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Richard III: The Increasing Complexity of the Moral Vision

There is, however, in addition to the dramatic power of the chief character, another feature of Richard
III which is remarkably new (in comparison with the Henry VI plays) and which also indicates
something of the imaginative power in store. This quality I call the increasing complexity of the moral
vision, and what I mean by that curious phrase is that as we follow Richard's career, our understanding
of his evil opens our eyes to something more challenging than simply the talents of a successful
allegorical Devil-Machiavel figure.
The quality I wish to refer to this: Richard's successful climb to power in this play is not simply a
tribute to his own skill; it is also a manifestation of the moral weaknesses of others in the play. And
this aspect also seems to have seized Shakespeare's imagination intermittently (especially in the first
half), as if that, too, is an insight which he is not fully prepared to develop yet but which is going be a
prominent feature of later plays.
For Richard's victims are not simply innocent dupes outwitted by an irresistible Devil-Machiavel.
Again and again, we see that they simply fail to recognize what they are confronted with and, even
when they do sense what Richard is doing, for various reasons they evade the moral issue. The result
is that we are forced to recognize here that Richard's success depends upon the refusal of others to
stand up to him and what he represents. This play thus initiates what we are to witness again and again
in Shakespeare: the point that evil succeeds in this world because of the moral complicity of others.
Let me consider a few examples. Early in the play, Richard plots the killing of Clarence. When the
murderers arrive at the prison where Clarence is held, they present their pass to the head officer of the
prison, Brackenbury, who has just shared an intensely moving scene with Clarence in which the latter
has made clear to all the intense suffering he is going through. Brackenbury is now faced with a
choice: Should he let the murderers in to kill Clarence or not? His answer is significant. He says, as he
reads over the commission, "I will not reason what is meant hereby,/ Because I will be guiltless of the
meaning" (1.4.89-90). Notice carefully what this is saying. Brackenbury will not pause to reflect upon
what is going on (and will thus not have to act upon any such reflection), because he wants to preserve
his innocence. But he knows perfectly well what is going to happen. This is a moral evasion of great
magnitude. Because of it, Clarence dies, Richard enjoys another success and thus confirms his
strategy. Brackenbury may think this evasion makes him innocent; quite clearly it does not. Richard's
successful murder of Clarence and what follows thus stem to a large extent from Brackenbury failure
to act.
Earlier we have seen a similar incident in the wooing of Lady Anne (1.2). She has every reason to
recognize Richard for what he truly is. After all, he has murdered her father-in-law and her husband
and helped to kill her father. She is in the midst of mourning for the dead Henry VI. And yet within a
few moments she has capitulated and given him encouragement to continue his courtship of her. This
transformation provides Richard with his first success, and he is elated by it. It confirms that he is right
to have set out on the evil journey he has undertaken.
Why does Anne so suddenly capitulate? That we can only know clearly if we see the scene acted out,
but it seems that she has given into Richard's flattery and perhaps sex appeal (she tells us later in the
play that she had grown grossly captive to his honeyed words). There is no force involved here, other
than the force of Richard's personality. Confronted with Richard, Anne is unable to maintain her strong
rejection of him. Admittedly his tactics are brilliant (and very dangerous to him personally since he
risks death). But he judges her weakness superbly and brings her, not simply to the edge of an
emotional collapse, but also to be his betrothed.
