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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*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

*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

(Shakespeare for Students)

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 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 entire section is 1,381 words.)