Richard III – Tragedy in Isolation
From the very opening of the play when Richard III enters “solus”, the protagonist’s isolation is made clear. Richard’s isolation progresses as he separates himself from the other characters and breaks the natural bonds between Man and nature through his efforts to gain power.
The first scene of the play begins with a soliloquy, which emphasizes Richard’s physical isolation as he appears alone as he speaks to the audience. This idea of physical isolation is heightened by his references to his deformity, such as “rudely stamp’d…Cheated of feature by Dissembling Nature, deformed, unfinished. This deformity would be an outward indication to the audience of the disharmony from Nature and viciousness of his spirit. As he hates “the idle pleasures of these days” and speaks of his plots to set one brother against another, Richard seems socially apart from the figures around him, and perhaps regarded as an outsider or ostracized because of his deformity. His separation from is family is emphasized when he says “Dive, thought’s down to my soul” when he sees his brother approaching. He is unable to share his thought with his own family as he is plotting against them. Thus, we are given hints of his physical, social and spiritual isolation which is developed throughout the play. But despite these hints, he still refers to himself as part of the House of York, shown in the repeated use of “Our”.
The concept of Richard’s physical isolation is reinforced in his dealings with Anne in Act I scene ii. She calls him “thou lump of foul deformity” and “fouler toad” during their exchange. Despite these insults, she still makes time to talk to Richard, and by the end of their exchange, she has taken his ring and been “woo’d” by him. After Richard has successfully gained the throne, he isolates himself when he asks the crowd to “stand all apart” in Act IV scene ii. And later, when Richard dreams, he is completely alone. Physical isolation in Richard’s deformity wins sympathy from the audience as we pity his condition. But Richard uses his deformity as a tool against the other characters, to portray them as victimizing Richard. Thus the sense of tragedy is lessened by his own actions, even though his isolation may become greater as the play progresses.
Richard’s psychological isolation is conveyed through his lack of conscience in his murderous acts. Nowhere does he feel remorse for his murders, until Act V scene iii when he exclaims “Have mercy Jesu!” and “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!”. In this turning point, Richard’s division from his own self is made clear from “I and I”, and “Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am!” He has conflicting views of himself and realizes that “no creature” loves him, not even himself. We also never the “real” mind of Richard, for he is always playing a role, of a loving brother to Clarence, a lover to Anne or a victim to the others. We feel sympathy for Richard as he awakes in a vulnerable position and for the first time acknowledges the evil that he has done. But as he only reveals his feelings of guilt in the last act of the play, we do not see him in internal turmoil and thus the sense of psychological tragedy cannot be built upon.
Socially, Richard is isolated from both the upper and lower classes of society. In Act I scene iii, Richard sarcastically calls Elizabeth “sister”, and she contemptuously calls him “Brother of Gloucester” making a mockery of familial bonds. Margaret calls him “cacodemon” and “devil”, and any unity that the characters have on stage is temporary and superficial. In act III, the citizens are said to be “mum” and “deadly pale”, which gives a sense of quiet opposition to Richard’s activities. Richard is thus separated from all around him. Temporarily, we see Richard and Buckingham share a kind of bond, as Richard calls him “My other self”, “My Oracle” and “My prophet”. But they part when Buckingham hesitates to kill the young princes when Richard says “I wish the bastards dead”. This is the only time the audience sees Richard act with any other man, but we realize that it is for purely political purposes and that the union exists only while Buckingham remains useful to him. Our sympathy for Richard is limited as we see that he has no true friendships, and does not genuinely care for his family or friends. Thus even in his increasing isolation the sense of tragedy upon his death is not really saddening to the audience as there is no real sense of waste at his loss.
Richard isolates himself from God, as he claims to be above God’s law and only uses religion as a tool to appear holy before he is King. But ironically, although he breaks the bonds between man and Nature, he is a tool of Divine Justice as he kill those who were sinners, for example Clarence who recalls his horrible dream and realizes his guilt early in the play. As the murders accumulate so does his separation from God, and the need for his death increases. But being closer to his death brings him closer and closer to being with God. Thus although Richard may not realize it, he is never too far from God.
But Richard does not increasingly isolate himself from the audience. From our omniscient position, we share in Richard’s wit, sarcasm, and the dramatic irony brought about when other characters are not fully aware of the implication of his words. Richard also shares his feelings with us, although he is not always truthful. But the fact that he enjoys his villainy to such a great extent, and feels no remorse for his murders reduces him to a figure of Vice, and is not really seen to be a tragic figure of great proportions.
In his killing, we see the guilt of Clarence, King Edward, Rivers, Hastings Buckingham and Lady Anne exposed before their deaths, along with all those who die. Thus their deaths are necessary and the audience remembers that. Also, the deaths appear off-stage, which lessens the impact of their deaths.
The most poignant part of the play occurs in seeing the young princes talk happily and innocently to their uncle and “Lord Protector”. York says “I shall not sleep quiet in the Tower”, and we pity them, as they are young and afraid, and are forced to go there because, as the Prince says, “My Lord Protector needs will have it so”. The children had appeared happy , and the Prince had shown wit and intelligence in his conversation with his uncle. This appears to be the greatest tragic loss in the play, which is heightened because of their youth and innocence. The tragedy of the protagonist is felt because of his attractiveness as a villain and as someone who is not constrained by the rules of society. However, the audience never forgets that he is wicked and therefore we cannot feel a sense of great loss of potential or waste in his death.