"Richard III" as 'a Tragedy with a Happy Ending'


We have been told by critics such as Stephen Greenblatt in Shakespearean Negotiations about the interaction of the Elizabethan stagings with their audiences. Greenblatt does not talk much in detail about the full range of mutual interactions of "social energies" such as Lope de Vega describes in The New Art of Writing Plays, but discusses more narrowly the systematic political enforcement of cynical state authority, as visualized by Foucault, on a submissive audience via seeming subversions that are ultimately invalidated. It is not certain that only such negative interactions take place between the writer of an Elizabethan script and his live audiences - or even that it can be shown exactly how such a direct mutual awareness might historically occur between actors and spectators, during an actual performanc. Historical illustrations or records of such direct interactions are not easy to identify. It is not obvious that such "negotiations" on Elizabethan London stages might have affected the formulation of a script in the way that demonstrably did occur between audiences and the improvising performers of commedia dell'arte. These Italian impromptu actors were only bound to the broadest plot scenarios that could be adjusted to include optional scenes and effects according to a cast's observation of the reactions of a particular audience during a live performance. Still there can have been little record of specific on-the-spot adaptations.

However, there is a most imaginative illustration of how such an interaction might have taken place on an Elizabethan stage: the seizing of control of a displeasing production by seeming members of an audience that occurs in the course of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, by Francis Beaumont, aided by John Fletcher (who was Shakespeare's colleague and successor as playwright to the King's Men). The script imagines how some pretended members of the audience and the overt theatre personnel might negotiate a revised performance on the spot. However, I do not think the supposed "changes" required in the production in this specific script correspond in any way to the political concerns and specifications of such modern thinkers as Foucault, with whose ideas of attempted subversions and effective restorations of authority New Historicists seem to be chiefly concerned. Indeed, any appearance of theatrical subversion of Elizabethan authorities' powers, however implicit, would have risked government intervention. This is what may have happened to the performance of the deposition scene in Richard II, particularly at the time of Essex's revolt against Queen Elizabeth I in 1601.

In the context of discussions of staging interactions between actors and audience, there is not much analytic reference made to the "improvisations" effected for Sly's entertainment in The Taming of the Shrew, or to the impact of audience interventions in the Pageant of the Worthies of Love's Labour's Lost, and the analogous ones in the staging of Pyramus and Thisbe, not to mention the substantial revisions by Hamlet in the production of The Mousetrap (or The Murder of Gonzago) for a specific court audience. Still less likely citations of audience "affect" are John Webster's bitter remarks about how wintry performance conditions discouraged audiences at the staging of his play The White Devil at the open-air Red Bull Playhouse. In The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London, 1576-1642, Ann Jennalie Cook has asserted that Shakespeare's audiences were largely composed of upper-class professionals—lawyers and the like—who might have approximated in learning and intelligence to modern professors of English, and who thus might exact a high level of authorial attention to their sophisticated expectations; but Andrew Gurr has re-argued the traditional view that such influential patrons were only a fraction of the total spectators, so crucial ideological negotiations directed to just one fragment in the large general audience are unlikely.

Yet outside England we do find detailed assertions of how audiences did historically affect Renaissance stage productions, at least in aesthetic ways, documented by such practitioners and critics as Cinthio and Lope de Vega. These theatre professionals' comments about the details of this spectator input may best explain what audience "affects" they were obliged to consider to bring in paying customers. These factors have little to do with staging images of governmental authority, subversively or not, but the playwrights themselves do acknowledge that popular dramatists regularly accommodated the character of their scripts to the prevailing tastes of their public, even though usually not by following the prescriptions of any academic theorists present at actual performances. It is illuminating to juxtapose the expedient specifications resulting from these recorded interactions with the more successful early Shakespeare plays such as the first tetralogy, involving the three parts of Henry VI and, more particularly, the series' climax in Richard III. For example, there is evidence that the first part of Henry VI had great emotional impact on Elizabethan audiences in the form of testimony by Thomas Nashe:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times) who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.
(Richmond, 309)

