Richard is King Edward IV's youngest brother. At the beginning of the play, he's the Duke of Gloucester. (He's often referred to as just plain "Gloucester" because members of the nobility are named after the land their families control.) After Richard snags the crown, he becomes King Richard III.
Watching Shakespeare's character lie, manipulate, and murder his way to the English throne 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, despite the fact that his enemies refer to him as a "bottled spider," an "abortive, rooting hog," and a "poisonous bunchbacked toad," Richard can actually be rather appealing. This is partly because he's smart, suave, and politically savvy. He also has quite a sense of humor. It's a sick sense of humor, sure, but it can be pretty compelling. (When the hired murderers promise to make Clarence suffer, Richard quips "I like you lads" [1.3.30] and sends them on their way.)
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 from the beginning that he's going to turn his brothers against each other, and after he woos Lady Anne in Act 1, Scene 2, he turns to us, brags about it, and lets us know he's just using her.)
As we know, Richard really, really, wants to be king, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to get his hands on the crown. But why? Well, there are several different ways to interpret Richard's motives. Here are the four biggest things literary scholars focus on when they talk about Richard's character:
Don't worry, we'll break all of this down for you and we'll also talk about Richard's command of the language while we're at it.
Richard is considered a throwback to the stock character of "Vice," a common figure in medieval morality plays. The "Vice" character is basically a personification of evil and/or an agent of the devil who spends most of his time trying to corrupt mankind. Vice figures would often address the audience directly and would sometimes run around in the audience heckling people. This character can be a lot of fun but is also pretty one-dimensional. Vice doesn't have any psychological motives – he's just pure, concentrated evil, kind of like a Decepticon Transformer.
Obviously Shakespeare had all of this in mind when he created his villain. Richard is unapologetically wicked and is even accused of being an agent of the devil. For example, Margaret calls him "hell's black intelligencer" (4.4.7). Richard even refers to himself as a "Vice" when he describes his actions:
Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word. (3.1.6)
Although Richard definitely has some roots in the Vice tradition, his character is a lot more complex than the flat, stock figure from the old morality plays. Whereas Vice figures have no psychological motives, we can argue that Richard does. In his opening speech, he tells us that he's aware of his physical deformities and feels insecure, inadequate, and isolated (1.1.1). In other words, Richard's got psychological depth from the very beginning of the play.
P.S. Shakespeare's character Iago (Othello) also has some roots in the old Vice figure tradition.
Richard also 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. As a machiavel, Richard basically role-plays his way to the crown, pretending to be godly and moral on the outside while stopping at nothing to get what he wants. Check out what he says about pretending to be a religious man while secretly he acts like a "devil."
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil. (1.3.28)
By the way, back in Henry VI Part 3, Richard basically calls himself a machiavel 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 Machevil to school (3 Henry IV, 3.2.16)
In his opening speech Richard tells us he is "determined to prove a villain." At first this seems pretty straightforward. Richard is announcing that he has made a decision and is committed to being bad, right?
Well, that's one way to read it. Another possibility is that Richard is predetermined or predestined (in the Calvinist sense) to be a villain. John Calvin was the founder of Calvinism, a branch of Protestant Christianity. He believed that God determines everything that's going to happen to a person and whether he or she will be saved from damnation. This was a hot topic in Shakespeare's England. Richard's use of the word "determined" is tricky because it implies two totally different possible meanings at once: 1) Richard has decided of his own free will to be a villain or, 2) God has predetermined that Richard is going to be a villain and Richard has no control over it. How we read this line influences how we interpret Richard's character.
Head over to "Themes: Fate and Free Will" for more on this.
We talk about Richard's deformity in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory," but it's worth discussing here because it's such a major part of his character. Shakespeare portrays Richard as a hunchback (even though the real Richard III wasn't) and everyone in the play makes a big deal out of his physical appearance.
Richard tells us from the get-go that he was born "deformed, unfinished, sent before [his] time / into this breathing world scarce half made up" (1.1.1). Richard 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. This is how literary critic Stephen Greenblatt sees it. According to Greenblatt, Shakespeare is following in the footsteps of Sir Thomas More, who portrayed Richard as "a creature whose moral viciousness was vividly stamped on his twisted body." Go to "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this.
If Richard was a modern-day teenager, he'd be the captain of the high school debate team, the guy who's elected class president based solely on his killer campaign speech, and the kid who convinces the prom queen to date him (mere seconds after beating up both her boyfriend and her older brother). Seriously. The guy is one smooth talker and has got some serious skills when it comes to using language as a tool to acquire power. He's also a terrific actor, which comes in handy because he's able to fool a lot of people into thinking he's a good guy. (Did you see the way he convinced Lady Anne to marry him even though she knows he killed her late husband and her father-in-law? We break it down into plain English in our detailed summary of Act 1, Scene 2.)
Of course, you'll be wanting a very specific example of Richard's rhetorical chops, so check out this passage from his opening soliloquy:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. (1.1.1)
Here Richard uses the seasons (winter and summer) as a metaphor for times of war and peace. Basically he describes how his family (the House of York) has suffered during the Wars of the Roses and compares the horrible times to the way cloudy skies can loom over a house during the dark winter months. But now that his big brother Edward IV is king and the country is at peace, it's as though "winter" has given way to "glorious summer."
Also, did you notice the way Richard puns on son/sun? Edward is the literal "son" of the Duke of York and he's also like his royal emblem, the sun that shines down upon us. Richard is telling us that the House of York (his family) is tickled pink that Edward IV is on the throne.
But there's also something tricky going on here, because, if we read this speech very carefully, we notice that Richard reveals just how unhappy he is that his brother has been crowned king. If we only read the first line ("Now is the winter of our discontent") and stop there, Richard is basically admitting that he's really bummed out right "now" – this very moment. As we already know, Richard wants the crown for himself. It's not until the second line that Richard tells us that everyone else is happy about Edward's reign.
We've said elsewhere that the real King Richard III probably wasn't such a bad guy and seems to have been a decent enough king. Yet Shakespeare's portrayal of him is so compelling that it's come to dominate the popular imagination. There's even a Richard III Society that's dedicated to correcting the public's misconceptions about the 15th century king. If you want to know more about the real monarch, check out the resources listed under "Best of the Web," or go to the BBC History website.