Painting of Richard and the Lady Anne

Faces of Evil: Shakespeare’s Richard III

Shakespeare’s Richard III is an exceptional villain because he interacts with and “wrestles” with us. Unlike Milton’s Satan and Marlowe’s Faustus, whose villainy we watch from afar, Richard invites us to join him, and we become participants in and accomplices to his evil. The villainy of Satan, Faustus, and other villains make us guilty by implication—as stand-ins for our own evil—but Richard makes us guilty by association. However, all is not lost; even as we are carried along with him, we can confront and abandon his—and our—evil.

Charming Us to His Side

As the play opens, Richard asks us to become his partners in crime, tempting us to accept. Most of us do. We’re drawn in by the energetic, emotional, calculating character who isn’t afraid to speak directly to us:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York,
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried…

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous…” (I.i.1–4, 28–32)

Portrait of Richard III
Richard III (c. late 1500s)

In the passage above, Richard is alone on stage (none of the other characters have even been introduced at this point), and while he is talking about his family’s Yorkist faction, it’s also clear that we’re just as much a part of the “our” as his fellow Yorkists. We immediately feel included. As the soliloquy continues, we become intrigued by Richard’s feelings and motives, wondering how he plans to accomplish his goal. He gives us the answer with the last bits of his dialogue, which only serves to intrigue us more. We crave to join our new associate in his plots. We’re on his side.

That craving isn’t in vain. In the next scene, Richard woos the Lady Anne, widow of the deceased Prince Edward (whom Richard killed in Shakespeare’s Henry VI duology) and daughter-in-law of King Henry VI (whom Richard also killed). With cleverness, believable sincerity, and honey-tongued heartlessness that leaves us in simultaneous horror and admiration, Richard gains her (and our) love. It’s a long scene, so quoting it is a bit impractical; however, Ian McKellan’s 1995 film adaptation has a particularly brilliant depiction.

Lady Anne also represents those of us who still haven’t joined Richard by this point. Upon her giving in to the man who murdered her family, we do too—it’s just too hard to resist being on the side of someone so capable. Richard—and the attractive, powerful evil he represents—has won our hearts and loyalty. Wholly on the side of evil (and enjoying it), we begin to ask, “Is there anything he can’t do?”

We continue to ask that question as we revel in Richard’s astounding series of successes during the next two acts. In that time, he has his brother, the Duke of Clarence, murdered; orchestrates the death of his other brother, King Edward IV; executes a few of his cousins (rival claimants to the throne); and disposes of Lady Anne. We know his actions are immoral, but we’re entranced by his triumphs—we can’t turn away from evil.

Cracks in Richard’s Façade and Our Support

But soon we find out there are indeed things he cannot do, and our love for him wavers. In act III, Richard tries to gain the throne by popular support, but he quickly finds the citizens won’t endorse him, even after a rousing speech about his victories:

“No. So God help me, they spake not a word
But, like dumb statues or breathing stones,

Stared each on other and looked deadly pale.” (III.vii.24–26)

This is the part where we start to wrestle with both our and Richard’s evil. It’s this that makes Richard’s depiction of evil effective. We see that the good, rational people of Richard’s land won’t join him, and we question our loyalty. Earlier, we voluntarily joined him, and now, we have the chance to voluntarily turn away. Some of us do, but those of us who remain are shaken.

Painting of murder of Richard's nephews
“The Murder of the Princes in the Tower,” by James Northcote (1786)

Our camaraderie with Richard continues to be tested as he grows increasingly despicable after becoming king. We are again given the chance to abandon evil in act IV, when he plots to kill his nephews, Edward’s royal children, both of whom adore him. As Richard utters the line, “I wish the bastards dead” (IV.ii.20), even his most loyal supporter, the Duke of Buckingham, turns away from him. For those of us who, like Buckingham, were avidly on Richard’s side, the call to action is clear—we must repent and see evil for what it is.

Watching (or Experiencing) Evil’s Consequences

While many of us take that opportunity to repent, Richard’s remaining supporters are swiftly dealt a blow as Richard spirals into insanity, failure, and death in act V. Evil’s defeat is both complete and undebatable as Richard struggles through the final scenes. Upon awakening from a nightmare, the once-indomitable king sobs,

“Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.

Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.” (V.iii.193–195)

He is killed in battle with Henry Tudor two scenes later, shortly before the end of the play. Those of us who turned away from him are reminded that, for all of its charms, evil still leads to destruction—and our metaphorical close encounter with it deepens our appreciation of the lesson. Conversely, those of us who remained with Richard are metaphorically destroyed along with him—the utter defeat of Richard and his faction leave us with positively nothing to show for our support of evil.

Painting of Richard awakening from nightmare
Richard awakening from his nightmare (“David Garrick as Richard III,” by William Hogarth [c.1745])
Richard adeptly embodies villainy because he makes it personal and interactive. We join him and enjoy ourselves, but he eventually forces us to a crossroads: follow him to destruction, or pursue goodness. Our participation teaches us a lesson for life beyond the theatre, and Richard’s story encourages us to consider—and hopefully change—our relationship with our own evils.

This post used the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Richard III.


This is the third post in a miniseries on four great literary villains. The others can be found here.

Featured image: “Richard Duke of Gloucester and the Lady Anne,” EA Abbey (1890)


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