|First performance November 1633|
|Characters Richard III, Lady Anne, Sir Robert Brackenbury|
Playwrights William Shakespeare, Colley Cibber
Adaptations Richard III (1995), Richard III (1955)
Similar William Shakespeare plays, Tragedies, Other plays
Richard III is a historical play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in approximately 1592. It depicts the Machiavellian rise to power and subsequent short reign of King 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).
- Date and text
- Comedic elements
- Free will and fatalism
- Richard as anti hero
- Historical inaccuracy
It is the second longest play in the canon after Hamlet, 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.
House of York
House of Lancaster
Richard III's group
Earl of Richmond's group
The play begins with Richard (called "Gloucester" in the text) standing in "a street", 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.)
Richard is an ugly hunchback who is "rudely stamp'd", "deformed, unfinish'd", and 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 bribed a soothsayer to finagle the suspicious King with; that "G of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be", which the king interprets as referring to George of Clarence (without realising it actually refers to Gloucester).
Richard now schemes to woo "the Lady Anne" – Anne Neville, widow of the Lancastrian Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. He confides to the audience:
I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter.
What, though I kill'd her husband and her father?
The scene then changes to reveal Lady Anne accompanying the corpse of the late king Henry VI, along with Trestle and Berkeley, on its way to be interred at St Paul's cathedral. She asks them to set down the "honourable load – if honour may be shrouded in a hearse," and then laments the fate of the house of Lancaster. Richard suddenly appears and demands that the "unmannerd dog" carrying the hearse set it down, at which point a brief verbal wrangling takes place.
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 Clarence in the tower. Clarence, meanwhile, relates a dream to his keeper. The dream includes vivid 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. He then imagines dying and being tormented by the ghosts of Warwick (Anne's father), and Edward of Westminster (Anne's deceased 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." Trying to win them over by tactics, 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.
Richard uses the news of Clarence's unexpected death to send Edward IV, already ill, into his deathbed, all the while insinuating that the Queen is behind the execution of Clarence. Edward IV soon dies, leaving as Protector his brother Richard, who sets about removing the final obstacles to his accession. He has Lord Rivers murdered to further isolate the Queen and to put down any attempts to have the Prince crowned right away. 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 Hastings, 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 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 accession, is arrested and executed on a trumped-up charge of treason. Together, Richard and Buckingham spread the rumour that Edward's two sons are illegitimate, and therefore have no rightful claim to the throne; they are 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).
Richard asks Buckingham to secure the death of the princes, but Buckingham hesitates. Richard then recruits Sir James Tyrrell, who kills both children. When Richard denies Buckingham a promised land grant, Buckingham turns against Richard and defects to the side of Henry, Earl of Richmond, who is currently in exile. Richard has his eye on his niece, Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's next remaining heir, 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 asks Queen Elizabeth to help him win her daughter's hand in marriage, but she is not taken in by his eloquence, and eventually manages to trick and stall him by saying she will let him know her daughter's answer 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, all of whom tell him to "Despair and die!" after which they wish victory upon Richmond. He awakes screaming for "Jesus" to help him, slowly realising 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, 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 cries out, "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.
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 20 October 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. 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 Folio is longer than the Quarto, and contains some fifty additional passages amounting to more than two hundred lines. However, the Quarto contains some twenty-seven passages amounting to about thirty-seven lines which are absent from the Folio. The two texts also contain hundreds of other differences, including the transposition of words within speeches, the movement of words from one speech to another, the replacement of words with near-synonyms, and many changes in grammar and spelling.
At one time it was thought that the Quarto represented a separate revision of the play by Shakespeare. However, since the Quarto contains many changes which can only be regarded as mistakes, it is now widely believed that the Quarto was produced by memorial reconstruction. It is thought likely that the Quarto was collectively produced by a company of actors remembering their lines. It is unknown why the actors did this, but it may have been to replace a missing prompt book. The Folio is regarded as having much higher authority than the Quarto, but because the Folio edition was collated by the printers against a Quarto (probably Q3), some errors from the Quarto found their way into the Folio. Some parts of the Folio (the beginning of Act III and much of Act V) are clearly copied, with little change, direct from the Quarto. The Folio also has its own corruptions and omissions, and corrections have to be supplied, where possible, from the Quarto.
The play resolutely avoids demonstrations of physical violence; only Richard dies on-stage, while the rest (Clarence, the two princes, Hastings, Brackenbury, 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
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".
