Just finished this post for my Shakespeare class. Thought I’d give it a share.

Ambiguity over Ambivalence: Describing Richard III and Henry V

            It defies the limitations of humanity to think one can be 100 percent good or 100 percent evil. Neither Richard of York, otherwise known as King Richard and henceforth known as Richard, from Richard III, or King Henry, further known as Henry, of Henry V can claim characters that are wholly good or wholly bad. What they are, however, are Machiavellian manipulators with self-aggrandizing war fetishes derived from psychological and sociological affects lingering from childhood. The criminality of Richard is only masked by his reticent demise. One who spends a significant portion of his stage time describing his malfeasant deceit cannot go once more unto the breach if one is moved to action only by nightmare, fated to die a silent stage direction death. The broken structure of Henry V parallels the confusion a sane audience member has towards Henry by the end of his time on stage. Part epic, part historical narrative, mashed together in the confines of a theater house, Henry V is everything its main character is: far-reaching, unconsequential, and unflinching. In either instance, Richard III or Henry V, Shakespeare crafts a complex lead that transcends the banality of seeking good and bad qualities within either; the beauty of Richard or Henry is that they are both simultaneously good and bad.

Point of view matters. In Richard III the opening lines are spoken by the titular character and directly involve the audience. “Now is the winter of our discontent” (1.1.1) engages the audience as Richard bonds them to him with “our.” Richard becomes identifiable as the audience, or the reader, is invested, even if subconsciously, by his use of the second person identifier when no other second party has been identified on stage. And, as his monologue progresses, Richard does more to achieve status within the minds of the audience/reader. Said urgent winter of discontent was “made glorious summer by this son of York” (1.1.2) which increases his importance to the play. By the time Richard plays to the pathos of the audience/reader, recounting his physical defects, it’s all over. Most will want to follow, if not actively root for, him throughout the course of the play, even if what he may be doing is insidious.

Yet, a momentary reprieve before proceeding, it is rash to wholly think Richard’s actions are anything derived from loneliness or physical deformity. It may be what Shakespeare/Richard writes/says in order to invoke emotion or sympathy towards him, but the greater linking cause for the completion of the play is seen within the following lines: “And if King Edward be as true and just/ As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,/” (1.1.36-37). Richard is spiteful of his brother. If there is cause to read these lines with subtext, then it is easy to think that Richard, for the laundry list of accomplishments in the previous lines, believes he deserves unfettered power. His proclamation that the sequence of events to follow be read as a result of his nature is fully unhinged and a blatant example of someone trying to condone their actions. David Bevington, within his introduction to the text, echoes this point: “Richard is driven both by human motivation and by his preexistent evil genius; he displays the “motiveless malignity” ascribed by Coleridge to Iago” (271). On some level, despite his earnest appeal, this has to be seen.

Much of said affection for Richard disintegrates throughout the course of the play as his deeds are witnessed. The pathos he attempts to invoke at the beginning of act one morphs into an instance of unreliability as his actions are enacted for all to bear: his wooing of Anne, his cultural manipulations between the Lancasters and the Yorkists, and the various hits he places on the men of the land. But the growing case for disdain against Richard lifts itself in 5.3 when the ghosts visit. Witnessing the moment of apprehension within Richard upon awaking, and the ambiguity in his response, is a marked difference from the confident character who began the play:

Alas, I rather hate myself/

For hateful deeds committed by myself!/

I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not./

Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter. (5.3.189-192).

Richard was always meant to be villain and hero. To simultaneously love and hate himself, causing the audience to do the same. But because he is robbed of this revelation – by the double-edged sword of war and functional development within society – he never gets to realize it and the audience/reader never experiences closure within the character. The tragedy of Richard lies in the lost end words that shape character.

