Now, decades of civil war between the royal houses of Lancaster and York are finally brought to an end with the deposition and murder of Lancastrian King Henry VI, replacing him with Edward IV, one of the three remaining sons of York. Left to dream upon the crown now held by his brother Edward, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, determines to use this listless time of peace to work his way to the supreme seat of England, removing, by any means necessary, any impediments to the throne.
Knowing that the new king is in a perilous state of declining health, Richard begins by plotting against his other brother George, Duke of Clarence, subversively prompting his imprisonment in the dreaded Tower of London on an inference of treason. Richard then turns his attention to the wooing of a most unlikely prospect to be his future queen, Lady Anne daughter-in-law to the murdered King Henry VI, widow to his son Prince Edward – both of whom Richard murdered - is wooed over the funeral bier of the late king. Claiming the murders were for love of her, Richard bears his heart to a sword, claiming that if he cannot win her love, he would rather be dead. The bereft Anne relents and, in spite of her disdain and own reason, deigns to accept his proffered love.
Richard, having arranged the murder of his brother George (whom all refer to by his dukedom ‘Clarence’), feigns despair and lays responsibility for his death on an order by King Edward and on the persuasion of his Queen Elizabeth and her family, which is just enough to push the ailing King over the edge and he dies as well. Internal wrangling within the court continues between powerful lords and members of the royal family, aggravated by the former queen Margaret, widow to Henry VI, who, though banished, remains in the royal court.
With the throne unseated and Queen Elizabeth having sought sanctuary in this time of tumult, Edward's sons the young Duke of York and Prince of Wales are summoned and arrangements commence for the coronation of young Edward Prince of Wales. But Richard, having imprisoned and executed even other uncles (Rivers, Grey and Vaughn) for false claims of treason, places the young princes in the Tower of London for their "protection," hatching a plan with his ally the Duke of Buckingham to discredit the legitimacy of their birth and requisite right to the throne. In the midst of this, Richard accuses the powerful Lord Hastings of plotting against his life and has him summarily beheaded, leveraging the episode to dupe the populace of London and the Lord Mayor to press for his installation as England’s royal king.
Having swiftly swept to the throne, Richard villainously arranges the murder of his nephews in the Tower, removing any future possibility of opposition to his reign, while we simultaneously learn of the mysterious death of Richard’s poor wife Anne. Buckingham, sensing his friendship with the new King Richard cooling and knowing well the danger of such a position, flees the court, even as King Richard begins to hear fearful rumors of a new threat from his cousin Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond.
With an eye to consolidate his power and legitimize his monarchy Richard impulsively presses the mourning Queen Elizabeth for access to her daughter as the next queen of England. Elizabeth cannily demurs, fearing the response to her outright refusal, but joins with Queen Margaret, who she had replaced on the throne but with whose grief she can now truly sympathize, and with Richard’s mother the Duchess of York in sending Richard off to the battle with Richmond laden with their curses.
Having marched out of London to the environs of Bosworth, Richard and Richmond’s camps prepare for battle. In the night each of the contenders for the throne are visited in dreams by the dead, who heap curses on Richard and blessings of Richmond. The next day the battle fares as the ghosts have promised with the Earl of Richmond meeting the bloody tyrant Richard in single combat and finally defeating him. Henry Tudor is named King Henry VII with a promise to marry young Elizabeth of York, reuniting the houses of Lancaster and York and bringing to a close England’s bloody Wars of the Roses.
About the Play
The culmination, though not the last written, of Shakespeare’s eight plays on the royal lineage of England, Richard III was written around 1592. These plays are dramatic fiction based on some of the real history of the eight Plantagenet kings and the tumultuous journey that was the foundation for the Tudor and Stuart royals, whose lines were on the throne at the time of Shakespeare’s writing and performing them – in the persons of Elizabeth I and James I – which certainly had some bearing on the depiction of the “history” contained within the play. Though placed at the end of a history cycle, Richard III feels much more like a tragic morality play – a rousing rumination on the relational, spiritual, even national, fallout unearthed by the corrupting, tyrannical quest for absolute power, set in the context of a historical chronicle.
First published in 1597 in a quarto version of doubtful provenance and again in 1623 in the more authoritative, though imperfect First Folio version which entitles the play The Tragedy of Richard the Third, while also alternatively referring to it in page titles as The Life and Death of Richard the Third. The potent fuel that fires the engine of Shakespeare’s historical drama is clearly the charisma of the central character himself. Very recent times have literally unearthed much about England’s real King Richard, including the famous discovery of his remains under a Leicester car park in 2012, revealing the real nature of his physical deformity - a kind of severe scoliosis - and precise manner of death at Bosworth Field, and the formal reinterring in Leicester Cathedral in March of 2015.
While it is clear that the actual history is much different and more complex than Shakespeare’s murderous Machiavel, this indelible depiction of him as a “poisonous bunch-backed toad” fired the imagination of Elizabethan audiences as it has generations of others and the play has been set in a variety of times and locals because of the universality of its themes.
Isaac Asimov wrote, "Richard III is so full of harrowing and dramatic episodes, and Richard III himself is so successful a character, so wonderful a villain, with so much bravery and dry humor mingled with his monstrous behavior, that the play pleased all and made it quite plain that Shakespeare was a new star of brilliant magnitude on the literary scene."
About the Author
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He had seven brothers and sisters, three of which died in childhood. He received just seven years of formal education having been taken out of school at the age of 14 due to family financial problems. In 1582 he was married to Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. They had three children, the first born less than seven months after their marriage. Speculation of his activities between leaving school and his marriage range from working as a glover, a sailor or soldier, law clerk, or a teacher. He left his wife and children around 1588 to go work as an actor and playwright in London finding success as both by 1592 when his first play, Henry VI Part 1 was performed.
Over the next 21 years he would pen 37 plays and over 150 sonnets. As both an actor and writer, and eventually a shareholder in the Globe Theatre, he made his reputation with plays that ranged from tragedy and comedy to history and romance. Shakespeare's life and career spanned the reigns of two influential and distinctly different monarchs, Elizabeth and James I.
Shakespeare's company became the King's Men, achieving the pinnacle of period sponsorship - royal patronage.Following two and a half decades of financial and artistic success, Shakespeare retired to a country gentleman's life with a good reputation, a coat of arms, and cash.
He died of typhoid fever on April 23, 1616 at the age of 52. According to his will, he left most of his estate to his eldest daughter and her husband and his wife Anne, who was to receive the couple's "second best bed." He is buried in the Stratford-upon-Avon's Holy Trinity Church.
Shakespeare enjoyed great popularity in his lifetime, and over 400 years later, he is still the most produced playwright in the world. He also influenced, perhaps more than anyone else in history, the English language. Words he invented and phrases he coined in his plays are still in common usage today, among them: fashionable, sanctimonious, lackluster, foregone conclusion, in a pickle, wild goose chase, one fell swoop, it's Greek to me, vanished into thin air, refuse to budge an inch, tongue-tied, hoodwinked, too much of a good thing, suspect foul play, without rhyme or reason, pure as the driven snow.