Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...©
2003, 2006, 2010
This page has been revised,
enlarged, and moved to
III is stage play that is both a history and a tragedy. It is the last
of the four Shakespeare plays to focus on the Wars of the Roses. The others
were Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; and Henry VI, Part III.
Written: Probably between 1591and 1593
Printing: 1597, First Quarto. Five other quartos appeared between 1598
and 1622. The authorized First Folio text appeared in 1623.
based Richard III partly on accounts in The Chronicles of England,
Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed's Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed
(?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald
Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two
volumes. Other sources Shakespeare used were The Union of Two Noble
and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall (?-1547)
and The History of King Richard the Thirde, by Sir Thomas More (1477-1535).
action takes place in England in the following locales: London (including
castles and the royal palace), Salisbury, a camp near Tamworth, and Bosworth
Field (about 12 miles west of Leicester in the East Midlands).
Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Later King
No Obvious Antagonist Until Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, Appears in Act
V to Oppose Richard
Richard: Duke of
Gloucester (son of Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York in Henry VI Part
I and Henry VI Part II). Gloucester gleefully murders his way to
power to become King Richard III. At the beginning of the play, Richard
is in his early twenties; at the end, when he dies in the Battle of Bosworth
Field, he is thirty-five.
Edward IV: Sickly
King of England and brother of Richard. Edward dies and leaves two boys
as heirs to the throne—and prey for Richard.
Wife of Edward IV.
Duchess of York:
Mother of Edward IV.
Earl Rivers: Brother
of Queen Elizabeth.
Edward, Prince of Wales:
Son of Edward IV.
Richard, Duke of York:
Son of Edward IV.
Marquis of Dorset, Lord
Grey: Sons of Elizabeth by a Previous Marriage.
George, Duke of Clarence:
Brother of Edward and Richard.
Boy: Son of the Duke
Girl: Daughter of
the Duke of Clarence.
Margaret: Widow of
King Henry VI.
Lady Anne: Widow
of the son of King Henry VI. She marries Richard.
Henry Tudor: Earl
of Richmond, who becomes King Henry VII.
Archbishop of Canterbury.
Archbishop of York.
John Morton: Bishop
Duke of Buckingham:
Key supporter of Richard. He turns against Richard after the latter announces
plans to murder Prince Edward and Prince Richard, just children.
Lord William Hastings:
Important nobleman. Because he supports the accession of Prince Edward
after Edward IV dies, Richard orders his execution.
Sir James Tyrrell:
Unscrupulous nobleman whom Richard hires to kill Prince Edward and Prince
Other Important Noblemen:
Earl of Surrey, Duke of Norfolk, Lord Stanley (Early of Derby), Lord Lovel,
Sir William Catesby, Sir Richard Ratcliff, Earl of Oxford, Sir Thomas Vaughan,
Sir James Blount, Sir Walter Herbert, Sir William Brandon.
Sir Robert Brakenbury:
Lieutenant of the Tower.
Attendants of Lady Anne.
Ghosts: Spirits of
Richard III’s murder victims.
Others: Another Priest,
Lord Mayor of London, Sheriff of Wiltshire, Lords, Attendants, Citizens,
Messengers, Soldiers, Pursuivant, Scrivener. (A pursuivant is an attendant
or an officer ranking below a herald. A scrivener is a copier of documents.
The scrivener in Richard III prepares papers indicting Lord Hastings).
Note: After England's King Henry VI died in 1471, the reign of the
House of Lancaster ended and the House of York reclaimed power under King
Edward IV. During the Wars of the Roses, which began in 1455, Edward had
been king from 1461 to 1470 but lost the throne for a year to Henry VI.
When Edward regained the throne, his own brother—Richard,
Duke of Gloucester—began plotting against
him, according to Shakespeare's account and interpretation of the final
years of the Wars of the Roses, from 1483 to 1485. Following is the summary
of the play.
Michael J. Cummings...©
2003, 2006, 2010
Duke of Gloucester, appears alone on a London Street and announces to the
audience his plans to overthrow his brother, King Edward IV. Richard is
evil—so evil, in fact, that he derives immense
satisfaction from committing vile deeds. There appears to be a measure
of revenge—against nature, against the world
and its people—in his motives. For he was
born into this world as a lame hunchback, “deformed, unfinished . . . scarce
half made up" (1. 1. 22-23). His misshapen form annoys even the dogs that
bark at him as he limps by. Cheated of the fairness of feature that marks
others around him, he decides to cheat them of position, power, even life.
vengefulness abets another—perhaps even stronger—motive:
ambition. Richard covets the throne and will stop at nothing to get it.
All options are open, including murder.
am determined to prove a villain
he convinces King Edward that another brother, the Duke of Clarence, craves
the crown. Edward claps Clarence in chains and imprisons
him in the Tower of London. Edward, meanwhile, becomes seriously ill. (How
lucky for Richard.) Richard wants Edward to die, of course, but not until
Clarence is dead. “Clarence still breathes; Edward still lives and reigns:
/ When they are gone, then must I count my gains" (1. 1. 168-169). Of course,
kings-to-be must have queens-to-be. Richard is no exception, he believes,
in spite of his grotesque appearance. So he woos Lady Anne, the daughter-in-law
of the late King Henry, even as the coffin of the dead king passes with
Lady Anne attending it in mourning. When Richard orders the procession
to halt, Lady Anne glares at Richard and exclaims, “What black magician
conjures up this fiend / To stop devoted charitable deeds?" (2. 1. 37-38).
Anne has good reason to loathe Richard. It was he who murdered King Henry.
What is more, he murdered Anne’s husband, who was Henry’s son. Anne, who
well knows that Richard committed the murders, tells him,
hate the idle pleasures of these days.
have I laid, inductions dangerous. (1. 1. 32-34)
thou dreadful minister of hell!
blames Edward for the death of Lady Anne's husband, but she knows better,
reminding him that there was a witness to the murder:
hadst but power over his [the dead king's] mortal body,
soul thou canst not have; therefore be gone. (1. 2. 47-49)
thy foul throat thou liest: Queen Margaret saw
asks Richard to own up to killing the king, he admits the deed and says
he did the king a favor by sending him to heaven: “He was fitter for that
place than earth" (1. 2. 114). Lady Anne pronounces Richard fit for only
one place: hell. Boldly, Richard retorts that he is fit for another place,
her bed-chamber. Lady Anne spits at him.
smoking in his blood;
which thou once didst bend against her breast,
that thy brothers beat aside the point. (1. 2. 98-101)
and by, however, Richard’s wheedling tongue persuades her that he is repentant
and worthy of her attention. He offers her a ring and, wonder of wonders,
she puts it on and
agrees to marry him. Later, Richard laughs up his sleeve at her for falling
victim to his words, and he thinks he might be a fine figure of a man after
court, Richard pretends to be sensible and selfless, with only the king’s
best interests at heart. But behind the king’s back, Richard accuses the
king’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, of scheming against Clarence, who remains
Richard’s prisoner in the Tower of London, and convinces important noblemen—the
Duke of Buckingham, Lord Hastings, and Lord Stanley—of
her guilt. Then he dispatches henchmen to kill Clarence. They are thorough.
First, they stab him; then they submerge him in a barrel of wine. Richard
also orders the arrest of three supporters of Elizabeth and the dying king’s
heir, young Prince Edward. These three men—Lord
Grey, Lord Rivers, and Sir Thomas Vaughn—are
imprisoned in Pomfret Castle.
King Edward dies, and Richard confines the king’s children—Prince
Edward and his brother, Richard—to the Tower
under a pretense that Edward is to be prepared for coronation. Events then
begin to move swiftly as Richard advances his scheme to win the throne.
