Shakespeare’s Richard III and The Winter of Our Discontent – a new take

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Shakespeare’s Richard III and The Winter of Our Discontent – a new take

The Tragedie of King Richard III was a best seller of its time and is still the most often performed of Shakespeare’s plays in the 21st century, including Hamlet. First performed in the early 1590s and published in 1597, the play was reprinted five times before appearing in the First Folio of 1623. Just about everyone has heard of Shakespeare’s villainous king who famously cried out, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” (5.4.7).

The huge popularity of the play, in both Elizabethan times and now, perhaps revolves around the fact of its outrageously witty and spectacular scoundrel, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, whose brief but immensely destructive career ends with his death, and with the defeat of Plantagenet rule by the new royal line of the Tudors at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard the deformed Plantagenet ‘baddy’, is defeated by the ‘noble’ Tudor. This triumphant Tudor and his wife Elizabeth are the grandparents of the reigning Tudor queen in late 16th century England, Elizabeth I – Shakespeare’s patron at the time of the first performance of this play.

Certainly the popularity of the play resides in Shakespeare’s potent exposure on stage of the undeniable reality that the structure of our society is built upon the blight of self-interest and the corruption of power – a significant and relevant fact for us all, whether an Elizabethan or contemporary audience.

Richard III was written at a time when the English Renaissance was at its height, with John Dee and Francis Bacon among its leading exponents. The Hermetic philosophy which underpinned Renaissance thought was deeply concerned with the question of what our true nature and real purpose on earth is: we can choose to live in and by truth, or choose to be captured by the snares of the imprisoning ideals and beliefs, ambitions and desires that utterly divorce us from living our own true and essential nature – the folly exposed when we do not live in relationship with the universal law of brotherhood, and by the light of our Soul.

What is being powerfully exposed in this play is that the majority of humanity live disconnected from the truth of their innate essence and consequently exist tormented by an eternal disquiet and unrest. The prime and overriding motivation in life then becomes the desire for security above all else, in an attempt to quell this unbearable unsettlement – no matter at what cost to others and to the whole of life.

From the choice to live in this insatiable state of discontent and thus in the pursuit of security, the ensuing behaviours of corruption, duplicity and self-interest are born, shaping the world we create. And what an unnatural and abortive birth this creation proves to be.

Is it any wonder that Shakespeare, in this play, gives Richard a physical body that is an ‘abortion’, a body that is, by ‘dissembling Nature, / Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time, / Into this breathing world, scarce half made-up’ (1.1.19-21) ( Richard’s description of his own body in the opening soliloquy). The play presents that such a body is an end-result and direct reflection of his discontent and of the dissembling, misbegotten actions that follow. He is a man who will use, slander, step on, and murder anyone in the way of his search for a secure position in order to assuage his deep unrest. The ‘secure position’ for him is nothing less than the Crown of England.

His ugly body is an emblem, a marker, for his internal corruption – a correspondence that mightily upsets the political correctness of many present day critics. Certainly in his Coronation portrait, the historical Richard appears quite presentable and not noticeably deformed, and yet Shakespeare‘s choosing to be historically inaccurate about Richard by presenting him as so "rudely stamped" that dogs bark at him as he limps by, serves a dual purpose – one political,[1] and the other, more significant purpose of revealing the truth about the un-regenerate way we have chosen to live.

The Winter of Our Discontent

Richard’s unforgettable opening soliloquy to the play introduces what sounds like the ‘good news’ of the victory of the House of York over the House of Lancaster, with Richard’s brother Edward now reigning king:

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York"
(punning on ‘son/sun’)

War is over, peace begins, the Yorks reign victorious!

This is not sounding like a tragedy. And yet, alongside the arresting "Now", the phrase that strikes us most deeply and which stays with us long after the play is over, is not the "glorious summer of the son of York", but ironically, "the winter of our discontent".

In fact, as it turns out, there is no glorious summer in this play. The conflicts of ‘war’ continue unabated although peace has been declared – a generally unacknowledged state of affairs that exists after wars have ‘ended’, resulting from the fact that human beings rarely make that life-affirming step to return from never-ceasing disquiet to live in accordance with the original harmonious impulse of the universe of which we are a part. Where there could be harmony restored we find ourselves left bitterly, yet again, living the ‘winter of our discontent’.

Through Richard, Shakespeare reveals the power of discontent to utterly ruin our own and others’ lives. Richard’s middle name could well be ‘discontent’ – the desperate energy that fuels his every movement. Incarcerated in his misshapen, deformed body not fashioned for the usual amorous pastimes of peace like other men, he sets about creating havoc.

