by William Shakespeare
Born in 1564 in Stratford-on-Avon, England, William Shakespeare was the son of middle-class parents. Although not all the particulars of Shakespeare’s education are known, it appears that he attended the local grammar school, where the curriculum apparently included rhetoric, Christian ethics, and classical literature. During the 1580s, after an early marriage to Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior, Shakespeare relocated to London. He moved there without her and began a career as an actor, then a playwright, for the theater company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In the 1590s, Shakespeare wrote a series of historical plays dealing with England’s past—specifically, the tumultuous struggle for the throne called the Wars of the Roses. Richard III is actually the last in a series of four plays. It is preceded by a trilogy about Henry VI—focusing on the bloody conflict between the royal houses of York and Lancaster. This last play in the series is notable for its title character; one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, he is a monstrous hunchback, whose wit, ambition, and audacity command the audience’s attention.
Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place
The Wars of the Roses—Richard comes to court
At issue in Richard III is a shift taking place in the seat of power in England. The medieval arrangement whereby feudal lords controlled certain domains had been changing to a more centralized system whereby a single king controlled the whole land and could deploy armies. Under Richard III, the final maneuvers to achieve this shift occurred. The subsequent king, Henry VII (Henry Tudor), married Elizabeth of York, and in so doing brought together two warring factions. No longer would there be a jockeying for power between factionalized descendants of two houses (York and Lancaster). The fateful marriage would instead give rise to a long line of Tudor monarchs who reigned over an increasingly united kingdom. Richard III occurs just prior to the marriage, near the end of the civil strife between York and Lancaster.
A longstanding conflict, the strife between York and Lancaster became known as the Wars of the Roses (1455–85) after the families’ emblems. The white rose belonged to York; the red rose has been associated with the House of Lancaster.
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On the Side of the House of York
Richard, duke of York
Edward, earl of March, later Edward IV
Edmund, earl of Rutland
Richard, duke of Gloucester (later Richard III)
Elizabeth of York (future wife of Henry Tudor)
On the Side of the House of Lancaster
Queen Margaret of Anjou (married to Henry VI)
Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond (Henry VII, of the new Tudor dynasty)
Those Who Switched Sides
Richard Neville, earl of Warwick (from York to Lancaster)
Lady Anne Neville (from York to Lancaster to York; married Richard of Gloucester)
Elizabeth Woodville (from Lancaster to York; married Edward IV)
George, duke of Clarence (from York to Lancaster to York)
Henry Stafford duke of Buckingham (from York to Lancaster)
Robert Stanley, Lord Stanley (from York to Lancaster)
Although full-scale war did not erupt until the 1450s, the roots of the conflict date back to 1399, when King Richard II was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, son of the duke of Lancaster. Bolingbroke ascended to the throne as Henry IV, while Richard II met a mysterious death in the Tower of London, a death that many believe was ordered by the new king (see Henry IV, Part 1, also in Literature and Its Times). Bolingbroke’s son, Henry V, won famous victories and laid claim to the throne of France, England’s greatest rival on the world scene. However, the early death of Henry V left England in the hands of his infant son, Henry VI, who proved to be a weak ruler, sickly and even prone to fits of madness. The royal court was dominated by Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who was a generous friend to her adherents and an implacable foe to those she perceived as her enemies. The latter included Richard, duke of York (called York), who came to believe that his right to the throne was superior, because he was descended from the second son of Edward III, while Henry VI was descended from the third son.
Until the birth of a royal prince in 1453, York was recognized as heir to the throne after Henry VI. That same year, Henry VI suffered an episode of madness and York governed England as protector of the realm. After Henry recovered in 1454, York soon found himself excluded from the royal council, so he took up arms. Fighting broke out in 1455. Henry’s side was defeated at the battle of St. Albans, but he remained king, with York serving as protector again. Conflict resumed in 1459, and the Yorkists were forced to flee the country. They returned in 1460, defeated the Lancastrians, imprisoned Henry VI, and forced him to name York and York’s sons as his heirs. Queen Margaret of Anjou, whose own son was disinherited as a result, fled to Scotland and raised an army to continue the struggle. On December 30, 1460, the Lancastrians violated a Christmas truce by attacking the Yorkists outside Sandal Castle near Wakefield. York was killed. So were his second son, the earl of Rutland, and his ally, the earl of Salisbury. Their three heads, York’s ornamented by a paper crown, were mounted over Micklegate Bar.
