Have we completely misinterpreted Shakespeare’s Richard III?

Many of Shakespeare’s plays have been taken as works of historical fact, but we may have been deceived for the past 400 years – particularly in the case of Richard III. Shakespeare’s original audience, argues Matthew Lewis, would have recognised the leading character as representing a more contemporary figure…

Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
King Richard speaks to James Tyrrell (portrayed by Shakespeare as the man who organises the murder of the princes in the Tower) in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. From ‘The Illustrated Library Shakespeare’, published in London in 1890. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Third is a masterpiece: the depiction of evil that dares us to like the villain and question, as we laugh along with his jokes, why we find such a man attractive.

The play is believed to have been written in around 1593 and its political context gives it a wider meaning. Queen Elizabeth I was ageing and obviously not going to produce an heir. The question of the succession grew like a weed, untended by all (at least in public), yet the identity of the next monarch was of huge importance to the entire country. Religious tensions ran high and the swings between the Protestant Edward VI, the Catholic Mary I and the Protestant Elizabeth I were still causing turmoil 60 years after Henry VIII’s reformation.


Portrait of Elizabeth I of England c1593. Found in the collection of Elizabethan Gardens, Manteo. Artist anonymous. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Shakespeare is believed by some to have been a devout Catholic all of his life, hiding his faith and working for sponsors such as the earls of Essex and Southampton, whose sympathies were also with the old faith. Opposed to those keen for a return to Catholicism was the powerful Cecil family. William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, had been Elizabeth’s constant supporter and advisor throughout her reign and was, by the early 1590s, as old age crept up on him, paving the way for his son to take on the same role. The Cecils favoured a Protestant succession by James VI of Scotland. It is against this backdrop that Shakespeare wrote his play and his real villain may have been a very contemporary player.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Third is replete with demonstrable errors of fact, chronology and geography. The first edition reversed the locations of Northampton and Stony Stratford to allow Richard to ambush the party of Edward V (one of the princes in the Tower) party rather than have them travel beyond the meeting place. Early in the play Richard tells his audience “I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter./ What, though I kill’d her husband and her father?’” Accounts of both the battles of Barnet (April 1471) and Tewkesbury (May 1471) make it almost certain neither Warwick nor Edward of Westminster was killed by Richard.

The ending of the play is also misinterpreted. The infamous “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” is often mistaken for a cowardly plea to flee the field. Read in context, it is in fact Richard demanding a fresh horse to re-enter the fray and seek out Richmond (Henry Tudor). Even Shakespeare did not deny Richard his valiant end.


Illumination of the 1471 battle of Tewkesbury, dated 15th century. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Shakespeare’s Richard delights in arranging the murder of his brother Clarence by their other brother Edward IV through trickery when in fact Edward’s execution of Clarence was believed by contemporaries to have driven a wedge between them that kept Richard away from Edward’s court. The seed of this misdirection is sown much earlier in the cycle of history plays too. In Henry VI, Part II Richard kills the Duke of Somerset at the battle of St Albans in 1455, when in fact he was just two-and-a-half years old.

The revelation at the beginning of the play that King Edward fears a prophesy that ‘G’ will disinherit his sons is perhaps another signpost to misdirection. Edward and Richard’s brother George, Duke of Clarence tells Richard “He hearkens after prophecies and dreams./ And from the cross-row plucks the letter G./ And says a wizard told him that by G/ His issue disinherited should be./ And, for my name of George begins with G./ It follows in his thought that I am he.”

George is therefore assumed to be the threat, ignoring the fact the Richard’s title, Duke of Gloucester, also marks him as a ‘G’. Before Clarence arrives, Richard appears to know of the prophesy and that George will be the target of Edward’s fear, suggesting that he had a hand in the trick and that a thin veil is being drawn over the obvious within the play. The true villain is slipping past unseen as signs are misread or ignored.

The language of the play’s famous opening soliloquy is interesting in the context of when it was written. In autumn 1592, Thomas Nashe’s play Summer’s Last Will and Testament was first performed in Croydon. Narrated by the ghost of Will Summer, Henry VIII’s famous court jester, it tells the story of the seasons and their adherents. Summer is king but lacks an heir, lamenting “Had I some issue to sit on my throne,/ My grief would die, death should not hear me grone”. Summer adopts Autumn as his heir but Winter will then follow – and his rule is not to be looked forward to. When Richard tells us “Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York” it is perhaps not, at least not only, a clever reference to Edward IV’s badge of the sunne in splendour.

Elizabeth I, great-granddaughter of Edward IV, could be the “sun of York”, and this might explain the use of “sun” rather than “son”. Using Nashe’s allegory, Elizabeth is made summer by her lack of an heir that allows winter, his real villain, in during the autumn of her reign. The very first word of the play might be a hint that Shakespeare expected his audience to understand that the relevance of the play is very much “Now”.

Richard was able to perform this role for Shakespeare because of his unique position as a figure who could be abused but who also provided the moral tale and political parallels the playwright needed. The Yorkist family of Edward IV were direct ancestors of Elizabeth I and attacking them would have been a very bad move. Richard stood outside this protection. By imbuing Richard with the deeds of his father at St Albans, there is a link between the actions and sins of father and son, the son eventually causing the catastrophic downfall of his house. Here, Shakespeare returns to the father and son team now leading England toward a disaster – the Cecils.

I suspect that Shakespeare meant his audience to recognise, in the play’s Richard III character, Robert Cecil, William’s son – and that in the 1590s they would very clearly have done so. Motley’s History of the Netherlands (published in 1888) described Robert’s appearance in 1588 as “A slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature” and later remarked on the “massive dissimulation” that would “constitute a portion of his own character”. Robert Cecil had kyphosis – in Shakespeare’s crude parlance, a hunchback – and a reputation for dissimulation. I imagine Shakespeare’s first audience nudging each other as Richard hobbled onto the stage and whispering that it was plainly Robert Cecil.


Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563–1612). (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

The warnings of the play are clear: Richard upturns the natural order, supplanting a rightful heir for his own gain, and Shakespeare’s Catholic sponsors may well have viewed Cecil in the same light as he planned a Protestant succession. We almost like Richard, and we are supposed to. Elizabeth called Robert Cecil her “little imp” and showed him great favour. Richard tells us that he is “determined to prove a villain” and Shakespeare was warning his audience that Robert Cecil similarly used a veil of amiability to hide his dangerous intentions.

Robert Cecil got his Protestant succession. William Shakespeare became a legend. Richard III entered the collective consciousness as a villain. Perhaps it was by accident and the time has come to look more closely at the man rather than the myth.

Matthew Lewis is the author of Richard, Duke of York: King by Right (Amberley Publishing, 2016). You can read his blog here.

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