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RICHARD III Devil Beast Or Human?

Anne: No beast so fierce but knows some of the pity.

Richard: But I know none, and therefore am no beast.

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Anne: O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!

To what extent is the character of Richard in Richard III presented as devil, beast or human?[/i:bb10ef8ea6]

In Shakespeare’s presentation of the character of Richard III, we can clearly identify “beastly, savage, [and] devilish” qualities and characteristics. Indeed, Richard can be described as an amalgam of both the Vice and the Machiavelli figures, traditional dramatic representations of evil and monstrosity. However, some critics disagree, instead of arguing that Shakespeare introduces a psychological dimension to Richard’s character, making him sharply human rather than an allegorical Devil-Vice figure or typical Machiavelli.

Upon studying and analyzing Richard’s character qualities, it becomes obvious that he holds many characteristics in common with “the formal Vice, Iniquity”, a character in medieval morality plays. In these morality plays, the Vice functioned primarily as the “hell-govern’d” devil figure, an embodiment of pure evil and the ruthless opponent of God. Clearly, Richard “hath ever been God’s enemy”, in that he directly challenges and murders England’s heirs, the inheritors of the divine right of kings, who held the throne with the permission and support of God. However, although offering constant opposition to God, the Vice character was subject to God’s will and was always ultimately punished. Similarly, as the “foul defacer of God’s handiwork”, Richard receives his deserved punishment at the hands of Richmond, the conventionally good character who fights and overcomes Richard “in God’s name.”

In constructing the character of Richard, Shakespeare also draws upon many theatrically effective elements of the Vice tradition. Firstly, Richard’s grotesque appearance is a quality shared by Vice figures. Indeed, his “deform’d, unfinish’d” body, withered arm, limp and hunched back symbolise the fact that “sin, death and hell have set their marks on him”, and indicate that he is “unfit for any place but hell”. Furthermore, like many Vice characters, Richard establishes an intimacy with the audience through his soliloquies and asides, continually taking the audience into his confidence. He shares his “devilish plots” with us, and invites applause and celebration for his “deeds inhuman and unnatural”. Lastly, Richard possesses the same sardonic sense of humour and skill in wordplay as did Vice characters. Indeed, he jokes with the audience about how he “will not keep [Anne] long”, comments upon how the Duchess of York omits “the butt-end of a mother’s blessing”, makes dark statements about how the princes will not “live long” and ridicules the stupidity of those he deceives. For many people, Richard’s black humour is the most intriguing, entertaining and appealing aspect of his character.

Richard also comes straight from the tradition of the Machiavellian villain, a stage character of Elizabethan drama that was practically equated with the devil. Indeed, in striving for the throne, the tyrannical and devilish Richard puts his own political survival above any traditional moral restraint. “Subtle, false and treacherous”, he uses whatever resources are available, as well as his “dissembling looks” and ability to “flatter and look fair, Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive and cog” to manipulate people to achieve his own ends. In his efforts to set his enemies “in deadly hate one against the other”, Richard acts various different roles in a number of different situations. Perhaps most memorable are the scenes in which he plays the “jolly thriving wooer” to win the hand of Lady Anne, and when he pretends to be religious, appearing “with reverend fathers and well-learned bishops”. Ultimately, Richard’s “inductions dangerous” result in the “unworthy slaughter” of Clarence, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey, Hastings and Buckingham, as well as the misleading and later slandering of King Edward, and the “ruthless butchery” of the innocent little princes.

In possessing these basic Machiavellian traits, Richard can be seen not only as a devilish “minister of hell”, but as a savage predatory beast and monster. Indeed, like a primitive beast, he heartlessly and cruelly preys upon other people, putting his own survival before that of others. Furthermore, it could be argued that Richard is a “devilish slave” to his satanic nature, and merely acts upon inhuman instinct throughout the play. These bestial characteristics are emphasised by the various animal metaphors sustained throughout the play. The other characters liken Richard “to wolves, to spiders, toads, or any creeping venom’d thing that lives”. Through insults such as “elvish-mark’d abortive rooting hog” and “wretched, bloody and usurping boar”, reference is also made to the boar on Richard’s crest. It is fair to say, in fact, that Richard is more a monster than a beast. Where he fails to feel “conscience and remorse” after arranging the slaughter of the little princes, his hired murderers, “flesht villains, bloody dogs” “wept to like children”. Indeed, Richard’s monstrosity is symbolised in his appearance, which is “so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at” him, rather than accepting him as a fellow beast.