The portrayal of Talbot's fate seems near to an ideal Aristotelian tragedy, about the fall of a great man, with its ultimately negative emotional impact. However, we can detect that equally intense if different responses marked the reception of Richard III, which may indeed better display Shakespeare's unassisted success as a playwright than the possibly divided authorship of Henry VI. Richard III's popularity is partly indicated by the fact that among early single-play editions of Shakespeare it is the most reprinted after the first part of Henry IV, and there are allusions to Richard Burbage's prowess in the role in the Parnassus plays. It remains one of the most frequently performed of Shakespeare's plays, so that it provides an excellent opportunity to investigate positive audience responses to Shakespeare in comparison to the specifications for such success by authorities such as Cinthio, Castelvetro, and Lope de Vega. Modern editors classify Richard III as a "history play", which Elizabethans tended to call a "chronicle", but the title page of the first quarto edition bears the following description: "The Tragedy of Richard the Third; with the Landing of Earle Richmond, and the Battell of Bosworth Field." The First Folio has this title: "The Tragedy of Richard III. Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his innocent nephews; his tyrannical vsurpation; with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserued death. As it hath beene lately Acted by the Right honourable Lord Chamberlaine his seruants." Both rather different editions thus identify the play as a "tragedy", suggesting the category is more than accidental. While this fourth play of the tetralogy does not meet the ideal specifications of Aristotle, it does approximate to his second category of "tragedy with a double plot" in which both evil is defeated and good triumphs. These dual outcomes match Cinthio's genre of "tragedy with a happy ending." The first quarto title page also implicitly validates the assignment of Richard III to this dual category by stressing both the downfall of Richard and the triumph of Richmond, though the latter, positive aspect is only latent in the second version of the title, even if it does heavily stress that wicked Richard is not the classic Aristotelian hero, who is only partly flawed.

Richard III can be identified as a remarkably apt illustration of the methods and audience-impact of the kind of "tragedy with a happy ending," not least in its mixture of terrifyingly tragic elements and wittily comic ones. The opening soliloquy by Richard of Gloucester captures some essential elements of tragicomedy as described by the Renaissance critics. Despite a striking foreshadowing of his melodramatic future in Henry VI, Part 3 (3.2.124-95), Richard had mostly been a character secondary to such roles as King Henry VI, his Queen Margaret, the Duke of York, and his eldest son King Edward IV, but the first speech of the fourth play changes all this, in a way that Lope de Vega advocates: "paint monologues in such a way that the speaker is transformed and with the change in himself changes the one who hears" (Gilbert, 546). Richard boldly establishes the whole audience as his confidants in his nefarious schemes, to which they may be involuntarily attracted because, as Lope asserts, "sometimes what is contrary to correctness for that very reason pleases the taste" (Gilbert, 548).

More specifically, Richard's resentment at others' advantages is one that is not too hard for most people to identify with in any complex society. Moreover, Castelvetro has identified another basic human trait that is relevant to audience reactions to the soliloquy: "The deception of someone pleases us excessively, then, and delights us to laugh for pleasure. . . for it appears to those who are not deceived, that they are themselves better and that they surpass them in that quality, namely reason, in which they are nearest to God and greatly superior to all other animals" (Gilbert, 312). So we are amused to watch the deception of Clarence, the more so in that the chronicles of the Wars of the Roses identify him as one of the least trustworthy of the Yorkists, betraying his brothers without scruple, only to revert from his desertion to the Lancastrian cause when its defeat became likely. This was not remote history from an Elizabethan perspective, but part of the context of Tudor triumph over the last Plantagenets, above all over King Richard III, achieved by Queen Elizabeth I's grandfather, the Earl of Richmond, later King Henry VII. Richard's phraseology in talking to Clarence is particularly engaging to the audience because it has been fully alerted to detect possible double-meanings by Richard's opening soliloquy. We know that Richard is not merely sharing Clarence's fears after his arrest when he says "this deep disgrace in brotherhood / Touches me deeper than you can imagine" (1.1.111-2), since Richard has just told the audience he himself orchestrated it. And we can share the frisson of shock when Richard forecasts that Clarence's "imprisonment shall not be long" (1.1.114) when we remember that Richard has already planned his execution. Lope advocates this kind of experience as a key resource for tragicomedy: "To trick with the truth is a device which has seemed good, . . . Equivocal speech and the uncertainty arising from the ambiguous has always held a great place with the crowd, for it thinks that it alone understands what the other man is saying" (Gilbert, 547).

