view of his success so far, he finds that his deformity pleases him.
At the palace, Queen Elizabeth is discussing with Lord Rivers, her brother, and Lord Grey, her son, the king's illness. Elizabeth is especially concerned with what her fate will be if her husband should die. As she points out to Lord Grey, her young son, the Prince of Wales, is "put unto the trust of Richard Gloucester," whom she knows to be her enemy and that of all the Woodville faction. The Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Derby (also called Lord Stanley) enter and courteously greet the queen. To Derby she remarks that the Countess Richmond, his wife, would not say amen to his prayer for her happiness, for she is a woman of "proud arrogance" who does not cherish the queen. Derby insists that his wife is the victim of "false accusers" — either that or her attitude toward Elizabeth stems from perverse sickness, not malice. In response to a question, Buckingham reports that King Edward seems to have improved in health: He "speaks cheerfully" and is especially desirous of ending the quarrel between the queen's brothers and the offended Buckingham and Hastings. Elizabeth can only voice her fervent wish that all were well and to express the fear that her fortunes will not improve.
Richard, Hastings, and Lord Dorset (son to Elizabeth by her first marriage) enter. "They do me wrong, and I will not endure it." These are the first words of Richard, who presents himself as injured innocence, enraged because the queen's relatives have misrepresented him to the king. He offers himself as a simple, plain man, wronged by the insinuations of sly flatterers whom he cannot match because deception is no part of his character. When Rivers protests, Richard accuses him and all his family for troubling the king with vulgar complaints against him. Elizabeth explains that the king, seeing the hatred of the two families, merely wishes to find the cause of their ill will by having them meet with each other. Richard retorts that he can no longer understand matters now that the world is upside down, with every common fellow made a gentleman and every gentleman rudely treated like a common fellow.
The queen brings the quarrel into the open, saying that Gloucester envies the advancement of her family. Richard counters with the charge that the queen is responsible for Clarence's imprisonment. She protests. When Lord Rivers breaks in to defend her, Richard taunts her with having married a "handsome bachelor stripling," implying that she, an older widow, was not fit for one so young. The queen is stung by this and threatens to tell the king of all the insults she has borne from Richard.
Old Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI, enters and stands apart, listening to the wrangling of her enemies and now and then interjecting scathing comments on the words of successive speakers. To her it is a source of satisfaction that Elizabeth has small happiness in being Queen of England. Richard continues to speak to Elizabeth in his defense. Margaret interrupts him, calling him a devil and blaming him for the death of her husband and her son. Richard continues to address Elizabeth, ignoring the withering remarks of the aged Margaret. He states that, while Elizabeth and members of her family were on the side of the Lancastrians, he was the loyal Yorkist who helped Edward to the throne. Clarence, he continues, forsook his father-in-law Warwick, committing perjury in order to fight on Edward's side; for this offense he is now imprisoned. Interspersed between each of his statements are Margaret's denunciations, but Richard continues to ignore her. Lord Rivers argues that he and members of his family have been loyal always to their lawful king, as they would be to Richard were he the ruler. Richard is quick to protest that he would rather be a beggar: "Far be it from my heart, the thought of it!" When this causes Elizabeth to bemoan her joyless lot once more, Margaret insists on being heard.
"Hear me, you wrangling pirates," she exclaims, and describes them as rebels who now are quarreling over that which they took from her. All who hear her join in reviling her for the indignity done to the Duke of York, whose severed head was fitted with a mock crown, and for the murder of his son Rutland. Margaret retaliates by asking whether all her sorrows and wrongs are not enough to justify that act of hers. Edward IV, Elizabeth, Rivers, Dorset, Hastings — all are the recipients of her curses as she calls upon God to punish her adversaries. Especially she curses Gloucester: may the "worm of conscience" afflict him; may only "deep traitors" be his friends; may he be deprived of restful sleep. She concludes by making much of his deformity as a sign that hell and the evil forces of nature have marked him for their own. Richard tries to turn the curses back on her. And when Elizabeth states that Margaret has indeed cursed herself, this "Poor painted [imitation] Queen," as she bitterly calls herself, concentrates her attack upon her royal successor and the Woodville faction in general, whom she identifies as upstarts. Ironically, Gloucester interposes an endorsement of her denunciation of Dorset and boasts that his own exalted status will prevent his fall. When Buckingham tries to restrain Margaret, she voices words of praise for him: Since he had not fought against the Lancastrians, her curses do not apply to him. But Buckingham rejects her offer of "league and amity." It is then that Margaret warns him to beware of Richard upon whom "Sin, death, and Hell have set their marks." Finally she leaves.