The Yorkist cause was swiftly taken up by York’s eldest son, Edward, the earl of March, who defeated a Lancastrian army at Mortimer’s Cross in 1461. Having won control over London, the Yorkists entered the city on March 4, 1461, and proclaimed their leader King Edward IV. They proceeded to crush the Lancastarian army at the battle of Towton, after which Henry VI, Queen Margaret, and their son fled to Scotland and then France. Once ensconced on the throne, Edward IV recalled his much younger brothers, George and Richard, from the French shores of Burgundy, where their mother, the duchess of York,
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had sent them for safety. George was created duke of Clarence; Richard, duke of Gloucester.
The Wars of the Roses—Richard enters the fray
Although the early years of the new king’s reign seemed to promise peace and stability, a rift occurred in 1464 between Edward IV and the earl of Warwick, his chief ally. While Warwick had been negotiating an advantageous French marriage for the king, Edward had secretly wed Elizabeth Woodville Grey. Once Edward IV revealed his marriage, Warwick felt both humiliated and threatened by the queen’s ambitious relatives, who dominated the court. Relations between Warwick and Edward deteriorated, and the earl attempted to win over to his side the king’s brothers; he succeeded with George, duke of Clarence (known also as Clarence), but Richard, duke of Gloucester (known as Gloucester) remained loyal to the king.
Allying himself with the Lancasters, Warwick fled to France and returned in 1470 with an army. Clarence, now married to Warwick’s elder daughter, sided with Warwick, going against his own brother, Edward. In response, Edward IV and his adherents, including Gloucester, fled to Burgundy, and Henry VI was restored to the throne. There was yet another turnaround, though. With help from his allies overseas, Edward returned to England and reclaimed the crown, defeating Lancastrian forces decisively at the battle of Barnet—where Warwick was killed—and the battle of Tewkesbury, where Henry VI’s son, Prince Edward, was slain. Clarence, meanwhile, had deserted Warwick and returned to his brother’s side, ever aiming to ally himself with the winner. Shortly after Edward IV’s triumphant return to the throne, the captive Henry VI died mysteriously in the Tower of London. His queen, Margaret of Anjou, was exiled to France, where she died in 1482. With the elimination of the legitimate Lancastrian line, Edward IV enjoyed comparative peace for the rest of his reign. But the Wars of the Roses did not end here. Edward died in 1483, after which his brother Richard, duke of Gloucester usurped the throne. He confined his nephews in the Tower, then reigned as Richard III (1483–85) until the Wars of the Roses flared into a final episode, recounted in Shakespeare’s play. In 1485 forces under Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, who was related by marriage to the Lancastrians, defeated and killed Richard III. The York dynasty’s bid for the throne had finally come to an end.
In Shakespeare’s play, the bitter legacy of the Wars of the Roses casts a long shadow over all the characters. Continual references are made to atrocities committed by both sides. Old Queen Margaret slinks through King Edward’s court, cursing her Yorkist enemies for the deaths of her husband and son, while the courtiers, led by Gloucester, revile her for her part in the deaths of the elder duke of York and earl of Rutland. The defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field is presented by Shakespeare as the end of a terrible age and the beginning of a bright new era, heralded by the Tudors’ accession to the throne.
Clarence and Gloucester
The relationship between Edward IV and his two younger brothers was complicated enough to inspire a play in its own right. Although Clarence and Edward had been reconciled during the latter’s bid to reclaim the throne, it was not long before the brothers were again at odds. In 1477, after the death of his first wife in childbirth, Clarence made a matrimonial bid for the hand of Mary, daughter of the recently deceased duke of Burgundy and one of the greatest heiresses in Europe. Edward IV, however, refused to allow the marriage and instead suggested she marry his wife’s brother, Earl Rivers, which incensed Clarence.
Thereafter, Clarence’s behavior became increasingly erratic. He arrested and executed two of his late wife’s servants, charging them with having poisoned her and her infant son. Later Clarence publicly accused the king of trying to destroy him, cast doubts on the validity of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, and spread the story that Edward was the illegitimate offspring of an affair between the duchess of York and an unknown archer. Having gathered a handful of retainers and followers, Clarence ignited a small uprising, but it quickly flickered out.
In June 1477 Edward IV learned that Clarence had sought the hand of Mary of Burgundy for the main purpose of seizing the English throne. The king promptly had Clarence arrested on charges of treason and consigned to the Tower of London. On learning of Clarence’s arrest, Gloucester attempted to intercede with Edward IV to spare their brother’s life, but in early 1478 Clarence was tried by parliament on the charge of high treason, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out on February 18, 1478; according to one current story, Clarence was drowned in a vat of his favorite malmsey wine.
