Is this Shakespeare’s most incredible scene?

Shakespeare’s Richard III  is one of those “have you been paying attention” plays.

Trouble is you need to have been paying attention throughout the entire chronicle known as the history plays, often performed as the Hollow Crown. 

It begins with Richard II where King Richard is deposed by Henry Bolingbroke. The reasons are complex (you need to read the play). But it does help to remember what happens from here on is really like a rather murderous Christmas Day with a lot of rellies who really hate each other fighting it out to the death over the neat 30 odd years.

Now, deposing a king is pretty serious stuff, Kings being appointed by God and all that. To say nothing of wounded family pride as result of the kids being cut out of the family inheritance.

So what happens is that after Bolingbroke, who was pretty good king as Henry IV, you had his son who was also a pretty good king as Henry V. But after him, Henry VI wasn’t much good and the Wars of the Roses start.

When the dust settles, the House of York has defeated the House of Lancaster and Richard’s elder brother Edward is on the throne.

It has been pretty clear from the previous plays that both of Richard’s two older brothers Edward and Clarence are not much chop. But they’re both older than Richard and when the war is over, it is Edward who becomes King and Clarence who is next in line.  And Richard is far from gruntled by this particular arrangement.

You may remember

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

By the end of the first Scene, it is clear that Richard has pretty much stitched poor old Clarence up.  He is in the Tower and his ailing brother, King Edward, all suspects he’s plotting against him.

And then Richard says

 For then I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter.
What though I kill’d her husband and her father?

The lady of whom he speaks is the exceptionally beautiful Lady Anne Neville – widow of Edward of Westminster, who was also the Prince of Wales and son of King Henry VI.


Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Anne

 What follows is an extraordinary scene where Richard convinces a woman, who is grieving the death of her husband (whom Richard has killed) and who is escorting the corpse of her father-in-law (whom Richard has also killed), to marry him.

And so

Enter Lady Anne, with the corpse of her father-in-law the late King Henry VI.  She is pretty upset, particularly with Richard.


Anne: Cursed be the hand that made these fatal holes!
Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!

Richard comes on stage and the corpse begins to bleed again

Anne: Blush, Blush, thou lump of foul deformity;
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins, where no blood dwells;
Thy deed, inhuman and unnatural,
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.
O God, which this blood madest, revenge his death!
O earth, which this blood drink’st revenge his death!

Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man:
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

But slowly and surely and incredibly Richard begins to persuade her.

Richard: More wonderful, when angels are so angry.
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,
Of these supposed-evils, to give me leave,
By circumstance, but to acquit myself.

Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.

And then Richard takes the first step in the seduction of Anne

Richard: I did not kill your husband.

Anne: In thy foul throat thou liest: Queen Margaret saw
Thy murderous falchion smoking in his blood;
The which thou once didst bend against her breast,
But that thy brothers beat aside the point.

Richard: I was provoked by her slanderous tongue,
which laid their guilt upon my guiltless shoulders.

Anne: Didst thou not kill this king? 

Richard: I grant ye.

Richard knows that he has won a concession from Anne. He has got her to accept  the possibility that his brother Edward may have killed husband. It’s the thin end of the wedge.

Then comes a dazzling exchange that typifies Richard’s cynical black humour

Anne: O, he was gentle, mild, and virtuous!

Richard: The fitter for the King of heaven, that hath him.

Anne: He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.

Richard: Let him thank me, that holp to send him thither;
For he was fitter for that place than earth.

Anne: And thou unfit for any place but hell.

Richard: Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.

Anne: Some dungeon.

Richard: Your bed-chamber.

Anne: I’ll rest betide the chamber where thou liest!

Richard: So will it, madam till I lie with you.

Anne: I hope so.

Richard knows that he is winning. Anne is listening, she is arguing and she is losing. And then comes a pivotal point of the argument.

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

Your beauty was the cause of that effect;
Your beauty: which did haunt me in my sleep
To undertake the death of all the world,
So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.

But then, Anne seems to be slipping away and becoming interested in revenge for the death of her husband. Richard stakes all on a last roll of the dice. He hands Anne his sword and offers to let her stab him. It is not without its dangers.

If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,
Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword;
Which if thou please to hide in this true bosom.
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,
I lay it naked to the deadly stroke,
And humbly beg the death upon my knee.


When Anne says

Arise, dissembler: though I wish thy death,
I will not be the executioner.

Richard knows he has won.  And he proceeds to take control of the domestic and funeral arrangements.

Vouchsafe to wear this ring.
Look, how this ring encompasseth finger.
Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart;

But beg one favour at thy gracious hand,
Thou dost confirm his happiness for ever.

That it would please thee leave these sad designs
To him that hath more cause to be a mourner,
And presently repair to Crosby Place;

Richard is fairly dancing with glee after Anne has left the stage.

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.

Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass,
And entertain some score or two of tailors,
To study fashions to adorn my body:
Since I am crept in favour with myself,
Will maintain it with some little cost.

This last part of Richard’s final speech highlights the difficulty and the challenges for both the actors and the director.

The scene needs to be played with considerable sexual tension between Richard and Anne otherwise it is simply not going to work.  Yet there needs to be credibility in Anne’s grief for the death of her husband and father-in-law.

