Re-reading Shakespeare’s Richard III: Tragic Hero and Villain?

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Abstract

The discovery of the body of the historical Richard III under a Leicester car park in 2012 sparked fresh interest in one of England’s most controversial kings. Accused of murdering his nephews—the Princes in the Tower—Richard’s reign was cut short when he was defeated by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII), at the Battle of Bosworth (1485). Richard was subsequently demonised in Tudor historiography, perhaps most famously by Sir Thomas More in his “History of King Richard the thirde” (printed 1557). It is to More that we owe the popular image of Richard III as a “croke backed” and “malicious” villain (More 37), an image which Shakespeare has been accused of further codifying and popularising in his Richard III. Today, the historical Richard III’s defenders argue for the king’s good qualities and achievements and blame early writers such as More and Shakespeare for demonising Richard; but, in Shakespeare’s case at least, this essay argues that the possibility of a sympathetic—and even a heroic—reading of the king is built in to his characterisation of Richard III.

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