Richard III on screen

the great debate

Will the  real Richard III please stand up?

The differences between our screen Shakespeares can be easily as great as those between Thomas More‘s view of him pitched against Sir Horace Walpole in the fascinating book, The Great Debate.

This essay explores how Shakespeare’s script has been interpreted to portray our tragic hero …

Under the OCR specification, A Level students are required to ‘explore literary texts informed by different interpretations’: it’s worth 50% of one of their Shakespeare questions.  This isn’t intended as a model answer, per se (and it’s important to note that AO5 isn’t only about writing about the films you have seen, as my students would struggle to do this about ‘Maud’), but as an illustrative exploration of the four film versions I use in teaching Richard III.  Building on my recent promise to get stuck into this, it looks at the importance of the opening soliloquy, and the different treatments the respective directors give it.

I tend to reduce AO5 down to ‘WHAT’ and ‘WHY’ – and colour code it purple.  In this case, it’s probably outlining a little of what I think about each version on the whole, before we dip our hands into the popcorn bucket.  Here’s a potted summary of my take on each film.  Your mileage may well differ; if it does and you can explain why, then that’s equally valid.

1955 – dir. and starring Laurence Olivier:  ye Olde Merry England’ one …

Heavy on pageantry and spectacle, featuring the ‘galactico’ triumvirate of Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson, this feels like a post-war attempt to remind the world (and especially the US) that it’s England that has the history, the class, and the style: even as it oozes effete superiority, I can smell insecurity.  This necessitates an ‘aristocratic’ Richard.  Class-warrior that I am, I constantly feel I am being invited to observe (but certainly not take part or even presume to comment on) the stories of the upper echelons of society, those born ‘long to reign over us’.

1981 – dir. Jane Howell, starring Ron Cook: ‘the cultural artefact’ one …

This version needs to be taken in the context of being part of a box set of the complete plays.  We’re talking back in the days when the BBC still had pretensions to being a public service broadcaster.  What I see here is almost a time-capsule; a set of faithful stage – not screen – renditions where the main concession to the twentieth century is the casting of women in female roles.  Students may well find them dull, dutiful and dawdling, but they’re great teaching tools with their fidelity, clarity of pronunciation and neutrality.  They do, though, make some assumptions about audience knowledge and interest.  Across the series, the cast presents a further time capsule – a snapshot of the stage talent of the era.

1995 – dir. Richard Loncraine, starring Ian McKellen: ‘the English Hitler’ one …

If Howell had no real agenda, Loncraine’s is quite explicit, I think: more than any other version I’ve seen, this film acts as a warning, so prescient now, of the ease with which a country can slip into tyranny and dictatorship through nothing more substantial than demagoguery.  I’ve no insight into Loncraine’s politics, but the country had by this stage endured 16 years of Conservative Government – if they’d won the 1997 General Election, who knows where we might have ended up.  It’s quite closely-related to Olivier’s, inasmuch as it is very much concerned with a class apart, but this time I sense an awareness of the lower orders tinged with utter contempt. 

2016 – dir. Dominic Cooke, starring Benedict Cumberbatch:  the Game of Thrones’ one …

Despite most of my nicknames for this version sounding negative, I do like this, and The Hollow Crown series, very much.  I don’t smell any political agenda, as I do with Loncraine, and Olivier – what they do, and do well, I think, is make Shakespeare accessible, and the plays far more human.  My take is that they play to an audience who actually like this sort of thing, but have been conditioned to parrot the classic Shakesphobia line that Shakespeare is ‘boring’ or elitist by their own unhappy experiences at school, or those of their parents.  There’s tradition without stuffiness, emotion without burlesque, entertainment without undue sacrifice of the source material.

My starting positions established, let’s look at the play and compare the different interpretations of it.  Remember, for AO5 I’d be looking for the WHY (which is mostly described above), and linking it to the WHAT the film versions do, to inform the HOW that is part of my reader response or overall interpretation of the play.

– – –

Comparing Richard’s opening soliloquies.

