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Though this tragedy bears the title of" King Richard the Third," yet through more than half of it, Richard appears only as Duke of Gloucester, the second brother of King Edward IV., and after his death as the Protector and Regent during the minority of Edward V. The action of the drama opens with the committal to the Tower of Clarence in 1478, and closes with the defeat and death of Richard at Bosworth-field in 1485; thus occupying the space of seven years, and comprising the latter portion of Edward IV's reign, together with the whole of those of Edward V., and his usurping and murderous uncle Richard.
The latter years of the reign of Edward IV. were sullied by many acts of grievous oppression and tyrannical cruelty, amongst which the death of his brother Clarence is the most conspicuous; it arose from the following causes. As the king was one day hunting in the park of Thomas Burdet, in Warwickshire, he killed a white buck, which was so great a favourite with the owner, that Burdet wished that his horns had been in the body of the person who had instigated the king to the action. This was reported to Edward, who pretended to regard it as a treasonous insult upon himself, for which he caused Burdet to be arrested and tried, and executed at Tyburn. This piece of atrocious cruelty excited the indignation of Clarence, whose servant Burdet had been, and he exclaimed loudly against its iniquity; for which he himself was arraigned of treason before the house of peers, and being found guilty, was condemned to death. One favour was granted him, which was, that he might choose the mode of his execution ; a liberty which he exercised in a most singular way, for he requested that he might be put to death by being
drowned in a butt of Malmsey, his favourite wine ; which was accordingly done. One great reason of the king's malice towards his brother Clarence is said to have arisen from a prophecy, which was then current, that the heir to the throne should be cut off by one whose name began with a G; and Clarence's name being George, suspicion immediately attached to him, and Edward put him out of the way to avoid the destruction of his race. We may remark that this prophecy, of which Shakspere has not neglected to avail himself, if such ever really existed, was fulfilled by Edward's two sons being murdered by Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
The subsequent portion of Edward's reign presents us with nothing remarkable; it was chiefly occupied in the pursuit of the royal pleasures, till his death in 1482. He left five daughters, and two sons, Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York; the former thirteen, the latter only nine years of age. On the death of Edward IV. the country was again torn by new parties; at the head of one of which was the family of Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of the king, and of the other, the Duke of Gloucester, and certain of the old nobility, who regarded with great jealousy the promotion of the queen's relations, whom they considered so inferior to themselves. Richard's first step was, in pursuance of the death-bed desire of the late king, to get himself declared Regent and Protector; his next to seize upon Earl Rivers, and others of the queen's relations, whom he soon after caused to be beheaded; and then to make himself master of the person of the young king, and to conduct him to London, where he caused him, together with his brother the Duke of York, to be kept confined in the Tower, under a pretence of guarding them from danger. Gloucester's designs, however, soon began to be suspected; but hearing of these suspicions himself, he resolved to cut off those who most likely would give him the greatest trouble in prosecuting bis wicked designs; and Lord Hastings, accordingly fell a victim to his ambition, and Lord Stanley barely escaped in the turmoil which arose at the execution of his friend. Richard's next business was to lay claim to the throne, which he did. on the ground of the illegitimacy, as he pretended, of the infant princes. He gained over to his side the Duke of Buckingham, who. had great influence with the people, and Dr. Shaw, a famous popular preacher of the day, who, in a sermon at Paul's Cross, harangued the mob in favour of Gloucester's claim, and, after considerable trouble, succeeded in raising a cry from a few of the lowest, of “God save King Richard;" after this, Buckingham and a few others of Richard's cabal waited on him, and, pretending that this cry should be considered as the voice of the nation, offered him the crown, which, after at first hypocritically refusing it, he accepted, though both his. nephews were still alive.
