What William Hazlitt observed two hundred years ago remains true today: ‘Richard III may be considered as properly a stage-play: it belongs to the theatre, rather than the closet’ (1916, p. 187). Nevertheless, as was remarked in Chapter 1, Richard III was frequently reprinted in Shakespeare’s own lifetime and was clearly popular with readers. Since then a fair amount of ink has been spilt and brains tossed about in the attempt to understand what the play might mean, what Shakespeare intended when he wrote it, and what we as readers and viewers should understand this phenomenal stage vehicle as signifying in the realms of politics, history, morality and psychology. This chapter offers a selective, chronological account of the history of the play’s criticism. While interpretive concerns have evolved and mutated, there are many enduring dilemmas: How should we respond to the combination of evil and attractiveness in Richard? How, if at all, can his villainy be explained? Should the play be viewed on its own or as part of a four-, eight- or even ten-part cycle of history plays? Equally consistently, the history of interpretation attests to the difficulty of separating critical from stage history, as many, especially pre-twentieth-century critics are responding to both Shakespeare’s text and its latest reincarnation on stage.
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