Richard’s Charismatic Genius
Richard III is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest villain. There is a certain mystique about Richard that few other characters – fictional or historical – can match. Perhaps part of his allure is that he falls somewhere in between those two categories. Shakespeare did not invent the character in the play, but neither is he a particularly accurate representation of the historical figure. Being an amalgam of the two, Richard attains a mythic status. Even in Shakespeare’s time, the lives of the nobility must have been something of a soap opera for the common people, as they still are today. Add to that the uncertainty left behind by the War of the Roses, during which the fantasy of orderly succession of power was shattered, and we can understand the interest in, even obsession with, theYorks and Lancasters. Richard is perhaps the most intriguing of the group, because his motivations seem so despicable. The dethroning of Richard II had come about because he was corrupt and ineffective. The failed attempt to put Henry Percy on the throne and the successful ascension of Edward IV were attempts to right the wrong that had been done, and restore the proper bloodline to the throne. Wolfgang Clemen puts it this way: “Every murder is both crime and punishment for crime, until at the end Richard pays the final penalty” (Clemen 250). The dethroning of Richard II sets of an almost inevitable chain of reactions that perhaps should have concluded with Edward IV’s coronation.
Richard’s run for the crown, however, seems to have no reason behind it. He seems to have been motivated entirely by personal gain. Perhaps this is why he remains such a fascinating historical figure. What could have made him decide that killing everyone between himself and the throne was a reasonable thing to do? Certainly the world that he was born into must have had something to do with it. Richard would have only been nine years old when his eldest brother Edward IV first ascended the throne, and so his teenage years coincided with the tumultuous time that marked the beginning of the War of the Roses. It was a bloody ten years, that for a time being saw Edward imprisoned at the hands of their brother George and the Earl of Warwick, followed by the readeption of Henry VI and his subsequent murder. If we accept the popularly held belief that the deaths of both Henry VI and his son, Edward were at Richard’s hands, we can infer that he learned early in life how to be a brutal and bloodthirsty agent of the kingmaking game, as he would have only been nineteen years old at the time of their deaths. Perhaps having lived his formative years during such a morally uncertain period of time led to his evolving a twisted view of how the world works. If he slaughtered Lancastrians to help make his brother King, why not kill his fellow Yorkists to attain the position himself? An even deeper question perhaps than why Richard did what he did, is how he was allowed by those around him to get away with it. The answer that Shakespeare suggests is that Richard was as charismatic as he was devious. What makes the play so successful is that Shakespeare shows us firsthand just how seductive Richard can be. Not only do we see him manipulate and cajole the characters around him, but from time to time he addresses the audience and turns the full power of his wit and charm onto us. We are drawn in just as much as any of the other characters. Richard tries hard to convince the audience that he is in the right, and for just a moment, we may actually believe him.
The first time we see this is immediately after the curtain opens. In the opening soliloquy, Richard lays open his motivations to us: “Since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain” (I.i.30). However, he is not admitting to being evil; he is not telling us that he has chosen his path. Rather, he is trying to convince us that he has no other choice. As David Berkely tells us, “the verb [determined] is not only active but also passive” (Berkely 483). That is, Richard is not saying that he has decided to be a villain, but that it is pre-ordained that he should be. He expresses disgust with the newly won peace, the “idle pleasures of these days” (I.i.31), with its “merry meetings” (I.i.7) and the “lascivious pleasing” (I.i.13) of lutes. He plays on our sympathies, complaining that he was not “shap’d for sportive tricks, / Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass” (I.i.14-15). He lays it on thick with:
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them— (I.i.19-23)
It is often the case in Shakespeare’s plays that the villain will assign his nature to the conditions of his birth. In King Lear, Edmund blames his villainy on the fact that he is a bastard. Here, Richard claims that his deformity is responsible for his anger at the world. His description is so over the top that we should see through it as merely an excuse. However, it is also eloquent enough that we cannot help but feel sympathy for him, and so he draws us into his web of deceit just as he does everyone else in the play. Harold Bloom agrees, saying “Shakespeare’s greatest originality in Richard III... is the hero-villain’s startlingly intimate relationship with the audience. We are on unnervingly confidential terms with him” (Bloom 70).
