Shakespeare used the title characters to expose characteristics of the tyrant such as limited foresight, mental instability, paranoia, the alienation of allies, and a defined persona of evilness in Richard III and Macbeth. They are both noblemen that usurp the crown through deceitfulness, murder, and treachery. Because they reign with terror and fear, Richard III and Macbeth rule is short-lived. Shakespeare continued on this subject and exposed the typical characteristics of the oppressor through their climb to power, their actions, and the way they reined. This sets them up as tyrants.
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The audience sees that Richard has developed a plan to become king in the first act of Richard III (1.1.28-35). His plan looks to the future and is well thought out, not just the present. Richard describes his plan and begins to get ahead of himself at the end of act 1 scene 1. Then he remembers the plan as a whole and realizes he must implement it in order to be successful. “But yet I run before my horse to market. / Clarence still breathes, Edward still lives and reigns; / When they are gone, then must I count my gains” (1.1.160-163). Through this opening act we see that Richard poses considerable foresight and even acts upon it. By the end of the play, however, this foresight has disappeared. Richard totally ignores Buckingham and refuses to compensate Buckingham for his help in usurping the throne (4.2.119-122). Richard fails to foresee that this action will cause Buckingham to turn against him. This lack or decrease of foresight is one of the principal characteristics of the tyrant.
We see in Macbeth that foresight was a quality that Macbeth never possessed. He merely lived for the moment and developed his plan as time progressed. A good example of this is when he kills Duncan in the second act. Macbeth kills Duncan to become king, but never even thinks about how he will eliminate Malcolm, who has been named heir to the throne. Macbeth gets lucky and Malcolm flees Scotland. Macbeth is then named king, but only because Malcolm fled and caused the nobles to suspect the princes as being involved in the murder. If Malcolm had stayed, he would have been named king and then Macbeth would have had to develop a new plan to eliminate Malcolm. Macbeth only looked a little into the future and didn’t plan ahead. This is also apparent when Malcolm returns to Scotland with an army. Once Malcolm flees, Macbeth never gives him a second thought. He never realizes that Malcolm could be a threat and return to Scotland to seek revenge for the murder of Duncan. Macbeth also displayed his lack of foresight regarding the witches’ prophecy. They proclaimed that he would become king and also that Banquo would produce a long line of kings. Macbeth failed to realize that once he became king, he would soon lose the crown and Banquo’s descendants would gain it. He doesn’t acknowledge this until act 3 scene 1, halfway through the play. Macbeth’s actions throughout the play show the audience that he, like a tyrant, lacks foresight.
Mental instability is a characteristic closely associated with tyrants and neither Richard nor Macbeth lacked this. Macbeth demonstrates his mental instability quite vividly on two separate occasions. The first demonstration is right before Macbeth murders Duncan. Macbeth is standing in the hallway outside Duncan’s room when he imagines a bloody knife floating in front of him (2.1.33-61). Macbeth also begins to hallucinate again at the feast after Banquo’s murder. Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost walk in and sit at the head of the table. None of the other guests, however, can see this. Macbeth begins shouting and mumbling incoherently. These hallucinations clearly show Macbeth’s lack of sanity.
Richard’s mental instability is also displayed through the use of ghosts. Immediately after the ghosts of all the people Richard murdered in the play visit him, he awakens and begins to question himself. “Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. / Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am. / . . . / Alack, I love myself . . . / Alas, I rather hate myself,” (5.3.183-189). Richard is struggling with his conscience and can’t distinguish between reality and dream. He contradicts himself numerous times and is having a battle with himself in his own mind. This distinctly shows Richard’s mental instability, which is one of the main characteristics of the tyrant.
Another characteristic of the tyrant that Shakespeare portrayed in his two title characters was paranoia. Macbeth best demonstrates his paranoia in act 4. He returns to the witches for the sole reason of finding out his destiny and whom he should fear. The witches in turn tell him to beware Macduff. He simply responds, “Thou hast harped (hit upon) my fear alright,” (4.1.74). This reveals that Macbeth was already afraid of Macduff, although, he had no solid basis for this fear. Macbeth was just acting on his paranoia. The fact that he even went to the witches shows that he was paranoid. He assumed someone had it in for him, without knowing whom or why. Macbeth’s paranoia also caused him to murder one of his closest allies, Banquo. Macbeth was paranoid because of what the witches said about Banquo producing a line of kings, that he killed his closest friend even though Banquo had no ideas of turning against Macbeth. Macbeth prominently exhibited the tyrant’s characteristic of paranoia.
