Historicized Usurpations

William Shakespeare’s King Richard III and Macbeth carry out analogous deeds of treachery and endure comparable fates in their rises by sin to the throne.  However, their personalities differ such that Richard III is innately willing to execute anything and anyone to satisfy his quest for the crown, while Macbeth must be spurred by his wife to realize royal ambition.  Both men murder innocents, including children, and act with varying degrees of guilt, the combination of which leads to their downfalls.  Shakespeare drew both historical tragedies predominantly from Holinshed’s Chronicles, but had to take many liberties with the truth, as he knew it, to accomplish his dramatic objectives with the plays and characters.  The Renaissance histories for the reigns of the last Yorkist king and the Scottish usurper from the turn of the second millennium were factually inaccurate and mere springboards for the playwright and subject of the monarchy.


Shakespeare’s historical tragedy of King Richard III is a piece of art, not a text of facts. The play, first performed in 1592 or 1593, focuses on the York’s villainy and murders that propel him to sovereignty in 1483 and to his 1485 defeat at Bosworth Field by Richmond, who would become Tudor King Henry VII (Gunby 8).  The main source for Richard’s character is from More’s 1513 The History of King Richard the Thirde (Mabillard).  This volume, considered literature by many scholars, shaped the historical outlook of future Tudor historians by painting a dark picture of Richard’s crippled physique and murderous spirit (Gunby 13).  Shakespeare drew Richard’s character from More, who recounts the numerous murders and incorrigible ambition attributed to a man “little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right, hard fauoured of visage, and suche as is in states called warlye, in other menne otherwise” (More 7).  No account from Richard’s life mentions any physical deformity; however, More intimated this medieval symbol of evil, which Shakespeare wove into the play (“Richard III Society: Myth vs. Fact”).  Shakespeare focused on Richard’s character as the ideal villain, as More emphasized, while slightly subduing the complicated and uncertain truth for his plot taken from other sources (Gunby 50).

Shakespeare derived his plot mostly from Holinshed’s 1577 Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, the standard history text of the time, which was derived from 15 other major historical sources available at the end of the 16th century (11).  Holinshed drew most of his information from Hall’s 1550 The Union of the Two Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, which was dramatically influenced by More’s record (Mabillard ).  Hall added information about Prince Edward’s capture and death, Richard’s response to Buckingham’s request to be Earl of Hereford, Buckingham’s aversion to the murder of the innocent princes and stories from the Battle of Bosworth, all of which Shakespeare incorporated into his play (Gunby 15).  Chronicles synthesizes and condenses all the information from these two sources, and omits many of Richard’s finer characteristics (15-16).  Holinshed contributed plot points used by Shakespeare and not found in previous annals, including Richard’s visit to Exeter and the description of Henry VI’s wounds (15).

Shakespeare himself adjusted history in manipulating the chronology of events for dramatic effect in the play, especially in the first two acts.  The playwright contrived the death of Henry VI, Richard’s courtship of Anne, the imprisonment and death of Clarence, and the death of Edward IV to appear almost contemporaneous, even though the events occurred over a 12-year span (19).  He adapts the popular belief that the two prince-sons of Edward IV were murdered by Tyrell under Richard’s orders, even though the truth of their fates is still a mystery (“The Princes in the Tower”).  Shakespeare selected the historical details from Holinshed and its roots that he found useful, then fleshed out the characters and plot to meet his artistic aspirations.

The manifestation of his aestheticism was intrinsically intertwined with the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I on the throne.  All of Shakespeare’s sources were written under her family’s rule and about the last king from the House of York, the family whom the Tudors deposed to seize power.  Shakespeare cannot be faulted for historical inaccuracies or his depiction of Richard as an evildoer as More, Hall and Holinshed were subject to writing with a Tudor bias over faithful reports of history; Shakespeare’s play was based from the viewpoint of the English in his time (Moore “Richard III Society”).  In concluding his play that would be performed for the royal family among others, Shakespeare glorified the Tudor victory and York defeat by suggesting that evil had been suppressed at Bosworth and peace would be restored to England.  In Richmond’s last speech in the final scene, he remarks that the usurping Richard is dead, and hopes, “Oh, now let Richmond and Elizabeth,/ The true succeeders of each royal house,/ By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together” (5.5.29-31).  Marking reverence to Elizabeth I, an heir to Richmond and Elizabeth, Shakespeare writes for Richmond, “And let thy heirs, God, if thy will be so/ Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,/ With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days” (5.5.32-34).  The playwright meets the expectations of his entire audience in dramatizing the history commonly accepted in Renaissance England without compromising the artistic integrity of this play about an usurping king.

