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.
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 children and sets himself up as their guardian. He manages to remove young York from the care of his mother and has him placed in the Tower along with Prince Edward. He announces that they are under his protection and that they will remain there only until Prince Edward is crowned.
Learning from Sir William Catesby, a court toady, that Lord Hastings is a loyal adherent of the young prince, Richard contrives to remove that influential nobleman from the court by summoning him to a meeting ostensibly called to discuss plans for the coronation of the new king. Although Lord Stanley warns Hastings that ill luck awaits him if he goes to the meeting, the trusting nobleman keeps his appointment with Richard in the Tower. There, on the basis of trumped-up evidence, Richard accuses Hastings of treason and orders his immediate execution. Richard and Buckingham then dress themselves in rusty old armor and pretend to the lord mayor that Hastings was plotting against them; the lord mayor is convinced by their false protestations that the execution is justified.
Richard plots to seize the throne for himself. Buckingham, supporting him, speaks in the Guildhall of the great immorality of the late King Edward and hints that both the king and his children are illegitimate. Shocked, a citizens’ committee headed by the lord mayor approaches Richard and begs him to accept the crown. They find him in the company of two priests, with a prayer book in his hand. So impressed are they with his seeming piety, that they repeat their offer after he hypocritically refuses it. Pretending great reluctance, Richard finally accepts, after being urged by Buckingham, the lord mayor, and Catesby. Plans for an immediate coronation are made.
Lady Anne is interrupted during a visit to the Tower with Queen Elizabeth and the old duchess of York and ordered to Westminster to be crowned Richard’s queen. The three women hear with horror that Richard has ascended the throne; they are all the more suspicious of him because they are prevented from seeing the young princes. Fearing the worst, they sorrow among themselves and foresee doom for the nation.
Soon after his coronation, Richard suggests to Buckingham that the two princes must be killed. When Buckingham balks at the order, Richard refuses to consider his request to be elevated to the earldom of Hereford. Proceeding alone to secure the safety of his position, he hires Sir James Tyrrel, a discontented nobleman, to smother the children in their sleep. To make his position still more secure, Richard plans to marry Elizabeth of York, his own niece and daughter of the deceased Edward IV. Spreading the news that Queen Anne is mortally ill, he has her secretly murdered. He removes any threat from Clarence’s heirs by imprisoning his son and by arranging a marriage for the daughter that considerably lowers her social status.
None of these precautions, however, can stem the tide of threats that are beginning to endanger Richard. In Brittany, Henry Tudor, the earl of Richmond, gathers an army and invades the country. When news of Richmond’s landing at Milford reaches London, Buckingham flees from Richard, whose cruelty and guilt are becoming apparent to even his closest friends and associates. Buckingham joins Richmond’s forces, but shortly afterward Richard captures and executes him.
In a tremendous final battle, the armies of Richmond and Richard meet on Bosworth Field. There, on the night before the encounter, all the ghosts of Richard’s victims appear to him in his sleep and prophesy his defeat. They also foretell the earl of Richmond’s victory and success. The predictions hold true. The next day, Richard, fighting desperately, is slain in battle by Richmond, after crying out the offer of his ill-gotten kingdom for a horse, his own killed under him. The earl mounts the throne and marries Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the houses of York and Lancaster and ending the feud.