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 colonising 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 realise, 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" man, 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 façade 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 as anti-hero
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 admits his amorality to the audience 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 actions. 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 morality plays – with which Shakespeare was very familiar from his time – with his "impish-to-fiendish humour". Like Vice, Richard is able to render what is ugly and evil – his thoughts and aims, his view of other characters – into what is charming 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 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 sympathise 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; 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 seizing the crown, he encloses 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 recognised.
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 evil character, which makes the audience see him as such.
The earliest certain performance occurred on 16 or 17 November 1633, when Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria watched it on the Queen's birthday.
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 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.
Most film versions of Richard III feature actors who had previously played Richard on stage. The two best-known film versions are those with Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen. McKellen's film is directly based on an earlier stage production set in a Nazified England of the 1930s, which toured Europe for six years to sell-out crowds prior to being shortly thereafter adapted to film. McKellen wrote the screenplay for his film version, although he did not direct it. Olivier played Richard on stage for quite a few years in the 1940s before making a film of it in 1955. His film performance, if not the production as a whole, is heavily based on his earlier stage rendition. The Al Pacino film Looking for Richard is a documentary of rehearsals of specific scenes from the play, and a meditation on the play's significance. Pacino had played the role on stage 15 years earlier. In 2011, well-known film actor Kevin Spacey starred in an Old Vic production which subsequently toured the United States, directed by well-known stage and film director Sam Mendes. No plans for a film version have been announced. Spacey had played the role of Richard's henchman, the Duke of Buckingham, in the Pacino film.
Shakespeare, and the Tudor chroniclers who influenced him, were obliged to portray the downfall of the Plantagenet House of York and the victory of the House of Tudor as good conquering evil. This is usually attributed to bias as a result of a new regime being in place, requiring that the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, be depicted as a villain. There are many historical inaccuracies in the play, which can be attributed partly to Shakespeare's sources, such as Holinshed's Chronicles. Some of these inaccuracies are listed below in the order in which they either appear or are referred to in the play.
Richard was not personally responsible for the death of his wife's first husband, Edward of Westminster (the son of Henry VI), nor that of her father, Richard Neville (the Earl of Warwick). They were killed in the battles of Tewkesbury and Barnet, respectively, which restored Edward IV to the throne. Although only eighteen years old, Richard took part in both battles, but no contemporary records indicate him as being involved directly in either death. Richard was also not responsible for the death of Henry VI, who was probably murdered on the orders of Edward IV. Richard and his wife, Anne Neville, had known each other for a long time before they married, having spent much of their childhood in the same household. Henry VI's widow, Queen Margaret, would not have been seen at court since the much earlier Battle of Towton, which won the throne for Edward IV for the first time; she became Edward IV's prisoner until she returned to France. Richard was not responsible for the death of his elder brother, George (Duke of Clarence), who was executed by Edward IV for treason after he'd rebelled against him. Richard was in the North of England when Edward IV died; this was five years after the execution of Clarence – and after a long period of peace.
Richard had to come down from the North, where he had lived very happily for many years, to fulfil Edward IV's wish that he rule as Lord Protector of the Realm. It was the Plantagenet tradition that a future king would stay in the royal apartments of the Tower of London while awaiting his coronation. It only became the 'Bloody Tower' during the Tudor era. No one knows why the 'princes in the tower' disappeared or what happened to them. Richard took the throne by an Act of Parliament and with relatively little bloodshed for the times, new evidence having been presented to him claiming that Edward IV's marriage to Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth Woodville) had been bigamous. Richard did not murder his own wife; she is thought to have died of tuberculosis. There is no surviving evidence to suggest that he planned to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York; he was negotiating a marriage for Elizabeth with a Portuguese prince, Manuel, Duke of Beja (later Manuel I of Portugal).
At the Battle of Bosworth there was no single combat between Richard and Richmond (Henry Tudor), although it has been suggested that Richard had hoped for one. Richard spotted Richmond in his rearguard surrounded by French pikemen and led a cavalry charge against him. Richard was steered away from Richmond by Sir Rhys ap Thomas. The Stanleys (Thomas, Lord Stanley and his younger brother, Sir William Stanley) only entered the fray in support of Richmond when they saw that Richard was vulnerable; when he saw the Stanleys, Richard cried 'Treason'. Richard fell from his horse after it lost its footing in a marshy area; he was offered a new horse but declined. Now on foot, Richard was hacked to death.
The only contemporary reference to Richard having any deformities was the observation that his right shoulder was slightly higher than his left, which is now known to have been caused by his scoliosis of the spine. It has been suggested that this scoliosis was discovered by his enemies only after his death. After the discovery of Richard's remains in 2012, it became clear that he had no deformities other than this scoliosis; the degree and direction of the curvature was not as serious as that of a spinal kyphosis (or 'hunchback').