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The Character of Richard III

Some works could be labelled ‘character-driven’, while some are ‘plot-driven’.

Shakespeare’s Richard the Third is an example of the first kind. Richard is an interesting example of a constructed figure: there is nothing about him that resembles a ‘real’ human being, even physically, portrayed as he is as a deformed freak. Apart from the fact that he has more than 300 lines and even when not on stage is the main topic of discussion for the other characters, it is his ongoing use of the inhuman tools of manipulation and betrayal throughout the story to gain power which create a hollowness far removed from verisimilitude. This empty heart is precisely what gives Richard his power as a character: it draws attention toward it, not only from the other characters, who fall under a snake-like spell, but also from the audience.

Almost as though he is an experiment in character construction, we see Shakespeare’s Richard gambol through the play committing one evil act after another, deflecting any attempt at criticism and blatantly betraying everyone. Brackenbury, here, for example, has walked in on Richard defacing the queen, but Richard deflects him with a series of simple lies:

Even so; an't please your worship, Brackenbury,

You may partake of any thing we say:

We speak no treason, man; we say the king

Is wise and virtuous, and his noble queen

Well struck in years, fair, and not jealous;

We say that Shore's wife hath a pretty foot,

A cherry lip, a bonny eye, a passing pleasing tongue;

And that the queen's kindred are made gentlefolks.

How say you, sir? Can you deny all this?

Richard then questions Brackenbury as to whether or not he agrees with Richard and his exaggerated assessment of the queen, which throws Brackenbury off completely and puts him on the spot. Richard’s tactic of deflecting the question recurs - Richard is a master of it, but presents himself to the audience openly, explaining his approach:

I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl.

The secret mischiefs that I set abroach

I lay unto the grievous charge of others.

Clarence, who I indeed have cast in darkness,

I do beweep to many simple gulls;

Namely, to Derby, Hastings, Buckingham;

And tell them 'tis the queen and her allies

That stir the king against the Duke my brother.

Now they believe it, and withal whet me

To be reveng'd on Rivers, Dorset, Gray;

But then I sigh and, with a piece of Scripture,

Tell them that God bids us do good for evil.

And thus I clothe my naked villainy

With odd old ends stol'n forth of holy writ,

And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

‘Naked villainy’ is Richard’s chief attraction: his flagrant moral wickedness is cloaked in the most shameless terms, regularly using Scripture and saintliness as his foils. He does this so frequently and outrageously that he ceases to retain any life-like quality - he is never given any - and instead holds our attention as a monster.

In this discourse with Anne, for example, Richard seeks to turn a foe into an ally. Anne is a woman who has lost a husband because of Richard and yet he means to make her his wife.

Is not the causer of the timeless deaths

Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward,

As blameful as the executioner?


Thou wast the cause and most accurs'd effect.


Your beauty was the cause of that effect

Your beauty that did haunt me in my sleep

To undertake the death of all the world

So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.

These ridiculous terms of affection extended to Anne, visibly inappropriate on stage, are couched so as to both flatter and shock the girl. At first Anne is capable of seeing through his deceit but she slowly gives in, falling under Richard’s bewitchment and offering her hand in marriage shortly after despite being given such a fundamental cause to spurn him. A greater example of just how low Richard is willing to stoop comes later in the same conversation with Anne:

If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,

Lo here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword;

Which if thou please to hide in this true breast

And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,

I lay it naked to the deadly stroke,

And humbly beg the death upon my knee.

Here we see he is willing to bet his life upon his ability to charm Anne and turn her from a hated enemy to a lover. But he is not human in his impose to do so: he is an artificial construct, without remorse. This passage is written in perfect metre, a peculiarity for Richard: Shakespeare shows him trying much more to woo with words here than anywhere else. The Bard has created a demonic embodiment: Richard is a master manipulator knowing exactly how to turn people, be it through argument or charm, eventually leaving no one to oppose him, summed up in his speech to his brother Clarence:

Simple, plain Clarence, I do love thee so

That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,

If heaven will take the present at our hands.

Shakespeare here employs irregular metre, perhaps to reflect the insanity in his erratic way of speech, but is not especially interested in giving his monster any redeeming features. Rather, he plays with the idea of a figure for whom morality or even basic humanity has no meaning, as when he clearly plans to betray his most loyal ally, Stanley:


Most mighty sovereign,

You have no cause to hold my friendship doubtful.

I never was nor never will be false.


Go, then, and muster men. But leave behind

Your son, George Stanley. Look your heart be firm,

Or else his head's assurance is but frail.


So deal with him as I prove true to you.

Both fully aware that their relationship is very near the end and that Richard will most likely betray him, Stanley is taking a great risk by leaving his son with Richard, but is highly confident that the whimsical king will be pleased with him. He is tragically wrong.

By design Richard destroys all possible opponents, through deceit, butchery and manipulation.

So, now prosperity begins to mellow

And drop into the rotten mouth of death.

Here in these confines slyly have I lurk'd,

To watch the waning of mine adversaries

It is this creative exploration of what a character actually is that forms the play’s chief virtue.

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