Richard III (Vol. 52)


Richard III

Shakespeare's Richard III has long been a favorite play for actors as well as for audiences, showcasing as it does a character who is simultaneously repugnant, lethal, witty, and engaging. Richard's attractiveness in spite of, or because of, his wickedness has also been the focus of critical debate. Central to this debate is the manner in which morality is treated in the play. Scholars have commented, for example, on the connections Richard III makes between morality on the one hand and nature versus nurture on the other. Discussion has also focused on the complex relationships in the play between sex, politics, and integrity. Finally, Richard III and the issue of morality have been approached by several critics from the vantage point of genre. In other words, scholars have speculated on the extent to which medieval morality plays with their characterizations of Vice and Virtue inform the structure and possible interpretations of Richard III.

Nancy A. Cluck (1985) locates the play's emphasis on immorality directly in Richard III's “pathological shamelessness” which, she explains, is the result of his physical deformity. Richard's “unlovable” shape has placed him outside of society. Cluck observes that in order to cope, Richard turns his shame to shamelessness by celebrating his own deformity and by behaving as an immoral “villain,” wreaking pain and destruction on the society that has rejected him. Grant B. Mindle (1993) defines the sheer magnitude of Richard's immorality. Mindle observes that while many Shakespearean characters (such as Macbeth) feel guilty or at least uneasy about the murders they commit, Richard does not. Richard, Mindle suggests, commits his murders “deliberately” and “serenely.” Further, Mindle points out that Richard himself describes conscience as “a word that cowards use.”

Maurice Hunt (1997) relies on Elizabethan politics and Tudor history to describe the types of morality at work in the play. Hunt remarks that as the daughter of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was sensitive about the question of legitimacy—an issue that also plagued Richmond; thus in Richard III, Shakespeare avoids offending his queen by drawing a distinction between “moral bastardy” and “moral integrity.” Hunt traces the history of both Richmond and Elizabeth I to demonstrate that while each could be regarded as bastards in the eyes of the law, both were morally sound. By contrast, as a Yorkist rather than a Tudor, Richard III could lay a strong claim to legitimate rule; nevertheless, Hunt explains, the treacherous Richard lacked legitimacy because he was grossly immoral.

Paul N. Siegel (1986) sees a different type of immorality expressed in Richard III. Taking a Marxist approach to the play, Siegel describes Richard as the embodiment of the self-centered individualism that began to appear during the early-modern era in which Shakespeare lived. Hunt observes that Richard's language is laced with “cold-blooded” references to business and money, and that the brutal Richard thereby prefigures the equally brutal and self-interested conquerors of the New World as well as the advent of the bourgeoisie who, Siegel suggests, achieve their own needs at the expense of others.

Several critics have noted the theatricality of Shakespeare's Richard and how this contributes to Richard's portrayal as an immoral character. Deborah Mitchell (1997) observes that audiences and actors alike positively relish Shakespeare's depiction of a flamboyant Richard who lacks any moral fiber. Mitchell further remarks that this representation has been effectively perpetuated onscreen first by Laurence Olivier and later by Ian McKellen, who portrayed Richard III “in a Nazi uniform seal[ing] his fate as eternity's archvillain.” This monstrous view of Richard persists despite contradictory historical evidence simply because—as Mitchell suggests—the apparently false story of a wicked Richard III is highly entertaining.

Gillian M. Day (1991) similarly acknowledges the theatrical power of Richard III, noting that the character “plays the villain with a great sense of spectacle and theatre.” In addition, Day connects Richard with the tradition of the morality plays of the medieval period in which characters representing Vice (Richard) must be overcome by those representing Virtue (Richmond). A different perspective on the morality theatrics of the play is expressed by Peggy Endel (1986), who remarks that, unlike other Shakespearean characters, Richard foregrounds his immoral plots by discussing them in the very public atmosphere of the throne room. Endel compares this behavior of Richard's with a late-medieval painting by Hieronymus Bosch of the devil sitting in state on a chamber pot.

The ways in which Richard uses sex to further his immoral cause have also been examined by scholars. Rebecca W. Bushnell (1990), Linda Charnes (1993), and Phyllis Rackin (1995) all discuss the ways in which the physically unappealing Richard skillfully manipulates sexual desire and lust to disempower the female characters around him in order to further his own aims. Deborah Willis (1995) contends that Richard's wickedness is driven by his hatred for his mother—whom he blames for his deformity—and his contempt for women in general—who reject him because of his deformity.

Donald R. Shupe (1978) and Betty A. Schellenberg (1990) both focus on Richard's extraordinary powers of persuasion. Schellenberg concludes that Richard is doomed to fail despite his facility for language because both his aims and the language he uses to express them are corrupt. Ultimately, Schellenberg asserts that it will take the “prayers” of Richmond to “purify” the language and bring harmony back to society.

Criticism: Morality

Nancy A. Cluck (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Shakespearean Studies In Shame,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 36, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 141-51.

[In the following essay, Cluck defines shame and its place in Western culture by comparing Shakespeare's character Antony with his character Richard III. Cluck remarks that Richard is so intensely ashamed of his misshapen body that he seeks refuge in complete shamelessness and immorality.]

Few human emotions are more distressing than those associated with shame. Though feelings such as anger, grief, fear, and even guilt can be equally painful, they are more easily expressed because they are more acceptable to Western society. Shame isolates the sufferer from...

(The entire section is 5348 words.)

Paul N. Siegel (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Richard III and the Spirit of Capitalism,” in Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach, Associated University Presses, 1986, pp. 80-5.

[In the following excerpt, Siegel argues that the character Richard III symbolizes the self-centered, bourgeois attitude to political power as well as to the immoral domination and manipulation of others in a society based on capital.]

It may seem strange to regard Richard III, a member of the feudal house of York, whose conflict with the rival house of Lancaster marked the waning of the Middle Ages in England, as representative of the spirit of capitalism. However, as seen in chapter 2, Shakespeare...

(The entire section is 3306 words.)

Grant B. Mindle (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Demonic Prince,” in Interpretations 20, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 259-74.

[In the following essay, Mindle observes that Richard III is the most Machiavellian of all of Shakespeare's protagonists, noting that unlike characters such as Macbeth and Henry IV, Richard III has no respect for morality or conscience.]

Why Buckingham, I say I would be king.
Why, so you are, my thrice-renownéd lord.
Ha! Am I king?


Shakespeare's Richard III is the story of a man who would be king, a chronicle of a tyrant who tries to “clothe [his] naked villainy” by setting...

(The entire section is 8182 words.)

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's King Richard III and the Problematics of Tudor Bastardy,” in Papers on Language and Literature 33, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 115-41.

[In the following essay, Hunt contends that in Richard III, Shakespeare distinguishes between “moral bastardy” and “moral integrity.” In other words, although Richard apparently has a more legitimate claim to the throne than the possibly illegitimate Richmond, Richard loses his legitimacy as a result of his wickedness while Richmond solidifies his claim through his morality.]

Granted Queen Elizabeth's touchiness concerning the subject of royal bastardy, Shakespeare ran a risk in King...

(The entire section is 8599 words.)