Richard III Character Analysis


Shakespeare’s Richard is unrelentingly malevolent, manipulative and power hungry.  His only defence for his behaviour is his deformity; he resolves that because he is unable to chase and woo women due to his malformed body, he will instead spend his days being a villain:

“I that am curtailed of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time, unless to spy my shadow in the sun and descant on mine own deformity. And therefore since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain” 
(Act 1, Scene 1)

Richard III and Lady Anne

Richard III underestimates his ability to win women over.  We see later that he is able to convince Lady Anne to marry him over the corpse of her much loved dead husband father in law, who she knows Richard killed! She also knows that Richard killed her husband Prince Edward. That indicates an extremely sophisticated ability to woo. 

Having said this, he does use his powers of manipulation and has no intention to love Lady Anne but just to use her to legitimise his accession to the crown. Perhaps his self loathing derived from his appearance prevents him from feeling that he could be loved and perhaps this frustration drives him to villainy:

“And will she yet abase her eyes on me,...on me, that halts and am misshapen thus?”
(Act 1, Scene 2)

Richard understands how to flatter a person in order to get them to do what he wants of them. He is able to read people and understand their desires in order to use them to his own ends.

He promises Buckingham the title of Earl in return for his help to become King. 

However he reneges on his offer when he becomes King because Buckingham hesitates to agree to murder the young princes:

“And is it thus? Repays he my deep service with such contempt? Made I him King for this? O let me think on Hastings, and be gone to Brecon, while my fearful head is on.” 
(Act 4, Scene 2)

Buckingham’s loyalty to Richard is only maintained when there is a promise for something in return. He does not love Richard but fears him, which is why he resolves to flee for fear that Richard will murder him. Richard’s friends are not true friends but are there for their own selfish ends, as a result they confirm Richard’s distrust of human kindness and friendship and reinforce his contempt for the human beings around him.

Richard the Evil King

Richard is so uncompromisingly evil but ironically the audience are willing him to succeed. An audience is able to revel in his evil ways perhaps because he is so honest with the audience about his intentions and his villainy. We can vicariously live through his experiences of doing exactly what suits him and we can consider the freedoms that would give us in life. However, in the end, Richard must die. It would be irresponsible to let a character like that get away with it otherwise the writer would be accused of encouraging his audience to behave in such a manner.  

Richard is murderous to the end, one off his last lines is: “Off with young George’s head” (Act 5, Scene 6). As Richard is totally unrepentant he must be killed but this is almost part of his charm.

An audience can enjoy and respect Richard’s single-mindedness.

Shakespeare’s Richard III would have been presented to Queen Elizabeth the first. Queen Elizabeth was from the house of Tudor descended from Henry VII or ‘Richmond’ in the play. Richmond is portrayed as caring and brave in contrast to Richard who is villainous and misshapen, this would have pleased the Elizabeth as a spectator and substantiated her position as being the rightful Queen of England. 

This would have won Shakespeare favour in her eyes, which was fortunate for Shakespeare in that the Queen was not averse to cutting off heads herself!