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Shakespearean Tragedy: Love, Power, Revenge
Mandag den 11. Juni 2012
kl. 9.00-12.00
Hjælpemidler: Ordbøger
Answer the following question, in English.
Write an essay on ONE of the plays covered by the course (other than the play
studied in your special topic essay) in which you discuss the significance, in
seeking an appreciation of Shakespeare’s achievement, of AT LEAST THREE of
the following perspectives:
1) the place of the play in Shakespeare’s career as a playwright
2) the original auspices for which the play was written
2) performance aspects
3) knowledge of the source of the play
4) generic factors (e.g. comedy vs. tragedy; models for tragedy; tragic subgenres)
5) meta-dramatic elements
6) the “world” constructed in the play (e.g. ethics; religion & the
supernatural; gender)
N.B. The topics selected need not be given equal treatment.
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s second attempt at a ‘revenge tragedy’, preceded by Titus
Andronicus and, in the Folio version, it is one of the longest plays in his body of work.
The source of the play, the UR-Hamlet, no longer exists so it is not possible to
consider its content in a comparative analysis, but it might have been Thomas Kyd,
who also wrote the Spanish Tragedy. The source of the source, if you will, is Seneca’s
Thyestes, and the play is the most Senecan of all Shakespeare’s plays. Because people
cannot write about the UR-Hamlet, they instead write about the texts before and after,
and in this connection it is argued that the ghost was an invention of whomever wrote
UR-Hamlet, introduced by the writer (which could very likely be Kyd) to reveal the
details surrounding the murder, since the structure of revenge tragedies is that the first
murder is off-stage. The play exists in 3 different versions, the first Quarto (Q1), the
second Quarto (Q2) and the first Folio-version (F1). Together they represent different
stages in the production of a play. The chronological order of the published plays is
Q1, published in 1603, Q2, published in 1604, and F1, published in 1623, but the
source of each text is not so neatly arranged. In fact, the content on which Q1 is based
is probably the latest in the chronological order of performance. Q2 is based on
Shakespeare’s draft for the play, the initial ‘foul papers’, the performance script, which
is the next step of revision on Shakespeare’s part, is the textual basis for the Folio
version, and the neatest of the three. The Folio-version, or ‘the fair copy’ (as opposed
to the ‘foul papers’), always involves a process of alterations and changes as the writer
goes through the text again. Interestingly, but also sometimes to the confusion of a
reader interested in a textual analysis, editors of contemporary printed versions (like
the Oxford edition that has been the basis of this course) often choose to create an
eclectic version, where all versions are included in the sense that they produced a
subjective selection of snippets and stage directions from all the versions available,
and in effect create a whole new version.
Q1 is, as mentioned, based on the latest version of the play, namely an actual
performance on the Globe theatre, which has been recorded and put on paper. Whether
it was recorded by simple memorization of the content from a member of the
audience, or if the actors of the play were somehow tricked into giving this person
their lines, and he reconstructed the action on the basis of this is unknown, but there
are significant differences in the texts. The nunnery scene is perhaps the best example
of this, as the text differ in their use of Hamlet’s famous words to Ophelia: ‘Get thee to
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
a nunnery’. In F1, he does not repeat the same line but rephrases it from time to time
as ‘to a nunnery go’, and he prompts this in the middle as well as in the endings of his
‘turns to speak’. In Q1, the line becomes almost formulaic and is repeated many times,
far more than in F1, noticeably at the end of Hamlet’s speeches. It is suggested that
whoever recorded the material that is the basis for Q1 perhaps did not quite remember
exactly what was said, but remembered the significance of his line and, more
importantly, found that whenever Hamlet spoke these words, it was Ophelia’s turn to
speak. Where the F1 version is neat and artistic, the Q1-version is more like colloquial
and not as structured as the F1. Another example of colloquialism in Q1 as opposed to
F1, is the lack of profanity and curse words in F1. This occurs because there was a
new legislation passed between 1603 and 1623 that forbade the use of swearing and
taking the lords name in vain in plays. As a result, Q1 is filled with blasphemous
utterances and curse words, whereas F1 has been cleansed of all these and is, in that
context, ‘pure’. Many contemporary readers consider these changes a bastardization of
Shakespeare artistry and literary skills and consider whatever profanities might be
present in Q1 as part of Shakespeare’s style.
Hamlet is the most Roman of Shakespeare’s plays and it might be so because it was
written for an audience of Cambridge students. There several hints that reinforce this
assumption, the most noticeable being that the play is discussed by Harvey from
Cambridge in 1601 and this would suggest that the play had been performed at the
university before it was performed at the Globe. It is very likely that Q2 and F1 have
never been performed on the Globe, but only at banquets and similar events, where the
audience was seated, to allow for the length of the play. The length of the play
suggests that the play was intended for a specific audience as well, because the norm
at the Globe would be a length of about 2 hours, whereas Q2 and F1, if they were
performed in their entirety, would last more than 4 and it is unlikely that a standing
audience of ‘commoners’ would hold out for such a long play. Academic students on
the other hand, who were sitting in an auditorium, and who were also used to hours of
lectures and studies, would be more susceptible to a play that long. This is perhaps
also why the play is so Senecan, because an audience of graduates and undergraduates
would appreciate and understand the many references to the Senecan model for
tragedy – they might even have studied it themselves. The world of the play, as well,
emphasizes this notion, because the castle is filled with people of the academic world.
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
Hamlet is a university student and his ‘friends’ Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are also
undergraduates. Hamlet’s long soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be’, is not only a speech on
the physical suffering of man but also mimics an oral dissertation befitting a university
Hamlet is a revenge tragedy and it follows the basic model of a triangular pattern of
action: Someone is murdered -> the murderer is not caught -> someone close to the
victim swears to avenge their death by killing the villain. This structure is very present
in Hamlet, in more than one group of characters. The main plot involves the murder of
Old Hamlet by Claudius, who takes both Hamlet’s throne and wife as a prize. Young
Hamlet learns of the details of the murder by his father’s ghost and swears to avenge
him by killing Claudius. This is the main triangle, and the end of the play fulfils it. But
there is another triangle as well. It takes its origin in the tens relationship of Laertes,
Polonius and Hamlet on the subject of Ophelia. Laertes and Polonius (Ophelia’s
brother and father) do not want Hamlet to remain her boyfriend in fear that he only
wants to seduce her. As the plot progresses, Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius in his
mother’s bedchamber, where Polonius is hiding behind a tapestry, thinking it was
Claudius eavesdropping. This is the catalyst for a revenge model within the main
model, because Laertes plots to kill Hamlet to avenge the death of his father. Because
they eventually all poison and stab each other, every act of revenge is fulfilled and
both Hamlet and Laertes take the role as avenger, even though they too perish.
