Analysis of the Historical Accuracy of the Paradoxical Portrayal of Richard III by Shakespeare
Richard III, a Shakespearean play based on the history of the war of the Roses which took place in England during the late 15th century, showed the political inconstancy of that era. England, as a country united for the first time under the reign of Tudor dynasty, by ending the age-old civil conflicts between the house of York, represented by the white Rose and the Lancastrians, represented by the red rose. This conflict happened because of the confusion regarding the claim of the descendants of Edward III.
In the drama, the dramatist shows the rise of Richard III, which historically may not be correct but indeed an amazing dramatic composition regarding the rise of this Machiavellian character. The main argument of this paper is to write about the paradoxical observations, Shakespeare created in the character of Richard III, by concluding the idea of how evil we can tell Richard is. To do so, we are going to discuss the early modern concepts of evil and how this worked in the Tudor age. The play first published in 1593, in the first folio of Shakespeare.
During the time of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, we can perceive a shift from the early beliefs of good and evil. In the mediaeval time, the concept of good and evil originated from religious scripts such as Bible. In a society like this people often tends to believe in the presence of Devil, witchcraft and even ghosts. They were quite superstitious and a person’s behaviour most of the time suggested whether that person is possessed by God or Devil. To Elizabethans, the influence of the Devil on human affairs was almost as prevalent as that of God. It was more or less as simple as that.
The presence of evil in the literary arena was seen during the time of the morality plays, which was played in the churchyard. That is why these plays had a significant effect from the religious beliefs and moral attributes. In the early Tudor age, the theatrical entertainment shows the physical appearance of evil through these morality plays, which were called Interludes at their time. These allegorical plays, with or without moral, personifies various moral virtues and vices and their main purpose was to show the triumph of good over evil. For Example, in Everyman, the characters like death, good deeds, angel, knowledge, beauty were physically present. With the evolution of the Renaissance and Humanism period later.
A more psychological interpretation of good and evil started to emerge, which influenced the culture and the theatrical entertainment as well. For example, in Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth was invoking the dark spirits before killing King Duncan or the very presence of the three witches signifies the physical form as well the psychological form of evil. The characterization of Iago, in Othello, shows a total psychologically wicked human being. Human beings at this point started to become more and more responsible in their action. The audience started to experience more grey characters than the black and white binaries.
In Richard III too, the prophecy, in the drama why Edward IV imprisoned Clarence, signifies the old beliefs of superstition among the Elizabethan audience. Shakespeare has a tendency to draw the binaries by creating equally good characters at the same time, for example, in Macbeth the creation of Duncan or in Othello, the creation of Desdemona and even in the Richard III, Richmond was represented as the optimum of good morality contrasting the evil on the opposite side.
“ 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.” (Richard III, 1.1.18-21)[footnoteRef:2] [2: All citations are done according to MLA 7 format.]
From the very beginning of the drama, Richard III is seen to manipulate the audiences by talking about his deformities to gather sympathy. Language in Shakespearian plays played quite a big role in characterization. For example, in the characterization of Iago, the only thing that worked against Othello is the manipulation of language. In this drama too, the protagonist is using this same device. This can be directly connected with the Biblical reference, where Satan was seducing Eve through the manipulation of language as we can see in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The politics of language started with Richard III manipulating Clarence to eliminate the possible claim of the throne.
‘Your imprisonment shall not be long.
I will deliver you or lie for you.
Meantime, have patience’ ( Richard III, 1.1.115-117)
This paradox created by Shakespeare in one hand made the character of Richard III slave of his habit and audience started to sympathize with him also created the same notion of Evil in relation to the Bible. Also the main idea of this play that the characters who became the victims of Richard III, are complicit in their own actions. As lady Anne allows herself to get seduced by him, knowing he would kill her.