So long, however, as the two young princes survived, who might at any time rise up and dispute his claim to the throne, Richard could not consider himself safe in his usurped possession. He therefore determined to put them out of his way for ever; and in pursuance of this, he sounded Sir Robert Brakenbury, the lieutenant of the Tower, to see if he were willing to become the instrument of
his bloody intentions. But he was disappointed, the lieutenant declaring that he was incapable of the enormous sin of embruing his hands in innocent blood, and that blood the blood of his king. What, however, Brakenbury refused to do, Sir James Tyrrell, to whom he was ordered to deliver up his office for one night, not unwillingly undertook. Choosing three associates, Slater, Deighton, and Forest, he sent them into the princes' sleeping-chamber in the night, whilst he remained without; and they smothered, with the pillows of the bed, the poor innocents, who lay sleeping in each other's arms. Their bodies were buried at the foot of the stairs, where, though in vain sought for in the reign of Henry VII., they were discovered in the time of Charles II., and being removed, were interred in Westminster Abbey.
In the possession of the crown, thus most wickedly gained, Richard, however, was not suffered to remain long unmolested. The Duke of Buckingham, by whose means in great measure he had carried out his designs, did not consider himself sufficiently rewarded for his services, and resolved to find a rival, by whom he hoped to dethrone the usurper. Henry of Richmond, the only survivor of the line of Lancaster, who was then in Brittany, seemed to offer himself as a very fit person for this purpose, and a communication was accordingly established betwixt him and Buckingham. By some means or other, this reached the ears of the king, who, resolving to punish the treason of Buckingham, sent for him to court, where he intended to put him to death; but upon suspicions of his intentions, the duke hed into Wales, where he raised a considerable force, and began to march eastward, with the intention of invading England in favour of Henry. But when he came to the river Severn, his progress was stopped for ten days by a flood, which so discouraged his men, that they almost all deserted him, and he was obliged to take to flight, hoping to save his life, for which Richard had offered a reward. He was soon after betrayed by an old servant to whose supposed fidelity he had entrusted himself, and delivered up to the sheriff of Shropshire, by whom he was immediately conducted to Richard at Salisbury, and at his command was there beheaded.
In the meanwhile, the Earl of Richmond had sailed from Brittany with a body of 5,000 men, but on his arrival, hearing of the breaking up of Buckingham's party, and the death of that nobleman, he was so dispirited, that he returned again to France. Fortune seemed now to smile upon the usurper; parliament acknowledged his right to the crown, passing an act confirming the illegitimacy of Edward's children, and an attainder against Richmond, and creating Richard's son, a boy of twelve years old, Prince of Wales. Moreover, he had hopes of gaining the hand of his niece, the princess Elizabeth, (for his wife Anne was now dead, as some suppose, through poison administered by him,) to which, as a means of uniting the two lines of York and Lancaster, Henry was also known to aspire. To this infamous proposal, the queen dowager, after some show of reluctance, consented, though the king was the murderer of her own sons; but the princess herself rejected all his advances with the utmost disgust
and abhorrence. This refusal would have occasioned Richard no small perplexity, but he had weightier matters to think of, and heavier cares to harass him, even the saving of his crown; for in the midst of all his plans, news again came, that Henry was once more about to land in England, an event which shortly after took place at Milford Haven in Wales. After some time, the two rivals met at Bosworth-field, near Leicester, where, though Richard had more than three dimes the number of men which his antagonist had, the victory was, after a most bloody battle, which the greatest prowess was exhibited on both sides, declared in favour of the Earl, to whose side Lord Stanley, during the engagement, had deserted, and he was crowned king on the field, with the title of Henry VII. The body of Richard was found amidst heaps of his slaughtered enemies, and being taken up, it was thrown across a horse, and carried to Leicester amidst the execrations of the multitude, where it was interred in the church of the Grey Friars of that place, in the year 1485, and towards the end of August.
