Richard III (Vol. 39)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Richard III, see SC, Volumes 8 and 14.
As in previous centuries of scholarship, twentieth-century scholarship dealing with Richard III focuses on the person of Richard III himself. However, twentieth-century scholars have tended to turn their focus away from the moral shortcomings of Richard and from the historical inaccuracies incorporated into his role. Instead, they have turned to the drama of the work, to the interaction of Richard with other characters, his roleplaying, wit, and love of villainy, and also to the literary and cultural antecedents of Richard's role, the structural unity of the play, and the political and moral history that exists beyond the tragedy of an individual king.
This theme of political and moral history existing beyond the individual king is one aspect of kingship explored further in recent scholarship. Francis Fergusson has focused on Richard's place in objective history as the last of the Yorkist kings before the new Tudor monarchy defeated Richard through Richmond. Thus, the play chronicles both Richard's climb to power and his eventual overthrow by the Tudors because they have greater moral right on their side. Jan Kott has seen history as a grand staircase on which an individual ascends to power through successive steps of murder and treachery until one is eventually pushed off the top step by someone coming up from below. Thus, in the grand staircase of history, although Richard's motivations may seem exceptionally evil, his progress toward power is typical of those who aspire to the throne. Richard P. Wheeler has argued that history can be viewed as either moral and providential or amoral and materialistic. For Wheeler, Shakespeare incorporates both views, exploring the amoral and materialistic view through the actions of Richard, yet affirming the moral and providential through the overthrow of Richard by Richmond.
Attention by modern scholars has also been directed toward the problems inherent in the idea of kingship. David Riggs has studied the character of the self (of Richard, in this case) in relation to the ideals of the heroic tradition and to the rituals of chivalry that characterize the public identities of the courtiers of Richard's day. In a similar vein, John C. Bromley has investigated Richard's problem of living with his father's image and trying to achieve his own ambitions that conflict with that image. Thus, Richard presents the image of his father in public but shows his own character and motivation in private. Nina S. Levine has examined the necessity of providing an heir for the throne, which was a focus of concern in Shakespeare's own time in regard to Queen Elizabeth I (granddaughter of Henry VII, Richard's successor), and which is reflected in Richard III. Maurice Hunt has also explored the topic of succession—in relation to bastardy. Hunt highlights the legal and religious difficulties associated with bastardy in Elizabethan times, and suggests that Richard III involves a comparison of the moral bastard Richard with the physical bastard Richmond (who became Henry VII).
Richard's exuberant rhetoric has always excited critical interest, and the language of Richard III has again become the focus of a number of recent essays. Wolfgang G. Müller has examined Richard's language from the perspective of the Renaissance belief in the omnipotence of language and of the Renaissance ideal of the wise statesman-orator, concluding that Richard shows the danger of the abuse of the power of language for evil. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. has compared the speeches of Richard and Richmond according to the rules of rhetoric set down in the military manuals of the period, and has concluded that Richmond's speeches represent better military rhetoric. E. Pearlman has analyzed the language of Richard III to show that Richard's jealousy and rivalry with his brothers are emphasized as Richard moves from being an intense warrior in 2 Henry VI to being someone who advises overreaching ambition in the second scene of 3 Henry VI to being the deceitful, manipulative, murderous villain of 3 Henry VI and of Richard III
The characterization of Richard is another theme studied in current scholarship. John J. McLaughlin has suggested that readers should interpret Richard's continual changes in role and his violent ways as the machinations of a rogue in slapstick comedy. Phillip Mallett has envisioned Richard as a Machiavellian puppet-master who shows his puppeteering skill to the audience in a play within the play, but who eventually finds that he himself is haplessly manipulated by fate or Providence.
Francis Fergusson (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Richard III," in Shakespeare: The Pattern in his Carpet, Delacorte Press, 1958, pp. 51-6.
[In the following excerpt, Fergusson describes Richard III as an early masterpiece combining contemporary political attitudes about the monarchy with skilled stagecraft.]
Richard III was written about 1592 and was one of Shakespeare's first big successes. Though it has a great deal of political and psychological wisdom, it is essentially a melodrama, full of sardonic humor and of the youthful Shakespeare's delight in thunderous language. It has fascinated audiences since its first appearance on Shakespeare's own stage.
It is the story and the character of Richard himself that give the play its extraordinary theatrical vitality. The Tudor historians had created the popular image of Richard as a heartless villain, and at least two plays had been written about him, before Shakespeare wrote his play. Modern historians criticize the Tudor interpretation of King Richard, but Shakespeare accepted it with gusto, making him a horrible example of mischief in high places. His Richard, when played with the right smiling and demoniac energy, enthralls us still, whether we know anything about English history or not.
