(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard III

The fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, Richard III dramatizes the final episode in the English War of the Roses, a dynastic struggle between the rival noble houses of Lancaster and York for control of the English monarchy that raged between 1455 and 1485. Detailing the rise and fall of Richard, duke of Gloucester, Shakespeare's drama takes considerable liberties in the depiction of history, characterizing its protagonist as a deformed, fiendish, and manipulative murderer who is willing to dispose of any man, woman, or child who stands between him and the throne of England. Though crowned king through his skillful machinations, Shakespeare's Richard enjoys his power only briefly before the Lancastrian earl of Richmond mounts an invasion from France destined to depose him. Richard dies in the ensuing Battle of Bosworth Field, and Richmond takes his place as King Henry VII, first of the English Tudor monarchs. While some have noted that Shakespeare's unfavorable portrait of Richard suggests a likely political motivation to please the reigning Elizabeth I, a Tudor queen, most observe that the dramatist's brilliant study of evil in Richard III far outweighs its potentially propagandistic qualities. Nevertheless, a number of late twentieth-century scholars have endeavored to situate the drama within its cultural and historical contexts, while others have continued to focus on Shakespeare's compelling figure of Richard, and the thematic issues that surround him.

Character-aligned study of Richard III, and indeed the vast majority of scholarship regarding the drama, has principally concerned itself with the charismatic villain who dominates the play. Bettie Anne Doebler (1974) follows this tradition by analyzing Richard as an allegorical embodiment of Vice. While Doebler acknowledges that Shakespeare furnished his Richard with an internal dimension, she nevertheless argues that most of his actions and reactions follow conventional patterns and are accompanied by the stock iconography of medieval and early Renaissance drama. Actor Anton Lesser (see Further Reading), who performed the role of Richard in Adrian Noble's 1988 staging of Richard III and its precursor Henry VI, considers the character's psychological motivations and development, and additionally concentrates on Richard's human qualities and the task of winning audience sympathy for him. Richard Marienstras (1995) explores another key element in Richard's characterization: the status of his physical deformity as a humpback. Marienstras studies productions that exaggerate Richard's misshapen form to a monstrous degree, and uses relevant Renaissance texts to reconstruct a multifaceted, symbolic understanding of this horrifying, diabolic, and uncontained stage presence. Among the other characters in Richard III who have elicited significant criticism, the drama's four women—Queen Margaret, Lady Anne, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth—are often viewed collectively as the play's “grieving chorus.” Penny Downie (1993) describes her interpretation of Queen Margaret for Adrian Noble's production of Richard III in 1988. The actress relates her efforts to humanize Margaret—a figure generally remembered for her mad, cursing speeches—and to convey the emotional gravity of her suffering.

Mirroring the extensive critical focus on the figure of Richard in Richard III, stage production of the drama has traditionally concentrated on this title role, with the quality of Richard's performance generally seen as the major barometer of theatrical success. Additionally, the drama has occupied a unique position between stage and film since Laurence Olivier's pivotal celluloid adaptation of the work in 1955. Olivier, working as both the star and director, created one of the most highly acclaimed and influential Shakespearean films ever produced. In his 2000 study of Richard III on film, Christopher Andrews surveys Olivier's adaptation, as well as other film adaptations of the drama, and analyzes the paths taken by Olivier, and later by actors Ron Cooke and Ian McKellen, in cultivating audience sympathy for Shakespeare's notorious hero-villain. In another look at Richard III on film, Kathy M. Howlett (2000) probes director Richard Loncraine's 1995 adaptation, starring Ian McKellen. Regarding the work's imaginative reconstruction of the past and stylistic setting in fascist, 1930s Europe, Howlett notes a process of deforming and manipulating history suggested in the play and highlighted in Loncraine's film. Turning to Richard III on stage, director Michael Grandage mounted a major theatrical performance of the drama in 2002 at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield. Exploiting the enduring attractiveness of its central role to leading actors, the production featured noted film star Kenneth Branagh as a haughty, calculating, and amoral Richard. Critical assessments of the production generally focus on Branagh's performance. Reviewer Toby Young admires Branagh's repulsive, “reptilian” Richard, but contends that he felt no sympathy for the doomed king. Likewise, Matt Wolf credits Grandage with compiling a satisfying Richard III and lauds Branagh's fascinating stage presence and verbal agility. Stephen Brown sums up a consensus of the production by acknowledging that Branagh's Richard, while technically flawless, so completely dominated the stage that he detracted from the seriousness of the violence and suffering of the play. The result was, according to Brown, “a very good production, rather than a great one.”

