The attack of "conscience" that King Richard suffers in Act 5, Scene 5 of Shakespeare's Richard III (133-157) can be seen as the psychological climax of the drama, one that is critical to both Richard's development as a character and the play's ultimate success. Richard's struggle to reconcile the many different roles he attempts to play into one unified self, reflected in the tone and composition of his speech, adds depth and humanity to his character; at the same time, his ultimate failure to maintain his "self-made" identity simplifies the play in a way that allows the author to satisfy his audience by punishing the villain and reaffirming the world views that Richard's character appears to challenge (Luxon). While examining his own vision of himself, Richard finds his identity at a breaking point, and is forced to rely on the very ideas he used for his own advantage to judge himself. As the king, who seemed to be above the "afflict[ion] of "coward conscience" (5.5.133) is overwhelmed by the many different conceptions of who he is that are presented in the play, the audience cannot help but feel a mixture of sympathy and relief.
Richard's self "love" (5.5. 141), the kernel of his own identity, is threatened by the "fear" (5.5.136) his conscience instills in him. Throughout most of the play, the statement "Richard loves Richard" (5.5.137) functions as the character's motivation � Gloucester consistently acts for his own "gain" (1.2.162). That self, however, has never been firmly worked out. The many "outward appearances" (Luxon) that Richard projects in the play are often contradictory, as he himself admits when he states that he "seem[s] a saint when most [he] play[s] the devil" (1.3.336). His interview with Anne shows just how malleable his self-identity is. Picturing himself through her eyes after he has wooed her, he states "I do mistake my person all this while" (1.2.239) and is determined to "maintain" his heightened opinion of himself with "some little cost" (1.2.245-6).
As Richard tests the strength of the assertion "I am I" (5.5.137), these inner divisions that plague his self-identity become apparent in the both the series of rhetorical questions that he asks and the contradictory, almost schizophrenic composition of the speech. The inconsistency of Richard's self-conception is reflected in the fact that just about half of the sentences in lines 136-144 are questions, as well as in the halting, choppy rhythm that the piling up of short sentences and fragments creates in lines 136-140. As he struggles to determine the logic or "reason" (5.5.139) with which to judge himself, the quick tempo of the sentences and the bright sounds created by the assonance give the impression of a mental duel. The opposing logics of his own "machiavellianism" (Luxon) and the "metaphysical" (Greenblatt) views of society provide two alternate ways for him to view his actions, pitting "[him]self against [him]self" (5.5.136). The breaks in meter within a line, especially when combined with oxymoronic statements, emphasize these internal contradictions. The ruptured meter and conflicting nature of Richard's self-directed admonition "Fool, of thyself speak well. � Fool, do not flatter." (5.5.146) demonstrate the extreme directions in which Richard's self identity is being pulled. In many ways, Richard is in a no-win situation; he is a "fool" if he accepts this negative description as his true self, because it will cause him to be damned, but he is a also a fool to pretend it is not the truth, especially since so many other characters seem to believe that it is.
Faced with these problems, the many selves that Richard has been trying to keep straight escape him and his identity shatters into a "thousand separate tongues" (5.5.147) or pieces, each of which seems to be a "sin[ful]" (153). In the absence of one controlling identity, Richard has to rely on societal standards and allow his conscience to "condem[n...him] for a villain" (5.5.149). The shift in verse style at the end of the speech corresponds to this idea that Richard comes to a resolution in the speech � as Richard begins to condemn himself and his sins, the composition changes to more complex and surprisingly evocative sentences. The sense of "despair"(5.5.154) and loneliness that the king expresses at the end of the speech, especially when coupled with the honesty of emotion expressed, perhaps for the first time, in lines like "Cold, fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh" (5.5.135), move the reader to "pity" (5.5.155) Richard, even though he denies our sympathy.
