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.

Meanwhile, Richard’s ever more vicious actions prompt his victims and their kin to unleash a barrage of invective, curses and prophecies of divine vengeance. They denounce him as “fiend”, “devil”, “homicide”, “dissembler”, “hell-hound”, and, rather more creatively, as “bottled spider”, “lump of foul deformity”, “defused infection of a man”, “elvish marked abortive rooting hog” and “poisonous bunch-backed toad”.

Ostensibly impervious to abuse no less than to pricks of conscience, Richard begins to crumble the moment he gains the crown. Instead of the consummate Machiavellian, we see a fearful and increasingly desperate tyrant who will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power, be it murder of his nephews or poisoning of his wife. The ghostly visitation of those he has wronged graphically confirms Richard’s ignominious defeat at Bosworth as the work of Providence.

On the eve of battle, the ghosts appear to both Richard and Richmond, heaping opprobrium on the tyrant even as they predict the triumph of his “virtuous and holy” opponent. The play concludes with a rousing vision of peace and plenty under the descendants of the Lancastrian Richmond and Elizabeth of York whom the final lines hail as “the true succeeders of each royal house”.

Shakespeare’s Richard III was first performed around 1592/3, amid mounting religious tensions and widespread fears of civil war and foreign invasion fuelled by the unresolved succession to Queen Elizabeth I, then almost 60 years old, single, and childless. King James VI of Scotland followed her on the throne after Elizabeth died in 1603.

The story of a tyrannical usurper whose apparently providential fall puts paid to long and bloody civil wars would have held a complex resonance for the original audience. Just what the Elizabethans might have made of the play’s portrayal of Richard – and Richmond – will become clearer as we review competing versions and consider Shakespeare’s intriguing departures from his sources.

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Modern scholars such as Rosemary Horrox have challenged the unremittingly negative view of Richard III that was largely the product of early Tudor propaganda. While hardly a paragon, the historical Richard was probably neither as physically misshapen nor as premeditated in his bid for the throne as he was later made out to be. Had he won at Bosworth, the tenor of the ensuing reports would, of course, have been very different.

Still, Shakespeare’s anatomy of Richard’s tyranny was not his own invention. He drew extensively on the second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587), a monumental undertaking which was the first ever to provide a comprehensive coverage of the history and topography of the British Isles (see boxes on pages 29, 30 and 31).

Holinshed’s book gave rise to more plays than any other work, old or new, in the early modern period. Among them were not only numerous histories such as Henry V, Richard II and King John, and tragedies such as Lear and Macbeth, but also romantic tragicomedies such as Cymbeline, as well as domestic tragedies. Most of these mingled chronicle lore with material from ballads, narrative poems or romances. There were also adaptations of prior plays based on the Chronicles which imported extra details from this and other sources. Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of them.

The Chronicles collected and reproduced, virtually word for word, the accounts of Richard III by earlier writers, among them Sir Thomas More, Edward Hall and Richard Grafton, powerfully reinforcing their hostile tone by means of judgmental commentaries and marginal notes. But Shakespeare’s selection of material and his imaginative transformation of it made his portrait of the king even blacker than that found in prose historiography. For instance, unlike the chroniclers, who registered residual doubt about Richard’s guilt, Shakespeare shows him directly responsible for the killing of the princes in the Tower. And he emphasises the growing public discontent with Richard’s usurpation in a few exchanges involving commoners.

Aside from Holinshed, Shakespeare also drew on two earlier plays about Richard III. One was a three-part Latin academic drama, Richardus Tertius, performed in Cambridge in 1579 and thereafter circulated widely in manuscript copies; the other an anonymous piece, The True Tragedy of Richard III, first staged around 1590/91 by a major professional company and printed in 1594. Neither play makes Richard the towering presence he assumes in Shakespeare, although both hint at the contemporary relevance of the story in the context of the unresolved succession to Elizabeth.

