Richard III: Comparing William Shakespeare's Play and Richard Loncraine's Film

Updated on February 24, 2018

Initial Thoughts

Richard Loncraine’s Richard III is a very interesting take on Shakespeare’s tragedy; the biggest surprise to me was the fact that, albeit taking place in a fictional 1930s England, the script remains the same as the original play (with certain parts excluded or changed, as with any “book-to-movie” adaptation). While watching the movie, I found that I was actually rather turned off by this. I think the adaptation would have been much better served by language fitting the 1930s; for me, the story never felt believable because there was such a massive rift between the 15th-16th century language and the 20th century scenes. With more modern English, I think the story could have been told just as identically to Shakespeare’s original and be much more convincing as a 1930s version.

To that end, I think that the goal of studying these adaptations is to prove the timelessness of Shakespeare’s works. Do the stories ever really change? As humans, do our core issues ever really change? I would argue no, they do not, and that is why Shakespeare’s tales of hatred, and jealousy, and greediness, and love, and power, and grief, and the rest of the spectrum of human emotion can be so easily translated into a modern narrative; sure, the context changes as time progresses, but the basic ideals are always the same. Change the wrapping paper and you have yourself a brand new version that fits any day in age that you wish.

King Richard III of England, 1452-1485
King Richard III of England, 1452-1485 | Source

William Shakespeare's Portrayal of Richard III

Shakespeare excellently portrays Richard III as a purely evil, even sociopathic man; his uncanny talent for manipulation, willingness to commit any wrongdoing to achieve his schemes, and complete lack of remorse over those wrongdoings paints Richard as a wildly unlikable character.

But to the characters—who are not privy to his inner workings as the audience is—his wit, charm, and great eloquence often fool them directly into his ploys. This is true even when the character sees through his façade, as Lady Anne does. Although she knows that he is responsible for the death of King Henry VI and her husband, the prince, Richard still manages to sway her attitude towards him, even after a fervent and angry argument. He thereafter relishes in his ability to manipulate, condemning Lady Anne for being so foolish, further confirming his malevolent nature:

Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever woman in this humor won? 235
I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.
. . .
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing! 245
Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I some three months since
Stabbed in my angry mood at Tewkesbury?
(I.ii.234-236, 245-249)

Richard Loncraine's "Richard III" (1995)
Richard Loncraine's "Richard III" (1995) | Source
Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III in Richard Loncraine's film adaptation, "Richard III"
Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III in Richard Loncraine's film adaptation, "Richard III"
Ian McKellen's Richard III is made to look very similar to Adolf Hitler.
Ian McKellen's Richard III is made to look very similar to Adolf Hitler. | Source

Richard Loncraine's Portrayal of Richard III

Loncraine’s portrayal of Richard is nearly exact to Shakespeare’s, due to the fact that the script was not changed. However, with the 1930s setting, he does something interesting to our perception of Richard without changing Shakespeare’s original descriptions: there are very clear allusions to Nazism.

This fictional state of England, set in the era of the real Nazi Germany, draws similarities from the latter. Ian McKellen, who plays Richard III, is made to look like Hitler: the slicked down hair, the thin moustache, and the Nazi military uniform, minus the swastika.

The timelessness of Shakespeare’s character is also proven when we examine Hitler’s personality: the inexplicable talent with words, the ability to move and persuade people, and, according to Dr. Henry A Murray, “counteractive narcissism,” which includes traits such as “holding grudges, low tolerance for criticism, excessive demands for attention, inability to express gratitude, a tendency to belittle, bully, and blame others, desire for revenge, persistence in the face of defeat, extreme self-will, self-trust, inability to take a joke, and compulsive criminality” (Murray).

As I mentioned before, the inherent traits of human beings never really change. These intense similarities can easily be drawn between Richard III, of the late 1400s, and Adolph Hitler, of the early 1900s.

Richard Loncraine's Richard III - Original Trailer

Breaking the Fourth Wall

While watching the movie, I took note of Loncraine and McKellen’s choice to “break the fourth wall” by addressing the audience directly. This has recently become popular for TV shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, but it isn’t very prevalent in feature length films.

To me, the practice is reminiscent of the way monologues are approached in plays; the speaker, often alone on the stage or momentarily suspended in time away from the other characters, is speaking to him or herself, out loud. Though this is technically a soliloquy, it often comes across as an engagement with the audience, as they often look out towards the “fourth wall” while speaking. As Shakespeare’s Richard III was, after all, originally written as a play, I thought that the decision to utilize this theater-like technique in the movie was helpful in tying elements of “authentic Shakespeare” into the adaptation.

