God’s Providence through Dark Means in Shakespeare’s Richard III

A note about this essay. In preparatory research for this essay, I came across some contemporary writers (such as Drs. Leland Ryken, Peter Leithart, and William Tate for example) who have attempted to do justice to the Christian themes and influences of Shakespeare’s writing. This essay is an attempt to add my pebble to the great path men such as these have laid down and trod upon. In an environment saturated with atrociously bad scholarship, as the current Shakespeare scene is, such men should be read and commended. It is my hope that some of their qualities have rubbed off on my writing, and that curious readers will gain some encouragement or benefit from reading this essay.


God’s Providence through Richard III’s Dark Means

“Of whom tedious it is to me to write this tragedious history, except that I remember that good it is to write and put in remembrance the punishment of sinners, to the end that others may eschew to fall into like danger” (Fabyan 113). So writes Robert Fabyan, a contemporary of Richard III, of the namesake of Shakespeare’s play. The days in which Richard III takes place are dark and dangerous for those in the English court. In the end, as twilight falls on the War of Roses and dawn rises upon the Tudor dynasty, Richard III, the great instigator and human agent of this dynastic shift in the English monarchy finds himself in the most dangerous position of all. Through the dark, despicable deeds of the play, Shakespeare tells the story of how this man brings chaos to the court and, much to his chagrin, falls prey to that same chaos in the end. Yet God’s hand of Providence is present behind all these events with apparent intentionality, directing both people and events toward a particular end. There are many aspects of Richard III that one could consider to illustrate the theme of Providence, but two examples are the deformity of Richard’s body and his sacrilegious mock-piety before the citizens.

Providence Defined

Providence is an immanently Christian concept to be distinguished from the impersonal capriciousness of the old Pagan Fate. The Christian doctrine of Providence is inextricably tied to the nature of the God whose acts the term describes. Summarizing about a century of Reformation preaching in English and Scottish churches, the Westminster Assembly of Divines gathered to compose a Confession of Faith in 1643. Regarding Providence, the Assembly wrote, “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory” (“Westminster Larger Catechism” 18). Therefore, according to this expression of Christian faith, Providence is not merely a theoretical explanation of creation’s origin or mover of auspicious events that occur in time; this God is the Creator who acts in time, but he also governs “all his creatures” and “all their actions” to accomplish his own purposes; purposes that all work “to his own glory.”

A significant aspect of the biblical theme of God’s Providence, particularly relevant to Shakespeare’s Richard III, is that God is at work accomplishing his will in even the darkest of circumstances. In fact, it is in the transition from disorder to order that God’s life-giving power is most apparent to a world that by nature cannot see God. In and of themselves, all things tend ultimately toward chaos. The central example of God accomplishing his purposes through dark means is the central message of the Christian Gospel. “For in [the Lord Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (ESV, Colossians 1:19, 20). This ultimate example of God creating order out of moral chaos is reflected, in a small scale in Richard III with the establishment of a peace through Richmond’s conquering of Richard III in Act 5, Scene 5.

Providence in Richard’s Deformity? A Christian Reading

One of the defining characteristics of Richard III is his physical deformity. In the opening monologue of the play, Richard himself says that he has been “…cheated of feature by dissembling nature, / Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time” (Richard III 1.1.21-22). Following the theme of Divine Providence in the play, what Richard credits to nature having cheated him is an expression of God’s will in his creation. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the appearance of Richard and how this appearance relates to Richard as a character and moral agent is complicated. The audience encounters a certain tension regarding how to view Richard’s deformity. Does the deformity act as a portent of God’s wrathful intention toward him? Is it merely a dramatic visual cue of Richard’s evil heart building upon historical record? Does it serve primarily to build Richard’s character as a sort of embodiment of vice? Or does the answer lie somewhere else entirely?

