One of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, he is as complete a villain as you’d ever hope (not) to meet. He has slowly been coming to prominence in the tetralogy, and in this last of the four he now makes his move to become king.
In the very first scene, Richard (also known as Gloucester) delivers one of the most-quoted lines of all: “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York”.
We left Henry Part three, with Edward IV and the other Yorkists celebrating their victory over the Lancastrian rose. Richard is there too, but in a powerful soliloquy tells us he’s “determined to prove a villain”, and will indeed do anything to gain the crown. He is described as a deformed hunchback who cannot claim a woman, so he has no other outlet for his energies than plotting to gain the crown.
“G” is important, for there is a prophecy that Edward’s heirs will be killed by G. Edward thinks it’s his brother George of Clarence, forgetting about the more sinister Gloucester. Richard plays on this fear of Edward’s, and George is put into the Tower.
Ever an eye to the main chance, Richard resolves to woo and marry the young widow Lady Ann, despite her knowing that he killed both her husband (Edward, the late Lancastrian Prince of Wales) and her father. Interrupting the funeral cortege, he uses silky words to woo Ann, even handing her his sword so she can kill him, ultimately convincing her to marry him (puts the lie to his earlier claim?). Poor Ann. She leaves, and Richard tells us that he will discard her once she serves her purpose.
While Queen Margaret returns, and berates Richard to the gathered court and warns them of him, Richard moves to remove his older brother George (aka Duke of Clarence). He sends two assassins to the Tower of London with a warrant signed by the King. After trying and failing to deter them, one of the assassins kills George and puts him in a barrel of Malmsey wine.
The King sickens even more on hearing this news, and dies. Richard becomes Lord Protector of young Prince Edward, to rule until Edward comes of age.
Richard wants to consolidate his grip on power, and executes a number of the relatives of the Queen. The young Prince and his brother are more than a match for him in intelligence and wit, however, and Richard fears them. He somehow manages to get them to agree to stay in the Tower for their protection.
Along with his cousin Buckingham, Richard now makes a bold play for the crown, by pretending he doesn’t want it. Rumours are spread about the supposed illegitimacy of the Princes, and once crowned Richard asks Buckingham to arrange their murder. When Buckingham hesitates, Richard gets Tyrrell to do it. Buckingham now turns against Richard, and becomes his enemy.
So – Richard is now King, all obvious heirs are eliminated, and the country is behind him. Things have worked out just perfect, right?
Well, not quite.
An army is being formed by Richmond in France, to invade England. Buckingham has defected to Richmond. Richard’s own mother has turned against him, and curses him to die in battle. The general populace did not take kindly to the deaths of the Princes.
Richard is still uncertain of his crown, so moves to gain a better marriage. He spreads rumours that Lady Ann is sick, then he has her killed by poison. This behaviour causes a real momentum shift away from Richard, who is becoming increasingly paranoid. Richard tries to seduce the young princess Elizabeth, and asks her mother (widow Queen Elizabeth) for her hand. The older woman manages to put off the King, telling him the answer will be delivered in due course. In reality, young Elizabeth is already promised to the invading Richmond.
Richard then meets and defeats his former ally Buckingham, and executes him. The drama then moves to the famous Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard and Richmond will face off. The night before, Richard falls asleep while working on his battle strategy, and gets visited by all the ghosts of his murder victims. It must have been one crowded tent! They urge him to “despair and die”. As Richard wakes, screaming for “Jesus”, he realises that he is in fact all alone.
On Bosworth Field, Richard suffers more defections, and militarily becomes compromised. At the battle climax, he is unhorsed. Wildly, he calls “A horse, a horse! My Kingdom for a horse!”. Richmond then shows up, and kills Richard.
Richmond goes on then to marry Elizabeth, and become Henry VII.
Richard III: Unreconstructed villain. He has absolutely no qualms about killing to get the crown, and no-one is exempt. He is charming and manipulative. Also, the worst brother in history.
Queen Margaret: The bitter Queen, haunts the palace and feels she is an irrelevance. She places curses on people. However, we should remember how she treated Richard’s brother in the last play, so she is as much to blame for her own misfortune as anyone.
Richmond: The future Henry VII (and grandfather to Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s sovereign, which of course in no way affects the playwright’s objectivity), he kills Richard. He arrives late into the play, and achieves peace through war.
Lady Anne: A curious character, in that she knowingly marries the killer of her husband and father. Easily manipulated by the master manipulator? Or was she not really mourning the deaths? Does she have an agenda, or just weak? She finds him initially as a “foul toad”, then “to be a marvellous proper Man” when compared to her dead husband.
The Princes: Smart, witty, and articulate – they would have made great Kings had they lived. Although young, they are very aware of the dangers around them, and don’t fully trust Richard. Unfortunately, their age does work against them, and once in the Tower they are at the mercy of Richard.
Young Elizabeth: The sister of the two murdered Princes. She is effectively treated as a pawn in this medieval Game Of Thrones. Richard wanted to marry her, to create an alliance, but she ends up married to Richmond, thus uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster, and ending the War of the Roses.
Power: Richard craves power, and goes to ultimate lengths to get it and hold onto it. This tetralogy has seen power change hands multiple times, and a lot of bloodshed in the interim. Also, power is mainly a male preserve, with the women (with the possible exception of Margaret) being pawns.
Justice: Ultimately, the good guys win, and the bad guys get what they deserve. Richmond is seen as a divine right ruler, and is the only adult character who has not been corrupted by power.
Good v Evil: Richard is incomparably evil, and self-describes his evil in the opening soliloquy. Evil triumphs throughput the play, including even the murder of young innocents. Richard succeeds by dividing and conquering all those around him, by using their own selfish motives against them. Only the arrival of divine Richmond restores the balance, and good wins out.
This is Shakespeare’s second-longest play, and covers about 15 years in real-life history.
Richard was the last Plantagenet king, and his body was re-discovered buried under a Leicester city car park.
He suffered from scoliosis in real life – and was under five feet tall as an adult.
Lady Anne was in fact his first cousin once removed!
The famous line “Off with his head! So much for Buckingham!” was never actually in the play – Richard actually just said “Chop off his head”. The line was “embellished” in a 18th century interpretation of the play!
Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:
“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
“Make short shrift”
“Tower of strength”