Strutting and Fretting His Hour Upon the Stage

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Strutting and Fretting
His Hour Upon the Stage [1]

An Analysis of the Characterization of Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard III and Daviot’s Dickon

by Judy R. Weinsoft
A lecture presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival August 27, 1993


An unanticipated benefit of membership in the Richard III Society and the singular distinction of being virtually the only Oregon member is the incredulous reaction I get from people. When I called a publisher to order a few modern plays about Richard, the clerk blurted, “Can you believe that there really is a Richard III Society? Can you believe that people would really join?” I politely commented that I was a member, and that we were not all just a bunch of crazies. Incidentally, I understand that a typical member may be described as a young, intelligent, left-handed, female librarian. [2] Well, I happen to be right handed, but other than that….

Most Ricardians apparently share my moderate, balanced approach to Richard, unlike the Society member who criticized Antony Sher’s portrayal of the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1984 production of Richard III:

I read in the papers that you are yet another actor to ignore truth and integrity in order to launch yourself on an ego-trip by the monstrous lie perpetrated by Shakespeare about a most valiant knight and honourable man and most excellent king. [3]

This statement serves as an appropriate springboard for today’s lecture, in that it prompts the following questions:

  • What is the Richard III Society?
  • Who was the historical Richard?
  • What is historical truth, and what lie did Shakespeare allegedly perpetrate?

I should point out that this speech is not a commercial for the Richard III Society; the commercial is located at the Society display. Founded in England in 1924 as the Fellowship of the White Boar, for the symbol on Richard’s badge, the organization was renamed the Richard III Society in 1959. Its aims are to promote research into the life and times of Richard, to reassess the historical materials of the period, and to circulate relevant information to members and to educational organizations. [4] While some members believe that the primary goal is to erect statues and plaques to Richard’s memory, others concentrate on research into Yorkist history and the 15th century. This has resulted in the publication of significant original documents and contemporary scholarly papers. [5]

When I began researching this lecture, I expressed my concerns about doing justice to Richard to the Society’s public relations officer. She responded, “Don’t worry: you can’t possibly say anything to further damage his reputation.” Indeed, take a moment to think about the image you have of Richard III. Then consider the following passage from my college introduction to western civilization text:

In 1455 full-scale civil war broke out between the House of York…and Lancaster…The Yorkists managed to have their leader, Edward IV, crowned king, but this did not end the conflict. After a troubled reign, Edward IV died, leaving two young sons as his heirs. Their uncle, Richard, with a cruelty appalling even for that stern age, ordered his nephews murdered and took the throne. The double murder was too much for the nation, and opposition to Richard III mounted. Support was thrown to the cause of Henry Tudor, who, in his lineage, united the Houses of Lancaster and York. The armies of Richard and Henry met at Bosworth Field in 1485. Just as the battle began, some of the king’s lieutenants deserted his unworthy cause, and Richard died as he had lived, violently. His crown was found in a bush on the battlefield and placed on the head of Henry VII, the first of the Tudor line, which was to rule England from 1485 to 1603. Trade was at a standstill, the nobility had been decimated, and the nation, tired of the blood bath of civil war, stood ready for the masterful rule which the Tudors gave England.

[6] Once again, the authors of historical surveys lag behind the scholars in the field, who correct the various errors, including the impression that after Bosworth a revolutionary change occurred. [7] Doubts about this “Tudor Myth” view of history, and Richard’s reign in particular, surfaced as early as the 17th century. Since then there have been sporadic defenses of Richard; however, the most significant reassessments have been written after 1950. [8]

The oft cited phrase, the “Tudor Myth,” originated in the 1940s with Shakespearean scholar, E.M.W. Tillyard. [9] The term describes the Tudor interpretation of the 15th century as a sequence of events connected by a divine cycle of retributive justice. It postulates that the process began in 1399 when Richard II was deposed by Henry IV. The successive usurpations of Henry VI by Edward IV and Edward V by Richard III eventually culminated when God pronounced his judgment by punishing “hell’s black intelligencer” (IV, iv, 71) [10] at Bosworth. [11]The Tudors fostered two additional historical notions that became great national themes: 1) the providential and happy union of the houses of York and Lancaster through Henry VII’s marriage to Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth; and 2) Henry’s claim to the British throne through his Welsh ancestry and King Arthur. [12]

