Richard III – Rise of a Tyrant


Back in 1995 I was invited by some friends to go and watch a cinematic production of Richard III at a small art-house theatre in one of Adelaide’s Eastern Suburbs. I had heard of Richard III (the King that is, but then again most of us who have watched Black Adder, or even paid attention to a particular carpark in England, have probably heard of the guy), however I had never actually seen the play. Being Shakespeare I had no problems going, however I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.


As it turned out I loved it. Basically it is a cut down version of the original play (it only runs for an 1:44) set in the 1930s, and like the play, chronicles the rise and fall of King Richard. However, as I suggested, it is set in the 1930s, so while it uses modern dress, and a setting, it is still holds a feel of a bygone age. In fact, by setting it in the 1930s it works to paint a similar feel as if we were watching the play when it was first performed. Mind you, it would have been nice for all of the history plays to have been done similarly (especially by placing Henry V into the trenches of World War I), however I guess that is just another one of my dreams.


Anyway, here is the trailer, just so you can get a gist of what it is like:

When I watched this film recently (I have watched it a couple of times now since I ordered it from Amazon), Ian McKellan has stood out a lot more. He certainly looks a lot younger than what I am used to seeing (such as in roles like Gandalf and Magneto). When I first saw the film I had never even heard of Ian McKellan, and in fact knew very little about him until he appeared as Magneto and Gandalf. Oh, Robert Downey Jnr also appears as Lord Rivers, though once again I wouldn’t have paid much attention to him until he hit the headlines with his drug convictions, and the fact that he happens to be Iron Man.

Come to think of it, maybe we should do a Shakespeare play comprised entirely of superheroes – nah, maybe not.



Now, like many of the movies that I have blogged about, I don’t intend it to be a review, and if you wish to read my review of this film you can find it here. However, what I also do is run through the plot, though the plot of Richard III can easily be summed up as follows: hideously deformed man plots and schemes to become king, but alienates everybody and is killed. We could also go to Wikipedia, but I feel that maybe I should give a bit more of a detailed outline here.
Anyway, the film opens during the battle of Tewksbury where Richard and his brother Edward storm the headquarters of the Lancastrian King, kills him, and effectively brings the War of the Roses to an end. However Edward is ill, but since he has a couple of children the line of succession is secure. The problem is that they are too young to take the throne, so require a regent, or Lord Protector, to rule the kingdom in their place until they come of age.
Richard is appointed to be Lord Protector in case anything happens to Edward, which not surprisingly is exactly what happens. With Edward out of the way, and pretty much holding the reigns of power, Richard then systematically removes anybody that could possibly challenge his rule. As for the princes, he puts them in the Tower of London, which at the time wasn’t actually a prison – just a castle. However, since Edward and Richard’s other brother, the duke of Clarence, was murdered (at Richard’s command) in the tower, the castle now has a rather dark and gloomy spectre over it.
With the princes, and any other potential challenger, out of the way Richard and his confidant the Duke of Buckingham politically manoeuvre the court to push for Richard to accept the crown. However Richard plays humble, which only encourages them to push him even more, so by feigning a measure of reluctance, Richard agrees to take the crown, and becomes king.



However, Richard peaks at his coronation, and from then on everything starts going down hill. He alienates his former allies, his wife dies of a drug overdose, and his enemies, who had marshalled their forces in France, land on the English beach and march on Richard’s army, meeting at Bodsworth Field. Then Richard finds himself in a losing position, screams out ‘a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’ and his promptly killed by Henry Tudor, who then goes on to become Henry VII.


The Setting

I find the style of using the 1930s as the setting for this particular movie works quite well as it gives us more of a perspective of what Richard’s ascent to the throne was all about. As I have mentioned, the 1930s, from the perspective of the modern audience, would have been similar to the perspective of the period of the War of the Roses from the audience in Shakespeare’s time. There was a significant time gap between the two events, and England had undergone a period of unprecedented stability with the rise of Henry V to the throne. This was the case with us, with a period of unprecedented prosperity between the turbulent era between the wars and 1995, when the film was released.
The film also puts Richard’s ascent to the throne using imagery that resonates with us, particularly with the huge red banners that hung from the ceiling when be proclaimed his intent to take the throne. Mind you, Richard wasn’t a fascist – the ideology simply didn’t exist back then – and he didn’t rise to power through a campaign of fear either. In fact, Richard wasn’t even elected (despite parliament, or at least a crude form of it, existing at the time), he was appointed, and obtained his position through political manoeuvring. The banners at his ascension are not meant to make us think that he is a fascist, but rather using symbols that we automatically connect with fascism to emphasise the nature of his tyranny.

Oh, it also makes for some pretty cool battle scenes, especially with the use of World War II-era tanks and planes.


