Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of the great historical dramas of all time. It is not because Shakespeare gives us history. To the contrary, Shakespeare’s Richard is Tudor propaganda – a fabrication that exaggerates all that was wrong with Richard, in order to justify the Tudor usurpation. But it is great drama in how it brings out one terrible aspect of events that actually took place.
Over the centuries, Richard has been played in nt ways. Usually, the evil qualities of Richard are emphasized to give great actors a vehicle to strut their stuff. More recently, directors have played up the political dimensions of the story. Ostermeier goes back to villainy in his production at the Barbican, London. Lars Eidinger offers us a modern Richard. Michael Billington thinks there should be more politics. He writes
— in modern times, the text has been mined for political relevance. Heavily influenced by the Polish academic Jan Kott, Peter Hall and John Barton in the 1963 The Wars of the Roses gave us a Richard (Ian Holm) who was part of the grand mechanism of history. More recently Ian McKellen, in a Richard Eyre production set in the Britain of the 1930s, was a Mosley-like dictator who acquired power through the complicity of a decadent ruling class.
Is Richard better played as a cautionary tale of political psychosis? Or should it be about the effect of a single villain? Good question.
Of course, great evil comes to horrendous effect when history allows it to do so. Hitler would not have come to power in Bismarkian times. So too with Richard. The barbarity of the Wars of the Roses coupled with his brother’s promiscuity gave him his opportunity. At he same time, individuals make choices that amplify the nightmare.
Did Richard decide to do so? Shakespeare says “yes!” most emphatically. And that is what makes his Richard so interesting. We get to see what that means.