Cultural depictions of Richard III of England
Richard III of England has been depicted in literature and popular culture many times. In the Tudor period he was invariably portrayed as a villain, most famously in Shakespeare's play Richard III, but also in other literature of the period. Richard's life was not much depicted again until the 20th century when the "Ricardian" movement sought to restore his reputation. Much of more recent creative literature has portrayed him in a positive light. However his reputation as a hunchbacked villain has remained a familiar historical cliché within popular culture.
The foremost work of literature featuring Richard III is William Shakespeare's Richard III, which is believed to have been written in 1591, a century after the King's death. It was the final part of a tetrology of plays about the Wars of the Roses. Richard also appears in the two plays preceding it, Henry VI, Part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3. Shakespeare depicts Richard as a deformed and malevolent individual who takes out his bitterness over his own twisted body on the world, serving only his own ambition. His self-serving amorality is the culmination of the social and moral chaos caused by power struggles between the great magnates of the era. In Henry VI part 3 (Act III, Scene 2, lines 1645–50) Richard describes himself as follows:
Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size.
Two other plays of the Elizabethan era predated Shakespeare's work. The Latin-language drama Richardus Tertius (1579) by Thomas Legge is believed to be the first history play written in England. The anonymous play The True Tragedy of Richard III (c.1590), performed in the same decade as Shakespeare's work, was probably an influence on Shakespeare. Neither of the two plays places any emphasis on Richard's physical appearance, though the True Tragedy briefly mentions that he is "A man ill shaped, crooked backed, lame armed" adding that he is "valiantly minded, but tyrannous in authority." Both portray him as a man motivated by personal ambition, who uses everyone around him to get his way.
In 1602, in the last days of Tudor England, Ben Jonson wrote a play about Richard entitled Richard Crookback. His portrayal of the king is unknown, as it was never published. However, it is unlikely to have departed from the negative portrayal of Richard, and probably followed the same pattern as Jonson's only other tragedies, written at the same period, Catiline His Conspiracy and Sejanus His Fall, both of which are about ruthless usurpers who finally receive just retribution.
Several ballads about the battle of Bosworth also survive from this period, some of which may date back to the immediate aftermath of the battle.
- Richard is one of the central characters in Nicholas Rowe's 1714 play The Tragedy of Jane Shore; he is portrayed as a tyrant, similar to Shakespeare's Richard.
- Richard Plantagenet a legendary tale, a poem by Thomas Hull was published in 1774. It is written in the first person, spoken by Richard Plantagenet, the king's illegitimate son. The boy grows up in ignorance of his parentage. He meets his father just before the Battle of Bosworth. His father proposes to acknowledge him and raise him to royalty after the battle, but he tells him to keep his parentage secret if the battle is lost. With the king's defeat, Richard spends the rest of his life as a lowly workman.
- In Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses the young Richard of Gloucester is a significant secondary character, as "Richard Crookback".
- In Mark Twain's A (Burlesque) Autobiography he writes: "I was born without teeth — and there Richard III had the advantage of me; but I was born without a humpback, likewise, and there I had the advantage of him."
- Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendor gives a comprehensive account of the Wars of the Roses. However, the author has made additions and minor adjustments to enrich the story.
- Anne Easter Smith's A Rose for the Crown is a romantic novel centred upon Katherine Haute, who has been suggested as the mother of at least one of Richard's illegitimate children.
- Rosemary Hawley Jarman's novel We Speak No Treason (1971) is another account from the Ricardian viewpoint, told through three courtiers.
- Reay Tannahill's The Seventh Son is a sympathetic but unromanticized treatment of Richard III.
- Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951) puts Clements Markham's theories regarding the Princes in the Tower, from his Richard III: his life and character (1906), into the form of a modern detective novel. While in hospital, an injured police detective devotes his spare time to an investigation of the murder of the Princes, supposedly committed or commissioned by Richard III. He concludes that Richard was innocent and that the most likely culprit was Henry VII. Writing as Gordon Daviot, she also wrote a play, Dickon (produced 1955), based more closely on the historical Richard, and again sympathetic in its treatment.