By contrast, the relationship between Edward IV and his youngest brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester, was amicable, even close. Gloucester had remained loyal to the king throughout his Page 359 | Top of Articlebrief exile and served as wing commander of Edward’s army during the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury. After Edward IV was restored to the throne, he bestowed still more honors on Gloucester; in addition to regaining his positions as Constable and Admiral of England, Gloucester was named Great Chamberlain and Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster beyond Trent. Finally, needing a capable military leader to deal with the frequent problems along the Scottish border, the king turned over to Gloucester all of Warwick’s castles and estates that were located in the north country.
Before leaving for the North, Gloucester secured the king’s permission to marry Anne Neville, Warwick’s younger daughter and the widowed betrothed of Prince Edward, who had died at Tewkesbury. The couple, who had apparently known each other since childhood, married in 1472 and moved to Middleham Castle, the bride’s former home in Yorkshire. Although occasionally summoned to King Edward’s court in London, Gloucester spent most of the next decade in Yorkshire, where he acquired a reputation as a firm but fair provincial ruler. In 1482 Gloucester was given complete charge of a campaign against the Scots; he regained the forfeited city of Berwick-on-Tweed, and captured Edinburgh without the loss of a single man. The Scots subsequently sued for peace and Gloucester reaped further rewards for his success. The parliament made him permanent Warden of the West marches, as a result of which he acquired many lands and manors.
In Shakespeare’s Richard III, little mention is made of either Clarence’s treason or Gloucester’s success in the North. Rather, in keeping with the historical and dramatic traditions of the Tudor dynasty, in power at the time Shakespeare wrote, he transforms Clarence into a gullible weakling and Gloucester into a scheming manipulator, whose loyalty to Edward IV is no more than a screen behind which his own ambition and lust for power are concealed.
Richard III takes the throne
In 1483 Edward IV, whose health had been deteriorating for some time, died at the early age of 40. Before his death, he appointed Gloucester as Protector and Defensor of the Realm, entrusting his brother with the care of his son and heir. At the time of his father’s death, the future Edward V was 12 years old. As with Clarence, the relationship between Richard and the Woodvilles, the queen’s family, was marked by mutual hostility and suspicion. Conflict arose within a week of the king’s death. Apparently fearing that the Woodvilles intended to take over the government, Gloucester’s allies urged him to secure the new king’s custody and bring an armed escort with him to London.
Journeying south, Gloucester, along with his ally the Duke of Buckingham, planned to meet the king’s party, led by Earl Rivers, at Northampton. On reaching Northampton, Gloucester learned from Rivers that the king had been sent on to Stony Stratford, 14 miles further along the road to London. The following morning, Rivers found himself surrounded by Gloucester’s men while he himself was placed under arrest. Gloucester and Buckingham proceeded to Stony
Stratford, met the king, and promptly arrested two more members of the Woodville faction, Sir Thomas Vaughn and Lord Richard Grey. Gloucester charged Vaughn and Grey with conspiring to remove him from the protectorship, thereby circumventing the late king’s will. Having taken charge of his nephew, Gloucester and the king’s party proceeded to London. Queen Elizabeth and her remaining children took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey.
After Gloucester’s Protectorship was upheld by the royal council, the king’s household was moved to the royal apartments in the Tower of London and the coronation day scheduled for June 24. A council delegation headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded Queen Elizabeth to release her second son, Richard, duke of York, into Gloucester’s custody; the younger prince joined his brother in the Tower. Meanwhile, factions soon formed within the council itself. Resenting Buckingham’s rising influences, several nobles conspired to end the Protectorship and restore the Woodvilles to power. Discovering the plot, Gloucester had the conspirators arrested and one of them, Lord Hastings, immediately executed. Shortly thereafter, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughn were also put to death.
The king’s coronation was postponed, however, by startling news: the late Edward IV had secretly made a pre-contract of marriage between himself and Lady Eleanor Butler, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Lady Eleanor had died in 1468, but she was alive at the time of the king’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Since the precontract had not been set aside, it was considered binding. The Woodville marriage was therefore invalid in the eyes of the Church, and the children of the marriage were declared illegitimate; according to the law of the day, they could not inherit the throne.
