Villain or hero? - Shakespeare's image of Richard III


Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0

Anonymous


Excerpt

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2.1. Historical Background
2.2. The early development of Richard’s complexion
2.3. Richard’s first soliloquy
2.4. The courting scene with Anne
2.5. Richard’s counterpart: Richmond

3. Conclusion

1. Introduction

In contemporary books about the English history, the entry about Richard III reads approximately as follows:

According to popular belief the most villainous King in English history was a hunchback who plotted all his life to become King. This relentless pursuit of the crown was done at any cost, even it seems down to the murder of the royal princes, the sons of Edward IV […].1

When reading on, most of the works revise their opinion and admit that actually Richard was not any more blood thirsty or brutal than other contemporary monarchs, that the “popular belief” that he killed his Nephews in the Tower, and that he was malformed, was actually not a fact, but an assumption, which has not been proven up to this day. Although most of the time the reliable sources revise their opinion about this monarch a few paragraphs later, the first impression on the history-interested person is made. The question here is what creates or created this image of the villainous and deformed Richard III? Some history books mention William Shakespeare’s history The Tragedy of King Richard III as one of the possible works that have been influencing the people’s opinions about this English king. This essay is intended to analyze in what way Shakespeare’s work undermines this thesis and what picture he really drew of the monarch Richard III. In order to understand this complex matter, the essay will guide through the historical background of the drama and will try to analyze the notion of Shakespeare’s portrayal. Furthermore, as the character of Richard appears in earlier plays already, the beginnings of the character will be presented in order to highlight the complexity of the character’s development. In addition, two characterizing scenes will be examined, so that the different views on Richard’s complexion can be observed. The last part consists of a short analysis of Richard’s counterpart Richmond, which emphasizes the impact that Richard’s complexion has on the audience.

When reading on, most of the works revise their opinion and admit that actually Richard was not any more blood thirsty or brutal than other contemporary monarchs, that the “popular belief” that he killed his Nephews in the Tower, and that he was malformed, was actually not a fact, but an assumption, which has not been proven up to this day. Although most of the time the reliable sources revise their opinion about this monarch a few paragraphs later, the first impression on the history-interested person is made. The question here is what creates or created this image of the villainous and deformed Richard III? Some history books mention William Shakespeare’s history The Tragedy of King Richard III as one of the possible works that have been influencing the people’s opinions about this English king. This essay is intended to analyze in what way Shakespeare’s work undermines this thesis and what picture he really drew of the monarch Richard III. In order to understand this complex matter, the essay will guide through the historical background of the drama and will try to analyze the notion of Shakespeare’s portrayal. Furthermore, as the character of Richard appears in earlier plays already, the beginnings of the character will be presented in order to highlight the complexity of the character’s development. In addition, two characterizing scenes will be examined, so that the different views on Richard’s complexion can be observed. The last part consists of a short analysis of Richard’s counterpart Richmond, which emphasizes the impact that Richard’s complexion has on the audience.

2.1. Historical Background

William Shakespeare lived and worked during the reign of Elizabeth I. The rise of the Tudor Period was the result of the War of the Roses, a long-term feud between the two great English families of York and Lancaster. Both descendants from the Plantagenet family, they fought each other for almost one hundred years in order to secure the crown for their house. When Henry Tudor fought Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth, he actually had no right to do so, as Richard was the legitimate successor of Edward IV and his early deceased sons Richard and Edward V. Having defeated Richard III, Henry had himself crowned on the battlefield, because he very well knew that his action could be seen as usurpation, and therefore, his right to the English reign was very slight. In order to secure his power, he needed to appease the other noble families. For that reason he celebrated the political marriage to Elizabeth of York and thus, himself a Lancaster, united both houses and ended the War of the Roses.2

Consequently, the main goal for the Tudor Family was to legitimate their regime; their politics were geared towards strengthening the crown. One of the many examples for this is the fact that Henry VIII even went as far as breaking with the Catholic Church in order to have a chance to produce a male heir and clarify his heritage.3 Furthermore, the Tudors knew how to create their own popularity. The Tudors were popular because on their opponents a damning light was cast. This did not happen by the means of destruction or falsification of historical documents, however, but by promoting historians and chroniclers who were well- disposed towards the Tudor Family.4 These Tudor-friendly historical records were the sources of research for Shakespeare and other artists of the time. Sir Thomas More’s The History of King Richard the Third (1513), Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) and Edward Hall’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancaster and Yorke (1542) were three of those historical documentations, which describe Richard III similar to the way Shakespeare did, and evidently belong to Shakespeare’s sources5.

E.M.W. Tillyard describes this construct of glorification as the “Tudor Myth”. It consisted of two main arguments. The first one was to promote the idea of Henry VII and all other Tudors to have united England by uniting the houses Lancaster and York; and hence being the preserver of peace. The second one was to encourage the Welsh superstition that Arthur was not dead, but would return with the suggestion, that he and Henry’s heirs, as the Tudors descended from the last of the British kings, Cadwallader, are reincarnations of the same Arthur, which will bring back the age of gold.6 In other words, Shakespeare had a very good reason to create the story Richard III on the surface as he did, because it was the time of Elizabeth I, who actually brought back a golden age and continued to promote the reputation of her family. The “Myth” was alive in the heads of the people and could be found everywhere in English culture of the Renaissance.

2.2. The early development of Richard’s complexion

Having considered the notion of Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard III, it shall be looked at the method of how he created him. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third is the fourth piece of the York Tetralogy, which, apart from the currently discussed Richard III, consists of the three parts of Henry VI and The Life of Henry VIII. Shakespeare prepared the character of Richard carefully in the two preceding works (2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI). The figure of Richard first appears at the End of 2 Henry VI, where he is already confronted with the popular assumption of him being misshapen in mind, because his outer appearance is also misshapen: “[…] heap of wrath, foul ingested lump, / as crooked in thy manners as in thy shape!”7 In this scene, the first presentation of Richard as a character already shows tendencies towards the character he will be later on at the starting point of Richard III. It was a common Elizabethan belief that the outer body of a person represents the inner mind of the same.

[...]


1 The History of the Kings & Queens of England & Scotland (Leicester: Bookmart Limited. 2003) 92-109.

2 Ibid.

3 Cf. Ulrich Suerbaum, Das Elisabethanische Zeitalter (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2007) 80-88.

4 Ibid. 41-43.

5 Cf. The Oxford Shakespeare. Richard III (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 1.

6 E.M.W. Tillyard, Shakespeare ’ s History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1956) 29-30.

7 William Shakespeare. “3 Henry VI”. The complete works of William Shakespeare. Sybil Thorndike (Ed.). London: Abbey Library. 522-552.

Excerpt out of 13 pages

Details

Title
Villain or hero? - Shakespeare's image of Richard III
College
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Grade
2,0
Year
2008
Pages
13
Catalog Number
V201795
ISBN (eBook)
9783656282044
ISBN (Book)
9783656282419
File size
603 KB
Language
English
Tags
Richard III, Shakespeare, Histories
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2008, Villain or hero? - Shakespeare's image of Richard III, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/201795

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