William Shakespeare has such as way with murder. With so many characters meeting violent death in his plays it would seem that he regarded murder as an essential part of good drama. Richard III is an excellent example. When my daughter studied the play in school, she and her fellow students kept a “body count” of the many characters who died over the course of Richard’s rise to power. Shakespeare’s preoccupation with murder may have been the product of the violent world in which he lived, and indeed England in the 16th century was a violent place, yet we need only look at the headlines of events in our own cities to realize that our world is no less violent than Shakespeare’s. If the Bard had no qualms about employing murder as a plot device, it was because his art imitated life. Richard III was a historical play based on events that shook the British Isles just one hundred years earlier. The play’s popularity derived in part from the horrendous nature of Richard’s quest for power, extending even to allegations that in 1483 he ordered the deaths of his two nephews, the 12-year-old King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York. Their uncles’ guilt has never been proven, but it is plausible that he removed them so they would not stand in the way of his quest to seize the throne of their father, the late Edward IV.
Richard III is not the only Shakespearian villain to usurp a throne and seize the inheritance of a rightful heir. Two others that come to mind are MacBeth of Scotland and Claudius of Denmark. Although not historical plays, MacBeth and Hamlet have roots in actual events. The central action of MacBeth occurs when the warrior of that name murders King Duncan of Scotland. Duncan’s sons, fearing they will be blamed for the murder, flee the country, allowing Macbeth to take the throne. In Hamlet, we do not see the murder of Denmark’s king; when the play opens his brother Claudius has already seized the throne by killing him and marrying his queen. The plot follows Prince Hamlet as he learns the truth of his father’s death and his uncle’s guilt.
As was necessary for Richard III, MacBeth and Claudius must deal with the heirs to the murdered kings. MacBeth prepares to defend Scotland against the exiled princes Malcolm and Donalbain, and Claudius concocts a plot to have Hamlet killed in a duel by an opponent wielding a poisoned blade. In the end all three villains meet violent deaths. Richard and MacBeth fall in battle as their own countrymen rise in revolt against them, and Claudius is slain by Hamlet himself just before the young prince dies.
Shakespeare’s works have remained popular for over 400 years because they really do imitate life, even to a disturbing degree. In these plays we see that an inheritance is not secure even if there are sons ready to claim their fathers’ legacy. What worse things might the villains have done had there been no sons and heirs? Who would ensure that the bereaved family retained their place in the nation? That very question prompted the tribe of Manasseh to ask Moses for guarantees not only for their brethren who had no sons, but for the entire tribe’s legacy in the Promised Land.