So Richard needs to be relatively attractive. During the scene, Anne refers to him as a hedgehog and as a toad, figuratively speaking of course but hardly terms of sexual endearment, so the actor playing Anne needs to tread a very fine line. It scenes like this make Richard III one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

Antony Sher’s portrayal must have made this particularly difficult. He is probably the least attractive Richard in recent memory.  I think I saw this version live in the Royal Shakespeare came to Melbourne. I don’t remember this particular scene but have always been fascinated by its improbability on one hand and the fact that it works on the other.


But that’s Shakespeare.

Richard III and winning at villainy: just be smarter than everyone else

When Richard takes the audience by the sleeve and  announces in the opening scene of Richard III


Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:

This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.


The audience is left wondering, “Surely it can’t be that simple?” But here comes Clarence, under guard. Why?

Because my name is George.

(The king) hearkens after prophecies and dreams;
And from the cross-row plucks the letter G.
And says a wizard told him that by G
His issue disinherited should be;

Richard is all sympathy, promising to intercede with the King. Poor Clarence, believing his brother, is taken off to the Tower. When he is gone, Richard turns to the audience and says

Go, tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return.
Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so,
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,
If heaven will take the present at our hands.

The subtext is “See, I told you so, it’s so simple.”

Richard III – Shakespeare’s greatest villain sets the scene

Shakespeare’s plays usually start well. But none as well as Richard III. Macbeth comes close with the three witches.

Many of his plays begin prologue of some sort, Henry V starts pretty tamely with a chorus. Often it’s couple of lords or a couple of clowns strolling about giving a bit of background.

Richard is his own prologue and he doesn’t pull any punches. He leaves no one, himself included unscathed.

Richard coils and then launches himself headlong at the audience,


Antony Sher as Richard III

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

What actor would not kill for these lines?

And if you’ve been paying attention, particularly through Henry VI  Parts 1, 2 and 3 you’d know that this “sun of York”, Edward IV,  was not capable of creating glorious summers. It was his second shot at being king and he wasn’t particularly good at it.  if you had watched the BBC’s wonderful production of The Hollow Crown  you would have seen the young Richard played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

He is watching his elders and betters, particularly the Earl of Warwick known as the Kingmaker, as they fought their way through the Wars of the Roses.  Warwick shepherded Edward onto the throne.

Stanley Townsend as the Earl of Warwick

He had his doubts but Edward was next in line.

All along Richard must’ve been thinking, “I’m better than this lot.” when peace came, Richard has his chance.

Richard makes no attempt to conceal his sarcasm and contempt for this glorious summer where

Grim-visaged war….instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
…. capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

And Shakespeare’s Richard is not cut out for the times

Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

And so Richard sets the scene

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain

And when he says that aim of his villainy is to

To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:

the Elizabeth audience would have no doubt that Richard is setting out to be king and he is inviting the audience along for the ride.



Richard II and the nature of kingship (ii)

The case against Richard

In the first half of Richard II, Richard has demonstrated quite clearly that he is not a good king. In abrogating the property rights of the banished Bolingbroke, he has left his own claim to the Crown open to challenge.

There have been some good bad King Richards


 Ian Mckellen

untitled 2.jpeg

 Jeremy Irons

 Both beautiful, effete, delicate and doomed.

No sooner has he seized Bolingbroke’s lands, that Richard’s troubles begin.  With typical dramatic economy Shakespeare has Northumberland outlining the case against Richard as soon as he has left the stage.

No good at all that I can do for him;
Unless you call it good to pity him,
Bereft and gelded of his patrimony.

Northumberland: Now, afore God, ’tis shame such wrongs are borne
In him, a royal prince, and many moe
Of noble blood in this declining land.
The king is not himself, but basely led
By flatterers; and what they will inform,
Merely in hate, ‘gainst any of us all,
That will the king severely prosecute
‘Gainst us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.

And daily new exactions are devised

The Earl of Wiltshire hath the realm in farm

The king’s grown bankrupt, like a broken man

The nature of the usurper

No one is safe from Richard’s depredations and Bolingbroke will provide a lightning rod.  Richard’s problems are compounded by the fact that Bolingbroke possesses all the qualities that Richard lacks.


Once Bolingbroke returns to England, there is an inexorable shift of power away from Richard and we witness a personal tragedy of a man who would be king but who has none of the qualities that would make him king.

In Act II Sc iii we see Bolingbroke,  who is a marked contrast to the overweening king of the opening scenes of the play. It is no wonder that the nobles are flocking to him. Young Percy comes to meet his father who is travel telling with Bolingbroke.

Have you forgot the Duke of Hereford, boy?

Percy: No, my good lord, for that is not forgot
Which ne’er I did remember: to my knowledge,
I never in my life did look on him.

Then learn to know him now; this is the duke.

Percy: My gracious lord, I tender you my service,
Such as it is, being tender, raw and young:
Which elder days shall ripen and confirm
To more approved service and desert.

Bolingbroke: I thank thee, gentle Percy; and be sure
I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends;
And, as my fortune ripens with thy love,
It shall be still thy true love’s recompense:
My heart this covenant makes, my hand thus seals it.

The insurgency and York’s dilemma

Hard on Percy’s heels comes the Regent, the Duke of York, Bolingbroke’s uncle. He is in a difficult position. It is his duty, as Regent to defend Richard’s crown against Bolingbroke who is essentially a rebel having been banished.  But he is not happy with what Richard has done in seizing Gaunt’s land and dispossessing Bolingbroke.