Gloucester now sanctimoniously voices sympathy for Margaret and expresses regret for his part in having opposed her. When Elizabeth says that she is blameless, he points out that she has benefited by Margaret's downfall, whereas Richard himself had merely sought to help others. Again he makes reference to his brother Clarence, saying that Clarence suffers for the same reason and asking God to pardon those who are responsible for his brother's imprisonment. Lord Rivers sarcastically remarks on this "virtuous and Christianlike conclusion," but Richard remains unperturbed. His aside, however, makes it clear that, in praying for the forgiveness of any responsible for Clarence's fate, he avoided cursing himself.
Catesby enters and summons the group to the king's chambers. All except Richard leave, and in the final soliloquy he gloats over his villainy. He has furthered his ends by fooling Hastings, Derby, and Buckingham into believing that the queen's family is behind Clarence's ruin. When they try to persuade him to seek revenge, he puts on a saintly air and talks of returning good for evil. A fitting conclusion to this villainous speech is the entry of the two murderers whom he has hired to get rid of Clarence. They have come for the warrant that will provide for their admission to the Tower. He instructs them to feel no pity and not to be swayed by Clarence's eloquence. The first murderer assures Richard that they are doers, not talkers, and will carry out his instructions. They are instructed to go to Richard's home at Crosby Place after the deed is done.
The action now takes place in the Tower of London, toward which the murderers repair. The imprisoned Clarence tells Brakenbury, the Lieutenant of the Tower and therefore his jailer, about the miserable night he has endured. He explains that he thought that he was on a ship bound for Burgundy when his brother Gloucester induced him to come and walk the deck. As they talked of their adventures during the recent wars, Richard stumbled and, when Clarence tried to help him, Clarence himself was struck by his brother and fell overboard. The royal prisoner then gives a most vivid description of his dream of drowning, which was continued to the point where his soul was being ferried over the "melancholy flood" of the River Styx by the ferryman Charon. There he met Warwick, whom he had betrayed, followed by the ghost of Prince Edward, whom he had stabbed at Tewkesbury. Clarence hears himself described as "false, fleeting, perjured Clarence." Convinced that he was in hell, Clarence remembers all the deeds that might have sent him there. He prays God to punish him if He must but to spare his wife and children.
As Clarence sleeps, Brakenbury, moved by the recital, reflects on the sorrow of princes who, despite their high rank, often feel "a world of restless care," as do lesser folk. He is interrupted by the two murderers. They show their warrants and are left in charge of the sleeping prince while the lieutenant goes back to the king to resign his commission.
The murderers discuss killing Clarence while he sleeps, but the mention of "judgment" arouses the conscience of the second murderer. It is the fear that he will face damnation despite the warrant to perform the deed received from Richard. In contrast, the first murderer is obviously one who will dare damnation to earn the promised monetary reward. At the mention of that reward, the second murderer finds that his conscience no longer is an impediment. As the two are talking about the inconveniences of conscience and holding a kind of dialogue between conscience and the devil, they finally decide to strike Clarence over the head and then drop him into a butt of malmsey wine. Clarence awakes and calls for a cup of wine. Grimly ironical, the first murderer replies: "You shall have wine enough, my lord, anon" — that is, immediately.
