Study Guide

Richard III Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Shakespeare

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Tudor Myth

Like we've said, Shakespeare wrote Richard III when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne. As we know, Elizabeth I's grandfather was none other than Henry, Earl of Richmond – a.k.a. Richmond, a.k.a. King Henry VII, a.k.a. the guy who bumped Richard III off the throne and established the Tudor dynasty.

Not long after Richard III was taken down, the Tudors and their supporters (like the historian Sir Thomas More) began a smear campaign against Richard III in order to make the Tudor dynasty seem more legitimate. As literary critic Stephen Greenblatt reminds us, said smear campaign involved portraying Richard as a "monster of evil, a creature whose moral viciousness was vividly stamped on his twisted body."

Historians and literary scholars call this the "Tudor myth." It basically says that the Wars of the Roses and King Richard III's so-called wicked reign were one of the darkest periods in English history. That is, until King Henry VII's divinely sanctioned reign brought about a time of peace and prosperity in England.

Like we said, Henry VII was the grandfather of Shakespeare's very own monarch, Elizabeth I, so Shakespeare is sort of obligated to promote the idea that the Tudors brought about a golden age in England. Not only that, but Henry VII's reign was divinely sanctioned, meaning God supposedly wanted him on the throne.

Richard's Deformity

"Lump of foul deformity."

"Elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!"

"Poisonous bunchback'd toad."

"Slander of thy mother's heavy womb."

"Bottled spider."

Dang, this play sure makes a big, nasty deal out Richard's physical "deformity." It seems like every time we turn around some character is ragging on Richard's physical appearance. What's more, the play goes out of its way to tell us that our villain's "deformity" is directly related to his wicked behavior.

What's up with that?

Well, part of this has to do with the way Richard is portrayed in the sources Shakespeare used when writing his play. Like we've said, Richard III wasn't actually a "hunchback" (or even a "bunchback"). Actually, he probably wasn't even that bad of a guy, but that's how some historians, like Sir Thomas More, portrayed him. Check out how More described Richard in The History of King Richard the Third (c. 1513):

[…] little of statue, ill featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage [...] he was malicious, wrathful, envious and from his birth ever froward.

As we can see, Shakespeare is following in More's footsteps when he makes his character a physically "deformed" villain.

In the play's opening speech, Richard tells us he was born "deformed, unfinish'd" and was "sent before [his] time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up" (1.1.1). The idea is that Richard was born prematurely, before he could fully develop. More important, Richard also claims that his "lameness" is the reason no woman wants anything to do with him, which is why he is "determined" to be a "villain." Check it out:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy 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.
(1.1.1)

In other words, Richard says he's decided to be a bad guy because of his deformity. Should we believe him? Some scholars do; they say that Richard's villainy is the result of his feeling rejected, inadequate, and unloved. On the other hand, some scholars say that Richard has just found a very convenient excuse for being bad. In fact, literary critic Stephen Greenblatt argues that "Richard's deformity is less the cause of his evil nature than its sign."

So what do you think? Is Richard's deformity the cause of his wickedness, or is his deformity a reflection or a sign of his wicked ways?

The Boar

Various characters refer to Richard as "the boar" throughout the play. What's up with that? Well, Richard's heraldic symbol (on his coat of arms) is the white boar, which is often considered to be a fierce and hideous creature...just like Richard. (Check out his coat of arms here.) So we're not surprised when Lord Stanley has a dream that a "boar had razed off his helm[et]" (3.2.5) – it doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that Stanley's afraid Richard is going to cut off his head.

Earlier in the play, Queen Margaret declares that Richard is an "elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog," which is a not-so-nice reference to Richard's emblem and the fact that Richard (according to Shakespeare's play) was born prematurely and "deformed" (1.3.11). Margaret's not the only one who suggests that Richard is more animal than human.

Later, Richmond calls Richard a "foul swine" and refers to him as a destructive boar during his speech at Bosworth field:

The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,
That spoil'd your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your embowell'd bosoms,
(5.2.1)

Translation: Just as a boar might destroy a field of crops or feast on a man's guts (ever seen the famous "killer boar scene" in Hannibal?), Richard has ruined England by taking the throne and trampling all over the rights of his people.

Curses

"Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I plead. / That I may live and to say, 'The dog is dead'" (4.4.7). In "Characters: Queen Margaret," we told you that the old queen is like the Olympic champion of curse hurling. As you can see here, we weren't kidding around. When Margaret prays for Richard to be punished for his treachery, she asks God to execute divine justice. So later, when Richard is killed in battle (5.8), we get the sense that God really has answered Margaret's plea and that Richard's death (along with Henry VII's establishment of Tudor rule) has been ordained by God.

