Perhaps of the play is a soliloquy, or

Perhaps no author is quoted more than William Shakespeare. Perhaps no Shakespeare quote is more popular than ‘Now is the winter of our discontent.’ Learn about the famous quote and both the real and fictionalized versions of King Richard III.

What The Quote Means

Now is the winter of our discontent‘That is the famous opening line to the William Shakespeare play Richard III (1592).

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The first scene of the play is a soliloquy, or speech a character speaks to himself, by the future king of England, Richard III. Alone, the line is a bit confusing. Is Shakespeare saying that winter means the end of the year and spring is just around the corner? So, the quote means that we’ve been in the cold harsh winter but we are near the end of our unhappiness.

Or is Shakespeare trying to say that our unhappiness is like winter: cold and gloomy?The issue with the quote is that people recite and know it as a single line. However, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent,’ is just one part. Let’s consider a few more lines.

The first two lines of the soliloquy are:’Now is the winter of our discontentmade glorious summer by this son of York’It now appears that Richard is not talking about his unhappiness, but he is actually celebrating. The lines together translate to something like this: the unhappiness is over, and now the wonderful summer is upon us.We can also ascertain that Richard is celebrating his family’s victory.

Richard’s brother, Edward IV (they are the sons of the Duke of York, so in the second line ‘son’ is actually a pun for ‘sun’) has taken the English crown from Henry IV. The next two lines of the soliloquy are:’And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our houseIn the deep bosom of the ocean buried.’Prior to Edward taking the throne, Richard’s family felt like they had been oppressed, and life in general felt like a long, unhappy winter. But now that Richard’s brother is king, Edward’s reign shines like the sun and the clouds that low’r’d (lowered) on the House of York have been removed.

But What about the Rest of the Soliloquy?

If we consider the rest of Richard’s soliloquy in Act I, Scene I, we see that it’s not all wine and roses for Richard. We quickly determine that while the rest of the family can celebrate and be happy about Edward’s crown, there is a deep dark side to Richard that stems from his physical appearance.’Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my timeInto this breathing world, scarce half made up,And that so lamely and unfashionableThat 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 sunAnd descant on mine own deformity:And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,To entertain these fair well-spoken days,I am determined to prove a villain’Okay, sounds like Richard is pretty upset for getting the short end of the stick in the looks department. He is deformed to the point that dogs bark at him.

He is so heinous that he can’t even take on a lover. So, because he can’t lead a normal life and just be happy, he makes it his goal to be a villain.’Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,To set my brother Clarence and the kingIn deadly hate the one against the other:And if King Edward be as true and justAs I am subtle, false and treacherous,This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.’Richard is not happy with King Edward. His jealousy and rage over his deformities leads him to come up with a plan to take over the throne.

Richard has already begun his evil murderous scheme of pitting his two brothers, Clarence, and the King, against each other. He is almost bragging here about how cunning and evil he is.So, with that information, let’s think about the famous opening line of the play again: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent.’ Maybe it is still winter for Richard? Perhaps, unless Richard takes the throne, summer will never come? So the only way Richard can get out of his winter, out of his unhappiness, is through scheming, scamming and murder? His plan actually does work, for a little while anyway.

The Real Richard III

The thing about history is that oftentimes it’s not about what actually happened but about who wrote about what happened. The 15th century was a long time ago, and it seems that most of the documentation about Richard III was written by men who never actually knew him.

He was called everything from a ‘good lord’ with a ‘good heart’ by some historians to ‘a man who abandoned all principles of honor and humanity’ by other historians. However, no written account did more to tarnish the legacy of Richard III and turn him into an evil, deformed figure who was willing to murder and scheme for power than William Shakespeare’s.Because, let’s face it; every story needs a villain.

Yes, Shakespeare’s story is supposed to be a fictionalized drama, but because of the popularity of the play, most people today only know about Richard III through Shakespeare’s Machiavellian rendition of the man.

Lesson Summary

‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ is one of the most famous Shakespeare quotes. It’s from his play Richard III. Shakespeare portrays the King as a deformed, power-hungry schemer. There are a few different ways to analyze the quote. If we consider the first two lines together – ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York’ – it seems that Shakespeare is saying that Richard’s unhappiness is about to end because his family has taken the throne.

However, if we consider the first line in comparison to the entire soliloquy, it looks like it means that because of Richard’s deformity and envy, his unhappiness will never end unless he plays the role of villain and takes the throne from his brother.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Summarize the character of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play
  • Discuss the meaning behind the famous opening line from Richard III
  • Recall who Richard III really was
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