A Study Guide
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2006, 2010
.......Richard III is stage play that is both a history and a tragedy. It is the last of the four Shakespeare plays to focus on the Wars of the Roses. The others were Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; and Henry VI, Part III.
.......Shakespeare based Richard III partly on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed's Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Other sources Shakespeare used were The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, by Edward Hall (?-1547) and The History of King Richard the Thirde, by Sir Thomas More (1477-1535).
Antagonist: No Obvious Antagonist Until Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, Appears in Act V to Oppose Richard
Richard: Duke of Gloucester (son of Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York in Henry VI Part I and Henry VI Part II). Gloucester gleefully murders his way to power to become King Richard III. At the beginning of the play, Richard is in his early twenties; at the end, when he dies in the Battle of Bosworth Field, he is thirty-five.
Edward IV: Sickly King of England and brother of Richard. Edward dies and leaves two boys as heirs to the throne—and prey for Richard.
Queen Elizabeth: Wife of Edward IV.
Duchess of York: Mother of Edward IV.
Earl Rivers: Brother of Queen Elizabeth.
Edward, Prince of Wales: Son of Edward IV.
Richard, Duke of York: Son of Edward IV.
Marquis of Dorset, Lord Grey: Sons of Elizabeth by a Previous Marriage.
George, Duke of Clarence: Brother of Edward and Richard.
Boy: Son of the Duke of Clarence.
Girl: Daughter of the Duke of Clarence.
Margaret: Widow of King Henry VI.
Lady Anne: Widow of the son of King Henry VI. She marries Richard.
Henry Tudor: Earl of Richmond, who becomes King Henry VII.
Cardinal Bourchier: Archbishop of Canterbury.
Thomas Rotherham: Archbishop of York.
John Morton: Bishop of Ely.
Duke of Buckingham: Key supporter of Richard. He turns against Richard after the latter announces plans to murder Prince Edward and Prince Richard, just children.
Lord William Hastings: Important nobleman. Because he supports the accession of Prince Edward after Edward IV dies, Richard orders his execution.
Sir James Tyrrell: Unscrupulous nobleman whom Richard hires to kill Prince Edward and Prince Richard.
Other Important Noblemen: Earl of Surrey, Duke of Norfolk, Lord Stanley (Early of Derby), Lord Lovel, Sir William Catesby, Sir Richard Ratcliff, Earl of Oxford, Sir Thomas Vaughan, Sir James Blount, Sir Walter Herbert, Sir William Brandon.
Sir Robert Brakenbury: Lieutenant of the Tower.
Christopher Urswick: Priest.
Tressel, Berkeley: Attendants of Lady Anne.
Ghosts: Spirits of Richard III’s murder victims.
Dighton, Forrest: Murderers.
Others: Another Priest, Lord Mayor of London, Sheriff of Wiltshire, Lords, Attendants, Citizens, Messengers, Soldiers, Pursuivant, Scrivener. (A pursuivant is an attendant or an officer ranking below a herald. A scrivener is a copier of documents. The scrivener in Richard III prepares papers indicting Lord Hastings).
.......Richard, Duke of Gloucester, appears alone on a London Street and announces to the audience his plans to overthrow his brother, King Edward IV. Richard is evil—so evil, in fact, that he derives immense satisfaction from committing vile deeds. There appears to be a measure of revenge—against nature, against the world and its people—in his motives. For he was born into this world as a lame hunchback, “deformed, unfinished . . . scarce half made up” (1. 1. 22-23). His misshapen form annoys even the dogs that bark at him as he limps by. Cheated of the fairness of feature that marks others around him, he decides to cheat them of position, power, even life.
His vengefulness abets another—perhaps even stronger—motive: ambition. Richard covets the throne and will stop at nothing to get it. All options are open, including murder.
