The fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, Richard III dramatizes the final episode in the English War of the Roses, a dynastic struggle between the rival noble houses of Lancaster and York for control of the English monarchy that raged between 1455 and 1485. Detailing the rise and fall of Richard, duke of Gloucester, Shakespeare's drama takes considerable liberties in the depiction of history, characterizing its protagonist as a deformed, fiendish, and manipulative murderer who is willing to dispose of any man, woman, or child who stands between him and the throne of England. Though crowned king through his skillful machinations, Shakespeare's Richard enjoys his power only briefly before the Lancastrian earl of Richmond mounts an invasion from France destined to depose him. Richard dies in the ensuing Battle of Bosworth Field, and Richmond takes his place as King Henry VII, first of the English Tudor monarchs. While some have noted that Shakespeare's unfavorable portrait of Richard suggests a likely political motivation to please the reigning Elizabeth I, a Tudor queen, most observe that the dramatist's brilliant study of evil in Richard III far outweighs its potentially propagandistic qualities. Nevertheless, a number of late twentieth-century scholars have endeavored to situate the drama within its cultural and historical contexts, while others have continued to focus on Shakespeare's compelling figure of Richard, and the thematic issues that surround him.
Character-aligned study of Richard III, and indeed the vast majority of scholarship regarding the drama, has principally concerned itself with the charismatic villain who dominates the play. Bettie Anne Doebler (1974) follows this tradition by analyzing Richard as an allegorical embodiment of Vice. While Doebler acknowledges that Shakespeare furnished his Richard with an internal dimension, she nevertheless argues that most of his actions and reactions follow conventional patterns and are accompanied by the stock iconography of medieval and early Renaissance drama. Actor Anton Lesser (see Further Reading), who performed the role of Richard in Adrian Noble's 1988 staging of Richard III and its precursor Henry VI, considers the character's psychological motivations and development, and additionally concentrates on Richard's human qualities and the task of winning audience sympathy for him. Richard Marienstras (1995) explores another key element in Richard's characterization: the status of his physical deformity as a humpback. Marienstras studies productions that exaggerate Richard's misshapen form to a monstrous degree, and uses relevant Renaissance texts to reconstruct a multifaceted, symbolic understanding of this horrifying, diabolic, and uncontained stage presence. Among the other characters in Richard III who have elicited significant criticism, the drama's four women—Queen Margaret, Lady Anne, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth—are often viewed collectively as the play's “grieving chorus.” Penny Downie (1993) describes her interpretation of Queen Margaret for Adrian Noble's production of Richard III in 1988. The actress relates her efforts to humanize Margaret—a figure generally remembered for her mad, cursing speeches—and to convey the emotional gravity of her suffering.
Mirroring the extensive critical focus on the figure of Richard in Richard III, stage production of the drama has traditionally concentrated on this title role, with the quality of Richard's performance generally seen as the major barometer of theatrical success. Additionally, the drama has occupied a unique position between stage and film since Laurence Olivier's pivotal celluloid adaptation of the work in 1955. Olivier, working as both the star and director, created one of the most highly acclaimed and influential Shakespearean films ever produced. In his 2000 study of Richard III on film, Christopher Andrews surveys Olivier's adaptation, as well as other film adaptations of the drama, and analyzes the paths taken by Olivier, and later by actors Ron Cooke and Ian McKellen, in cultivating audience sympathy for Shakespeare's notorious hero-villain. In another look at Richard III on film, Kathy M. Howlett (2000) probes director Richard Loncraine's 1995 adaptation, starring Ian McKellen. Regarding the work's imaginative reconstruction of the past and stylistic setting in fascist, 1930s Europe, Howlett notes a process of deforming and manipulating history suggested in the play and highlighted in Loncraine's film. Turning to Richard III on stage, director Michael Grandage mounted a major theatrical performance of the drama in 2002 at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield. Exploiting the enduring attractiveness of its central role to leading actors, the production featured noted film star Kenneth Branagh as a haughty, calculating, and amoral Richard. Critical assessments of the production generally focus on Branagh's performance. Reviewer Toby Young admires Branagh's repulsive, “reptilian” Richard, but contends that he felt no sympathy for the doomed king. Likewise, Matt Wolf credits Grandage with compiling a satisfying Richard III and lauds Branagh's fascinating stage presence and verbal agility. Stephen Brown sums up a consensus of the production by acknowledging that Branagh's Richard, while technically flawless, so completely dominated the stage that he detracted from the seriousness of the violence and suffering of the play. The result was, according to Brown, “a very good production, rather than a great one.”
Late twentieth-century thematic criticism of Richard III, while confronting a range of topics, has almost invariably maintained a link to the drama's protagonist and to the principles he represents. Primarily examining formal and structural elements in the work, L. C. Knights (1962) observes that Shakespeare combined the dramatic conventions of skilled orator, satirical commentator, Machiavellian schemer, and scorned villain into the psychological framework of Richard's character, and contends that the final product far exceeds the limitations of a traditional morality play. Probing Richard's psychology as well as the structural patterns of the drama, Michael Neill (see Further Reading) stresses the motif of self-division as the work's thematic touchstone, and applies the concept to individuals, family dynasties, and the entire English body politic. Building upon this argument, Neill finds that the internal ironies of Richard III should be viewed as cosmic rather than moral, as his ascent toward a worldly omnipotence ultimately invokes a Godly wrath upon Richard. Vance Adair (1997) applies the tools of Lacanian psychoanalysis to Richard III in order to draw symbolic associations between Richard's monstrous form and the problematic reconstruction of history. In his survey of the drama, Antony Hammond (see Further Reading) studies character, language, and imagery in Richard III, and additionally highlights themes that the work shares with the other plays of Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, such as the depiction of revenge and retribution, loss, and the providential progress of history. Lastly, John Jowett (2000) concentrates on prophecies of revenge, dream-visions, and pangs of conscience that culminate in the play's depiction of a sacred, redemptive English destiny temporarily perverted by Richard's profane acts of violence.