Why Shakespeare Sucks
The Most Lamentable Tragedie Of William Shakespeare’s Play
Concerning Good King Richard III Of England (God Rest His Soul)
By Victoria Moorshead
John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, is reputed to have said, “I take my history from Shakespeare.” However, William Shakespeare was not an historian, he was a playwright; and this truth is nowhere more evident perhaps than in the Bard’s eponymous historical play about the fifteenth-century king Richard III. This play is littered with historical errors, omissions, and oversights.
The character Richard III, or Gloucester as he is often referred to, appears in three of Shakespeare’s works, Henry VI, Parts II and III, and The Tragedy of Richard III. In the first of these three plays, Richard, although given little time on stage, manages to commit his first Shakespearean crime, the murder of the Duke of Somerset at the Battle of St. Albans, which occurred in May 1455, when Richard would have been just two-and-a-half-years old. Interestingly, in the summary of Richard’s crimes at the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Somerset’s ghost does not appear, perhaps omitted as unimportant or simply forgotten. (Mind you, how many of us remember what we did at the tender age of two and a half?)
In Henry VI, Part III, Richard’s appearance is longer and deadlier. Shakespeare’s Richard plots to kill John, the ninth baron Clifford, one of Henry VI’s men, during the Battle of Towton, but fails to deliver the deadly blow before Clifford is fatally wounded by others. Clifford actually died at the Battle of Ferrybridge, which occurred the day before Towton on March 28, 1461, when Richard was eight and in Burgundy. In this play, Richard also tries to kill Queen Margaret (act V, scene v), but is held back by his brother Edward. In Henry VI, Part III, Richard does manage to commit two murders, that of Edward of Lancaster – Richard’s two brothers also take part in the murder – and Henry VI.
Richard’s “failure” to kill Margaret haunts him throughout Shakespeare’s Richard III, as Margaret takes on the role of grim prophetess and harbinger of doom. In truth, after her defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, Margaret was under virtual house arrest until Louis XI of France ransomed her in 1475. Margaret returned to France, never to set foot on English soil again and, in 1482, she died.
In Shakespeare’s Richard III, which begins with the arrest of Clarence in 1478, Margaret is not only in England but also at liberty. She makes the most of her time on stage, cursing Edward, the then-Prince of Wales, the other children of Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth herself, Rivers, Dorset, Hastings, Buckingham, and Richard (act I, scene iii) to unbearable sorrows, betrayals, and untimely ends. Shakespeare makes Margaret present in the England of Richard to rail at the Yorkists and remind the audience of the past crimes that make their present sufferings justified.
Margaret’s last appearance on stage (act IV, scene iv), which takes place after Richard’s queen’s death in early 1485, where Richard woos the princess Elizabeth through her mother, actually occurs three years after Margaret’s death.
The Sources For Richard III
Regrettably, there are few contemporary native sources for Richard’s reign, so Shakespeare drew from the works of the Tudor historians.
The genealogy of Shakespeare’s main sources is clear; in the beginning, John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury and cardinal, trusted advisor to Henry VII and enemy of Richard, was the patron of Thomas More, the author of The History Of King Richard The Third, first written in 1513, but published posthumously in the 1540s. More, who was only seven years old at the time of Richard’s defeat at Bosworth Field, wrote of Richard as “evil incarnate. He was arrogant, cruel, above all a dissimulator, and had a physical appearance (i.e. a hump and withered arm, neither of which were mentioned by contemporaries) to match”.  Noted historian and biographer Peter Ackroyd stated that More’s work is “too badly structured to meet the requirements of serious historical narrative; more importantly, it is incomplete and shows no sign of being intended for publication of any kind. It is also replete with errors and omissions, the most noticeable occurring in the first sentence, where the age of Edward IV is overstated by thirteen years.”