Had the Yorkists prevailed at Bosworth, not only would Henry Tudor have become a historical irrelevance, but Richard would not have come down to us as a monster and tyrant. In order to survive, Henry VII had to justify his kingship and destroy lingering nostalgia for his predecessor. [13] Unfortunately for Richard, history is written by the victors. Fearing reprisals, virtually no one dared to write on his behalf. [14] A notable exception appears in the City of York Council Minutes, which proclaimed that “King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us was through grete treason…piteously slane and murdered to the grete hevynesse of this citie….” [15]

In assessing any historical figure, it is difficult to sift through disputable interpretations to establish incontestably true facts. As one historian observed:

Facts cannot lie, but they can be interpreted differently. [In charting Richard’s course to the throne], our facts do not come to us unvarnished, but are loaded, slanted, and embedded in narratives….Almost every so-called fact comes with its accompanying bias. [16]

This process is more complicated for Richard because his center of popularity was in the north. At that time, in southern England, people from the north were still considered barbarians and were regarded with fear and mistrust, almost amounting to hatred. [17] There are no extant northern chronicles to balance the bias, contradictions, and inadequacies of the southern or London chronicles. [18]

The problem is also compounded by sycophantism. During the Wars of the Roses, men rallied to the Yorkists or Lancastrians according to their local feudal allegiances. Attachments were familial and regional, not ideological or national. [20] Thus, certain writers who had praised Richard’s reign during his lifetime had no difficulty in denouncing him after his death. [21]

Richard also suffers when viewed from a modern, democratic perspective. We need to consider him in the context of his times, for the later 15th century in England was a “ruthless and violent age as concerns the upper ranks of society….Consideration of Richard’s life and career against this background has tended to remove him from the lonely pinnacle of Villainy.” [22]Henry VII was also a product of that age. Although he did not shirk from killing his enemies, he preferred to take their money and let them live. [23]

What are the uncontestable facts about the man who has been variously described as the most “persistently vilified of all English kings,” [24] the most “controversial ruler England has ever had who suffered the widest fluctuations of reputation,” [25] and the most “polemical figure in the reaches of English history?” [26] Richard Plantagenet was born without apparent physical defect in 1452, the same year as Christopher Columbus and Leonardo Da Vinci. [27] He grew up as a young son of the nobility and was raised in the household of his cousin, the Earl of Warwick, in Middleham Castle in northern England. It was here he met Warwick’s younger daughter Anne, whom he later married.

For brevity’s sake, I shall omit all the vicissitudes of the power struggles for the throne, depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, except to say that unlike his “false, fleeting” brother (I, iv, 55), George of Clarence, Richard remained steadfastly loyal to his oldest brother, Edward IV. After Richard’s marriage to Anne in 1472, he returned to Middleham, where he was appointed to govern for his brother for the next eleven years as the Lord of the North. [28] Edward’s untimely death in April 1483 set the stage for Richard’s eventual usurpation. He was crowned on July 6, 1483 and died at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485.

While these facts are uncontestable, the accomplishments of Richard’s two-year reign are open to interpretation. But even Tudor historian, Polydore Vergil, whom we shall encounter later, acknowledged that in spite of Richard’s infamy and evil deeds, the king began “to give the show and countenance of a good man, whereby he might be accounted…more liberal especially toward the poor….He began many works as well public as private….He founded a college at York…” [29] Modern historians also note Richard’s primary concern for legal remedies for all subjects, as well as his financing and patronage of charities and collegiate churches. [30] But some temper the praise by adding that Richard used his only parliament as a “forum for reforming legislation which would give fullest publicity to his beneficent intentions as king.” [31] As a librarian, I am particularly interested in the exemption Richard created for “writers, binders, and printers of books” to an act which stringently regulated imports and exports. [32]

While we do not know how much Shakespeare believed the Tudor line, we can conclude that he had no objective knowledge of the historical Richard. [33] Shakespeare’s indelible portrayal was affected by these powerful constraints and influences:

