Richard III (play)

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Theatre

The Tragedy of King Richard the third is William Shakespeare's version of the short reign of Richard III of England, who receives a singularly unflattering depiction. The play is sometimes interpreted as a tragedy (as it is called in its earliest quarto); however, it more correctly belongs among the histories, as it is in the First Folio. It is a Shakespearean attempt to adapt history into theatre. It picks up the story from Henry VI, Part III and is the conclusion of the series that stretches back to Richard II. It is the second longest of Shakespeare's 38 plays, after Hamlet, and the longest one in the First Folio, the Folio version of Hamlet being shorter than the Quarto version. The length is generally seen as a drawback and the play is rarely performed unabridged. It is often shortened by cutting out various peripheral characters.

Richard III is believed to be one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, preceded only by the three parts of Henry VI and perhaps his earliest comedies. It is believed to have been written ca. 1592-3.

Performance and Publication

Richard III was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on October 20, 1597 by the bookseller Andrew Wise; Wise published the first quarto later that year, with printing done by Valentine Simmes. A second quarto followed in 1598, this one with an attribution to Shakespeare on its title page. Q3 appeared in 1602, Q4 in 1605, Q5 in 1612 and Q6 in 1622; obviously, it was a popular play. It next appeared in the First Folio in 1623.

The earliest certain performance occurred on Saturday, November 17, 1633, when Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria watched it on the Queen's birthday. Yet plainly it had been performed many times before that. The Diary of Philip Henslowe records a popular play he calls Buckingham, performed in Dec. 1593 and Jan. 1594; this might have been Shakespeare's play.

Colley Cibber produced the most successful of the Restoration adaptations of Shakepeare with his version of Richard III, at Drury Lane starting in 1700. Cibber himself played the role till 1739, and his version was on stage for the next century and a half. (It contained the immortal line "Off with his head; so much for Buckingham" — possibly the most famous Shakespearean line that Shakespeare didn't write.) The original Shakespearean version returned in a production at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1845.


Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

The play begins with Richard describing the accession to the throne of his brother, King Edward IV of England, eldest son of the late Richard, Duke of York.

Now is the winter of our discontent
made glorious summer by this son (or sun) of York (may refer to the symbol of Richard of York)

The speech reveals Richard's jealousy and ambition, as his brother, King Edward the Fourth rules the country successfully. Richard is an ugly hunchback, describing himself as "rudely stamp'd" and "deformed, unfinish'd", who cannot "strut before a wanton ambling nymph." He responds to the anguish of his condition with an outcast's credo: "I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days." Richard plots to have his brother Clarence, who stands before him in the line of succession, conducted to the Tower of London over a prophecy that "G of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be" - which the king interprets as referring to George of Clarence (although the audience later realise that it was actually a reference to Richard of Gloucester).

Richard next ingratiates himself with "the Lady Anne" -- Anne Neville, widow of the Lancastrian Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. Richard confides to the audience, "I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter. What though I kill'd her husband and his father?" Despite her prejudice against him, Anne is won over by his pleas and agrees to marry him. This episode illustrates Richard's supreme skill in the art of insincere flattery.

The atmosphere at court is poisonous: the established nobles are at odds with the upwardly-mobile relatives of Queen Elizabeth, a hostility fueled by Richard's machinations. Queen Margaret, Henry VI's widow, returns in defiance of her banishment and warns the squabbling nobles about Richard. The nobles, Yorkists all, reflexively unite against this last Lancastrian, and the warning falls on deaf ears.

