William Shakespeare was one of a few individuals who have lived on this earth that was a true genius. Music has Mozart—science has Newton—and literature has Shakespeare. Shakespeare had a keen understanding of human nature that often transcends the boundaries of time and culture—thus exposing the universal elements of human nature that never really change. Although his plays are generally divided into comedies, tragedies, and histories, no two plays are alike. Two of his plays, Richard III and Romeo and Juliet, are both tragedies, and have some similarities, yet they are also very different.
Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most familiar of all of Shakespeare’s plays. There have been several film versions that although quite different in their interpretations of the play, have nonetheless made the general public aware of the main characters and overall plot of the story. The play is also one of the most frequently read Shakespeare plays in secondary school English classes. Richard III has also been produced in film versions, but is still much less known to the general public. The familiarity of a play is extremely important in the perception of the audience. The judgment of any work of literature is biased by the preconceptions of the reader.
Believability Any work of fiction should be a least partially believable. Since it is fiction, the reader is aware that the work is a product of human imagination, and therefore is not actually true. However, the story must appear that it could be true, at least on some level, in order to hold the reader’s attention. Star Trek, for example, has earned its phenomenal success by presenting a view of the future that is believable—the audience at least hopes it could be true. On the surface, Romeo and Juliet appears to be a work of pure fantasy, a sort of fairy tale about two young lovers. However, there was a similar situation that actually occurred in the United States in the late 19th century. Two hillbilly clans were involved in a feud that lasted from 1861 to 1921—the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky (Jones 2). Although most of the fighting stopped in 1881, there were isolated incidents between the two families as late as 1947 (Jones 249). In 1880, Johnse Hatfield and Rose Anne McCoy met for the first time at a public election that was followed by a picnic. They were the children of the leaders of the feuding families, Devil Anse Hatfield and Randolf McCoy. The same day that they met, they disappeared into the woods for several hours. Both families refused to allow the lovers to marry, but they continued to sneak out at night for their trysts in the woods (Jones 35-38). Tragically, Rose Anne died of measles—she was pregnant (Jones 216). Johnse Hatfield later died from a fall from a horse (Spivak 324). Unlike the story of Romeo and Juliet, the love affair of Johnse and Rose Anne did not end the hostilities between the two families. The real "star crossed lovers," Johnse and Rose Anne, lived almost 300 years after Shakespeare wrote his play. The story of Romeo and Juliet, for the most part, could have actually happened. Richard III may also seem difficult to believe. After all, how could a man who was 7th or 8th in line actually become the king of England? Is it realistic that he could have accomplished such a feat without anyone raising a hand to stop him? It happened—at least most of it. Richard III lived about a hundred years before Shakespeare—long enough for the historical Richard to become the legendary Richard. Shakespeare’s play contains elements of both, embellished further by his own imagination. Henry VI was indeed murdered, but he had many enemies—Richard was only one of them. He was probably only an accessory, but to suppose him altogether guiltless is a great violation of all reasonable probability (Gairdner 15). Likewise, Clarence was murdered by order of Edward IV, and Richard may or may not have been directly involved (Gairdner 33). Many people believed that Richard was involved in the death of Clarence—not only Shakespeare, but also Sir Thomas More, who wrote an earlier play, Life of Richard III (Gairdner 33-34). Regarding the two princes, the sons of Edward IV, they actually disappeared and were only presumed murdered until their bodies were found about 200 years later, during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685). In the process of altering the staircase leading to the chapel in the White Tower, the skeletons of two young lads, whose apparent ages agreed with those of the unfortunate princes, were found buried under a heap of stones (Gairdner 127). Again, there is no proof that Richard was responsible, but he certainly profited from their demise. Shakespeare takes great liberties describing the horrible physical deformities of Richard III. Contemporaries of Richard described him as having one shoulder higher than the other. Others said "he was of bodily shape comely enough, only of low stature" (Gairdner 254). None of his portraits indicate noticeable deformities, but artists would probably be reluctant to portray anything that could be perceived as ugly out of respect—or fear (Gairdner 255). Any deformities Richard may have had did not prevent him from exhibiting great skill as a general and great bravery on the field of battle (Gairdner 6). Could a man elevate himself from obscurity to such a position of power? Adolf Hitler began his career with even less than Richard, and gained even more power. He was the son of a peasant (Bullock 24) and was a soldier in World War I (Bullock 50), then a political prisoner (Bullock 120), and eventually rose to become one of the most powerful dictators who has ever lived. The story of Richard III, then, is indeed believable.
Tragedy Richard III is a historic play, but it is also a tragedy. Like Romeo and Juliet, it tells stories of innocent people that die tragically, but there is an important difference. In Richard III, the main character is the villain, and the destruction of his enemies, some perhaps more innocent than others, takes place throughout the play. When Richard dies in the end, it is not a tragedy—but a victory over evil, at least from a Tudor point of view. In Romeo and Juliet, the situation is reversed; Tybalt is a ‘bad guy" who dies at the hands of Romeo in what we are led to believe is a "justifiable homicide". The situation was already bad, but now is it is much worse. The death of Tybalt starts the chain of events that ends in the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet. In both plays, the title characters die in the end, but with a much different effect on the reader.
Good and Evil One could argue that Richard is evil—but with style. Some may say that although Richard is a ruthless murderer, that he is still a charming likable fellow. Personally, I don’t like him at all. He sometimes amuses me, but I have no warm and fuzzy feelings about him. The best part of the play, for me, was at the end, where Richard gets what is coming to him. In the battle between good and evil, good wins this round. In Shakespeare’s version of this piece of history, Richard represents everything bad in the world, and credit for his downfall is given to Henry VII, the first of the Tudors. In Romeo and Juliet, the lines between good and evil are not so clearly defined. Who is evil, the Montagues—or the Capulets? All we are told is that the two families were engaged in a feud. Romeo and Juliet are caught up in the feud, even though they try not to be. They are innocent victims of evil, but the source of the evil is not as clear as it is in Richard III. I believe that the evil in Romeo and Juliet is the feud itself, regardless of which side was right or wrong.
Both plays have elements of good vs. evil, and the tragic sacrifice of innocent people. In Richard III, the motivation for the death of innocents is clearly Richard’s greed and lust for power. Although we are not told the reason for the feud in Romeo and Juliet, I think it would be safe to assume that greed and lust for power were also involved. The reason that the feud started is unimportant, but it is apparent that greed and lust for power, and foolish pride are now part of the conflict as the story unfolds. In Richard III, we award the battle between good and evil to the good guys—sadly in Romeo and Juliet, death—and evil prevail. In both plays, the tragic turn of events finally results in peace—but at what cost?
Works Cited Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York. Harper and Row, 1962. Gairdner, James. History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third. Cambridge
University Press, 1968.
Jones, Virgil Carrington. The Hatfields and the McCoys. Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The University of North Carolina Press, 1948. Spivak, John L. The Devil’s Brigade: The Story of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud.
Brewer and Warren, Inc., 1930.