Cultural depictions of Richard III of England

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Late 16C portrait of Richard III (National Portrait Gallery, London), copied from an early 16C one in the Royal Collections. This version features in Josephine Tey's novel The Daughter of Time.

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.[1] However his reputation as a hunchbacked villain has remained a familiar historical cliché within popular culture.


Tudor period[edit]

Cover of the 1594 quarto of The True Tragedy of Richard III, which was "printed by Thomas Creede and ... to be sold by William Barley, at his shop in Newgate Market".

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 tetralogy 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.[2] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

18th century[edit]

Garrick as Richard III (1745) by William Hogarth. The scene is Shakespeare's Richard III Act V, Sc. 3. David Garrick plays Richard III just before the Battle of Bosworth, his sleep having been haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered. He wakes to the realization that he is alone in the world and death is imminent.
  • 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.

19th century[edit]

20th century[edit]

The villiainous image of Richard III. An 1860 portrayal of Richard (left) taking Richard, Duke of York from his mother's arms in church sanctuary
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Rosemary Hawley Jarman's novel We Speak No Treason (1971) is another account from the Ricardian viewpoint, told through three courtiers.
  • John Crowley's novel The Deep features a fictionalized version of Richard named Sennred, who is portrayed as a hero.
  • Elizabeth Peters's novel The Murders of Richard III (1974) is set in a modern country house filled with Ricardians re-enacting the events of 1483-5. A series of pranks escalating to crimes occur during the re-enactments.
  • Rhoda Edwards wrote two historical novels examining Richard's youth up to his betrothal to Anne Neville, Fortune's Wheel (1979), and his reign as king up to his death, Some Touch of Pity (1977) (published in the USA as The Broken Sword).
  • 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 (1980), 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.
  • Sharon Kay Penman's historical novel The Sunne in Splendour (1982) gives a comprehensive account of the Wars of the Roses. However, the author has made additions and minor adjustments to enrich the story.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Kate Sedley's "Roger the Chapman" series (1991 - 2013) features a pedlar who solves murders and is often employed by Richard III.

21st century[edit]

  • Reay Tannahill's The Seventh Son (2001) is a sympathetic but unromanticized treatment of Richard III.
  • Sandra Worth's trilogy "The Rose of York" includes three titles: Love and War (2003), Crown of Destiny (2006) and Fall from Grace (2007).
  • Anne Easter Smith's A Rose for the Crown (2006) is a romantic novel centred upon Katherine Haute, who has been suggested as the mother of at least one of Richard's illegitimate children.
  • 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). When he is losing the war Stannis considers burning Edric Storm, a bastard nephew, as their King's blood will aid Melisandre's rituals, however is very conflicted about it, and is ultimately prevented from doing so when his honest advisor Davos Seaworth smuggles Edric away. Fans of the series continue to debate whether Stannis will ultimately succumb to his darker side or end as a predominantly heroic figure.

Other characters in the series are sometimes compared to Richard. Eddard Stark - an honest Northern nobleman who is closest to the King 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 is falsely accused of murdering his nephew the King, eventually kills his father and sees himself as cursed - owes something to Shakespeare's version of Richard III. A play called "The Bloody Hand" is even shown in the books which shows basis from Richard III, showing Tyrion as a monstrous villain who plots the murder of his nephew and has dialogue that seems based on soliloquies from the theatrical Richard III. Another character who may be based on Richard is Theon Greyjoy. He is an Ironborn, but was fostered by Eddard Stark and is friendly with Eddard's oldest son Robb Stark, fighting alongside them. However he ends up betraying Robb by joining his father Balon Greyjoy when the Ironborn attack the North, and is believed to have murdered two children, his foster-brothers Princes Bran and Rickon Stark, meaning he is known as a Turncloak and Kinslayer. In reality Theon killed two other boys when Bran and Rickon escaped, and passes them off as the boys, similar to the stories that one or both of the Princes in the Tower might have survived. Later Theon is captured, tortured and mutilated by Ramsay Snow, leaving him a deformed cripple, which may be a reference to the way Tudor propaganda transformed Richard into a hideous figure. The character of Arnolf Karstark may be based on the theatrical Richard III. Arnolf is the old and hunchbacked uncle of Lord Rickard Karstark and is left as castellan of Karhold. However Rickard is executed and his son Harrion Karstark is captured by the Lannisters. Arnolf declares for Stannis, hoping this will prompt the Lannisters to execute his great-nephew and intends to force Rickard's daughter Alys Karstark to marry her "uncle", his son Cregan Karstark, enabling Arnolf's branch to take control of Karhold. Arnolf treacherously plots to betray Stannis to the Boltons as well. The Karstark sigil is a white starburst and their words are "The Sun in Winter", further connecting to the play. Rickard has some similarities to Richard, murdering two imprisoned boys, though this was vengeance for two of his sons being killed by the boys' cousin Jaime Lannister.