Late twentieth-century thematic criticism of Richard III, while confronting a range of topics, has almost invariably maintained a link to the drama's protagonist and to the principles he represents. Primarily examining formal and structural elements in the work, L. C. Knights (1962) observes that Shakespeare combined the dramatic conventions of skilled orator, satirical commentator, Machiavellian schemer, and scorned villain into the psychological framework of Richard's character, and contends that the final product far exceeds the limitations of a traditional morality play. Probing Richard's psychology as well as the structural patterns of the drama, Michael Neill (see Further Reading) stresses the motif of self-division as the work's thematic touchstone, and applies the concept to individuals, family dynasties, and the entire English body politic. Building upon this argument, Neill finds that the internal ironies of Richard III should be viewed as cosmic rather than moral, as his ascent toward a worldly omnipotence ultimately invokes a Godly wrath upon Richard. Vance Adair (1997) applies the tools of Lacanian psychoanalysis to Richard III in order to draw symbolic associations between Richard's monstrous form and the problematic reconstruction of history. In his survey of the drama, Antony Hammond (see Further Reading) studies character, language, and imagery in Richard III, and additionally highlights themes that the work shares with the other plays of Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, such as the depiction of revenge and retribution, loss, and the providential progress of history. Lastly, John Jowett (2000) concentrates on prophecies of revenge, dream-visions, and pangs of conscience that culminate in the play's depiction of a sacred, redemptive English destiny temporarily perverted by Richard's profane acts of violence.

L. C. Knights (essay date 1962)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Knights, L. C. “Richard III.” In William Shakespeare: The Histories, pp. 16-26. London: Longmans Green & Co., 1962.

[In the following essay, Knights examines the structure and method of characterization of Richard III, considering the drama as more than simply a political morality play.]

To call Shakespeare's Histories ‘political’ plays is simply one way of indicating that they deal with such matters as the nature of power—and the conflict of powers—within a constituted society, and with the relation of political exigencies to the personal life of those caught up in them. In other words, they belong not with the limited class of...

(The entire section is 3348 words.)

Janis Lull (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lull, Janis. Introduction to King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by Janis Lull, pp. 1-41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpted introduction, Lull probes the sources of Richard III and studies Shakespeare's depiction of history, women, the figure of Richard, and the play's theme of determinism.]

In the histories section of the First Folio, only Richard III is called a ‘tragedy’.1 It unites the chronicle play, a form Shakespeare had developed in the three parts of Henry VI, with a tragic structure showing the rise and fall of a single protagonist. Like Christopher Marlowe's Dr...

(The entire section is 7351 words.)

Bettie Anne Doebler (essay date 1974)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Doebler, Bettie Anne. “‘Dispaire and Dye’: The Ultimate Temptation of Richard III.” Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 75-85.

[In the following essay, Doebler evaluates Richard III's character in the tradition of the dramatic allegory of Vice.]

During most of the play Shakespeare's Richard III undergoes little temptation in the usual dramatic sense; in the manner of the conventional dramatic Machiavel, he announces his evil course to the audience and systematically and bloodily carries it out. No audience of any time could doubt the wickedness of Shakespeare's character. Even the twentieth century with its sympathy for the physically deformed instantly...

(The entire section is 5225 words.)

Penny Downie (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Downie, Penny. “Queen Margaret in Henry VI and Richard III.” In Players of Shakespeare 3: Further Essays in Shakespearian Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood, pp. 114-39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, actress Downie describes her interpretation of Queen Margaret for Adrian Noble's production of Richard III in 1988.]

Queen Margaret was the biggest Shakespearian role I had ever played—the biggest in emotional range and intensity, in spiritual dimension, in the length of the journey from youth to age taken by the character. I...

(The entire section is 4410 words.)

Richard Marienstras (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Marienstras, Richard. “Of a Monstrous Body.” In French Essays on Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Jean-Marie Maguin and Michèle Willems, pp. 153-74. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1990, Marienstras studies the cultural tradition and symbolic significance of Richard's deformed body in Richard III.]

In Bill Alexander's 1984 production of Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company,1 the “monstrous” aspects of the protagonist were particularly emphasized. Antony Sher, who acted Richard, used crutches and, insectlike, hopped on four legs. Sometimes,...

