Richard III, written circa 1592, is the fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy. The play recounts the rise and fall of Richard III, the end of the Wars of the Roses, and the beginning of Tudor peace. Religious concerns, among them the notion of divine providence, underscore the action of the play and are a source of modern critical interest. Richard III also features four women—the Duchess of York, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and Lady Anne—who are often viewed collectively as the play's “grieving chorus” rather than as individuals. A number of critics focus their attention on the function of these women in the play. In addition, a wealth of critical analyses center on the character of Richard, who generates mixed emotions in audiences who are repulsed by his villainy, entertained by his wit, and seduced by his words. Full of potent dreams, curses, and omens, Richard III is in some ways structured by prophesy, an issue that interests scholars who observe that most of the predictions in the play come true.
Richard III is often characterized as allegory, with Richard playing the role of the villain-king who is scourged by God. According to the standard allegorical reading, Richard is used as God's instrument in restoring the throne of England to God's chosen ruler, Richmond, whose union with Elizabeth generates the house of Tudor. Clifford Chalmers Huffman (1982) analyzes this reading and finds that the play offers an alternative to this perspective. Huffman maintains that God's mercy also plays a role in Richard III, allowing many scenes—such as Richard's self-scrutiny, the wooing of Anne, and Clarence's dream—to be read in such a way that allows Richard's tragedy of character, rather than his allegorical status, to become the play's focus. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1985) identifies the play's allusions to St. Paul and notes that St. Paul, like Richard, was marked by physical deformity and known as a skilled rhetorician and debater. Additionally, Hassel compares the “argument” of the play to that of Revelation, and finds that while the Book of Revelation focuses on prophecies concerned with the last days and the punishment of God's enemies, the scope of Richard III is limited to the last days of the Wars of Roses. The critic also contends that while the characters in the play may have allegorical counterparts, the play is not strict allegory; Richard is “devilish,” but does not represent Satan, and Richmond is Christ-like, but not a Christ-figure. Hugh M. Richmond (1984) centers his attention on the rather substantial religious vocabulary of the play, demonstrating the way in which Richard III reflects the religious tensions of Shakespeare's time. The critic maintains that by reversing medieval conventions, Shakespeare exploited the conflict between Protestants and humanists.
Richard's “devilishness,” as well as his other intriguing qualities, has made the title character the focal point of many critical analyses. Some critics, including Michael Neill (1976), note that although Shakespeare drew from traditional source material that depicted Richard as a Machiavellian, or as the Vice-figure of morality plays, Shakespeare was able to create a character with startling psychological depth. Larry S. Champion (see Further Reading) focuses more intensely on the subject of source material, tracing the literary depictions of the historical Richard III to one of the earliest accounts (written between 1489 and 1491) in which Richard is portrayed as demonic. Like Neill, the critic observes that although Shakespeare was constrained by the Tudor myth developed by the authors of his source material, he was able to give new life to a character previously stylized as the figure of evil. This long-standing characterization of Richard as the embodiment of evil has been examined by critics attempting to better understand this aspect of his character. Janette Dillon (see Further Reading) demonstrates that for Shakespeare, Richard's deformity stood for more than a warning of the evil deeds he would later commit; rather, it served as a symbol of Richard's innate “unnaturalness,” an outward sign of his inner corruption. Tzachi Zamir (1998) is also concerned with the relationship between Richard's physical state and his villainy. Examining the way Richard discusses his appearance in soliloquy, Zamir points out that to Richard, ugliness is not merely a condition, but rather, a consequence of something. This suggests to Zamir that there is a vengeful quality in Richard's villainy. Dolores M. Burton (1981) focuses on the way Richard uses language, particularly in the first act of the play. Burton notes that each major scene in the first act can be viewed as a separate dramatic unit, with each possessing its own style. Investigating this variety of both incident and language, Burton finds that Richard demonstrates a gradual mastery over persuasive rhetoric as the act progresses. Ralph Berry (1984) examines with the way Richard bonds with the audience, and how this bond contributes to the success of the play. Berry explains that Richard establishes a bond with the audience through a variety of methods, such as soliloquies and asides, the use of double meanings and word-play, and the use of colloquial expressions designed to appeal to a bourgeois audience. Berry also explores the audience's support and later abandonment of the “villain-hero.”
The women in the play—the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Margaret, and Lady Anne—also draw a great deal of critical attention. Phyllis Rackin (1996) observes that Shakespeare's portrayal of female characters in his history plays changed dramatically from Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 to Richard III, and contends that this shift corresponds to Shakespeare's increasing interest in the tragic genre. Rackin goes on to demonstrate the ways in which the women of Richard III, though ennobled, are also disempowered. Finally, the critic maintains that the women are defined by their relationship to English kings, and they all support the conclusion of the play's historical plot, that is, the founding of the house of Tudor. Challenging critics such as Rackin who state that the women of the play do not have individual power, Shirley Carr Mason (1997) argues that the women, both individually and within various groupings, serve as Richard's antagonists in the first four acts of the play. Taking another approach, Harold F. Brooks (1980) focuses on Shakespeare's adaptation of the female characters from his source materials, noting that the women's primary scenes, such as the wooing of Anne and the “wailing royal women,” were not derived from the chronicles Shakespeare consulted. Contending that Seneca inspired Shakespeare's portrayal of the women, Brooks demonstrates the way in which each of the four women corresponds to one of the four in Seneca's Troades.
Richard III contains a number of prophetic dreams, omens, and curses. Queen Margaret utters numerous curses and predictions, many of which come to pass by the play's end. Margaret prays for the death of King Edward and his heirs, and curses Lord Hastings and Earl Rivers with an early death. She wishes a life of misery for Queen Elizabeth and sleepless nights and ruin for Richard. Finally, she predicts that Richard will betray Buckingham. Clarence, the brother of King Edward and Richard, is haunted by a dream the night before he is murdered. Famous for images of shipwrecks and drowning, the dream, it has been argued, foreshadows the tenuous condition of England under Richard's reign. Many critics, including Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Kristian Smidt (1982), focus on the role of such prophetic elements in Richard III. Garber maintains that the dream episodes in the play operate as metaphors for the larger action. Examining in particular Margaret's curses, Clarence's dream, and the “haunting nightmare of Bosworth field,” Garber explores the way omens and apparitions fix the limits of the world of the play. Similarly, Smidt demonstrates the way in which predictions, prophesies, curses, and dreams structure the play, observing that nearly all predictions are fulfilled.