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.