Henry V is a hodgepodge of verse and prose that exists as a historical drama but reads like an epic poem, a thought David Bevington echos within his introduction of the text, “The Chorus presents Henry V to us as if it were an epic poem as well as a drama” (415). The structure Shakespeare crafts, then, is experimental. Henry is no Spenserean Redcross. For every magnificent speech where he implores people “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” (3.1.1.) or bonds men before battle, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers./ For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother;” (4.3.60-62), he plays psychological games, dressing in disguise to confront his men, or proceeds in almost providential unconsequential terms, “But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state,/ Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness/ When I do rouse me in my throne of France” (1.2.272-274). The duality of the presence, matched with the duality of structure, contributes to Henry’s muddled standing.

Henry V shifts between prose and verse at a rate almost directly tied to the lead’s proclivity to exist outside of his epic persona. Notable instances occur in the class shifts, when the action heads to Falstaff’s deathbed at the bar, when Henry confronts Williams within 4.1., and when Henry woos Katherine. The anomalous shifts in text mirror themselves within the protagonist, synthesizing the discomfort of the audience/reader in perceiving Henry’s actions. In the Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare by Emma Smith, the transition from chorus to action, verse to prose, is expounded: “Shakespeare compromises, or allows us to compromise, that initial presentation by the way he structures the ensuing scenes. Having told us about Henry moving among his troops, the scene now shows us” (104). Henry may be epic hero by proclamation of the chorus, but humanistic analysis takes over when the reader/audience sees what he is doing and how he is doing it.

Lastly, while both Richard and Henry use skilled rhetoric, in different ways (413) as Bevington notes, Henry’s rhetorical devices, and by extension, Shakespeare’s choices in Henry’s manner of discourse, is much different. For one, there are notable instances of enjambment, almost mimicking the above mentioned structural prose/verse détente: “Why, so didst thou. Seem they grave and learnèd?/ Why, so didst thou. Come they of noble family/ Why, so didst thou. Seem they religious?/ Why, so didst thou.” (2.2.127-130). Using enjambment, and in such high concentration such as this, molds Henry into a character on two sides, separated by indelible marks of existence. He is both a front and an interior – beyond the capacities that all humans are, simply because of his position within society [dude’s the king, yet still a dude]. In the same instance, Shakespeare/Henry is also anaphoric, with the repetition of “Why, so didst thou.” What Shakespeare builds from his anaphora, as explained by The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, is momentum: “Anaphora thrusts itself into the reader’s attention: each line begins with an unmistakable reminder of the unfolding pattern. Thus, anaphora highlights poetic lines as discrete units while simultaneously binding those lines together.” Shakespeare/Henry does this to lesser and bigger degrees throughout the play and it is the causal smoking gun why the audience/reader cannot make him wholly good or wholly bad. His use of poetics naturally cajoles the reader/audience as if they were his brother in arms, even if they recognize they may be dealing with deception.




Works Cited

“Anaphora.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Eds. Roland Green, Stephen Cushman, and Clare Cavanagh. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. Credo Reference. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.

Bevington, David. “The life of King Henry the Fifth.” The Necessary Shakespeare. 4th. Pearson CourseSmart Archive, 2014. VitalSource Bookshelf Online. 415.

—. “The Tragedy of King Richard III.” The Necessary Shakespeare. 4th. Pearson CourseSmart Archive, 2014. VitalSource Bookshelf Online. 271.

Shakespeare, William. The Life of King Henry the Fifth. The Necessary Shakespeare. 4th. Pearson CourseSmart Archive, 2014. VitalSource Bookshelf Online. 417-456.

—. The Tragedy of King Richard III. The Necessary Shakespeare. 4th. Pearson CourseSmart Archive, 2014. VitalSource Bookshelf Online. 275-325.

Smith, Emma. Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. 104. Web. 24 March 2016.


Welcome to the empty recesses of my mind! I'm a recent college graduate realizing a Creative Writing degree was a bad idea. Give me a pity like. Or you could check out the about sections (on the front page and about this author page) on my blog to learn a little more about me. Whatever. https://thebohemianrockstarpresents.wordpress.com/

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