“Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature, Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up And that so lamely and unfashionable That dogs bark at me as I halt by them; Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, Have no delight to pass away the time, Unless to spy my shadow in the sun And descant on mine own deformity: And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determin’d to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
” This excerpt is taken from the very first act of Shakespeare’s play ‘Richard III’, and it exemplifies just how, throughout the play, Shakespeare portrays the king as a vile and despicable character. This image of Richard has captured the imaginations of many and there is no doubt that he had been vilified and castigated across numerous generations: condemned as the evil villain who contrived to have his brother drowned in a butt of wine and his nephews smothered in the Tower of London.
However, is this impression of King Richard really valid? Can this picture, painted in words by a man who wrote them over one hundred years after Richard’s death, be the definitive account of the person and character of this frequently reviled king? To answer these questions one must look beyond Shakespeare’s brilliantly written prose and search for true examples of Richard’s personality. The Quest to ruin Richard’s Name
Though Shakespeare created the most vibrant images in his telling of Richard’s life, his play can still only be viewed as fictional. It must also be taken into account that, though Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard, as one of the most brutal and malicious of English kings, endured well past his death, it is a fact that his work is merely a continuation of the propaganda begun by Henry Tudor and his most devoted supporters after their victory at the Battle of Bosworth.
Richard’s bad image began as the result of Henry VII’s desire to destroy Richard’s reputation once he was dead. He intended for Richard to sink into oblivion whilst he, Henry, would be remembered as the magnificent saviour who rescued England from Richard’s oppressive and tyrannical reign. By using the interest that many people had in historical events in the 15th and 16th century, Henry hoped to twist events to make Richard appear cruel and spiteful.
However, Henry’s propaganda actually had the adverse effect of elevating Richard’s character to mythic proportions, so that it is often a source of debate, 5oo years after his demise, as to whether he was a paradigm of evil or a paragon of loyalty. Henry, meanwhile, is rarely spoken of, since the tale of a villain makes a much more compelling story than that of a peacemaker (Shakespeare also wrote a play about Henry and made the main theme his uniting of the Houses of York and Lancaster).