Shakespeare adapted the known truth of another usurping king in writing Macbeth, and tweaked it to enhance dramatic effect and royal esteem.  The tragedy based on the historical Scottish regicides was written and performed in the summer of 1606 for James VI of Scotland, who recently became James I of England after the 1603 death of Elizabeth I (Dagleish viii).  As the murders of Macbeth were committed 550 years earlier, only basic facts were available to Shakespeare, who consequently had a great deal of latitude in manipulating the characters and plot (Whately 10).  The story Shakespeare reworked was clearly based on Holinshed’s Chronicles, which was derived from Boece’s 1527 Scotorum Historiae (Mabillard).  Shakespeare followed the sequence of events set forth by Holinshed, especially with regard to Macbeth’s murders and downfall, but noticeably branched out for Macbeth’s character and Banquo’s goodness.

The playwright sought a more complex Macbeth than Holinshed offers, so Shakespeare consulted Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia (Mabillard).  Buchanan presents Macbeth as “a man of penetrating genius, a high spirit, unbounded ambition, and, if he had possessed moderation, was worthy of any command however great; but in punishing crimes he exercised a severity, which, exceeding the bounds of the laws, appeared apt to degenerate into cruelty” (Mabillard).  Shakespeare incorporated most of this description into Macbeth’s character with the exception of the Scot’s savagery.  Although he is responsible for the murders of many men, Macbeth is far from ruthless, as he is a noble and kind man before the slaying of Duncan (Mabillard).  This change too has the effect of enhancing the development of Macbeth’s character.

Another illustration of Shakespeare’s divergence from historical accounts for the sake of drama is the introduction of Macbeth in the play.  Holinshed first mentions Macbeth by calling him a “valiant gentleman, and one that, if he had not beene somewhat cruell of nature, might baue been though most worthie the gouernment of a realme” (Dagleish 9).  Macbeth is immediately commanded by King Duncan to suppress MakDowald’s rebellion, as he is in Shakespeare’s version (10).  In Holinshed’s Chronicles Macbeth finds the rebel’s corpse inside of a castle, and proceeds to order MakDowald’s head to be sent to Duncan (10).  Shakespeare, on the other hand, used the Captain in the second scene to announce,

For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—

Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel

Which smok’d with bloody execution,

Like valour’s minion carv’d out his passage

Till he fac’d the slave;

Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him

Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,

And fix’d his head upon out battlements.      (1.2.16-23)

This speech, unlike Holinshed’s narration, details a more interesting story that elevates the heroic image of Macbeth, thereby creating a greater potential plunge for the tragic character (Mabillard).

Shakespeare made another amendment by aggrandizing the character of Banquo mostly to please King James.  At the time, the Scottish king was believed to be a direct descendant of Banquo, a conspirator in Duncan’s murder according to Holinshed (Mabillard).  The historian writes that Macbeth, “communicating his purposed intent with his trustie friends, amongst whome Banquho was the chiefest, upon confidence of their promised aid, he slue the king           at Enuerns…” (Dagleish 13).  Shakespeare’s version of Banquo is an honorable soldier who is ignorant of Macbeth’s murderous plans.  His morality adds to the tension between good and the Macbeths’ evil.  Shakespeare’s change of recorded history through exculpating the king’s ancestor and dramatizing his link to the throne as a murderer also has the effect of not insulting the royal patron (Mabillard).  Shakespeare adapted the accounts of history known to him in weaving story lines that pleased the different monarchs while developing the ambitious protagonists.

