If you thought Hamlet's King Claudius was the worst brother in literary history, or that Othello's Iago was the most unapologetic villain onstage, or that Macbeth was Shakespeare's biggest tyrant of a king, then you haven't read Richard III.
Since its first performance around 1592, this play has been one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed and best-loved works. Although it's the final installment in a group of history plays known as the "first tetralogy" (including Henry VI Part 1, and Part 2, and Part 3), Richard III can stand on its own.
The play picks up toward the end of the Wars of the Roses (c. 1455-1485), a series of English civil wars fought between two branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet: the Lancasters (whose heraldic symbol was the red rose) and the Yorks (symbolized by the white rose). As Richard III opens, the Yorkist King Edward IV and his two bros have bumped the Lancastrian King Henry VI off the throne. All of England is celebrating...except for Edward's youngest brother, Richard, who tells us straight away that he's "determined to prove a villain" and will do anything to get his hands on the crown.
The play then chronicles Richard's dramatic rise and fall. Shakespeare famously portrays him as a "deformed hunchback" who ruthlessly lies, murders, and manipulates his way to throne before being taken down by the guy who becomes King Henry VII (whose reign ends the Wars of the Roses and ushers in the Tudor dynasty). Despite his wickedness, Richard is the kind of villain that audiences just love to hate.
Today we know that the historical King Richard III wasn't a "hunchback" and he probably didn't lie or manipulate any more than anyone else involved in the Wars of the Roses. So why is he portrayed as such a villain in Shakespeare's play? Shakespeare based his character on historical accounts like Thomas More's The History of King Richard the Third (c. 1513), which passed Richard off as a tyrant whose physical deformity was just as warped as his immoral nature.
Since Shakespeare casts Richard III in a pretty bad light, some scholars argue that Shakespeare's play is all about promoting the "Tudor myth" – the idea that the Tudor reign ushered in a harmonious golden age of peace and prosperity in England. Shakespeare's monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, was a Tudor and the granddaughter of Richard's replacement, King Henry VII. So is Shakespeare really that gung-ho about the Tudors? Or is he just a playwright who knows it's in his best interest to give his queen some props?
Either way you look at it, one thing is for sure: when most of the world thinks of the historical Richard III, it's Shakespeare's portrayal of the guy they picture. This is a pretty powerful testament to the popularity of Shakespeare's play and the impact of this mesmerizing character.
What is it that makes Shakespeare's Richard so compelling? He's a villain, sure, but he's also smart, suave, funny, and completely unapologetic about his villainy. He also has this habit of turning to us, his audience, and bragging about his treachery while making fun of his victims for being chumps. The guy is absolutely evil and tons of fun to watch. Audiences may be scandalized by Richard's actions, but they're almost always grotesquely fascinated too.
Plus, the guy is complicated. Literary critic Marjorie Garber notes that "Shakespeare's Richard III is arguably the first fully realized and psychologically conceived character in his plays" (source). In other words, Richard III is the great grandfather (so to speak) of complex characters like Macbeth and Hamlet. This is a pretty big deal, because most playwrights at the time (aside from Shakespeare's pal Christopher Marlowe) weren't creating characters with this much dimension.
Today the role of Richard III is considered an actor's dream – so much so that Oscar-winner Al Pacino (a.k.a. the Godfather) was inspired to direct the documentary film Looking for Richard (1996), which explores the riveting character at the center of one of Shakespeare's best plays. (Psst. You can watch it, divided into parts, on YouTube.)
Of course, Richard III has also been adapted into some memorable films, including the 1995 movie starring Ian McKellen (a.k.a. Gandalf) as Richard, a World War II military leader. In 1955 Sir Laurence Olivier played the title role in a more traditional film adaptation, setting the bar pretty high for modern actors.
The play was crazy-popular in Shakespeare's day. Scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells us that the play was published at least five times during Shakespeare's lifetime. (Remember, those old printing presses were impressive, but they were nothing like today's technology. Publishing a play even just once for reading audiences was a huge deal.)
Though we may not have as deep a connection to the content of the play as your average Elizabethan would have, we can relate to the machinations of power it depicts. Think of it as a parallel to The Godfather: great men plus great power + great treachery = great drama. Much like The Godfather, the play is really long but it's well worth the time.
Why Should I Care?
OK, so we've got an angry, self-absorbed, insecure monarch bellowing in monologue form about his plot to rule the world via mass destruction, terror, and death. We've got a woman who marries that monarch after he murders her husband, just because he says something pretty. And we've got the same monarch floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, killing his own nephews and brother.
And then we've got something like a bazillion deaths resulting from the fact that this monarch is sad because his mama never loved him and because he is, to use his own term, "deformed."
You've got to be kidding, right? This stuff never happens. Except maybe in major Broadway hits featuring a creepy white mask. (That's right. All you fans of musicals out there know we're talking about the Phantom of the Opera.) And maybe we see such madness in a certain adversary of one Austin Powers.
Why should you care about Shakespeare's Richard III? We'll let literary critic Marjorie Garber make the case. In Shakespeare After All, Garber points out that "Shakespeare's Richard III is arguably the first fully realized and psychologically conceived character in his plays." In other words, he is kind of the great-grandfather of psychologically complex characters like Macbeth and Hamlet – which is a pretty big deal. He's also one of the first (and best) evil-genius villains of all time. Before Richard, literary bad boys tended to be one-dimensional and flat. So the way we see it, modern-day villains we love to hate (Sue Sylvester anyone?) owe their existence to Shakespeare's Richard III.
Shmoopsters, this may be a little loopy, but let us demonstrate. Please match the following snippets with the correct snippet-speaker:
a) Syndrome (a.k.a. Buddy) of The Incredibles
b) Dr. Evil
c) The Phantom
d) Shakespeare's Richard III
I, that am rudely stamp'd and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
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
My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a fifteen year old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanize, he would drink, he would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark.
This face, the infection which poisons our love
This face, which earned a mother's fear and loathing
A mask, my first unfeeling scrap of clothing
Pity comes too late, turn around and face your fate
An eternity of this before your eyes!
It tore me apart. But I learned an important lesson. You can't count on anyone, especially your heroes.
OK, we'll stop quoting the great fictional characters of our time and just pose it, the $20 million question: Is there such a thing as real, pure, Voldemort-loving evil in the world? And while we're at it, is there such a thing as true good? Or are we all floating around in a grey mixture of both?
Is it enough, when asked what Richard III is about, to respond that it's about one seriously twisted dude? How much of the nature-versus-nurture argument plays into our understanding of evil?
In true Shmoop fashion, we will now exit stage left and let you do all the work of coming up with the answers. We look forward to hearing your recipe for world peace, even if it puts the Incredibles and Frozone out of work. Get to it!