Playing the Part: Fatalistic Dangers of Deception in ‘Richard III’

In his play As You Like It, Shakespeare famously wrote that “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (2.7.139–140) — a notion that is visible in the drama that unfolds in Richard III. While Richard’s “Machiavellian” portrayal depicts him as the ultimate anti-hero, he is not the only character to exhibit duplicitous conduct throughout the play. The people that go along, or pretend to go along with Richard’s plot to overtake the throne, ultimately demonstrate a reversal in position, which highlights humanity’s fickleness when it comes to loyalty in the name of self-preservation. Although not a main character, the scrivener carry’s out Richard’s order to document the indictment of Hastings, while at the same time stating that no one is blind to the consequences of speaking out against Richard’s apparent deceptions. In Act III Scene VI, the scrivener says,

…Why, who’s so gross

That sees not this palpable device?

Yet who’s so bold but says he sees it not?

Bad is the world, and all will come to naught

When such bad dealing must be seen in thought. (3.6.10–14).

With these words, the scrivener clearly articulates why fulfilling Richard’s wishes, despite acknowledgment of his cruelty and deception, is preferred over challenging him precisely because of his evil and unpredictable nature. Even before taking the throne, Richard proved a force to be reckoned with by eliminating the roadblocks to the crown; yet as King, he now holds even more power to inflict revenge on any that attempt to challenge his rule. The fear that Richard has inflicted upon the people drives them to go along with his orders, lest they lose their lives for speaking out against him.

Even though Richard demonstrates in both diction and action that he is not to be trusted, he does win over some members of the court, albeit temporarily. For example, Lady Anne is quickly swayed by Richard’s words, despite losing her male protectors to his actions. Anne finds herself in a precarious predicament as a female without any male protection due to the loss of her husband and father-in-law. That, coupled with her “woman’s heart” that “Grossly grew captive to his honey words” (4.1.73–4) resulted in her becoming “the subject of [her] own soul’s curse,” (4.1.75) that Richard’s wife be “As miserable by the life of thee / As thou hast made [her] by [her] dear lord’s death” (4.1.70–1). Anne knew first-hand what Richard was capable of, but her effort to try and see him as something other than sinister, plus her desire to live, prompted her to go along with his marriage request. When Lady Anne, the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth are not allowed access to the young princes, they also learn that Richard is due to be crowned King very shortly. This realization enables Anne to admit that nobody is safe from Richard’s deadly plans. She can no longer fool herself into believing she is safe since Richard “hates [her] for [her] father Warwick, / And will, no doubt, shortly be rid of [her]” (4.1.80–1). Anne knows her time is up, and now regrets her choice in marrying Richard, which she hoped would solidify her safety. Anne is the only primary female figure in the play to fall for Richard’s schemes — and that is due to his taking advantage of her being in a vulnerable position.

The other characters to play into Richard’s manipulations are all men. When Rivers, Gray, and Vaugh are in line for execution Hastings is overjoyed, but then later regrets taking this position when he faces the same fate. Richard uses the claims of witchcraft as an excuse to get rid of Hastings as he knows that he is firmly loyal to the family of King Edward IV. Hastings, filled with regret, then says he may have prevented his fate if not for his foolishly trusting Richard, despite the many indications that he should not have. Before he dies, he says:

I now repent I told the pursuivant,

As ‘twere triumphing at mine enemies,

How they at Pomfret bloodily were butchered,

And I myself secure in grace and favour. (3.4.93–6)

Indeed his glory was fleeting and temporary, as he believed there was a safeguard at being among Richard’s inner circle, yet this assumption cost him his life and to look upon his behavior with remorse. It was only upon being placed in the same position as his supposed enemies that Hastings had a change of heart and prompted to feel empathy toward the deaths of those he was thrilled about only a moment ago. Hastings loses his life early on for demonstrating to Richard where his true loyalty lies; but in Buckingham, Richard finds his “other self, [his] counsel’s consistory” (2.2.120).

