Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III was his first psychological thriller. His protagonist is one of the world’s greatest villains, the ultimate horror figure with a criminally-crooked mind and a mythically Tudor-created crooked body. Inviting the audience to be his accomplice, Richard performs the evilest of deeds with exactitude and without remorse; instead he revels in his crimes. Paradoxically, Richard of Gloucester is witty, charming, and imbued with intellectual vigor and moral depravity. We, his co-conspiratorial audience, are incredibly fascinated and thoroughly entertained.
Historical Richard should never be confused with Shakespeare’s Richard. “Richard of Gloucester was not a hunchback, he did not have a withered arm, he was not in all probability born with a full set of teeth, and he was almost certainly not carried for two years in his mother’s womb. . . . They are all developments of Tudor political culture” (Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All [New York: Anchor House, 2004], 132). Taking the most delectable information from Holinshed and Sir Thomas More, Shakespeare infused the crookback with cleverness, charisma, and perfidy.
The question extending for over 400 years is how could Richard/Gloucester camouflage his dual psyche? Shakespeare’s Richard plays the implacable Machiavel, the Vice, and the accomplished actor. Similar to the Roman God Janus, Gloucester really is two-faced; the great dissembler with one face for the audience, and another benign countenance presented to his deceived. In fact, we, the audience, are the only ones to whom he never lies. We enjoy these confidences because his malevolent ambition is so dispassionate and is generously littered with exigency. Indeed, his equanimity is much more terrifying than his sudden eruptions of passion, which essentially are calculated acts of ostensible piety. As a nefarious villain, his acting fashions fiction fascinating. He perfects this by donning his actor persona, “And thus I clothe my naked villainy” (1.3.382).
Though he never declares himself a “Machiavel” in Richard III, he readily claims it in its precursor, Henry VI Part Three, “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile, / And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart, / And wet my cheeks with artificial tears, . . . / I can change the colors to the chameleon . . . / And set the murderous Machiavel to school. / Can I do this, and cannot get the crown? / Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down” (3.2.182–95). Besides the classic Machiavel, a fairly standardized Elizabethan theatrical persona, he also deconstructivly calls himself a “Vice,” a comparatively one-dimensional figure prevalent in older morality plays. “Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one Word” (3.1.82–83).
We don’t have to look beyond the play’s opening lines to experience multiple word meanings: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious by this son of York” (1.1.1–2). The first line could initially be understood as, presently, I/we are discontented. However, the second line casts a different perspective. Now it’s more like, I/we, the Yorkists, formally discontented, are now pleased with the status quo. The audience, interestingly enough, intrinsically hears and understands both. Moreover, Richard is informing us that he should be content, but privately he is confiding in us that the opposite is true. “Nothing makes us believe we are actually in touch with the ‘reality’ of a character like encountering both the inner conflict and the secret motives” (Marjorie Garbor, Shakespeare and Modern Culture [New York: Pantheon Books, 2008], 113).
No Shakespearean character exudes more confidence in his, “Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous” than Gloucester (1.1.32). Elizabethans understood the word “plot” to mean a map, a plan, a scheme, a conspiracy or even a storyline. Literarily a “plot” is the arrangement of details designed to secure the attention of a reader/viewer. The difference being that the story is told in sequential order, and a plot is related selectively to stimulate suspense or causality. “’The king died and the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot’” (E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1954], 86). Fascinatingly, the first use of the word “plot” in the Oxford English Dictionary, “a conspiracy to achieve an unlawful end,” was initiated by Polydore Vergil, a historian commissioned by Henry VII and the first historian to paint Richard as physically deformed. “That a ‘plot’ should be both a conspiracy and a storyline is not an accidental connection. It says something—something crucial, something fascinating—about the way in which Shakespeare’s Richard III, again, both the character and the play, catches hold of the critical imagination” (Garber, Shakespeare and the Modern Culture, 112).
Fast upon the conclusion of the first soliloquy, Richard, clothed in naked villainy, portrays the devoted sibling. His brother, Clarence, is on his way to the Tower under the king’s order, but Richard, with his, “We are not safe” (1.1.74), cunningly implicates the queen’s family. Richard’s duplicity is fully displayed with his sardonic, “Your imprisonment shall not be long” (1.1.123). Clarence is mistakenly confident that “loving” Richard will be his rescuer.
The very next scene has Richard attempting the seduction of Lady Anne “for a secret intent” (1.2.170), to combine the two branches of the Plantagenet house. She is the late Earl of Warwick’s daughter, and Richard has murdered both her husband, Prince Edward, and King Henry VI, her father-in-law. Richard affirmed “I cannot prove a lover” (1.1.28) but through a concoction of impertinence and adulation we glimpse his extraordinary diabolical powers. All the while clothed in naked villainy, he eschews sincerity and assumes the ridiculous role of Petrarchan lover, Anne’s exquisite beauty being the confessed foundation for the crimes. Eventually she succumbs to his flattery but dangerously discounts his condescension and wily admiration. Feeling confused, humiliated and a bit terrified, she responds somewhat ominously for herself and all the other characters in the play with, “I would I knew your heart” (1.2.220).
The most comical of Richard’s contrived scenarios is his and Buckingham‘s attempt to gain the assent of the mayor and bourgeois of London. Richard coaches Buckingham for his role. “Come, cousin, canst thou quake and change thy color?” (3.5.1) “Tut,” retorts Buckingham, “I can counterfeit the deep tragedian” (3.5.6). Richard, flanked by two bishops, dressed in a religious robe that clothes his naked villainy, is presented to the mayor. Modeling a pious Christian prince, Richard twice refuses the crown, “Alas, why would you heap this care on me? / I am unfit for the state and majesty” (3.7.24–15). Comically, the citizenry accepts his refusal at face value. Now Buckingham is obliged to round them up again so that Richard may finally be “persuaded” to be king by “overwhelming” public request.
The climax of the play occurs with the coronation of Richard. He abandons us, or at minimum shifts his paradigm, the soliloquies and asides cease, and, with the murder of his two young nephews, our amused fascination for him wanes as he forfeits control. He orders Catesby to the Duke of Norfolk, but forgets to tell him why. He commands Ratcliff to Salisbury but immediately countermands with “My mind is changed” (4.4.518). He strikes a messenger without hearing the message, even though the message is positive. The great actor/obfuscator is fumbling his lines. “Richard, once actor, director, stage manager, and prompter, has lost control, not only of events, but even of his own plans and his sense of self” (Garber, Shakespeare After All, 156). The naked villainy is fully exposed. “Even after Richmond appears, Richard is the only antagonist worthy of himself; in the end, he has to play his own accuser” (Richard Courtney, Shakespeare’s World of War [Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1994], 109). “Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am” (5.3.211).
Stripping away the naked villainy, Richard III is melodramatically imbued with the pragmatic and the absurd. The false-true of historical Richard becomes irrelevant. He is the classic anti-hero—one whom we both love and hate—and, love to hate, which wondrously lends itself to a heaping measure of introspection of the best theatrical kind.