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King Richard III
William Shakespeare



Richard III opens with the arrival of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in London. His oldest brother, King Edward IV, is slowly dying as a result of overindulgence in "the good life." The ambitious, restless Richard sees an opportunity to attain the crown for himself.

The first step is to get rid of his other brother, the Duke of Clarence, who has a closer claim to the throne as the older heir. Richard instigates a rift between the king and Clarence which results in Clarence's being imprisoned in the Tower of London. Later he is executed by murderers sent by Richard.

Richard's next move toward his goal is to propose marriage to the great Neville family heiress, Lady Anne, widow of the son of the late Henry VI. Richard has been instrumental in the death of both her husband and father-in-law and this presents a huge obstacle to such a match. In an extraordinary demonstration of his persuasive powers, he woos and convinces Anne to marry him.

Meanwhile, Edward IV's wife, Queen Elizabeth, is concerned that Richard has been named Protector of the Realm, making him guardian of her young son Edward, heir to the throne. There is no love lost between her family and Richard, who resents their rise to power.

King Edward summons his wife and nobles to meet to settle their differences, but on their way they are interrupted by old Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI, who was exiled but who has never left the country. She recalls past horrors and predicts future disasters for the country. Her hatred for Richard is so great that she curses him and all those responsible for the evil she has witnessed, predicting a bad end for them all.

During the reconciliation attempt, Clarence's death is announced. Soon afterward, King Edward dies and Richard begins to conspire with the Duke of Buckingham to succeed his brother. They set off to bring young Edward, the Prince of Wales, to London to await his coronation.

In their absence, Queen Elizabeth learns that Richard has imprisoned her brother and a son by a previous marriage. Fearing for her life, she flees to the protection of church sanctuary with her youngest son, the Duke of York.

When the Prince of Wales' party arrives in London, Buckingham arranges to have the little Duke of York taken from sanctuary. The two brothers are then sent for their safety to the Tower of London.

Lord Hastings, an old ally and friend to the family of the late King Edward IV, is questioned about the possibility of Richard's succession to the throne. He forcefully rejects the idea, thus signing his own death warrant. At a subsequent Council meeting, Richard accuses Hastings of treason and condemns him to death.

Buckingham then addresses the public, praising Richard and instigating the rumor that the late King Edward's children are illegitimate. Although the crowd is unmoved, city officials are convinced that only Richard can prevent civil disorder. A delegation arrives at his residence and, through Buckingham, pleads with him to accept the crown. He "reluctantly" does so after pretending to have no interest in becoming king.

Once Richard is on the throne, he must secure his position. He first tries to have Buckingham eliminate the legal heirs (the young boys in the Tower), but Buckingham hesitates. So Richard arranges for their murder himself. He now reveals his next move: he will get rid of his wife and solidify his power by marrying his niece, the daughter of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth.

Buckingham is in disfavor and flees. Shortly afterward, Richard's problems begin to intensify. There are stirrings from France, where the Lancastrian heir, Henry, Earl of Richmond, is in exile. Buckingham has raised an army and is marching against the king. Richard must take up arms against these enemies.

But first he attempts to win Queen Elizabeth to his side in his plan to marry her daughter. Her defenses are eventually worn down and she appears to give her consent to the marriage.

Meanwhile the forces against Richard are mounting. But Buckingham has been defeated and is eventually captured and executed.

Richmond lands in England and establishes a position at Bosworth Field, near Richard's army. The two camps settle in to prepare for battle the next day. During the night, Richard receives the news of desertions among his allies, but his troops still outnumber the enemy three to one. Richmond is informed that Queen Elizabeth has approved of his marriage to her daughter, which upsets Richard's plans.

At night, the ghosts of Richard's victims appear in both commanders' dreams. Richard is shaken by the vision of his own tyranny but vows to carry on his fight. Richmond is encouraged by the good wishes of Richard's victims.

Both leaders address their troops, exhorting them to fight bravely. Richmond stresses the security of the country, while Richard condemns his enemies as a band of vagabonds and exiles.

During the battle, Richard fights bravely, but is slain by Richmond. The victor, Richmond, declares an amnesty and vows to unite the two families through his marriage. He will establish the peace which has been denied to England for so many years.

[King Richard III Contents]



    Shakespeare based his portrait of Richard on information found in the histories written by Edward Hall (Union of Two Noble and Illustre Houses of Lancaster and York), Raphael Holinshed (Chronicles), and Sir Thomas More. Drawing on historical data, Shakespeare created a dramatic character from one of the most unusual figures in the 15th-century Wars of the Roses. Richard III was England's last king to die in battle. His most notorious phase was the period just prior to his gaining power, followed by that of his rapid downfall in the Battle of Bosworth Field.

    Holinshed's histories gave a biased description of Richard, stressing his supposed physical deformity and depicting him as arrogant, hypocritical, cruel, and ambitious. At a glance, it may appear that Shakespeare accepted this view since there is little to refute it in Richard III. You should realize, however, that many historians have criticized this portrait of Richard as being not only unfair, but untrue. As early as Sir George Buck's writings in the 17th century, many historians have insisted that Richard was actually a warm, courageous, and outstanding king. When you read Shakespeare's play, keep in mind that the playwright was obviously attempting to make the Tudors look good, at the expense of Richard and his ancestors.