First, he orders the execution of Grey, Rivers, and Vaughn and follows
up with the beheading of Lord Hastings, a supporter of the accession of
Prince Edward. However, Richard has duped Buckingham into becoming one
of his supporters after telling him one lie compounded by two others: first,
that the late king’s sons were illegitimate and therefore ineligible to
inherit the throne; second, that the king ordered the murder of a citizen
simply for speaking of the matter of royal succession; and, third, that
Edward lusted after “servants, daughters, wives" (3. 5. 86) of the House
then speaks on Richard’s behalf to the people of London, repeating the
lies. As a result, a delegation of citizens, including the Lord Mayor of
London, comes to offer Richard the crown at Baynard Castle. After Buckingham
greets them, they see Richard going to prayer with two bishops. In his
hand is a prayer book. Buckingham praises Richard as a devout man. Then
the citizens importune Richard to accept the crown. Ever playing the innocent,
am unfit for state and majesty;
the citizens press Richard further, he tells them that
do beseech you, take it not amiss;
cannot nor I will not yield to you. (3. 7. 210-212)
am not made of stone,
in June of 1483, Richard is crowned King of England and his wife Anne queen.
There remains, of course, unfinished business: the two little boys in the
Tower, Princes Edward and Richard. In a room of state in the palace, he
tells the Duke of Buckingham: “I wish the bastards dead; / And I would
have it suddenly perform’d" (4. 2. 21-22). When he asks Buckingham to endorse
his murder plan, the duke asks for time to reflect on the matter, then
penetrable to your kind entreats,
against my conscience and my soul. (3. 7. 228-230)
then sends for a man of meager means reputed to be willing to do anything
for money. His name is Sir James Tyrrell. When Richard asks him whether
he will serve his king by killing the boys, calling them “foes to my rest,
and my sweet sleep’s disturbers" (4. 2. 79), Tyrrell replies, “I’ll rid
you from the fear of them" (4. 2. 83).
Buckingham returns to inform the king of his position on the murder plan,
he first asks the king to make him Earl of Hereford. Richard ignores the
request and instead speaks of a prophecy of King Henry VI that Henry Tudor,
Earl of Richmond, would become king. Buckingham then repeats his request
several times until the king finally replies that he is not in a giving
mood. Furthermore, he tells Buckingham, “Thou troublest me" (4. 2. 127).
Buckingham now realizes that he is out of favor and probably in mortal
danger. After the king and his attendants leave the room, Buckingham flees
the court “while my fearful head is on" (4. 2. 131).
Tyrrell, assisted by two other thugs, murders the boys. However, in carrying
out Richard’s will, he does something that Richard never does: he owns
up to the foulness of his action.
tyrannous and bloody act is done.
with the success of the mission, King Richard replies, “Come to me, Tyrrell,
soon after supper, / And thou shalt tell the process of their death" (4,
most arch of piteous massacre
ever yet this land was guilty of.
and Forrest, whom I did suborn3
do this ruthless piece of butchery,
they were flesh’d villains, bloody dogs,
with tenderness and kind compassion
like two children in their deaths’ sad stories. (4. 3. 3-10)
Richard arranges the death of Queen Anne so that he can marry the sister
of the murdered boys, thereby giving him stronger royal connections. England,
though, is coming to its senses, and the Earl of Richmond claims the throne
with strong popular support. Buckingham now backs Richmond with a force
of Welshmen. John Morton, Bishop of Ely, also supports Richmond’s cause,
as does the Marquis of Dorset, a son of Elizabeth.
of Richard and Henry gather at Bosworth Field in August of 1485 to settle
the issue. While the two foes, Richard and Richmond, sleep in their tents
before the battle, the ghosts of the persons murdered by Richard appear
to both of them, predicting Richard’s defeat and death.
the armies clash on August 22, Richard fights with remarkable tenacity.