1) Political Repression

Shakespeare was acutely sensitive to the political climate of his own time. [34] He was a charter member of the Lord Chamberlain’s men, whose ultimate patron was Queen Elizabeth, the granddaughter of Henry VII. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy reminds us in a recent opinion, Shakespeare was writing during censorious times. In 1579, one Hugh Singleton so enraged Elizabeth I by printing a certain tract, that he was condemned to lose his right hand as a punishment and impediment to all further printing. [35]

One scholar suggests that, because Shakespeare generally drew his characters from life, his portrait of Richard as tyrant may have been based on two of Elizabeth’s principal ministers who were known for their political ruthlessness. [36] If true, he was treading dangerously upon seditious grounds.

2) Historical and Biographical Truth

The 16th century’s view of the historian’s task differs from ours. Queen Elizabeth’s tutor (not Tudor) instructed that history writing should describe in vivid, affective, dramatic, and lively terms the “nature of persons, not only for the outward shape of the body, but also for the inward disposition of the mind.” [37] The historian/biographer, then, notes and imagines what occurs in other people’s minds. [38] Consequently, what is purported to be biographical truth may, in fact, be fictitious. This leads directly into:

3) The Tudor Myth and the Chroniclers

Sir Thomas More is primarily known to us for his Utopia, his martyrdom during Henry VIII’s reign, and his subsequent canonization. It may, therefore, come as a shock that this “man for all seasons” is principally responsible for the following portrait of Richard that Shakespeare immortalized on the stage:

Richard…was in wit and courage equal with either of [his brothers], in body and prowess far under them both; little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favoured of visage….He was malicious, wrathful, envious, and from afore his birth ever forward. It is for truth reported…that he came into the world with the feet forward…and, as the fame runs, also not untoothed….He was close and secret, a deep dissembler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart, outwardly companionable where he inwardly hated, not hesitating to kiss whom he thought to kill, pitiless and cruel….Friend and foe were to him indifferent; where his advantage grew, he spared no man’s death whose life withstood his purpose. [39]

(More, by the way, was only seven when Richard died at Bosworth.) Given his dramatic talents and contacts with playwrights, More could have written his History of King Richard III as a play. [40] Incidentally, some of his most striking dramatic scenes, such as the arrest of Hastings, later appear in Shakespeare. [41] Winston Churchill thought that More’s object was “less to compose a factual narrative than a moralistic drama.” [42] And Horace Walpole scoffingly called More “a historian who is capable of employing truth only as cement in a fabric of fiction.” [43] In keeping with the Tudor theory of history writing, More’s King Richard has the distinction of being the first such piece in English that may be called literature. [44]

A number of puzzles surround More’s History. [45] We do not know why he failed to complete the work and refused to publish it during his lifetime, though there is speculation that he realized his work could be taken (which it later was) as an apology for the Tudor reign. [46] Perhaps More was not an unqualified proponent of the Tudor Myth. As a member of Parliament, More incurred Henry VII’s indignation. His father was imprisoned and fined, and More himself was saved from exile only by Henry’s death in 1509. [47] More later saw undesirable parallels between Edward IV and his grandson, Henry VIII, and wrote about the recent past to indirectly admonish Henry. [48]

More was a contemporary and friend of Polydore Vergil, the Italian humanist who was “commissioned” by Henry VII to write a history of England. [49] It has been suggested that Vergil might have unwittingly destroyed evidence favorable to Richard. [50] Like More, he made an attempt at characterization, probed for motives, and established relationships of cause and effect. [51] Vergil’s version differs from More’s in atmosphere and tone and is regarded as more serious and sober history. [52] His description of Richard’s physique and character is quite similar to More’s, but it lacks the sardonic twist. [53]

If Tillyard coined the phrase “Tudor Myth,” Polydore Vergil created the concept. He saw a specific pattern in the succession of 15th-century kings and superimposed a moralistic interpretation of divine retribution. [54] Because Vergil’s history covers Richard’s entire reign, his work is the major source for events subsequent to Buckingham’s rebellion in 1483, where More’s writing abruptly terminates. [55]

Enter Edward Halle and Raphael Holinshed, Shakespeare’s primary sources for the history plays. This is how one scholar recounts how the Richard III myth came to reach Shakespeare:

The Bishop of Ely, John Morton, duly became one of Henry Tudor’s ministers and Thomas More grew up in his household….It would only be human if Morton recounted all the worst that was ever said of the master he had betrayed [i.e., Richard]. It is not surprising that Edward Halle should accept More’s account in writing his vast book…and still more human that Raphael Holinshed (whom no one could call a historian) should copy extensively from Halle. [56]

The Tudor/Elizabethan chronicles are uniform in temper and outlook because the chroniclers either draw on common sources or plagiarize one another. [57] This is Halle’s description of Richard:

As he was small and little of stature, so was he of body greatly deformed, the one shoulder higher than the other, his face small, but his countenance was cruel, and such that a man at the first aspect would judge it to savour and smell of malice, fraud and deceit; when he stood musing he would bite and chew busily his nether lip, suggesting that his fierce nature in his cruel body always chafed, stirred and was ever unquiet….His wit was pregnant, quick and ready, wily to fain and apt to dissimulate; he had a proud mind and an arrogant stomach. [58]

In this instance, Halle at least paraphrased More and Vergil, and added his own nuggets. Holinshed merely quoted More verbatim. [59]

If the Tudor chroniclers rather than Shakespeare led subsequent historians to make up their minds about Richard, Shakespeare shaped the popular imagination about him, [60] though he was not the first dramatist to put Richard on the stage.

4) Pre-Shakespearean Drama

Shakespeare drew upon other literary works, as well as certain dramatic conventions which were prevalent on the Elizabethan stage. Richard’s life was the subject of poems, various ballads, a Latin university play, and English plays for popular audiences. All of these treatments cumulatively contributed to the “Richard saga.” [61]

Shakespeare probably read the Mirror for Magistrates, which was printed in 1559. [62] Set in verse, the book consists of moralistic examples, for if the “magistrates be good, the people cannot be ill.” [63] Approximately one-fourth of the 96 poems are connected with Richard III. Generally following the chronicle sources, the Mirror embellishes the Richard myth in the poem about Clarence. Here is what More had craftily written:

Some wise men believe that [Richard]…lacked not in helping forth his brother of Clarence to his death, which he resisted openly, howbeit somewhat, as men deemed, more faintly than he that were heartily minded to his welfare. [64]

But the Mirror makes Richard the actual murderer who attempts with his own hands to strangle Clarence and failing, drowns him with assistance in a butt of malmsey. From that point forward, it was the accepted view that Richard murdered Clarence. [65]

The first play based on people and events from English history was probably Thomas Legge’s Latin text of Richardus Tertius, which may have been composed in 1573. Prior to Legge, English playwrights used the Greek and Latin classics for inspiration. Legge recognized the dramatic potential of the chronicles and, with a few exceptions (notably an absence of deformity), followed them faithfully. [66] Since Shakespeare used the same sources, his play contains scenes similar to Legge’s. However, scholars believe that Legge only indirectly influenced Shakespeare. Richardus Tertius was more closely imitated by the True Tragedie of Richard the Third. This play, in turn, is the more likely source for Shakespeare’s Richard.[67]

The True Tragedie was probably written around 1589. Its authorship has never been established. The play is a jumble of verse and prose, sometimes incomprehensible. The True Tragedie combines selected scenes from the history chronicles with some of the conventions of a Senecan revenge play. The many similarities between the True Tragedie and Shakespeare’s Richard III which do not appear in the chronicles led scholars to conclude that Shakespeare appropriated some material from this play in creating his superior work. [68]

5) Dramatic Types

Various dramatic types are embodied in Shakespeare’s Richard. He is an amalgam of the Senecan tyrant, the morality play Vice character, and the Machiavellian Prince. [69]

The first century Latin tragedies of the philosopher Seneca exerted a great influence on Renaissance playwrights. The plays generally featured the following structural, rhetorical, thematic and character conventions, [70] all of which are employed in Richard III:

  • Five-act division
  • Highly stylized speech and line-for-line verbal fencing matches
  • Use of soliloquy
  • Narrative reports, especially of horrors, recited by messengers in lieu of stage action
  • Sensational themes involving “blood and lust” or unnatural crimes, such as infanticide
  • Cycles of revenge and retribution
  • A chorus for comment on the action
  • Stock characters such as a ghost and a cruel tyrant

Unlike the one-dimensional Senecan tyrant, the character of Richard is also influenced by the medieval morality plays. In those plays, virtues, vices and other abstract ideas were personified as characters. The function of the vice figures was to illustrate how easily human nature could be tempted into sin. Although the morality plays as such had lost their popularity by the 16th century, morality roles were still incorporated in the dramas, usually as comic parts. [71]

As Richard tells us in an aside, “Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity/I moralize two meanings in one word.” (III, i, 82-3) In many Elizabethan dramas, Vice is portrayed as the Devil’s accomplice who is a master at mischief-making and wordplay. He uses asides to take the audience into his confidence and to invite applause for his skill at deceiving others — at least until the play’s end when he gets his comeuppance and is dispatched back to hell. [72] Richard, like Vice, is a show-off whose language, at times, is colloquial — in direct contrast with the Senecan stylized speech of others. But, as I will show later, Shakespeare modified the conventional ending for the Vice character in Richard’s demise.

After Machiavelli published The Prince, his name became a popular synonym for diabolical cunning. His cynical but realistic advice on statecraft was considered a handbook for tyrants.[73] Machiavelli’s politically amoral prince becomes a monstrously immoral caricature on the Elizabethan stage. In Henry VI, Part III, Richard announces how he will metaphorically hew his way to the throne by changing shapes and setting the “murderous Machiavel” to school. (III, iii, 193) [74] Note that Richard’s mention of Machiavelli is anachronistic since The Princewas published in 1513. Anyone who is upset by anachronism will have a miserable time with Shakespeare, and Richard III in particular! [75] Since much has been written about the chronological errors and historical inaccuracies, [76] I will not belabor the issue other than to mention a few points.

  • Telescoping time: Shakespeare condenses 14 years from 1471- 1485 into less than a month, of which 11 days are portrayed on the stage. [77]
  • Most of the time compression and temporal rearrangement occurs in Act I. The order and interval between the actual events was as follows: Henry VI died in 1471, Richard and Anne were married in 1472, Clarence died in 1478, and Edward IV died in 1483. In the dream sequence, Clarence mentions the crossing to Burgundy, which happened when he was only 9 and Richard was 7. (I, iv, 10)
  • Queen Margaret, who died in exile in France before Edward’s death, is resurrected to serve as the Senecan chorus. Her primary function is to remind the characters and audience of the historical process of crime and punishment. She is also a foil for Richard. One of the funniest moments in the play, when Richard interrupts Margaret’s cursing, is purely fictitious. (I, iii, 232-5)
  • In Act II, Shakespeare does not adhere to the geographical scattering at the time of Edward’s death. Buckingham was in Wales, Prince Edward and Rivers were at Ludlow, Richard was in the North, and Hastings was in London. It was only through Hastings that Richard learned of Edward’s death and his appointment as Protector.
  • Act IV, scene ii implies that Richard reneged on his promise to give Buckingham the earldom of Hereford when he actually signed papers granting Buckingham the crown’s portion.
  • In Act IV, scene iii, Richard imprisons Clarence’s son and meanly matches Clarence’s daughter in marriage. Henry VII was responsible and later executed the boy on a trumped-up treason charge. Henry VIII executed Clarence’s daughter when she was in her 60s to destroy the last of the Plantagenets.
  • In Act V, Richmond generously proclaims a “pardon to the soldiers fled/that in submission will return to us.” (V, v, 16-17) In fact, Catesby was captured and executed; others were imprisoned. Henry dated his reign from the day before the battle in order to issue a bill of attainder against all the men who had fought for Richard and thereby confiscate their properties.