In his drama of “Richard the Third,” Shakspeare describes the tyrannical usurper as he deserves ; with a mind as deformed as his body, scrupling at no enormities, however revolting and unnatural, so that he can but gain the point to which he aspires, and, when that is gained, shrinking from no wickedness, however diabolical, to retain it. He may be said to be a perfect incarnation of hellish malice and cruelty; so much so, that it has been thought by some critics, that Milton copied many parts of his Satan in “ Paradise Lost,” from his immortal predecessor's picture of Richard. There is the same combination of superhuman depravity, the same marvellous intellectual powers, the same hatred of all around them, using everything for one object, the gratification of his ambition, the same seclusion and isolated position, which Richard so well describes when he says :
“ I have no brother, I am like no brother;
But with his usual tact, the poet does not fail to avoid drawing a picture which would only disgust by its abhorrence, instead of instructing. We remarked something of this sort in the character of King John, whom Shakspeare describes as less vile than he really was, lest we should turn from it with impatience; for in John there were no talents of mind and intellect to act as a counterbalance to his wickedness. But this was not the case with Richard ; few kings have ever sat on a throne who, in spite of tyranny and usurpation, have exhibited greater mental attainments than he; and Shakspeare does not hesitate to pourtray these as an off-set against his crimes, so that our disgust may not be too strongly excited—and disgust alone. Void as he is of all gentle feelings, and all the common emotions of humanity, with “ neither pity, love, nor fear," in his bosom, insatiable in his ambition, malicious, hypocritical, remorseless in his acts of cruelty; still all this is so tempered with courage, self-possession, knowledge of the workings of the human breast, and ability to mould them to his own purposes, and other qualities of the highest order in the intellectual scale, that our abhorrence and detestation are kept within due bounds, and our thoughts are raised from what would otherwise be a mere picture of devilish enormity to the contemplation of a man, as any man may become, if opportunity be afforded him, and his passions be not restrained. Nor does the poet forget to foretel the punishment which such men must eventually receive. This was a difficult task to perform ; for we should remember that Richard to the very last claims our sympathy with his valour, and though defeated, yet does he die the death of a hero, fighting hand to hand with his antagonist on the battle-field.
This,” says Schlegel," was the historical issue, and Shakspeare could not alter it, and yet it is not satisfactory to our moral feelings. How, then, has Shakspeare solved this difficulty? By a wonderful invention he opens a prospect into the other world, and shows us Richard in his last moments already branded with the stamp of reprobation. We see Richard and Richmond, in the night before the battle, sleeping in their tents; the spirits of the murdered victims of the tyrant ascend in succession, and pour out their curses against him, and their blessings on his adversary. These apparitions are probably but the dreams of the two generals represented visibly. It is no doubt contrary to probability that their tents should only be separated by so small a space; but Shakspeare could reckon on poetical spectators who were ready to take the breadth of the stage for the distance between the two hostile camps, if for such an indul. gence they were to be recompensed by beauties of so sublime a nature as this series of spectres, and Richard's awakening soliloquy. The catastrophe of Richard the Third, is, in respect of the external events, very like that of Macbeth ;' we have only to compare the thorough difference of handling them, to be convinced that Shakspeare has most accurately observed poetical justice in the genuine sense of the word, that is, as signifying the revelation of an invisible blessing or curse which hangs over human sentiments and actions."
The closing observation of the German critic induces us here to illustrate a remark which we have made elsewhere, as to the oneness and individuality of Shakspeare's characters, the wonderful manner in which, however nearly in some respects they may resemble one another, he still keeps them perfectly distinct. This is singularly the case with the characters of Macbeth and Richard the Third. What can be more masterly than the way in which he has delineated the effects of cruelty and ambition working on different dispositions, and under different circumstances in these two tyrants ! Both are wicked, both usurpers, both tyrannical, both murderers, both ambitious and cruel, violent and treacherous, both unscrupulous in gaining their ends. But, observe the distinctness with which they are all this. Richard is cruel from nature and constitution ; Macbeth becomes so from the force of accident. The latter is induced to commit sin by the temptation of opportunity, by darkling prophecies and warnings, and by the instigations of his wife. His virtue and