In the colloquy that follows, Clarence learns that these are his executioners and is first led to believe that they have been sent on the orders of King Edward to put to death one guilty of treason. He is eloquent in his own defense and attempts to dissuade the murderers, but they remain adamant. They remind him of his heinous crimes of perjury and murder, for (we now learn) he had joined his brother Richard in killing Prince Edward. Clarence declares that he had acted solely on behalf of his brother Edward, who therefore is quite as deep in sin as is Clarence himself. In this exchange, the royal prisoner refers repeatedly to his brother, meaning Edward, but soon learns, to his utter dismay, that the determined first murderer uses the term to refer to Gloucester. Again Clarence invokes God's name, urging his adversaries to relent. And again the second murderer wavers, even warning Clarence that the first murderer is about to strike him. But it is too late. Clarence is stabbed several times, and his murderer leaves with the duke's body, which he will throw into the "malmsey butt within." Now the second murderer is indeed conscience-stricken. The act ends with the actual murderer accusing the accessory of cowardice and threatening to denounce him to Richard.
In having the titular hero appear first onstage and soliloquize at length, Shakespeare was following a convention that he later outgrew. In the more mature plays, the way is prepared by means of expository dialogue before the tragic hero's entrance. The opening soliloquy in Scene 1 accomplishes all that a prologue would, and subtlety is the last thing to look for here. Gloucester paints himself as an unnatural monster. He is lame, ugly, "rudely stamped." A common belief of the time was that the warped moral being of the individual was often reflected in his physical appearance.
In the first two lines is found a typical Shakespearean play upon a word — the word sun in this instance. Edward IV was the son of the Duke of York and bore a sun on his armorial crest. Metaphorically, he was the bright sun of the Yorkist party, now in the ascendant. And, of course, the sun is a well-known symbol of royalty. Notice how skillfully Shakespeare sustains the sun metaphor:
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity. (24-27)
As a dedicated Machiavellian, he takes pride in his deviousness and treachery and emerges as one filled with envy (a Deadly Sin) and motivated by criminal ambition. The adjective "piping" and the verb "descant" relate to the shepherd's life, the shepherd being a familiar symbol of the tranquility that Richard scorns.
Already the action has begun to rise. We know about Gloucester's ambition; we know what is the first step he has taken to realize that ambition. When he protests to Clarence, "Alack, my lord, that fault is none of yours," we witness the first display of Machiavellian dissembling. His exchange with the apprehensive Brackenbury provides a good example of his wit and gift for irony. These two qualities are further illustrated by his use of "abjects" for "subjects" and by his expression of deep concern for his brother: "Meantime, this deep disgrace in brotherhood / Touches me deeper than you can imagine" (111-12). "Disgrace in brotherhood" has three levels of meaning: the unnatural action of a brother (Edward IV); Richard's own underhanded behavior; and disgrace to a brother (Clarence). Similarly, the word "lie" in the final words to Clarence means, on the surface, that Gloucester will take Clarence's place in prison; but it also means that the villain-hero will tell more lies about his brother.
With the arrival of Lord Hastings, two circumstances that may work to Richard's advantage are revealed. First, Hastings is determined to avenge himself upon those who were responsible for his imprisonment; therefore, Richard may find him a useful ally. Second, King Edward is "sickly, weak, and melancholy." The reader will not miss the irony of Gloucester's voiced reaction: "Now, by Saint Paul, this is bad indeed." He will make use of such sacred oaths frequently and thus provide further evidence of his hypocrisy. Despite his outward show of loyalty and fraternal love, he does not fail to indict Edward as one whose "evil diet" has "overmuch consumed his royal person." What with the Woodville faction alienating powerful nobles like Hastings, and with the ruler incapacitated as the supposed result of a dissolute life, a way may be found for Richard to seize power. His plan to marry Lady Anne, if carried out successfully, will work to his advantage. But immediately all depends upon what happens to Clarence and to Edward.
