Shakespeare is one of England’s Great Writers. That’s what we’ve been told since grade school. For too long, however, Shakespeare’s prominence in literature class has spilled over into history class, and history is the lesser for it.
Shakespeare wrote entertainment, not scholarship. His ambition was to make money for the box office, not to produce accurate history. It is incredible that a historian such as James Gairdner would proclaim at the turn of the 20th century that Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard III was a close representation of the historical Richard. Here was someone whom Shakespeare describes as coveting the throne from the age of 8, whose deformed body housed a deformed soul (as if the two went together!). Shakespeare presents us with a caricature of a human being, and such a description is counted as history. What makes a Great Writer an authority on history simply because he is a Great Writer? Shakespeare never had any business in History class.
The play Richard III chronologically follows Shakespeare’s less successful play Henry VI, Part 3, leaping over Edward IV’s successful second reign and only snatching the unpleasant parts as a prelude to Richard’s actions following Edward’s death. Yes, we all know how boring prosperity and success are! And we all know that emphasizing Edward’s success would not prompt our collective sigh of relief when the “glorious” Tudor dynasty replaces the Yorkist dynasty! Shakespeare’s presenting Edward IV’s successful second reign as an afterthought and prelude to the greater drama of what occurred after is truly an insult to Edward’s accomplishments.
But presenting Richard as an evil and deformed villain and Edward IV’s reign as merely a prelude to Richard’s usurpation are not the only reasons to hate Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare makes Richard larger than life; he eclipses the other characters in the play, and, thus, Richard is given an importance that no individual can have. Whether one hates Richard or loves him, Shakespeare’s larger-than-life parody has made it tempting to interpret every action by every other person by the light of how it affected Richard.
In reality, Richard was not the center of the 15th century world, and he wasn’t the center of every 15th century mind.
The magnification of Richard’s importance also tempts us to define Richard’s behavior with superlatives, when none are needed. Thus at the turn of the 20th century, we have Gairdner and Clement Markham shouting at each other from either side of an abyss that neither can cross; one considers him a villain reveling in his villainy, while the other considers him a white knight and the flower of English virtue. What nonsense both these superlatives are! One can’t begin to understand anyone, historical or otherwise, unless one is willing to think of him as a human being with flaws, as well as virtues.
This is the absurdity of those Ricardians who, knowing of my admiration for Edward IV, attempt to rationalize Richard’s actions by comparing his bad behavior to Edward’s, assuming that my admiration extends to all Edward’s actions. But I won’t defend a person’s bad actions, even if I do admire him, which is why I can’t brook justifications for what Richard did.
Shakespeare’s play, with its shallow black/white portraits of Richard III and Henry VII, is historically useless and good for nothing outside of literature. Much more interesting were the other plays that preceded it. Those plays, however, have their faults. Ricardus Tertius, unfortunately, was written in Latin. However, in this play, Richard is wavering and indecisive, and much more human. In the other play, The True Tragedy, Richard reasons that, “being released from the yoke of my brother, (shall I) become subject to his son?” Once again, this is a more human reaction than wanting “to prove a villain.”
I doubt very much if anyone sets out to see how evil he can be. It has been shown that the criminal mind is more inclined to see himself as right and everyone else as wrong. I believe that Richard sincerely wanted to be a popular, beloved, and good King. I don’t believe that he was a monster. However, he greatly misjudged reaction to his actions, leading up to and including his usurpation, and, once down the road, he chose not, or was unable, to undo his error in judgment. He continued to compound his error with more errors in judgement, which led him to defeat on Bosworth field.