Richard III's Way To England's Royal Throne

William Shakespeare’s famous play, Richard III, describes how Richard manipulates and murders his way to England’s royal throne. Act I of the play gives us insight on how ambitious and intent Richard is on snatching the crown from his brothers, Edward and Clarence, and all those who come before him in the line of succession. Shakespeare portrays Richard as an evil tyrannical villain who commits heinous crimes such as killing his brothers and nephews in order to become King of England. However, despite his horrendous actions the audience and characters of the play feel sympathy for Richard and find him admirable, thus debunking Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard as an antagonist.

Act 1 of the play opens up with England’s victory in the Wars of the Roses and Richard’s brother, Edward, as King of England. The whole country is celebrating their victory and future time of peace, but Richard. In his opening soliloquy, Richard describes his plight by saying:

“Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time

Into this breathing world scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

Why, 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” (1.1.19-30).

This scene depicts how Richard blames his deformity of being a hunchback for him being miserable and getting treated poorly by people. He laments how nobody wants him as a lover because of his deformity and reveals his internal conflict of becoming a villain as a way to become happy and show people he is powerful and worthy. Richard’s desperation to fulfill his sexual desires and be loved by someone invoke sentiments of pity and sympathy from the audience even though he reveals his plans of becoming a villain. The audience feels empathy for Richard as they understand it is not just pure evil; but, his deformed nature and feelings of uselessness that drive him to become a villain. Richard sharing his evil plans about plotting against his brothers also gains him admiration from the audience. By not beating around the bush when it comes to his evil plans Richard gains the audience’s trust and they begin to root for him as they find his reasons for rising up against his family and country as justified. The audience also begins to respect Richard for taking a stance for himself against the people who have ridiculed him for his deformity and thought of him as powerless.

Similar to the audience, the characters of the play also view Richard as a victim who deserves sympathy. For instance, in Act 3 Scene 5 Richard expresses his grief over Hastings supposed betrayal to convince the Lord Mayor of London he is the victim by saying:

“So dear I loved the man that I must weep:

I took him for the plainest harmless creature

That breathed upon the earth a Christian;

Made him my book, wherein my soul recorded

The history of all her secret thoughts” (3.5.24-28).

In this excerpt from the play, Richard describes how he trusted Hastings with his most valuable secrets and thought of him as a virtuous and moral man who could never betray him. By using emotional appeal Richard successfully convinces the Mayor he is nothing but an innocent pawn in Hastings game for power. Thus, the Lord Mayor of London sympathizes with Richard as he lost one of his only trusted allies. Also, Richard gains admiration from the Mayor when he says, “The peace of England, and our persons’ safety/Enforced us to this execution” (3.5.45-46). He gains respect from the Mayor by pointing out that he can do anything for the well-being of the state of England even if that means beheading his friend.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare characterizes Richard as a villainous antagonist who shows no remorse for his actions. In the play, Richard often manipulates and murders people to secure the crown. He also uses religious and racial reasons such as he is a good Christian man and not a Turkish savage to cover his acts of murder. This ploy of glossing over his horrendous acts with facades of virtue and morality portrays Richard’s persona as unremorseful and evil. Shakespeare portrays Richard as such a monstrous person because of his personal biases. He wants to characterize Richard as the ultimate villain because of his allegiance to the Tudor dynasty. Shakespeare is team Richmond who ends up becoming Henry VII, the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty at the end of the play after he kills Richard in battle. Since the Tudor dynasty was still reigning England at the time he was alive Shakespeare could not have portrayed the House of Plantagenet as anything other than pure evil. This is where the Tudor myth plays a part in the play. As discussed in the lecture, Professor Kearney described the Tudor Myth as the publication of libel by Thomas More and other supporters of the Tudor dynasty in which the previous dynasty was blamed for England suffering through the Wars of Roses and a wicked monarch. The Tudor Myth depicts Richard III as pure evil and Henry VII as the divine choice who fixes England after Richard’s reign.

However, despite Shakespeare’s negative characterization due to potential biases, Richard is still able to gain sympathy from the audience. Therefore, Richard can be considered more of an anti-hero than an antagonist. In Richard’s final soliloquy he shows some signs of remorse for his actions when he states,

“Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.

Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good

That I myself have done unto myself?

O no! Alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself.

I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not” (5.3.184-192).

Richard’s frantic questioning of himself and his deeds shows that he does feel guilty for his murderous rampage, thus proving he does have the ability to be good. This depiction of his guilty conscience helps him gain the audience’s sympathy too. Since they see Richard feel a little bit of remorse it shows the audience he is only human and makes mistakes just like them. Richard’s success in gaining sympathy from the audience shows that Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as an antagonist is not completely justified and more of a bias.  

07 July 2022
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