Richard III: Victim of Fate or Culpable Tyrant?

In many of Shakespeare’s dramas, there is a character at play throughout whose name is not commonly listed in the dramatis personae: God. Richard III is certainly no exception to this observation, though God’s strange role (or seeming lack thereof) in the play may certainly convey such a notion. The presence of the divine is felt in some parts of the play more strongly than in others, leaving readers to question if he is truly active in the events which transpire. Perhaps that issue which summons the most doubt is the title character. Richard III, or at least the skewed, propogandist Tudor effigy Shakespeare offers, is at best a tragic protagonist and at worst a bloodthirsty tyrant. The play begins with his scorning of his fate and his declaration of hatred for his deformity, revealing to the audience his primary motivation for the malicious deeds which the play chronicles. In his famous opening soliloquy, Richard vows that since he cannot find joy in peace, he shall combat peace. He confesses to laying plots and planning murders, all so that he may have the crown. Throughout the length of the play, the audience bears witness to Richard fulfilling all his opening oaths; he mercilessly slaughters all opposition with little to no resistance, he seduces widowers, and successfully takes the crown. After his brief rule as King Richard III, the audience sees Richard slain in battle by a victorious Richmond. Where is God in this hopelessly tragic series of events? The conclusion many readers come to, leading to a greater sympathy for Richard, is that God predetermined Richard’s fate. That even before Richard’s untimely birth he was destined to follow his tragic path. There are many happenings in the play to support this claim, foremost being the curses of Richard’s acquaintances. It was more than a few times that characters invoked the wrath of God upon Richard in some drawn out curse. When one realizes that these curses came to pass – that God’s justice did unfold – an intense sense of predestination is felt.

The contrary notion holds that Richard holds full responsibility for his actions. That because his willingly chose to deceive, plot, and murder, his fate in battle was deserved. After all, Richard famously spake “I am determined to prove a villain” (I. i. 30). This notion does closely mirror the tragedy and irony found in Shakespeare’s other works, notably Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, wherein God (or more generally speaking, fate) is manifested in social turmoil. This turmoil, which ultimately leads to tragedy, is characteristically circumstantial in Shakespeare’s works, and one could easily claim that Richard’s deformity and self-loathing were equally circumstantial.

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