1.  Just how Disabled is Richard?

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them; (Richard III, I.i) [a]

The extent to which Richard is physically disabled is an essential component of our emotional relationship with him.  Look at the words I’ve underlined in the extract from the soliloquy.  Antony Sher had this in mind when preparing for the role: 

He’s not talking about flat feet, he’s talking about something massive.  Why should it be such a hang-up otherwise? [b]

Shakespeare wants us to understand the emotional pain of Richard’s disability and pity him – witness the ten-line sentence, an extended riff which amplifies, through restatement, Gloucester’s predicament: he is a man who has been universally rejected, from birth, because of his appearance.  In fact, I’d go further, and say that if we don’t have some sympathy for Richard by the end of this scene, the whole story loses the rich complexity that is generated by our compassion; he is reduced to a one-dimensional bad guy; the audience goes home without the heady mix of emotions that is classical catharsis.  That said, film interpretations have been dictated by a number of factors, some of which have had relatively little to do with any directorial decisions about the type of Richard they are portraying.

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that the more disabled Richard is, the more physically demanding the role is.  One of the main factors that Sher takes into account in his creation of the role is how it might affect his health – especially his back – when played on stage for a period of two years.

Next, the limits of technology, especially in terms of prosthetics, need to be recognised.  Look again at Olivier’s version and you are struck by the ridiculous wigs worn by several characters (the princes), and the inch-thick silent-movie-style make up that disfigures several characters, including Brakenbury (who also, unfortunately, gets the full wig treatment).  Never mind Olivier’s infamous nose!

But possibly the most significant factor outside of directorial control relates to societal attitudes to disability.  Encouraged by Thomas More’s hatchet job, Shakespeare channels the Elizabethan belief that disfigurement was an ‘external manifestation of inner evil’™, and his audience were a gory bunch.  You’re unlikely to be especially squeamish when you can see the inner workings of the human body every time you attend a traitor’s execution or make eye contact with the heads on poles watching you cross London Bridge.  In 1955, in-your-face disability on the silver screen would have felt uncomfortably close to the bone for the many audience members (and their families and friends) disfigured by World War II.  It’s telling to note, when we put on our Marxist critical glasses and consider how the films might reflect contextual social mores, that it isn’t until 2016 when disability can be presented in all it’s nude glory.

Setting aside these caveats, let’s look at the films, then …

If Olivier’s is the ‘shock and awe’, post-war propaganda piece for an insecure England I suspect it is, then we never need to sympathise with Richard – we simply need to doff our collective caps to him, acknowledging his aristocratic power over us.  Olivier is astonishingly mobile on the screen, restlessly roaming the set (at the expense of intimate eye contact) and delivering a number of extravagant arm gestures, especially when diving into 3 Henry VI to declare that he will hew his way towards the crown with a ‘bloody axe’.  (III.ii)  It’s almost a Hitler salute.  Later parts of the play use his deformed shadow effectively, but when the play opens, Olivier merely appears strong in chest and arms, as befits a ‘weeder-out of his [brother’s] proud adversaries’.  (Richard III, I.iii)  My uncharitable view is that he only limps when he remembers to, like a footballer trying to avoid a yellow card for a leg-breaker on the opposing striker.

It’s become a personal cliché that Howell’s version has the ‘volume turned firmly up to 5’ across the board.  That’s not to say that I dislike it – far from it.  It just acknowledges that it is a neutral, faithful staging, relatively empty of guile or agenda.  Here, Ron Cook is noticeably shorter in stature, the limp a little more pronounced even as he also wobbles around a smaller stage area, this time more like a sailor still getting his sea-legs.  It’s tricky, under all that midnight velvet and Blackadder costume, to see just how humped he is, or to spot the strapping on his leg, but at least he has the decency to be permanently bent over, making him even more dwarfish against the rest of the cast.

