Determined to prove a villain: Richard III

This is it: Shakespeare’s first great play. (It’s also the first one in the series that I was already very familiar with, having taught it for a number of years.) He’s been playing around with comedy, testing out his witty lines, and had a try at tragedy, but his biggest success so far has probably been with the Henry VI trilogy of history plays. Richard III is a continuation of the story he started in that trilogy, but now he has a central character that can dominate the play in his own right and be a focus for the audience; and for the first time he has a character of real psychological depth, that we can identify with and be repulsed by. The play was published in the First Folio as The Tragedy of Richard the Third and this is indeed history combined with tragedy; this play provides the template for Shakespeare’s great tragedies to follow and is a kind of ghostly early vision of Macbeth in particular.

The play, which is Shakespeare’s second longest after Hamlet, begins with a famous soliloquy by Richard:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, 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
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

What a beginning! It’s a little surprising that this is the only time that Shakespeare begins a play with a soliloquy, because it’s so effective here at drawing in the audience. It’s a presentation of opposites: winter made summer, dreadful marches transformed into delightful measures and grim-visaged war himself is now apparently capering nimbly in a lady’s chamber. This is wonderful, right? Wrong. Richard hates it. He’s “Deformed, unfinish’d,” a creature of shadows rather than sunlight. He got to be a star during the Wars of the Roses, a feared fighter, and he can’t stand this “weak piping time of peace.” So he tells us straight up that he is “determined to prove a villain” and plot his way to the throne. Furthermore, he draws us into his plans. There he is onstage, talking just to us, telling us how he’s going to deceive people, make them look like idiots and we’re drawn in, we’re on his side, we can’t help it. Sure he’s a repellent villain, but he’s smart and he’s the one in control. He’s also got a psychological reason for his actions (Freud was very impressed by this play): he “cannot prove a lover” because of his hunchback and withered arm. Furthermore, as we’ll see later in the play, his own mother hates him. Of course this is all a blatant, self-serving justification for his evil acts (as if everyone with some sort of a disability is going to be evil…), but he’ll play it for all it’s worth.

Late 16th century portrait, housed in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

He even proceeds to disprove his claim that he’s no lover in the very next scene, pouncing on the Lady Anne who is accompanying the body of her father-in-law, Henry VI. In a virtuoso scene, Richard sets about wooing her, somehow managing to overcome the fact that he killed her husband and her father-in-law. He may not be much to look at, but thanks to Shakespeare he’s a master of words, the most impressive one he’s created thus far. He can counter everything that Anne throws at, even the very spit from her mouth. She calls him a devil, a beast, a foul toad, a “defused infection of a man,” and he’s not in the least concerned. Instead, he tells her he killed everyone because he was so in love with her:

Your beauty was the cause of that effect;
Your beauty: which did haunt me in my sleep
To undertake the death of all the world,
So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.

He then bids her kill him if she hates him so much, even putting his sword in her hand, which she lets fall. As part of this high stakes gambit he then make it appear that she has a simple choice: “Take up the sword again, or take up me.” And she’s a goner. Despite his great confidence, Richard can barely believe how successful he’s been:

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.
What! I, that kill’d her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by;
Having God, her conscience, and these bars
against me,
And I nothing to back my suit at all,
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
Ha!

The women of the play have fairly significant roles but they mainly get to curse and lament. Margaret makes a reappearance here, but she’s a very different person from the scheming and belligerent queen in the Henry VI plays. Now she’s a ghostlike figure who brims with resentment at the loss of her kingdom and her loved ones. She curses all and sundry and her prophecies of doom and despair all come true. Prophecies and dreams are significant in the play and mostly they go unheeded to the great cost of those who were warned.

Kevin Spacey’s powerful Richard faces the moral revulsion of Haydn Gwynne’s Queen Elizabeth. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Richard’s brother Clarence is the first to fall victim to Richard’s scheming in the play, and before the murderers sent by his brother arrive he recounts a dream he had while locked in the Tower of London:

Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower,
And was embark’d to cross to Burgundy;
And, in my company, my brother Gloucester;
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches: thence we looked toward England,
And cited up a thousand fearful times,
During the wars of York and Lancaster
That had befall’n us. As we paced along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,
Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard,
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men’s skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As ‘twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by.

