The crowning of Richard III marks the turning point from his rise into power to his demise. Up until he becomes king, Richard is the underdog – albeit, a ruthless and evil one. Thus far, the entire play has been focused on Richard’s attempts to assume power and seize the throne. However, once he becomes crowned King Richard, the focus of the play shifts to Richard’s attempts to maintain power and hold the throne. Essentially, the challenge for Richard is no longer gaining power, but keeping it.
It is this new struggle that, ultimately, redefines his allies and, more importantly, changes both Richard’s personality and the audience’s sympathy for him. Richard begins the play not only as an inspired, determined underdog, but he is also cursed with a terrible deformation; the audience is sympathetic and sees Richard, despite his inherent evilness, as the aspiring hero. Midst his self-loathing, Richard also defines himself as an outsider because of his deformities, which helps the audience sympathize with him (it’s hard to hate someone who hates himself).
Even before the play begins, Richard had planned his takeover of the throne. His brother, Clarence, the sickly King Edward, and Edward’s two sons all stand in his way, but Richard remains undeterred and ambitious. For the next three acts, Richard, the underdog, conspires and deceives – seemingly smarter than all the other characters – to get closer and closer to the throne. Richard is confident and successful, constantly boasting about his intellectual superiority over those characters whom he deceives. He allies himself with Buckingham, who proves to be a valuable right-hand man.
Throughout his rise to power, Richard uses his keen ability (“keep [his] friends close, but [his] enemies closer”) to knock off Clarence and Hastings. As he comes closer and closer to the throne, it is his mental superiority, confidence, underdog status and his honest view of his own ugliness that earn him the sympathy of the audience. As Richard enters in the beginning of Act Two, Scene Four, he is boasting about his newfound power and cheered on by trumpets. Without a minute of rest, King Richard orders the assassination of the two young princes, but Buckingham hesitates.
As Richard himself notes, he must now “stop all hopes whose growth may damage [him]. ” So, when Buckingham hesitates, Richard immediately considers him an enemy. Having attained the throne, Richard has reached the pinnacle of success and must direct his attention to keeping his power in the face of his enemies. Without pausing, Richard orders Catesby to spread a rumor that Lady Anne is sick, will probably die and must be confined, implying that he will have her killed. In fact, his personality actually shifts from poised confidence to paranoia.
Now that Richard is king, he is too vain to acknowledge any of his supporters, such as Buckingham, who wants to be the earl of Hereford. Richard has moved from having the audience’s sympathy because he was an outsider to losing it because he won’t let anyone near him in a humanly decent manner. Even after Richard has the throne, he must get rid of anyone who poses the slightest threat. His sheer need to kill all who threaten him makes it harder for the audience to feel sympathy for him – even in the dark, perverse way that the audience had fancied him in the beginning of the play.
The turning point in the play – when Richard starts to fall out of power and chaos starts to take the place of his fine order – comes when Richard orders the assassination of Buckingham. Even Buckingham, Richard’s sidekick through thick and thin, is repelled by Richard’s perverse request. Showing his true disrespect for his allies and relationships, Richard discards Buckingham (and, so their unity crumbles), his good friend, immediately and replaces him with an able peasant. t]hy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv’st, / And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends” (act 1, scene 3, 220-221) By now, the inevitable curse of Queen Margaret has caught up to Richard and he has taken Buckingham’s hesitation as a sign of treason. The turning point in the play is defined by the breaking of the bond between Richard and Buckingham; the break in their unity is the beginning of Richard’s fall out of power and fortune.
The most intriguing thing about Shakespeare’s Richard III is that the audience truly loves Richard for his intelligence and determination among fools. In fact, it is that sympathy for and interest in Richard that renders him attractive despite his outward appearance and inward evil. Up until he takes control of the throne, Richard is self-assured, confident, and it seems that he is always right. Unfortunately, as Richard conveys in his opening speech, peace time is much harder than times of war for the ambitious and ruthless.
Richard must keep killing and defending his throne, even when those who pose a “threat” are not even trying to get at his power, such as the two princes because it is in his nature to destroy everything around him. And, once the audience realizes that Richard is not just evil and intelligent, but also perverse for wanting to kill two young boys who pose no threat, Richard’s character loses its attractiveness and our sympathy evaporates. Essentially, Richard’s prior appearance as brilliant and confident fades and only the perverse reality of his misanthropic, isolated personality is left.