Shakespeare’s Richard additionally advertises his affinity with the “formal Vice, Iniquity”, a character familiar from medieval morality drama and Tudor interludes. This device works to establish Richard’s rapport with the audience and highlights his self-consciousness as performer.

By far the most significant fictive component of Shakespeare’s play relates to the enhanced role of women, likely inspired by The True Tragedy’s sympathetic treatment of another of Richard’s targets, Jane Shore, the hapless mistress of King Edward IV and then of his chamberlain Hastings. In Richard III, Queen Elizabeth (wife of Edward IV), Queen Margaret (widow of Henry VI), Lady Anne (widow of Henry’s son, and now wife of Richard III) and the Duchess of York (Richard’s mother) take centre-stage in several unhistorical scenes that heighten the emotional intensity of the play and furnish a unique vantage point on the tyrant-in-the-making. Perhaps the most notorious and most memorable is Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne (wholly Shakespeare’s invention). Initially repulsed by his advances, Anne spits in disgust at the hideous killer of both her husband and father-in-law only to succumb to his sham professions of love and agree to marry the monster, who then gloatingly communicates his contempt for her to the audience. Here, again, we perceive a striking contrast between Shakespeare’s narrative and dramatic sources, none of which attributed to Richard either such depths of depravity or such virtuoso acting skills.

Politics and power

Richard III is magnificent theatre. It is also a searching study of the politics of power. In choosing to dramatise two contested royal transitions – from Edward IV to Richard III, and from Richard to Henry VII – Shakespeare engaged with one of the most controversial periods in the nation’s history, memories of which were still very much alive. And while few of his audience would have dreamt of standing up for Richard, they would have approached the story with radically different preconceptions about religion’s role, the proprieties of dynastic succession and the legitimacy of resistance.

Shakespeare was once assumed to have composed his two grand historical cycles – the first comprising 1–3 Henry VI and Richard III, and the second Richard II, 1–2 Henry IV and Henry V – in order to illustrate the providential unfolding of the nation’s history also implicit in chronicles such as Holinshed’s. On this reading, the Wars of the Roses emerge as divine punishment for the original sin of the deposition of Richard II by Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV), and order is only restored with Richmond’s defeat of Richard III at Bosworth and the arrival of the Tudors. We now know this was far from the case. Internally conflicted and multi-vocal, Holinshed’s Chronicles and other historical writings hardly promoted so uniform an interpretation of England’s past.

Moreover, in the wake of the Reformation and rapid changes of regime and religion from Henry VIII to Edward VI to Mary I to Elizabeth, the contest over the meaning and application of history became hotter than ever. Small wonder, then, that historical drama by Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights evoked a range of complex and ambivalent perspectives on kingship and power. The treatment of Richard III’s downfall and the subsequent union of Lancaster and York is a case in point.

At Elizabeth’s accession, the union, which took place once Henry VII had seized the crown from Richard III, furnished an auspicious precedent. The first pageant of her coronation progress through the City of London in January 1559 depicted the new queen in the company of two royal couples, her grandparents Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and her parents Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and surrounded by a mass of white and red roses. This display, and the verses which went with it, served to confirm Elizabeth’s right to the throne, reminded her of the responsibilities of kingship, and urged her to perpetuate the royal line.

In the early Elizabethan parliaments, exhortations for the queen to marry and name a successor routinely admonished her to ponder the misery into which England had been plunged by the protracted dynastic wars between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists. However, as the ageing queen stayed unmarried, it became plain that the Tudor line would die with her. This prompted fresh applications of late 15th‑century history, which was now summoned to express anxiety about the uncertain future. Even as it cited “the happy uniting of both houses, of whom the Queen’s majesty came, and is undoubted heir”, Richardus Tertius less than tactfully emphasised that the Virgin Queen on whom the security of the country rests is waxing old.

