Richard III

Gentle friends, we’ve surpassed a hurdle. EIGHT history plays are now under our belts and with them just under ¼ of Shakespeare’s corpus. Feel accomplished! This has been quite a feat.

Also, I’ve finally found the time to start watch The Hollow Crown. Even with my high hopes for the series, I’m impressed. Richard II was gorgeously directed, and the acting throughout is top-notch. I highly suggest it and I’m very much looking forward to the current series following Henry VIRichard III.

And now, onto Richard III! Our main character is somehow simultaneously a slimy bastard and a charismatic jerk. (Well, charismatic until he starts to kill children, but more on that below.) Onward!


The play opens with Richard telling us that he plans to play the villain.The civil wars are over but he has higher aspirations than his current station. Of course, this means he’s planning the downfall of both his brothers, but let’s be honest: all three of them brutally killed the Prince of Wales in Henry VI Part 3 in front of his mother, so can we really feel bad for any of these siblings?

Richard’s plot begins with Clarence: he’s somehow convinced King Edward of a prophecy that foretells Clarence causing Edward’s downfall. So, Edward orders Clarence imprisoned in the Tower. Richard “happens” to intercept Clarence and the guards on their way to the cell and acts distraught over the predicament. He also suggests that the Queen and her family are behind the plot. Just after the brothers speak together Hastings, who has recently been released from the Tower, tells Richard that Edward is very ill.

Meanwhile, Anne (the Prince of Wales’s widow and daughter of Warwick) grieves over the body of Henry VI. Richard arrives and, even though Anne curses him for murdering Henry, Richard somehow convinces her to marry him. Even he seems a little surprised and impressed by this feat:

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?

We next see Queen Elizabeth (Lady Grey from the last play) worrying about what would happen should the King die. She’s together with her family, Stanley, and Buckingham when Richard arrives and begins starting trouble (all part of his plan). Things get even worse when Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow, arrives and begins to curse and prophesy everyone’s destruction.

To further his plans, Richard needs Clarence dead. He procures a warrant and gives it to two murderers. Clarence has a prophetic nightmare about drowning, which he recounts to the Keeper, and is then stabbed by the two murderers. His body (supposedly still alive but mortally wounded) is thrown into a vat of wine to drown.

Later, King Edward has brokered peace between his wife’s family and the more-established aristocrats (namely, Hastings and Buckingham).  Then two things happen in short succession: Richard informs everyone that Clarence has been murdered, which devastates Edward, and Stanley arrives asking for a pardon for a servant who had killed a man in a brawl. The shock of this (being asked to save one man’s life while being unable to save his own brother’s, and indeed feeling as if he had caused his brother’s death in some part by imprisoning him) is too much for Edward and he’s led off to his deathbed. After he and Elizabeth leave with her family Richard suggests that they (Elizabeth and her family) murdered Clarence.

Clarence’s children, meanwhile, are completely duped by their uncle Richard. They believe everything Richard has told them about their father’s death, but their grandmother (the Duchess, also Richard’s mother) seems completely aware of Richard’s true character. Queen Elizabeth then enters in a fit because the King has died. While both ladies are grieving Richard arrives and suggests the young Prince be fetched to London for coronation immediately. Rivers, the Queen’s brother, is suspicious of Richard’s intentions but, with Buckingham’s help, Richard’s suggestion wins out. After, Richard and Buckingham ally to keep the Queen’s family separate from the Prince.

While waiting for the Prince to arrive, Queen Elizabeth speaks with the Duchess, the Archbishop of York, and the Queen’s second son, the Duke of York. A messenger then arrives announcing the imprisonment of the Queen’s relatives: Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan. The Queen decides to take the Duke of York and seek sanctuary.

When the young Prince arrives in London he’s greeted by Richard and Buckingham and is upset that his other relatives have been imprisoned. Hastings then arrives and tells the group that the young Duke of York is in sanctuary with his mother. Richard somehow convinces Cardinal Bourchier to forcibly remove the Duke from sanctuary and, after the young boy arrives, suggests that both the young Duke and the Prince should be housed at the Tower. For their safety, of course.

Richard and Buckingham then send Catesby to feel out whether Hastings will support Richard’s kingly aspirations; if not, Richard intends to execute him. Richard also promises Buckingham the Earldom of Hereford for his help.

Hastings, for his part, refuses the idea of Richard as king. He and Stanley head to the council to be joined by Buckingham and the Bishop of Ely. They are discussing the date for the Prince’s coronation when Richard arrives. After informing Buckingham that Hastings refuses to support him as king Richard accuses the Queen and Hastings’s mistress of using witchcraft against himself and accuses Hastings of treason, ordering his immediate execution. Meanwhile, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan reflect on Margaret’s curses as their being led to execution.

After executing Hastings, Richard and Buckingham convince the Lord Mayor of London that Hastings’s execution was necessary due to a plot against both their lives, even though a scrivener later realizes that he’d been given an indictment for Hastings’s execution hours before Richard accused him of treason. Buckingham then convinces the citizens and the Mayor that Richard is the true heir to the throne and, with their help, “convinces” Richard to accept the title.

The Queen, the Duchess, Anne (now Richard’s wife), and Dorset arrive at the Tower to visit the Princes but are turned away by Brackenbury, who says it’s by order of the Lord Protector (though he initially says by order of “Kind Richard”). Stanley then arrives and asks Anne to accompany him to Westminster to be crowned queen. The ladies worry over the prospect of Richard as king and what will happen to the Princes. Queen Elizabeth asks Dorset to join Richmond abroad.

(Richmond, you may remember, was a child in the last play when Henry VI prophesied that he would one day be King. He’s also the first monarch in the Tudor line.)

