Who is your favourite villain in literature and why?
By Lucinda Menaul, runner up of the 2017 Connell Guides Essay Prize
Villains in literature occupy an immense spectrum. There are one-dimensional villains like Voldemort, roguishly dark villains like Heathcliff, macabre villains such as Mrs Danvers, but truly our favourite villains are those that we like—the anti-heros. And Richard III, Shakespeare’s scheming, sordid and intelligent villain is surely the most wickedly engaging baddie to have ever roamed literature. But why do we like Richard? Despite his political greed, his amoral discrimination, his bloodthirsty murders, we find ourselves as the audience falling in love with him. Laurence Olivier observed that “of all the qualities—the bad- die, the hero, the comic—Richard of Gloucester has them all.” He is so engaging in his interaction, so manipulative with his wordplay, dismissed for his physical deformities, and treated as a social outcast; as naturally social creatures, we sympathise with him. He manipulates the audience into becoming his comrades, and an invitation into Richard’s sickening and yet grotesquely fascinating schemes is just too good to turn away. The plot becomes al- most second in importance to him as a character study, prompting Olivier to remark that Richard is “a rare Shakespearian thing, when the part’s the thing and not the play.” But per- haps our fascination with him comes from the fact that he was a real, breathing monarch.
One of the reasons that we sympathise with Richard is because he is a social outcast; he is rejected by his family and shunned for his physical deformities. The discovery of the monarch’s remains in a Leicester car park showed that the real king had a slight curvature of the spine that would leave him with a slight limp and a crooked shoulder, a far cry from the “the envious mountain” of a hunchback with an arm “like a blasted sapling withered up,” and therefore we must wonder why Shakespeare chose to exaggerate this feature. Much of it comes from a literary trope that suggests that twisted, evil minds will manifest themselves in physical crookedness, and contemporary Elizabethan prejudice about disability. Richard’s deformities are a physical representation of his evil thoughts. They make the character the typical epitome of evil so that we can recognise him as a ‘baddie’, but perversely they also make us sympathise with him. Richard is perpetually mocked by his companions for his de- formed appearance, and his self-loathing speaks to those of us who always suffer from inse- curity about our appearance. Queen Margaret calls him an “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog, / Thou wast sealed in thy nativity / The slave nature and the son of hell,” and that he is “the slander of thy heavy mother’s womb.” The stream of hatred Richard receives—espe- cially at this point in the play, where he has not yet committed any sin besides confiding his plans to the audience in a soliloquy—is likely to win sympathy. The use of sibilance is par- ticularly notable, and Olivier noted the association of Richard with a serpent-like quality in his memoir On Acting, commenting that Richard was “a mixture of honey and razor blades...it seems to me that even in a serpent’s hiss there is a touch of sexual smile.” Richard’s irresistible charm despite his ‘ugliness' is part of what secures the audience’s em- pathy as conspirators. Moreover, his rejection by his own mother and her acceptance of his evilness speaks directly to those of us who have experienced familial rejection at some point in our lives. The Duchess bemoans her son’s existence, crying “O my accursed womb!”
Not only does his physical appearance garner sympathy, we love to hate Richard because he is so intelligent. His rise to power through artful manipulation is astonishing and admirable, and his talent for wordplay allows him to twist everyone’s words to suit his own needs. This is much like the way his twisted spine, mustering sympathy, works to his benefit. Richard seduces the widow of the man he murdered in front of the very corpse and kills his two nephews. As Oliver says, “the audacity is wonderful.” His resentment of his family is conveyed in brief lines, insinuating the imminent deaths of his nephews; he plays the loving and protective uncle, alluding to their imminent death with the light-hearted remark of “so wise, so young, they say, do ne’er live long.” While, at first glance, this blithe comment appears to be a remark on the young princes’ intelligence, what he is really intimating is that he will have them disposed of by death. As Olivier stated, Richard's wittiness is key to his role as an anti-hero; “I had to make the audience like me. They must be won over by his wit, his brilliant wry sense of humour.” His quick wit allows him to think on his feet, which is invaluable in the seduction scene. When Anne tells him he is “unfit for any place but hell”, Richard counters that there is one other place; no sooner than Ann scoffs “some dungeon”, he shoots back “your bedchamber.” This sort of slick exchange carries an irresistible charm; indeed Richard is so unashamedly sure of it himself that he invites Ann to kill him with his own sword, saying “I lay it naked to the deadly stroke, / And humbly beg the death upon my knee.” His convincing false modesty and sexual attraction are among the reasons we admire Richard. Within the space of a few lines, Anne is his, and he blames her for her husband’s death: “I did kill King Henry—But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me.” And here is Richard’s astonishing skill of situation-twisting; by twisting his words, he has twisted the situation to suit his own needs with unashamed craftiness.
Richard’s awareness of his own craftiness and his engagement with the audience is a crucial factor in his likability. He harnesses the audience as conspirators from the very first scene in a monologue in which he sets out his plot to overthrow his brother. He reveals he is” deter- mined to prove a villain...to set my brother Clarence and the king / In deadly hate against the other...a prophecy which says that G / Of Edward’s heirs the murderers shall be.” By confiding in the audience, he effectively wins them over as comrades and sets them up to be manipulated. Not only does he conceive his plan in front of us, later on he refers to himself unrestrainedly as a villain, musing “Like the formal vice, Iniquity, I moralise two meanings in one word.” Richard is referring the stock character of medieval theatre that represented the evil side of man, and indicates to the audience that he is conscious of his theatricality and thus promises to deliver entertainment. He invites us to thrill in his triumphs, turning to the audience after seducing Lady Anne and purring “was ever woman in this humour woo’d? /Was ever woman in this humour won?”, jubilantly relishing his sexual allure, and delivers a further confidential for good measure: “I’ll have her; but I’ll not keep her long.” The chilling finality of this line hooks the audience and keeps them drawn in suspense. In- deed, the suspense also comes from not knowing the character particularly well; his role in the play is open to vast interpretation. There are so many ways in which his character’s many traits, that of the rejected son, the greedy sinner, the discriminated outcast, can be exaggerated that for centuries actors have been making him their own, unburdened by any set portrayal, and it is this scope that makes him still resonate with actors and directors alike. While Olivier highlighted the charisma and irony of Richard, Ralph Fiennes sacrificed wit for sadism and silky cunning; Antony Sher emphasised his insecurity through exaggeration of his deformities, while Benedict Cumberbatch explored the manic mood swings and hysteria of a paranoid man, and Ian McKellen portrayed a hardened warrior.
And that is the secret of history’s most beloved and yet despised villain; the caricature of a living, breathing monarch caught in the power struggle of the Wars of the Roses, harnessed and dramatised by Shakespeare into the most sadistic and seductive anti-hero to walk history’s stage. Like Olivier said, “when I came to it, I loved Richard and he loved me, until we became one.” That is Richard’s allure, his secret. He is so utterly self-aware of his own sadism, intelligence and theatricality, so engagingly and sickeningly witty and so keen to capture the cooperation of a conspiring audience and form an alliance with them. Upon Richard’s death, we have to conclude that, although he was a malicious murderer, we liked the man, and the murderer at that, and we rode with him, rooting for him, until the end, right up until his final panicked cry of “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.” For entertainment, you cannot beat variety, and Richard most certainly gives us that, and with a great deal of gusto too.