Shakespeare was so impressed with himself in this beautiful speech that he returned to the imagery of gems in the skulls of drowned men when he wrote The Tempest. Of course, we in the audience know that the dream is prophetic and that Richard (“brother Gloucester”) doesn’t stumble accidentally when he knocks Clarence overboard. Clarence has to be told by his murderers that “You are deceived, your brother Gloucester hates you” and even then he doesn’t believe them. You almost start to think that he deserves to be stabbed and then drowned in a barrel of wine.

Lord Hastings is similarly oblivious to Richard’s machinations and ignorant of the warnings that get conveyed through dreams. So when Lord Stanley sends him a messenger to tell him about a dream he had (“He dreamt to-night the boar had razed his helm”), he mocks the message rather than heeding it:

Come on, come on; where is your boar-spear, man?
Fear you the boar, and go so unprovided?

And when Richard is about to betray him, Hastings remarks:

I think there’s never a man in Christendom
That can less hide his love or hate than he;
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.

Before he knows it he’s been accused of being a traitor and he’s about to get his head lopped off.


Everything goes to plan for Richard, but just when he’s at his height, he’s fooled everyone, killed most of his enemies and attained the crown for himself, things start to become a bit trickier for him. We’ll see all of this again in even greater psychological depth in Macbeth, of course, but it perhaps touches on a situation even closer to home. Richard’s problems start when he gets the shits with Buckingham, who has “play[ed] the orator” on Richard’s behalf and helped him to the throne, but now starts to get a little queasy when Richard asks him to kill the two princes, his nephews, in the Tower. Richard’s paranoia that his “kingdom stands on brittle glass” starts to get the better of him and he starts alienating people left right and centre.

Marjorie Garber, in her wonderful book Shakespeare After All, puts it thus:

When Richard becomes King Richard, when he finally attains his goal, he begins at the same time to lose his power. His strength — and we have seen it — comes from the position of antagonist, one who opposes or tears down. But Shakespeare’s Richard is temperamentally ill-suited to rule. The minute he becomes King he begins to distrust all about him, and the power of speech and persuasion, so confidently his in the early acts, begins to desert him.

Now tell me if that isn’t an exact description of Tony Abbott (apart from the part about him having powers of speech and persuasion in the first place). His entire raison d’être is to be an antagonist, to tear people down, to be a wrecker. And as soon as he attained his goal of becoming Prime Minister he has shown himself “temperamentally ill-suited to rule,” and in fact probably the most inept Prime Minister Australia has ever seen. And like Richard, his problems have arisen partly from distrust, making his “Captain’s picks” without consulting anyone, implementing plans without informing the relevant ministers. No doubt, like Buckingham, who was promised “The earldom of Hereford and the moveables,” Barnaby Joyce was promised various rewards for his support for Tony Abbott. But the Minister for Agriculture has found his Prime Minister “not in the giving vein” when it comes to acceding to his opposition to the Shenhua mine. How long before he realises the writing is on the wall and openly rebels, like Buckingham? How long before Malcolm Turnbull acts like Lord Stanley and withdraws his support from his leader just at the moment he needs it most? How long before Bill Shorten turns up from France with his army to depose the tyrant laying waste to his country? (Okay, yes, I also have trouble envisaging Bill Shorten as a noble leader who will restore the fortunes of the land…)

Of course, Richard III has long been seen as a great model for the Machiavellian political operator. Both the original British series of House of Cards and its American remake (with lead Kevin Spacey fresh from playing Richard III on stage) explicitly draw on Richard as a touchstone. Several years ago I saw a wonderful production of the play by the Melbourne Theatre Company with Ewen Leslie as Richard that presented everything West Wing style in terms of political machinations in the modern world.

