Richard III


William Shakespeare

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Richard III: Irony 10 key examples

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Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Summer Discontent:

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.”

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. 

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Act 1, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Snow in Harvest:

In Act 1, Scene 4, the First Murderer uses a simile to mock and ironize the Duke of Clarence’s faith in Richard’s kindness. Clarence believes that Richard cares for him, but the Murderer knows otherwise:

O, do not slander him, for he is kind.

Right, as snow in harvest. 
Come, you deceive yourself.

The First Murderer's response employs a simile, comparing Richard's alleged kindness to snow during a harvest. Snow at harvest time would be disastrous for crops, as it would make them wither and freeze. This is the murderer’s way of saying that Richard’s "kindness" is both deadly and non-existent. It’s also a roundabout way of saying that Richard being kind would be impossible or wildly unlikely, just as “snow in harvest” would be.

Shakespeare is also using situational irony in this moment. Clarence is blindly defending Richard’s kindness. He can’t fathom that it is precisely Richard’s malevolence that has brought the Murderers to his door. The audience, privy to Richard’s plotting, perceives the grave danger Clarence is in. Where they might expect Clarence to be suspicious of his younger brother’s actions, the Duke remains steadfast in his belief in Richard’s goodness. This ironic simile serves to highlight how naïve Clarence is, and to show how effective Richard’s plotting and manipulations have been.

It’s also interesting to note here that history has revealed George, Duke of Clarence, to have been a traitor himself. He switched sides many times in the battles between York and Lancaster, and was eventually sentenced to die for treason against his older brother, Edward VI. It’s rumored that—instead of the conventional beheading—he asked to be drowned in a barrel of malmsey, a sweet wine. 

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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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Act 4, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—An Honest Tale:

In this passage, Queen Elizabeth is attempting to fend off Richard's desire to court her daughter. She throws a barb at Richard using verbal irony, hinting that she understands he's trying to deceive her:

An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.

Elizabeth's assertion is laced with verbal irony. On the surface, her statement praises the virtue of honesty and straightforwardness in storytelling. However, the irony here lies in the context. The "tale" being referred to is anything but honest, given Richard's notorious reputation for cunning and deception. This remark is verbally ironic as it creates a stark contrast between the ideal—an honest courtship of her daughter by a good man—and the reality of the situation. Queen Elizabeth knows she isn’t about to hear an "honest tale," because she’s aware of Richard's manipulative and dishonest tendencies.

Elizabeth's use of verbal irony is much more than a casual remark; it is a subtle yet pointed critique of Richard's character. The irony serves to highlight the deceit underlying Richard's actions. It underlines the disparity between his outwardly projected persona and his true nature. Elizabeth is implying, here, that she is aware of the masks he wears to achieve his ends. This statement also demonstrates Elizabeth’s resilience and wit in dealing with his cunning tactics. She knows that, because of her vulnerable position and the fact that she's a woman, calling him out directly might be disastrous. Because of this, she hides her insults behind innocuous proverbs.

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Act 5, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Have Mercy, Jesu!:

Just before the Battle of Bosworth Field comes a powerful scene where Richard experiences a prophetic nightmare. The words he utters when he wakes are both situationally ironic and dense with foreshadowing:

Richard starteth up out of a dream.

RICHARD: Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds! Have mercy, Jesu!—

This plea is dripping with situational irony. Richard, a character notorious for his ruthlessness and disregard for human life, now finds himself pleading for mercy. Throughout the play, Richard has been a character defined by his lack of compassion. His cold and calculating demeanor, coupled with his merciless acts of violence, paints him as a man devoid of empathy. Yet, in this moment, the tables are turned. Richard’s own desperation and helplessness mirror the very emotions of those he tormented. It is ironic that he, who showed no mercy, seeks it so fervently now. His plea is also religious in nature, invoking Jesus for help. As Richard’s actions comprise many "mortal sins"—acts for which one would be damned without sincere repentance and restitution—crying out for Jesus at this point seems pathetically pointless. He defied all religious morals and disregarded all cries for mercy directed toward him, but he reaches for divine comfort when he's afraid.

The scene also explicitly foreshadows what is coming for Richard at Bosworth Field. His plea for a horse and for his wounds to be bound is immediately mirrored in the battlefield scene that follows this nightmare. The play makes use of several moments of supernatural warning, so Richard dreaming of his own death doesn’t seem all that unusual. However, his unraveling is indicative of the fall that is to come. His cry for mercy, from human or divine sources, remains unheeded, much like the cries of those he wronged. This call for "mercy, Jesu!" sets the stage for the approaching poetic justice of Richard's defeat and death.

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Act 5, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—A Horse!:

In Act 5, Scene 4 of Richard III, a wet and miserable scene unfolds that’s packed with situational irony. Richard—a character who throughout the play is depicted as cunning, ruthless, and power-hungry—finds himself in a dire situation on the battlefield. On foot and vulnerable in the mud, he cries out:

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

The gravity of the situation is profound, which makes the irony it contains seem even more acute. Richard schemed, betrayed, and murdered in his quest for the throne. His ambition knew no bounds, and his thirst for power was unquenchable. He would have, it seems, done anything to get and then retain his “kingdom.” However, he's losing a vital battle and is about to lose his kingdom. He’s in such a vulnerable state in this scene that he is now willing to trade that very kingdom for a horse in order to stay alive.

Richard’s cry illuminates how the tides have turned. His own life is now hanging by a thread. While it’s unlikely that he would have actually honored the trade if someone had offered him a horse, the fact that he’d make the offer illustrates the change in his fortunes. Without a horse, he’s very likely to die on the battlefield. On a horse, he’s somewhat protected and can move quickly. On the ground, he’s reduced to the position of a common soldier and has no means of escape.

A kingdom that he won through enormous effort and sacrifice could now be lost for lack of a horse. For a man whose life was dominated by the quest for a throne, the throne itself becomes insignificant in his hour of need. The situation is ironic, but it's also an example of Shakespeare’s brand of poetic justice. Richard, who would stop at nothing to win the crown, is about to die because he’s on the ground instead of on horseback. 

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