Polydore Vergil, who arrived in England 17 years after the Battle of Bosworth Field and a friend of More, was the official chronicler for Henry VII. Vergil began writing his Anglicia Historia in 1507, and it was to become required reading in English schools in 1582. More’s and Vergil’s works in turn begat Edward Hall’s The Union Of The Two Noble And Illustrate Famelies Of Lancastre And York, published in 1548. Next, More, Vergil, and Hall inspired Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles Of England, Scotland And Ireland, published in 1577, a plagiarization of the three earlier works. Holinshed was Shakespeare’s main source and supplied the background for the Bard’s historical plays, which Shakespeare modified to suit his own artistic purposes and the exigencies of his stage. 
The lineage of Shakespeare’s sources is clearly shown in the council meeting where Hastings’ duplicity is revealed. More wrote that Richard said to More’s patron Morton, “My lord, you have verye good strawberries in your gardyne in Holborne. I require you to let us have a mess of them.” Shakespeare in turn rendered this line “my lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there; I do beseech you send for some of them.”
As Paul Murray Kendall states, while the Tudor chroniclers made up the minds of subsequent historians about Richard, Shakespeare has made up the imagination of everybody else.
Richard’s Catalogue Of Crimes
As noted, Shakespeare makes the Duke of Somerset Richard’s first victim, but certainly not his last. At the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III (act V, scene iii), Richard is visited by eleven ghosts, in order of appearance: Edward of Lancaster: Henry VI; Richard’s brother Clarence; the Woodville conspirators Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan; Hastings; the two little princes; Richard’s bride Anne Neville; and lastly Buckingham.
Edward of Lancaster is murdered by Edward IV, Clarence, and Richard in Henry VI, Part III (act V, scene v), and in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard declares to Anne while wooing her, “ ‘twas I that stabb’d young Edward” (act I, scene ii). In their respective works, More does not address who killed Edward of Lancaster, Hall states that the three Plantagenet brothers, along with Dorset and Hastings, were responsible and Holinshed attributes the crime solely to Richard. No contemporary chronicle of the period states who was responsible for the death of Edward of Lancaster at the Battle of Tewkesbury, which, incidentally, Richard was present at. However, apparently Edward was overtaken by a detachment of Clarence’s men and killed.
In Henry VI, Part III, Richard slays the deposed Henry VI (act V, scene vi) in the Tower of London and in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard declares to his beloved Anne that he “did kill King Henry” (act I, scene ii). More’s History states that Richard “slew with his own hands – as men constantly say – King Henry the Sixth”. However, according to the Historie Of The Arrivall Of Edward IV In England And The Finall Recoverye Of His Kingdoms From Henry VI, Henry died of “pure displeasure and melancholy”.
If Henry were indeed murdered, it would not have been unusual for Richard to be present at the execution given his duties as Constable of England. It would have been Richard’s responsibility to deliver the warrant from Edward IV as only a monarch could legally order the regicide of another.
In May 1471, the month of both Edward of Lancaster’s and Henry VI’s deaths, Richard was third in line for the throne, after the new-born Prince of Wales (who would certainly not be the last child of his parents’ union) and after Clarence, who was recently married.
Shakespeare’s Richard III opens with Richard planning the fratricide of his older brother Clarence, and by the end of the first act, Clarence is dead, killed by two murderers hired by Richard. Edward IV, in truth, was responsible, as he brought charges against Clarence for slander, for preparing for a new rebellion and for receiving oaths of allegiance to Clarence and his heirs. These charges were brought before parliament by Edward in January of 1478. The bill of attainder was passed by both houses of parliament and Clarence was executed privately, as befitting a son of the royal blood, on February 18, 1478. At that time, Richard was fourth in line for the throne, after his nephews Edward, Richard, and the short-lived George, duke of Bedford.
Ironically, the personalities of Clarence and Richard in Shakespeare’s opus are reversed from what they were in truth. In life, Clarence was duplicitous, violent, self-seeking, etc., but in the play, Clarence is portrayed as a martyr, his crimes are distilled to the plain and simple letter G, his previous rebellions, audacity and plotting are overlooked.