And has told Richard so

Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?
Now, afore God–God forbid I say true!–
If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights,
Call in the letters patent that he hath
By his attorneys-general to sue
His livery, and deny his offer’d homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts
And prick my tender patience, to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.

but when Bolingbrook kneels before him York says with dark humour

Tut, tut!
Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle:
I am no traitor’s uncle; and that word ‘grace.’
In an ungracious mouth is but profane.
Why have those banish’d and forbidden legs
Dared once to touch a dust of England’s ground?
But then more ‘why?’ why have they dared to march
So many miles upon her peaceful bosom,
Frighting her pale-faced villages with war
And ostentation of despised arms?
Comest thou because the anointed king is hence?
Why, foolish boy, the king is left behind,
And in my loyal bosom lies his power.

Bolingbroke puts his case succinctly

As I was banish’d, I was banish’d Hereford;
But as I come, I come for Lancaster.

If that my cousin king be King of England,
It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster.

And therefore, personally I lay my claim
To my inheritance of free descent.

York has neither military power nor the will to resist

Things past redress are now with me past care.

When the Welsh desert Richard, he has no military power with which to resist Bolingbroke.  If there is one thing that Richard II makes clear, it is that  military might makes a king. There are other qualities and Bolingbroke possesses almost all of them but first and foremost is military power.


Richard II and the nature of kingship (i)

Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3 and Richard III are studies in what it is be king. They do not provide a picture of what a king should be but rather of what kings, both good and bad, are like.

The plays, termed The Hollow Crown in the superb BBC productions, examine the events in the period before and including the Wars of the Roses.

The first play in the series is Richard II where the actions of the main character set in motion the events  of the next seven plays.

The play opens with Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, both accusing each other of high treason. Bolingbroke is more specific, accusing Mowbray of misappropriating money meant to pay his soldiers and of involvement in the murder of Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester.

The opening scene is important in establishing the relationship between Richard and his nobles.  If one thing becomes clear from the history plays it is that for the king to maintain his grip on power, he must have the loyalty of the nobility and that of his blood relations, the most powerful dukes.

The staging of the opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the play.  It is important to give the impression that this is a dispute beyond Richard’s ability to resolve or control.

On one hand, we have Richard, effeminate and gorgeously dressed.


Ben Whishaw as Richard in The Hollow Crown

 On the other, we have Bolingbrook and Mowbray. The contrast could not be sharper.


 Bolingbrook (Rory Kinnear) and Mowbray (James Purefoy).

In a world where the king needed to rule with the support of his nobles, these two would  be part of Richard’s loyal supporters. They are two the most powerful men in the nation and Bolingbrook is Richard’s nephew.  Their loyalty to him is seen in their acquiescence to his judgement in Act 1, Sc 3.

After the two state their cases against each other, Richard says

Richard: Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me;
Let’s purge this choler without letting blood:
This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision;
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed;
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.
Good uncle, let this end where it begun;
We’ll calm the Duke of Norfolk, you your son.

It’s a glib statement made worse by the flippancy of Our doctors say this is no month to bleed. Richard simply doesn’t understand the gravity of this situation.

The two men defy Richard and his attempts to broker a peace and remain obdurate in their hatred of each other. Unable to resolve the dispute, Richard ends the meeting in the only way open to him.

Richard: We were not born to sue, but to command;
Which since we cannot do to make you friends,
Be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry, upon Saint Lambert’s day:
There shall your swords and lances arbitrate
The swelling difference of your settled hate:
Since we can not atone you, we shall see
Justice design the victor’s chivalry.
Lord marshal, command our officers at arms
Be ready to direct these home alarms.

But there are tensions underlying Act 1 Sc i that become clearer in the next scene between Duchess of Gloucester, the widow of the murdered Thomas of Woodstock, and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Bolingbroke’s father.


Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt

Both know that Richard has been complicit in the murder of which Mowbray is accused.

Gaunt refuses to take action against the king  and in doing so outlines the Divine Right of Kings: Richard is God’s deputy and God, not men, will judge him.

Gaunt: Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven;
Who, when they see the hours ripe on earth,
Will rain hot vengeance on offenders’ heads.

Duchess: Finds brotherhood in thee no sharper spur?
Hath love in thy old blood no living fire?……… to safeguard thine own life,
The best way is to venge my Gloucester’s death.

Gaunt: God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death: the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.

When matters come to a head in Coventry, the contrast between the feuding nobles and Richard is again emphasised.

B and M.jpeg

Richard’s insignificance and impotence in the face of the antagonism between his two  powerful subjects is clear. It is in this scene that the seeds of Richard’s downfall are sown.

Richard allows the ceremonies and formalities of the challenge and the combat to proceed and then he drops a bombshell.

Richard: Draw near,
And list what with our council we have done.
For that our kingdom’s earth should not be soil’d
With that dear blood which it hath fostered;

Therefore, we banish you our territories:
You, cousin Hereford, upon pain of life,
Till twice five summers have enrich’d our fields
Shall not regreet our fair dominions,
But tread the stranger paths of banishment.

Norfolk, for thee remains a heavier doom…..
The hopeless word of ‘never to return’
Breathe I against thee, upon pain of life.

After Mowbray leaves, there is another change of heart from Richard.

To Gaunt Uncle, even in the glasses of thine eyes
I see thy grieved heart: thy sad aspect
Hath from the number of his banish’d years
Pluck’d four away.

To  Bolingbroke Six frozen winter spent,
Return with welcome home from banishment.

Gaunt thanks the King but he knows that he will not live to see his son return.

