by David Bevington
Richard III was a terrific box-office success when Shakespeare's longtime friend and fellow-actor, Richard Burbage, starred in the title role in 1592 to 1594 and in subsequent revivals. Why did this play have such appeal? The title-page of the first edition (1597) makes it sound pretty gruesome, containing as it does Richard's "treacherous plots against his brother Clarence, the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews, his tyrannical usurpation—with the whole course of his detested life and most deserved death." What audiences could learn to love such a man?
The secret seems to be in the acting. The role of Richard has attracted most of the great Shakespearean actors of all time, from Burbage through Colley Cibber and David Garrick to Laurence Olivier and Anthony Sherr. Richard is an actor's dream, because the role is so versatile and requires the actor to persuade his listeners, onstage and in the audience, of his utter credibility in many guises.
Take for example his bravura wooing of the Lady Anne in scene 2. Richard, Duke of Gloucester (not yet king), has recently murdered Anne's husband, Edward, Prince of Wales, and that prince's father, the late King Henry VI. In doing so, Richard has swept away the two greatest rivals to the royal claims of his own so-called Yorkist line; he has murdered the Lancastrian King Henry VI and the Lancastrian heir apparent, young Edward. The murders solidify the power base of Richard's older brother, now King Edward IV. Yet Richard has done so, he frankly tells us, not to support Edward IV but to further his own royal ambitions once the ailing Edward IV has passed from the scene. To enhance his scheme even more, he now plans to marry Anne, widow of the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, and thus unite the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims in his own person. But how to persuade Anne to marry the murderer of her husband and father-in-law, whose body she is even now accompanying to the grave? The task seems unimaginable, and all the more so when Anne reveals the depth of her hatred and loathing. How can Richard hope to win her? His smart choice is to act the part of the lovesick wooer who did all this for her. He appeals to her vanity, and he wins her. He is amazed himself at his ability to deceive. "Was ever woman in this humor wooed?" he asks, incredulously, crowing with delight, once she has left the stage. "Was ever woman in this humor won?" What a terrific actor! And he knows it.
In the same vein, Richard goes on in scene 3 to play the loyal supporter of the King against upstarts in the Queen's family whom Richard accuses of using their nearness to the throne for their own selfish purposes; King Edward has recently given in to amorous desires and has married a buxom widow whom Richard cannot abide. In scene 4 he plays the devoted brother of his younger sibling, the Duke of Clarence, who is under sentence of death for having deserted the Yorkist cause during the recent Wars of the Roses. For all his appearances of brotherly concern, Richard is in fact the engineer of Clarence's death warrant. We as audience thus see him fooling everybody, and sometimes fooling us as well for a brief time, though he also disarmingly tells us all about his ambitions and thus co-opts our sympathy and interest in despite of our moral repugnance at the things he does to become king.
Once he is in fact the king, Richard falls apart. His duplicity, his sly boastings, his genius for turning the courtiers against one another, all backfire as methods of stable rule. Richard can only rule as a tyrant, and accordingly it is only a matter of time until even his closest supporters, like the Duke of Buckingham, are either murdered at his instigation or seek safety elsewhere. Yet he remains the magnificent actor to the very end—brave, commanding, resourceful. "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" The play continues to fascinate us in part because we cannot help being drawn to this towering villain.