Although Buckingham serves as Richard’s right-hand man throughout most of the play, he deflects on his loyalty to Richard once his hesitation in carrying out an order mark him as a potential ally. Buckingham has been promised by Richard to be given the title of Earl of Heredom as just reward for helping him become King, but when Buckingham says he needs time to think upon Richard’s request to kill the young princes, Richard turns on him. Despite his hesitation, Buckingham later returns to tell Richard he will carry out the evil task, but Richard tells him to “let that pass” (4.2.83), as he has already found someone else to do it. Buckingham then asks Richard five times to make good on his promise of granting him an earldom, which Richard blatantly ignores. It is at this point that Buckingham becomes aware of his perilous situation, saying:

Is it even so? Reward’st he my true service

With such deep contempt? Made I him king for this?

O, let me think on Hastings and be gone

To Brecknock while my fearful head is on! (4.2.119–122)

Upon being led to his execution, Buckingham names those who have died from “underhand, corrupted, foul injustice” (5.1.6) and that his death is “the determined respite of [his] wrongs” (5.1.19). Like Hastings, he now understands that justice is being doled out, and he must now pay the piper for his wrongdoings.

Richard’s manipulations do not sway all members of the court, but some act as if they have been to prevent Richard from targeting them. Unlike Lady Anne, the former Queen Elizabeth proves to be a formidable force as she pretends to be won over by Richard when he asks for her daughter’s hand in marriage to save her daughter and herself from inevitably losing their lives. In Act IV Scene IV, Elizabeth does not hide her disdain for Richard for killing her two sons, or her disgust at his request to now marry her daughter, his niece, to secure his place as King. After a lengthy conversation where she repeatedly calls him out on his callous deeds, she eventually relents and tells him she will speak with her daughter about his wishes to marry her. Then in Act IV Scene V, Stanley sends word to Richmond that Queen Elizabeth has given consent for Richmond to marry her daughter, Elizabeth. While Stanley speaks with Sir Christopher, who is to relay the message to Richmond, he says that the fear of losing his child is what keeps him from aiding Richmond. Indeed, this is the same thought process exhibited by Elizabeth, who has already lost two sons due to Richard’s plotting. The fear of losing yet another child is enough to get her to play along with Richard’s request to marry his niece. Fear of losing a child to Richard’s machinations is what prompts both Elizabeth and Stanley from actively challenging Richard.

Stanley deflects on his loyalty to Richard, but he maintains the charade to protect his son, whom Richard has taken as hostage due to his suspicions of Stanley’s wavering loyalty. When Richard’s paranoia kicks in upon learning that Richmond’s forces are approaching, he accuses Stanley of planning to switch allegiances by saying, “Thou will revolt and fly to him, I fear.” (4.4.391). Stanley attempts to reassure Richard of his loyalty by telling him, “mistrust me not” (4.4.392) as he has “…no cause to hold my friendship doubtful. / I never was nor never will be false” (4.4.406–7) — yet, these words are indeed false as he has already assisted Dorset in fleeing to Richmond. Richard still paranoid, orders Stanley to gather men to meet Richmond but to “…leave / behind / [His] son George Stanley” (4.4.408–10) as collateral. Stanley does indeed plan on deflecting once Richmond overthrows Richard in the throne, but he has to pretend otherwise not only to save himself but his son as well. Had he spoken out against Richard, he would have undoubtedly risked his life and put his family in immediate danger.

The characters that lie to themselves or Richard to ensure safety from his deadly plotting, eventually realize that they have not only overlooked the fact that Richard’s vengeance has no bounds, but that they too have meddled in fatal dealings that have been the cause of death and heartache to others. When killings are carried out in the name of a monarch with a rightful claim to the throne, it becomes easy to justify such actions. However, when the same steps are carried out by a usurper to the throne, the equal measures are now considered dangerous and treasonous. With Richard III, Shakespeare brings to light the nature of human fallacy and hypocrisy. He urges his readers and spectators to look beyond one’s immediate position and instead, gather a more holistic understanding of the matters at hand, lest they become a target for actions deemed acceptable when directed to another. Put simply: empathy is a powerful tool which humanity must harness to avoid becoming what one fears and hates the most.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 673–731.

— -. “Richard III.” The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 384–465.

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