Richard orders two murderers to kill his brother Clarence in the tower. Clarence, meanwhile, relates a dream to his keeper, Brakenbury. The dream includes extremely visual language describing Clarence falling from an imaginary ship as a result of Gloucester, who had fallen from the thatches, striking him. Under the water Clarence sees the skeletons of thousands of men "that fishes gnawed upon." He also sees "wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, inestimable stones, unvalued jewels." All of these are "scatterd in the bottom of the sea." Clarence adds that some of the jewels were in the skulls of the dead. Clarence then imagines dying and being tormented by the ghosts of his father-in-law (Warwick, Anne's father) and brother-in-law (Edward, Anne's former husband) in a hellish afterlife. Before Clarence falls asleep Brakenbury observes that between the titles of princes and the low names of commoners there is nothing different but the "outward fame," meaning that they both have "inward toil" whether rich or poor. Brakenbury disobeys Clarence's request to "stay by" him. When the murderers arrive, he reads their warrant (which is falsely portrayed as being from the king), and leaves them the keys. Clarence pleads with the murderers, explaining that men have no right to obey other men's request for murder, because all men are under the rule of God not to do any murder. The murderers imply Clarence is a hypocrite because he "unripdst the bowels of (his) sovereign's son (Edward) whom (he was) sworn to cherish and defend." Tactically trying to win them over, he tells them to go to his brother Gloucester who will reward them better for his life than "Edward will for tidings of (his) death." One murderer insists Gloucester himself sent them to perform the bloody act, but Clarence won't believe this. Thence, Clarence puts forth nostalgia, urging the unity of Richard Duke of York blessing his three sons with his victorious arm, bidding his brother Gloucester to "think on this and he will weep." Sardonically, a murderer says Gloucester weeps millstones. Next, one of the murderers explains that his brother Gloucester hates him, and sent them to the tower to perform the foul act. Eventually, the murderer with a conscience is persuaded by Clarence not to kill him, but it is too late. The other killer stabs Clarence and drowns him in "the malmsey butt within" (malmsey is wine). The murderer who did not partake feels horrible about the death, while the other chastises him for not participating. The first act closes with the perpetrator needing to find a hole wherein to bury Clarence. Whether this murderer is Tyrell is unclear, but seems rather logical as Richard later says he "partly know(s) the man" when calling for Tyrell to perform a heinous deed in Act IV.

Edward IV, weakened by a reign dominated by physical excess, soon dies, leaving as Protector his brother Richard, who sets about removing the final obstacles to his ascension. He meets his nephew, the young Edward V, who is en route to London for his coronation accompanied by relatives of Edward's widow. These Richard arrests and (eventually) beheads, and the young prince and his brother are coaxed into an extended stay at the Tower of London.

Assisted by his cousin Buckingham ( Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham), Richard mounts a PR campaign to present himself as a preferable candidate to the throne, appearing as a modest, devout man with no pretensions to greatness. Lord Hastings, who objects to Richard's ascension, is arrested and executed on a trumped-up charge. The other lords are cajoled into accepting Richard as king, in spite of the continued survival of his nephews (the Princes in the Tower).

Have mercy, Jesu! Soft! I did but dream. O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! -- Shakespeare's Richard III Act V, Sc. 3. English actor David Garrick in 1745 as Richard III just before the battle of Bosworth Field, his sleep having been haunted by the ghosts of those has murdered, wakes to the realization that he is alone in the world and death is imminent. Painting by English painter, William Hogarth.
Have mercy, Jesu! Soft! I did but dream. O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! -- Shakespeare's Richard III Act V, Sc. 3. English actor David Garrick in 1745 as Richard III just before the battle of Bosworth Field, his sleep having been haunted by the ghosts of those has murdered, wakes to the realization that he is alone in the world and death is imminent. Painting by English painter, William Hogarth.

His new status leaves Richard sufficiently confident to dispose of his nephews. Buckingham conditions his consent for the princes' deaths on receiving a land grant, which Richard rejects, leaving Buckingham fearful for his life. As the body count rises, the increasingly paranoid Richard loses what popularity he had; he soon faces rebellions led first by Buckingham and subsequently by the invading Earl of Richmond (Henry VII of England). Both sides arrive for a final battle at Bosworth Field. Prior to the battle, Richard is visited by the ghosts of those whose deaths he has caused, all of whom tell him to Despair and die!. He awakes screaming for 'Jesu' (Jesus) to help him, slowly realizing that he is all alone in the world and that even he hates himself. Richard's language and undertones of self-remorse seem to indicate that, in the final hour, he is repentant for his evil deeds, however, it is too late.

As the battle commences, Richard gives arguably the least motivational pep-talk in English literature ("Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls; Conscience is but a word that cowards use... March on, join bravely, let us to't pell mell; If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell...."). Lord Stanley (who happens to be Richmond's step-father) and his followers desert, leaving Richard at a disadvantage. Richard is soon unhorsed on the field at the climax of the battle, and utters the often-quoted line, A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! He is defeated in the final "hunting of the boar", so to speak, and Richmond succeeds as Henry VII, even going so far as to marry a York, effectively ending the War of the Roses (to the evident relief of everyone involved).

