By William Shakespeare
What makes Richard III so compelling in the 21st
Century? It's still one of the most frequently produced Shakesperean
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.).
the Apollonian (intelligence, rationality,
psychological insight) serves
the Dionysian (instinct, irrationality,
loss of self in frenzy)
There are some special attributes of Richard III that distinguish
it for today.
Richard is popular with actors because he is an actor himself, always lying
to the people around him. They get to ham it up while he hams it
up. He is a performer, director, observer, and critic.
The 20th century was the century when the "demonic has siezed
the rational for its own monstrous forwarding" (Weiss 200), i.e., when
the Apollonian has served the Dionysian.
The Ian Mclellan movie makes Richard & his men like Hitler &
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
1483-1485 Richard III reigned as King
of England. He was the last medieval king.
1592-1593 Shakespeare composed Richard
III. He was writing about the civil war called the
War of the Roses, which ended with Richard's death.
Richard III was the fourth in a series of plays called Shakespeare's
Tetralogy. (A tetralogy is a series of four, just as a
trilogy is a series of three.).
The First Tetralogy
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.
King Henry VI, Part I
King Henry VI, Part II
King Henry VI, Part III
Sources Shakespeare used
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
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.
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.
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
They kill off the king to take the throne themselves.
They marry a woman from the other camp so they can solidify their claim
to the throne.
Richard was actually brave. He was the last king of England to die
in battle. Kings since then have led from behind.
Why then does Shakespeare make this a case of good versus evil?
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.
It's better drama that way.
It's the traditional way of portraying Richard III.
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 (http://www.richardiii.net/).
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,
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.