Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England,
Scotland, and Ireland (1587)
A "lump of foul deformity,” ”bottl'd spider,” ”a poisonous bunch-back'd toad,” ”elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog" are some of the vivid descriptions that Shakespeare imagined to characterize perhaps the most durable "villain" to have tread the boards of the world's stages. In the course of his dramatic life, Shakespeare's Richard effectively: brutally murders the young Lancastrian Edward, Prince of Wales, at the Battle of Tewkesbury; murders the innocent King Henry VI, Edward's father, in the Tower of London; convicts his own brother Clarence to a messy death in a barrel of wine; woos and marries Lady Anne, the widow of the Prince of Wales, and subsequently kills her; executes Lord Rivers and Lord Grey, members of Queen Elizabeth's family; beheads Lord Hastings; murders his two young nephews, Edward V and Richard, the Duke of York; and executes the man who helped him rise to power, the Duke of Buckingham. Richard's bloody reign of terror ends when he is slain on Bosworth Field by the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who leads an army against Richard and would at least seem to promise a revitalized monarchy.
Where did Shakespeare come up with such a perfectly monstrous, yet seductive and complex character? Scholars have long investigated and analyzed Shakespeare's play against some of the most influential scholarship of the period. Written c.1591, Richard III 's literary DNA can be traced to the works of Sir Thomas More. More grew up in the household of John Morton, Bishop of Ely—a character in Shakespeare's Richard III, and his opponent. Best known by his Utopia (1516)—a Latin account of an ideal world, from whose name we derive our word utopia—More wrote the History of King Richard the Thirde, published in English in 1543. More's portrait of the dark, vengeful Richard is said to have influenced the creation of Shakespeare's villain king:
Richard...was...little of stature, ill featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favoured of visage... He was malicious, wrathful, envious, and from afore his birthe ever forward. It is for truth reported...that he came into the world with the feet forward... [and] not untoothed... He was close and secret, a deep dissembler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart, outwardly companionable where he inwardly hated, not hesitating to kiss whom he thought to kill, pitiless and cruel...Friend and foe were to him indifferent; where his advantage grew, he spared no man's death whose life withstood his purpose.
More's account of history, however, has generated considerable controversy among a number of historians and scholars who believe Richard III was an able and loyal leader. According to academics committed to salvaging Richard's tarnished reputation, More's history is full of inconsistencies. They contend that the Tudor dynasty established by Henry VII (Queen Elizabeth's Tudor grandfather) in his defeat of Richard III had a shaky claim as the legitimate heir to the crown. It is their contention that Henry VIII was paranoid about the possibility of a revolt and, to justify his claim to the throne, Henry VII and the rest of the Tudor clan chose to portray Richard as a monster. To this end, Henry VII commissioned an Italian historian, Polydore Vergil, to write a Tudor version of past events. Richard’s supporters point out that “historians” were often free to rearrange and interpret the facts as one powerful person—like a king of England—might wish to read them. In the 1940s, Shakespearean scholar E.M.W. Tillyard coined the term "Tudor Myth" to describe the Tudor interpretative "rearrangement" of fifteenth-century English history.
Even the truth of Richard's deformity is called into question by the memory of an aging countess who, during the reign of Henry VII, recalled that she had danced with the young Richard of Gloucester, "the handsomest man in the room with the exception of his brother Edward." The only eyewitness account of Richard's reign still known to survive was written in 1483 by an Italian named Mancini, who describes Richard as "so renowned in war that whenever anything difficult and dangerous had to be done on behalf of the kingdom, it would be entrusted to his advice and leadership. In these ways, Richard obtained the goodwill of the people." Mancini also corroborates the story of Clarence's drowning in a barrel of wine, as well as of the young princes' disappearance prior to Richard's coronation.
But if his own sources were in fact one-sided, did Shakespeare intentionally write a "libelous" play? Or, as some scholars contend, was he writing in the tradition that More and his contemporaries had already established; the dramatist, these scholars contend, was merely working from the information and scholarship available to him. Aside from More's text, Shakespeare also drew from Raphael Holinshed Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) and Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1550). These chronicles, too, are similar in their portrayal of Richard III—their authors, too, had common sources to draw upon.
Shakespeare was also influenced by a number of other literary works, as well as the dramatic conventions prevalent on the Elizabethan stage. Richard's life was already the subject of poems, various ballads, and an early Renaissance play written in classical Latin. Critics have noted that Shakespeare probably read the popular anthology Mirror of Magistrates (1559); set in verse, this book consists of moral tales, many of which are associated with Richard III.
Other Elizabethan playwrights wrote history plays, and it is likely that many drew from the same sources. Shakespeare's plays have endured, however, neither because they succeeded in exploiting current interest, nor because they functioned cleverly under the censorious hand of Tudor propaganda. In writing Richard III, or any history play for that matter, Shakespeare approached his sources not as a spokesperson of governmental status quo, but as a creative artist who sought to explore the intricacies of human nature, and not expound upon its doctrines.