It is not just the audience that Richard exercises his wit and charm upon. Throughout the course of the play, one character after another succumbs to Richard’s deceit. Even as his brother, King Edward IV, is on his deathbed, Richard tries to mollify the King by feigning amity for the Queen and her family:
...If any here,
By false intelligence, or wrong surmise,
Hold me a foe;
If I unwittingly, or in my rage,
Have aught committed that is hardly borne
By any in this presence, I desire
To reconcile me to his friendly peace (II.i.54-60)
He seeks to ascribe the quarrel between himself and the Queen’s kindred as a simple misunderstanding. Meanwhile, of course, he has spent most of the beginning of the play trying to turn Hastings and Buckingham against them. He claims that he has been misused because he is not accustomed to the manners of the court: “Because I cannot flatter and speak fair, / Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive and cog, / Duck with French nods and apish courtesy, / I must be held a rancorous enemy” (I.iii.47-50). Again, we see him playing for sympathy, subtly hinting at his deformity and using it as an excuse.
Richard’s manipulation of Lord Hastings is so successful that Hastings considers himself on the best of terms with the Duke even moments before Richard orders his execution. Upon his release from the Tower, Richard greets him warmly, and when the conversation turns to Clarence’s imprisonment, Richard insinuates that “They that were your enemies are his, / And have prevail’d as much on him as you” (I.i.130-131). Of all of the characters in the play, Hastings is perhaps the most gullible, for after Stanley has expressed to him his concerns about Richard, even after Catesby has come to him and in so many words told him that Richard seeks the crown, Hastings thinks that he is in Richard’s good graces. He tells Buckingham “I know he loves me well” (III.iv.14), and indeed tells the assembled crowd “I think there’s never a man in Christendom / Can lesser hide his love or hate than he, / For by his face straight shall you know his heart” (III.iv.51-53) and that “With no man here he is offended; / For were he, he had shown it in his looks” (III.iv.56-57). Richard’s performance, then, must be very convincing, as the next instant he storms in, accuses Hastings of treason, and orders his death.
The Duke of Buckingham is another who until late in the play is strongly under the influence of Richard’s charm. In fact, Richard tells us flat out how he has won the support of the likes of Buckingham and others:
The secret mischiefs that I set abroach
I lay unto the grievous charge of others.
Clarence, who indeed I have cast in darkness,
I do beweep to many simple gulls—
Namely, to Derby, Hastings, Buckingham—
And tell them ‘tis the Queen and her allies
That stir the King against my brother.
Now they believe it, and withal whet me
To be reveng’d on Rivers, Dorset, Grey.
But then I sigh, and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil. (I.iv.324-337)
Indeed, it appears that Buckingham is on Richard’s side from the very beginning. When Queen Margaret has spit her curse upon everyone in her presence, then turns to Buckingham and says that he is the only one present who has not done her wrong, she warns him against Richard’s company, for she sees Richard for what he is. However, when Richard asks what she has said, Buckingham replies “Nothing that I respect, my gracious Lord” (I.iii.295). Clearly, Buckingham has already decided whose side he is on, and wants to make sure that he stays on Richard’s good graces. Buckingham shows that he has bought into Richard’s conspiracy theory concerning the Queen and her followers when, after the young Prince of Wales returns to London and exchanges somewhat pointed words with Richard, Buckingham wonders “Think you, my lord, this little prating York / Was not incensed by his subtile mother / To taunt and scorn you thus opprobriously?” (III.i.151-153)
However, even Buckingham’s loyalty can only be pushed so far, and Richard finds that sometimes he needs to make rewards more tangible to convince people to do his bidding. After the encounter with the Prince, Buckingham wonders aloud what their recourse will be if Lord Hastings refuses to support Richard’s claim to the throne. The Duke’s solution is simple and direct: “Chop off his head, man! Somewhat will we do” (III.i.193). It would seem that Buckingham blanches at the idea, because Richard immediately follows with “And look when I am king, claim thou of me / The earldom of Hereford, and the moveables / Whereof the king my brother stood possess’d” (III.i.194-196). Richard realizes that a bribe might help to cement Buckingham’s support. Later on, when Richard asks him to perform the even greater atrocity of murdering the Prince and his brother, Buckingham attempts to cash in on the offer; perhaps he had decided that if he were going to take that step, he wanted to ensure that it would be worth his while.
Richard follows a pattern of using bribery to ensure his most vile orders are performed. Indeed, once he decides that Buckingham is no longer trustworthy to undertake the murder of Edward’s sons, he asks his page, “Know’st thou not any whom corrupting gold / Will tempt unto a close exploit of death?” (IV.ii.34-35) Richard knows that for every heinous deed, there will be someone out there willing to perform it for gold enough. Money is also the motivation for the two nameless murderers of Clarence, compounded it seems by a warped sense of duty to the King: warped, no doubt, by Richard himself.
