Parsing Our Discontent

Shakespeare's titular Richard III reveals his rhetorical brilliance in the play's very first line. “Now is the winter of our discontent” (I.i.1). Winter, in poetry and art, represents death, ending, hibernation, and privation—it is a catch-all metaphor for loss and melancholy. But he thwarts our expectations upon finishing the sentence. It is not winter, it is the winter (read: death) of our discontent. Richard creates, in effect, a rhetorical double-negative, suggesting that what is ending or dying is not the mortal body or the natural landscape, but the unhappiness that has subsumed England during the protracted War of the Roses. But his word choice—the double-negative aspect of it—suggests that this death of discontent might be, for him, a “winter” in a more traditional poetic sense. He goes on: “Made glorious summer by this son of York” (I.i.2), which carries the seasonal metaphor to its logical conclusion, yes, but also manages to slip some further wordplay into the mix: a theater audience might hear “son” as “sun,” and might be further aware that Richard’s brother Edward IV’s emblem was “three shining sunnes” (Henry VI, Folger Shakespeare). This single line takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions, from death, to the death of unhappiness, to the radiant and temperate warmth of the sun and summer, to perhaps admiration that this has all been accomplished with such verbal economy. Richard’s brilliance (and perhaps his untrustworthiness) are revealed in his first line and maintained throughout the speech. He’s clever. He’s a master wordsmith. He knows how to make allies, and he has already made allies of us (it almost feels the “our” in “our discontent” refers to the audience and Richard, rather than to those sharing his story, so chummy and intimate are his “honeyed” words). Or perhaps, as the speech goes on, we become not his allies, but his aiders and abettors, complicit in his crimes.

Richard spends thirteen lines total on metaphors of violence giving way to gentle calm, and then there is a turn in his rhetoric. This turn invites us further into his machinations, for we alone are privileged with his intimate private thoughts:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass…                                    
                                           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…
I… have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity (I.i.14-27).

He has warmed us with the sun of his words, but now he reveals that he alone cannot enjoy the “sun” of his brother’s newfound peace. The lofty, chummy “we” has given way to a series of “I” statements, preceded by the word “but.” We might suspect, by now, that Richard is building a syllogistic argument, and it sounds like he is building it on solid logical grounds. The foundation? His is a body not built for peace. The winter of our discontent is the “spring” of his. This section lasts fourteen lines, in balance with the first thirteen. So far so cogent. He has won our sympathies—or at least our fascination—by “descanting” on his physical disfiguration (so dramatic that dogs howl when he passes). By the time we get to the soliloquy’s second turn—the “therefore” in the syllogism—we are his creatures. He seduces us as easily as he seduces the hapless Lady Anne later in Act I. No matter that this last part of the speech proceeds on logically fallacious grounds.

The final fourteen lines of Richard’s soliloquy bypass logic altogether. He draws a conclusion from the data he presented in the previous sections (the discontent is over; he is physically unable to enjoy the ensuing content), and his conclusion sounds logical:

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 pleasure of these days (I.i.28-31).

No one has given Richard binary options—enjoy peace or be a villain—but that is where his equivocation leads, and we’re there with him. Or, more accurately, a step or two behind him. When we finally catch up, Richard has revealed that his dastardly plans are not occurring in some vague future, they are already in motion. He has set his brother king against his other brother Clarence. We don’t know yet (but suspect) that he has designs to steal the throne by removing all those before him in the line of succession, and he means to use wit, deceit, and subterfuge to do so, just as he’s done to us in the speech. By his own admission, he is “subtle, false, and treacherous” (I.i.37), a word trio that is manifest in his dealings with us so far, but which does little to alienate our sympathies. We want to watch him succeed through sheer willpower, even as we know that this fiery brand of intelligence, because it is built on such shaky ground, will burn itself out. A tragic fall is inevitable.

A savvy reader might here return to ponder the soliloquy’s first line again: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Since winter is a process, not an end state, we can see the statement as both an observation first about the current state of affairs at the opening of the play, second a commentary about where the play is heading, and lastly an observation about history in general: it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We need to endure a lot more winter—in the form of murders, betrayals, deceptions, and the loss of Richard’s bantering confidence—before we get to the play’s conclusion, when the good and noble (but much less likeable) Richmond wrests the crown from Richard’s deformed hand. The seasonal metaphor suggests a cyclical, not teleological, end, which is more like actual history—tyrants and just leaders rise and fall, rise and fall, in a cycle almost as predictable as the seasons. The metaphorical War of the Roses, ergo, never ends. After this play’s winter, we get an ending that feels inevitable, and that is ethically satisfying, but that leaves us a little queasy. How could we have spent so long supporting a character who is wicked by his own admission? How come the flat affect of Richmond doesn’t stir us the way the villain’s sparkling and dangerous intellect does? We’ve been accomplices to evil, and in that sense the play warns us about the deceptive power of equivocation (a concept about which there was much anxiety in the Elizabethan era). But it also, in the words of one of our classmates, gives us “a joyride with the bad guy,” and that feels good. Maybe we all need a shot of “proxy evil” now and then to help keep us on the straight and narrow? Just a thought. Or maybe it’s I who’s equivocating.

Cited Sources

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996.