Shakespeare's Richard III:
Portrait of a Villain

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

Richard III, as painted in the late 15th/16th century (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

According to historian Paul Kendall, Richard's final words at Bosworth were "Treason, treason, treason, treason, treason."

From the first speech of the play, Shakespeare's character Richard III is, in his own words, "determined to prove a villain." This has been the most recognizable portrait of the erstwhile king for centuries. Shakespeare wasn't even Richard's first detractor; he was simply the most renowned.

As with many of his history plays, Shakespeare relied heavily on Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland to conceive his plot. Holinshed, in turn, was indebted to writers such as Edward Halle and Richard Grafton—in some cases, bordering on plagiarism. Halle and Grafton, among others, were themselves influenced by the original work of Sir Thomas More in his History of King Richard the Thirde. All of these works paint Richard of Gloucester as a scheming, murdering usurper to the throne.

The point is that by 1597 (the first known publication of Shakespeare's Tragedy of Richard III), the tradition of libeling Richard III in English literature had been a popular sport for decades. Hence, Shakespeare was doing nothing more than giving the audience what they wanted, so to speak. Elizabethans could not get enough violence, murder, and intrigue in their entertainment; after all, this is a society that attended executions for fun. And, lest we forget, Shakespeare produced his play during the reign of Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry Tudor. It would have been unthinkable to have written anything praiseworthy of the man her ancestor had defeated to gain the throne.

How does this character of Richard jibe with the historical Richard?

Shakespeare's deformed, hunchbacked Richard stands accused of killing Henry VI when the defeated king was imprisoned in the Tower of London, as well as Edward, Prince of Wales, following the Battle of Tewkesbury. He's also allegedly the guiding hand behind multiple executions, including his own brother, the Duke of Clarence. He reputedly poisoned his wife, Anne. Most heinous among the charges is that Richard ordered the murder of his two nephews in the Tower of London.

Richard the Hunchback

Historically, it's unlikely that Richard was a deformed little hunchback (with a withered arm, no less). Short, perhaps, and with a confirmed case of scoliosis, but not deformed. Richard was at worst somewhat "frail and sickly" as a child according to some sources. That description could be applied to most children in Elizabethan times thanks to disease and the state of the era's medical learning. As for Richard in adulthood, he was well acquainted with battle as an active participant in the Wars of the Roses. He was a 32-year-old man trained in armored combat with a sword—from horseback and on foot—at the time of his death. That's hardly a portrait of deformity.

Richard the Villain

As for his alleged crimes, Richard may not be entirely acquitted. However, circumstantial evidence does at least mitigate some of the charges against him. Henry VI did, in fact, die in the Tower, and the timing is suspicious. On the other hand, Edward IV had as much to gain from Henry's death as anyone. The consensus among historians is that Henry's son died while fighting in the Battle of Tewkesbury—not murdered after the battle by Richard and others. Edward IV condemned Clarence to death for treason, without any apparent urging or help from his brother. Medieval politics, conspiracy, and outright rebellion account for most of the executions Richard ordered, and nothing supports the notion that he poisoned Anne. If anything, Richard lamented both the loss of his wife and their only son.

Richard the Murderer

The princes in the Tower, as his nephews came to be known, are not so easily dismissed. Richard undeniably was behind the denunciation of Edward IV's marriage, which legally rendered his two sons bastards. The two princes could have represented a lingering point of contention. Rumors of their demise were circulating as early as 1483. Sir James Tyrrell in 1501 reportedly confessed to the murder on Richard's orders, but this is suspect as his confession came while being tortured on charges of treason.

Richard certainly didn't appear overly concerned by the boys' disappearance, but they were even more of an obstruction to Henry VII's legitimacy. Henry repealed the act that made the princes bastards, although he ordered that all copies be destroyed without reading them into the record. He certainly never made much of an effort to determine their fate; curiously, Henry's original act of attainder against Richard didn't even mention the murder of the princes when he presented it to Parliament. The truth behind Richard's involvement—or innocence—in the disappearance will likely never reveal itself, obscured by time and Tudor historians.

Richard the King

Richard enacted a number of legal reforms during his brief time on the throne. His legislation ended benevolences (arbitrary taxes), protected landowner rights, and improved the judicial system to provide more rights to defendants. At the very least, though, he seized an opportunity to gain the throne in a power play at the end of the Wars of the Roses. Perhaps he was as sinister as advertised, perhaps not. History may have remembered Richard more kindly had his reign been longer, or if the subsequent dynasty had been Yorkist rather than Tudor.

Shakespeare's Richard must be acknowledged as a great dramatic character, not a portrait of history. Then again, the historical Richard probably wouldn't have proven such an enduring villain. Bad history often makes for the best story. As with any story, however, it's important to note the sources and distinguish fact from fiction.


Richard III: A Royal Enigma (Sean Cunningham); Richard III Society, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th edition (David Bevington, ed.); NTC's Dictionary of Shakespeare (Sandra Clark, ed.)