Shakespeare's sources

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Performance history expert Rebecca Brown investigates the sources which inspired Shakespeare's Richard III:

The chronicles of Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed provided Shakespeare with material for his history plays. The period of the Wars of the Roses and the reign of Richard III was amply covered in Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York (1548) and in Holinshed's Chronicles of England (second edition 1587).

These historians had themselves drawn on material written by the early Tudor scholar, Polidore Vergil. However, their most important source was Sir Thomas More's unfinished History of King Richard III, which was written around 1513. Much of Shakespeare's characterisation of Richard as a wittily sardonic villain, deformed in mind and body, can be traced back to More's account.

All these historians were writing during the reigns of Tudor monarchs, whose claim to the English throne derived from that of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who had won the crown by force from King Richard III. It is not surprising, then that their versions of history should be biased against the defeated Richard, the last King of the Plantagenet dynasty.

Other writers of the sixteenth century chose the reign of Richard III as their subject:

  • Richard, Clarence, Edward IV, Buckingham and Hastings are all included in A Mirror for Magistrates, a sixteenth century verse account of the fall of great men.
  • In the late 1570s, Thomas Legge, the Master of a Cambridge college, wrote a long Latin play called Ricardus Tertius, which remained in manuscript only and was never performed.
  • An anonymous play, The True Tragedie of Richard the Third, was published in 1594; it was probably written a few years earlier.

Like Shakespeare's Richard III, both Legge's work and the anonymous play drew on the chronicle histories of Hall and Holinshed.

Richard III shows the influence of the Roman tragedian Seneca in its elaborately patterned rhetoric; its use of ghosts and its chorus-like group of lamenting queens. Shakespeare had also learned from Thomas Kyd's masterly emulation of Seneca in his successful revenge drama, The Spanish Tragedy, written in the late 1580s. 

 

Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Image shows Aidan McArdle as Richard in the RSC's 2001 production of Richard III.
Image © RSC. By kind permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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