The Roughly Chronological Reread Week 6: Richard III

Date:  1592 – 1594. I’ve seen suggestions that it pre-dates Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors, but I find it hard to believe that a writer could experience such a pronounced backslide.

First read: Leon Garfield’s abridged version around 1992, then the full version in the early 2000s.


Productions seen: Shakespeare: The Animated Tales in the 90s, two or three student productions at the Fringe, Brite Theatre’s excellent Richard III: A One-Woman Show (which is coming back to the Scottish Storytelling Centre next month and you should absolutely go and see it), and most recently the Almeida’s production starring Ralph Fiennes.


Productions worked on: None. Which sucks. I’d love to get my teeth into this one.


Edition I’m using:  The Oxford Shakespeare.





  • It should go without saying that this is a cracker of an opening speech, but I’m going to say it anyway. It’s just so beautiful. Well-constructed, a delight to speak, and it does a fantastic job of setting up the character – not just in terms of introducing the situation and setting up the takes, but in making the audience immediately party to Richard’s schemes and victim to his charisma. It’s hard not to be taken in by the character’s sheer audacity.
  • I love Lady Anne’s line “Poor key-cold figure of a holy king”. Something about the term “key-cold” really appeals to me. The first time I really noticed it was in a sonnet by Alexander Montgomerie, where the speaker describes losing his spirit to his lover during a kiss which “left my cors als cold as ony key”. Apparently keys were used to stop minor bleeding, since pressing a substantial chunk of metal against a cut will encourage the blood vessels to constrict a little. (I don’t know if this is true. I am a creature of the 21st century, I have access to sticking plasters, but next time I get a papercut I’ll do it for science.)
  • MARGARET. Oh, Margaret. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite characters in the whole canon. Never having read the plays in order before, I hadn’t given much thought to the chronology of the War of the Roses plays. Having seen Richard III first, I had mentally inserted a gap of years, maybe decades, between the start of this play and the end of Henry VI Part 3 to account for Margaret’s becoming the “foul wrinkled witch” who doles out the curses so liberally here. I’d never actually paid attention to the amount of time that actually passes – a matter of months. Perhaps rapid ageing is the price she paid for considerably tighter writing, because she’s as vicious as ever but without teetering on the brink of being overwritten.
  • In addition to being the play where Shakespeare got hold of the concept of dramatic irony and wrestled it the ground, this also seems to be the one where he really lets rip with the entertainingly banterful lowlives. There are shades of Aaron the Moor in the dialogue given to the various executioners and murderers, none of whom are as obedient as those hired by, say, Macbeth – these guys can’t resist a bit of chat before they kill. I enjoy their cynical humour immensely. The moments of comic relief are helpful in terms of pacing, being worked in at intervals rather than dumped in large, unwieldy chunks, and their casual approach to death serves to illustrate the effects of such a long period of turmoil.
  • “Enter Queen Elizabeth with her hair about her ears.” It’s the first time I’ve seen this stage direction during this readthrough, and I thought it merited a mention. Hair in disarray, allowed to fall freely over the ears, seems to have been a very common signifier of extreme grief or madness in Elizabethan theatre. Every time I stumble across this stage direction, I wonder what an Elizabethan audience member would think if they were to see how common it is for women today to wear their hair loose (let’s just imagine for a moment that they’ve already got over their shock at literally everything else about 2017).
  • Having found some of the earliest plays to be somewhat repetitive, I think that Richard III shows the playwright starting to come into his own. In particular the scenes with Lady Anne and later Queen Elizabeth, which have similar structures and in which Richard employs similar tactics – the latter scene could have been a tedious rehash of the first, yet the tone and stakes are very different. In theory the stakes ought to be higher in the scene with Lady Anne, since Richard has little leverage and takes quite a risk when he admits to killing her husband. By the time of his scene with Elizabeth all the power is his. He’s king, his manipulative powers have been proven again and again, and it seems unlikely that he’s going to walk out of that scene without her agreeing to marry her daughter to him. Yet the situation has intensified, and what he’s asking is so much more unwholesome even than professing love for Anne over her husband’s corpse. His line about burying Elizabeth’s children in her daughter’s womb makes me physically squirm every time I hear or read it.
  • The use of the ghosts is particularly unusual in this play. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this as the readthrough progresses, but as I recall all the ghosts in his later plays are very much in the world of their beholder, rather than appearing to occupy their own realm in which they can bridge the gap between two physical locations at once. The assembled spectres in this play switch between telling Richard to despair and die and assuring Richmond that they think he’s just the best thing ever, and I don’t remember seeing that device elsewhere. Perhaps my memory fails me. Either way, it’s an intriguing way to treat the ghosts – more of an indication of objective existence than being a figment of a character’s imagination.
  • As to Richard himself, what a character. I often wonder whether he actually believes himself in his opening speech, when he appears to blame his villainy on his deformity. If he does, it’s quite a journey to reach his declaration that he feels no pity for himself the night before he dies. If he doesn’t, then keeping the audience on board throughout is even more of an achievement. I can see why this is a role actors salivate over.
  • Finally, a word to anyone who might be considering a comment about how Shakespeare’s Richard is historically inaccurate and that’s a terrible thing – I don’t much care. It’s not billed as a documentary. Want to talk about the reasons behind this particular representation? Great, fire away, I’m always up for learning more about Plantagenet/Tudor spats across the generations, and very happy to consider plays in their historical context. Just no hit and run “it’s not 100% accurate therefore it is teh suck” comments, please.