On the surface, Richard and Macbeth are closely related as soldiers blinded from morality by ambition for unlawful claims to kingships.  The most central difference is the root of the ambition, which is revealed by both men through the murders of sitting kings and innocents.  Their individual expressions of guilt vary based on these different roots, but their subsequent downfalls are analogous based on their usurped positions.

Richard’s ambition stems from pride in his propensity and lack of hesitation to commit evil. Shakespeare does little to humanize More’s account of Richard as the ambitious, duplicitous fiend:

Hee was close and secrete, a deepe dissimuler, lowlye, of counteynaunce, arrogant of heart, outwardly coumpinable where he inwardely hated, not letting to kisse whome hee thoughte to kyll: dispitious and cruell, not for euill will alway, but after for ambicion, and either for the suretie or encrease of his estate. Frende and foo was muche what indifferent, where his advauntage grew, he spared no man deathe, whose life withstoode his purpose.    (More 8).

This Tudor description of Richard paints him as a man only in body, as his ambition and arrogance will lead him down any path of immorality if it would aid in his pursuit for royal power.  In Richard III’s opening soliloquy, which is dark in meaning but light in tone, the title character pronounces, “I am determinèd to prove a villain” (1.1.30).  By “determinèd,” Richard suggests that he is destined to villainy, and resolved to pursue this fate.  His natural depravity is indicated by his deformed posture due to his hunchback (Whately 16).  As Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, Part 3 two years earlier, a younger version of the same character says of himself after stabbing an already dead King Henry, “I, that have neither pity, love, nor fear (5.6.68).  This heartlessness is preserved and further demonstrated in Richard III, especially in his order for the murder of the two princes, the rightful heirs to the snatched throne (Whately 16).

Even though Macbeth too steals the crown through murder of the king and innocent people he deems to be threats, he is not a heartless criminal.  Macbeth is introduced as a brave soldier loyal to King Duncan with a clear sense of right and wrong (Kemble 168).  His ambition was planted in him by the witches, and amplified by his ambitious wife (168).  The three witches were taken from Holinshed’s Chronicles, in which they prophesize in the corresponding scene, “‘All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis!’…‘Haile Makbeth thane of Cawder!’…‘All haile Makbeth that hereafter shalt be king of Scotland!’” (Dagleish 13).  In Shakespeare’s Act 1 Scene 3, the three witches make the same prophecy to Macbeth and pronounce that Banquo will be the father of kings.  At the time the prognostication is made, Macbeth knows he is Thane of Glamis, but is unaware that Duncan named him Thane of Cawdor after his suppression of Macdonwald.  Both Holinshed and Shakespeare show Macbeth as being initially averse to obtaining the kingdom by force from Duncan and his heirs; however, in Holinshed’s account Macbeth decides for himself to seek counsel for usurping the throne (13).

Shakespeare added more drama and tension by increasing Macbeth’s reluctance to consider regicide seriously until his wife goads him.  Lady Macbeth is plotting to have her husband kill Duncan as soon as she receives Macbeth’s letter describing the witches’ prophecy.  She soliloquizes that her husband’s nature “is too full o’ the milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way.  Thou wouldst be great,/ Art not without ambition, but without/ The illness should attend it” (1.5.16-19).  She recognizes Macbeth’s ambition but also his noble character; thus she plans to take matters into her own hands.  As Holinshed explicates, “speciallie his wife lay sore upon him to attempt the thing, as she that was verie ambitious, burning in unquenchable desire to beare the name of a queene” (Dagleish 13).  This is Holinshed’s only mention of Macbeth’s wife, which indicates that this complicatedly ambitious matriarch sprung more from Shakespeare’s imagination than historical fact.  After she urges her husband to kill the king while he is in their home, Macbeth soliloquizes reservations based predominantly on his honorable sense that killing the great and virtuous Duncan is too terrible of a sin to commit.  He concludes, “I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself/ And falls on the other (1.7.25-28).  Macbeth’s only reason to kill Duncan is ambition, compared to a horse, which he decides will lead to a downfall.  Macbeth receives his spur in the form of Lady Macbeth, who enters immediately after these lines.  She prods him by calling the soldier a “coward,” questioning his manhood and saying the she would have killed their baby feeding at her breast before she would back out of the plot (1.7.39-59).  By the end of the short scene, Macbeth folds his moral instincts and sets forth on his plunge of killing innocents.

