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Richard III /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Richard III

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Richard III, for example, you will find the words alarums (“calls to arms”), crossrow (“alphabet”), belike (“perhaps”), and naught (“nothing,” but also “wickedness”). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Richard III, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scene of Richard III, for example, the word measures has the meaning of “dances”; front is used where we would say “forehead,” halt where we would say “limp,” and tempers where we would say “guides” or “directs.” Again, such words will be explained in the notes to the text, but they, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. The play’s physical setting is concentrated, for the most part, in London, the seat of English royal power, until in Act 5 the play moves off to the battlefield. The London location is constructed for us by frequent reference to “the Tower” (i.e., the Tower of London), “Paul’s” (usually St. Paul’s Cathedral, sometimes Paul’s Cross in the yard of the cathedral, where proclamations were issued), Whitefriars, and Crosby House (one of Richard’s residences). The play’s temporal and historical setting is more varied. The play opens at a moment that its language presents as doubly transitional. The first transition is from the Wars of the Roses to the peaceful reign of Edward IV, “son of York” and ultimate victor in these wars against Henry VI of the Lancasters. These wars are made vivid in a number of ways: with colorful references to implements, sounds, and events common to late medieval warfare: “bruisèd arms,” “stern alarums,” “dreadful marches,” and “barbèd steeds”; with the names of the battlefields of those wars, such as “Tewkesbury” and “St. Albans,” and of some of the notable victims—“virtuous Lancaster” (Henry VI), his son “Edward,” Richard’s brother “Rutland,” their father “York,” and Queen Elizabeth’s first husband, “Grey.” The second transition is from the peace imposed by Edward IV, who is now “sickly, weak, and melancholy,” to an atmosphere of murderous intrigue. This transition is effected by means of the “plots” and “inductions dangerous” of the self-styled “subtle, false, and treacherous” Richard against the family of Edward’s queen, whose brothers and sons Richard terms “silken, sly, insinuating Jacks.” The political climate of the play’s opening is created through such language as “envious slanders of . . . false accusers,” “dissentious rumors,” “lewd complaints,” “interior hatred,” “shameful injury,” “vile suspects,” and “deadly web.” However strange these expressions and proper names appear at first, the words and phrases that create this language world will become increasingly familiar to you as you read further into the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if the words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Shakespeare often places the verb before the subject (e.g., instead of “he goes” we find “goes he”) or places the subject between the two parts of a verb (e.g., instead of “we will go” we find “will we go.”) In the opening lines of Richard III, we find an inverted subject-verb construction in Richard’s words “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer,” a construction repeated immediately in his “Now are our brows bound.” Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him” we might find “him I hit”). Lady Anne’s assertion “His soul thou canst not have” is an example of such an inversion (the normal order would be “Thou canst not have his soul”). Another example is Richard’s “plots have I laid,” where normally one would say “I have laid plots.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Take, for example, Clarence’s “His Majesty, / Tend’ring my person’s safety, hath appointed / This conduct”; here the phrase “Tend’ring my person’s safety” separates the subject (“His Majesty”) from its verb (“hath appointed”). Or take Richard’s lines “The jealous o’erworn widow and herself, / Since that our brother dubbed them gentlewomen, / Are mighty gossips,” where the normal construction “The . . . widow and herself are” is interrupted by the clause “Since that our brother dubbed them gentlewomen.” In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“His Majesty hath appointed,” “The widow and herself are mighty gossips”). You will usually find that the sentences will gain in clarity but will lose their rhythm or shift their emphases.

Locating and if necessary rearranging words that “belong together” is especially helpful in passages that separate subjects from verbs by long delaying or expanding interruptions—a structure that is sometimes used in Richard III. When Richard is rationalizing his villainy in the play’s opening speech, he uses such an interrupted construction in a particularly extravagant way:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;

I, that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time

Into this breathing world scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to see my shadow in the sun

And descant on mine own deformity.   (1.1.14–27)

Here the conjunction of the basic sentence elements, the subject “I” and its verb “have,” is interrupted no fewer than four times, making it necessary to repeat the subject “I” three times and thereby making the speech markedly self-referential. In Richard III, as in many other of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, for instance), long interrupted sentences are used frequently, sometimes to catch the audience up in the narrative and sometimes as a characterizing device.