Richard was indeed responsible for the deaths of the Woodville conspirators Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan. The Woodville attempt in the late spring of 1483 to have Prince Edward of York crowned and Richard’s position as Lord Protector reduced to a mere title, resulted in the deaths of the three for treason at Pontefract castle, or as Shakespeare has his characters call it, Pomfret. Shakespeare does not mention Richard Haute, who was also executed for his part in the Woodville conspiracy. However, More does not mention Haute either, so the execution was probably ignored by subsequent Tudor historians due to More’s omission.
William Hastings was executed in June 1483 for conspiring against Richard. Richard’s elevation of Buckingham to power supplanted Hastings, who had enjoyed the same privileges under Edward IV. This led Hastings to side with his former adversaries, the Woodvilles, in the spring of 1483 in a conspiracy against Richard. Most of the council members supported Richard’s actions with regard to Hastings and the other conspirators.
According to Shakespeare, the next victims of Richard were the little princes. So much controversy surrounds the princes that even More, Richard’s most vocal detractor, had his reservations. More stated that many in that time remained in doubt about whether or not the princes had been destroyed in Richard’s reign. However, Shakespeare does not mince Richard’s words; he announces to Buckingham, “I wish the bastards dead” (act IV, scene ii). The fates of the princes; when, where and by whom they died, or if they outlived their paternal uncle are unknown. Kendall states “the problem [of the princes] owns more shades than are represented by the all black or all white which have hitherto usually been employed in attempts to solve this famous enigma.” Although Richard would have profited from the young princes’ death, the fact was that he was already acknowledged king while the princes were alive. The existence of the princes was more of a threat to Richard’s enemies.
Next, Shakespeare’s Richard muses at the beginning of the play of Anne Neville that, “I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long” (act I, scene ii). Both More and Vergil state that Richard caused rumours to spread during Anne’s life that she was dead, and shortly after the rumours began, Anne did indeed die.,
In several ways, Anne’s role in the play is just to demonstrate another facet of Richard’s perversity. Surprisingly, Shakespeare doesn’t make much of Anne’s death in that it does not send shockwaves throughout the plot except that her death frees Richard to marry his niece Elizabeth. Today, it is believed that Anne suffered from tuberculosis, which is contagious, and the Croyland Chronicle reports that doctors advised Richard to avoid Anne’s bed.
Shakespeare’s Richard’s last victim was Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham. Shakespeare has Buckingham lose Richard’s favour when he balks at killing the two princes and goes a step too far when he requests the earldom of Hereford, when in truth, Buckingham’s ill-starred rebellion in the autumn of 1483 was the cause of his death.
It is no wonder that the reputation of Richard reached its lowest point in the sixteenth century.
The Usurpation Of The Throne
In the penultimate scene of Henry VI, Part III, as Richard kills Henry VI, he reveals that he will do away with his brothers and secure the throne for himself, and from the opening scene of Richard III, Shakespeare’s Richard continues with his plots and whittles away at the line of succession until he attains the throne.
More stated that Richard “long time in King Edward [IV]’s life, forethought to be king”, however, two months after Edward’s death, government was still being carried out in the name of his son Edward V.
It was in June of that year, that evidence of Edward IV’s precontract was revealed. Richard’s seizure of the throne was necessary, given that his nephew, the as-yet-to-be crowned king, was found to be illegitimate by the evidence of a bishop, a man of God. According to More, it was a precontract with one of Edward’s mistresses, an Elizabeth Lucy – not Eleanor Butler – which Richard used to declare his nephews illegitimate. Shakespeare goes one step further by saying that it was a Lady Lucy and Bona of Savoy, sister of Louis XI of France, who, in reality, was Louis’s sister-in-law. Additionally, the actions of the Woodville clan in the days following Edward IV’s death clearly indicate that they intended to make young Edward a Woodville puppet-king, beyond the council of Richard, the Lord Protector.
According to Jeremy Potter, Richard took, “the crown with widespread support and little bloodshed…. Its constitutional validity apart, his assumption of the crown may be judged as sensible and perhaps even inevitable.”
Shakespeare’s Other Errors
Not only does Shakespeare attribute a number of crimes to Richard of which he is almost definitely innocent, but the play also contains other errors, omissions, and oversights.
