Richard III (c. 1592-93), the fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, dramatizes the final episode in the English Wars 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. The play chronicles the rise and fall of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is depicted 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. Critics have noted that Shakespeare's unfavorable portrait of Richard III suggests a likely political motivation to please the reigning Elizabeth I, a Tudor queen. The vast majority of scholarship regarding Richard III has focused on the play's diabolical titular character, whom many critics consider as one of Shakespeare's most brilliant portraits of evil.
Richard's villainous yet charismatic character is compelling to actors, audiences, and especially critics. Scholars such as Mary Ann McGrail (2001) have attempted to determine how Richard's wickedness functions as a response to his own deformed body and to the world in which he lives. McGrail contends that Richard's decision to play the usurper and tyrant is a direct result of his resentment of nature's malformation of his body, and argues that Richard's belief that no one can love his deformed body is what drives him to seek vengeance against his world and the people in it. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1987) focuses on two of the play's female characters: Queen Elizabeth, mother of the two young princes (whom Richard orders assassinated), and the younger Elizabeth (whom Richard wishes to marry). Hassel asserts that Queen Elizabeth is smarter and less naive than some of her earlier critics have suggested, especially in her dealings with Richard. The critic notes that although it appears that Richard successfully persuades Queen Elizabeth to hand over her daughter in marriage in Act IV's “wooing scene,” the Queen is in fact protecting her daughter and herself with language that might sound like acquiescence, but is actually delay.
Richard III, one of Shakespeare's most popular plays on the stage, has long been a favorite of audiences as well as actors, who consider the character of Richard to be one of the most desired Shakespearean roles. Markland Taylor (1999) praises director Tina Packer's 1999 Shakespeare and Co. production of Richard III as a “blessedly straightforward and vital telling of an endlessly bloody tale of a physically and psychically deformed man proving himself a villain.” Patrick Carnegy (2001) commends Michael Boyd's 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production for achieving “a play balanced as Shakespeare intended it.” Carnegy notes that Boyd focused less exclusively on the character of Richard so that the other characters received their proper due, particularly the female characters. In a review of Barry Kyle's 2003 production for the Globe Theatre, Sheridan Morley (2003) points out that while Kyle held to the tradition of Richard's physical deformity as a key to his character, he opened up the possibilities of the play by using an all-female cast. The critic notes that “[t]his Richard III asks whether the king is inherently evil, or just the intelligent but warped product of an unloved and unloving family.”
Many critics, such as Jack E. Trotter (1993), contend that an important theme of Richard III is Richard's disgust with the world of flesh and his attempt to conquer the inadequacies of nature, particularly as they are revealed by his own body. Trotter sees strong evidence of this theme in Act I during Richard's courtship of Lady Anne. The critic suggests that Richard's contempt for Lady Anne, once he easily convinces her to be his wife, is not simply an indication of his hatred of women, but more importantly is a symbol of his disgust with the flesh in general. Similarly, Marie A. Plasse (1995) argues that Richard uses his malformed body as an excuse to behave wickedly. In other words, Plasse explains, Richard feels that he is trapped in a twisted body and is therefore ideally shaped for twisted acts, such as imprisoning or murdering his enemies. Richard W. Grinnell (1997) argues that Richard III can be read as a critique of Renaissance society. Grinnell compares the transforming powers of the theater with those of witchcraft and observes that while Richard relies on both to destroy his enemies, Shakespeare employed them as metaphors through which he critiques his society. Ramie Targoff (2002) connects the repeated use of the word “amen” in the play with the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty and attempts to determine whether the “amens” at the end of the play represent “an enthusiastic or only halfhearted endorsement of Henry's rule.”