- In the Jonny Quest comic, #10, March 1987: "Winters of Discontent", Jonny and Hadji are accidentally sucked back in time and meet Richard III, only to find the princes are not locked in the tower (they adore their uncle), that Richard, not deformed, is loved by the people, and that there is a plot by Henry to usurp Richard and launch a smear campaign to legitimize his own claim to the throne. The theme is that history is written by the winners and that the truth will out.
- Dickon by Jack Pulman (1979) is a play premiered by the John Lewis Partnership Dramatic Society, directed by Michael Deacon, and starring Alan Patient as Richard III.
- Richard III features as a character in The Founding, Volume 1 of The Morland Dynasty, a series of historical novels by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. This volume is set against the background of the Wars of the Roses.
- Richard III and some of the events and personages associated with him, historically and in Shakespeare's play, feature in John M. Ford's fantasy/alternate history novel The Dragon Waiting.
- Rhoda Edwards wrote two historical novels examining Richard's youth up to his betrothal to Anne Neville, Fortune's Wheel, and his reign as king up to his death, Some Touch of Pity (published in the USA as The Broken Sword).
- Counterfactual treatments of what would have happened had Richard III won the Battle of Bosworth and killed Richmond instead are rare within the alternate history subgenre of science fiction. One rare exception is Andre Norton's The Crossroads of Time (1956/1962), in which Ferdinand and Isabella also fail to subdue Grenada. Thus, John Cabot discovers America (or Cabotland, as it is called here), amidst other historical alterations. While Richard III plays a minor role, Norton's sympathies seem Ricardian in this context.
- John M. Ford wrote a counterfactual fantasy treatment of Richard III's rise to power, The Dragon Waiting (1986), albeit one set in an alternate universe where Julian the Apostate reigned as Roman Emperor for longer than in our history and was successful in reinstating Roman polytheism as a consequence. Magic also works in this alternate universe. At its end, Richard III wins the Battle of Bosworth and kills Richmond.
- Guy M. Townsend's novel To Prove a Villain (1985) contains a blistering attack by the hero on Josephine Tey's defence of Richard in the context of a modern murder mystery.
- The character of Stannis Baratheon in the ongoing fantasy series of novels by George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire, appears to be loosely inspired by Richard III. In this version Richard/Stannis is indeed the legitimate heir to his dynastic claim (his nephews are illegitimate, and he is the second of three brothers rather than the third as with the historical Richard). This depiction mixes features suggesting both the heroic Richard of the Ricardians (Stannis is a brave and skilful military commander with a strong, albeit self-righteous sense of justice, honour and duty, and rallies support in the north by defending it from invasion) and the darker image of the Tudor portrait (Stannis kills his younger brother for putting himself forward as a rival pretender, is highly ambitious, and associates with Melisandre a sinister practitioner of fire and blood magic). Fans of the series continue to debate whether Stannis will ultimately succumb to his darker side or end as a predominantly heroic figure.
Two other characters in the trilogy are sometimes compared to Richard. Eddard Stark - an honest Northern nobleman who discovers the king's supposed children are illegitimate and winds up being executed for treason - is sometimes seen as a Ricardian version of what would have happened to Richard had he failed to depose his nephew. Tyrion Lannister an aristocratic dwarf made cynical by the belief that nobody will ever love him, and with a caustically witty tongue, who eventually kills his father and sees himself as cursed - owes something to Shakespeare's version of Richard III, though it is still unclear whether he will ultimately be seen as a malevolent character.
- In Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, the Shakespeare play is treated in the same way as The Rocky Horror Show, with regular audiences dressing up as characters from the play, stepping in to take part in it, and regular, evolutionary audience participation.
- Posie Graeme-Evans's trilogy about the later Plantagenet kings features a young Richard III.
- Philippa Gregory's novel The White Queen (2009) never fully acquits Richard of the young princes' murder/disappearance, but implies that Henry Tudor is involved, with the intention of incriminating Richard; however, Prince Richard is saved by being secretly sent abroad. Her novel about Elizabeth of York, The White Princess, confirms the suggestions made in the earlier book.
