Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shakespeare's Richard III: History, Acting, and Popular Perception - King Richard Week 2011

It is believed that Shakespeare wrote Richard III between 1592-1594.  It was first printed as a quarto   in 1597.  It is believed that Shakespeare based the character of his Richard III on Sir Thomas More’s  historical work  about Richard III’s reign..  More was a small child during the Richard’s reign.  His negative view of Richard III’s  is believed to have been influenced  by Cardinal Morton, in whose household he lived. 

There’s quite a long and involved story of Morton’s roe in the War of the Roses.  In very brief summary, he was a supporter of the Lancastrian faction during the war, but eventually after the final Lancastrian defeat, made his peace with Edward IV.  When Edward died and his younger brother, Richard III, took the throne, he had Morton arrested and placed in the Tower of London.   Morton later escaped and eventually joined the court of Henry Tudor  (Henry VII) in Flanders, assisting the Tudors in their plan to usurp the throne from Richard. Henry VII (Tudor) just happened to be Elizabeth I’s (the monarch during Shakespeare’s life) grandfather.  The rest , as they say, is history.

Morton (Bishop of Ely)  appears in Shakespeare’s Richard III ( Duke of Gloucester) in a scene that is taken from Sir Thomas More’s biography.   Here’s  the  brief scene as it appears in the play:

Duke of Gloucester. My lord of Ely!
John Morton. My lord
Duke of Gloucester. When I was last in Holborn,
I saw good strawberries in your garden there
I do beseech you send for some of them.
John Morton. Marry, and will, my lord, with all my heart.
(stage directions). [Re-enter BISHOP OF ELY]
John Morton. Where is my lord protector? I have sent for these

Shakespeare of course was not writing history but a play.  He needed to create a character that would grab an audience. What better way to reel them in than to create an ultimate villain, a man who oozed evil from every pore and every soliloquy:

“In Richard III, Shakespeare invites us on a moral holiday. The early part of the play draws its readers to identify with Richard and thereby to participate in a fantasy of total control of self and domination of others. We begin to be pulled into the fantasy in the play's opening speech, where Richard presents himself as an enterprising, self-made villain and offers an elaborate justification for this self-renovation.”  (Folger Shakespeare Library Website)

 The Early Players – Actors and Richard III

Richard Burbage (1568-1619) was the first actor to play Richard III in Shakespeare’s play . By the age of 20 he was already considered one of the greatest actors of his generation.  A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he was the mega star of the Elizabethan era.  He was known for totally transforming himself into the roles he played on stage (reminds me of another Richard).  Burbage played the lead role in the first performance of many of Shakespeare’s plays.  He continued acting until his death in 1619.

David Garrick as Richard III

David Garrick  (1716-1779) was an actor, playwright, and theatrical manager.  He wrote his first play in 1740 and made his acting debut as Richard III in Shakespeare’s play.  It was his portrayal of Richard III that made him a star.  Contemporary anecdotes about Garrick mention his mobility and his ability to transform himself at will.  But his most irresistible feature were his piercing eyes.  (Piercing eyes, wonder what other actor fits that description?).

Edmund Kean as Richard III

Edmund Kean (1789-1833) was considered the most electrifying actor on the English stage.  He was also known for his personal eccentricities, including having a tame lion he often played with in his living room.  In 1820 Kean appeared in New York for the first time as Richard III to great success.   Below is a video of Ben Kingsley in a one man play  based on Kean’s life and career:

Shakespeare’s Richard III goes from Drama to Reality:

The image of Richard III from Shakespeare’s play, the “deformed” and evil monarch, became the public image of this man.  There is no historical proof that Richard was a hunchback or had any physical impairment, yet that image from the stage survives today.   Several references date this universal public perception of Richard as a tyrant from the 16th century on. 

Below are two videos that I think illustrate how the theatrical King Richard has become the popular image.

In  1996 Al Pacino made a very interesting and fun documentary, “Looking for Richard”, about his preparation for playing Richard III on stage.  He interviews several generation of actors that have played the part on stage, but he also goes out into the streets and talks to New Yorkers about the king.   At one point in this clip he asks people on the street what they know about Richard III, and all answer they don’t know who he is (this is the US of course), until he uses a famous quote from the play, and of course, that they know! 

For anyone born after 1955 the image of Richard III is the image of Laurence Olivier.  Even for those that have never seen Olivier’s film of the play have seen a photo or a film clip sometime, somewhere.  Here’s an example of how that image has been used for comic effect.  In this video clip Peter Sellers performs a well known text as Olivier’s Richard III (and you might recognize a couple of other guys in the clip.)

William Shakespeare’s  Histories, the ten plays he wrote dealing with English history, have gone from dramatic fiction to historical truth in the public mind.  Shakespeare’s Richard III  has provided actors for centuries with  an opportunity to outshine each other in making the man more  and more physically impaired and spiritually malevolent, but now, in our time,  it is time to bring the real story and history of Richard to the screen.

Richard Armitage is turning 40!
What to get the man who insists he already has everything?

More work for our favorite workaholic.
Since watching his acting gives us so much delicious fantasy fulfillment, we thought we’d turn the tables with a fantasy present: the job that he’s most repeatedly expressed interest in doing — a retelling of the Richard III story.
We’re not agents or producers, and we can’t finance this project or cast him in it or write the scripts, so we’re doing the next best thing: a week of background, context, musings, and jokes about why we’re dying to see “our” Richard play “that” Richard.
Want to share the fantasy more actively? Sign the manifesto:
We hope you enjoy the week!


  1. What a brilliant overview of how the bad image of King Richard III was 'created'! I loved to read all the rich information, about Shakespeare, about the actors who played Richard III and watched all your videos. Impressive declaration that now it is time to revise the bad image and tell the 'truth'!
    Thank you!

  2. Wonderful research, illustrative photos, and YT videos—I'm learning so much. Terrific post!

  3. Excellent post.
    Poor Richard. Shakespeare, of course, had to script a play fashioned to please, not offend his Tudor Queen. A shame that Richard III is so reviled in English history, except in the North.

    The wily Morton, of Morton's fork...

    As well as reading Mr. Armitage's loved novel, The Sunne in Splendour, Josephine Tey's 1950's mystery novel, The Daughter of Time, is well worth the read.


  4. @CDoart Hope it gets more people interested in telling the true story of Richard III!

    @darlingdarling Thank you! It was fun to do the research :)

    @fitzg OK - Morton's fork?? Inquiring minds want to know! I have The Sunne in Splendour on my must read list- I'll get there soon and thanks for the mystery novel info.

  5. Oh dear! I didn't read your post before I did mine or I might not have used that Peter Sellers video. We have certainly covered the same theme! I hadn't heard of Edmund Kean though. Ben Kingsley was certainly much younger when he played that part!
    Great post!

  6. @PoliCBA Thank you so much!

    @phylly3 I guess we had our own mini-tribute to Peter Sellers :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...