By Marina Gerzic, The University of Western Australia
Shakespeare’s Richard III may seem, on the surface, like an unusual text to discuss for children’s book day. There are plenty of reasons why it is not suitable for children: the harrowing cold-blooded murders, violent battles, appearance of ghosts and, more significantly, the complex plot featuring political machinations. The play also features difficult early modern poetry and iambic metre. Yet, Richard III has been adapted into a variety of works for children. A number of children’s books feature Richard III as a character, including two collections that contain the story of Richard III as chapters – Bravo Mr. William Shakespeare! (2000) and The Usborne Complete Shakespeare: Stories from All the Plays (2016) – and two individual adaptations of Richard III: Richard III: A Shakespeare Story (2006) and Richard III (2017). These retellings are characterised by irreverence for their source material. They heavily edit and translate Shakespeare’s language, and frequently use illustrations to embody Richard and convey ideas about his moral character.
What’s so Funny? Playing with Shakespeare’s Richard III
One of the most significant characteristics of these modern adaptations of Richard III for children is their use of play and humour, which are largely absent from nineteenth-century re-workings of Shakespeare for children (in English), such as Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807) and Henrietta Maria Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare (1807). The authors of these earlier adaptations edited and sanitised Shakespeare’s plays, removing material that was deemed to be inappropriate, and shortening the stories. Unlike the versions by the Lambs and Bowdler, modern adaptations do not overtly express a desire to employ Shakespeare’s plays as moral exempla, and instead seek to educate children by entertaining them and encouraging them to playfully engage with Shakespearean source material. For example, Marcia Williams’ Bravo Mr. Shakespeare! presents Richard III in a comic-strip format, which acts as a stage where the play is performed, surrounded by a border of illustrations that feature audience members and Shakespeare himself commenting on the story.
Chris Powling and Davide Ortu’s Richard III twists the idea of Shakespearean soliloquy. Richard chats to his own shadow as if it were a fellow conspirator to his evil plans:
“Come on, shadow,” he said. “You look so slick and so evil, you remind me of the person I care about most above all others. Now who’s that, I wonder? Oh yes, it’s me.” (p. 12).
Richard’s shadow is here presented as a malevolent character in its own right, helped in part by Ortu’s amazingly scary and, at times amusing, illustrations: Ortu even gives Richard’s shadow eyes, making it look all the more like a malevolent familiar!
I Wish the Bastards Dead: Depicting Violence on Page
While introductions and explanatory chapters are sometimes appended to these children’s books, they are mostly used to provide context for events and characters involved in The Wars of the Roses. As with early Shakespearean adaptations for children, these modern adaptations occasionally tone down the morally complex and violent elements in Shakespeare’s Richard III. However, the adaptations do not go so far as to completely bowdlerise Shakespeare’s playtext. The Usborne Richard III, for example, keeps the murder of the two princes, but amends the language slightly:
‘Richard tapped his fingers together. “I wish him and his brother dead.”’ (pp. 425–26). Significantly, none of the adaptations illustrate or describe the murder of the princes; as in Shakespeare’s Richard III, everything occurs off-stage (or, as the case may be for the books, off-page).
Looking like a Villain: Illustration
Illustrations take centre stage in the modern adaptations and are often as important as the text in conveying plot points, themes, emotions and character. Their use is an important technique that adds extra meaning and elicits emotions such as humour and fear, with a view to keeping young readers engaged and entertained.
An integral part of Richard’s identity in Shakespeare’s work is his physical impairment. Adaptations often depict Richard’s body – following a long history of performance on stage and screen – with a humped back, a limp and an immobilised arm. The Williams and the Matthews and Ross adaptations were published before the excavation and identification of Richard’s remains at the Greyfriars Friary archaeological excavation in Leicester in 2012, while the Usborne and Powling and Ortu adaptations were published afterwards. However, the discovery that Richard III was not a hunchback, although he did suffer from quite severe scoliosis, seems to have had no bearing on how Richard is conceived, represented and, significantly, illustrated in adaptations for children. Williams’ conception of Richard III is dark, shadowy and ghost-like: he appears to be floating (as you can barely see his feet), and his withered arm is mostly hidden under his billowing clothing. In the Usborne collection Richard is hunched over and his face is marred by shadows; he gazes menacingly at the reader like a villain from a fairy tale. In the Matthews and Ross Richard III, Richard is presented in a semi-comical and slightly grotesque way: dressed in black, he has a visible hump, a long pointy nose and squinty eyes. Finally, in the Powling and Ortu Richard III, Richard is frightening: his angled features, pointy nose, long spider like fingers and sallow skin make him look vampiric.
These children’s books rely on Shakespeare’s conception of Richard as a malformed and evil hunchback, which itself incorporates and adapts Tudor-era propaganda. Children’s books, therefore, show us the degree to which Richard’s body and appearance is still connected to how we perceive what kind of man he was.
Marina Gerzic is an Early Career Researcher at The University of Western Australia. Her research interests include Shakespeare and Shakespearean pedagogy, film and adaptation theory, music in film, cultural studies, comics and graphic novels and children’s literature. She has published articles on teaching Shakespeare film (in Interpretations 50), graphic novel adaptations of Hamlet (co-written with Helen Balfour, in Borrowers and Lenders 9.2), Andy Griffiths’ Just Macbeth! (in Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Gabrielle Malcolm and Kelli Marshall), Michael Almereyda’s film adaptation of Hamlet (in What is the Human? Australian Voices from the Humanities, edited by Liam Semler, Bob Hodge and Kelli Marshall and Cerae vol. 2 (2015)), and is the editor (along with Aidan Norrie) of From Medievalism to Early-Modernism: Adapting the English Past (Forthcoming Routledge 2019).
 Marcia Williams, Bravo Mr. William Shakespeare! (London: Walker Books, 2000); Anna Milbourne, Jerome Martin, Megan Cullis, Maria Surducan, et al., The Usborne Complete Shakespeare: Stories from All of the Plays (London: Usborne Publishing, 2016); Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross, Richard III: A Shakespeare Story, slip-case edition (London: Orchard Books, 2006, 2013); Chris Powling and Davide Ortu, Richard III, Collins Big Cat Shakespeare (London: HarperCollins, 2017).