In Eikonoklastes (1649), his attack on the recently executed Charles I's Eikon Basilike, Milton demonstrates Charles' hypocrisy and ignorance by quoting from a work he is sure the King would have known: Shakespeare's Richard III. Milton writes
William Shakespeare; [in 2.1] ... introduces the Person of Richard the third speaking in as high a straine of pietie and mortification, as is utterd in any passage of this Book ... [:] 'I doe not know that Englishman alive With whom my soule is anyjott at odds More then the Infant that is borne to night; I thank my God for my humilitie.' Other stuff of this sort may be read throughout the Whole Tragedie. (11)
Not only does Milton assume, correctly, that Charles had read and probably seen Shakespeare's play, he assumes that his own reader is familiar with the character of Richard as a notorious dissembler. Milton depends on this familiarity to advance his argument about the validity of the new government. In other words, his intent is to use the dramatic character of Richard (rather than the historical figure) to vilify Charles and justify his execution. Milton's propagandistic use of Richard is one example of how in early modern England this particular character shifted from the sphere of dramatic entertainment to become available as a tool for personal attack and political commentary.
This essay will examine the character of Richard III and the social and sometimes political uses to which it has been put in two distinct cultural moments: early modern England and postwar England and America. In the early modern period, Richard--popularized by Shakespeare's and others' plays, printed histories, and manuscript libels--was used by people who were, as Milton was, interested in defaming or commenting on living or recently deceased public figures. This usefulness was enhanced by public knowledge of Richard and the historical proximity of the real Richard. The diversity of media at the time (print, manuscript, and performance) made such critiques available to a diverse range of literacies and locations. Eventually Shakespeare's Richard, on stage and in print, became dominant, in particular because of the elevation of Shakespeare to national poet in the early eighteenth century. Despite the popularity of the character and the play, by the twentieth century, the use of Richard as a tool for personal attack had nearly disappeared from the Anglo-American stage. The figure of Richard continued to be useful in social and political critique, but Richard in performance remained largely fixed in a medieval setting. What constituted "medieval" varied from some attempts to present some measure of historical authenticity to others that used a stylized modern or even Elizabethan construction of the Middle Ages. In any case, the tendency to look backward limited the character's potential for a local critique. Aside from a few moments in the 1930s and in 1973, because of these changes and the rise of a visually powerful twentieth-century fascism, the stage Richard became less effective as a tool for criticism. Instead, the play as a whole became the tool for criticism and, in an inversion of the early modern practice, contemporary public figures were used to characterize Richard rather than the other way around. Richard once again became fixed by his performance history.
Even before Shakespeare presented his character "crooke-backe Richard" on stage in The First Part of the Contention (Henry VI Part 1) around 1590, the villain needed no introduction. The historical Richard had been deposed by the current monarch's grandfather and his reputation as a Machiavellian villain had been established by Thomas More in his History of King Richard the Thirde (1513) and Polydore Vergil's Anglica Historia (1534). Edward Hall (1548) and Raphael Holinshed (1587) both drew on More and Vergil, perpetuating Richard's reputation as an ugly, scheming, murderous tyrant. Richard also appeared in ballads and works such as Mirror for Magistrates (1559, 1563, 1571, and 1610). The first dramatic representation of the character was probably in the Latin play Richardus Tertius (1579), attributed to Thomas Legge and apparently performed several times over a number of years at Cambridge (Sutton vii-xlvii).
Richard was especially popular in the 1590s. An anonymous play entitled The True Tragedie of Richard the Third was printed in 1594 and most likely performed by the Queen's Men in the late 1580s, roughly one hundred years after the death of Richard the historical figure (Chambers 4.44; Churchill 528). Shakespeare gave audiences more Richard around 1590 with Henry the Sixt and a play about Richard himself about 1591, The Tragedy of Richard III (Hammond 54-67). The second of Thomas Heywood's two plays on Edward IV (c. 1599) included Richard as a scheming, duplicitous character indulging in sharp asides to the audience. (1) The character also appeared in printed poetry: Giles Fletcher's The Rising to the Crowne of Richard the Third (1593), Andrew Chute's Beawtie Dishonoured ... Shore's Wife (1593), and Michael Drayton's England's Heroical Epistles (1597) (Churchill 231-539). In these works, Richard is familiar from More's biography and Shakespeare's play: a deformed antagonist scheming to gain the crown and, as a result, threatening the social order.