- Moonyeen Blakey's novel The Assassin's Wife implicates Richard in the murder of the princes.
- Richard is the villain of Kim Newman's novella Vampire Romance (part of his Anno Dracula series). He is portrayed as an elder vampire, having been turned at the conclusion of the Battle of Bosworth Field and subsequently going into hiding. This version of Richard speaks with a thick Yorkshire accent, brags of having personally murdered Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, and is extremely proud of being "the last English King of England," an office to which he plots to ascend once more.
Richard has been portrayed by the following actors on film, mostly in versions of the Shakespeare play:
- William V. Ranous in the silent short Richard III (1908), dramatising a part of Shakespeare's play
- Frank Benson in the silent short Richard III (1911), also dramatising a part of Shakespeare's play
- Frederick Warde in the silent Shakespeare adaptation Richard III (1912), one of the earliest American feature films
- Rolf Leslie in the silent film Jane Shore (1915), an adaptation of the play The Tragedy of Jane Shore by Nicholas Rowe
- Basil Rathbone in Tower of London (1939), a horror film loosely dramatising Richard's rise to power
- Lowell Gilmore in The Black Arrow (1948), a dramatisation of the novel The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Laurence Olivier in the Shakespeare adaptation Richard III (1955), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor and won the BAFTA Award for Best British Actor
- Vincent Price in the remake of Tower of London (1962); Price had played the Duke of Clarence in the original film
- Ramaz Chkhikvadze in a Russian version of the Shakespeare play, Richard III (1980)
- Ariel García Valdés in a French version of the Shakespeare play, Richard III (1986)
- Ian McKellen in Richard III (1995), set during an imaginary 20th Century, for which he was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
- Jamie Martin in Richard III (2005), a modernised version set on a Brighton housing estate
- Scott Anderson in Richard III (2008), a modern day version
- In a play within a play in Neil Simon's 1977 film The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss reluctantly portrays Richard as overtly homosexual at the insistence of an avant-garde director.
Richard has been portrayed on television by:
- William Windom in Shakespeare's Richard III (1950), an episode of the American series Masterpiece Playhouse
- Paul Daneman in the BBC series An Age of Kings (1960), which contained all the history plays from Richard II to Richard III, and in the drama Traitor's Gate (1962)
- Wolfgang Kieling in the West German TV version of Shakespeare's play König Richard III (1964)
- Ian Holm in War of the Roses (1965), which was a filmed version of the Royal Shakespeare Company performing all three parts of Henry VI and Richard III
- Adalberto Maria Merli in the Italian serial La Freccia nera (1968), an adaptation of The Black Arrow
- Péter Haumann in III. Richárd (1973), a Hungarian version of the Shakespeare play
- Colin Starkey in the "Who Killed the Princes in the Tower?" episode of the BBC drama documentary series Second Verdict (1976)
- Peter Cook in the first episode of the BBC comedy series The Black Adder, "The Foretelling" (1983)
- Ron Cook in the BBC Shakespeare versions of Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and The Tragedy of Richard the Third (1983)
- Andrew Jarvis in the BBC series The Wars of the Roses (1989), which included all of Shakespeare's history plays performed by the English Shakespeare Company
- Antony Sher (voice) in the BBC series Shakespeare: The Animated Tales (1994)
- Paul Mohan in an episode of the British educational TV series Historyonics entitled "Richard III" (2004)
- "The Trial of King Richard the Third" was a modern day simulated trial aired on the BBC on February 21, 1984; in which King Richard III is tried for the murder of King Edward V and Prince Richard of Shrewsbury. Richard is not depicted directly, but being "inescapably absent" is tried in absentia.
