Shakespeare - The disturbing world of Richard III and Edmund

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition of a Psychopath

3. Psychopathic tendencies of Richard III
3.1 Emotional/ Interpersonal
3.2 Social Deviance

4. Psychopathic tendencies of Edmund
4.1 Emotional/ Interpersonal
4.2 Social Deviance

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York’ (Richard III, 1.1.1). The famous opening scene of the ‘history play’ Richard III is known throughout the world and not a few spectators have been fascinated by the character of Richard described by Greenblatt as the ‘monster of evil’ or the ‘virtual devil incarnate’ (1997, p.507). In the play itself, Richard is characterized by Margaret as ‘elvish-marked, abortive rooting hog’ (1.3.227). The play focuses on Richard, who murders his way to the crown. Shakespeare’s Edmund in King Lear shows as well a high amount of ruthlessness. Greenblatt, again, states that ‘language’ and ‘social order’ are ‘merely arbitrary constraints’ or ‘obstacles’ in the way of the ‘triumph of his will’ (1997, p.2309). He ‘seethes’ with ‘murderous resentment’ over the advantages of his brother Edgar, who is a legitimate child (Cohen 1997, p.2309).

Whilst generally agreeing on the villainy of both characters, scholarly attention given to them has been generally less convergent over the years. According to Oestreich-Hart (2000), Richard has been described as an ‘intrepid warrior’, a ‘comic or satirical Vice’, a diabolic Machiavel’, ‘a heartless villain of Senecan melodrama’, ‘a proficient rhetorican’ or even a ‘spurned child’ (p.242). Edmund, the subplot character of King Lear, has been described as ‘a most vile’ (Utterback 1976, p.203) or ‘most toad-spotted traitor’ (5.3.137).

Due to the fact that both characters show tendencies making them extremely atrocious and unpredictable, the aim of the essay, in contrast, is to explore the idea of Richard and Edward (Folio-version) being psychopaths according to our understanding of the term in our modern world. Psychopaths in literature are quite common and they are extremely fascinating, because they

...look and dress the same way as most businessmen, they may even use the same language. Some of these people are fairly persuasive, they can manipulate, they’re very charming, some of them even charismatic. And a lot of people, they like them, they think they’re kind of fun to be around, but it takes a long time before you can figure out that something is really amiss here.

(R. Hare, Abc Radio National,, July 18, 2004)

These features make psychopaths extremely interesting and compelling.

Does Shakespeare portray characters who remind of psychopaths as well?

2. Definition of a Psychopath

A definition of the term Psychopath seems rather difficult because there is some disagreement about its precise nature. Benjamin Rust, the first American psychiatrist, referred for example to persons possessed of an ‘innate preternatural moral depravity’ (Rust cited in Lykken 1996, p.740). Thus, a psychopathic tendency is regarded as an in-built characteristic of a person. This is a matter of controversy within the research, beyond the scope of this essay. A psychopath ‘may be intelligent and often display great charm, enhanced […] by a lack of nervousness or other neurotic manifestations’ according to Cleckley ( Cleckley cited in Lykken 1996, p.741). Hare (1999) refers to ‘key sumptoms’ in order to identify psychopathic tendencies. He distinguishes between ‘emotional/interpersonal’ key symptoms and a ‘social deviance’ (Hare 1999, p.34). According to Hare (p.34), the symptoms are as follows:


- lack of remorse or guilt
- egocentric and grandiose
- lack of empathy
- deceitful and manipulative
- shallow emotions
- glib and superficial

Social Deviance

- impulsive
- poor behaviour controls
- need for excitement
- lack of responsibility
- early behaviour problems
- adult antisocial behaviour

This essay is going to discuss to what extent Shakespeare’s characters Richard and Edmund show key symptoms of a ‘psychopathic personality’ (Kraeplin cited in Lykken 1996, p.741) referring to aspects of Hare’s straightforward checklist mentioned above. Due to the constraints of length of this essay, unfortunately not all psychopathic tendencies and all scenes can be addressed. Therefore, the most striking key-symptoms and scenes will be discussed. Richard is of course a character of other Shakespearean history plays, but this essay will only focus on his character in Richard III.

3. Psychopathic tendencies of Richard III

Richard is a compelling character. It seems to be his keenest pleasure to murder his brother, his nephews and to manipulate his environment. Although he shows psychopathic tendencies, it is nevertheless problematic to refer to him as a definitive psychopath.

3.1 Emotional/ Interpersonal

Besides the ‘irresistible conviction that the play relates to history’ (Richmond 1989, p.7), Richard has ‘held so many audiences spellbound’ (Eccles 1964, p.22), because he is a ‘devil masked as a man’, according to Eccles (1964, p.22). He deceitfully appears as the ‘loyal brother’ to George, as the ‘impassioned lover’ to Lady Anne, and as the ‘kindly uncle’ to his nephews (Eccles 1964, p.23). He lacks remorse or any sign of guilt as he plots their destruction in order to be King. .



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Monash University Melbourne – School of Literature
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Shakespeare Richard Edmund Shakespeare- Interpretations Transmutations



Title: Shakespeare - The disturbing world of  Richard III and Edmund