After resolving to commit murders for the procurements of their crowns, Richard III and Macbeth kill one blameless obstruction after another to secure their fresh kingships.  Both kings are ascribed of committing several murders, including many that they did not do, but the most significant, implied by both Holinshed and Shakespeare are their orders for the executions of young threats.

In one of his first acts as king, Richard charges Tyrell to slay Edward IV’s sons, which marks the last act before his complete crumble (Kemble 106).  With respect to the order, he resolves, “But I am in/ So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin./ Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (4.2.64-66).  The king recognizes the trail of blood that he took to his present state, and concludes that one more heinous act will not trespass his moral threshold.  In the scene following Tyrell’s description of the murder of the princes to Richard, the king fails to secure Queen Elizabeth’s consent to marry her daughter, learns of revolts against him in England, including ones led by his former supporter Buckingham and his greatest threat, Richmond.  Richard finally develops an idea of the wrong he executed during his forlorn downfall.


Macbeth’s failed scheme to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance, signals the end of his success (Kemble 107).  In light of the witches’ original prophecy and Banquo’s great suspicion of the Macbeth in Act 3 Scene 1, Macbeth, in his first scene as king, orders two men to kill Banquo and Fleance.  The murderers carry out their duty with Banquo, but Fleance escapes.  Holinshed comments, “After the contrived slaughter of Banquho, nothing prospered with the foresaid Makbeth,” as he was feared by the entire kingdom (Dagliesh 15).  In the banquet of the subsequent scene, the ghost of Banquo haunts Macbeth, who appreciates, “I am in blood/ Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.136-138).  Like Richard comments following the execution of his analogous deed, Macbeth realizes that he has crossed a moral line and accounts for his action by reasoning that retreating would be as difficult as persisting (Lull 19).  Macbeth continues his spiral as Hecate, queen of the witches, pushes Macbeth to act even more wickedly in the next scenes by warning him about Macduff, Thane of Fife.  Macbeth proceeds to act without reason in making the fatal mistake of ordering the onstage execution of Macduff’s wife and young son.  Entering the final Act, Macbeth continues his unsound acceptance of the witches’ clairvoyant remarks all the way to his defeat in battle.

On their descents to defeat, the two monarchs take spiritually different routes.  Richard is able to retain his wicked senses of reason and humor throughout most of his murders, but cannot ultimately suppress his conscience.  The Scot does not mask his more upright character, as he is frightfully plagued by guilt from the murder of Duncan to Macbeth’s own death.  In so doing, Shakespeare further deviated from Holinshed, who wrote Macbeth as a more remorseless man.

From the opening soliloquy until his murderous order for the two princes, Richard would make a wry remark as easily as he would murder a man lying in his way to the kingship.  A few lines before ordering the execution of his older brother Clarence, Richard muses, “And thus I clothe my naked villainy/ With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,/ And seem a saint when most I play the devil” (1.3.336-338).  Richard relishes playing with his evil and perceived character, such that ordering two strangers to kill his brother does not faze him.  As Hastings remarks, shortly before Richard condemns him to death, “His grace looks cheerfully and smooth this morning./ There’s some conceit or other likes him well/ When that he bids good morrow with such sprit” (3.4.48-50).  Although Hastings as a character is too trusting of Richard, he does accurately notice that Richard continues to be light-hearted and not bogged down by the murders tainting his dormant conscience.

