Why did Shakespeare portray Richard III as a villain?

Many years ago, when I still in primary school, I remember being taught – as if it were a fact – that King Richard III was an evil man who had his nephews smothered to death so that he could steal the crown.  For a long time I believed it, until I did my own research.  Then I realised that what I had been taught was not necessarily true.

David Garrick as Shakespeare’s Richard III, painted by William Hogarth.

What many people believe they know about Richard III is informed by the play that William Shakespeare wrote about him. They forget that Shakespeare was primarily a story-teller and they think that the portrayal of Richard as an evil hunchback king with a withered arm is an accurate one.

Today, the University of Leicester has confirmed that the remains exhumed from beneath a council car park in Leicester are those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.  The skeleton reveals many things but maybe two of the most interesting are: the king was not a hunchback (although he did suffer from severe scoliosis) and he did not have a withered arm.

So, why did Shakespeare write the play he did?  Well, first of all you have to admit that it’s a good story – and as I said Shakespeare was a story-teller.  But there may be another reason.

William Shakespeare was reliant on patronage.  He needed an income.  It is fairly certain that one of his early patrons was Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange.  In fact Lord Strange’s Men are linked to the first performance of Richard III and it is probable that Shakespeare wrote the play for them.

If you know anything about the battle of Bosworth, you will know that the main reason Richard died is because he was not supported by the Stanley family.  Thomas Stanley, who was the father-in-law of Henry Tudor, seems to have watched from the sidelines until he was sure who would win.  His brother, William Stanley, led the attack on Richard and it was he who seized the crown and put it on Henry Tudor’s head, although in Shakespeare’s play it is Thomas Stanley who is credited with the act.  It is also recorded that Henry Tudor’s standard bearer at Bosworth was a man named William Brandon.  Richard killed him in his attempt to reach Tudor and engage him in a hand to hand combat.

Ferdinando Stanley, Shakespeare’s patron, was the direct descendant of Thomas Stanley.  On his mother’s side he was also descended from William Brandon. According to the will of Henry VIII he was, after his mother, Margaret Clifford, the heir to the English throne if Elizabeth I died childless.  I don’t think he would have been impressed if his playwright had written a play that eulogised Richard III.  In fact, Shakespeare’s patron may have demanded a play that reminded Queen Elizabeth of the crucial role the Stanleys had played in putting the Tudors on the throne  – a play that would reinforce his own claim to be her legitimate heir.

It could be that William Shakespeare did not have an entirely free hand in his writing.  He was probably forced, at that early stage in his career, to please his patron by producing work that pleased him. So, maybe he should not take all the blame for blackening Richard’s reputation.  Instead, the fault should lie with those who have relied on fictional rather than factual sources to inform history.  If today’s announcement changes anything, I hope it will be that more focus is put on the facts surrounding the reign and death of Richard III and that there will be an analysis of what was written about Richard before and after his death at Bosworth. For example the medieval historian John Rous praised Richard as a ‘good lord’ before Bosworth and it was not until the reign of Henry Tudor that he wrote about him being ‘born with teeth and shoulder-length hair after having been in his mother’s womb for two years’ – a comment he must have known at the time was ridiculous. But maybe he too was constrained by what he was being pressured to record.

Maybe the blame does not lie with Shakespeare, or John Rous, or even Thomas More.  Perhaps the blame lies with those who they were forced to please. The men who held power.  The victors.  The Tudors.

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5 Responses to Why did Shakespeare portray Richard III as a villain?

  1. Interesting – I read once that history is written by the victor! Perhaps this is the case here?

  2. Carole Rae says:

    It is true though…history is written by the victor. I do believe that he was a victim to history and to his own greed of wanting power. Though I believe there is some fact in the fiction…many rulers back then were not the best – to say the least.

  3. M M Bennetts says:

    I have always–as an historian–had a problem with the Richard III story, chiefly because details have been provided which absolutely no one could or would have known. Think, for instance, about all the other tyrants in England’s past–name Edward I, Bloody Mary, Henry VIII, Charles I and instantly, you can recall the reasons for their eternal infamy. But if you take out the boys in the tower business, can anyone remember anything, anything at all, about Richard? No. They especially don’t remember that he reigned for just over two years and was only 32 when he died.

    Then the boys in the tower. When kings died ‘in custody’ shall we call it, the victors didn’t tend to announce the time of death and the way of it. There’s usually an announcement sometime after the event which is vague in the extreme. And going into the Tower to do the deed? If one is popping in for a spot of murder, is it likely that one would sign the visitor’s log?

    It’s just all too much Tonypandy for me, I’m afraid. Good play…but so is Macbeth and that’s a load of old cobblers too.

  4. David Durose says:

    There is no inconsistency with Richard’s being both a ruthless eliminator of any threat to his position, while being a fair administrator – he would have seen it as part of the role he was born to play. John Rous’s earlier comments could also have been made under duress or the fear of suffering the same fate as William Collingbourne. Henry Tudor did not have the habit of executing people who wrote something he didn’t like. Another contemporary whose career it is worth studying is Sir Robert Brackenbury, who rose to be one of the wealthiest people in the land, while being Constable of the Tower of London. Richard’s man to the end, he died at his side at Bosworth.
    The stories of Richard’s character and his having his nephews murdered were not invented by the Tudors, but were current at the time. In Brittany, Duke Francis II financed Henry Tudor’s army and Navy for the 1483.The older of the Princes was engaged to Anne of Brittany, his elder daughter.
    Richard managed to bribe Pierre Landais to hand Henry over to him, but he managed to escape to France, where The court had the resources to finance the Bosworth expedition. There Philippe de Commynes records that Richard was considered to be a tyrant and responsible for the Princes death.

    Richard was sensitive to damaging rumours, because when he was falsely accused of considering marriage to his own neice, he acted to have the rumours contradicted. But he made no attempts I know of to combat the perception of him on the continent or at home regarding the Princes.

    I find the modern Ricardians to present a disingenuous argument. The altered painting / scoliosis is not a hunchback – see the official painting of Margaret of Bavaria – it shows no sign of her condition. It is going to be the original that is flattering.

  5. Alexander Morana says:

    This play is a prime example as to my own conviction that Shakespeare was not the sole person, but other persons who penned most of the other known works. ( My University thesis was based on this argument.) If the Tudors, as victors wanted to paint Richard and his family – as murderers, they didn’t have to look further. Plus the disjoined bits of information and facts where perhaps given not only to just Shakespeare but collected by various members of the troupe! Hence, the Queen’s (Elizabeth l) henchmen or censors had an easier task in persuading just one person or persons to come up with this piece of 16th century propaganda, which in my opinion turned out to be a first class character assassination.

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