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Richard III (play)

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Background Information

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C. 1884 poster advertising an American production of the play, showing many key scenes.

Richard III is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in approximately 1591, depicting the Machiavellian rise to power and subsequent short reign of Richard III of England. The play is grouped among the histories in the First Folio and is most often classified as such. Occasionally, however, as in the quarto edition, it is termed a tragedy. Richard III concludes Shakespeare's first tetralogy (also containing Henry VI parts 1–3). It is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare's greatest plays.

After Hamlet, it is the longest play in the canon and is the longest of the First Folio, whose version of Hamlet is shorter than its Quarto counterpart. The play is rarely performed unabridged; often, certain peripheral characters are removed entirely. In such instances extra lines are often invented or added from elsewhere in the sequence to establish the nature of characters' relationships. A further reason for abridgment is that Shakespeare assumed that his audiences would be familiar with the Henry VI plays, and frequently made indirect references to events in them, such as Richard's murder of Henry VI or the defeat of Henry's queen Margaret.

Date and text

Richard III is believed to be one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, preceded only by the three parts of Henry VI and perhaps a handful of comedies. It is believed to have been written c. 1591. Although Richard III was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on October 20, 1597, by the bookseller Andrew Wise, who published the first quarto (Q1) later that year (with printing done by Valentine Simmes), Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, which cannot have been written much later than 1592 (Marlowe died in 1593) is thought to have been influenced by it. A second quarto (Q2) followed in 1598, printed by Thomas Creede for Andrew Wise, containing an attribution to Shakespeare on its title page and may have been a memorial reconstruction. Q3 appeared in 1602, Q4 in 1605, Q5 in 1612, and Q6 in 1622; the frequency attesting to its popularity. The First Folio version followed in 1623.


The earliest certain performance occurred on 17 November 1633, when Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria watched it on the Queen's birthday. Yet plainly it had been performed many times before that. The Diary of Philip Henslowe records a popular play he calls Buckingham, performed in December 1593 and January 1594, which might have been Shakespeare's play.

Colley Cibber produced the most successful of the Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare with his version of Richard III, at Drury Lane starting in 1700. Cibber himself played the role till 1739, and his version was on stage for the next century and a half. It contained the immortal line "Off with his head; so much for Buckingham"—possibly the most famous Shakespearean line that Shakespeare did not write. The original Shakespearean version returned in a production at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1845.

Dramatis Personae

Facsimile of the first page of Richard the Third from the First Folio, published in 1623

(Note: Links are to articles on the actual historical personages, who may not entirely correspond to Shakespeare's portrayal of them—particularly with respect to the title character, Richard III.)

  • King Edward IV
  • Edward, Prince of Wales, afterwards Edward V, son to the king
  • Richard, Duke of York, son to the king
  • George, Duke of Clarence, brother to the king
  • Richard, Duke of Gloucester, afterwards King Richard III, brother to the king
  • Edward, Earl of Warwick, young son of Clarence
  • Henry, Earl of Richmond, afterwards King Henry VII
  • Thomas Cardinal Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York
  • John Morton, Bishop of Ely
  • Duke of Buckingham
  • Duke of Norfolk
  • Earl of Surrey, his son
  • Earl Rivers, brother to Queen Elizabeth
  • Marquess of Dorset, son to Queen Elizabeth
  • Lord Richard Grey, son to Queen Elizabeth
  • Earl of Oxford
  • Lord Hastings
  • Lord Stanley, afterwards Earl of Derby
  • Lord Lovel
  • Sir Thomas Vaughan
  • Sir Richard Ratcliffe
  • Sir William Catesby
  • Sir James Tyrrell
  • Sir James Blount
  • Sir Walter Herbert
  • Sir William Brandon
  • Sir Robert Brackenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower
  • Christopher Urswick, a priest
  • Another priest ( Ralph Shaa)
  • Hastings, a pursuivant
  • Tressel and Berkeley, gentlemen attending on the Lady Anne
  • Keeper in the Tower
  • Lord Mayor of London ( Sir Edmund Shaa)
  • Sheriff of Wiltshire ( Henry Long)
  • Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to Edward IV
  • Margaret of Anjou, widow of Henry VI
  • Duchess of York, mother to King Edward IV, Clarence, and Gloucester
  • Lady Anne Neville, widow of Edward, Prince of Wales (son of Henry VI), afterwards married to Gloucester
  • Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury, young daughter of Clarence
  • Ghosts of those murdered by Richard III, Lords and other attendants; a Pursuivant, Scrivener, Citizens, Murderers, Messengers, Soldiers, Gentlemen with halberds, Guards, etc.


Frontispage of the First Quarto Richard The Third

The play begins with Richard describing the accession to the throne of his brother, King Edward IV of England, eldest son of the late Richard, Duke of York.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

("sun of York" is a punning reference to the badge of the "blazing sun," which Edward IV adopted, and "son of York", i.e., the son of the Duke of York.)

The speech reveals Richard's jealousy and ambition, as his brother, King Edward the Fourth rules the country successfully. Richard is an ugly hunchback, describing himself as "rudely stamp'd" and "deformed, unfinish'd", who cannot "strut before a wanton ambling nymph." He responds to the anguish of his condition with an outcast's credo: "I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days." Richard plots to have his brother Clarence, who stands before him in the line of succession, conducted to the Tower of London over a prophecy he fed to the King; that "G of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be", which the king interprets as referring to George of Clarence (although the audience may later realise from Richard's love of irony that it was perhaps a reference to himself, Richard of Gloucester).

Richard next ingratiates himself with "the Lady Anne"— Anne Neville, widow of the Lancastrian Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. Richard confides to the audience:

"I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter.
What, though I kill'd her husband and his father?"

Despite initially hating him, Anne is won over by his pleas of love and repentance and agrees to marry him. When she leaves, Richard exults in having won her over despite all he has done to her, and tells the audience that he will discard her once she has served her purpose.

The atmosphere at court is poisonous: the established nobles are at odds with the upwardly mobile relatives of Queen Elizabeth, a hostility fueled by Richard's machinations. Queen Margaret, Henry VI's widow, returns in defiance of her banishment and warns the squabbling nobles about Richard. Queen Margaret curses Richard and the rest who were present. The nobles, all Yorkists, reflexively unite against this last Lancastrian, and the warning falls on deaf ears.

Richard orders two murderers to kill his brother Clarence in the tower. Clarence, meanwhile, relates a dream to his keeper. The dream includes extremely visual language describing Clarence falling from an imaginary ship as a result of Gloucester, who had fallen from the hatches, striking him. Under the water Clarence sees the skeletons of thousands of men "that fishes gnawed upon." He also sees "wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, inestimable stones, unvalued jewels." All of these are "scatterd in the bottom of the sea." Clarence adds that some of the jewels were in the skulls of the dead. Clarence then imagines dying and being tormented by the ghosts of his father-in-law (Warwick, Anne's father) and brother-in-law (Edward, Anne's former husband).

After Clarence falls asleep, Brakenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, enters and observes that between the titles of princes and the low names of commoners there is nothing different but the "outward fame", meaning that they both have "inward toil" whether rich or poor. When the murderers arrive, he reads their warrant (issued in the name of the King), and exits with the Keeper, who disobeys Clarence's request to stand by him, and leaves the two murderers the keys.

Clarence wakes and pleads with the murderers, saying that men have no right to obey other men's requests for murder, because all men are under the rule of God not to commit murder. The murderers imply Clarence is a hypocrite because, as one says, "thou ... unripped'st the bowels of thy sovereign's son [Edward] whom thou wast sworn to cherish and defend." Tactically trying to win them over, he tells them to go to his brother Gloucester, who will reward them better for his life than Edward will for his death. One murderer insists Gloucester himself sent them to perform the bloody act, but Clarence does not believe him. He recalls the unity of Richard Duke of York blessing his three sons with his victorious arm, bidding his brother Gloucester to "think on this and he will weep." Sardonically, a murderer says Gloucester weeps millstones—echoing Richard's earlier comment about the murderers' own eyes weeping millstones rather than "foolish tears" (Act I, Sc. 3).

Next, one of the murderers explains that his brother Gloucester hates him, and sent them to the Tower to kill him. Eventually, one murderer gives in to his conscience and does not participate, but the other killer stabs Clarence and drowns him in "the Malmsey butt within". The first act closes with the perpetrator needing to find a hole to bury Clarence.