Gaunt: My oil-dried lamp and time-bewasted light
Shall be extinct with age and endless night;
My inch of taper will be burnt and done,
And blindfold death not let me see my son.

Richard: Why uncle, thou hast many years to live.

Gaunt: But not a minute, king, that thou canst give:
Shorten my days thou canst with sullen sorrow,
And pluck nights from me, but not lend a morrow;

It’s an ironic warning from Gaunt. There are limits even to a king’s power and Richard is about to make a catastrophic misjudgment that will make those limits even clearer.

As he plans to suppress the rebellion in Ireland, Richard receives news that John of Gaunt is dying. Gaunt’s death will present Richard with an excellent opportunity to finance the expedition to Ireland.

Richard: Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let’s all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!

In Act II Sc i, Richard visits the dying Gaunt who upbraids the young king for his profligacy concluding:

Gaunt: Landlord of England art thou now, not king:
Thy state of law is bondslave to the law; And thou–

Richard is not impressed

Richard: A lunatic lean-witted fool…..
Wert thou not brother to great Edward’s son,
This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head
Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.

When Gaunt dies, Richard makes the final mistake that will ultimately loose him the Crown.

Richard: Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, corn, revenues and moveables,
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d.

The Duke of York is outraged. Gaunt’s land and titles should rightly go to  his son, the banished Bolingbroke.


David Suchet as The Duke of York

York: If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights….
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts
And prick my tender patience, to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.

Richard is unmoved and unrepentant,

Richard: Think what you will, we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money and his lands.

York’s argument is that by the law of primogeniture Bolingbroke is Gaunt’s legal heir. The thoughts which honour and allegiance cannot think are that Richard himself is king because his father was king before him. It’s a social contract that York, Gaunt, Bolingbroke and Mowbray have entered into. If Richard breaks this contract by seizing Gaunt’s lands, then his claims to the throne are similarly open to challenge.

The plotting begins immediately.


David Morissey as Northumberland

 Northumberland: Well, lords, the Duke of Lancaster is dead.

And living too; for now his son is duke.

Willoughby: Barely in title, not in revenue.

Northumberland: Richly in both, if justice had her right.

Now, afore God, ’tis shame such wrongs are borne
In him, a royal prince, and many moe
Of noble blood in this declining land.
The king is not himself, but basely led
By flatterers; …
‘Gainst us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.

Then thus: I have received intelligence
That Harry Duke of Hereford….
With eight tall ships, three thousand men of war,
Are making hither with all due expedience
And shortly mean to touch our northern shore:

With the imminent return of Bolingbroke, the first half of the argument about the nature of kingship has been established.

The King rules through right of inheritance, the crown passes from father to son.This is true throughout the kingdom most acutely through inheritance of the great estates, the Dukedoms. It is this set of allegiances and contracts that established political rule and stability in mediaeval England. Once one person’s right to their inheritance is abrogated, no one, not even the King, is safe.

When Richard seized John Gaunt’s lands, he put in jeopardy the fundamental bond between King and subject: Loyalty is given where protection of right is guaranteed.  By this line of argument, Richard’s actions justify Bolingbroke’s rebellion.

Initially, Bolingbroke will protest that he only returns to reclaim what is rightfully his, the Dukedom of Lancaster.

The remainder of the play examines how Bolingbroke’s original intentions broadened to include seizing the Crown and the counterargument, put by Richard, that nothing justifies rebellion against God’s lawfully appointed king.


The Hollow Crown: 1 Henry IV – Hal and Hotspur

Henry IV, Pt 1 is a play in two parts. The first is concerned with the world of civil rebellion that will ultimately lead to the Wars of the Roses. This is the world of King Henry VI and Harry Percy. The second part is centred around the Boar’s Head Tavern where Falstaff, the Lord of Misrule reigns with Hal and their companies, Poins, Peto, Gadshill, Bardolph.

The play moves back and forth between these two worlds with scenes from one intercut with scenes of the other. It’s a simple technique and helps define the fundamental tension between the views of the two young protagonists, Prince Hal and Harry Percy. It is this tension which holds the two parts of the play together.

For King Henry comparisons between the valiant and victorious Hotspur and his own son are inevitable. He wishes that he had son like Hotspur

Henry: Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is Theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

Act I Sc i

At the beginning of the play, the comparisons are obvious and odious. While Hotspur is eating Scots for breakfast, Prince Hal is involved in quite different activities, most noticeably with Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and  Doll Tearsheet at the Boar’s Head.


Maxine Peake as Doll Tearsheet, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff, Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly 

Hal’s world is the anarchic underworld of riot drunkenness and debauchery where Falstaff is the King and Hal his Crown Prince. While Hotspur is in the north leading his armies against the rebellious Scots to ensure the stability of the realm, Falstaff, Hal and their companions are out robbing wealthy pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and whoring their way through Cheapside.

Shakespeare does not draw these two charismatic characters purely in black and white terms. While the brave Hotspur is shouldering the responsibility of keeping the kingdom safe, there is also an element of foolhardy pride in the man that ultimately makes fatal his lack of judgment.

His decision not to surrender his hostages to King Henry brings matters to a head when he is summonsed to court to account for his behaviour. Neither the King nor Hotspur are in the mood to compromise.

Henry: My Lord Northumberland,
We licence your departure with your son.
Send us your prisoners, or you will hear of it.

Exeunt King Henry, Blunt, and train

Hotspur: An if the devil come and roar for them,
I will not send them: I will after straight
And tell him so; for I will ease my heart,
Albeit I make a hazard of my head.

