Richard III Richard III (Vol. 39)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard III

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...

(The entire section is 71,602 words.)