Why do we love Richard so?
Why is it that this notable tyrant, capable of the foulest deeds, and seemingly irredeemable, is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters? Richard III is Shakespeare’s first character to gain iconic status. It is a part that many stage actors have yearned to play, and many have defined their career by it.
Perhaps it is Richard’s masterful skill with language and witty wordplay? Or Shakespeare’s clever combination of well-known medieval modes like the Vice and Machiavelli, to create a dazzling, transformative puppet-master. Is it the alarming and thrilling pace at which Richard turns thought into action? Or maybe it is due to his close and conspiratorial relationship with the audience? Richard famously delivers twelve soliloquies and four asides: he dominates the play. So, do we spend so much time seeing things from his perspective that the other characters merely become pawns in his show? Academic Anthony Miller notes that, “There tends to be something dramatically appealing, even perversely admirable, in the villain who stands defiantly alone.”
Much like Iago, Richard invites, you could even say forces, his audience to be accomplices. His ‘honesty’ and openness with the audience is attractive and alluring. He confesses his predicament, his feelings, his resentments and, most importantly, his plans in the opening soliloquy, and the audience are immediately on board. Unlike Iago, Richard has a clear goal, the crown, and when the audience watch him feigning rejection of it, after witnessing him secretly destroying everything in his path to achieve it, it makes the victory even more tantalising. We watch him woo Lady Anne under almost impossible circumstances, and when he is victorious, he offers the audience a nod and wink stating, “Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour won?” (Act 1 Scene 2)
There are few recorded critical responses to the early performances of this play, but we can be certain of its appeal and success due to its multiple publications and frequency on the stage. A lot of the references to medieval politics and old theatrical traditions, that were so pertinent to 16th- and 17th-century audiences, may be lost, but there are common grounds of appeal across the centuries. Shakespearean commentator George Steevens praised the role in 1793 for its variety; to him, Shakespeare’s Richard played “the hero, the lover, the statesman, the buffoon, the hypocrite, the hardened and the repentant sinner”.
Is Richard III fact or fiction?
It has often been debated whether Richard III is just propaganda, celebrating the Tudor victory and slandering years of civil unrest caused by the Plantagenet wars, or ‘War of the Roses’. When Shakespeare wrote Richard III, there was anxiety over who would succeed Queen Elizabeth I, the final Tudor monarch. So, did Shakespeare bring Richard back to life in such a bad light to appease and honour Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of Henry VII (Richmond)? Did he vilify Richard to highlight the successes of the House of Tudor? Or was he leaning into his audience’s fears of a potentially tyrannical succession?
For historians, Shakespeare’s Richard III is riddled with factual errors, poor chronology and misplaced geography. Shakespeare omits and invents, and seems more interested in dramatic potential than historical accuracy. He rearranges actual locations to suit plot points and travel times, and accounts tell us he completely concocted Richard’s involvement in his brother Clarence’s murder, when in reality he was upset by it. Shakespeare’s Richard lays claims to murders that aren’t historically attributed to him, and in his earlier work, Henry VI Part 2, Richard kills Somerset, yet factually he would have only been two years old at this particular battle. Shakespeare brings Queen Margaret back from her banishment in France from which she historically never returned, and affords her the opportunity to confront Richard. He also completely invents Richard’s wooing of Anne at her father-in-law’s funeral.
But 400 years later do we care? Or should we care?
Firstly, Shakespeare takes such dramatic license in all of his texts, it is not just reserved for Richard III. Secondly, he wasn’t the first writer to craft Richard in this light, if we look at the works of Polydore Vergil (1534) and Sir Thomas More (1543 and 1557). More importantly, many of Shakespeare’s additions in this play are masterful creations; increasing tension and time constraints, and allowing for conflicts and tete a tetes that could never have taken place. What dramatist wouldn’t take the artistic liberty of throwing two characters from history in one room and letting them ‘have it out’?
Many historians and avid Richard III supporters are incensed by the gruesome and villainous image Shakespeare has painted of him. They resent him being falsely remembered. In fact, rebuttals to Shakespeare’s Richard came as early as 1619 (Sir George Buck), and in 1844 Caroline Halsted published a historic volume describing Richard as, “a splendid human being and an efficient and beneficent monarch”. These two opposing images of Richard have been in circulation ever since, neither one factually confirmed. However, it begs the question, would Richard be so notorious, and so much in people’s minds if not for Shakespeare’s popular depiction of him?
In response, academic Marjorie Garber points out that just as Shakespeare has hijacked and twisted accounts of this monarch, history itself is often a controlled and manipulated narrative. For Richard P. Wheeler, what these “Tudor apologists” fail to see is that Shakespeare “presents a history stripped of all illusion and mythology, indeed, of all meaning, a cruel, amoral, impersonal history of manipulators and victims.”
Historical facts, dates and locations aside, perhaps it is Shakespeare’s exaggeration of Richard’s physical deformity that sits most poorly with our 21st-century audience. And that is something for current directors to think about when bringing him to the stage. However, we still must ask... are the slanders thrown at Richard in this play Shakespeare’s beliefs, or just those of his flawed characters? Did Shakespeare magnify Richard’s outward deformities and the ill treatment they received to give him an inner motivation? As Richard says:
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…
Act 1, Scene 1
With Richard being a famously unreliable narrator, and Shakespeare notoriously elusive, perhaps we’ll never know.
Should we have empathy for Richard?
21st-century audiences still revel in Richard’s charming malevolence; however, they can also empathise deeply with a person who is marginalised and verbally attacked for their appearance. Richard receives a lifetime of abuse for his physical shortcomings. Margaret calls him an “elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog” (Act 1, Scene 3), and his own mother, the Duchess of York, proposes that she might have prevented his birth by “strangling [him] in her accursed womb” (Act 4, Scene 4). Richard even says of himself that he is “rudely stamp’d... deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time”. 17th-century audiences may have understood the metaphorical significance of Richard’s outward and inner corruption. Perhaps today, directors and audiences can’t help but see, and empathise with, a human, whose twisted actions are the product of blatant psychological abuse. It is therefore interesting to consider whether Richard’s hatred and villainy is a product of ‘nature or nurture’.