Places Discussed

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*Westminster Palace

*Westminster Palace. London residence of the rulers of England from the eleventh through sixteenth centuries (later used for the Houses of Parliament), alongside the River Thames, near Westminster Abbey. Built by William the Conqueror, the palace was long the central locus of both the home of the royal family and the royal court. In this play its dynamics are volatile, given the presence of the Yorkist king Edward IV and his kin, victorious but internally divided, and the widows of the defeated Lancastrian king Henry VI and his Prince of Wales. The palace as crucible of Richard’s power is compared metaphorically to his mother’s womb, which she herself calls “The bed of death” for nurturing her “damned son,” and to the womb of the Princess Elizabeth, where Richard expects to legitimize his reign.

*Tower of London

*Tower of London. Ancient, fearful edifice where King Henry VI, the last Lancastrian king, was imprisoned and killed. The prison threatens everyone who may stand in the way of Richard’s kingship. It sees the confinement and murder of Richard’s brother Clarence, the queen’s relatives and supporters (killed at Pomfret Castle), King Edward’s sons and heirs, and Lord Chamberlain Hastings, who calls the tower a “slaughterhouse.”


*Tewkesbury (TEWKS-behr-ee). Town on the Severn River in west-central England, north-northeast of Gloucester, near which the Lancastrian army was defeated by Yorkist forces in 1471. The battlefield is continually referred to in the play, as the characters relive scenes of the murders of the Lancastrian prince of Wales and Richard’s father and youngest brother. The battle is a monument to the families’ hatred.

*Bosworth Field

*Bosworth Field. Place in central England near Leicester that was the site of the most famous battle of the War of the Roses, in 1485, that is the setting for the last battle in William Shakespeare’s play. Here Richard is defeated and killed, ending his evil rule afoot and alone, speaking his most famous words, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” The victor is the earl of Richmond, who is crowned King Henry VII. He became the first Tudor king and was grandfather to Queen Elizabeth I, during whose reign this play was written.

Modern Connections

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While Richard III works as a sequel to Shakespeare's trilogy, Henry VI, Part One, Two, and Three, it can be read and performed as an independent unit, and as such it remains one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. A key to the play's popularity is its title character, Richard, whose particular brand of wickedness has withstood the test of time. Elizabethan audiences went to the theater for the same reason that we attend movies— to be entertained. Unlike most people today, however, Elizabethans were very familiar with the history of the Wars of the Roses and of Richard's rise and fall from power. To keep his audience interested in what was otherwise a well-known and sometimes dry historical account, Shakespeare had to make Richard a fascinating character, one who speaks directly to the spectators and thus involves them in his own plots, and who jokes about both himself and his victims.

Another factor which might have contributed to Richard III's early popularity was that royal succession, or the order according to which a person lawfully and rightfully becomes monarch, was an issue that greatly concerned English citizens during Shakespeare's time because their aging queen— Elizabeth I—was unmarried and had no heirs. Additionally, the fact that Elizabeth was England's lawful queen did not prevent challenges to her power. In 1588 Philip II of Spain sent his...

(This entire section contains 646 words.)

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Armada in hope of defeating Elizabeth; earlier, in 1587, Elizabeth found it necessary to execute Mary, queen of Scots, who had also posed a threat to her rule. So a play about an ambitious nobleman plotting to become king was very relevant to Shakespeare's audience.

Today, some producers of Richard III try to recapture this relevance by updating the play's setting. Thus the 1995 film version of Richard III takes place during the 1930s and features tanks and machine guns rather than body armor and swords; what's more, actor lan McKellen's portrayal of a sadistic and unpredictable Richard reminds us of such dictators as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.

Because the personality of Richard, rather than the issue of the Wars of the Roses, is of most interest to modern audiences, many productions today attempt to simplify the play's action by entirely deleting Queen Margaret—Richard's most vocal adversary in the dynastic struggle—and instead focus more closely on Richard himself and the motivation for the evil he commits. Both Ian McKellen's Richard III and Laurence Olivier's 1955 film version of the play leave Margaret out of the script.

With or without a modern setting or the elimination of Margaret's character, Richard III remains a compelling play. Richard is like a soap opera villain: he is spectacularly wicked but pretends to be honest and caring in order to confuse his victims; he betrays his friends and family and shifts the blame for his betrayals onto unsuspecting others. As Richard himself puts it: "The secret mischiefs that I set abroach / I lay unto the grievous charge of others" (I.iii.324-25). So, for example, he feigns shock and distress upon seeing his brother George being led off to jail and blames the queen for his brother's misfortune, even though Richard is himself responsible for having gotten George imprisoned and will shortly plot to have George murdered. Likewise, Richard reproaches Queen Elizabeth and her family for turning the king against him, even while he is slandering them behind their backs and plotting their destruction. To attain power, he will go so far as to risk ruining his own mother's reputation by spreading the rumor that her eldest son, King Edward IV, is illegitimate. Finally, with power nearly in his grasp and in true soap opera fashion, Richard pretends that he is not at all ambitious—that he does not want to rule but will do so only if the people insist—which by now of course they do, seduced and confused as they are by his duplicity.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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*If available, books are linked to

Becker, George J. Shakespeare's Histories. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977.

Boris, Edna Z. Shakespeare's English Kings: The People and the Law. Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickenson University Press, 1978.

Churchill,G.B. Richard the Third up to Shakespeare. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1900/1976.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965/1978.

Knights, Lionel Charles. William Shakespeare: The Histories. London: Longmans, Green & Company, 1962.

Leech, Clifford. William Shakespeare: The Chronicles. London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1962.

Richmond, Hugh M. Shakespeare's Political Plays. New York: Random House, 1967.

Spivack, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Tillyard, E.M.W. Shakespeare's History Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1944.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1939.

Watson, Robert N. Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Wells, Stanley. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.


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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 III.” Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 41-49. Examines how time is used in the play and how Shakespeare constructs relationships between various references to time.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. Songs of Death: Performance, Interpretation, and the Text of “Richard III.” Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. Examines the play from various angles, including the theatrical and acting history of the play, the role of Providence, and the characters and their motives.

Miner, Madonne M. “‘Neither Mother, Wife, nor England’s Queen’: The Roles of Women in Richard III.” In William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. The three sections of the essay examine the depth of characterization given to the women and their interactions. Also discusses the imagery of femaleness in the play.

Neill, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III.” In William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Examines the idea of theatricality in the play. Neill argues that Richard, like Hamlet, is an actor in the dramatic events that surround him.