As a play, The Life and Death of Richard III shocks audiences with Richard’s abhorrent and frightening exhibition of evil. As a conclusion to the first tetralogy, it dazzles the mind.
Richard III kills without remorse, his plots cunningly slither through the royal community and construct a political and psychological power around the feeble hunchback. But most importantly, he strikes fear in others because he forges his path by his own rules. He embodies the very antithesis to Henry VI’s guiding piety and idealism. Richard consults no ideals other than the image of himself on the throne. No honor or nobility shapes his mind in order to provide peace for those who must trust him. He chooses to live as a rogue unto humanity, embracing his physical form as the shape of his character, and isolates himself in the process.
This isolation and ignoble defiance of virtue cultivates the base fear of dictatorship and tyranny. Shakespeare uses Richard to ellaborate on the cause of that fear and the characteristics of those who instill it. His hunchback does not frighten us, most of the characters disrespected it, even his ambition does not frighten us – at least not as much as the ambition of others. His lack of roots, his failure to believe in anything other than himself, fosters a true fear in people because they cannot trust him or predict his actions. Richard has no nature, no character, other than shameless and pitiless greed and ambition.
I noticed the women, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Margaret. As they dwelled outside of the action, offering curses and contemptuous words rivaling any passionate disdain offered by sorrowful women, they exhibit a certian unity because of Richard’s actions. These women unite under the banner of like suffering from Richard. Queen Margaret curses the house of York, and it seemed that Richard personified that curse, while Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York endured all loss and the most primal and fundamental heartache. Because of this, they found common ground with one another.
Furthermore, as Richard plagues the country with his brutality he isolates himself from friend and foe alike. The two feuding houses now have a common enemy because Richard attacks them both. In his speech in Act IV, he contemplates this isolation and argues internally over how he can condemn himself, run from himself or expect love or support from others. Richard presents himself as an enemy to all and therefore all houses find cause to unite against him.
As Shakespeare guides his audience down into the most repulsive degradations of political evil, he unexpectedly shapes it as a light bleeding into the cave. When divisions begin with Henry VI Part 1, we witness a steady decline toward embittered civil strife which naturally climaxes into the form of one man who undertakes every evil unto himself only to present the people the way to peace and unity. Richard seats himself at the furthest extreme of the pendulum’s arc and lets the weight swing back away from him.
I must admit I did not like the ending very much. For Shakespeare to literally present the ghosts of Richard’s victims seems tasteless and to finish the play with Richmond’s Diney-esque speech about unity strikes me as overly romantic. But though the presentation did not suit me, the idea stands the test of criticism. In the spirit of tasteless romance, I will end with a growing cliche: The night is darkest before the dawn.