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Illyria Online

Free Will Shakespeare: King Richard III, Determinism and/or Fatalism

Juliano Zaffino

The following “essay” is a very moderately tweaked version of a presentation given in a class for my Shakespeare Studies MA. The scope of the presentation was to discuss Richard III in a way that was both specifically engaged and broadly engaging.


‘I have set my life upon a cast, / and I will stand the hazard of the die’ (V.iv.9-10).1 As part of Richard’s final speech in the play, almost immediately preceding his “silent” or dialogue-less death on stage, the metaphor for chance reveals much about Richard’s actions and demise; everything is a matter of chance, and yet it is Richard who has “set his life” on this chance. This paradox is what I intend to explore and unpick a little further. It ties in with questions of free will and agency – to what extent Richard chose his course – and ideologies of determinism, that all events are caused by preceding events, and fatalism, that humans are at mercy to the forces of fate. Such socio-philosophical concepts relate, in King Richard III, to questions of preordination and the divine right in the Elizabethan period.

           The difficulty in reconciling Richard with his fate is frequently expressed as a particular dichotomy: is he a Machiavellian villain or a tragic predestined prop? Perhaps he is both – a discussion of recurring themes in Richard’s speech and in the way others speak about Richard, and a brief note on performance history, will further illuminate this. This leads to further questions about what Marie-Hélène Besnault and Michel Bitot express as ‘the exploration and staging of physical and moral deformity’.2 Is Richard III physically deformed by fate, or as divine punishment for his villainy? What does the answer to that question say about moral deformity, expressed through Richard’s actions? To better understand both the relevance and the tension between these factors, one must first consider the monarchy’s relationship with fate and sovereignty – especially under the reign of Elizabeth I.

           As John Guy notes, Archbishop John Whitgift propagated the ‘divine right’ argument: ‘the state of government is named according to that which most ruleth, and beareth the government sway’.3 Or, to paraphrase Guy’s summation, Elizabeth derived her authority directly from God in church and state. Royal supremacy, the monarchy’s right to rule, is distinct from yet intertwined with the question of preordination; the succession of rule through the royal line, that it is divinely predetermined for Elizabeth to rule. The implications of this extend back throughout the history of the monarchy and so Richard III, last of the Plantagenets, had a part to play. As the sequence of King Richard III shows, Richard III had to be overthrown for the Tudor line – and, eventually, inevitably, Elizabeth – to sit on the throne. To say that Elizabeth was predestined for the throne is to say that Richard was predestined for demise. Patrick Collinson states that ‘royal and episcopal principles [of royal supremacy and monarchical episcopacy] have been brought to life and made to move about the stage’.4 In King Richard III, the titular monarch is the embodiment of this enactment, particularly when he is considered in relation to the theological notion of “free will”. So the question is: to what extent did Richard have free will, not just in Shakespeare’s play but also historically?

            Richard is certainly viewed by others as being in charge of his own destiny; in the play’s second scene, Anne says to him ‘thou wast provoked by thy bloody mind, / that never dream’st on aught but butcheries’  (I.ii.101-2). The causal link between bloody actions and a bloody mind suggested by “provoked” implies that Richard chooses to “butcher”. Similarly, Richard implies his own conscious will when he opens his address to the audience (and the play), as seen in the tonal shift between the first half, such as the lines ‘our bruised arms hung up for monuments, / our stern alarums changed to merry meetings’ (I.i.6-7), and the second half, starting with ‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks… I, that am rudely stamped… I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion, / Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature.’ (I.i.14-19). The inclusive pronoun “our” brings the audience into Richard’s conspiracy but also into pre-Tudor England; this is disrupted by the emphatic “but”, and the anaphoric “I, that am”, which foregrounds Richard’s otherness as well as his strong sense of identity and being, and shows Richard actively working against the collective.  Yet there seems to be a paradox here; Richard blames his otherness on deceitful or “dissembling Nature”, and even Anne’s claim suggests that Richard is forced into his actions by the very nature of who he is.

           Richard himself suggests powerlessness against fate when he says ‘all unavoided is doom of destiny’ (IV.iv.218). But Elizabeth’s reply is more telling than his claim: ‘true, when avoided grace makes destiny’ (IV.iv.219). A footnote in the James R Siemon’s Arden Edition of the play makes the (long yet eloquent) point that ‘referring to the controversial idea that one might reject God’s grace and make ones own damnable destiny, Queen Elizabeth counters both the emphasis on divine predestination in contemporary Calvinism and Richard’s assertion of irrefutable destiny by positioning the importance of the individual human will in accepting or rejecting God’s grace’.5 The consequence of this is two-fold: Richard makes his own choices, yes, but he is still within limits. His choices are limited by the circumstances of his life; his “Nature” and his lineage. Murder has been in Richard’s family, and indeed the royal line, for generations; we see Richard’s propensity for it when he, alone on stage, declares ‘I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl’ (I.iii.323), and ‘thus I clothe my naked villainy / with odds old ends, stol’n forth of Holy Writ, and seem a saint when most I play the devil’ (I.iii.335-7). Again the theme of deceitfulness recurs, interspersed with religious imagery; Richard is figuratively “pulling one over” on providence by pretending to adhere to it.