A recapitulation of what has been accomplished in Scene 1 should be useful. Richard is presented as by far the most important character in the play. The present situation in the kingdom is made clear: Edward IV, the ailing ruler, appears to be dominated by his wife, and the older nobles are resentful. The relation between the three sons of the Duke of York is set forth: Edward is a dying king; Clarence a traitor and perjurer; Richard the destroyer of his brother. The scene also provides the motives for Richard's villainy and shows that by his lying words he will be able to stir up more dissension. Finally, the scene prepares for the courtship of Lady Anne.
There has been some dispute as regards the question of whether or not Lady Anne Neville actually had been married to Prince Edward, although there is no question as to the betrothal of the two. Margaret of Anjou did object at first to the proposed marriage of her son to Warwick's second daughter; but, perhaps under pressure of Louis XI, she finally gave her consent. Edward and Anne were married on December 13, 1470, by the Grand Vicar of Bayeux. The queen, however, left herself as free as possible to disavow or annul the marriage later. It is doubtful that the young couple ever lived together as man and wife.
In Scene 2, when the dramatist has Anne point out that the wounds of the dead King Henry have started to bleed again, he makes effective use of the popular belief that the wounds of a murdered man bleed in the presence of the murderer.
Anne repeatedly addresses Richard as "thou" and "thee," whereas the villain-hero addresses her as "you." Anne shifts to the latter form when she tacitly indicates her willingness to favor Richard's suit: "Well, well, put up your sword." The familiar "thou" and "thee" are a way in which Anne makes clear how she looks down on Gloucester with contempt. Thus, in Othello (I. i. 118-19), Brabantio, aroused in the night to be told that his daughter has eloped, denounces Iago in these words: "Thou art a villain." Iago replies, "You are — a Senator."
In this contrived scene, Richard's heartless cruelty and extreme egotism receive sufficient emphasis early and late. It is not stoicism primarily that explains his failure to shed a tear when Rutland and the Duke of York were slain, for he was already dedicated solely to the advancement of his own fortunes to the exclusion of any concern even for blood relatives. Near the end of the scene, he callously refers to the corpse of Henry VI: "But first I'll turn yon fellow in his grave" — that is, he will toss or tip the body of his royal victim into the grave. He then tells the sun to shine so that he may see his shadow as it passes. Richard is saying that his physical deformity, symbol of his evil nature, is most pleasing to him since it makes possible his advancement.
If the stress were placed solely upon Richard's monstrosity, upon the extreme violence of his actions, the villain-hero would not be the fascinating character that he is. Playing the role of a lover with consummate skill, he exhibits the daring, the superior wit, the profound sense of irony, the sheer intellectuality which mark him as one who indeed can outdo Machiavelli. He is apparently unperturbed when Anne denounces him as a "dreadful minister of Hell" and as a "foul devil"; he seems to turn the other cheek and addresses her as a "Sweet saint" and gently reproves her for knowing "no rules of charity." Would even a ferocious beast know "some touch of pity" as Anne declares? Then, concludes the villain, he is not a beast! Once having conceded that he did kill Henry VI, Richard claims a kind of credit: He has helped the king to reach heaven. Essaying the role of the Petrarchan lover, that swain whose avowals of undying love for his lady were recorded in the sonnet cycles already so popular in Shakespeare's England, Richard uses a typical conceit, or fanciful metaphor: He has been wounded to the quick by a glance of Anne's beautiful eyes.
But, like most of Shakespeare's villains, Richard can be completely honest with himself, as we learn from his soliloquies. That Anne, whose murdered husband is represented as having been a paragon of physical attractiveness and virtue, should have permitted this misshapen villain to win her so easily is, to Richard, most comically ironical. One other point, not to be ignored, is the irony in Anne's words when she exclaims: "I'll rest betide the chamber where thou liest" (112). In view of what we learn later, after Anne has been married to Richard for some time, this line is prophetic.
Finally, Scene 2 reveals Richard's boundless energy. He has wasted no time in arranging the match with Lady Anne, as, at the end of the previous scene, we learned he planned to do.
