William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most -popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.

Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support for this claim is highly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

Background on Richard III

Probably written around 1593, Richard III belongs to the genre of Shakespeare’s plays known as the histories, which deal with events in England’s historical past after the Norman Conquest, in 1066. Although it is often viewed as a sequel to three of Shakespeare’s earlier history plays that also deal with the English civil war known as the Wars of the RosesHenry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, and Henry VI, Part 3—Richard III is usually read and performed on its own. The play chronicles the bloody deeds and atrocities perpetrated by its central figure—the murderous and tyrannical King Richard III. Richard invites an eerie fascination, and generations of readers have found themselves seduced by his brilliance with words and his persuasive emotional manipulations even as they are repelled by his evil.

Read more about Shakespeare’s history plays.

But Richard is difficult to understand psychologically because, while he is clearly power-hungry and sadistic, the deep-rooted motivations for his malevolent hatred are hard to pinpoint. Some critics feel that Richard is not really a fully developed character in the way that Shakespeare’s later characters, such as Macbeth or Hamlet, are. Such critics argue that Richard does not possess a complex human psychology but instead recalls a stock character from early medieval drama. Like the “Vice” character of medieval morality pageants, who simply represented the evil in man, Richard does not justify his villainy—he is simply bad. Indeed, Richard, with self-conscious theatricality, compares himself to this standard character when he says, “Thus like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one word” (III.i.82–83). We should note that the mere fact that he reflects upon his similarity to the Vice figure suggests that there is more to him than this mere resemblance. Watching Richard’s character, Shakespeare’s audiences also would have thought of the “Machiavel,” the archetype of the scandalously amoral, power-hungry ruler that had been made famous by the Renaissance Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince (first published in 1532).

Bloody though he was, nevertheless, the historical King Richard III was not necessarily more murderous than the kings who preceded or succeeded him. Nor is it likely that he was deformed, as Shakespeare portrays him. Winners, not losers, write history. When Shakespeare wrote this play, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England; Elizabeth was a descendant of King Henry VII, the ruler who overthrew Richard. Thus, the official belief during the Elizabethan era was that Richard was a monster who was not a legitimate ruler of England. It would have been thoroughly dangerous for Shakespeare to suggest otherwise.