Richard III

Dublin Core


Richard III


By William Shakespeare


A multimedia exploration of educational tools relating to Shakespeare's "Richard III"


Juliet Way-Henthorne




Physical Mutilation, Vengeance, and Technological Advancement in Shakespeare’s “Richard III”

William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” offers one of literature’s greatest villains with the ingenious, scheming Richard, Duke of Gloucester, whose treachery and plotting leads to the downfall of the House of York in the wake of the War of the Roses. Indeed, it is Richard’s intelligence, skillful manipulation, and playful interaction with the audience that has led this tragedy to endure the test of time, as it continues to influence popular culture even today through multiple adaptations, as well as inspiring characters like the nefarious Francis Underwood (ironically played by Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey) in the Netflix hit series, "House of Cards," which demonstrates the lasting power of Shakespeare’s works over mass media. However, beyond Richard’s ability to skillfully manipulate the human pawns in his grand schemes, his motivation stems from his physical deformity, which is depicted in a number of items associated with Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” as well as complementing a collection of multimedia tools that reflect the continuing impact of such a widely referenced work.

Beginning with a ceramic sculpture of famed actor David Garrick (1717-1779) as Richard III (dated 1772), this collection provides a carefully crafted representation of the evolution of Richard III as the character relates to each era of his existence. In this sculpture of Garrick as Richard during battle, an excess of color is used, depicting an elaborately dressed Richard who, while skilled in games of the mind, is not skilled in games of war. With flushed cheeks and a limping leg representing the physical deformity that Richard describes as his being “cheated of feature by dissembling nature,” the villain seems hugely out of place on the battlefield (1.1.19)

Similarly, in a later piece simply called “Richard III figurine” (which is also owned by the Victoria & Albert Museum and dated 1880), Richard again appears apprehensive, elaborately clothed in a flamboyant costume befitting the court, with a dagger tucked into his belt. Additionally, Richard’s deformity is represented through a limping leg which, when paired with a hunched back, serves as the primary motive for his villainy:
“Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days” (1.1.24-31).
In these lines, audiences are able to gain an understanding of the impetus behind Richard’s evil acts; he feels that he has been neglected by nature and, therefore, reasons that he too may behave in unnatural ways, which encapsulates audiences’ fascination with darkness, deformity, and the desire for revenge. A final depiction of Richard’s physical form can be found in The Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Edmund Kean as Richard in Richard III by William Shakespeare,” which, through oil painting, again captures the Duke’s deformity through unusual posture and a bulging back, which is partially obscured by ornate, jeweled cloaks. Through these physical depictions of Richard III, an intense interest in his physical mutation is demonstrated, adding to the magnetism of such a physically and emotionally complex character.

Interestingly, this collection offers two sketches that incorporate elements of the Elizabethan stage, depicting the ways in which actors might move about the space to the greatest advantage. Simply titled “Richard III drawing," this first sketch by Henry Fuseli depicts Richard as he sleeps during the eve of the great final battle while the spirits of all who he has wronged hover about him. The set is described as illustrating the “spirits rising by his side in pairs, and passing beyond his feet towards an opening in the centre of the tent” (V&A). So, while this piece depicts both scene and emotion during a pivotal moment in the play, it also portrays the practicality of the Elizabethan set. Contrastingly, the “Morris Kestelman set design for Richard III” appears without characters and illustrates the Old Vic Theatre Company's production of “Richard III” at the New Theatre, London, in September 1944, demonstrating the value of careful stage management even beyond the Elizabethan stage, as the billowing tents create an eerie sense of pre-war anxiety. Further, technological advancements allowed set designers to utilize lighting in order to illustrate restlessness and breathe a sense of life into an otherwise vacant set. Interestingly, Morris Kestelman also drew a costume sketch of iconic theatre actress Vivien Leigh, who played opposite her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, as Lady Anne for many years. Though Vivien Leigh was an incredibly significant figure both on stage and in film, this sketch is particularly significant because it offers the only publicly available depiction of a female character from “Richard III.”

