The Villain: Tudor Propaganda
By Tyrrell Davidson
According to the sixteenth-century politician Niccolo Machiavelli, a ruler's first priority should be to earn the respect and even the fear of his people instead of playing for amicable public opinion. Having the support and adoration of one's subjects, however, is never a detriment. The great Renaissance poet and dramatist William Shakespeare understood that, and he did his part to cultivate an atmosphere in England favorable to the ruling family, the Tudors. One of his most effective works, Richard III , portrays the last phase of the Wars of the Roses, when the Tudor dynasty gained control of the realm. This piece depicts the scheming villainy of the title character, the last Yorkist king, and his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. In the twentieth century, four hundred years after its composition, there have been several television and film adaptations of this play. One of the best constructed film versions of Richard III stars Sir Ian McKellen as the murdering king himself and Dominic West as his rival, Henry Tudor. Shakespeare was of course writing with a political agenda, so the story does not overly concern itself with history in regard to Richard III's personality. While the film is therefore not a glowing tribute to historical accuracy, it nevertheless presents a forceful, energetic, and convincing argument in support of the family of Shakespeare's patron, Queen Elizabeth I, grand-daughter of the victor at Bosworth Field. Richard III is a magnificent show of advertising genius for the Tudor dynasty.
The film's main weapon against Richard III is to present him as an undeniable villain and evildoer. Richard himself informs the audience n his opening monologue of his intentions to make mischief in the realm: this new climate of peace does not suit him. With a hunched back and a stiff, withered arm, Richard is "not made for sportive tricks" like dancing and other court flirtations, but instead is a man of war. His tone suggests that he blames his misshapen body for his wickedness, and there may be some truth in that. Until the twentieth century the prevailing belief in the West about physical appearance was that the outside was a direct reflection of the inside. It is therefore possible that because of his hideous appearance, his family and caretakers would have expected him to have a hideous soul as well. Children and people in general, have a remarkable ability to meet whatever expectations - high or low - are set for them. Richard's own mother, the Duchess of York as portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith, curses him for his evil deeds and lists all the pains and troubles his birth, infancy, and childhood caused her.
Even if the Richard of this story did grow up under unfortunate circumstances, that does not absolve him of responsibility for his actions. Every cruel, treacherous act he commits is a choice based on his own desires and values, not the result of pressure or duress. Driven by his lust, his determination to place himself on the English throne, Richard with a few accomplices, masterminds the deaths of anyone who poses a potential threat. A list of his victims includes the last legitimate Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Prince Edward, son of Henry VI: Richard's own brother George, Duke of Clarence, his wife, Lady Anne Neville; his nephews, Edward and Richard; the queen's brother Lord Rivers; and his former lackey, the Duke of Buckingham. Shortly before the Battle of Bosworth Field Richard wakes up from a nightmare, haunted by the spirits of those he has wronged, and for one fleeting moment he seems to express remorse. He dismisses it, though, and reaffirms his status as a villain. With that, any sympathy the audience could feel for him because of his turbulent childhood vanishes along with Richard's guilt. He has allowed evil to consume him.
Other than vile words and deeds, the use of Nazi imagery in the film informs the audience that Richard III is a master of evil. When first pronounced king of England, he steps onto a stage adorned with red banners bearing black insignia. As the camera's perspective switches to reveal the audience, there again, swaying as they drop from the ceiling, are several of the same banners. The image is purposefully reminiscent of Adolph Hitler's swastika . The choice by director Richard Loncraine to associate Richard III with one of the most despicable figures in Western civilization is a conscious and incredibly potent means of convincing a modern audience that he is absolutely evil.
It makes for a dramatic and fascinating movie, but the portrait of Richard as a hunchbacked brute does not entirely fit into history. Richard III was not so monstrous as Shakespeare and his patron would have had the English populace believe. First of all, there is no proof that Richard's physical form was misshapen. The choice to depict him as a "quasimodo" is a direct appeal to most people's unfortunate tendency to associate physical deformity with moral deformity, but it is not something which historians can declare as fact.
In addition, the historical Richard is actually innocent of some of the crimes attributed to him in the play and the film. The death of Henry VI's son, for example, was most likely not at Richard's hand. In The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England, Anthony Cheetham points out that "contemporary accounts simply state that Edward was killed during the battle" (Fraser 159). Neither is he to blame for the arrest and execution of his brother George, Duke of Clarence. Cheetham explains that after the split between Edward IV and the kingmaking Earl of Warwick, Clarence actually joined with the opposition against his brother. After Henry VI's forces were defeated, Clarence continued to give the king reason not to trust him, and his disloyalty cost him his life. The film suggests that Clarence was an innocent bystander, guilty of nothing but trusting the vile Richard. In truth, the Italian cleric Dominic Mancini describes Richard as "overcome with grief" for the inconstant Clarence (159) but that fact would have complicated the horrible image that served Shakespeare's immediate purpose.
