Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

In the Giving Vein: The Pop-Cultural Legacy of Olivier's Richard III

"The Dark History of a Wounded King." Life magazine. Clipping in a scrapbook, circa 1956. Folger Shakespeare Library.

“The Dark History of a Wicked King,” Life magazine. Clipping in a scrapbook, circa 1956. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Has any other film of a Shakespeare play left a greater cultural legacy than Laurence Olivier’s Richard III? Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet just celebrated its 50th anniversary and is timeless to its many fans, while Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet has many supporters (and possibly even more detractors), but has either film been as widely imitated or inspired others as much? From Peter Sellers reciting the lyrics to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” while dressed as and sounding like Olivier’s Richard, to Francis Urquhart and Frank Underwood in the British and American versions of House of Cards conspiring directly to the camera and charming the audience so that we become complicit in their villainy, both Shakespeare’s play and Olivier’s interpretation of it have left a larger-than-I-would-have-imagined cultural footprint.


Very fun read. I’d never heard of the “The Court Jester” before now; I ended-up playing a bunch of clips from the film (via YouTube) for my kids tonight (ages 7 and 9) to delight all around! Can’t wait to see the whole thing.

Phil O. — January 22, 2019

As much as I love Olivier, Richard III the play, and Richard III the King, I can’t agree that Olivier’s 1955 film had a greater cultural impact that Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. I’ll never forget when I first saw Zeffirelli’s film with my 9th grade class. Romeo and Juliet was our introduction to Shakespeare, and viewing the Zeffirelli film was our reward for surviving our first foray into Early Modern English in iambic pentameter. The Zeffirelli film was used in 9th-grade classrooms throughout the U.S. for my entire generation. I used it with my students when I became an English teacher; it’s simply the seminal, most ubiquitous version of the play. Since Romeo and Juliet is a fairly standard part of the curriculum in this country, I believe there are very few people in my generation onward who have not seen Zeffirelli’s film. In contrast, I did not see Olivier’s Richard III until well into adulthood. I’m afraid most people in my generation and onward are not familiar with it at all.
I do realize you are considering the artistic influences of Olivier’s production on filmmakers that followed, rather than focusing solely on the quantity of viewers. I’m not a film expert, so I can’t really speak to that angle, except to one small point you made about Olivier’s choice to have Richard speak directly to the audience. This may have been unusual for a film at the time, but it is, in fact, a stage direction for the play (called an “aside”). Olivier was simply staying true to the source material in this example.

Tanya — January 23, 2019

So glad! THE COURT JESTER was a staple in our house when our kids were little, too…as was, interestingly, then they got to be young teens, Branagh’s HENRY V.

Austin Tichenor — January 23, 2019

Great fun. Thanks for your thoughts. Want to include john Barrymore’s Hamlet (1923) and Richard III (1920) on Broadway. They also did good things for their audiences, no matter what Mr Barrymore’s condition was on the night.

John Madill — January 23, 2019

The Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet is fine. . .so long as you don’t require your actors to know how to speak blank verse and are fine with having actors who appear to have no understanding whatsoever of what the words they are speaking actually mean. Or if you are okay with having your actor playing Romeo, in this case Leonard Whiting, tell an interviewer, “I find Shakespeare very boring,” and that “I don’t think of [Romeo and Juliet] as poetry at all” (this in the play containing some of the greatest lyrical poetry in all of Shakespeare). Thanks, but I’ll take Olivier any day. Actually, I believe it is his film of Henry V, moreso than Richard III, that has proven to have the greatest legacy.

Thursday Next — January 23, 2019

[…] In the Giving Vein: The Pop-Cultural Legacy of Olivier’s Richard III. Austin Tichenor writes about the surprising pop-cultural, and often silly, echoes of Laurence Olivier’s classic movie—in itself a sign of its impact. Among other absurd echoes, he discusses a Peter Sellers parody, Monty Python parallels, and TV villains with an Olivier / Richard III take on their roles. […]

Richard III: My Kingdom for a Horse - Shakespeare & Beyond — August 24, 2021