Richard III. Evil: Inherent or learned?

One of the questions that arose for me when seeing the Peter Evans production of Richard III was: Was Richard inherently evil or is it learned behaviour?

Richard was party to the killing of his father, his  two brothers, his nephews and others. He lusted after his brothers wife even before his brother was dead. He plotted, schemed, undermined authority until he had achieved his life goal; becoming King.

There is no doubt that in this production, Richard was indeed an evil person.However, do we just look at the final product, or do we look at what makes an evil person.

Richard was hated by most people even from birth:

Queen Margaret in Act 4, Scene 4.
“Then forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death—
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood;
That excellent grand tyrant of the earth,
That reigns in gallèd eyes of weeping souls;
That foul defacer of God’s handiwork
Thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves.
O upright, just, and true-disposing God,
How do I thank thee that this carnal cur
Preys on the issue of his mother’s body
And makes her pew-fellow with others’ moan!”
Queen Margaret somewhat blames Richard’s mother for giving birth to him. Others throughout the play refer to him as a dog, a toad and worse. His own mother speaks ill of him.
Lady Anne calls him a foul devil, a lump of foul deformity. She called him foul of heart and wishes he kill himself. Anne says he is unfit for any place but hell. She calls him a foul toad and begs him to leave as seeing him infects her eyes. Act 1 Scene 2

Picture Credit: Prudence Upton, The Guardian.

His initial speech in Act 1 Scene 1 tells me something of the character of Richard.
“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villian,
And hater the idle pleasures of these days”….. Lines 28-31
and again
“And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous”….Line 36-37
He has become evil due to his malformation, due to his being hated by a nation, including his own mother.
“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,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them”
According to Shakespeare, Richard III was a despicable creature that was ill formed and totally disliked. Richard had tried to win the love of his family, he wanted to be loved. He wanted to win a maiden’s heart but none would have him.
While  I do not agree with his decision to become evil, nor the actions that prove that he genuinely is, I feel empathy toward him. I can understand that if he cannot win the love of the ones he loves, then he is forced to hate… as much as they do.
The difference between Richard, and others of us in society rejected and hated by family, is that Richard chose the route of evil and treachery. I chose the route of ignoring what others say by doing good and achieving unexpected milestones. I don’t hate those who have rejected me, I am upset that those whom I thought were close are not here to share the journey.
Sometimes water proves thicker than blood.


Filed under Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature

4 responses to “Richard III. Evil: Inherent or learned?

  1. Hi Dave,

    I found the question of Richard III’s character a difficult one to assess. As you correctly point out, he was party to the murders of his father, two brothers, nephews, Lady Anne Neville and her loyal supporters, which immediately conjures an image of a vile and sadistic person!

    Peter Evans’ production of Richard III at the Sydney Opera House personified Richard as a complex, multi-faceted human being! At times I understood him, other times I detested his vile, misogynist machinations. As Michael Griffith points out in his assessment of the production, “Richard himself… seemed to draw the audience’s sympathies through his/her macabre sense of humour” It is also interesting to note in the programme, that Peter Evans compares his portrayal of Richard to that of Donald Trump’s accession to the presidency, which gives rise to a whole new discussion for another day!

    As to your question of whether we look at the final product or analyse what constitutes an evil person? My response to this question is BOTH! Yes, both! The final scene of the play which poignantly portrays Richard in his dying moments is an addition by Peter Evans. At the play’s conclusion, I recall feeling a new-found sympathy for Richard. In the original version, his final words are: “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (Act 5, Scene 4), which elicited for me, a less than sympathetic response.

    I understand your empathy toward Richard and can appreciate your thoughts: ” I can understand that if he cannot win the love of the ones he loves, then he is forced to hate.” Likewise, your choice to “follow the route of ignoring what others say by doing good and achieving unexpected milestones” beautifully sums up your point of view in this blog. It will well-written, thought out and produced.

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  3. An outstanding critique of the production in the context of many different interpretations of the play text. Excellent work David.

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