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Essay: How Shakespeare dramatises the historic figure of King Richard III

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  • Published: 20 July 2022*
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  • Tags: Shakespeare essays

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All composers are shaped by the social, cultural, and political context of the era. Textual forms shape an individual’s perception of a text and its ability to enter conversations with links to others. William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Richard III, constructed surrounding the Tudor monarchy of 1593, dramatizes the historical figure, Richard III, through the ideas of power, authority, and the performance. Shaped by its era, Shakespeare’s King Richard III, focused the textual conversation through the characters dysmorphia, political agenda, and his authority. The protagonist, Richard III, explored the Machiavellian desire of power, a depiction of the catalyst for his downfall and chaos. Through the religious society, the politics/patriarchal system, and the cultural views regarding physical appearance, Shakespeare utilises textual conversations to dramatise the protagonist into existence.

The religious tensions between the notions of providentialism within the society of the Tudor monarchy is evident within the narrative King Richard III. The determination of Richard III, as both a villain and ruler, is both contradictory and paradoxical. Richard’s paradox, “but I am not shaped for sportive tricks, and I am so determined to prove a villain,” is shaped through the providential history. Set on the ideology of religious defiance, Richard is destined to prove a villain by choice, however, is created by Shakespeare to fit the role of the predetermined villain he has set for himself, out of personal interest and greed. Shakespeare constructs Richard to utilise religious imagery to form his deception of a righteous individual towards the common population. The use of the biblical pun and allusion, “but I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who prosecute you,” is strategically utilised to enforce the idea of Richard III’s deceptive nature. Regardless of the evil committed by Richard, the idea of religion is continuously referenced throughout the play, displaying the social context of the Elizabethan era, seen to be shaped by the religious text. Shakespeare utilises the religious society to construct the deceptive protagonist, desperate for power.

The providentialist connotations of Shakespeare’s King Richard III frames the plot of the narrative through Richard’s deception for the purpose of gaining access to England’s throne. The placement of the allusion, “would he not stumble? Would he not fall down, since pride must have, and break the neck of that proud man that did usurp his back?” makes the reference to the biblical verse, “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit of a fall”. A character desperate and delusional for power, Richard fails to see his oncoming downfall. The strategic use of the biblical verse epitomises the power of Protestantism through the Tudor monarchy, therefore, holding direct influence over the works of William Shakespeare.

Dramatised as the grotesque adversary throughout the play, Richard III captivated an audience through the textual forms and conversations, majorly fabricated by William Shakespeare follow the War of Roses. Holding his deformity accountable, Shakespeare progresses the narrative, developing the protagonist, Richard III, through the utilisation of conversation and dialogue, for further dehumanisation. The introductory motif and monologue of Richard III, “Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up, and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark as I halt by them,” exploits the idea of insecurity to further his agenda to decimate any possible competitors. The foreshadow of the situation, established through Shakespeare’s use of the soliloquy, frames Richard III’s manipulation. The cultural concept of disability/deformity is seen by various scholars as a representative of evil, moulding a trope. Richard is shaped to hold a deep self-loathing for his physical appearance, whilst also utilising it as a fashionable concept, allow it to contribute to his personality wholeheartedly. The character’s deformity contributes to the textual forms and conversations which shaped and controlled his actions and views.

Using his appearance to further his agenda for power and authority, Richard III constantly echoes his desires for the position of king, relying on manipulation for the end goal. As the play reaches its final acts, Richard ends his monologue with the truncated sentences, “o no, alas, I rather hat myself. For hateful deeds committed by myself. I am a villain.” Shakespeare’s interjection of Richard’s thoughts through the soliloquy and tricolon displays the growing self-loathing. However, his use of manipulation for power through his deformity, rather than his lack of authority, is the reason for the increase in self-hatred. The comparison of Richard III’s opening to the final monologues exhibits the impacts of his physical deformity, due to Shakespeare’s narrative and dramatise cultural era of the Tudor monarchy. Shakespeare shapes Richard to be completely overtaken by the impacts of his evil, becoming a form of self-destruction for the protagonist.

William Shakespeare’s literary manipulation of Richard III reconstructs the classic ideas of human nature, presenting a society in which humanity is defined and shaped by deception. Richard’s Machiavellian assertions of himself once acknowledged by Anne, “and will she yet abase her eyes on me, that cropped the golden prime of this sweet prince,” highlight the recognition of his loss of the traditional moral and ethical human qualities. Often referred to as the handbook for ruthless politicians, Niccoló Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, embraces a number of qualities held by Richard. King Richard III, written a few years following The Prince, holds the similarities in the ideas of determinism, a political philosophy of reserving or preserving one’s authority. Richard’s reiterated motif of self-loathing and the desire for power contribute to the manipulative nature of Richard.

Exhibited throughout the narrative, Richard utilises his social power and hierarchy to further his political agenda, through the manipulation of individuals, often women. Acknowledging the deceptiveness of Richard, Shakespeare’s Kairos “why, this it is when men are rul’d by women: ’tis not the king that sends you to the Tower; My Lady Gray his wife, Clarence, ’tis she that tempers him to this extremity,” supports the patriarchal views and values of the Elizabethan era. Richard III suggests women hold excessive amounts of influence and over, which he holds a desire for, regardless of the fact that women held little to no power. During the Elizabethan period women belonged to fathers, or husbands if married, and held no rights to land ownership, unless they were widows. Shakespeare’s political context is mirrored throughout the play through Richard’s ability to manipulate and control women to gain authority through the blasphemous power.

The social, cultural, and political context of an era undoubtedly shapes and influences the textual conversation of the works created within it. William Shakespeare’s King Richard III displays strong links and relations to the Elizabethan era through the protagonist’s views regarding women, religion, and his physical appearance. Through the play King Richard III, it is notable that Shakespeare dramatised the historical figure, Richard III, through his informed interpretation of the textual conversations.


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