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The Character of Richard III

An excerpt from Richard III. New York: University Society Press, 1901.

The character of Richard the Third, which had been opened in so masterly a manner in the Concluding Part of Henry the Sixth, is, in this play, developed in all its horrible grandeur. It is, in fact, the picture of a demoniacal incarnation, moulding the passions and foibles of mankind, with superhuman precision, to its own iniquitous purposes. Of this isolated and peculiar state of being Richard himself seems sensible when he declares

"I have no brother, I am like no brother:
And this word love, which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me; I am myself alone."
From a delineation like this Milton must have caught many of "the most striking features of his Satanic portrait. The same union of unmitigated depravity and consummate intellectual energy characterizes both, and renders what would otherwise be loathsome and disgusting an object of sublimity and shuddering admiration.

The task, however, which Shakespeare undertook was, in one instance, more arduous than that which Milton subsequently attempted; for, in addition to the hateful constitution of Richard's moral character, he had to contend also against the prejudices arising from personal deformity, from a figure

"curtail'd of its fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform'd, unfinish'd. sent before its time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up."
And yet, in spite of these striking personal defects, which were considered, also, as indicatory of the depravity and wickedness of his nature, the Poet has contrived, through the medium of high mental endowments, not only to obviate disgust, but to excite extraordinary admiration.

One of the most prominent and detestable vices, indeed, in Richard's character, his hypocrisy, connected, as it always is, in his person, with the most profound skill and dissimulation, has, owing to the various parts which it induces him to assume, most materially contributed to the popularity of this play, both on the stage and in the closet. He is one who can "frame his face to all occasions," and accordingly appears, during the course of his career, under the contrasted forms of a subject and a monarch, a politician and a wit, a soldier and a suitor, a sinner and a saint; and in all with such apparent ease and fidelity to nature, that while to the explorer of the human mind he affords, by his penetration and address, a subject of peculiar interest and delight, he offers to the practised performer a study well calculated to call forth his fullest and finest exertions.
          Drake: Shakespeare and his Times.


Richard is the very personation of confidence in self-conduct and self-control, in his absolute command of every form of dissimulation, and still more difficult, of simulation. He is arrogant no less, on the strength of his superiority to any natural stirrings of love or pity, of terror or remorse. Like lago he believes in the absolute sway of will-wielded intellect to subject and mould passion to its own determinations, while both are, unconsciously to themselves, overmastered and enslaved by a tyrannous passion that ever keeps out of their own sight as if lurking- and shifting place behind them. Richard's true fall and punishment is his humiliation on his point of reliance and pride; he comes to require friends when friends fail in heart or in heartiness, he regrets affection, would fain be pitied, admits terror, and believes in the power of conscience if he endeavours to defy it. The involuntary forces of his being rise in insurrection against the oppression of the voluntary. His human nature vindicates the tendencies of humanity, when the organism which was strained to sustain itself on the principle of renunciation of sympathy falters and breaks down. The power of the strongest will has its limitations; mere defiance will not free the mind from superstition, and mere brutality cannot absolutely close up the welling springs of tenderness.
           Lloyd: Critical Essays on the Plays of Shakespeare.



How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. Booklover's Edition. New York: University Society, 1901. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/richardiii/richardcharacter.html >.

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