Edward IV soon dies, leaving as Protector his brother Richard, who sets about removing the final obstacles to his accession. He meets his nephew, the young Edward V, who is en route to London for his coronation accompanied by relatives of Edward's widow (Lord Rivers, Lord Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan). These Richard arrests and (eventually) beheads, and then has a conversation with the Prince and his younger brother, the duke of York. The two princes easily outsmart Richard and match his wordplay and use of language easily. Richard is nervous about them, and the potential threat they are. The young prince and his brother are coaxed (By Richard) into an extended stay at the Tower of London. The prince and his brother the duke of York prove themselves to be extremely intelligent and charismatic characters, boldly defying and outsmarting Richard and openly mocking him.

Assisted by his cousin Buckingham, Richard mounts a campaign to present himself as the true heir to the throne, pretending to be a modest, devout man with no pretensions to greatness. Lord Hastings, who objects to Richard's ascension, is arrested and executed on a trumped-up charge. Together, Richard and Buckingham spread the rumor that Edward's two sons are illegitimate, and therefore have no rightful claim to the throne, assisted by Catesby, Ratcliffe, and Lovell. The other lords are cajoled into accepting Richard as king, in spite of the continued survival of his nephews (the Princes in the Tower).

Have mercy, Jesu! Soft! I did but dream. O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! – Shakespeare's Richard III Act V, Sc. 3. English actor David Garrick as Richard III just before the battle of Bosworth Field, his sleep having been haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered, wakes to the realization that he is alone in the world and death is imminent. The painting, David Garrick as Richard III (1745), is by William Hogarth.

Richard asks Buckingham to secure the death of the princes, but Buckingham hesitates. Richard then recruits James Tyrrell, who kills both children and later experiences minor guilt. When Richard denies Buckingham a prior-promised land grant, Buckingham turns against Richard and defects to the side of Henry, Earl of Richmond, who is currently in exile. Richmond has his eye on Richard's niece, princess Elizabeth, and poisons Lady Anne so he can be free to woo the princess. The Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth mourn the princes' deaths, when Queen Margaret arrives. Queen Elizabeth, as predicted, asks Queen Margaret's help in cursing. Later, the Duchess applies this lesson and curses her only surviving son before leaving. Richard tries his old dissembling to get into princess Elizabeth's "nest of spicery", but her mother is not taken in by his eloquence, and even manages to trick and stall him.

In due course, the increasingly paranoid Richard loses what popularity he had. He soon faces rebellions led first by Buckingham and subsequently by the invading Richmond. Buckingham is captured and executed. Both sides arrive for a final battle at Bosworth Field. Prior to the battle, Richard is visited by the ghosts of his victims, (Prince Edward Lancaster, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, the princes, his former wife Anne, and his former best friend Buckingham) all of whom tell him to "Despair and die!" He awakes screaming for "Jesu" to help him, slowly realizing that he is all alone in the world, and cannot even pity himself.

At the battle of Bosworth Field, Lord Stanley (who is also Richmond's stepfather) and his followers desert Richard's side, (Richard's only allies in the end are Norfolk, Catesby, and Ratcliffe) whereupon Richard calls for the execution of George Stanley, Lord Stanley's son. This does not happen, as the battle is in full swing, and Richard is left at a disadvantage. Richard is soon unhorsed on the field at the climax of the battle, and utters the often-quoted line, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" Richmond kills Richard in the final duel. Subsequently, Richmond succeeds to the throne as Henry VII, and marries Princess Elizabeth from the House of York.

Themes and motifs

Comedic elements

The play resolutely avoids demonstrations of physical violence; only Clarence and Richard III die on-stage, while the rest (the two princes, Hastings, Grey, Vaughan, Rivers, Anne, Buckingham, and King Edward) all meet their ends off-stage. Despite the villainous nature of the title character and the grim storyline, Shakespeare infuses the action with comic material, as he does with most of his tragedies. Much of the humour rises from the dichotomy between how Richard's character is known and how Richard tries to appear.

Richard himself also provides some dry remarks in evaluating the situation, as when he plans to marry Queen Elizabeth's daughter: "Murder her brothers, then marry her; Uncertain way of gain ..." Other examples of humour in this play include Clarence's reluctant murderers, and the Duke of Buckingham's report on his attempt to persuade the Londoners to accept Richard ("... I bid them that did love their country's good cry, God save Richard, England's royal king!" Richard: "And did they so?" Buckingham: "No, so God help me, they spake not a word ...") Puns, a Shakespearean staple, are especially well-represented in the scene where Richard tries to persuade Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter on his behalf.

