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  • "Determined to prove a villain":Criticism, Pedagogy, and Richard III
  • Martine van Elk (bio)

This essay offers suggestions for teaching William Shakespeare's Richard III, using a pedagogy that combines a historically aware, text-based exploration of the play's treatment of subjectivity with a performance-oriented approach. Concentrating especially on the play's famous opening speech, I explain how students might be encouraged to engage productively with the text's intermingling of competing, overlapping, and mutually enhancing models of identity. The play's representations of identity derive from the early modern period's secular humanism and metaphysical views of selfhood, but also present us with less clear-cut reflections on psychology and theatricality. The essay ends with an analysis of three modern film versions of the speech, showing how these can be used to help students learn to recognize the ways in which our own perspectives on identity are themselves the product of a long, complex, and often contradictory historical development.

Surprisingly little scholarly work has been done on how to teach William Shakespeare's Richard III at the college level, even though it presents specific textual and thematic problems for undergraduates. Aside from the play's reliance on a broad historical familiarity with the Wars of the Roses, students are often confused by its peculiar combination of archaic-sounding language and a modern-seeming protagonist and have to adjust to reading an early modern text about a late-medieval moment. This essay proposes a new approach to teaching Richard III, one that is informed by recent critical readings of the play as well as by theoretical models of subjectivity. I offer suggestions for teaching that aim to have students explore the simultaneous and contradictory presence in the play of different notions of selfhood, including the metaphysical and secular-humanist [End Page 1] views, but also more modern constructions that take us into the realms of psychology and metatheatricality.

In addition to this historical and theoretical focus, this essay looks to bridge the gap between performance-based pedagogy and text-based classroom practice by arguing for a treatment of the play that joins the two approaches in a meaningful way. In spite of the continued dominance of new historicism in criticism, the subfield of teaching Shakespeare has been, since the early 1980s, overwhelmingly oriented towards performance, whether this means having students act out scenes and discuss performance techniques or using film, video, and various electronic media in the classroom.1 In the final pages of the essay, I explore the openings and closings of three of the best-known film versions of Richard III and consider how they can enrich a discussion of Shakespeare's complex treatment of subjectivity. Paradoxically, perhaps, modern film can enhance a historically aware conversation about Shakespeare, asking students ultimately to reflect on themselves and their situatedness in history and to consider where their own ideas about identity come from. As Bruce Smith has put it in a succinct discussion of teaching Shakespeare, "we project our own concerns, but they come back to us—or, at least, they should come back to us—transformed by the solidities of Shakespeare as a historical phenomenon. They come back to us in the form of dialogue" (1997, 454). Enabling students to engage in this dialogue with Richard III is my central concern in teaching the play.

The long-standing critical debate on Richard III (1592-93), initiated by E. M. W. Tillyard, has centered on the overall presentation of history in the play, and specifically on its status as a providential narrative in support of the Tudor Myth or as a secular, humanist, or even Machiavellian text that looks to human action in this world as a primary cause for historical change. In Stages of History Phyllis Rackin explains the uneven development in Renaissance historiography, which shows the same ambivalence. She notes that history writing of the period reveals the "gradual separation of history from theology: explanations of events in terms of their first cause in divine providence were giving way to Machiavellian analyses of second causes—the effects of political situations and the impact of human will and capabilities" (1990, 6). Although Rackin herself sees Richard...


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