King Richard III
Richard — the Duke of Gloucester; deformed in body and twisted in mind
Duke of Buckingham — Richard's right-hand man
Sir Richard Ratcliff and Sir William Catesby — two of Richard's supporters
Sir James Tyrrel — a murderer whom Richard hires
King Edward IV — older brother of Richard and Clarence
George, Duke of Clarence — the trusting middle brother of Edward and Richard
Queen Elizabeth — the wife of King Edward IV
Dorset, Rivers, and Grey — kinsmen and allies of Elizabeth
Lady Anne — the young widow of Prince Edward, son of the former king, Henry VI
Duchess of York — widowed mother of Richard, Clarence, and King Edward IV; not to be confused with Margaret
Margaret — widow of the dead King Henry VI. Mother of the slain Prince Edward
The Princes (in the Tower) — the two young sons of King Edward IV, Prince Edward and the young duke of York
Elizabeth — daughter of the former Queen Elizabeth who was married to Edward IV
Richmond — challenges Richard for the throne and becomes Henry VII
Lord Hastings — a lord who supports the Yorkist cause
Lord Stanley — Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby; stepfather of Richmond
Lord Mayor of London — a gullible and suggestible fellow
Sir Thomas Vaughan — a friend of Elizabeth, Dorset, Rivers, and Grey
King Richard III is the last of the four plays in Shakespeare's first quartet of history plays. It concludes a dramatic chronicle started in King Henry VI, Part I and then moving through King Henry VI, Part II, and King Henry VI, Part III. The entire four-play saga was composed early in Shakespeare's career, and most scholars date King Richard III to about 1591 or 1592.
King Richard III is a dramatization of historical events that concluded in 1485 with the defeat of King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth, when the Tudors replaced the Plantagenet family as rulers of England. Shakespeare often plays fast and loose with the facts, stretching and altering the timeline. The events of this civil war — including the murders of King Henry and Prince Edward by the York brothers, and the earlier killing of Rutland by Henry's family — are an important background to King Richard III. In Shakespeare's version, both Henry and Edward leave widows: Margaret and Lady Anne. Although Anne mourns Henry VI's death, she nevertheless becomes Richard's wife.
Richard III is a fascinating figure, in the same way that we are entranced by the charismatic malevolence of a Hannibal Lecter. Audiences for generations have found themselves seduced by Richard's eloquence and cunning emotional manipulation, even as they are repelled by his evil.
When King Richard III begins, Edward IV is growing old. His malicious and deformed younger brother, Richard, is plotting to get his hands on the throne. But a great many people stand between him and the kingship. When Edward dies, he leaves behind two sons who are in line for the throne before Richard. They are still children, though, and Richard has them murdered while they live in captivity in the Tower of London. Their young sister, Elizabeth, becomes an important pawn in bringing peace to the realm.
Richard's ambition is also blocked by his older brother and Clarence's two children, all of whom Richard must get rid of in order to seize the throne. Once on the throne, Richard soon finds himself besieged by his second cousin, Henry, the Earl of Richmond, who has been gathering strength overseas. Henry believes he has a rightful claim to the throne, and in preparing to challenge Richard sets up the final conflict of the Wars of Roses.
The play picks up from the end of King Henry VI, Part III. Richard's brother is now King Edward IV. In order to gain the crown himself and eliminate his brothers, Richard pits his older brother George, Duke of Clarence, against Edward. He convinces Edward that George is guilty of treason and has him arrested. He also brazenly woos Anne, widow of the murdered Edward, the Prince of Wales, in the midst of her husband's funeral procession.
Shakespearean audiences would have thought of the “wicked Italian” Machiavelli when watching this play, because Richard is the epitome of the amoral, power-hungry courtier made famous by the French in their corrupted version of the book The Prince (1532) by the Renaissance Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli. (The French version was translated into English long before the original would be.)
Edward IV, who is deathly ill at the beginning of the play, dies. Richard has already arranged for his brother George to be murdered while in prison, and now he becomes regent until Edward's son (also named Edward, Prince of Wales) comes of age.
In order to “protect” the Prince of Wales and his younger brother, Richard puts them in the Tower of London. He then executes Edward's loyalist lords: Vaughan, Rivers, Hastings, and Grey. With the aid of Buckingham, Richard has Edward's sons declared illegitimate. Buckingham “offers” the throne of England to Richard, who pretends to be reluctant to accept. Few are fooled by his false modesty. Even his mother curses him as a bloody tyrant.
Richard hires a murderer to kill the princes in the tower because Buckingham has refused to help him. Having married Anne, who conveniently dies, Richard proposes marriage to Princess Elizabeth, King Edward's daughter. Her mother Elizabeth (Edward's widow) pretends to go along with the match but actually arranges for her daughter to marry Henry, the Earl of Richmond instead.
Richmond is raising an army in France to fight Richard. Buckingham, out of favor with Richard because he refused to go along with the murder of the young princes, gives his allegiance to Richmond. Buckingham is captured and Richard has him executed.
Richmond finally lands with his army and marches for London. The French and English armies get ready to fight near Bosworth Field. The night before the battle, the ghosts of the people he has killed visit Richard, and all prophesy his death.
During the battle Richard is thrown from his horse (“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”). He and Richmond fight, and Richmond prevails, killing Richard. Richmond is crowned King Henry VII. The Battle of Bosworth is the final engagement of the Wars of the Roses and marks the founding of the Tudor dynasty of kings and queens.
King Richard III is a chronicle of bloody deeds and atrocities, and modern audiences can find it difficult to follow the complex political intrigue, family relationships, and personal vendettas. The play is as much melodrama as history, and Richard is a self-professed villain of monstrous proportions comparable only to Iago in Othello, or to a lesser extent Edmund in King Lear. Richard's ambition makes Macbeth look like an amateur by comparison. He is a totally Machiavellian creature, able to splinter and nearly destroy the forces opposing him, until Richmond finally defeats him.
Richard is clearly ambitious and sadistic, but no clear reason for his motivations or his hatred is given. It is as if he decides early on in life that he will be as bitter and twisted inside as he is out because that is the only joy he can ever really expect to have. Like the character the Devil from medieval morality pageants who represented evil, Richard does not even try to justify what he does.
Richard was probably no more murderous than the kings who came before or after him. He was more the rightful king of England when he died in battle than Richmond. History is written by the victors, and at the time Shakespeare was writing, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth — granddaughter of King Henry VII, the man who defeated Richard. The official “party line” was that Richard had been a monster who was not the legitimate king of England. To suggest anything else would have been thoroughly dangerous for Shakespeare.
Modern historians are split on whether the real Richard murdered the young princes or whether he even had a humpback. History reports that Richard came to be known as “Humpty,” and historians say the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty is about Richard's defeat at the Battle of Bosworth.
“Now is the winter of our discontent
“O, I have passed a miserable night,
“Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
“Off with his head!” (Act III, Scene IV).
“An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told” (Act IV, Scene IV).
“I have set my life upon a cast,
“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” (Act V, Scene IV).