The Tragedy of Richard III
"But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity and does the same abominable things that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, he shall die." -- Ezekiel 18:24
Richard III is undoubtedly the most controversial king in English history. This is due in large part to Shakespeare's unfortunate play Richard III, in which Richard is a larger-than-life character of huge ambition and little conscience, reveling in his villainy. This play is very bad history; in fact, it's not history at all.
No matter how one feels about Richard III, amateur and professional historians alike can regret that Shakespeare's stature as a writer had such great influence over historians, professors, and teachers in the centuries since. If we owe the Ricardians anything, it is an appreciation of the fact that they were instrumental in destroying Shakespeare's credibility as a historian. No one now believes that the Shakespearean Richard was the historical Richard. Unfortunately for the Ricardians, this might be the only valid contribution they can make toward repairing his reputation. Far too many of them have given into a false dichotomy, thinking that Richard must be a hero if he is not a monstrous villain, ignoring all of the shades of gray in between these two extremes.
To believe Richard was a hero, one must reject nearly every contemporary source and accept a double standard whereby only contemporaries with a bias in Richard's favor are entertained. Thus, they quote Thomas Langdon's letter which says Richard contents the people wherever he goes, and don't have the honesty to add that Langdon had received the bishopric of St. Davids from Richard and would receive the bishopric of Salisbury from him at the forfeit of Lionel Woodville. The Ricardians are quick enough to reject contemporaries for biases -- real, perceived, or imagined -- against Richard. They also fail to question whether the good laws passed by Richard's Parliament were inspired by him or the product of a Parliament which had the upper hand, serving a king who needed all the support he could muster.
People who do not share the Ricardians' undiscriminating admiration for him tend to fall into two camps regarding the events of the Spring and Summer of 1483, which more or less came to define his reputation: Richard was either a very intelligent man, orchestrating a successful coup, or a man of limited intelligence, led and manipulated by others. I tend to fall into the first camp. Historian Charles Ross has pointed out that the second view of Richard was not shared by Richard's contemporaries, who must indeed have the last word on Richard, since they were the ones who knew him far better than we moderns could ever hope to know him.
I think that Richard was a young man of considerable ability (only 32 when he died) who was just nearing the top of his game when his brother Edward IV died. At that time, he was held in high esteem by most Englishmen. Not because he was the saint that the Ricardians paint him to be. Even before his brother's death, we have evidence of greed, ambition, spend-thriftiness, intransigence, and ruthlessness. However, none of these negative and very human traits are meant to infer that Richard was considered anything other than a man of honor. In fact, such was his reputation that Anthony Woodville, who would later be executed on his orders, requested that Richard assist him with a legal matter as late as March 1483.
There is also evidence before his brother's death that he was even-handed in dispensing of justice. Of course this does not mean that he would be as even-handed when it came to matters where his own self-interest was involved. He was an eager and effective soldier, and the accolades that he collected during his brother's last Parliament were for his victories over the Scots. Edward IV had accomplished much more by way of peace and prosperity, but, as Shakespeare's glossing over of Edward's reign illustrates, peace and prosperity can be rather unglamorous and boring compared with military heroics.
Richard seemed to relish war. He dissented with Edward over a less than honorable peace with France. Edward had to restrain him in his eagerness to rush to war against the Scots, and some might speculate that Edward "allowed" the skirmishes with Scotland to continue as a means of keeping Richard occupied, just as he might have "allowed" Parliament to award Richard with a grant for the Scottish lands he would conquer just to provide an outlet for his energies.
I think that Richard was a man inebriated by his own success and by the showers of praise from Edward's last Parliament. I think that self-delusion was his greatest flaw, because he didn't realize that those who were quite happy with him as Protector were not necessarily willing to support him as King.