Richard III: The Villainous Complexity of Ideas in Shakespeare’s Play
When the desire for authority is present, it is inevitable that one’s individual moral compass will be sacrificed. In Shakespeare’s historical tragedy, Richard III (1591), it becomes perspicuous that Shakespeare amplified the moral didacticism of his play by dramatising Richards character. This was achievable by portraying Richard as not merely an ambitious villain, but the personification of a metaphysical evil – a Machiavellian prince whose vice-like character is derived from the medieval morality play. These attributes, as explored through many articles, manifest themselves in Richard’s deformity and become part of a religious paradigm that resonates beyond his Elizabethan audience.
By exploring the ramifications of an individual’s conflict of ideals, Shakespeare effectively portrays Richards physical damage as a root for his complex psychological impairment. Throughout the play, Shakespeare’s continuous textual allusion to the Levitical Doctrine powerfully encapsulates the Elizabethan belief that one’s identity is predetermined by God. This is established in the opening soliloquy where Richard’s bitter tone as he laments his physiognomy that he has been “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature/ deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time”, characterises him as a Machiavel. The negative adjectives “deformed” and “unfinished” connote an image of him where his physical deformities are an exterior sign of his spiritual evil, emphasising the playwright’s insightful portrayal of the hunchbacked Plantagenet king as a deviant person whose disabilities have greatly twisted his mentality and activated a perverse inferiority complex. Moreover, the events most characterised by Richard’s ability to cozen occur during his rise to the throne itself. Despite having killed both her Lady Anne’s husband Edward and her father in law in cold blood, Richard’s sycophancy manipulates Anne into being “won” by him. He is even ebullient in the success of his triumph, posing the rhetorical question “Was ever woman in this humour won?” Richard’s acting ability clearly supersedes the notion that he has “no friends” to “back my suit at all but the plain devil and dissembling looks”. Not only is Richard an actor then, but one whose machinations are fraught with villainy; something that is similar to his representation in Thomas More’s book, ‘The History of King Richard the Third’. Richard attempts to justify his evil by using his physical deformity as a cause for being unable to “entertain these fair well-spoken days”, and yet in this scene Richard is clearly shown to be able to do exactly that. Consequently, it is even from Richard’s soliloquy that the audience is made to see that Richard is indeed as “subtle, false and treacherous” as he describes himself to be; he is ultimately a villain cloaked by his masterful ability to act.
Irrespective of context, any individual who acts duplicitously deserves to be denounced for their lack of conscience and immoral conduct. Niccolò Machiavelli’s work in “The Prince” assisted Shakespeare in dramatising Richard by asserting that for a politician to become powerful, they must eschew their morals and only operate in their own interests. Richard, an unabashed caricature of vice, is willing to do and say anything to get what he wants, where he hubristically undermines the providential and feudal order of his world in the pursuit of his demonic schemes. Within the opening of Act III Scene VII, Buckingham returns from visiting the Mayor and townfolk declaring, through simile, that the people “like dumb stones or breathing stones” had no interest or sense of affinity with the idea of Richard being King. To quash these judgements, Buckingham suggests that Richard cunningly subvert elements of religious metonymy, to appear of “mighty suit” by “get[ting] a prayer book in [his] hand and stand[ing] betwixt two churchmen”, thus cultivating a performance of absolute piousness to appeal to the town folks Christian ethos. Buckingham contributes to this act of theatricality through dramatic irony, proclaiming that Richard is a “holy and devout” “Christian prince” busy “meditating with two deep divines” in “zealous contemplation”, successfully duping the mayor into believing that Richard is a man of extreme integrity. This is reinforced through a long passage of dialogue between Richard, Buckingham and the Lord Mayor in which Richard suggests that his acceptance of the crown of England is against his “conscience and [his] soul” – another example of dramatic irony that enhances the demonic element of his character. The Elizabethan audience would have abhorrently condemned Richard’s Machiavellian abuse of their religious faith as a tool of political gain. Thus, the play offers a persuasive voice on the extent to which politicians will act duplicitously by abusing the values of their people to enhance their own reputation.
King Richard III remains pertinent through its establishment of Richard as an individual that abhors and operates outside the moral and ethical parameters of his context, ultimately leading to severe psychological and spiritual consequences. During the course of the play, Richard’s guise is so well executed, he not only manipulates others but even gives them cause to believe that he is an honest man. Through many dramatic monologues, Richard projects himself as a “plain man” that “cannot flatter and look fair” and convinces others of this completely false image. Far from being too “childish-foolish for this world”, Richard’s chicanery even deceives his innocent brother Clarence, who up until his demise believed that Richard “loved” him. Therefore, as an audience, we are made to see that Richard always has a false face which he presents to others and a truthful side which he presents in his asides. In the exodus of the play, Richard can no longer fool himself with his acting when he is afflicted by “coward conscience”. Richard’s single moment of despair causes “cold fearful drops” to “stand on my trembling flesh” as he is confronted by the possibility of his own death. It is in his last soliloquy which exemplifies Richard’s desperate attempts to “love” himself and the collapse of these two faces into one, demonstrated by Richard’s conflicting verses: “Is there a murderer here? No! – yes, I am. Then fly! What, from myself?” This is the only moment in the play in which we see a genuine Richard removed of his layers of falsity, which lies in stark contrast to the image of Richard presented to the audience preceding these events. Despite all the external appearances that have been put forth by Richard for him to forward his evil deeds, he finally undergoes catharsis and is exposed, according to critic Amanda Sodhi, as a tragic hero. He comes to understand the terrible implications of his actions and is able to acknowledge the things done wrong, this being highlighted when he realises that “every tale condemns me for a villain…if I die, no soul will pity me…since that I myself find in myself no pity to myself?” Hence, with Shakespeare insightfully positioning Richard to detest himself, we are given an insight into how villainous acts and abuse of power can lead to utmost isolation and loneliness. It is thus that within the play Richard III, the villainous chicanery which was heavily supported by Richard’s dissembling acts in the end afflicted Richard profoundly. Although his adroit pretending may have been enough to convince other characters within the play, it is shown to be useless when placed under the scrutiny of one’s own moral integrity. Richard successfully utilizes his contortion of emotions in order to fulfil his ambitions, but ultimately Richard cannot fool everybody, including himself.
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