‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ opens a quite stunning soliloquy by the young Richard, Duke of Gloucester in the opening line of Shakespeare’s Richard III play.
This line ranks among the most famous and most quoted opening lines of any Shakespeare play, alongside such openings as ‘When shall we three meet again/In thunder, lightning or in rain? (Macbeth), ‘If music be the food of love play on’ (Twelfth night) and ‘Two households, both alike in dignity/In fair Verona where we lay our scene’ (Romeo and Juliet)
‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ soliloquy spoken by Richard, Act 1, Scene 1
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 bruised 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 barded 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:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As 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.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
‘Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent” soliloquy translation
At last, our winter of troubled history has been transformed into glorious summer by my brother, King Edward, and all the clouds that had gathered threateningly above our house lie safely buried in the depths of the ocean. Now we’re wearing the wreaths of victory and we’ve removed our battered armour and our weapons of war and hung them up as decorations. The blast of battlefield bugles have been usurped by the musical accompaniment to the dancing that’s had taken the place of serious military marching. People now smile easily instead of wearing the grim frowns of war. Instead of putting the fear of God into the enemy by charging towards him on armoured horses we’re charming ladies with dance steps to the tunes of seductive lutes.
That doesn’t suit me. I’m the wrong type for sexual games; I wasn’t cut out to admire myself in a mirror. I am badly shaped and lack the looks to feel at ease swaggering in front of a pretty, flighty girl. For me such activity has been curtailed. I’ve been cheated out of good looks by nature; deformed, not fully developed, because of the premature birth that sent me into the world barely half formed, and even then, badly. Nature has made me so ugly that dogs bark at me as I limp past them.
This weak, tedious period of peace bores me: I have nothing to do, unless I want to sing songs about my own deformity whenever I catch a glimpse of my shadow in the sunshine. And so, since I could never fill these beautiful days of peace by being a lover, I’ve made up my mind to be a villain and stir up these idle days of pleasure. Indeed, I’ve already used drunken prophesies, lies and dream interpretations to set dangerous plots in motion to turn my brothers – Clarence and the King – against each other. And if King Edward was as fair and even-handed as I am cunning, false and treacherous, Clarence is going to be locked up this very day because of a prophecy that says that “G” will murder Edward’s children.
‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ meaning & analysis
The phrase ‘winter of our discontent,’ or more commonly, ‘the winter of discontent,’ is widely quoted to tag political and social unrest, whichever season of the year it occurs in because the word ‘winter’ is such a powerful metaphor for a bleak, discouraging period of time, and ‘discontent’ suggests restlessness and a looming threat.
Richard’s brother, King Edward IV, has just put an end to the long war and assumed the throne. The winter of discontent has been transformed into a glorious summer by this son of York, Edward. Shakespeare puns on the word sun/son. Everything seems good now and England is about to embark on a wonderful era of peace, in which people can get on with the pleasures of life.
Richard is sneering at his brother, though, with what is an ironic picture of a transformed England, and he is going to do his best to disrupt it.
There is not going to be any fun for this bitter young man. He bemoans the fate that has made him deformed and ugly. There is no chance for him in the sexual stakes that other young people enjoy. So what is there for him? He consciously decides that he is going to be a mischief-maker and plot and scheme to set his two brothers, Edward and Clarence, against each other and produce another war and a struggle for the throne (which he eventually succeeds in getting for himself.)
The description of Richard in this passage as so ugly and deformed that dogs bark at him as he walks past them, and his decision that he is going to be a villain, is a good example of how powerful Shakespeare’s texts are. In the History and the Roman plays Shakespeare recreated real historical characters and in most cases his recreations became the accepted idea of what those historical figures were like in real life.
Shakespeare took the broad events in which those characters acted out their lives and gave them characteristics and words that suited his dramatic intentions rather than any idea of an accurate history. And so we see Julius Caesar as an overambitious, vain politician, Henry V as the perfect king but with a disreputable teenage life, Antony as a powerful emperor rendered powerless by a sexual obsession, and so on.
In Richard III’s case, Shakespeare’s Richard eclipsed the reports by biographers and historians. In the play he is one of Shakespeare’s worst villains, a deformed, hunch-back with a marked limp and an ugly face, and a malevolent, scheming personality.
That was our idea of Richard for centuries. However, recently, the real Richard’s body was discovered beneath a car park in Leicester, and it was seen that although he had a slight curvature of the spine, he was not the deformed monster Shakespeare made of him. Moreover, reconstructions of his skull showed him to be a rather handsome man. The play will be performed for generations to come and we will forget the current fashion of researching the real Richard III, and Shakespeare’s version will likley prevail. And of course, ‘now is the winter of our dicontent’ is fixed in the cultural mind and will be quoted millions of times in the years to come.