Similarly, Hamlet differs from the model of revenge tragedy in another respect,
because previous plays that had this model as its locus motor would follow another
pattern of behaviour from the avenger. The crime that sets the plot in motion is also
what prompts the protagonist to revenge, but Elizabethans considered vengeance
considered an act of God, not of man. In revenge tragedies, the circumstances turn the
avenger devilish and monstrous as a result of his obsession and he goes beyond
punishment and in some plays the revenge even involves cannibalism, but in Hamlet
the revenge is more of an act of returning things to status quo. Hamlet never eats
anybody. The cast has been dissembled, Hamlet has been successful in convincing
people he was mad, but has in the process lost Ophelia to a broken heart at the death of
her father and the rejection by Hamlet in the nunnery scene. Gertrude no longer wants
to live with Claudius and Claudius knows that he has been revealed as the murderer. In
this respect, the mass-death that ends the play cancels out the actions of those involved
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
and leaves the kingdom to be restored by Fortinbras, who has nothing to do with the
drama within the castle walls. Hamlet does not exert a gruesome death on Claudius
and Laertes; it is ultimately an echo of the manner in which his father was murdered –
with poison.
The play is, however, not only a revenge tragedy, but has a subplot with a
subgenre similar to that of Othello and Romeo and Juliet. The subplot of Ophelia and
Hamlet’s romance and its disintegration as the plot progresses is a love tragedy. The
love tragedy follows a clear pattern as well, evident in almost all plays of that kind.
Two lovers are pulled apart by their social environment (in Othello it is Othello’s
ethnicity that upsets Brabantio and in Romeo and Juliet it is the Montaque / Capulet
conflict that draws them apart), as a result they elope in hopes that a new environment
will allow their love to blossom, but in this new environment the lovers are vulnerable
to intervention. This leads to a misapprehension, which leads the lovers to their death
(Othello kills Desdemona because Iago’s scheme has convinced him that she has been
adulterous with his best friend Cassio, Romeo and Juliet commit suicide as a result of
the mistaken death of Juliet). In Hamlet, Ophelia and Hamlet are in love, but Polonius
and Laertes suspect Hamlet of foul intentions. And because Hamlet is keen on
revenging his father by murdering Claudius, he acts as if he has been driven mad, and
his performance is so convincing that Ophelia believes that he no longer loves her.
When Hamlet subsequently kills her father by mistake, Ophelia’s heart can bear no
more heartbreak and she drowns in a stream (presumably by jumping in it). This
results in the graveyard scene, where Laertes and Hamlet fight over her grave, arguing
who loved her most. Hamlet’s death closes the plot of the love tragedy. The play was
clearly not intended as a fully constructed love drama as it obviously lacks steps in the
model and details, which would constitute a love tragedy, but it has many of the
genres main features. There is no suggestion that the two are going to elope to escape
Polonius and Laertes’ judgmental attitudes, and the misapprehension is not a mistake
that is unconsciously done by the lovers (like Desdemona, for example, who
exacerbates Othello’s suspicions because she is trying to help Cassio), but rather it is,
if we believe Hamlet, a conscious choice by Hamlet to act mad, in order for him to kill
Claudius. The play is also, on a small scale, within the usurpation genre, because
Claudius kills Old Hamlet, the Viking, and ascends the throne with a renaissance
attitude. The plot can therefore also be interpreted as an attempt to remove an evil king
from the throne in order to restore the natural order in the kingdom.
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
The play also contains other diverse uses of literary technique, beyond the use of
multiple models for tragedy, because it features a play within the play. When Hamlet
learns by his father that Claudius has murdered him by pouring poison into his ear,
Hamlet becomes determined to avenge his father, but is still honourable enough that
he decides to make sure Claudius is indeed the culprit. To reveal Claudius, he hires a
group of actors to perform ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ and adds lines that resemble the
actions described to him by the ghost as the details of the murder. Hamlet is surprised
when the mimes’ performance does not shake Claudius – but when a character is
murdered by having poison poured in his ear Claudius gets up and leaves the
performance. This confirms to Hamlet that Claudius is the murderer, but it also
functions as a recapitulation of why Hamlet is acting so strange. And Hamlets
madness is, arguably, also a meta-dramatic element of the play. Because the question
remains throughout the play: is he acting, or has he in fact gone mad. The idea that he
acts as if mad, plays along with his role as an educated renaissance man who does not
simply murder someone on a suspicion raised by a ghoul. The ghoul is interesting as
well, because in the world of Shakespeare, most ghosts are devilish in nature and not
kind, aiding characters. In Macbeth the ghost of Banquo torments Macbeth’s mind and
in Richard III, the ghosts of all those he has murdered visits him to curse him to
despair. So there is also a question as to whether or not we believe in the ghost. It is of
course revealed as the plot thickens that the ghost was right and that Hamlet has been
successful in convincing everyone else that he is around the bend.
A final aspect of the world of Hamlet that is prominent is his dissatisfaction with his
mother’s behaviour after the death of his father. There are two underlying themes in
his judgment of her, one more obvious than the other (and perhaps also not as far
fetched): the sinful widow and the Oedipal relationship between Hamlet and his
mother Gertrude. It is made clear in act 1 that the widowed Queen Gertrude has
remarried only one month after the death of her husband, and to no other than the
murderer himself. Shakespeare had already explored this idea in Richard III, where
Richard persuades Anne to marry him even after he has confessed to being the
murderer of her husband and his father. But in Hamlet, the idea is not as overt,
because Gertrude, presumably, is unaware that Claudius is a usurper. It is unclear how
much Gertrude knows and, consequently, how guilty she is. The F1 offers hints that
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
she might know something whereas Q1 has made her unambiguously innocent –
perhaps simply because the recording artist simply did not get all her lines right, but
we cannot know for sure. Regardless of her guilt or innocence, Shakespeare makes
quite a big deal of Hamlet’s aversion to her new marriage. In the bedchamber scene
(where he later kills Polonius), Hamlet scolds her mother for having a physical
relationship with Claudius. He embodies the good Christian for a while (at least in a
non-Oedipal interpretation), and condemns her for not granting his father’s memory a
longer time of grief and, accordingly, a longer period of abstention from sex. The
Elizabethan value system comes clearly through, like in the plays on usurpation where
the natural order of God is disturbed when the king is killed, because it is
inappropriate for the Queen to throw herself at another man so soon. But there is also
the question of why this disturbs Hamlet so much. It seems he has an almost childish
disclination to the marriage, and a very transgressive interest in his mother’s sex-life.
He talks about the soiled sheets and scolds her, only to, in turn, be scolded by the
ghost of his father for being to harsh on Gertrude and not yet having avenged him.
Hamlet shows clear indications of having complex emotions for his mother, beyond
maternal love, and an unnatural interest in her sexuality while also making it quite
clear that he would prefer if she did not have sex at all, and least of all with his
stepfather. This clear connection to the psychological theory of the Oedipus complex
further complicates his relationship with both his mother and Claudius, because it
bring forth the question: does he only want to avenge his father, or is it a personal
vendetta against Claudius because he is fornicating with his mother?
