The Richard plays, Richard II and Richard III, are clearly crucial to the story of the creation of the canon. Historically, they function as something of a pair––both tragedies, though of a very different sort, the one beginning the series of eight plays about the last of the Plantagenet kings, the other ending it. Both deserve to be included among his masterpieces, still produced on a regular basis, but again, so very different.
Both were registered in October 1597 by the same publisher within nine days of each other. Both were printed anonymously shortly after in quarto by the same printer. The fact that the following year they were also the first of the Shakespeare plays to be published as by William Shake-speare suggests that they share another kind of importance that has yet to be fully understood. Most interesting to authorship scholars, on both title pages this first use of the name as playwright was hyphenated––so whatever orthodoxy may try to make of it, the fact remains that it was as by “Shake-hyphen-speare” that the canon was launched in publishing history.
By itself, Richard III is unique within the Shakespeare repertory in a number of ways that scholars note but can’t explain. That it was the first to be published as by Shakespeare is probably the most significant, but it’s also the second longest play in the canon (Hamlet is the longest). And there’s the immense size of the cast in the Folio version: including the lesser roles, 57 speaking parts. Of course many of the smaller roles were covered by doubling, but even so, that’s roughly triple the size of any theater company of the time. While the Quarto version can be played by ten actors and two boys, the immense size of the Folio cast would seem to point to some grand occasion that called for a combination of two adult companies. Or else, like so many of the longer plays, the Folio version was intended more for readers than for actors.
What’s rarely noted is that Richard III is Shakespeare’s only play in which the protagonist is the villain (his other major villain, Iago, shares that honor with his victim). Other negative protagonists range from misguided (Othello) to lunatic (Leonatus) to pig-headed (Coriolanus) to wrong-headed (Lear), but only this one is utterly wicked and without a single redeeming quality. Largely for this reason, I never liked the play; possibly because the version I saw first was Olivier’s film. That terrible wig, that dreadful fake nose, that awful voice! Olivier was always inclined to be a little too crisp; with this role he used his stage diction like a weapon, spitting consonants like bullets and milking every line for supercilious nastiness. Surely in Act I Scene 2 the actor who plays Richard should show something of the wicked charm that overwhelms Queen Anne’s good sense. That Olivier makes him as smarmy as ever makes her look ten times the fool; makes us disgusted with her; made me dislike the play.
And it’s such an angry play! It’s not Shakespeare’s only angry play, but it’s different from the others. Titus Andronicus seems to have been written in a state of outrage, though over what it’s hard to tell. The Spanish Tragedy quivers with rage (yes, I know it’s supposed to be by Kyd, but come on! Who but Oxford could write like that in the ’80s?!) But where they seem to have been struck off in the heat of fury, this play was molded in ice by blasts of pure hatred. There is no good in anyone: Richard may be worse than the rest but only in degree. The one decent character, Richmond, the future Henry the Seventh, is a cardboard hero whose only dramatic purpose is to end the play with the announcement that things will be better under the Tudors.
Despite these failings, with eight editions from 1597 to 1629, (nine including the folio) and a record of production as active today as it was then, it’s obviously always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, both with the public and with scholars, though perhaps for different reasons. Because he sees it as lacking in the noble Greek qualities of “fear and pity” that predominate in tragedies like Lear and Othello, Churton Collins sees it as an early “immature” play (88), a view opposed by Hammond: “There is no sign of immaturity in the language of the play. Shakespeare achieves any effect he desires with remarkable subtlety and precision. . . . He is master of all” (115). Known for its use of rhetoric, it reminded Schiller of Greek tragedy. Harold Brooke called it “a work of outstanding technical virtuosity.” Richard III is not unique among the popular tragedies because (like Titus) it’s immature, it’s unique because it was written for a particular purpose, one that had no use for pity.
As we’ve noted many times, with Oxford as author we must find reasons for each play, mere commercial success isn’t enough––along with whatever social or political reasons spurred him, there must be personal reasons as well. So what caused him to write the version that appeared in the first quarto in 1597? In the process of rewriting the history plays originally written for the Queen’s Men in the ’80s, why did his revision of the much milder True Tragedy take this ferocious form? The answer lies in the events of the mid-1590s, chiefly in the rise to power of his crooked little cousin, Robert Cecil.