After debuting with a fairly weak trilogy, Henry VI, Shakespeare hit his dramatic stride by turning a rival to the house of Tudor into one of history’s greatest villains: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, better known as Richard III.
There is, of course, debate as to whether Richard really was the villain Shakespeare paints him as, but keep in mind Shakespeare had a patron in Elizabeth II, whose grandfather appears in this play as Lord Richmond. Shakespeare is clearly not above fictionalizing history to please his patrons.
The result is one of the English language’s greatest antagonist. Upon Richard Plantagenet is based later manipulative villains: From Professor Moriarty to Palpatine to Game of Thrones‘ manipulator Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. Shakespeare’s Gloucester/King Richard is a master chess player, recruiting and disposing of allies, conning those around him into committing his murders for him. Deformed and hideous, and laying plots to “set my brother Clarence and the king. In deadly hate the one against the other.”
One by one, the obstacles between Richard and the throne tumble. His brother, George, Duke of Clarence, is executed on orders from his other brother, King Edward. Edward dies, stricken when he realizes that his countermand of the execution order never arrived in time. As Lord Protector, Richard then has Queen Elizabeth’s cousins and brothers eliminated. His wife, Lady Anne, dies under mysterious circumstances. And then there are those boys in the Tower of London, whose disappearance inspired this play.
But once the crown is his, Richard of York becomes a murderous forerunner of Richard Nixon. Both men coldly disposed of their allies once they held power. The result for King Richard as with Nixon was a spectacular downfall. Nixon was driven from office under threat of impeachment. King Richard, both in real life and in Richard III, was abandoned at Bosworth Field, left to die at the hands of Henry Tudor, Lord Richmond.
I’ve seen Richard III performed twice. The first was Ian McKellan’s brilliant 1995 movie set in a fictitious fascist England. It starts with Richard’s famous opening soliloquy first as a speech celebrating the apparent end to the War of the Roses, then Richard muttering in the bathroom about his brother Edward’s faults, and finally, sly asides to the audience about his schemes to knock off most of his own House of York.
The other performance was in the early 2000’s at Cincinnati’s Shakespeare Festival. They portrayed Richard as a greasy haired biker thug who began hiding his villainy like Clark Kent, donning a pair of glasses. It was a different vibe from McKellan’s alternate history.
I have seen several Shakespeare plays both live and on film. I’m pretty much Hamleted out, though Richard III ranks ahead of The Tempest as my favorite Shakespeare play.