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
The Moral Agents of Tragic Heroes and Villains: A Comparative Study of
Macbeth and Richard III
There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked. Book of Isaiah 48:22
Thematically and structurally, both Macbeth and Richard III can be categorized
within different genres. The most prominent characteristics of both plays are the main
protagonists’ desire to take the throne from the present king, which leads the reader to
label the plays as usurpation or power plays. Some will call them power tragedies or
usurpation tragedies, but, as we will find later, the key features of a tragic hero are not
necessarily present in both plays. Regardless, both are plays about usurpation and
power, with regicide and murder on the steps of the throne at the centre of both
Macbeth and Richard III. But what is interesting in a comparative study of the two
plays is that Shakespeare matured artistically in the time from Richard III to Macbeth,
and added key features of a contemporarily popular genre to the latter, which creates
another structure with regard to the characters. He takes from the morality plays the
agents of good and evil and place them on Macbeth’s shoulders – both literally and
metaphorically – and in doing so, he gives Macbeth another background for his
villainy and moral demise. The main focus of this essay is the juxtaposition of
Richard and Macbeth and how they are both similar to and contradictions of each
other, evident from Richard’s physical deformity in comparison to Macbeth’s
physical strength as a warrior, the malevolent mind of Richard versus the turmoil of
Macbeth’s mind in the frame of evil-doing, and their roles as villainous protagonists.
The similarities and differences in the cast of the two plays also play a central role in
this context, and especially the role of Lady Macbeth is interesting to more than one
aspect of the comparison.
Michael Mangan finds, in his book A Preface to Shakespearean Tragedies, ‘The story
of the usurper is … [a] favourite narrative of English Renaissance drama’1, one reason
being that it causes a debate as to the ethical aspect of usurpation. The ethical problem
with usurpation plays, where the protagonist kills his way to the throne, is that the act
of usurpation is a great evil and flaw and, in the mind of an Elizabethan, it equates
Mangan, Michael. A Preface to Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Longman Group United
Kingdom, 1991. p. 70
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
killing God, because the King, Daniel Hughes argues, was considered the earthly
counterpart to the supreme Divine Being2. The ethical question being of course: can
we kill the usurper, now that he is king? There is no simple answer, if we adopt the
moral mind-set of Elizabethans, but Shakespeare’s plays seem to offer a solution,
which at least somewhat justifies a second usurpation. If we consider both the reign of
Macbeth and that of Richard III, the country seems to be deteriorating alongside the
minds of the protagonists. The two kings murder endlessly in fear of the safety of
their position, - Richard asks ‘But shall we wear these honours for a day? or shall they
last […]’ (IV. ii. 4-5) and Macbeth says ‘To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus’
(III. i. 46-47) - and all who stood alongside the previous (good) kings, now flee the
land to evade persecution. The disintegration of the kingdom perfectly manifest and
predicts the ultimate destruction that was thought to follow usurpation, because the
Elizabethan considered the murder of a King the ultimate disruption of the natural
order. Taking these factors into consideration, a second usurpation might be
considered less of a crime against the natural order of the world, and perhaps more of
a liberation. This is the great ethical problem with the successful usurpation by an evil
force – how do you correct it, if you are not allowed to kill him? Shakespeare seems
to suggest that there can be extenuating circumstances, which makes it more ethically
acceptable to kill the king, if the act can be considered part of a cleansing of the entire
kingdom from the disease that was his reign. As Hughes concludes in his paragraph
on Elizabethan worldviews, ‘[…] sin, guilt, and retribution became for them the great
drama of man sundering the moral links that bind him with the Divine Being’3.
Within this framework, it is interesting to note that the plays also qualify – to
a certain extent – as morality plays, but in its black variant, known specifically from
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The standard morality play holds within it a neat structure
concerning the temptation of an innocent mankind-figure, who falls into temptation
but before he is eternally condemned by his sinfulness, he repents and does penance,
cleansing him of his sins. The central part of the morality structure is the juxtaposition
of good and evil externalized by characters (the iconographic representation of an
angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering advice and temptation into
the ears of our hero springs to the mind of a contemporary reader), who attempt to
Hughes, Daniel E. 'The "Worm of Conscience" in "Richard III" and "Macbeth"'. The
English Journal, Vol. 55, No. 7 (1966): 846.
Hughes, op. cit. p. 846
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
lead the hero onto the path of either temptation or righteousness. In Doctor Faustus,
however, the hero reaches a point of no return, at which he does not return but rather
he is condemned to hell for his sins. This is the structure of the black morality play, in
which the hero goes to hell, and this type of morality play arguably qualifies as a
tragedy; the downfall of an initially good man. Macbeth contains the same basic
structure of the black morality play as a good man, who falls into temptation and is
condemned by his ambition to follow through with his scheme of regicide and Irvin
Ribner notes that ‘Macbeth is thus much in the position of the traditional morality
play hero placed between good and evil angels’4 . It is interesting, though, that
Macbeth seems to contain both an external cast of moral combatants as well as an
internal dialogue with the same intent. The juxtaposition of Lady Macbeth and
Banquo on either side of our hero Macbeth is one of evil and good and as Irvin Ribner
argues; ‘Just as Banquo symbolizes that side of Macbeth which would accept nature
and reject evil, Lady Macbeth stands for the contrary side. Her function is […] to
mitigate against those forces within him which are in opposition to evil.’5. But as
mentioned, there is also the eternal struggle in Macbeth’s mind, as he contemplates
every idea and its correlating action with the arguments of both good and evil angels:
Besides, this Duncan
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tounged against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding blast, or Heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind. (I. vii. 16-26) (Italics mine)
The metaphor of the angels (in italics) is a great juxtaposition of innocence and power
in the context of his decision and Macbeth is obviously considering both right and
wrong in his intent and with regard to his character his perhaps most interesting
aspect is his imagination. As Ribner goes on to note, ‘Shakespeare endows Macbeth
with this ability to see all implications of his act in their most frightening forms even
before the act itself is committed as an indication of Macbeth’s initial strong moral
Ribner, Irving. 'Macbeth: The Pattern of Idea and Action'. Shakespeare Quarterly,
Vol. 10, No. 2 (1959): p. 153.
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
feelings’6, and it is exactly this feature of his character that allows him to be, in
essence, his own moral agents of redemption and damnation. Banquo is the voice of
reason, but more so as an addition to Macbeth’s internal dialogue, just as the evil
angel Lady Macbeth plays the central role in exacerbating, not creating, the ambition
that is Macbeth’s greatest flaw. When Macbeth has ‘no spur /To prick the sides of my
intent, but only /Vaulting ambition’ (I. vii. 26-28), Lady Macbeth is the spur and she
sits on his shoulder, where she ‘may pour spirits in thine ear /And chastise with the
valour of my tongue’ (I. v. 26-27) but as an agent of temptation she is preceded by her
husband’s own thoughts of ambition. It is noted by Hughes as well that Macbeth is
not simply persuaded by his angel of amorality instantaneously and ‘When Lady
Macbeth urges her husband to be resolved as once, he puts her off; and when he
appears again in Act I, Scene 7, he is still turning the thought over in his mind’7.
It would be beneficial in the context of a comparative essay to apply the same
structure to Richard III, but the play does not offer the same straight-forward
comparison to morality plays, neither in the traditional nor tragic variant.
