Bloody Thou Art, Bloody Will Be Thy End

Richard III, Act IV

Up until now, Richard III has followed a fairly predictable course: treachery, betrayal, murder – lather, rinse, repeat.  Which is not to say that the play is boring or doesn’t contain its share of arresting moments (the Anne “seduction” scene, for example), but on the whole, there hasn’t been much to elevate it to transcendental Shakespearean heights.

Yes, the murder of the innocent, young nephews is memorable in its barbarity.  And we take notice of Richard’s willingness to do just about anything to clear the way for his ascension, including the imprisonment and execution of rival factions (Rivers, Grey, Vaughan), the betrayal of close associates (Hastings, Buckingham), the death of his own brother (George, Duke of Clarence) and the disposal of his wife (Anne).  He sets the bar high (or low, depending on how you look at it) for what a person will do to attain power.

But a dialogue occurs within this act that changes everything.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is – without question – one of the greatest verbal exchanges in all of literature.  A bold statement, I know.  But before I quote the passage at length, let me tell you why I believe it to be so monumental.

The conversation between Richard and Queen Elizabeth has been set up by the earlier seduction scene between Richard and Anne.  Almost beyond the limits of credibility, Shakespeare convinces us somehow that Anne can be won over to Richard’s sympathies despite his having killed both her husband and her husband’s father (King Henry VI).  We have no choice to conclude – here and elsewhere – that Richard possesses an ability to sweet talk his way out of any difficulty or into any advantage.

But this scene, coming late, serves as a payoff to that setup in which Richard is outwitted and undone by a woman who more than holds her ground against him.  Now even more powerful as king, he attempts to woo Queen Elizabeth for her daughter’s hand – but she will have none of it.

The words ricochet like ping pong balls or topspin forehands in an extended Wimbledon rally.  What I love most about this scene is how witty and barbed the wordplay is, pushing and pulling at language as if words were swords and daggers drawn in a duel.

I have highlighted key words in this long but utterly riveting citation.  For me, this is as good as dramatic dialogue gets!

QUEEN ELIZABETH: What were I best to say? Her father’s brother

Would be her lord? Or shall I say her uncle?

Or he that slew her brothers and her uncles?

Under what title shall I woo for thee

That God, the law, my honor, and her love

Can make seem pleasing to her tender years?

RICHARD: Infer fair England’s peace by this alliance.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: Which she shall purchase with still-lasting war.

RICHARD: Tell her the king, that my command, entreats.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: That at her hands which the king’s King forbids.

RICHARD: Say she shall be a high and mighty queen.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: To veil the title, as her mother doth.

RICHARD: Say I shall love her everlastingly.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: But how long shall that title “ever” last?

RICHARD: Sweetly in force unto her fair life’s end.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: But how long shall her sweet life last?

RICHARD: As long as heaven and nature lengthens it.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: As long as hell and Richard likes of it.

RICHARD: Say I, her sovereign, am her subject low.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: But she, your subject, loathes such sovereignty.

RICHARD: Be eloquent on my behalf to her.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: An honest tale speeds best plainly told.

RICHARD: Then plainly to her tell my loving tale.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: Plain and not honest is too harsh a style.

RICHARD: Your reasons are too shallow and too quick.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: O no, my reasons are too deep and dead –

Too deep and dead, poor infants, in their graves.

RICHARD: Harp not on that string, madam, that is past.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: Harp on it still shall I till heartstrings break.

And this goes on for another two-and-a-half pages!  Rapid-fire, blasting back and forth like tennis balls on the fabled grass at centre court.  An utterly bravura performance by Shakespeare, who even at this early stage of his career proves that he’s got the stuff of the great masters.

That he, indeed, is the greatest of them all.

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