“Was ever woman in this humor
wooed? Was ever woman in this
humor won? I’ll have her, but I
will not keep her long.” (Act I, Scene ii, lines 235–238)
Other characters in the drama allow themselves taken by the overall charisma he portrays, overlooking the violence he created. The tendency of this character is he constantly echoed the idea that the viewers will likely to be repulsed by his actions.
“Ay me! I see the ruin of my
house. The tiger now hath seized
the gentle hind. Insulting
tyranny begins to jut Upon
the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome, destruction, blood,
and massacre. I see, as in a map, the end of all.” ( Richard III, 2.4.50-56)
Like the Vice of the morality plays, Richard generates the special relationship between his words and his deeds. Vice was also someone who fights against the settled authorities, so is Richard III in the drama.
Machiavelli’s The Prince was a much-discussed text in the time of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. we can assume that they surely debated about these paradoxical concepts regarding good and bad through their drama to justify the idea of Machiavelli. Knowing that audiences were aware of the theatrical techniques of Shakespeare, they were might be keen to identify Richard III as a classic Machiavel. For example, Richard’s self-interest, irresistible hunger for domination and deliberate willingness to commit the “ heinous crime” (Act 1, Scene ii, line 534) for his good what he expresses as the good for the whole province are, totally something justifiable as a Machiavel. Machiavelli in that text talks about certain quality for aspiring politicians such as, cruelty, which can play an important role in achieving the power and maintaining it.
In Richard III too the protagonist admits his cruelty but he with his shrewd monologues defines his crime is something good for the country and an act of revenge for himself as everyone cornered him for being deformed. The machiavellian universe always lingers around in expectation of brutality too, thus in this drama, the characters are often struggling to make sense of Richard’s tyranny.
“But I am in So far in blood
that sin will pluck on sin. Tear
-falling pity dwells not in this
eye.” (Richard III.4.2.64–67)
Another quality of The Prince, we are going to talk about, is the consistency in the treatment of the subject. In this drama too, after witnessing the procession of ghosts in the battle of Bosworth, Richard III, in his feverish rant of self-criticism declared, ‘ I am a villain!Yet I lie, I am not’ (Act V, Scene III, line 201-203). The archetypal mischief of a Machiavel is lying in the clear purpose and design to the savagery just like the Richard III, whose barbarism is however gratuitous. In The Prince, the writer uses the conceit of flood to symbolize the uncontrollable nature of fortune. In Richard III too, the spilled swollen water, seems to be an equally pertinent of Richard’s behaviour. According to Machiavelli, it is a duty of a ruler to aim for the maximum achievements also anything is fare in defence of the common good. Richard III performed this welfare duty keeping his own welfare a secret.
We can assume that Shakespeare might have taken the idea from the Holinshed’s Chronicles, which was also written at the time of early Tudor age and from Thomas More’s writings. Maybe that is why some historical inaccuracies like Richard being responsible for the death of his wife’s first husband or the death of her father, appeared in the drama. Historically, both of them died in the battles Tewkesbury and Barnet, and Richard was eighteen years old and took part in that battle. Also, Richard III took the responsibility of the throne by the act of the Parliament and there was also no surviving evidence that he planned to marry his own niece, Elizabeth of York. Also in the battle of Bosworth, there was not a single fight was happened between Richard III and Richmond, later known as Henry Tudor.
So in the conclusion, we can say that to stay loyal to the text itself the new regime required the last King of York, Richard III, depicted as a villain because Shakespeare was belonging to that time of Tudor dynasty. And we should keep this in mind that Shakespeare is a playwright, not a historian, thus we should not consider him solely responsible for this. This whole idea of paradoxical portrayal also creates the controversy regarding Richard III, when we see after the end of Tudor reign, in Jacobian period Ben Jonson was portraying Richard differently.
This different portrayal shows some good work done by Richard III as a ruler, in his short period of time. So we can conclude that the dramatist created a character, who is inspired from history yet there is a paradoxical notion in the characterization whether to conclude him as a complete Evil person from the core or to consider him as a shrewd politician.
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