A Misunderstood Play: Shakespeare’s ‘The tragedy of Richard III ‘, by Eva Burian

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A Misunderstood Play: Shakespeare’s ‘The tragedy of Richard III ‘

 Eva Burian


Video Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company
Actor: Jonjo O’Neill as King Richard III

Shakespeare’s plays with the names of English kings in the titles are considered ‘historic’. Though this fact is generally not noticed, according to their inner dramaturgical features,these plays were never meant to be the realistic representations of historical events.

The tragedy of Richard III is the most miscomprehended. Now,that the real Richard is permanently in the news, it must be pointed out that it is not only unjust to identify him with the grotesque character of the same name, but this identification also seems to be contrary to Shakespeare’s intentions.

Far from being a realistic play, portraying the real persons of the names of the characters, it has all the features of a modern twentieth century grotesque drama. Its central figure, the disgusting villain of monstrous physical appearance, is an absurd parody of the Tudor calumnies against Richard.

Studying grotesque drama and its Eastern European representatives during the era of communist dictatorship, I noticed that Shakespeare’s Richard III was the earliest perfect example of the genre. There are similar characteristics in the second and third parts of Henry VI too, but these two plays are not as perfect examples of the genre as Richard III.

Even the political circumstances of the Elizabethan age had similarities to those of the time of ‘soft dictatorship’ in Eastern Europe: no freedom of speech, but a good effervescent cultural life with possibilities of sending veiled messages hidden in literary and theatre works. The similarities of the circumstances helped me to recognise how Shakespeare ‘invented’ grotesque drama, the most adequate genre for these hidden messages.

This play is a grotesque drama. If it is approached without any prejudice, and not taking into consideration any historical sources, only analysing the play itself, it leads to the following interpretation.

The protagonist of the play is a monster with a physical appearance that symbolises his psychological deformities . Yet, strangely, throughout the play, he casts a spell on a long series of victims. Such a thing would have been totally impossible in an age in which extremely visible deformities were considered signs of a deformed soul.

Well portrayed characters in a realistic play would be cautious seeing his appearance, and when his already committed crimes are mentioned again and again throughout the play, nobody would trust him. But his victims – like the characters of grotesque plays often do – represent human stupidity in a symbolic way.

The protagonist with his opening monologue (Act I ,Scene I) positions himself right away among the figures of grotesque literature. When he declares that he is ‘determined to be a villain’, he contradicts human nature: real wrongdoers blame their circumstances and other people, even their victims, for their crimes, but they do not admit even to themselves that they are villains.

This character, however, goes even further at the very beginning of the play as far as absurdities are concerned. After informing his audience that he is a villain because he ‘cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair-spoken days’ (Act I,Scene I) , immediately in the following scene (Act I,Scene II), he conquers his future wife against all odds. Suddenly he can ‘prove a lover’ too well.

These two first scenes would be enough to make the play a bad one, if it was meant to be realistic. But this is not a bad realistic play; this is a very good grotesque one, written nearly four centuries before the golden age of the genre, which was the middle of the twentieth century.

That was the time when Arthur Clayborough published his book ‘The Grotesque in English Literature’.(1) Clayborough, referring to Bagehot, observes that aesthetically grotesque always has an alliance with the ugly,monstrous(2),as in its everyday meaning ,but it is more complex. It refers to contradictions, distortions of truths. It also has to do with a mocking,defiant humour, as Symonds observed according to Clayborough (3).

This kind of mocking, defiant humour is characteristic of most of the scenes of the play Richard III. There is no life-like scene in it. The characters betray no finer shades of emotions. They curse, spit – at a royal court – and even say absurd things like the one said by Margaret: ‘Let me make the period of my curse’. (Act I,Scene III )

They are not similar to real people in real life at all.

The protagonist is as irrational as all the other characters when – without any reasonable motive – he liquidates the allies he would need to stay in power. His behaviour is that of a caricature of the accusations against the real Richard — which suggests that Shakespeare and those viewers who understood the hidden second meaning of the play, considered these accusations absurd calumnies.

In reality mothers are the last persons to believe that their children are criminals. In this play the mother is the one who knows that his son is a villain even when other people still trust him. This mother is one of the characters that clearly indicate that the play is not a historic one. The real Richard’s real mother had a good relationship with her son. Richard actually became king of England after a reunion in his mother’s palace. So the remarkable mother of the play is just another unreal, grotesque character without any relationship with the historic person of the same name.

The final scenes make it clear that the play can be interpreted as psychological grotesque.
Act V, Scene III is surrealistic, and not only because there are some ghosts in it. The ghosts express the understandable hatred which their murderer’s ruthless behaviour seen in previous scenes caused, but they also express a much less understandable adulation for Richmond, not backed by anything seen in previous scenes.

The victims of a villain might look up to the villain’s rival with high hopes, but in a realistic drama some facts should explain why he is called , for instance, ‘virtuous and holy’ (the ghost of Henry VI says it in Act V,Scene III) .

