Created on: February 19, 2013 Last Updated: February 20, 2013
Richard III (1452-85) is the most notorious English king, and thanks to Shakespeare, one of the most infamous villains in literature. Shakespeare’s version is contested by many people, though. Richard reigned for less than three years, and was killed in battle by his usurper, Henry VII. Naturally, historical accounts during the time of Henry and his descendants were heavily biased against Richard. Shakespeare based his play on these biased accounts, and there are certainly areas where he got Richard wrong.
Appearance and character
In Shakespeare’s version and in the popular imagination, Richard was a hunchback with a limp. For years this was disputed. Portraits of Richard are ambiguous on the subject. At a time when deformity was often equated with mental aberration, it seemed too good to be true that history’s greatest villain should also have been physically disabled.
However, the recent identification of Richard’s skeleton in Leicester has shown that he did in fact have a spinal deformity, if a less extreme one than popularly supposed. Whether the real Richard used his own disabilities as a source of mordant humor the way Shakespeare’s does will never be known.
Shakespeare’s Richard revels in his own deviousness and villainy. He is charismatic, plausible in the many roles he plays, and murderously devoted to his ultimate goal: becoming king. We cannot know what Richard was like as a person; the amount of bias on both sides of the argument makes it very difficult to do more than guess. However, accounts from close to the time when he lived tend to describe him as virtuous and noble. This could, of course, just be evidence of how skilled he was at dissembling.
It does seem highly unlikely, though, that he was really as self-consciously evil as the version in the play. Most of the crimes attributed to Richard by Shakespeare do not stand up to scrutiny.
The ‘Henry VI’ plays
Richard first appears in ‘King Henry VI Part Two’, in which he plays a major part in the battle of St. Albans, slaying his father’s enemy the Duke of Somerset in combat. This act – which reflects well on Richard – certainly did not happen. He was only three years old at the time of the real battle.
Moving into ‘Part Three’, Richard becomes a more central character. At the end of the play he murders Henry VI’s son, Edward, although he is not alone in this – his brothers Edward IV and
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