One may be tempted to see the hand of Providence in Richard’s physical deformity as a factor that causes or in some way facilitates Richard’s vicious plots. To this end, Catherine Williams cites a scholarly tradition linking contemporary “theological and moral lessons” to Richard’s physical condition; she states that a contemporary audience would have “understood Richard as the ‘vehicle for the doctrine that villainy in the soul was predicated by a correspondent deformity in the body'” (Williams). While this may have been the case with some or many, perhaps it would be better to consider physical deformity in light of the Reformation-era Christian context in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed. I argue that there are not theological or moral lessons at play in Richard’s deformity. There is a sort of dramatic symbolism in Richard’s physical appearance, but from a Christian worldview, there is no ground for linking “villainy in the soul” with “a correspondent deformity in the body.” Those with a biblical Christian worldview would be aware of the Bible’s teachings against such notions. Some biblical examples will help to dispel the misunderstanding of theological lessons in physical deformities.

On the subject of physical marks or disfigurement being signs or portents, the biblical precedent seems to be that such things can happen to both those upon whom God shows favor as well as those upon whom he is bringing wrath. The Apostle Paul gave an example to the Corinthians of how God had given him a thorn in the flesh “to keep [him] from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Job, a man “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,” was given “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” to demonstrate his persevering faith (Job 1:1, 2:7). There is the example of Cain who received a mark from God after murdering his brother, Abel. However, even this mark is explained to have been given “lest any who found him should attack him” to avenge Abel’s death (Genesis 4:15). There simply aren’t Christian grounds to conclude that a physical deformity is given by God to signify “villainy in the soul”, and so insofar as a Christian audience is enlightened by the Christian worldview, it would not make this connection as the Williams citation argues.

Indeed, Christians of any era would affirm that God’s hand of Providence was behind the disfigurement of Richard, but not for the simplistic cause-and-effect reasoning that we might initially think.  I earlier cited the Christian confession that God governs “all his creatures…and all their actions.” Certainly Richard qualifies as one of God’s creatures, and so God, who “knitted [Richard] together in [his] mother’s womb,” had intentional purpose in causing Richard to be deformed, however great or small the deformity (Psalm 139:13).

Shortly after defining Providence, the Westminster Larger Catechism takes up the Christian teaching on human suffering in this life. It states that, because of our fall in Adam, “we are by nature children of wrath, bond slaves to Satan, and justly liable to all punishments in this world, and that which is to come” (“Westminster Larger Catechism” 27). This catechism answer, relying on biblical teaching about post-fall humanity, observes that every man is responsible for his own sin and answers for that sin both in the miseries of this life and, in the absence of a redeemer, the punishment for sin after death. So in this understanding of the Scriptures, even as God is seen to execute his decrees in Providence, every man is liable to the miseries we experience in life. A Christian understanding of Providence would affirm God’s intentional Providence in every aspect of existence but would not allow the conclusion that there is necessarily some sort of “theological and moral” connection between God’s decree of Richard’s physical deformity and Richard’s subsequent moral chaos as Williams’ quote suggests. One can but conclude that all things, even deformities, somehow serve “to [God’s] own glory” (“Westminster Larger Catechism” 18). Insofar as one is consistent with a biblical worldview, as church-going, Reformation-era Londoners would have known, these “theological and moral lessons” would not be immediately apparent.

The Dramatic Symbolism of Richard’s Deformity

However, just because there are not theological or moral lessons in Richard’s deformity, it does not mean that there is not some purpose for which Shakespeare would both include and emphasize it in his play. Richard III is not a theological treatise; it is a theatrical drama. Insofar as it serves this theatrical function, both the visual and rhetorical portrayal of Richard as deformed in fact serve to amplify the audience’s perception of his inner, moral deformity and that these horrible events that are happening are part of a Divine decree. Richard’s outward deformity serves as a sort of visual, dramatic symbol of his immoral character. The function is that of dramatic symbolism, not theological teaching.

In Shakespeare’s early dramatic environment, not heavily reliant upon sets and props, the bodies of actors, how they are decked, their appearance, their voices, etc., are at the center of the audience’s attention. Whereas plays are, by their very nature, heavily visual, all of that vision is focused on the individuals on the stage when scenery is absent. So, the appearance of Richard, however his deformity was originally pulled off, would be very important to the play’s director and very striking to the audience. Even amid the very large cast of Richard III, the malformed Richard would be easily distinguishable.

