Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Richard III Week: To Prove a Villain.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is simply magnificent.

Today’s villains are always flawed human beings who could have been so very different, if only.

Often, there is a suggestion that they could yet be redeemed, if only . . .

Not this boy. From the outset, we are left in no doubt at all that not only is he malevolent to the very core of his black soul, but also that he positively revels in it – and invites us, the audience, to revel in it too.

This is not Villain as Mindless Thug … Richard is sharp-witted, articulate, cunning and persuasive. He works his charms both on the other characters in the play and on the audience. No other Shakespearian character plays quite so much ‘straight to camera’. His superb monologues are our window into the workings of his mind and Shakespeare’s way of manipulating us, just as Richard manipulates those around him. Sometimes, we ARE almost seduced by him … we DO almost will him to succeed, appalling though he is. Everybody loves a bad boy, and Richard is a bad boy par excellence.

It’s ironic that his wit and eloquence – the most powerful tools in his armoury – are, in fact, about the only characteristics that Shakespeare’s Richard shares with history’s Richard. It’s doubly ironic that the man who revealed them to Shakespeare (and thus, indirectly, to us) was Sir Thomas More, whose History of King Richard III was one of the major sources of the Richard-as-Psychopath portrait.

Reading or watching Richard III is like being on an emotional roller coaster. He is so charismatic – and honest about his intentions – that it’s nearly impossible not to be impressed by him, at the very least. From that first, famous appearance, we are left in no doubt what he’s up to:

And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain …

Can’t get much more up-front than that, now can you? It’s almost endearing.

It all changes though, when Richard finally becomes king. The monologues stop. The lines of communication and bewitchment are broken. Belatedly, we see him for the monster he really is.

Only once thereafter do we feel a pang of pity for him. It’s the one moment in the play when Richard is briefly human and afraid. It’s like someone who is descending into dementia having one final, terrible, flash of clarity.

In Act V, Scene v, Richard has been visited by ghosts and is gripped by a cold, clammy fear – of himself.

It’s a blood-chilling piece of writing:

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why:
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain.

He’s done it. He was determined to prove a villain, and he’s succeeded – which only goes to show that you should be careful what you wish for.

They just don’t write them like that any more . . .


(The superb photograph of Anthony Sher’s ‘bottled spider’ is strictly copyright of The Royal Shakespeare Company. They’re happy for their material to be used for educational, non-commercial purposes, and I think we qualify on both counts …)

27 comments on “Richard III Week: To Prove a Villain.

  1. Pingback: Do You Love/Hate Richard III? « Fuzzy History: Learning History through Fiction

  2. Pingback: Coming Attractions: Richard III Week. « Vulpes Libris

  3. RosyB
    August 18, 2008

    Yes I’ve been thinking about this for my piece for Friday. Great play, great villain – but what ARE the overarching themes of Rich III. In that respect it is not as “great” as the other tragedies (although I believe they ignore the “tragedy” bit these days and view it as one of the history plays, don’t they?)

    But it is a very funny play in parts and it’s easy to forget that when getting all uptight about Shakespeare or whether Rich III has been poorly portrayed and all that hoo-ha.

    I have some ideas about some of the above (themes and how it could fit into our times) for Friday…so I better go on about it then, instead.

    Thanks for that, Moira – and for reminding me (in the midst of my search of higher meaning) of why it is that we all love Rich III quite so much! 😉

  4. John
    August 18, 2008

    This brings back wonderful memories of seeing the play for the first time. I see a reading plan in my weekend’s future.

  5. Rob
    August 18, 2008

    Great profile (if that’s the word for it?), thanks!

  6. Jackie
    August 18, 2008

    Why am I reminded of Heathcliff by that villain statement? Is it because they both admit to it and make no excuses for it?
    Don’t you think that Shakespeare emphasized or even exaggerated the badness of R3 for dramatic purposes? Not to mention that he was writing for a Tudor descendant. I know that More twisted R3’s reputation for his own purposes, but Shakespeare has written other baddies without making them completely dark. It just seems like he was making R3 a guy audiences would love to hate and played it up.

