Richard of Gloucester has a character flaw. Well, no, I'm not thinking of megalomania, mass murder, exploitation of widows and orphans, violation of oaths and contracts, filial and fraternal betrayal, or insufficient equestrian planning. Instead, from mid-3 Henry VI onward, he seems too much fixated on his physical appearance.
His father, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, invokes his sons:
Call hitherto the stake my two brave bears,
That with the very shaking of their chains
They may astonish these fell-lurking curs. (2 Henry VI, V.i.144-46)
And Clifford gives us our first description of the younger:
Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump,
As crooked in thy manners as thy shape! (2 Henry VI, V.i.157-8)
Young Clifford, his father's son, curses Richard: "Foul stigmatic" (l. 215), and soon Richard kills Somerset under the sign for the Castle Inn (so the prophesy "beware of castles" wonderfully comes true), and utters a warrior's coda: "Sword, hold thy temper; heart, be wrathful still:/ Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill" (2 Henry VI, V.ii.70-71). He is praised for extraordinary prowess on the battlefield, and when he displays the Duke of Somerset's head, York declaims "Richard hath best deserv'd of all my sons" (3 Henry VI, I.i.17).
So far, we have only an heroic young warrior, despite York's enemies stigmatizing (smile) him. Meanwhile, his father, York, negotiates that Henry can remain king until death, when the crown will pass to the Yorks, and it is Richard with tortured logic who disputes this, pointing out that York swore before the King, but "an oath is of no moment, being not took/ Before a true and lawful magistrate," which Henry was not, having held a usurped throne and therefore the oath was frivolous and vain, and York is not held by it. "And father, do but think/How sweet it is to wear a crown" (3 Henry VI, I.ii.22-3, 28-9). Specious logic indeed, yet the first hint of Richard's ability to create illusions out of words. Young brother Rutland is slain, defenseless York is captured and tortured, and Queen Margaret taunts him:
Where are your mess of sons to back you now,
The wanton Edward, and the lusty George?
And where's that valiant crook-back prodigy,
Dicky, your boy, that with his grumbling voice,
Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies. (3 Henry VI, I.iv.73-77)
Before learning of York's death, Richard tells his brother Edward, "Methinks 'tis enough to be his son" (3 Henry VI, II.i.20). This seems a direct and sufficient declaration, unmasked, of Richard's true self- evaluation. York is slain. Richard responds, "Tears then for babes; blows and revenge for me/ Richard, I bear thy name, I'll venge thy death,/ Or die renowned by attempting it" (3 Henry VI, II.i.86-8), a tradition of son avenging father, independent of the insults directed at him by Queen Margaret, "But like a foul misshapen stigmatic,/ Mark'd by the destinies to be avoided,/ As venom toads, or lizards' dreadful stings" (3 Henry VI, II.ii.136-38). Indeed, Clifford dies, Richard mocks the corpse, and "King" Edward names him Duke of Gloucester.
Edward barters for Lady Grey's body, and when rebuffed, marries her instead, while Richard and Clarence keep up a patter of witty asides. Only when the bargain is struck (this encounter reveals the "wanton Edward," a characteristic I had not previously noticed), Richard is left, solus, to muse on love. This soliloquy, III.ii.124-195, reveals the first time the audience sees Richard other than son and warrior. He refers to "the golden time I look for," "between my soul'd desire and me," "a cold premeditation of my purpose," "Why then I do but dream on sovereignty," "I do so wish the crown...I'll cut the causes [that keep me from it] off." And the motivation: "why love forswore me in my mother's womb," "to shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub [no comments allowed on Dubya Bush here]/ To make an envious mountain on my back/ Where sits deformity to mock my body," etc. To compensate "I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,/ And whiles I live, t'account this world but hell,/ Until my misshap'd trunk that bears this head/ Be round impaled with a glorious crown," "Why I can smile, and murther whiles I smile..., And set the murtherous Machevil to school."
Ernst originally asked how Richard is different from the versions of his character we see in the Henry VI plays. What I have tried to do is summarize the earlier Richard (s): first warrior son of Richard of York, called politically incorrect names by the Lancasters, but no less than a knight errant for the House of York. Then, suddenly, with no more foreshadowing than the depiction of King Edward Hotpants prostituting Elizabeth, Lady Grey (sleep with me and I'll give you your land back; no? then how about a crown?), his soliloquy (3 Henry VI, III.ii.124-195) outlines all of Richard III, the ambition for the crown, the motivation of being physically limited to the one career choice, and his chosen means for achieving kingship, murder. His soliloquy could be a program note for Richard III, but it is devoid of humanization or tragic character. The "tragic flaw" as articulated in the Henry VI plays is no more than being pissed off at being called "thou misshapen Dick." And lest you think I trivialize, notice in Richard III both Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth, on behalf of her daughter, Elizabeth, seek to frustrate Richard's marital advances by threatening to mar their physical beauty.
But then, we turn to Act VI, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York," and Richard of Gloucester is transformed to humanized, witty, tragic, and, as Ernst begins, "supreme self-dramatizer and director/manipulator.
I'm not sure this is Richard's character but I see Richard III as (forgive the term) metadrama in which Richard is the playwright, director and casts himself in a variety of roles, so what we see is a variety of masks, wonderfully fashioned to convince or overpower adversaries. But this series of staged scenes is interrupted by soliloquies, that dramatic device in which we, as audience, are addressed directly and invited to accept the speaker as without mask, revealing his true self as well as critiquing both his persona and those he has fooled.
The seduction of Lady Anne before the coffin of Henry VI, her father-in-law, is followed by "was ever woman in this humor wooed?/ Was ever in this humor won?" (remember similar lines from Chiron and Demetrius in II.i of Titus?) The proxy wooing of Elizabeth, during which Richard seems to have to work far more and against the greater burden of having killed almost everyone Elizabeth has ever met seems more convincing or perhaps self -- convinced of reformation -- Richard has achieved the crown at this point; yet Queen Elizabeth's apparent acquiescence to the betrothal of her daughter is followed, immediately, with Richard, solus, "Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!"
Actually, here Elizabeth has won, because she immediately tops Richard by betrothing her daughter to Richmond. Curious that Richard, the master of duplicity, is not able to project his own trickery onto others.
The phoniest role is the staged piety of Richard between to prelates with a holy book as prop to fool the Mayor of London into supporting him as king: "Long live Richard, England's worthy king!" Here he even has a stage manager, Buckingham, who doubles as prompter to those who are too ignorant to know their parts. One maskless scene involves Buckingham, when the latter comes to Richard for his promised reward as henchman, and Richard chooses to talk about the weather, ending with "I am not in the giving vein to-day."