The epilogue to the anonymous The True Tragedy of Richard III likewise alluded to England’s precarious situation without a definite successor: “For if her Grace’s days be brought to end, / Your hope is gone, on whom did peace depend.” And how seriously are we to take the prediction enunciated towards the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III that Richmond will beget “a happy race of kings”? Certainly, according to contemporary Catholic polemicists, the Tudors had incurred divine punishment which is why the offspring of the chief culprit, Henry VIII, were dying childless one after another.

What to make of Richmond’s self-fashioning as the minister and scourge of God? Granted that Shakespeare’s blackening of Richard’s character lends credibility to those who rise against him, anyone familiar with Holinshed would have known that arguments in favour of resistance as divinely justified were often specious, self-serving, and made well after the fact.

Then again, the presentation of Richmond as the agent of Providence would have appealed to those hopeful of the accession of James VI of Scotland, his great-great-grandson. Already in the 1590s – while Elizabeth still reigned – we encounter burgeoning re-readings of the union of Lancaster and York as a foreshadowing of the union of crowns in the person of James Stewart, a latter-day Henry VII.

We shall never know for sure what its original audiences thought of Shakespeare’s play other than that they enjoyed it, and that it was widely quoted and parodied. In the 1590s, there were no newspapers or periodicals to carry reviews, and no one wrote down their impressions in a diary or a letter.

But it is clear that at least some people took exception to the relentlessly negative view of Richard embedded in Holinshed and Shakespeare. For instance, John Stow, one of the contributors to the second edition of the Chronicles, reportedly heard from “old and grave men who had often seen King Richard… that he was not deformed, but of person and bodily shape comely enough”, though Stow omitted to mention this titbit in his own historical writings.

By the second decade of the 17th century, Sir George Buck, a descendant of one of Richard’s allies executed on Henry VII’s orders after Bosworth, produced a lengthy and detailed defence of Richard. Published in a mangled form in the mid-17th century, Buck’s revisionist tract did little to counter the prevailing chorus of disapproval.

Modern productions of Richard III routinely court topicality, using costume, set, and special effects to underscore parallels with latter-day despots – Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, or the various Middle Eastern dictators. What makes the play especially congenial to such adaptations is Shakespeare’s acute preoccupation, which he shares with his chronicle sources, about strategies of manipulating and winning public opinion. With spin and propaganda at the very centre of political life, Richard’s campaign of misinformation – and indeed Richmond’s battlefield oration staking out the legitimacy of his actions – could not be more timely or relevant.

Shakespeare’s source: Holinshed’s 'Chronicles'

'The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland' (1577, 1587), published under the name of Raphael Holinshed, was the crowning achievement of Tudor historical writing. But these monumental tomes – the second edition numbered no fewer than 3.5m words – were a fraction of what they should have been.

And Holinshed was not their sole begetter. The original plan conceived in the late 1540s by Reginald Wolfe, a London-based bookseller of Dutch extraction, had been to provide a universal chronicle comprising descriptions and histories of every known nation.

Wolfe employed the then 20-something Holinshed to carry out this breathtakingly ambitious enterprise, but, following Wolfe’s death, the consortium of publishers who took over the project scaled it back to minimise costs. This is why the book printed in 1577 focused exclusively on the British Isles.

In preparing it, Holinshed, who compiled the histories of England, Scotland and in part Ireland, had two principal collaborators: William Harrison, a radical Protestant clergyman, who wrote a description of Britain; and Richard Stanihurst, a Dubliner and later convert to Catholicism, who supplied a description of Ireland and reworked a section of Irish history by his friend and future Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion.

These men relied extensively on the work of earlier chroniclers and antiquarians, from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gerard of Wales and Hector Boece to Edward Hall and John Leland.

At a time when there was no copyright as we know it, and when ideas of plagiarism were only just emerging, wholesale appropriation of earlier materials was common practice. But the contributors were learned men, and they typically acknowledged their sources.

The 1577 edition had numerous woodcut illustrations – one depicted Macbeth and Banquo’s encounter with the weird sisters.