One of his comrades in arms, Catesby, says,
king enacts more wonders than a man,
as the tide of battle turns against Richard, he loses his mount and cries
out, “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" (5. 4. 10). When Catesby
offers to help Richard to another horse, Richard replies, “Slave, I have
set my life upon a cast, / And I will stand the hazard of the die" (5.
4. 12-13). The Earl of Richmond, then slays Richard, and says, “The day
is ours, the bloody dog is dead" (5. 4. 19). Richmond becomes Henry VII,
King of England, and the War of the Roses ends.
an opposite to every danger:
horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
for Richmond in the throat of death. (5. 4. 4-7)
III opens in 1483 with the title character delivering one of Shakespeare’s
most famous soliloquies. The first thirteen lines establish the cheerful,
optimistic mood in the kingdom now that Richard’s brother, Edward IV, has
reclaimed the throne and the War of the Roses, which began in 1455, appears
to have ended. Richard sums up the situation in the first two lines of
is the winter of our discontent
words, the bleak winter of war has given way to a bright summer of peace,
symbolized by the shining “sun" (son) of York, Edward.
glorious summer by this son of York
Richard says he will shun the merriment, including amorous pursuits, because
he is a lame hunchback whose sight is so displeasing that even dogs bark
insults at him. Nature, he says, has “cheated" him of good looks. Now he
must endure the indignity of seeing his “shadow in the sun"—that
is, being eclipsed by Edward. Clearly, he deeply envies Edward.
Richard has no intention of accepting second place to Edward. In the last
third of the soliloquy, Richard brazenly announces a murderous plot to
unseat the king and seize the throne. His plan is to foment hatred between
his other brother, Clarence, and Edward, by convincing Edward that Clarence
covets the crown. Richard says he looks forward to carrying out his plot,
to doing evil: "I am determined to prove a villain." His delight at the
prospect of executing heinous crimes alerts the audience that Richard may
well be a sociopath, a fiercely antisocial person who lacks a conscience.
play then becomes a character study rather than a whodunit, focusing on
Richard’s devious tactics and the inner workings of his psychopathic mind.
Audiences and readers experiencing the play the first time often find themselves
rooting for Richard as he murders his way to crown. Yes, he is perverse,
wicked, and depraved. But he is also outrageously bold and incredibly cunning—an
altogether intriguing whangdoodle who takes on the world and doesn’t look
the opening soliloquy introduces him, audiences usually despise him instantly—and
love him. He is a nightmare who gives us sleep and awakens us breathless
wanting for more. And so the play goes on.
Leitmotiv: It's Good to Be Bad
his soliloquies, asides, and short discourses, Richard gleefully announces
his evil intentions and reinforces the paradox that guides his behavior—it's
good to be bad. His frequent revelations of the crimes he plans and the
delight he takes in committing them resemble leitmotivs in an opera (recurring
musical passages associated with a theme, a character, or a character trait).
His running commentary generally intrigues audiences and sometimes even
amuses them after the manner of crafty villains that people horror films.
It all begins in the first scene of Act I, when Richard proudly discloses
his nefarious plans:
am determined to prove a villain
While alone on the stage after
setting his plans in motion, he wryly comments on the fate that awaits
the Duke of Clarence.
hate the idle pleasures of these days.
have I laid, inductions dangerous,
drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
set my brother Clarence and the king
deadly hate the one against the other. (32-37)
tread the path that thou shalt ne'er return.
After his talented tongue persuades
Lady Anne to marry him, he takes delight in ridiculing her for having agreed
to wed so heinous a reprobate as he.
plain Clarence! I do love thee so,
I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,
heaven will take the present at our hands.(1.1.123-126)
Later, he reveals his plan to
blame others for his crimes while presenting himself as beyond reproach:
Hath she forgot already
that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I,
some three months since,
Stabb'd in my angry mood
A sweeter and a lovelier
Framed in the prodigality
Young, valiant, wise, and,
no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot
And will she yet debase
her eyes on me,
That cropp'd the golden
prime of this sweet prince,
And made her widow to a
On me, whose all not equals
do the wrong, and first begin to brawl.
