In the opening of Richard III, the protagonist describes his physical appearance in an introspective and revealing monologue filled with visual imagery:
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up [...]
Richard's introduction to the audience is full of visual language that paints a picture of his physical deformities. Historians think that the actual monarch probably didn’t have many physical differences aside from scoliosis. Despite this, Shakespeare’s play equates Richard’s emotional deformity with severe and multiple physical impairments. What's more, phrases such as "curtail’d of this fair proportion," "deformed," "unfinish’d," and "scarce half made up" do more than merely convey his external appearance. They also provide insight into Richard's internal state of mind. These descriptions connect his physically "unfinished" body to a morally distorted character and wicked mind. The audience doesn't necessarily see Richard as differently bodied compared to other characters, depending on the actor playing him. However, through Shakespeare's words, they can envision that he believes his mental deformities match his physical ones.
The imagery also helps establish Richard’s feelings of bitterness, jealousy, and sense of isolation from others. Richard's "unfinished" physical state is a reflection of his mental disquiet and dissatisfaction. It feeds into his ambition and ruthless pursuit of power. Additionally, the notion of being "unfinished" and "scarce half made up" introduces the idea of Richard as being somehow incomplete or lacking. This suggests that Richard's deformities, in his view, have curtailed his prospects and made him less than whole in the eyes of the world. This perceived deficiency becomes a driving force behind his actions throughout Richard III. They fuel his ruthless ambition and set the stage for the tragedy that unfolds.
In Richard’s opening soliloquy, he uses tactile imagery and verbal irony to lay down the emotional foundation for his character and motivations.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
These opening lines employ tactile imagery to create vivid, evocative sensations, allowing readers to “feel” Richard's emotional turmoil as if it's a condition of the weather. He begins with "winter of our discontent," a phrase that summons cold, barren, and dark landscapes to the mind's eye. He evokes the chill of this metaphorical winter, describing his sense of desolation and frustration. The tactile imagery then shifts in the opposite direction with the mention of a "glorious summer" and the "sun of York.” This sensory language evokes warmth, light, and fertility. The stark contrast between the cold winter and warm summer seasons forms a sensory representation of Richard's inner conflicts. It’s somehow summer for everyone else and “winter” for him, because he’s so frustrated and dissatisfied.
Richard's soliloquy is also ripe with verbal irony. The traditional relief associated with the transition from harsh winter to pleasant summer is subverted with Richard's first couple of lines. Instead of finding joy in the metaphorical "summer" brought by the "sun of York," Richard feels displeasure. His inability to relish the "summer" of peace and prosperity reveals a sense of alienation from those around him. He wishes to see others suffer as he does, reflecting his readiness to disrupt the prevailing peace in England. His “summer,” he implies, won’t come until everybody else experiences their own “winter.”
Lady Anne’s mourning over the corpse of King Henry VI in Act 1 is imbued with powerful visual and tactile imagery and several poignant uses of alliteration:
Poor key-cold figure of a holy king,
Pale ashes of the house of Lancaster,
Thou bloodless remnant of that royal blood,
Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost
To hear the lamentations of poor Anne,
Wife to thy Edward, to thy slaughtered son,
Stabbed by the selfsame hand that made these wounds.
The visual imagery in this passage is striking. The use of “pale ashes” paints a haunting picture of the lifelessness and decay that has befallen the once-great house of Lancaster. This phrase contrasts with the later mention of “blood” and “royal blood,” which evoke the sense of aggression and violence around Henry VI's murder. The colors of this scene are one of the play’s many references to the warring houses of York and Lancaster. Lancaster’s house color is red. Henry, the Lancaster king, is dead, and so the red “blood” of Lancaster has been replaced by the ashy paleness of York "white." The king is a “bloodless remnant” of what he once was, as is the Lancaster dynasty which has been replaced by a York king, Edward IV.
Shakespeare uses tactile imagery here to evoke a physical sense of coldness and death. Anne’s mention of a “[p]oor key-cold figure” brings to mind the chill of a corpse. It also makes the audience think of metal and imprisonment, as if the king’s body has grown chilly and metallic from lack of life and energy. This sensory language of cold replacing warmth accentuates the somber tone of the scene. Everything is cool, hard, and lifeless.
