The Enduring Appeal of Richard III
M.Litt. program at the University of Sydney, in the subject Medieval Crime Fiction
Richard III has been a presence in the popular imagination for centuries. There are, however, two radically different Richard IIIs appearing in the works of novelists, historians and playwrights/filmmakers. On the one hand, we have the traditional Evil Richard, who may have first appeared in writing in the histories of Polydore Vergil (1534) and Sir Thomas More (1543 and 1557), but who undoubtedly gained his ongoing fame – or infamy – as a result of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard III, and the earlier Henry VI plays. Opposing him is Defamed Richard, who first saw light of day in 1619 with Sir George Buck’s five-part The History of the Life and Reigne of Richard the Third, but whose main impact on the public consciousness came as recently as 1951 with the publication of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. Unlike virtually any other historical figure, Richard III manages to be both – an enduring symbol of evil and conversely a white knight whose honour has been besmirched by his enemies. Thus, his ongoing appeal arises from a number of very different sources.
When Shakespeare wrote his Richard III, England was still under the rule of the Tudors, and so it would hardly have been politic to present Richard in a sympathetic light. However, claims that Shakespeare’s play was Tudor propagandaî are probably unjust. Shakespeare was much more interested in drama than in historical fact or even propaganda. A balanced, objective portrait of Richard, showing his good and bad qualities, would have made a dull play indeed. The essence of Evil Richard was already present in Shakespeare’s sources – Vergil and More – and Shakespeare would have had no real reason to question this perspective.