The villainous anti-hero of Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of theatre’s greatest characters. And for centuries, Shakespeare was accepted as history, in a way he could never have imagined his fictional play would be. It’s like watching Downton Abbey and thinking you have the real history of the 1920s sorted. So, if Shakespeare wasn’t concerned with historical accuracy, what was he getting at with this play?
The play is a complex presentation of psychology and evil, but it is also a play that forces the audience to ask questions of themselves. We are encouraged to like Richard III, to laugh at his jokes and to be on his side, even as he tells us the wicked plots he is putting into action. Where is the line at which we, the audience, stop hoping he succeeds? What does it mean that we watch all of this and make no effort to stop it? Shakespeare ingeniously presses us to demand answers to these questions.
A succession crisis
This central magic trick in Richard III, the sleight of hand of making us like a villain so that we fail to stop him, just might provide the explanation for Shakespeare’s play. The play was written somewhere around 1592-1594. Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne for about 35 years and was around 60 years old. One thing was clear: the Queen would not be having any children, and the image she crafted as timeless Gloriana could not hide that fact.
A succession crisis was brewing, and those moments were always dangerous. If Shakespeare wanted to tackle this contemporary issue, he would need a safe facade from behind which he could do it. Openly questioning the succession would mean discussing the queen’s death, which strayed into treason.
There had been recent succession problems in the Tudor dynasty, but discussing the queen’s siblings would be indelicate too. However, there was a succession crisis, or series of crises, the Tudor dynasty had positioned itself as having solved: the Wars of the Roses. That might do nicely.
Missing the point
Viewing Shakespeare’s Richard III and his other histories as, well, history is to miss the point of them entirely. They speak to something timeless in human nature, and they often say more about Shakespeare’s own day as much as the time they were set in. It is possible that we can see the Bard’s message far more clearly in Richard III than elsewhere. This theory relies on accepting that Shakespeare was a recalcitrant Catholic, preferring the old faith to the new.
During the 1590s, work was underway to deal with the looming succession crisis, even if it could not be discussed openly. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s closest advisor throughout her reign, was in his 70s, but still active. He was supported by his son, the man he was planning to take his place eventually. Robert Cecil was 30 in 1593. He was central to the plan to make James VI of Scotland the next monarch after Elizabeth’s death. James, like the Cecil family, was a Protestant. If Shakespeare’s sympathies were Catholic, then this would not have been an outcome he would have hoped to see.
Shakespeare’s real villain?
In this context, Robert Cecil is an interesting man. He would serve James VI when he also became James I of England, becoming Earl of Salisbury too. He was at the centre of uncovering the Gunpowder Plot. Motley’s History of the Netherlands contains a description of Robert Cecil dating from 1588. He is described, in language we would not use today, as “a slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature”.
Robert Cecil is known to have had kyphosis, the forward curvature of the spine depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III, which differs from the scoliosis the historical Richard’s skeleton revealed. The same source goes on to describe the “massive dissimulation [that was], in aftertimes, to constitute a portion of his own character”.
So, if Robert Cecil was a lying schemer who also had kyphosis, what would a late 16th-century audience have made of Shakespeare’s iconic villain as he shuffled onto the stage? It is easy to imagine an audience nudging each other and exchanging knowing glances, understanding immediately that they were looking at a representation of Robert Cecil. As this monstrous character breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience all that he plans to do, and as Shakespeare forces the audience to confront their own complicity through silence, Shakespeare is really asking a different question.
How can the people of England sleepwalk into Robert Cecil’s scheme? If the nation can see what he is doing, what he is planning, then allowing him to get away with it is allowing him to get away with murder. It will be the death of the Old Faith in England. The innocent Princes in the Tower would represent the Catholic religion, abandoned to be put to death silently, off stage, by a monster the audience laughs along with.
Reclaiming Shakespeare as fiction
For centuries, Shakespeare’s Richard III has been viewed as a history textbook. Indeed, after Shakespeare’s time, subsequent generations erroneously put Shakespeare’s masterpiece to a purpose it was never meant to serve, proclaiming a false history. But increasingly, we are beginning to accept that it was never meant to be that.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has been championing this shift in perspective. Their 2022 production of Richard III approached the play as a work of fiction rather than a piece of history, and it cast Arthur Hughes, who has radial dysplasia, as the first disabled actor to take the title role.
“Shakespeare knows that laughter is assent,” said Greg Doran, director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2022 production of Richard III. “I think he’s not interested in historical accuracy,” Greg continues, “but he is interested in pulling in an audience and keeping their attention.”