Richard III Summary

Richard III is a play by William Shakespeare in which the manipulative Richard uses cruel and dishonest methods to usurp the throne of England.

  • In the wake of the War of the Roses, Richard's brother Edward reigns as the King of England. However, the treacherous Richard plots to take the throne for himself.

  • Richard has his brothers killed and manipulates Anne, the widow of the deceased Prince of Wales, into marrying him. This cements his power and he begins persecuting his enemies.

  • Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, rallies against the increasingly tyrannical Richard and takes the throne, thus establishing the Tudor dynasty.


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Richard III is the last of the four plays in Shakespeare's minor tetralogy of English history: it concludes a dramatic chronicle started by Henry VI: Part I and then moving through Henry VI: Part II and Henry VI: Part III. The entire four-play saga was composed early in Shakespeare's career, most scholars assigning Richard III a composition date of 1591 or 1592. Culminating with the defeat of the evil King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth field in the play's final act, Richard III is a dramatization of actual historical events that concluded in the year 1485, when the rule of the Plantagenet family over England was replaced by the Tudor monarchy. A full century after these events, Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences were certainly familiar with them (as contemporary Americans are of their own Civil War), and they were particularly fascinated with the character of Richard III. Shakespeare's audiences could readily identify the various political factions and complex family relationships depicted in the play as they proceed from the three parts of Henry VI.

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Today, readers and audiences may find it exceedingly difficult to follow the overlapping webs of political intrigue, family relationships, and personal vendettas. Fortunately, while a full knowledge of historical context would certainly enhance a modern reading of the text, it is not really necessary. The play, in fact, is dominated by Richard the hunchback Duke of Gloucester, who becomes Richard III through a series of horrible acts, killing off his enemies, his kinsmen, his wife and most of his supporters before reaching the Battle of Bosworth and crying out "My kingdom for a horse." In a work that is as much melodrama as history, Richard is a pure, self-professed villain of monstrous proportions. His evil drives the plot; and until his final defeat by the Duke of Richmond (who became Henry VII) in the play's last act, the good forces opposing him are weak, splintered, and ready prey for his schemes.


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After the conclusion of the wars between the houses of York and Lancaster, Edward IV is firmly restored to the throne. Before long, however, his treacherous brother Richard, the hunchbacked duke of Gloucester, resumes his plans for gaining the throne. Craftily he removes one obstacle in his path when he turns the king against the third brother, the duke of Clarence (whose given name is George) by telling the king of an ancient prophecy that his issue will be disinherited by one of the royal line whose name begins with the letter G. Clarence is immediately arrested and taken to the Tower. Richard goes to him, pretending sympathy, and advises him that the jealousy and hatred of Queen Elizabeth are responsible for his imprisonment. After promising to help his brother secure his freedom, Richard, as false in word as he is cruel in deed, gives orders that Clarence be stabbed in his cell and his body placed in a barrel of malmsey wine.

Hoping to make his position even stronger, Richard then makes plans to marry Lady Anne, the widow of Prince Edward, the former Prince of Wales whose father is the murdered Henry VI. Edward was slain by Richard and his brothers after the battles ended, and Lady Anne and Henry’s widow,...

(The entire section contains 1458 words.)

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