I am determined to prove a villainFirst, he convinces King Edward that another brother, the Duke of Clarence, craves the crown. Edward claps Clarence in chains and imprisons him in the Tower of London. Edward, meanwhile, becomes seriously ill. (How lucky for Richard.) Richard wants Edward to die, of course, but not until Clarence is dead. “Clarence still breathes; Edward still lives and reigns: / When they are gone, then must I count my gains” (1. 1. 168-169). Of course, kings-to-be must have queens-to-be. Richard is no exception, he believes, in spite of his grotesque appearance. So he woos Lady Anne, the daughter-in-law of the late King Henry, even as the coffin of the dead king passes with Lady Anne attending it in mourning. When Richard orders the procession to halt, Lady Anne glares at Richard and exclaims, “What black magician conjures up this fiend / To stop devoted charitable deeds?” (2. 1. 37-38). Anne has good reason to loathe Richard. It was he who murdered King Henry. What is more, he murdered Anne’s husband, who was Henry’s son. Anne, who well knows that Richard committed the murders, tells him,
Avaunt,1thou dreadful minister of hell!Richard blames Edward for the death of Lady Anne's husband, but she knows better, reminding him that there was a witness to the murder:
Thou hadst but power over his [the dead king's] mortal body,
His soul thou canst not have; therefore be gone. (1. 2. 47-49)
In thy foul throat thou liest: Queen Margaret sawWhen she asks Richard to own up to killing the king, he admits the deed and says he did the king a favor by sending him to heaven: “He was fitter for that place than earth” (1. 2. 114). Lady Anne pronounces Richard fit for only one place: hell. Boldly, Richard retorts that he is fit for another place, her bed-chamber. Lady Anne spits at him.
Thy murderous falchion2smoking in his blood;
The which thou once didst bend against her breast,
But that thy brothers beat aside the point. (1. 2. 98-101)
.......By and by, however, Richard’s wheedling tongue persuades her that he is repentant and worthy of her attention. He offers her a ring and, wonder of wonders, she puts it on and agrees to marry him. Later, Richard laughs up his sleeve at her for falling victim to his words, and he thinks he might be a fine figure of a man after all.
.......At court, Richard pretends to be sensible and selfless, with only the king’s best interests at heart. But behind the king’s back, Richard accuses the king’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, of scheming against Clarence, who remains Richard’s prisoner in the Tower of London, and convinces important noblemen—the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Hastings, and Lord Stanley—of her guilt. Then he dispatches henchmen to kill Clarence. They are thorough. First, they stab him; then they submerge him in a barrel of wine. Richard also orders the arrest of three supporters of Elizabeth and the dying king’s heir, young Prince Edward. These three men—Lord Grey, Lord Rivers, and Sir Thomas Vaughn—are imprisoned in Pomfret Castle.
.......Meanwhile, King Edward dies, and Richard confines the king’s children—Prince Edward and his brother, Richard—to the Tower under a pretense that Edward is to be prepared for coronation. Events then begin to move swiftly as Richard advances his scheme to win the throne. First, he orders the execution of Grey, Rivers, and Vaughn and follows up with the beheading of Lord Hastings, a supporter of the accession of Prince Edward. However, Richard has duped Buckingham into becoming one of his supporters after telling him one lie compounded by two others: first, that the late king’s sons were illegitimate and therefore ineligible to inherit the throne; second, that the king ordered the murder of a citizen simply for speaking of the matter of royal succession; and, third, that Edward lusted after “servants, daughters, wives” (3. 5. 86) of the House of York.
.......Buckingham then speaks on Richard’s behalf to the people of London, repeating the lies. As a result, a delegation of citizens, including the Lord Mayor of London, comes to offer Richard the crown at Baynard Castle. After Buckingham greets them, they see Richard going to prayer with two bishops. In his hand is a prayer book. Buckingham praises Richard as a devout man. Then the citizens importune Richard to accept the crown. Ever playing the innocent, Richard replies,
I am unfit for state and majesty;When the citizens press Richard further, he tells them that
I am not made of stone,.......So, in June of 1483, Richard is crowned King of England and his wife Anne queen. There remains, of course, unfinished business: the two little boys in the Tower, Princes Edward and Richard. In a room of state in the palace, he tells the Duke of Buckingham: “I wish the bastards dead; / And I would have it suddenly perform’d” (4. 2. 21-22). When he asks Buckingham to endorse his murder plan, the duke asks for time to reflect on the matter, then leaves.
.......Richard then sends for a man of meager means reputed to be willing to do anything for money. His name is Sir James Tyrrell. When Richard asks him whether he will serve his king by killing the boys, calling them “foes to my rest, and my sweet sleep’s disturbers” (4. 2. 79), Tyrrell replies, “I’ll rid you from the fear of them” (4. 2. 83).
.......When Buckingham returns to inform the king of his position on the murder plan, he first asks the king to make him Earl of Hereford. Richard ignores the request and instead speaks of a prophecy of King Henry VI that Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, would become king. Buckingham then repeats his request several times until the king finally replies that he is not in a giving mood. Furthermore, he tells Buckingham, “Thou troublest me” (4. 2. 127). Buckingham now realizes that he is out of favor and probably in mortal danger. After the king and his attendants leave the room, Buckingham flees the court “while my fearful head is on” (4. 2. 131).
