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Richard III: The Murderous Machiavel?

In various discussions, on- and off-line, a Ricardian often times finds herself confronted with a particular type of debate about Richard III. Sometimes it is phrased in the context of the “brutality of the times” or the “scheming nature of a royal court” or the “rough and aggressive nature of lords and nobles in the waning days of late feudalism”. The last concept is particularly poignant, as it is presented as a zero-sum game where lords aspire and machinate to gain land, strip widows of their inheritance, and accumulate wealth for themselves. If they didn’t take such an aggressive approach, the thinking goes, then they’d lose power, influence, and possibly even their lives and/or their offspring’s legacy.

This, I believe, might be a reflection of a rather modern way of thinking about the 15th century, as told by historians, authors, and playwrights throughout the past five centuries. No doubt, it provides a powerful narrative structure in which to present the players from the past: raising the stakes makes a gamble more risky, and large risks are more attention-grabbing and dramatically appealing than the timid wallflower who merely plays it “safe” and dies comfortably (and ignobly, forgotten) in his own bed.

Recently, I completed the on-line course at Oxford University’s continuing education division on the “Wars of the Roses”. The title of the course referred to the reputation of the major players in that war, how individuals were perceived then and now. At one point we were asked to watch a clip from Laurence Olivier’s movie Richard III, which to his credit, is introduced with a running script reminding the audience that what they are about to witness is not historical fact but a fascinating story.

The opening soliloquy is one of the most remarkable portions of the movie, and when I first saw it as a child, it left an indelible mark on my memory. It introduces us to the central character of the play, Richard, who is first seen in an empty throne room, following some ceremony that can be heard off-camera. Dressed in murrey and black, he is clinging to the throne like a man touching a rare and valuable coin that he covets. As the camera remains fixed at some distance, Richard pulls himself away from the throne and approaches the viewer with his memorable soliloquy:

Notably, Olivier’s opening lines deviate from Shakespeare. He does quote the first 23 lines of the Bard’s play, but then veers off and incorporates a passage that is not original to The Tragedy of King Richard III, but is taken from Henry VI, Part 3:

But to command, to check, to o’erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I’ll make heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whilst I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.
And yet I know not how to get the crown,
For many lives stand between me and home:
And I, — like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way and straying from the way;
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out, —
Torment myself to catch the English crown:
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.
Why, I can smile, and murder whilst I smile,
And cry “Content” to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.

When you watch Olivier, the actor, give this speech, he delivers it in a long crescendoing volume, until he is yelling at full throat the phrase “And set the murderous Machiavel to school.” Pretty amazing acting and pacing.

It was clever for Olivier to incorporate these lines into his movie, because it reminds us that Shakespeare had molded his character of Richard based on contemporary perceptions of Niccolò Machiavelli. His most famous work – The Prince – composed in approximately 1513, was a radical and entirely new type of “mirror for princes” that was based on a traditional genre in the Medieval Age. Machiavelli transformed it, and its publication sent shock waves across the Continent and later into England. It was brutally honest, irreverent, anti-chivalric (or at least willing to pull off the outer skin of chivalry), and gave voice to perhaps what had always motivated princes, what had always kept princes in power, and what had kept people serving princes. And, ultimately, it was misinterpreted and currently still is being misinterpreted. (Some say that the phrase “old Nick” was a reference to Machiavelli.)

It cannot be ignored that Elizabethans were fascinated with Machiavelli. According to a Shakespearean website (, there are approximately 400 references to The Prince or to Machiavelli in Elizabethan literature. Considering that we only know a fraction of what must have been published then, one can only speculate that perhaps the underlying concepts proposed by this man were referred to, rebutted, supported or mocked, much more widely than we know today. Shakespeare himself made three references to “Machiavel” in his plays. Two of them come out of the mouth of Richard, duke of Gloucester, in Henry VI, Part 1 and Henry VI, Part 3, as noted above.

