A Villain and a Monster – The Literary Portrait of Richard III by Thomas More and William Shakespeare
By Maria de Jesus Crespo Candeias Velez Relvas
Revista Anglo Saxonica, Series 3 Number 5 (2013)
Abstract: The process of vilification of Richard III started at the end of the fifteenth century, when a well-planned policy of Tudor propaganda was set in motion by Henry VII himself, who commissioned a series of historiographical writings, mainly aiming at the solidification of the newly founded dynasty. One of the strategies, probably the major one, consisted in the definitive annihilation of the last Plantagenet king of England, whose defeat and death on the battlefield should not by any means transform him into the York victimised hero of the Wars of the Roses. Thus, various historiographers delineated Richard of Gloucester as a vile, wicked, monstrous creature. But the hyperbolic process of vilification undoubtedly reached its highest climax with two major early modern authors. The Life written by Thomas More – The History of King Richard the Third (ca. 1514) – and the play written by William Shakespeare – King Richard III (ca. 1591) – may be considered the epitomes of the tradition that has forever shaped the king as a monster.
In this text, I focus on the way More and Shakespeare exploit and amplify the vituperative historiographical tradition, though mostly based on rumour, uncertainties and legendary elements. Within this widely accepted tradition, both authors manage to shape a solid portrait of Richard III, an exemplum not to be imitated or followed, but whose performance, built through a set of powerful rhetorical devices, is masterful, both in the Life and in the play.
Introduction: Richard III from the House of York has become the embodiment of distortion, wickedness and tyranny throughout the centuries, by means of an immensity of works that forms the largest bibliography ever written on an English monarch. When approaching medieval and early modern times, one must naturally bear in mind the concept of history, the nature of historiography and the specificities of biographical writings, then called Lives because the word ‘biography’ had not yet been coined. However, the way the figure of Richard III has been depicted both in historiography and in literature is so extraordinary that one wonders where factuality ends and fiction begins.
The process of vilification started at the end of the 15th century and grew steadily until the 20th century, when new, more objective approaches were finally set in motion, in an effort to expose incongruities, exaggerations and implausible elements, mostly based on rumour, especially because, among several factors, hardly any official records of Richard III’s reign have survived. Legend, myth and speculation could thus easily bloom, while fact and fiction became inextricably intertwined. But, as Francis Bacon put it in one of his essays, “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer”.