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Theatre: Richard III
Now is the winter of our discontent...

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And
hate the idle pleasures of these days.

In Which Richard, Duke of Gloucester, decides to become king by Being Extremely Evil. It works pretty well until it doesn't.

With the possible exception of The Taming of the Shrew, this is the earliest-written of William Shakespeare's plays to still be commonly performed today.

The play opens as Edward IV lies dying. Hoping to prevent the generation of dynastic warfare that ended with his (second) ascension to the throne from starting up again, Edward calls together all of England's powerful factions and makes them shake hands and promise to be nice to each other and his young son once he croaks.

They all do, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Yeah, okay, not so much.

With the aid of the Duke of Buckingham, and to the great delight of Lord Hastings and the rest of nobility, upon Edward IV's death his younger brother, Richard, after taking a brief detour to successfully woo the widow of a man he killed, quickly has several of the Queen's relatives arrested and executed and sends the young princes off to the Tower of London.

Lord Hastings, under the impression that Richard was just going to chop the heads off of the Queen's relatives and leave it at that, is dismayed to find that Richard plans to have Edward's children declared illegitimate and to take the throne himself and refuses to go along.

And so, with the aid of Buckingham, Richard has Hastings' head chopped off too.

From there, Richard decides that the kids will be trouble as long as they're alive, and he might as well have them whacked too as long as he's got the ax out, but by this point even Buckingham begins to get squeamish and, not having noticed the pattern, leads a failed rebellion and gets his head chopped off. (For those keeping score at home, add the princes to the body count at this point as well.)

Once Richard murders his wife so that he might marry his niece, the remaining non-villainous members of the cast finally DO manage to notice the pattern and band together under some guy who hasn't even appeared in the play yet, and, with a night before assist from the ghosts of everyone Richard has had killed, successfully kill Richard in battle and install Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, on the throne.

Sir Ian McKellen played Richard III in a 1995 film adaptation that was very well received by critics and audience alike.

Trivial note: For all of the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century, any Richard III performed on stage was not Shakespeare's, but a reworking penned by Colley Cibber, which retained only about 800 of the original's 3600 lines, excised several characters (including Clarence and Queen Margaret), and added a large amount of new material.

This page is exclusively concerned with the play by Shakespeare. For the historical Richard III, please see Richard of Gloucester.


Tropes in Richard III include:

  • Age Lift: In various productions, he's been played by 47-year-old Basil Rathbone, 48-year-old Laurence Olivier, 51-year-old Vincent Price, 46-year-old Peter Cooknote , 56-year-old Ian McKellen, and also 56-year-old Al Pacino. It should be noted that Richard was only 33 when he died at the battle of Bosworth Field, and only five years older than his usurper, Henry VII, who, unlike Richard, is usually played by a reasonably young actor. Then again, Shakespeare's Richard starts appearing in the Henry VI plays, as an adult, at a time when the historical Richard would have been a toddler, so playing him as older even in his own play makes a certain amount of sense.
    • Same goes for Edward IV, who was actually only 40 when he died, but since he's supposed to be Richard's older brother, he is usually played by older actors.
  • And Your Little Dog Too: The final straw leading to open rebellion is when Richard tries to forcibly marry his niece.
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty: "Off with his head! So much for Buckingham." For many years one of Richard's most iconic lines — but not part of Shakespeare's play. It was added in 1700 by leading-man Colley Cibber.
  • Big Bad: Richard
  • Black and Grey Morality: Unsurprising, considering that this is part of a teratology on the War of the Roses. While Richard and Buckingham are unambigiously evil, the good guys (except for Richmond and the princes) aren't exactly saints, as seen by some of their actions in the previous installments.
  • Bury Your Disabled: Type 2, but of course Richard III is hardly helpless.
  • The Caligula: Once Richard kills the princes, he really starts to become one of these.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: "I am determined to prove a villain."
    • To be sure, the root meaning of "villain" is "villein, serf" — and just as "noble" or "gentleman" became a term of praise, so it became an insult, starting with meaning unchivalrous and crude. In Shakespeare's time, it still carried some of the connotations. So it could be interpreted as, "If everyone thinks I'm just a common thug, by golly I'll show them how scary a thug I can be". Interpret that thought how you will. (C. S. Lewis discusses the term at length in Studies In Words.)
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Margaret foretells the fate of most of the characters and is ignored and mocked for it.
    • Stanley tries to tell Hastings about his dream in which the latter had been decapitated by Richard. Naturally, he is ignored.
  • Comforting the Widow: Richard to Anne, with the squicktastic twist that he killed her husband and father-in-law, and she knows it. And her father-in-law's body is lying right there still bleeding.
  • Conspicuous Gloves: In some performances of the play, it's not uncommon for Richard to wear a glove over his withered hand. In the English Shakespeare Company's 1990 production of the play, part of a series called “The War of The Roses,” starring Andrew Jarvis as Richard and directed by Michael Bogdanov, Jarvis wore a black glove on one hand.
  • Death Glare: In the Olivier version, Richard gives the mother of all death glares to his nephew, little Richard, when the boy foolishly asks if Richard can bear him on his shoulder. The kid's so terrified that he backs away and falls over.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Richard in his tent after he has a vision of all his murder victims damning him.
    Richard: I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
    And if I die no soul shall pity me.
    Nay, wherefore should they? Since that I myself
    Find in myself no pity to myself.
  • Disabled Snarker: Possibly the Ur Example.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The murder of children, as seen in the examples below:
    • Buckingham is a-okay carrying out Richard's orders until he hints that he'd like the Little Princes offed.
    • What Margaret did to Richard's father (Richard of York)note  is treated as a Moral Event Horizon by everyone. Yes, even Richard.invoked
      Grey: Tyrants wept when they heard of it.
  • Evil Cripple: Richard was born prematurely, with a gnarled spine and hunchback which makes him unappealing. Poor guy can't even walk down the street without dogs growling at him. (Did Shakespeare foresee the Evil-Detecting Dog trope?)
  • Evil Uncle: Richard to the Little Princes.
  • Famous Last Words: The lines "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!", one of the most quoted ones from the play, are Richard's last words on-stage before he is killed.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Richard. To the point where in a recent production, the audience was enjoined to chant his name to get him to take up the throne at the public urgings of Buckingham. The fact that he likes breaking the fourth wall to point out exactly what a Magnificent Bastard he is only adds to the allure.
  • Flat Character: Richmond's characterization can basically be summed up as "being the opposite of Richard".
  • Freudian Excuse: Freud argued that Richard does what he does because he was hated and belittled his whole life by his family for being ugly, giving that trope its name.
  • The Ghost: Princess Elizabeth of York, much talked-about and crucial to the plot as a bargaining chip but never seen (in the 1995 film, she's in a lot of the royal family scenes and gets a line reassigned from another character (in a completely different context).
  • Give Me a Sword: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
  • Handicapped Badass: Richard
  • Heel-Face Turn: Meta-example with the entire Yorkist faction other than Richard. In the preceding Henry VI play cycle they were the villains, but (in a process beginning in the final scene of Henry VI, Part 3) in this one they're all quite nice. Particularly pronounced with George, Duke of Clarence, who in the earlier plays was a fairly historically-accurate opportunistic bastard but here becomes utterly harmless and a bit of a fool.
    • In the case of Clarence there's also an in-universe case of this trope (as well as Face-Heel Turn) because he was originally fighting for the House of Lancaster until the very end, when he switched sides to York.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Doing this to Richard is largely the whole point of the play.
