Did Shakespeare Have Richard III All Wrong?

by WiseFool

The theory was that by uncovering Richard III, we would learn more about the man behind the legend. Has he been unfairly represented for over 500 years?

The great hope of The Richard III Society was that, by exhuming the remains of the world's very first 'Tricky Dicky', we would, once and for all, have a clearer picture of the man behind the villain made infamous largely by the theatrical efforts of William Shakespeare.

Their firm belief is that Richard has been vilified; first by Tudor propaganda, which had to paint him as an unfit king in order to validate Henry VII's usurping of the throne; and then by literature (chiefly Shakespeare's Richard III) that followed, which used this propaganda as its source material.

So, has the Richard III Society achieved its goal? Do we now see Richard differently? And did Shakespeare have the last Plantagenet king all wrong?

What Did Shakespeare Have to Say About Richard III?

Laurence Olivier as Richard IIIBefore I write anything about Shakespeare's representation of Richard III, it's important to clarify that the Machiavellian schemer of The Tragedy of King Richard III isn't entirely a creation of the Bard's imagination; Shakespeare's source was Holinshed's Chronicle, which was first published in 1577 and then revised for a second edition ten years later.

We're talking about a 'history' that was penned well into the Tudor period, an era in which any positive light shone on members of the Plantagenet family would not be looked upon favorably. Moreover, by the time Raphael Holinshed was drafted in to assist with the chronicle (sometime in the mid 16th century), Richard's 'bad press' had been around for over sixty years.

With all that in mind, let's consider Shakespeare's Richard III. A man who is physically deformed: with a withered arm and a hunchback; a man so frighteningly unusual that he was born with teeth and so hideous that dogs bark at him.

He's a scary dude. A sixteenth century boogeyman. And when we consider that Shakespeare is writing during the era in which the granddaughter of Richard's killer is on the throne  it's no great surprise that this is the case.

What is surprising is that Richard is, at times, quite a fun character; there's humor in amongst all that darkness. And, something I feel is probably overlooked by those Ricardian's who feel Shakespeare treats the last Plantagenet king unfairly, is that he is the 'hero' of the play. The work is a tragedy, making Richard a tragic hero - he's up there with King Lear, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet. 

Isn't that odd? Shakespeare could have written a play with Henry VII (Elizabeth's grandfather) as the protagonist: the hero. Instead, it's Richard that takes center stage and that in itself is, I would argue, flattering.

The Mixture of Darkness and Humor in Richard's Character

Why Did The Tudors Paint Richard III as a Villain?

The reason Henry VIII and his followers had to ensure people viewed Richard as a villain is quite a simple one: as alluded to above, they had to put the seal of legitimacy on the Tudor monarchy.

It had to be believed that the 'right' thing had been done by removing Richard forcibly. If people felt sorry for the Plantagenet king, then there could easily be an uprising, prompting a continuation of the disquiet that had ruled for thirty years with the Wars of The Roses.

The easiest way to ensure that everybody was 'on side' was to paint Richard in the worst light possible.

Now, in the interests of fairness, some of what the Tudors claimed might be true. We still don't know what happened to the Princes (Richard's two nephews) who were placed in the tower. Did Richard have them killed so he could take the crown unchallenged?

Ricardians look away now, because the truth is he might have done.

But, whether Richard was really ruthlessly ambitious or not, what we do know is that reports of his physical appearance are not conclusive. Some, like Niclas von Poppelau (who visited England in 1484), do not mention any deformity in the king at all. And even some of the Tudor supporters can't agree on which of Richard's shoulders was higher, which indicates any difference may not have been particularly noticeable.

Of course, more damning still for the legitimacy of the Tudor's claims is that the 'Windsor portrait' has been shown under X-ray to have been altered, giving the king a more callous face and lifting one shoulder to support this notion that he was a hunchback.

So, was all this just a ruse to make people believe that he was evil; to perpetuate the medieval view that evil must be obvious in the outer form? In other words, if he wasn't deformed, then maybe he wasn't such a bad egg after all.  

Portrait of King Richard III
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Has Unearthing Richard III Changed Our Opinions of Him?

Facial reconstruction of Richard IIIOne of the expectations of The Richard III Society was that, by finding and exhuming Richard's body, his reputation would finally be redeemed - his remains would somehow prove that he was, after all, a decent guy and a good king.

One of the ways they'd hoped to prove that was to put to bed what they considered to be nonsense about his hunchback. And it stood to reason, if the Tudors (and Shakespeare) lied about Richard's back, then it could be argued that they were equally dishonest about everything else.

So, it must have come as a great disappointment when it was found that Richard's bones indicate he did indeed have a significant curve in his spine. Not a hunchback per se, and it's thought the deformity would have been difficult to discern underneath clothing. Nevertheless, there was definitely something wrong with Richard's back. 