After learning of the pre-contract, London’s chief citizens held a meeting at Westminister on June 25 and drew up a petition asking Gloucester, as the only legitimate heir, to take the throne. Presented with the petition the following day, Gloucester accepted the crown and began his reign as King Richard III. The coronation of King Richard and Queen Anne was held at Westminster Abbey on July 6, 1483. An act known as the Titulus Regius (1484) disclosed the news of Edward IV’s pre-contract and the illegitimacy of his children by Elizabeth Woodville. The deposed princes remained in the Tower; after a time, no further reference to them was made. Rumors circulated in England and abroad that King Richard had had his nephews put to death, but conclusive evidence was lacking and the princes’ fate remains a mystery to this day.
Shakespeare’s play adheres to the playwright’s sixteenth-century sources, which ascribe the princes’ deaths to Richard III. Shakespeare also reproduces another error from those sources. They identify Elizabeth Lucy—one of the late king’s mistresses and the mother of two of his children—rather than Lady Eleanor Butler, as the woman with whom Edward IV had formed a precontract, an error that further complicated attempts to reconstruct the true sequence of events leading to the deposition of Edward V and the accession of Richard III.
The reign of Richard III
The manner in which Richard III acceded to the throne and the subsequent political turmoil overshadowed much of his actual reign, which lasted just over two years. In October 1483, three months after the coronation, the duke of Buckingham, formerly the king’s strongest ally, revolted, involving himself in an uprising by the southern and southwestern counties. Originally, the rebellion was intended to restore Edward V and the Woodvilles to power; however, Buckingham and his new ally, Bishop John Morton of Ely, reportedly informed the rebels that the princes had been put to death, though the two claimed the manner of their deaths was unknown. The focus of the uprising then shifted to Henry Tudor, the earl of Richmond who was descended from the duke of Lancaster. Some historians speculate that Buckingham hoped to seize the throne for himself. Poor organization, reluctant troops, and a timely storm that washed out roads, bridges, and fields contributed to the failure of Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III, however. He was finally captured, turned over to agents of the king, and beheaded as a traitor. Henry Tudor, whose fleet was anchored off Plymouth, returned to France after learning of the duke’s fate.
In January 1484 the first and only parliament of Richard’s reign convened. The parliament regulated the activities of foreign merchants in England (exempting those engaged in the printing, binding, or selling of books) and initiated governmental reforms to protect the rights of ordinary citizens. A proclamation of the time, addressed to the people of Kent, stated,”The king’s highness is fully determined to see due administration of justice throughout this his realm to be had and to reform, punish and subdue all extortions and oppressions in the same” (Anonymous in Potter, p. 52). While such legislative Page 361 | Top of Articlemeasures earned the king the increased support of the commons, the nobility and gentry were less pleased by this emphasis on reform.
The king’s regional partiality also displeased the nobles, especially those from the South. Historian Jeremy Potter writes, “The rewards and favours bestowed on northerners by this king from the north were at the expense … of the southern nobility and gentry” (Potter, p. 48). Many disgruntled southern nobles participated in Buckingham’s October rebellion, only to see their estates confiscated and bestowed upon northerners when the rebellion failed. The chasm between northern and southern interests widened, and the king was unable to heal the breach, a circumstance Potter sees as “the dire political failure of Richard’s reign, and, more than any other, the reason for his downfall…. Those who joined Henry Tudor … wanted their estates back” (Potter, p. 48).
The king’s personal life was no less complicated at this time. The deaths of the king’s son and wife, barely a year apart, placed the succession in question again. After Queen Anne’s death, possibly from tuberculosis, the rumor circulated that Richard had killed his wife in order to marry his niece, Elizabeth. The king publicly denied the rumor as the work of Henry Tudor’s agents.
In 1485 Henry Tudor made another attempt against the throne, landing with his army at Mil-ford Haven in South Wales. On learning of the invasion, Richard III gathered his own forces and marched toward Leicester. The two armies met on Redmore Plain outside the town of Market Bosworth. In the midst of the battle, a messenger on a hill pointed out to Richard the figure of Henry Tudor, mounted on his horse. The king and his forces charged toward Tudor but were ambushed by the troops of Lord Robert Stanley, one of Richard’s vassals, who had abstained from the fighting until he knew which way the battle was going (the Stanleys had a reputation for switching allegiances suddenly). Nonetheless, King Richard fought fiercely, killing Tudor’s standard-bearer before being himself slain by the Stanleys. According to legend, after the battle Sir William Stanley retrieved Richard’s fallen crown from under a hawthorn bush and crowned Henry Tudor king of England. The late king’s body was slung over a horse and carried to Leicester, where it was later buried in an unmarked grave.