Richard Longcraine appears to have no interest at all in us pitying his protagonist: he only wants us to fear him.  There are fewer visual signifiers to suggest that Ian McKellen deformed.  He limps, sure, although this is completely, absurdly belied later in the play when he dances in delight like Fred Astaire’s malevolent brother, having seduced Anne.  McKellen looks very much like an amputee, with his sleeve pinned down, but there’s little sense in the opening that he is at all inconvenienced by having a single usable arm.  In fact, I’m slightly jealous of his ability to urinate one-handed (but perhaps, on reflection, this says more about me than it does the character).

By the end of the opening soliloquy, there’s only one Richard I truly feel sorry for, and that’s Cumberbatch in Cooke’s interpretation.  Times and attitudes to disability have moved on: it’s significant that we don’t just see Richard in the flesh, topless, but the staggering lump on his back is the first thing we see, in full HD glory, several seconds before Richard speaks; several seconds before we even see Cumberbatch’s face.  My contention – based on this soliloquy and the preceding one in 3 Henry VI – is that, in the play, none of this would have happened if Richard had been able to find a girl who loved him despite his appearance.  (It’s this that links him to other personal favourite characters like Caliban and Frankenstein’s monster).  We understand his tightly-gripped fury so much better, and even if we can’t quite condone him, we are along for the ride.

2.  Us and Them

I have no brother, I am like no brother;

And this word ‘love,’ which graybeards call divine,

Be resident in men like one another

And not in me: I am myself alone. (3 Henry VI,

Again, let’s make the text our starting point.  Shakespeare very neatly divides the first two parts of the soliloquy through the simple but effective use of pronouns.  The collective flavour of the opening repetition of ‘our’ might, of course, also betray Richard’s jealousy of his playboy brother, riffing on the royal ‘we’. There’s an abrupt change of direction, a volta, signified by ‘but’ on line 14.  We move into a highly personal sequence that colours the rest of the soliloquy.  It is very much an ‘us and them’ piece, which isolates Richard.  Again, how do the films deal with this?

After the extended pageantry of his brother’s coronation, complete with ridiculous royal waving as the great and good depart for destinations unknown, Olivier is left alone in the throne room, circling the enormous crown that is hanging ominously from the ceiling.  Here the space, so recently claustrophobic with bodies, appears all the bigger, and Richard all the lonelier, with all that space to occupy.  The isolation is exaggerated by the ringing echoes when Olivier gets shouty.  Before that, though, he certainly seemed to have played a part in Olde England’s ‘merry meetings’.

Howell’s interpretation, as we’ve said, also gives Ron Cooke space to roam on his own, albeit a more restricted space – dark, mostly wooden, and with nothing about it that signifies regality.  His stage is not one you would kill to be king of.  If there are celebrations, caperings, clouds buried in the deep bosom of the earth, they are out of sight.  Perhaps this is an example of Howell’s loyalty to the script: James R Siemon tells us that ‘After Irving, a street scene became the norm.’  [c] What does happen is that before speaking, Richard makes a deliberate effort to isolate himself, closing the door through which there were suggestions of the lascivious lute’s pleasing.  It’s as if he can’t bear to listen to a party to which he’s not been invited.

Ian McKellen is far more the party animal in Longcraine’s film.  In fact, he takes centre stage.  The first part of the soliloquy becomes a rabble-rousing speech, delivered via microphone, to the rowdy approval of the guests assembled at what appears to be am overtly self-satisfied gala celebration of the end of the Wars of the Roses.  It’s sinister, this – it makes Richard far more of a hypocrite, and consequently far more dangerous and frightening.  He’s less an outsider and more someone who can blend in, who can indeed ‘add colours to the chameleon’. (3 Henry VI, III.ii). It fits with my take on Longcraine’s intentions – there’s a warning here that the enemy is very much within, not an external threat.