  • 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.
  • In The Devil in Ermine (2013), a novel by Isolde Martyn, the events of 1483 are narrated by Richard's cousin, Harry, Duke of Buckingham.
  • In Requiem of the Rose King, a manga series begun in 2013 by Aya Kanno loosely based on Shakespeare's plays, Richard is portrayed as being intersex instead of hunchbacked.

Screen adaptations[edit]

Perhaps the best-known film adaptation of Shakespeare's play Richard III is the 1955 version directed and produced by Sir Laurence Olivier, who also played the lead role.[4] Also notable are the 1995 film version starring Sir Ian McKellen, set in a fictional 1930s fascist England,[5] and Looking for Richard, a 1996 documentary film directed by Al Pacino, who plays the title character as well as himself.[6] In the 1960 BBC series based on Shakespeare's history plays, An Age of Kings, Paul Daneman played Richard.[7] Ron Cook played Richard III in the 1983 BBC Shakespeare production of the play.[8] Away from the Shakespearean tradition, Aneurin Barnard played Richard in the 2013 BBC-Starz joint production TV series The White Queen[9] based on Philippa Gregory’s novels, and in September 2014 BBC started filming a new TV version of the Shakespearean play for the second part of The Hollow Crown (TV series)[10] with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role.

Richard's career is the subject of the 1939 film Tower of London, in which he is played by Basil Rathbone. The film was later remade by Roger Corman in 1962, starring Vincent Price as Richard (Price had played Clarence in the earlier version). Richard is a thorough-paced villain in both versions. Neither film owes much to the Shakespeare play, but the 1962 Corman version has similarities to Macbeth, complete with paradoxical prophesies, and visions of bloodied ghosts. Unusually, Richard's wife Anne is portrayed, like Lady Macbeth, as an ally, egging him on in his evil plans.[11]

In the 1960 BBC television series based on Shakespeare's history plays, An Age of Kings, Paul Daneman played Richard.[7] Ron Cook played Richard III in the 1983 BBC Shakespeare production of the play.[8] Away from the Shakespearean tradition, Aneurin Barnard played Richard in the 2013 BBC-Starz joint production TV series The White Queen[9] based on Philippa Gregory’s novels, and in September 2014 BBC started filming a new TV version of the Shakespearean play for the second part of The Hollow Crown (TV series)[10] with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role.

Despite his having died at the age of 32, Richard is often depicted as being considerably older: Laurence Olivier was 47 (in his 1955 film), Vincent Price was 51, Ian McKellen was 56 as was Pacino in his 1996 film (although Pacino was 39 when he played him on Broadway in 1979, and Olivier was 37 when he played him on stage in 1944).[12] Ron Cook was 35 when he played Richard III in the 1983 BBC Shakespeare production of the play.[13] Aneurin Barnard was 26 at the time of filming, and Cumberbatch 38.


Richard has been portrayed by the following actors on film, mostly in versions of the Shakespeare play:


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".[14]
  • In The White Queen, the 2013 television dramatisation of Philippa 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[15] and adopted by Robert Ripley,[16] 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.[17]
  • In German productions of musical Tanz Der Vampire (Dance of the Vampires) at the ball of Count von Krolock there are several historical figures among vampires, including Richard III and his wife Anne Neville.[18] The musical is based on a 1967 horror comedy film "The Fearless Vampire Killers" directed by Roman Polanski, where Richard III also appears as a vampire at the ball. His portrait hangs on the wall in Alfred's bedroom in Count von Krolock's castle.


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ a b Churchill, George B., Richard the third up to Shakespeare, Alan Sutton, Rowman & Littlefield, 1976
  3. ^ McEvoy, Sean, Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist, Edinburgh University Press, 2008, p.4.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-10-06. Retrieved 2009-09-20. 
  7. ^ a b Quoted in Smith, Emma (2007). "Shakespeare Serialized: An Age of Kings". In Shaughnessy, Robert. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 140. ISBN 9780521605809
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^ a b last accessed 25 November 2014
  10. ^ a b last accessed 25 November 2014
  11. ^ Saskia Kossak (2005) "Frame my face to all occasions": Shakespeare's Richard III on screen, Braumüller, pp. 157–8, ISBN 3700314922.
  12. ^
  13. ^ last accessed 25 November 2014
  14. ^ "CBBC". BBC. 1 January 1970. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  15. ^ E. Commins, Lessons from Mother Goose (Lack Worth, Fl: Humanics, 1988), ISBN 0-89334-110-X, p. 23.
  16. ^ Opie & Opie (1997), pp. 213–5.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^

Further reading[edit]

Sue Parrill and William B. Robison, The Tudors on Film and Television (McFarland, 2013). ISBN 978-0786458912.

External links[edit]