We see numerous examples of Richard getting what he wants through deception and bribery, but by far the most outrageous instance of his guile is his seduction of Lady Anne. Richard has killed both Anne’s husband, Edward, as well as his father, King Henry VI. Early in the play, we see King Henry’s funeral procession, with Anne as his sole mourner, as she is essentially the last of the Lancastrian faction. Richard storms onto the scene and disrupts the procession, going so far as to physically threaten the pallbearers. Anne reacts much as we would expect her to, cursing Richard, calling him “Foul devil” (I.ii.50), “hedgehog” (I.ii.103), and “lump of foul deformity” (I.ii.57). Anne makes it quite clear how she feels about Richard. However, by the end of the scene, she has all but agreed to marry him. How does Richard manage this?
For every insult that Anne throws at Richard, he turns it around and flatters her, as in this passage:
ANNE: Black night o’ershade thy day, and death thy life!
GLOU: Curse not thyself, fair creature; thou art both. (I.ii.131-132)
From the moment that Richard places himself in Anne’s bed-chamber, and offers to “leave this keen encounter of our wits, / And fall somewhat into a slower method” (I.ii.115-116), Richard is laying the flattery on heavily, and Anne begins to weaken. Richard claims to have killed Henry and Edward in order to win her. He says, “Your beauty was the cause of that effect; / Your beauty, which did haunt me in my sleep / To undertake the death of all the world” (I.ii.121-123). By professing that his deeds were done in her name, he mitigates her loss somewhat by claiming that it was done to “help thee to a better husband” (I.ii.139), meaning, of course, himself. All of this is carefully calculated to take advantage of Anne’s vulnerability, as well as her romantic sensibility. Donna Oestreich-Hart suggests that “Shakespeare’s Richard knows his courtly love primers well, in two respects: first, praise her beauty; then, tell her she is responsible for everything you do” (Oestreich-Hart 250). His advances toward Anne are not genuine, and are certainly not extemporaneous; they are instead carefully constructed. To seal the deal, he bares his chest to her, saying:
If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,
Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword;
Which if thou please to hide in this true bosom,
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,
I lay it naked to the deadly stroke,
And humbly beg the death upon my knee. (I.ii.173-178)
By proclaiming his love for Anne, and then offering her the means to end his life, Richard is cleverly manipulating her emotions. No one could strike down someone who claimed with all his heart to love them, and Richard knows that Anne will not be able to do it. His goal throughout this exchange has been to confuse Anne’s feelings, and it has worked. She is simultaneously experiencing grief, hatred, and affection; and her heightened emotional state allows Richard to suggest to her an image of him that will work to his benefit. This in fact is Richard’s greatest weapon: he uses people’s own opinions and values to implant in them beliefs that will assist him in his schemes.
Of course, only the audience is privy to Richard’s true thoughts and motivations. Many times throughout the play, we see his interior thoughts juxtaposed so starkly with his exterior demeanor (through asides, or just after another character has left the stage), that it is shocking. When Clarence is being led off to the Tower, Richard tells him that “this deep disgrace in brotherhood / Touches me deeper than you can imagine” (I.i.111-112). No sooner is Clarence off the stage, however, than Richard continues with “Go tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return, / Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so, / That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven” (I.i.118-119). Sometimes his true nature slips through even when there are others on stage, as is the case when he has been hinting to Buckingham that he wants Edward’s sons killed, and Buckingham either doesn’t take the hint, or perhaps chooses not to. Richard grows tired of being subtle and comes out with “Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead, / And I would have it suddenly perform’d” (IV.ii.18-19). He has given up any pretensions of being noble and honorable and is making known his true motives. As the play goes on, and Richard digs himself deeper, he seems to lose his grasp on reality, and his carefully calculated demeanor falls by the wayside. As reports come in that Richmond’s fleet is making its way toward shore, he begins to rave: “Is the chair empty? Is the sword unsway’d? / Is the King dead? The empire unpossess’d? What heir of York is there alive but we?” (IV.iv.469-471). He has murdered his way to the top, and now cannot understand how anyone else could challenge his authority.
What we find in Richard III is a gleefully evil, but yet surprisingly charismatic figure. Modern psychology would classify him as a sociopath. Shakespeare’s portrayal of him is so captivating because we see him beguiling those around him, and thus get to watch his games from an objective point of view, whereby we can see how he is manipulating others, while at the same time he charms us and in effect makes us a participant in the action. Like everyone else, we enable him to do his evil deeds because we are so enthralled with his persona.
Berkeley, David S. “’Determined’ In Richard III”. Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 14, No. 4, 483-484. Autumn, 1963.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of The Human. Riverhead Books: New York. 1999
Clemen, Wolfgang H. “Tradition and Originality in Shakespeare’s Richard III”. Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 5, No. 3. (Summer, 1954), pp. 247-257.
Oestreich-Hart, Donna J. “Therefore, Since I Cannot Prove A Lover”. Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. 40.2 (2000) 241-260.