This passage's alliteration also adds depth to the melancholy atmosphere. The repetitive, hard consonants in phrases like "Poor key-cold figure," "bloodless remnant of that royal blood," and "stabbed by the selfsame hand" produce a rhythm that reinforces the dismal tone and sense of despair. The repeating, cyclical sounds reinforce Lady Anne’s sense of hopeless grief, and emphasize the self-perpetuating nature of the violence and betrayal of civil war.
As she grieves over Henry VI's corpse, Lady Anne employs a metaphor of wounds speaking, and some accompanying and unpleasant visual imagery to accuse Richard III of murdering him:
See, dead Henry's wounds
Open their congeal'd mouths and bleed afresh!
When Lady Anne refers to the wounds as "mouths" here, she uses metaphor to endow the dead king's silent injuries with a voice. She imagines that the wounds themselves, if they could speak, would tell the truth of Henry's violent death. This comparison transforms the mute physical evidence of murder into an active complaint against Richard, the presumed killer. It also adds an element of the supernatural to her public cry for justice. Henry is dead, but to Anne it is as if the wounds are crying out for vengeance.
The detailed visual sensory language Lady Anne uses makes the scene all the more shocking. Words like "congealed" and "bleed afresh" paint a gory, unsettling picture that mirrors the horror of Henry's murder. Her description of the clotted, but reopening, wounds underscores the heinousness of Richard's crime. Henry VI’s death was already violent, but she’s describing the wounds tearing themselves open afresh in Richard's presence. This makes Richard's attempts to deny or downplay his involvement in the murder seem frivolous. Anne calls on all the “gentlemen” surrounding the pair to witness this imagined supernatural event. Even though the wounds aren’t actually re-opening, her grim speech is emotionally provocative enough to unnerve Richard and cause him to try and calm her down.
Richard professes to Hastings that he believes that Queen Elizabeth has cursed him. He uses tactile imagery and a simile comparing his arm to a withered tree to paint a picture of weakness and rot:
Look how I am bewitched; behold, mine arm
Is like a blasted sapling withered up.
Richard's description of his arm as "withered" provides tactile imagery that is central to this passage. The word "withered" suggests a sensation of dryness, fragility, and a lack of vitality. The audience can almost feel the torsion and weakness of the arm, as Shakespeare intends. This perceived physical decay deepens the audience's understanding of Richard's sense of personal plight and misfortune. He’s not a very sympathetic character, but this is a moment of physical delicacy and vulnerability where the audience is invited to feel empathy for him.
Further, Richard uses a simile here, likening his arm to a "blasted sapling." This comparison invokes a vivid image of his arm as a young tree, meant to grow tall and robust, now stunted and damaged. It also extends beyond his arm: this simile serves as a metaphor for Richard himself. He is the youngest son, perceived as the weakest and least consequential among his taller, handsomer, more powerful brothers. He’s like a "blasted sapling" among towering trees, unable to grow to his full potential. Richard's life and ambitions, much like the sapling's growth, seem initially thwarted and "blasted” by his circumstances.
Sir James Tyrrell, who has been sent by Richard to murder the princes in the Tower, describes the sad scene of the two young princes before their deaths. He tells the audience about it using visual sensory language, and pathos:
[...] girdling one another
Within their alabaster innocent arms.
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
And in their summer beauty kissed each other.
A book of prayers on their pillow lay [...]
Shakespeare employs visual imagery to create a poignant picture of the sleeping princes. The use of the word “alabaster” to describe their arms conveys a sense of purity and innocence. Alabaster is a kind of white stone, used for carving fine statues and often ornate gravestones. The marble-white, unblemished purity of the little boys' bodies is tragically juxtaposed with the violence they are about to experience.
The metaphor of their lips being like “four red roses on a stalk” in their “summer beauty” further highlights their youth. Shakespeare is emphasizing here that Tyrrell knows he’s about to cut short innocent lives. The sleeping children entangled together are about to be wiped out, regardless of how adorable they are.