As media has evolved, so too have the ways in which audiences interact with “Richard III,” as well as all of Shakespeare’s plays. However, “Richard III” is, in itself, exceptional because the villain is so terrible -- committing multiple murders with a seemingly sound and cunning mind -- that actors through the ages have continued to prize this role. Beginning with The Old Vic Theatre Company in their first American radio appearance performing “Richard III” (starring Laurence Olivier), various forms of new media rose to enhance the audience’s experience with the play. With a dramatic reading, Olivier delivers an iconic performance that not only highlights the advancements in recording technology, but also proves that seemingly dated yet classic texts like those of William Shakespeare can still be accessed by a wider and perhaps less literarily inclined audience. In other words, forms of new media that carefully treat the works of Shakespeare serve as valuable educational tools, ultimately garnering a wider and more intrigued audience. Indeed, a high quality translation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is made freely available through public access via Folger Digital texts, making such tools of education more accessible and allowing readers to examine the play in a different manner; with the aid of a computer, particular words can be searched in order to trace themes, characters, or even to perform close readings with ease. And if a reader is inclined to dig even deeper, the application of digital humanities tools can be used to conduct distant readings through data mining and text analysis, which is only made possible through the simple transfer of PDF files like those offered by Folger Digital texts.

With regard to the contemporary significance of the play in popular culture, the role of Richard III remains so iconic that only some of the finest contemporary actors have been given the opportunity to play the villainous lead. The most notable of these actors -- Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ian McKellen, and Benedict Cumberbatch -- each offer a unique portrayal of Richard III, ranging from classic to modern interpretations that all preserve the essence of such an unusual villain marked by physical deformity and emotional disturbance, which lead to a twisted desire for vengeance and power. Moreover, with regard to animation, “Shakespeare’s The Animated Tales” provides high quality, condensed versions of Shakespeare’s works that, despite being abridged, cover all major plot points and help to preserve the spirit of the Shakespearean theatre while accessing a younger audience. Specifically, animation allows the darker undertones of the text to visually come to life, presenting the ways in which the application of popular media can enhance the lifespan of canonical works. To conclude, the most exciting aspect of the play’s preservation and even evolution is the fact that through modern technology, students, educators, and fans are able to access key scenes through YouTube and other publicly available media, marking this collection of artifacts relating to “Richard III” as both all-encompassing and a true representation of the ways in which an almost four-hundred-year-old text can be reinvented and given new life and meaning while still treating the original masterpiece with integrity and respect.

Collection Items

David Garrick as Richard III
Ceramic sculpture of David Garrick (1717-1779) as Richard III, dated 1772.

Richard III (1946), Radio drama
The Old Vic Theatre Company in their first American radio appearance performing Richard III, starring Laurence Olivier in the title role.
"Richard III (1946) - Radio drama starring Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson"

Richard III Drawing
Pen and ink drawing by Henry Fuseli of Richard III reclining as spirits surround him.

Richard III Figurine
Porcelain figurine of limping Richard III

PDF Version of The Tragedy of Richard III
High quality, free PDF version of William Shakespeare's Richard III, made available through Folger Digital Texts and Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare's The Animated Tales: Richard III
Educational Video and animated version of Richard III.

Edmund Kean as Richard in Richard III by William Shakespeare
Painting (oil on canvas) of Richard III

Morris Kestelman set design for Richard III
This design by Morris Kestelman (1905-1998) was for an interior scene in the Old Vic Theatre Company's production of Richard III at the New Theatre, London, in September 1944.

Vivien Leigh as Lady Anne in Richard III
Iconic actress Vivien Leigh as Lady Anne in Richard III; pastel on paper.

Richard III (Benedict Cumberbatch) dreams of the throne - The Hollow Crown: Episode 2 - BBC
A BBC interpretation of Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III as he speaks of his desire for the throne.
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