Scholars have debated about the essence of the tragic figure in Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard III, Richard, Duke of Glouchester and later King Richard III, toes the line between misunderstood human and complete monster. Richard does not appear as a human until the end of the play in Act V; until his downfall in the last fifth of the play, Richard has no qualities, relationships, or singular moments of conscience that qualify him as a feeling, full-fledged human as opposed to villain.
In Acts I-IV of Richard III, Richard is seen as inhuman due to his lack of guilt over any of the murders he is behind, the way he ebbs and flows with his loyalties, and the lack of maternal love the Duchess of York feels toward him; because of this the audience is not able to feel that his death would cause any pain upon society. It is only in his failings in Act V that the audience is given a glimpse at his human qualities and immediately before his death begins to feel that there is something more to him and behind his plans than the villain facade he has had on during the previous four acts.
If Richard had died at the end of Act IV, the audience would lack any feel of loss or grief. Richard is not burdened in the slightest by the murders he has either committed himself or ordered to be committed for his own gain. Throughout the play Richard is responsible for over ten murders. Those murdered include the Duke of Clarence, Prince Edward, Duke of York, Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth’s sons and brother, Lord Hastings, and Lord Buckingham. Richard is also responsible for the deaths of King Henry VI and his son Edward of Westminster, before the play begins.
Richard makes sure that anyone who threatens him, either directly, indirectly or through his own imagination, will soon be met with a swift death. Richard commits fratricide in ordering the murder of Clarence and also indirectly in allowing Edward to take the blame upon himself and die from the grief. While Edward dies from the horror of believing he committed this heinous crime, Richard barely registers any reaction except to further put the blame upon Queen Elizabeth’s relations. Richard does not seem burdened by a conscience as opposed to the rest of the characters in the play.
The hired murders, both those sent to kill Clarence and Tyrell, are affected by their consciences and in their ways mourn the dead. After killing the princes Tyrell describes the young boys as “gone with conscience and remorse” (Shakespeare 217). There is a lack of feeling that separates Richard from other supposed villains of the play leaving the audience unable to see him as human. While Richard has at least some reason for murdering most of his victims, it is with his order of the princes’ deaths that he truly goes too far. There is no immediate threat from the young princes as there were with many of Richard’s previous victims.
Richard has the crown, the boys are already being kept in the Tower, and as long as they are kept away from their mother, there is a chance they will grow up not to be threats to his crown. While Richard does not mourn or feel guilt for the lives he has taken within the play, he also jokes about his killing of Edward of Westminster as he celebrates winning Lady Anne’s hand in marriage. He claims he “stabb’d [Edward] in my angry mood at Tewksbury” (37) evoking the feeling that he killed him just because he was not in a good mood. He then went on to praise Edward whilst still being without guilt.
In being without guilt for any of the murders so violently committed, Edward is living outside the realm of human. Richard’s loyalties to others are constantly ebbing and flowing within the play. In his alliances Richard is seen by himself and his allies as a godlike figure, all-powerful and unable to fail; once these alliances are broken however, he becomes less than human, a dog, spider or monster. At the beginning of the play Richard should be loyal to his brother Edward, having helped to gain him the throne a few years past, yet Richard is in the middle of planning to forcibly take the thrown for himself.
Richard does not regard any of his alliances as binding; he always has the option of killing off any of his allies. Having blood ties to them makes no difference to him. To Richard every person is only of use as long as he is able to charm them into getting what he wants. Once they person is no longer under his persuasion, Richard finds a way to violently dispose of them. Richard is unable to make his charm last for a significant period of time before the people in cahoots with him realize his true nature and question their decision to ally themselves with him.
He is able to charm his way in to Lady Anne’s bed despite the fact that he admitted to killing both her father and husband. Yet his true nature is revealed to her not long after they are married and she has served her purpose. Richard’s true villainous nature is never able to conceal itself for long. The two alliances Richard makes that last the longest are his alliances with Lord Buckingham and Lord Stanley. These two alliances last until Acts IV and V, respectfully. However, they distance themselves when they are unable to commit heinous acts that Richard finds to qualms with.
