Who or what is a villain?
Shakespeare’s Richard III seems to announce his villainy with a trumpet blast: “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover . . . I am determined to prove a villain . . .” His mind is as misshapen as his body and we can only watch in lurid fascination as he implements his evil schemes until he himself is taken down by a righteous Henry Tudor.
Shakespeare’s view of Richard III is obviously far different from my own, but his play, whatever its other attributes, is a melodrama designed to titillate and shock. Not so incidentally, it is also designed to blacken the reputation of the king, Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather killed at Bosworth Field as he asserted his own questionable claim to the throne.
For me, the real villain of the piece is John Morton, bishop of Ely. He is the type of character authors love to write about—shrewd, malicious, cunning. In many ways, he sets the plot elements of The Protector into motion. His real-life counterpart may or may not have been guilty of all of the dastardly deeds I have laid at his door, but it is clear from history that the bishop played a significant role in the events that transpired in 1483.
What is his motivation? We never learn the answer to that. Is he in truth deeply devoted to the House of Lancaster as he claims? Is he angry that Richard hadn’t awarded him the plum position of lord chancellor? Or does he just like to stir the pot? The answer eludes us, but that is one of the things that makes him so beguiling.
He sets out to weave his webs early on. He plays a major role in the plot that undoes Lord Hastings. Although he is not the direct cause of Hastings’s fall, he certainly makes it possible for the baron to put his misgivings about Richard into action. And while Hastings meets with the blade of an axe, Morton escapes lightly. Rather oddly, Richard grants custody of the imprisoned bishop to the Duke of Buckingham. Why does he do this? He already has a good grasp of Morton’s nature and the danger he presents, but at this point it seems he still trusts Buckingham to keep him under control. Perhaps he is only trying to get him away from London and to remote Wales where he surmises—wrongly—that Morton can do him no further harm. His misreading of these two men is one of his greatest failings.
Once in Wales, Morton has a field-day with the duke, playing on every grievance and disaffection he harbors toward Richard as well as his raging personal ambition. Morton promises him the throne in Richard’s stead and then, using a classic bait-and-switch technique, traps him into supporting Henry Tudor. He also constructs a scenario in which Edward IV’s two young sons are sacrificed to benefit the Lancastrian cause. It is all very neat and almost works, but two factors even Morton cannot control–an autumn monsoon and a woman’s revenge–doom the enterprise.
Buckingham is captured and executed, but Morton again escapes, living to connive and plot another day. Under Henry Tudor (Henry VII), he is rewarded by being named lord chancellor, archbishop of Canterbury, and, ultimately, a cardinal of the church. Eventually, he will die an old man in his bed. For the spider, it seems that retribution, in the form of richly-deserved justice, is not to be forthcoming. The same cannot be said for the poor victims trapped in his web.