These inaccuracies, whether intentional or based on the chronicles, shouldn’t diminish our appreciation for the complexities of this play, portions of which could be variously described as:

comical, farcical, hysterical, theatrical, tragical, fantastical, prophetical, providential, moral, allegorical, metaphorical, rhetorical, oratorical, political, hypocritical, ironical…

But it is not historical. [78] As Antony Sher observed in describing his preparation for the role: “Shakespeare’s play departs so drastically from history that [biographies of all the characters for the cast are] of curiosity value rather than of any real use.” [79]

We are briefly introduced to Richard in Henry VI, Part II. In spite of the fact that he is called a “foul indigested lump, as crooked in [his] manners as [his] shape” (V, i, 157-8), he has the prowess to slay Somerset at the Battle of St. Albans. Incidentally, this is another anachronism; the combat occurred when Richard was only 2-1/2. His character is more fully realized in Part III. In Act III, his long soliloquy touches on all the negative attributes previously cited in the chronicles — his ambition, hatred, destructiveness, and deceptiveness. Here his deformity and unnatural birth are graphically described. [80] But in the opening soliloquy of Richard III, he merely alludes to it:

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up….(I,i,19- 21)

This disparagement of physical disability not only offends our modern sensibilities, it simply was not true of the historical Richard. It was only after his death that his birth was declared unnatural by enemies who tried to denigrate him. [81] In the period which concerns us, people associated an evil disposition with a deformed body. [82]

While the deformity may connect the Richard of the Henry plays with this one, Shakespeare did not develop the character consistently. Richard’s motivation has shifted noticeably from pure ambition to boredom; from lusting after the crown to causing trouble. One critic suggests that Shakespeare invented most of Act I to give Richard, as bored, unemployed actor, a chance to introduce himself and to show off. [83]

And show off he does. This is an extraordinarily theatrical character who is the “dramatist, producer, prologue, and star performer of his own…comedy.” [84] Richard constantly reminds us of his virtuosity in performing, in order of appearance, such diverse roles as:

  • the devoted brother
  • stalwart friend
  • witty wooer
  • loyal subject
  • plain blunt chap
  • pious convert
  • benevolent uncle
  • good protector
  • reluctant prince
  • political manipulator
  • cornered, sweating rat
  • bluff soldier

And last but not least, his award winning role as the innocent. [85]

For a person with a severe disability, Richard is tremendously energetic, not only in his extravagant performances, but in his perpetual motion. He cannot afford to be stationary if he is to retain the element of surprise. [86] Shakespeare doesn’t give Richard much of a rest, for in an unabridged performance, he appears in 15 of 25 scenes. All this movement in a crippled position puts a terrible physical strain on the actor. Rumor has it that after the original production, Burbage, who played Richard, said to Shakespeare: “If you ever do that to me again, mate, I’ll kill you.” [87]

In the first part of the play Richard does, indeed, strut his hour upon the stage. [88] His actions are described in terms of haste, perhaps a legacy from More. [89] Richard gloats that he will have the world to bustle in once Clarence and Edward are out of his way. (I, i, 152) But after his coronation, he frets, confusedly giving and retracting orders. His unstaged anger is at the surface, as Catesby informs us a la Edward Halle: “The King is angry. See, he gnaws his lip.” (IV, ii, 27) By Act V at Bosworth, Richard confesses that “I have not that alacrity of spirit / nor cheer of mind that I was wont to have.” (V, iii, 73-4)

What accounts for this progression from strutting to fretting? Opinions vary as to the cause of this abrupt shift in behavior. Perhaps it is in keeping with the degeneration of the Vice character. Or perhaps it is attributable to the anxieties and responsibilities which accompany the role of king, reminiscent of the lament of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, another usurper: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” [90]

I suggest, however, that the tonal shift is due to how the chronicle sources conceptualized Richard. You will recall that since More terminated his history after Richard’s accession, Halle and Holinshed had to rely on Vergil for the remainder of the reign. While More’s Richard is “demonically vibrant and behaviorally restless,” this characterization is completely lacking in Vergil and subsequently in Halle. [91] It is interesting to note that Richard experiences this same change of character in the True Tragedie, which relied on the same sources. [92]

Notwithstanding Shakespeare’s reliance on the chronicles for the historical background, I do not agree with those who claim that Richard III is the “culmination of the so-called Tudor tradition” [93] or that “Tudor propaganda was most memorably codified by Shakespeare.” [94] He superimposed the framework of the Tudor Myth as a providential view of history on this play. But did he actually believe in the myth of Tudor deliverance from Richard III’s tyranny? While we cannot know for certain, I propose that Shakespeare’s affinity was with Richard for these reasons: [95]