On the subject of the visual effect on the audience of Richard’s deformity, Williams writes, “The theatre employs the powerfully affective device of the actor’s body beneath the character’s theatrical body, and this overlapping presentation complicates the dramatic fiction’s descriptions of the character the actor personates” (Williams).  It is always significant to recognize that the actor has the great power to give life to the character written on the page. The actor for Richard would have, in fact, been pretending to be deformed, and his pretending would have been done in such a way that a crowd of people from a considerable distance could tell that he was deformed. Such a performance would demand a sort of symbolic exaggeration, and such symbolism stirs the imagination to consider the implications of what is symbolized. As time progresses in the play, this visually striking deformed figure performing heinous acts suggests a causal connection between the visual portrayal of Richard and the actions he is performing. Clearly Shakespeare was intentional in his choice to make Richard’s appearance as striking as Richard’s actions. This intentionality, symbolized in that visual image of deformed Richard, reveals Shakespeare’s “providential” hand in the events of the play, and further reveals an intentionality in the events which are portrayed in the performance. There is a connection between God’s Providence and Richard’s deformity in Richard III, but it is symbolic rather than theological and moral.

As a playwright, Shakespeare “providentially” directs all the elements that he writes into his own play. In the rhetoric that he gives Richard, he includes the deformity as a significant factor in Richard’s bad character. In Henry VI, Part III, Richard says of himself, “Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it” (III Henry VI 5.6.79-80). Along the same line of reasoning, in the opening monologue of Richard III, he adds:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (Richard III 1.1.30-33)

Here the audience sees a glimpse into what drives Richard’s murderous heart. Whereas deformity can work dramatically as a visual cue for Richard’s inner state, rhetorically, it also serves to fuel his corrupt sinful nature, already bent on obtaining power at any cost.

So Providence can be seen to be at work through Richard’s deformity in a way that symbolically combines God’s decree with Richard’s own evil heart, but not in as simplistic a relationship as an audience might be comfortable with. But if God is providentially at work in the events of the play, the picture is further complicated by the depths of chaos and evil to which Richard stoops.

Providence in Richard’s Sacrilege – Hastening His Ascent

Shakespeare’s Richard is the sort of villain we all love to hate. He is evil and he knows it. He seems to love being evil, and if that were not enough, his physical body is twisted to match his wicked soul. Shakespeare portrays the moral chaos of Richard as bringing an end to the longstanding War of Roses between the York and Lancaster houses which lasted from 1455 to Richard III’s death in 1485.  He is, indeed “a scourge whom God uses in a measure-for-measure fashion to punish members of both Houses for not only their inner, sinful disorders (passion’s overthrow of reason) but their shattering of civil harmony as well” (Hunt 13). Such a view of English history is reminiscent of Israel’s period of kings, as the Jewish monarchs seemed to compete with their predecessors to exceed in wickedness, only to bring God’s judgment on the nation through either foreign kings or internal conspiracies. A key element of this political aspect of Richard III is the establishment of the Tudor house under Henry VII, or Richmond, as he is called in the play. A key scene that reveals God’s providential guidance, even through Richard’s evil deeds, is Act 3, Scene 7, when he wins public support by appearing to align himself with the Church.

After much scheming and killing, Richard has Buckingham attempt to stir up the citizens to support Richard as their new king. Unsuccessful in moving the people, Buckingham returns to Richard and devises a plan to gain Richard power and support through appearing devout and disinterested in being ruler. Buckingham says to Richard, “And look you get a prayer-book in your hand, / And stand between two churchmen, good my lord: / For on that ground I’ll make a holy descant” (Richard III 3.7.48-50). Richard obeys and the mock display of Christian piety wins him the support of the mayor and citizens. Now the question comes to mind, how can such an act of sacrilege be seen as the work of Providence pursuant to a positive end?

Richard’s mock piety hastens his ascension to the throne. After many years of battling between the houses of York and Lancaster, Richard, in his few years, has multiplied the chaos in the court by killing off rivals to the throne. In an environment where any surviving son is a potential heir to the throne, Richard is attempting to create a sort of vacuum of power with himself situated as the only rightful man to fill the space. Vacuum or no, an English king without some consent of England’s citizens is not likely to be king for long. Encouraged by Buckingham, Richard’s plan to garner the favor of the citizens is to do so by aligning himself with God through the Church. The Church is a symbol of stability. Royal houses and kingdoms alike rise and fall, but “[God’s] dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34). The trick works and the citizens and leaders who previously, “like dumb statues or breathing stones, / Star’d each on other, and look’d deadly pale,” now respond by declaring Richard King with their “Amen” (Richard III 3.7.27-28, 3.7.246). So, in what is essentially a public relations campaign, Richard successfully turns the tide of public opinion in his favor by seeming to ally himself with God.