For example, in the bathroom, the first time McKellen makes eye contact with the audience and speaks directly to them is a startling moment that “breaks the fourth wall” and sets the tone for the type of interaction we will have with the character. The fact that McKellen’s Richard is the only character to address us this way, breaching the fourth wall, while the rest of the characters remain within the traditional separation of the it, is directly in line with Shakespeare’s play, which is written from the perspective of Richard. The monologue in question is, in the play, also while Richard is alone. As I mentioned, he is speaking out loud to himself, but the way it is written he could easily be speaking to someone:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain 30
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate, the one against the other; 35
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mewed up
About a prophecy which says that “G”
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be. 40
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul. Here Clarence comes.

This style of writing lends itself easily to Loncraine and McKellen’s method of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly.

I will note, as a somewhat incomplete thought, that we “speak” to ourselves within our own heads very similarly to the way that we would speak out loud to another person. This makes it seem like the voice in our heads and our actual self are separated, two different things, the voice addressing the self, but they aren’t… or are they? I think I’m thinking too hard here.

The point is, plays and movies, unlike books, have to utilize the spoken word to address a character’s feelings, as visual cues may not accomplish the portrayal well enough. The fact that these spoken monologues do not vary greatly from our internal monologues is interesting, and speaks to the importance of them for gaining insight into a character. Had the film not utilized this technique, I think that the audience would lose a significant understanding of the true Richard.

News of Clarence's Death

The Theme of Power

On a different note, I want to discuss the highly prevalent theme of power in the narrative. Power manifests itself in several different ways throughout the play, from the persuasive power of words, to the political power over England, to the allure of evil to achieve power. Power, as it is so often said, corrupts; Richard III is yet another tale along that line.

A good example of Richard’s savviness with words lies in his ability to persuade Lady Anne to accept him as a suitor even though she is aware that he murdered her husband. Another excellent example of his proclivity for manipulation by speech occurs when Richard convinces his brother, King Edward, and the surrounding court that it is Edward’s fault their other brother, Clarence, was executed. In reality, Richard intercepted Edward’s order to cancel the execution; but, after a convincing dialogue admitting his wrongs, apologizing, and proposing peace with the royal family and other characters, Richard makes himself appear humble, loyal, friendly, and trustworthy.

Amongst this princely heap, if any here
By false intelligence, or wrong surmise
Hold me a foe,
If I unwittingly, or in my rage, 60
Have aught committed that is hardly borne
By any in this presence, I desire
To reconcile me to his friendly peace.
'Tis death to me to be at enmity;
I hate it, and desire all good men’s love. 65
First, madam, I entreat true peace of you,
Which I will purchase with my duteous service;—
Of you, my noble cousin Buckingham,
If ever any grudge were lodged between us;—
Of you and you, Lord Rivers and of Dorset, 70
That all without desert have frowned on me;—
Of you, Lord Woodeville and Lord Scales;— of you,
Dukes, earls, lords, gentlemen; indeed, of all.
I do not know that Englishman alive
With whom my soul is any jot at odds 75
More than the infant that is born tonight.
I thank my God for my humility.

Here he addresses the characters personally, requesting forgiveness and friendship amongst all. He plays up ideals of duty and loyal service (67) and religious humility (77), insisting that any dislike of him must be from rumors or false information (58). As this has manipulated the group’s image of him, he is in the perfect place to play the unknowing, innocent, and heartfelt bearer of the news of Clarence’s death, removing all suspicion from himself:

Why, madam, have I offered love for this,
To be so flouted in this royal presense?
Who knows not that the gentle duke is dead?

Amidst their dismay, Richard puts forth an excellent show of grief and empathy, solidifying his image of innocence amongst the group.

Soon thereafter, King Edward dies of his severe illness and the guilt brought on by learning that his reversal of the execution order was not received in time. Thus, Richard acquires the political power over England that has been his goal since the first scene:

I am determined to prove a villain
. . .
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate, the one against the other
(I.i.30, 34-35)

With both of his siblings gone, and the heirs to the throne of such a young age, Richard assumes the role of lord protector. This role is intended to last until the heirs reach an appropriate age, but, showing his deep greed for power, Richard has his two young nephews murdered.

Dream and Richard's Unraveling

Portrayal of Pure Evil

This portrayal of pure evil is one of the main instruments of the play. Richard is sociopathic, and shows no guilt, remorse, or doubt in himself until the scene of his nightmare:

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh. 135
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why:
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself? 140
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. 145

For the first time in the play, Richard is truly rattled. He feels a deep fear, an ominous feeling (135) that is foreboding of his coming death. Also for the first time, he turns inward to find the source of a problem, concluding that he just might fear the man he has become (136). Questioning his bloody schemes (138), he realizes that he hates himself (143-144) and is, in fact, the villain he set out to be in the first scene of the play (145).

For me, this self-reflection relates back to my earlier question of our possible mental split, between the self and the voice inside our heads. It is as if Richard’s self has, for the first time in the story, separated itself from the voice inside his head that has perpetrated such evil, questioning whether or not he can hurt himself (140) or love himself (141-142) due to his actions. This confliction of two parts of the self ultimately defeats him.


Dr. Henry A Murray: Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler

© 2014 Niki Hale


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