‘Richard would outlive his overthrow’: Post-Shakespearean Representations of Richard III

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Štollová, Jitka 

The popular image of Richard III remains, even today, deeply indebted to Shakespeare’s portrayal; however, the century following the publication of Shakespeare’s play in 1597 witnessed a fresh and vibrant re-evaluation of this character in a diverse range of texts from poems and history works to pamphlets. While many authors still perpetuated the negative Tudor image, original writings challenged this ingrained view and resulted in a more nuanced assessment of Richard III than the one pervading the sixteenth century. The present thesis investigates a range of seventeenth-century texts about Richard III which shed new light on the reception of Shakespeare’s play, bring unique testimony to the contemporary understanding of tyranny, and capture specific social and political anxieties of the period: the end of the Tudor dynasty, the conflict between the Crown and Parliament culminating in the Civil Wars, and the execution of Charles I. These texts offer a fuller picture of the contemporary literary-political climate, while illuminating the role of historical memory in forming national consciousness, including the forging and dismantling of myths.

The thesis analyses seventeenth-century responses to Richard III in historiography, legal and constitutional debates, poetry, plays, and the visual arts. The first two chapters demonstrate that historians and legal theorists during the Stuart reign and the Civil Wars proved unexpected advocates of Richard III. Challenging the traditional narrative of Tudor chronicles, they reappraised Richard’s election by parliament and his moderate taxation policies and contrasted them with the controversial high-taxation programmes of the Stuarts. The third chapter offers a re-evaluation of Richard’s portraits which betray hitherto unnoticed marks of ageism as a symbol of governmental inadequacy. The chapter explores visual art as a distinct incarnation of historical commentary. Chapter four examines the depictions of Richard’s conscience in poems by Richard Niccols and Christopher Brooke. The final two chapters analyse two extensive poems on Richard III. John Beaumont’s ‘Bosworth Field’ (1629) offers an original account of the battle and Richard III as a study of patriotism and leadership. Thomas Wincoll’s Plantagenets Tragicall Story (1649) transforms Richard III into a vehicle of anti-Cromwellian political allegory in the time of the regicide. By reconstructing the life of Wincoll, a royalist poet from a puritan family, the chapter outlines the contradictory nexus of convictions which underlie Civil War literature.

Overall, my thesis argues that Richard III evolved from the plainly negative tyrant of Tudor chronicles to a more complex figure, resulting in a more original and balanced portrayal of his character in the seventeenth century.

Kerrigan, John
Richard III, William Shakespeare, Tyranny, Early Modern, Seventeenth century, Poetry, Drama, Historiography, Antiquarianism
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge