Richard III & Shakespeare the Spin Doctor: How the Bard Shapes Audience Opinion of a Classic Villain

 

Literary works that inspire my writing, Part I

Learn how Shakespeare the Spin Doctor changes your opinion of Richard Gloucester over the course of the play.

If you think the media shapes audience opinion now, Shakespeare had it twisted around his little finger over 400 years ago. In Richard III, Richard is the classic villain, the nefarious hunchback, who deceives and murders his way onto the throne. If you’re planning to see a performance of Richard III, notice how the Bard leads the audience from gleeful conspiracy with Richard in Act I to complete abandonment of him by Act V. Warning: spoiler alerts ahead!

Based on a true story — so what?

Richard III is the last of eight English history plays, chronicling the rise the Tudors and the fall of the Plantagenets. “History” is a loose term. Better to say, “based on a true story” whenever you’re reading or watching Shakespeare’s history plays. The play was written under Queen Elizabeth I, whose grandfather defeated Richard, so it’s no surprise that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as the scheming, murderous hunchback has basically been debunked as Tudor propaganda. Politically, he needs the audience to distance themselves from Richard and feel relief when Elizabeth’s Grampy Henry VII defeats him.

This isn’t a PBS documentary. It’s a play, and Shakespeare takes us on a jolly ride until we reach its tragic conclusion. Shakespeare – the ultimate spin doctor.

Portrait of Richard III from 1520.
Portrait of Richard III of England, painted c. 1520. Public domain from soliloquy (a monologue spoken by a lone character on the stage). Richard plays the role of Vice, the character in medieval morality plays who invites the audience to delight in how he cunningly traps people into sin. After Richard’s sarcastic famous first lines In Act I, Scene I, “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York…,” he explains how he’s been bullied for being a hunchback and has no interest in celebrating his family’s victory. Instead, since he “cannot prove a lover,” he is “determined to prove a villain.” He shares with us his plan to destroy his brother, Clarence, and when he sets it in motion, we’re going along for the ride.

We also get guilty pleasure in Act I, Scene II, watching how Richard successfully woos Anne, the widow of the man he himself slayed in battle, Edward Tudor. He told us he was going to do it in his soliloquy at the end of the previous scene. However, like Richard, we are as surprised as he is at his success. He shares in his next soliloquy that Edward was a good guy and he can’t understand why Anne would so quickly abandon her mourning for him. We don’t get it, either, but we’re giving him the thumbs up.

We rise with Richard, but he falls alone

This is because we are in Act I, which is the first part of the rising action. Acts I, II, and III generally make up the rising action in Shakespeare with the climax usually coming at the end of Act III. The falling action, then, is found in Acts IV and V, leading to the denouement.

The climax in Richard III is in Act III, Scene 7, when Richard has himself declared king. Richard and his henchman, Buckingham, put on show where Richard pretends he doesn’t want to be king, and Buckingham convinces the rather unenthusiastic crowd to declare him as such. As an audience, we can’t help but enjoy this scene, even if we’re not so keen on Richard’s means and methods.

We can’t take it anymore, Richard!

But then, we get to Act 4 and the falling action. This is where Shakespeare has to pull us away from Richard. How? Richard has his two young nephews, the infamous princes in the Tower, murdered. At this point, we realize we can’t go along with Richard anymore and think, “Richard, we don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore.”

Thus, when Richard declares to us in his next soliloquy in Act 4, Scene 3, lines 36–43, that he is now going to woo young Elizabeth, the sister of the two princes, calling himself “a jolly thriving wooer,” we don’t feel so jolly. Richard wants us to do this together, but we can’t go there. In fact, Shakespeare gets us rooting for the opposite side and rejoice when Richard’s miserable attempt at seduction is turned on its head. And as much as we pull away from Richard, he pulls away from us.

And Richard’s had enough of us…

By the time we get to Richard’s last soliloquy in Act 5, Scene 3, Richard no longer speaks to the audience. We may join the chorus of ghosts cursing Richard (he’s killed a lot of people in this play), but he doesn’t acknowledge us. He says, “Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.” He no longer presents himself as Vice, the gleeful villain, but recognizes himself as simply an awful villain. We react maybe with some pity but mostly with disgust.

When Richard shouts his final, pathetic line in Act 5, Scene 4, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”he is utterly alone. No one is there to help or sympathize with him, not even the audience, when he is killed. Instead, we applaud Richmond, the soon-to-be King Henry VII (and remember, Elizabeth I’s grandfather), as he proclaims in the last lines of the play, “peace lives again./That she may long live here, God say amen.”

Shakespeare’s got you!

Shakespeare’s got us when we join Richmond’s “amen” with our own. He has subtly shaped our opinion not only of Richard III but also of the Yorks, whom the Tudors defeated. What a great spin doctor! Do you agree? Have you seen a performance and read the play and found your loyalties changing? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Richard III and A Certain Shade of Light

This aspect of Richard III inspired my own approach to Athaliah, history’s only queen of ancient Judah, who killed her grandsons to gain the throne, in my as-yet-unpublished novel, A Certain Shade of Light. If I succeeded in what I was trying to do, the reader should have some sympathies for Athaliah in the beginning of the novel, despite some gnawing flaws, and be glad of her demise by the end of it. She is assassinated by her stepdaughter’s husband in a coup to restore the only surviving legitimate heir to the throne – the nephew her stepdaughter, Jehosheba has saved. Long before Shakespeare wrote Richard’s lonely last words, the Bible records Athaliah’s equally forlorn last words – “Treason! Treason!”

Now, what do you think?