Richard III is the last of a series of four plays that began with the three parts of Henry VI. These plays, though not strictly speaking a tetralogy, trace the bloody conflicts between the houses of Lancaster and York and interpret the events leading up to the establishment of the Tudor dynasty. Despite Richard’s painful experiences, the drama remains a history rather than a tragedy. Richard does not have the moral stature to be a tragic hero, who may murder, but only in violation of his own nature. Richard, by contrast, is a natural intriguer and murderer. Even as bloody a character as Macbeth contains within him an earlier, nobler, Macbeth. Richard is too intelligent and self-aware, and too much in control of himself and those around him, to raise any of the moral ambiguities or dilemmas that are necessary to tragedy. Nor does Richard achieve any transcendent understanding of his actions.
Richard is, nevertheless, the dominating figure in the play and a fascinating one. All the other characters pale before him. The play is primarily a series of encounters between him and the opponents who surround him. Because Richard is physically small and has a humpback, many commentators have suggested that his behavior is a compensation for his physical deformity. However, Richard is not a paranoid; everyone really does hate him. The deformity, a gross exaggeration of the historical reality, is more likely a physical representation of the grotesque shape of Richard’s soul in a Renaissance world that took such correspondences seriously. In any case, Shakespeare created good theater by representing Richard as deformed, by which means his plots seem all the more grotesque.
Richard is also the master rhetorician in a play in which Shakespeare for the first time shows the full power of his language. Richard’s speeches and the staccato exchanges among characters present the nervous energy that informs the more ambitious later plays. From his opening soliloquy, Richard fascinates not only with his language but also with his intelligence and candor. Until the very end, he is the stage manager of all that occurs. As a villain, he is unique in his total control and in the virtuosity of his performance. Even Iago pales before him, for Richard, in soliloquies and asides, explains to the audience exactly what he is going to do and then carries it off.
In his opening speech, it is immediately clear that Richard will preside if not eventually prevail. He reveals not only a self-confident awareness of his own physical limitations and intellectual superiority but also a disarming perception of his own evil and isolation. His honest villainy is more total than Iago’s both in the way that he is able to convince every character that he is his only friend and in the full step-by-step disclosure of his intentions to the audience. Since everyone is against him, he almost generates involuntary sympathy.
Shakespeare’s plot is the relentless working out of Richard’s schemes as they lead to his final destruction. His first confrontation, with Anne, is a model of Richard’s abilities: The exchange begins with Anne’s heaping abuse on her husband’s murderer and ends with Richard extracting from her a promise of marriage. Anne is overwhelmed more by the brilliance and the audacity of Richard’s rhetorical wit than by the logic of his arguments. The audience, however, sees what an improbably brief time Richard needs to be successful. It is part of the definition of this villain that he can succeed in such a wildly improbable adventure. Richard is frequently shown using those who hate him for his own benefit, in a perverse gratification of his ostensible desire for power and his submerged desire to be loved. Only his mother is able to see through to the total corruption of his heart.
Richard sees the path to kingship as being simply a matter of ingratiating himself with the right people and of murdering all those who stand in his way. He contracts the murder of Clarence in the Tower amid a good bit of gallows humor, which sets the appropriately grim tone. Like a good Machiavel, he builds on past success and takes advantage of any fortuitous circumstances. He uses the death of Clarence to cast suspicion on Elizabeth and on her party and to get the support of Buckingham, and he seizes on the death of Edward IV to have the influential nobles imprisoned and killed. Most events happen at Richard’s instigation, and others he deftly turns to his own advantage. He efficiently removes all near claims to the throne by lies, innuendoes, and direct, vigorous action.
So appealing is his virtuosity and so faithful is he in informing the audience of his plans, that Shakespeare is even able to arouse sympathy for him when the tide of opposition to him swells under the leadership of Richmond. Shakespeare neatly figures the balance of power by setting up the opposing camps on opposite sides of the stage. The ominous appearances of the ghosts, to Richmond as well as to Richard, portend that retribution is at hand. Although he is unnerved for the first time, Richard behaves with martial valor and struggles determinedly to the last. This last show of courage is the final complication of a consummate villain.