Contrasting Shakespeare's Richard With The Historical Figure

1614 words - 6 pages

There are two Richards: the Machiavellian monster created by Shakespeare and the historical figure who many historians claim is a much-maligned innocent man. So is Richard the sinner or the one sinned against? How can we decide? Is a decision even possible?

In Shakespeare's play Richard III, Richard describes himself as a deformed malcontent in the opening soliloquy. (Shakespeare often uses physical deformity to mirror an evil mind.)

I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

...

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. (1.1.18-31)

Many historians, on the other hand, have a different view of the man. For instance, in the 1956 biography Richard the Third, Paul Murray Kendall describes Richard based on contemporary writings and two well-known portraits of the King.

Most contemporary descriptions bear out the evidence of these portraits that Richard had no noticeable bodily deformity, and establish him as a thin, frail man of a little less than normal height. (537)

The most heinous crime that the Tudors (the kings who succeeded Richard to the throne) accused Richard of committing was the murder of his nephews-Edward V and Richard, Duke of York-the sons of his brother, the former king, Edward IV. How seriously should we take this accusation? What evidence supports it? Kendall writes, "If we take 'evidence' to mean testimony that would secure a verdict in a court of law, there is no evidence that he [Richard] murdered the princes" (465). Shakespeare is certain that Richard was a malicious archfiend. Kendall and others have serious doubts. What really happened to the Princes in the Tower, the young boys who were next in line to the throne when Edward IV died, is the biggest mystery in English history. Shakespeare says that Richard had them killed. Should we take the Bard's word for it?

I encourage my students to read Josephine Tey's mystery novel The Daughter of Time which introduces the other side of the story: Maybe Richard didn't kill the princes; maybe somebody else did, or maybe they weren't murdered at all. On top of that, maybe Richard was actually a good king, even a reformer. Let's look at all the available evidence before coming to a conclusion. Two other books I recommend that give conflicting viewpoints on this controversial subject are The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir and Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes by Bertram Fields. Weir is a respected historian who argues Richard's guilt, and Fields is a high-profile attorney who claims that there is nowhere near enough evidence to convict the King. Both books are fun to read, and students have responded favorably to...

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