The Tragedy of King Richard the Third is William Shakespeare's version of the short career of Richard III of England, who receives a singularly unflattering depiction. The play is sometimes interpreted as a tragedy (as it is called in its earliest quarto); however, it more correctly belongs among the histories, as it is does in the First Folio. It is a Shakespearean attempt to adapt history into theatre. It picks up the story from Henry VI, Part III and is the conclusion of the series that stretches back to Richard II. It is the second longest of Shakespeare's 38 plays, after Hamlet. The length is generally seen as a drawback and the play is rarely performed unabridged. It is often shortened by cutting out various peripheral characters.
Richard III is believed to be one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, preceded only by the three parts of Henry VI. It is believed to have been written in 1592, with its first publication in 1602.
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.
The play begins with Richard describing the accession to the throne of his brother, King Edward IV of England, eldest son of the late Richard, Duke of York.
Now is the winter of our discontent
The speech reveals Richard's jealousy and ambition, as his brother, King Edward the Fourth rules the country successfully. Richard is an ugly hunchback, describing himself as "rudely stamp'd" and "deformed, unfinish'd", who cannot "strut before a wanton ambling nymph." He responds to the anguish of his condition with an outcast's credo: "I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days." Richard plots to have his brother Clarence, who stands before him in the line of succession, conducted to the Tower of London over a prophecy that "G of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be" - which the king interprets as referring to George of Clarence (although the audience later realise that it was actually a reference to Richard of Gloucester).
Richard next ingratiates himself with "the Lady Anne" -- Anne Neville, widow of the Lancastrian Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. Richard confides to the audience, "I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter. What though I kill'd her husband and her father?" Despite her prejudice against him, Anne is won over by his pleas and agrees to marry him. This episode implies Richard's supreme skill in the art of insincere flattery.
The atmosphere at court is poisonous: the established nobles are at odds with the upwardly-mobile relatives of Queen Elizabeth, a hostility fueled by Richard's machinations. Queen Margaret, Henry VI's widow, returns in defiance of her banishment and warns the squabbling nobles about Richard. The nobles, Yorkists all, reflexively unite against this last Lancastrian, and the warning falls on deaf ears.
Edward IV, weakened by a reign dominated by physical excess, soon dies, leaving as Protector his brother Richard, who sets about removing the final obstacles to his ascension. He meets his nephew, the young Edward V, who is en route to London for his coronation accompanied by relatives of Edward's widow. These Richard arrests and (eventually) beheads, and the young prince and his brother are coaxed into an extended stay at the Tower of London.
Assisted by his cousin Buckingham (Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham), Richard mounts a PR campaign to present himself as a preferable candidate to the throne, appearing as a modest, devout man with no pretensions to greatness. Lord Hastings, who objects to Richard's ascension, is arrested and executed on a trumped-up charge. The other lords are cajoled into accepting Richard as king, in spite of the continued survival of his nephews (the Princes in the Tower).
His new status leaves Richard sufficiently confident to dispose of his nephews. Buckingham conditions his consent for the princes' deaths on receiving a land grant, which Richard rejects, leaving Buckingham fearful for his life. As the body count rises, the increasingly paranoid Richard loses what popularity he had; he soon faces rebellions led first by Buckingham and subsequently by the invading Earl of Richmond (Henry VII of England). Both sides arrive for a final battle at Bosworth Field. Prior to the battle, Richard is visited by the ghosts of those whose deaths he has caused, all of whom tell him to Despair and die! He awakes screaming for 'Jesu' (Jesus) to help him, slowly realizing that he is all alone in the world and that even he hates himself. Richard's language and undertones of self-remorse seem to indicate that, in the final hour, he is repentant for his evil deeds, however, it is too late.
As the battle commences, Richard gives arguably the least motivational pep-talk in English literature ("Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls; Conscience is but a word that cowards use... March on, join bravely, let us to't pell mell; If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell...."). Lord Stanley (who happens to be Richmond's step-father) and his followers desert, leaving Richard at a disadvantage. Richard is soon unhorsed on the field at the climax of the battle, and utters the often-quoted line, A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! He is defeated in the final "hunting of the boar", so to speak, and Richmond succeeds as Henry VII, even going so far as to marry a York, effectively ending the War of the Roses (to the evident relief of everyone involved).
In dramatic terms, perhaps the most important (and, arguably, the most entertaining) feature of the play is the sudden alteration in Richard's character. For the first 'half' of the play, we see him as something of an anti-hero, causing mayhem and enjoying himself hugely in the process:
I do mistake my person all this while;
Almost immediately after he is crowned, however, his personality and actions take a darker turn. He turns against loyal Buckingham ("I am not in the giving vein"), he falls prey to self-doubt ("I am in so far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin;"); now he sees shadows where none exist and visions of his doom to come ("Despair & die").
