Study Guide

Richard in Henry VI Part 3

By William Shakespeare

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Richard, later the Duke of Gloucester, is York's son and Edward and George's brother. He might pretend to be a family man, supporting his dad and fighting for his brother's right to rule, but he has a whole bag of tricks up his sleeve.

Liar, Liar

Watching Richard lie, manipulate, and murder his way around is a lot like watching the Grinch steal Christmas or Sue Sylvester humiliate the Glee Club: we know we're witnessing the actions of an unapologetic villain, but we just can't help but be enthralled and even amused by it.

What gives? Well, Richard is smart, suave, cunning, and politically savvy. More important, Richard also has a habit of confiding in his audience, making us his confidants. This has the effect of drawing us in and making us complicit in his evil schemes. He tells us that he's in it for himself and that he's going to turn his brothers against each other. "I have no brother, I am like no brother" (5.6.81), he says. That's cold. Hating your own bro is like pure evil.

Richard's Deformity

Some scholars think Richard hates his own family because he's deformed. Shakespeare portrays Richard as a hunchback (even though the real Richard III wasn't). Richard tells us that he has a "withered shrub" of an arm and that he has an "unequal size" and "disproportion" (3.2.158, 161, 162). He also tells us that his looks make him feel so inadequate and unloved that he's decided to amuse himself by being a villain. If this is really true, then Richard's deformity can be seen as the cause of his wicked behavior.

On the other hand, the play often suggests that Richard's deformity is simply a sign of his moral corruption. In other words, it's possible that Richard is deformed because he's so bad. Shakespeare develops this theme more in Richard III.

Either way, the fact that Richard is physically set apart from the other characters in the play suggests that his particular brand of evil may be worse than theirs. Not even Margaret can compete.

You Can't Spell Machiavellian without Villain

Okay, okay, so technically you can, but it's pretty much in there, right? Richard resembles a typical "Machiavellian" villain—a character who acts a lot like the kind of political leader written about by the Italian philosopher and poet Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote a book called The Prince (1532), which was basically a "how to" guide for rulers about gaining and keeping power.

According to Machiavelli's popular and controversial theory, being a successful leader has nothing to do with being a nice person or doing the right thing. Instead, it's about being inventive, manipulative, charismatic, crafty, and willful. Machiavelli said that rulers should appear good to the public but shouldn't be above doing some pretty bad stuff in private.

Obviously Richard has this whole Machiavellian leader thing down pat—way more than people like Margaret or York, who are way crafty but also a lot more in-your-face than Richard about getting what they want. A good Machiavel, Richard basically role-plays his way to the crown, pretending to be godly and moral while stopping at nothing to get what he wants. Check out what he says when he brags about how easy it will be for him to steal the crown from his brother Edward:

I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

The truth is: he likes all the manipulation and deceit. And we'll admit that we kind of like watching it unfold on stage, too... at least until we remember what is actually going down.

It kind of makes sense that all the issues about legitimacy in this trilogy lead us to Richard. Once people start grabbing crowns from each other, it gets pretty hard to determine what makes a king legitimate and what doesn't... and that paves the way for the kinds of people who are willing to lie, cheat, manipulate, and kill to get what they want.

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