So what is the restless Richard going to do with himself these summer holidays? Go newt fishing, set alight the garden shed? What can he do "To entertain these fair well-spoken days"?

Easy, he will do exactly as he pleases. He will amuse himself by "proving a villain" – this he chooses, and the entertainment supplied by his malicious plots and urbane wit provides a superb distraction away from the discontent and anguish of not being able to look like and do as other men do.

He sets out to usurp the crown, and this he puts in motion with a PR and propaganda program of libel, rumour, misinformation, and slander that any modern president or detractor would be proud of. He insidiously uses the word as weapon, the prime set-up to incite suspicion and make the totally unacceptable events that will follow, acceptable in the eyes of the population.

This is a way of operating that governments and rulers alike are still employing today with devastating consequences – as with the lies told about the Jews in WWII or the more recent non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq. Indeed contemporary actor Kevin Spacey in Al Pacino’s movie Looking for Richard effectively compares, Buckingham, Richard’s chief side-kick, to "the Secretary of State – this guy who went off to do the Iran-contra stuff and did all the dirty work – and propped up the king".

Richard is the master of the dirty tricks department, and Buckingham his sold-out servant. In a time and milieu when dreams, prophecies and omens held an authoritative place in the psyches of men, Richard can easily launch ambiguous innuendo:

"Plots I have laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate, the one against the other."

(1.1.32-35)

Further down the track he sends Buckingham off to the Mayor to cast doubt on the young princes’ legitimacy for the throne: "Infer the bastardy of Edward’s children" (3.5.75). He also propagates the rumour that Edward has put to death an innocent citizen and has lustfully corrupted "servants, daughters, wives" (3.5.82) – and, in order to nail Hastings and suppress women, accuses Queen Elizabeth and Jane Shore (King Edward’s and Hastings’ shared mistress) of withering his arm through witchcraft, a withered arm he was born with! Witchcraft in Elizabethan times incurred a death penalty.

The verbal discrediting of all who stand between himself and the crown prepares the way for their murders and for his own apparent ascendancy.

The Amusement and Entertainment factor

Richard’s summer amusements, and the comedy these generate, cast an interesting slant upon the play’s meaning. He is a virtuosic showman – self-consciously theatrical, witty, and ironic, turning the most horrendous deceits into humorous performances. One great example of this occurs when he realises that his downfall is imminent. The solution? To seek the hand in marriage of his niece, Queen Elizabeth’s daughter.

He enquires what would be the best way to woo her (he has just killed both her brothers). The Queen replies:

"Send to her, by the man who slew her brothers,
A pair of bleeding hearts"
(4.4. 271-2)

. . . and he, (paraphrased) comes back with: “Well I realise now that killing them really wasn’t such a great move, but boys will be boys, and by my marrying your daughter you’ll at least get a couple of grandsons to replace them when I impregnate her."[2] His audacity is jaw-dropping.

Likewise Lady Anne (whose husband and father in law have both just been killed by Richard in the war) is astoundingly and ingeniously wooed by him as she – still weeping – accompanies her husband’s corpse in funereal procession. Richard outrageously proposes to Lady Anne saying that he has killed her husband in order "to help thee to a better husband" – himself! (1.2.142) and puts to her that he was not the cause of the Prince Edward’s death, the cause was actually "your beauty . . . So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom" – in other words, yes I killed him . . . but it was all your fault! (1.2. 124-7). She falls for it. Even though she sees through him she is seduced by the virtuosic verbal performance . . . this being further enabled by her fear of now having no husband and no position in the new order.

Richard too is amazed by his own outrageous nerve in winning her against such impossible odds,

"Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Was ever woman in this humour won?"
(1.2. 230-1)

The combination of ambition, outrageousness, and urbane wit proves seductive for characters and audiences alike.

Is Shakespeare, while entertaining us superbly, simultaneously making a point about entertainment itself – that it can be distractive and seductive, that it can lead us away from truth as Richard, the master of distraction, does with Anne and with the whole court and kingdom?

Why would we let anyone take us away from our truth? Is it because we have already subscribed to a way of living which does not have truth as its foundation, and need entertainment to distract us away from the resulting pain of that? Without living from our truth we literally enable the hypocritical tyrant to step in and take over the rulership of our realm.

The Complicitous Ones

Shakespeare’s play not only exposes the cynicism and total contempt of those in power for the people they rule, he also exposes the complicitous nature of those who surround those rulers – everybody, from the nobility to the everyday citizen.