Shakespeare’s play essentially ignores the administrative details of Richard’s reign, choosing instead to concentrate on his usurpation of the throne and the various murders he allegedly committed to keep the throne. The conflict between Richard and Henry Tudor is reimagined as a classic struggle between vice and virtue, with virtue—in the person of Henry Tudor—triumphant. Henry Tudor himself, not known historically as a great warrior, is depicted as slaying the king in single combat. No mention is made of the part the Stanleys played in determining the outcome of the final battle by switching sides at the last minute.
The Play in Focus
The play begins as King Edward IV’s youngest brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester, muses about the peaceful conclusion to the recent wars, his own physical deformities, which render him an unattractive lover, and his plot to sow dissension between King Edward and their brother, George, duke of Clarence. Richard’s scheme quickly bears fruit. After the king learns of a prophecy that his issue will be disinherited by someone whose name begins with the letter “G,” George is arrested and sent to the Tower of London, frequently used as a prison. Richard, whom the play suggests was behind the prophecy, pretends to sympathize with the disconsolate George. Casting blame upon Edward’s queen, Elizabeth, and her ambitious family, Richard promises to intercede for George’s life. But inwardly he rejoices at his success and plans a romantic conquest of Lady Anne, the widow of Prince Edward, only son of the deposed and recently deceased King Henry VI. (The play makes Anne a widow, though historically she may have only been Edward’s betrothed.) Entering with the coffin of her late father-in-law, Anne greets Richard’s attempts to woo her with disgust and scorn, accusing him of having killed Henry VI and Prince Edward. Richard does not deny these charges but argues that his passionate love for Anne herself was the cause of his actions. Despite herself, Anne is moved by Richard’s extravagant pleas, accepts a ring from him, and agrees to entertain his suit.
Members of the royal court, including Queen Elizabeth, gather to discuss the ill-health of King Edward. Informed of his brother’s sickness, Richard arrives at court too. Richard and the Woodvilles—the queen’s family—quarrel about the influence each wields over the king. The argument culminates with Richard’s accusing the queen of poisoning Edward’s mind against George. As the queen hotly denies this, Queen Margaret—the old, embittered widow of Henry VI—enters and curses the entire company with
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misery and death. She directs most of her venom at Richard, whom she blames especially for the deaths of her husband and son. Those assembled remind Margaret of her own vindictive deeds during the war and dismiss her words as a madwoman’s ravings. Meanwhile, Richard hires two murderers to kill Clarence in the Tower. The unfortunate brother pleads in vain for his life, learning at the last minute that Richard is responsible for his impending death.
Attempting to promote peace among his warring nobles, the ailing King Edward is distressed to learn from Richard of Clarence’s death because the king had intended to spare him. Clarence’s mother, the duchess of York, and his two young children are also grieved to hear of his death, but their lamentations are interrupted by Queen Elizabeth’s report that King Edward too has died. Richard pretends to sympathize with the mourners and advises that the Prince of Wales—the future Edward V—be fetched from his castle in Ludlow to court. Once the people hear of the king’s death, they express misgivings about England’s welfare when governed by a child-ruler, especially in light of the continuing hostilities between the Woodville faction and the duke of Gloucester.
Awaiting the arrival of the crown prince, the queen and her younger son, the duke of York, are alarmed to hear that Richard and his ally, the Duke of Buckingham, have arrested and imprisoned Woodville adherents Lord Grey, Lord Rivers, and Lord Vaughn. The queen and her remaining children quickly take sanctuary with the archbishop of York. Richard, however, assumes the role of guardian to his brother’s children and removes the duke of York from sanctuary. Claiming that the princes are under his protection, Richard has both Edward and his brother placed in the Tower of London, where they are to remain until Prince Edward’s coronation.
With his nephews in his power, Richard consults with Buckingham and Sir William Catesby about which lords are likely to support his plans to seize the throne. Learning that Lord Hastings is staunchly loyal to the heirs of Edward IV, Richard successfully lures the gullible Hastings into a trap, accuses him of treason, and executes him immediately. The prisoners Grey, Rivers, and Vaughn are also killed on Richard’s orders. Before their deaths, the condemned men reflect on how Margaret’s curse has fallen upon each of them.
Having disposed of most of his enemies, Richard begins a campaign of innuendo and slander. At his behest, Buckingham circulates rumors that Edward IV and his children by the queen were illegitimate, owing to the late king’s secret marriage to another woman. Shocked by these disclosures, London citizens, led by the lord mayor, approach Richard, who has arranged to be found in the company of priests, holding a prayer book. Impressed by his pious bearing, the citizens exhort Richard, as the only legitimate heir, to accept the crown. Richard pretends reluctance but finally agrees to become king, and coronation plans commence.
Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and Lady Anne attempt to visit the princes in the Tower, but are prevented from entering. The earl of Derby informs the horrified women that Richard has seized the throne and Anne must proceed to Westminster to be crowned as his queen. The three ladies lament their misfortunes and Richard’s treachery, predicting doom and destruction for the country.
After his coronation, Richard decides the only way to secure his hold on the throne is to kill the princes. Buckingham balks at this plan, however, and thereby loses the king’s favor. Meanwhile, the king hires Sir James Tyrrel to smother the princes in their sleep, and the murder is successfully carried out. Richard then rids himself of Queen Anne—whom he has secretly put to death after spreading rumors of her ill health—and Clarence’s two children, imprisoning the son Page 363 | Top of Articleand forcing the daughter into a disadvantageous marriage. Still seeking to consolidate his position, Richard plans to marry his niece, Princess Elizabeth of York.
Queen Margaret pays a last gloating visit to the wretched Queen Elizabeth and duchess of York, now mourning the deaths of the young princes. Later, when Richard visits the queen and duchess, the two women bitterly revile him for his crimes. Unmoved, the king presses Queen Elizabeth to give him her daughter’s hand in marriage, emphasizing the advantages such a match will bring to the girl and Elizabeth herself. To Richard’s delight, the queen appears to capitulate.
In Brittany, Henry, earl of Richmond, amasses an army against Richard and invades England, landing at Milford. Disaffected nobles flock to his banner. His ally Buckingham is eventually captured and executed, but Henry’s cause continues to attract followers.
The opposing armies of the king and Henry ride towards their inevitable confrontation. Henry promises to deliver England from Richard’s tyranny; Henry’s allies predict that the king’s former friends will desert him now that they have seen his cruel, violent nature. On the eve of the battle at Bosworth Field, Richard is visited by the ghosts of his victims who predict his defeat and bid him to “despair and die” (Shakespeare, Richard III, 5.3.128). The same ghosts also wish success and good fortune to Henry. Waking in perturbation, Richard acknowledges his guilt and probable defeat, but determines to fight nonetheless. During the next day’s battle, he fights furiously even after losing his horse and crying aloud for another. Henry kills the king in combat and ascends to the throne of England. The new king promises to wed Princess Elizabeth (eldest daughter of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth), finally ending the long strife between the Houses of York and Lancaster by uniting them in marriage.
A royal enigma
Shakespeare’s Richard III bristles with demonic energy, dominating the play from start to finish. The note of his unmitigated, zestful evil is sounded in the character’s very first soliloquy when he declares, “I am determined to prove a villain” (Richard III, 1.1.30). Richard’s blackened soul is reflected in his twisted body: he is hunchbacked and lame, with a withered arm. Several characters in the play revile him for his grotesque appearance. Before succumbing to his blandishments, Lady Anne addresses him as “thou lump of foul deformity” (Richard III, 1.2.57). Queen Margaret of Anjou condemns him even more venomously, calling him an “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog” and a “poisonous, bunch-backed toad” (Richard III, 1.3.228, 1.3.246). Far from being cowed by these insults, Richard takes a perverse pleasure in turning his opponents’ words against them and gaining his own ends, remarking of his conquest of Anne, “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” (Richard III, 1.2.227–228). Beside Richard’s rampant villainy, the virtuous characters in Shakespeare’s play—even the earl of Richmond—tend to pale into hand-wringing insignificance.
Tudor historians upon whose accounts Shakespeare based his play readily cooperated in the creation of this monstrous figure. One historian, John Rous, who had praised Richard III in life as a prince who “all avarice set aside ruled his subjects in the realm full commendably,” hastened to defame him after his death: “This King Richard, who was excessively cruel in his days, reigned for three years and a little more, in the way that Antichrist is to reign. And like the Antichrist to come, he was confounded at this moment of greatest pride” (Rous in Dockray, pp. 21–22). Rous also asserted that Richard was “retained within his mother’s womb for two years and [emerged] with teeth and hair to his shoulders” (Rous in Dockray, p. 22). Polydore Vergil, who became the official historian of Henry VII, similarly wrote,”[Richard] was little of stature, deformed of body, the one shoulder being higher than the other, a short and sour countenance which seemed to savour of mischief, and utter evidently of craft and deceit” (Vergil in Dockroy, p. 23). Sir Thomas More, writing during the reign of Henry VIII, continued the process of mythmaking, calling Richard III “little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favored of visage. … He was malicious, wrathful, envious” (More in Dockray, p. 24). While not everything written by Tudor historians can be automatically discounted, the more lurid accounts, such as those dealing with the king’s birth and appearance, could probably be dismissed. What likenesses in the forms of portraits and sketches exist show little or no evidence of physical deformity. Indeed, a modern examination done on one famous portrait (c. 1520) revealed that the right shoulder had been crudely overpainted to suggest deformity.
