Shakespeare's Richard III: Character Analysis

Instructor: James Fleming
The character of Richard III, in William Shakespeare's historical drama 'Richard III,' is one of Shakespeare's most important and original characters. 'Richard III' is considered by some critics to be a case study in how absolute power can corrupt absolutely, while other critics consider the play to be a portrait of absolute evil or psychopathy.

Richard III: The Story of Richard III

Richard III of England
Richard III of England

At the start of Shakespeare's historical drama Richard III, England is at peace following a long and bloody war between the royal families of York and Lancaster. King Edward IV has led the Yorks to victory over the Lancasters and is celebrated throughout England as a hero, which earns him the absolute scorn of his younger and physically deformed brother Richard III. Feeling powerless and envious of his older brother, Richard decides to overthrow his brother's leadership and become the leader of England.

Richard uses decidedly deceitful actions in order to become the leader of England. Richard manipulates Lady Ann, a woman of great nobility, into marrying him and then proceeds to execute her brother and place the guilt for such upon the sickly King Edward in order to quicken his death. Upon King Edward's demise, Richard is made lord protector of England, although not the king per se.

In order to secure the actual kingship of England, Richard embarks upon a campaign of terror and murder in order to secure the kingship. He murders the members of England's royal court who are loyal to King Edward's two young sons, who are next in line for the kingship upon reaching adulthood. With his opponents eliminated, Richard has the young princes imprisoned in the Tower of London and killed.

The Young Sons of Edward IV in a 19th Century Painting
The Princes in the Tower

The people of England soon come to fear and loathe Richard and his brutal style of leadership. Facing political and military challenges from forces gathered in France led by the Earl of Richmond, a leader whom Richard knows will be welcomed by the people of England, Richard tries to keep control of his kingdom by having his wife murdered and then attempting to marry the daughter of the deceased queen of England in order to finally secure the kingship.

Richmond soon invades England. On the night before the battle between Richard and Richmond, Richard has a dream of the ghosts of all the people he has murdered damning him and warning him that he will be murdered the following day. Richard is killed the next day in battle with Richmond and Richmond is crowned king of England, ushering in a new era of peace.

Richard as Anti-Hero and Protagonist

Richard is, certainly, the protagonist (i.e. the main character) of the play that bears his name. The story is told almost entirely from his perspective and he is the dominant figure throughout the play. It is possible to consider Richard to be a somewhat heroic figure in the play, or at least an anti-hero (i.e. a protagonist who possesses no obvious heroic qualities such as goodness and idealism, but who still shows bravery and the possibility of goodness). Richard is, at least at the beginning of the play, a character for whom readers can feel some sense of empathy. Richard uses his incredible rhetorical abilities to win the trust of not only many of the characters within the play, but also his audience.

From the beginning of the play, we come to feel that Richard has been mistreated due to his deformity and rather lowly position in the York family. We might even come to respect Richard for finally rising up against his seemingly tyrannical brother and the forces within England which have deprived him of political power and mistreated him for so long due to his physical deformity. We might begin to respect Richard for his powerful intellect and ability to manipulate and control those who seek to disempower him. William Shakespeare places us as readers and viewers in much the same position a number of other characters are in the first two acts of the play: we are overwhelmed and impressed by the sheer force of Richard's personality and intellect, so much so that we ignore or forgive the brutality of some of his early actions.

Richard as Villain and Antagonist

While Richard does possess some admirable characteristics, his actions throughout the play, especially during its second half, are undeniably evil. While he might possesses some of the characteristics of anti-hero, Richard certainly develops into a villain by the end of the play. He is, for all of his intellectual abilities, charm and psychological damage, a villainous character, perhaps the greatest and most powerful villain Shakespeare ever presented.

Richard can also be considered not just as the protagonist of the play but also as the antagonist (i.e. the character who opposes the intentions of the protagonist), because it is Richard himself who ultimately brings about his own downfall and ruin. Once Richard has command of England, his truly evil nature becomes readily apparent and he no longer even attempts to behave in a humane manner. He does not disguise his murderous intentions, nor does he attempt any longer to explain them or justify them to his audience. His truly evil intentions are made readily clear and everyone in the play - and in the audience - turns against him, which leads to his ultimate downfall and death.

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