Now it's worth asking why Shakespeare includes this scene in the play. After all, Anne has no
particularly important function in the story, Richard does not love her, and his plan to reach the throne
does not need to involve her. He refuses to divulge his motive, and once he has married her he seems
to dispose of her almost immediately. It is difficult to see why the story of Richard would require this
scene. And yet no production of the play would ever leave it out, because it is such a profound
psychological confrontation, which explores a theme much more complex than most of the rest of the
play. Anne is innocent, yes, but she is weak. And in a world which contains evil in the form of
Richard, it is not enough to be innocent. One has to keep one's guard up, to be careful of one's own
feelings, because (and this is the key point) evil succeeds, not just because evil is clever but, more
pertinently, because other people are weak or stupid or afraid. Thus, however much sympathy we may

Purity of conscience without courageous action and an intelligent sense of what is going on around one does not leave one blameless or free from harm. The moral perversion of this process is clear to the lowly Scrivener.4). it seems as if Shakespeare is not quite ready to handle the more sophisticated version fully. one need only compare it to the scene later in the play which involves the wooing of Elizabeth (4. to judge from the second half of the play. which he has been writing out so that it can be reviewed and discussed. the Scrivener is requiring us to consider how all of those whose ignorance or cooperation is necessary to Richard's success bear. who comments as follows: Here's a good world the while! Who is so gross That cannot see this palpable device? Yet who so bold but says he sees it not? (3. One wonders why Shakespeare felt the need to go on at such great length about a non-event (unless it is to establish the rectitude of Queen Elizabeth I's ancestors). Now. goes to his death. to some extent. since Richard's decline requires some immediate assistance and he thinks such an alliance might help. But the scene is excessively long and for most readers very tedious (it is commonly cut severely or omitted). Whatever else gave rise to this scene.] This pattern of moral evasion I have been talking about occurs repeatedly. So Hastings. And this becomes a major theme in many Shakespeare plays: in this world you have to keep your wits about you. Hastings. has the power to prevent Richard from getting his hands on one of the young princes. who has gone to sanctuary. the Lord Mayor. as is its corollary that the overcoming of evil will occur through God's actions in history (rather than through the courageous actions of particular individuals). This would obviously include Richard's active collaborators. the young princes are murdered. this is a potentially much more serious political matter. To get a sense of what I have been talking about in relation to the scene with Lady Anne. innocence is never enough. who start off relatively blind and uninvolved (and therefore complicit in the evil) but who wake up to their moral responsibility and then act courageously upon it. which underscores the point of Hastings's negligence). but it also refers to all those who refuse to see what they don't want to see: Anne. But he allows Richard to overrule his mind and denies the young prince the Church's protection. Now. . might be said to hinge on the moral actions of a single anonymous servant who risks his life and dies trying to prevent what for him is unacceptably evil conduct.10-13) He has no doubt about the matter and points his finger squarely at the issue: Who has the courage to confront evil when it manifests itself so clearly? In bringing this to our attention. but also to lesser officials and common folk. And some of my favorite characters in Shakespeare are those. she bears her share of the responsibility for Richard's later successes. for example. a responsibility for what happens. Incidents like this significantly deepen our understanding of the way political evil manifests itself in the world and the reasons for its frequent success. associated with God's purposes. a powerful man in the kingdom. it did not spring from Shakespeare's imagination. as we shall see. But Hastings has already been arrested and taken off to be executed. As a result. like Buckingham and Catesby. The latter is a much simpler (perhaps even simplistic) vision of life. the next king. and Richard enjoys one more success. of little interest as a sharply etched human character. but Hastings ignores them (in Olivier's film this dismissal of the warning is linked directly to Hastings's adulterous fascination with Mistress Shore. [A short digression. a conventionally good figure. Standing up against evil in the world is everyone's responsibility. The Archbishop.6. and. this conception of the active success of evil in the world is considerably more naturalistic and sophisticated than what I have argued is the original conception of the play which has Richard's success attributable to his devilish characteristics and his punishment due entirely to the providential justice of God (acting through Richmond). In Richard III these two visions of evil exist side by side.feel for Anne (who is a very minor player in the world of the court). The most obvious place where all this pattern of moral evasion is summed up occurs in the curious little scene where the Scrivener appears with the indictment of Lord Hastings. like the Duke of Albany in King Lear. For the portrayal of Richmond comes across as quite wooden. the Archbishop. The entire plot of King Lear. And what is particularly Shakespearean about this theme is that it applies not only to the great and the powerful (like the Archbishop and Lord Hastings). and so on. Lord Hastings is warned by Lord Stanley of Richard's dangerous plans.

some interpreters have sensed that Shakespeare became rather bored with this easy way of understanding evil and finished the play quickly and conventionally without pushing his deeper insights. The image of all those earthly riches lying among dead men at the bottom of the sea. something he is unwilling to face squarely: Ah. heaps of pearl. great ouches.4. (1. the moral vision of the play. the keeper. there were crept-As 'twere in scorn of eyes--reflecting gems. Clarence's Murder Before leaving this issue of the divided nature of Richard III. The experience of evil. In the confrontation with the murderers which then follows. He tries . trying to come to grips with that suffering. Clarence's dream and subsequent murder. and the pressure here is on us to recognize that its presence in our lives cannot be so easily subsumed under easy allegorical categories. and thus the vision of tragedy never moves very far from the conventional medieval vision. in the midst of the conventional structure and poetry of much of this play we get clear indications of the full potential of the later works. The poetry of this dream is an extraordinarily evocative exploration of a tormented soul trying to come to grips with his unconscious awareness of what he has done in his past life and what awaits him. All scattered in the bottom of the sea. and see how he requites me. Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wrecks. As I have mentioned earlier. is becoming much more deeply personalized. In that sense. (1. including one's own. The scene opens with Clarence recounting a dream he has had to Brakenbury. Shakespeare gives us a long scene with him and. I have done those things. But instead of having Clarence done away with in the usual manner. Wedges of gold. he stands between Richard and the throne. For Edward's sake. we witness Clarence's desperately pleading for his life. Hence his murder is essential to Richard's ambitious scheme. Clarence has been a relatively minor character in the First History Cycle. O Lord! Methought what pain it was to drown.4. What dreadful noise of waters in my ears. What we are witnessing here is something much more complex and interesting than the rather simple invocations to God's providence which other people use when they sense their lives are in danger. falling back on all the arguments his frantic mind can come up with. and in those holes Where eyes did once inhabit. in his murder. unvalued jewels. remains quite simple. raises the sorts of issues that are going to be a feature of many later plays." Inestimable stones. suggests that some important insight is struggling within Clarence and that he is resisting the awareness as strongly as he can (hence the sense of drowning). where the only life is the fish gnawing the flesh of the dead. and he is not offering some pithy moral about the meaning of life. What sights of ugly death within my eyes.We do not witness in Richard III any character wrestling with his conscience about how to act in a morally complex world (with one notable exception which I will come to in a moment). As the elder brother to Richard. His words convey a growing unconscious sense within him of the vanity of everything he and his family have spent their murderous lives trying to acquire. he briefly switches sides. Recounting his dream brings Clarence up against his own past complicity. One of the sons of the Duke of York. He has no clear sense of what his dream vision means.4. Brackenbury.21-33) Clarence is a suffering person.66-68) Notice here how his desire to blame Edward indicates the distance he still has to travel before fully understanding and accepting what he has done. Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon. in spite of the frequent scenes of moral evasion. The scene I refer to is 1. but then returns to the family fold. I would like to call our attention briefly to what is probably the most extraordinarily poetic and complex scene in the play. That now give evidence against my soul. Which wooed the slimy bottom of the deep And mocked the dead bones that lay scattered there. once again by way of pointing out how. Some lay in dead men's skulls.

in the way the feelings of the murderers shift around. a world which Clarence helped to create. He is. adjusting one's mind to what one has done or is about to do. . We might also note that the murder of Clarence also features a debate between the murderers on the nature and the effects of conscience. but not the last. The active presence of evil in the world is becoming something much more deeply psychologically rooted in the particular natures of human agents. to religious feeling. Finally Clarence is left with nothing other than the naked and desperate plea of one human being facing fellow human beings and asking for some vestige of human pity. In terms of that long quotation from Troilus and Cressida(Ulysses's speech on degree). Clarence was happy enough to contribute to disturbing the civil and moral order by killing others in order to advance his own interests. that living with one's own evil. But the murderers repeatedly point out that Clarence is appealing to all those moral principles which he has spent his own life time violating. Here for the first. time. who bring with them an ambiguous tension with which most of us are all too familiar (if not to the same degree). to family values. Here again. Shakespeare presents the commission of an evil act by two anonymous professional killers in terms of their immediate feelings and moral sensibilities. what's interesting about the scene is that the attention paid to Clarence's murder is out of all proportion to Clarence's dramatic importance in this play or in the First History Cycle. he cannot now appeal to them.appealing to the law. they are suggesting. since they do not exist in the world where power answers only to power. What we see here reaches its culmination in the astonishingly powerful speeches of Macbeth as he comes closer and closer to the realization of what is closing in on him as a result of his own flawed nature. now a victim of the very situation which he himself helped to set up. And he suggests. But something seized Shakespeare's imagination here and pushed him to use the murder of Clarence as an exploration of the emotional torment of a guilty soul trying to come to terms with his own evil in the face of his imminent death. is a far more dramatically fertile and complex business than the simpler allegorical form might suggest.