Richard III


William Shakespeare

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Richard III: Metaphors 4 key examples

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Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Congeal'd Mouths:

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.

Act 4, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Golden Dew:

In the first Scene of Act 4, Lady Anne reflects upon her marriage to Richard and expresses deep regret. She employs metaphors of cooling dew and golden honey to convey the extent of her misery:

 Within so small a time my woman’s heart
 Grossly grew captive to his honey words
 And proved the subject of mine own soul’s curse,
 Which hitherto hath held ⟨my⟩ eyes from rest,
For never yet one hour in his bed
Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep,
But with his timorous dreams was still awak'd.

Lady Anne’s words in this passage reveal her disappointment, anguish, and sorrow. She speaks of how her heart "grossly grew captive to his honey words," using a metaphor that likens Richard’s persuasive language to honey. His manipulative courtship was sweet at first, but ultimately sticky and ensnaring. His skillful wordplay, which initially worked on her, quickly proved to be false. She also explains that her heart “grossly grew captive" from Richard’s persuasive wooing. Rather than being the pleasant "captivity" of a happy marriage, her language implies a physical sensation of confinement. It highlights her entrapment not only in her marriage, but in her current sleepless and emotional state.

She also refers to sleep using another metaphor, as “golden dew.” This is a lovely and refreshing image of something she now has no access to. Since she started sharing a bed with Richard, she has never slept well. The sticky, golden honey of his words has robbed her of the “golden dew” of sleep.

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Act 4, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Worm of Conscience :

Queen Margaret, filled with bitterness and sorrow, publicly curses Richard and those around him who support him. Her cursing, which centers on the metaphor of a biting parasite, is loaded with foreshadowing for Richard’s incoming troubles. Margaret tells Richard that she hopes

The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul.

Queen Margaret's curse is a dark prophecy. It foreshadows the guilt and mental torment that will consume Richard by Act 5. Although he has previously been able to avoid the emotional consequences of his crimes, the price of his ambition will eventually catch up to him. The curse foreshadows the psychological toll of Richard’s actions. It also hints that his own conscience will eventually become his tormentor. The visceral language of “gnaw” works to intensify the description here. Richard’s conscience won’t be just an annoyance. Like a maggot gnawing at a wound, Margaret's curse implies it’s going to be a persistent and wearing source of pain.

The conscience of a sinner like Richard in this metaphor is depicted as a worm that gnaws incessantly. It eats away at Richard’s soul, causing internal turmoil and agony. When something is being “gnawed” or eaten by worms, it degrades gradually. This mirrors the gradual breakdown of Richard’s psyche as the play progresses. This metaphor also emphasizes the idea that Richard’s conscience, which should have been his guide, will later become his enemy. Instead of leading him in the right direction, it’ll punish him for his crimes.

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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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