Why did Shakespeare write Richard III?
When did he write it?
Why was it so popular?
Who was the inspiration for Shakespeare's characterization of Richard?
Why was the play such a political risk?
What did Shakespeare's audience think of the play?
These are questions that have never been fully answered.
My version of the play, entitled Shakespeare's Premiere of Richard III, answers them for the first time.
This new version makes the play easy to read and the meaning of the play is perfectly clear to anyone, whether you are familiar with the play or not.
This new version of the play takes us back in time to see Richard III as it would have been originally performed in London by Shakespeare himself and his company of actors.
Only by seeing the play in its original historical context can we understand why Shakespeare wrote the play and what it meant to him.
In this new version of the play, I make the argument that this was the first time that Shakespeare became Shakespeare -- and assumed the position as the greatest playwright in the Elizabethan period.
As such, Richard III was the first great Shakespearean play.
I would like to share with you some of the ways that I approached my version of Richard III.
I think it is easy to look back at this play -- over 400 years old -- and see how it has been absorbed in literature, plays, film and TV. The idea of a charismatic villain is so familiar nowadays.
The challenge today is how to make a villain like that different than all the others that have come before. How do you make Dexter different than all of the other killers you actually root for?
Shakespeare's audience, while they were very sophisticated and went to the theaters very frequently, did not have 400 years of charismatic villains to compare Richard III against.
The character of Richard III must have seemed new and fresh, and unexpectedly entertaining.
In my research I learned how the theatres and playing companies of actors in England had only just begun in 1574 -- only 10 years after Shakespeare had been born, and about 20 years before his career in London as a playwright had really begun.
The first theatre built for the purpose of actors and plays since the Roman times was built in 1576, by James Burbage.
It was Burbage's son Richard who would be the first actor to perform Richard III, Hamlet, Shylock, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and others. What a career that was!
Think of that. No theatre for hundreds of years and then in 1574 Queen Elizabeth allows companies of actors to lawfully perform for the first time. It opened the floodgates for theatre and no wonder people flocked to see show after show, and no doubt they went to see the same show more than one time.
But what was there for public entertainment before that?
There were folk festivals acted out by citizens, and morality plays and mystery plays acted out by actors. Actors were considered no better than criminals, thieves, vagabonds and tramps.
When the Queen allowed actors to perform lawfully, it was a radical change. By the time Shakespeare was writing and performing in plays, actors were still not considered gentlemen but at least they had a place to perform without going to jail.
In such morality plays, there could be a characters called Liberty, Misrule, Riot, Vice, Shame, Diligence, etc. These plays taught good values and important lessons.
The character of Misrule would, for a time, turn everything upside down and upset the order of things.
The character of Vice was a bad guy who did bad things.
It is easy to see how a character like Richard III is a combination of Misrule and Vice.
So, in this sense, audiences in Shakespeare's day would have been familiar with these types of characters. It was obviously up to the individual playwright to create new and different combinations of character types to surprise and entertain the crowds.
Such was Shakespeare's genius that he turned Richard III into a different type of Misrule and Vice that audiences had not been prepared for.
I would like to mention the other great form of entertainment of that time -- bear-baiting.
In case you don't know what it is, I suggest you take a look on Wikipedia. It will shock you.
And even I didn't know until just now that it is still practiced today -- in some parts of Pakistan. Unbelievable.
It is hard for me to believe that people would tie a bear in the center of a theatre and let loose dogs on the bear until the bear was dead. But 400 years ago it was all the rage.
It was a violent time. What with hangings, people having their bowels cut from their bodies, beheadings, and other tortures all around you -- and done in public for the entertainment of the crowds and as a warning to the public not to break the law -- it was indeed a different era.
It is with all of this in mind that Richard III as a character would not be so surprising. Anyone in England would have been aware of killing, murders, deaths, rapes, etc.
But what sets Richard III apart, I think, is the delight he takes in practicing his vice.
That I think would have surprised Shakespeare's audience, and it was a surprise Shakespeare must have delighted in springing.
But as I read the play over and over again, it seemed to me that it was a surprise that Shakespeare was late in making.
If you read much of the play, especially towards the end, it seems like a stiff morality play where the good guy wins and the bad guy is defeated. Boring.
In the beginning of the play it is not the same Richard. He is funny, he is cagey, he is vice and misrule and so much more. He is the only three-dimensional character in the entire play. Everyone else seems like cardboard cut-out two-dimensional targets he shoots down one by one.
By the end of the play he is as two-dimensional a villain as they are targets.
But in the beginning he jumps off the page!
I think Shakespeare re-wrote his own play.
There is every reason to think that he would change his plays as he saw fit. Why not re-write Richard III to make it more entertaining?
What made him change it? I don't know. I can't prove anything.
But if you look at the time it was thought to have been written, it may have been right after Christopher Marlowe's death.
Why would the death of Marlowe, who may have been an acquaintance, a close friend, or just another playwright in Shakespeare's world at the time, have had an impact on how Shakespeare changed the play?
Marlowe was the greatest playwright of the day.
It was only after he died that Shakespeare emerged to become the greatest playwright of the time, and of all time.
I urge you to learn more about Marlowe. There is much that I could say, but suffice to say that Marlowe seems more like the morality character Misrule than the character Virtue.
I don't want to say much more than that, because I have surprises of my own for you, in my version of Richard III.
I hope you enjoy reading it and please feel free to comment below or email me HERE
Richard III and Shakespeare's Brothers
Richard III Was Shakespeare's Revenge
Playing Richard III For Laughs?
Shakespeare and Henry VII and Henry VIII