    • So much so that he gets played as Hitler. The dude is not popular.
  • The House of Plantagenet: This play purports to be a chronicle of the overthrow of the Plantagenets; Richard III's death marked the end of their 331-year reign.
  • Illegal Guardian
  • Irrevocable Message: Edward's execution order for Clarence, sort of...
  • Karmic Death: Richard, who after spending the entire play scheming to gain the crown ends the play (and his life) with the line "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!"
  • Kavorka Man: Despite Richard being deformed and a Card-Carrying Villain, he still manages to woo Anne... over the corpse of her first husband's father, King Henry VI, whom Richard had killed prior to the events in the play.
    • Then again due to the values of the time, as a woman both orphan and widowed, Anne is helpless and requires a husband to survive
  • King on His Deathbed: Edward IV's illness creates this situation at the beginning of the play, since Edward's son is too young to be an effective ruler, and Richard not-yet-III devotes a great deal of his energy to knocking off everyone who'd be a more respectable regent than himself.
  • The Late Middle Ages: Set in this period, and helping to establish its bad reputation.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Richard again.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Buckingham helps Richard to the throne; in return, Richard promises him an extra title of nobility. When Richard refuses to grant it to him, he soliloquizes, "Made I him king for this?" and runs off to join the nascent rebellion.
  • Offstage Villainy: Most of Richard's acts. Justified by the fact that in Shakespeare's time the stage had no curtains (or only on the innermost portion), and it required considerable "business" to get "dead" characters removed. (The Elizabethans weren't all that squeamish - they loved them some bear-baitings and public hangings.)
  • Open Shirt Taunt: In the original text, the stage directions explicitly say Richard "layes his brest open" [sic] - that is, he opens his shirt/jerkin for Anne to run him through with his sword, which he has given her for the express purpose after she says she wants to see him dead. (In the 1995 film adaptation of the scene, the title character does this after giving her a dagger.) She doesn't go through with it.
  • Pet Rat: Tyrell as well as the murderers of Clarence.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Margaret shows up at the beginning to predict everyone's eventual horrible fate, and then reappears at the end to rub their noses in how right she was.
  • Pun: The opening lines are a pun on "Sun of York" (the commonly used symbol of the Yorkists, more so than the White Rose) and Richard describing his brother King Edward as a "son of York".
  • Rasputinian Death: Clarence, stabbed multiple times and then drowned in a barrel of wine.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In Act IV, Queen Elizabeth (the ancestor of the most well known one) gives one to Richard when he tries to get her help in wooing her daughter. She not only calls him out on everything he's done, but whenever he tries to swear by something, she cuts him off deconstructing why he has no right to swear by it (including himself).
  • Red Right Hand: The Richard character being a hunchback (which, incidentally, his historical counterpart was not).
    • Or so everyone thought until the discovery of Richard's remains in 2012
      • Except even then he wasn't a hunchback—his scoliosis probably only made his shoulders a bit uneven rather than a proper hunchback—making this yet another case of exaggerating for dramatic effect.
  • Regent for Life: Richard
  • Remember the New Guy: Practically two thirds into the story, Richmond suddenly shows up and he and his wife are treated as if they have been in the story the whole time, and need no introduction or explanation. (Because, to an Elizabethan audience, they wouldn't have; he's Queen Elizabeth's grandfather.)
  • Rightful King Returns: Richmond
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: After seeing all of her curses come true, Margaret essentially does this by migrating from England.
  • Smug Snake: Hastings does little to hide his hate of the house of Lancaster, only pretends to be friendly with them in front of Edward IV, celebrates the fact that Rivers, Dorset and Vaughan are going to be executed by Richard and refuses to listen to Stanley about his visions of Richard decapitating him, saying that Richard and Duke Buckingham would never turn against him. Unfortunately for him, he makes the mistake of refusing to support Richard's claim to the throne and only realizes it when it's far too late.
  • Supporting Leader: Averted, by making Richmond the battlefield commander at Bosworth Field. In Real Life he wisely confined himself to politicking and left the fighting to his crack general, the Earl of Oxford.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: The two killers sent to off Clarence are a proto-example of this.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The Little Princes
  • Unaccustomed as I Am to Public Speaking...: Richard's claim that people hate him because he's plain-spoken and incapable of flattery.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Richard has one in the final act when confronted by the ghosts of his victims.
  • Villainous Valor: Richard at the end of the play.
  • Villain Protagonist: Richard
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Richard again.
  • Written by the Winners: Not the play, but it's pretty obvious what Shakespeare was drawing on.
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: Richard tries to convince everyone of this, claiming that his nephew is unfit to rule, and that he's only taking the throne for the good of the kingdom.
  • Younger than They Look: Richard has been portrayed as a creepy old man when he was only 32 when he died.

Richard IIClassic TheatreThe Robbers
The City of Lost ChildrenDiesel PunkThe Phantom
Richard IIHistorical FictionCall of Duty
The Red Shoes 1948Roger Ebert Great Movies ListThe Right Stuff
RepulsionCreator/The Criterion CollectionRide With The Devil
Richard IICreator/WilliamshakespeareRomeo and Juliet
Cross-Cast RoleImageSource/OtherThe Late Middle Ages
Richard IITheatrical ProductionsRiverdance

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