The Tragedy of Richard the Third

When I read certain of these tragedies – particularly given the current backdrop of political armageddon in our country and seismic terrorism in the world – I wonder what could possibly drive someone to act with such myopic self interest and appallingly little regard for the sanctity of human life. It fills me with dismayed sorrow to imagine that anyone could feel so completely separate from every other being to believe that violence is:  a) a great idea, and b) will surely help solve problems and achieve goals.

We see this, though, over and over in Shakespeare.  As  RIII ruthlessly mows down everyone in his path – women and children included – I try to make sense of it (as I do, to no avail, with Donald Trump or the recent Brussels bombings).  But rules of rational logic do not apply in these situations.

Leaving the conundrums of the modern day behind, I circle back to two other villains:  Iago and Macbeth -to try to make some sense of their actions.   They,  like RIII, make quick work of the perceived obstacles to their success.  Examining their motivations and actions vis a vis RIII’s sheds some light on each of these bad guys.

Jealousy drives Iago.  He tells us why he is hell-bent on Othello’s demise as the play opens  (I,i,8-23):

“Three great ones of the city/In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,/Off-capp’d to him; and, by the faith of man,/I know my price, I am worth no worse a place./But he (as loving his own pride and purposes)/Evades them with a bumbast circumstance/Horribly stuff’d with epithites of war,/[And in conclusion]/Nonsuits my mediators; for, “Certes,”says he,/’I have already chose my officer.’/And what was he?/Forsooth, a great arimethmetician,/ One Michael Cassio, a Florentine/(A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife),/That never set a squadron in the field,/Nor the division of a battle knows.”

Macbeth succumbs to the lure of power, ignited by the prophecy of three witches in the woods and his wife’s ambitions.  He may have hoped to be a king one day, but after the hags’ predictions his urgency surges.  When Lady Macbeth hears the news, she steels herself to aid and abet him (by taking on masculine attributes) in guiding and plunging the dagger into Duncan’s breast.  They unify and spur each other on to see the witches’ visions come to fruition.

RIII, though, never expresses any specific jealousy of others, nor does he even seem particularly interested in power or governing.  Like Iago, he clarifies his motivation as the play opens, on stage, alone (I,i,1-31):

“Now is the winter of our discontent/made glorious summer by this son of York;/And all the clouds that lowr’d upon our house/In the deep bosom of the ocean buried./Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths./Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,/Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,/Our dreadful marches to delightful measures./Grim-visag’d War hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;/And now, in stead of mounting barbed steeds/To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,/He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber/To the lascivious pleasing of a lute./But I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,/Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;/I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;/I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportions,/Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time/Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,/And that so lamely and unfashionable/That dogs bark at me as I halt by them-/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./And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain/And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

I take the time to replicate this portion of his opening salvo (and I must admit that I tear up every time I read it, so pathetic is he) because the play begins and ends here.  The rest is just him killing everyone until he is finally killed.  Oh, and just before that he famously beseeches “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”(V,v,7)

RIII reminds me more of Frankenstein’s monster or Karl Marx than Iago or Macbeth.  For this triad, living in an era that predates the wonders of modern medicine and psychotherapy, physical deformities shape not only their bodies, but others’ perceptions of them, and hence their psyches and attitudes toward the world around them.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the poor monster craves love and acceptance but elicits only fear and scorn.  Hell hath no fury like a scorned stitched-together corpse artificially infused with life.  Things go very awry from there.

Karl Marx suffered from “excruciating boils” (as a result of a chronic skin condition called hidratenitis suppurativa).  In his armpits and groin (ouch).  The condition which can  cause severe mental and emotional, as well as phyisical,  distress, “may well have influenced his writing” as a result of “self-loathing and alienation.”(, 10/30/07)

So with RIII.  We know, from his recently exhumed and examined remains, that he had severe scoliosis which spiraled, not hunched, him.  His right shoulder would have been higher than the left, and his torso would have been disproportionally small for his body.  He was likely 5’8” (average for the time) but looked much shorter (University of Leicester:, 5/30/14).

Untreated and misunderstood, this deformity literally twisted him and robbed him (and the monster and Karl Marx) of that which Lady Macbeth feared her husband had too much: “the milk of human kindness.” (Macbeth, I,v,17) We hear that modern-day mass shooters often lacked self esteem and confidence due to rejection and bullying.  Made to feel like outsiders by their peers, they react with disastrous results.  RIII’s rampage is  calculated and relentless, like some of those we read about with horror today.

In the end, Iago is busted, Lady Macbeth succumbs to guilt, and Macbeth to vengeance.But neither Iago nor Macbeth can hold a candle to the lengths to which RIII goes to delude himself and convince others of the legitimacy of his atrocities.  He is, truly, the monster. When he faces his atrocities on the eve of his destruction, he suffers a narcissistic crisis:

“What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by./Richard loves Richard, that is. I [am] I./Is there a murtherer here? No. Yes, I am./Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why -/Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?/ Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good/That I myself have done unto myself?/ O no! Alas, I rather hate myself/For hateful deeds committed by myself./I am a villain; yet I lie, I am not.” (V,iii,182-191)

Yet do these insights into the individuals’ motivations satisfy my need to understand their actions?  Not really.  It seems to me that the evil enters when the protagonists decide how to act upon these impetuses.  Jealousy, ambition, and narcissistic self-consciousness and desperation may make them susceptible, but it is evil that turn these triggers into destructive action. Evil in the form of a  belief that there is no path to satisfaction or relief without violence.  A belief which history, and Shakespeare’s characters, proves time and time again, to be fallacious.




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