Shakespeare's patriotic audience, however, would have found Richard's story absorbing not...
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David Riggs (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "The Tradition of Fame and the Arts of Policy: Richard III and 1 Henry IV," in Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition, Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 140-60.
[In the following excerpt, Riggs sees Richard III as Shakespeare's reappraisal of the validity of the assumptions of traditional epic heroism associated with the king.]
I Henry VI opens with a lament for Henry V, the hero-king who was "too famous to live long." As Elizabethan audiences were soon to learn, he was also too famous to be buried and forgotten. In I Henry IV Shakespeare had already begun to reassemble the legend that is forfeited in the earlier cycle, and Henry V, while it is uncompromisingly severe in its repudiation of the French chivalric style, remains the only play that he could have written with Hall's Union in one hand and Erasmus' Institutio Principis in the other. In itself, this revival of the hero-king is hardly surprising. The figure, like the theatrical conventions that secured his popularity, was an indestructible part of Shakespeare's world. The student of English drama in the seventeenth century, following this figure through the plays of Dryden and his contemporaries, is bound to be more impressed by his resilience and adaptability than by his occasional...
(The entire section is 21142 words.)
Wolfgang G. Müller (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Villain as Rhetorician in Shakespeare's Richard III," in Anglia, Vol. 102, No. 1 & 2, 1984, pp. 37-59.
[In the following essay, Müller discusses Richard Ill's use of rhetoric to further his own ends.]
In the third part of Shakespeare's trilogy Henry VI Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is presented as a fierce warrior, a ruthless avenger, and an inhuman cynic. Having slain the saintly King Henry VI, he continues stabbing at him, saying: "Down, down to hell; and say I sent thee thither" (V.6.67). The Richard we meet in Richard III is a completely different character, a villain who, except for the final battle scene, never soils his hands with blood. In brutal utterances such as "Off with his head!" (III.4.78) or "I wish the bastards dead. / And I would have it suddenly perform'd." (IV.2.18-19) there is still a reflection of the pitiless butcher of Henry VI, but, as a rule, Richard's villainy now works in a subtler and more infernal way, which manifests itself in his specific use or, rather, abuse of rhetoric. This change in the conception of the villain is forecast in Richard's great soliloquy in 3 Henry VI, IIL2.124-195, which would be dramatically pointless without the succeeding play1.
It is the object of the present article...
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John J. McLaughlin (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "Richard III as Punch," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, November, 1977, pp. 79-86.
[In the following essay, McLaughlin represents Richard III as a comic-villain who is intended to evoke laughter through his wit and the slapstick excess of his aggression for the sake of domination.]
There is a sure-fire show stopper in the Punch and Judy show: Punch takes his stick to one of his victims—usually Scaramouche—swings mightily, and the puppet's head is knocked clear off its shoulders. When Buckingham asks of Richard III, "Now my lord, what shall we do if we perceive / Lord Hastings will not yield to our complots?" Richard's reply is a Punch-line: "Chop off his head." It has the finality of Punch's stick; we can almost see the head topple. Our delight at the sudden audacity and directness of Richard's answer is equal to a child's joy at watching Punch's victim lose his blockhead. Edmund Kean, we are told, delivered the line with a laugh,1 and Laurence Olivier, in his filmed version of Richard III gave it with a sardonic grin and a malicious twinkle of the eye. The audiences in both cases could be expected to laugh appreciatively, for Richard, like Punch, is a comedian-villain.2
There is nothing new in the notion that villainy can be played for comedy. The comic rogue and the...
(The entire section is 6122 words.)
Barber, C. L., and Richard P. Wheeler. "Savage Play and the Web of Curses in Richard III." In The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development, pp. 86-124. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Discusses Shakespeare's presentation of theatrical aggression in the role of Richard III.
Berry, Ralph. "Richard III: Player and King." In The Shakespearean Metaphor: Studies in Language and Form, pp. 9-25. London: Macmillan, 1978.
Examines the play's structure in terms of Richard's role-playing and of his confrontation with reality.
Brooke, Nicholas. "Richard III." In Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, pp. 48-79. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1968.
Presents an analysis of the play's thematic structure and represents Richard as a tragic figure of human will set against the impersonal force of history.
Brownlow, F. W. "The Tragedy of Richard III" In Two Shakespearean Sequences: "Henry VI" to "Richard III" and "Pericles" to "Timon of Athens" pp.63-77. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.
Explores how Shakespeare circumvented historical fact in Richard's role to show the need for redemption in the soul rather than through human political figures.
Carroll, William C. "'The Form of Law': Ritual and Succession in Richard III." In True...
(The entire section is 1259 words.)