Why was this done? Well, one of the reasons has to be that the church authorities in England were not especially fond of Machiavelli’s mirror for princes. It was deemed heretical, and believed to have expressed tacit approval for things like judicial murder, duplicity, and for false piety. Cardinal Reginald Pole declared in 1539 that The Prince was the product of “Satan’s hand”. So when the character Richard states he feels like he is making his way through a “thorny wood”, what he means is that he is seeking a way but also “straying from the way” – meaning that he is straying from church dogma, straying away from accepted ideologies of chivalry, and likely straying away from the path to salvation. In other words, he is becoming amorally individualistic, chaotic, and seeking the ends regardless of the means. He threatens all semblance of order. How could we not be horrified and enthralled by him?

This is powerful stuff. And it is great for structuring a character. But I would propose it is premised upon a basic misconception of Machiavelli and The Prince. And, more importantly, it is based on a false premise of the man who lived and came to rule in England: Richard III. If we could make two recalibrations, it would be to re-adjust our accepted thinking about both The Prince and Richard III.

Some of the most controversial parts of The Prince deal with how princes come to power. One of the criticisms leveled at Richard III is that he made too much of seeking to achieve popular support, in lieu of support from the magnates. Yet, Machiavelli is in support of the way he did so. In Chapter 9 of The Prince, the author makes several astute observations about the necessity of obtaining popular support. This is not a bad concept; it is essentially democratic. (Machiavelli was a republican himself; some historians speculate that The Prince was satirical or an effort to thwart monarchy.) If we look upon what Machiavelli says, it is not a bad commentary on how Richard came to power via Titulus Regius, and what Richard was trying to achieve in his Parliament and the early part of his reign:

“He who obtains sovereignty by the assistance of nobles maintains himself with more difficulty than he who comes to it by the aid of the people, because the former finds himself with many around him who consider themselves his equals, and because of this can neither rule nor manage them to his liking. But he who reaches sovereignty by popular favor finds himself alone, and has none around him or few, who are not prepared to obey him.

“Besides this, one cannot by fair dealing, and without injury to others, satisfy the nobles, but you can satisfy the people, for their object is more righteous than that of the nobles, the latter wishing to oppress, whilst the former only desire not to be oppressed.

“Therefore, I say that the nobles ought to be looked at mainly in two ways: that is to say, they either shape their course in such a way as binds them entirely to your fortune, or they do not. Those who so bind themselves, and are not rapacious, ought to be honored and loved; those who do not bind themselves may be dealt with in two ways…. [Those who lack courage to do so] you ought to make use of them, especially of those who are of good counsel…. But when for their own ambitious ends they shun binding themselves, it is a token that they are giving more thought to themselves than to you, and a prince ought to guard against such, and to fear them as if they were open enemies, because in adversity they always help to ruin him.

“But one who, in opposition to the people, becomes a prince by the favour of the nobles ought, above everything, to seek to win the people over to himself, and this he may easily do if he takes them under his protection. Because men, when they receive good from him of whom they were expecting evil, are bound more closely to their benefactor; thus the people quickly become more devoted to him than if he had been raised to the principality by their favours;… But I repeat, it is necessary for a prince to have the people friendly, otherwise he has no security in adversity.

“But granted a prince who has established himself as above, who can command, and is a man of courage, undismayed in adversity, who does not fail in other qualifications, and who, by his resolution and energy, keeps the whole people encouraged – such a one will never find himself deceived in them, and it will be shown that he had laid his foundations well.”

Carefully examining the above text, one would be at a loss to describe it as “unethical”. Machiavelli is being pragmatic, but he is not advising the prince to murder or run roughshod over anyone who opposes him. Indeed, he says that the prince should employ the “unwilling noble” in his service especially when they provide good counsel, as, for example, if they have experience in matters of state, foreign policy, warfare, trade, or international relations. One might even understand why Richard saw a place for Thomas, Lord Stanley in his service, as to ignore him would have been counter-productive. Stanley held a vast affinity along the northern Welsh marches, a large private army, and he was married to Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor – a contender for the throne. As the old political adage goes, it is better to have your enemy inside the tent pissing out, than standing outside and pissing into it. Some Ricardians advocate that Richard wasn’t “brutal enough” and he should have executed Stanley. That, indeed, would have been precisely contrary to the advice of Machiavelli, who in Chapter 17 warns that the prince should not execute enemies without due cause, but only on proper justification and for manifest cause. Precisely what “manifest cause” or justification could Richard III have used to order the execution of Stanley in 1483-84? I find it difficult to find one that does not involve retrospective hindsight bias, but it would be interesting to hear arguments on this point.

