Richard III


William Shakespeare

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Richard III: Personification 3 key examples

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Definition of Personification
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down on the wedding guests, indifferent... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Cheated of Feature:

In the first scene of the play, Richard delivers a soliloquy in which he hyperbolizes his own physical ugliness and personifies the abstract concepts of “nature” and “peace”:

 I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
 Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
 Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
[...] Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
 Have no delight to pass away the time,
 Unless to see my shadow in the sun
 And descant on mine own deformity.
 And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
 To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
 I am determinèd to prove a villain
 And hate the idle pleasures of these days

In this passage, Richard uses hyperbole to exaggerate his physical deformities. Because he’s so ugly, he implies, he has all the excuses he could possibly need for his bad behavior and sinister disposition. By stating he was "cheated of feature by dissembling nature," and is “deformed, unfinished [and] sent before my time,” he dramatizes his appearance in order to paint himself as a victim. 

Moreover, her employs personification to make nature itself seem deceptive and cruel. If “dissembling nature” has cheated him out of the “fair proportion” of beauty he feels he deserves, Richard can feel justified in acting immorally. Ascribing malevolent intentions to “nature” allows Richard to frame his evil doings a reactions to the injustice, rather than selfish choices. He depicts nature as an antagonist, personifying it as something that has denied him his rightful form. He also mentions “peace” as if it is an entity with the ability to “pipe.” In this context, “pipe” means to sing or play an instrument weakly and plaintively. He’s implying that “peace” is fragile and weak. Because he can’t “prove a lover” of this time of happiness, he leans into his “own deformity” and resolves to ruin everything, destroying "peace" and subverting "nature."

This soliloquy sets the stage for Richard’s ruthless ambition and the lengths he is willing to go to achieve power. The hyperbolic exaggerations of his physical “deformity” serve as his twisted justification for the villainous path he chooses. 

Act 3, Scene 7
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 1
Explanation and Analysis—Sullen Playfellow:

Elizabeth, the mother of the young princes imprisoned in the Tower of London, delivers a poignant plea to the tower itself. In this passage Shakespeare personifies the Tower, and Elizabeth speaks to it as if it were a person with agency over its actions:

Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes
Whom envy hath immured within your walls—
Rough cradle for such little pretty ones.
Rude ragged nurse, old sullen playfellow
For tender princes, use my babies well.

The Tower of London is a famous prison in the heart of England's capital. Many of the most famous of British traitors and criminals were contained, tried, and executed there. It's given human characteristics because of its fearsome reputation, although in reality it's only a stone structure. In her plea to it to protect her "tender princes," Elizabeth refers to the Tower as both a "nurse" and a "playfellow," imploring it to show "pity." She knows it's only a structure, a "rough cradle" which has no real influence over what happens to her sons. However, in her panic she speaks to the Tower as a sentient being capable of emotions and actions.

Through this personification, Elizabeth conveys her desperation and helplessness. The Tower, being so notorious for its history of imprisonments and executions, is almost a character itself. By calling it a "nurse," albeit a "ragged" and "rude" one, she acknowledges the role it now plays in the lives of her children. This device heightens the emotional intensity and the sense of foreboding the audience is now beginning to feel for the princes. Elizabeth doesn't trust Richard, to the extent that she begs the prison her children are being placed in for mercy, not the man imprisoning them. By addressing the Tower, then, she indirectly addresses the bleak fate that awaits the young King and his brother.

In real historical accounts, the mystery of the "Princes in the Tower" refers to the still-unknown fate of these children, the young Edward V, King of England, and his younger brother Richard of York. The boys were actually lodged in the Tower of London by their uncle Richard, supposedly for their protection. However, they then mysteriously disappeared in the summer of 1483. While Shakespeare makes the case that Richard ordered them to be murdered—then taking the throne for himself—the actual fate of Elizabeth's children is still unknown. In 1674 a box containing two children's skeletons was excavated from underneath a stair in the tower, but it was never conclusively proven that they belonged to Edward and Richard.

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