Interestingly, Richard seems to have the same imaginative capabilities of Macbeth,
but with nowhere near the same focus on right versus wrong as part of an internal
assessment of possible actions. Hughes compares him to Macbeth and argues that
‘Richard by contrast, appears to be the very embodiment of evil’8 and Susan Leas
joins in and notes that ‘The Richard of Shakespeare’s play is, for the most part, a
gleeful, inhuman caricature who delights in explaining his villainies to the audience,
like Iago or the vice in the medieval morality plays’9. Richard is thus cast as the vice,
the evil angel, but his only contemplations of what is right or wrong, seems to be in
attempt to further his maliciousness and there seems to be no negotiations of
righteousness with his characters by anyone – least of all himself:
For then I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter –
What though I killed her husband and her father?
The readiest way to make the wench amends
Is to become her husband and her father,
The which will I – not all so much for love,
By marrying her which I must reach unto.
Ribner. op. cit. p. 157
Hughes. op. cit. p. 847
Hughes. op. cit. p. 848
Leas, Susan E.. '"Richard III", Shakespeare, and History'. The English Journal, Vol.
60, No. 9 (1971): 1214
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
But yet I run before my horse to market:
Clarence still breathes, Edward still lives and reigns.
When they are gone, then must I count my gains. (I. ii. 152-161)
He does declare to the audience that he is aware of his own devilishness, as he
proposes to himself to marry Anne, but it reads almost sarcastically, with an almost
scornful tone. Richard is listing the obstacles to his scheme rather than, as Macbeth,
weighing the moral pros and cons of his decision and, as Waldo McNeir proposes, the
audience is ‘never misled because he takes us into his confidence in his soliloquies,
making us his accomplices’10. And as such, he also seals his character as deform in
more than his approach to morality.
The question of Richard’s lacking moral code seems intertwined with the deformity
of both his body and his mind. The idea of Richard’s deformity in both Richard III
and his other appearances in the Henry VI plays, is essentially a dramatization, argued
by Leas in her evaluation of the Richard of the play and the Richard who was king of
England in 1483-85: ‘The hunchback with the withered arm who crushes everyone
between him and the throne is an effective dramatic creation […] He was not a
hunchback, nor did he have a withered arm, though one of his shoulders may have
been slightly higher than the other’11. The problem is that Shakespeare would have
drawn his interpretation of Richard from Holinshed’s Chronicles of England,
Scotland, and Ireland, which had its origins in Thomas More’s History of King
Richard the Thirde12, and More’s Richard is, McNeir points out, a stylized monster
marked by his deformity as ‘little of stature, ill featured of limes, crooke backed, his
left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favored of visage […] he was
malicious, wrathful, envious, and from afore his birth ever froward.’13. Shakespeare
explores the duplicity of Richard’s deformity already in Henry VI, part 2, where Old
Clifford scoffs ‘Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump, /As crooked in thy
McNeir, Waldo F.. 'The Masks of Richard the Third'. Studies in English Literature,
1500-1900. Vol. 11, No. 2 (1971): 173
Leas. op. cit. p. 1215
Mabillard, Amanda. Sources for Richard III. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (1
June 2012) < >
McNeir. op. cit. p. 168 – Please note that McNeir takes this quote from Richard S.
Sylvester, ed., The History of King Richard III, in Complete Works of St. Thomas
More (New Haven, 1963), II, lxxvii
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
manner as in thy shape.’ (V. i. 158-159)14. The physical deformity, be it an invention
of More or not, is to Shakespeare a vehicle for investigating the possibilities of an evil
mind seemingly crippled by his appearance.
One of the most striking interactions in the entire play, Richard’s wooing of
the widowed Lady Anne, is also a passage that reveals to the audience Richard’s own
expectations of himself as a result of his physical limitations. In Act I, Scene 2,
Richard employs all the mastery of rhetoric that he possesses and goes through an
elaborate string of flattering words and false proposals of penance, as he courts her
whilst simultaneously admitting to killing her husband and his father and offering his
own life in return:
Nay, do not pause, ‘twas I that killed your husband;
But ‘twas thy beauty that provoked me.
Nay, now dispatch, ‘twas I that killed King Henry;
But ‘twas thy heavenly face that set me on
Here she lets fall the sword
Take up the sword again, or take up me (I. ii. 165-170)
Richard’s method is one of cunning manipulation of language, and as Michael Torrey
finds in his dissertation, ‘By positing the impossible and asking thoroughly
implausible questions, he not only flatters her but undermines her preconceptions
about him’15. His constant change from villain to repentant sinner to suitor confuses
and disarms Lady Anne until she gives in ‘With all my heart, and much it joys me too
/To see you are become so penitent’ (I. ii. 205-206). In the aftermath of his success
the audience is finally given a peak at a Richard behind his many masks of scheme
and devilry and Hughes notes that Richard’s awareness (but not adherence to) right
and wrong ‘[…] can be shown further in his perception of others, for example, Anne,
whom to his own wonder he woos successfully’16. And it is exactly the wonder,
which is interesting. Consider Richard’s own reflection of his achievement after Anne
Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Shakespeare, William. King Henry VI, Part 2. in The Arden Shakespeare Complete
Works Ed. Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson and David Scott Kastan. London:
Thomson Learning, 2001
Torrey, Michael David. Anxieties of Deception in English Morality Plays and
Shakespearean Drama. Diss. University of Virginia, 1996. Michigan: UMI, 2001. p.
Hughes. op. cit. p. 849
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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 in her heart’s extreme hate,
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I nothing to back my suit at all
But the plain evil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing? Ha? (I. ii. 212-223)
It is fascinating, in an exploration of Richard’s mind, that his conquest was not
expected by him. Both in his opening soliloquy, his many reflections on his own
character later in the play, and within this very paragraph, Richard constantly reminds
us that he is a self-proclaimed villain and has more concern for what vicious action to
conduct next than with the moral issues of those he has already completed. Evalee
Hart finds this feature of his character to be what is so mesmerizing to the audience,
stating that ‘the audience is absorbed in what Richard will do next, not how he will
feel – in the actions he performs, not in the consequences he undergoes’17. In this
paragraph too, he states that ‘I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long’, making clear
to us the ennui he feels the very moment he is successful. Robert Heilman argues that,
unlike Macbeth who we will see is constantly aware and struggles with the moral
truth, ‘Either Richard lacks moral self-knowledge or, when he uses a vocabulary that
implies such knowledge, he seems immune to the pain and shock that afflict the
knower’18. The only self-knowledge that seems to have an interest to Richard is his
own evaluation of his sometimes seemingly unlimited evil.
