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Shakespeare’s Richard III - Myth or Reality ?

Was the real Richard III as villainous as Shakespeare made him out to be?

Waseem Ahmed

‘Child killer’, ‘murderer’, ‘usurper’ are all phrases you would associate with Shakespeare’s greatest villain - Richard III. Thanks largely due to the Shakespearian portrayal, Richard has gone down in history as one of England’s most evil monarchs. So, was the real Richard III truly as monstrous as Shakespeare made him out to be? Well the short answer is no. While Richard was no saint, making a number of misjudgements, and at times showing his ruthless streak, Shakespeare’s representation of Richard is largely inaccurate.

King Richard III
King Richard III by Unknown Artist, oil on panel, late 16th Century Copyright: National Portrait Gallery NPG 148

When Richard is first introduced by Shakespeare, he is instantly reviled for his appearance, and his physical deformity continues to be addressed throughout the plays. Shakespeare notoriously portrayed Richard as a hunchback, with a number of defects like his withered arm, and his full set of teeth at birth. Yet in reality, the body of Richard, discovered in a car park in Leicester, shows that although he suffered from scoliosis, which resulted in one shoulder being slightly higher than the other, these deformities were a myth.

Thou lump of foul deformity.

— Richard III Act 1 Scene 2

Richard is showcased as the typical villain, being responsible for a number of murders. Shakespeare depicts him as stabbing Prince Edward along with his brothers, before going to the Tower and dispatching Henry VI. Then during Act I of Richard III, he seemingly plots to become King and engineers the downfall of his brother George, Duke of Clarence by having him sent to the tower and eventually murdered. 

Again, this is a major fabrication and in fact Richard proved extremely loyal to his brother, performing as a successful military commander during the Wars of the Roses. His loyalty was rewarded with control of the North and on Edward’s death, he was considered the principal statesman of the realm. Richard took no part in either the death of King Henry VI or Edward, with the former’s death most likely on the orders of Edward IV, while his son died at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Although Richard and George had a hostile relationship due to issues of inheritance, it was Edward IV who tired of George’s antics and ordered his execution for treason in 1478.

The story of the Princes in the Tower is arguably Richard’s most serious crime and sets him out to be England’s most infamous monarch. Even now, no one knows for sure what happened to Richard’s two young nephews; Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury. Shakespeare, however, makes it perfectly clear that Richard ordered their deaths to enable him to usurp the throne. It’s true that Richard benefited the most from their deaths, but having already proclaimed them illegitimate after declaring Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville void, did he still perceive them as a threat? Indeed, there were a number of different people who could have been responsible. Historians today still have no definitive evidence to prove what actually happened.

I am determined to prove the villain.

— Richard III Act 1 Scene 1

You might ask then, why was Shakespeare so inherently biased against Richard? Well Shakespeare wrote the tetralogy consisting of  Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, and Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III in the early 1590s, under the reign of Tudor monarch Elizabeth I. Therefore, any criticism of Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry Tudor, the man who would defeat Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, would be foolish to say the least. It’s also important to note that one of Shakespeare's important patrons was Fernando Stanley, a direct descendent of Thomas Stanley who famously switched allegiance to Henry at Bosworth. This is not to mention the fact that all the historical sources that Shakespeare relied upon, suffered heavily from Tudor bias anyway.

Richard III RSC
Richard III RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon 1984

So how should we judge Richard? I’d argue that we have to understand the context. Richard had grown up in turbulent times. In the space of twenty-two years, England had seen the throne change hands as many as four times. His father and brother had been killed when Richard was just a young boy. At eighteen, Richard was forced to flee the country after his brother, Edward IV was overthrown by Warwick, with the support of their disloyal brother George. So by 1483 when Richard acceded to the throne, it's fair to say that he had seen his fair share of intrigue and bloodshed. In a period where decisions were truly a matter of life or death, Richard’s aim must have simply been to survive and so if we can’t sympathise with Richard’s actions, we can start to understand why he chose to do what he did. If nothing else, Richard was a man of his time.