III - A Play for our Time
"I am determined to prove a villain"
Richard in the mirror of the centuries
We will now have
a closer look at some of the many versions of Richard's history that have
developed throughout the centuries. Starting from Shakespeare's
III, we regard the period of time from the 15th century,
in which Richard lived, reigned and died, to our times - the 20th century.
In the part Richard on display the different attitudes
of historians and critics will be described.
Shakespeare's Richard III
Shakespeare's characterization of Richard III has become accepted as a historical portrait - a portrait of the most wicked of English kings. The question is, whether this is not rather exaggerated.
From Richard's character, Shakespeare took the worst and most evil traits. And so Richard has probably become the meanest of the many Shakespearean villains. Really wicked –full of hate and dishonesty, crippled, envious, cruel and malicious - he commits eleven murders and the reader has no difficulty to see his evil nature. Our picture of Richard is defined by the sinister prince who has his young nephews killed and his brother drowned; who kills the father and the husband of a young woman and afterwards asks her to marry him. On his way to the throne he makes no distinction between friends, relatives and enemies. And yet: hating him for what he does, he still is the protagonist and in a way we feel sympathy for him, although he does not seem to have anything amiable; he is described as having such an ugly face and shape that dogs bark at him as he walks by (link to drama). In the drama, he also has a hunchback, a withered arm and a weak limp. But there is no real proof, that the historical Richard Plantagenet was really like this. Paintings show him as having a pleasant complexion and there are versions of his history praising Richard and portraying him as a good king. Nevertheless Shakespeare created the evil literary figure that has shaped our minds.
From the very first beginning in the opening soliloquy Richard
tells the spectators about his own wickedness:
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up-
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them-
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on my own deformity.
And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain this fair well-spoken days,
I am determine’d to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasure of these days. [I.1, 1-31]
And he really does prove a villain! He verifies the impression we get in the first scene throughout the drama by acting and thinking the way he does. Always doing what he has ‘promised’ before, he appears to be an unscrupulous person - a nightmare-king.
Richard on display (go to top)
Richard III surely being the most mysterious monarch of England,
historians and critics have seen him in different ways; their views have
developed in the course of the centuries. He was defamed by the Tudor myth.
Having a strong tradition, the picture of the evil Richard was kept throughout
the centuries till the 1850s when the revisionists started to show the
other side of the king. Today there are character portraits of the evil
Richard as well as the social Richard, the murderer and
the pious man. Which is right and which is wrong? Everyone has to make this decision for themselves, as did those who have described him throughout the centuries.
We only want to mention some of these views:
The wicked Richard became famous with Shakespeare's dramatic history Richard III where Richard is evil incarnate; but it was not Shakespeare's intention to show Richard's real character.
Shakespeare’s sources were Hall, Grafton and Holinshed who plagiarized on Vergil. Henry VII gave Polydore Vergil, an Italian cleric and later a naturalized Englishman, the order to write a "History of England". In 1534, after 26 years of work, it was finished and he was later called the 'Father of English history'. As is to be expected, the text is influenced by the Tudor reign. Vergil's history has become part of the Tudor myth and the real Richard felt into oblivion. Vergil calls him mischievous, frantic, wicked, malicious, false, graceless and mad. About his withered arm, we learn nothing. But Vergil calls him a hypocrite and claims that Richard had started to long for the king's position, reputation and power right after Edward IV's death. Even his good deeds brought Richard no credit, because his motives are said to have been egoistic and deceitful. For Vergil, Richard has to take the responsibility for the murder of his nephews, but not for Clarence's death. Furthermore he makes the assertion that Richard personally killed Henry VI and poisoned his wife.
Thomas More's History of King Richard III is a real masterpiece, as well as an example of anti-Richard texts. It was published in 1515. It cannot really be taken as a historical analysis, because it contains many errors and absurdities. He never published or even completed it, because it was written for his and his friends' amusement. Another aspect is that he only describes the period between spring and fall 1483.
Richard has already been described during his reign by Dominic Mancini. The Italian had been to England for six months in 1483. But Mancini's reports must be seen as biased or prejudiced because of his ignorance of the English culture - he wrote the 'English story' only in Latin! Because of having a hostile attitude towards Richard, he claims that the Duke of Gloucester was aiming for the throne from the moment of his brother's death. Moreover he had never even met Richard or talked to someone close to him. For Mancini, Edward IV was the only one being responsible for Clarence's death, but he points out that Richard was guilty in the case of Hastings' execution.