Occasionally, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until subordinate material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. This kind of delaying structure is sometimes used in the speeches of Richard III, though usually not by Richard, who tends to assert himself more forcefully than such a delaying construction would allow. Queen Elizabeth, for example, uses such a construction in asserting her innocence of any conspiracy against her brother-in-law Clarence:

By Him that raised me to this careful height

From that contented hap which I enjoyed,

I never did incense his Majesty

Against the Duke of Clarence. . . . (1.3.87–90)

Here the subject and verb (“I never did incense”) are delayed until the completion of a mighty oath (“By Him . . . enjoyed”).

Shakespeare’s sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions or delays but because he omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In his later plays, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In the opening scenes of Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s early plays, omissions seem to be used to affect the tone of the speech or for the sake of speech rhythm. Take, for example, the illusion of natural conversation between Richard and Hastings that is created by the omission of just three or four words in the blank verse:

RICHARD   What news abroad?


No news so bad abroad as this at home:

The King is sickly, weak, and melancholy,

And his physicians fear him mightily.


Had this elliptical exchange been filled out with the inclusion of all the words appropriate to formal speech, Richard would have asked woodenly “What news is abroad?” and Hastings would have replied, to the destruction of the tone and the verse: “There is no news so bad abroad as is this news at home: the King is sickly, weak, and melancholy, and his physicians fear for him mightily.”

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but have different meanings, or—as is sometimes the case in Richard III—on a single word that has more than one meaning. There is an example of the first kind of pun in the first lines of the play: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.” Here Richard actually uses only one of the two words that make up the pun, namely the word son, with reference to the first son of the duke of York, King Edward IV. But because the word son appears in the context of “glorious summer,” the audience itself supplies the second part of the pun in the word sun. The second kind of pun is evident a few lines later in the same speech when Richard suggests that he is so ugly there is nothing for him to do but “see my shadow in the sun / And descant on mine own deformity.” The single word descant means both “comment” and “sing harmoniously.”

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features. Again the opening lines of Richard’s first speech supply an excellent example of such wordplay:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York,

And all the clouds that loured upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

In this metaphor, Richard describes the adversity suffered by the family of York during the Wars of the Roses as if the adversity had been a cloudy winter sky threatening a house. The comparison continues as the peace achieved through Edward IV’s victory is likened to a “glorious summer.” In this speech, Richard demonstrates his linguistic powers, his control over language—his most attractive and engaging feature.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. Sometimes these signals are unambiguous. For example, when Richard says to Lady Anne “Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword, . . . And humbly beg the death upon my knee” (1.2.191–95), it is pretty clear that the words are to be accompanied by his offering his sword to Lady Anne and his kneeling before her. And so, like other editors, we expand the Folio’s stage direction “He lays his breast open; she offers at it with his sword” to include the direction that he kneel.

However, in other respects, the stage action that may be required by the dialogue is not nearly so clear. Having knelt, Richard must later rise, but the early printed texts give no indication, in either their stage directions or dialogue, when Richard is to stand. Nor do the early printed texts prescribe when Richard is to draw the sword that he offers to Lady Anne. Like other recent editors who include fairly complete stage directions indicating the action that may accompany the dialogue, we feel obliged to add a stage direction for Richard to rise after he has knelt; he is hardly to be imagined to exit from the stage on his knees. Yet we recognize that our choice of where to place this direction and other directions that we add has no authority beyond our own judgment based upon our reading of the early printed text. (This is one of the reasons we always mark such additions to the text with brackets.)

The question of when Richard should unsheathe his sword is even more challenging. Does he bring it onstage already drawn, using it to threaten a halberdier guarding the corpse of Henry VI: “Advance thy halberd higher than my breast, / Or by Saint Paul I’ll strike thee to my foot” (1.2.41–42)? Or does he simply stare down the halberdier and not draw his sword until later? The scene can be played any number of ways, and there is nothing in the dialogue of the scene to mandate editorial intrusion of stage directions at any one place rather than another. We therefore do not print a stage direction for Richard either to enter with his sword drawn or to draw it at any particular point, since how extensively Richard may use his sword in this scene, beyond offering it to Anne, is, in our judgment, a matter to be left entirely to the imagination of readers, directors, and actors.

Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches a crucial scene like that in Act 5 in which action takes place variously in tents pitched side by side on the stage and in which the ghosts of Richard’s victims address in turn the sleeping Richard and Richmond. In such scenes, implied stage action vitally affects our response to the play.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.