Contrasting Shakespeare’s Richard with the Historical Figure

Many historians, on the other hand, have a different view of the man. For instance, in the 1956 biography Richard the Third, Paul Murray Kendall describes Richard based on contemporary writings and two well-known portraits of the King. Most contemporary descriptions bear out the evidence of these portraits that Richard had no noticeable bodily deformity, and establish him as a thin, frail man of a little less than normal height. (537)

The most heinous crime that the Tudors (the kings who succeeded Richard to the throne) accused Richard of committing was the murder of his nephews-Edward V and Richard, Duke of York-the sons of his brother, the former king, Edward IV. How seriously should we take this accusation? What evidence supports it? Kendall writes, “If we take ‘evidence’ to mean testimony that would secure a verdict in a court of law, there is no evidence that he [Richard] murdered the princes” (465). Shakespeare is certain that Richard was a malicious archfiend. Kendall and others have serious doubts.

What really happened to the Princes in the Tower, the young boys who were next in line to the throne when Edward IV died, is the biggest mystery in English history. Shakespeare says that Richard had them killed. Should we take the Bard’s word for it? I encourage my students to read Josephine Tey’s mystery novel The Daughter of Time which introduces the other side of the story: Maybe Richard didn’t kill the princes; maybe somebody else did, or maybe they weren’t murdered at all. On top of that, maybe Richard was actually a good king, even a reformer.

Let’s look at all the available evidence before coming to a conclusion. Two other books I recommend that give conflicting viewpoints on this controversial subject are The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir and Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes by Bertram Fields. Weir is a respected historian who argues Richard’s guilt, and Fields is a high-profile attorney who claims that there is nowhere near enough evidence to convict the King. Both books are fun to read, and students have responded favorably to them.

In fact, after I had introduced this topic in class, a few of my students said to me that they were absolutely determined to prove Richard’s innocence. They went out and read all three of the aforementioned books, and although they fell short of a definitive solution to the mystery, they learned a lot about critical thinking and the writing process. As I suggested above, one of the many logical fallacies that impair critical thinking is the appeal to authority. To support an argument, an author will often find an “important person” who agrees with his or her view and will present that person’s unsubstantiated opinion as evidence.

After all, it is tempting to believe something without question when it comes from an authority figure. However, this could lead to dangerous ground because the important person could be dead wrong. Such an important person is Sir Thomas More, who wrote the first condemnatory biography of Richard III. In The History of King Richard III, More painted Richard as a monster: Richard, the third son … was … ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favoured of visage…. He was malicious, wrathful, envious, and, from before his birth, ever froward.

It is for truth reported that the Duchess his mother had so much ado in her travail that she could not be delivered of him uncut, and that he came into the world with the feet forward…. He was close and secret, a deep dissembler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart, … not hesitating to kiss whom he thought to kill…. Where his advantage grew, he spared no man’s death whose life withstood his purpose. (qtd. in Kendall, Richard III: The Great Debate 35) More was a much respected lawyer and scholar who was eventually canonized by the Catholic Church.

However, he was but a child during Richard’s reign and was brought up under the tutelage of John Morton, Bishop of Ely, a known enemy of Richard and the holder of high position in the Tudor government. Was More being objective in his writing, or was he merely following the party line? More’s biography of Richard remained unfinished and unpublished at his death. Because of this, some contend that More never intended to publish it, that it was perhaps written as a parody or an ironic statement about the historical “spin doctoring” having been done by Henry VII and Henry VIII.

It was in the interests of these Tudor kings to smear Richard because making Richard look bad bolstered their relatively weak claims to the throne. When writing their books, Tudor historians Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed got much of their information from More. In turn, Shakespeare, who is considered by many to be the greatest writer in the English language, based his famous play on Hall and Holinshed. Should we believe More and Shakespeare-the saint and the genius-solely because of who they were? Or should we treat them as fallible human beings capable of error and confusion?

It is questions like these that I want my students to ask. I use two films in my classes as additional instructional tools. The first is Looking for Richard, a documentary on Shakespeare’s play directed by Al Pacino. He and his colleagues (among them Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Winona Ryder) analyze the plot, try to figure out the relationships of the characters to one another, and discuss the personalities of the key figures. They also perform many scenes from the play itself. One of the highlights is Al Pacino (as Richard) trapping Winona Ryder (as Lady Anne) in the famous seduction scene in Act One.

Students find this movie a very helpful, indeed vital, introduction to the text. I suggest that they do not start reading the play until after viewing the film. That way, when they put their eyes to “Now is the winter of our discontent” (Shakespeare 1. 1. 1), it will mean something to them. (A nice companion to Pacino’s film can be found on the Richard III Society’s website at www. r3. org/pacino/index. html. Here you’ll find a “Viewer’s Guide and Lesson Plan” that will save any teacher a lot of work and provide the students with an interesting project.

The other film I use is a History Channel production called The Missing Princes of England, a documentary about the historical Richard III and the mystery surrounding the Princes in the Tower. This film provides a well-balanced view of the controversy; historians share their conflicting views in a well-illustrated presentation. The film also serves as a very good brief biography of Richard, so it is well worth viewing. I can’t think of a better introduction to the historical side of things.

So, was a good king’s reputation destroyed by the Tudors who succeeded him on the throne? Did William Shakespeare simply go along for the ride? To this day, these questions continue to fascinate historians and English teachers. Books and articles are written on the subject every year. There is even a Richard III Society dedicated to clearing the name of the last Plantagenet king. In conclusion, Richard III is an excellent subject to use when helping community college students develop the necessary critical thinking skills that will lead to success both in school and in life.