The words “Now is the winter of our discontent . . .” seem appropriate for our own time (not just the end of Daylight Savings, but Trump Time) but of course they only represent the subject of the sentence. When you get the rest of the verb, “[is] made glorious summer,” you have quite a different meaning. But of course Richard himself is very discontented, and ready to do something about it. Although Richard III was apparently written soon after 3 Henry VI, it’s remarkable how different and more mature it sounds.
Yes, both language and the subtlety of characterization seem a real advance on the previous plays. Also perhaps, the plotting of scenes. The first act is quite long and quite rich. The opening speech brilliantly characterizes Richard in terms of motive. Those famous opening lines — famous also because we hear Olivier speak them? — set up Richard’s constant irony. The winter of discontent may seem to suggest Richard’s dark mind, but he immediately effaces that with what will prove his positive take on the political world. So he celebrates what for the next dozen lines can only be ironic in view of what follows of his self-description. And that self-description will also in turn prove deeply ironic, or will be ironically disproven, in the following scene with Lady Anne. Interestingly, we have a brief snippet of Richard’s method in his apparent temptation of Brackenbury. He gives a mildly suggestive picture of Mistress Shore, the king’s mistress, in particular in relation to the queen, who he says is “well struck in years.” Brackenbury parries it. But then Richard jokes about having “naught” to do with Jane Shore, and tries to draw B’s into the matter of the king’s affair. But then he turns it around by pretending he meant the “naught” to refer to Mr. Shore, the husband, and accuses B. of trying to betray him. Some quick wit. Then he pretends sympathy
At the end of the scene Richard discloses that he wants Clarence packed off before the king
dies. His time-line becomes clear, first Clarence, then Edward will be dispatched. And the
wonderful “I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter, What though I killed her husband and her
And this sets up the next scene, the wooing of Lady Anne, who moves from unalloyed hatred of
Richard to apparent acceptance of him within the next 200+ lines. Richard proves
extraordinarily adept at ingratiating himself against all expectation. And at the end of the scene
he preens, or jokingly seems to, about his abilities and his attractiveness. The ironic edge to it
all makes this speech a response to his opening speech.
In 1.3 Richard quarrels with the two queens. Margaret in reality had returned to the continent, but she becomes here a chorus-like figure to curse Richard. And we get more of Richard’s hypocritical plans at the end of the scene, just as he meets with two hired murderers. Clarence, in the Tower, recounts his nightmare dream to Brackenbury in 1.4, which becomes his visionary journey to the underworld where his misdeeds are recounted, including his role in killing Prince Edward, Henry VI’s son. This leads to the wonderful scene in which the two murderers lead up to Clarence’s death with a discussion of conscience. The second murderer has qualms that come of the word “judgement” and “conscience.” They argue between themselves, then with Clarence and about his own guilt for the death of the prince. Clarence seems almost successful in this, but then the first murderer comes at him from behind, while the second
murderer seems to warn Clarence. The first murders him and takes his body off to the butt of malmsey wine. The second murderer is repentant and sorry he was unable to save Clarence. Very Shakespearean moment to double the murderers, then have them dispute the deed between them.
But some things about the play seem quite traditional, including the formal rhetoric, the stichomythia, and the way in which Richard seems to be a Vice figure. He is given a number of soliloquies, including the famous one at the beginning of the first scene and another at the end of the scene. Then one more in 1.2 and 1.3. He is so self-consciously devoted to himself, and to doing what he recognizes as evil, that I wonder if the audience found themselves reacting to what seems like a morality play. In Elizabethan productions, would the actor playing Richard have addressed himself directly to the audience? But there is something new about Richard too: he compels your attention, and engages you, just as he engages and apparently persuades Lady Anne. So he’s more of an Iago or an Edgar than a Macbeth.
In 1.1 Richard rejects the idea that he could be a lover (following up on his soliloquy at the end of 3H6). So it is then surprising that in 1.2 he plays the lover. (Sometimes I imagined that he was playing the part of the lover in a sonnet, addressing his cruel mistress.) Maybe that’s the point: he just plays the part, and does so very skillfully. He’s not really in love with Lady Anne, or with anybody except himself. And after she apparently softens and exits, he expresses his contempt of her for yielding. It’s not clear why he wants to woo her. Maybe it’s a kind of challenge, a way to test and demonstrate his powers. Maybe it’s his determination to do evil. Maybe by seeking to marry the leading widow from the House of Lancaster he is grotesquely parodying the grand alliance between York and Lancaster, brewing in the play, that results in
In 1.3 two more women, both queens, one of them a Yorkist (Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV) and one a Lancastrian (Margaret, the widow of Henry VI and the mother of Prince Edward), are at odds with Richard. Is this another preview of an alliance between York and Lancaster? Margaret curses Richard much as her daughter-in-law, Lady Anne, did. Why do we need Margaret in the scene? In 1.4 Clarence excuses the murders he committed just as Richard excused his own — he did them for “love.” I think you are right to draw attention to the discussion of conscience by the two murderers. Clarence too has a guilty conscience. A conscience is precisely what Richard lacks.
Act 1 establishes the major characters and launches the plot, Richard’s plot, to gain the throne by removing everybody who stands in his way. We know where the play is going. Act 2 is considerably shorter than Act 1. It begins with Edward IV arranging a reconciliation of minor enemies within the House of York. But he seems to ignore the major conflicts within his own house, with his two brothers, and his own instruction to have Clarence killed. So Edward, though he may in one sense be Richard’s opposite, in another is Richard’s double, does not emerge as a model king. And when he hears that Clarence has been killed, he blames his courtiers for not advising him against it, thereby losing any respect that the audience might have still held for him.