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Richard III /

A Modern Perspective: Richard III

By Phyllis Rackin

From the standpoint of Tudor history, the most important event in Richard III is the conclusion, and the most important character is Richmond. The victory of Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather at Bosworth Field and his marriage to Elizabeth of York ended the Wars of the Roses and established the Tudor dynasty.1 On Shakespeare’s stage, however, the future Henry VII was a pallid figure with a minimal part, and he was not even mentioned on the title page of the first published edition, which identified the play as The Tragedy of Richard the third, Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his iunocent nephewes: his tyrannicall vsurpation: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserued death. The monstrous villain of Tudor history became the star of Shakespeare’s play. Almost always onstage, he dominates the dramatic action in a role that has attracted leading actors from Shakespeare’s time to our own. The most memorable scene in the play, moreover, is Richard’s courtship of Anne Neville, which had no relevance, either in history or in Shakespeare’s play, to his plot to win the throne. Richmond’s marriage to Elizabeth of York was the foundation of the Tudor dynasty, but we see nothing of their courtship or wedding, and the bride-to-be never even appears on Shakespeare’s stage.

Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard as a moral and physical monster has been discredited by modern historians, but it had ample precedents in Tudor historiography. A new dynasty whose founder had won his crown in battle, the Tudors fostered official histories that vilified Richard in order to authenticate their own claim to the throne. That Richard would be remembered as a monster during the reign of the Tudors is easily understandable; what is perhaps more difficult to understand is his popularity during that same period as a subject for theatrical representation.2 A Latin play Richardus Tertius, written by Thomas Legge and performed at Cambridge in 1579, was repeatedly copied in manuscript and much admired during the period. An anonymous play entitled The True Tragedy of Richard III, published in 1594, continued to be performed well into the seventeenth century. Shakespeare’s Richard III was one of his most popular plays, the subject of numerous contemporary references and an exceptionally large number of early reprints.3

This contradiction between Richard’s villainous role in Tudor historiography and his popularity on the Tudor stage points to the very different functions served by historical writing and theatrical performance in Shakespeare’s time. History was an honorable institution, respected as a source of practical wisdom and moral edification. Sir Thomas Elyot, the English humanist, made it the center of his educational program: “Surely if a noble man do thus seriously and diligently rede histories,” he wrote, “I dare affirme there is no studie or science for him of equal commoditie and pleasure, havynge regarde to every tyme and age.”4 As Elyot’s title—The Boke Named the Gouernour—suggests, the projected audience for history came from the upper reaches of the social hierarchy. So did its subjects. Having a history, in fact, was equivalent to having a place in the status system. As the prefatory letter to Hall’s Union explained, “what diversitie is betwene a noble prince & a poore begger . . . if after their death there be left of them no remembrance or token.” Just as the Tudor monarchs fostered histories that justified their claim to the throne, Tudor subjects provided a thriving business for the heralds who constructed coats of arms to represent real or fabricated genealogies that would authorize their status as gentlemen.

Written during a time of rapid cultural change, Tudor history looked to the past to stabilize a hierarchical status system based on heredity, a system threatened by the unprecedented social mobility produced by an increasingly commercial economy. The commercial theater was a recent innovation, associated with many of the disturbing changes that threatened to destabilize the social order. The official status system was based on inheritance, which determined the place each person should occupy. But playhouses were open to anyone who could afford the low price of admission, permitting the common rabble to rub shoulders in the audience with their betters (and sometimes pick their pockets) because the playgoers could sit or stand in whatever part of the theater they had paid to enter instead of occupying places that were dictated by their ranks in the social hierarchy. Sumptuary laws dictated the sort of apparel that could be worn by people of different social positions, but the common players who impersonated kings and nobles were costumed in the cast-off clothes of aristocrats, and the stories they enacted allowed common subjects in the audience to spy on the private lives of their betters, pass judgment on their character and statecraft, and enjoy the spectacle of the sufferings of nobles and the deposition and murder of kings. Since women were not allowed to appear on the English stage, female parts were acted by boys dressed in women’s clothing; but, as the pious were quick to point out, this practice violated biblical injunctions against cross-dressing and threatened to evoke illicit lust among the playgoers. Sex, in fact, figured prominently in denunciations of the theater. Prostitutes and procurers, it was claimed, turned the playhouses into “a generall market of bawdrie,” and even the virtuous were in danger: “the pure chastitie bothe of single and maried persons, men and women” was so quickly corrupted that “such as happilie came chaste unto showes, returne adulterers from plaies.”5