- A comic "secret history" of Richard III is presented in the British historical sitcom Blackadder. In the series' pilot episode, Richard III (played by Peter Cook), is a parody of Laurence Olivier's depiction, who is a kind monarch, defeats Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field, but is accidentally killed by bumbling noble Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), son of the adult Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York (Brian Blessed) when Edmund, not recognising him, thinks he is stealing his horse. The Duke ascends the throne and is crowned "King Richard IV", and Edmund, now prince, rechristens himself as the Black Adder. When the entire royal family dies in the series' final episode, Henry Tudor usurps the throne and rewrites history as it is known today.
- Richard III is referenced in series 2 of the BBC animated series Monkey Dust. A history documentary talks of fiscal reforms perpetrated by him whilst he was Duke of Gloucester and tells how this made England rich and Scotland poor, and then pans out to men in a pub in England football strips chanting, "there's only one Duke of Gloucester".
- In the CBBC children's television show Horrible Histories, Richard III (played by Jim Howick holding a bunch of white roses) sings a power ballad in which he attempts to restore his reputation: "... Never had a hump and my arm was alright, never took the crown with illegal power. Never killed my nephews, the princes in the tower ... time to tell the truth about King Richard the third".
- In The White Queen, the television dramatisation of Phillipa Gregory's Cousins' War novels, Richard is played by Aneurin Barnard. He is depicted as a loyal supporter of his brother, Edward IV and is given a more sympathetic depiction as having nothing to with the death of his nephews the Princes in the Tower but is still suspected as the culprit by the courtiers of his court.
- Richard III has the dubious distinction of being immortalised in Cockney rhyming slang, Richard the Third meaning turd. In the Thames Television series Minder, a different use of rhyming slang is made when Arthur describes a girlfriend of his minder Terry's as being a "comely Richard" (i.e. Richard the Third = bird, a British slang term for "girl"). The "bird" meaning was also used by Ronnie Barker in a comedy sketch in which he played a clergyman giving a sermon in rhyming slang. This seems more logical, given that in baby talk, a bird is commonly a "dicky-bird", and "Dick" is a common short form of Richard.
- Britpop band Supergrass have a song titled Richard III on their album In It for the Money.
- Richard Lawrence, who tried but failed to assassinate U.S. President Andrew Jackson in 1835, was under the delusion that he was actually King Richard III.
- Stephen Beckett plays Richard III in the Doctor Who audio drama The Kingmaker.
- Slysheen, a character from Yu-Gi-Oh! The Duelists of the Roses, is portrayed as Richard III.
- Peter Sellers slyly mocks both the Beatles and Laurence Olivier's portrayal of Richard III by reciting the lyrics to A Hard Day's Night in costume and delivery that parody Olivier in a recording that he reprised on a television show (available from YouTube).
- It has been posited that character of Humpty Dumpty was inspired by Richard III. This theory, advanced by Katherine Elwes Thomas in 1930 and adopted by Robert Ripley, posits that Humpty Dumpty is Richard III, depicted in Tudor histories, and particularly in Shakespeare's play, as humpbacked and who was defeated, despite his armies at Bosworth Field in 1485. However, the term "humpback" was not recorded until the eighteenth century, and no direct evidence linking the rhyme with the historical figure has been advanced.
- According to R. Gordon Kelly "Popular culture remains overwhelmingly pro-Ricardian". R. Gordon Kelly, "Josephine Tey and Others: The Case of Richard III", in Ray B. Browne, Lawrence A. Kreiser, Jr, et al (eds) The Detective As Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction, Volume 1, Popular Press, 2000, p.134.
- Churchill, George B., Richard the third up to Shakespeare, Alan Sutton, Rowman & Littlefield, 1976
- McEvoy, Sean, Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist, Edinburgh University Press, 2008, p.4.
- "CBBC". BBC. 1 January 1970. Retrieved 2012-08-20.
- E. Commins, Lessons from Mother Goose (Lack Worth, Fl: Humanics, 1988), ISBN 0-89334-110-X, p. 23.
- Opie & Opie (1997), pp. 213–5.
- J. T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (JHU Press, 2001), ISBN 0-8018-6784-3, p. 127.
Sue Parrill and William B. Robison, The Tudors on Film and Television (McFarland, 2013). ISBN 978-0786458912.