As far as I am aware Richard III was one of the first movies to bring the setting into the modern world, and while I hadn’t seen all that many plays prior to this one (though I believe I saw a production of Hamlet when I was in high school, after studying Hamlet – and it was this play that turned me into a bit of a theatre buff, though I can be a bit of a snob, preferring professional productions over amateur productions), I have seen the occasional movie (though usually after I saw this one, even though they were released prior) and as far as I am aware they tend to all be in traditional settings. Richard III has in effect broken this mould, and in doing so demonstrates the timeless quality of Shakespeare’s plays, even the ones which form part of the history cycle.


There are a couple of other things that appear in the setting that I wish to touch upon, and one of them is the image of the boar that seems to appear every so often. We first see the boar when Richard enters the stables, and one of the soldiers is feeding an apple to it. The second time is when he is at the railway station and one of the young princes accidentally pushes him over, and then grabs him by his deformed arm, and he screams, however one of the witnesses then later has a dream that it wasn’t Richard screaming, but rather a boar. Finally, we see a stylised boar on the red banners during Richard’s ascension, which is meant to bring to mind the Nuremberg rallies, and the red banners bearing the Nazi Cross.
The use of the boar I believe represents a rule of brute force, and by connecting Richard to the boar demonstrates what type of leader that he is going to be. He is not a benevolent dictator, he is a brutal tyrant. When the dream of Richard appearing as a boar is shown it indicates what his character is really like. Okay, Richard is incredibly charming – he wouldn’t have got to where is was if he wasn’t. This wasn’t necessarily an England where the king got to his position through brute force alone, however it demonstrates what Richard will become once he has assumed the throne. In fact, this plays out as he goes pretty quickly from a charming, but manipulative, schemer, to what is in effect a brute – he takes on the characteristic of the boar, a brute monster that smashes through everything that stands in his way.
The other interesting image we see in the movie is that of the power plant, or more specifically the Battersea Powerplant (it certainly looked like that one, though for all I know there are probably a number of similar powerplants scattered across the English countryside). The power plant appears at two points in the movie, the first being a replacement for the Tower of London, and the second being Richard’s base during the battle of Bodsworth field.
Even though the Tower of London was (obviously) still standing in the 1930s, it didn’t provide a similar imposing feature – not like it did back during Shakespeare’s days when it was used as a prison (though even today the tower has an aura of dread over it). Further, it is clear that the filmmakers wished to try to keep as much of the film in a near-contemporary setting, so moving to the Tower probably wouldn’t have worked. However, this is different when we are dealing with an old abandoned power station. Similar to how the audience would have viewed the Tower of London back then (and there are even suggestions in the play that it was now haunted, thanks to the murder of Clarence) we would have a similar view of an abandoned power plant now.
We also have the power plant used at the end of the play, which no doubt provides a great background for an epic battle. However many of us, when we pass buildings from the industrial age, tend to view them as old and decrepit buildings with little use. As such they make a perfect place to stage a battle. As for the prison, the cold, empty rooms with no furnishing gives it a very bleak, and hopeless, feel about it.


Shakespeare’s Propaganda

I remember watching a documentary a while back that suggested that Richard III may not have been deformed, and that Shakespeare added this to make him appear more dastardly. However, that documentary was produced before we discovered his skeleton buried under a carpark in Leicester. Mind you, this discovery, as can be expected in the age of the internet and social media, spawned numerous jokes regarding the discovery, and it would probably be a good idea to reproduce at least one of them.
Anyway, now that we have his skeleton we can now find out whether Richard was actually deformed, or whether Shakespeare was simply using a bit of poetic license to create a monster. Well, it turns out that Shakespeare wasn’t actually making things up and it appears that Richard actually was a hunchback. Anyway, here is an image of his skeleton that I found on the internet.
Though this could always be a fake
Mind you, the main reason that Shakespeare’s depiction was debatable was that the portraits that we have don’t actually show him as being a hunchback, but then again that is probably not surprising considering most kings try to have themselves painted in the best possible light. Also, some contemporary sources suggest that he was a rather comely man who was a little short of statue, though as I have already mentioned the remains suggest otherwise.
The other interesting thing is that, at least considering the wikipedia article, Richard may not have been as bad a king as people made him out to be. The murder of the princes was never actually proven, and no evidence exists to suggest that he ever gave the order – our belief that he actually murdered the princes comes entirely from Shakespeare. The other this was that contemporary sources depict him as a rather competent king, not the raving mad man that we see in Shakespeare – the main reason that Bodsworth Field happened was not because he was a tyrant, but because the Yorkists, who had found themselves at the losing end of the War of the Roses, had some unfinished business.
However the picture we have of Richard is the picture that has been left to us by Shakespeare – the deformed manipulator who has no problems resorting to murder, even the murder of innocent children, to achieve his aims. However, while he is deformed, he is also incredibly charismatic, being able to persuade people to come onto his side, and play the room so as to garner support for taking the throne, without actually making it appear that he wanted the throne.
However, Shakespeare’s depiction is twofold. First of all the Tudors were the ultimate victors, and what he is effectively doing it painting the Lancasters as the villains and the Yorkists as the legitimate heirs to the throne. By turning Richard into an usurper, and a violent and cruel one at that, it solidifies and legitimises the Tudor’s claim to the throne. The other purpose was to remind his audience of the chaotic and violent days of the War of the Roses, which no doubt would have been in recent memory. While Elizabeth, and James, were pretty secure on the throne, there was still mutterings among certain groups that wanted them removed – however Shakespeare was warning them about going down such a path – the War of the Roses began with the usurpation of Richard II, and ended with the usurpation of Richard III. Mind you, there is no hint that Henry VI also usurped the throne, namely because he was only taking back what was rightfully his.