As for his aforementioned wonder at Anne’s acceptance of his proposal, his
exclamation of something resembling disbelief is perhaps one of the most intimate
moments of the play – further elaborated on in the moments of his ghost-filled dream
in Act 5, Scene 4; the above passage reveals to the reader a bit of introspective on his
part, a notion that he does in fact consider himself deformed – not just evil – both of
body and mind. Even if he seems devout of conscience in the matter, he is nonetheless
aware of (if not willing to act according to) right and wrong and, interestingly, the
implausibility of Anne accepting the proposal of ‘plain evil and dissembling looks’. It
is a rare instance of humility, a clear feeling of physical inferiority and, perhaps, an
Hart, Evalee. 'A Comparative Study: "Macbeth" and "Richard III"'. The English
Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1972): 825
Heilman, Robert B. 'Satiety and Conscience: Aspects of Richard III'. The Antioch
Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1964): 58
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explanation to Richard’s determination to be one of wicked schemes. It suggests that
he is compensating for his lack of physical strength and appearances by adding to his
visual foulness with the malice of his character rather than, as would perhaps have
been the choice of most others, attempting to counteract his unattractiveness with a
more empathetic attitude. This line in particular emphasizes the duplicity of Richard’s
deformity being both physical and of his mind, as well as underscoring his intentional
malice to the audience or readers of the play. And the reinforcement of one by the
other is what makes him simultaneously one of Shakespeare’s most enthralling
characters but also one the most unsympathetic, and, Hart argues, it is what makes
him ‘a strangely compelling figure’ 19 . As mentioned, another scene which is
interesting with regard to the main feature of the tragic hero, what Hart calls ‘an
internal struggle which embroils his very soul’20, is the tent scene in Act 5, where
Richard is visited by the ghosts of those he has had murdered. He is condemned by
Hastings and Anne to ‘despair and die’ (V. iiii. 135+142) and Buckingham orders him
to ‘die in terror of thy guiltiness’ (V. iiii. 149), all invoking with their words a plea for
the conscience of our protagonist to overcome him and drench him in fear of the
damnation, which must surely be the moral consequence of his actions. And we are
granted a glimpse of Richard’s understanding of conscience because, Heilman finds,
‘Richard has the first touches of that serious inward-looking which was to be more
highly developed in later tragic heroes […] there is a kind of moral self-knowledge
trying to break through’21. In the soliloquy that follows Richard’s visit by the ghosts,
he expresses a beginning struggle, obviously shaken by the experience:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I.
Is there a murderer here? No. – Yes, I am.
Then fly. – What, from myself upon myself?
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. iiii. 161-170)
Hart. op. cit. p. 825
Heilman. op. cit. p. 68
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Within this monologue is a dialogue between Richard’s inner agents of moral right
and wrong. For an instance, it would seem that he is capable of actual regret based on
the ethical wrong he has done unto others, but notice how his Machiavellian nature
constantly pulls him towards self-devotion. Heilman again points out that it seems as
if Shakespeare is uncertain of Richard’s motives and, as a result, ‘he shifts back and
forth uncertainly’ and ‘the leaps that make up the soliloquy find a partial form
through the love-hate counterpoint in the soliloquy’22. However, as it has already been
discussed, Richard’s arguments as to why he should hate himself are half-hearted at
best, mainly because they are consequently neutralized by his assertion that he is, by
his own conviction, a villain, but also convinced that the world will find him one as
well; ‘every tongue brings a several tale, /And every tale condemns me for a villain’
(V. iiii. 172-173). The juxtaposition of attitudes from the audience towards Richard is
what places him as the ultimate villain and the simultaneous protagonist and
antagonist of Richard III: he is his own worst enemy, because he is incapable of
changing his disposition and essentially at fault for every consequence he suffers at
the end and the tent-scene is just as much a revelation scene, where Richard realizes
that the audience has known this all along.
But Richard has other enemies in the play, besides those he dispatches off
because he considered them obstacles to his usurpation, and they are not unlike the
coven of witches we come to know in Macbeth. The widowed Queen Margaret, who
lurks around the castle ad spews curses at everyone, comes to resemble a witch when
she, in Act 4, meets with the Duchess of York – Richard’s mother – and Queen
Elizabeth. Aerol Arnold notes that Margaret acts as the nemesis of Richard23 and it is
revealed early in the play that she is just as capable of cold-blooded deeds as he is,
when, in Act 1, Richard recalls what she did to his father and how she ‘drew’st rivers
from his eyes, /And then to dry them gav’st the Duke a clout /Steeped in the faultless
blood of pretty Rutland’ (I. iii. 173-175). Interestingly, soaking a handkerchief in
blood and waving it in front of the murdered man’s father holds somewhat of a
ritualistic value and the first example of her resemblance to a witch – the most
obvious being of course her curses. A few lines later in the same scene, Margaret
curses most of the people present, including Richard. And she turns out to be quite the
Arnold, Aerol. ‘The Recapitulating Dream in Richard III and Macbeth’.
Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1955): 54
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‘prophetess’ (I. iii. 301), when her curses are fulfilled one by one throughout the play.
Indeed, the tent scene is the result of Margaret’s curse upon Richard in Act 1:
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul.
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends.
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be whilst some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils. (I. iii. 219-224)
In Act 4, Scene 4, Margaret’s ability to curse and prophesize has caught the interest of
Queen Elizabeth. While Elizabeth was resentful towards Margaret in Act 1, when she
is cursing everyone, she now begs for her to teach her how to curse: ‘Oh thou wellskilled in curses, stay a while /And teach me how to curse mine enemies’ (IV. iiii.
110-111). Fred Manning Smith draws relations between Macbeth and Richard III and
[…] the resemblance between the witches and Margaret. Having foretold
Macbeth’s future the witches prophecy for Banquo the success of his
descendants. Margaret having prophesied unhappiness for Hastings,
Queen Elizabeth, and the others turns to Buckingham, whose part in the
play we shall observe is much like Banquo’s in Macbeth, and says, “Now
fair befall thee and thy noble house” (I. iii. 282). Both Margaret and the
witches return at the climax in their respective plays to prophesy the doom
of the tyrant.24
The main difference, however, between Margaret and her ‘coven’ of noble-women
and the witches is that the royal trio uses her supernatural powers in opposition to
Richard, and he, in turn, avoids them when possible whereas the witches have a
slightly different relationship with Macbeth.
The witches in Macbeth are in fact the main catalyst of the events of the play, and
Macbeth seeks their company more than once, with every intent to hear their
prophecies. While Richard scoffs at Margaret’s curses and comically tries to turn
them against her, Macbeth holds much respect for the supernatural words of the
wicked sisters. When we first meet Macbeth, it is not with a seductive soliloquy, but
as he returns from battle, drums declaring his triumph and announcing his arrival.
They are intercepted by the witches, who hail Macbeth as ‘Thane of Glamis’, ‘Thane
Smith, Fred Manning. 'The Relation of Macbeth to Richard the Third'. PMLA, vol.
60, No. 4 (1945): 1003-1020.
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of Cawdor’ and as one who ‘shalt be King hereafter’ (I. iii. 46-50), and from that
point, Macbeth is enthralled by their prophecies: ‘Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell
me more’ (I. iii. 70), he begs them and with every following word from the weird
sisters, his ambition is ignited and set alight. But his character at the beginning of the
play is not initially perceived as evil or scheming, like that of Richard, but rather as a
great warrior. Michael Mangan points out that:
Macbeth’s identity is defined from the beginning as being steeped in
blood; his sword ‘Which smok’d with bloody execution’ might be
emblematic of his later career as regicide and tyrant. But there are no
clues, on first acquaintance, which encourage us to read such irony into
his description […] Macbeth’s initial identity is established in terms
which appear unequivocal.25
After the witches appear, Ross and Angus show up with word from King Duncan, and
therein lies another clue to the audience, as to how the world of the play interprets the
character of Macbeth:
[…] when he reads
Thy personal venture in the rebels’ fight,
His wonders and his praise do contend
Which should be thine, or his. Silenced with that,
In viewing o’er the rest o’th’ self-same day,
He finds thee in the stout Norwegian ranks,
Nothing afeard of what thyseld didst make
Strange images of death. As thick as hail
Came post to post, and every one did bear
Thy praises in his kingdom’s great defense (I. iii. 90-98)
Macbeth is thus praised by both common men and the King alike, as he fought against
the rebels and the Norwegians on the same day, as a man who is unequivocally not
afraid of death, even as he stands in the midst of it. But this unequivocality is
interrupted by the seed of ambition that the witches plant in him, and from that
moment Macbeth becomes a man of two minds; and the duplicity of his mind, as it
was discussed earlier, resonates the agents of redemption and damnation from the
classical morality plays and the rest of the play fans out as a developmental
exploration of our protagonist’s unravelling mind. And moreover, Macbeth becomes
increasingly fearful and paranoid, and the fear of his own death drives him to
unnecessary murder. Arnold Stein reminds us that ‘Macbeth is deliberately entering
Mangan. op. cit. p. 191
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into the spirit of black magic, into the atmosphere of the play that is created by the
witches’ charms wound up, by their verbal spells and darkly suggestive hints of things
done and about to be done’26. The supernatural prophecies are seducing, and both
Macbeth and Banquo are not reluctant to receive, if not immediately believe, their
magical words. And when the first premonition of the witches comes true, and Angus
tells the party that the Thane of Cawdor has been sentenced to death, the good nature
of Macbeth (which Shakespeare has had the other characters emphasize so
colourfully) is corrupted instantly – not extensively – and his vaulting ambition
becomes a present factor of his mind-set.
Macbeth is a complex character, because every argument he present to himself
with the intent of usurpation is immediately parried by his own perception of
manliness – he does not consider regicide a deed of a good man. But what ensues is a
perversion of this logic, as, Ruth Anderson argues, Macbeth’s ambition changes his
human nature ‘and makes him “brutish”’27. Additionally, Lady Macbeth undergoes a
similar transformation of her human nature into an unnatural or even un-female
woman. Jarold Ramsey seconds this interpretation, and argues that
the more Macbeth is driven to pursue what he and Lady Macbeth call
manliness – the more he perverts that code in a rationale for reflexive
aggression – the less humane he becomes, until at last he forfeits nearly
all claims on the race itself, and his vaunted manhood, as he finally
realizes, become meaningless.28
The entire play, and especially the protagonist and his wife, is seeped in the theme of
inversion and equivocality, both of nature and manliness. When Macbeth has his first
instance of ambition, and the words of the witches prompt him to discuss with himself
the idea of usurpation, he words of Banquo – ‘The instruments of darkness tell us
truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s /In deepest consequence’ (I. iii. 126128) – still linger in his mind and he is unsure what to make of their prophecies:
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Stein, Arnold. 'Macbeth and Word-Magic'. The Sewanee Review, Vol. 59, No. 2
(1951): 272
Anderson, Ruth L.. 'The Pattern of behavior Culminating in Macbeth'. Studies in
English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1963): 151-173.
Ramsey, Jarold. 'The Perversion of Manliness in Macbeth'. Studies in English
Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1973): 285-300.
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Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair (I. iii. 131-136)
The horrid images infect his mind, and from the next lines, where he declares that
‘that function / Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is/ But what is not’ (I. iii. 141143), he acknowledges that even though his ability to carry out any kind of murder is
blocked by his thoughts and imaginations of horror, the only thing that matters to him,
is something that doesn’t really exist – namely Macbeth on the throne. It is interesting
to consider, if Macbeth would have carried out the murder, simply on the basis of his
encounter with the weird sisters on the heath, but such a scenario seems almost
unfathomable, once the audience is made familiar with the character of Lady
As discussed in the context of morality plays, Lady Macbeth is juxtaposed
with Banquo, as the main agent of temptation and evil. Just as Richard’s cunning
words persuade Anne to marry the murderer of her husband and his father, Lady
Macbeth is gifted with words and draws upon the same kind of word-manipulation to
aggravate Macbeth’s staggering conviction. Ramsey explores the mechanics of her
temptation, and finds that while Macbeth is concerned primarily on the wrongness of
usurping a good king, Lady Macbeth ‘[…] cunningly premises her arguments on
doubts about Macbeth’s manly virtue’29. And his virtue is what has been suggested by
Shakespeare himself to be very important to our perception of Macbeth as a person –
indeed, we found earlier that he is praised as a warrior and in that respect fulfils every
emblematic role of manliness. And this is exactly why Lady Macbeth’s tactic is so
effective, Ramsey argues, and when ‘[…] she scornfully implies that his very
sexuality will be called into question in her eyes if he refuses the regicide’30, Macbeth
is drawn into a semantic ping-pong of attack and defence of manliness as he snaps: ‘I
dare do all that may become a man, /Who dares do more is none’(I. vii. 45-46). And,
as Ramsey points out, this gives Lady Macbeth ‘the cue she needs to begin the radical
transcaluation of his code of manliness that will lead to his ruin’31 and goes on to
argue that what she achieves is to point out to him, that ‘by his own manly standards
Ramsey. op. cit. p. 288
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he will be a dull-spirited beast, no man, if he withdraws from the plot’32. In response
to Macbeth’s declaration that he dares only do what it is considered proper for a man
to do (by Elizabethan moral standards), she contemptuously mocks him ‘When you
durst do it, then you are a man; /And to be more than what you were, you would /Be
so much more the man’(I. vii. 49-51). She calls him a coward of words but no action,
stating that he was more a man, when he dared to kill Duncan, and that he will
become more of a man than he ever was, if he actually fulfils his ambition and kills
him. What is really interesting, is the inversion of her own gender that takes place
during the next lines of the play, as the Lady strips her character of womanhood and
becomes the antithesis of maternity, when she proclaims:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling at my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done this. (I. vii. 54-59)
With the metaphorical killing of her own child, she renounces her identity as a woman
and steps into an androgynous role as co-usurper alongside her husband. Roland Frye
points out that ‘The role of woman will be hers no longer, and even so early she
usurps the envisioned murder weapon as ‘my keen knife’ […] When her husband
returns, she informs him that he ‘shall’ put the night’s business ‘into my dispatch’,
and determinedly suggests that all be left to her’33, suggesting that the usurpation in
which she takes part is just as much for her sake as for Macbeth’s. And Macbeth
concurs with her statement as he urges ‘Bring forth men-children only: /For thy
undaunted mettle should compose /Nothing but males’ (I. vii. 73-75), implying that
her character is one of such a fearless spirit that any offspring of hers would naturally
be masculine as a result. Earlier in the play, Lady Macbeth also calls upon a
supernatural force to unsex her, which provides the background for this discussion of
her masculinity, but this will be elaborated on shortly. As for Macbeth’s manliness,
the sympathy he gained from the audience when his wife manipulates him on account
of his desire to be a ‘more the man’ is shaken and almost lost when he, after the dead
King Duncan is discovered, is questioned as to why he killed the groomsmen. In Act
Ramsey. op. cit. p. 289
Frye, Roland Mushat. 'Macbeth's Usurping Wife'. Renaissance News, Vol. 8, No. 2
(1955): 104
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2, Scene 3, Macbeth attempts to justify his ‘burst of violence’, as Ramsey calls it, to
Macduff in a ‘speech that verges steadily towards hysteria’, in a feeble attempt to
evoke an image of ‘the praiseworthy savage and ruthless Macbeth of recent military
fame’34 as a redeeming factor. But Ramsey further points out that the code of manly
virtue to which he appeals has already been perverted 35 and quotes Macbeth’s
reasoning that ‘Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious, /Loyal and neutral,
in a moment? No man’ (II. iii. 110-111).
What Lady Macbeth is perhaps most successful in, is pointing out to the
audience that Macbeth is still a good man, who needs coaxing to commit his first
murder. Not until his first act of aggression is he yet so corrupted that the audience
finds him unsympathetic. Macbeth is at first driven by his own ambition, as well as
that of his wife, but as he steps upon the throne and can call himself king, he becomes
paranoid, driven so by his own fears of usurpation but also by the witches’ prophecy
to Banquo that his children will be kings. Unlike Richard, who brushes aside the
female triad’s curses on him, Macbeth is haunted by the words of the witches,
ultimately resulting in his false sense of security he gains, when he seeks their
supernatural premonitions in the castle36 and is told by apparitions from their cauldron
Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man; for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinan Hill
Shall come against him. (IV. i. 93-95+107-109)
The witches’ words and apparitions are, Ramsey argues, ‘the final step in the
degeneration of Macbeth’s manliness’37, and continues to claim that ‘nothing in the
name of “kindness” can interfere, it seems, with the perfection of his monstrous
“manliness”’38. It is also the final sign of inversion of the world of Macbeth, because
if the witches now inhabit the castle, it could be argued that the environment of the
Ramsey. op. cit. p. 290
This is an assumption, as neither stage directions or the dialogue of this scene
suggests that Macbeth leaves the castle to see them on the heath and because the
second witch prompts: ‘Open locks, whoever knocks’ (IV. i. 61).
Ramsey. op. cit. p. 292
Ramsey. op. cit. p. 293
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play has been turned on its head. Where before, Macbeth was intercepted in the heath
by the witches, assimilating the nature outside the castle with malicious and
supernatural phenomena as well as the battleground where Macbeth is first stained
with blood in the name of righteousness, the castle in Duncan’s reign was where the
good of the world held its ground. As Macbeth ascends the throne, the castle becomes
the place where ghoulish dreams haunt Lady Macbeth, where the witches keep their
cauldron, and from which Macbeth is drenched in the blood of all who oppose him.
Nature, on the other hand, is now rid of the witches, and Birnam Wood moves in the
name of good towards the castle, which has become hell on earth. Anderson reflects
on Macbeth’s bloody reign from his castle of doom, and she finds that:
Not considering himself safe until he has “utterly extirpated” all who
might oppose him, a usurper is moved to “fall foul” upon everyone
“without distinction.” Through this cruelty he arouses in the hearts of his
subjects a fear that undermines the principle of obedience and eventually
grows “Bloody.” The fear which a tyrant awakens in his subjects “dashes
back upon his own head.”39
The paradox of Macbeth’s paranoia is that every bloody deed he performs seems to be
in attempt to clear his conscience of the ‘horrid images’, because as long as he fears
for his life, ghosts and ‘the worm of conscience’ will keep gnawing his conscience –
and as a result, he moves closer to his own downfall with every drop of blood he
sheds and every murder cements his role as villain.
There both obvious and less palpable similarities between Richard III and Macbeth,
some of which have already been mentioned. The parallel between the triad of women
in Richard’s castle and the witches is Macbeth’s are interesting, if we consider the
temporal aspect of comparison as well – namely that Richard III precedes Macbeth in
Shakespeare’s body of work. In that context, Macbeth can be regarded as an example
of a more mature Shakespeare’s revised and artistically superior play. In Richard III,
Margaret lurks around the castle, and only when things are at their direst does she
take part in ritualistic curses with the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth. The
witches in Macbeth also stand by in the shadows, but their premonitions are taken far
more seriously than the curses of Margaret. The witches also provide spectacle and
masque to the play, especially in Act 4 when they conjure apparitions from their
Anderson. op. cit. p.160
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cauldron, whereas there is little spectacular about the triad in Richard III – they are
never explored to their full potential and remain a bump on the road for Richard. But
looking at the text itself, it also becomes evident that lines and metaphors from
Richard III are further developed and echoed in Macbeth. As already mentioned,
neither one feels that their position on the throne is safe, but in this respect they differ
as well, because, as Norman Rabkin states, that while Richard ‘at least enjoys the
process of manipulation and murder by which he gets where he finally does not want
to be, Macbeth’s response to his own action is constantly one of horror’40.When they
murder everyone they consider threats, both end up declaring their intent to kill
children; Richard declares that he must dispose of Anne and the young princes, while
Macbeth feels threatened by lady Macduff and her children. Smith compares the two
and finds that they are ‘so far in blood that [they] will kill women and children’41.
Smith points to similar passages in both plays:
[…]I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. (Richard III. IV. ii. 63-64)
[…] I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Macbeth. III. iv. 137-139)
The lines reveal a developmental process of editing and that Shakespeare might have
looked at the character Richard and found him interesting as a foundation onto which
he could explore the theme of a tragic hero rather than a Machiavellian villain. As
Hart states, ‘Although Richard III is a strangely compelling figure, he is not a tragic
hero. Macbeth is.’42 and this is the also what causes the structural differences between
the two plays. Because Richard is a villain, he can address the audience with no
masks, and with no moral struggles whatsoever. Macbeth on the other hand is
constantly in his own head, and his inner turmoil is what compels us, because, Hart
says, ‘What Macbeth does is not nearly as important as how he feels about it’43.
To tie up loose ends, let us return to Lady Macbeth and her masculinity.
Because one of the main differences between the two plays is that the Lady Macbeth
character is not an obvious further development of any of the characters in Richard
Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning. The University Press:
Chicago, 1981. p. 102
Smith. op. cit. p. 1006
Hart. op. cit. p. 825
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III. Granted, traits from several characters resonate in her persona – the sharp tongue
of Queen Margaret and her marriage to the Protagonist like Anne – but they are minor
similarities that seem more coincidental than constructed. Smith points to Lady
Macbeth as a deviation from the structure of Richard III, and, as mentioned, argues
that ‘there is no female character in Richard III resembling Lady Macbeth, and no
scenes such as those in which she has a part’44. The most unnerving scene is when she
is getting ready to persuade her husband to regicide, and she utters the very famous
Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
[…] Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers (I. v. 39-47)
The passage holds connotations of witchcraft and hellish relations, as she conjures up
spirits to deprive her of her womanhood. Inversions was discussed earlier, and the
greatest perversion and inversion of a character in Macbeth is perhaps not Macbeth
himself, but his wife, as she promotes herself unsexed and, hence, closer to
masculinity. And by bringing her closer to being a man, she is suddenly no longer as
unidentifiable in Richard III as she was when she was female. Because as Smith goes
on to note: ‘The character in Richard III who most resembles her is Richard himself’.