way, Richard III has in fact been made into an opera--Giorgio Battistelli's
post-modernist production, with lyrics by Ian Burton.
secret mischiefs that I set abroach5
lay unto the grievous charge of others.
whom I, indeed, have laid in darkness,
do beweep to many simple gulls6
to Hastings, Derby, Buckingham;
say it is the queen and her allies
stir the king against the duke my brother.
they believe it; and withal whet me
be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
them that God bids us do good for evil:
thus I clothe my naked villainy
old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
seem a saint, when most I play the devil.(1.3.333-347)
direction of the plot becomes clear from the outset of the play, when Richard
discloses his evil plans in a soliloquy. He continues to reveal his plans
from time to time when he is out of earshot of others. Other characters
also foreshadow the action, most notably Queen Margaret in the third scene
of Act I, who says,
O Buckingham! take
heed of yonder dog [Richard]:
Look, when he fawns, he
bites; and when he bites
His venom tooth will rankle
to the death:
Have not to do with him,
beware of him; 300
Sin, death and hell have
set their marks on him,
And all their ministers
attend on him.
Ambition Leads to All-Consuming Evil.
in his thirst for power, is willing to commit any atrocity to win the throne.
He is Macbeth raised to the second power—or
third. After an assassin murders the late king's sons, Richard says to
him, "Thou shalt tell the process of their death" (4. 3. 38).
Things are Not as They Seem.
most of the play, Richard wears a mask of innocence. He is always pretending,
always deceiving. For example, when Rivers says he would be loyal to Richard
if the latter were king, Richard answers, "If I should be! I had rather
be a pedlar: / Far be it from my heart, the thought of it!" (1.3.154-155).
his adversaries see through the mask.
There Is Pure Evil, There Is No Conscience
never expresses regret or remorse. He is bad to the bone, and proud of
it. Modern psychologists would probably label him a psychopath or sociopath.
am what I am.
acknowledges at the beginning of the play that he is an ugly, misshapen
lump of flesh—a monster. Then, accepting himself
as he is, he announces that he will live up to his physical image by performing
climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a
novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins
to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting
event in a series of events. The climax of Richard III occurs, according
to the first definition, when Richard ascends the throne (Act IV, Scene
II) as King of England. According to the second definition, the climax
occurs in the final act when Richard, who has lost his mount, shouts “A
horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" (5, 4, 10; repeated in Line 16).
The climax concludes after Henry, Earl of Richmond, slays Richard.
III contains memorable passages, many of which are quoted often in
writing, public speaking, and ordinary conversation. Among the most
oft-quoted passages and epigrams are the following:
is the winter of our discontent
glorious summer by this sun of York. (1. 1. 3)
(Richard III) speaks a metaphor comparing
the state of affairs in England to winter and the sun. Sun has a
double meaning. Besides referring to the great star in the sky, it refers
to King Edward IV, the son of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. These
lines also contain a paradox, in that winter
beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. (1. 2. 74)
insults Richard, comparing him to a beast in this metaphor.
However, she holds out hope that ruthless Richard may have a mite of pity
in him. Richard rejoins with “But I know none [pity], and therefore am
world is grown so bad,
wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch. (1. 3. 74-75)
innocent, Gloucester (Richard III) accuses the king’s wife of wrongful
deeds in a metaphor comparing her to a predatory
with his head! (3. 5. 80)
In a moment
of anger, Richard directs these words at Hastings.Today, the words are
used figuratively in the business world to mean “Fire him!"
conscience, how dost thou afflict me! (5. 3. 198)
uses apostrophe, metaphor,
and personification to present the feelings
of Richard when he awakens after ghosts appear in his dream. Apostrophe:
Conscience becomes a thing addressed. Metaphor and personification: Conscience
becomes a cowardly person.
hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings. (5. 2. 25)
a metaphor to compare hope to a bird.
conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
every tongue brings in a several tale,
every tale condemns me for a villain. (5. 3. 212-214)
In this metaphor,
Richard compares conscience to a creature with many tongues.