    To serve his own dramatic needs, Shakespeare refined and embellished the available historical material. His Richard becomes a fully developed character who is both the victim of circumstances and the commander of his own destiny. This conflict is the force that most critics feel gives the play its special energy and fascination. A Richard who merely parades his way through a series of wicked deeds and then pays for his crimes in the end would never hold an audience's attention. Shakespeare's Richard, on stage for most of the play, is never less than interesting and usually quite compelling.

    Shakespeare takes you inside the character and gives you a chance to see the motivation behind the acts. Richard tells you in his own words what he will do and why. But you can also judge him through his actions and reactions to a variety of characters, as well as in other people's words about him. Right up until the last moment of his life on stage, you are given every opportunity to assess Richard. Even the most controversial charges against him are presented in detail. You are shown that most horrible of his crimes, according to rumor and Elizabethan historical records- the murder of the young princes in the Tower. But you are also exposed to Richard's wit, his psychological understanding of others, and the evil record of Richard's "victims." You are even invited to consider how much Richard himself may be a victim- of his nature, of his circumstances, of his deformed body, and of the past in general.

    The playwright's greatest challenge was to inspire a response to the notorious Richard. You can measure his success by your own reactions. How do you feel about Richard's powers of persuasion after he has successfully wooed Lady Anne? How do you react to the string of nasty names he is called- "Foul Devil," "Lump of foul deformity," "Bottled spider," "Cacodemon," "Poisonous bunch-backed toad?" He may brush them aside, but can they be ignored?

    Shakespeare did not offer a real defense of Richard, but instead considered the forces motivating him. Richard himself tells you that he represents Vice, a stock personification of evil in earlier forms of drama. In the so-called medieval "mystery" or "miracle" plays, Vice was the traditional representative of the devil. His function was to entrap people into sin by charm, wit, and double-dealing. Clearly Richard enjoys his own cleverness. You may even find yourself smiling and nodding in approval as he performs his devilish pranks and outwits his victims.

    When Richard is slain by Richmond at the play's end, a certain sense of loss, even regret, is often felt. This raises the question of why Richard III is not considered a tragedy. After all, Shakespeare entitled the play, The Tragedy of Richard III. But is Richard really a tragic figure? To deserve this label, Richard would have had to change within the framework of the play and suffer a fall from greatness. Most readers agree that he never really undergoes any change and that his downfall is a well-deserved punishment for his personal crimes.

    At his most fragile moment, when he awakens from his terrifying dream in the final act- aware of what he has done and exposed at his most naked self- you may feel some sympathy. But within seconds, he is up to his old tricks, playing the villain with no further motivation than his own wickedness.

    By the play's end, you will be able to decide how well Shakespeare succeeded in creating a portrait that no amount of accurate and objective historical research has ever been able to displace.


    The widow of Henry VI, the former Lancaster ruler overthrown by the York family, is historically inaccurate insofar as her being in England when the play's events take place. She had already been exiled to France after Henry VI's execution and remained there until her death. But Shakespeare chose to ignore this, taking "poetic license" to plant her right in the middle of Richard's quest for power. Here she serves a useful function as a purveyor of truths and prophecies. A once powerful foe, she has been reduced to a shadow of her former self, wandering half-mad and constantly weeping over her lost cause. But as with most Elizabethan fools and madmen, this gives her a capacity for "second-sight." Through her curses and visions, she predicts the doom that will occur to individual characters and the entire York dynasty. The attempts to dispute her arguments, along with the ignoring of her curses and predictions, are two elements which charge the play with tension as it moves toward its conclusion.

    For Richard, Margaret is a towering figure of divine punishment, or Nemesis (the ancient Greek concept of retribution). She haunts him constantly. As she repeatedly demands her revenge, the air will be filled with electric tension. She provides Richard with his greatest challenge: Can he ignore her curses and will he survive her prophecies?


    Of all Richard's victims, Buckingham is the most foolhardy from the start when he ignores Margaret's warnings about Richard's evil nature and the curse that will fall on all who serve him. He also boldly asks for God's punishment, in the event that he should be false to Edward IV and his family.

    As Richard's chief ally, the greedy Buckingham does much of Richard's dirty work, while Richard flatters him and plays the naive pupil. Raised higher and higher by his expectations of wealth and land, Buckingham is stunned when Richard refuses to reward him. Shakespeare underscores Buckingham's shock and Richard's contempt with the chilling but almost casual denial: "I am not in the giving vein today" (IV, ii, 115). As Buckingham goes to his execution, he remembers Margaret's prophecy and reflects on the price that one pays for falseness.


    Historically, the wife of Edward IV was a powerful political force in her own right and had reinforced her position through patronage. But when we meet her, she arrives on a weak note as she bemoans the king's illness and her own danger. She does, however, demonstrate intelligence in her fear of Richard. Still, she lacks the resources to resist him. Unlike Margaret, Queen Elizabeth cannot rally an army to her side.

    Elizabeth is a survivor, and though her losses are great, she never becomes one of Richard's victims. In the prolonged proxy courtship scene, where Richard asks Elizabeth for her daughter, she tolerates his clever and skillful arguments longer than Lady Anne had earlier. Even her apparent surrender to Richard's wishes leaves room for doubt. Indeed, as you later discover, the final victory is hers.


    The first great contest between the determined Richard and a formidable opposition takes place quickly with Lady Anne, daughter of the powerful Duke of Warwick and the widow of Henry VI's son, the former Prince of Wales. It is one of Shakespeare's finest scenes and demonstrates the playwright's genius. Lady Anne's collapse might serve as fair warning of Richard's uncanny ability to exploit other people's weaknesses. Occurring early in the play, it should put you on alert for subsequent encounters with other enemies.