Her ruthlessness, her manipulative control of rhetoric and her apparent lack of
conscience are all traits, which she has in common with Richard. They also have what
Arnold calls the Recapitulating Dream45 in common. While Richard is reminded of
his murderous deeds by the ghosts in his tent on Bosworth Field, Lady Macbeth also
has a tormenting dream of her bloody hands and takes us step by step through the
actions of the play so far, as Smith says, ‘Lady Macbeth like Richard lives over her
crimes in her sleep’46. And like Richard she does not have the sympathy of the
audience, unlike her husband and she is not tragic, just as Richard is not tragic,
because, Hart states, ‘the annihilation of evil can scarcely be tragic’47. At the end,
when Lady Macbeth has expired, and the bloody deeds of both kings peak, there is an
Smith. op. cit. p. 1011
Arnold. op. cit. 57
Smith. op. cit. p. 1012
Hart. op. cit. p. 826
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
instance of self-reflection in both plays that, similar to the ‘I am in blood’ sequences.
It is a reflection on their fate as villains, their perception by others, and their own
demise as they have steeped their kingdoms in blood and fear, and both occur in the
fifth act of the plays, when the climax – the second usurpation – is closing in:
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if I die, no soul will pity me.
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity in myself. (Richard III. V. iv. 179-182)
Seyton – I am sick at heart
[…] And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have – but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. (Macbeth. V. ii. 1928)
Stein reflects that the transition of both protagonists from ‘having no pity to receiving
no pity, from having no pity for other to having no pity for oneself – that is the final
step’, but it is also what sets Richard and Macbeth apart. Hart points to the
fundamental difference between the two men, especially as they approach the point of
no return to redemption, and finds that Macbeth’s ‘are self-defeating triumphs driving
him to desperate evils to consolidate his gains; Richard’s are glorious achievements
stimulating him to seek actively for further challenges’48. Richard is ever aware of his
own success as a villain and, hence, his failure as a human and, in literary terms, as a
hero, but is not noticeably disturbed by this. He does not pity himself, and finds it
natural that others should not pity him either. Macbeth, by contrast, seems
momentarily discouraged by his realization that the honours and loyalty that would
have been a result of his initial identity as the kinsman of his king are no longer
waiting for him when his time is out. Walter Curry argues that ‘even after the external
and internal forces have done their worst, Macbeth remains essentially human and his
conscience continues to witness the diminution of his being’49. And so he thrusts
himself forward as the warrior he once was, to end his reign now that he has
acknowledged his position at the point of no return. Stein goes on to argue that
‘Macbeth is a tragic hero and not a successful villain’ because ‘Pity, love, and fear are
Hart. op. cit. p. 827
Curry, Walter Clyde. 'Macbeth's Changing Character'. The Journal of English and
Germanic Philology, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1935): 311-338.
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
strong forces in his nature, and when he tries to submerge them, they resist and
steadily exact their penalty’50.
Richard III and Macbeth are significantly different, structurally, from other plays by
Shakespeare, because they promote the villain of the play to protagonist, and in doing
so, the plays give insight to the internal reasonings and struggles that bring these men
to their downfall. What is interesting about the two plays in comparison is that
Richard III was written some time before Macbeth, and thus comparisons and
differences can be observed between them, both with respect to the characters
themselves and as a developmental process of creating a tragic hero. The only
problem with the latter is that what the previous consideration of Richard showed was
that he is in fact not what we would consider a typical hero, with regard to a literary
terminology. Even before we are introduced to the events of the play, Richard
confides in the audience that he is ‘determined to prove a villain’ (I. i. 30). Macbeth,
on the other hand, is introduced to us as a man of virtue and an honoured war hero.
They differ in their premise, because there is a negotiation of sympathy, when the
audience is introduced to the characters of a play, and only Macbeth gains it. Richard
gains confidence and seduces the audience with his malice, but we never feel
sympathy for him. The comparison draws attention to the essence of each character as
dichotomized between their appearance and their psyche; Richard’s hunchback and
withered arm are counterbalanced by his strong determination and wicked mind,
while Macbeth’s warrior strength and physical advantages are corrupted by his mind’s
turmoil and increasing depravity. In conclusion one might find that while Macbeth fits
the part of tragic hero, because he possesses internal agents of both redemption and
damnation but succumbs to temptation and perishes, Richard is the Machiavellian
vice, the ever evil, self-loving and conscienceless trickster and as such it might be
more suitable to dub him a tragic villain.
Stein. op. cit. p. 274
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
General Area
Mangan, Michael. A Preface to Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Longman Group United
Kingdom, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. G. R. Hibbard. New York: Oxford University
Press, 2008.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Ed. Nicholas Brooke. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2008.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. Ed. Michael Neill.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Specific Topic
Anderson, Ruth L.. 'The Pattern of behavior Culminating in Macbeth'. Studies in
English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1963): 151-173.
Arnold, Aerol. ‘The Recapitulating Dream in Richard III and Macbeth’. Shakespeare
Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1955): 51-62.
Curry, Walter Clyde. 'Macbeth's Changing Character'. The Journal of English and
Germanic Philology, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1935): 311-338.
Frye, Roland Mushat. 'Macbeth's Usurping Wife'. Renaissance News, Vol. 8, No. 2
(1955): 102-105.
Hart, Evalee. 'A Comparative Study: "Macbeth" and "Richard III"'. The English
Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1972): 824-830.
Heilman, Robert B. 'Satiety and Conscience: Aspects of Richard III'. The Antioch
Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1964): 57-73.
Hughes, Daniel E. 'The "Worm of Conscience" in "Richard III" and "Macbeth"'. The
English Journal, Vol. 55, No. 7 (1966): 845-852.
Leas, Susan E.. '"Richard III", Shakespeare, and History'. The English Journal, Vol.
60, No. 9 (1971): 1214-1216+1296.
Mabillard, Amanda. Sources for Richard III. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (1
June, 2012) < >
Katrine Weber-Hansen
Shakespearean Tragedies
McNeir, Waldo F.. 'The Masks of Richard the Third'. Studies in English Literature,
1500-1900. Vol. 11, No. 2 (1971): 167-186.
Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning. The University Press:
Chicago, 1981.
Ramsey, Jarold. 'The Perversion of Manliness in Macbeth'. Studies in English
Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1973): 285-300.
Ribner, Irving. 'Macbeth: The Pattern of Idea and Action'. Shakespeare Quarterly,
Vol. 10, No. 2 (1959): 147-159.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard III. Ed. John Jowett. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2008.
Smith, Fred Manning. 'The Relation of Macbeth to Richard the Third'. PMLA, vol. 60,
No. 4 (1945): 1003-1020.
Stein, Arnold. 'Macbeth and Word-Magic'. The Sewanee Review, Vol. 59, No. 2
(1951): 271-284.
Torrey, Michael David. Anxieties of Deception in English Morality Plays and
Shakespearean Drama. Diss. University of Virginia, 1996. Michigan: UMI,