  • By Act V, Richard no longer operates as a Vice character, and he is not simply dispatched to hell. He fights bravely, but he is doomed to die after fulfilling his part in the grand cosmic scheme by punishing those whom Margaret cursed.
  • His remarkable soliloquy in Act V, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me,” (V, iii, 180-207) is designed to reveal, however briefly, his basic humanity. The admiration we feel for Richard here is evidence of Shakespeare’s expert manipulation of our sympathies. [96] Remove this speech, and Richard reverts to a cardboard Senecan tyrant.
  • Richard isn’t real; he is larger than life. The way his role is written and portrayed with such gusto, Richard emerges more as an example of the power wielded by a consummate actor than as a figure of treachery and evil. [97]

Finally, I contend that the key to Shakespeare’s view of Richard is unobtrusively inserted in Act IV, scene iv, when Queen Margaret instructs Queen Elizabeth on how to curse:

Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were
And He that slew them fouler than he is.
Bett’ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse;
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse. (IV, iv, 120- 2)

Apparently, I’m not the only one to view Shakespeare in this light. Josephine Tey’s mystery, The Daughter of Time, is perhaps the most popular defense of Richard. In the book, Tey pillories the murderers of Richard’s reputation: Sir Thomas More, Bishop Morton, the Tudor chroniclers, and Henry VII. But she does not also indict Shakespeare. [98] Instead she comments on two occasions that it was from More’s accounts that “Holinshed fashioned his history, and on that story that Shakespeare fashioned his character.” In other instances, she notes that like historical transactions, Shakespeare’s plays are “capable of almost endless interpretations”; that his version of Richard is “just a caricature. Not a man at all”; and that Olivier’s performance as Richard III is the “most dazzling exhibition of sheer evil.” [99]

If Shakespeare has been accused of creating some monstrous lies about Richard, Tey has been severely reprimanded for suppressing or camouflaging unfavorable “facts” about him. The Daughter of Time has been the subject of much debate about the role and responsibility of the novelist as well as the historian in presenting historical information, for each accuses the other of manipulating evidence to substantiate preselected conclusions. [100] All this discussion centered on Tey’s novel; however, she also wrote a play about Richard under another pseudonym.

It is unclear which work Elizabeth MacKintosh wrote first, the book under the name Josephine Tey or the play Dickon under the name Gordon Daviot, since the latter was published posthumously. [101] [Ed. Note: In a 1956 radio interview, cited in “Richard’s First American Friends” Ricardian Register XVIII(4), Winter 1993, Laurence Olivier remarks that Gordon Daviot had brought him the play for consideration in 1944, which would suggest but not prove that the play preceded the novel. As the interview was previously unpublished, Weinsoft did not have access to it.]

Dickon, for Richard’s nickname, was originally produced in 1955. With the exception of one theatre review and a few brief references in critical studies of Tey, very little has been written about the play. [102] Her vindication of Richard seems to work better through the medium of the mystery novel.

So why discuss Dickon at all? I thought it would be interesting to contrast the opposite conceptions of Richard as a comic demon and saintly monarch and to examine how they work as theater. Furthermore, I believe it is important to examine a revisionist play about Richard to illustrate the relationship between history and drama.

The play is divided into two acts of five scenes each and covers the period from January 1483 when Edward IV convened a parliament to the dawn of Bosworth. Dickon has three scenes in common with Richard III: the arrest of Hastings, the execution of Buckingham, and the morrow of Bosworth, one of which I’ll discuss later.

In Dickon and her other history plays, Daviot’s aim is to reinterpret and demythologize historical characters. [103] Richard thus is characterized as fair, honorable, and capable. Critics contend, and I concur, that this depiction on stage of a good and much maligned king does not provide enough dramatic contrast. [104] Given the inevitable comparison to Shakespeare’s play, Dickon does not fare as well for the same reasons that Vice figures from the morality plays were so popular — because excessive, energetic evil is more theatrically compelling than vapid virtue.

