Richard III is the last of the four plays in Shakespeare's minor tetralogy of English history: it concludes a dramatic chronicle started by Henry VI: Part I and then moving through Henry VI: Part II and Henry VI: Part III. The entire four-play saga was composed early in Shakespeare's career, most scholars assigning Richard III a composition date of 1591 or 1592. Culminating with the defeat of the evil King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth field in the play's final act, Richard III is a dramatization of actual historical events that concluded in the year 1485, when the rule of the Plantagenet family over England was replaced by the Tudor monarchy. A full century after these events, Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences were certainly familiar with them (as contemporary Americans are of their own Civil War), and they were particularly fascinated with the character of Richard III. Shakespeare's audiences could readily identify the various political factions and complex family relationships depicted in the play as they proceed from the three parts of Henry VI.
Today, readers and audiences may find it exceedingly difficult to follow the overlapping webs of political intrigue, family relationships, and personal vendettas. Fortunately, while a full knowledge of historical context would certainly enhance a modern reading of the text, it is not really necessary. The play, in fact, is dominated by Richard the hunchback Duke of Gloucester, who becomes Richard III through a series of horrible acts, killing off his enemies, his kinsmen, his wife and most of his supporters before reaching the Battle of Bosworth and crying out "My kingdom for a horse." In a work that is as much melodrama as history, Richard is a pure, self-professed villain of monstrous proportions. His evil drives the plot; and until his final defeat by the Duke of Richmond (who became Henry VII) in the play's last act, the good forces opposing him are weak, splintered, and ready prey for his schemes.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
After the conclusion of the wars between the houses of York and Lancaster, Edward IV is firmly restored to the throne. Before long, however, his treacherous brother Richard, the hunchbacked duke of Gloucester, resumes his plans for gaining the throne. Craftily he removes one obstacle in his path when he turns the king against the third brother, the duke of Clarence (whose given name is George) by telling the king of an ancient prophecy that his issue will be disinherited by one of the royal line whose name begins with the letter G. Clarence is immediately arrested and taken to the Tower. Richard goes to him, pretending sympathy, and advises him that the jealousy and hatred of Queen Elizabeth are responsible for his imprisonment. After promising to help his brother secure his freedom, Richard, as false in word as he is cruel in deed, gives orders that Clarence be stabbed in his cell and his body placed in a barrel of malmsey wine.
Hoping to make his position even stronger, Richard then makes plans to marry Lady Anne, the widow of Prince Edward, the former Prince of Wales whose father is the murdered Henry VI. Edward was slain by Richard and his brothers after the battles ended, and Lady Anne and Henry’s widow, Queen Margaret, were the only remaining members of the once powerful House of Lancaster still living in England. Intercepting Lady Anne at the funeral procession of Henry VI, Richard attempts to woo her. Although she hates and fears her husband’s murderer, she is persuaded to accept an engagement ring when Richard insists that it is for love of her that he murdered her husband.
Richard goes to the court, where Edward IV lies ill. There, he affects great sorrow and indignation over the news of the death of Clarence, thereby endearing himself to Lord Hastings and the duke of Buckingham, who were friends of Clarence. He insinuates that Queen Elizabeth and her followers turned the wrath of the king against Clarence, which brought about his death. Richard manages to convince everyone except Queen Margaret, who knows well what really happened. Openly accusing him, she attempts to warn Buckingham and the others against Richard, but they ignore her.
Edward IV, ailing and depressed, tries to make peace among the factions in his realm, but he dies before he can accomplish this end. His son, Prince Edward, is sent for from Ludlow to take his father’s place. At the same time, Richard imprisons Lord Grey, Lord Rivers, and Lord Vaughan, who are followers and relatives of the queen, and has them executed.
Terrified, Queen Elizabeth seeks refuge for herself and her second son, the young duke of York, with the archbishop of Canterbury. When Richard hears of the queen’s action, he pretends much concern over the welfare of his brother’s...
(The entire section is 1136 words.)
