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.
The most famous crime of the historical Richard III, and the deed for which he was most demonized in the century following his death, is his murder of the two young princes in the Tower of London. For centuries after the death of Edward IV, the fate of the princes was a mystery—all that was known was that they had disappeared. It was speculated that Richard had them killed, it was speculated that they had spent their entire lives as prisoners in the tower, and it was speculated that they had escaped and lived abroad. The English author Sir Thomas More wrote that they were killed and buried at the foot of a staircase in the White Tower. Many years later, in 1674, workers in the Tower of London discovered two tiny skeletons hidden in a chest buried beneath a staircase of the tower. The skeletons date from approximately the late fifteenth century, and serve as the best evidence that the young sons of Edward IV were in fact murdered in the tower. There is still no conclusive proof that it was Richard who had them murdered—some scholars even think it could have been Richmond. Still, thanks to popular legend, Shakespeare’s play, and the biography of Richard that More wrote a few years before the play, Richard has gone down in history as the most likely culprit.
Because the story of the princes in the tower was so well known, it was crucial to Richard III that Shakespeare make the princes memorable and engaging figures despite their youth and their relatively small roles in the story. As a result, Shakespeare creates princes who are highly intelligent—they are among the only characters in the play to see through Richard’s scheme entirely. They are courageous, standing up fearlessly to the powerful Richard. They are charismatic, outdoing Richard in games of wordplay. However, they are utterly, pitifully helpless because they are so young. Though Elizabeth remarks that her younger son is a “parlous boy,” meaning sharp or mischievous, the princes are never a threat to Richard, and they are unable to defend themselves against him (II.iv.35). Yet Shakespeare creates the sense that, had the princes lived, they would have grown up to become more than a match for their wicked uncle.
Though she plays a very minor role in the play’s plot, mostly prowling around the castle cursing to herself, Margaret is nevertheless one of the most important and memorable characters in Richard III. The impotent, overpowering rage that she directs at Richard and his family stands for the helpless, righteous anger of all Richard’s victims. The curses she levels at the royals in Act I, which are among the most startling and memorable in all of Shakespeare, foreshadow and essentially determine future events of the play. Her lesson to Elizabeth and the duchess about how to curse paints a striking picture of the psychology of victimization and the use of language as a means of alleviating anguish.
As the wife of the dead and vanquished King Henry VI, Margaret also represents the plight of women under the patriarchal power structure of Renaissance England. Without a husband to grant her status and security, she is reduced to depending on the charity of her family’s murderers to survive—a dire situation that she later wishes on Elizabeth. Margaret is a one-dimensional character, representing rage and pain, but she is vital to the play for the sheer focus of torment she brings to the world surrounding Richard’s irresistible evil.
Richard III is a fun read because the king is so evil. I'm reading all of Shakespeare by his 450th birthday, and this play gave me a great gift idea. See my blog about Richard III and a present for the Bard: