Although it's Shakespeare's second-longest play, Richard III quickly motors through about 14 years of English history. The action is compressed into less than a month, making this five-act drama seem to go by an instant. The play's fast pacing is mostly due to Richard's "hurry up and grab the crown" strategy, which involves acting quickly (he proposes to Lady Anne while she's grieving the deaths of her husband and father-in-law) and accelerating events (like ordering Clarence's death before Edward can reverse the execution order).
The play is very self-conscious about this speeding up of time, and Shakespeare constantly makes us aware of it. (It seems like someone is always asking what time it is.) Yet there's also a sense that Richard simply doesn't have enough time to maintain his power. Just before the Battle of Bosworth Field (where Richard dies almost the instant he encounters Richmond), a clock strikes ominously, signaling that Richard's time has run out.
Questions About Time
- Discuss how Shakespeare compresses 14 years of history into a five-act play. How does this shape the audience's experience of Richard III?
- Why is Richard always asking "What is't o'clock?" (What time is it?) What's the effect?
- What's the significance of the clock striking in Act 5, Scene 6?
- Richard seems to have an ability to speed up time. Discuss how his acceleration of events works in his favor. Also, how does this strategy end up working against him?
Chew on This
Despite the fact that Richard is a master of accelerating time, his past crimes catch up with him in the end. When the ghosts of his murder victims appear in Richard's dream, we're reminded that our sins always come back to haunt us.