The Tragedy of Richard III; A Simple Character Analysis From One of Shakespeare’s Histories

King Richard III.jpg
A 3-D Facial Reconstruction of King Richard III

Richard plots to have his brother Clarence, who stands before him in the line of succession, conducted to the Tower of London over a prophecy he bribed a soothsayer to finagle the suspicious King with: that “G of Edward’s heirs the murders shall be”, which the king interprets as referring George of Clarence, without realizing it actually refers to Gloucester, as in Duke of Gloucester who is Richard.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, proves to inspire anyone with true Machiavellian destiny. He is deceitful, treacherous, and “rudely stamped.” Since Richard is not made “to court an amorous Looking-glasse” he will spend his day filled with deception and treacherous plots, but his deformity runs much deeper than the superficial; he lacks a conscience. Freud termed this absence as “superego lacunae” or what embryologists term a “monstra in defectu” as well as a “monstra in excessu.”

“Since I cannot prove a Lover,
To entertaine these faire well spoken dayes,
I am determined to prove a Villaine,
and hate the idle pleasure of these dayes.
Plots have I laide, Inductions dangerous,
By drunken Prophesies, Libels, and Dreames,
To set my Brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate, the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just,
As I am Subtle, False, and Treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’ed up:
About a Prophesie, which sayes that G,
Of Edwards heyeres the murder shall be….”

Shakespeare is still inspiring modern day screen writers. A recent released episode of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders entitled “Obey” depicted a Jamaican man haunted by the ghosts of people he recently murdered. This theme echoes the tragic motif of a classic  Shakespearean tragedy.

It is safe to assume that Richard may be a paranoid schizoid, at least the way Shakespeare chose to depict him. Since the Shakespearean tragedies are tied to identity, and when I say identity I mean personality, it is very likely Shakespeare thought him a true “criminal mind.” Here is a description of Shakespearean Richard as given by one source:

“Assisted by his cousin Buckingham, Richard mounts a campaign to present himself as the true heir to the throne, pretending to be a modest, devout man with no pretensions to greatness. Lord Hastings, who objects to Richard’s accession, is arrested and executed on a trumped-up charge of treason. Together, Richard and Buckingham spread the rumor that Edward’s two sons are illegitimate, and therefore have no rightful claim to the throne; they are assisted by Catesby, Ratcliffe, and Lovell. The other lords are cajoled into accepting Richard as king, in spite of the continued survival of his nephews (the Princes in the Tower).”

This is a conniving psychopath, and I can make the leap here, a malevolent psychopath with the knowledge that he purposely poisons a “pawn“ in order to gain access to another victim.

The Tragedy of Richard III is meant to be a literary tragedy not true to actual events and which allows us to conduct a character analysis. Shakespeare provides us with an example of what it is like to come in close intimate contact with a paranoid schizoid. Richard no longer believes, or perhaps never believed, in the importance of establishing truthful intimate relationships with others. The schizoid sees relationships as merely as means to an end. A way to achieve , or lose,  those people or things the schizoid needs or desires to gain or dispose of . Like pawns in a chess game, strategic operations and facades take the place of sincerity and genuine loving gifts like trust, honesty, mercy, and faith. All these gifts are seen as irrelevant as they are not conducive to achieving successful outcomes when playing social games. Therefore, game theory is a big part of the sophisticated paranoid schizoid repertoire. He or she knows how to lie, how to detect a lie, and more importantly, how to deal with a lie effectively and efficiently. This doesn’t necessarily always mean murder. It could be an effective strategic campaign of liable against a victim, negative propaganda if you will. If the people who play these types of games do possess a conscience, they learn how to partition off feelings much like a doctor or a professional nurse will do, or even a king. This is otherwise known as compartmentalizing, or segregating feelings into those feelings which are beneficial to successful outcomes and repressing those feelings that will lead us to our demise. The paranoid schizoid learns how to quickly control the later, and perhaps the most successful social person learns how to extinguish feelings for individuals who do not benefit their best outcomes. Since King Richard was killed at 32 years of age, perhaps this suggests he wasn’t as skilled at social games as one would like to think.  In addition, some individuals are susceptible to the downfall of delusions, believing in false notions and ideas that will never materialize in true reality, allowing for the outcomes the game player wish for to remain illusive. This holds the greatest threat to any agent working to establish dominance, superiority, and power. Since feelings become irrelevant, was King Richard blinded by a soft heart, or misled through cunning deception? Thinking through strategic outcomes means everything! If you can imagine a spy in a foreign country playing for power, knowledge, and dominance you can see that “the player king” is a socially important skill.