Shakespeare’s Richard III opens with Clarence’s arrest, which occurred in early 1478, yet the play moves back in time to 1471 in the next scene as Richard woos Anne at the funeral of Henry VI (the couple married in 1472).
In act I, scene i of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard states, “I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter. What though I kill’d her husband and her father?” This statement is confusing as Shakespeare clearly knows that Anne is Warwick’s daughter, however, he then has Richard state that he killed Anne’s father, Warwick. In Henry VI, Part III, Warwick is mortally wounded off stage at the Battle of Barnet and Hall states that Warwick, “was in the midst of enemies stricken down and slain”. Like Somerset, Warwick does not appear at the end of the play Richard III (Perhaps there were not enough actors to play all the ghosts?) and this possible crime is ignored as it pales in comparison to two regicides, a fratricide, a long-planned matricide and other innocent victims’ murders. The error might be that Warwick’s death is incorrectly attributed to Richard in the play as Shakespeare had an aversion to the term “in-law”, the term only appears three times in the play, yet the play teems with Woodvilles and other in-laws. Shakespeare’s Richard often calls Elizabeth Woodville his sister and she refers to Richard as her brother, and, as previously mentioned, Bona of Savoy is called Louis of France’s sister.
Also in this scene, Edward of Lancaster is referred to as Anne’s husband. Anne was betrothed to Edward and the marriage did not take place due to the prince’s death in 1471.
The creation of Richard as Lord Protector was added to Edward IV’s will only a few days before Edward’s death and it appears that Richard was not aware of the formal appointment until he received a note from Hastings who informed him of his appointment as protector and urged him to secure the young king. However in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Elizabeth states the Prince of Wales’ “minority is put unto the trust of Richard Gloucester,” (act I, scene i). This scene occurs before Clarence’s death, which occurred in 1478, five years before Edward IV’s death.
Incidentally, Edward survived Clarence by more than five years, whereas Shakespeare makes the announcement of Clarence’s death directly related to the cause of Edward’s death. Still upon the subject of Clarence’s death, Robert Brackenbury did not become Constable of the Tower until July 17, 1483, which meant he did not hold this position during the time of Clarence’s imprisonment or death.
Grey and others refer to Lord Stanley as Derby (act I, scene iii), however, Stanley did not become the Earl of Derby until Richmond, as Henry VII, made him so. Additionally, William Stanley, Thomas’s brother and Richmond’s step-uncle, does not appear in the play, yet it was due to William’s intervention that the Battle of Bosworth Field was a victory for the Tudor usurper.
In the third scene of act I, Hastings says to Elizabeth that King Edward, “desires to make atonement betwixt the Duke of Gloucester and your brothers” referring to Rivers and Grey who are in the scene, however, Grey was Elizabeth’s son by her first marriage, not her brother. Shakespeare remains ambiguous on the relationship between Grey and Elizabeth throughout the play.
In act II, scene iii, three citizens discuss the events unfolding in the play and one remarks that Henry VI was crowned in Paris at nine months old. Henry’s French coronation was in 1431, when he was 10 years old.
At the end of act II, a messenger announces to Elizabeth and others that Rivers, Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan are sent to Pomfret. The Woodville conspirators were actually first detained at Sheriff Hutton and then moved to Pomfret/Pontefract only for their executions.
The third act of Richard III weaves back and forth in time, showing Shakespeare’s cavalier approach to chronology. The scenes of act III – in true chronological order – begin with young Edward’s arrival (scene i), then Hastings’s execution (scene iv), next the Duke of York’s release into Richard’s custody (scene i), then Buckingham informing the citizens of the princes’ illegitimate births (scene v), followed by the Woodville conspirators executed at Pomfret/Pontefract (scene iii). The act ends with Buckingham “persuading” Richard to take the throne (scene vii). The manipulation of time makes the plots of Shakespeare’s Richard and Buckingham easier to recognise and to see that a grand plan was unfolding.