In Scene 1, reference was made to the bitter quarrel between the members of the Woodville faction, headed by Queen Elizabeth, and high-ranking Yorkists, as well as such aristocrats as Lord Hastings, lord chamberlain to King Edward IV. In Scene 3, the quarrel itself is dramatized, recrimination following recrimination. The extent of the dissension is indicated by the fact that the Countess Richmond, wife of Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby, detests Elizabeth as an upstart. It may be noted here that the countess is the mother of the Earl of Richmond, who will prove to be Richard's nemesis. But it is the Duke of Buckingham, in a sense an outsider as regards this quarrel, who clearly leans toward Gloucester despite Queen Margaret's ominous warning. We may expect Richard to make the most of this turn of events.
A kind of suspense is achieved when Buckingham reports that the king's health seems to have improved and that Edward has moved to establish peace within his realm. Nothing is farther from Richard's wishes, to be sure; and he is relentless in his attack upon those who stand in his way. As the accomplished dissembler, he is no less effective than he was in the previous scene. Now he presents himself as the loyal, selfless subject of Edward IV opposed to those who are criminally ambitious — those whom he describes as "wrens" (the smallest of English birds) who "make prey where eagles dare not perch." The eagle, of course, is a symbol of royalty. Richard thus makes tacit reference to himself; he confidently states that he is not one headed for catastrophe since he was "born so high" (in contrast to the others present in this scene). Were not the Yorkists descended from Edward III? Once more Richard's feigned religiosity is apparent, as when he swears "By holy Paul" and "By God's holy mother." It is a good touch also to have him voice sympathy and Christian forgiveness for Queen Margaret, who has scathingly denounced him.
Especially important is the role of Queen Margaret, who makes her first appearance in this scene. As has been pointed out in the discussion of her character above, actually she had died in 1482. Even if she had survived, the appearance of this one-time champion of the house of Lancaster among her enemies is quite fantastic. Nevertheless, her role is a key one. Margaret immediately establishes herself as a terrifying chorus whose violent curses, directed first to her successor, Queen Elizabeth, then repeatedly to Richard, and finally to Elizabeth's relatives, reveal her as a symbolic figure, "the doom of the House of York." At one point she denounces Richard as an "abortive, rooting hog." The reference is to his premature birth — evidence of his unnaturalness and perhaps the cause of his deformity — and to Richard's armorial crest, upon which was depicted a boar. The adjective "rooting" is meant to describe his destructive activities.
In this play, which has been called the most religious that Shakespeare ever wrote, it is Margaret who repeatedly emphasizes the major theme: God's inexorable justice visited upon those guilty of the heinous sins of murder and perjury. Richard is first to be charged with unforgivable crime — the murder of Henry VI and Edward, Prince of Wales. And when Gloucester, recalling that his brother Clarence had foresworn himself by deserting Warwick, hypocritically implores that Christ forgive the sinner, Margaret bitterly calls for God's vengeance upon Clarence. Once more it is a mathematical kind of justice — the logic of which so appealed to Elizabethans — that she emphasizes when she summarizes her indictment of those responsible for the fall of the house of Lancaster. Her speech begins with these words addressed to Elizabeth: "For Edward thy son, which now is Prince of Wales / For Edward my son, which was Prince of Wales" (200-201). It ends with her fervent prayer: "That none of you may live your natural age. / But by some unlooked accident cut off!" (213-14). In the course of the subsequent action, vengeance will indeed be visited upon each of those whom Margaret indicts.
But what of this aged former queen who has suffered and is suffering so much? Richard reminds her of her own offenses — how she had deserved the Duke of York's curses and how the young Duke of Rutland had been killed by the Lancastrians. Familiar as they were with the history of these times, members of Shakespeare's audience would not fail to recall that Henry VI, although widely praised for his piety, was the grandson of a regicide and usurper, one who had seized the throne from the lawful, anointed King Richard II, from which deed all these troubles had stemmed. Did not the Bible say that the crimes of the father would be visited upon the children even unto the third generation?
