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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF
KING RICHARD THE THIRD.
This tragedy, though called, in the original edition, “ The Life and Death of King Richard the Third,” comprises only fourteen years. The second scene commences with the funeral of king Henry VI., who is said to have been murdered on the 21st of May, 1471. The imprisonment of Clarence, which is represented previously in the first scene, did not, in fact, take place till 1477–8.
Several dramas on the present story had been written before Shakspeare attempted it. There was a Latin play on the subject, by Dr. Legge, which had been acted at St. John's College, Oxford, some time before the year 1588. And a childish imitation of it, by one Henry Lacey, exists in MS. in the British Museum; (MSS. Harl. No. 6926 ;) it is dated 1586. In the books of the Stationers' Company are the following entries :—"Aug. 15, 1586, A Tragical Report of King Richard the Third: a ballad.” June 19, 1594, Thomas Creede made the following entry: “An enterlude, intitled the Tragedie of Richard the Third, wherein is shown the Deathe of Edward the Fourthe, with the Smotheringe of the 'wo Princes in the Tower, with the lamentable Ende of Shore's Wife, and the Contention of the Two Ilouses of Lancaster and Yorke.” A single copy of this ancient Interlude, which Mr. Boswell thinks was written by the author of Locrine, unfortunately wanting the title-page, and a few lines at the beginning, was in the collection of Mr. Rhodes, of Lyon's Inn, who liberally allowed Mr. Boswell to print it in the last Variorum edition of Shakspeare.* It appears evidently to have been read and used by Shakspeare. In this, as in other instances, the bookseller was probably induced to publish the old play, in consequence of the success of the new one in performance, and before it had yet got into print.
Shakspeare's play was first entered at Stationers' Hall, Oct. 20, 1597, by Andrew Wise; and was then published with the following title:“ The Tragedy of King Richard the Third : Containing his treacherous Plots against his Brother Clarence; the pitiful Murther of his innocent Nephewes; his tyrannical Usurpation: with the whole course of his
* A complete copy of Creede's edition of this curions Interlude (which upon comparison proved to be a different impression from that in Mr. Rhodes's collection) was sold by aurtion by Mr. Evans very lately. The title was as follows:-" The true Tragedie of Richard the Third, wherein is showne the death of Edward the Fourth, with the smothering of the (wo yoong Princes in the Tower: With a lamentable end of Shore's wife, an example for all wicked women; and lastly, the conjunction of the two noble Houses Lancaster and Yorke, as it was playd by the Queenes Maiesties players. London, printed by Thomas Creede; and are to be sold by William Barley at his shop in Newgate Market, neare Christ Church door, 1591; 4to.” Ii is a circumstance sufficiently remarkable, that but a single copy each of the two editions of this piece should be known exist.
detested Life, and most deserved Death. As it hath been lately acted by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his servants. Printed by Valentine Sims, for William Wise, 1597.” It was again reprinted, in 4to, in 1598, 1602, 1612 or 1613, 1622, and twice in 1629.
This play was probably written in the year 1593 or 1594. One of Shakspeare's Richards, and most probably this, is alluded to in the Epigrams of John Weever," published in 1599, but which must have been written in 1595.
AD GULIELMUM SHAKESPEARE.
27th Epig. 4th Weeke. The character of Richard had been in part developed in the last parts of King Henry VI., where, Schlegel observes, “his first speeches lead us already to form the most unfavorable prognostications respecting him: he lowers obliquely like a thunder-cloud on the horizon, which gradually approaches nearer and nearer, and first pours out the elements of devastation with which it is charged when it hangs over the heads of mortals."
* The other characters of the drama are of too secondary a nature to excite a powerful sympathy; but in the back ground, the widowed queen Margaret appears as the fury of the past, who calls forth the curse on the future ; every calamity which her enemies draw down on each other, is a cordial to her revengeful heart. Other female voices join, from time to time, in the lamentations and imprecations. But Richard is the soul, or rather the demon, of the whole tragedy, and fulfils the promise, which he formerly made, to
set the murderous Machiavel to school.'
Besides the uniform aversion with which he inspires us, he occupies us in the greatest variety of ways, by his profound skill in dissimulation, his wit, his prudence, his presence of mind, his quick activity, and his valor. He fights at last against Richmond like a desperado, and dies the
* This very curious little volume, which is supposed to be unique, is in the possession of Mr. Comb, of Henley. The title is as follows:-"Epigrammes in the oldest Cut and newest Fashion. 'Atwise seven Houres (in so many Weekes) Studie. No longer (like the Fashion, not unlike to continue. The first seven, John Weever. Sit voluisse sit valuisse. At London : printed by V. S. for Thomas Bushele; and are to be sold at his shop, at the great north doore of Panleg. 1599. 120.” There is a portrait of the author, engraved by Cecill, prefixed. According to the date upon this print, Weever was then twenty-three years old; but he tells us, in some introductory stanzas, that, when he wrote the Epigrams which compose the volume, he was not twenty years old ; that he was one
"That twenty twelvemonths yet did never know.” Consequently, these Epigrams must have been written in 1593.
honorable death of the hero on the field of battle." —But Shakspeare has satisfied our moral feelings :—“He shows us Richard in his last moments already branded with the stamp of reprobation. We see Richard and Richmond, on the night before battle, sleeping in their tents; the spirits of those murdered by the tyrant ascend in succession, and pour out their curses against him, and their blessings on his adversary. These apparitions are, properly, merely the dreams of the two generals made visible. It is no doubt contrary to sensible probability, that their tents should only be separated by so small a space; but Shakspeare could reckon on poetical spectators, who were ready to take the breadth of the stage for the distance between the two camps, if, by such a favor, they were to be recompensed by beauties of so sublime a nature as this series of spectres, and the soliloquy of Richard on his awaking." *
Steevens observed that the favor with which the tragedy has been received on the stage in modern times “must in some measure be imputed to Cibber's reformation of it.” The original play was certainly too long for representation, and there were parts which might, with advantage, have been omitted in representation, as “ dramatic encumbrances;” but such a piece of clumsy patchwork as the performance of Cibber, was surely any thing but “ judicious;" and it is only surprising, that the taste which has led to other reformations in the performance of our great dramatic Poet's works, has not given to the stage a judicious abridgment of this tragedy in his own words, unencumbered with the superfluous transpositions and gratuitous additions which have been so long inflicted upon us.
• Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Literaturo, vol. ii. p. 246.