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Flattery, Treachery, and Deceit: Three Themes Construction the Plot

In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard Gloucester is portrayed as a twisted, calculating, and conniving individual who will stop at nothing to obtain the crown. From betraying his brother George to wooing the widowed Lady Anne, Richard is highly unscrupulous in his pursuit for the throne. While his villainy is obvious, his careful scheming allows his plans to carry forth unnoticed, alluding to his intellectual grace. Although Richard often laments his physical ugliness and deformity, his skillful manipulation of those around him demonstrates a sensitivity towards their weaknesses, masked by his unwavering charisma. Richard successfully eliminates each of his political opponents, whether through flattery, treachery, or deceit, and eventually claims his spot on the throne; these are his Three “Graces”.

In Greek mythology, the Three Graces referred to a trio of sisters goddesses, known for being “the givers of charm and beauty” (“Grace”). As evidenced by the following passages selected from Scenes 1-3 in the first Act of Richard III, Richard hides his true intentions by feigning an innocuous, charming persona, slyly influencing those around him to further carry out his plot. The first iteration of “grace” occurs following Richard’s opening soliloquy, after he has divulged his plans at the closing of the civil war. In the passage, Richard hastily reminds himself to return to his honest facade as his brother, referred to as Clarence, approaches: “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: Here Clarence comes. / Brother, good day. What means this armed guard / That waits upon your grace?” (1.1.41-43). Within this quotation, “grace” is used “as a title of address, representing Richard’s awareness of the social expectations thrust upon him as Duke of Gloucester. The smooth transition from his bitter monologue to polite greeting, as well as the consistency of iambic pentameter, also demonstrates Richard’s astute judgement and deft mind, as he nimbly juggles two personas. By doing so, Richard not only avoids suspicion regarding his involvement in Clarence’s imprisonment, but also sets the stage for further deceit as Richard plots his brother’s eventual murder.

In the next scene, Richard utters a slightly different variation of “grace” in order to persuade Lady Anne into marrying him. The two engage in a sharp-tongued battle of the wits, as the mournful Lady Anne chastises Richard for having murdered her husband, Prince Edward, and father-in-law, the late King Henry VI. After dissipating Lady Anne’s rage with showers of compliments, Richard slips his ring onto her finger and asks her to let him complete King Henry VI’s funeral arrangements: “And if thy poor devoted servant may / But beg one favour at thy gracious hand, / Thou dost confirm his happiness for ever” (1.2.191-196). The use of “gracious” within this passage references the qualities of kindness, courtesy, and charity (“Gracious”), and serves to exemplify the full extent to which Richard’s tact and charm can sway even the most unwilling of people. In this case, Richard’s successful wooing of Lady Anne allows him to avoid the “hand” of justice and gain her “hand” in marriage, thereby showing how Richard’s silver-tongued flattery paved the way for his political goals to be met, one after another.

Finally, “grace” appears once again as Richard rails against Queen Elizabeth and her kinsmen to proclaim outrage against his damaged reputation. As Queen Elizabeth voices her observations of Richard’s spiteful behavior against herself and her family, Richard delivers his harsh rebuttal, blaming Queen Elizabeth for the recent tragedies that have occurred:
Meantime, God grants that I have need of you.
Our brother is imprisoned by your means,
Myself disgraced, and the nobility
Held in contempt, while great promotions
Are daily given to ennoble those
That scarce some two days since were worth a noble. (1.3.77-82)

In this passage, the variant “disgrace” is used to emphasize Richard’s tarnished name, conveniently placing him into the victim’s role rather than that of the perpetrator. By alluding to God’s will—the grace of God, if you will (“Grace”)—Richard brings in the highest, most unquestionable authority, further assisting his case in proving his innocence. It is undeniably a bold move, to so firmly and harshly decry the Queen amongst her followers. Yet, it enables Richard to hide in plain sight, despite Queen Elizabeth’s suspicion of his treachery.

In conclusion, even within the first three scenes of Shakespeare’s Richard III alone, Richard Gloucester has time and time again exhibited his masterful grasp of stealth and manipulation. The tripartite and varying use of his Three “Graces,” along with the rhythmic stress upon that word within the three selected iterations, are representative of the word’s significance. It not only showcases Richard’s skill in concealing his role as the wolf in sheep’s clothing, but exemplifies his tactful approach towards ascending the political ladder. It also raises questions towards whether evil can be “graceful”, and whether evil schemes can be deemed “graceful”. Regardless, Richard Gloucester’s deliberate, calculated actions portray an inherent, intellectual grace that his appearance and self-image fail to reflect. It is through this graceful behavior that he successfully eliminates his naysayers, and ultimately becomes King Richard III.

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