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In his essay on Richard III, “Angel With Horns: The Unity of Richard III”, A. P. Rossiter gives a brilliantly detailed account of the play’s many paradoxes, most specifically those involving the character of Richard, the ‘angel with horns.’ The core of Rossiter’s argument lies in his understanding of Richard as both “God’s agent in a…plan of divine retribution”, punishing the “living damned” that populate the play, and as a Machiavellian “cacodemon born of hell”, himself one of the ‘living damned’ that must be destroyed if England’s “civil wounds” are to be “stopped” (Richard III, 5.5.40). While he pays much attention to the ironies and paradoxes present in Richard’s actions as ‘avenging angel’ towards the other characters in the play, one paradox that Rossiter fails to develop—the greatest paradox, it would seem, in the entire play—is that of Richard’s vengeance against Richard: that is, the manner in which Richard eventually turns against himself, leaving himself frustrated and open for destruction on the eve of his greatest triumph.

Throughout the play, Richard acts with extreme energy and arrogance, reveling in his diabolical machinations with “demonic gusto”, glorying in his twisted nature in his self-aware asides to the audience, wherein he shares his Machiavellian glee at playing the villain. He lays his plans with a solitary cunning, as self-reliant as he is self-confident, and the audience responds to this, throughout the play “accepting the Devil as hero”. Richard, the Devil, is ‘accepted’ by the audience for his self-conscious joy in evil for the sake of evil, as in the masterful ‘wooing’ of Anne when she is most against him—which does nothing to assist his plans, and is done solely to prove that it can be done—and the audience cannot help but be drawn into sharing his diabolic glee. The compliance of the audience with such a villain is made more palatable by the equally villainous natures of his victims; we know that everyone else is tainted, and so can root for Richard as he predictably brings each to ruin. As Rossiter notes, it is only when Richard has the innocent princes killed that the audience begins to pull back, drawing away from his unbridled blood-lust.

Not coincidentally, it is after this action, the murder of the princes and Richard’s subsequent securing of the long-sought title of ‘King’, that Richard begins to turn upon himself. Having captured the object of his desire—the crown—and having destroyed all his companions in villainy, Richard becomes psychically paralyzed, unable to advance and solidify his position. He loses the jocular confidence and wit that surrounded him throughout the earlier acts, faltering in the moment of his greatest triumph. Nowhere is this more evident than in 4.4, first in his verbal sparring with Elizabeth (where he seems but a shadow of the Richard who ‘wooed and won’ Anne; he is unable even to finish his sentences for the latter half of the argument, defeated by a shadow Queen who previously posed no challenge), then in his confused directions to Catesby (where he needs to be prompted to complete his instructions) and Ratcliffe (Richard changes his instructions for no good reason) and finally culminating in the flurry of messengers that so discomfits Richard that he strikes one before hearing his news—news which turns out to be the best of the lot. The scene, with its choppy stichomythia, Richard’s angry outbursts {“Dull unmindful villain!” (4.4.445), “Out on ye, owls!” (4.4.507)} and the hectic coming and going of messengers, acquires a harried and frantic atmosphere, far removed from the implacably calculated and unstoppable atmosphere of Richard’s earlier plots.

Richard’s disintegration is furthered in 5.3, where Richard himself admits that he “has not the alacrity of spirit/ nor cheer of mind” (5.3.73-4) that he possessed earlier in the play. With the entrances of the ghosts Richard, formerly a pragmatic heretic, capable of turning both religion and conscience to his own ends while being unaffected by both, becomes almost shrill in his superstitious worrying; his soliloquy upon waking demonstrates to what extent he has fallen prey to indecision and conscience, and how far removed he is from the confidence that allowed him to manipulate bishops, mayors and the populace of England. This speech, and the terrified conversation with Ratcliffe that follows, demonstrate a man turned against himself, filled with self-loathing—“Alas, I rather hate myself/ for hateful deeds committed by myself” (5.3.190-1)—and fear of the future—“O Ratcliffe, I fear, I fear!” (5.3.215)—where once he was filled with a self-confidence bordering on arrogance and boundless optimism.

This is the greatest paradox of Richard III, a paradox filled with a Lacanian irony: upon achieving the object of his desire, the height of kingship, Richard finds it empty and meaningless, and is left with nowhere to go but down. Lacking any fit targets for his wrathful and manipulative villainy (having killed them all already), Richard has no fit nemesis but himself. In becoming King, Richard becomes the target of his own vengeance, and is crippled by the failure of his desire to satisfy his need for action; the Richard of the latter half of Act 4 and all of 5 is the antithesis of the self-confident, cunning and coercive anti-hero of the earlier acts, as trusting and weak (in showing weakness to his follower, Ratcliffe, and in falling victim to pangs of conscience and superstition) as was his foolish brother Clarence and, indeed, all of the other victims he destroyed in his rise to glory. Richard speaks truer than he knows when he declares himself “too childish-foolish for this world” in 3 Henry VI; like a child who grows bored and restless with a new toy, Richard, once the getting of the crown is over, loses both interest and concentration, and falls victim to the same spirit of vengeance that has already destroyed so many, wiping the kingdom clean of the last of the ‘living damned’ and opening the way for the redemptive entrance of Richmond. In his self-destruction, Richard is truly an ‘avenging angel’, destroying at the last the greatest devil of all: himself.