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‘His honour rooted in dishonour stood, And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true’ (Tennyson, Lancelot and Elaine). From the very opening of the play Richard III, Richard establishes himself as a synonym for villainy. And that is the general impression we assume when considering the disposition of Richard III, a ruthless, villainous tyrant who felt the only means in which to achieve ones ends was to use hostility, force and injustice.
It would be so easy to condemn Richard for his tyrannical, Machiavellian ways, for after all, all the history we know of Richard is malevolent. Yet the portrayal of this mis-understood protagonist in the text Richard III has been edited to make the audience averse towards Richard III, by the playwright, William Shakespeare. Richard III manipulates the Court of York the same way that William Shakespeare manipulates history. Shakespeare vilifies Richard III in order to glorify Richmond, founder of the Tudor dynasty. Shakespeare re-writes history to, takes events out of chronological sequences to make Richard’s transgressions seem more iniquitous.
Although technically a history, Richard III is considered a tragedy, as it consists of a tragic structure, showing the ride and fall of a single protagonist. In his opening soliloquy, Richard says he is ‘determind to prove a villain’ (I.I.30), and the play develops this ambiguous statement into an exploration of determinism and choice appropriate to both socio-history and tragedy, portraying on the most misconstrued characters in history…King Richard III. Out of all Shakespearean plays, Richard III is the sole play that is opened by the protagonist. And from the offset, Richard establishes himself as a synonym for evil. He explains of the victory of the York family, and how the war is now ended: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this son of York, And all the cloud that loured upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.’ (I.I.1-4)
Richard starts the play as a hero. He has just been fighting for his country, for his families’ honour, and has succeeded. And yet, he is not content with victory. He misses the thrill of war, as is shown when he states ‘And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds To fright the souls of fearful adversaries…He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber’ (I.I.10-12). Richard’s soliloquies are the perfect opportunities for one to get inside Richard’s head, for they are the only genuine times when the true Richard is revealed. Indeed, Richard is often seen playing two separate roles. With the audience he portrays his true nature, and reveals his ambitions to seize the throne of England.
But when interacting with other characters, he comes across as a gentle and simple man. This is perhaps best portrayed in the fourth scene, when Clarence is told that Richard wants him killed. Clarence replies, “O do not slander him, for he is kind (1.4.229). He continues, “It cannot be, for he bewept my fortune / And hugged me in his arms, and swore with sobs / That he would labour my delivery (1.4.232-34). Richard revels on his deformity, not simply lamenting on the fact he is deformed, but going into vast detail, cursing of his deformity, as is shown when he says: ‘I that am curtailed of this fair proportion, Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time Into this breathing world scare made up… And descant on mine own deformity’ (I.I.18-27)
Richard is not spiteful of his deformity; paradoxically he ‘delights in descanting on his own deformity’. It is then that Richard finds his motivation for villainy. Richard uses his deformity as an irrational justification for his deformity: ‘And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days’ (I.I.28-31)
It is more suiting that Richard’s deformity is a metaphor for his twisted, deformed mind. Richard is an ugly person, both on the inside and on the outside. However, the ironic thing is that however ugly, however evil, Richard captivates the audience by speaking to us at the very beginning, and in some way he implicates them in his crimes. However, although Richard’s emphasis on his deformity implies that he is extremely deformed, this fact is contradicted by the fact that this ‘vastly deformed menace’ was once a great warrior in the war. It is more that his emphasis on his deformity is a reflection of his malicious mentality.
The opening remarks are very logical in their progression: because Richard is deformed, he cannot be loved; because he cannot be loved, he must be a villain; because he must be a villain, he will strive for the throne. This logical progression is of course anything but logical. Rather, it hides the fact that for Richard, the deformity is merely an excuse to play the machiavel, a role which he enjoys. He also uses, as a motivation for his actions, the fact that Richard is bored, incapable of doing anything else.
He clearly states this flippant form of justification when he convincingly says: ‘I am determined to prove a villain and hate the idle pleasures of these days’ (I.I.30-31). Notice the emphasis upon the ‘idle pleasures’. Shakespeare portrays Richard as having a very weak basis for his iniquities. So far his justifications for his evils, his badness, are slight ugliness and boredom. Such irrational, flippant justifications immediately illustrate Richard III in a negative light, and that is exactly what Shakespeare’s intentions are.
How different exactly are Richard and Richmond, Grand-Father of Queen Elizabeth? Both men usurped the throne in order to become king. Both men totally disregarded the divine right of kings. These two men both achieved the throne through exactly the same way…and if Shakespeare had portrayed this fact to the Queen, then she would be extremely displeased to say the least. Therefore, Shakespeare had to construe Richard in such a negative light in order to make the crimes of Richmond look justifiable. In focusing upon the crimes of Richard, Shakespeare slowly shifts the light upon Richmond’s crimes, making it seem that the actions of Richard were inevitable, that someone had to perform the heroic act of usurping the throne from such a mad man: ‘For what is he they follow? Truly, gentlemen, A bloody tyrant, and a homicide,’ (V.III.246-247).
Throughout this book there is an immense amount of Tudor propaganda. From the beginning Shakespeare is subtle about how he implies Tudor superiority, but towards the end it becomes more obvious, upon when he directly juxtaposes Richmond and Richard, two diametrically opposed characters. Shakespeare’s motivations for making Richard appear to be the man he really wasn’t are that to make Richmond’s actions justifiable, and then, in effect, Queen Elizabeth I certainly benefited from the impression that Richard had been a wicked king.
The Richard III that we, the audience, know, is the Machiavellian tyrant who will manipulate by using murder, and there are many examples provided to show that Richard uses murderous techniques in various ways to remove obstacles from his path. When Shakespeare considered the means by which the audience would regard the Machiavellian side of Richard, it would have been too easy to condemn Richard as a ruthless tyrant with no redeeming features, who slays all who opposes him. But Richard is much more intelligent than this. If he were this way, then there would be no depth to the plot, no depth to Richard.
He would be the stereotypical ‘He’s-behind-you’ villain, determined to be dastardly, bent on causing trouble. Yet he isn’t. Richard knows that it would be far too easy for him to be incriminated for murdering such high nobility, and therefore he manipulates other people to carry out his intentions for him, thus rendering him innocuous if accusations fell onto him. His murderous persona proves to be an asset to him when claiming the throne, for he has managed to eradicate all opposition.
For the majority of the play, Richard remains cool and calculating, never once striking another himself. Take for example, the death of Clarence. Clarence is a firm obstacle on the path towards kingship for Richard. If Richard were just a ruthless tyrant with no redeeming features, he would simply kill Clarence, full stop. Although Richard may be a ruthless tyrant, he does have one redeeming feature, intelligence.