As the play opens, Richard announces his evil intent: since his deformity will not let him be a lover, he will be a villain. In spite of his villainy, however, there is an ingenuity and bravado in Richard that compels the audience’s admiration.
In order to take over the throne from his brother, Edward IV, and his rightful heirs, Richard has one other brother killed; woos and marries Anne, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter (even though he had earlier killed her husband and father); and, after Edward’s death, has his two young nephews murdered. Toward the play’s close, after Anne has died, Richard is trying to arrange a marriage with his niece, Edward’s daughter, so that there will be no rival claims to the throne. Before Richard can achieve this goal, however, Henry of Richmond defeats him in battle.
Throughout this play, an Elizabethan audience would have been aware of the Wars of the Roses, an event of comparatively recent history. In that bloody dispute between the houses of York and Lancaster for the throne, Edward IV’s reign was a triumph for the house of York, but Henry, Earl of Richmond, was a Lancastrian, and his defeat of Richard and later marriage with Elizabeth of York finally united the families in peace. Richmond ushered in the Tudor dynasty culminating in the rule of Elizabeth I. On this level, the play, with its closing speech promising prosperity and an end to civil strife, is Shakespeare’s compliment to his queen.
The melodramatic events of this play are complemented by Shakespeare’s early, highly theatrical style. There is an abundance of wordplay, for example, a style Shakespeare would later abandon for more natural speech. Touches of the supernatural also add to the theatricality of this play: The last act shows Richard and Richmond on the eve of battle, being visited by the ghosts of Richard’s victims, each of whom blesses Richmond and damns Richard. Such theatrical scenes make this play one of Shakespeare’s most arresting character studies.
Farrell, Kirby. “Prophetic Behavior in Shakespeare’s Histories.” Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 17-40. Refers to historical prophecies in examining various kinds of prophecy in the play, both conscious and unconscious.
Hamel, Guy. “Time in Richard...
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