I enjoy many of Shakespeare’s plays, but I do have a few particular favourites.
At the top of that list would be Richard III. one of the history plays and part of the series that explores the conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet family tree which we call The Wars of the Roses.
Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard as the ultimate villain is so masterful that it shaped how Richard was viewed for centuries afterward. The fact that the history was severely distorted and, at times, entirely fabricated, and that Shakespeare’s representation of Richard was hardly realistic, has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare was a playwright, not a historian, after all, and therefore not inclined to let the truth get in the way of a great story.
Of course, it was in his interests to cast Richard in a less than positive light. Shakespeare was very conscious of the fact that his Queen, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry Tudor who defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth to become Henry VII. Making Richard less worth of the crown further legitimised Henry’s claim to it, and therefore reinforced her own. In a time when conspiracies and plots against Elizabeth were numerous, the validation of her place on the throne of England was essential for any playwright hoping for royal approval, and patronage from among the upper classes.
Thus, Shakespeare’s Richard is a man who not only recognises his evil nature but delights in it and determines to see how much he can achieve with it.
Richard’s choice to pursue evil rather than good from the very start sets the tone of the whole play, and the audience knows they are in for one hell of a ride. His soliloquies deliver profound insights into the evil mind of a villain. They are absolutely fascinating, crafted with intrigue and malice that horrify and enthrall the audience at the same time. It’s riveting stuff. And as Richard puts his schemes into action and celebrates his own cleverness and cunning when they succeed, the audience is acutely aware that they are watching an evil genius in action.
My favourite character, though, is Margaret, the former queen of Henry VI. She is strong, she is angry, and she is hell-bent on justice. Margaret speaks vitriol and hurls insults and curses so effectively that Cecily, Richard’s own mother, asks Margaret to teach her how it’s done. She attains a level of Shakespearean Insult proficiency that nobody else ever quite managed, not even Richard himself.
The language of the play is magnificent. From the insult competitions to the curses that burn with the brimstone of hell itself, there is not a word wasted in this play. The imagery is incredibly powerful, and the emotive language is so clever and subtle that while the audience may recognise that the characters on stage are being deceived, they don’t realise until after the fact that that they, too, have been positioned and manipulated by a master of the art.
It is only at the end of the play, when one realises they feel a little sorry for the villainous Richard, that the audience understands how the language and drama of the play have seduced them.
To take a man from the pages of history, craft him into something hateful, and have the audience still feel something other than hatred for him— albeit, while most likely feeling hatred for him at the same time— is testimony to Shakespeare’s genius as a wordsmith and playwright.