William Shakespeare's Richard III: Brilliant Schemer, Entertaining Villain
William Shakespeare’s Richard III is no doubt a fascinating character and an entertaining villain. It is Shakespeare’s command of the English language, and his keen sense of drama and psychological depth, that make his plays so affecting and deeply memorable. Shakespeare was a brilliant playwright, but nevertheless, he was not a historian; Unfortunately for history, and for Richard, the power and appeal of his plays make this small fact easy to forget.
Shakespeare’s Richard is a brilliant schemer and manipulator, completely devoid of scruples of any kind. He also happens to be severely physically deformed. The inevitable feelings of inadequacy, envy, and frustration that this engenders are heightened when his military talents are no longer needed. As he beautifully explains at the beginning of Act I, “all the clouds that loured upon” the house of York are now “in the deep bosom of the ocean buried”. It seems the Wars of the Roses are finally over (for now), and unadapted as Richard is to “idle pleasures”, he has no alternative left but to divert himself by other means. He bluntly claims from the outset that he is “determined to prove a villain”. He then proceeds throughout the play to act on this assertion committing various acts of escalating treachery and cruelty. Early on in the play Richard demonstrates to us, using his brother Clarence, and his future wife, Lady Anne, as examples of his ability to control people’s perceptions and decisions, and his readiness to go as far as necessary to get what he wants.
One cannot help but wonder how Shakespeare came by this vivid characterization, and how much he really knew about the people he wrote about. The plain truth is that he didn’t really care. It is hard to blame Shakespeare for his harsh portrayal of Richard. Living as he did in the reign of Elizabeth I, granddaughter to Henry VII, he had access to a very limited range of facts. Naturally the Tudors, who destroyed the House of York at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, did not want the last Yorkist king to have a sympathetic image, hence the desire to bend the truth. The facts conveyed to Shakespeare, mostly through the medium of the irreproachable Thomas More, ended up every bit as mangled and deformed as the body of his fictional Richard. The saintly More himself of course, had his facts directly from the source – John Morton, the treacherous strawberry-cultivating bishop of Shakespeare’s play. Now, who can possibly doubt the evidence of someone who Richard had imprisoned for treason? But it wasn’t in Shakespeare’s plans to be subversive. He took what he was given and asked no questions.
The unbiased evidence of various chroniclers and legal documents, both before and after Richard’s reign, and both English and international, demonstrate that he was a just ruler, a caring uncle, and a loyal brother. He may not have been stunningly handsome by any standards, but he was definitely far from deformed – he was an able warrior (which even Shakespeare does not deny), and an excellent dancer. His reign as king was short, but not because he was stifled in his tangled web of evil plots, but rather because he lacked the faculty for intrigue that Shakespeare assigns to him.
Another striking discrepancy is Shakespeare’s insistence on mixing up and compressing dates and names, turning his historical backdrop into an unintelligible web of lost identities and missing years. Queen Elizabeth’s three brothers for instance (Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and Lord Scales), are actually a breakdown of her real brother, Anthony Woodville, who also happened to be Earl Rivers and Lord Scales. The entire play, which according to Richard’s opening monologue begins right after the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471), seems to take up only a year or two, as hardly any passage of time is allowed for in the text of the play. Richard hardly has time to express his dissatisfaction with the idleness of peacetime, when he rushes off to seduce Lady Anne, sending murderers to Clarence with one hand, and waving goodbye to the dying Edward with the other. He takes over the throne in mere minutes, sweeping the young princes aside, and already Henry Tudor is closing in. Naturally for the sake of pacing, Shakespeare needed to draw out the highlights from the fifteen years these events really took up. However, he doesn’t even put up a pretense of chronology, and events that had years between them happen in one scene. Shakespeare makes it amply obvious that he is prepared to cast all historical accuracy to the winds for the sake of his dramatic vision.
His vision by the way, unjust and scathing as it is to Richard, leads him somewhat astray from what the Tudors may have wanted as well. Shakespeare’s Richard may be the epitome of vice, but the heroic Richmond, who should in this context have been the avenging angel, crushing the forces of evil with his flaming sword, is just bland. Shakespeare is not interested in Richmond, and perhaps even a little bit daunted by the challenge of having to write about his Queen’s grandfather. His monologues are devoid of feeling and his character is too lifeless and formal to even seem virtuous.
Shakespeare really lets himself go with the character of Richard, however. He breathes vivid and poisonous life into More’s villainous but overly didactic creation. Constantly breaking away from the action of the play, Richard speaks directly to us, sharing his thoughts, his feelings, and his schemes. Shakespeare himself is swept up in awe of the skill, the malice, and the pure, exuberant wickedness of the character he has created. It is only with deep regret that he sends Richard off to die at Bosworth. Richard’s monologue after he is visited by the ghosts of his victims is meant to condemn him and his “hateful deeds”, to show that his conscience has finally caught up with him. It fulfills that purpose admirably, but at the same time as Richard despairingly claims, “there is no creature loves me, /And if I die no soul will pity me.” (V.3.212-213), we cannot help but realize that we do, and Shakespeare wants us to.
As Richmond pronounces his closing monologue after killing Richard, his empty righteousness forms a stark and melancholy contrast to Richard’s fiery malevolence. It is small wonder that the play’s full name is The Tragedy of Richard III, not The Victory of Henry VII. In a subconsciously ironic twist, while creating the ultimate popular image of Richard III, which shattered Richard’s reputation for generations, Shakespeare has also given him a way out of the obscure graveyard of Tudor propaganda. For his own artistic caprice, Shakespeare has let Richard win by making Henry Tudor’s victory emotionally insignificant. We forget Richmond as soon as the play ends, but we will always remember Richard.
Shakespeare, William, Burton Raffel, and Harold Bloom. Richard III. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.