The Uses of Richard III: From Robert Cecil to Richard Nixon

By Aune, M. G. | Shakespeare Bulletin, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

The Uses of Richard III: From Robert Cecil to Richard Nixon


Aune, M. G., Shakespeare Bulletin


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.

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