In dramatic terms, perhaps the most important (and, arguably, the most entertaining) feature of the play is the sudden alteration in Richard's character. For the first 'half' of the play, we see him as something of an anti-hero, causing mayhem and enjoying himself hugely in the process:

I do mistake my person all this while;
Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
I'll be at charges for a looking-glass;

Almost immediately after he is crowned, however, his personality and actions take a darker turn. He turns against loyal Buckingham ("I am not in the giving vein"), he falls prey to self-doubt ("I am in so far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin;"); now he sees shadows where none exist and visions of his doom to come ("Despair & die").

Historical context

Shakespeare is not famous for his historical accuracy; this play is representative of his work in that respect. It is nowadays considered that, with the possible exception of Macbeth, no historical figure in Shakespeare's repertoire has been so misrepresented. This willingness to malign Richard is assumed to be due to Shakespeare's desire to please the Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, who was extremely sensitive to any perceived criticism of Tudor legitimacy.

Queen Margaret did not in fact survive to see Richard's accession to the throne; her inclusion in the play is purely dramatic, providing first a warning to the other characters about Richard's true nature (which they of course ignore to their cost) and then a chorus-like commentary on how the various tragedies affecting the House of York reflect justice for the wrongs Richard performed against both Yorkists and Lancastrians ("I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him; I had a Henry, till a Richard kill'd him. Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him; Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him...").

It is perhaps strange that in presenting the cycle of vengeance Shakespeare omitted the fact that the real-life Richard himself had a son who died prematurely, which some contemporary historians viewed as divine retribution for the fate of Edward's sons - which of course Margaret would claim as retribution for the fate of her son. Shakespeare's Tudor patrons might have welcomed this additional demonstration of Richard's wickedness.

Comedic elements

The play resolutely avoids demonstrations of physical violence; only Clarence and Richard III die on-stage, while the rest (the two princes, Hastings, Grey, Vaughan, Rivers, Anne, Buckingham, and King Edward) all meet their ends off-stage. Despite the villainous nature of the title character and the grim storyline, Shakespeare infuses the action with comic material, as he does with most of his tragedies. Much of the humour rises from the dichotomy between what we know Richard's character to be and how Richard tries to appear. The prime example is perhaps the portion of Act III, Scene 1, where Richard is forced to "play nice" with the young and mocking Duke of York. Other examples appear in Richard's attempts at acting, first in the matter of justifying Hastings' death and later in his coy response to being offered the crown.

Richard himself also provides some dry remarks in evaluating the situation, as when his plan to marry the Queen Elizabeth's daughter: "Murder her brothers, then marry her; Uncertain way of gain...."

Other examples of humor in this play include Clarence's ham-fisted and half-hearted murderers, and the Duke of Buckingham's report on his attempt to persuade the Londoners to accept Richard ("...I bid them that did love their country's good cry, God save Richard, England's royal king!" Richard: "And did they so?" Buckingham: "No, so God help me, they spake not a word....")

Puns, a Shakespearean staple, are especially well-represented in the scene where Richard tries to persuade Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter on his behalf.


  • The longest-running Broadway production of Richard III is the 1979 version with Al Pacino, which ran for 33 performances.
  • Laurence Olivier based his stage makeup for his Richard III on Broadway producer Jed Harris.
  • Olivier wrote that he was reluctant to play Richard III at the Old Vic Theatre because Donald Wolfit had recently scored such a success in the part that Olivier would pale by comparison. Olivier's subsequent interpretation of Richard became not only his signature role, but the definitive portrayal of the part in history.

Notable stage performances of Richard III

  • Junius Brutus Booth
  • John Wilkes Booth
  • John Barrymore
  • Kenneth Branagh
  • Richard Burbage
  • David Garrick
  • Ian Holm
  • Edmund Kean
  • Anton Lesser
  • Ian McKellen
  • Laurence Olivier
  • Anthony Sher
  • Barry Sullivan (1824-1891)
  • Donald Wolfit

Film versions

The most famous player of the part in recent times was Laurence Olivier in his 1955 film version. His inimitable rendition has been satirised by many comedians including Peter Cook and Peter Sellers. Sellers, who had aspirations to do the role straight, appeared in a 1965 TV special on The Beatles' music by reciting " A Hard Day's Night" in the style of Olivier's Richard III. The first series of the BBC television comedy Blackadder in part parodies the Olivier film, visually (as in the crown motif), Peter Cook's performance as a Richard who is a jolly, loving monarch but nevertheless oddly reminiscent of Olivier's rendition, and by mangling Shakespearean text ("Now is the summer of our sweet content made o'ercast winter by these Tudor clouds...")

