(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Nancy A. Cluck (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Paul N. Siegel (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Grant B. Mindle (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Rebecca W. Bushnell (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thriftless Ambition: The Tyrants of Shakespeare and Jonson,” in Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 118-26.

[In the following excerpt, Bushnell asserts that in his role as tyrant, Richard III discovers that lust and political ambition are interconnected, so that in order to exert power over people, he must also “abase” himself by playing the role of seducer or suppliant to Anne and Elizabeth.]

Shakespeare and Jonson portrary tyranny by showing how sexual and political desire both shapes an ambitious tyrant's image and undoes it. More specifically, Richard III and Sejanus...

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Linda Charnes (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Belaboring the Obvious: Reading the Monstrous Body in King Richard III,” in Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 33-51.

[In the following excerpt, Charnes explains how the murderous and physically monstrous Richard transmogrifies Anne's hatred into sexual desire during the emotionally charged wooing scene.]

What we regard as “history” is always “mediated through subjectivity”: it becomes history only by the process of repetitive inscription in and through the symbolic. Consequently its “Truth arises from misrecognition”—whatever it signifies in the social formation...

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Phyllis Rackin (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Engendering the Tragic Audience: The Case of Richard III,” in Shakespeare and Gender: A History, Verso, 1995, pp. 263-82.

[In the following essay, Rackin examines the disempowerment that occurs to the female characters when Shakespeare transforms a history play into a tragedy as he does with Richard III.]


Although the First Folio classifies Richard III with Shakespeare's other English histories, the title pages of the Quartos suggest generic difference. In the case of 2 Henry VI, the title page indicates both the episodic chronicle structure of the play and its historical subject: ‘The First part of...

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Deborah Willis (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Performing Persecution,” in Malevolent Nature: Witch Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England, Cornell University Press, 1995, pp. 193-207.

[In the following excerpt, Willis contends that Richard demonizes his mother and all women for his own defects as well as for his distance from the succession to the throne of England.]

Richard's Mothers

In the middle of Richard III, as Richard is consolidating his power en route to his short-lived kingship, he makes a blatantly fraudulant charge of witchcraft against Queen Elizabeth and Jane Shore:

Look how I am bewitched! Behold, mine arm
Is like a blasted...

(The entire section is 6832 words.)

Bridget Gellert Lyons (essay date 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kings Games”: Stage Imagery and Political Symbolism in “Richard III,” in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts XX, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 17-30.

[In the essay below, Lyons suggests that, like actual monarchs such as Elizabeth I, Shakespeare's Richard III and Richmond resort to elaborate symbolism and theatrical performances to manipulate or to communicate with their subjects.]

“We Princes,” Queen Elizabeth said in 1586 to a deputation of her Lords and Commons, “are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed.” She was speaking of the need to observe all the proprieties in dealing with Mary Queen of...

(The entire section is 5938 words.)

Peggy Endel (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Profane Icon: The Throne Scene of Shakespeare's Richard III,” in Comparative Drama 20, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 115-23.

[In the following essay, Endel discusses the problematic “throne scene” of Act IV where the newly crowned Richard III enacts private, conspiratorial business in the throne-room—a place that is normally treated as a highly public stage complete with an audience of courtiers.]

The English drama critic John Trewin first began to review Shakespeare's plays on the London stage in 1930. In 1978, when he was seventy years old, this dean of theater critics looked back over a lifetime of what he called “going to Shakespeare” and...

(The entire section is 3467 words.)

Gillian M. Day (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Determined to prove a villain’: Theatricality in Richard III,” in Critical Survey 3, No. 2, 1991, pp. 149-56.

[In the essay below, Day examines Richard III's chosen and not always reliable professions as prologue, stage manager, and actor in the “morality-Vice manner” of the play.]

Richard III has a long association with theatricality. Colley Cibber's melodramatic attentions to the text in 1700 ensured its reputation as a piece of showmanship even into the 1950s when, some would say, Laurence Olivier's film confirmed the histrionic image. Both men, however, built on what already existed in the play. Richard III is...

(The entire section is 3787 words.)

Deborah Mitchell (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Richard III: Tonypandy in the Twentieth Century,” in Literature/Film Quarterly 25, No. 2, 1997, pp. 133-45.

[In the following essay, Mitchell discusses the ways in which Ian McKellen's 1996 cinematic performance of Richard III powerfully reinforces the Tudor myth that presents Richard as an immoral monster.]

In her 1951 detective novel, Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey proffers the theory that Richard III, last of the Plantagenet kings, was a victim of Tudor character assassination. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, House of York, brother of Edward IV, had long been accused and by many convicted of a long list of heinous crimes, not the least of...

(The entire section is 8683 words.)

Donald R. Shupe (essay date 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Wooing of Lady Anne: A Psychological Inquiry,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 29, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 28-36.

[In the following essay, Shupe psychoanalyzes the wooing scene between Richard and Anne, concluding that its outcome is realistic because Richard is a highly persuasive Machiavellian type and because Anne is confused and vulnerable.]

Early in Richard III, Richard, as part of his plot to win the throne, decides to marry the Lady Anne. He undertakes her wooing at what would appear to be the least propitious moment for such an enterprise, during the funeral procession for her father-in-law, Henry VI, whom Richard has murdered. Richard,...

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Betty A. Schellenberg (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Conflicting Paradigms and the Progress of Persuasion in Richard III,” in Cahiers Élizabéthains, No. 37, April, 1990, pp. 59-66.

[In the following essay, Schellenberg asserts that in Richard III's rise and fall, Shakespeare is demonstrating the “dangers of persuasive rhetoric” when it is misused.]

Shakespeare's Richard III bustles through a stage world of highly formal rhetoric, setting in motion a near-successful bid for control not only of the stage and its other actors, but also of the masterplot of history. He delights in his Richard loves Richard text, glossing his verbal manipulations at every stage of their planning and...

(The entire section is 5304 words.)

Criticism: Sources

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘This Son of Yorke’: Textual and Literary Criticism Again,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1986, pp. 359-65.

[In the following essay, Hammersmith examines a textual crux in Richard III: that is, whether Shakespeare wrote “sun” or “son” of York in the opening lines of the play and whether the puns that result in either case make one reading more likely than the other.]

Perhaps it is time again to put in a word in favor of the exercise of literary judgment in coping with textual problems and in making editorial decisions, though G. Thomas Tanselle's lucid and persuasive essay on the need to combine literary and textual...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Brooks, Harold F. “‘Richard III’: Antecedents of Clarence's Dream.” Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): 145-50.

Analyzes possible literary sources, including Seneca, for Clarence's ominous dream of his death through drowning.

Carlson, David R. “The Princes' Embrace in Richard III.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 344-47.

Compares Shakespeare's Richard III with two ballads also written about Richard and speculates on whether the ballads served as sources for the play or whether the play influenced the ballads.

Frisch, Morton J. “Shakespeare's Richard III and the Soul of the Tyrant.”...

(The entire section is 241 words.)