Antitheatrical tracts denounced the dangerous allure of playhouses, “the springs of many vices, and the stumbling-blocks of godliness and virtue,” where audiences were seduced to every sort of “ungodly desires,” crimes, and treason.6 “If you will learne to . . . blaspheme both Heaven and Earth,” wrote Philip Stubbes, “if you will learn to rebel against Princes, to commit treasons . . . if you will learne to contemne GOD and al his lawes, to care nither for heaven nor hel, and to commit al kinde of sinne and mischeef, you need to goe to no other schoole, for all these good Examples may you see painted before your eyes in . . . playes.”7 This is an extreme—although certainly not unique—example of antitheatrical invective, and the theater had its defenders as well. If opponents of the stage argued that playgoing incited personal vice and political subversion, its defenders could argue just the opposite. Representations of moral virtue and heroic patriotism could provide uplifting models for their audiences, and dramatizations of criminal actions punished by divine providence could serve as cautionary examples. According to Thomas Nashe, reenactments of the valiant deeds of heroic forefathers would inspire the men in the theater audience with patriotic sentiment and martial valor. According to Thomas Heywood, the spectacle of rebels and traitors punished would inspire obedience to the crown.8

Both Nashe and Heywood used the example of the English history play to argue that playgoing could make the lessons of history accessible to the ignorant and unlearned. One of those lessons, according to the first English treatise on historiography, was to provide “notable examples” of God’s “wrath, and revenge towardes the wicked, as also his pittie and clemencie towardes the good,” for “though things many times doe succeede according to the discourse of man’s reason: yet man’s wisedome is oftentymes greatlye deceyved” because “nothing is done by chaunce, but all things by [God’s] foresight, counsell, and divine providence.”9 Richard III seems admirably calculated to teach this lesson. Richard “greatlye deceyves” himself and the other characters, but prophecies, prophetic dreams, and curses that take effect all suggest that supernatural forces are at work in the events that Richard believes are completely under his control. The play begins with Richard’s clever manipulations and self-congratulatory soliloquies as he arranges his brother Clarence’s death, but Clarence’s prophetic dream and death’s-door recognition remind the audience that Clarence’s impending doom is actually God’s punishment for the crimes he committed in the time of Henry VI. The play ends with Richmond’s victory, heralded by prophetic dreams and heavenly imagery that clearly identify him as God’s agent, just as the many references to Richard’s diabolical nature define his own place within the providential scheme.

Most members of the audience that entered Shakespeare’s theater were probably well aware of Richard’s villainous role in Tudor history, but the character they encountered on Shakespeare’s stage threatens to subvert the providential moral of his story by the sheer energy and dramatic force of his characterization. The images of theatrical dissembling traditionally associated with Richard’s character are reinforced in Shakespeare’s representation by allusions to the seductive player described in the antitheatrical tracts. In 3 Henry VI Richard has a long soliloquy in which he identifies himself as a villain in exactly the same terms that Renaissance writers typically used to describe actors:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,

And cry “Content” to that which grieves my heart,

And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,

And frame my face to all occasions. . . .

I can add colors to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to school.


In Shakespeare’s time, the “chameleon player” was a standard epithet for actors, and allusions to Proteus the shape-shifter appeared not only in admiring descriptions of leading actors like Richard Burbage (who perhaps played Richard’s part)10 but also in condemnations of actors and other upstarts who refused to abide in the social place to which God had assigned them. In Richard’s self-description, moreover, the reference to Proteus slides inexorably into a reference to the Machiavel, a far more sinister symbol of unprincipled hypocrisy, who was also associated with Proteus in contemporary thought.11

In Richard III, Richard’s identity as a master performer becomes the structural principle of the dramatic action. The play begins with a long soliloquy in which Richard announces his chosen dramatic role (“to prove a villain”), and the early scenes are punctuated by more soliloquies in which he not only describes his motivations but also presents himself as the contriver of the entire drama. “Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,” he says, identifying his plots with the plots of the action to come. Like the tragic playwright himself, Richard takes an amoral, artistic delight in cleverly arranging the ruin of the other characters. Richard’s power on Shakespeare’s stage is not simply or even primarily the product of his role in the represented historical action. It derives mainly from his theatrical presence—the wit and energy that allow him to monopolize the audience’s attention and the ability to transcend the frame of historical representation that allows him to address the audience directly without the knowledge of the other characters. In the early scenes of the play, it is always Richard who has the last word (along with the first). He comes to the front of the stage to share his wicked plots with the audience, steps back into the upstage frame of dramatic representation to execute them upon the other characters, and then returns to the forestage to boast to the audience about the efficacy of his performance. Confiding in the audience, flaunting his witty wickedness, and gloating at the weakness and ignorance of the other characters, he draws the playgoers into complicity with his wicked schemes.