In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Buckingham assures young Edward that Julius Caesar began construction on the Tower of London (act III, scene i). The Tower of London was actually begun by the eleventh-century conqueror, William I. Additionally, the Tower did not gain its gruesome reputation until the time of the Tudors and Stuarts. In the Middle Ages, it was used primarily as a royal power base in London and a residence.
Act IV opens with Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, Dorset, Anne, and Clarence’s daughter Margaret trying to visit the princes who are lodged in the Tower of London. Dorset’s presence in this scene is inaccurate as he fled England immediately after leaving sanctuary. Dorset’s visit, along with his mother’s, to the Tower would have been extremely risky.
The Duchess of York commits two errors in this same scene. She states “my niece Plantagenet, led in the hand of her kind aunt of Gloucester” referring to Margaret, her granddaughter, as her niece, additionally the Duchess states, “Eighty odd years of sorrow have I seen” when she was in fact in her late sixties at this time.
In act IV, Shakespeare’s Richard states “The son of Clarence have I pent up close; his daughter meanly have I match’d in marriage.” Edward, Earl of Warwick and son of Clarence, was, at one time, the heir apparent after the death of Richard’s son. It does appear that Edward was detained by Richard, but Richard previously had treated the earl well and his imprisonment was due to the plots of Richard’s enemies surrounding Edward that led Richard to detain his nephew. Margaret, Clarence’s daughter, was married in 1494, nine years after Bosworth, to Richard Pole, son of Margaret Beaufort’s half-sister.
In act IV, scene iv, Elizabeth accuses Richard of, “the dire death of my two sons and brothers”. Richard was responsible for only one of Elizabeth’s brothers’ death, that of Anthony, Earl Rivers, however this might be a repetition of Shakespeare’s error concerning Grey’s relationship to Elizabeth. The line could also be in reference to Elizabeth’s brother Lionel, Bishop of Salisbury, who was implicated in Buckingham’s rebellion and was forgiven the penalty of death as he was a cleric, but had to forfeit the revenues of his ecclesiastic office. Perhaps Lionel’s natural death in 1484 led Shakespeare to accuse Richard of this death.
Shakespeare’s Richard’s romancing of his niece Elizabeth is also inaccurate. When rumours of Richard’s interest in Elizabeth began in early 1485, Richard publicly denounced the allegations.
The year 1484 and the early part of 1485 are glossed over in the play as the princes’ alleged deaths in the summer of 1483 and Anne’s death in early 1485 (act IV, scene iii) are treated as having happened within days of one another and Buckingham’s rebellion and his subsequent execution in November 1483 at the beginning of act V is immediately followed by Richmond’s invasion of August 1485.
In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the central character’s physical characteristics bear a strong resemblance to a fifteenth-century Quasimodo. Richard states;
But I, that am notshaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, (act I, scene i)
It is stated by a few contemporary accounts (and some neglect the issue of his appearance) that Richard was physically deformed, one shoulder being higher than the other. However several contemporary sources comment on Richard’s strength and ability in wielding weapons which would be difficult to do with a severe physical deformity. There is even the theory that his physical deformity resulted from becoming so skilled with weapons that one side of his body became more muscular as a result. The fact that sources cannot agree on which shoulder was higher shows that there were few accurate accounts of the monarch, least of all Shakespeare’s one.
To conclude the matter of Richard’s appearance, the diary of Nicolas von Poppelau, a Silesian knight, who visited England in 1484, reported that “Richard was three fingers taller than [Poppelau] but a little thinner and not so thickset, also much more lean; he had delicate arms and legs, also a great heart.” This description is of note as Poppelau was a foreigner and had little to gain by making a flattering portrait, so why not tell the truth.
Richmond’s usurpation of the throne had to be justified; to do that for his audience, Shakespeare had to portray Richard as the embodiment of evil, Richard had to be the polar opposite of Richmond – to misquote the Bard, Shakespeare was determined to prove Richard a villain.
