What happens in Richard III?

Richard III's rise to power is made possible by his ruthless assassination of his friends, his enemies, and even his wife. His defeat at the Battle of Bosworth comprises much of the action in the play's final act.

  • It's helpful to know that, before the play begins, King Henry VI and his son Prince Edward are killed in the war between the houses of York and Lancaster. Richard, then the Duke of Gloucester, kills Edward as part of his plot to assume the throne.

  • Richard manipulates Prince Edward's widow Anne into agreeing to marry him. This gives him the boost he needs to begin killing off and imprisoning his enemies, including Queen Elizabeth's son.

  • Soon after ascending to the throne, Richard has his own wife killed to bolster his position with a new marriage. This doesn't prevent Henry Tudor, the then Earl of Richmond, from rallying against him and taking the throne, thus establishing the Tudor dynasty.

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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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,458 words.)