NEXT TIME: The Taming of the Shrew

6 responses to “The Roughly Chronological Reread Week 6: Richard III”

  1. I apparently need to re-read Richard III because I don’t remember any of this (aside from his scene with Elizabeth…I love that particular scene)

  2. Christ, I love this play. Unusual to introduce our tragic hero so early, and absolute genius to start with that wonderful soliloquy. The dramatic irony that builds on his frankness with us the audience, reduces me to giggles in places (embracing Clarence), and elsewhere to a stupid grin of awe (the exchange with Buckingham where he’ ‘forced’ to accept the crown. And yet, it’s a carvinalesque ride: we’re satisfied at the end that order has been resumed (even if Richmond is a pretty-boy, God-botherer) … Aren’t we?

  3. Fresh off the heels of Henry VI, Richard III is saved by its captivating namesake, who is the key to the play’s success. If Love’s Labour’s Lost is the capstone to Shakespeare’s apprentice period, Richard III is its inception. Like its inadmissible predecessors, this play feels overwritten and tiresome whenever Richard isn’t around to play the villain; the poor grieving ladies incessantly one-upping each other would be a little funny if it didn’t go on and on and on, and, again saving Richard, there is little inwardness on display in any of the numerous characters. I would call Richard villainous, as opposed to say, evil, because I think it’s important to emphasize that he’s playing a stock character. The strength of Shakespeare as a popular dramatist is, I believe, his ability to embue such a stock character with enough zest, murky backgrounding, and two-faced charm that the audience can’t help but take joy in his carnage. “Shall I be plain? I want the bastards dead” is a beautiful summation of his relentless desire to get what he wants, as are his two courtships, which seem to have really impressed themselves on people’s memories, no matter what your perspectives on them.

    But to say the play would not exist without Richard is admittedly hyperbole–even the Two Gentlemen of Verona had Launce for a saving grace–and there are indeed a number of touching and humane scenes, that surely have helped prop up this play’s immediate and unending popularity. There is something to the way many characters flirt with death, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not, that adds some gravity to the almost cartoonish string of murders. Clarence’s poetic splendor in his prophetic dream and his conversion of his murderers (well, murderer) is, in my opinion, unmatched in the play, and other such scenes crop up whenever a character is near death: Hastings at 3.2 with his imaginative mast metaphor, Rivers and Grey with their touching friendship, Tyrell and his criminimals seeing the princes hugging: this pathos didn’t exist in the Henry VI plays. But for all these hidden gems (count “Grandam, this would have been a biting jest!” among them), and for all of Richard’s appeal, the play remains uneven and overburdening, and I hesitate to reread it or see it live (although Olivier’s 1955 movie has some historical appeal).

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