Maricruz has an associates degree in English and one in Spanish. Analyzing literature is an all time favorite pass time.
Who Was Richard III (Richard Plantagenet)?
It is said that history is written by the victors. One such example is the story of King Richard III. Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, was the last king of the Plantagenet Royal family line. He lost the throne to the Tudors after the hundred years war, also known as the War of the Roses. He was the last English king to lead his army into battle, and his death was, like his ascension, infamously violent.
Shakespeare's Richard III
History remembers this king as an ambitious, deformed murderer who stopped at nothing to gain the throne, even sacrificing the lives of his two young nephews. This view of him is due to two main events—his defeat and the release of William Shakespeare's popularized play.
Though it is very likely that there were embellishments and omissions for the sake of artistic license and political favor. Shakespeare’s chronology of events will be loosely analyzed here.
The play begins with the famous, bitter speech by Richard describing festivities he cannot partake in after a long battle between Plantagenet family houses. He is affected by his handicap, the traumas of war, the cruelty of those around him, his loneliness, and his ambition.
Though the world will never really know whether Richard III in actuality let these historical forces dictate whether he would be just or unjust in his takeover, history will always remember him as someone who reacted poorly to them.
In Richard’s first soliloquy, he describes his infamous deformity. He is angry that the common delights every other man in his circle enjoys are unavailable to him. He’s been cheated by nature, but “half made up.”
Anecdotal rumors throughout history since 1485 have circulated that he had a hunched back and that his arm was shriveled or shrunken. His skeleton, found in 2012, corroborates this as it exhibits severe scoliosis. His arm may not have been affected, but he had an obvious curvature in his spine which would have been apparent in his movements.
Richard III's Psychological Makeup
Current psychological studies prove that such exterior shows have internal symptoms as well. Using the Mental Health Scale of the SF-36, HILDA (the Household Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia) found that teenagers with physical disabilities were very likely to experience depression as well as anxiety. How much more likely was a disabled man in the 15th century to have depression or anxiety in the face of the dehumanized attitude taken towards disabled people in that era?
In her book, A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages, Irina Metzler points out, in a chapter chronicling the law, that mutilation as punishment for crimes produced a general mindset:
“the use of such corporal punishments also had wider social repercussions; by this means the disabled body came to be associated with the criminal body, and thus the notion that an individual’s physical characteristics were representative of his or her moral qualities was reinforced. In practical terms, this meant that those who were disabled for other reasons were sometimes obliged to go to extraordinary lengths to prove that they were not criminals.”
Though it is true that Richard would not have been mistaken for a criminal, nor would he have had to deal with poverty, he still would have had to deal with the stigma that disability held in general. In the minds of many, he would have had to prove that he was without an immoral character.
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From this perspective it's perhaps reasonable to hypothesize that, not only would people have gotten used to placing him in an unflattering light, but King Richard III had first developed depression and then anxiety.
Another mental health problem that may have plagued King Richard III could be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, approximately 30% of veterans return home with PTSD. Richard had just come home from marching against his own family.
However distant these relatives were, and no matter how much they’d despised one another, such a fight could only be described as traumatic. The uglier the fight, the more cause he would have had to experience PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD can be flashbacks of the event, jumpiness, or insomnia.
Richard III and PTSD
In his book, The Problem of Nervous Breakdown, Edwin Lancelot Hopewell argues that much of Richard III’s behavior in the play is realized because his “nervous temperament has run riot.” The play makes reference in the beginning and end that Richard has trouble sleeping. We learn later that Richard’s sleep is haunted by those that he’s killed.
It is reasonable to assume that the Richard in the play is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Interestingly, the play was written long before much was known about post-traumatic stress disorder, so if Shakespeare was taking any of his information from real life this could be a clue towards a diagnosis.
Realistically, a contributing factor to Richard’s mental state would have to be his social status and the relationships he shared with those around him. Unfortunately, this part of the play absolutely cannot be based on anything other than hearsay and the Tudor perspective.
