This excerpt is taken from the very first act of Shakespeare's play 'Richard III', and it exemplifies just how, throughout the play, Shakespeare portrays the king as a vile and despicable character.

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“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;

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to spy my shadow in the sun

And descant on mine own deformity:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determin’d to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

This excerpt is taken from the very first act of Shakespeare’s play ‘Richard III’, and it exemplifies just how, throughout the play, Shakespeare portrays the king as a vile and despicable character. This image of Richard has captured the imaginations of many and there is no doubt that he had been vilified and castigated across numerous generations: condemned as the evil villain who contrived to have his brother drowned in a butt of wine and his nephews smothered in the Tower of London.

However, is this impression of King Richard really valid? Can this picture, painted in words by a man who wrote them over one hundred years after Richard’s death, be the definitive account of the person and character of this frequently reviled king? To answer these questions one must look beyond Shakespeare’s brilliantly written prose and search for true examples of Richard’s personality.

 The Quest to ruin Richard’s Name        

Though Shakespeare created the most vibrant images in his telling of Richard’s life, his play can still only be viewed as fictional. It must also be taken into account that, though Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard, as one of the most brutal and malicious of English kings, endured well past his death, it is a fact that his work is merely a continuation of the propaganda begun by Henry Tudor and his most devoted supporters after their victory at the Battle of Bosworth.

Richard’s bad image began as the result of Henry VII’s desire to destroy Richard’s reputation once he was dead. He intended for Richard to sink into oblivion whilst he, Henry, would be remembered as the magnificent saviour who rescued England from Richard’s oppressive and tyrannical reign. By using the interest that many people had in historical events in the 15th and 16th century, Henry hoped to twist events to make Richard appear cruel and spiteful. However, Henry’s propaganda actually had the adverse effect of elevating Richard’s character to mythic proportions, so that it is often a source of debate, 5oo years after his demise, as to whether he was a paradigm of evil or a paragon of loyalty. Henry, meanwhile, is rarely spoken of, since the tale of a villain makes a much more compelling story than that of a peacemaker (Shakespeare also wrote a play about Henry and made the main theme his uniting of the Houses of York and Lancaster).

Shakespeare lived and worked under the tenure of Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor monarchs, thus he was predisposed to represent Richard as a wicked person or risk the wrath of his sovereign. He also researched his play using sources from the Tudor period; therefore he was biased against Richard, having read the works of others who had also been inclined to be hostile towards him. For example, Sir Thomas Moore, a respected lawyer and scholar, was one of the first Tudor propagandists. He was chancellor to Henry VIII and depicted Richard as a man who was “little of structure, ill featured of limbs, crook backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage…He was malicious, wrathful, envious and from before his birth ever froward.” Moore grew up in the home of Cardinal John Morton, who had been one of Henry VII’s councilors and thus was a sworn enemy to Richard III; hence Moore inherited a similar antipathy towards Richard. His account of Richard in his unfinished novel ‘History of Richard III’ is given credence because he was known to be an educated man and also because he was a martyr, being executed later in his life by Henry VIII. However, Moore was only seven upon the date of Richard’s death in 1485, and his profile of the ill-fated king is taken from the works of Richard’s other enemies. Moore also happened to be a valuable member of Henry VIII’s court at the time of his writing. It is clear that all these factors had a strong influence on Moore’s depiction of Richard. Hence, whether Richard really was an evil man or not, didn’t matter, he was destined to be illustrated as a malevolent character due to the beneficiaries of the current regime.

Moore was cut off in the middle of writing his history of Richard and thus he was unable to finish it, but there were plenty of other Tudor apologists who were willing to add to and expand on his opinions of Richard. Edward Hall produced a very similar narrative of Richard to the one Moore had written, describing him as “small and little of stature, so was he of body greatly deformed, the one shoulder higher than the other, his face small, but his countenance was cruel, and such that a man at the first aspect would judge it to savour the smell of malice, fraud and deceit…”

In reality Hall, Shakespeare and many others writing about Tudor history, were not just inclined to disparage Richard, they had a tendency to get their facts wrong as well or exaggerate them to an extreme. The reason they were believed was because their accounts were at least rooted partly in truth. For example, people knew that Richard had taken the crown from his nephew Edward V, and when Edward and his brother Richard disappeared from the Tower of London people were liable not only to believe that Richard had murdered the two boys, but that he had been murdering people  a long time before his brother Edward IV’s death. Writers were able to take advantage of this willingness to accept a certain story by embellishing the truth and making stories far more dramatic than they might really have been or by making people do fantastic things that they hadn’t done in reality. For example, Shakespeare wrote about Richard slaughtering men left and right at the Battle of St. Albans and people were willing to believe this, discrediting the fact that Richard had actually been only two years old at the time. The other reason that these historical writings were accepted was because there were no historical researchers to challenge the mistakes that were regularly made.

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As England entered the 16th century, people began to criticize the old style of chronicle writing and a new type of historian emerged, Polydore Vergil being the one who created the most impact as he tried to analyze the history he was writing rather than just describing it. Vergil also researched his history carefully instead of copying others, yet he still manage to describe Richard III as “little of stature, deformed of body, the one shoulder being higher than the other, a short and sour countenance, which seemed to savour mischief…” Hence this false image of Richard lived on, so that ...

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