In this surrealistic psychological grotesque there can be a much more interesting explanation for these exaggerations.

In this scene, and the next, the final one of the play (Act V,Scene IV), it becomes clear that the way King Richard is depicted in it is the way the finally victorious Richmond wants people to see his rival, and the way he is depicted, is the way he wants people to see him. It all happens in Richmond’s mind.

There could be a performance in which the same actor could play both roles to stress this psychological double-meaning. Technically it could be easily done, because the two characters never exchange a word. They are not together on the stage – except for the last few seconds of the battle, fighting in armour, so here an extra could play the figure named King Richard.

The double-meaning points to an opinion about the characters – and naturally about the real persons behind the names of the characters – which is the opposite of the superficial, simplistic interpretation of the story.

The above described interpretation is suggested by the dramaturgical characteristics of the play. Far more alien to Shakespeare’s original intentions were those interpretations and theatre performances that tried to present this play as a ‘historical’,  realistic one,not noticing that in this case it would be not only untrue,but also dramaturgically bad with psychologically impossible characters.

Having reached this conclusion, the play must be put into a wider context. How could a grotesque drama have ever been taken for a realistic one?

It has several reasons. Tt has not happened only because the Tudor chronicles that had been Shakespeare’s main sources were accepted as ‘official history’. This has been the main reason, but from this starting-point several other aspects were overlooked.

Now I try to mention some of these aspects. For instance, it is a fact that only a few of Shakespeare’s plays were realistic, so some of his plays could be easily misinterpreted in the centuries of realistic theatre. But for Shakespeare’s audience of the Elizabethan age, just like for the audiences of twentieth century theatre, other, not realistic genres could be also understandable.

Hamlet, in connection with the mouse-trap scene,calls our attention to the fact that the theatre can express hidden messages.(Hamlet,Act III/Scene I/Scene II) Medieval morality plays were highly symbolic, not representing any real individuals, like Everyman, the most important example of this genre in English literature.

The character under Richard’s name even stresses his similarity to a character of a morality play.
…like the formal vice Iniquity I moralise two meanings in one word…’ (ActIII/ SceneI)
So for the theatre-goers of Shakespeare’s age, it could be easy to understand that the characters under the names of real, historical persons, which were strikingly different from them, did not represent their personalities and the historical truth about them.

Shakespeare’s contemporaries could easily notice the differences on the visible, external level. They were the generation of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of of Richard’s generation. So they could hear from their parents and grandparents that Richard III had not looked like the character, and he had died younger than the age of the character. The character makes this difference clear at the very beginning of the play. In Act I, Scene I he says that he could be his future wife’s father, while talking about battles in which he fought at a time when Richard was a small child.

On the more important essential level, they could also detect the differences between the scenes of the play and what they had heard at home about the actual historical truth. They probably knew how far Richmond (Henry Tudor) was from being ‘virtuous and holy’. Even those who believed some of the Tudor accusations against Richard could not think that Henry VII, the man who killed so many people and who had a reputation of avarice in the best of times, was really ‘virtuous and holy’.

So many viewers in Shakespeare’s time could interpret the sour, satire kind of message of the play this way: ‘Is this how Tudor propaganda wants us to imagine these people and these events?’

The problem of the title of the play is also interesting. Among the plays classified as ‘histories’ in the First Folio (5), this is the only one the title of which is ‘The tragedy of Richard III’. In the ‘catalogue’ it is mentioned similarly to the other ‘histories’ as ‘The Life and Death of King Richard III’, but above the play itself the title is that of a ‘tragedy’.

Most of the plays classified as ‘tragedies’ were never considered representations of actual, historical facts. This is why the double title of a play that hides a double meaning may be significant too.
However, Shakespeare’s other so-called ‘histories’ were not meant to be simple realistic representations of historical events either –as I mentioned above the also grotesque features of Henry VI.

In all the ‘histories’,even the most realistic ones, like the two parts of Henry IV, there might be hidden hints that Shakespeare’s contemporaries could have understood,and that could be rediscovered now.

The most important thing should be not to insult the real Richard III’s memory any more identifying him with a character which was rather meant to be a parody of the absurd calumnies thrown on him.


1 Arthur Clayborough: The Grotesque in English Literature
Clarendon Press,Oxford 1965

2 Clayborough

3 Clayborough

4 Everyman (Everyman’s Library 1948)

5 First Folio 1623



Eva Burian  was born in Budapest, Hungary. Eva holds the equivalent of a Ph.D from the University of Budapest with a major in grotesque drama (1983). Two years after graduation, Eva married a Spaniard. In 1988, she became a citizen of Spain. Eva was a correspondent of Radio Free Europe and wrote articles for Hungarian newspapers. She currently works as a teacher of languages. Trilingual, Eva write books Hungarian, English and Spanish.


Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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