Queen Margaret most accurately and wonderfully describes the nobility as a bunch of ‘wrangling pirates’ (1.3.157). They constantly de-throne each other and engage in the longest marathon of exchanged curses and slanging matches ever known on stage, exposing the insane circus of a self-serving courtly culture that lay festering behind the outwardly displayed show of royal pomp, ceremony and majesty.

This is the farce that the people are being sold, that such rulers are role models of true leadership and divine majesty.

Their complicity provides the open door for Richard to step in. Acquiescence to a tyrannical force does not mean we are excused of accountability. In comparison to this complicitous lot, the villainous Richard is lively and audacious and gets the best, funniest and most lyrical lines in the play.

It is interesting that Shakespeare hands all the laughs to Richard while largely denying his ‘victims’ any wit or pathos. So what is the play setting up here? Why has he structured it this way?

Could it be that Shakespeare has offered this play-out of events, without the conventional evocation of sympathy for the ‘victims’, because he wanted to communicate that the responsibility each of us has in choosing how we will act in every situation is of momentous importance and is inextricably linked with the consequences for ourselves and the world we inhabit?

Each of us carries an undeniable power to act for the universal benefit of all, if we will but express and speak up. We must first responsibly ‘rule’ our own realm and then the corresponding leader will appear – the law of supply and demand.[3]

Everyone knows that Richard is not living as a man truly should. As Queen Margaret testifies, he performs the reverse alchemy of turning the "sun to shade" (1.3.265) – the glorious summer into the winter of discontent. He is constantly referred to by one and all as sub-human: as a despicable ‘toad’, ‘an abortive rooting hog’ ‘a dog . . . with venom tooth’ – all animalistic terms. He is also labelled ‘a lump of foul deformity’, ‘a fiend’, ‘elvish,’ a ‘foul devil ’, a ‘cacodemon’ (an evil spirit) – lending his evil behaviour a dimension that belongs to the realm, not of the human, but of the spirit.

By these very curses the nobility reveal that they know he is not living his true nature. So why do they allow him to be their ruler?

Almost everyone, not just the nobility, sees right through Richard’s duplicities and lies, with the notable exception of Clarence and the Bishop of Ely who is flattered by Richard wanting him to send around more of his delicious strawberries. The women of the court, whose husbands and children have been killed at his hands and command, rail against him, yet nobody stops him and all suffer entrapment at some level – they cannot get together and expose his behaviour because their own factional infighting with one another has led to distrust, competition and enmity. They have no foundation of love or even respect together.

"Kind Hastings" (4.4.148) likewise refuses to see what is going on – the ‘good’ man blinded by the ideals of the Chivalric culture that above all else prized loyalty to friends and indifference to calculation . . . thus ignoring the sign that was clearly presented for him to read when,

"Three times today my foot-cloth horse did stumble
And started when he looked up at the Tower
As loathe to bear me to the slaughterhouse".

This sign about what will happen in the meeting with Richard is acknowledged too late – along with the realisation that his blindness has caused him to build ‘his hope on air’ and live ...

"like a drunken sailor on the mast
Ready with every nod to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep".
(3.4.83-100)

The precarious drunkenness referred to here is the state we align to when we deliberately ignore the messages of our omnipresent awareness as to what is going on around us.

Hastings’ own murder in the Tower will be the next event ticked on the list of Richard’s entertainments. The Scrivener who writes out the proclamation against Hastings clearly knows that it is a set-up (3.6.10-12). Everyone, no matter how dense, can easily see that the Lord Chamberlain has been framed – at the meeting about the Prince’s projected coronation the whole group stays silent, letting Hastings take the hit. Why do they let Richard get away with it?

  • Lady Anne marries him, Buckingham sells out and serves him.
  • Brakenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, plays Pontius Pilate with his betrayal of Clarence into the Murderers’ hands (1.4. 93-5).
  • The compliant clergy bend over backwards to enable him.
  • Richard’s villainy and the dark future of the realm is likewise known to the general public – as 3rd Citizen says, "O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester" (2.3.27) and he continues saying that when clouds are seen wise men put on their cloaks, adding that if we refuse to see what is right in front of our noses then we deserve what we get! (2.3.32-7)
  • Despite knowing this the citizens apathetically decide to "leave it to God" ignoring their God-given right of freewill to express truth.

Shakespeare is surely here suggesting that a people get the government they deserve when they sell out their responsibility to speak truth.

Who spoke of Brotherhood?