In any event, no one in the play seems to like him, besides Buckingham who is only acting out of ambition for the Earldom. Though it could be argued that much of the violently hateful vocabulary thrown at Richard is due to his own murderous actions, there are hints at earlier cruelties.
His mother claims that he was a trying, wild child. Richard’s parents cannot be entirely innocent if he was a problem child. If the Duchess had been attentive while he was still a “Tetchy and wayward” infant, he may not have developed into a hateful and insecure man. In this sense, there is a Frankenstein effect unfolding for Richard in the play. If he is born deformed, his mother dislikes him, and the more he reacts to his situation the more that role becomes enforced; the monster develops out of survival.
Richard’s anger becomes justifiable in the face of constant, universal dislike. None of this can be verified however because we don’t have a solid event to connect it to. We must remember that Shakespeare was writing a drama, and there is nothing more compelling than a family drama with a good parent/child crisis.
It is important to note here that there are accounts in real life of Richard having a close, and apparently sincere, attachment to his wife Anne. This contradicts the pathology Shakespeare has carefully crafted of the tyrant who’s never known love.
What Do We Really Know About Richard III?
All the factors put together can paint a reasonably unlikable personality. Psychologically speaking a man affected by deformity, the criminal stigma attached to it, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and (possibly) social isolation is a man who could become very susceptible to ambition.
In Shakespeare’s retelling of him, he has feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Combined, these driving forces make for a dangerous motivation to gain the throne. He will do anything, kill anyone, and spare nothing in ensuring his own social safety. He needs to validate the royal blood running through his veins, and cure nature’s mistake, by proving that he can take the throne. Put this way, and in this psychological context, these ambitious feelings are understandable at the very least.
But the problem here is that our strongest reference for King Richard III’s actions and motivations is not a history book; it’s a play written by the greatest dramatist of all time. The Bard’s priority was to provide entertainment, and to keep his current king, King Henry the VII (Richard’s rival), happy. Even so, it is Shakespeare’s version that paints the mental picture for anyone who’s ever studied English kings.
To make matters worse, history books are equally unreliable. John Rous (c 1411/20 - 24 January, 1492), a current historian of the day, wrote British history books before and after the Battle of Bosworth Field, when King Richard III lost his crown and his life. The differences in Rous’s respective accounts of history are very interesting.
John Rous's Differing Accounts
Before the battle, Rous described Richard as being such a good king that he would be remembered for many generations, beloved by God and by the people. He also depicted him with no glaring physical defects. After King Henry VII took the throne, Rous wrote a rather more hideous account of the previous king in his work, A History of the Kings of England.
He described him as being monstrous and defective from birth and claimed that he was born under the sign of the Scorpio, and that he would continue to behave in life as a scorpion. This historian was evidently writing for the highest bidder, in this case, whichever king happened to be in power at the time.
What is left to the reader now is to ponder how far someone with possible depression and/or PTSD, who was exposed to medieval prejudices against the handicapped, would go given the chance to gain power. This enthralling interpretation is what Shakespeare devised under the pressures of political adherence to the current monarch, so it cannot be trusted as fact; nor can John Rous’s historical account.
That said, it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the living Richard experienced at least some of these debilitating feelings and/or events. What cannot be proven is whether they truly drove him to murder. Perhaps judgment should be suspended for a moment in remembrance of who first authored the concept of 'innocent until proven guilty.' That principle of justice was pioneered by the very subject of this article, King Richard III.
Honey, Anne, et al. “The mental health of young people with disabilities: impact of social conditions.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol. 46, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1-10. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.canyons.edu:2125/docview/845800417/E03D551505844FD9PQ/13?accountid=38295.
Hopewell, Edwin L. The Problem of Nervous Breakdown. Macmillan, 1920.
Metzler, Irina. A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages. Routledge, 2013.
“PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” US Department of Veteran Affairs, 3 October. 2016, http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by George Kittredge, Grolier Inc., 1936, pp. 787-836
Smith, N. G. (2017). Bbc British History's Biggest Fibs With Lucy Worsley 1 of 3 The War of The Roses. YouTube. Retrieved June 12, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4SsGg0c6eg.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.