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The Uses of Richard III : from Robert Cecil to Richard Nixon
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The Uses of Richard III:
From Robert Cecil to Richard Nixon

This article examines the figure and function of Richard as a 'tool for political commentary' from the early modern period to the 20th Century. Aune begins by analysing a sample of early modern vernacular works, which negatively links the character to Robert Cecil. An over-arching theme is identified: Francis Bacon's notion of physical and moral goodness being intertwined. Aune proposes that this is embodied by the play as a whole as time goes on. Largely, history plays resist innovation, unlike tragedies and comedies and Richard III appeared to have stagnated. However in the 20<sup>th </sup> Century, interpretations of the character, like those of John Laurie and Laurence Olivier, began to invoke references to Hitler and Mussolini, reflecting the rise of fascism in continental Europe. Aune then turns to 1970s U.S.A., discussing Al Pacino's Richard, and how the character was used to engage with political events, such as Richard Nixon's re-election. Upon his resignation however, the connection was severed. Nonetheless, the character Richard has transcended the historical figure, embodying new rhizomatic connections to 20<sup>th </sup> Century fascist dictators when presented to a postwar audience.


Richard III, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Shakespeare, Richard Nixon, Robert Cecil, Fascism in Europe, Al Pacino

In Eikonoklastes (1649), his attack on the recently executed Charles I's Eikon Basilike, Milton demonstrates Charles' hypocrisy and ignorance by quoting from a work he is sure the King would have known: Shakespeare's Richard III. Milton writes

William Shakespeare; [in 2.1] . . . introduces the Person of Richard the third speaking in as high a straine of pietie and mortification, as is utterd in any passage of this Book . . . [:]

'I doe not know that Englishman aliveWith whom my soule is any jott at oddsMore then the Infant that is borne to night;I thank my God for my humilitie.'

Other stuff of this sort may be read throughout the Whole Tragedie.


Not only does Milton assume, correctly, that Charles had read and probably seen Shakespeare's play, he assumes that his own reader is familiar with the character of Richard as a notorious dissembler. Milton depends on this familiarity to advance his argument about the validity of the new government. In other words, his intent is to use the dramatic character of Richard (rather than the historical figure) to vilify Charles and justify his execution. Milton's propagandistic use of Richard is one example of how in early modern England this particular character shifted from the sphere of dramatic entertainment to become available as a tool for personal attack and political commentary.

This essay will examine the character of Richard III and the social and sometimes political uses to which it has been put in two distinct cultural moments: early modern England and postwar England and America. [End Page 23] In the early modern period, Richard—popularized by Shakespeare's and others' plays, printed histories, and manuscript libels—was used by people who were, as Milton was, interested in defaming or commenting on living or recently deceased public figures. This usefulness was enhanced by public knowledge of Richard and the historical proximity of the real Richard. The diversity of media at the time (print, manuscript, and performance) made such critiques available to a diverse range of literacies and locations. Eventually Shakespeare's Richard, on stage and in print, became dominant, in particular because of the elevation of Shakespeare to national poet in the early eighteenth century. Despite the popularity of the character and the play, by the twentieth century, the use of Richard as a tool for personal attack had nearly disappeared from the Anglo-American stage. The figure of Richard continued to be useful in social and political critique, but Richard in performance remained largely fixed in a medieval setting. What constituted "medieval" varied from some attempts to present some measure of historical authenticity to others that used a stylized modern or even Elizabethan construction of the Middle Ages. In any case, the tendency to look backward limited the character's potential for a local critique. Aside from a few...