"Now is the winter of our discontent...."
Much has been made of Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard III and how the play and other Tudor-era writings have framed this oft-maligned monarch's brief reign. The opening speech to Richard III sets the tone from the first moment Richard enters the stage. Richard is a curiously—and often sardonically—introspective villain, and his initial soliloquy is tantalizing in the way that it infuses exposition with humanity.
It's amazing how much of Richard III has been taken at face value since the play was first performed. In taking his cue from the works of Sir Thomas More and Holinshed, Shakespeare at best is two steps removed from historical accuracy. First, Shakespeare is a dramatist taking a certain amount of license in creating popular entertainment. Second, Shakespeare had a limited pool of source material upon which to draw, written largely to legitimize the reign of Henry VII, who might otherwise be seen as much the same usurper as Richard. Add to the situation that Shakespeare was writing during the reign of Henry VII's granddaughter, and it seems difficult to treat Richard III as historical scholarship.
As in contemporary times, however, the worst "history" can often make the best story. Historically, Richard was not deformed, did not have a withered arm, and introduced a number of legal reforms. Yet critics, actors, and audiences remain enthralled by the glib, manipulative hunchback who self consciously revels in his machinations. It's lines such as these that make Richard such a fascinating character.
When taken with other salient soliloquies, most notably "Was ever woman in this humor wooed?" and "My conscience hath a thousand several tongues" from later in the play, Richard transcends the Vice archetype that Shakespeare uses as an initial frame of reference. It keeps Richard from being the cartoon he might have been in lesser hands. Richard is nearly as psychologically complex a character as Macbeth or Hamlet, though lacking the tragic pathos that accompanies them.
As Richard struts the stage, serving as his own Greek chorus, we can't help but be beguiled by his charisma and audacity. By the time Richard finishes this soliloquy, we are well aware what creature Shakespeare has fashioned. Unabashedly wicked, Richard the character endures because Shakespeare magnified Richard the king into a villain worthy of the stage. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruiséd arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged War hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbéd steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, 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;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
Act I, sc. i