Richard III, written circa 1592, is the fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy. The play recounts the rise and fall of Richard III, the end of the Wars of the Roses, and the beginning of Tudor peace. Religious concerns, among them the notion of divine providence, underscore the action of the play and are a source of modern critical interest. Richard III also features four women—the Duchess of York, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and Lady Anne—who are often viewed collectively as the play's “grieving chorus” rather than as individuals. A number of critics focus their attention on the function of these women in the play. In addition, a wealth of critical analyses center on the character of Richard, who generates mixed emotions in audiences who are repulsed by his villainy, entertained by his wit, and seduced by his words. Full of potent dreams, curses, and omens, Richard III is in some ways structured by prophesy, an issue that interests scholars who observe that most of the predictions in the play come true.
Richard III is often characterized as allegory, with Richard playing the role of the villain-king who is scourged by God. According to the standard allegorical reading, Richard is used as God's instrument in restoring the throne of England to God's chosen ruler, Richmond, whose union with Elizabeth generates the house of Tudor. Clifford Chalmers Huffman (1982) analyzes this reading and finds that the play offers an alternative to this perspective. Huffman maintains that God's mercy also plays a role in Richard III, allowing many scenes—such as Richard's self-scrutiny, the wooing of Anne, and Clarence's dream—to be read in such a way that allows Richard's tragedy of character, rather than his allegorical status, to become the play's focus. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1985) identifies the play's allusions to St. Paul and notes that St. Paul, like Richard, was marked by physical deformity and known as a skilled rhetorician and debater. Additionally, Hassel compares the “argument” of the play to that of Revelation, and finds that while the Book of Revelation focuses on prophecies concerned with the last days and the punishment of God's enemies, the scope of Richard III is limited to the last days of the Wars of Roses. The critic also contends that while the characters in the play may have allegorical counterparts, the play is not strict allegory; Richard is “devilish,” but does not represent Satan, and Richmond is Christ-like, but not a Christ-figure. Hugh M. Richmond (1984) centers his attention on the rather substantial religious vocabulary of the play, demonstrating the way in which Richard III reflects the religious tensions of Shakespeare's time. The critic maintains that by reversing medieval conventions, Shakespeare exploited the conflict between Protestants and humanists.
Richard's “devilishness,” as well as his other intriguing qualities, has made the title character the focal point of many critical analyses. Some critics, including Michael Neill (1976), note that although Shakespeare drew from traditional source material that depicted Richard as a Machiavellian, or as the Vice-figure of morality plays, Shakespeare was able to create a character with startling psychological depth. Larry S. Champion (see Further Reading) focuses more intensely on the subject of source material, tracing the literary depictions of the historical Richard III to one of the earliest accounts (written between 1489 and 1491) in which Richard is portrayed as demonic. Like Neill, the critic observes that although Shakespeare was constrained by the Tudor myth developed by the authors of his source material, he was able to give new life to a character previously stylized as the figure of evil. This long-standing characterization of Richard as the embodiment of evil has been examined by critics attempting to better understand this aspect of his character. Janette Dillon (see Further Reading) demonstrates that for...
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