According to Caroline A. Halsted;
The earliest printed chronicles relating to the period under consideration were not published until after the accession of the Tudor dynasty, when it was the interest of the writers to secure popularity by aspersing the character of Richard III and perpetuating every report that could strengthen the cause of the reigning sovereign and justify the deposal and death of his rival.
Richard is unique in Shakespeare’s works; he is evil, pure and unadulterated. He is untouched by tragedy or beauty, and not until it is too late, the last night of his scarred existence on earth, and the last of his wicked deeds is finished, is he shown to have a shred of conscience. Shakespeare’s Richard is not human; his twisted mind matches his twisted body, both of which are a poor cast of a human. What Shakespeare’s Richard lacks in pathos, he “makes up” in villainy.
The play Richard III is a culmination of a growing and twisting horror, Shakespeare’s Richard kills off the characters stained by the lingering guilt of the Wars of the Roses, purging the kingdom to make it ready for the Tudors. Innocence is revenged by Richmond’s conquest of the royal house of York.
In conclusion, it is precisely because of Shakespeare’s enduring popularity and continuing importance that the facts and the truth behind the play must continue to be examined. For many people, Shakespeare’s Richard III is the only exposure that they have to the king and the surrounding legends of the period. As Horace Walpole wrote, Shakespeare’s immortal scenes will exist, when such poor arguments as his (and ours) will be forgotten, while on stage, before audiences, Richard will be tried and executed as his defence remains on some obscure shelf of a library.
As Samuel Johnson said in Mr. Johnson’s Preface To His Edition Of Shakespear’s Plays (1765) of Shakespeare, he “sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct.”
 Phyllis Rackin. Stages Of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles. New York; Cornell University Press, 1990, page #93.
 Roxane C. Murph. Richard III: The Making Of A Legend. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1977, page #31.
 P.W. Hammond. “The Reputation of Richard III” in Richard III: A Medieval Kingship. John Gillingham (ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, page #140.
 Peter Ackroyd. The Life Of Thomas More. London: Vintage, 1998, page #156.
 Louis B. Wright (ed.). The Tragedy Of Richard The Third By William Shakespeare. New York: Washington Square Press, 1960, page #xiv.
 Caroline Halsted. Richard III, (Volume II). Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1977, page #483.
 Paul Murray Kendall (ed.). Richard III: The Great Debate. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965, page #8.
 Anthony Cheetham. The Life And Times Of Richard III. New York: Welcome Rain, 1998, pages #72.
 Thomas More. “The History Of King Richard The Third” in Richard III: The Great Debate. Paul Murray Kendall (ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965, page #36.
 Richard III Society Speakers’ Notes, 1988, page #12.
 “George, duke of Clarence” Encyclopaedia Britannica CD-ROM (2002).
 Murph. Richard III, page#21.
 Ibid, page #22.
 Ibid, Richard III, page #46.
 Paul Murray Kendall. Richard III. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1955, page #418.
 More. “The History Of King Richard The Third”, page #129.
 Polydore Vergil. Three Books Of Polydore Vergil’s English History Comprising The Reigns Of Henry VI, Edward IV And Richard III. Henry Ellis (ed.). Camden Society, 1844, page #152.
 Richard III Society, page #14.
 Hammond. “The Reputation of Richard III”, page #138.
 More. “The History Of King Richard The Third”, page #36.
 Jeremy Potter. Good King Richard? London: Constable, 1983, page #36.
 Murph. Richard III, page #16.
 John Julius Norwich. Shakespeare’s Kings. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999, page #357.
 Horace Walpole. “Historic Doubts On The Life And Reign Of King Richard The Third” in Richard III: The Great Debate. Paul Murray Kendall (ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965, page #197.
 E.F. Jacob. The Oxford History of England: The Fifteenth Century 1399-1485, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, page #631.
 Dominic Mancini. The Usurpation Of Richard III. C.A.J. Armstrong (ed). Oxford: Claredon Press, 1969, page #137.
 Halsted. Richard III, (Volume I), page #288.
 Rackin. Stages Of History, pages #64-65.
 Walpole. “Historic Doubts”, page #227.