Wait! Was that really what he deserved? A poor crippled boy shunted from one semi-noble relative to another, caught up in the bloody rivalries of the 15th century? Was he so corrupted in his youth that he became a lying, desperate murderer, killing in battle, taking the lives of two young princes in cold blood and fighting relentlessly to gain and hold the throne?
Listen to his own words, from Shakespeare's brilliant play:
Over the centuries, this crazy self-assessment has generated less debate than disapprobation about Richard. Audiences shrink from him and turn their attention quickly to the more popular — but no less bloody — Tudors: the short-lived Henry VII, the towering figure of Henry VIII, his many unfortunate wives and liasons, and finally to his daughter, the legendary Elizabeth I. Richard's exploits recede in memory, leaving only a legacy of darkness behind.
“What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
“Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I.
“Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
“Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason why:
“Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
“Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
“That I myself have done unto myself?
“O, no! Alas, I rather hate myself
“For hateful deeds committed by myself.
“I am a villain. Yet I lie. I am not.
“Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter:
“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
“And every tongue brings in a several tale,
“And every tale condemns me for a villain.
“Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
“Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;
“All several sins, all used in each degree,
“Throng to the bar, crying all, ‘Guilty! Guilty!’
“I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
“And if I die no soul will pity me.
“And wherefore should they, since that I myself
“Find in myself no pity to myself?”
But who can see the just-released pictures of Richard's skeleton and not feel a stab of sympathy for this bent and broken man? Pity a life so twisted; pity a dead king so demeaned as to have his remains found under a parking lot.
Pity poor Richard III.
Josephine Ayers was executive producer of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival from 1973-1982. She is editor-in-chief of Longleaf Magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.