The tragedy of Richard III lies in the progressive isolation of its protagonist.’ Discuss. There are many ways throughout the play that Shakespeare shows isolation in Richard Gloucester, the protagonist, but there is some debate over whether or not it is this which leads to tragedy. This partly occurs due to the dubious understanding of the term ‘tragedy’ itself. It is a term used widely to describe a variety of different plays and even situations: from Romeo and Juliet to Death of a Salesman, even to true-life events such as the terrorist attacks on September 11th this year.
It would appear to us that tragedy is all around us, in every news bulletin and on virtually any television program but, if this is true, why is it that ‘tragedy’ is so hard to define? Aristotle once claimed: ‘In order to be a tragic hero, you have to be important.’ If this is true, then it would also be true that tragedy can be defined as a fall from power and happiness to death and destruction. Obviously, this tragedy is greatened as the person in question becomes more powerful, as they have further to fall from – as they build the metaphorical scaffolding higher, the ground becomes further away.
This indeed means that if a pole secured further down the tower breaks, the scaffolding above would break too, leaving the person further to fall, and increasing the likelihood that they will break their neck on impact. If the person had spent more time securing the poles further down, and then fallen, the effects would be less catastrophic. This essay will be based on tragedy defined as ‘something happening that is sad, although inevitable’ and ‘a powerful person falling from power due to a flaw’. Richard’s isolation becomes apparent from the very beginning of the play when he enters the stage alone and speaks directly to the audience rather than any character on stage. After this, he spends the entire duration of the play severing every single link that he has with any other person or object in the play in order to gain power. His main ambition in life is to be a villain and become a king:
‘To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain…’ (I.i.) In fulfilling this successfully, he knows that he must be heartless and not let emotions interfere with his ‘work’. However, Richard does not outwardly appear to suffer emotions anyway, at least not ones that would obstruct the path to success. He does not appear to have a conscience, as he has no qualms with the brutal murder of his immediate family, let alone people he had absolutely no connection to. It is obvious that Richard has deep contempt for his family and the people around him. This could be partly to do with the way they discriminate against him because of his deformity. He obviously feels separated from them in all respects:
‘Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes.’ (I.i.) It may be due to this isolation from them that he feels that he suffers from such contempt for them. He cannot improve this situation with his family by sharing his thoughts with them, as he is plotting against them. In addition to this social isolation, Richard also suffers from physical isolation and hates himself for it. He wants, much like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman to be popular, loved and successful, yet he knows that he never can be due to his deformity. It evidently plays on his mind, as he makes constant references to it during the play, particularly during his opening soliloquy:
‘Rudely stamp’d… Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, / Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce made up…’ (I.i.) This deformity could be meant as a sign to the audience of the fact that Richard has been frowned upon by Mother Nature from the very beginning, and therefore must be bad person. This taken into account, Richard shows obvious signs of social, spiritual and physical isolation from the very beginning. But despite these hints, Richard still considers himself an indispensable part of the House of York by continued use of the word ‘our’.
Moreover, Richard’s physical isolation is reinforced throughout the rest of the play. His encounter with Anne in Act I scene ii is a prime example of this. As he ventures to woo her after killing her beloved husband, she insults him and his deformity by calling him a ‘foul devil’ and ‘a foul lump of deformity’. However Richard is quick-witted and, after choosing to ignore her comments, twists her words around:
‘ANNE: Ill rest betide the chamber where thou liest! GLOU: So will it, madam, till I lie with you’ (I.ii.) This eventually works with Anne: Richard manages to woo her, and by the time he leaves, Anne has accepted his wedding proposal. A while later, after Richard has successfully claimed the throne, he actually manages to bring isolation upon himself as he asks the crowd to ‘stand all apart’ (IV.ii.). Indeed even after this, the night before his big battle, Richard has a dream in which he is all alone. This is another sign of his isolation.
However, although Richard’s physical condition is definitely a prominent cause for his isolation, it is also a cause for the audience to feel sympathy for Richard. Richard himself uses his condition against the other characters in the play to create the idea that he is not to blame – he is actually victimised by them, not vice versa. Because of this, the tragic element of the play is reduced by Richard’s actions, although his isolation may be becoming increasingly worse.
In addition to Richard’s physical predicament, his psychological condition plays a large part in his isolation. The first sign of any psychological problem is when he does not show any distress when murdering people, apart from in Act V scene iii, when his conscience appears to return to him for the first time in the whole play, and he shouts: ‘Have mercy, Jesu! / O coward conscience how dost thou afflict me!’ Indeed the only time Richard is entirely serious in the play is just before he is about to murder someone. It is about the time of the return of Richard’s conscience that he realises that he has become so detached from the people around him he has forgotten who he himself is:
‘Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. / Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am’ (V.iii.) He obviously has two different views of himself: the evil villain, and the self he was as an innocent child. The people around him could not have helped him with his identity crisis, even if they had wanted to: Richard had never shown them his true self as he had always been playing a part: ‘Play the maid’s part, still answer nay, and take it.’ (III.vii)