Richard’s paranoia isn’t fully revealed until the final act. “I’ll play the eavesdropper, / To see if any man means to shrink from me,” (5.3.221-222). Richard spies on his own soldiers because of his paranoia. He lets his paranoia take over and he begins to fear needless things. Also, in the final act, Richard is not confident about the battle to come. Even though Ratcliffe reassures him and is overly confident, Richard’s paranoia still reigns. “O Ratcliffe, I fear, I fear,” (5.3.214). Richard was so paranoid that he didn’t even trust his closest allies. Hastings had helped Richard to power and had never betrayed him. Richard’s paranoia, though, outweighed these facts and Richard took Hastings’s son hostage to assure Hastings’s loyalty. Even though Richard’s fears proved to be correct, he had no basis on which to base them. Hastings had never given Richard reasons to mistrust him. Richard, however, was so paranoid he even mistrusted his allies and advisors. This paranoia is one of the prime characteristics of the tyrant that Shakespeare displayed in Richard.
Richard’s and Macbeth’s paranoia also revealed another characteristic of the tyrant, the alienation of allies. Richard’s paranoia made him kill anyone that knew too much or posed a threat (real or imagined) to him. This massive killing caused his allies to slowly desert him and turn against him. This was especially true with Hastings. Because of his paranoia, Richard threatened to kill Hastings’s son. This only caused Hastings to be secretive about his dealings with Richmond and also drove Hastings closer to Richmond’s side. Richard even managed to alienate his own wife and mother. Neither of the women could handle Richard’s cold and brutal murder of the two young princes. This action by Richard caused both Lady Anne and the Duchess to turn against him. Richard also alienated his closest ally in the play, Buckingham. By ignoring Buckingham and refusing to compensate him, Richard forces Buckingham to turn against him.
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Macbeth also shared this characteristic of alienating allies. At first Macbeth was not suspected in the murder of Duncan and was the consensus choice for king. However, he slowly managed to turn his friends and allies against him. Lennox and another lord talk of how terrible Macbeth’s reign is and their hopes of England alleviating these problems by usurping the throne from Macbeth in act 3 scene 6. This scene also reveals that Macduff has fled to England for this same reason (3.6.29-36). Macbeth’s reign is described as a country suffering under an accursed hand (3.6.48-49). Because his reign is so terrible, Macbeth manages to alienate two of his allies. He also alienates another of his allies, Ross, through senseless murder. Ross flees Scotland after Macbeth senselessly murders Macduff’s family and servants. Richard and Macbeth both possessed this important characteristic of the tyrant, the alienation of allies.
The final prime characteristic of the tyrant that Shakespeare portrayed in Macbeth and Richard was the clearly defined persona of evil. This is most apparent of Richard in the final act of the play. Shakespeare wrote this final act as the clash between good and evil. Where Richmond represented good and Richard represented evil. In Richmond’s speech to his army he appeals to their sense of morality and also prays to God for victory. Richard, though, appeals to his soldiers’ sense of fear. “In God’s name march,” (5.2.22). Richmond is fighting for God. By opposing him Richard is fighting against God, or for evil. In act 1 scene 3 Richard is referred to as a poisonous bunch-backed toad, a venomous dog, and the devil (1.3.246,289-291,298). Lady Anne also refers to him as a fiend, the devil, a villain, a defused infection of a man, a foul toad, and a dissembler (1.2.34, 45, 70, 78, 150, 187). All of these descriptions are associated with evil. Through various descriptions of Richard and Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard before battle we see Richard’s main characteristic, his clearly defined persona of evil.
Macbeth is also described in evil terms in the final act. When he meets and kills young Siward, young Siward refers to him as the devil (5.7.8). Macduff also refers to him as a bloody villain (5.8.8). Macbeth also refers to himself in evil terms in the final act. “As honor, love obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have,” (5.3.25-26). These are all characteristics associated with good. By not possessing them Macbeth describes himself as the opposite of good, evil. Macbeth’s reign as king is described as bloody and accursed. These are both characteristics of evil. Macbeth, like Richard, possessed the tyrant’s characteristic of a clearly defined persona of evil.
Through the examining of the two plays and by conducting close readings of both it is apparent the Shakespeare instilled the typical characteristics of the tyrant such as limited foresight, mental instability, paranoia, the alienation of allies, and a clearly defined persona of evil in the title characters of two of his most famous plays, Richard III and Macbeth.
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