More recently, Richard III has been brought to the screen by Sir Ian McKellen (1995) in an abbreviated version set in a 1930s fascist England, and by Al Pacino in the 1996 documentary, Looking for Richard. In the 1976 film The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss' character, an actor, gives a memorable performance as a homosexual Richard in a gay stage production of the play. In 2002 the story of Richard III was re-told in a movie about gang culture called The Street King.

The 2006 version, Richard III, stars Scott M. Anderson and David Carradine. Another 2006 film version of Richard III is part of the independent film-noir titled Purgatory, a retelling of three classic Shakespeare tales, including Richard III.

Dramatis personae

(Links are to articles on the historical personages, who may not precisely correspond to Shakespeare's portrayal of them.)

  • King Edward IV
  • Edward, Prince of Wales, afterwards Edward V, son to the king
  • Richard, Duke of York, son to the king
  • George, Duke of Clarence, brother to the king
  • Richard, Duke of Gloucester, afterwards King Richard III, brother to the king
  • Edward, Earl of Warwick, young son of Clarence
  • Henry, Earl of Richmond, afterwards King Henry VII
  • Thomas Cardinal Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York
  • John Morton, Bishop of Ely
  • Duke of Buckingham ( Henry Stafford)
  • Duke of Norfolk ( John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk)
  • Earl of Surrey, his son ( Thomas Howard)
  • Earl Rivers ( Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers), brother to Queen Elizabeth
  • Marquess of Dorset ( Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset), son to Queen Elizabeth
  • Lord Richard Grey, son to Queen Elizabeth
  • Earl of Oxford ( John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford)
  • Lord Hastings ( William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings)
  • Lord Stanley ( Thomas Stanley), afterwards Earl of Derby
  • Lord Lovel ( Francis Lovell, Viscount Lovell)
  • Sir Thomas Vaughan
  • Sir Richard Ratcliffe
  • Sir William Catesby
  • Sir James Tyrrel
  • Sir James Blunt ( James Blount)
  • Sir Walter Herbert
  • Sir William Brandon
  • Sir Robert Brackenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower
  • Christopher Urswick, a priest
  • Another priest ( Ralph Shaa)
  • Hastings, a pursivant
  • Tressel and Berkeley, gentlemen attending on the Lady Anne
  • Keeper in the Tower
  • Lord Mayor of London ( Sir Edmund Shaa)
  • Sheriff of Wiltshire
  • Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to Edward IV
  • Margaret of Anjou, widow of Henry VI
  • Duchess of York ( Cecily Neville), mother to King Edward IV, Clarence, and Gloucester
  • Lady Anne Neville, widow of Edward, Prince of Wales (son of Henry VI), afterwards married to Gloucester
  • Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury, young daughter of Clarence
  • ghosts, lords, gentlemen, citizens, etc.

Richard III in popular culture

  • John Lydon, frontman for the legendary British punk band, the Sex Pistols, claimed to have modelled his "Johnny Rotten" persona on Olivier's famous characterization of Richard III.
  • In Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, published in 2001, Richard III is given the same treatment as The Rocky Horror Show, complete with props and obtuse prompt lines.
  • In Spike Jonze's film, Being John Malkovich, Malkovich, playing himself, appears in one scene as Richard III in production for a small theatre company.
  • Lines from the play have been quoted or misquoted in many contexts, including:
    • In Bleach, by Kubo Tite, chapter 220
    • In Digimon Tamers, episode "A Kingdom for a Horse"
    • In the BBC show Red Dwarf, in the episode entitled "Marooned" from Series 3
    • Red Green Show
    • In the TV show Family Guy, episode The King is Dead
    • In the video game Yu-Gi-Oh! Duelist of the Roses
    • The Simpsons ([2F17] Radioactive Man)
    • In The Smiths' song Cemetry Gates, the singer's friend plagiarises a line from the play.
    • In Laurie R. King's novel, To Play The Fool, Brother Erasmus, who speaks only in quotations, describes himself with Richard's words "And thus I clothe my naked villany/ With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;/ And seem a saint, when most I play the devil."
      • In the 2006 film V for Vendetta, V quotes this same line as he is about to kill Father Liliman.


  1. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 102 and 414.
  2. ^ Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor, Simon and Shuster (1982)
  3. ^ Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor, Simon and Shuster (1982)

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