Northumberland: What, drunk with choler? stay and pause awhile:
Here comes your uncle

Jo and Alun.jpg

In a stroke of genius, the BBC has the Percys played by a father and son Alun and Joe Armstrong.

With this brief outburst, Hotspur shows the intemperate rage governs most his relations with friends and enemies alike. He’s a brave man and a good soldier but completely incapable of governing himself.

At the heart of this conflict is Henry’s refusal to ransom Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, Hotspur’s brother-in-law but more importantly the man Richard II, whom Henry deposed, named as his successor.

Worcester: I cannot blame him: was not he proclaim’d
By Richard that dead is the next of blood?

Northumberland: He was; I heard the proclamation:

It is a world where the politics are complex, a mixture of dynastic ambition and long-held grievance.  You need to keep your wits about you to survive. Throughout the play, Shakespeare demonstrates that for all his qualities, this is something that Hotspur cannot do. In his dealings with Owen Glendower, the powerful Welsh warlord and important ally to the rebel cause, Hotspur demonstrates a lack of tact and diplomacy that is necessary to hold rebellions together.

  On a different planet, Prince Hal inhabits a world dominated by Shakespeare’s greatest comic character, Falstaff.  It is also a world completely untouched by the politics and internecine feuds of the Plantagenet’s.  Because he is the heir apparent, Hal (and companions) are able to live and play with complete disregard of the law and of the consequences of their actions.  For all that, they are immensely good fun and much better company than Harry Percy would ever be.

And while Hal is the epitome of irresponsibility, Hiddleston’s portrayal in the BBC series  The Hollow Crown is not one-dimensional and throughout the early scenes of Henry IV part 1, there are moments of detachment from the riot of the Boar’s Head that foreshadow the later Hal.

Hal: I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

In Act II Sc iv, Hal and Falstaff act out a scene where Hal’s father interrogates the Prince about the companions he keeps. It is a brilliantly comic scene, with Hal and Falstaff swapping roles. Finally, Falstaff pleads his case to the king, played by Hal. In four lines, Shakespeare captures central core of the play.


 Falstaff: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Hal I do, I will.

Whatever the impact is on Falstaff, it is not seen by the audience as the scene is interrupted by the Sheriff who comes looking for the man who robbed the pilgrims.

However, this scene looks forward to the famous Act IV Sc v, where the newly-crowned Henry V rejects his old companions.

Henry V: I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. 
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester! 
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man, 
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane; 
But being awak’d, I do despise my dream.

Throughout the play, there is an element of Hal that is dispassionate, calculating and constantly detached in his relationship with Falstaff. At no point, does the audience get the impression that Hal does not see Falstaff in his true light, good company but ultimately a drunken petty criminal, a fraudster and a liar.


And certainly not fit for the company for a King.

Programme Name: The Hollow Crown - TX: n/a - Episode: Henry IV Part 2 (No. Henry IV Part 2) - Embargoed for publication until: n/a - Picture Shows: Henry V (Tom Hiddleston) - (C) Neal Street Productions - Photographer: Joss Barratt

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Pts 1 and 2 – background and synopsis

There is argument to be made that Shakespeare’s history plays constitute one of his greatest achievements. While no single play in this series equals any of the great tragedies, the Histories constitute a sustained and coherent body of work that addressed a central political issue of Shakespeare’s time.

The issue concerned nature and legitimacy of political power.  Even the last of the Tudors, Elizabeth, could not be certain of her hold on the throne. The political  and religious wounds that had been opened by her father Henry continued during her reign and that of sister Mary.

tudors.jpgThe Tudors: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I

 The Histories cover the period up to and including the Wars of the Roses. In all there are eight key plays: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI, Part 1, 2 and 3, Richard III. They cover the period 1380 – 1487 and include the time when the warring families of the Plantagenets waged a bloody war for the English crown.


Richard II and Richard III: bookends for the Histories

By the time Shakespeare began writing the histories, the last of the Tudors, Elizabeth, had been on the throne for 30 years.  There has been much written and said about Shakespeare’s motives for writing the Histories but there is little hard evidence to suggest that he was endeavouring to curry favour with Elizabeth by justifying the Tudor dynasty.  Indeed, a careful reading of the plays would indicate that they are almost totally free of any value judgements on this internecine conflict.

In Richard II, the exiled Henry Bolingbrook returned to England ostensibly to reclaim his dukedom but in effect to depose Richard. Henry IV, Pts 1 and 2 explores the effects of the deposition of Richard and Henry’s tenuous grip on the crown.

 There are two main and related stories in Henry IV, Pts 1 and 2, linked by the common theme of disorder in the body politic.  

The first is the story of the young Prince Hal, played, in the outstanding BBC series The Hollow Crown, by Tom Hiddleston.  Hal has rejected life in his father’s court in favour of the company at the Boar’s Head Tavern run by Mistress Nell Quickly.


Maxine Peake (Doll Tearsheet), Hal, Simon Russell Beale (Falstaff), Julie Walters (Mistress Quickly) 

The second story involves Hal’s father Henry played by Jeremy Irons.


Henry is struggling, not only with declining health and the fact that his eldest son is, to all appearances, a useless wastrel, but also with and insurrection of the northern Lords, led by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and his son Harry Percy also known as Hotspur.  In a stroke of genius, the BBC has the Percys played by a father and son Alun and Joe Armstrong.