As Holinshed had done before him, Shakespeare marked the emergence of fear and guilt in Richard after the innocent princes were murdered.  Holinshed comments that the few years between the murder of the princes and the death of Richard were “spent in much paine & trouble outward, much feare, anguish and sorrow within.  For I haue heard by credible report of such as were secret with his chamberlaine, that after this abominable déed doone, he neuer had a quiet mind” (Holinshed 402).  The Tudor historian disparaged Richard for being weak as much as humanized the villain for having a conscience.  Shakespeare used this murder as the sin that stirs Richard’s sense of guilt.  The first explicit signal of distress comes when Richard inquires about the execution of the princes:

Richard: Kind Tyrrel, am I happy in thy news?

Tyrrel: If to have done the thing you gave in charge

Beget your happiness, be happy then,

For it is done.

Richard: But did’st thou see them dead?

Tyrrel: I did, my lord.

Richard: And buried, gentle Tyrrel?      (4.3.24-28)

Richard asks impatiently and hastily, as suggested by the breaks in the final two lines, about the completeness of the murder.  Shakespeare did not write a similar scene in which Richard inquires about the successful execution of Clarence, as this murder of innocents has a different effect.  Richard’s emotional unrest is worse and more explicit in the next act, when he asks for solitude to draw up his plans for battle and states, “Give me a bowl of wine./ I have not that alacrity of spirit/ Nor cheer of mind that I was wont to have” (5.3.74-76).  Richard’s request for wine, his second such demand in the scene, can be construed as a plea for an antidote that will return him to his previous, more powerful state of mind.  Richard, who is subsequently haunted by the ghosts of those he has killed, soliloquizes, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me?” (5.3.182).  A few lines later, he confesses to Ratcliffe, “I fear, I fear” (5.3.215).  Richard is no longer an arrogant fiend, but is crippling to a man haunted by his guilty conscience and fearful of his impending doom.

Macbeth is plagued by his sin from the murder of Duncan to the usurper’s death in battle.  Unlike Richard who is typically jovial, Macbeth the murderer is constantly agitated and serious (Whatley 23-24).  Immediately following the killing, Macbeth hallucinates that he is hearing noises, and uneasily cries, “Who’s there? What, ho!” when Lady Macbeth enters (2.2.9).  A few lines later, he complains that he cannot pronounce “Amen,” thus is unable to pray to God (2.2.29-33).  Macbeth is obviously uncomfortable with his action, especially in comparison to Richard.  Lady Macbeth tries to tell her husband to regain rationality and clean up the evidence; notwithstanding, Macbeth says, “I’ll go no more:/ I am afraid to think what I have done;/ Look on ‘t again I dare not” (2.2.50-52).  Lady Macbeth realizes her husband’s incapacity, and clears up the traces of the murder that lead back to Macbeth.  The usurped king is uneasy and haunted for the remainder of the play, during which time he abandons his natural rationality in hopelessly committing more murders of innocents to maintain the throne.  After Lady Macbeth has a manic sleepwalking episode in Act 5 Scene 1, Macbeth asks her doctor:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain,

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of the perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?            (5.3.40-45)

Macbeth is literally asking the doctor if there is some magical cure for his wife’s ailment, but he is also hopelessly inquiring for some such fix for himself.  Macbeth’s request is analogous to Richard’s, as both are made too late to absolve the usurpers of their sins.

Both wrongful occupations of the thrones were brief, ending in bloody battles after which the rightful heirs return to power.  Richard and Macbeth’s downfalls of solitude and bravery, as written by Shakespeare, partially follow the deaths as described by Holinshed, but are historically inaccurate.  Holinshed made no mention of Richard or Macbeth being alone, yet Shakespeare added the feeling of abandonment to both.  The two men valiantly died in battle, but historically were not defeated as Shakespeare dramatized.