           Indeed, Richard directly expresses his tendency to feign submission to divine powers. In the presence of others, Richard’s true self is revealed. Buckingham, in front of the Mayor, says to Richard that the throne is ‘successively from blood to blood, / your right of birth, your empery, your own’ (III.vii.134-5). Buckingham is being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, performing for the Mayor. Richard also performs, deploying irony, referring to the young Prince as merely his ‘thoughts’ sovereign’ (III.i.2), and says of King Edward that ‘he may command me as my sovereign’ (III.i.108). The implication is that Edward and his line only govern Richard because Richard still allows it; sovereignty is both intangible and malleable, hence the certainty when Richard says ‘when I am King’ (III.i.194). For Richard, sovereignty is a performance: he refers to King Edward as ‘my most sovereign lord’ (II.i.53), and then says of Clarence’s murder that ‘God will revenge it’ (II.i.139). The lack of logic negates the possibility that Richard is being earnest; if he believed what he was saying, he would be setting himself up to fail. And yet that’s exactly what happened; thus the paradox that, in exercising free will, Richard further tempts fate.

            The way that Richard is punished by fate is made manifest most sharply in the figure of the former Queen Margaret, completing the story arc that began for her in Henry VI. She knows Richard for what he is, and says to the Duchess of York that Richard would: ‘worry lambs and lap their gentle blood’ (IV.iv.50). If we take the lamb to be Jesus, whose Eucharistic blood is consumed by Richard, then perhaps Margaret is making an anti-Catholic slur, marking Richard as opposed to the latterly-protestant view of Shakespeare’s England. Maybe Margaret is implying that Richard is a god-killer, like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, ‘the scourge of god’. Margaret is the only one who calls Richard a heretic with any conviction or vitriol, referring to him as ‘the foul defacer of God’s handiwork’ (IV.iv.53). God’s handiwork is nature, indicating Richard’s unnatural appearance, as well as the divinely ordered rule. She exclaims ‘O upright, just, and true-disposing God’ (IV.iv.55) – again, Richard is a usurper not just of the crown, but also of God himself. And yet the links between Margaret and Richard only further complicate the question; Margaret was cruel and murderous and is being punished, yet her curses against Richard, her wishes to see him brought to justice, are all actualised. Nicholas Grene asks ‘why divine providence should become’, then quoting Wilbur Sanders, ‘a supernatural agency under contractual obligation to exterminate the house of York’, serving the will of Margaret.6 Grene and Sanders ignore the futility of Margaret’s fulfilment; her time to thrive has long passed. But Margaret does serve as a sort of foreshadowing for Richard, the figure punished for attempting to transcend beyond God’s will; Richard ignores this warning, and Richard pays the price.

           It might be helpful to look at performance history for answers. Gillian Day’s exploration of Richard across five decades of performances at the RSC indicates a typical divide between portrayals of Richard’s character: the theatrical politician or the realist psycho-social victim.7 The theatrical politician is often a manifestation of the Machiavellian villain, while psycho-social realism would mostly paint Richard as a product of his surroundings: warped family history, “flawed belief structure”, fate and/or circumstance. Thus we see that same opposition realised, although often not simultaneously – Richard is actively portrayed as one or the other. Perhaps, as Gillian Day argues, the introduction of a “metatheatrical Richard”, somewhat aware of the performance, is a way to bridge this gap, and to invite the audience to judge Richard for themselves, giving the audience a semblance of the Free Will that is perhaps denied to Richard.

           King Richard III relates to Shakespeare’s earlier plays, the three parts of Henry VI, in the way that chronicle history is discordant with dramatic structure; I have been going on (and on) about the way that dramatizing this history problematizes a sociological and theological dichotomy that was perhaps unspeakably contentious at the time of King Richard III’s composition. This consideration of Shakespeare’s theological and political views may be outdated; as Dominique Goy-Blanquet sets out to show, ‘a more constructive starting point for research is the exploration of the technical problems raised by turning heavy narratives into performable plays, rather than of the political motives that could inspire a playwright’s representation of national history’.8 The technical problems are there and manifest; but the interrelation between the two, the way that history mapping onto performance reflects political tension, seems more useful in its breadth.

           Richard’s “free will”, however extensive (or not) it may be, is like him only ever the product of his surroundings; his attempts to be a fatalistic Machiavellian villain are undermined by his helplessness, for he is a prop insomuch as he is a catalyst for the instating of the Tudor line, the necessary end to that particular chapter in history. It is most helpful to maintain a determinist mind-set, to consider Richard as having a limited amount of free will. Either way, sovereignty has run the necessary course, eradicating all preceding lines so that the correct line (i.e. Elizabeth’s) could triumph. God works in mysterious ways.



1 William Shakespeare, King Richard III, ed. James R Siemon, The Arden Shakespeare – Third Series, reprinted 2015 (London: Bloomsbury, 2009)

2 Marie-Hélène Besnault and Michel Bitot, ‘Historical legacy and fiction: the poetical reinvention of King Richard III’, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays, ed. Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 106 – 125 (p. 106)

3 John Guy, ‘The Elizabethan establishment and the ecclesiastical polity’, in The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and culture in the last decade, ed. John Guy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 126 – 149

4 Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society 1559-1625, reprint 2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 1

5 see James R Siemon’s footnotes to King Richard III (edition as above), p. 351

6 Nicholas Grene, Shakespeare’s Serial History Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 130

7 Gillian Day, The Arden Shakespeare – Shakespeare at Stratford: King Richard III (London: Thomson Learning, 2002)

8 Dominique Goy-Blanquet, Shakespeare’s Early History Plays: From Chronicle to Stage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), synopsis on reverse of dust jacket.