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What Makes Richard a Villain

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In William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard opens the play by informing the audience that, since he is “?not shap’d for sportive tricks ?” (I.i.16) that are expected in the peacetime following the York’s victory, he can only prove a spiteful, scheming villain. He goes on to describe his incompatibility with the leisure of peacetime in terms of his deformity ­ his hunched back and shriveled, weak arm ­ naming this as the source of his wickedness. Like Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light In August, Richard struggles with his mental and emotional identity in terms of his physical identity; Is Richard’s physical condition a manifestation of his evil nature which further emphasizes the depravity already present in Richard’s mind, or is his evil behavior a result of years with a physical deformity in a superstitious, intolerant society? After carefully reading and analyzing of the play, it becomes evident that the latter is true. In a sense, Richard’s deformity is the cause of his vile nature; Richard’s villainy is derived from his belief that his physical deformity and the effects of that deformity prevent him from being a good person. In this respect, Richard’s condition limits him and leads to his ultimate emotional break down in the final act. By carefully analyzing Richard’s opening soliloquy and his much later battlefield soliloquy, the effects of his physical deformity are evident.

Richard’s opening soliloquy establishes Richard’s character and status as a villain for the entirety of the play “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain?” (I.i.30-32). Through this speech, he acknowledges the audience as his confidant, so that his schemes are always communicated and it is clear when he is being false to other characters. This is also the moment when he reveals his motives for his evil deeds, which he attributes wholly to his physical deformity, “Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, / Have no delight to pass away the time, / Unless to see my shadow in the sun/ And descant on mine own deformity?” (I.i.26-29).

Since Richard needs to establish his antagonist status in light of the recent tranquility that has settled over England, it leads us, the audience, to assume that he neither considered himself nor was considered by others to be a villain during the former period of hostilities. Bearing in mind that he was the warrior who is given the credit for King Henry’s death and that of his son’s, thereby placing Richard’s brother on the throne and winning the war for his family, Richard in fact may have been considered a hero. Margaret, the former regime’s queen, echoes Lady Anne in the previous scene as she names Richard the murderer of her husband and son, “Thou kill’dst my husband Henry in the Tower, / And Edward, my poor son, at Tewksbury.” (I.iii.124-125).

This indicates that his actions were not always malicious, indicating a different “Richard” ­ A Richard compatible to some degree with his surroundings. This “other Richard” surfaces again in his interactions with Lady Anne in the second scene. Although Richard has convinced the audience that he is merely acting for Anne, his performance contradicts his previous conviction that he is unable to “prove a lover?” (I.i.30). Richard proves to be a very convincing “lover” as he successfully woos her to his own surprise, over the body of her dead husband, whom he killed, “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? / Was ever woman in this humour won?” (I.ii.241-242). Richard wears the lover’s facade as easily as he wore that of the villain in the first scene. He is also shown to be a very convincing, supportive brother, uncle, and politician in later parts of the play. In fact, the more that the play progresses, and the more roles that Richard plays, the less credible his opening convictions seem to be. Obviously, Richard has the capability to be anything he wishes, so why does his physicality dominate his idea of what he should be?Returning to the concept of Richard as a Yorkist war hero and being his family’s champion, one might naturally ask why he developed the homicidal attitude toward them. The source of his state of mine may lie in the attitude of his mother, who never shows Richard any maternal love or affection, even in the beginning of the play before he has committed any atrocities. Without stepping outside the fictional realm of the play, it is safe to theorize that Richard’s mental perversity may be an indirect result of his mother’s ­ and perhaps other characters’ ­ treatment of his physical deformity. Through her later speeches, the audience discovers that the Duchess has abhorred Richard since his birth, “Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell. / A grievous burden was thy birth to me?” (IV.iv.172-173). The audience may assume that Richard was taught to consider himself evil through his mother’s attitude. During this time period it was superstitiously believed that one’s body mirrored the soul. In this way, Richard’s crooked and hideous form consigns him to being thought of as “evil” ­ or at least treated as such ­ whether or not this is his true nature. Without having a violent outlet like the war, Richard falls into a deeper isolation from his family than he had experienced before. If he cannot win acceptance through success in battle, Richard chooses to embrace his isolation and strike out against them. The combination of his alienation and years of being treated as a deformed devil convince Richard of his own maliciousness and indicate vile behavior as his expected and natural disposition.

If there is any question concerning Richard’s identity crisis, it is confirmed by his soliloquy the Act five, Scene three. Here, Richard awakens from a nightmare, in which all of his victims curse him. Shakespeare indicates Richard’s heightened anxiety through the short exclamatory statements in this speech, which contrast with the long, grand sentences exhibited in his earlier soliloquy (I.i.1-43). These statements confirm that Richard is loosening his grip on his sense of self. After playing so many diverse roles in his climb to the throne, Richard is unable to come to terms with his actions and his identity. He addresses himself in the third person and names himself a murderer; the resulting confusion of the audience on the level of language signifies his own psychological turmoil, “Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. / Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am?O! no: alas! I rather hate myself / For hateful deeds committed by myself,” (V.iii.202-209). This speech indicates that he finally realizes the consequences of his murders and his treacheries; none love him and none will mourn his death, “Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (V.iii.221-222).

The audience sees Richard’s self-depreciation exposed as he admits to the immorality of his crimes. He describes himself as being “condemned” as a villain (V.iii.214), which is a stark contrast to his embracing attitude toward the antagonist distinction in his soliloquy in the first act. This is also an example of Richard’s crumbling resolve and dulled cunning, revealing a more awkward and more anxious Richard than had existed in the first act. This soliloquy indicates that Richard’s villainous facade is unraveling. Moreover, the audience sees that this façade was just another role in Richard’s search for identity. As he reaches his goal ­ his family dead and his allies traitorous ­ all that remains is himself, a man who he never understood and a role that is finally deserting him.

Richard’s villainous character crumbles in Act Five, scene three. It is now obvious that his villainy was merely a role, which he adopted from the beginning of the play. The source of his villainy, as he claims, is his deformity, which prevents him from being anything else. However, this claim is shown to be false when Richard proves himself to be a dashing lover, a loyal brother, a compassionate uncle, and the many other roles that he assumes in subsequent scenes. Richard’s physical circumstances, therefore, only hinder him mentally, controlling what he thinks he is, instead of what he actually could be. Shakespeare indicates that this idea may theoretically spring from his mother’s verbal abuse of him in later scenes. Therefore, the combination of Richard’s first soliloquy, his mother’s treatment, and his final soliloquy support the argument that Richard’s villainous tendencies originate from his physical deformity. This identity crisis is immediately addressed and finally answered, framing the play and becoming one of the play’s most dynamic and subtle conflicts.

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