‘Piteous massacre’: violence, language, and the off-stage in Richard III

by Georgina Lucas

15 Jun 2020
Journal of the British Academy
19 (pp. 91-109)

Abstract: Shakespeare regularly stages extreme violence. In Titus Andronicus, Chiron and Demetrius are baked in a pie and eaten by their mother. Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out in King Lear. In contradistinction to this graphic excess are moments when violence is relegated off-stage: Macbeth kills King Duncan in private; when Richard III suborns the assassination of his nephews—the notorious ‘Princes in the Tower’—the boys are killed away from the audience. In such instances, the spectator must imagine the scope and formation of the violence described. Focussing on Richard III, this article asks why Shakespeare uses the word ‘massacre’ to express the murder of the two princes. Determining the varied, and competing, meanings of the term in the 16th and 17th centuries, the article uncovers a range of ways an early audience might have interpreted the killings – as mass murder, assassination, and butchery – and demonstrates their thematic connections to child-killing across the cycle of plays that Richard III concludes.

Keywords: Shakespeare, massacre, Richard III, off-stage violence, child-killing.

Article posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 8, supplementary issue 3 (Memories of Violence).

Sign up to our email newsletters