It is probably because of a film of Richard III that this site is here. When I was in (I believe) fifth grade (though maybe it was sixth), a school friend of mine and I were taken by his mother (herself an esteemed English teacher at Lowell High School in San Francisco) to see the Laurence Olivier version (1955) at a local theater. I was captivated by the pageantry, the history, and the entire experience. My appreciation of the language probably really didn’t begin to mature until later, but this experience put into motion a lifelong love of Shakespeare, and a specific interest in seeing all I could both on stage and on the screen.
In retrospect, and in the context of the whole Shakespearean dramatic tradition, I realize that it’s a very broad performance of a play that was itself not exactly one of Shakespeare’s subtler achievements. Perhaps that’s why it was capable of ensnaring my fifth-grade mind. I don’t know whether I would have been as captivated by a stage Hamlet or the like.
Richard III brings to a close the story arc that was begun, seven plays earlier, in Richard II. With the usurpation of the throne in 1400 from the incompetent (but legitimate) king Richard II, the turmoil that became known as the War (or Wars) of the Roses was put into motion; it came to an end with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The victor in that battle, Henry Tudor, went on to rule as Henry VII; he was the father of Henry VIII and the grandfather of Elizabeth I, during whose reign Shakespeare wrote this play. It was therefore politically expedient to make it abundantly clear that Richard was the Bad Guy, and that Henry VII and his exceedingly noble descendants had saved the country from unspeakable tyranny.
History is seldom so simple: there’s every reason to believe that Richard III was not quite such a bad guy, and he ruled quite capably for a number of years. At the same time, some of the things said about him (for example, that he was a hunchback, or that he arranged for the assassination of his nephews) were dismissed by sober historiographers in the middle of the twentieth century (see, for example, Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III), and championed in fiction as well (e.g., Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time), only to be confirmed later on. The princes’ bones, or what were thought to be the princes’ bones, were discovered in the Tower of London in the late 1960s, and when Richard’s own remains were found under a parking lot within the last decade or so, examination of the spine confirmed fairly extreme scoliosis. Of course physical remains offer eloquent arguments about what happened, but they usually remain silent about who did them and to what purpose. And in drama, why a character does something is always foremost.
Shakespeare’s Richard, drawn largely from Thomas More’s highly tendentious biography, is phenomenally simple in that regard. Richard’s bad because he’s just mean. He’s bored with peace and with life, and so he tells us in his opening speech that he is “determined to prove a villain”. No self-delusion there: he’s going to be bad, and he knows it. He delights in it. You’re expected to delight in it too.
And he can be infinitely charming about it. Richard is, for all his wickedness, remarkably open, at least to us. He’s willing to be the audience’s buddy, and he treats his hearers as confidant[e]s in soliloquies and asides. He gleefully enumerates the steps in his diabolical agenda for securing the crown, offering us the peculiar amusement of being able to watch his well-oiled caper machinery deliver one goal after another into his clutches. All the while we can feel safely distanced from what he’s doing, of course, but we may well feel just the tiniest bit guilty about the fact that we find it all so amusing, for, despite his monochromatic (and evil) moral polarity, he gives us a lot to watch and, in our way, admire — for its dexterity, if not for its intrinsic morality.