(The entire section is 9568 words.)

Christopher Andrews (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Andrews, Christopher. “Richard III on Film: The Subversion of the Viewer.” Literature/Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 (2000): 82-94.

[In the following essay, Andrews evaluates the means by which film representations of Richard III, performed by Laurence Olivier, Ron Cooke, and Ian McKellen, have facilitated a relationship with the viewing audience.]

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content!’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.

—Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King


For almost four hundred years the...

(The entire section is 8513 words.)

Kathy M. Howlett (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Howlett, Kathy M. “Vivid Negativity: Richard Loncraine's Richard III.” In Framing Shakespeare on Film, pp. 128-48. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Howlett appraises director Richard Loncraine's film adaptation of Richard III and the problems of historical representation that it addresses.]

Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1995) sets Shakespeare's play about a medieval tyrant's rise to power within the material trappings of a 1930s fascist England, a transformation that troubles some film critics, who call the film “a time-travel experiment gone wrong,” with “Fascist regalia” that “seems oddly...

(The entire section is 8475 words.)

Toby Young (essay date 23 March 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Toby. “Of Kings and Witches.” Spectator 288, no. 9059 (23 March 2002): 66.

[In the following review of Richard III starring Kenneth Branagh at Sheffield's Crucible Theater, Young praises Branagh's technically flawless performance as Richard, but acknowledges that the actor failed to elicit audience sympathy.]

I was quite fired up by the prospect of seeing Kenneth Branagh at the Sheffield Crucible, let me tell you. Branagh is arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation and his return to the stage after a ten-year absence to play the lead role in Richard III is a source of huge excitement for theatre critics like me....

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Matt Wolf (essay date 25 March 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of Richard III. Variety 386, no. 6 (25 March 2002): 45.

[In the following review of Michael Grandage's production of Richard III at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, Wolf focuses on Kenneth Branagh's outstanding Richard, and briefly assesses the performances of the supporting cast.]

Shakespeare's envenomed Richard strips himself naked—emotionally speaking—in the opening soliloquy of Richard III, so why shouldn't Kenneth Branagh's remarkable “foul toad” first appear before us attired only in underwear, Richard's misshapen body literally stretched out on what seems to be some kind of rack? The opening of Michael...

(The entire section is 911 words.)

Stephen Brown (essay date 5 April 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Stephen. “Do We Like Him Now?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5166 (5 April 2002): 24-5.

[In the following review of Richard III directed by Michael Grandage in 2002, Brown analyzes Kenneth Branagh's Richard, finding his performance intelligent and complex. The critic concludes, however, that Branagh's characterization contributed to “a very good production, rather than a great one.”]

Michael Grandage's production of Richard III at the Sheffield Crucible is built around Kenneth Branagh. There are few “concepts” and the only major one, as we shall see, relates to Branagh's characterization. The costumes are non-specific...

(The entire section is 1889 words.)

Vance Adair (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Adair, Vance. “Back to the Future: Subjectivity and Anamorphosis in Richard III.Critical Survey 9, no. 3 (1997): 32-58.

[In the following analysis of Richard III informed by Lacanian and poststructuralist theory, Adair draws thematic links between Richard's monstrous physical and psychological deformities and the drama's problematic representation of history.]

… the unconscious is manifested to us as something that holds itself in suspense in the area, I would say, of the unborn.


Having confounded his own expectations in the successful...

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John Jowett (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jowett, John. Introduction to The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett, pp. 1-142. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Jowett presents a thematic overview of Richard III, highlighting such motifs as prophecy, curses, dreams, and conscience.]

Prophecy of Revenge. It is a distinctive quality of Shakespeare's representation of reality that, though the physical and social world is tangible and real, it is at the same time subject to intrusion and redefinition from something the plays' characters experience as beyond the material. For all its immediacy and solidity, the world's...

(The entire section is 10736 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Alleva, Richard. Review of Richard III. Commonweal 123 (19 April 1996): 18-19.

Review of director Richard Loncraine's film adaptation of Richard III that contends the work offers a fascinating abstract of Shakespeare's drama, but forsakes too many of its original details.

Bridges, Linda. Review of Richard III. National Review 49 (15 September 1997): 80.

Includes a brief comment on a 1997 production of Richard III at Stratford, Ontario. Comparing it with the famous Laurence Olivier film version, the critic finds this stage production truer to Shakespeare's text but less energetic...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)