Richard's seduction of Lady Anne illustrates another device to compel audience involvement: the reversal of expectation when the "deformed" Richard succeeds in winning her affection while she is lamenting over the corpse of her father-in-law, King Henry VI, whom Richard has just murdered. This triumph is so "contrary to correctness" that it has become one of the most celebrated of dramatic non sequiturs, and for that very reason provoked and excited actors and audiences from its earliest performances. Thereby it also supposedly earned Burbage the affections of at least one female fan in terms analogous to the surrender of Lady Anne. According to the story, Shakespeare overheard her planned assignation with the actor playing Richard and anticipated him, leaving a message for Richard Burbage at her door to the effect that "William the Conqueror came before Richard III." So legend suggests that the incredible seduction of Anne proved a real audience rouser, just what Lope proposed that such unconventional effects could achieve.

These sardonic effects that add to the audience impact of Richard are codified by Lope as essential to the popular new vein of tragicomedy, but Castelvetro also explains how the audience is ultimately disabused of its fascination with Richard's provocative mastery over his victims. Castelvetro argues that "feeling displeasure from the misery of another that has come on him unjustly, we realize that we are good, since unjust things displease us; this realization is a very great pleasure to us because of the natural love we have for ourselves" (Gilbert, 351). This ultimate feeling of audience superiority to Richard is precisely what is accomplished by the murder of the innocent Princes in the Tower at Richard's request. The alienation is led up to carefully by the refusal to commit such a crime even by Richard's henchman, Buckingham, although he has hitherto connived at the previous murders of Richard's less virtuous associates, such as Hastings. Our sympathy with Hastings for his earlier repudiation of the same plot against the princes is reinforced by our knowledge of his own precarious condition and pending execution. After the assassinations of the princes in the Tower no one seems safe from Richard, friend or foe, innocent or culpable, and we cannot avoid uneasiness about any earlier enjoyment of his black humor.

While the plot of Richard III involves numerous deaths, including that of Hastings as well as Rivers, Grey, Buckingham, Queen Anne and others, only that of Clarence appears on stage, until the killing of Richard under the more formal conditions of his climactic duel with Richmond. This relative lack of on-stage bloodletting (as compared to the bloody texture of Henry VI) is considered expedient in modern drama by Castelvetro: "Because of the difficulty of representing actions and making them verisimilar, dramas do not represent on stage murders and other things it is difficult to represent with dignity, and it is proper that they should be done off-stage and then narrated by a messenger" (Gilbert, 309). The most notoriously cruel murder in Richard III is, of course, that of the young princes in the Tower of London. This scene is a favorite of illustrators, even though it is not shown on stage, just as Castelvetro urged that such scenes should not be. As he specifies, Shakespeare chooses to have it narrated at second hand by the agent for the murderer, Tyrrell, thus avoiding any drastic physical shock effect (which almost always does distastefully occur in Macbeth with the murder of Macduff's entire family). This distancing allows audiences to develop a more judicious empathy for the children's fate. Such thoughtfulness in turn consciously distances them from Richard. Richard also progressively loses his initial superiority of awareness over his opponents, which further detaches audiences from his point of view. For example, in watching the startling recurrence of another seduction scene (4.4), Elizabethan audiences already knew, as Richard does not, that Queen Elizabeth (Woodville) would not ultimately allow her daughter to marry Richard, preferring her alliance with the Earl of Richmond as Queen Elizabeth (of York), which cemented the authority of the Tudor dynasty, as the newly crowned Henry VII reminds its first audiences at the end of the play. This dynasty climaxed in the then-reigning Queen Elizabeth I, Elizabeth of York's granddaughter. The scene involves another outrageous improbability to excite the audience, since Richard is proposing an incestuous marriage to his niece by seeking the consent of her mother, whose two sons he has just had murdered. Elizabethan audiences would take pleasure in their superior knowledge to Richard's in discerning his misreading of history in the implicit failure of this startling plan. The scene pairs neatly with the earlier scene of his successful courtship of Lady Anne, which shows his rising fortune; but this one shows its decline, despite Richard's hopeful misjudgment of Queen Elizabeth's intentions.