The true character of Richard III likewise remains elusive. As duke of Gloucester, he appears to have been a loyal brother to Edward IV, following his king into exile and leading his armies Page 364 | Top of Articleto victory over the Lancastrians. Moreover, some of the crimes ascribed to Richard by Tudor historians and Shakespeare are contradicted by earlier sources, which, if not free of bias themselves, are nonetheless chronologically closer to the events described. The Annals of Tewkesbury Abbey, a collection of documents dating from 1327 to 1485, report that Prince Edward [son of Henry VI] was slain not by Richard’s hand but on the battlefield at Tewkesbury. John Wark-worth’s Chronicle, which covers the first 13 years of the reign of Edward IV, makes a similar statement,”And there was slain in the field (at Tewkesbury) Prince Edward, who cried for succour to his brother-in-law the Duke of Clarence” (Warkworth in Dockray, p. 40). Reports of Richard’s involvement in the death of Henry VI are also inconclusive. The Yorkist account, Historie of the Arrivali of Edward IV, claims that on hearing news of his son’s death, Henry VI “took it to such great hatred, anger, and indignation that, of pure displeasure and melancholy, he died the 23rd of the month of May” (Anonymous in Dockray, p. 39). John Warkworth’s Chronicle places Richard, along with several other lords, at the Tower on the night “King Harry [Henry VI] being inward in prison in the Tower of London, was put to death, the 21st of May, on a Tuesday night, between 11 and 12 of the clock” but refrains from open accusation (Warkworth in Dockray, p. 40). Indeed, modern historians speculate that, if Henry VI had been put to death, it was more likely to have been at the command of Edward IV, as the newly restored monarch. The death of the duke of Clarence is another act that contemporary historians ascribe to Edward IV rather than Richard, whose attempt to intercede for Clarence’s life is recorded in the otherwise hostile writings of Italian historian Dominic Mancini and even mentioned later in Sir Thomas More’s account.
The crime for which there is neither defense nor conclusive evidence of guilt remains the mysterious fate of Richard’s deposed nephews. Contemporary rumors circulated throughout London and abroad, especially as the king’s enemies fled overseas, that the princes had been put to death either by their uncle or one of his agents. Positive reports of the new king’s character, however, circulated as well. Thomas Langton, Bishop of St. David’s, wrote the following around August 1483:
[The king] contents the people wherever he goes better than ever did any prince; for many a poor man that has suffered wrong many days has been relieved by him and his commands in his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given to him which he has refused. On my faith I never liked the qualities of any prince as well as his; God has sent him to us for the welfare of us all.
(Langton in Dockray, p. 87)
If not universally loved by his subjects, neither does Richard III appear to have been universally hated. In the north of England, where he had reigned for over a decade before his accession, the king was warmly praised and, on his death at Bosworth Field, deeply mourned. With surprising boldness, given the change in the royal regime, the city of York set down in its civic records on August 23, 1485 “that King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us, was, through great treason … piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city” (York Civic Records in Potter, p. 94). That such different interpretations of the same ruler—as ruthless, child-killing usurper and merciful friend of the common people—could exist simultaneously serves as a testament to the subjective and contradictory nature of history itself.
Sources and literary context
Numerous historical sources were available to Shakespeare by the time he began writing Richard III around 1592. However much Tudor historians condemned and vilified the last king of the prior dynasty, there was no denying that they found him oddly fascinating. Indeed, Shakespeare had a wealth of material upon which to draw—Edward Hall’s The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), Raphael Holin-shed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1578), and Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (1557), which presented its subject as the very epitome of evil and corruption. Shakespeare was also familiar with the poem A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), which relates the tragedies of such historical figures as Clarence, Buckingham, and Hastings. He had early dramatic treatments of Richard III to draw on too, including Ricardus Tertius (1579), a three-part Senecan tragedy in Latin, by Thomas Legge, and the anonymous True Tragedy of Richard III, apparently performed a few years before its publication in 1594.
