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Ever since it first appeared onstage, Richard III has remained among Shakespeare’s most widely produced and popular plays, and its titular villain-hero continues to be a cherished role. Starting with Shakespeare’s own Richard (Burbage), actors from Colley Cibber, David Garrick and Henry Irving to John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen have all combined to make Richard a persona whose features may evolve but who never stays off our stages for very long. Thomas Middleton, eulogizing Burbage, seemed to think that the actor’s death spelled the end of his and Shakespeare’s creation: “Crookback, as befits, shall cease to live.”

Little did Middleton know, Richard, and Richard, may yet outlive us all. Judging by 20th century history, much of Shakespeare’s play now looks like sober realism. The play keeps on coming true in the theatre of history.

The early-career breakthrough Richard III marks off—Shakespeare was most likely still in his late twenties, and yet to join the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—is the extent to which it dazzlingly develops the conventions of the history play, the dominant genre of the early 1590s. Though Shakespeare may not have invented it, he had helped popularize the form with his action-packed Henry VI sequence, a trilogy of sorts to which Richard III forms the epic capstone.

Over the course of those three plays, the action increasingly comes to be dominated by the Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of the York dynasty, who first appears as a courageous fighter and loyal son but is otherwise dramaturgically undistinguished. In Act 3, scene 2 of Part 3, however, Shakespeare’s Richard as we know him takes the stage, the malevolent theatrical imagination made manifest. In one of the greatest and least known speeches in the canon, Richard promises to “frame my face to all occasions […] slay more gazers than the basilisk […] Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel to school.” It is a hop, skip and a jump from here to clothing his naked villainy with old odd ends stolen out of holy writ. What happened?

For one, Shakespeare almost certainly read the History of Richard III (c. 1513) by Sir Thomas More, court historiographer of Henry VIII and future Catholic saint. In his account, which helped to establish the so-called “Tudor Myth” of English history, More transformed the historical figure of Richard (1452-1485), lamed from birth by an obscure disease now believed to be scoliosis, into a grotesque symbol of England’s descent into bloody civil war. More’s Richard, like a devil come to scourge the land, was “little of stature, ill-featured of limb” and “crook-backed.” Adapting More’s quasi-theological scheme for his stage Richard, Shakespeare also spliced in something utterly contemporary, an anachronism in the 15th-century world of the play. This was, of course, the stage Machiavel, the scheming, atheistic, defiantly ego-centric figure first made famous in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays from the late 1580s.

Essentially theatrical and self-fashioning types, Tamburlaine and Richard point to a modern conception of the politician as a supreme actor. From Hitler’s Final Solution to Stalin’s Great Terror to Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the world has been terrorized by the happy ideas of grinning sociopaths who seek to remold reality around their self-conception. All of them are Richard’s children.

The result is arguably the first masterpiece of Shakespearean character, an embodiment of human darkness who looks forward to Iago and Edmund, as well as the remarkably similar Macbeth, another ambitious child-murderer whose will to power finds him ankle-deep in blood, awake in a nightmare of his own creation. At the same time, Richard possesses an intrinsic doubleness, a Marlovian ability to juggle private and public selves that would eventually bear fruit in such inwardly divided figures as Hamlet and Prince Hal. Above all, Richard’s insistent self-reflexivity, his frame-breaking anticness, suggests the prominence illusion has always played in our political imaginations.

One of Shakespeare’s other innovations to the history play was his addition of a second layer, a world of portentous dream, female prophecy and ghostly visions that serves as a moral counterweight to Richard’s sunny megalomania. Described in none of the historical sources, this supernatural underworld erects a symbolic frame for the play more fitting for Seneca than Thomas More, looking forward to the unfathomable ghosts and moral reckonings of the great tragedies. Tyrants may come and go, Shakespeare seems to be saying, but the voices of the dead—the truth—will always out, bloody instructions, which being taught, return to plague the inventor.

Like Richard’s symphonic overture of an opening soliloquy, Shakespeare unveils this shadow-world early, in memorable set-pieces that reverberate throughout the action. The poetic high point of the play, Clarence’s eerie dream in Act 1, scene 4, fascinates for its Renaissance vision of the underworld, commingling Homer, Virgil and Dante together into something rich and strange. It is the first of many great Shakespearean speeches contemplating the existential terror of death, and the scene is the only in the play to deal with the emotional gravity of taking a life.

Even more significant, perhaps, is the preceding scene featuring Margaret’s curse. Margaret of Anjou, the other dominant figure of the Henry VI plays, functions here as Richard’s shade. She seems to materialize out of the shadows, serving as both eavesdropper and participant, somehow there and not there. Giving the lie to Richard’s assumption that he can manipulate everything and everyone, Margaret bears vivid testimony to his crimes. Her curse, uttered in a quasi-liturgical verse that stems from older dramatic forms, is confirmed with uncanny precision in all its particularities over the course of the play. Together with Clarence’s dream, Margaret’s curse sets the symbolic action of the play in motion—the slow, sweeping arc of the moral universe, bending inexorably toward justice—just as Richard’s “complots” keep the physical action as frothy as a Punch-and-Judy show. The two worlds collide eventually, forming a memorable coup de théâtre.

In the 20th century, as utopian political movements produced an increasingly apocalyptic world, many looked to Richard III as a kind of oracle to explain the confusing tenor of the times. In 1944, British scholar E.M.W. Tillyard saw it as the key text in an epic, eight-play cycle upholding the Christian nation-state. As Tillyard writes, the play’s final speech by Richmond (i.e. Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s grandfather), “would have raised the Elizabethans to an ecstasy of feeling.” In 1964, Polish critic Jan Kott, survivor of Nazi and Soviet occupations, looked and saw History, not the State, as the hero in a godless, Beckettian cosmos. “History has no meaning,” writes Kott. “It either stands still, or constantly repeats […] It is an elemental force, like hail, storm, or hurricane, birth and death.”

Of course, both readings can be justified within the dialectical contours of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. And herein lies the nature of Shakespeare’s achievement. The construction of history, he seems to have understood, is a deeply ambiguous process. It is a tale told by many, full of sound and fury. And signifying endlessly. We may never know who the “real” Richard III is, or was, but we can’t stop seeing ourselves in Shakespeare’s Richard III. We are all ultimately just bit players in the theatre of history.