This isn't the only example of Margaret's curses coming true. The old woman sees just about everything coming, which is why her curses are considered prophetic. It also doesn't hurt that we (as good students of history) pretty much know how things are going to turn out. In other words, the play's historical foreknowledge helps establish the sense that events unfold according to some divine plan. (Plus, it suggests that when people get murdered and done away with in the play, they were basically asking for it.)

Also, every time a curse is fulfilled (even if we knew it was coming) the audience gets the satisfying feel of a real narrative at work. It's as if the curses give us some dramatic tension to look forward to. We as the audience know that the curses are serious business, so we also enjoy knowing the fate of the curse's victims before they do. That's the definition of dramatic irony – keeping the audience engaged with some secret that the characters don't know. Without the curses (and the fulfilling feeling they give us when they come true), the play would really just be a long boring string of deaths and executions that we knew were coming.

Curses serve a dramatic theatrical function. Remember that Shakespeare's audience was subject to the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I, and this is their national history that led up to her. They already know the whole story – for them not to know that Richard's defeat was inevitable would be like us watching a movie about JFK and being surprised when he was shot at the end. The curses of the women (and the ghosts, Rivers, Gray and Vaughn, and Hastings) all lend a mystical aura to the play.

Margaret isn't the only character who likes to curse people. Actually, all of the adult women in the play curse Richard at some point: Lady Anne curses him (and herself) over her father-in-law's corpse (1.2), and the Duchess of York curses her son by asking for his bloody death (4.4). Interestingly, Elizabeth begs Margaret to learn how to curse (4.4), but she admits that curses are a little unsatisfying. They are, in reality, just empty words that often vent anger and soothe the heart. Of course, the irony is that the women's curses are much more than windy words. The women curse because they feel powerless, but their curses actually give them power, as all of their curses come true.

We don't want to be redundant, Shmoopsters, so if you want to know more about all this cursing business, go read what we have to say in "Characters: Margaret."

Ghosts

On the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard dreams that he's visited by the ghosts of some of his murder victims – Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the young princes, Hastings, Lady Anne, and Buckingham. (Dang. The stage sure gets crowded during this scene.)

Each of the ghosts recalls what Richard has done to them and condemns him to death on the battlefield. Each one chants "Despair and die" (5.5). Yikes!

Oh, and did we mention how the ghosts also pay Richmond a visit (in his dream, of course) in order to give the guy a pre-battle pep-talk? It's a terrifying moment, and Richard's pretty shaken up when he awakens. Check out his reaction:

Methought the souls of all that I had murder'd
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
To-morrow's vengeance on the head of Richard.
(5.5.5)

Shakespeare's point? It seems pretty clear that Richard's evildoings have come back to haunt him – literally. (Hmm, was Dickens thinking of this play when he created the Ghost of Christmas Past?)

P.S. Shakespeare really has a thing for ghosts. If you think Richard's supernatural pals are scary, check out the "spirit" that goes around haunting Hamlet.

Clarence's Dream

Richard isn't the only character who tosses and turns at night. Clarence has a nightmare, too, and it turns out to be highly symbolic and prophetic. Let's discuss.

The day Clarence is murdered by Richard's goons, he says "O, I have pass'd a miserable night, / So full of ugly sights, of ghastly dreams" (1.4.1). Uh oh. We learn that Clarence dreamed about escaping the Tower of London (where he's locked up on treason charges) by ship. Guess who else was on the ship in Clarence's dream? Richard. Guess what they were talking about? The horrors they've seen (and committed) during the Wars of the Roses. Clarence reveals that in his dream, it seemed like Richard was falling overboard, and on his way down, he bumped Clarence off the ship into the water where he drowned. (Whoops. This probably foreshadows the fact that Richard "bumps off" Clarence when he has him executed, don't you think?)

In any case, Clarence wakes up thinking he's in hell. He's mostly right, as he's almost immediately greeted by his murderers, who stab him, then drown his body in a vat of wine. So basically, Clarence's dream about drowning turns out to be the nonalcoholic version of his actual death.

But what about all the freaky stuff Clarence sees on his journey to the bottom of the ocean? Check it out:

Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatter'd by.
(1.5.2)

There are lots of ways to interpret what Clarence sees, but here's our take: All those dead "men that fishes gnaw'd upon" and all that scattered treasure (some of which is lodged in human skulls) seem to symbolize all the lives Clarence helped destroy during the bloody civil wars. This passage is gorgeous poetry, but the fact that men become nothing more than fish food after they die (or food for worms, as in Hamlet) seems pretty fatalistic. Feel free to disagree or elaborate with your own analysis, Shmoopsters. Like we said, there's more than one way to read all of this.

What? You want to know about Lord Stanley's dream? Fine. Read what we have to say about "The Boar" above.

"Now is the winter of our discontent..."

Of course you want to know about the most famous lines of the play. We talk about the "winter of our discontent" speech in "Characters: Richard III," which is where you should head now if you want to know what we think about it.