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Leicester Special Collections

Richard III

The burial of King Richard III at Grey Friars

Richard III's burial at the Grey Friars. John Nochols, 1815.

Archives and Special Collections holds a number of copies of Shakespeare's Richard III. This is particularly significant due to the importance the historical King Richard III has to the City and the University of Leicester. Also important is the copy of an anonymous previous play about Richard to which the editor added the text of Richardus Tertius, written in Latin by Thomas Legge and acted by the students of St. John's College, Cambridge in 1579. Legge's play remained unpublished until 1844 and students and scholars can use the Special Collections copy to compare and contrast these early plays with Shakespeare’s far more famous later version.

Shakespeare drew on the chronicles of Holinshed and Hall, and likely on the writings of Polydore Vergil and Thomas More to craft the character of Richard III. For this reason, some argue that Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard in the eponymous play is largely a  piece of Tudor propaganda. Although the play was almost certainly used for such purpose by interested parties, both Holinshed and Hall report on unfavourable accounts of Richard written before the installation of the Tudor dynasty. Besides that, numerous circulating stories of Richard’s villainy are contemporary, such as the one written by the Italian priest Domenic Mancini in 1483.

Above all, it is important to remember that Shakespeare was not a historian committed to the scientific discovery of the truth about King Richard. Richard III is not dramatized history; but what we would now call historical fiction. Shakespeare used history to tell a story that would attract audiences to the theatre. It is a tale of ambition, cruelty, and punishment, peppered by dark humour, a bit of sword fighting, ghosts, and a lot of blood. The fact that throughout the centuries popular opinion of King Richard III has been shaped more by the play than by historical records is a misfortune that can hardly be imputed on Shakespeare.