.......Elsewhere Tyrrell, assisted by two other thugs, murders the boys. However, in carrying out Richard’s will, he does something that Richard never does: he owns up to the foulness of his action.
The tyrannous and bloody act is done........Pleased with the success of the mission, King Richard replies, “Come to me, Tyrrell, soon after supper, / And thou shalt tell the process of their death” (4, 3, 37-38).
.......Next Richard arranges the death of Queen Anne so that he can marry the sister of the murdered boys, thereby giving him stronger royal connections. England, though, is coming to its senses, and the Earl of Richmond claims the throne with strong popular support. Buckingham now backs Richmond with a force of Welshmen. John Morton, Bishop of Ely, also supports Richmond’s cause, as does the Marquis of Dorset, a son of Elizabeth.
.......Armies of Richard and Henry gather at Bosworth Field in August of 1485 to settle the issue. While the two foes, Richard and Richmond, sleep in their tents before the battle, the ghosts of the persons murdered by Richard appear to both of them, predicting Richard’s defeat and death.
.......When the armies clash on August 22, Richard fights with remarkable tenacity. One of his comrades in arms, Catesby, says,
The king enacts more wonders than a man,.......But as the tide of battle turns against Richard, he loses his mount and cries out, “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” (5. 4. 10). When Catesby offers to help Richard to another horse, Richard replies, “Slave, I have set my life upon a cast, / And I will stand the hazard of the die” (5. 4. 12-13). The Earl of Richmond, then slays Richard, and says, “The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead” (5. 4. 19). Richmond becomes Henry VII, King of England, and the War of the Roses ends.
....The Opening Soliloquy
.......Richard III opens in 1483 with the title character delivering one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies. The first thirteen lines establish the cheerful, optimistic mood in the kingdom now that Richard’s brother, Edward IV, has reclaimed the throne and the War of the Roses, which began in 1455, appears to have ended. Richard sums up the situation in the first two lines of the soliloquy:
Now is the winter of our discontentIn other words, the bleak winter of war has given way to a bright summer of peace, symbolized by the shining “sun” (son) of York, Edward.
Made glorious summer by this son of York
.......However, Richard says he will shun the merriment, including amorous pursuits, because he is a lame hunchback whose sight is so displeasing that even dogs bark insults at him. Nature, he says, has “cheated” him of good looks. Now he must endure the indignity of seeing his “shadow in the sun”—that is, being eclipsed by Edward. Clearly, he deeply envies Edward.
.......But Richard has no intention of accepting second place to Edward. In the last third of the soliloquy, Richard brazenly announces a murderous plot to unseat the king and seize the throne. His plan is to foment hatred between his other brother, Clarence, and Edward, by convincing Edward that Clarence covets the crown. Richard says he looks forward to carrying out his plot, to doing evil: "I am determined to prove a villain." His delight at the prospect of executing heinous crimes alerts the audience that Richard may well be a sociopath, a fiercely antisocial person who lacks a conscience.
.......The play then becomes a character study rather than a whodunit, focusing on Richard’s devious tactics and the inner workings of his psychopathic mind. Audiences and readers experiencing the play the first time often find themselves rooting for Richard as he murders his way to crown. Yes, he is perverse, wicked, and depraved. But he is also outrageously bold and incredibly cunning—an altogether intriguing whangdoodle who takes on the world and doesn’t look back.
.......When the opening soliloquy introduces him, audiences usually despise him instantly—and love him. He is a nightmare who gives us sleep and awakens us breathless wanting for more. And so the play goes on.
.......In his soliloquies, asides, and short discourses, Richard gleefully announces his evil intentions and reinforces the paradox that guides his behavior—it's good to be bad. His frequent revelations of the crimes he plans and the delight he takes in committing them resemble leitmotivs in an opera (recurring musical passages associated with a theme, a character, or a character trait). His running commentary generally intrigues audiences and sometimes even amuses them after the manner of crafty villains that people horror films. It all begins in the first scene of Act I, when Richard proudly discloses his nefarious plans:
I am determined to prove a villainWhile alone on the stage after setting his plans in motion, he wryly comments on the fate that awaits the Duke of Clarence.
Go, tread the path that thou shalt ne'er return.After his talented tongue persuades Lady Anne to marry him, he takes delight in ridiculing her for having agreed to wed so heinous a reprobate as he.
Ha!Later, he reveals his plan to blame others for his crimes while presenting himself as beyond reproach:
I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl.By the way, Richard III has in fact been made into an opera--Giorgio Battistelli's post-modernist production, with lyrics by Ian Burton.
