Why did Shakespeare revile Richard III?

Paulina Kewes considers the sources that William Shakespeare used in his construction of the character of his arch-villain King Richard III

Laurence Olivier plays Richard III in the 1955 film adaptation of Shakespeare's play. In it, the controversial monarch is damned as everything from a "bottled spider" and "lump of foul deformity" to a "poisonous bunch-backed toad". (Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Physically deformed and, by his own word, “subtle, false and treacherous”, Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. In the course of the play that bears his name, Richard plots and murders his way to the throne only to lose it to Richmond – the future King Henry VII. But, unlike some of Shakespeare’s other dark characters (Jago, for instance, whose motives we never fully fathom or Macbeth whose tortured descent into evil lends affective force to his tragedy), Richard gleefully exults in his capacity for dissimulation. He shares his wicked machinations with the audience in a series of spirited monologues and asides: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends, stol’n forth of Holy Writ / And seem a saint when most I play the devil.” The upshot is we cannot help but applaud his verbal dexterity, thespian flair and boundless energy, and become effectively complicit in his success.

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