Climax of the War of the Roses

It is difficult to determine where one could actually put the beginning of the war of the Roses. Was it with the removal of Richard II, or with the ascension of Edward III (who embarked on the Hundred Years War against France), or was it with Henry VI, who happened to be on the throne when Joan of Arc stormed across France and began the process of driving the English out. Shakespeare plants the seeds of this civil war in Henry VI part one, during a scene in a rose garden, however the histories themselves chronicle the turbulent period between Richard II and Richard III where the kings were not necessarily secure on their throne (though the central play, Henry V, does revolve around a rather strong King who unites the kingdom against France, though that unity splinters after his death, and the kingdom once again plunges into war after Henry VI’s defeat in France).
The problem with the War of the Roses was that there were no winners – even though Edward won there was always somebody waiting in the wings, in this case, Richard, wanting to take a shot at the throne. It seems that, and this is a constant theme through Shakespeare, is that if somebody takes the throne by force then their position, once on the throne, has been undermined because there will then be others wanting to take the throne away from him. In a sense, it suggests that a coup is a legitimate way of gaining power, and if the coup leader can do it, then so can others (though one does generally need support in that situation).


What the end of the War of the Roses brought was the dictatorship of Richard III, which didn’t necessarily stabilise the country. At first we have Richard removing all who might be a threat to his power, and those who were killed fleeing to France to build an army to take the throne for themselves. Okay, the exiled aristocrats were all Lancastrians, however, Henry VII came to the throne as a Tudor, in effect removing the York vs Lancaster rivalry that had been tearing the country apart. Okay, while I see Richard as a York, in reality he was the last of the Plantagenet Kings, a dynasty that began to unravel with the removal of Richard II.


However let us consider the ascension of Henry Tudor: even though he took the throne by force, he took it with the confidence of the nation. By the time that Henry landed in England and began to march on Richard’s army, many of Richard’s confidants and allies had deserted him to join Henry. Henry’s victory effectively brought the War of the Roses to an end and ushered in a period of stability, that didn’t come to an end until the execution of Charles I and the English Civil War.

The Battle of Bodsworth Field

There always seems to be a big lead up to the final battle in a Shakespearean play where the main characters spend time musing on what may be their last night on Earth. We see this in Henry V where Henry spends his time wandering among the troops and developing an emotional bonding with them. We also see this in Julius Caeser, where the leaders of both sides fret over what is to come. It seems that even if one side is the stronger side, there is always a huge uncertainly in the days ahead. Mind you, in looking back on history we know the outcome of the battle, however, what Shakespeare is no doubt doing is trying to help us see inside the hearts of the soldiers, and the commanders, to try and understand their feelings on that one night.


We see a similar thing in Richard III, where there is an extended build-up to the battle. We also see how the leaders of both sides prepare themselves, with Henry legitimising his rule through his marriage to the princess, and Richard having what is in effect an incredibly disturbed sleep. Mind you, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to necessarily suggest that Henry’s men are all that concerned – they have the bigger force, and the stronger army. However over on Richard’s side, not only is his sleep disturbed, he needs to rally his men through the reminder that the enemy is little more than a ragtag bunch of rebels, which his men are a disciplined fighting force.
However uniforms and empty rhetoric don’t win wars – strategy and soldiers do. What we see in the film is that Richard is caught by surprise, and before he can even get his first orders out, the enemy is not only upon him, but in his midsts. It seems as if his confidence is trying to cover up the fact that many of his best generals, and loyal friends, have deserted him for the enemy. In the end, Richard not only loses his horse, but also loses his life.

I’ll finish off here with the first episode of Blackadder, which is set during the Battle of Bodsworth Field.


Creative Commons License


Richard III – Rise of a Tyrant by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.


One thought on “Richard III – Rise of a Tyrant

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