A horse! My kingdom for a horse. (5. 4. 10 and 5. 4. 16)
Richard, this line is one of the most-quoted in all of Shakespeare, summing
up the frustration every human feels when he or she lacks the service of
something once taken for granted. A person might quote this line on a frigid
January day when his car will not start.
presented Richard III (1452-1485) as one of the most evil rulers in history.
However, the historical Richard, though unscrupulous, may not have been
as ruthless as depicted. After his brother, King Edward IV, died in 1483
Parliament declared Richard king instead of Edward's young son on grounds
that King Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492) was illegal.
Parliament said Edward had earlier agreed to marry another woman. To secure
his position as king, Richard confined both of the late king's boys to
the Tower of London, where they were later killed. There is no proof that
Richard ordered them killed. Nevertheless, after the boys died, public
sentiment turned against Richard; the people favored Henry, Earl of Richmond.
Armies of Richard and Henry had it out at Bosworth Field in 1485. Richard
fought bravely before suffering a mortal blow. The Earl of Richmond succeeded
to the throne as Henry VII, inaugurating the Tudor dynasty of monarchs
and ending the Wars of the Roses.
a discussion of the approach of historians in Richard's day, Marchette
writing [history plays], Shakespeare had nothing to help him except the
standard history books of his day. The art of the historian was not very
advanced in this period, and no serious attempt was made to get at the
exact truth about a king and his reign. Instead, the general idea was that
any nation which opposed England was wrong, and that any Englishman who
opposed the winning side in the civil war was wrong also. Since Shakespeare
had no other sources, the slant that appears in the history books appears
also in his plays. . . . Richard III fought against the first of
the Tudor monarchs and was therefore labeled in the Tudor histories as
a vicious usurper, and he duly appears in Shakespeare's plays as a murdering
From Shakespeare. Eau Claire, Wis.: E.M. Hale, 1956 (Page 257).Battle
of Bosworth Field
Battle of Bosworth Field ended the War of the Roses between the House of
Lancaster and the House of York. It was fought on August 22, 1485, about
three miles south of Market Bosworth, a town in the county of Leicestershire,
the battle, the Lancaster army of Henry Tudor defeated the York army of
Richard III after key allies of Richard—Lord
Stanley and the Earl of Northumberland—failed
to come to Richard’s aid and a brother of Lord Stanley sided with Henry
and attacked Richard. During the battle (retold in part by Shakespeare
in Richard III from a biased Tudor perspective, beginning in Act
V, Scene III), Richard fell from his horse and was slain in a bog.
Tudor ascended the throne as Henry VII, establishing the House of Tudor.
That royal house included—besides Henry VII,
who reigned from 1485 to 1509—Henry VIII,
who reigned from 1509 to 1547, and his three children. Their names and
the years they ruled are as follows: Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary I (1553-1558),
and Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Elizabeth I was on the throne during the first
38 years and 11 months of Shakespeare’s life.
Questions and Essay Topics
Is Richard insane?
Is Richard like any 20th or 21st Century rulers you can think of?
How is Richard III like or unlike Macbeth?
Argue that Richard III was not as ruthless as Shakespeare depicted him.
In an essay, identify and analyze the motives of Richard as he executes
his murderous plays.
Write an essay that focuses on dramatic irony in the play. Dramatic
irony is a literary device that allows the audience to know more about
a character or about events involving him than the character himself knows.
Which character in the play is the most admirable? Other than Richard,
which character is the least admirable? Explain your answers.
avaunt: Go away; get out of here.
on DVD (or VHS)
falchion: Short sword with a broad blade.
suborn: Induce, bribe.
set abroach: set in motion; started.
gulls: dupes; suckers; fools..
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