Daviot’s Richard is dramatically weaker not only because of how he is conceived, but also how he is presented to us. Shakespeare’s Richard is defined by what he says about himself in his soliloquies, by what others say about him, and by his actions. Shakespeare also employed dialogue to indicate facial expressions, gesture, and demeanor. [105] You will recall Catesby informs us that the King is chewing his lip. By contrast, Daviot leaves much to detailed stage directions. Consider her description of Richard’s initial entrance:

He is quite young, only thirty. Smallish, slight but wiry. He has a short face with hollow cheeks, long grey eyes set close under the brows, a bold nose, a thin mobile mouth. His eyes are lively, his expression gentle, his manner controlled and quiet…His only obvious charm is in his voice, which is very attractive. The ill-health from which he suffered as a child has left its mark on his face and body (in repose his face still looks as if he were in pain)….He has won renown both on the battlefield and at the council table….(Act I, i, page 6) [106]

Because the audience is not privy to this information through dialogue or action, there is much less dramatic punch. Moreover, the script abounds with so many explicit stage directions that there is less opportunity for the actor to interpret and develop the role. Some stage directions give the impression that Dickon was composed to be read rather than performed. For example, when Lovell and Richard are anticipating Richmond’s invasion, the direction for Richard’s acknowledgment of “The spring” reads as follows: “He says it slowly, thinking of Anne, who has died in March after a long illness, and of the little promise this spring holds for him.” (Act II, iv, p. 88)

Daviot’s Richard does not strut; his movement is restrained because he is not in charge of the action. Instead, events happen to him which force a reasoned, rational response. He also doesn’t fret; that role is given to Hastings, as Bishop Morton scolds: “You fret, Hastings, you fret.” (I, v, p. 48). Despite a few short bursts of temper, this Richard is calm, contemplative, sometimes too preoccupied, and candid. We don’t witness behavioral shifts due to changing circumstances, and there is no complex characterization to analyze.

With a few exceptions, Dickon is more chronologically accurate than Richard III, [107] which gives it the appearance of being more historically accurate. I must confess that I hoped to catch Daviot in an anachronism to balance those errors in Shakespeare. I thought I caught her in this exchange between Edward and Richard regarding the military campaign in Scotland. Richard says that Stanley “sat in front of Berwick looking so fierce that not a Scot had the courage to lift a golf club.” (I, i, p. 12) A golf club?! Yep. The first written mention of golf was in 1457. [108] That taught me a lesson. Never argue with a Scotswoman about golf.

But where Shakespeare rearranges the chronology of events to suit a dramatic purpose, Daviot simply eliminates events she deems unsuitable to her favorable portrayal of Richard. For example, Act I closes with the arrest of Hastings; Act II opens with King Richard on royal progress two months later, so some controversial events surrounding the usurpation and coronation are omitted.

The historical inaccuracies are unimportant in Shakespeare because he uses history loosely as a backdrop for a study in character. [109] His overt manipulation of history and outrageous situations (the wooing of Anne) allow us to see Richard as a work of fiction rather than as a historical figure. We readily invoke the willing suspension of disbelief. Because Daviot’s play has the pretext of historical accuracy in that people are generally at the right place at the right time, she is better able covertly to manipulate our perspective. The incidents presented are plausible; therefore, we are inclined to believe they are also true. To take an example, in both plays Richard refuses to grant Buckingham and audience prior to his execution — ostensibly because he is so outraged at Buckingham’s betrayal. But in Dickon, Buckingham is apprehended with a concealed weapon. His intent is not to plead for forgiveness, but to assassinate Richard. Thus far, I can find no supporting evidence for this motive. [110]

I suspect that Daviot’s creation of speculative justifications for Richard’s actions results from the fact that she looks at him from a 20th-century viewpoint. Her Richard is not portrayed as a man of his age who was presented with a tempting opportunity to seize power and took it. The political mores of 500 years ago do not meet the standards to which we aspire (but often fall short). So it is not good enough for Daviot that Richard behaved in a manner comparable to his contemporaries — perhaps a little better, surely no worse. Consequently, in trying to restore an unjustly tarnished image, Daviot invents the Richard she wishes, as do I, had actually existed.