The end of Richard’s plunge was concocted predominantly by Shakespeare.  Even though Holinshed made no such comment, Shakespeare added a description of Richard’s solitude by Blunt two scenes before the Battle of Bosworth: the king “hath no friends but what are friends for fear,/ Which in his dearest need will fly from him” (5.2.20-21).  The famed horse mentioned in Act 5 Scene 4 is another twist on Chronicles, but was derived more directly from the anonymous 1594 play The True Tragedy of Richard III (Mabillard).  Holinshed depicted Richard with a horse in his final moments, but the king was too proud to flee from imminent death in battle (Holinshed 445).  The anonymous play slightly twisted the horse story to a form comparable to Richard’s resolute line in the Shakespeare version, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” (5.4.7).  Richard’s final moments when he is fighting man to man with and ultimately slain by Richmond is accurate according to Holinshed (Holinshed 444).  However, all primary sources indicate that the kind was killed in battle and not specifically by the future King Henry VII (Gunby 48).

Likewise, Macbeth’s death was more dramatically interesting than historically correct.  There is no substantive record of Macbeth’s personal relationships immediately before his death, so Shakespeare added information that suited his play.  Similar to Richard in both meaning and language, Macbeth remarks shortly before his final battle, “The thanes fly from me” (5.3.49).  Duncan’s son Malcolm adds to the isolated image of Macbeth in commenting, “And none serve with him but constrained things/ Whose hearts are absent too” (5.4.14-15).  For the final battle with Macduff, Shakespeare practically copied the Holinshed’s dialogue of Macduff’s response to Macbeth’s prophecy that he would not be killed by a man born naturally from a woman.  Holinshed wrote that Macduff said that he “was neuer borne of my mother, but ripped out of her wombe” (Dagleish 20); in comparison, Shakespeare ascribed to Macduff the lines “Macduff was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripp’d” (5.7.44-45).  Only in Shakespeare’s play does Macbeth deliver final lines that valiantly fit a warrior.  Along the same lines of hopeless determination as Richard’s plea for a fresh horse, Macbeth cries, “Lay on, Macduff,/ And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’” (5.7.62-63).   In both versions of the story, Macduff decapitates Macbeth, then brings the usurper’s head to Malcolm, the new king of Scotland.  However, the truth is that a few years after this fabricated scene, on August 15, 1057 in Lumphanan, Malcolm was the one who defeated and killed Macbeth (“Scotland’s Past – Macbeth”).  Shakespeare followed Holinshed’s conclusion to the story because he presumably did not know that Malcolm had slain Macbeth, and Macduff’s exacting revenge is a strong dramatic finish to the play.

Shakespeare’s plays do not completely adhere to the historical facts of the lives of the two soldiers turn monarch, but the artistic works do present plots and characters that were embraced by his entire audience.  With several exceptions, Shakespeare followed the histories available to him about Richard III and Macbeth.  Without sacrificing his artistic integrity, the playwright deviated from the facts, as he knew them, to flesh out his complex characters, and elevate the drama of the usurpers’ sinful rises to and crippling falls from their thrones.


Cited

Dalgleish, Walter Scott.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1976.

Gunby, D.C.  Shakespeare: Richard III.  London: Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., 1980.

Holinshed, Raphael.  Chronicles.  Ed. Vernon Snow.  Vol. 3.  New York: AMS Press, 1976.

Kemble, John.  Macbeth and King Richard III.  London: J. Murray, 1817.

Mabillard, Amanda. “Shakespeare’s Sources for Macbeth.” 2000.  Shakespeare Online.

Moore, James.  “Richard III Society—James A. Moore, Historicity.”  29 Nov. 1995.  Richard III Society American Branch.

More, St. Thomas.  Complete Works of St. Thomas More.  Ed. Richard Sylvester.  Vol. 2.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.

“Richard III Society: Myth vs. Fact.”  18 Jan. 1998.  Richard III Society of Canada. <http://www.cgocable.net/~tbryce/No_frames/myths.html>

“Scotland’s Past – Macbeth.”  2001.  Scotland’s Past. <http://www.endat.com/scotpast/macbeth.asp>

Shakespeare, William
Henry VI, Part 3.  Ed. William Montgomery.  New York: Penguin Books, Inc., 2000.

King Richard III.  Ed. Janis Lull.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Macbeth.  Ed. Roma Gill.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

The Society-History.”  Richard III Society.

Whately, Thomas.  Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare.  London: Collingwood

and Co., 1808.

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