If I felt sorry for Macbeth, at least that play was a fantasy and about a medieval king – Shakespeare was as far removed from Macbeth as we are from Shakespeare. By comparison, Richard III is outright slander and political propaganda, albeit an entertaining one. It was about uniting for a common cause, which was imperative in the late 1500s when England was facing attacks from Spain. It was about how the Tudor dynasty was a positive influence – insofar as it put an end to infighting for a century. That was likely more due to a lack of other contenders for the throne once Richard III was dead. (Had he had a living legitimate son, or had Edward V or his younger brother been still alive, the civil wars would have continued.)
But Richard III is not about being accurate – it is both a rousing play meant to bolster English nationalism (such as nationalism was in the sixteenth century) and a character study of the villain protagonist. For while Richard is a villain, he is certainly an entertaining and charismatic one. One almost wants to see him succeed, even as the body count gets higher.
Richard as a villain is indeed the main reason why anyone would want to watch the play. There is little else in the way of plot. This is not to say that it does not transcend its historical subject, for it does. Richard III is a tale of political intrigue, double-speak, murder, and war. Unlike Macbeth, Richard is realistic and modern. We can see many a politician in him – and we can hope that some of our contemporaries suffer a fall as great as his at the hand of someone as apparently as noble as Henry VII.
I say Richard is realistic in that he is relatable and there are nothing supernatural – or even mentally unstable – about him. That is perhaps chilling in how normal he seems. However, he is not realistic in how his namesake truly was. Partway through the play, Richard makes a big show of being a reluctant, humble, pious, and dutiful man when the nobles come to proclaim him the new king. This is done in the story as a ruse, but it is closer to how he was in life. – there was little evidence to the contrary.
In fact, there is no evidence that Richard murdered his nephews at all. It is just as likely that the young princes died of illness (they were confined in the Tower, after all – but just as likely for their own protection, as the Tower was still partially a palace at the time) or were murdered on someone else’s orders. At the time, Richard only had one legitimate son – and he also died at a young age. The whole scandal is certainly dramatic, but unfounded.
But that is not the point of the play at all. Shakespeare’s audiences wanted action and drama. They got that. Shakespeare wanted to write a play that would please his royal patron (always a good idea to make the Queen’s grandfather look excellent, even if at the expense of her great-great-uncle) and that would inspire audiences in the face of a national crisis.
What is genius about Shakespeare’s play is that everything about it looks true at the outset. The events take place roughly as they did in life, or were believed to have taken place in life, but are twisted to follow the narrative of the greedy and villainous Richard. It is easy to see how tempting it is to think that he is telling the truth.
If this were a tragedy, it would be a boring play, as only the character of Richard is all that compelling. However, to contemporary audiences who would have had more awareness of the events, it is not about what is going to happen next, but how. They knew Richard was going to die in the same way that modern audiences knew the Titanic was going to sink, but watched the film anyhow.