What else did his remains tell us? Well, Shakespeare was wrong about the withered arm. Perhaps more important though was what we learned about the manner of Richard's death; the violent, brutal and humiliating last hours that took his life. 

Does any of this change how we feel about him, though? Does it prove that he was a benevolent monarch? The truth is, no, it doesn't. It might make him seem more human, but doesn't Shakespeare make him human, too? After all, that's the point of tragedy - to give a 'great' man an all too human frailty that will unquestionably lead to his downfall.

Has Shakespeare Actually Done Richard III a Favor?

Did Shakespeare do Richard III a favor?Shakespeare's Richard III is a villain, I'm not disputing that. However, as with all of Shakespeare's villains, he isn't evil for evil's sake. We know why he feels such hatred - he's been treated like a freak his entire life. He's been hardened by the cruelty he's received and he's determined to make the world pay. He's full of bitterness. self-pity and jealousy:

"I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days."

In a way, don't we feel sorry for him? Yes, he's malicious and unfeeling, but Shakespeare suggests that there is a human being beneath all that - a man who is acting out of emotions we're all prone to. Yes, he takes them to the extreme, but there still remains a sympathetic character underneath those violent, vicious acts. And, considering Elizabeth may not take too kindly to a 'human' representation of Richard, that's really quite dangerous territory for Shakespeare to be walking.

But, even if you disagree with that view of Shakespeare's Richard III, there is one more reason that I think the Platagenet king should be grateful to the Bard of Avon: there would not be half as much interest in King Richard if it weren't for his infamous status as Shakespeare's villain.

Realistically speaking, he should have no more than a brief footnote in history - a king (albeit the last in the Plantagenet line) who ruled for just a little over two years. Surely, the reason people all over the world are still fascinated by Richard and his legacy is not the facts, but literature. It's all thanks to Shakespeare.

So, whether Shakespeare got him all wrong or not (and that's a question we can still not fully answer) is perhaps irrelevant. He created a character that is bigger than the real Richard and given the 15th century king a level of fame he could not possibly have dreamed of. Some of that notoriety he might not be too thrilled about, but it's better to be remembered (even if it's for something that's not true) than to be forgotten, isn't it? 

Updated: 07/25/2013, WiseFool
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WiseFool on 09/18/2013

Hi, cmoneyspinner. Ian Mckellen is a fine actor, indeed! If you get the chance to see his Richard III, it's well worth the watch. Glad you enjoyed the article.

cmoneyspinner on 09/18/2013

That Ian McKellen is an awesome actor. He does justice to Shakespeare's plays. Only thing I could "guess" about Richard III is that some people really didn't like him! Great article.

WiseFool on 03/02/2013

Hello, aingham69! Thanks for the comment. Very glad you found it interesting. While I think there's no question things were exaggerated about Richard, I agree that nobody in power during that era can come off squeaky clean - otherwise, they never would have found their way into power.

AlexandriaIngham on 03/02/2013

Such an interesting piece; thanks for sharing. I love the history of the monarchy, especially when it comes to the times of the Tudors and the Stuarts. Being from Yorkshire, I've always sided on Richard III, even knowing that he could possibly be the "villain". It's easy to put the blame on someone but we have no idea what the times during the 15th century were really like; just that there was a push for wanting more power.

WiseFool on 03/02/2013

Jo, sounds like great fun! You're right, I think there will be a few more people rooting for Richard this year. It's odd, because I truly believe that he's a sympathetic character in Shakespeare, so the revelations over the past few weeks haven't really changed my opinion. But you're quite right, now he's 'hot property' people are more likely to side with him.

The problem is, I think, we can get so wrapped up in this need to have goodies and baddies - and, of course, in struggles for power in the 15th century, there really was no such thing as a 'goody'.

JoHarrington on 03/02/2013

This was really interesting. Thank you. I've been to the re-enactment at Bosworth, in August each year, a few times. It's always been most of the crowd shouting for Henry Tudor and a couple of rebels calling for Richard. The Richard III Society is always there, fielding questions and looking a bit besieged by questions about child murder.

I think it's going to be an interesting one this year. We're all going here. It's not so much that Richard is suddenly innocent, but he's suddenly a celebrity. That, in today's culture, amounts to pretty much the same thing.

WiseFool on 03/02/2013

That's very true. It's interesting that a play (or other work of fiction) can supersede the facts, though. Of course, in this case, the facts had already been distorted, which makes it that much more difficult to get to the truth. I think we may have to accept that we'll never know the definitive story of Richard's rise to power. To me, that makes him all the more intriguing!

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