Beyond his villainous presence in plays and poetry, Richard became a means for personal attack. Writers would compare contemporary figures to Richard to suggest that those figures were corrupt and dangerous and should be curbed, or simply to level a political or personal attack. In the words of Besnault and Bitot, the character of Richard, "escape[d] from historical boundaries, strict fact and chronology to become a stylized, larger than life ... figure" (108). This departure took a number of forms, one of which was the association with the actor Richard Burbage. A number of anecdotes support this, the most colorful of which was recorded by John Manningham in his diary on 13 March 1602, "Upon a tyme when Burbidge played Rich[ard] 3, there was a Citizen grewe soe farr in liking with him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to come that night unto hir by the name of Ri[chard] the 3" (Manningham 75). This anecdote is redolent of urban myth; however, its circulation and preservation indicate that it is not so outlandish as to be easily dismissed. The citizen had blurred the boundary between actor and role, and she had done so selectively, presumably because Burbage had made Richard attractive despite his character's villainous actions.
Richard's transposition via Burbage persisted into the seventeenth century, so much so that at least one other audience member conflated the two, as evidenced by Richard Corbett's account of his visit to Bosworth field, written about 1621 (Crofts 81-82). His local guide was knowledgeable about the battle:
... [Hie could tell The Inch where Richmond stood, where Richard fell; Besides what of his knowledge he could say, He had Authentique notice from the Play; ... chiefly by that one perspicuous thing, where he mistooke a Player for a King. For when he would have said, King Richard dy'd, And call'd a Horse, a Horse; he, Burbage cry'd. ("Iter Boreale" 12)
For the guide, Shakespeare's Richard as played by Burbage has become the real Richard, even uttering Shakespeare's words. And as did the citizen above, the guide has affixed the character to the image of Burbage. Richard's shift away from the play and from history demonstrates how, through the act of being portrayed by an actor, he has also crossed lines of literacy. Richard moves from being a purely verbal construction, as he is in More, to being a verbal and visual construction--a dramatic character accessible to both the literate and the illiterate.
If the uses to which Richard was put in the above examples were politically inert, others found uses for him that were more activist. Whereas the citizen in Manningham's anecdote found Richard a charismatic and attractive figure, for others he was a way of demonizing Elizabeth's and James's minister Robert Cecil. Margaret Hotine and Pauline Croft have traced a number of these connections using verse libels about Cecil and the printing history of the quarto of Richard III. Hotine begins with the connection between history plays and contemporary events by showing coincidences between the character of Richard III and Cecil (Campbell 306-34; also Besnault and Bitot 107; Bevington 233; Gurr 141-47). Both Richard and Cecil were described as hunchbacked and deformed. In a letter dated 1603 that describes Cecil's journey to Flanders fifteen years earlier, the Venetian Ambassador to London called Cecil "... a little hunchback ... but wise ..." (qtd. in Handover 55). In letters that he knew Queen Elizabeth would see, Cecil carefully complained that she affectionately referred to him as her "little elf" or her "pygmy" (qtd. in Handover 34, 57). Even Cecil's friend Sir Robert Naunton described him as "a little, crooked person" (Naunton 139). The nicknames did not disappear with the ascension of King James who went on to call Cecil "little beagle" (Naunton 137).
In Richard III, Margaret uses a canine nickname too, referring to Richard as a dog several times (1.3.216, passim), (2) although her nickname is reproachful, not a demonstration of affection. As with Cecil, Richard's crooked back inspired these curses. For Margaret he was a "rooting hog" (1.3.228) and a "poisonous bunch-back'd toad" (1.3.246). Elizabeth echoes that sentiment with "that foul bunch-back'd toad" (4.4.81). Richard himself describes his arm as "a blasted sapling wither'd up" (3.4.69). As numerous writers have pointed out, including Cecil's cousin Francis Bacon, physical deformity at the time was regarded as reflecting, or even causing, moral deformity. "Deformed persons are commonly euen with …