Act I Summary
The play opens in an unidentified street of London around the year 1480. Richard of Gloucester, the chief protagonist of the play, is the brother of King Edward IV and of George, the Duke of Clarence, most often called "Clarence" in the play. Alone on stage, the figure of Richard, misshapen with a hunchback from his premature birth, first tells us that the recent civil wars between the houses of Lancaster and York are now over, that Richard's side (York) is victorious, but that he himself is discontent. Being "ill-formed" by nature, Richard is not suited to peaceful times when romance holds sway. That being so, he is "determined to prove a villain." He has laid a plot against his own brother, Clarence, inciting his other brother (the recently crowned King Edward) to arrest the innocent Clarence by pouring "drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams" into the King's ear. After this extensive opening soliloquy is done, Clarence appears in the custody of the king's guards, headed for the prison Tower of London. Richard pretends to sympathize with Clarence, blaming King Edward's wife (Queen Elizabeth, born the Lady Grey) for Clarence's plight. Clarence is led away, and the recently jailed Lord Hastings arrives with news that the new King is gravely ill. When he departs, Richard has another opportunity to disclose his plans for his brother, saying that he will engineer Clarence's execution because his brother is an obstacle to his own regal ambitions. Incredibly, he also reveals that he plans to marry the Lady Anne, whose husband (Edward, Prince of Wales) he helped to murder at the end of Henry VI: Part III.
In another London street, we see the Lady Anne attending the funeral of Henry VI, her former father-in-law, a fallen monarch whom Richard of Gloucester also had a hand in killing. Richard then enters, and though he denies any involvement in the deaths of her husband and her...
(The entire section is 717 words.)
Act II Summary
The action shifts back to the royal palace where we see a gravely-ill King Edward IV anticipating his own death and trying to resolve the rancor that still divides his court into vengeful camps. Richard then arrives and reports that Clarence has been executed. Edward is deeply disturbed by this report, for he reversed his own punishment decree of his brother. The dying king expresses remorse at this sad turn of events as Richard feigns complete innocence.
In another room of the palace, the two young sons of the murdered Clarence and their grandmother (the old Duchess of York, Richard's own mother) are on stage. She denies that Clarence is dead, but one of the boys says that his father has been killed at the order of King Richard and that he knows this because his good uncle, Richard of Gloucester, told him so. She curses her son Richard, but the boys refuse to believe that he is behind their father's death. Queen Elizabeth arrives with word that her ailing husband, King Edward, has died. The villain Richard then appears accompanied by Buckingham and several other members of his party, including the nobles Hastings, Stanley, and Ratcliffe. Plans are made to bring one of the dead king's two young sons, the Prince of Wales, to London for coronation as the new monarch. When everyone leaves except for Richard and Buckingham, the two speak of their ultimate plan to make Richard himself England's next king.
An example of a common Shakespearean device, the scene consists of three citizens speaking about the turbulent events that have already taken place and the dangers that lie ahead for England. They do not want to be ruled by a boy (the Prince of Wales) and they fear the Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is "full of danger." The prospect of still more civil wars lies ahead.
Back at the palace, the widowed queen, the Duchess of York, and the younger brother of the Prince of Wales (also a boy) speak of the impending arrival of the Prince of Wales for his coronation as successor to Edward IV's throne. Word arrives that Richard of Gloucester has had several of their family members and political allies jailed. Hearing this, the Queen says that she will flee London with her younger boy, rightfully fearing Richard's plans to put them out of the way.
Act III Summary
On a street in London, the young Prince of Wales arrives and meets with his uncle Richard and his confederate Buckingham. Richard tells the young prince that he and his younger brother are to be housed in the Tower of London until the ceremony takes place. The young Prince of Wales says that he does not like the Tower; and in an exchange with his uncle Richard, the youth shows himself to be wise beyond his years, and we sense that he sees through Richard's false, tender front. The Prince's younger brother arrives, and the two are sent to the Tower to repose. When the other characters exit, Richard conspires with Buckingham. He says that he has sent the noble Catesby to sound out Lord Hastings about...
(The entire section is 688 words.)
Act IV Summary
Before the Tower of London, with the widowed Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York speaking with Lady Anne (who has, in fact, become the villain Richard's wife). The mother and grandmother of the two boy princes are told that Richard will not permit them to visit the young royals. Lord Stanley enters with word that Richard of Gloucester is now King Richard III. He assists the Queen and the Duchess to make plans for escape. Lady Anne realizes that Richard is a villain, but she must be crowned as his new queen.
At the royal palace, King Richard III speaks with Buckingham and tells him that he wants the two princes dead. Buckingham, however, is not completely...
(The entire section is 510 words.)
Act V Summary
At an open place near Salisbury, the captured Buckingham is led away to execution, ruing his involvement with Richard and the assassination of Henry VI.
At a camp on the English coast, Richmond relishes the prospect of relieving England of Richard's yoke of tyranny and accepts the message that Stanley is only on Richard's side because of the coercive threat to his son.
On Bosworth Field (where the remainder of the play unfolds), Richard and his remaining loyal allies appear in a tent on one side of the stage, while Richmond and his rebels are seen in a tent on the other side of the stage. Lord Stanley enters and goes...
(The entire section is 353 words.)