    Richard is such a compelling character that Shakespeare probably knew he was in a "no win" situation when it came to presenting his successor. To build a proper case for Richmond as a hero would require more space than was available in this play. But this was one bit of history Shakespeare would not dare to alter. The grandfather of his own monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, must emerge as the glorious victor and peacemaker. To minimize the problem, Richmond is not introduced until the latter stages of the play. After a brief introduction, he is shown only in direct contrast to Richard. The parallel is reinforced by the bold presentation of the two tents- the two camps on stage. Further differences in personality are clarified in their dealings with their attendants and by their responses to their dreams. The final differences are shown in their individual orations to their troops. Notice how Richmond stresses the justice of their cause and invokes God throughout his speech. It serves not only to inspire his warriors, but to prop him up as the "chosen" champion.


    Like Lady Anne, Clarence becomes one of Richard's first victims- forerunner of what will take place again and again. His first mistake is to trust his brother Richard. Clarence, we later discover, has committed a number of crimes in the name of Yorkist power and deserves punishment by any standard. But unlike Lady Anne, Clarence does not get to confront his enemy or to struggle for his life with Richard. Instead, he wrestles with his own crimes in the terrible dream before his assassination by Richard's henchmen. In his death you will find the pattern of prophecy and retribution (Nemesis) that will be repeated throughout the play- the prediction of doom (in his dream), the irony (of trusting Richard), and the final awareness that he deserves punishment by the very God whose mercy he invokes.


    In his opening soliloquy, Richard draws attention to his brother, King Edward IV, as being lazy, lecherous, and gullible. This might seem like a narrow-minded opinion of a monarch who had twice triumphed over the Lancaster enemy and had ruled England peacefully for more than two decades. But when you do get to meet him during his one appearance on stage, is there any reason to disagree with Richard's evaluation? Is this anyone's picture of what the head of government should be? Shakespeare never suggests that Richard's criminal acts should be sanctioned. Instead, he shows you an alternative view of a king and lets you reach your own judgments. You can't help but compare the two men who occupy the throne during the play. Perhaps the lack of choice between these two "unfit" rulers helps create the need for an ideal monarch who will appear in the end.


    The mother of two kings (Edward IV and Richard III) and their brother (the Duke of Clarence), the Duchess of York reveals a great deal in her statements about her children. She can snarl at Queen Margaret and defend every vicious deed committed by her husband and sons. Yet nowhere does she approve of her son Richard. She denies him even the courtesy of a mother's blessing, and at the earliest opportunity she denounces him. To offset any claim to goodness that Richard might have from his effective administration in the North or his courage in battle, she laces with contempt her recollections of his childhood. She can still stand up to him, but lacks the force of Queen Margaret.

    Richard is clever enough to realize the political danger of implicating her as an adulteress in establishing the illegitimacy of Edward IV's lineage.


    The Lord Chamberlain seems to be a typical Shakespearean gull, a fool whose end is predictable from the start. Beneath his naive trust lurks an ugly lust for revenge that leads to his downfall. Shakespeare uses him as another victim whom Richard lulls into an unwarranted sense of security, then crushes in an instant. Notice how the Nemesis pattern- prophecy, irony, and recognition- applies to Hastings as he meets his Fate.


    Stanley is a difficult figure to follow as he winds cautiously through the play. He is established as a decent man in his first appearance when he pleads for one of his servant's lives. He shows caution when he sends his messenger to Hastings with the story of his dream. And he personally warns Hastings of the mounting danger which Richard represents.

    But Stanley is careful with his words and never defies a prophecy, nor does he trust an enemy. Though Richard suspects he is disloyal, he cannot detect a vulnerable spot in Stanley. Even the holding of Stanley's son as hostage is a sign of weakness rather than power.


    A civil functionary of importance, the Lord Mayor is depicted in this play as a man so gullible that one wonders why he doesn't join Richard's list of victims. He gives in easily to Richard and Buckingham's schemes. According to some critics, Shakespeare may be pointing a finger at the weakness of a system which permits major changes in government to be influenced by such incompetent officials.


    Notice Richard's ease in dealing with this lower element of society. What does that tell you about his willingness to soil his own hands? And does this ever change? These murderers represent a certain type of commoner in England and were easily identified by the Elizabethan audience. As they speak with Clarence, they are clearly aware of the goings-on in high places. Yet they do differ with one another. In their separate positions regarding the bloody act of murder, they exemplify the two strong attitudes toward a Higher Authority that run through the play- defiance and fear.


    Like all the children in this play, both are precocious. But there are differences between them. Wales appears to have leadership ability and is already somewhat haughty when we first meet him. He goads his Uncle Richard with boyish fantasies of foreign victories. His younger brother, York, seems content in his smart-alecky word play with his uncle. Yet the two boys remain dangerously alone without the protection of their maternal uncles, and their departure for the Tower of London is bittersweet. They are a vital element in maintaining the audience's interest especially through their mother and grandmother's abortive attempt to visit them in the Tower. In Tyrrel's careful description of their final moment, they become a powerful focus of sympathy. Richard III's role in the murder of the princes in the Tower has been at the center of the case against him throughout the centuries. Shakespeare spares nothing but the actual sight of blood in this version of the fate of the two boys whose mysterious disappearance has never been solved. Even today the pro-Richard forces concentrate their campaign to clear his name on absolving him of the murder of the princes.