Perhaps King Richard wasn’t truly the ruthless ruler Shakespeare made him out to be. Though Shakespeare describes the king as an “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,” the reconstructed Richard has a pleasant, almost feminine face, with youthful skin and thoughtful eyes. His right shoulder is slightly higher than the left, a consequence of scoliosis, but the difference is barely visible.

“I think the whole Shakespearean view of him as being sort of monster-like was based more on his personality than his physical features,” said Caroline Wilkinson, the University of Dundee facial anthropologist.

“We make judgments about people all the time from looking at their appearance,” she said. “In Richard’s case, up to now his image has been quite negative. This offers a new context for considering him from the point of view of his anatomical structure rather than his actions. He had quite an interesting face.”

Most people’s impression of Richard’s personality comes from Shakespeare’s play, in which the maligned ruler utters such memorable lines as “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York,” and “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

But how would the real Richard III have expressed himself? Did he have an accent? Was there any sense of personality or passion in his choice of words?

To find out more about the mysterious monarch, a historical linguist analyzed the only two known examples of Richard III’s writing.  Both are postscripts on letters otherwise composed by secretaries—one in 1469, before Richard became king, and one from 1483, the first year of his brief reign.

What was identified was a quirk of spelling that suggests that Richard may have spent time in the West Midlands, or perhaps had a tutor who hailed from there.

Looking to compare the way he spells things with the way his secretaries spell things, working on the assumption that he would have been schooled to a fairly high level.

In the 1469 letter, Richard spells the word “will” as “wule,” a variation associated with the West Midlands. But Shaw also notes that by 1483, when Richard wrote the second letter’s postscript, he had changed his spelling to the more standard “wyll” (the letters ‘i’ and ‘y’ were largely interchangeable during that period of Middle English).

This could suggest something about him brushing up over the years, or moving toward what would have been the educated standard, the handwriting in the second example also appears a bit more polished. One wonders what sort of practice and teaching he’d had in the interim.

Although it’s hard to infer tone of voice from written letters, there is certainly emotion in the words penned by Richard III.

In the 1469 letter, the 17-year-old seeks a loan of 100 pounds from the king’s undertreasurer. Although the request is clearly stated in the body of the letter, Richard adds an urgent P.S.: “I pray you that you fail me not now at this time in my great need, as you will that I show you my good lordship in that matter that you labour to me for.”

That could either be a veiled threat (If you don’t lend me the money, I won’t do that thing you asked me to do) or friendly cajoling (Come on, I’m helping you out with something, so help me out with this loan).

His decision to take the pen himself shows you how important that personal touch must have been in getting people to do something.

The second letter, written to King Richard’s chancellor in 1483, also conveys a sense of urgency. He had just learned that the Duke of Buckingham—once a close ally—was leading a rebellion against him.

He’s asking for his Great Seal to be sent to him so that he can use it to give out orders to suppress the rebellion. Richard calls the Duke ‘the most untrue creature living.’ You get a sense of how personally let down and betrayed he feels.

The facial reconstruction combined with careful study of his personal letters will help humanize Richard III. He probably wasn’t quite the villain that Shakespeare portrays, but perhaps quite ruthless. But you probably couldn’t afford to be a very nice man if you wanted to survive as a king in those days.

Skeltal Remains King Richard III.jpg

In 2012 archaeologists peeled back a parking lot to excavate a skeleton buried among relics of the Greyfriars Friary in Leicester, England. DNA tests confirmed that it was that of King Richard III.
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