by Amanda Sodhi
Usually, when one thinks of the term “tragic hero” in reference to Shakespearean characters, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet are characters who come to mind. Even though, historically, Richard III has been considered a tragedy, Richard III is not a character scholars tend to think of when they hear the words “tragic hero.”1 Instead, scholars have argued that Richard III is a villain, because of the evil actions he commits in Shakespeare’s play. However, upon close examination of the criteria that Aristotle sets for a character to qualify as a tragic hero, one will realize that even characters who commit evil actions are still be eligible to be considered a tragic hero; therefore, Richard III is indeed a tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense of the term, despite his despicable actions. Acceptance of Richard III as a tragic hero is significant, because it expands the critics’ framework of applying the term “tragic hero” and allows the critic to view Richard III in a new light, instead of stereotypically viewing him as a mere villain.
Even though Richard III is a character who commits many terrible actions, and critics view him as being a villain instead of a tragic hero, he certainly meets the three requirements of a tragic hero which Aristotle poses. The first requirement for an Aristotelian tragic hero is that he “is of higher than ordinary moral worth” (Abrams 322). Richard III belongs to a royal family and later becomes king; so, Richard III is definitely a character “of higher than ordinary moral worth” (Abrams 322). The second requirement for an Aristotelian tragic hero is that he must undergo downfall. Richard III dies at the end of the play, and he loses all of his power; thus, Richard III does experience an “[unfavorable] change in fortune” which leads to “misery” (Abrams 322). The third and final requirement for an Aristotelian tragic hero is that his downfall be a result of “his mistaken choice of action” also known as “hamartia—his ‘error of judgment’ or,…his tragic flaw” (qtd. in Abrams 322). Richard III’s tragic flaw is his persistence to “prove a villain,” which is the result of his deformity and the verbal abuse directed towards him which plant the seeds of bitterness in him (1.1.30). Richard III’s tragic flaw leads him to “mistaken choice of action,” and, as a result, his downfall (Abrams 322).
Richard III himself acknowledges that he is not a villain and his opening soliloquy in the play establishes the framework to view him as a tragic hero. In Richard III’s opening speech, Richard III says that he is “determined to prove a villain” (1.1.30). It is of utmost importance to note the wording in this phrase—Richard III says he will “prove a villain” (1.1.30). He does not say that he is a villain. Therefore, Richard III is not inherently evil—he is not a villain at the start of the play otherwise, there would be no reason for him to plan how to “prove” to be villain. Instead of being a villain, Richard III is a tragic hero whose tragic flaw/hamartia is his very desire to transform himself into a “villain” in the action sense of the term, by committing violent actions, even though he does not meet the historical sense of the term “villan”—“a low-born, base-minded rustic” and a person “of low or mean…birth or position”—that Crawford presents (1.1.30; Crawford 21).
There are two main tragic factors—physical deformity and verbal abuse/hatred from family and peers—which lead Richard III into acquiring the tragic flaw/persistence to “prove a villain” (1.1.30). These two factors instill bitterness in Richard III, which manifests itself in his desire to wreak havoc on others in the play. Richard III states that he is “not shaped for sportive tricks,” and that he is “rudely stamped” (1.1.14, 16). He is bitter because he is “cheated of feature by dissembling Nature” and is “deformed, unfinished, sent before my time” (1.1.19, 20). Because Nature has created Richard III as being physically deformed, Richard III cannot “prove a lover” (1.1.28). As a result, he is motivated “to prove a villain” (Shakespeare 1.1.30). Barnet argues, “Richard III…is not…devoid of influences of the heart” (Barnet 19). Richard III claims that he does “want love’s majesty” but he cannot “prove a lover” because of his deformity (1.1.16, 28). Consequently, Richard III decides to “counterbalance his deficiency” with the “superiority of his intellect,” and hence arises his tragic flaw—his desire “to prove a villain” (Barnet 19, 1.1.30).
Richard III not only suffers from his physical deformity, but also suffers from a lot of verbal abuse from his family and peers, which intensifies his bitterness and his tragic flaw “to prove a villain” (1.1.30). In addition, the verbal abuse directed at Richard III is from female characters, which both affirms his notion that he “cannot prove a lover” and also gives him even more cause to succumb to his tragic flaw (1.1.28). Price indicates that “When Richard intercepts Anne and woos her, she insults him 21 times in the space of 191 lines” (Price 143). In Act I, Scene II, Anne calls Richard III a “fiend” (34), a “devil” (45), a “minister of hell” (46), “foul devil” (50), “thou lump of foul deformity” (56), “cursed self” (79), “hedgehog” (102), “fouler toad” (147), and tells him he is “unfit for any place, but hell” (109) and that he “dost infect mine eyes” (148). She also tells him to “hang himself” (84). Since characters such as Anne exert so much hatred towards him, Richard III knows that he cannot “prove a lover” and must, instead, fulfill his goals by villainous means (1.1.28). It is important to also note that many of the insults Anne directs at Richard III are addressed in regards to his deformity, and reinforce his belief that he is “cheated of feature by dissembling Nature” (1.1.19). For example, Anne taunts Richard III for being a “lump of foul deformity” and that his deformed presence “dost infect mine eyes” (1.2.56, 148).