This shift in the audience from viewing Richard as an antihero to, at least in some ways, an object of pity is necessary from Shakespeare's point of view. Although the author can present a character who uses his skepticism do get others to do his will, he cannot let that character win out in the end. For Richard III to successfully "please" the audience, King Richard has to be punished for his transgressions of contemporary beliefs (Luxon). The loss of self-identity is an ingenious way to undo Richard, a character who is known only in his outward appearances. Hastings' belief that "by his face straight you will know his heart" (3.4.53, cited by Luxon) is obviously ironic. Stage directions are often used to create deceitful personas for Richard; in 3.7, Shakespeare has Richard "enter aloft...between two bishops" (3.7.sd) Richard the character even describes himself as acting the part of a character in another play (3.1.82), thus doubly removed from any inner self.
The author seems to encode in the soliloquy a measure for measure revenge of all the wrongs Richard has committed, especially with the vocabulary he has the king employ. Richard's references to himself as a "villain" (5.5.145, 149) must be viewed in reference to his opening speech, where he states that he is "determined to prove a villain"(1.1.30). The metaphysical language and imagery also suggests that the very ideas that he mocked earlier are what destroy him in the end. One of the first images given to the reader is that of "lights burn[ing] blue" (5.5.134), a sign that was "thought to indicate the presence of ghosts" (Greenblatt). This image is followed by the placement in time at "dead midnight" (5.5.134), the traditional witching hour. These superstitions were exactly what Richard used for his own devices at the beginning of the play. For example, the "plot" that he devises to kill Clarence is based entirely on a "drunken prophec[y]" (1.1.33). The religious beliefs that Richard has previously tried to use to his own advantage are also conjured by him in a serious way in this speech. Richard describes his sins, in "each degree," as "throng[ing] to the bar" (5.5.152) to condemn him, an image that seems to be an allusion to Judgement day. Further, he finally seems to take the idea of revenge seriously. When he states "I will despair" (5.5.), he is fulfilling the curses of the ghosts that visited him. Every single ghost wishes for Richard to "despair and die." He even seems to imply that he may be curse on himself when he states "lest I revenge. Myself against myself?" (5.5.140). Richard has cursed himself from one point of view by sinning, but from another by finally coming to believe in the idea of sin and retribution.
By causing Richard to condemn himself with the very principles that he used to raise himself up, Shakespeare manages to satisfy the audience without threatening their belief system. As Richard shifts from believing, as the first murderer does, that conscience is a "blushing, shamefaced spirit that mutinies in a man's bosom...[that] every man that means to do well endeavors to trust to himself and live without it" (1.4.130-135) to seeing it as something that can indeed "afflict"(5.5.133) and "condemn"(5.5.149) him, the "humanistic possibilities" that his character presented are "contained" (Luxon).
Luxon, Thomas. Lecture and Study Questions, Summer 1997.
Shakespeare, William. Richard III. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), 515-600.