.......The direction of the plot becomes clear from the outset of the play, when Richard discloses his evil plans in a soliloquy. He continues to reveal his plans from time to time when he is out of earshot of others. Other characters also foreshadow the action, most notably Queen Margaret in the third scene of Act I, who says,
O Buckingham! take heed of yonder dog [Richard]:.
All-Consuming Ambition Leads to All-Consuming Evil.
.......Richard, in his thirst for power, is willing to commit any atrocity to win the throne. He is Macbeth raised to the second power—or third. After an assassin murders the late king's sons, Richard says to him, "Thou shalt tell the process of their death" (4. 3. 38).
All Things are Not as They Seem.
.......During most of the play, Richard wears a mask of innocence. He is always pretending, always deceiving. For example, when Rivers says he would be loyal to Richard if the latter were king, Richard answers, "If I should be! I had rather be a pedlar: / Far be it from my heart, the thought of
Where There Is Pure Evil, There Is No Conscience
.......Richard never expresses regret or remorse. He is bad to the bone, and proud of it. Modern psychologists would probably label him a psychopath or sociopath.
I am what I am.
.......Richard acknowledges at the beginning of the play that he is an ugly, misshapen lump of flesh—a monster. Then, accepting himself as he is, he announces that he will live up to his physical image by performing ugly deeds.
......Richard III contains memorable passages, many of which are quoted often in writing, public speaking, and ordinary conversation. Among the most oft-quoted passages and epigrams are the following:
Now is the winter of our discontentHistorical Richard
.......Shakespeare presented Richard III (1452-1485) as one of the most evil rulers in history. However, the historical Richard, though unscrupulous, may not have been as ruthless as depicted. After his brother, King Edward IV, died in 1483 Parliament declared Richard king instead of Edward's young son on grounds that King Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492) was illegal. Parliament said Edward had earlier agreed to marry another woman. To secure his position as king, Richard confined both of the late king's boys to the Tower of London, where they were later killed. There is no proof that Richard ordered them killed. Nevertheless, after the boys died, public sentiment turned against Richard; the people favored Henry, Earl of Richmond. Armies of Richard and Henry had it out at Bosworth Field in 1485. Richard fought bravely before suffering a mortal blow. The Earl of Richmond succeeded to the throne as Henry VII, inaugurating the Tudor dynasty of monarchs and ending the Wars of the Roses.
.......In a discussion of the approach of historians in Richard's day, Marchette Chute wrote,
In writing [history plays], Shakespeare had nothing to help him except the standard history books of his day. The art of the historian was not very advanced in this period, and no serious attempt was made to get at the exact truth about a king and his reign. Instead, the general idea was that any nation which opposed England was wrong, and that any Englishman who opposed the winning side in the civil war was wrong also. Since Shakespeare had no other sources, the slant that appears in the history books appears also in his plays. . . . Richard III fought against the first of the Tudor monarchs and was therefore labeled in the Tudor histories as a vicious usurper, and he duly appears in Shakespeare's plays as a murdering monster..(Stories From Shakespeare. Eau Claire, Wis.: E.M. Hale, 1956 (Page 257).Battle of Bosworth Field
......The Battle of Bosworth Field ended the War of the Roses between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. It was fought on August 22, 1485, about three miles south of Market Bosworth, a town in the county of Leicestershire, England.
......In the battle, the Lancaster army of Henry Tudor defeated the York army of Richard III after key allies of Richard—Lord Stanley and the Earl of Northumberland—failed to come to Richard’s aid and a brother of Lord Stanley sided with Henry and attacked Richard. During the battle (retold in part by Shakespeare in Richard III from a biased Tudor perspective, beginning in Act V, Scene III), Richard fell from his horse and was slain in a bog.
......Henry Tudor ascended the throne as Henry VII, establishing the House of Tudor. That royal house included—besides Henry VII, who reigned from 1485 to 1509—Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547, and his three children. Their names and the years they ruled are as follows: Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary I (1553-1558), and Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Elizabeth I was on the throne during the first 38 years and 11 months of Shakespeare’s life.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Is Richard insane?
2. Is Richard like any 20th or 21st Century rulers you can think of?
3. How is Richard III like or unlike Macbeth?
4. Argue that Richard III was not as ruthless as Shakespeare depicted him.
5. In an essay, identify and analyze the motives of Richard as he executes his murderous plays.
6. Write an essay that focuses on dramatic irony in the play. Dramatic irony is a literary device that allows the audience to know more about a character or about events involving him than the character himself knows.
6. Which character in the play is the most admirable? Other than Richard, which character is the least admirable? Explain your answers.
1. avaunt: Go away; get out of here.