The Masks of Richard III

Not all great men are good men: and as portrayed by Shakespeare in the play which bears his name, Richard III illustrates this excellently. In his first speech, laying out the setting of the play, Richard declares his intention “to prove a villain” and calls himself “subtle, false, and treacherous” (I.I, 30; 37). But this is only for the audience: when he interacts with the other characters, Richard wears a mask of plainness, gentleness, and honest loyalty—as he says, “I … seem a saint when most I play the devil.” (I.II, 337). He can lie, deceive, and murder his way into near-absolute power without blinking an eye except to shed hypocritical tears. He is skillfull and poised, walking, when he needs to, a knife’s edge such as that he dares when he bids Anne tell him to kill himself. By his own and the world’s standards, he is very successful; enough, I think, that he can be termed a great, if not a verily great, man.

In his speeches to the audience, Richard shows that for all he distorts the truth, he does know it. For example, after wooing Anne, he expresses his amazement that she will turn from her first husband, Edward, who Richard murdered, and who was “young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal” to him, “whose all not equals Edward’s moiety” (I.II, 245, 250). But he does not care about the truth morally, and uses it as a tool for his manipulations. Speaking to several lords, he says that he is disliked

Because I cannot flatter and look fair,
Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive, and cog…

I.III, 47-8

The thing, of course, is that these are all the things he does – forging his mask, he sometimes need do no more than describe how he actually is and disavow it.

But after the ghosts of those whom he has murdered appear to him with the message “despair, and die” (V.III, multiple), Richard shows something he has never shown before – a conscience. He is knocked into wavering off his knife’s edge, and shows that he has worn a mask even to the audience and himself.

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
… Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
… My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury in the high’st degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the dir’st degree;
All several sins, all us’d in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair.

V.III, 171, 181, 193-200