By defining his villainy as a theatrical tour de force, Richard invites the playgoers to evaluate his actions simply as theatrical performances. Significantly, the most striking instance of this maneuver occurs in his soliloquy at the end of the scene when he seduces Anne. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?” he asks the audience. “Was ever woman in this humor won?”

What, I that killed her husband and his father,

To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,

With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,

The bleeding witness of my hatred by . . . ? . . .

Hath she forgot already that brave prince,

Edward, her lord, whom I some three months since

Stabbed in my angry mood at Tewkesbury?

A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,

Framed in the prodigality of nature,

Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,

The spacious world cannot again afford.

And will she yet abase her eyes on me,

That cropped the golden prime of this sweet prince

And made her widow to a woeful bed?

On me, whose all not equals Edward’s moiety?


This soliloquy, which ends the scene, is thirty-eight lines long, reminding the audience of the historical wrongs that should have made Anne reject his suit, flaunting the theatrical power that made her forget the past. Here, and throughout the first act of the play, Richard performs a similar seduction upon the audience. For the audience as for Anne, the seduction requires the suspension of moral judgment and historical memory, since the demonic role that Richard had been assigned in Tudor history was well known; but the sheer theatrical energy of his performance supersedes the moral weight of the historical tradition.

The conflation of the historical seduction represented onstage with the theatrical seduction of the present audience and of Richard with the actor who played his part is implicit in a well-known anecdote associated with the play from the beginning of the seventeenth century. In March 1602, John Manningham wrote in his diary,

Upon a tyme when Burbidge played Rich. 3. there was a citizen greue [i.e., grew] soe farr in liking wth him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to come that night unto hir by the name of Ri: the 3. Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion, went before, was intertained, and at his game ere Burbidge came. Then message being brought that Rich. the 3d was at the dore, Shakespeare caused returne to be made [i.e., sent an answer] that William the Conquerour was before Rich. the 3.12

Although Shakespeare triumphs at Burbage’s expense, the anecdote clearly suggests that, even in Shakespeare’s time, the theatrical power of Richard’s part was identified with erotic conquest. Richard’s perverse seduction of Anne over the coffin that contains the body of Henry VI is, as I stated earlier, irrelevant to the historical plot (Richard merely mentions that he has a “secret close intent”), but it works onstage as the most compelling demonstration of that power. The scene also serves as an anticipation of another wooing scene near the end of the play when Richard attempts to persuade his brother’s widowed queen to give him her daughter Elizabeth in marriage. Richard’s motivation for this second courtship, and the reason for its inclusion in the play, are absolutely clear: as the daughter of a king, Elizabeth, unlike Anne Neville, plays a crucial role in the contention for the crown. But there is no more basis in Shakespeare’s chronicle sources for this courtship scene than there was for the earlier one. It is worth noting that Shakespeare does not dramatize Richmond’s courtship of the Queen’s daughter: all we get is the laconic announcement in a later scene that “the Queen hath heartily consented / He [Richmond] should espouse Elizabeth her daughter” (4.5.7–8) and Richmond’s reiteration at the end of the play that the marriage will take place. What matters from the point of view of the dramatic action is Richard’s loss rather than Richmond’s victory, a loss that is dramatized in the implicit contrast between the two scenes.

In both cases Richard encounters a woman who insists on recalling the historical record of his villainy, in both he attempts to blot it out with an outrageous erotic conquest, and in both he thinks he has prevailed; but the structure of the two scenes is significantly different. Richard dominated the action of the earlier scene, interrupting Anne as she went to bury the murdered king, sending her offstage at the end so he could gloat to the audience in a long soliloquy. In Act 4, scene 4, by contrast, Richard does not appear onstage until line 140, and now it is Richard himself who is interrupted: attempting to cross the stage in a martial procession, he is “intercepted” by a chorus of outraged women and forced, unwillingly, to hear their reproaches and curses. The ending of the scene offers an even more striking demonstration of Richard’s inability to control—or even to anticipate—the course of the dramatic action. When Elizabeth leaves the stage, he exclaims, “Relenting fool and shallow, changing woman!” apparently prepared to deliver one of his characteristic, gloating soliloquies. This time, however, he has no leisure to continue his address to the audience or to exult about the victory he thinks he has won because he is immediately interrupted by Ratcliffe, who brings the news that Richmond has arrived on the west coast of England with a powerful navy. The scene ends in disarray with the rapid entrances of no less than four additional messengers and Richard’s confused and agitated responses to their reports about the offstage progress of Richmond’s invasion.

