Richard III
By William Shakespeare

What makes Richard III so compelling in the 21st Century?  It's still one of the most frequently produced Shakesperean plays.

In this play,

According to Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, addressing the tension between the Apollonian and the Dionysian is the typical function of tragedy in the classical era (By classical, I mean ancient Athens of the 5th Cen B.C.).

There are some special attributes of Richard III that distinguish it for today.

Important dates the remember

Shakespeare wrote numerous plays about the War of the Roses.  It was a civil war that affected Shakespeare's England the way the American Civil War has affected us.  His characters in these plays often needed little introduction--like Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, they were already familiar to his audience and only needed to be trotted out to play their expected roles

Richard III was the fourth in a series of plays called Shakespeare's First Tetralogy.  (A tetralogy is a series of four, just as a trilogy is a series of three.).

The First Tetralogy

  1. King Henry VI, Part I
  2. King Henry VI, Part II
  3. King Henry VI, Part III
  4. Richard III
Weiss compares these four to the classic tradition of presenting three tragedies, followed by a satyr-play (Weiss 200).  A satyr play was a burlesque, funny play to conclude the more serious tragedies.

Sources Shakespeare used

  1. Historical sources: The War of the Roses.  Why was it called that?  The warring houses were each represented by roses.

    The House of Lancaster the Red Rose
    The House of York the White Rose
  3. Political Philosophy

  4. Machiavelli had written the infamous book on politics, The Prince.  It described the amoral political behavior of Italian Renaissance rulers.  Shakespeare makes his Richard an example of  the Machiavellian prince even though he lived before Machiavelli.  This is an anachronism, where something takes place before it really could.  The movie we'll watch is full of anachronisms, which are intentional.
  5. Medieval Drama.  The Morality stories portrayed various allegorical characters.  Richard at one point plays the Vice, a character noted by cheerful evil.  Shakespeare is influenced by these old dramas.
  6. Classical Drama.  Shakespeare is especially influenced by Seneca, a Roman poet / philosopher / statesman.  Seneca wrote 10 dramas based on earlier Greek works.  In Seneca's Atreus, Furies pursue the house of  Tantalus.  Atreus is a king who pretends to make up with his brother Thyestes to exact revenge.  He kills his nephews, cooks them, and feeds them to his unsuspecting brother.  Like Richard, he revels in his evil.  The Furies in Richard III are the women who follow him around cursing him.

Objectively, Richard and Richmond (who became Henry VII) behave in similar ways.

Why then does Shakespeare make this a case of good versus evil?

  1. It's better drama that way.
  2. It's the traditional way of portraying Richard III.
  3. The Tudor Myth.  Henry VII (Richmond) founded the Tudor Dynasty after killing off Richard III.  To strengthen his claim on the throne, which he won from the crowned king in a rebellion, he had to make Richard look as bad as possible.  Henry VII's granddaughter, Elizabeth, was Shakespeare's queen.  For him to undermine her legitimacy by questioning her rebel grandfather's right to rule would be politically incorrect in an era when being politically incorrect could mean that you lose your head.  Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate by the Catholic church because she was Protestant.  Shakespeare makes Henry VII / Richmond look good to make Elizabeth look good.  Therefore, Richard III must look bad.  For a more balanced evaluation of Richard, try the Richard III Society (
Richard III works on both the natural level and supernatural / mythic levels.  These are 2 levels of causation, supernatural and natural.  These correspond to allegory versus realism, the two major representational techniques in the 1590s.
Mythic / Allegorical
Natural / Realistic
  • He is evil incarnate, the Vice of medieval plays.
    • The Vice uses asides, 
    • tells the audience his plans, 
    • boasts about his own power and depravity,
    • attacks others, 
    • pretends to be a victim himself.
  • He is evil because his mom doesn't love him.
  • People look down at him because of his birth defect.  Like us, they tend to judge a book by its cover.  His external defect in the theory of the time reflected internal evil
  • He feels inferior and despises himself.
  • The Furies (cursing women) pursue him. 
  • Richmond defeats him.  A bland cipher of a character.  Richard is much more appealing.
  • His dreams are supernatural omens.
  • His dreams are the product of a bad conscience & self-loathing.

Richard draws us into his evil & makes us participate in it.