Richard the III is one of the most quoted of all Shakespeare’s plays (“My kingdom for a horse!), it is a title role all serious Shakespearean actors wish to play, and it is a huge step forward in the Bard’s writing from the Henry VI trilogy. This is the fourth play by the Bard I have read, and the first one I can say I actually enjoyed.
What is it about RIII that makes it so popular and so much better than the Bards earlier works? Some of the reasons are simple technical improvements in the construction. The HVI plays have enormous casts of characters and plots (such as they are) that wind this way and that r, major events happen suddenly and with little flourish, and long periods of time are spent on subplots and diversions. The HVI plays have too many battle scenes and too few insights into the motivations of the characters. RIII is slimmed down to a smaller cast, and more linear plot centered, like most of the best Shakespeare plays, on a single character. Start to finish this is the story of one thing – Richard and his rise to power.
The smaller cast and more focused plot give this play better definition, but what makes it a classic is Richard. Richard III, as created by Shakespeare, is such a captivating character that he has already overtaken my review of Henry VI Part III. As I mentioned there, the historical Richard almost surely wasn’t the maniacal, murdering, evil genius of Shakespeare’s play, but that doesn’t matter. The true nature of the historical Richard is lost to history. What we are left with is the Richard of the play, a man of almost pure evil. He seduces a widow while she accompanies the body of her dead husband, he kills children, all in the pursuit of power which he holds for a very short time.
Richard is a nasty, nasty man, and we love him for it. Or rather we love watching him behave so wickedly. In his plotting for power Richard is the Id gone wild. Richard is an exemplification of our desires for power above all else. It is disgusting and horrific and we cannot stop talking about it. My reaction to him reminds me of my reaction to Charlie Sheen. I hate him, think he is loathsome, and cannot turn away.
While audiences love seeing Richard’s rise to power through wickedness, vicariously living through a man willing to do anything to get what he wants, we love even watching him met his violent end. Because while we may enjoy watching Richard be nasty, or Sheen behaving like a sex crazed madman, we wouldn’t like the story unless it ended badly for the protagonist.