[King Richard III Contents]



Richard III takes place in late 15th-century England just before Richard, Duke of Gloucester, seized control and ascended the throne. It concludes with his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. In all, it embraces events occurring over roughly a fourteen year period. But Shakespeare has greatly condensed and rearranged the sequence of events to create intensity and heighten the drama.

For a play that suggests action taking place across a sweeping landscape, there are remarkably few locations actually created on stage. In fact, the first part of Richard III is set entirely in London, on anonymous streets, in non-specific rooms of the royal palace at Westminster (the present site of the Houses of Parliament), or in the bare outline of a room at the Tower. It is not until the brief scene at Pomfret Castle (III, iii) that the action moves outside the capital. Afterward, it quickly returns to London where it remains until the last act, when the two sides move toward their final encounter.

Here, in Act V, Scene I, the setting is Salisbury, about 70 miles southwest of London, where Buckingham is about to be executed. The next scene takes place in the north, at Richmond's camp of Tamworth, "but one day's march" from Leicester, the city closest to Richard's camp. In the following scene, you are taken to Bosworth Field where the two opponents are mustering their troops and preparing for combat. It is there that the final resolution of the play takes place.

With these few on-stage locations, how does Shakespeare then achieve the suggestion of great panoramic action? First, remember all the offstage action. How many things are we told about, and sometimes re-told, that have just taken place offstage? The imprisonment of Rivers, Grey and Vaughan; Buckingham's rebellion and capture; the murder of the princes in the Tower; Richmond's abortive attempt to land in Dorset- these are just a few events that take place within the play's time frame.

What about past events? How often are they recalled? Listen to all the reminders of past battles, fallen enemies, and the rise and fall of previous powerful rulers. Not only Henry VI, but the Duke of Warwick (Anne's father), Richard of York (Richard III's father), Richard II, all are brought forth from memory and add to the sense of a larger arena.

Shakespeare's audience would have demanded a play with a breadth of action equal in concept to the importance of the story. The playwright has indeed provided that, but with a remarkable economy of settings which do not intrude on the important business on stage.


Here are major themes you will find in Richard III.


    The Elizabethan attitude toward nature, a holdover from medieval times, was as structured and formal as an organizational flow-chart would be today. Nature consisted of a universe in which there was an established hierarchy, with God at the top. Everything below had a specific position and status. The king ruled the state; the father was the head of the family; next came the mother, the children, and so on. At the bottom were the animals; even they had higher and lower rankings. Snakes, insects and vermin were at the very bottom. Remember this when you come upon the animal images used in the curses heaped upon Richard.

    When the natural order was upset, the bottom moved toward the top. As a result, chaos set in. The symbol of chaos was the monster. Richard is frequently called a monster and related to "monstrous" acts. When you hear of something being monstrous, it suggests a drastic, unnatural change or upheaval that demands a restoration to the way things are supposed to be. Richard's personal position- low down on the scale of animal life- and his political position at the top, are at odds. His removal from the throne and humiliating downfall in the mud of Bosworth Field resolve the unnatural state of events.


    The concept of a natural order extended to such matters as political inheritance and succession. Again, the most important aspect of this was at the very top, the monarchy. A king achieved his position by birth, according to firmly established rules of inheritance. In the absence of an immediate heir, the next closest male relative was entitled to the crown. It was not until after the death of Henry VIII that women could become heirs to the throne.

    To break with such an accepted tradition of royal succession was to defy the natural order. Usurpation- the unlawful, illegitimate, seizure of the crown- was a major crime. It was as serious as regicide, the killing of a king, which it usually involved. Such a monstrous act produced disorder, chaos, and even revolution. Richard demonstrates that he is aware of this as he carefully contrives to attain his goal. He must appear to be the legitimate occupant of the throne. That he is not a legitimate ruler is one of the play's chief political messages. If he were, Elizabeth I's legitimacy would be in question since she became queen as a result of Henry VII's own violent accession to the throne (the killing of Richard at Bosworth Field).


    In the natural scheme of things, as the father was to the family, so was the king to the state. But while there were many fathers, there was only one king whose position at the head of the government ensured the smooth working of the political order. As such, it was essential that the king represent all that was good and just. If he failed to do this, the civil order would collapse- and this is often mirrored in Shakespeare's works by images of disease and other natural abnormalities.

    Like the sun, a king must bring about fruitfulness and life. The sun is, therefore, a symbol of kingship as well as being Edward IV's family symbol. In his very first words, Richard binds the two together with his reference to this "son of York." The audience also hears the word sun, which represents Edward as both king and son of the House of York. There will be many other references to sun and light (a state of natural well-being) as opposed to darkness and shadow (illness). This reminds the Elizabethan audience of both the good and the bad monarch. After all, no fewer than five kings of England appear in Richard III- Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V (the young Prince of Wales held the title although he was never crowned), Richard III, and Henry VII (Richmond). Track down and compare the images surrounding each monarch to see how Shakespeare presents them.


    Throughout the play, a number of crimes are committed that cry out for revenge. Moreover, in several references to past events, the crimes committed not only by Richard, but by others (Clarence, Edward IV, Richard of York, Henry VI and Margaret) are all revealed in great detail. Demands for vengeance will echo throughout the play. And, for the most part, they will not be satisfied until the final scene when Richard is slain.

    Prior to that, another form of vengeance takes place and Richard, surprisingly, is the instrument. As you examine the fate of Richard's victims, you must consider their own participation in criminal acts. Isn't Clarence guilty of murder? Hasn't Hastings participated in the usurpation of Henry VI's throne? In executing them, isn't Richard an agent for divine justice, a so-called "Scourge of God?" Yet at the same time, he defies that very God by committing homicide for his own gain. Critics point out that there was a theological explanation to permit such a duality. An apparently criminal act could often serve a greater purpose, as it did in this case. But the tension between these two aspects of Richard's character certainly adds to his fascination.