Shakespeare makes an intense appeal to the audience's emotions in this passage, using pathos. They are reminded of the princes’ innocence and vulnerability. The knowledge that the children are to be killed creates an overwhelming sense of tragedy and injustice. The reference to the book of prayers on their pillow also adds a religious dimension to the scene, suggesting that the princes are pious and innocent in the eyes of God. This further accentuates the heinousness of Richard’s actions in ordering them to be murdered. Through this combination of visual imagery and pathos, Shakespeare makes it clear that even a cold-hearted killer like Tyrrell can be moved by extreme beauty and innocence. It forces the audience to face the grim reality of the princes’ fate. It's also another place in the play where the colors white and red collide. The princes' "alabaster" bodies, their "red ros[e]" lips, and the blood that it's implied Tyrell will spill are a callback to the warring colors of York and Lancaster.
In this passage, Queen Margaret deploys hyperbole and vicious tactile imagery to express her loathing for King Richard. She is enraged by his treachery and doesn't hold back on her scathing insults:
Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb,
Thou loathèd issue of thy father’s loins,
Thou rag of honor, thou detested—
Margaret, the widow of Henry VI and mother of Prince Edward, confronts Richard with extreme bitterness and hostility. She is enraged by his treachery and doesn't hold back on her scathing insults. Margaret uses exaggerated, hyperbolic language to emphasize the depth of her contempt for Richard. Words like "slander," "loathèd," and "detested" display the intensity of her hatred and serve as a vehicle for her wrath.
When she calls Richard the "slander of thy heavy mother’s womb,” Margaret employs tactile imagery to add a physical dimension to her verbal assault. The word "heavy" suggests that even as a baby Richard was a trial, and as if being pregnant with him were a burden to his mother. When she calls him the "loathéd issue" of his father's "loins," she's using the convention of calling children their parents' "issue." An "issue" is something that comes from a body: in this case, a baby. However, she's also comparing Richard to feces or semen (other kinds of unclean "issue" that come from the "loins" or genitals).
This unpleasant sensory language of embodiment and touch continues with the unsavory image of a “rag of honor.” Margaret compares Richard to a dirty, worthless piece of cloth—an object that once held some value ("honor"), but is now soiled and ruined. All of her language is extreme and hyperbolic: she is saying the most hurtful things she can think of. Describing Richard as a "rag of honor" presents a pathetic image of something once honorable, but now dirty and disrespected. This comparison lays bare Margaret's view of Richard. She sees him as a man who has fundamentally debased his nobility and honor through his nefarious actions. He might have been something honorable once, but is now degraded to a "rag."
Richard is visited by the ghosts of those he has wronged on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field. The Ghost of Henry VI gives a chilling prediction, using alliteration and tactile imagery to drive his point home:
When I was mortal my anointed body
By thee was punchèd full of deadly holes.
Think on the Tower and me. Despair, and die!
Harry the Sixth bids thee despair and die.
The phrase "punchèd full of deadly holes" presents the audience with visceral tactile sensations. The word "punchèd" evokes an aggressive, forceful feeling, creating a sense of violent intrusion and violation. This brings the brutality of the murder Richard ordered back to life, making it tangible to the audience. Furthermore, the description of "deadly holes" conjures a sense of extreme physical pain and suffering. By emphasizing the physical aspect of the act that killed him, the dead Henry VI makes the scene even more intense and harrowing than a ghost’s visit might otherwise be.
The line "Despair, and die!" as it appears here also makes significant use of alliteration. The repetition of the "d" sound emphasizes the relentlessness of the ghost's message, and adds to the somber, ominous tone of his words. This alliteration serves to highlight the inevitability of Richard's downfall. It's as if the harsh "d" sound is pounding into Richard, much like the "deadly holes" he inflicted on Henry VI. The repetition of the phrase "[d]espair, and die!” is also frightening, especially as the other ghosts then take it up. They do so a total of eight times, making “[d]espair, and die!” a haunting mantra that underscores Richard's isolation at the end of the play.