by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith
One of the things that makes Richard III so much fun to study is the
controversy about the true Richard. What kind of a man was he in fact?
Did Shakespeare knowingly participate in dishonest political propaganda
against a good man or did he really believe Richard was a Satanic monster
from whom England was saved by the courage of Elizabeth's grandfather,
Henry VII? The whole discussion and debate surrounding the character
of Richard himself make for fascinating study and there is a fine page
on the net devoted to the subject.
Laurence Olivier's Richard III
Olivier does a predictably superb job at depicting Richard. This, too,
is a classic. There are, however, serious defects in the editing of
the play that really take away from the development of the plot [see
comments below]. Too many segments are rearranged, too many lines are
cut. Anyone studying Richard III must see this one, but no one really
interested in Richard III will be wholly satisfied with it.
Ron Cook's [BBC's] Richard III
The BBC version of Richard III is as near to perfect as one could expect.
Every one of the actors and actresses put in outstanding performances,
especially Ron Cook himself, whose depiction of Richard cannot, it seems
to me, be improved upon. This is one video that I do not at all hesitate
to recommend that students purchase and view repeatedly in their study
of Shakespeare. For serious study of one of the most demonic of Shakespeare's
is the version to get.
Ian McKellen's Richard III
In this version, Richard III is turned into a 20th century Nazi-like
tyrant. It includes the obligatory -- for Hollywood -- sex scene (rated
R). On the whole it is a brilliant example of playing with a Shakespearean
play. For those who have studied the real Richard III (Ron Cook's version),
viewing this video is plain entertainment. For adults, a fun and funny
version, though some may be offended at the violence and sex.
Comments on Richard III
King Lear is said to be the most profoundly Christian of Shakespeare's
plays, but the Christian truth is wrapped in pagan clothing, hidden
from those who cannot see the symbolism. By contrast, Richard III is
quite blatantly Christian and the Elizabethan audience would have clearly
understood its message. Ironically, Christians in our day are likely
to miss something of the Christian perspective of this play because
we do not understand prayer so deeply -- especially not imprecatory
prayer, which provides the key for this entire play. Curses, eloquent,
terrifying curses, are thundered to heaven, mostly by Queen Margaret,
but by others, too. Imprecatory prayers abound and they determine the
direction of the play and the history it portrays.
For those modern Christians who think curses are superstition, rather
than seeing them as prayers for God's intervention to judge evil, the
play may seem irrational. It is, in fact, a play that proclaims loudly
-- perhaps too loudly -- that God is Lord of English affairs. I say
perhaps too loudly because the one who comes to answer the prayers of
the anguished queen Margaret and the suffering English is none other
than the grandfather of good Queen Elizabeth, under whose reign Shakespeare
wrote this. What we may have here, then, is a Christian view of history
being used for purposes that are not altogether Christian. But it seems
also possible that Shakespeare believed that Henry VII saved England
from a wicked tyrant.
At any rate, the Christian paradigm is clear:
There is a king whose gross iniquity is summed up especially in lying
and murder, who is called a beast and Satan, who uses false religious
piety to deceive people, who murders his own brother and calls for
the death of children. He is thus associated with Cain, Herod, false
prophets, the beast of Revelation, and Satan himself.
There is another king who comes to kill the monster, a pious and
godly king who prays humbly before battle and casts himself upon God.
In every way, Henry VII is a messianic figure.
England is punished for her sins through being given a king that
oppresses her, as Pharaoh oppressed the children of Israel. When England
through her representatives -- the aristocrats who are to be feared
because God hears their prayers -- cries unto God, He saves her.
The distortions of Biblical Christianity evident in the play do not
detract from its overal merit or from its theological message that history
is governed by God. Whether or not this play is fair and honest either
with respect to Richard III or Henry VII, it makes great viewing as
Using the play with students, I have found it an excellent way of explaining
the wars of the Roses and getting the students interested in English
history. (I started with Richard III, and have not yet gone through
the other plays that actually deal with the war.)
I was especially impressed with the scene in which Richard persuades
Lady Anne to marry him. Ron Cook and Zoe Wanamaker perform this scene
with such great power I have found myself viewing it over and over.
Finally, a note about Laurence Olivier's interpretation must be added.
Just as he contradicted the Christian approach to Hamlet, Olivier alters
the Christian content of Richard III, altogether removing the earnestly
praying Margaret. Olivier's Richard is a Machiavellian monster, a purely
human sort of pervert; not Satanic, not a Biblical figure who calls
forth a Messiah to kill him. The contrast between the BBC version and
Oliver's version is profound and viewing them both is an excellent means
of studying the difference between the Elizabethan and the modern mentality.