‘Now is the winter of our discontent’: Richard III’s opening speech from Shakespeare’s history play of that name is among the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare’s work. Memorably spoken by Laurence Olivier in a 1955 film of Richard III – for which Olivier added some extra lines from 3 Henry VI, which focuses on Richard’s rise to power – the speech sees Richard outlining his motivations for seeking the crown of England.
‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ is, like many of Shakespeare’s speeches, complex and layered, so the best way to provide an analysis of the speech is to go through it, section by section, providing a summary of its meaning as we go.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
Richard appears on the stage, alone, at the very start of the play. At this stage, he is not King Richard III: not yet. At this point in the action, he is still Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and brother to the King of England, Edward IV. Both Edward and Richard are Yorkists: that is, members of the royal house of York. They have been fighting another major royal house, the Lancastrians: members of the royal house of Lancaster, whose king, Henry VI, has been murdered so that Edward IV can take the throne.
Note that Richard’s opening line is a run-on line: we need to continue reading onto the second line to get the full meaning. He’s not saying ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ (i.e. now we are in a period of misery) but ‘Now is the winter of our discontent [i.e. the period of our misery] made into a glorious happy summer [i.e. the period of our triumph and joy] by the accession to the throne of Edward of the House of York’. And yes, ‘sun of York’ is a pun: he is the bright leader of the House of York, but he is also literally a ‘son’ of the House of York.
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
More weather imagery and darkness being banished. The clouds that loomed darkly over the House of York have now disappeared.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Richard continues: he and his royal house wear the wreaths of victory around their heads, and their armour and weapons – bruised from the numerous battles they’ve fought to achieve that victory – have been hung up on the walls, no longer needed in a time of peace. Instead of ‘alarums’ or calls to arms, they now have feasts and happy gatherings.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
Richard’s brother, King Edward, now dances and frolics (‘capers’ suggesting the carefree leaping of a goat in spring) with women, while a lute plays him music to get him ‘in the mood’ for lovemaking (‘lascivious pleasing’).
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
Richard makes the earliest reference to his disability or deformity: as is well-known, he was depicted by Shakespeare, and earlier Tudor propagandists, as being a hunchback or ‘crookback’. Since Richard’s corpse was rediscovered (famously, in a car park) in 2012, it’s been established that he suffered from severe scoliosis of the spine, which would probably have made one shoulder higher than the other when he stood. So the propaganda portraying him as an evil hunchback was, it seems, based on a grain of truth (although how ‘evil’ the actual King Richard III was has been the subject of some debate).
He is ‘not shaped for sportive tricks’, i.e. hopping from one woman’s bed to another (‘tricks’ carries the meaning of ‘games’ here). He doesn’t even like to look at himself in the mirror or ‘looking-glass’. He is ‘rudely stamp’d’ by nature, and lacks the ‘majesty’ in love required to strut in front of a lustful woman and roll around in bed with her.
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
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;
Richard says he is so ugly and ‘deformed’ that even the dogs bark at him when he stops near them. The whole of this passage, as the notes in King Richard III (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare) show, plays on Elizabethan ideas about outward appearance and inner harmony: in other words, a person’s physical appearance reflects their inward character and personality, so a physically ‘deformed’ or ugly person has been so made by God because they are evil or corrupt.
This is an idea that, in more enlightened times, we obviously reject, but it’s clear Shakespeare is relying on his original 1590s audience picking up on the associations, here. Richard himself, however, is actually arguing something else: namely, that someone who is physically unusual (e.g. disabled) will be treated badly by society, and their personality will be shaped by that. In Richard’s case, he will get his revenge on everyone by cutting his path to the throne and become a tyrannical king.
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
Translation: ‘I’ve got no other pleasures open to me but to brood upon the shape of my misshapen body as I catch sight of its shadow, and think at length to myself about my disability.’
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.
So, since he cannot be a lover to any woman, and pass the time between the bedsheets like his brother, he has decided or ‘determined’ to become a villain, and despise the decadent antics his brother, and others at court, indulge themselves in. However, as Anthony Hammond observes in King Richard III (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare), ‘determined’ hovers between being an active or passive verb: i.e. either ‘I have decided to become a villain’ or ‘It has been determined [by fate] that I shall be a villain’.
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:
Here Richard gives us the first outline of his plots (and the plot of the play): he has taken the first few steps towards his plan (‘inductions dangerous’) to set his brother, King Edward IV, and his other brother, the Duke of Clarence, against each 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,
Translation: ‘If I’ve judged the King’s character correctly, and he’s as just a king as I am traitorous a subject, then today the King will lock up (“mew’d up”) Clarence.’
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes.
When Clarence arrives (which he does at this moment, as Richard’s final three words reveal to the audience), he will go on to explain this ‘G’ business:
Yea, Richard, when I know; for I protest
As yet I do not: but, as I can learn,
He 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;
And, for my name of George begins with G,
It follows in his thought that I am he.
These, as I learn, and such like toys as these
Have moved his highness to commit me now.
So, in other words, Richard’s closing words in this opening ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech reveal that he has tricked Edward, who likes to dabble in prophecies and dreams as omens of future events, into thinking that someone connected with the letter ‘G’ will usurp the throne from Edward’s son and heir. And since Clarence’s name, George, begins with ‘G’, Edward has become suspicious of Clarence. Clever? Yes. Cunning? Very.
As we reveal in our analysis of Richard III, Richard is one of Shakespeare’s early triumphs: he takes characterisation to a new level in this play, and nowhere more so than with the title character, who uses language so wittily and beguilingly that we cannot help but be drawn into his web of dark intrigue, even while we are repulsed by his evil ambition.