There is little doubt that, by modern standards and, for that matter, the standards of his own time, Richard III was a bloody villain. Of course, as a medieval king, he couldn’t help a certain amount of mayhem and murder. However, having his nephews killed is generally considered both then and now, a bit over the top. Most historians who are not card-carrying members of the White Boar Society (that is dedicated to Richard’s complete exoneration) believe that he did, in fact, order the deaths of his nephews after he had them imprisoned in the Tower of London. In one of the more recent studies of the case, for example, John Julius Norwich says, “We shall never know for certain precisely how the boys met their fate--but there is no doubt at all that they were killed and very little that the king was responsible.” Lord Norwich even has positive things to say about Thomas More’s account, arguing, “Despite repeated attempts by the highly articulate defenders of Richard to prove it false it still carries more conviction than any other” (Shakespeare’s Kings [London: Viking, 1999], 333 34).
Shakespeare, following Thomas More, wrote a play about this monster, and that play became (and has remained) wildly popular. In Frank Kermode’s words, “Richard III seems to have been a favorite with contemporary audiences, and was still called for in the next reign and the next. . . . It has even been suggested that Macbeth was written to provide another villain hero to replace Richard III; in fact, they seem to have coexisted in the same repertory, surprising though this may seem” (Shakespeare’s Language [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000], 31).
The audiences in Shakespeare’s time loved characters who did epic things whether good or bad. These characters suggested the enormous possibilities of the human condition and the immense opportunities for ambition, compassion, damnation, and redemption. Marlowe’s Tamburlane, for instance, is spectacularly violent, suggesting that human beings can transcend almost any boundaries. Richard III is a character of similar size and scope.
However, what could possibly justify calling Richard III (as depicted by Thomas More and William Shakespeare) a hero? Is it enough that he is the main character in the play, or must he show some positive qualities? And could he have remained so popular for so long without at least some whiff of benevolence? As Screwtape writes to Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, “To be greatly and effectively wicked, a man needs some virtue” ([New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963], 135). If courage in battle counts, then Richard is a hero. He killed the enemies of his family and his country (as he saw it) in hand-to-hand combat. At the end of his life (and the play), he went into battle one last time, troubled by dreams, traumatized by doubts, and terrorized by the dead. He still fought ably, ferociously, and bravely even though he was afraid and expected to lose.
Sometimes the question of heroism or villainy, patriotism or treason, may be one of perspective. When Gary Armagnac played Richard III for the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 1994, he portrayed Richard as the hero of his own story. According to Armagnac, Richard saw himself, because of his military and diplomatic abilities, as the best possible king for his country and his fall to the invading Richmond as a true tragedy for himself and his society. Ironically (but perhaps not surprisingly), one of Armagnac’s models for Richard the Hero was Adolf Hitler. Armagnac tells about watching a film about Hitler, who, toward the end of the war, was reviewing troops. The troops in this case were mere boys, Hitler Youth dressed up in uniforms too large for them. When Hitler stopped and touched the cheek of one of the adolescents he was sending out to die, there were tears clearly visible in his eyes. Armagnac says he realized then that, though others viewed him as a monster, Hitler saw himself as the hero of the story, doing his best for Germany, suffering with his soldiers, and bearing the heavy burden of leadership. Armagnac’s very effective performance was informed by this sense of Richard as hero in his own life, however much he may appear as the villain in the lives of those around him.
Whatever heroic qualities Richard may possess, it is difficult to describe him from any perspective as a good man. Nevertheless, he is very good at what he does, truly charismatic and always fascinating. He is irresistible to women and overwhelming to men. A measure of his persuasive skill is that he is able to convince his victims even when they know he is lying; the machinery of his rhetoric is so powerful that even when it is clearly visible in all its deceitful detail, it still compels belief. It is frequently, as is the case with Anne, a stunned, stumbling, and nearly catatonic belief.
For the audience, which can experience all Richard’s “wicked energy” (Kermode 31) with none of the frequently fatal side-effects, he is especially compelling. We are at once distanced from his wickedness and given a close-up of his charm as a result of the magic of theatre. Our Richard is an actor in a show, and the deaths he causes are make believe. Therefore, we can watch him and even wish for his success with mostly clear consciences. After all, Richard includes us as privileged spectators in his world, and, unlike most heads of state, Richard never lies to us. In his position as surrogate playwright, he always tells us the truth about his plots. On some level, we are sorry when the plot of the play ultimately goes against him, when his monstrous combination of vices and virtues fails to sustain his amazing rise to power. For a moment, he makes us believe that all things were possible, and while we sigh with relief at his defeat, we sigh also a little sadly because his spectacular show has come to a close.