Matters quickly come to a head for the ageing and ailing Henry when Hotspur, who has been victorious in a war against the Scots on Henry’s behalf, refuses to hand over his prisoners for Henry to ransom.

Reprimanded by the King, Northumberland and Harry Percy go North to raise a rebellious army.


The King and Prince Hal meet them in a battle where Hal kills Hotspur.


Much of the two plays is given over to Hal’s time with his companions at the Boars Head. It’s excellent, material dominated by one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, Falstaff who also figures in the wars between Henry and the rebels were his natural cowardice is exposed.

It is during these wars that Prince Hal begins to grow into the man who will become Henry V.henryv_closeup

It is Shakespeare at his myth-making best and it is worth remembering that much of what we understand of Henry V today is derived from his portrayal in the history plays.

The Almeida production of Richard III

Rupert Goold’s new production of Richard III will rank alongside the best of modern times: those of McKellen, Sher and Olivier.

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Credit for this goes to his leading actor Ralph Fiennes who invests a terrible misogyny in Richard’s ruthless and destructive ambition.  If there is a criticism of Fiennes’ performance it is that he downplays the sardonic humour inherent in the role. Richard is a man for whom there is no place in the world of peace and harmony.

Richard: And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

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 I can add colours to the chameleon

 As he bullies, murders and manipulates his way to the throne, it is Richard’s attitude towards the women in the play that is the most shocking. This is clear in the text when he dispatches his first wife Anne, whom he seduces in the second scene of the play.


Anne is played by Joanna Vanderham

But this production departs from tradition in the scene where Richard informs his dead brother Edward’s wife Elizabeth that he would marry her daughter. To emphasise the new order of things now that he is king, he rapes her.


Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth

It is a brutal and shocking scene but this production makes quite clear why women like Anne and Elizabeth are so compliant to Richard’s wishes. They are deeply fearful of what he will do to their loved ones if they do not do as he wishes.

This production delineates the relationships between Richard and the other male members of the Court most clearly.  The court is deeply divided as is made clear in the scene where the dying Edward endeavours to reconcile his wife’s relatives with the other members of the court, in particular Buckingham played with rigid uprightness by Finbar Lynch.

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The only thing that unifies the court is a hatred of Richard. Buckingham however, decides to align himself with Richard and he becomes Richard’s chief executioner.  As time goes by, Buckingham realises the price one pays for being too close to Richard and the executioner becomes the executed.

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Throughout the play, Richard never does his own dirty work. It is delegated down through the chain of command, to Buckingham, to Catesby, to Ratcliffe, to Tyrell or the two murderers. In part, this is what makes Richard so fascinating. No one will oppose him. It is not until Richmond returns with his army that the tide begins to turn against Richard.


Richard is a unique tragic hero, if he could be called a hero at all. Unlike Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet or Lear, there is no element of the fallen noble character in him. He is irredeemably evil, much like Iago or even Iachimo. Consequently, the actor playing Richard need to make no attempt to enlist the audience’s sympathy.  In many ways, this makes the actor’s task rather more easy. While role requires tremendous energy, it does not need to be nuanced in any way.

So when the end and retribution come, there is a sense that the ghosts of Richard’s victims who visit him before the Battle of Bosworth, will finally be at peace.


The difficult aspect of any production of Richard III is the women in the play: Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, Anne, the Duchess of York and Margaret Plantagenet. The first problem is that there are so many of them and they are not particularly well differentiated because they all hate Richard with a passion and for pretty much the same reason. He has killed one of their husbands or sons.

Another of the problems is that the family relationships are pretty tangled. For instance, Margaret Plantagenet is the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard, and is in her grandmother the Duchess of York’s keeping after Clarence’s arrest. 

One of the most interesting of the women is Queen Margaret, played in this production by the 78 year old Vanessa Redgrave.

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Margaret is the widow of King Henry VI. Richard has killed her husband in battle and murdered her son.

She comes onstage wearing a boiler suit and carrying a doll. Why a doll?  Grieving for a lost child? Perhaps. It makes her look slightly mad but there is nothing in Redgrave’s gently modulated delivery of Margaret that gives any hint of insanity. It’s a beautifully controlled performance.  And the boiler suit!  She is an ex-Queen for heaven’s sake. It wouldn’t hurt to make her regal and dignified in her grief.

The scenes between Richard and his mother, the Duchess of York, are fascinating to watch. We need to be aware that she is bowed down by the grief of the death of her son Edward IV and by the knowledge that Edward has ordered the death of her other son Clarence, probably at the prompting of her other son, Richard. She has also had a fractious relationship with Richard for all of his life and exchanges between the two are bitter and vitriolic.

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 The Duchess of York and Queen Margaret: little in common except a hatred of Richard

Like most modern productions, this one is in contemporary dress. This makes some of the executions seem harrowingly relevant.

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However, the execution of Hastings is done by more traditional means.  This allows for a chilling scene where Richard comes in and licks the blood from the block. This is surely the most monstrous Richard.


 The mixture of modern and traditional dress is a quibble. But it’s also an annoyance. Modern and traditional dress both work. The mixture probably doesn’t work quite so well.

 Then there are the opening and closing scenes of the play. They are taken from a car park where the remains of Richard have recently been discovered. A team of archaeologists is busy digging up his skeleton.

 It’s a distraction. There is no connection between the play and the discovery Richard’s remains. It doesn’t add “relevance” to the play. If you can’t see the relevance of this play by sitting in theatre, you probably shouldn’t attend.