Scene 4 is a highly dramatic scene that contains much that is doctrinally and thematically important. Clarence's long speeches addressed to Brakenbury follow the tradition established by that popular collection of tragic histories in verse entitled Mirror for Magistrates, a work of accretion, the first edition of which appeared in 1559. Other editions followed in 1571, 1574, 1575, 1578, and 1587. Significant is the fact that the Mirror dealt primarily with English history from the reign of Richard II to the fall of Richard Ill at Bosworth's Field in 1485. It mirrors the instability of fortune and the punishment of vice and, as we are told in one of the prose introductions, seeks "by example of other's miseries to dissuade all men from sins and vices." Successively the ghosts of fallen great persons tell their stories in long monologues, announcing their own guilt and usually stressing the theme of divine vengeance. In the development of this theme in Shakespeare's play, the supernatural, including portentous dreams, has an important place. In Clarence's terrifying dream appears the ghost of Warwick to denounce him as "false, fleeting, perjured Clarence."
In Scene 4, Clarence's first long speech (9-33) is, of its kind, quite superior as poetry. If indeed Shakespeare still writes a predominantly Marlovian type of verse, the lines of which are usually end-stopped, he incorporates specific details in a way hardly characteristic of Marlowe so that every line evokes a picture. Notable is the way in which the poet builds up to climaxes: "All scattered in the bottom of the sea" (28) and "And mocked the dead bones that lay scattered by" (33). Following each, the rhythm of Clarence's lines changes appropriately.
The second long speech (43-63) contains Clarence's outburst of self-incrimination, leaving no doubt of his particular guilt. But he remains a human being and invites our sympathy. Unselfishly he thinks of his family and courageously he meets his violent death. Nevertheless, one must not lose sight of the fact that he is a grievous sinner who must endure the inevitable punishment of a just God in accordance with the orthodox doctrine which informs this play.
The two murderers are exceptionally well individualized. Their prose dialogue is most realistic and packed with grim humor. Note, for example, the second murderer's speech in which he indicts conscience on the grounds that "it makes a man a coward" (137-48). When asked scornfully if he is afraid, he replies: "Not to kill him, having a warrant for it, but to be damned for killing him, from which no warrant can defend us" (112-14).
The question is one regarding vengeance in general. The proper authority, functioning as God's minister on earth, as he is called in Romans 13, can and must execute public justice; but no one, however exalted his position, can rightfully execute private revenge. This is the import of Clarence's argument as he seeks to dissuade the murderer:
Erroneous vassal! The great King of Kings
Hath in his tables of His law commanded
That thou shalt do no murder. And wilt thou then
Spurn His edict, and fulfill a man's?
Take heed, for He holds vengeance in His hands,
To hurl upon the heads that break his law. (200-205)
The second murderer, to whom these lines were addressed, has an answer: "And that same vengeance doth He hurl on thee, / For false swearing, and for murder too" (206-07). Clarence argues that these crimes were committed for Edward's sake and that the king is therefore quite as deep in sin as is Clarence himself. He goes on: "If God will be revenged for this deed, / Oh, know you yet, He doth it publicly" (221-22). The king will observe the due process of law.
And then the doomed Clarence learns that these murderers serve his brother Gloucester, whose motive is criminal ambition, not revenge, public or private. What conclusions are to be drawn from all this? There is no doubt that Clarence deserved extreme punishment. But how to account for the fact that two murderers hired by an arch-villain perform the deed? Is this an example of God's inexorable justice? According to Tudor theory, it was exactly that. Just as God may permit the rebel to rage in order to punish a sinful ruler, so may He use even such sinners as Richard and, at a different level, the hired assassins to execute his justice against Clarence. They function as the Scourge of God. But, still in keeping with the larger concept of justice, they will be scourged in turn ultimately. In the previous scene, Margaret had implored God to punish Clarence: Her prayer has been answered. At the end of Scene 4, the second murderer acknowledges the fact that the two have "most grievous murder done," and he will have no share in the promised reward, the thought of which earlier had led him to spurn the urgings of conscience. There is, then, no contradiction, no inconsistency, here in the sustaining of the play's major theme.