  7. Moira
    August 18, 2008

    Thank you, people. I had no idea WHAT it was going to be when I started writing it … but yes, Rob, it turned into a profile!

    And I’d say there IS a certain amount of Shakespeare’s Richard III in Heathcliff … but I hope you’ll notice that I forbore to drag Wuthering Heights into it.

    I’m absolutely certain Shakespeare exaggerated the villainy for dramatic effect Jackie … and very effectively too. It was a wildly successful play when it was first staged – we know that from the number of early editions that exist. People just LOVED Richard.

    Rosy – I believe that it is more often now considered to be a History … completing the story told by the Henry VI plays … but it’s a pretty flexible definition of “history”!

  8. Jackie
    August 18, 2008

    Oh good, you didn’t kill me for the Heathcliff remark. lol

  9. Anne Brooke
    August 18, 2008

    I have always been totally charmed by Shakespeare’s Richard. Give us more people who cast aside “niceness” and aren’t ashamed to be the wicked part of themselves! It has the same charm and desirability of Milton’s Satan. I envy them both indeed! Alas, in the 21st century we are doomed only to be nice …


  10. Margaret Donsbach
    August 18, 2008

    Politicians in any age tend to be known for their lies – and suspected of lying even when they’re telling the truth. I think one of the refreshing things about Shakespeare’s Richard III is that we know he’s telling the truth when he shares his villanous motivations with the audience. I wonder if there was a certain sly aspect to this play – while seeming to support Henry VII and the Tudors, might Shakespeare have been giving the audience permission to suspect them of some of the same villainous tendencies that Richard admitted to?

  11. Emily
    August 19, 2008

    Great stuff, Moira, you’ve reminded me of how much I loved reading this play at school…must dust off my copy and give it another read. Looking forward to the rest of RIII week now!

  12. Moira
    August 19, 2008

    Margaret – I think it’s entirely possible Shakespeare did exactly that. He was certainly shrewd enough and no fool …

  13. Ann Darnton (Table Talk)
    August 19, 2008

    This reminded me of a very interesting production I saw at Stratford some years after Sher’s marvellous performance. It was a season when the RSC were offering the three Henry VI plays and Richard all rolled together into three evenings. At the end of the second, when Edward IV had come to the throne and great things were being promised:

    ‘And now what rests but that we spend the time
    With stately triumphs, mirthful comic shows,
    Such as befits the pleasure of the court?
    Sound drums and trumpets. Farewell, sour annoy!
    For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy.’

    Anton Lesser, who was playing Richard, looked straight out at the audience and just said ‘Now’.

    For one moment I thought he was going to go into the opening speech of ‘Richard III’, but of course, he didn’t need to. Just that single word was enough to remind the audience of what was to come and how short lived that ‘joy’ was to be. It was a stunning piece of theatre. the sort of moment that stays with you forever.

  14. Moira
    August 19, 2008

    I love theatrical moments like that, Ann. I have a few of my own … but all of them are off topic at the moment.

    Anton Lesser … a fine, under-estimated actor.

  15. Jonathan Hayes
    August 20, 2008

    Shakespeare was a toweringly great dramatist and in Richard III he created the quintessinal villain. Note the word “created” – he invented Richard – this is not reality. Everybody loves the depiction of EVIL and Shakespeare has laid it on with a trowel. That’s why RIII is so perennially popular.

    I would have LOVED to have seen the late James Mason play Richard III. He was the best villain I ever saw – he could exude EVIL by adjusting his tie!! They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

  16. Leena
    August 20, 2008

    Anton Lesser… swoon. I’d be utterly smitten with that Richard.

    Ermh… yes. Well. Carry on as you were 😉


    ‘Trivial Comments R Us’

  17. Pingback: Richard III Week: The Trouble with Richard III on Film, or just The Trouble with Richard III? « Vulpes Libris

  18. Massey
    December 4, 2008

    “Rosy – I believe that it is more often now considered to be a History … completing the story told by the Henry VI plays … but it’s a pretty flexible definition of “history”!

