Recognizing the threat posed by Gloucester early on, Queen Elizabeth says, “I fear our happiness is at the height.” Ten murders later with Gloucester crowned as Richard III, the former queen, Margaret, laments to his mother, “From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept a hellhound that doth hunt us all to death.” Separately, Margaret sums up some of the recent changes in succession during the regicidal War of Roses saying “I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him; I had a Henry, till a Richard kill’d him.” The observations of the women in Richard III are among the keenest and most enjoyable elements of Shakespeare’s play.
The noblemen vacillate between opposing and supporting Richard. Clarence, his brother and one of his first on-stage victims says, “The great King of kings hath in the table of his law commanded that though shalt do no murder: will you then spurn at his edict, and fulfil a man’s?”
Spurn it he does, deceiving and stabbing his way to the throne. Richard demonstrates the traits that brought him to power through pointed, unrivaled language. Ruthlessness: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use.” Decisiveness: “Off with his head.” Self-aggrandizement while belittling others: “To royalize his [Henry VI’s] blood I spilt my own” and “Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace.” And speed: “Delay leads impotent and snail-pac’d beggary.”
Richard’s lethal rise makes the audience scratch its collective head about why more of the characters don’t act sooner to stop him. But we can ask ourselves the same questions about quiescence in the face of totalitarian regimes in the 20th Century and today.
But eventually Richard’s thirst for blood and paranoia (“my kingdom stands on brittle glass”) alienate even his most ardent toadies. His denial of an earldom to Buckingham is enough to send him into the growing camp of rebellion. Eventually the forces of Richard and Richmond, a nobleman descended from both the Lancaster and York families, meet on the battlefield. Richard is haunted by the ghosts of his victims in dreams the night before the battle, which doesn’t bode well for him. After being famously unhorsed and killed, Richmond promises, at long last, “We will unite the white rose and the red.”
The parade of Henrys, Edwards, and Richards in English history and Shakespeare’s histories can be challenging to follow. The troops of uncles with place names and Christian names that don’t always match the character cues doesn’t help much either. But a willingness to slog through those challenges is necessary to experience the grandeur of the language and to confront our own moral cowardice in the face of evil.