Shortly after Richard's death - in 1486 - the "Croyland Chronicle" was published. It was written by an unknown Benedictine monk. The chronic appears well-informed but not fully reliable; showing a strong dislike towards Richard, the chronic is not really objective. The monk is shocked that Richard took the throne from his nephews and that he executed Buckingham on a Sunday. The chronic stresses Richard's immorality and hypocrisy and is an example of the hostility towards Richard that many contemporaries shared.
Towards the end of the 16th century the descriptions of Richard’s appearance, character and behavior had become uniform; Richard was seen and shown as the typical tyrant king and everyone kept the tradition – nearly everyone; the first revisionist, Sir George Buck, appears at a time in which it would have been a scandal to speak well of Richard. He wrote his history in 1619, and since 1979, when the authentic text was found and published, it is known, that he was the first to change the tradition Richard's negative 'press'. But Buck's history was only published in a corrupt version in the 17th century . In the original version, Buck starts to refute the thesis of Richard's deformity and wickedness. He lists Richard’s virtues and good works, but is not blind to his faults. Buck takes sentiments expressed by Richard's relatives (e.g. a letter of Richard’s niece Elizabeth of York in which she states that she loved him) as evidence that the king cannot have been the the person he was presented as. Most historians doubt that the letter has ever existed, but Buck states that he saw it with his own eyes.
The most famous revisionist, however, was Horace Walpole. He wrote his book Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III in 1768. It was a milestone in the debate about Richard. Walpole accused other historians of being ignorant and partial in the case of Richard. But it was not his intention to replace one dogma with another. Walpole cannot understand why Richard is said to have seized his nephew's crown as soon as he learned of Edward IV's death - if he proclaimed Edward V in York and came down to the South so slowly and with such few men.
Caroline Halsted was another historian who wanted to point out the truth about Richard without any prejudices. Her thousand page biography Richard III as Duke of Gloucester and Duke of England was published in 1844. According to her sources the princes were still alive during Henry VII's reign and they were secretly kept in a distant region. Furthermore she writes a romantic account of Richard's wooing of Anne Neville and claims that he behaved like a gentleman.
But not only historians took part in the great debate. Sir Clements Markham was a non-historian and famous geographer; his book Richard III: His Life and Character Renewed in the Light of Recent Research was published in 1906. His conclusion is that Richard III must be acquitted on all counts of the indictment. He acquits Richard of the murder of the two princes and makes the suggestion that the princes were not killed in 1483, but in 1486.
In the 20th century we can distinguish two groups of historians who engaged in the discussion about Richard: the traditionalists and on the other hand the revisionists. They have been debating for decades, and each group doubts the other's competence. An example is Rowse's "Bosworth fields"(1966) who sees Richard more or less as the Shakespearean Richard of the Tudor saga, which is unacceptable for revisionist Kendall. Many revisionists are organized in the Richard III Society founded in 1956 with currently 4,500 members. Support came from Paul Murray who pointed out that Richard was an excellent administrator and soldier when Lord of the North for eleven years under his brother Edward IV. Furthermore Richard is said to have insisted on law and on order, on equality before the law and on justice without exception throughout his reign. But even revisionists deem Richard responsible for the death of his nephews, e.g. Kendall.
Today Richard III is widely regarded as an unjustly defamed monarch but for some he is still the wicked uncle and evil hunchback of history. And for you? Make up your own mind!
(1) Potter, Jeremy: "Richard III's Historians: Adverse and Favorable
(2) Metro | Richard III Backgrounder
(3) Richard III Society: "Shakespeare, Richard, Timeline"
(4) Michalove, Sharon D.
(5) Sir Thomas More and his The History of King Richard III
|HOMEPAGE||Shakespeare's 'Richard III'|
|PSYCHOLOGICAL APPROACH||Richard III and women|
|Richard III the multi-faced villain|
|Physical and psychological deformity|
|Richard's family background|
|HISTORICAL APPROACH||Richard III in the mirror of centuries|
|Justification of Tudor dynasty?|
|History in Shakespeare's Richard III|
|Guilty or not guilty?|
|POLITICAL APPROACH||Richard III - a modern dictator?|
|Richard III the Machiavellian villain?|
by Team 26314 of Marienschule Opladen, Germany