Richard III


William Shakespeare

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Richard III: Dramatic Irony 5 key examples

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Definition of Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a character's understanding of a given situation, and that of the... read full definition
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a character's understanding of a given... read full definition
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Cause and Effect:

In this passage, Richard III masterfully manipulates Lady Anne as he tries to woo her. Shakespeare employs deep dramatic irony as Richard shifts the blame for the deaths of Henry VI and Anne’s own husband onto her: 

Is not the cause of the timeless deaths
Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward,
As blameful as the executioner?

Thou wast the cause and most accursed effect.

Your beauty was the cause of that effect—
Your beauty, that did haunt me in my sleep [...]

The audience is privy to the fact that it’s Richard himself who is actually responsible for the murders of Henry VI and Edward. Anne believes this to be the case but can’t be absolutely sure, and Richard does his best to convince her otherwise. When this isn’t productive, he shifts tacks to trying to convince her that it’s actually her fault they’re dead. The audience is aware of all of Richard's machinations and his true character, but Lady Anne can't prove the exact extent of his crimes. This dramatic irony is another moment where the audience sees the disparity between Richard's pleasant public demeanor and his sinister intentions. 

Furthermore, this scene highlights Richard's skill at manipulation and deceit. He skillfully deflects Lady Anne's accusations by blaming her beauty for the "effect" of both men dying. She’s so beautiful, he argues, that it's actually her fault. He argues that as she “did haunt him,” she’s “as blameful as the executioner.” This not only flatters Lady Anne but also disorients her, causing her to question her understanding of the situation. 

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 3, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Cheerfully and Smooth:

In Act 3, Lord Hastings makes a fatal error in judgment regarding Richard’s demeanor. He tells a group of gathered lords and the Bishop of Ely that Richard is easy to read, in the most hyperbolic of language. This is an instance of dramatic irony and also displays Hastings's blithe innocence. He says:

His Grace looks cheerfully and smooth this morning.
There’s some conceit or other likes him well
When that he bids good morrow with such spirit.
I think there’s never a man in Christendom
Can lesser hide his love or hate than he,
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.

This statement is a clear example of dramatic irony. The audience knows all about Richard’s plotting and ability to fool people, thanks to his soliloquies. Hastings, however, has no idea of his king's true nature as a master manipulator who can hide his intentions behind a mask of being pleasant and modest. He thinks Richard is just happy because there's a "conceit" or plan that the monarch likes. He has no idea what's actually happening in Richard's mind. 

Hastings's belief in Richard’s transparency is emphasized by the hyperbole in this passage. He tells his assembled company that “never a man in Christendom can lesser hide his love or hate” than Richard. The phrase “in Christendom” here means “in the entire world.” This exaggerated praise shows that Hastings is naïve, and blinds him to the impending danger posed by the youngest Plantagenet brother. Hastings asserts that it’s possible to know Richard’s “heart,” or how he truly feels, by his “face.” Hastings's inability to see through Richard’s deceit ultimately leads to his downfall, as he fails to recognize the sinister intentions lurking behind Richard’s affable exterior. As almost no one is able to see through Richard’s pretense of goodness, this blustering explanation seems almost painfully ironic to an audience by this late point in the play. 

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Act 3, Scene 7
Explanation and Analysis—Unfit for State :

In Act 3, Scene 7, Richard "protests" against being given the responsibilities of the kingship. In a speech full of hyperbole and dramatic and verbal irony, he fakes humility to the Mayor of London:

Alas, why would you heap this care on me?
I am unfit for state and majesty;
I do beseech you, take it not amiss;
I cannot, nor I will not, yield to you.

This is a clear instance of dramatic irony, as the audience has been witness for the entire play to Richard’s ruthless ambition for the crown. His fake reluctance is also a manifestation of verbal irony, as he says one thing and means another. At this point in the play, there's a large number of people around Richard who believe he's the best choice to rule the country. The audience can only watch in horror as his manipulations come to fruition.

Richard's false humility is masterful in its execution. In this passage, he portrays himself as the dutiful servant burdened with a responsibility he does not seek. He uses hyperbole to describe himself as "unfit" for the things he's been training his entire life for, and to make kingship seem like a weight that would be "heaped" on him. He begs the Lord Mayor not to be offended or "take it amiss" that he is refusing. He even treats the repeated requests and demands to become king he's being given as if they are annoying impositions, saying he won't "yield" to them. This is also a reference to his "reluctance" to be physically crowned, where he'd kneel or sit, "yielding" to the responsibility. Of course, this false modesty only serves to build his reputation for humility and self-effacement in the eyes of his subjects. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Endure the Load:

Near the beginning of Act 4, Richard feigns reluctance to the Duke of Buckingham in accepting the crown, personifying "fortune" as a being who deposits burdens on unwitting folk. It's a scene of dramatic and verbal irony because—while the audience knows Richard's true intentions—his apparent unwillingness makes him seem like an ideal candidate for kingship:

Since you will buckle fortune on my back,
To bear her burden, whe’er I will or no,
I must have patience to endure the load;

In this passage, Richard makes it seem as if he is taking on a great burden for the sake of the people. This is dramatically ironic because he has been telling the audience he's plotting to obtain the crown throughout the play. Here, he pretends to be burdened by the crown. Saying that the responsibility of statehood is a heavy, unappealing burden implies that he is accepting it as a duty rather than out of ambition.

 However, the audience knows that Richard has been manipulating everyone to obtain the crown for himself. By personifying "fortune" here, he puts himself at an even further remove from responsibility. If a powerful entity like "fortune" is forcing this "burden" on him, he is powerless to say no and must somehow find the "patience" to be king.

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