Other aspects of The Prince can hardly be faulted on an ethical basis, and many do not seek to justify amorality. Chapter 12 warns against the employment of mercenaries or auxiliary armies as they are “useless” and “dangerous”. Chapter 14 recommends the prince study history, warfare, to go hunting – in sum, not to be idle. Chapter 17 states the prince should keep his hands off an executed man’s property “because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony”. (If only Richard II had taken that advice, perhaps Henry Bolingbroke would have been deprived of his cause celebre.) Chapter 18 encourages the prince to cultivate a reputation for being merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. The prince is recommended to honor property rights and not to violate the women of his realm (Chapter 19). The prince should avoid flatterers, have a tight circle of trusted friends, and not be fickle, frivolous, mean-spirited or irresolute (Chapters 19, 23). He should patronize those with ability and proficiency, reward innovators, keep taxes low, entertain people with spectacles and feasts, and hold trade societies and guilds in esteem (Chapter 21).

One of the more controversial statements in The Prince is found in Chapter 18, where Machiavelli states the prince “should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.” Many say the author is advocating false appearances, or a false piety. Nevertheless, all leaders of men in the 15th century had to make occasional concessions to efficacy, notwithstanding their personal piety or professed Christianity. “Saintly” Henry VI did not have clean hands himself; the possible assassination of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, if indeed it was murder, was likely done with his knowledge and consent. Certainly, the duke’s wife was subjected to public humiliation when she was tried for witchcraft, which effectively resulted in Humphrey’s political assassination. And was it ethical for Henry V to order that no prisoners be given quarter at the battle of Agincourt, that all captured French soldiers were to be put to death, rather than ransomed? It was clearly against all principles of chivalry to make such an order. Perhaps it was a bit – Machiavellian – for Henry V to do so.

I realize that there will many who will bitterly disagree with my analysis. I have received messages from devout Ricardians who say it is dangerous, unwise and mistaken to enter down this path. They fear that any sympathetic reading of Machiavelli, or any comparison of Richard III to The Prince, will give force to the viewpoint that he was a dissembler, had always aspired to take the throne, and was an overly-ambitious man willing to kill to achieve his goal. To that, I would respond that we are forced to contend with the reality of Shakespeare’s imprint on Richard III’s reputation. We cannot simply ignore it or wish it away. One way of correcting Shakespeare’s caricature of Richard III is to attack the underlying phenotype. Rarely do people fit into neat boxes, or act in predictable ways. Life is not “black and white” and people do not act consistently. We are always left to sift between shades of grey.


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6 thoughts on “Richard III: The Murderous Machiavel?

  1. Pingback: We Need Neither The Bard Nor The Prince | murreyandblue

  2. white lily on said:

    Thanks for your very interesting and thoughtful response/essay. Much food for thought!


  3. Jasmine on said:

    Interesting article. We could do with more essays involving a comparative analysis of Richard’s actions such as this, rather than concentrating on whether or not his marriage was a ‘love match’ or how good looking a man he was.


  4. white lily on said:

    Thank you for reading and commenting on my essay, Jasmine.


    • Jasmine on said:

      Unfortunately the term Machiavellian has connotations which lead some people to believe that everything to do with The Prince is negative. I have seen some feedback on this article on other Ricardian sites which seems to think that trying to use Machiavelli’s work to examine Richard’s actions is akin to saying Richard was like Hitler. – A shame really.


      • white lily on said:

        Yes, I have come across the same push-back and I have tried, with this essay, to engage a more nuanced discussion. My intention is not to cast Richard III as the distorted Elizabethan concept of Machiavelli, but to ask whether we are really looking at The Prince objectively or with our own set of prejudices. In other words, to question those “connotations”. To be so fearful of using The Prince as a way of explaining how nobles acted in the late 15th century suggests a lack of intellectual curiosity or perhaps an unwillingness to view Richard III through a lens that was more contemporary to his times than, say, Giles of Rome’s “mirror for princes” (De Regimine Principum) which was written centuries before Richard’s birth. I suspect that Shakespeare’s caricature of both Richard III and Machiavelli will continue, as those connotations seem set in stone.

        Liked by 1 person

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