 One of the tremendous strengths of this production is the way the play has been brought to the screen. The camera work is superb and the stage at Almeida has been used to tremendous advantage.


 This is a magnificent production anchored by a stellar performer Ralph Fiennes.


Richard III: understanding the play

Richard III is the last of the eight history plays: Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1,2 and 3 and finally Richard III.


If you really want to understand Richard III, it helps to read the preceding seven plays. They cover the Wars of the Roses which were fought between supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet, those of Lancaster and York.

The trouble started when Richard II (of the house of York) banished Henry Bolingbrook (of the house of Lancaster) , later Henry IV. Bolingbrook returned from exile and deposed Richard, breaking what many considered to be the natural line of succession. From then on it was on for one and all.

At the beginning of Richard III, Edward IV of the House of York has been restored to the throne with the deaths of Lancastrian King Henry VI and his son Edward Prince of Wales dispatched by Richard, Duke of York. In the final scene of Henry VI Part iii,  Richard presages the opening scene of Richard III  with a soliloquy over Edward’s dead body

Richard:  The midwife wonder’d and the women cried
‘O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!’
And so I was; which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.

Clarence, beware; thou keep’st me from the light:
But I will sort a pitchy day for thee;
For I will buz abroad such prophecies
That Edward shall be fearful of his life, 3085
And then, to purge his fear, I’ll be thy death.
King Henry and the prince his son are gone:
Clarence, thy turn is next, and then the rest,
Counting myself but bad till I be best.

The opening scene of Richard III must be the most remarkable entrances of a villain in all of English literature.  Richard carries on with all his venom and self-loathing from where he left off in Henry VI.

Richard:  Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. 5
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days, 30
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king 35
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up.

In what follows, Richard provides a masterclass in ruthless Machiavellian politics and Shakespeare portrays a towering murderous psychopath whose only motivation is the exercise of power and degradation of others. Richard wants to be king but his brother Edward is on the throne, Edward has two sons (Edward and Richard) and Richard has an elder brother (Clarence). That puts him fourth in line.

He is also opposed by members of the royal court. These are kinsman and allies of the king’s wife Lords Dorset, Rivers, and Gray. They also constitute obstacles to the Crown. He must bustle.

In the second scene of the play, we see Richard in full flight. He encounters the grieving Lady Anne bearing the coffin of her husband Edward whom Richard had murdered.  She is the first of many women in the play to attack Richard in the foulest of terms.

Lady Anne: Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man:
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity

Vouchsafe, defused infection of a man,
For these known evils, but to give me leave,
By circumstance, to curse thy cursed self.

Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make
No excuse current, but to hang thyself.

Towards the scene and in a remarkable act of daring, Richard offers Anne his sword

Richard: And humbly beg the death upon my knee.
[He lays his breast open: she offers at it with his sword]
Nay, do not pause; for I did kill King Henry,
But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me.
Nay, now dispatch; ’twas I that stabb’d young Edward,
But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.
[Here she lets fall the sword]
Take up the sword again, or take up me.

Anne: Arise, dissembler: though I wish thy death,
I will not be the executioner.

Before the end of the scene, he has symbolically placed a ring on her finger.

After Anne leaves Richard exalts.

Richard: Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.
What! I, that kill’d her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by;
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I nothing to back my suit at all,
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabb’d in my angry mood at Tewksbury?

It is, in many ways, one of the most inexplicable scenes in all Shakespeare. Even Richard himself cannot believe it but we see it unfolding before our very eyes and every step is credible and believable.

It is not until later in the play, when Anne has long been dispatched and Richard is king and has decided to marry the daughter of the dead King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth, his niece Elizabeth, that the scene falls into context.

The scene is brilliantly played by Ralph Feinnes and Aislin McGuckin. The Queen resists, naturally so, Richard has murdered both her sons and a number of her family members as well as his last wife. Richard uses all of his charm to convince her.

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Richard: Infer fair England’s peace by this alliance.

Say that the king, which may command, entreats.

Say, she shall be a high and mighty queen.

But eventually, he runs out of patience and screams at her.

Richard:  In her consists my happiness and thine;
Without her, follows to this land and me,
To thee, herself, and many a Christian soul,
Death, desolation, ruin and decay:
It cannot be avoided but by this;
It will not be avoided but by this.
Therefore, good mother,—I must can you so—
Be the attorney of my love to her:

And then to make his point absolutely clear, he throws her to the ground and rapes her.  This is what underlies Richard’s power over people: his unflinching use of power to bend  them to his will.

While much of Richard’s rise is through the naked and brutal exercise of force, he is also adept at the use of language to manipulate and subvert. However, he is not alone. In Act II, Scene i, the dying King Edward is endeavouring to reconcile members of this court. They are playing for time.  The King is dying, they are manoeuvring for position.


King Edward:  Since I have set my friends at peace on earth.
Rivers and Hastings, take each other’s hand;
Dissemble not your hatred, swear your love.

Rivers: By heaven, my heart is purged from grudging hate:
And with my hand I seal my true heart’s love.

Hastings: So thrive I, as I truly swear the like!

Queen Elizabeth: Here, Hastings; I will never more remember
Our former hatred, so thrive I and mine!

But then Richard comes on the scene and shows that when it comes to dissembling, he is in a class of his own.