    Most of the characters in Richard III experience a pattern of ultimate punishment for their sins, both during the play and before the action begins. The pattern leads from warnings that are ignored to eventual punishment. Clarence, Edward IV, Queen Elizabeth's relatives (Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan), Hastings, Buckingham, Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth herself, and finally Richard himself are made aware of their crimes, and suffer punishment as a result. Either death or severe loss comes to the representatives of both houses of Lancaster and York in much the same way that noble families were cursed and destroyed by divine plan in ancient Greek drama. Thus, Richard can be seen not only as the maker of crimes, but also as the final victim of a succession of cursed family crimes. His own actions may be seen as the final blow to the royal house of Plantagenet, which included both the Lancasters and the Yorks.

    This view of family guilt, of course, makes Richard as an individual seem less responsible. There is plenty of evidence in the play that Richard is to be held strictly accountable for his crimes. How would your balance sheet on Richard add up, either as a victim or a moral monster?


    From the moment Richard announces that he will "prove a villain," a great deal of role- playing takes place on stage. Note the difference between a character's role in private speeches (soliloquies) and in public speeches. Richard is obviously a great actor, but he is not the only successful role-player. There is Buckingham, with whom he compares technique at the start of Act III, Scene V. Examine the truce arranged by Edward IV. How honest are the participants as they embrace one another? Notice the vast number of hypocritical posturings, the sworn oaths and outright falsehoods that take place, and the results they inevitably produce.


    The Elizabethans believed that Fortune was not simply a haphazard matter, but an ordered part of their universe. This regulation of destiny was symbolized by the Wheel of Fortune. Constantly in motion, it moved from top to bottom and back again. Those who were on top could not afford to be stuffy since they had only one place to go- down. Still, there were those who ignored or scorned Fortune's power to reverse one's position. Think of Buckingham's rise and fall, Margaret and Elizabeth's past glory, and Richard's swift road from duke to king to Bosworth Field.


    It's hard to find a character in this play who is content with his or her lot in life. Scratch deep enough and you'll usually find a restless ambition that is eventually declared. The most obvious example is Richard's overwhelming lust for the crown. This is followed closely by Buckingham's desire to help him and thus share in the spoils. Ambition of this sort would seem to be evil.

    On the other hand, consider the young Prince of Wales' hope of winning back lost English territory abroad. And what about Richmond's goal "to reap the harvest of perpetual peace?" Do you think that ambition is good or bad? Are there different types of ambition? Moreover, can it always be justified? For the part it plays in driving the action of this play forward, you may find that there are no easy answers to these questions.


Because Richard III was written early in Shakespeare's career, it is sometimes suggested that its simple style is the mark of a young, developing playwright. On the other hand, many find its straightforward, classical march to a foreseeable end as a deliberate and excellent choice for this particular historical subject.

The play is different in many ways from Shakespeare's later familiar comedies and tragedies, which contain more of the blank verse for which the playwright is famous. Iambic pentameter, the five-beat line with stress on every second syllable, is present in Richard III, but this play has fewer poetic passages than his later ones. The intensity of Clarence's dream is a good example. Here poetry, with its ability to compress ideas into a few powerful images, brings Clarence's fear and guilt into clear focus. Tyrrel's description of the murder of Edward IV's sons in the Tower is also made more effective through the use of verse.

Equally skillful is Shakespeare's use of symbols and imagery. The obvious use of the sun and its relationship to the king is extended by references to light and darkness. Shadows and mirror images make you aware of what is good and true or what is bad and false. A virtual menagerie of animal references reminds the audience of the high or low esteem in which a character is held. Notice, too, how often references to food and meals are used to underscore the abstract appetite for power. The importance of the rule of law is stressed by the use of legal terminology (e.g., "windy attorneys," "libels," and "perjury").

Equally effective are the technical devices of speech which Shakespeare borrowed from classical drama. Particularly noticeable in this play is the use of stichomythia, a short, rhythmic exchange of words in equal balance.

Shakespeare also works a form of the ancient Greek chorus into Richard III. When Margaret, whose prophetic role is similar to that of a chorus, is joined by the other women in Act IV, Scene IV, their chorus of lamentation has an ancient religious quality that may remind you of another level of concern- the presence of a Higher Authority in the affairs of human beings.

Shakespeare uses language to produce rapid and convincing characterizations. A superb actor such as Richard can change his manner of speaking to suit his needs of the moment. Others are generally consistent and true to their class. The nobles and members of the court use a formal, somewhat elegant speech, while the common people speak in plainer terms. When that pattern is broken, it is deliberate. When the Third Citizen offers his pessimistic vision of trouble ahead ("When clouds are seen, wise men put on their cloaks"), the impact is all the greater. For all its classical devices, verse, imagery, and the like, Richard III is remarkably uncomplicated.


All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between parents and their children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will diverge markedly from the English used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help you in your understanding of Richard III.


Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were more freely interchanged during Shakespeare's day. Adjectives were often used as nouns, as in:

We are the Queen's abjects [that is, abject subjects]

(I, i, 106)


Now fair [that is, fair times] befall thee and thy noble house!

(I, iii, 281)

Adjectives functioned also as adverbs. "Fair," for example, is used where we would now require "fairly":

Either be patient and entreat me fair.

(IV, iv, 152)

Nouns could be used as verbs and as adjectives:

This sickly land might solace (i.e., give solace) as before

(II, iii, 30)

Tell me, thou villain (i.e., villainous) slave

(IV, iv, 144)

and verbs could be used as nouns.


The meanings of all words undergo changes. For example, the word "chip" extended its meaning from a small piece of wood to a small piece of silicon. Many of the words in Shakespeare still exist, but their meanings may have changed. The change is sometimes small, as in the case of "jealous" meaning "mistrustful" in:

The jealous, o'erworn widow

(I, i, 81)

Other examples: "halt" (I, i, 23) meant "limp"; "mewed" (I, i, 38) meant "continued"; "gossips" (I, i, 83) meant "old women" (probably relatives); "diet" (I, i, 139) meant "way of life," and so on.


Words not only change their meanings, but frequently disappear from the language. In the past, "leman" meant "sweetheart," "sooth" meant "truth," and "thole" meant "endure." The following words used in Richard III are no longer current in English, but their meanings can usually be gauged from the context in which they occur.

HAP (I, ii, 17)

AVAUNT (I, ii, 44)
go away

FALCHION (I, ii, 94)
curved sword

DENIER (I, ii, 251)
small coin

COG (I, iii, 48)

NOBLE (I, iii, 81)
gold coin

IWIS (I, iii, 101)

CACODEMON (I, iii, 143)

PILLED (I, iii, 158)
spoiled, plundered

MALAPERT (I, iii, 254)

FRANKED (I, iii, 313)
closed away, shut up in a sty

SOP (I, iv, 159)
bread dipped in wine

MEED (I, iv, 285)

HEAP (II, i, 54)
troop, company

DUGS (II, ii, 30)
breasts, teats

COMPLOTS (III, i, 192)

BOOTLESS (III, iv, 102)

RECURE (III, vii, 129)
cure, make better

EMPERY (III, vii, 135)
sovereignty over

EGALLY (III, vii, 212)

greet, look after

TEEN (IV, i, 98)


SENIORY (IV, iv, 36)

CAITIFF (IV, iv, 101)
wretched person

OWED (IV, iv, 142)

HAPLY (IV, iv, 273)
by chance

HOISED (IV, iv, 527)

pursuivant-at-arms (V, iii, 59)
low-ranking officer

PEISE (V, iii, 106)

BOBBED (V, iii, 335)
cut down, thrashed


Shakespearean verb forms differ from those of modern usage in three main ways:

  1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using do or did, as when the keeper asks Clarence:

    Why looks your grace so heavily today?

    (I, iv, 1)

    or where Anne tells Richard:

    Alas, I blame you not.

    (I, ii, 44)

    Shakespeare had the option of using forms a. and b. whereas contemporary usage permits only the a. forms:

             a                     b  
     What are you saying?    What say you? 
     What did you say?       What said you?  
     I do not love you.      I love you not. 
     I did not love you.     I loved you not. 

  2. A number of past participles and past tense forms are used which would be ungrammatical today. Among these are:

    "holp" for "helped" in:

    Let him thank me that holp to send him thither

    (I, ii, 107)

    "forgot" for "forgotten" in:

    Hath she forgot already that brave prince

    (I, ii, 239)

    "waked" for "woke" in:

    I, trembling, waked

    (I, iv, 61)

    "spoke" for "spoken" in:

    Spoke like a tall man that respects thy reputation

    (I, iv, 154)

    "bare" for "bore" in:

    Some tardy cripple bare the countermand

    (II, i, 91)

    and "beholding" for "beholden" in:

    Then he is more beholding to you than I.

    (III, i, 107)

  3. Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with "thou" and he, she, or it:

    When thou didst crown his warlike brows with paper
    And with thy scorns drewst rivers from his eyes

    (I, iii, 174-5)

    And, if I fail not in my deep intent,
    Clarence hath not another day to live.

    (I, i, 149-50)


Shakespeare and his contemporaries had the extra pronoun "thou," they used in addressing equals or social inferiors. "You" was obligatory if more than one person was addressed:

Stay, you that bear the corse, and set it down

(I, ii, 33)


Of you, Lord Woodville, and, Lord Scales

(II, i, 69)

but it could also be used to indicate respect, as when Richard tells Prince Edward:

My lord, the Mayor of London comes to greet you.

(III, i, 17)

Frequently, a person in power used "thou" to a child or a subordinate, but was addressed "you" in return. This usage is clearly illustrated in the conversation between King Edward and Buckingham:

KING: Now, princely Buckingham, seal thou this league

BUCK: Whenever Buckingham doth turn his hate
Upon your grace, with all duteous love
Doth cherish you and yours...

(I, i, 29ff)

but if "thou" was used inappropriately, it could cause grave offense. Margaret intended such offense when she told Richard:

A husband and a son thou owest to me.

(I, iii, 169)

One further pronominal reference warrants a comment. King Edward uses the royal plural "we" to stress his sovereignty in:

Happy indeed, as we have spent the day.

(II, i, 49)


Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today and so we find several uses in Richard III that would have to be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are:

"in" for "into" in:

But first I'll turn yon fellow in his grave

(I, ii, 260)

"with" for "by" in:

But thus his simple truth must be abused
With silken, sly, insinuating Jacks

(I, iii, 52-53)

"in" for "by" and "for" for "on" in:

Led in the hand of her kind aunt of Gloucester
Now, for my life, she's wandering to the Tower

(IV, i, 2-3)

"upon" for "with" in:

Are they that I would have thee deal upon

(IV, ii, 73)

and "in" for "about" in:

The late request that you did sound me in.

(IV, ii, 83)


Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as:

I haven't none

as nonstandard. Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis, as when Derby tells the King:

None good, my liege, to please you with the hearing
Nor none so bad but well may be reported.

(IV, iv, 457-8)


In order to understand Shakespeare's Richard III, you will find it helpful to review the few generally accepted facts about the historical Richard and his ancestors.

In the mid-15th century, a prolonged contest for the rule of England had begun between the noble house of York, whose emblem was the white rose, and the equally high-ranking Lancasters, who were later associated with the red rose. The contest was eventually named the Wars of the Roses after these opposing symbols. It started when the monarchy of the weak Lancastrian King Henry VI was challenged by Richard, Duke of York, who managed to have his own claim to the throne acknowledged by the Parliament. Since Henry and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, had no sons, Richard of York had been named heir. The subsequent birth of a son to the royal couple caused a setback in Richard's plan, so he resorted to arms.

In 1452, the Duke of York's wife gave birth to their youngest son, the future Richard III. He was too young to partake in the first battle between the two sides, which took place in 1455 at St. Albans, about twenty miles northwest of London. The Yorkists were victorious, but a compromise allowed Henry VI to remain on the throne. At another struggle, in 1459, the king was captured by the York opposition. Only by naming Richard of York and his successors as heirs could he retain the throne. But then Queen Margaret raised an army and defeated the Yorkists at Wakefield in 1460. The Duke was slain and his head displayed on the gates of the city of York, wearing a paper crown.

Power shifted back and forth in later battles until the king's party was finally defeated at Mortimer's Cross, and the oldest son of Richard of York marched into London to assume the throne as Edward IV. Henry fled north with Margaret, but was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Richard openly supported his brother, Edward IV, who ruled for twelve years without a challenge from the opposition. As a reward for his support, Richard was made Duke of Gloucester and also Constable of England. He served his brother faithfully in maintaining peace along the troublesome Scottish borders.

But quarrels broke out among the victors. King Edward IV's brother, the Duke of Clarence, joined forces with the opposition, now led by the Earl of Warwick (Lady Anne Neville's father), the one-time Yorkist champion. In 1470, they succeeded in restoring Henry VI to the throne. But the reign was short. In a matter of months, two important battles were fought at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Warwick was slain along with the Prince of Wales. Margaret was captured and imprisoned, then exiled to France. Henry was taken to the Tower again and executed within a month.

At Edward IV's death in 1483, Richard was named Protector of the Realm. In this role, he was responsible for overseeing the affairs of state in the name of his twelve-year-old nephew, the Prince of Wales, who would become Edward V. But before the boy's coronation could take place, rumors of his and his brother's illegitimacy circulated and Richard was offered the crown, which he accepted.

Once Richard was on the throne, a number of serious problems undermined his position. The Prince of Wales and his brother disappeared from the Tower where Richard had imprisoned them. The boys were never seen again. It was widely rumored that King Richard was responsible for their deaths, but many historians deny this. There are no accurate historical records to confirm either position.

Opposition to Richard began to mount. The king's greatest supporters among the nobility began to defect, and an exiled challenger returned to England to contest Richard's claim to the throne. Henry, Earl of Richmond (the future Henry VII), raised an army, then met Richard and his troops in the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard was slain and his corpse reputedly buried in an unmarked grave. Henry VII united the two warring families by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. As the first Tudor king, Henry VII succeeded in ending the Wars of the Roses.

Years later, Henry VII's granddaughter, Elizabeth I, would come to the throne. But since she had no children- and was known as the "virgin" queen- what would happen to the Tudor line after her death? This was a question of great importance in Shakespeare's day, and this is why the playwright went to such great lengths to portray her family as the legitimate heirs to the throne. His description of Richard III was designed to make people think Richard was an evil man. After all, if there were threats to the legitimacy of the Tudors as monarchs, the whole question of the throne might be opened up again in another bloody war like the Wars of the Roses.

But as you can see from history, Elizabeth was indeed the last Tudor monarch. Her successor, James I, ushered in the era of the Stuarts.


There was no strict pattern for presenting history plays in Elizabethan times. As plays dealing with historical subjects evolved from early forms of drama and pageants, they were generally shaped into the basic five-act structure of classical tragedy. Shakespeare was no revolutionary in breaking with this pattern. His great contribution was in his use of a simple structure to deal with the complexities of his subject.

In Richard III, the story breaks conveniently into two divisions- before Richard has the crown and after. Most modern productions present the play this way, with one intermission. But the energy of the play is really structured around the five-act division.

Within that framework, Shakespeare faced a number of challenges. First of all, how do you maintain suspense in a story that had a conclusion known to almost every member of the audience? For the most part, he overcame that obstacle by presenting a string of dramatic encounters, each one ending with a degree of uncertainty. What would happen next? Would this part of the plan succeed?

Another device used by Shakespeare was that of a secondary concern, if not a fully developed subplot. The introduction of Queen Margaret and her lust for revenge opened up the question of fulfillment of her curses and prophecies. Here are two powerful forces in conflict with one another- Richard seeking power and Margaret seeking revenge.

At the highest and lowest level lies the ultimate goal- peace in the land. Richard's deliberate disruption at the beginning of the play demands a satisfying resolution at the end. But how will it occur? What mistakes will be made? The need for that peaceful resolution is never forgotten as the action moves relentlessly forward.

The playwright's aims are supported by these progressive divisions of the five acts.

    ACT I: EXPOSITION. Richard reveals his personal goals. He removes his first obstacle and gains his first victory. The immediate opposition is introduced.

    ACT II: RISING ACTION. The opposition solidifies. But Richard gets support when Buckingham allies himself with Richard's cause. A plan develops.

    ACT III: CLIMAX. The princes are imprisoned. Richard overwhelms the opposition. He is offered the crown and accepts it.

    ACT IV: FALLING ACTION. Now king, Richard must deal with rebellious forces. He devises new plans. Richmond's threat becomes apparent.

    ACT V: RESOLUTION. Richmond appears. Richard's past crimes are reviewed but he does not repent. During combat, Richard is slain. The war ends. The victorious Richmond unites the two families and brings peace to England.


There were many theatres in London during Shakespeare's time but the most famous was undoubtedly the Globe. Built in 1599 for L600 just across the Thames River from London, it was destroyed by fire in 1613 but quickly rebuilt and remained in operation until 1644. No one knows exactly what the Globe looked like but some scholarly detective work has given us a fairly good idea.

When it was built, the Globe was the most modern example of theater design. It consisted of a three- story octagon, with covered galleries surrounding an open yard some fifty feet across. Three sides of the octagon were devoted to the stage and backstage areas. The main stage was a raised platform that jutted into the center of the yard or pit. Behind the stage was a tiring house- the backstage area where actors dressed and waited for their cues. It was flanked by two doors and contained an inner stage with a curtain used when the script called for a scene to be revealed.

Above the inner stage was the upper stage, a curtained balcony that could serve as the battlements in Hamlet or the balcony in Romeo and Juliet. Most of the action of the play took place on the main and upper stages.

The third story held the musicians' gallery and machinery for sound effects and pyrotechnics (fireworks, explosions, etc.). Above all was a turret from which a flag was flown to announce, "Performance today." A roof (the shadow) covered much of the stage and not only protected the players from sudden showers but also contained machinery needed for some special effects. More machinery was under the stage, where several trap doors permitted the sudden appearance of ghosts and allowed actors to leap into rivers or graves, as the script required.

For a penny- a day's wages for an apprentice- you could stand with the "groundlings" in the yard to watch a play. Another penny would buy you a seat in the upper galleries. A third would get you a cushioned seat in the lower gallery- the best seats in the house. The audience would be a mixed crowd- sedate scholars, gallant courtiers, and respectable merchants and their families in the galleries; rowdy apprentices and young men looking for excitement in the yard; and some pickpockets and prostitutes taking advantage of the crowds to ply their trades. And crowds there would be- the Globe could probably hold 2000 to 3000 people, and even an ordinary performance would attract a crowd of 1200.

The play you came to see would be performed in broad daylight during the warmer months. In colder weather, Shakespeare's troupe appeared indoors at Court or in one of London's private theaters. There was no scenery as we know it but there are indications that the Elizabethans used simple set pieces as trees or battle tents to indicate locations. Any props needed were readied in the tiring house by the bookkeeper (we'd call him the stage manager) and carried on and off by actors. If time or location were important, the characters usually said something about it. Trumpet flourishes told the audience an important character was about to enter, and a scene ended when all the characters left the stage. Bodies of dead characters had to be carried off, and justification was usually provided in the script. Little attention was paid to the appearance of historical accuracy in plays such as Julius Caesar or King Lear. One major difference from today was that female parts were played by young boys since it was an Elizabethan custom that women did not act.

If the scenery was minimal, the performance made up for it in costumes and spectacle. English actors were famous for their skill as dancers, and some performances ended with a dance or jig. Animal blood or red paint was used as blood and was lavished about in the tragedies. Ghosts made sudden appearances in clouds of swirling fog. Thunder was simulated by rolling a cannon ball along the wooden floor of the turret or by rattling a metal sheet.

The costumes were handsome and expensive. One "robe of estate" cost L19, a year's wages for a skilled workman of the time. But the costumes were a large part of the spectacle that the audience came to see and were designed to look impressive in broad daylight, with the audience right up close.

This structure and the conventions of such a theater offered Shakespeare a wide range of possibilities for staging his plays. Now let's take a look at how Richard III might have been performed in a similar theater when it first appeared in 1592-1593 and later at the Globe itself.

Shakespeare wrote his plays for an acting company. Its leading man was Richard Burbage, who became so identified with the role of Richard III that for years afterwards, his delivery of the line, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" (Act V, Scene iv) was famous.

Richard III ends with a spectacular dueling scene which must be done properly. Shakespeare's audience would have included men who carried swords and knew how to use them. They expected a good, realistic duel, so the actors had to be accomplished swordsmen.

Few props would have been needed for most of the play's action. King Henry's coffin, Edward IV's throne, the council table- these could easily have been taken on and off stage. There would be little need for the action to move off the main stage except for the "Petition Scene" when Richard appears aloft between two clergymen on the upper stage.

When you get to Bosworth Field in the last act, the tents for the two opponents would be set up on either side of the stage. Even though they might only be twenty feet apart, you would accept that they were out of sight of each other. The ghosts would emerge through the trap doors and disappear the same way. Instead of vast crowds of soldiers, the battle would be suggested by a series of small personal combats, with individual warriors racing across the stage.

The duel between Richmond and Richard would be fierce, with Richard being slain in full view. To highlight the final triumph, the corpse would be carried off by the victors.



ECC [King Richard III Contents] []

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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