With Lord Buckingham the line is drawn when Richard asks him to help facilitate the murders of the two princes. Lord Buckingham finds himself unable to comply with Richard’s wishes to kill these two innocents; he feels Richard’s favor waning and flees from the court before being caught and put to death. Lord Stanley is unable to wage war against his stepson. Richard had no problem cutting family ties, yet Stanley is struck by a need to support his non-blood relation at the danger of having his own actual son put to death.
Without any true alliances or friendships the audience has no access to a familiar side of Richard that would make him seem more human in his need for companionship. Richard’s last strongest alliance is that with the audience. The play begins with Richard explaining his predicament of not having a place in the world. In wartime he had a purpose and could be of use, yet now “in this weak piping time of peace, [he has] no delight to pass away the time” (3) unless he wants to dwell on his deformities. Since there is no ready place for him in peacetime, Richard claims he has to become a ‘villain’.
From this first speech the audience is on Richard’s side. During the beginning of the play the audience believes he is confiding in them, they are his conspirators and know the interworking of his mind. His deformity and the way he is acting isn’t his fault; it’s societies. Richard’s first victims draw no pity from the audience. Anne is too simple, Clarence to unaware and trusting and Edward already sickly. Yet as other characters begin to emerge from the fog of Richard’s charm, so does the audience.
As Richard’s plan continues to grow and become more violent the audience finds it harder to agree with him and follow along. As the play progresses it becomes apparent that Richard’s speeches and asides are not simply free-flowing thoughts. He is rather constructing a mask of the abused deformed man turned villain. The audience is never allowed to view the interworking of Richard’s mind, yet he is able to charm them into believing they are. In the first four acts of the play, Richard never lets his guard fall and his true self to be viewed.
Upon realizing this, the audience’s relationship with Richard is broken and with no tangible proof of humanity, Richard lacks the qualities necessary to have a precious human life. It is also evident once the audience is no longer under Richard’s charm that his plan has no other end game other than to keep him from getting bored. He is not trying to overthrow a tyrant, extracting revenge, or put in place some ideal of his; the lives being taken and ruined are only done so because Richard is bored without a war to entertain him. Without a further explanation from Richard, his actions create him into a monster.
While without friendships or brotherly feeling, the last human connection that could make Richard appear human is one with his mother. Instances of motherly would be enough to bring Richard into humanity in the first four acts of the play. The Duchess of York, however, seems to hold more distain for Richard than any other character in the play. Throughout the play she calls him “my shame”(105), a toad, and wishes she had been able to kill him when he was still in her womb. When she speaks of his childhood and adult life she calls describes them as “wayward…frightful, desp’rate…furious…sly and bloody”(233).
She feels no love toward him and openly wishes that his army will be defeated by the Earl of Richmond in battle. The singular person who should love Richard, despises him most of all. If a mother cannot love him then he must have no redeeming human qualities or feelings. Throughout all of this and going into Act V, Richard is seen as a complete monster whose death would cause no despair. However in Act V the tides change and Richard is no longer infallible. He begins to be confronted by his victims and faces failure after failure in the battlefield.
As Richard’s core is shook, his human qualities begin to emerge. He becomes frightened, desperate, and to some extent remorseful. Upon awakening from the dream of his victims coming to damn him, Richard cries “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! ” (287) and continues to lament his place in life where even he can not pity himself. This is the one true speech in which Richard completely lets his guard down and the audience is afforded a glimpse at his true nature. His motives and self-worth problems are uncovered. In his own realization of his wickedness, Richard becomes human.
Monster can not recognize itself; it takes human to name it. In Act V, Richard has become a victim of society and himself. It is only because of these final moments that upon Richard’s death the audience is able to feel a twinge of pity for the tyrant. In Richard III, Shakespeare creates a villain so powerful that he is able to constantly keep a mask on, even to the audience, until his final downfall. Only in his own realization of his true monstrous nature is Richard able to overcome having no conscience, allies, or maternal love and become a precious human.