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William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Richard the Third is a masterpiece in the depiction of evil and the study of the psychology of the anti-hero, the villain we love to hate to the point that we almost hope they succeed. Yet we may have been deceived by Shakespeare’s play because he may not have meant us to see King Richard III in it.

Shakespeare Richard III First Folio

It is beyond doubt that Richard III is replete with errors of all kinds; factual, chronological and even geographical in its efforts to damn King Richard to its audience; and it succeeds. This is the image of King Richard that has imprinted itself onto our collective consciousness; the scheming, evil murderer, worst of all, murderer of children. Yet Shakespeare’s genius in passing fiction into historical fact may have been an accident, or at least an unintended by-product or convenient cover for what he was really asking his audience, and his Queen, to think about.

The play was written in the early 1590’s, probably around 1593 and it is important to consider the context in which Shakespeare was writing. The concerns of his contemporaries were great and growing. There was still religious upheaval, with no settlement reached in the country during the sixty years since Henry VIII’s Reformation. Queen Elizabeth I was aging and clearly not going to produce an heir. The question of the succession was growing like a weed, out of control, and no one was tending to it openly, including the Queen. Elizabeth ardently refused to address the issue but it was the proverbial elephant in the kingdom. The religion of the next monarch was a vital matter to the people of England. Transitions from Edward VI to Mary, Protestant to Catholic, and back again to Elizabeth’s Protestantism had been violent cataclysms tearing at the seams of Tudor England and another point of uncertainty was approaching.

Shakespeare is widely believed to have been a devout Catholic to the end of his life, forced to hide his faith but doubtless keen to see a Catholic monarch upon the throne after Elizabeth. He was close to his sponsors the Earls of Essex and Southampton who were known Catholics. If we can view Hamlet as a call to arms for English Catholics then Richard III contains similar thinly veiled undercurrents. William Shakespeare appears to have been happy to promote the Earls’ Catholic cause in his writing and skilled at hiding it. So who was Shakespeare aiming his quill at? I believe his audience were meant to see, and at the time would have clearly understood that they were meant to see, Robert Cecil.

Robert Cecil was a hunchback. In 1588 Motley’s History of the Netherlands described Cecil as: ‘A slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature’ and later spoke of the ‘massive dissimulation (that) … was, in aftertimes, to constitute a portion of his own character’. Motley could almost have been describing Shakespeare’s King Richard III. Robert was the son of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s lifelong advisor and Lord Privy Seal. In 1590 Robert became Secretary of State and was being groomed by his father to succeed him as the closest advisor to the monarch. After William Cecil died in 1598, Robert succeeded him as Lord Privy Seal but as early as the beginning of that decade, when Shakespeare was writing, the Cecils were operating a covert campaign to see James Stuart, King James VI of Scotland, a Protestant, succeed Elizabeth. Read in this context, the themes and dark threats of Richard III take on a new meaning.

King Richard III was perhaps an obvious candidate for the representation of evil. He had lost his life and his throne at the Battle of Bosworth to Elizabeth’s grandfather, King Henry VII. On 22nd August 1485 the monumental Plantagenet dynasty had crumbled and the Tudor rose had flourished in the remains. Henry VII had married Richard III’s niece, Elizabeth of York. As a daughter of King Edward IV, slandering this portion of the Yorkist Plantagenet family was thoroughly out of bounds – Elizabeth of York was Elizabeth I’s grandmother. Richard III sat alone between Edward IV and Henry VII with none to defend him. Henry had made great play of rescuing the country from Richard so he was an obvious villain for a Tudor writer.

The first thing to consider is the physical representation of King Richard. Shakespeare shows us a hunchback with a withered arm. Whilst stories of King Richard having uneven shoulders existed and Sir Thomas More had used the word ‘crookback’ in his Historie of King Richard III, Shakespeare may have exaggerated these into the limping hunchback of his play, but Robert Cecil was, in fact, a hunchback. The withered arm seems to be a fabrication, perhaps a hint that it was not really Richard. I imagine the gasps when he walked out on stage for the first time and people nudged each other with knowing looks, whispering “It’s Robert Cecil!” furtively, the knowledge spreading like fire through the crowd.

Shakespeare Richard III

The warnings of Richard III were plain to see. Richard had upturned the natural order, murdering his brother amongst others until he stole the Crown from his nephew, slaughtering the two young Princes in the Tower and poisoning his own wife. This upsetting of the correct way of the world had seen Richard king for a while but had ended in disaster, with him betrayed and killed at Bosworth and his dynasty blown to the wind. Ultimately, Richard was the architect of his own demise and I believe that Shakespeare was offering a warning that Robert Cecil was to become the architect of the downfall of the Tudors.

Richard is an appealing villain – he is funny and clever. We are forced to examine our attitude to the blatant evil played out before us. We almost like him, and we are supposed to. Elizabeth I liked Robert Cecil, a man she called her ‘little imp’ and Shakespeare was warning that this veil of amiability hid dark schemes that would doom the Crown. Namely, Cecil’s plot to see the Scottish Protestant James Stuart as King of England. Richard is the archetypal anti-hero. In his opening soliloquy he tells us all what he is planning to do, that he is ‘determined to prove a villain’, drawing us in so that we feel like we are his co-conspirators, accessories to what follows since none of us leap up to stop him. Complacency in the face of such deeds will bring ill upon the kingdom, as will allowing Cecil the room to plot a Stuart succession.

Another key theme of the play is the balance of free will against fatalism. Richard appears to be the master of his own destiny, to be driving events, giving us a Machiavellian lesson in power politics. To balance this, Richard also appears to act as though God intends the outcomes of his actions, to try and use religion to circumvent the unpleasant nature of his actions. His professed free will is an illusion. So religion becomes a central theme, man’s desire for free will against God’s plan. Cecil’s desire for a Protestant succession versus a return to the ‘correct’ religion, Catholicism. Robert Cecil is acting contrary to God’s will to try and get what he wants.

As Elizabeth I grew older and had no heir, the issue of the succession was a rising concern to the whole country. The last time that there had been a serious issue with the succession was following the death of Elizabeth’s brother Edward VI, but this was possibly a little too close for comfort. Before that, the seizure of the throne by Richard III from his nephew Edward V had thrown the country into political convulsions. Edward IV had died leaving his twelve year old son in the care of his uncle Richard. On the basis of illegitimacy, Richard had taken the throne from his nephew. This had led to civil war and, in Tudor mythology, to the need for a saviour to right the wrongs. Shakespeare was warning Elizabeth that she risked plunging the country into darkness that would lead to a violent restitution. Her duty was to ensure a smooth transition. She was failing to do this and it was the country that would pay.

Read in this context, the context in which Shakespeare’s audience would have watched it, the play becomes a moral warning to Queen Elizabeth about the effects of the uncertain succession and of allowing Robert Cecil to follow his own course. Shakespeare and his Catholic sponsors were keen to see a Catholic monarch return England to the true religion. They certainly did not want Cecil, to whom the Earl of Essex was openly opposed at court, orchestrating the Protestant succession of a Scottish monarch. The Earls of Essex and Southampton later rebelled, trying to capture the Queen in order to force their demands upon her. Essex was executed after their failure. Southampton was condemned to death but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Elizabeth never named an heir. Cecil got his Stuart succession and served James I, being elevated as Earl of Salisbury. Shakespeare became a legend. Richard III became a villain. Perhaps by accident.

Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt’s has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.

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