Not only does Lady Anne verbally abuse Richard III, but Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York also insult him. Queen Margaret calls Richard III an “elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog” by Queen Margaret, which is one of the most severe and demeaning insults in the entire play (1.3.228). In Act One, Scene Three, Queen Margaret also calls Richard III a “devil” (118), and a “murd’rous villain” (134), as well as a “dog” (216). She also tells him he is “the slave of nature and the son of hell” (230). These comments of Queen Margaret are not only severe insults, but also ridicule Richard III’s deformity. Richard III already feels “cheated…by…Nature,” and insults directed at his deformity only add to his bitterness and desire “to prove a villain” and compensate for his physical deficiencies (1.1.19, 30).
In addition to Lady Anne and Queen Margaret, Richard III’s own mother, the Duchess of York insults and curses him. The Duchess of York calls Richard III an “ill-dispersing wind of misery” (4.1.52-53) and calls her womb “accursed” (4.1.52-53). She curses Richard III that “bloody will be thy end” (4.4.195). So many characters dislike Richard III that he comments, “there is no creature [who] loves me” (5.3.201). When so many women, including his own mother, hate him, verbally abuse him, and express such resentment towards him, it is natural for Richard III, in turn, to also feel bitterness towards them, and become the “devil” and “villain” they already label him as being (1.3.118, 134). It is also important to note that all of the characters who throw insults at Richard III are women; thus, Richard III’s claim that he “cannot prove a lover” does have some validity since he does not seem to find favor with women (Shakespeare 1.1.28).
Richard III’s tragic flaw—his decision to “prove a villain” which is the result of both his deformity and bitterness—can best be described as the “overprizing of the intellectual above the moral character” (Barnett 19). Richard III is “bent upon seeking compensation for his bodily deformities”—the very “bodily deformities” which many characters, including Anne, Queen Margaret, and the Duchess of York direct insults at (Ansari 14). Richard III, in other words, makes up for his physical deformity with his intellectual superiority; in order to do so, he commits a series of murders to “usurp kingship” so he can “prove a villain” in his immoral methods to acquire power, and also prove himself as a competent man through acquiring the title of King (Ansari 14, 1.1.30).
Over the course of his quest to “prove a villain” and become King, Richard III commits many evil actions—he murders many of his relatives including his Lady Anne and Clarence, and marries his niece after murdering his first wife. These immoral actions lead critics into labeling Richard III as a villain. However, the murder of innocent characters is not an action unique to a tragic hero such as Richard III. Characters commonly accepted as tragic heroes such as Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet also murdered innocent characters because of their tragic flaws. Othello murders his wife, Desdemona, because of his impulsiveness and gullibility. Macbeth murders Duncan and Banquo because of his ambition. Hamlet murders Ophelia’s father because of carelessness. Briefly put, all of these characters murder innocent characters because of their tragic flaws; yet, they are still accepted as tragic heroes. By the same token, there should not be any difficulty in accepting Richard III as a tragic hero who commits many murders of innocent characters because of his tragic flaw.
Although Richard III commits a similar evil action—murder—which other tragic heroes such as Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet also commit, Richard III is a unique and superior tragic hero because he undergoes a catharsis. When he realizes he has become a villain and “every tale condemns me for a villain,” at the end of the play, he gets emotional (5.3.196). He says, “I rather hate myself, /For hateful deeds committed by myself” (5.3.190-191). He undergoes a catharsis in these moments, when he realizes that “…. every tale condemns me for a villain…if I die, no soul will pity me…since that I myself find in myself no pity to myself?” (5.3.196-204). These remarks made by Richard III give more insight into his human nature—he is able to understand the terrible implications of his actions and he is able to acknowledge he has done wrong. In this regard, Richard III is more of a superior tragic hero than characters such as Macbeth and Hamlet who have no remorse for the murders of innocent characters they commit.
Indeed, Richard III does commit many evil acts in the play—but these evil acts do not hinder him from qualifying as an Aristotelian tragic hero. Richard III is a man of high statue (a king), who suffers a downfall (death and loss of power) due to his tragic flaw/persistence to “prove a villain” (Shakespeare 1.1.30). Furthermore, Richard III’s tragic flaws are also the result of tragic conditions: deformity and hatred from family and peers. Acknowledging that Richard III is a tragic hero is highly critical because it allows critics to realize that characters who commit immoral actions can still be considered a tragic hero.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Harcourt, 1999. 321-325.
Ansari, A. A. “Richard III and ‘the irons of wrath’.” The Aligarh Critical Miscellany. 1.1 (1988): 14-32.
Barnet, Sylvan. “Coleridge on Shakespeare’s Villains.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 7.1 (1956): 9-20. JSTOR Arts & Sciences. Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia. 7 November 2007 <http://www.jstor.org>.
Crawford, John W. “Iago as Villain in Othello.” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association. 21.1 (1995): 21-37.
Price, Michael W. “’Thou Elvish-Mark’d, Abortive, Rooting Hog’: Unfriendly Verbal Insults in Richard III.” Journal of the Wooden O Symposium. 2 (2002): 136-149.
Rippy, Marguerite H. “Richard: Tragedy and/or History.” Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia. 16 Oct. 2007.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Ed. Peter Holland. New York: Penguin, 2000.