    I know after a few months this may be a dead subject but I would like to point out that this may, in fact, be a classical definition of history. Some of the great Greek and Roman epics were originally written as “histories,” although blatant fabrications abound in most of them. Many of Herodotus’s histories were so false, written for the pleasure isntead of record, that it earned him the nickname “the father of lies” by some.

    Sorry to be so late, but I just found the site. 😉


  19. Moira
    December 4, 2008

    It’s never too late, Massey! Thank you for your comment. And welcome to Vulpes. 🙂

  20. Richard Clark
    April 1, 2009

    Richard III did murder his nephews and usurp the throne from the rightful king – Edward V.

  21. Pat
    October 20, 2009

    I stumbled on this site while looking for a clear photo to show my students in order to help them see the physical deformity upon which Richard builds some of his puns.
    Your cover essay is great. It speakes to the opening’s magical effect in which we, lawabiding audience members, begin to root for the bad guy because he seems to think that we are clever enough to understand and appreciate his murderous plans. Scorn for victims too stupid to see their danger insulates us and allows us to enjoy, as Richard does, his hapless prey.

  22. Carole Heath
    October 28, 2009

    I don’t think Richard 111 was the villian that Shakespeare would have us believe, much of Shakespeare’s play I think is Tudor propaganda and hearsay. I first became interested in Shakespeare through Laurence Olivier’s film of Richard 111 made in the 1950’s, although I much admire Olivier’s performance as Richard 111. He I think really made the part his own, but he also got a lot of stick from historical societies that thought he was blackening Richard’s name but Olivier was only doing what actors had done since Shakespeare’s play was first written playing it in the same way. It was Shakespeare who blackened Richard’s name not Olivier in my book. If we are to believe Shakespeare’s play that Richard murdered half his family to gain the throne and at the end died a bloody death at Bosworth field. I am very interested in this particular period in English history the Wars of the Roses and the power struggle which took place between the houses of York and Lancaster. and now this latest report that the battle did not take place where the historians thought it did but further afield at Bosworth, maybe 2 miles away. And Shakespeare’s Richard at the battle crying( a horse a horse my kingdom for a horse) is I think incorrect, he was said to have been offered a fresh horse but turned it down and went on fighting on foot and he was slain afterwards. Richard has been seen as an evil villian through out history but that particular period in English history was a treacherous time and some of acts which he carried out were maybe necessary to keep control of his kingdom, as for the murder of the princes in the tower poor things, I personally think it was Henry V11 not Richard 111 who had them done away with.

  23. Richard Clark
    October 29, 2009

    Ricardian revisionism is rubbish! Richard III was rightly blamed for the murders of the true heirs of the English throne (Edward V & Duke Richard of York) even before Henry VII became king let alone Shakespeare’s play. Only Richard III had the most to gain by murdering his two nephews. Why didn’t he produce them alive during 1483-1483 to end the stories about their demise???? Richard III is rightly burning in Hell for their murders and I’m glad his carcass never found a proper burial:) lol!!!!

  24. Richard Clark
    October 29, 2009

    Meant 1483-1485.

  25. Pingback: Vulpes Randoms – Richard III’s Day 4th February 2013 « Vulpes Libris

  26. Kate
    February 5, 2013

    My goodness, what a lot of heat generated by a dead king. Me, I come to Shakespear’s Richard III by way of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (are we allowed to mention that book in the presence of non-Ricardians?), and because I’m a historian I’m completely sold on the idea that Richard was deliberately maligned by Henry VII’s Tudor dynastical propaganda, and that the princes in the Tower outlived Richard, as did so many other of the heirs, as the historical record apparently shows. Haven’t looked them all up in the 15thC sources myself, but i’m happy to believe that. And that’s why Shakespeare wrote Richard III by leaving most of Edward IV’s heirs out of the story. It’s just a great play, it certainly isn’t history.

  27. Pingback: Talk:Richard III of England - News

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This entry was posted on August 18, 2008 by in drama, Entries by Moira, Fiction: historical and tagged , , , , .



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