All entries for Thursday 26 March 2009

March 26, 2009

The True Tragedy of Richard III

I've just read the anonymous The True Tragedy of Richard III, and am quite amazed that no-one's made me read it before. Granted, it's relatively unavailable - I had to read it in the Malone Society reprint. However, it's a fascinating read for light it sheds on Shakespeare's writing of his Richard III, almost certainly a few years after the anonymous play. Here are some of the most interesting connections:

  • The presence of several minor plot points in Richard III is far better explained once placed in relation to the other play. Aspects I'm thinking of include: the reports of Mistress Shore's influence, the dilemma Stanley is placed in by Richard keeping his son George hostage, the reconcilement of Hastings and Buckingham with the Queen's faction, and the marriage of Richmond to Elizabeth's daughter. All of these things get lip service in Shakespeare's play, but are relatively minor to the main plot. However, all of these play major roles in the anonymous play; in particular, Mistress Shore gets an entire scene depicting her descent to begging on the streets, with the citizens forbidden on pain of death to relieve her. In many ways, the earlier play is actually richer in terms of its characters: Richard himself is less dominant, allowing several other characters to have their moments in a more generously ensemble piece.


  • Shakespeare's rewriting of the play takes into account his work on the Henry VI trilogy, and there is much work done to tie it in to the earlier pieces. Most obvious is the addition of Margaret, reappearing from the earlier plays to curse Richard. More subtly, Clarence (who only appears as a wordless ghost in the earlier play) is given a major role by Shakespeare, including speeches which hearken back to characters such as Warwick. Henry VI's funeral isn't present in the earlier play - its addition by Shakespeare is another link to the earlier trilogy.


  • The earlier play has a more traditional comic role in a Page who follows the action throughout, commenting on it for the audience's benefit. This role is completely omitted from Shakespeare. To enhance the central role, Shakespeare's play also reduces the role of Catesby, who is more dominant in the earlier play. Buckingham's role, however, is enhanced, as are those of Hastings, Rivers and Grey. Shakespeare's focus is Richard himself, and those conflicts which bolster Richard's role are given full weight.


  • Shore aside, women are mostly absent from the earlier play. Elizabeth has some stage time, as does her daughter, but otherwise it is a man's world. The addition of Margaret, the Duchess of York and Anne to Shakespeare's play, coupled with the enormous expansion of Elizabeth's role, is one of the most notable differences between the two.


  • The earlier play finishes with the actors stepping out of character and running through the line of Tudor monarchs (even Mary), finishing with explicit praise of Elizabeth and prayers that she will live forever. With this perspective, it is quite clear that the 'Tudor Myth' was being fully exploited in the earlier play, yet Shakespeare's is far less explicit about this aspect of the history.


  • One of the murderers employed by Tyrell to kill the princes is Black Will - a shock to anyone who knows Arden of Faversham! Considering the theory that Black Will was an early Shakespeare role, this reappearance of essentially the same character is hugely interesting.


  • Lastly, Shakespeare knows what's worth dramatising. In the earlier play, Richard merely reports his dream before the battle: in Shakespeare, it is fully dramatised and extended to include Richmond too. Likewise, key scenes such as the appearance of Richard with two priests before the crowd, the murder of Clarence and Richard's early days in power are only reported in the earlier play, scenes which Shakespeare makes good use of.

It's a hugely interesting play, and I highly recommend seeking it out if you're interested in Shakespeare's play. It's clearly (so it seems to me) a source, and shows us a great deal about the way Shakespeare reused material.


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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