King Richard III: Historical vs. Shakespearean Versions

July 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

The Tragedy of King Richard III, a historical play written by William Shakespeare, depicts the story of a murderously scheming Machiavellian king and his rise to power, and subsequent short reign as king of England. Richard, during the play, wreaks havoc as he overthrows his brothers and nephews for the throne and eradicates all those who were against his reign. Although entertaining for both Elizabethan Era and modern audiences, and while some elements are accurate, there are numerous aspects to Shakespeare’s story that did not occur in real life. In fact, of the six major villainous acts Richard supposedly executed in Shakespeare’s recount of history, four have been disproved, while the other two cannot be proved conclusively.

The Shakespearean play begins during the brief period of rest England experienced during the Wars of the Roses, which occurred between 1455 and 1485. The Wars of the Roses was a series of English civil wars for the English throne fought between two branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet; the House of Lancaster, whose heraldic symbol was the red rose, and the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose. The play begins on a victorious note, as King Edward IV and his brothers, of the House of York, had removed King Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, off the throne. Similar events did occur in the past, however, Richard’s infamous soliloquy which immediately follows these events seem to be fiction, intended for dramatic and entertainment purposes.

Shakespeare describes Richard as a deformed hunchback who plans to prove himself a villain because of his birth defects. In his opening soliloquy, he explains to the audience that he is “rudely stamp’d […] cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before [his] time, Into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” He explains his deformities to the audience, describing his hideousness in full detail, and even saying, “dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” He uses these deformities as an excuse to become a villain, saying, “I am determined to prove a villain.” However, his appearance in the play does not coincide with his appearance in real life, proving that Shakespeare’s description is false. Shakespeare most likely wanted to make him as evil physically as he supposedly was mentally. In 2014, though, when his remains were discovered, they were examined by osteoarcheologist Dr. Jo Appleby, of Leicester University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, who concluded that, although Richard did suffer from spinal scoliosis, it was not severe enough to cause any major physical deformities.

Afterward, in the Shakespearean version, Richard plans to woo Anne Neville, the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales. He admits to killing her father, king Henry VI, and her husband, “I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter., What, though I kill’d her husband and her father?” However, the written accounts of Edward and king Henry VI’s death do not prove that king Richard III killed them. In fact, The Arrivall of Edward IV, the official account of the House of York’s events in1470/1471, does not detail Edward being stabbed by Richard, “… Edward, called Prince, was taken, fleigne to the towne wards, and slayne in the fielde.” Additionally, king Henry VI actually died in the Tower of London. Richard was said to be in the tower when he died, however, no official written record states that Richard killed him. Richard was most likely in the tower because, as Constable of England, it was his responsibility to deliver the official warrant to the Tower. Richard could not have killed Henry, as only another monarch, being Edward IV, could legally order a king’s death. Therefore, Richard is actually innocent of the deaths of king Henry VI and his son, Edward.

Following these events in the play, Richard then orders two murders to kill Clarence. Richard had delighted in the fact that he had arranged Clarence’s murder by tricking his other brother, Edward IV. He then sends two murderers to the tower to kill Clarence, saying ‘… Clarence hath not another day to live.” However, again there is no substantial evidence showing that Richard was behind Clarence’s death. In fact, the Crowland Chronicle recounted that, “… the execution, whatever form it took, was carried out secretly in the Tower of London”. Allegedly, Clarence and Edward’s relationship had been tense prior to 1478 ever since Edward thwarted Clarence’s plans to marry a Burgundian heiress. Clarence then began to question and ignore king Edward’s orders and authority, which caused Edward to arrange for Clarence’s execution on charges of treason. In fact, Jeremy Potter stated that, “There is no evidence … to connect Richard with the death of his brother Clarence, who was later executed on King Edward’s orders after a public slanging match.” This execution was believed by many to have upset Richard greatly, and Dominic Mancini recalled Richard was, “…so overcome with grief for his brother … that he was overheard to say he would one day avenge his brother’s death.”

Furthermore, Shakespeare wrote that Richard III killed his wife, Anne, after he acquired what he needed from her, and killed his brother’s two sons. Again, there is no substantial proof that would suggests Richard was responsible for Anne’s murder. After her death, many of his enemies spread rumors stating that she was killed by her husband, Richard III, and that he had plans to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. However, he made a public announcement quelling these rumors, stating that they were false. Also, after the princes disappeared in 1483, rumors again began to circulate with Richard as the one to blame for their deaths. Bones were found in the Tower of London, and after scientific examination, were determined to be of the same age as the princes. However, modern scientists determined that to be false, stating that the princes would have been younger.

Many theories have been created in order to understand the reasoning behind Shakespeare’s false accusations. A popular theory is that he wrote Richard III is a villain in order to perpetuate the Tudor myth. Shakespeare wrote the play around 1953, during that time that Queen Elizabeth I was in reign. Queen Elizabeth I, being a Tudor herself and the granddaughter of Richard’s replacement, king Henry VII, would not have taken light to Shakespeare writing about Richard as a valiant hero who did great things for England. Many people speculated that she and her predecessors wanted everyone to believe that the Tudor reign brought about peace and prosperity in England, and before they took the throne there was chaos, bloodshed and anarchy.

Although the play The Tragedy of King Richard III written by Shakespeare holds many false accusations regarding Richard’s crimes and villainy, the play and its characters was loved by many. Critic Katherine Blakeney even calls him a brilliant schemer and entertaining villain. However, the modern audiences who either watch or read the famous play knows that Richard’s villainous personality and the crimes he allegedly commits did not occur in the past.

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