The Limited Power of Rhetoric 

Analysis of Shakespeare’s Richard III written for my junior year AP English class:

One of the prominent overarching themes in Shakespeare’s Richard III is the power of language and the use of language as a weapon to achieve political power. Throughout the play, Richard is able to manipulate characters and events within the play specifically through his eloquence and ever evolving persuasive techniques. His eloquence and ability to deflect suspicions and accusations enables him to manipulate, confuse, and control those around him for his malicious desire to attain the Crown. This is consistent with Cicero’s description of how, “eloquence without wisdom is often most mischievous.” Richard’s tactics work on nearly everyone, those who think of him as a friend or foe. However, through the progression of the play, Richard’s rhetorical power to disguise his corrupt intentions begin to weaken and his true nature becomes increasingly apparent to those around him. Friends abandon him, traitors materialize, women fail to be wooed by him, and he struggles to justify his own actions to himself. It is not reduced skill in the language of his speech, but his staggeringly unavoidable accumulation of abominable crimes that is responsible for his loss of persuasive rhetorical power and ultimately his demise.

At the beginning of the play, when Richard is still in the midst of planning his schemes and has yet to betray or murder anyone, his dialogue with Lady Anne displays his exceptional talent with words. Anne, despite having very good reasons to despise Richard for killing her husband Edward and father-in-law King Henry VI, succumbs to his charming flattery and mind games. Richard approaches Anne with a plan to praise her beauty by referring to her as a “sweet saint,” “angel,” and “divine perfection of a woman” (1.2.49,74-75). Identifying the source of her resentment, he initially tries to blame King Edward, claiming “I did not kill your husband…he is dead, and slain by Edward’s hand” (1.2.92-94). Seeing this tactic is of no avail as Anne stands her ground, Richard then attempts to twist the facts, arguing that he helped send Henry to heaven, “for he was fitter for that place than earth” (1.2.107-110). Moreover, he shifts the guilt on Anne herself. Using one of his common tactics of flipping the accusation back on the accuser to deflect suspicion, blame, and responsibility off of himself, Richard blames Anne for the death of her husband  by saying, “I stabbed young Edward, but ‘twas thy heavenly face that set me on” (1.2.182-185). One last act of feigned submission, repentance, and undying love by offering his sword to her is all it takes to sweep Anne off her feet and accept his ring. Richard has a particularly deadly talent for identifying the mental weaknesses and desires of others and changing the form of his rhetoric in order to target these aspects. In successfully convincing Anne, a woman he widowed, to turn her attitude around completely from spewing hateful words to agreeing to marry him, Richard demonstrates his powerful way with words and vast arsenal of persuasive techniques, including pinpointing another’s weakness before manipulating it.

In contrast to Richard’s ability to trick every person around him with the exception of Margaret in the first half of the play, towards the second half, Richard becomes increasingly incapable of manipulating those around him to do his bidding. This is not due to any diminished rhetorical skills on his part, but because of his blood stained reputation and piles of bodies he has incurred, including savagely killing his own nephews, which takes away from the dominance of his eloquence and persuasion. The dialogue that occurs between Richard and Queen Elizabeth in Act IV Scene IV demonstrates that Richard’s way with words and language skills not have suddenly disappeared, but there exists another reason to account for Queen Elizabeth not falling prey to any of his maliciously persuasive rhetorical techniques. This scene shares similarities with Richard’s first encounter with Anne, as in both situations, he is striving to convince the women to help him with his master plan. Richard uses similar techniques to convince Queen Elizabeth to have her daughter marry him as those used against Anne. First, Richard asks for forgiveness by acknowledging the evils he has previously done, “Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes… to make amends, I’ll give it to your daughter” (4.4.292-295). He promises to right old wrongs by marrying her daughter and giving back the lineage of the crown to her grandchildren. He appeals to the human desire for glory by arguing that “she [Young Elizabeth] shall be a high and mighty queen” and the human desire for love, promising that “I will love her everlastingly” (4.4.347-349). Furthermore, he assures Queen Elizabeth that such a marriage would “infer fair England’s peace by this alliance,” hoping a prospect of peace will sway her to handing her daughter over for the greater good of England (4.4.333). Unfortunately for Richard, things do not go as planned as Queen Elizabeth retorts with her witty interruptions and sarcastic responses suggesting he gift Young Elizabeth the bleeding hearts of her slaughtered brothers. Queen Elizabeth is not swayed or influenced by Richard’s manipulative rhetoric. It is evident from their discussion that it is not Richard’s reduced rhetorical skill that results in his failure to convince Queen Elizabeth to accept the proposed arranged marriage of her daughter.

Instead, the glaringly significant change occurring between the scene with Lady Anne and that with Queen Elizabeth is all the blood Richard has spilt, tarnishing his once blemish free reputation. This consequently renders his persuasive techniques obsolete in the face of his heinous crimes. Nearly everyone Richard interacts with before the execution of Hastings and the silent slaughter of the two princes buys into his comforting and reassuring words promising no foul intent because Richard has no history of treachery that would lead one to think otherwise. In the case of Lady Anne, while it is true that Richard is guilty of killing Edward and King Henry VI, this occurred during a war which has now ended. Death is a natural fact of war and a possibility that one accepts when stepping out onto the battlefield. So, Richard having killed Edward and Henry is a simple choice of kill or be killed and not at all a surprising act, allowing his reputation to still bear the image that he paints of himself as an innocent and remorseful which allows him to convince Anne. Similarly, Richard’s proclamation of love for Clarence leaves his brother completely oblivious to Richard’s true intentions to eliminate him and usurp the throne. Clarence, despite being confronted by his dream in which Richard pushes him overboard and being explicitly told by the murderers, “you are deceived; your brother Gloucester hates you,” remains steadfast to his belief in Richard’s love for him (1.4.231). Indeed, Richard is powerfully persuasive and manipulative, but Clarence also has little reason to think any differently of his brother when Richard has a spotless record void of any deceitful activity against their family. Unlike her husband and Clarence, Queen Elizabeth does suspect Richard’s true desires and confronts him with this, arguing “come, come, we know your meaning…You envy my advancement… I have too long borne your blunt upbraidings and your bitter scoffs” (1.3.73-104). However, even for Queen Elizabeth, some distasteful words against her are not reason enough to completely distrust Richard, a family member, and his reassuringly sympathetic rhetoric. Richard is initially able to trick Clarence, Anne, and Queen Elizabeth, as well as King Edward and Hastings, because of his eloquent language coupled with an untainted image of innocence.

By contrast, after Richard has murdered everyone obstructing his path to the throne, a body count of at least five, his rhetoric, despite still being as eloquent as it was from the beginning, is insufficient to convince Queen Elizabeth to follow his wishes, and for Buckingham and Stanley to stay loyal to him. The commonality between these three characters is that they all know Richard brutally ordered the death of Hastings, the two young princes, and very possibly more. Buckingham, as well as Stanley, later on, being Richard’s right hand men, are privy to his murderous plots. Queen Elizabeth is also well aware of Richard’s crimes as she had her suspicious from the very start and he restricted her from visiting her sons in the Tower before having them killed. Knowledge of what Richard has done and is capable of allows Queen Elizabeth, Buckingham, and Stanley to be immune to the persuasive powers of Richard’s language. Richard is no longer able to control the three of them regardless of how incredibly talented he is with words because eloquence has its limitations. At this point, he cannot even control himself. Richard struggles to justify his own villainy to himself when his dreams become haunted by eleven different ghosts of people he has directly murdered. These ghosts remind him of all his treacherous actions and the large pile of bodies that he is responsible for, rendering his own rhetoric powerless against himself as he asks, “What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by…Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am…I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not” (5.3.192-195 ). His speech is punctuated with question marks and contradictory responses, indicating his wavering confidence. Action, specifically a large accumulation of evil action, negates the most mischievously eloquent twisting of words, and even the innermost conviction in one’s own villainous acts.

Shakespeare’s Richard III presents audiences and readers with a cautionary tale consistent with Cicero’s warning about the dangerous and mischievous nature of eloquent rhetoric when it is unaccompanied by moral wisdom. Little can be done against such powerful forms of persuasion, but there is still hope yet. False truths, lies, and treacherous crimes will ultimately reveal themselves and, when they do, the power of eloquence will be diminished, offering an opportunity to fight back against the power of convincingly constructed language.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. Ed. James R. Siemon. London: Bloomsbury Arden-Bloomsbury, 2015. Print. 

“Cicero: De Inventione.” Robert Anderson (1805-1871). N.p., n.d. Web.

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