Even as Richard declines in authority, both on and off the stage, Shakespeare achieves more reversals of expectation which keep audience interest alive—as, for example, through the defeat, capture and execution of the rebellious Buckingham. This uncertain progression towards a positive termination of the plot is very much what Cinthio requires for audience stimulation in the course of winding down to the conclusion of a tragedy with a happy ending:

This holding of the spectator in suspense ought to be managed by the poet so that it is not always hidden in the clouds, but the action goes on unrolling the plot in such a way that the spectator sees himself conducted to the end but it is uncertain how the play is coming out. And in this sort of play often for greater satisfaction and better instruction of those who listen, they who are the cause of disturbing events, by which the persons of ordinary goodness in the drama have been afflicted, are made to die or suffer great ills.
(Gilbert, 257)

The happier form of tragedy has permitted the audiences to enjoy Richard's manipulative superiority over his immoral victims in the earlier scenes of the play, but to distance themselves progressively as his indiscriminate cruelty becomes conspicuous. Nevertheless, Shakespeare continues to defy expectation, just as Lope absolutely requires of the successful popular dramatist: "Always deceive anticipation and so it may come about that something quite remote from what is intended may be left to the understanding" (Gilbert, 546). One of the most surprising late moments in Richard III is that Richard almost achieves repentance as he wakes from a nightmare about his victims: "Have mercy, Jesu!" (5.3.178) and goes on:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

But Richard's sense of guilt fades away with the disappearance of the ghosts that haunted his dream, and with the coming of dawn. It is such abrupt yet not wholly implausible character aberrations that make the psychology of Shakespeare's roles so challenging to interpreters, even though their immediate goal may be simply to hold the audience's attention via the unexpected, at least according to the procedures specified by Lope de Vega.

The sudden appearance on stage of the virtuous Earl of Richmond in the penultimate scene of the play is another such challenging effect. He is not presented as a complex character study, which some critics have regretted, but simply provides an exciting last-minute intruder who ensures the happy ending of the "tragedy" by killing off the wicked king and inaugurating a happier regime. This Tudor version of history allows the audience to maintain its own confidence, and to leave the theatre reassured that Providence is on their side, even if skeptical modern historians may not share such positive views of the future King Henry VII. At this late point, to expect a realistic psychological profile of the historically complex founder of Tudor rule is too irrelevant to the play's design and function here, which is audience satisfaction, not the meeting of the sophisticated specifications of hyper-subtle historical psychology. It is this expedient principle of audience-satisfaction that can be plausibly applied in detail to the structure and texture of the whole play, rather than the pursuit of some ironic meaning secretly embedded in his script, such as has been ingeniously detected in Linda Charnes' account in Notorious Identity of Richard's supposed resistance to playing his own diabolic role. The play's text is primarily designed to hold the attention of a general audience in a large public theatre from moment to moment by the unpredictable gyrations of Richard's highly artificial persona.

