Richard III


William Shakespeare

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Richard III: Allusions 4 key examples

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Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—York Vs. Lancaster:

In Act 1, Scene 1, Richard engages in wordplay to allude to the tumultuous history of the Wars of the Roses, a recurring motif throughout the play:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York [...]

The phrase "the winter of our discontent" as it's used here alludes to the Wars of the Roses, a time of civil unrest and familial conflict. It's a metaphorical "winter," suggesting a time of death, barrenness, and general unease for the play's protagonist. Richard's brother Edward IV has come to the throne, and Richard is painfully jealous and plans to usurp him. By describing this period in his life as a "winter," Richard frames it as bleak and harsh, a period of struggle and hardship. He's unhappy because everyone else is so happy. Shakespeare, here, uses historical allusion to add depth to Richard's words. His original 16th century audience would have been familiar with the history of the conflict between York and Lancaster. Thus, anchoring Richard's unhappiness in real events establishes useful context. 

The reference he makes to "this sun of York" is a pun, alluding to both a "son" of York and the actual sun. The "son" in question is King Edward IV, Richard's oldest brother. Edward was famously tall, blond, and handsome, while Richard is believed to have been of lesser height and dark-haired. This allusion to a radiant sun causing "glorious summer" refers to the brief moment of peace and prosperity England had under the first reign of Edward IV. The summer won't last long, as Richard's soliloquy goes on to suggest. 

The Wars of the Roses and associated moments of infighting and betrayal recur frequently throughout the play, establishing a motif of destructive familial conflict. This motif is reinforced by repeated references to these wars, the rival houses, and  York and Lancaster's house colors of white and red. The repetition emphasizes the cyclical nature of these kinds of skirmishes, mirroring the actual historical events in England that dragged on for over three decades. The violence and repeated betrayals of the York and Lancaster families are echoed in Richard's emotional behavior toward his brothers, as well as his actual deeds. The fact that this motif recurs in every act of the play at least four or five times highlights the pervasive and destructive nature of civil war. It also reflects the constant instability and treachery that characterize the play's political landscape.

Act 2, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Wingéd Mercury:

In the first scene of Act 2, King Edward expresses horror and shock that his brother Clarence had been executed before he had the chance to reprieve him. Richard, in explaining why this happened, makes an allusion to the Roman god Mercury that's heavy with dramatic irony:

 Is Clarence dead? The order was reversed.

 But he, poor man, by your first order died,
 And that a wingèd Mercury did bear.
 Some tardy cripple bare the countermand,
 That came too lag to see him burièd.

Shakespeare alludes to "wingèd Mercury." Mercury, or Hermes in Greek mythology, was the messenger of the gods and was often depicted with wings on his heels, symbolizing speed and swiftness. By referring to Mercury, Richard is using a mythological reference to explain how swiftly the initial order for Clarence's execution was carried out. It couldn’t have been prevented, he smoothly implies, because it was delivered almost supernaturally fast.

In contrast, Richard describes the carrier of the “countermand” (the order to spare Clarence's life) as being brought by a "tardy cripple," or a slow and impaired person. This visual imagery sharply contrasts with the swift and efficient image of "wingèd Mercury." It also refers to Richard’s own self-perception in comparison to his brothers. He is subtly gloating, as Clarence is dead and he’s still alive.

In essence, Richard is blaming the inefficiency and slowness of the messenger for Clarence's unfortunate and untimely death, even though it was Richard himself who orchestrated these events. This adds a layer of dramatic irony to the passage. Although Edward IV is oblivious, the audience knows Richard was the real cause of the rapid execution.

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Act 4, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Thy Edwards, My Edward:

In this monologue, Queen Margaret uses alliteration and allusion to detail her despair and hatred of Richard, death, and war. She’s trying to calm a disagreement between Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, and offers up some grim perspective:

Thy Edward he is dead, that killed my Edward,
Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward;
Young York, he is but boot, because both they
Matched not the high perfection of my loss.
Thy Clarence he is dead that stabbed my Edward,
And the beholders of this frantic play,
Th’ adulterate Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey,
Untimely smothered in their dusky graves.

Margaret uses the repetition of the name "Edward" here to drive home the devastation of the civil war. The constant use of "Edward" not only emphasizes the name but also the weight of its meaning. It’s associated with the death and conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York because of all the "Edwards" these families contained. It’s a common English boy’s name, so it also stands in for the idea of the needless death of all the other men and boys Richard has murdered or executed. In addition, Margaret uses the "a" sound in “play," “grey,” and “grave” to create a sense of mournful harmony, linking these words together and reinforcing her sorrowful tone.

The allusion Margaret’s making here is to the tragic history of the Lancaster and York families. "Edwards" don’t have very good luck in either of these groups: both York and Lancaster have seen multiple people named Edward meet violent ends. This allusion to the civil wars between the families underscores the ruthless and unrelenting nature of the political struggles in Richard III. Elizabeth acknowledges her own family’s crimes, but reminds the other women, too, of her own losses and affiliations. It's a reference to the turbulent and bloody history that binds their families together. It’s also an effective means of evoking empathy, shared sorrow, and a sense of unity between the women against Richard’s ongoing chaos.

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Explanation and Analysis—Phoenix Nest:

When Richard speaks to the reluctant Queen Elizabeth about marrying her daughter, he employs an allusion to the mythical Phoenix, and metaphors referring to pregnancy, as part of his persuasive strategy:

Yet thou didst kill my children.

 But in your daughter’s womb I bury them,
 Where, in that nest of spicery, they will breed
 Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.

A phoenix is a mythical bird that cyclically regenerates or is born again. It symbolizes renewal and resurrection. The phoenix was supposed to build a nest of spices to lay its egg, which would then hatch in the ashes of the phoenix's burning body as it died. Richard alludes to the phoenix legend here, depicting the younger Elizabeth’s womb as a “nest” where new babies can be reborn, replacing the people he has killed. Richard tries to manipulate Queen Elizabeth into believing that if he marries her daughter, her dead relatives will be reborn through their offspring. The metaphor of the younger Elizabeth’s womb being a “nest” paints it as a place of richness and regeneration. This belies the gruesome reality of what Richard's suggesting: that he can resurrect people he's murdered through sex with the Queen's daughter. He implies that his children with Elizabeth could replace the older queen’s dead children, to her “recomforture" (to make her feel better).

In this passage, Shakespeare is pointing to the cycle of death and rebirth that becomes apparent during conflicts where family members kill and harm each other. Richard's tasteless attempt at bringing Elizabeth around here is an attempt to present something macabre—the killing of people she loved—as potentially life-affirming and reparative. It's also of note here that because Richard was Edward IV's brother, the younger Elizabeth is his biological niece. Children they had together would be "replacement" relatives for Queen Elizabeth in more ways than one. 

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