It is clear that Richard III was not actually quite so evil as the film conveys; even more important, however, is that he was in fact a popular leader worthy of his distinctions. As a soldier for his brother's cause, he "commanded with distinction" (Fraser 159). Furthermore, Cheetham describes how after Clarence's death he attended the royal court infrequently and instead worked (successfully) on gaining the favor of the people in his own lands (159). Richard's reputation prior to his reign as king was so good that "had he, rather than Edward, died in 1483 he would no doubt have earned a respectable footnote in history as an able soldier, a conscientious administrator and a self-effacingly loyal brother" (161). Again, though, the fact that Richard was well-loved by many in England did not comply with Shakespeare's political agenda: to support the claim of the Tudors as the legitimate, divinely-ordained rulers.
Then again, not all of the film's accusations against Richard III are without merit. The suggestion that Richard began planning to seize power as soon as his brother Edward died may not be far from the truth. Although the king had nominated him as Lord Protector for the boy-king Edward V, it was clear that a Regency Council dominated by the queen's family would have been a source of troublesome opposition. It was no secret in the late fifteenth century-nor is it in the film-that Richard was not particularly fond of his in-laws. When Elizabeth Woodville Gray became queen, she brought to court a veritable army of relatives, all of whom expected and received rapid advancement among the nobility. One brother, portrayed in the film by Robert Downey, Jr., was awarded with the earldom of Rivers, and another married the octogenarian duchess of York. "Like many of the aristocracy [Richard] probably resented the favour" shown to them (Fraser 161). Consequently, the claim that Richard was plotting to usurp his nephew's authority is justifiable. Even so, his motives are still foggy. In the film Richard acted on an insatiable thirst for power, but perhaps he believed that the fate of England was too high a stake to risk in a long period of regency rule.
Whatever his impetus, it is true that once Richard was on the road to power he was willing to dispose of any who blocked the path, including his own little nephews. Historians cannot entirely prove Richard's guilt, but there is no question that he had the motive, the opportunity, and the most to gain. Before they vanished, the young sons of Edward IV were rumored to have been born out of wedlock and thus ineligible to inherit the throne. Their supposed illegitimacy followed by their sudden disappearance cleared the line of succession for Richard. Moreover, he is undoubtedly accountable for the deaths of Lord Rivers, Lord Hastings, and the Duke of Buckingham, all of whom posed a threat to Richard's ultimate royal authority (Fraser 161-2). It is crucial to remind oneself, however, that the social and political climate of medieval Europe was wont to accept and permit such executions as the most practical and effective means for a king to assert his power.
Beyond the intriguing historical perspective, Richard III is a brilliant film for modern audiences. Instead of characters being dressed in fifteenth-century garb, they are adorned in costumes that more resemble those of the 1930s, the pre World War II era. The instruments of battle too are of that period: tanks, machine guns, and locomotives decorate the battlefields instead of longbows and mounted, armored knights. The placement of this story within a relatively modern context makes it accessible to a wider audience than if the filmmakers had adhered to a more traditional approach. Shakespeare's plays, while addressing issues and themes that apply to people of all ages and backgrounds, generally remain popular among a select group. The main problem is the barrier of language - not everyone can understand the archaic vocabulary or enjoy the bard's puns and metaphors. Presenting Richard III in a time period and in clothes with which we are more familiar breaks down some of those barriers and makes it a film that everyone, not just avid Shakespeare fans, can enjoy.
The stellar cast is another reason this film is such a success. Sir Ian McKellen's nuanced performance as the title character brings a new vitality to the role that even the acclaimed Sir Laurence Olivier did not deliver in his portrayal. His choices, such as occasionally breaking the "fourth wall," can both exhilarate and terrify viewers. Kristin Scott Thomas as tortured Lady Anne Neville is also superb. The obvious depth of her pain is gut-wrenching enough to elicit pity, yet not melodramatic.
As a movie, Richard III is an excellent piece of historical fiction, but the fact that the play was created as such to be used as a tool of propaganda makes it irresistible.
Fraser, Antonia, ed. The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England. Book Club Associates: London, 1976.
Richard III. Dir. Richard Loncraine. Perf. Ian McKellen, Dominic West, Annette Benning, Maggie Smith, Robert Downey, Jr. Bayly/Pare Productions, 1995.