The play ends with just such another reversal of expectation, in Richard's prowess on the battlefield, in this case borrowed directly from history, for in one last desperate charge at Bosworth Field, Richard and his remaining knights came close enough to the Earl of Richmond to kill his standard bearer, stationed next to him, and thus nearly ended the battle in Richard's favor by killing the usurper. Richard Burbage was celebrated for such skill at arms—hence all the dueling, often at tragic climaxes, as in Richard II, Hamlet, and Macbeth. These episodes close each play with an exciting episode of intense physical action. The same near-success from sheer physical prowess surprises us at the end of Richard III, and it is a final startling effect denied to such actors as Antony Sher who mistakenly stress Richard's severe physical limitations to the point of denying him the physical prowess which made the historical Richard a leading Yorkist general. It is in this spirit of seeking compulsive audience attention by virtuoso performance that most successful productions of the play have been presented both live and on film, whether Richard was acted by a Burbage, a Cibber, an Olivier, a Sher, or a McKellen. If the audience is initially provoked, amused and excited, but ultimately encouraged to optimism by the supposedly historical triumph of virtue, the script has achieved its primary purpose of compelling attention and leaving a pleasurable confidence in the course of history, as was certainly the outcome of these five actors' interpretations of the play's lead role.

The plausibility of this kind of reading of the play as an artifact governed by positive audience response governs the conclusion of an analysis of its performance history by Janis Lull in her Cambridge edition of the play. She writes:

Again and again the characters in Richard III, especially Richard and Margaret, call attention to the metadramatic situation: this is a play, and the only "real" people are the people in the audience. The developmental path the play constructs for its spectators begins with delight in ill-doing and revenge. Playgoers are encouraged to identify with an evil protagonist who is smarter than those around him. The plot then proceeds to a series of reminders of the consequences of evil, the need for repentance and the comfort of identifying with a group (for example, the female triads) rather than with an extreme individualist (Richard). As the final confrontation looms, however, the play takes an unexpected turn. The protagonist himself recognizes the possibility of repentance and salvation—and turns them down. The audacity of this choice cannot be lost on an audience that has been pondering its own surprising positive responses to a ruthless tyrant. Richard is a kind of hero, but the very heroism for which we admire him results in the death of his soul. And all these things—Richard's villainy, his daring, his death—happen because God has determined them.
(Lull, 41)

This account almost exactly matches the specifications of Cinthio for the plot development of "tragedy with a happy ending":

This holding of the spectator in suspense ought to be managed by the poet that it is not always hidden in the clouds, but the action goes on unrolling the plot in such a way that the spectator sees himself conducted to the end but it is uncertain how the play is coming out. And in this sort of play, often for greater satisfaction and better instruction of those who listen, they who are the cause of disturbing events, by which the persons of ordinary goodness in the drama have been afflicted, are made to die or suffer great ills.
(Gilbert, 257)

In contrast to Greenblatt's theories about how Elizabetha and modern audiences might react to Shakespeare with disillusion over political isdues, Lull is convinced that modern audiences will leave challenged by "a renewed appreciation of how difficult it is to act well in a world where they must live as if their choices were their own, all the while understanding that freedom and individualism can be destructive illusions" (41). Such a sophisticated modern response would not necessarily be one openly recognized by Shakespeare's peeers, such as Cinthio and Lope de Vega. The pleasure for Reformation England audiences of Richard III lay more probably in simple reassurance that that they were allowed to transcend their own initial attraction to evil, and in relief at seeing that Providence might ultimately seem to be on their county's side after all the troubles of the Wars of the Roses. I suspect that many modern spectators of Sher and McKellen's performances as Richard were just as pleased by this comforting awareness as were the Elizabethan audiences. They have escaped from the fascinatingly nightmarish world of the play to one in which conventional values seem current and safe. Perhaps this detailed progression of audience-pleasing procedures suggests more realistically how Greenblatt's "negotiations" for acceptance of the existing order might actually have occurred, in a way compatible with the avowed expertise of Renaissance practitioners. But it is largely the concerns of the audience that dictated this outcome, not the will of the authorities, nor the ideas of the theorists, nor even the self-determination of the playwrights themselves - if Lope is to be believed.


Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press.

Lull, Janis, ed. 1999. King Richard III. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Richmond, Hugh Macrae. 2002. Shakespeare's Theatre: a Dictionary of His Stage Context. London: Continuum International.

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond