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King Richard III
William Shakespeare




If Richard is something like the Renaissance will incarnate, he is equally, in his total, eager submission to it, evil incarnate. Whatever his lusty attractiveness, we cannot deny that he treats all men, even himself finally, as mere objects. Too late he discovers, to his amazement and confusion, that he too has feelings, is subjective and subjected, in more than will and conscious self-control. Herein lies his repulsiveness. His is a Dionysianism so passionately self-serving, so deliberate if not cold-blooded, that, corrosive rather than life-giving like the Dionysian at its best, it turns all not only to destruction but to cheapness, ignominy, pointlessness.

Theodore Weiss, The Breath of Clowns and Kings, 1974

The great stories of murder are about men who could not have done it but who did. They are not murderers, they are men. And their stories will be better still when they are excellent men; not merely brilliant and admirable, but also, in portions of themselves which we infer rather than see. Richard is never quite human enough. The spectacle over which he presides with his bent back and his forked tongue can take us by storm, and it does. It cannot move our innermost minds with the conviction that in such a hero's death the world has lost what once had been or might have been the most precious part of itself. Richard is never precious as a man. He is only stunning in his craft, a serpent whose movements we follow for their own sake, because in themselves they have strength and beauty.

Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare, 1939


The astonishing thing about this play is that until almost the end, there is no sign of a possible antagonist, no visible secular force that can bring the tyrant down. Richmond is not even mentioned until Act IV, and appears in only the last three scenes. He is little more than a deus ex machina let down from above to provide a resolution both for the immediate action of this play and for the long-continued drama of conflict between York and Lancaster.

George J. Becker, Shakespeare's Histories, 1977


Thus Shakespeare pictured the dominating sins in the play as perjury and murder, sins against the moral order. He portrayed and analyzed the passion of ambition that caused Richard to sin and the passion of fear that at the same time punished him for his sins and forced him to wade still further in blood. He inserted non-historical scenes developing the Elizabethan philosophy of revenge. He used the supernatural to enhance the horror of the play and to contribute to the impression of a divine vengeance meting out punishment for sin. He showed God's revenge exacted through the agency of the evil Richard, who was nevertheless to be held to account for his evil-doing. He made use of the pathos of the death of the royal children. These are the common methods of Shakespearean tragedy, and they justify those who hold Richard III to be a tragedy.

Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's "Histories:" Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy, 1968.


Richard's sense of humor, his function as clown, his comic irreverences and sarcastic or sardonic appropriations of things to (at any rate) his occasions: all those act as underminers of our assumed naive and proper Tudor principles; and we are on his side much rather because he makes us (as the Second Murderer put it) "take the devil in [our] mind," than for any "historical-philosophical- Christian-retributional" sort of motive. In this respect a good third of the play is a kind of grisly comedy; in which we meet the fools to be taken in on Richard's terms, see them with his mind, and rejoice with him in their stultification (in which execution is the ultimate and unanswerable practical joke, the absolutely final laugh this side of the Day of Judgment).

A. P. Rossiter, "Angel With Horns: The Unity of Richard III," in Shakespeare, The Histories, ed. Eugene M. Waith, 1965

[King Richard III Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

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Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[King Richard III Contents]



Fraser, Antonia, ed. The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980. Covers the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III.

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare's English Kings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Seward, Desmond. Richard III, England's Black Legend. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984. A strong argument for the traditional view of Richard as the evil murderer and usurper.


Becker, George J. Shakespeare's Histories. New York: Unger, 1977. A review of the ten history plays and their common themes.

Blankpied, John W. Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's Early Histories. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare's "Histories:" Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy. San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1968. Detailed review of topical themes.

Rossiter, A. P. "Angel With Horns: The Unity of Richard III," in Shakespeare, The Histories, ed. Eugene M. Waith. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1964. A study of the underlying principles found in Shakespeare's history plays with emphasis on their origins.

Weiss, Theodore. The Breath of Clowns and Kings. New York: Atheneum, 1974. The use of language in Shakespeare's early comedies and history plays.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt, 1939.


Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (38 if you include The Two Noble Kinsmen) over a 20-year period, from about 1590 to 1610. It's difficult to determine the exact dates when many were written, but scholars have made the following intelligent guesses about his plays and poems:


    1588-93 The Comedy of Errors
    1588-94 Love's Labour's Lost
    1590-91 2 Henry VI
    1590-91 3 Henry VI
    1591-92 1 Henry VI
    1592-93 Richard III
    1592-94 Titus Andronicus
    1593-94 The Taming of the Shrew
    1593-95 The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    1594-96 Romeo and Juliet
    1595 Richard II
    1594-96 A Midsummer Night's Dream
    1596-97 King John
    1596-97 The Merchant of Venice
    1597 1 Henry IV
    1597-98 2 Henry IV
    1598-1600 Much Ado About Nothing
    1598-99 Henry V
    1599 Julius Caesar
    1599-1600 As You Like It
    1599-1600 Twelfth Night
    1600-01 Hamlet
    1597-1601 The Merry Wives of Windsor
    1601-02 Troilus and Cressida
    1602-04 All's Well That Ends Well
    1603-04 Othello
    1604 Measure for Measure
    1605-06 King Lear
    1605-06 Macbeth
    1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra
    1605-08 Timon of Athens
    1607-09 Coriolanus
    1608-09 Pericles
    1609-10 Cymbeline
    1610-11 The Winter's Tale
    1611-12 The Tempest
    1612-13 Henry VIII


    1592 Venus and Adonis
    1593-94 The Rape of Lucrece
    1593-1600 Sonnets
    1600-01 The Phoenix and the Turtle

[Shakespeare's Sonnets read by John Gielgud]


ECC [King Richard III Contents] []

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