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The Last Act of Richard III
In Shakespeare's play Richard III, the main character Richard is developed as an actor - to the degree of morbidity. Richard is forever putting on an act, and playing the part that he thinks will most please whomever he shares the stage with at a given moment. Not that to please is his ultimate goal, it is just a means to get what he wants--which is the tempting role of the king. His acts are from the start plentiful, and for some time almost surprisingly effective. To Clarence he plays the Loving and Concerned Brother. His counterfeit fools Clarence into a state of trust that is stunning to the spectator, who knows that the events which make Richard exclaim "We are not safe, Clarence, we are not safe!" (I.i.70) are in fact Richard's own doing.
Alone with his audience, Richard plays the part of the Self-confident Villain. The audience serves a function not unlike that of a mirror, only it mirrors character traits rather than looks. He introduces himself as the actor who cannot play the role of lover (i.e. be good) satisfactorily, so he chooses to play the villain (i.e. be bad) instead. The notion that this is a choice, as well as his use of the word play rather than be, underline the fact that to him this is all acting. In front of the audience--his mirror and thus a second self--Richard toys around with the conviction that he can do anything he sets his mind to through the means of his acting abilities. He leaves his audience speechless by going through with the overly ambitious task he sets up. He tells us that he will marry Warwick's youngest daughter, and the next thing you know, he has pulled it off. Whether Anne falls for Richard's sex appeal or his rhetoric is moot, yet she does fall. Richard himself seems credulous at her giving in so easily; "Was ever woman in this humour woo'd? / Was ever woman in this humour won?" (I.ii.232-233) He talks as if it were a sign that his repulsiveness must in some way appear attractive to her, although the way he expresses this makes me doubt his seriousness. Perhaps this is an attempt at sharing a joke with his audience, his feeling being that as it cannot possibly be his looks she has fallen for, it must be his words.
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At times Richard's acting is so overdone that it can hardly be called good acting, and you have to wonder how anyone could possibly fall for it. The scene, for example, where he is "persuaded" to accept the throne (III.vii.55-246) is so overloaded that it becomes downright hilarious. Yet it gets him what he wants, and when his position starts to cave in it is not due to any faults in his acting, rather that his ill deeds are so many and so obvious that they can no longer be concealed simply by an act, no matter how good that act may be. Richard himself does not seem to recognize this. In his wooing of Elizabeth for her daughter's hand he does not realize that her unresponsiveness is not due to any lack of rhetorical skill on his part, but to her unconquerable dislike of him due to his actions. His words may still be convincing, but he has been proven false just slightly too often in the past.
The other problem Richard struggles with is that in spite of his belief in his own abilities as an actor, by the beginning of the fifth act his act for the benefit of the audience/himself has fallen to pieces. He quits his asides somewhere in act IV (I think after scene iii). At this point, though he has some victories to celebrate--the getting of the throne not the least one--he has also suffered some setbacks. His main confidante Buckingham has proven too weak for his liking and the threat represented by Richmond is just starting to really bother him. So far each aside has given him a boost of confidence, and the loss of them, though mainly due to a loss of confidence, only further diminishes his self esteem. The loss of this role also repesents a serious personality problem. If Richard can no longer convince himself by acting the self-confident villain, he must loose his sense of having a coherent identity. From now on he has only his habitual acts depending on his partner in dialogue to fall back on, and though he manages for a while longer, it soon becomes pretty clear that he cannot go on for long. And so he dies--which will make do for a natural conclusion.