In “The Life of Alcibiades” in Plutarch’s Lives, North writes that the subject of the chapter could frame himself after the fashions and manners of anyone at all—from any country. He could, as North wrote, put on more colors than the chameleon—and even be taken for an Achilles while in Sparta. This chameleon-like ability to deceive, which helped him inspire trust during his travels, was clearly the source for Richard III’s claim to the same talents:
|North’s Plutarch’s Lives||Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI|
|(Margin: Alcibiades more changeable than the chameleon) he could frame …himself more easily to all manner of shapes than the chameleon. For it is reported, that the chameleon cannot take white color: but Alcibiades could put upon him any manners, customs, or fashions, of what nation soever and could follow, exercise, and counterfeit them when he would … As he that had seen him when he was at Sparta … would have said… “It is not the son of Achilles but Achilles self” (224)|| And frame my face to all occasions. … |
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages
|More changeable than the chameleon, |
frame … to all manner colour,
shapes Achilles [i.e., Greek at Troy]
|More-than, change-chameleon, |
frame … to all occasions, colors,
shapes Ulysses, Nestor, Sinon [i.e., Greeks at Troy]
Not only can Richard III and Alcibiades both put on more colors than the chameleon; they can also imitate certain Greeks who fought at Troy. Alcibiades could be taken as another Achilles; Richard III has the qualities of Nestor, Ulysses, and Sinon.
Notice also North’s use of the word counterfeit as a synonym for acting a part. Later, in Richard III (the sequel to 3 Henry VI), the titular king’s wicked assistant Buckingham would also use this word in a similar context. Specifically, Richard asked his henchman whether he has these same duplicitous and theatrical gifts, and the exchange again echoes this same passage of North. Buckingham also borrows a peculiar metaphor– to “tremble…at wagging of a straw”–from another passage of North.
Richard: Come, cousin, canst thou quake and change thy color, Murder thy breath in middle of a word …? Buckingham: Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian, Speak and look back, and pry on every side, Tremble and start at wagging of a straw; Intending deep suspicion, ghastly looks Are at my service, like enforcèd smiles; And both are ready in their offices, At any time, to grace my stratagems. (3.5.1-2, 5-11)
North writes that Alcibiades’s fashions and colors are changeable and that he can “counterfeit them when he would,” that is, take on “any manners” and do so at any time (i.e., “when he would”). Likewise, Buckingham, when asked if he can “change thy color,” responds that he “can counterfeit the deep tragedian” and modify his behavior “at any time.” Buckingham also brags that he can appear fearful of everything, “pry on every side, / Tremble and start at wagging of a straw; / Intending deep suspicion.” This too comes from North, who refers to those who are “fearful of every wagging of a straw,” leading to a man being “much suspected” (871).[i]
[i] Thomas North likely got the phrase “fearing the wagging of a straw” from Richard Taverner’s translation of Catonis disticha moralia ex castigatione D. Erasmi Roterodami, etc (London: Richard Tavener, 1553), Eii r-v. It is possible that Shakespeare was also following Taverner, but the context (and his myriad other borrowings from North) strongly suggest he was following North’s play and that North got it from his own Plutarch’s Lives.