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The function of the crown in Richard III
"The Crown so Foul Misplaced"
In staging Richard III, the crown is the most essential prop. The crown is of great importance to the action and meaning of Richard III. It is an image as crucial to the meaning of this play as the skull in Hamlet or the dagger in Macbeth. Shakespeare uses the crown to explore the plays concern with authority, order, and struggle.
The crown is established early on as an object which temporarily unifies Richard, Edward, and Clarence when Richard describes Clarence’s part in the war: “Poor Clarence did forsake his father, Warwick… [t]o fight on Edward's party for the crown…” (1.3.138-141). In the play’s first act, Richard makes says that “To royalize [Edward’s] blood I spent mine own” (1.3.127). This establishes Richard’s claim to the crown suggesting it is something for which he has already paid a great price.
In the play’s second act, the crown takes on new meaning. Rivers advises Queen Elizabeth to “Let [your son Edward] be crown'd” and take comfort “in living Edward's throne” (2.2.98-100). These lines serve to equate the crown and throne as symbols of nobility and also endows both with a sense of renewal and eternality. Although one king is dead, a new one (who happens to bear the same name) is to be put in his place. This is highly relevant considering the play’s concern with succession and legitimate authority. Though kings come and go, the crown is constant. This concept is furthered in the play’s final act.
The crown is further explored as a symbol of struggle as the play progresses. The Duchess of York laments the struggle of “brother to brother, blood to blood, self against self” that has fallen upon her family (2.4.65-66). “My husband lost his life to get the crown,” she recalls as she traces the sad history of the house of York to the current bloodshed (2.4.60).
When Lord Hastings declares to Catesby, “I'll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders / Before I’ll see the crown so foul misplac’d,” he makes a weighty pun on the two meanings of crown, the headgear of royalty and the head itself. This pun brings up the concept of the crown (or who wears it) as the head of the state. In this way, the king is posited as an integral part of the state. Just as a body cannot survive without a head, the state cannot survive without a king. We are also reminded of the number of “crowns” that will be cut off so that Richard can wear the crown.
When Richard is crowned king in the second scene of Act IV, a throne and crown are necessary to give the play meaning. In Shakespeare’s day, this scene would have held special significance as Richard, although the audience knows him to be a deceitful murder, now represents the official voice of England. The Tudor proclamation An Homily against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion, posits that authority (particularly kings, queens, and princes) should be obeyed regardless of the personal merits of the authority figure (MacDonald, 347). The crown, therefore, can be seen as a symbol of God-given authority. Regardless of what we think of Richard wearing the crown, he wears it until his death. Derby confirms that Richard has worn the crown to battle and equates the crown with legitimate authority in his speech to Richmond:
Lo! Here, this long-usurped royalty
From the dead temples of this bloody wretch
Have I plucked off, to grace thy brows withal:
Wear it, enjoy it, and make much of it. (5.4.17-20.)
Richmond then attempts to resolve the problem of legitimate authority (his own claim to the crown) by claiming he and his wife-to-be Elizabeth are the “true succeeders of each house” (5.4.43).
Be it a symbol of divine authority, an integral piece of government, a symbol of strife, or an object of desire, the crown is central to the “tragedy” of Richard III.
McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion To Shakespeare, An Introduction With Documents. 2001. Print.
Shakespeare, William, and Yale University. Dept. of English. The Yale Shakespeare, The Complete Works. 1993. Print.