Free will and fatalism

Queen Margaret: "Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!" Act 1, Scene III. Coat of Arms of King Richard III, with his personal emblem and supporters the white boar.

One of the central themes of Richard III is the idea of fate, especially as it is seen through the tension between free will and fatalism in Richard's actions and speech, as well as the reactions to him by other characters. There is no doubt that Shakespeare drew heavily on Sir Thomas More's account of Richard III as a criminal and tyrant as inspiration for his own rendering. This influence, especially as it relates to the role of divine punishment in Richard's rule of England, reaches its height in the voice of Margaret. Janis Lull suggests that "Margaret gives voice to the belief, encouraged by the growing Calvinism of the Elizabethan era, that individual historical events are determined by God, who often punishes evil with (apparent) evil".

Thus it seems possible that Shakespeare, in conforming to the growing "Tudor Myth" of the day, as well as taking into account new theologies of divine action and human will becoming popular in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, sought to paint Richard as the final curse of God on England in punishment for the deposition of Richard II in 1399. Irving Ribner argued that "the evil path of Richard is a cleansing operation which roots evil out of society and restores the world at last to the God-ordained goodness embodied in the new rule of Henry VII".

Marxist scholar Victor Kiernan writes that this interpretation is a perfect fit with the English social perspective of Shakespeare's day: "An extension is in progress of a privileged class's assurance of preferential treatment in the next world as in this, to a favoured nation's conviction of having God on its side, of Englishmen being ... the new Chosen People". As Elizabethan England was slowly colonizing the world, the populace embraced the view of its own Divine Right and Appointment to do so, much as Richard does in Shakespeare's play.

However, historical fatalism is merely one side of the argument of fate versus free will. It is also possible that Shakespeare intended to portray Richard as "... a personification of the Machiavellian view of history as power politics". In this view, Richard is acting entirely out of his own free will in brutally taking hold of the English throne. Kiernan also presents this side of the coin, noting that Richard "boasts to us of his finesse in dissembling and deception with bits of Scripture to cloak his 'naked villainy' (I.iii.334–8)...Machiavelli, as Shakespeare may want us to realize, is not a safe guide to practical politics".

Kiernan suggests that Richard is merely acting as if God is determining his every step in a sort of Machiavellian manipulation of religion as an attempt to circumvent the moral conscience of those around him. Therefore, historical determinism is merely an illusion perpetrated by Richard's assertion of his own free will. The Machiavellian reading of the play finds evidence in Richard's interactions with the audience, as when he mentions that he is "determinèd to prove a villain" (I.i.30). However, though it seems Richard views himself as completely in control, Lull suggests that Shakespeare is using Richard to state "the tragic conception of the play in a joke. His primary meaning is that he controls his own destiny. His pun also has a second, contradictory meaning—that his villainy is predestined—and the strong providentialism of the play ultimately endorses this meaning".

Literary critic Paul Haeffner writes that Shakespeare had a great understanding of language and the potential of every word he used. One word that Shakespeare gave potential to was "joy". This is employed in Act I, Scene III, where it is used to show "deliberate emotional effect". Another word that Haeffner points out is "kind", which he suggests is used with two different definitions.

The first definition is used to express a "gentle and loving" being, which Clarence uses to describe his brother Richard to the murderers that were sent to kill him. This definition is not true, as Richard uses a gentle facade to seize the throne. The second definition concerns "the person's true nature ... Richard will indeed use Hastings kindly—that is, just as he is in the habit of using people—brutally".

Haeffner also writes about how speech is written. He compares the speeches of Richmond and Richard to their soldiers. He describes Richmond's speech as "dignified" and formal, while Richard's speech is explained as "slangy and impetuous". Richard's casualness in speech is also noted by another writer. However, Lull does not make the comparison between Richmond and Richard as Haeffner does, but between Richard and the women in his life. However, it is important to the women share the formal language that Richmond uses. She makes the argument that the difference in speech "reinforces the thematic division between the women's identification with the social group and Richard's individualism". Haeffner agrees that Richard is "an individualist, hating dignity and formality".

Janis Lull also takes special notice of the mourning women. She suggests that they are associated with "figures of repetition as anaphora—beginning each clause in a sequence with the same word—and epistrophe—repeating the same word at the end of each clause". One example of the epistrophe can be found in Margaret's speech in Act I, Scene III. Haeffner refers to these as few of many "devices and tricks of style" that occur in the play, showcasing Shakespeare's ability to bring out the potential of every word.