As Richard assumes the kingship he “suggests” that Buckingham kill the Princes in the Tower. When Buckingham hesitates (because Richard is asking him to murder children) Richard decides that he’s no longer trustworthy and finds someone else to do the deed. Stanley, meanwhile, arrives with news that Dorset has set off to join Richmond. Richard then orders Catesby to tell everyone that Anne, Richard’s wife, is gravely ill (read: Richard plans to kill her). Richard then plans to marry his brother Edward’s daughter (yes, that would be his niece).

When Buckingham returns to the court and demands the Earldom Richard had promised him, Richard treats him with contempt and leaves. Buckingham is smart and realizes what will happen to him if he stays with Richard; he wisely decides to leave the court.

Meanwhile, the Princes have been killed (smothered in their beds) and the man who directed the act, Tyrrel, arrives and tells Richard that the deed is done.  Ratcliffe then arrives with news that the Bishop of Ely has fled to Richmond and that Buckingham is in arms against Richard. The war is on!

The Duchess and Queen Elizabeth, meanwhile, are wallowing in their woes after the deaths of the two Princes. Margaret arrives and fairly gloats in their misery. (Can you blame her, though? Her husband and child were murdered by their husbands and children. Granted, Margaret isn’t a saint and killed the Duchess’s husband and young son… seriously, the only truly redeemable victims in this play are the young Princes.) When Richard approaches Margaret leaves and both the Duchess and Elizabeth confront Richard and curse him. Richard then tries to convince Elizabeth to let him marry her daughter as she’s accusing him of murdering her two sons.

Ratcliffe then brings news that Richmond and his forces have landed in the West. Richard proceeds to accuse Stanley of disloyalty, since Stanley is Richmond’s stepfather, and demands that Stanley raise his forces against Richmond and leave his son with Richard’s forces as an insurance. Meanwhile, Richard receives word of other uprisings as well as Buckingham’s capture. Buckingham reflects on Margaret’s curse/prophesy as he’s being led to his execution.

Stanley, for his part, sends a message to Richmond informing him that he (Stanley) has to fight for Richard because his son is hostage. Richmond receives Stanley’s message and marches to meet with Richard. Both Richard and Richmond set up their camp and Richmond sends a secret message to Stanley.

As both Richmond and Richard sleep they are both visited by the ghosts of Richard’s victims. They promise destruction upon Richard and victory to Richmond, causing Richmond to have a lovely night’s sleep and giving Richard horrible nightmares.

Upon waking, a well-rested Richmond gives a rousing pep-talk to his forces. Richard, by contrast, is unrested and sets out his battle plan to his troops. He then receives word that Stanley refuses to join the battle on Richard’s side, but there’s too little time before the forces meet for Richard to order the death of Stanley’s son.

The battle of Bosworth begins. Catesby recounts how valiantly Richard fights but doubts victory. Richard appears and mutters the famous line, “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” Then Richard and Richmond meet and face off. There’s no dialogue for this part just stage direction that the two fight and Richard is killed. [Another example of how a play is meant to be viewed and not read; this could be a rousing, climactic ending to the play when acted out but the death of Richard falls short when all we have for the moment is a short mention in a stage direction.]

So, all ends happy. Richmond is ever-gracious and congratulates everyone on the victory. He also states that he will marry King Edward’s daughter (the one Richard had intended to marry), thus uniting the red and the white roses (the houses of York and Lancaster) and ending the strife. He also prays that England will enjoy peace and prosperity after such a long period of civil war.

And that’s it folks! Next week we’re on to The Comedy of Errors.

Of Interest

Richard’s an evil figure, really, but what’s really interesting is just how manipulative he is. Somehow, he manages to make his victims complicit in their own downfalls. Edward dies because he believes the lie Richard created about a prophecy concerning Clarence; Anne somehow agrees to marry Richard, which leads to her death later when Richard needs to marry his niece; the Princes agree to stay in the security of the Tower (though they’re young and innocent, it’s still a place they willingly go to) even though that leaves them at Richard’s mercy. Even in cases where Richard’s victims aren’t so directly involved with their own downfall Richard somehow manipulates them into their dire positions.

And why is this? Because evil is seductive. It’s the serpent convincing Eve to take a bit of the apple; it’s Eve convincing Adam to take a bit himself and join her in their fall; it’s the devil tempting honest people away from virtue and toward sin.

Nota Bene

Do I need to point out how Shakespeare paints the Tudor Myth in this play? I will anyway. The Tudor Myth is the story of how the Tudors (Queen Elizabeth I included) came to power, specifically how the legitimacy of Tudor rule. Richmond, the first Tudor king, unites the houses of Lancaster and York by marrying Edward’s daughter and solving the issue at the heart of the War of the Roses. In addition, Shakespeare paints him as a savior figure who stops the tyrannical rule of the monstrous Richard III. If we believe the idea that the state of a country is directly mirrored by the character of the ruler (which we’ll see again in Hamlet and Macbeth) then Richmond and his apparent righteousness truly do save England.

I also want to touch upon the figure of Richard III. He’s an actor playing many roles, and in the beginning he plays them seamlessly. It’s when he stops playing those roles towards the end of the play, after he’s taken the crown, that things start to fall apart for him. Really, it’s after he orders the murder of the two young Princes that things start to go south. Perhaps ordering the murder of innocent children was a step to far? Perhaps he just got sloppy because he felt secure in his achievements? I’m not certain why Richard loses his charisma after the Princes’s deaths, only that he does and that he’s a true Machiavellian figure. Of course, Richard has to be evil in this play to provide a foil for the righteousness of Richmond and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty.


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