Shakespearean Drama: Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act I Scene 2

Copy of Curatorship

Richard III stands as a historical play in the Shakespearean canon: Playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) worked this particular episode circa 1592 in a saga pertaining to the ‘Tudor Myth’[1]. Belonging to the First Folio, Richard III closes a tetralogy and charts the ambitions of historical figure King Richard III of England (1452-1485). As part of the tragic genre, Shakespeare pens Richard’s diabolical climb to power and fall from grace, reflecting the ill-fated and short lasting reign as it stood in contemporary readings of history. Act I Scene 2 of this play underscores Shakespeare’s expert characterisation of Richard as the archetypal Machiavellian[2] through a courtship: The dialogue is a series of manoeuvres between Richard and the Lady Anne, whereby Richard is able to scheme, deviate and confound expectations through performance. Critic Wolfgang Clemen writes that ‘Shakespeare has succeeded in achieving an effect both dramatically skilful and even humanly convincing’[3], which, in an analysis of this particular scene, I would attribute circumstance, psychology and staging.


Lady Anne. From A Stratford Gallery.

The timing and events of Act I Scene 2 in the course of Richard III stand out greatly in terms of transgressions, deviancy and the breaking of social taboos given the known state of the plot. Shakespeare opens the scene by staging conventions and rites of a religious and therefore holy nature that are blatantly overturned and sullied by the intervention of Gloucester who is driven by a malign and unholy intent. The initial solemnity of the scene is made apparent by the bearing of Henry VI’s corpse in wake and Lady Anne’s state of mourning where she utters a focal soliloquy and lament that hinges on the honour of the fallen King in life and in death. Here, there is a known sanctity when Anne uses saintly descriptors such as “honorable load”[4], “shrouded” (1.2.2) and “holy” (1.2.5) with which to stress the sacred space entered into by the King. Her language follows the known conventional patterns expected at burial out of respect in both elegy and eulogy[5] and her oration rings of sympathy and virtuous behaviour by duty. For example, her phrases refer to what is ‘lawful’ and godly, therefore christian in the contemporary sense. Her words here, though later turned to curses are pious and devout; ritualistically in accord with funerary rites and signifiers of respectful quiet. Within this context, the “fall” of “virtuous Lancaster” is “untimely” (1.2.4) and Gloucester’s suit of Anne even more so, the setting being neither the time nor place for wooing. Clemen is well aware of the ‘preposterous and paradoxical nature of the situation’[6] given the elephant of Henry’s corpse in the room and Richard’s breaking of solemnity with an ultimately distasteful courting attempt. With this as the background to the encounter between Anne and Gloucester, Clemen rightly goes on to state the ‘the diabolical undertones, the sharp brilliance, and the breathtaking impetus’[7] of Richard who, in this scene, is very much on the level of a true Machiavellian villain.


Laurence Olivier as Richard III and Claire Bloom as the Lady Anne in Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1955. 

In the previous scene, Gloucester stated that he was “not shaped for sportive tricks / nor made to court an amorous looking-glass” (1.1.14-15), foils by which, in effect he claimed to be monk-like and discontented. This convincing argument rapidly deteriorates in the second scene when he orders “the corpse” to be “set (…) down” (1.2.33) and entirely disregards court etiquette in a decisive and ruthless move to turn Anne’s thoughts from piety to potential amour. It is therefore an ironic and satirical device for Shakespeare to transform Richard from a virtual eunuch into an active and virile lover within the short span of a scene change. With this immediate action, Gloucester shows himself to fit Christie’s model of a Machiavellian personality type[8]: He interrupts the righteous path of 8 procession when asked to “stand back, and let the coffin pass” (1.2.38) swiftly retorting “Unmanner’d dog, stand thou when I command” (1.2.39) and blasphemously swearing “by Saint Paul” to “strike” and “spurn” the “beggar” (1.2.41-42). Such contempt for protocol is demonstrative of Richard’s scornful character which tends ‘to manifest a disparaging, hostile and cynical view of people’[9] whilst remaining ‘candid’[10] and outspoken in his social manoeuvres. Within the drama of the scene, Richard distances himself from the emotional entanglement invoked by the dead king and remains ‘cool, aloof and unresponsive to demands for justice and fair play’[11]. This cold passivity is calculated to shock the sensibilities of an audience by driving the plot into a bold and ungodly territory that is both enacted and enabled by Richard’s blatant disregard and candour. For example, Richard takes the liberty of calling out a member of the coffin bearing party for their “boldness” (1.2.42) in performing the sacred duty of lying a corpse to rest whilst contradicting this accusation by the verbal boldness of which he is so blatantly guilty.


Original 1883 steel engraving of William Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, by Cassell & Company. Richard and Lady Anne – Richard: “But shall I live in hope?” Anne: “All men, I hope, live so.” 