 Richard: Amongst this princely heap, if any here,
By false intelligence, or wrong surmise,
Hold me a foe;
If I unwittingly, or in my rage,
Have aught committed that is hardly borne
By any in this presence, I desire
To reconcile me to his friendly peace:
‘Tis death to me to be at enmity;
I hate it, and desire all good men’s love.
First, madam, I entreat true peace of you,
Which I will purchase with my duteous service;
Of you, my noble cousin Buckingham,
If ever any grudge were lodged between us;
Of you, Lord Rivers, and, Lord Grey, of you;
That without desert have frown’d on me;
Dukes, earls, lords, gentlemen; indeed, of all.
I do not know that Englishman alive
With whom my soul is any jot at odds
More than the infant that is born to-night
I thank my God for my humility.

On face value, this text could be played quite sincerely.  It takes a great actor like Ralph Fiennes to make it heavy with irony and sincerity.

It is this aspect of the play that underlines the play’s contemporary relevance.

In modern political life, it is common to find politicians saying one thing and meaning another or saying something that is often complete the opposite of what is true. In modern times, this is often mundane, trivial and beyond the moment of immediate outrage, forgettable.

But what Shakespeare has done in Richard III is immortalise the devious and murderous manoeuvrings of the consummate Machiavellian. This play is about Richard. His demonic energy is the central driving force of play. The other characters are simply minor planets that move in his orbit.

One of the central problems with this play is the dramatic relationship between Richard and the four main female characters: Queen Elizabeth wife of King Edward IV, Queen Margaret,  widow of King Henry VI, Cecily Neville, the Duchess of York, mother to Edward, Richard and Clarence, Lady Anne Neville, later Queen to King Richard III.   Confused? Well, it is confusing. Even if you know the play well and you know the period well, their exchanges with Richard are really difficult to follow.

All of them hate Richard with a passion and all of them spend quite a lot of play telling him so. Their reasons are many, varied and complicated. And their exchanges with Richard do not make great drama.

By contrast, the relationship between the main male characters and Richard are far more clearly delineated. Chief amongst these is a relationship between Richard and  The Duke of Buckingham. Richard says of Buckingham

My other self, my counsel’s consistory,
My oracle, my prophet! My dear cousin,
I, like a child, will go by thy direction.

Indeed, Buckingham proves to be Richard’s most loyal lieutenant but he balks at assassinating the two young princes in the Tower to Richard’s immense displeasure.

When Richard reneges on promises made to him, Buckingham flees to join forces with Richmond who has returned to challenge Richard for the Crown.  Buckingham is captured by Richard, who shows his old friend no mercy and executes him.  Richard’s treatment of Buckingham demonstrates that nothing but complete subservience to Richard will ensure your safety. Anything else brings certain death.

In one of the final scenes of the play, Richard prepares to face Richmond’s army and the ghosts of all the people he has murdered appear before him to curse him and to pray for Richmond’s success.  It’s a telling scene, brilliantly played by Ralph Feinnes.


The wheel has come full circle, the King has been undone by his own hand.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: The transient and immortal nature of beauty

Sonnet 18 is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s best and most accessible poems.


On the surface, it is a love poem but it is also a poem about the nature of  beauty, mortality and poetry.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This sonnet opens with a question in the first line which is answered and then explained in the next six lines which focus on the transient nature of beauty.

The phrase the darling buds of May has a meaning slightly different from the way it would be interpreted today. Darling not only means dearly loved but has an older meaning of emerging to maturity and greater beauty.  This is a more likely interpretation given the next line given that the idea of the passing of time is continued with:

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date

where the transitory nature of the lease  combines with the rough winds to make beauty all the more fleeting.

Even the sun is part of the variability of nature Sometime too hot but often with his gold complexion dimmed.

In the next line there is a typical Shakespearean device where one word is given to  slightly different meanings.

And every fair from fair sometime declines

Here the first fair means beauty so that everything that is beautiful will eventually decline from that state of beauty.

In the next line, the word untrimmed is not the opposite of trimmed, where trimmed is tidy and untrimmed is untidy.  Here, trimmed means decorated, made beautiful, so untrimmed means made less beautiful or destroyed.

The final six lines of the poem contrast the eternal beauty of the subject  (and the sonnet itself) with the transient nature of natural beauty described in the first part of the poem.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st

Here the word ow’st  means own as in possess.

The  next line is a strangely biblical reference

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

and echoes  Psalm  23.4

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

This quote is from the St James version of the Bible and it is highly unlikely that Shakespeare would have being familiar with this version  but he would certainly have had heard the psalm read from the great Bible that was commissioned by  Henry VIII’s Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell.


The sonnet ends with a couplet that ties up the argument of the question and response of the first 12 lines.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This ending is typical of the sonnets with final lines often shifting meaning of the poem or sometimes even reversing it.  In the first part of the poem, the poet says

thy eternal summer shall not fade

But the final couplet qualifies this.

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Here the poet is referring to the poem, not the beauty of the subject. The immortality of the beauty only exists in poetry.  And it is ironic that 400 years after the poem was written all that survives of the physical beauty of the subject is this poem.

The gentle irony of the poem is that while the poet praises the beauty of the subject, the immortality of beauty is the immortal beauty of poetry.

Many scholars believe that this poem belongs to the “Fair Youth sequence” where the subject of the sonnets is a young man, presumably the poet’s lover.  believed to be Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton.



However, this poem makes no reference to a lover, male or female. The poem is dedicated to someone of great beauty and the poet immortalises that beauty in his poetry.