To Dominic Cooke, and the season finale to The Hollow Crown.  The scene is littered with cutaways to a traditional medieval feast.  Richard is absolutely on his own, his surroundings unclear but certainly unwelcome, the lighting designed – as so often in this interpretation – to isolate him.  The alternate shots make him appear the black sheep of the family.  To paraphrase his heartbreaking final soliloquy, there is no creature loves him, and if he dies, no soul shall pity him …

3.  The Circle of Trust

My other self, my counsel’s consistory,

My oracle, my prophet! (Richard III, II.ii)

First impressions are so often vital, and our relationship with Richard is broadly settled by the end of the soliloquy.  If there’s any ‘fun’ to be had from the play, then it has to be the vicarious thrill of witnessing someone else enjoying being bad, of doing things we ourselves would never stoop to, with style and charisma.  We have to be on team Richard to some extent.

Olivier, overall, is too aristocratic for us to ever truly identify with him.  Instead we are to be daunted, over-awed by him.  From the first, there is a remoteness to his delivery: some of the soliloquy’s lines are delivered from so far away that we can barely see his expression.  There’s a resulting lack of eye contact (and we see this later in the film, when asides and other remarks are delivered to characters on stage).  We are onlookers, not participants, and the delivery is too loud, too declamatory, to invite confidence.

Ron Cook’s portrayal of Richard is considerably less aloof.  The volume is down, there’s a lot of eye contact, and in his eyes, we see a conspiratorial twinkle:  Howell’s Richard is going to have fun, and wants us to join him.  There’s a devil dancing in his eyes, tempting us with the idea that his plans are mischievous, nothing more.  Gone are the aristocratic airs, and I think that Cook’s ordinariness helps us bond to him and forgive much of the extraordinary career that he soon embarks on.

Whilst McKellen makes eye contact with us after leaving the ball, it always feels a little uncomfortable.  The British stiff upper lip so evident in this version requires that we don’t acknowledge other people in toilets, certainly not whilst they’re urinating, so this increases the distance between us; it’s also interesting that our first eye contact with Longcraine’s monster is via a mirror.  The soliloquy ends with Richard beckoning to us as he leaves the toilet, but by then it feels like a command to ‘follow me’, rather than an inclusive ‘let’s go’.

Which leaves us with the most recent interpretation of Richard.  The lighting and camera work accentuate the intimacy of the soliloquy.  Richard’s vulnerability is accentuated by our view of his disability, sure, but also by the range of emotions he displays – he is by turns sardonic, self-loathing and scarily angry – just about keeping a lid on his fury in the privacy of his cell.  We see the spittle fly from his lips, and the look in his eyes, repeatedly, close up and personal, as we will throughout Dominic Cooke’s version.

– – –

Let’s sum up then.  Having examined some of the competing directorial methodologies, hat do the different interpretations do to our relationship with Richard, Duke of Gloucester? 

In Olivier’s Richard we are merely spectators with a window into History (capitalisation intended), just required to watch what our betters get up to.  Ron Cook invites us to join his gang for his tilt at the crown.  We are onlookers, witnesses to McKellen’s career: perhaps biographers, observing the rise and eventual fall of an extraordinary man with the will to power.  It’s Cumberbatch that we are most intimate with.  When looks into the camera he speaks to us, individually, showing us everything – his pain, his desire, his jealousy, his loathing and his anger.  And if we connect with him, we become accomplices to what follows, every bit as much as Buckingham, for example.  

One script, four very different Richards, each fascinating and memorable in his own right.


[a]  all Shakespeare quotations are taken from

[b]  Antony Sher, Year of the King, (Nick Herne Books:  London, 2004)

[c]  Wiliam Shakespeare, Richard III (Arden Third Edition, ed. James R Siemon), (Bloomsbury Arden Publishing, 2014)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

5 thoughts on “Richard III on screen”

    1. The Mat Fraser one? I’m sorry to have missed that – I listened to him on the radio (see my blog post on 30 April 2017) and it sounded tantalising. What do you think his overwhelming emotion was: anger, frustration, or something else?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it was anger in his performance. He played up both the comedy and the chilling horror, while making the audience understand exactly where that anger was coming from.


      2. It was most impressive even if some things about the set were a bit weird. Nice to not have to shell out vast sums of money for a ticket either. At Hull Truck it was less than £20 for the best seats in the house.


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