Is Shakespeare's Richard III a Villain?

by WiseFool

Colloquially, Richard III is regarded as a villain and that's, in large part, thanks to Shakespeare, but does Shakespeare actually portray him as a villain?

In my view, the line between good and evil; hero and villain is often a difficult one to discern when you're watching or reading Shakespeare.

I think we can be far too eager to impose a black and white perception of characters that are, actually, far too complex to be pigeon-holed.

Richard III is a great example. Yes, yes, on the face of it, he's a child-murderer and a heartless Machiavellian. However, let's not forget that the play is a tragedy and Richard is its tragic hero.

Therefore, by default, Richard III can't be all villain.

Is Richard III a Tragedy?

Frontispiece of Richard IIINow, I know what you're thinking, Richard III isn't a tragedy, it's a history play; it comes under the history category in the complete works and it is, after all, based (at least to some extent) on actual events. Well, this is all very true.

However, Shakespeare very clearly titles the play, The Tragedy of King Richard the Third.

So, how we categorize it now doesn't really have any relevance. The fact of the matter is, when Shakespeare was writing Richard III, he was writing it as a tragedy.

Consequently, if we're reading (or watching) the play correctly, we should feel some sense of pity for the deformed king, despite all his treacherous and loathsome acts.

Why a Tragic Hero Can't be a Villain

Why can't a tragic hero also be a villainIn order for a tragedy to be 'tragic', we have to feel at least some empathy with the hero.

If we're just watching a nasty piece of work get what's coming to him, then we simply feel that he's got his just desserts. Good has triumphed over evil, and all is once again right with the world - there's no need to think too deeply or perhaps apply what we've read or seen to our own lives.

Tragedy in its true sense, however, should give us pause for thought. In Ancient times, it would involve watching a 'great' man brought down by human frailty. In more modern cases of tragedy, the work of Arthur Miller, for example, the tragic hero is an everyman - someone with whom we can entirely relate.

Richard is obviously in the former camp, but a tragic hero he most certainly is. All right, he's perhaps not as easy to feel sympathetic towards as Othello or even King Lear. Instead, he occupies the same ground as Macbeth...a hero who it's difficult to feel sorry for, but who, nonetheless, is human enough that we can recognize his flaws.

To learn more about what qualities make up a tragic hero...
All tragedies need a tragic hero or heroine, but what makes a character tragic? Who are the most famous tragic heroes and what do they have in common?

What is Richard III's Tragic Flaw?

Shakespeare wrote Richard III while Elizabeth I was on the throneThe very fact that Richard is a tragic hero is immensely fascinating to me.

Shakespeare wrote the play while Elizabeth I was still on the throne. Elizabeth's grandfather, who would become Henry VII, deposed the 'evil' (at least according to the Tudor perception of things) Richard.

So, if you really want to impress your monarch, wouldn't you write a play in which her grandfather was the hero? Well, I suppose you could say Henry is a 'hero' of sorts, but he has a pretty small part, and Richard certainly (whether you feel he's a hero or villain) steals the show.

This, in itself, seems like an interesting way for Shakespeare to approach the history. Why did he choose to tell it from Richard's point of view? It could just be that dramatically it made for a better story. Or perhaps, because Richard was the boogeyman of Tudor England, he believed having him center stage would pull in the crowds.

Whatever the case may be, center stage Richard most certainly is and, like every tragic hero, he has a 'hamartia'; a chink in his armour; an Achilles heel which is going to result in his downfall.

Richard's tragic flaw is ambition, coupled with a blinding hatred toward the people he feels have wronged him - that includes anyone who has laughed at his appearance, the women who have never found him attractive, the much more handsome older brother: everyone.

Richard has a big ol' beef against the world...and what we have to ask ourselves is: can we blame him?

Leaving aside for one moment the truth about Richard's physique, there's no question that Shakespeare's Richard was never going to model for Michaelangelo. And he exists in a time when disability and deformity is looked upon as proof of evil.

Now, we could argue cause and effect, and clearly the Tudors believed that his outward appearance was evidence of him being rotten to the core. But what if it was the other way around? What if Shakespeare's Richard became a monster, because, from the moment he was born, he was treated like one.

This bitterness and resentment is an all too human flaw; one that we can perhaps understand. And it's a flaw that will cause Richard's downfall. 

So is Shakespeare's Representation of Richard III All Bad?

Laurence Olivier Richard IIIIt's commonly thought that Shakespeare has a lot to answer for in perpetuating the notion of Richard III as a villain.

Now, realistically, I think it's safe to assume Richard really did have something to do with the still unexplained disappearance of his nephews. And let's be honest, you didn't become king during the Wars of The Roses without stabbing a few people in the back. Mr. Nice Guy simply wouldn't cut it. So it's silly, in my opinion, to try to create a retrospective image of Richard as verging on saintly.

But, and this is a big but, I don't think Shakespeare's representation of Richard III is all bad.

I think most people incorrectly view him as a villain, just as some people incorrectly view Macbeth as a villain. I'm not suggesting either man is sweetness and light - evidently, they aren't.

But in the same way we feel sympathy for Macbeth, because his good-natured loyalty has been twisted by ambition and the promise of power, I suspect we can feel sorry for Richard III, because the man he becomes is very much a product of the way he's been treated.

Like Macbeth, Richard's ambitious - unlike Macbeth, Richard's motive for pursuing that ambition to its bloody end is hatred sprung from the way he's been treated.

In a way, I see Richard III as more of a Phantom of The Opera-type character. The phantom is turned murderous by bitterness and jealousy, he's responsible for killing numerous innocent people, so by rights we shouldn't feel sorry for him...and yet, we do.

I look at Richard in very much the same light. Maybe that makes me a bleeding-heart liberal or maybe Shakespeare never intended Richard to be a stone cold villain with no complexity to leave us thinking. Shakespeare, in my opinion, was far too good a writer; far too good a creator of characters to give us nothing more than a two-dimensional hate figure.

Interested in learning more?
Richard III was given some of Shakespeare's most famous lines, here are just a few of them.
Behind all the Tudor propaganda and Shakespearean drama, what do we really know about Richard III?
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?
Updated: 07/04/2014, WiseFool
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