This interpretation of Richard as a monstrous beast, diabolically evil Vice and scheming Machiavel, is consistent with political readings of the play. When Shakespeare wrote Richard III, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth I, the grand-daughter of Richmond, the man who overthrew Richard. After rising to the throne as King Henry VII, Richmond rewrote history in order to justify his kingship. He portrayed himself as the God-sent saviour of England, and Richard as a “bloody tyrant and a homicide”. Acutely sensitive to the political climate of his time, Shakespeare reinforced this official version of events in his play, by emphasising Richard’s evil character, as opposed to Richmond’s moral and religious superiority. Indeed, Richmond emerges unmistakably as the “Lord’s anointed”, a divinely appointed champion of justice, upon whose side “God and good angels fight.” By the end of the play, the audience strongly feels that Richard deserves to die and that Richmond will prove a better ruler. These feeling are encouraged by Richmond’s decidedly political final speech, in which he “proclaim[s] a pardon to the soldiers fled”, and announces that he will “unite the white rose and the red”, thus bringing “smooth-fac’d peace, with smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days.”

To add a human or psychological dimension to Richard’s character clashes with his presentation as the absolute embodiment of evil, and is inconsistent with this reading of Richard III. Given the political implications of the play, Shakespeare had relatively little freedom to alter his portrayal of a satanic Richard. Nevertheless, many modern critics believe that Shakespeare invites us to see Richard’s human side and to speculate about the motivations he might have for his deeds. These critics maintain that Richard is “determined to prove a villain” and to “play the devil” because of the way in which he is cruelly rejected and treated by a society that is prejudiced against him because of his appearance. Richard knows that “no creature loves” him because he is a “lump of foul deformity”. Indeed, his own mother calls him “bitter names” and wishes she had “strangl[ed] [him] in her accursed womb”. Rather than see Richard’s deformities as the symbol of his evil, these critics see them as its cause. However, Richard’s deformities do not prevent him from winning the love of Lady Anne, even though he had “kill’d her husband and his father”! Furthermore, it seems likely that Richard did not suffer a childhood deprived of parental affection, and that his mother’s hatred for him arose in hindsight after she realised that he was “sly and bloody”.

According to these critics, however, the existence of Richard’s “motives” is not the only evidence supporting their psychological reading. Apparently, Richard’s basic humanity is also revealed in the soliloquy that follows the appearance of the ghosts of his victims. Although Richard has tried to repress his “coward conscience” throughout the play, it supposedly emerges in this soliloquy, allowing him to recognise the “hateful [nature of his] deeds” and to feel genuine remorse. The possession of a conscience, however, is hardly a quality that would fit a devil or beast very well. In this scene, it seems more likely that Richard remains devoid of conscience, and is “strook [with] terror” and anguish, not because he regrets his bloody actions, but because he is afraid of their consequences. He fears “tomorrow’s vengeance” at the hands of Richmond and his own inevitably “guilty” verdict on judgement day.

He has finally come to believe in the idea of sin and retribution and recognises that he cannot escape God’s inexorable justice. Indeed, as a Vice and a Machiavel, he cannot be allowed to triumph and must be punished for his transgressions. Perhaps Richard is merely trying to escape this fate by using his acting skills to fake repentance. Unlike his victims, many of whom believed that “by [Richard’s] face straight shall you know his heart”, we must not be deceived by his pretence! Indeed, Richard “develops” his conscience but momentarily, and appears to reject the concept in the next scene, where he declares that “conscience is but a word that cowards use.”

Thus, although many people attempt to read a psychological dimension into Richard’s character, he is clearly “inhuman and unnatural”, without a conscience, and without motives for his actions. He is obviously a “foul devil” and “beast so fierce”, a combination of the Vice and Machiavel figures, traditional dramatic representations of evil.

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RICHARD III Devil Beast Or Human?. (2021, Mar 03). Retrieved July 19, 2021, from