Richmond arrives like a deus ex machina to save the suffering country from Richard’s tyrannical rule. Characterized simply as Richard’s antithesis, he has no real theatrical presence. On Shakespeare’s stage Margaret is a much more powerful antagonist than Richmond because she opposes Richard’s amoral theatrical appeal by reminding the audience of the providential moral of the historical action. Railing at the Yorkists, she recalls the crimes committed during the time of Henry VI that justify their present sufferings. Leading the other women in a litany of lamentation, she identifies Richard’s role in the providential drama as the agent of divine vengeance and foretells his destruction.

Although Margaret appears in only two scenes, the other characters’ recollections of her curses and prophecies sustain her status as Richard’s competitor for control and interpretation of the dramatic action. At the beginning of Act 4, scene 4, it is Margaret and not Richard who addresses the audience, defining the previous action in theatrical terms as a “dire induction” [i.e., prologue] and identifying the generic form of the drama when she confides her hopes that the conclusion will be just as “tragical.” From the point of view of Richmond and England, of course, the play has a happy conclusion when Richmond kills the tyrant and invites the playgoers as well as the actors onstage to join him in a prayer for a peaceful and prosperous future that will be theirs as well as his own. Nonetheless, whoever wrote the title that appeared on the early printed editions regarded the play as “The Tragedy of King Richard III,” and modern critics have echoed that judgment in their descriptions of the many ways in which Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard anticipates his practice in the later tragedies. The comforting pieties of Richmond’s final prayer probably elicited more enthusiasm in Shakespeare’s time than they do today, but even then the attraction that drew audiences to the playhouse was not the victory of the virtuous Richmond but the dangerous theatrical vitality of Richard III.

  1. Edward Hall’s chronicle history, one of the main sources for Shakespeare’s English history plays, was actually entitled The Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, beeyng long in continual discension for the croune of this noble realme, with all the actes done in bothe the tymes of the princes, bothe of the one linage and of the other, beginnyng at the tyme of Kyng Henry the fowerth, the first aucthor of this devision, and so successively proceadyng to the reigne of . . . Kyng Henry the Eight, the undubitate flower and very heire of both the said linages (London, 1548). As Hall explained, Henry VIII was the “undubitate” heir to the English crown because he was the product of the union between “Kyng Henry the seventh and the lady Elizabeth his moste worthy Quene, the one beeyng indubitate heire of the hous of Lancastre, and the other of Yorke” (Union, p. 1).
  2. Hugh M. Richmond, Shakespeare in Performance: King Richard III (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1989), pp. 25–30.
  3. E. A. J. Honigmann, introduction to King Richard the Third (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 7. See also “An Introduction to This Text.”
  4. The Boke Named the Governour, edited from the edition of 1531 by Henry H. S. Croft (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1883), 1:91.
  5. Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse (1579); John Northbrooke, A Treatise wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine playes, or Enterluds . . . are reproved (1577); and Anthony Munday, A Second and Third Blast of Retrait from Plaies and Theaters (1580), all quoted by Ann Jennalie Cook in “ ‘Bargaines of Incontinencie’: Bawdy Behavior in the Playhouses,” Shakespeare Studies 10 (1977): 271–90, esp. pp. 272–74.
  6. George Whetstone (1584) and Gervase Babington (1583), reprinted in E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 4:227, 225.
  7. The Anatomie of Abuses (London, 1583), in Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, 4:224.
  8. Nashe’s defense of plays appeared in Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Devil (1592), Heywood’s in An Apology for Actors (1612). It is worth noting that both Nashe and Heywood wrote plays for the commercial theater.
  9. Thomas Blundeville, The true order and Methode of wryting and reading Hystories (London, 1574) F3–F3v.
  10. For a good summary of Elizabethan descriptions of actors, including Burbage, see Louis Adrian Montrose, “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios, n.s. 7.2 (1980): 56–57. On the image of Proteus as applied to actors, see Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 99–107.
  11. The Machiavel was a stock character on the English stage who embodied the ruthless ambition, atheism, and deceptiveness that were associated in popular thought with the Florentine political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli.
  12. Manningham’s Diary (British Museum, Harleian MS. 5353, fol. 29v), reprinted in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 1836.