Richard can read all these sleepwalkers, blinkered factionalists, blind idealists, and self-servers like a book. Queen Elizabeth, for example, upbraids and curses Richard along with the best of them, but does she speak up for Clarence when he has been put in the Tower? In one of the key scenes King Edward, having been tricked by Richard into believing that his own first edict killed Clarence, turns on those around him for remaining silent and complicit:

"Who sued to me for him? Who in my wrath
Kneeled at my feet and bid me be advised?
Who spoke of brotherhood? Who spoke of love?"
(2.1.108-9)

No-one spoke of love. No-one spoke of brotherhood. All those around him enable Richard to wreak the devastation he does.

These words "Who spoke of brotherhood? Who spoke of love?" are the key questions for the world of men, as well as for the characters in the world of this play, and Shakespeare’s purpose is to expose this – this is the way this kingdom is run, this is the way the kingdom is living.

Shakespeare was able to reflect back to Elizabethan audiences the self-imposed folly, corruption, villainy, prejudices, indulgence, and lack of brotherhood, that ran throughout the whole society, not just those in power. It highlights that humanity across the board needs to raise their awareness and fully discard what does not belong to who and what we truly are.

He calls the audience to be aware of the severe consequences that follow such a lack of love, equality and brotherhood.

Through foul means Richard gets to the top, to the inviolable ‘security’ offered by the crown. It is however, clear to the audience that he slays his way to the top only to find it a very lonely place, bereft of love. He ends up alone, haunted, unloved:

"I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if I die, no soul will pity me."

– not even his own mother who wishes she’d strangled him in the womb (4.4.138).

Interestingly, even his realisation of the terrible consequence of suppressing his essential humanity to usurp power – something that could have saved him, humbled him – is stubbornly, resolutely resisted as he goes into battle, with the chilling cry,

"If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell."
(5.3.313)

The hell-bent King Richard is left without one hand to hold and dies unchanged, un-resurrected, unloved.

The Tragedie of King Richard III is not simply the tragedy of one man’s demise but the senseless tragedy of a humanity choosing to wilfully ignore our responsibility to live from the whole truth, choosing to live other than the magnificent universal beings we originally are.

The play, above all else, exposes the tormenting discontent and perpetual unease in which we spend our days as a result of the fact that we are not living the true potential available to us from our connection to our divine origin.

We have a choice, then as now, to return to living and moving either in the harmony of Brotherhood or the misery of unrest – the true or the not true – and, due to our stubborn retardation of this alignment Shakespeare’s play is as relevant today as it was then.

It was Shakespeare’s purpose neither to condone nor condemn but simply to bring awareness to humanity about how we are currently living and what the inevitable consequences will surely be if we choose the ‘tragedy’ of living from that all-too-familiar damaging, out-of-control and loveless force – we end up not with the fire of the glorious summer Son/sun but contracted by the bitter ‘winter of our discontent’ . . . yet once again.

"Yes, there is and there has been an immense backlog of lies, mistruths, falsifications and the many deliberate re-interpretations that urgently need to be addressed, for they all stand as great hurdles and impediments to the true truths we are originally from. And the latter, ‘the true truths we are originally from’, is what is needed to help curtail and eventually arrest the plague proportion of dis-ease and discontent that engulf each man and each woman on a global scale."

Fact: the type of dis-ease and discontent here revealed has produced a deep restlessness that has overwhelmed human life from day one.

Serge Benhayon Time, Space and All of us, Book 2 – Space, p 11

References:

  • [1]

    Elizabeth spent much of her reign defending her legitimacy, as she was widely considered to be a bastard after Anne Boleyn’s execution, and there was a constant source of threat to replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. Politically, Shakespeare can showcase the new Tudor line, and new era of imperial expansion celebrated under Elizabeth’s reign with this unambiguous and obvious plot in which the villainous and ugly Plantagenet is defeated by the noble Tudor – grandfather of the present ruler and queen. In contrast to the ‘fair conjunction’ of the divinely ordained Tudors – the new stars in the firmament – Richard is a malign ‘creation’ that neither heaven nor nature smile upon. Such a framework is affirming to Elizabeth and to contemporary audiences that the Tudor’s right to the throne is legitimate. Elizabeth I is Shakespeare’s royal patron and acting companies within the city limits depended upon being officially approved.

  • [2]

    ‘Look what is done cannot now be amended./Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes,/Which after hours gives leisure to repent . . . If I have killed the issue of your womb,/To quicken your increase I will beget/ Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter’ (4.4.292-298)

  • [3]

    If we refuse to buy the product the producer will cease to make it.

Inspired and based upon the teachings of the Ageless Wisdom, as presented by Serge Benhayon.

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