A masterful play in its own right, but also a resoundingly brilliant conclusion to both Shakespeare’s “Wars of the Roses” cycle it was written as part of, but also of the later written (but earlier set) “Henriad” cycle as well. I’ve read this play, seen film adaptations, and seen theatre stagings of it before, but it’s only this year I set out to read all the (chronologically) preceding Shakespeare plays (the two historical cycles, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” for its Falstaff connection, and also the less-connected “King John” and the apocryphal “Edward III”). Reading “Richard III” in such a context, with all the weight of those preceding plays, made it land so much stronger, be a lot more affecting, and make a much greater statement upon me.
Taken in a vacuum, just as a play of its own, Richard III makes for an extraordinarily compelling villain protagonist. But taking the play as a conclusion to a long cycle of historical dramas, Richard III seems an inevitable conclusion to the troubles started as early as “Richard II”. From the moment Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) usurped Richard II’s rightful throne, the crown lost an aspect of majesty and became something attainable by those with the greatest strength or means. I thought “Henry VI, Part 3” showed the lowest of the depths the nobility could sink to in their ambitious and greedy pursuits of power, but “Richard III” works much better as the true logical conclusion to such behaviour.
While “Henry IV, Part 3” repeated ceaseless acts of increasingly meaningless violence to intentionally diminishing effect, with both the characters and audience becoming exhausted by the litany of wartime brutality, “Richard III” takes place in peacetime, “glorious summer”, which makes the depravity and violence within seem all the more despicable and malformed. It’s fitting that “Richard III” be named as he is, for it calls the audience to draw comparisons with Richard II, the comparatively harmless man whose greatest crimes never seemed to truly reach beyond flightiness (I speak only of Shakespeare’s depictions, not the actual history). Bolingbroke usurping Richard II’s throne seemed an act destabilising the institution of the monarchy, exposing the monarchy to be just a “hollow crown”, as Richard II put it, and Richard III seems the inevitable product of such a thought in the context of the times.
It’s no coincidence some of Richard III’s loyaler followers start to abandon him once he continues violent, malevolent acts after attaining the throne, but why should he stop? He grew up in the endless chaos and violence of the Wars of the Roses, such as seen in “Henry VI, Part 3”, and for him, the times have always involved jockeying for power, often through less-than-savoury means. Richard III almost seems a cosmically-ordained figure, a product of the times so exaggerated and larger-than-life so as to serve as an indictment to the events, people, and society that he was a product of.
If the throne can be attained by whosoever has the greatest strength, the sharpest wit, the means to do so, what lengths will one brought up in that culture where royals are the greatest of all people, where no living man is greater than a king, strive to? It is not only Richard III himself that is deformed. The whole land is deformed. The whole bedrock of royalty, of monarchy in England, has been deformed. Richmond is presented as the only possible cure to such a disease, as he symbolically unites the divisions causing such systematic conflict in the land, but Richard II once sat upon a supposed legitimate throne in peacetime too, and history shows the Tudors didn’t rule forever. Perhaps such cycles of violence are an inevitable product of human nature, natural inclinations towards ambition and violence, and perhaps figures like Richard III are then inevitable products of societies where such things are valued.
More than anything else, it is Richard III’s great skill with language that enables his quick rise through the ranks of power. Much like Henry V, he displays great wit and skill in wordplay, perhaps nowhere better displayed than in his incredible wooing of the Lady Anne. Unlike Henry V, Richard III seems to lack any baseline level of empathy. His fantastic soliloquies draw the audience to empathise with him, but he expresses little empathy for anyone else himself. Henry V was able to frame fellow soldiers as equals, to legitimately get along with common folk, and much of his skill in language was drawn from his mentor Falstaff, a poorly figure if there ever was one. But Richard III uses language only to manipulate. Or is this again another example of seemingly desirable traits drawn to their extremes, so as to be exposed as malignant? Henry V uses language to empower an army to win against impossible, but that army never really needed to fight at all. The war in France wasn’t “necessary”. Richard III’s use of armies is more nakedly a case of manipulation and serving his own ends, but the question of how justified nobility using common folk to fight their wars for them is debatable. Richard III is evil, certainly, but his evil at times seems symbolic of inherent evils in the society of his time.
Richard III’s skillful use of language also seems representative of the play itself, and of Shakespeare himself, in some ways. Richard III’s soliloquies are like propaganda pieces calling the audience to come be “on his side”, and the play itself acted as propaganda for the Tudors, its language framing Richmond as righteous, justified, and heroic, helping legitimise and strengthen the reigning dynasty of the time. Shakespeare was acutely aware of the power of “weaponising” language in such a manner, and “Richard III” seems a case for the medium itself in that regard.
A proper masterwork, with increasing power when contextualised through the preceding history plays. I give it five ghosts, and a sun of York.