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The Secret of Success: Sinister Aesthetics Or Courtly Manners

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Many critics and theorists alike have studied William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in the attempt explain the external and internal mismatch of character and physical appearance. Richard III is able to deceive those around him based on these incongruities and so has sparked interest in the academic community. Some more recent critics have argued that Richard’s success stems mainly from his conformity to the expectations of his time through the use and manipulation of courtly manners and decorum, while other critics argue his success is derived from the “sinister aesthetics” found in the play.

The first set of critics argues that Richard’s use of decorum is his most powerful weapon in his ascension to the throne. Dolores Burton, author of “Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III” ” argues that Richard’s use of discourse and decorum allows him to win over all of his audiences. His use of deliberate discourse in his opening monologues, Burton claims, places him in the role of the classic orator whose powers of persuasion gives him power over his audience. Burton’s central claim is Richard’s use of the ethical appeal in his public speaking is the means by which he gains his power. The elements of his speech operate together to persuade the audience that the speaker is an agreeable person, the speaker is not too complicated, considerate of their taste, witty, and has the right touch of self-deprecation. Another critic that follows this same theory is James Siemon in his work “Between the Lines: Bodies/ Language/ Times” as he discusses the fact that historical bodies and languages are always plural and yet interactive, distinguishable and tied to class, group, and professional struggles for position and advantage that implicate them within one another. Idiolects, jargons of groups, and eras do not take shape without traces of their co-formation by antagonistic intersections with one another. Similarly, postures, intonations, and even bodily movements implicate differential categories of social definition, distinction, and tastes. Furthermore, bodies and languages are integral to one another and thus are integral to Shakespeare’s story of Richard III.

In contrast to this opinion, some critics argue that Shakespeare’s use of “sinister aesthetics” in the play is the primary explanation of Richard’s rise to power. Joel Slotkin’s “Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s Richard III” argues that Richard is a figure who violates the norms of morality and aesthetics by triumphantly asserting his own malevolence and taking narcissistic pride in his ugliness. Slotkin analyzes Richard’s problematic appeal by focusing on the play’s use of “sinister aesthetics”: in other words, a set of cultural conventions governing the representation of evil, which valorize the dark and hideous as admirable poetic subjects and, by association, risk encouraging the very values they label as evil. He argues that the play affirms a poetics in which Richard is attractive and powerful because he is evil but also because he is ugly. Slotkin’s analytical approach to explaining Richard’s success enables the reader to appreciate the full range of moral and aesthetic appeals available to Shakespeare and his audiences. Also, Hugh Richmond in his collection of essays “Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Richard III” endorses the idea of sinister aesthetics as playing a primary role in Richard’s violent rise to the throne.

Richard III’s success cannot merely be attributed to one of these claims, but elements of both of these points of view must be analyzed in order to fully grasp the idea of the internal and external man. How Richard was able to manipulate his external appearance to gain power while still following the compulsions of his internal self is what made him a powerful force in his day.

Richard’s success in creating a persona of respectability for himself stems largely from his ability to conform to the expectations of the people and their sense of decorum. Dolores Burton argues that Richard’s success is due to his “master[y] of all [the] forms of persuasive discourse recognized by classical rhetoric—deliberative, forensic, and epideictic” (Burton 55). Up to a point, this theory holds true. Richard uses his past to lend an air of respectability to himself, so the audience will believe what he is trying to communicate to them. By proving himself to be a good and loyal soldier, Richard makes himself a sympathetic character because, once the war is over, the options for his future are limited. “By the technique of evasion, [Richard] passes over all consideration of appropriate roles like counselor and statesman in order to argue that in Edward’s court the only option open to him is that of lover”(Burton 57). This option Richard quickly dismisses as ridiculous due to his deformed appearance and shows the audience the only really viable option is for him to become a villain.

Richard is able to captivate an audience and gain their trust through his use of rhetoric. His speech at the beginning of act one showcases his mastery of the language. The words used in Richard’s speech mirror the dialects spoken by the commoner, the only words utilized that even contain multiple syllables are “victorious”, “unfashionable”, and “deformity”. Richard’s logical description of his intentions and the reasons motivating his current actions convey a sense of inevitability to his audience. The audience, because the outcome is presented as inevitable, accepts Richard’s course of action and views him as an honorable man for the communication of his intentions in an upfront and honest manner.

Richard also uses sweetness in his speech, according to Burton. “Sweetness, an attempt to gratify the senses, appears chiefly in the descriptive passages about the winter of war yielding to the summer of peace and in the lines that describe the orderly marches of war changing to the more pleasant…measures of the dance” (Burton 61). This sweetness connects Richard to his readers through shared experience. He describes the seasons, which they have all experienced as having a similar pattern as a dance, something the audience enjoys. “Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York;/…Our stern alarums change’d to merry meetings,/ Our dreadful marches to delightful measures” (Shakespeare 1-2, 7-8). This appeal to the senses produces sweet memories in his audience as they reminisce about their experiences and connect Richard’s words with their emotions. By making this connection, the audience is more willing to take what Richard is saying at face value and less likely to question his motives.