Depiction of Richard
Shakespeare's depiction of Richard and his "reign of terror" is unflattering, and modern historians find it a distortion of historical truth. Shakespeare's "history" plays were not, of course, intended to be historically accurate, but were designed for entertainment. As with Macbeth, Richard's supposed villainy is depicted as extreme in order to achieve maximum dramatic effect. In addition, many previous writers had depicted Richard as a villain, and Shakespeare was thus following tradition.
Nevertheless, it is important to question why this particular king became a symbol of villainy during the Elizabethan period. Critics have argued that this dark depiction of Richard developed because the ruling monarch of Shakespeare's time, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry VII of England the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond, who had defeated the last Yorkist king and started the Tudor dynasty, and Shakespeare's play thus presents the version of Richard that the ruling family would have wanted to see.
Shakespeare's main source for his play was the chronicle of Raphael Holinshed but it also seems likely that he drew on the work of Sir Thomas More author of the unfinished 'History of King Richard III' published by John Rastell after More's death. Rastell, More's brother-in-law, compiled the text from two work-in-progress manuscripts, one in English and one in Latin in different stages of composition. More's work is not a history in the modern sense. It is a highly coloured and literary account which contains accurate and invented details in (arguably) roughly equal portions. More had many sources available for his account (most of whom, like his patron Cardinal John Morton, were extremely hostile to the old regime) but like Shakespeare his main source is his own imagination: over a third of the text consists of invented speeches.
Richard III is the culmination of the cycle of "Wars of the Roses" plays. In Henry VI Part II and Henry VI Part III, Shakespeare had already begun the process of building Richard's character into that of a ruthless villain, even though Richard could not possibly have been involved in some of the events depicted. He participates in battles in which historically he would still have been a boy. From an overview of the cycle, it can be seen that Shakespeare's inaccuracy works both ways.
Shakespeare is not famous for his historical accuracy; this play is representative of his work in that respect. Queen Margaret did not in fact survive to see Richard's accession to the throne; her inclusion in the play is purely dramatic, providing first a warning to the other characters about Richard's true nature (which they of course ignore to their cost) and then a chorus-like commentary on how the various tragedies affecting the House of York reflect justice for the wrongs Richard performed against both Yorkists and Lancastrians ("I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him; I had a Henry, till a Richard kill'd him. Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him; Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him...").
It is perhaps strange that in presenting the cycle of vengeance Shakespeare omitted the fact that the real-life Richard himself had a son who died prematurely, which some contemporary historians viewed as divine retribution for the fate of Edward's sons - which of course Margaret would claim as retribution for the fate of her son. Shakespeare's Tudor patrons might have welcomed this additional demonstration of Richard's wickedness.
Despite the high violence of the play and the villainous nature of the title character, Shakespeare manages to infuse this play with a surprising amount of comic material. Much of the humor rises from the dichotomy between what we know Richard's character to be and how Richard tries to appear. The prime example is perhaps the portion of Act III, Scene 1, where Richard is forced to "play nice" with the young and mocking Duke of York. Other examples appear in Richard's attempts at acting, first in the matter of justifying Hastings' death and later in his coy response to being offered the crown.
Richard himself also provides some dry remarks in evaluating the situation, as when his plan to marry the Queen Elizabeth's daughter: "Murder her brothers, then marry her; Uncertain way of gain...."
Other examples of humor in this play include Clarence's ham-fisted and half-hearted murderers, and the Duke of Buckingham's report on his attempt to persuade the Londoners to accept Richard ("...I bid them that did love their country's good cry, God save Richard, England's royal king!" Richard: "And did they so?" Buckingham: "No, so God help me, they spake not a word....")
Puns, a Shakespearean staple, are especially well-represented in the scene where Richard tries to persuade Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter on his behalf.
The most famous player of the part in recent times was Laurence Olivier in his 1955 film version. His inimitable rendition has been satirised by many comedians including Peter Cook and Peter Sellers (who had aspirations to do the role straight). Sellers' version of A Hard Day's Night was delivered in the style of Olivier as Richard III. The first series of the BBC television comedy Blackadder in part parodies the Olivier film, visually (as in the crown motif), Peter Cook's performance as a Richard who is a jolly, loving monarch but nevertheless oddly reminiscent of Olivier's rendition, and by mangling Shakespearean text ("Now is the summer of our sweet content made o'ercast winter by these Tudor clouds...")
More recently, Richard III has been brought to the screen by Sir Ian McKellen (1995) in an abbreviated version set in a 1930s fascist England, and by Al Pacino in the 1996 documentary, Looking for Richard. In the 1976 film The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss' character, an actor, gives a memorable performance as a homosexual Richard in a gay stage production of the play. In 2002 the story of Richard III was re-told in a movie about gang culture called The Street King.
The 2006 version, Richard III, stars Scott M. Anderson and David Carradine. Another 2006 film version of Richard III is part of the independant film-noir titled Purgatory, a retelling of three classic Shakespeare tales, including Richard III.
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