In Emma by Jane Austen, Emma’s confidante Harriet Smith expostulates when Emma declares that she does not intend to marry: “But you will become a pitiable old maid!” Emma replies:
If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty. Woman’s usual occupations of eye and hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now.
Emma’s confidence in her future prospects of wholesome activity helps to solve a riddle that has been thrust before us by Shakespeare’s “first tetralogy” of history plays.
The last of these four plays presents us with one of drama’s most infamous characters, King Richard III. Part of the speech with which Richard opens the play reads as follows:
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
…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:
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.
The malevolence of the Duke of Gloucester pushes the limits of believability. He conspires to have his one brother order the other’s execution; then Richard himself sends in the assasins. He marries one widow with the sole intention of eventually having her killed. He has his best friend executed on a pretext. He orders the execution of his two young nephews. He betrays the confederate whose scheme lifted him to the throne. He lays plans to marry his young niece, in order then to have her killed.
In other words, Richard III is, as his own mother puts it, an “ill-dispersing wind of misery, a cockatrice whose unavoided eye is murderous.”
But there is no denying: The most clever, the most intelligent character in the play is: Richard. And there is no denying that the strongest, most adventurous character in the play is: Richard. Richard III outclasses many of Shakespeare’s greatest heroes for intelligence and courage.
Hence the riddle: Why does the brilliant, daring hunchback disturb the peace like he does?
To explain it by his “ambition” only begs the question. Yes, in Henry VI, Part Three, he declared:
…since this earth affords no joy to me,
But to command, to cheque, to o’erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.
But he has no particular designs upon the use of royal power. He does not dream of regal exploits. Rather, he dreams solely of winning the crown by his superlative talent to deceive…
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.
Act III, Scene vii of Richard III presents what may be the most bitterly ironic farce in the history of drama: Richard poses as a pious retreatant in the company of bishops. His accomplice Buckingham leads the Mayor of London and other grave citizens into the courtyard. Buckingham begs the prayerful, ‘virtuous’ Duke to assume the throne in order to stave off the chaos of an ungoverned state. Richard glibly protests. But he finally gives in–to the elation of the besnookered citizens!
Can we explain the chaos of destruction that Richard visits upon the realm by this: His is a genius that wants employment. Bored brilliance and strength of will menace the world like no other force of evil.