The propositions and professions made by Richard in this scene are curt and cutting straight to the point of a confusing sexuality and deception with which he bombasts Anne. He swiftly changes tact with each manoeuvre, switching rapidly from flattery to admission across counter moves. Textually, Clemen marks this aspect of the drama when he writes that ‘the wooing-scenes in the chronicle plays and tragedies resemble those of the comedies, making using of subtle hints, allusions, and prettily worded antitheses’[12]. For example, with each accusal thrown by Anne, Richard retorts in a match of wits marked by quick exchange and the need, as he words it “to aquit myself” (1.2.77):

Anne: Villian, thou know’st nor law of God nor man: / No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

Gloucester: But I know none, and therefore am no beast. (1.2.70-72)

Richard’s words are those of an astute politician, constantly turning the situation around to his advantage: this strategy is rendered with diabolical success as Richard is able to openly admit to his crimes. This foul play can be noted openly in the lines “Nay, do not pause: for I did kill King Henry — / But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me / Nay, now dispatch: ’twas I that stabb’d young Edward / But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.” (1.2.167-170) Richard wears down Anne’s reserve into gradual submission, as reflected textually in the shortening length of her lines in the face of Richard’s rhetoric. The character’s conversational strategy is charted by rebuff, interruption, alterations in rhythm and by ‘terse and direct statements’[13] which provides the catalytic drive of drama within the scene. As such, Richard can be seen as an antagonistic force through an astute form of provocation towards Anne: here, her curses and scorn are returned with flattery. For example she accuses Richard of being a “dreadful minister of hell!” (1.2.46) to which he simpers “Sweet saint, for charity, be not so cursed” (1.2.49) which can be read as both patronising and placating. Indeed, all of Anne’s energies are invested in outbursts and accusations towards Richard and, in the absence of expected reactions from the man branded as a villain, is unwittingly drawn deeper into the dialogue and intrigue. It is through her own reactionary mistake that Anne becomes confused and, by entering into Richard’s proposal with the ring allows him a far greater intimacy than she could have possibly imagined, essentially pawned and branded as an accomplice and coconspirator.


Anne Neville flanked by her two husbands from the Beauchamp Pageant.

Shakespeare maps out Richard’s psychological manipulation of Anne within the brevity of this scene and this can be evidenced particularly in the use of stichomythic dialogue[14] running down the lines “I would I knew thy heart.” to “To take is not to give.” (1.2.180-190). The technique used here is marked out by the brief exchanges between Anne and Richard speaking in single lines of verse during a scene of heightened emotion or argument. Richard’s tact, or lack thereof, is highly commendable: His boldness in courting Anne is evidenced in the blatant manner with which he navigates the situation. For example, he is highly sexually assertive and upfront in his suit and does not omit his crimes, rather, he suggests entering Anne’s “bedchamber” (1.2.112) and candidly adds the assurance that “He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband, / Did it to help thee to a better husband” (1.2.138-139). One might say that this is a form of perversion or masochism, indeed, under Bataille’s terms of eroticism[15], ‘the transgressor’[16] is said to derive ‘great joy from violating the erotic taboo’[17] and this can be attributed to Richard’s behaviour and conduct in this scene. I would argue this as in Richard self-congratulatory closing monologue, his derivation of pleasure from his actions can be detected when he gloats “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? / Was ever woman in this humour won?” (1.2.215-216). Here, it becomes highly evident that Richard is styled as a profanatory transgressor, ousting the prohibited Anne and violating taboos. In Anne’s case, Elaine Walster argues for Richard’s ‘stimuli’[18], namely ‘sexual arousal, gratitude, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, hatred, jealousy or confusion’ which prompt an ‘intensity of emotional experience’[19] whereby Anne ‘attributes [her] agitated state to passion’[20]. Psychologically speaking Anne is aroused by Richard as attraction plays against repulsion and the scene is notable for showing his conditioning of a character at close range.


Anthony Sher, Richard III, 1984.

The nature of this courtship, in recent criticism, has made for a fascinating psychological study, an aspect which can be played out in performance. It is no wonder that a production in 1984 saw Anthony Sher don the costume of a ‘bottled spider’[21] in his performance as Richard, weaving both a web and a plot through complex physical and verbal puppetry. Indeed the RSC writes of this instance where:

Richard supported his spindly frame on two black crutches, on which, with long sleeves trailing, he propelled himself about the stage with terrifying power and agility. He used also them as ingenious tools, to catch Hastings’s head in a pincer movement or to probe beneath women’s skirts.[22]

Thus executing a series of snares and traps to achieve his ends. It could be argued that through Richard, Shakespeare crafts the ultimate performer: In the 16th century ‘self-fashioning’[23] came to denote ‘forming of a self’[24] and Shakespeare demonstrates this through his characterisation of Richard, which involves theatrical play and a wide display of acting skills. In this way, Richard’s complexity is in the dimensions of a character that he is able to project, with an emphasis here on pretence, pretending and multiple selves. Scene II Act III encompasses Richard’s ability to simultaneously play the archetypal villain, romantic hero and anti-hero and to therefore take on multiple guises which Shupe notes when he writes that ‘during this time span Richard has manoeuvred, lied, cajoled, chastised, flattered, and even offered up his own life to Anne’[25]. The melodramatic pantomime of taking a dagger to the heart is another way in which Shakespeare demonstrates the ‘virtuosity of Richard’s performance’[26] to great theatrical effect. The difficulties of translating this scene onto the stage convincingly are expressed by numerous critics, for example, Shupe writes ‘an actor portraying Richard is virtually assured that his performance will be evaluated, at least in part, in terms of his success in making the scene persuasive’[27] whilst in Shakespeare on the Stage William Winter claims that ‘Edwin Booth was the only actor I ever saw who made absolutely credible the winning of Lady Anne’[28]. This credibility is another attribute of the successful performer, mirroring Richard III’s own virtuosity, powers of invention and deception within the play itself.