In writing his own play, Shakespeare took considerable liberties with historical events and their chronology, weaving back and forth in time as it suited his dramatic purpose. Therefore, the first act of the play deals with Clarence’s arrest and death (1477–78), the onset of King Edward’s final illness (1483), the death of Henry VI (1471),
the courtship between Richard and Lady Anne (1472), and the appointment of Richard as Protector (1483). The most glaring anachronism in Shakespeare’s play is its use of Queen Margaret of Anjou, who haunts the plot like a bitter ghost, heaping curses on the triumphant Yorkists; in fact, Queen Margaret had died in France in 1482.
Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written
England in the 1590s
The final decade of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I was a turbulent time, marked by religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, severe economic depression, and massive inflation. The childless, unmarried queen was in her 60s; many of the councilors who had advised and supported her in the earlier years of her reign were aging themselves or dead. Inevitably, the people’s thoughts turned to the question of succession: who would be the next ruler of England? And would the transition proceed smoothly, or would the country again be plunged into bloody civil war over the person best suited to occupy the throne?
Despite these troubling issues, memories of recent English triumphs still fueled national pride. The defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English navy in 1588 brought about a resurgence of popularity for the queen and inspired a flood of historical plays, many of which celebrated England’s past glories and might in battle. Shakespeare appears to have begun his own series of plays dealing with the Wars of the Roses around 1591–92. As in many of his historical plays, he focuses less on the accurate reconstruction of Page 366 | Top of Articlehistory than on themes relating to power, ambition, and the need for order. In his depiction of a war-torn England—descending to its lowest point with the usurpation of Richard III—and its eventual salvation by Henry Tudor, the founder of the Tudor line and Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, Shakespeare pays tribute to the past, acknowledges the difficulties of the present, and anticipates the future, hopefully but not complacently.
While no written record survives regarding the first performances of Richard III, apparently put on by Pembroke’s Men in 1593, the play seems to have been quite popular with Shakespeare’s audiences. Except for Henry IV, Part I, Richard III was the most frequently printed of all Shakespeare’s plays before the earliest published collection of his them appeared in 1623.
Aside from its subject matter, a reason for the play’s success was its leading man: Richard III boasted no less than Richard Burbage, the foremost actor of Shakespeare’s day, in the title role. Burbage was to be identified with the part for the remainder of his life.
As the seventeenth century progressed, historical dramas became less popular and Richard III was less frequently staged. Not until 1700, with the appearance of Colley Cibber’s adaptation of the play, was Richard III widely performed. Cibber, mainly known as a comic actor, altered Shakespeare’s text dramatically, omitting more than half the original lines and even cutting the number of characters to concentrate more on Richard, whom Cibber—of course—was playing. Critics were not kind; Aaron Hill, writing for The Prompter, compared Cibber’s performance to “the distorted heavings of an unjointed caterpillar” (Hill in Williamson and Person, p. 353). Two other actors soon eclipsed Cibber in the role of Richard: David Garrick and Edmund Kean, both of whom—like Burbage before them—were considered the foremost actors of their day. In a 1759 essay, Thomas Wilkes praised Garrick’s depiction of the villainous king: “Shakespeare was always particularly careful in his characters, and in none more so than in Richard the Third, whom history has represented as the poet has drawn, deformed, wicked, perfidious, splenetic, and ambitious. All these marks of the character are spiritedly preserved by Garrick” (Wilkes in Williamson and Person, p. 363). Less than 60 years later, Edmund Kean received equally glowing reviews. The poet Lord Byron rhapsodized over Kean’s performance, which many considered definitive, paying tribute to Shakespeare in the process: “By Jove! he is a soul! Life, nature, truth, without exaggeration or diminution. Richard is a man, and Kean is Richard” (Byron in Williamson and Person, p. 376).
—Pamela S. Loy
For More Information
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare Histories & Poems. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
_____. William Shakespeare’s Richard III. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Dockray, Keith. Richard III: A Reader in History. Brunswick Road: Alan Sutton, 1988.
Hanham, Alison. Richard III and his Early Historians 1483–1535. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. New York: W. W. Norton, 1956.
Murph, Roxane C. Richard III: The Making of a Legend. Methuen: The Scarecrow Press, 1977.
Pollard, A. J. Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Potter, Jeremy. Good King Richard? An Account of Richard III and his Reputation 1483–1983. London: Constable, 1983.
Ross, Charles. The Wars of the Roses. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1976.
St. Aubyn, Giles. The Year of Three Kings 1483. New York: Atheneum, 1983.
Shakespeare, William. Richard III. London: Penguin, 2000.
Williamson, Sandra L., and James E. Person, Jr., eds. Shakespearian Criticism. Vol. 14. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.