Before Richard, Duke of Gloucester, kills Henry VI in Henry VI, Part Three, the prescient king predicts the devastation that Richard will inflict in his relentless pursuit of the throne, saying “And thus I prophesy, that many a thousand,/Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear…Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born” (5.6.37-44). Henry’s prophecy proves true in Richard III, the final of Shakespeare’s plays in the tetralogy illustrating the War of the Roses, during which Richard, a deformed, duplicitous, yet sometimes masterfully charming villain, creeps into power with cunning malevolence, leaving a string of murdered kinsmen and supposed allies in his wake. First performed in 1594 by the Lord Chamberlain’s men with famed Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage in the titular role, Richard III was a great success that drew large audiences, earned five quarto publications during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and solidified Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright who excelled in dramatizing English history.
In composing Richard III, Shakespeare carefully appeased royal egos and drew from historical and literary sources. By depicting Richard III as a man who is both physically and morally defective, even evil, Shakespeare perpetuated what scholars call the Tudor Myth, which emphasized the legitimacy and morality of the Tudor Dynasty. Queen Elizabeth was the granddaughter of Richmond, who, in defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, became King Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor Dynasty. Queen Elizabeth’s lineage and the expectation that playwrights would appeal to her worldview demanded that Shakespeare make the moral difference between the virtuous Richmond and the villainous Richard as clear-cut as possible in his play. Shakespeare drew from literary sources for Richard III that facilitated his depiction of a loathsome character; Thomas More’s History of King Richard the Third, Edward Halle’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke, and Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland all provided details about the physical and psychological makeup of a wickedly ambitious man.
Modern historians note that the historical Richard III, whose remains were found in parking lot in Leicester, England in 2012, was no doubt corrupt and criminally inclined but was also a strong administrator and organized leader. The enduring perception of Richard as a consummate villain with no redeeming qualities is in a large part due to Shakespeare’s portrayal of him, which illustrates the power of Shakespeare’s plays to influence the way we think about historical figures.
The elements of the Richard III that Shakespeare invented without relying on other sources demonstrates that he was primarily a dramatist, not a historian, and that he knew that captivating plays should not be limited by absolute historical accuracy. Despite the fact that the historical Queen Margaret died in exile before the events of Richard III, Shakespeare used her presence in the play and her curses and prophecies to incorporate the themes of revenge and just punishment that were crucial to the three parts of Henry VI. Delving into ideas of psychology and performance, Shakespeare emphasized Richard’s inherent theatricality, linking him to the character of Vice from morality plays and Elizabethan interpretations of clowns as heralds of dark comedy. Shakespeare crafted scenes like the one in which Richard woos Lady Anne, despite having killed her father-in-law and husband, to force the audience to question what characteristics can attract people to a villain. Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is ultimately the inventiveness, truth, and power of the language the characters speak that makes Richard III so compelling, suggesting that the lasting appeal of the history plays is Shakespeare’s ability to bring historical figures, and all their hopes, fears, and ambitions, to life onstage.
submitted by Samantha Smith, ASC Education and Development Coordinator