Richard the Antihero

Throughout the play, Richard's character constantly changes and shifts and, in doing so, alters the dramatic structure of the story.

Richard immediately establishes a connection with the audience with his opening monologue. In the soliloquy he introduces his amorality to the audience and but at the same time treats them as if they were co-conspirators in his plotting; one may well be enamored by his rhetoric while being appalled by his scheming. Richard shows off his wit in Act I, as seen in the interchanges with Lady Anne (Act I, Scene II) and his brother Clarence (Act I, Scene I). In his dialogues Act I, Richard knowingly refers to thoughts he has only previously shared with the audience to keep the audience attuned to him and his objectives. In 1.1, Richard tells the audience in a soliloquy how he plans to claw his way to the throne—killing his brother Clarence as a necessary step to get there. However, Richard pretends to be Clarence's friend, falsely reassures him by saying, "I will deliver you, or else lie for you" (1.1.115); which the audience knows—and Richard tells us after Clarence's exit—is the exact opposite of what he plans to do. Scholar Michael E. Mooney describes Richard as occupying a "figural position"; he is able to move in and out of it by talking with the audience on one level, and interacting with other characters on another.

Each scene in Act I is book-ended by Richard directly addressing the audience. This action on Richard's part not only keeps him in control of the dramatic action of the play, but also of how the audience sees him: in a somewhat positive light, or as the protagonist. Richard actually embodies the dramatic character of "Vice" from Medieval mystery plays—with which Shakespeare was very familiar from his time—with his "impish-to-fiendish humour". Like Vice, Richard is able to present what is ugly and evil—his thoughts and aims, his view of other characters—into what is amiable and amusing for the audience.

In the earlier acts of the play, too, the role of the antagonist is filled by that of the old Lancastrian queen, Margaret, who is reviled by the Yorkists and whom Richard verbally manipulates and condemns in Act I, Scene III.

However, after Act I, the number and quality of Richard's asides to the audience decrease significantly, as well as multiple scenes are interspersed that do not include Richard at all, but average Citizens (Act II, Scene III), or the Duchess of York and Clarence's children (Act II, Scene II), who are as moral as Richard is evil. Without Richard guiding the audience through the dramatic action, the audience is left to evaluate for itself what is going on. In Act IV, Scene IV, after the murder of the two young princes and the ruthless murder of Lady Anne, the women of the play—Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and even Margaret—gather to mourn their state and to curse Richard; and it is difficult as the audience not to sympathize with them. When Richard enters to bargain with Queen Elizabeth for her daughter's hand—a scene whose form echoes the same rhythmically quick dialogue as the Lady Anne scene in Act I—he has lost his vivacity and playfulness for communication, and it is obvious he is not the same man.

By the end of Act IV everyone else in the play, including Richard's own mother, the Duchess, has turned against him, he does not interact with the audience nearly as much, and the inspiring quality of his speech has declined into merely giving and requiring information. As Richard gets closer to his illusion of the crown, and finally enters into it by becoming king, he has enclosed himself within the world of the play; no longer embodying his facile movement in and out of the dramatic action, he is now stuck firmly within it. It is from Act IV that Richard really begins his rapid decline into truly being the antagonist. Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt notes how Richard even refers to himself as "the formal Vice, Iniquity" (3.1.82), which informs the audience that he knows what his function is; but also like Vice in the morality plays, the fates will turn and get Richard in the end, which Elizabethan audiences would have recognized.

In addition, the character of Richmond enters into the play in Act V to overthrow Richard and save the state from his tyranny, effectively being the instantaneous new protagonist. Richmond is a clear contrast to Richard's antagonistically immoral character, which makes the audience see him as such.

Notable stage performances of Richard III

  • F. Murray Abraham
  • John Barrymore
  • Simon Russell Beale
  • Junius Brutus Booth
  • John Wilkes Booth
  • Kenneth Branagh
  • Richard Burbage
  • Peter Dinklage
  • David Garrick
  • Alec Guinness
  • Ciarán Hinds
  • Ian Holm
  • Edmund Kean
  • Anton Lesser
  • Ian McKellen
  • Laurence Olivier
  • Al Pacino
  • Ian Richardson
  • Antony Sher (Sher's book, The Year of the King, is a diary about his preparation for the role (which he played on crutches) at Stratford in 1985.
  • Barry Sullivan
  • Donald Wolfit
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