The Princes in the Tower
Shakespeare at Work
Where do we get our conception of Richard III, villain and murderer of children? There is no more profound influence on how we view Richard than the famous play by William Shakespeare. He, of course, relied on histories that had been written in the first half of the 16th century. These, most prominently by Hollinshed and Hall, had been based on Thomas Mores biography of Richard. Shakespeare had already achieved a certain amount of success with the London theatre public with his three plays on Henry VI, the last part of which has an appearance by Richard III, then known as Richard Gloucester. Shakespeare was, after all, a man of the theatre and not an historian. It is interesting to speculate on how Shakespeare interpreted these sources, and created the play that has had so much influence over the last 400 years.
It would be fascinating to have been present at the first rehearsal of Richard III, probably held in mid-1592. What were Shakespeares instructions to his leading actor, Richard Burbage? Did he direct Burbage to act Richard as an attractive villain, so that he was as much devilish as evil? Whatever the original interpretation of the role, Shakespeare gives the character of Richard lines that unmistakably reveal his villainous motives.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plans have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate the one against the other.
Shakespeares Richard is a new kind of complex villain, one who is adept at plotting, prone to irony, and just as blood-thirsty as the villains who came before him. But, he is a villain nonetheless.