I return to another Richard with Shakespeare’s Richard III. Old King Richard has been in the public consciousness of late, with headlines surrounding the discovery of his body and reconstructions in both history and popular media in terms of a accurate portrayal. Off the bat I think it’s pretty clear to say that Shakespeare’s portrayal is not the most accurate but definitely the one that’s effected his public image the most. Whatever happened with the Princes in the Tower this certainly doesn’t help Richard’s reputation but Shakespeare’s image of him as a hunchbacked, deformed man succumbing to the darkness of his mind has helped the name of Richard III last in history as an evil and morally corrupt one.
Whatever you really believe about Richard and his motives, in the play Shakespeare takes no qualms in associate Richard’s personality with his appearance. His disfigurement of mind matches up with his disfigurement of body. Whilst some historians have identified Richard’s relationship with Anne Neville as positive, even loving, Shakespeare portrays Richard’s courtship of the Lady Anne as one tied up in hazy morality since Richard killed ‘her father and brother’. He’s shown as using Anne as a tool (which in some way she would have been) and choosing to set her aside when she is of no more use to him – hardly the actions of a chivalrous man.
Since I cannot prove a lover…
I am determined to prove a villain.
I think the relationship between Anne and Richard helps indicate what I personally find most fascinating about Shakespeare’s play, and what I feel he did manage to capture true to life, irrespective of factual accuracy: the messy factional fights and intrigue. At court there is the heightened tension between the previous dynasty and the one that usurped, figure-headed by two powerhouse women: Queen Elizabeth and Queen Margaret. Margaret is the wife of deposed Henry IV, who has a son by him to boot, whilst Elizabeth was the wife of Edward, mother of the Princes in the Tower and also mother of the famous Elizabeth of York, one day to be the grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I.
Richard’s play is a grappling for the crown, with multiple sides all trying to gain power whilst Richard revels in the power he managed to usurp from the usurper. However, Shakespeare displays him as a man caught up in his deviousness, even going so far to try and woo his own niece (after poisoning his own wife). His underhandedness is shown to be key to his downfall, making opposing sides united against him. Even Queens Elizabeths and Margaret briefly come together to curse him. His lack of benevolence and uninspiring leadership leads him to be deserted. He’s a far cry from the noble and active Henry V, who though not perfect, is shown as the more noble ideal of kingship and leadership.
Ultimately, I find this play to be a sad one, depicting the downfall of a king that tried so hard and was just pent up on all sides by both his enemies and himself. Who knows, if his brother had left no heirs, maybe his transition might have been a better or smoother one. But I’m hypothesising too much here. There are multiple details one can take away from watching Richard III, and whilst it is by no means my favourite history play, I enjoy the fact that even after all this time, I still can’t decide how I feel about the title character.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
(photo credit: telegraph.co.uk)