Having recently viewed the compelling documentary The Killing Season, I’m even tempted to extend the analogy further back and liken the conflicts between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard to the Wars of the Roses, as depicted in the Henry VI trilogy, characterised as they were by a sense of betrayal in the struggle for power. Just as Richard was able to take advantage of the enmities between supposed allies in his rise to power, so Abbott capitalised on the ructions in the Labor Party. Here’s hoping we can get a happy ending like Shakespeare devised and that Abbott is being tormented by the ghosts of his defeated enemies, unable to rest easy as his kingdom falls around him.

David Garrick as Richard III (1745), by William Hogarth.

So this is a seriously good play, the best by far that Shakespeare has managed to produce in the early part of his career, but it’s not perfect. Shakespeare is still trying to work out how to best portray historical events on stage. The play is four hours long partly because he feels the need to include every single person who ever played a role in events. And they shared out only about four names between them, leading to great confusion about who is who and leading to speeches like this, from Margaret:

Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him

Apart from Richard himself, and possibly Buckingham, nobody else feels really fully developed in a psychological sense. And we have the hero, Richmond (who will become Henry VII, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, who reigned when Shakespeare wrote this play), only turn up in the final act. Marjorie Garber sees this as a deliberate and effective choice by Shakespeare to allow Richard to maintain our sympathies even after his decline, but to me he feels tacked on.


The BBC production, which first aired in January 1983, was filmed on the back of the Henry VI trilogy using the same ensemble as actors from the previous play. Ron Cook is an effective Richard, although he does pale somewhat compared to some of the more prominent actors who have taken on the role either on stage or on film, including Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ian McKellen. The rest of the ensemble often crop up in four or five other minor roles given the length of the play and the number of characters it contains. Of some note is Zoë Wanamaker as the Lady Anne who does a very good job of what can be a tricky scene as she gets seduced by Richard against seemingly impossible odds. The set is also a continuation of the earlier trilogy, here almost completely devoid of colour as Richard sets about destroying everyone around him. It is only with the arrival of Richmond that we see the return of colour with his standards. One little flourish in the production is to close with an added scene panning over a pile of dead bodies with Margaret sitting at the top, her hair all wild, cradling the body of Richard in her arms and laughing maniacally. It’s a kind of coda to all the death and destruction that has been wrought during the Wars of the Roses.


The two most prominent film adaptations of the play have been Laurence Olivier’s 1955 version and Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film with Ian McKellen in the title role. Olivier plays a wonderfully camp Richard in his film and in many ways defined the way that people saw the role. His performance was also much parodied (see Peter Sellers below). He messes around with the text a fair bit, incorporating parts of Henry VI, Part Three, using parts of Colly Cibber’s 18th Century rewrite, and entirely omitting Richard’s soliloquy after he is visited by the ghosts before the Battle of Bosworth.

Loncraine’s film, based on Richard Eyre’s stage adaptation for the National Theatre, sets the action in a fictional 1930s with Richard as a Fascist leader modelled on Adolf Hitler. It also greatly cuts and adapts from the play in order to achieve a two hour running time. It significantly recasts the end of the film, with Richard leaping to his own death, smiling as he falls into the flames and says a line which comes before the battle in the play, “Let us to’t pell-mell; if not to heaven, then hand-in-hand to hell.” This is then followed by Al Jolson’s jaunty version of “I’m Sitting On The Top Of The World.”

The year after Loncraine’s film, Al Pacino released his directorial debut, Looking for Richard, which looks at the peculiar relationship that Americans have with Shakespeare as well as conveying his great love for the play. Pacino stages scenes from the play with a bunch of actor friends (inluding Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey, who plays Buckingham), with Pacino taking on the role of Richard himself. He talks to a range of people, including Sir John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh, about the play and how best to approach it. It’s a shambling and good-natured film that provides some good insights into the play. Pacino impresses in his scenes as Richard.


Eerily relevant to the modern era, this is really a play that confirms Ben Jonson’s assessment of Shakespeare, that “He was not of an age, but for all time.” The stage and the world were really starting to open up for Shakespeare now as he started to hit his straps as a playwright.