Elijah Alexander as Richard III and Sara J. Griffin as Lady Anne.

As the scene plays out, the nuances of Richard as a deviant deepen and become ever more apparent through convolution. Shakespeare was able, as a dramatist, to invent this scene and proves adept at challenging an audience with the intrusion of an ‘unexpected sexual behaviour’[29] and transformative ‘seduction scene’[30]. In More’s History of Richard III, Richard’s malformed body externally is believed to reveal his malignant intent as governed by nature[31]: This being the case, it has been argued that as Richard has been cheated by nature, this is the impetus for him to cheat expectation. In an evaluation of self-worth, I would argue that Richard acts against nature and the audience’s expectations by posing as a seducer in the second scene. This completely belies his vendetta against the natural order and self-proclaimed status as an unlovable outsider in the first scene by entering into the realm of physicality and sexuality to woo Anne. Such behaviour can therefore be branded as abominable as Richard parodies courtliness, embraces falsehood and is shown prey on Anne’s weakness as a deprived sexual deviant. In another sense, the scene can symbolically be seen as a vanitas of beauty and ugliness pitted against each other, or as a study of virtue and vice. To support this, Shakespeare shows the limits of virtue in the character of Anne and the opportunistic liberties of vice in the character of Richard: Here, Gloucester’s activeness in evil intent is a force to be reckoned with and it is false flattery which renders Anne’s virtue as pliable and ultimately passive.


Edwin Austin Abbey, Richard Duke of Gloucester and the Lady Anne, 1896.

Psychologically, Act I Scene II of Richard III is staged in claustrophobically close quarters: Richard is allowed to conduct antagonistic relations through the proximity of his audience with vulnerable characters. In this case, he worms his way into the head of Anne via the twisting dialogue between them, thus executing a brilliantly performed ruse. Thematically speaking, I would argue that Richard III is a play based on disturbances, both politically and socially. Richard’s conduct in Act I Scene II is a perfect demonstration of his dissoluteness and misconduct and this is shown through how he toys with Anne, both sexually and corruptively as his pawn in a greater power play. Through my analysis of this scene, I have explored the convincing way in which Shakespeare shows aspects of the human character, the manipulation of it and how order can serve disorder. Indeed, Shakespeare crafts Richard III as a man bent on weaknesses, both his own and then showing how he is able realise these and go on to exploit the weaknesses of others. Such execution makes for a compelling political saga with a thrilling pace, using history to serve the ends of dramatics and tragedy.

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Sources Used: 

[1] Janis Lull, King Richard III (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 6.

[2] Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 46.

[3] Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare’s Richard III (Psychology Press, 1968), p. 29.

[4] William Shakespeare, Richard III, ed. S. Wells and G. Taylor, The Complete Oxford Shakespeare, I, Histories (Guild Publishing, London: Oxford University Press, 1987), 1.2.1. All subsequent references are to this edition.

[5] Dennis Taylor and David N. Beauregard, Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England (Fordham University Press, 2003), p. 57.

[6] Clemen, Commentary, p. 24.

[7] Clemen, Commentary, p. 42.

[8] Donald R. Shupe, ‘The Wooing of Lady Ann: A Psychological Inquiry’, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1, (1978), pp. 28-36

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] Clemen, Commentary, p. 42.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Irving Ribner, The English Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Psychology Press, 1965), p. 113.

[15] Urszula Kizelbach, ‘Eroticism, Politics, Identity: The Case of Richard III’, Text Matters, Vol. 3, No. 3, (2013), p. 89.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] Dolf Zillmann, Connections Between Sexuality and Aggression (Psychological Press, 1998), p.173.

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid.

[21] Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin, Shakespeare’s Insults: A Pragmatic Dictionary (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), p. 70.

[22] Royal Shakespeare Company, 1963-2003: A selection of our past productions of Richard III (RSC) <; [accessed 2018].

[23] Richard Strier, ‘Identity and Power in Tudor England: Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare’, boundary 2, Vol. 10, No. 3, (1982), pp. 383-394.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Shupe, ‘The Wooing of Lady Ann’, pp. 28-36.

[26] Hugh M. Richmond, King Richard III (Manchester University Press, 1991), p. 116.

[27] Shupe, ‘The Wooing of Lady Ann’, pp. 28-36.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Kizelbach, ‘Eroticism, Politics, Identity’, p. 89.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Robert Watt, Shakespeare’s History Play (Routledge, 2014), p. 65.

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