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Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for Richard III by William Shakespeare that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in Richard III and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of Richard III by William Shakespeare in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Richard III at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Relationship Between the Monarch and the People
From the beginning of Richard III's reign, his relationship with the people of England is strained. This Shakespeare play first investigates the public’s feelings for him after the death of Edward, in Act II, Scene III where the citizens are worriedly gossiping about who will become the new King—they fear Richard’s presence at the throne. As Shakespeare's play progresses, the noblemen’s feelings are shown to be growing negative as well. However, Richard continues on, believing that his quest for King will be won, and that his people will grow to love him. In what ways does the relationship between Richard III and his subjects foreshadow the future of the King and his country? For more ideas on this subject, this article on divine right in the other king plays by Shakespeare will be of great help.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Richard III and the Role of Ambition
Throughout Richard III, Richard is consumed by the notion of taking the crown as his own. His primary ambition is to rule England, and he will use any means necessary to obtain that goal. From the murder of his brother Clarence, to the plot of Edward’s death, and the assassination of the princes in the tower, Richard’s deeds grow more and more deplorable. Although Richard’s mind gradually grows more clouded with the desire to fulfill his ambition, do you think that his lofty aspirations can be wholly to blame for the acts that he commits? If it’s not pure ambition that drives him to these deeds, what causes him to act this way? Resentment because of his deformity? Genuine evil?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Role of Intelligence, Wit and Wordplay in Richard III
Many of Shakespeare’s plays include a fair bit of word play, and Richard III is no exception. However, it seems that Richard’s intelligence and quick wit get him out of troublesome situations quite often. His discussion with Lady Anne at the side of her husband’s corpse especially displays this unnatural talent with words. In the course of a few moments, she goes from a distraught and angry widow to a woman wooed by Richard’s charms and considering taking his ring. In what other situations does Richard’s way with words get him out of trouble? Why is this especially important, especially considering that Shakespeare is himself, a wordsmith?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Richard III : Premonitions and the Significance of Dreams
While the supernatural is important throughout Richard III, the most important manifestation of the supernatural is found in the prophetic dreams. Both Clarence and Stanley have dreams that prophesize either their own death, or the death of someone close to them. Clarence dreams of drowning at sea, but is instead murdered by being thrown into a wine cask by Richard’s thugs. Stanley also foretells the execution of Hastings. What do you think is the purpose behind these divining dreams? It seems that the sequence of events occurs to quickly for the dreamers to stop them, however, the dreams must have a purpose.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5: The Historical Impact of Richard III and Shakespeare’s Retelling
The historical figure of Richard III was very important, especially in Elizabethan England. With the defeat of Richard III came the end of the War of the Roses, and the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty. Considering these political implications and the influence that Elizabeth (who was also a Tudor) had over Shakespeare, how much of Richard’s tendency towards evil do you think was hyperbole? Of course, there is historical evidence that supports Shakespeare’s interpretation of Richard, however, his relationship with the Queen no doubt had influence over the writing of his play. In what ways do you think the portrayal of Richard III could have affected the current political climate in Shakespeare’s day?
* For articles on this and other plays by William Shakespeare, be sure to browse through the Literature Archives at ArticleMyriad.com as there are several to choose from to gain ideas *
This list of important quotations from Richard III by Shakespeare will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Shakespeare's “Richard III” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for “Richard III” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text by Shakespeare they are referring to.
“The lights burn blue. It is now midnight. Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh. What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am. Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why: Lest I revenge. 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. (V.v.134-145)
“Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days; Compare dead happiness with living woe; Think that they babes were sweeter than they were, and he that slew them fouler than he is. Bett’ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse. Revolving this will teach thee how to curse." (IV.iv.118-123).
“Better it were they all came by his father, or by his father there were none at all. For emulation who shall now be near’st Will touch us all too near, if God prevent not. O full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester, And the Queen’s sons and brothers haughty and proud. And were they to be ruled, and not to rule, this sickly land might solace as before." (II.iii.23-30)
“O bloody Richard! Miserable England, I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee that ever wretched age hat looked upon.—Come lead me to the block, bear him my head. They smile at me, who shortly shall be dead." (III.iv.103-107)
“Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry; But ‘twas thy beauty that provoked me. Nay, now dispatch: ‘twas I that stabbed young Edward; But ‘twas thy heavnly face that set me on. Take up the sword again, or take up me." (I.ii.167-170)
“Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour won? I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long. What, I that killed her husband and his father, to take her inher heart’s extremest hate, with curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes, the bleeding witness of my hatred by…" (I.ii.215-221)
“O I have passed a miserable night, so full of fearful dreams, of ugly sights, that as I am a Christian faithful man, I would not spend another such a night though ‘twere to buy a world of happy days, so full of dismal terror was the time." (I.iv.2-7)
“Good lords, conduct him to his regiment. I’ll strive with troubled thoughts to take a nap, lest leaden slumber peise me down tomorrow, when I should mount with wings of victory. Once more, good night, kind lords and gentlemen." (V.v.56-60).
Source: Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.