It never surprises me when my sympathies lean towards the villain rather than the hero in any play or novel that I read. However, there is something that stands out about Richard that makes him much more than “the bad guy”. I admire Richard because of his intelligence, lack of remorse, and deformities.
Richard is by far the most intelligent character in the play, and even if he was compared to other literary figures, he still ranks high above most. The average villain uses force to achieve power; Richard uses words. Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne is the most romantic and evocative dialogue I have ever read, and I consider it superior to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Richard is not Romeo; he is not rash, inexperienced, or young. He is calculating, and understands what will make a “woman’s heart grossly grow captive to his honey words”. Richard is not only skilled in the art of courting, but also in politics. He can analyze a situation and immediately thinks of the solution from which he will derive the most gain. He plays Hastings against the Queen’s kinsmen, uses Edward to kill Clarence, and relies on Buckingham until the prize is his. The other characters bend to his authority, whether they realize it or not. When I saw this play performed, I could see the other characters cringe from him as he walked past, bowing in deference. Richard was king long before the crown was on his head.
This is not to say that Richard would have no power were he mute. He is a military genius, and watching the play performed impressed the audience about his power on the battlefield. He is sure of himself and in his element when in battle. “Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!” When Richmond deposes him, it comes as a great disappointment to the audience. Richmond is too pure and too perfect, and not anywhere near as entertaining as Richard.
If there is anything Richard lacks, it is a conscience, which makes him stand out against the host of literary villains. I usually find myself sympathizing with the villain, pitying his situation and wondering how different his life would have been if people would have treated him with the respect he deserves. Not so with Richard. Richard makes no excuse for his cruelties; in fact, he is “determined to prove a villain” only because Richard “in this weak, piping time of peace, have no delight to pass away the time”. The reason behind his atrocious deeds is because he is bored. Having been born during war, it is only recently that he is used to peace. As a military mastermind, he is not needed during amity. Therefore, he sets about to create his own discord, and he never turns back. Characters who show remorse for what they have done or who constantly complain about their situation do not elicit pity in me. While, morally speaking, it is virtuous when a villain repents, it personally angers me. If a villain is going to kill people and ruin lives, he should mean it, and never go back on his deeds. If a villain repents, then the evil that he has done has been for nothing. The wickedness that has been created should serve some purpose. Richard commits no extraneous murders; everything he did was necessary to gain him the crown. He never regrets what he has done, and it takes a horde of angry ghosts to shake him. Yet he quickly recovers and mocks his lapse in character, saying, “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe”. Richard reasons that he has done his victims a favor, by sending them by delivering them “from this earth’s thralldom to the joys of heaven”. If Richard were to repent, he would become a weak character, and one would be glad to see him overthrown. However, his desire for the crown and the ferocity for which he fights to keep it almost make allowances for his atrocities. After all, if someone wants something that badly, they should be rewarded with it.
Richard is so deformed “that dogs bark at me as I halt by them”. His “arm is like a blasted sapling withered up”. His legs are of unequal lengths, causing him to limp, and he is a hunchback. But this hardly stops him, and he never pleads for pity about what nature has given him. The only reason the reader is reminded of it is because his enemies point it out at every opportunity. This not only shows the lack of intelligence of the other characters, but it also elicits pity from the reader. Richard’s enemies constantly call him “abortive”, “bunch-backed”, and “foul toad”. They do not have the intellect to insult him about his deeds, resorting to the most base of slurs. This causes the reader to side with Richard, since today’s audience is less tolerant of taunts against something a person has no control over. Richard’s maturity also shines through, since he never responds with a like retort, rather insulting their mind or deeds. He never complains, either to himself or to others, of this mistreatment. One scene that I found particularly depressing was when Richard came to greet the princes, going to such lengths as to joke and play with his nephews. While young Richard has witty replies for his uncle, Prince Edward tries to make apologize, saying, “Uncle, your Grace knows how to bear him.” Young Richard then replies that his uncle “should bear me on your shoulders” and jumps on his back. This gives Richard excruciating pain and causes him to fall to the ground, and the reader begins to agree with Richard’s earlier aside: “So wise so young, they say do ne’er live long.”
When I saw this play performed, the actor had a set of crutches with which he moved around. In every film production I have watched, I have only seen the actors limp, and I think that crutches are much more effective. Richard’s actions become very fluid and graceful when given crutches, and it makes him more ethereal than the other actors, which must stomp around the stage. It is also a constant reminder to the audience of his handicap, and drives the point home that Richard is an extraordinary man; it is difficult for a normal man to claim the crown, but for a cripple to accomplish that feat is astounding. Richard was very natural with his crutches; he knew how to use them effectively and was able to do more with them than most could imagine, showing that he had grown used to his disabilities and had learned how to conquer it. His deformities earn both my compassion and my respect.
So, while most characters escape my memory minutes after I place the book down, Richard is someone who has “haunted me in my sleep to undertake the death of all the world, so I might live one hour” with him. I admire him for his brilliance, lack of repentance, and ability to take the hand life has dealt him and put it towards his advantage. Shakespeare did not only create the perfect villain; he created the perfect man.