Act I Summary

Scene 1
The play opens in an unidentified street of London around the year 1480. Richard of Gloucester, the chief protagonist of the play, is the brother of King Edward IV and of George, the Duke of Clarence, most often called "Clarence" in the play. Alone on stage, the figure of Richard, misshapen with a hunchback from his premature birth, first tells us that the recent civil wars between the houses of Lancaster and York are now over, that Richard's side (York) is victorious, but that he himself is discontent. Being "ill-formed" by nature, Richard is not suited to peaceful times when romance holds sway. That being so, he is "determined to prove a villain." He has laid a plot against his own brother, Clarence, inciting his other brother (the recently crowned King Edward) to arrest the innocent Clarence by pouring "drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams" into the King's ear. After this extensive opening soliloquy is done, Clarence appears in the custody of the king's guards, headed for the prison Tower of London. Richard pretends to sympathize with Clarence, blaming King Edward's wife (Queen Elizabeth, born the Lady Grey) for Clarence's plight. Clarence is led away, and the recently jailed Lord Hastings arrives with news that the new King is gravely ill. When he departs, Richard has another opportunity to disclose his plans for his brother, saying that he will engineer Clarence's execution because his brother is an obstacle to his own regal ambitions. Incredibly, he also reveals that he plans to marry the Lady Anne, whose husband (Edward, Prince of Wales) he helped to murder at the end of Henry VI: Part III.

Scene 2
In another London street, we see the Lady Anne attending the funeral of Henry VI, her former father-in-law, a fallen monarch whom Richard of Gloucester also had a hand in killing. Richard then enters, and though he denies any involvement in the deaths of her husband and her...

(The entire section is 717 words.)

Act II Summary

Scene 1
The action shifts back to the royal palace where we see a gravely-ill King Edward IV anticipating his own death and trying to resolve the rancor that still divides his court into vengeful camps. Richard then arrives and reports that Clarence has been executed. Edward is deeply disturbed by this report, for he reversed his own punishment decree of his brother. The dying king expresses remorse at this sad turn of events as Richard feigns complete innocence.

Scene 2
In another room of the palace, the two young sons of the murdered Clarence and their grandmother (the old Duchess of York, Richard's own mother) are on stage. She denies that Clarence is dead, but one of the boys says that his father has been killed at the order of King Richard and that he knows this because his good uncle, Richard of Gloucester, told him so. She curses her son Richard, but the boys refuse to believe that he is behind their father's death. Queen Elizabeth arrives with word that her ailing husband, King Edward, has died. The villain Richard then appears accompanied by Buckingham and several other members of his party, including the nobles Hastings, Stanley, and Ratcliffe. Plans are made to bring one of the dead king's two young sons, the Prince of Wales, to London for coronation as the new monarch. When everyone leaves except for Richard and Buckingham, the two speak of their ultimate plan to make Richard himself England's next king.

Scene 3
An example of a common Shakespearean device, the scene consists of three citizens speaking about the turbulent events that have already taken place and the dangers that lie ahead for England. They do not want to be ruled by a boy (the Prince of Wales) and they fear the Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is "full of danger." The prospect of still more civil wars lies ahead.

Scene 4
Back at the palace, the widowed queen, the Duchess of York, and the younger brother of the Prince of Wales (also a boy) speak of the impending arrival of the Prince of Wales for his coronation as successor to Edward IV's throne. Word arrives that Richard of Gloucester has had several of their family members and political allies jailed. Hearing this, the Queen says that she will flee London with her younger boy, rightfully fearing Richard's plans to put them out of the way.

Act III Summary

Scene 1
On a street in London, the young Prince of Wales arrives and meets with his uncle Richard and his confederate Buckingham. Richard tells the young prince that he and his younger brother are to be housed in the Tower of London until the ceremony takes place. The young Prince of Wales says that he does not like the Tower; and in an exchange with his uncle Richard, the youth shows himself to be wise beyond his years, and we sense that he sees through Richard's false, tender front. The Prince's younger brother arrives, and the two are sent to the Tower to repose. When the other characters exit, Richard conspires with Buckingham. He says that he has sent the noble Catesby to sound out Lord Hastings about...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Act IV Summary

Scene 1
Before the Tower of London, with the widowed Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York speaking with Lady Anne (who has, in fact, become the villain Richard's wife). The mother and grandmother of the two boy princes are told that Richard will not permit them to visit the young royals. Lord Stanley enters with word that Richard of Gloucester is now King Richard III. He assists the Queen and the Duchess to make plans for escape. Lady Anne realizes that Richard is a villain, but she must be crowned as his new queen.

Scene 2
At the royal palace, King Richard III speaks with Buckingham and tells him that he wants the two princes dead. Buckingham, however, is not completely...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Act V Summary

Scene 1
At an open place near Salisbury, the captured Buckingham is led away to execution, ruing his involvement with Richard and the assassination of Henry VI.

Scene 2
At a camp on the English coast, Richmond relishes the prospect of relieving England of Richard's yoke of tyranny and accepts the message that Stanley is only on Richard's side because of the coercive threat to his son.

Scene 3
On Bosworth Field (where the remainder of the play unfolds), Richard and his remaining loyal allies appear in a tent on one side of the stage, while Richmond and his rebels are seen in a tent on the other side of the stage. Lord Stanley enters and goes to Richmond's tent, promising that he will try to sabotage Richard's battle plans by delaying the arrival of forces under his command. Between the two tents a succession of ghosts appears—Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughn, the murdered princes, Hastings, Lady Anne and Buckingham—each of whom accuses the sleeping Richard of the foul deeds committed against them and curses his cause and then blesses the sleeping Richmond. Richard awakes and acknowledges his guilt; Richmond awakes ready for the battle at hand. Richmond addresses his troops, appealing to their patriotism; Richard speaks to his men, disparaging the enemy as lowly scum. Word arrives that Lord Stanley refuses to march into battle; Richard orders the execution of Stanley's son, but delays action until the battle of Bosworth Field has been won.

Scene 4
On the battlefield, we learn that Richard has fought like a man possessed, seeking out Richmond on foot because his own horse has been slain. Richard appears, crying out "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

Scene 5
In the plays final scene, Richard and Richmond come together in hand-to-hand combat, and Richard is slain. Stanley arrives and learns that no harm has come to his son. The crown of England is offered to Richmond. He, in turn, says that he will now marry the daughter of Queen Elizabeth, uniting the families of York and Lancaster, and thereby bringing England's protracted civil wars to an end.