Richard is in every way the dominant character of the play that bears his name, to the extent that he is both the protagonist of the story and its major villain. Richard III is an intense exploration of the psychology of evil, and that exploration is centered on Richard’s mind. Critics sometimes compare Richard to the medieval character, Vice, who was a flat and one-sided embodiment of evil. However, especially in the later scenes of the play, Richard proves to be highly self-reflective and complicated—making his heinous acts all the more chilling.
Perhaps more than in any other play by Shakespeare, the audience of Richard III experiences a complex, ambiguous, and highly changeable relationship with the main character. Richard is clearly a villain—he declares outright in his very first speech that he intends to stop at nothing to achieve his nefarious designs. But despite his open allegiance to evil, he is such a charismatic and fascinating figure that, for much of the play, we are likely to sympathize with him, or at least to be impressed with him. In this way, our relationship with Richard mimics the other characters’ relationships with him, conveying a powerful sense of the force of his personality. Even characters such as Lady Anne, who have an explicit knowledge of his wickedness, allow themselves to be seduced by his brilliant wordplay, his skillful argumentation, and his relentless pursuit of his selfish desires.
Richard’s long, fascinating monologues, in which he outlines his plans and gleefully confesses all his evil thoughts, are central to the audience’s experience of Richard. Shakespeare uses these monologues brilliantly to control the audience’s impression of Richard, enabling this manipulative protagonist to work his charms on the audience. In Act I, scene i, for example, Richard dolefully claims that his malice toward others stems from the fact that he is unloved, and that he is unloved because of his physical deformity. This claim, which casts the other characters of the play as villains for punishing Richard for his appearance, makes it easy to sympathize with Richard during the first scenes of the play.
It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Richard simply uses his deformity as a tool to gain the sympathy of others—including us. Richard’s evil is a much more innate part of his character than simple bitterness about his ugly body. But he uses this speech to win our trust, and he repeats this ploy throughout his struggle to be crowned king. After he is crowned king and Richmond begins his uprising, Richard’s monologues end. Once Richard stops exerting his charisma on the audience, his real nature becomes much more apparent, and by the end of the play he can be seen for the monster that he is.
Because we first hear of Macbeth in the wounded captain’s account of his battlefield valor, our initial impression is of a brave and capable warrior. This perspective is complicated, however, once we see Macbeth interact with the three witches. We realize that his physical courage is joined by a consuming ambition and a tendency to self-doubt—the prediction that he will be king brings him joy, but it also creates inner turmoil. These three attributes—bravery, ambition, and self-doubt—struggle for mastery of Macbeth throughout the play. Shakespeare uses Macbeth to show the terrible effects that ambition and guilt can have on a man who lacks strength of character. We may classify Macbeth as irrevocably evil, but his weak character separates him from Shakespeare’s great villains—Iago in Othello, Richard III in Richard III, Edmund in King Lear—who are all strong enough to conquer guilt and self-doubt. Macbeth, great warrior though he is, is ill equipped for the psychic consequences of crime.
Before he kills Duncan, Macbeth is plagued by worry and almost aborts the crime. It takes Lady Macbeth’s steely sense of purpose to push him into the deed. After the murder, however, her powerful personality begins to disintegrate, leaving Macbeth increasingly alone. He fluctuates between fits of fevered action, in which he plots a series of murders to secure his throne, and moments of terrible guilt (as when Banquo’s ghost appears) and absolute pessimism (after his wife’s death, when he seems to succumb to despair). These fluctuations reflect the tragic tension within Macbeth: he is at once too ambitious to allow his conscience to stop him from murdering his way to the top and too conscientious to be happy with himself as a murderer. As things fall apart for him at the end of the play, he seems almost relieved—with the English army at his gates, he can finally return to life as a warrior, and he displays a kind of reckless bravado as his enemies surround him and drag him down. In part, this stems from his fatal confidence in the witches’ prophecies, but it also seems to derive from the fact that he has returned to the arena where he has been most successful and where his internal turmoil need not affect him—namely, the battlefield. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes, Macbeth never seems to contemplate suicide: “Why should I play the Roman fool,” he asks, “and die / On mine own sword?” (5.10.1–2). Instead, he goes down fighting, bringing the play full circle: it begins with Macbeth winning on the battlefield and ends with him dying in combat.