The book must have been a commercial success, for within seven years the publishers commissioned a revised and expanded version. By now Holinshed was dead, and the task of co-ordinating the venture fell to Abraham Fleming, a Cambridge-educated Protestant. Fleming produced a continuation of the English chronicle, and supplied chapter headings and marginal notes which made the contents easier to cross-reference.

With the exception of Harrison, who revised and expanded his description of Britain, others were newcomers to the project. John Hooker, like Fleming a godly Protestant, reworked and continued the Irish chronicle, giving it a strongly anti-Catholic flavour. John Stow, London historian and collector of manuscripts, contributed to the chronicle of England. Finally, Francis Thynne expanded and updated that of Scotland. Published early in 1587, the massive new edition lacked woodcut illustrations but its typeface was greatly superior.

The Chronicles spoke with many voices: political, religious, national and social. Not only did the authors and revisers come from diverse backgrounds, but they also used a huge variety of conflicting sources.

In view of this diversity, it is surprising that the book attracted so little official disapproval. Indeed, the 1587 edition was chiefly censored by the regime not for being oppositional, but, rather, too gloating in its account of the executions of Catholics involved in the recent plot to topple Elizabeth in favour of Mary Stewart.

Richard III at his blackest

The portrait of Richard III in the second edition of Holinshed’s 'Chronicles' is blacker than in any previous account. For the book brings together the notoriously negative treatments by More, Hall, Grafton and Holinshed himself, and supplements them with the moralising comments by the new editor, Abraham Fleming.

Here is More’s biting depiction of Richard’s physical deformity and nasty character: he was “little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed… malicious, wrathful, envious”.

After the murder of the princes, the tyrant’s troubled conscience makes him anxious and fearful:

“His eyes whirled about… his hand ever upon his dagger, his countenance and manner like one always ready to strike again… so was his restless heart continually tossed and tumbled with the tedious impression and stormy remembrance of his abominable deed.”

Fleming hailed as providential Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, and, referring to his badge of the white boar, contemptuously compared the fallen tyrant to a horned beast: “As for king Richard, better had it been for him to have contented his heart with the protectorship, than to have cast up his snout, or lifted up his horns of ambition so high… as to hack and hew down by violent blows all likely impediments.”

It would be difficult to imagine a more damning verdict on Richard’s reign than Fleming’s: “Thus far Richard the usurper.”

National identities: the big debate in Shakespeare’s England

Medieval and earlier Tudor chronicles varied in scope and coverage. While some dealt exclusively with the story of England, others were more expansive and included the stories of other kingdoms and nations, notably Scotland and France.

There were also the so-called universal chronicles which told the history of the world from the Creation to the present day. Yet none of Raphael Holinshed’s predecessors had given the complete history and topography of England, Scotland and Ireland. In placing emphasis squarely on the British Isles, Holinshed’s 'Chronicles' did something entirely unprecedented.

The original title page touted the book as offering descriptions and chronicles in turn of England, Scotland and Ireland. Thus, in addition to telling the story of each country from its mythic origins roughly to the present, Holinshed provided detailed accounts of the topography, natural resources, government, religion, language, laws, coinage and even fauna across the three kingdoms as well as the national traits and customs of the various peoples inhabiting the Atlantic archipelago.

Just like the national histories they accompanied, however, these descriptions embodied fundamental tensions and contradictions that existed in Shakespeare’s time. On the one hand, they gave the impression that the English, Scots, Irish (and Welsh) shared a common British identity that set them apart from other nations. On the other, they drew a stark contrast between ‘us’ (the English) and ‘them’ (the treacherous Scots, the wild Irish) which was vividly underlined by the division of the book into three separate storylines.

Whichever perspective one adopted, England’s supremacy was a matter of course. Given the chroniclers’ repeated insistence on English superiority, it is no small irony that the union of crowns and creation of Great Britain would be realised in 1603 by the accession to the English throne of James VI of Scotland.


Paulina Kewes teaches English literature at Jesus College, Oxford. She is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Holinshed’s Chronicles