Richard also appeals to the ethics of his audience in his opening speech by aligning himself with them. “Modesty, [which] characterizes the ethical style [of speaking] addresses itself to the speaker’s need to ingrate himself with the audience…To belittle oneself and to enlarge another is another technique of modesty” (Burton 61). Richard, in his self-deprecating speech, refers to himself as “deform’d, 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—“ (Shakespeare 20-23). This criticism of himself makes the audience feel compassion for him. After all, they reason, poor Richard cannot be held responsible for his exterior appearance, only God has control over what a man looks like. The audience believes Richard and feels sympathy for him because they believe there is a mismatch between his ugly external appearance and his heart.

This concept of an internal and external disconnect is unique to William Shakespeare during this time period. The aristocratic ideal is that the outside of a person is an accurate representation of their internal condition. All of the famous epics before this time, such as Beowulf and The Odyssey, show a hero who possesses as attractive a body as he does a heart. There is no conflict of the internal man and the external man before Shakespeare examines the issue. Joel Slotkin states that Richard treats this disconnect between the internal man and the external man and the subsequent appeal of evil in two primary ways. “Richard’s character symbolizes in paradoxical form Renaissance debates about the epistemological value for determining moral truths. In his deformity, which the other characters take as a sign of his hellish nature, Richard epitomizes the union of the outer appearance and inner truths” (Slotkin 6). Shakespeare uses this to ask the reader what should be done when a character is encountered, like Richard, whose internal and external image do not match.

The idea of conscience is created where people can create their own definition of what is right and what is wrong. This is exactly what Richard does, he uses his ugly external condition to hide his equally hideous heart. Richard states his own intentions clearly “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” (Shakespeare 127-129). Conscience, up until this point, made a man weak in Richard III’s eyes, unable to do what was necessary in order to be successful in life. Conscience was a representation of God’s law and man’s law; however, by redefining conscience, Richard places himself outside of the law and therefore free to pursue whatever course of action he deems appropriate.

Aesthetics play a large role in Richard’s success as he serves to redefine what is attractive. Aesthetics are the branch of philosophy dealing with the idea of what is beautiful and what is ugly. They help establish the meaning and the validity of critical judgments concerning the principles underlying or justifying the text and how the audience responds to it. Slotkin writes:

Richard combines two important sets of sinister conventions; a poetics of malevolent theatricality and a poetics of deformity. The play uses these conventions to deal with the contradictory theories about the relationship between aesthetics and ethics that plagued Renaissance theorists…Richard seduces most of his victims, not by successful deception… rather by an artful yet transparent gesturing at deception. The “palatable devices” allow the characters a complex, self conscious engagement with Richard. (Slotkin 7).

Richard is the focus for the aesthetics of “deformity” and becomes less ugly in the eyes of the other characters as he deceives them into believing he has good intentions.

Slotkin argues that Richard’s “sinister aesthetics” are his means of success. “To properly understand how evil can [be appealing] we need to take into account the aesthetic conventions governing representations of evil. These conventions…do not merely appropriate pleasurable representational techniques for depicting beauty and virtue, not do they violate those conventions simply to disgust readers with ugliness” (Slotkin 8). Richard’s ugliness serves the purpose of showing the audience how characters knowingly choose to pursue the evil and the ugly over the good and the beautiful. The aesthetic appeal of Richard is that his external ugliness is simply a mirror of his internal corruption. This is appealing because rarely is the audience given a character whose appearance is directly related to the condition of his internal being, his soul.

Richard uses his appearance and his deformity as a tool to gain the sympathy of his audience; however, Richard’s evil is an innate part of his character, a mirror for the hideous condition of his soul. His monologues captivate the audience and they are willing to overlook his flaws because of his skill as an orator. After he is crowned kind, however, Richard’s monologues end and the audience is able to truly appreciate the sinister aesthetics of the man. Once Richard stops exerting his charisma on the audience, his real nature becomes much more apparent, and by the end of the play he can be seen for the monster that he truly is.

Richard’s ability to create a persona for himself allows the audience to experience a complex, ambiguous, and highly changeable relationship with him. Richard is both the protagonist and the villain of his story, as he himself makes abundantly clear in his opening speech. He declares in this speech that he intends to stop at nothing to achieve his evil plans, namely taking control of the throne of England. However, this knowledge of his intentions does not prevent the audience from becoming captivated by him. Despite his open allegiance to evil, Richard is such a charismatic figure and has such a grasp on decorum and what is expected of him, that for much of the play the audience is sympathetic to his cause. In this way, the audience’s relationship with Richard mimics the other characters’ relationships with him, conveying a powerful sense of the force of his personality driven by the “sinister aesthetics” of his appearance.

Work Cited

Burton, Dolores M (1981). Discourse and Decorum in the First Act of Richard III. Shakespeare Studies, 14, 55-84.

Shakespeare, William. Four Great Histories: Henry IV Part 1 & Part 2, Henry V, Richard III. New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 2006.

Slotkin, Joel Elliot (2007). Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies. 7. 1, 5-32.

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