Providence in Richard’s Sacrilege – Hastening His Demise

Even as it hastens his ascent, Richard’s mock piety, an act of scoffing defiance against God, also hastens his demise. Any passage of time, it could be argued, brings one closer to one’s ultimate end. However, in Richard’s case, it is not the mere passage of time, but how he uses that time to engage in more and more evil that suggests a special intention of Providence. Oftentimes in the Bible, God gives men plenty of opportunity either to repent or indulge further in their sins before he brings a swift hand of justice down upon them. Like the ancient Pharaoh, whose stubborn disobedience to God’s command brought God’s plagues upon his nation, Richard seems also to be digging himself a deeper and deeper hole of guilt before God.

Yet even in the biblical account of Pharaoh, there is explicit mention of Providential decree, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 14:4). Pharaoh’s deliberate resistance to God’s commands is paired with God’s providential actions in the events taking place. Although there is no explicit language of such divine intentionality in Richard’s case (Shakespeare does not have the same didactic purpose as the writer of Exodus), Richard himself does bring God’s attention to events into the picture when he mocks reluctance to ascend to England’s throne: “For God doth know, and you may partly see, / How far I am from the desire of this” (Richard III 3.7.240-241). Whether or not Richard truly believes what he says about God here, he is the one that makes the move to invoke God’s blessing, if only in outward ceremony. This scene is still fresh in one’s mind when, two scenes later, Richard emerges “in pomp, crowned” as King (Richard III 4.2.1). However, having hastened his ascension to the throne, Richard has deepened his guilt even to embrace blasphemy as he brings the God of Providence into the picture. With such an affront to the Divine, it would seem that Richard’s demise is assured from this point on. “And I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD”.

Drawing It All Together

Richard III presents a mostly historic tale of how the 30 year War of Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster is brought to an end by the conspiracies of Richard III, and order is restored in the establishment of the House of Tudor through Richmond, King Henry VII. Richard is a strong, chaotic force in the already chaotic setting of civil war in England, and God providentially uses even his chaos to restore order to the nation. The existing disorder of the War of Roses, the scourge of Richard III with all the chaos that he brings into the picture, and the idyllic establishment of the House of Tudor all seem to point to undercurrents of Christian thought about God’s ultimate act of ordaining order from chaos through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  But, for Shakespeare, all is not yet right in the world just because Richard III is gone. In the concluding scene, Richmond acknowledges the potential for future strife and prays that God would disallow it when he says, “Let them not live to taste this land’s increase / That would with treason wound this fair land’s peace” (Richard III 5.5.38-39). The conclusion is rosy, yes, but there are still thorns on the stem. The mood of the play’s conclusion expresses a desire that looks forward to the time when every knee will bow before the King of Kings and order is ultimately established forever.


Works Cited

Fabyan, Robert. “From The New Chronicles of England and France (1516) – Richard III.” Richard III (Norton Critical Editions). Ed. Cartelli, Thomas. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 113-116. Print.

Hunt, Maurice. “Ordering Disorder in ‘Richard III’.” South Central Review. 6.4. (1989): 11-29. Web. 2014, October 31. < http://www.jstor.org.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/stable/info/3189652 >.

Shakespeare, William. Henry VI, Part III. Delphi Complete Works of William Shakespeare LITE (Illustrated). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition. 2013.

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. Delphi Complete Works of William Shakespeare LITE (Illustrated). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition. 2013.

“Westminster Larger Catechism.” Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Web. 2014, November 12. <http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/larger1.html>.

Williams, Katherine Schaap. “Performing Disability and Theorizing Deformity”. Shakespeare and Theory: Special Issue II. Spec. issue of English Studies. 94.7. (2013): 757-772. Web. 2014, November 11. < http://www.tandfonline.com.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/doi/full/10.1080/0013838X.2013.840125#.VGZ9E_nF-So >.