As the play is Older Than Steam and based on historical events, and as most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
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.
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, and despite Margaret, the former queen, sneaking back from her exile in France and cursing everyone who had anything to do with the deaths of her husband and son, Edward calls together all of England's powerful factions, from the established nobility to his wife Queen Elizabeth's hated upstart relatives, 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.
Edward's youngest brother Richard, bitter at the world for the treatment he's received thanks to his disabilities — a withered arm, a crooked back, one leg shorter than the other — hardened from everything he's done to help Edward become king, or possibly just wanting to live up to the abbreviation of his name, has decided that it's his turn to wear the crown. Having already made a start on eliminating the competition in the previous play (Margaret's aforementioned husband and son) and after taking a brief detour to woo Anne Neville, the widow/daughter-in-law of his victims, while standing next to the corpse of her father-in-law, Richard then manipulates Edward into ordering the arrest and imprisonment of their brother George, Duke of Clarence...which puts George in a very handy location to first be stabbed by assassins sent by his 'loving' sibling and then drowned in a barrel of malmsey wine.
With the aid of the Duke of Buckingham, and to the great delight of Lord Hastings and the rest of the established nobility, upon Edward IV's death Richard quickly has several of the Queen's hated upstart relatives arrested and executed, and sends both young Edward (blissfully unaware that he's never going to inherit his dad's fancy chair and hat) and his little brother off to the Tower of London. Hastings, under the impression that Richard was just going to chop the heads off of said hated upstart relatives and leave it at that, is quite dismayed to learn that Richard also plans to have Edward's children declared illegitimate and take the throne himself, and he refuses to go along with the plan. So, again with the aid of Buckingham, Richard has Hastings's head chopped off too, and thus is crowned king.
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 axe 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, as Richard sends one of his less squeamish henchman to smother them while they're asleep.)
Once Richard murders Anne so that he's free to marry his niece Elizabeth, and Margaret pops up again to say 'Told you so' before heading back to France, 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, they suddenly kill Richard in battle and install Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, on the throne.
Laurence Olivier directed and portrayed the title role in a 1955 film adaptation that incorporates a few scenes and speeches from Henry VI, Part 3 and cuts out quite a bit of the original play (in fairness, the full play can run up to four hours; it's William Shakespeare's second longest play after Hamlet). Sir Ian McKellen played Richard III in a 1995 film adaptation that uses the Edward VIII abdication crisis as an Allohistorical Allusion that allows for a Setting Update 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. With the original text restored, and with the possible exception of The Taming of the Shrew, this is the earliest-written of Shakespeare's plays to still be commonly performed today.
This page is exclusively concerned with the play by Shakespeare. For the historical Richard III, please see Richard III.
The play includes examples of:
- Added Alliterative Appeal: For sounds rather than beginning letters. "And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house..." Everything is set to rhyme with "clouds."
- And Your Little Dog, Too!: The final straw leading to open rebellion is when Richard tries to forcibly marry his niece.
- Artistic License – History: Where to begin? (Admittedly Shakespeare really didn't know any better or couldn't afford to write Richard more sympathetically...)
- Richard admittedly did have scoliosis, but it only gave him a curved spine and wasn't nearly enough to be noticeable as a hunched back; it also didn't stop him from being an accomplished soldier whose Dying Moment of Awesome was well-known even at the time. He also didn't have a withered arm or one leg shorter than the other.
- Edward, far from being the frail old man the play depicts, died unexpectedly at age 40. His death was so sudden, in fact, that Richard wasn't even at court when it happened, as he was busy with his duties of Lieutenant of the North and Warden of the West March.
- There's a rather dodgy case in the claim that Richard "murdered" Anne's father and (former) husband. Neither was formally put to death, and there is no mention of Richard personally killing either of them. Warwick was likely killed with his army at Barnet without ever encountering either of the York brothers on the battlefield, and Edward of Westminster has two conflicting stories regarding his death at Tewkesbury. In one, he dies with his slaughtered army; in the other, he's brought before the Yorkists, mouths off to Edward IV, and is summarily put to death along with the captured Lancastrians by the king.
- Edward IV was almost certainly the one who ordered the death of Henry VI, in a Shoot the Dog scenario to prevent more bloody rebellions springing up around the old king. Richard, who was 18 years old at the time, may well have been aware of his brother's plan but the one contemporary document places him elsewhere at the time of Henry VI's death.
- Richard married Anne much earlier than the play suggests (they were aged 18 and 16 respectively) and they had a ten-year-old son by the time Richard was crowned. They were also childhood friends, having grown up in the same household, and it may have even counted as a Rescue Romance since a popular legend states that Clarence (who was married to Anne's sister) dressed Anne up as a servant to prevent Richard from marrying her and obtaining Anne's half of her mother's fortune. Richard did obtain most of Anne's fortune, and she helped him win over Warwick's supporters during his tenure as Lord of the North. Richard was reported to have been sincerely grieved by her death and wept openly at her funeral — which was due to natural causes, most likely tuberculosis, and not him getting her out of the way.
- Recent records found in Portugal also reveal that Richard was trying to arrange marriages to Portuguese royals for both himself and teenaged Elizabeth, contrary to claims that he planned to marry her himself. (Of course, this was done after rumors that Richard had planned to marry her had already caused a great deal of negative outcry, leading the King formally to deny any such intention.) The idea was to pair himself off with the King of Portugal's sister (who, while deeply religious, would have married Richard III if he hadn't lost at Bosworth) and Elizabeth with the King's cousin, Manuel, Duke of Beja. If the latter plan had gone through, she would still have wound up a Queen - Manuel inherited the throne when the King's heir died without issue.
- Margaret of Anjou, far from returning from her exile in France and being allowed to roam around the English court haranguing and cursing people without check, lived as an impoverished relation of the French king for the rest of her life and actually died a year before Edward IV in 1482.
- "False, fleeting, perjur'd Clarence" had been part of an armed rebellion against his brother Edward, among other increasingly lunatic stunts until his judicial murder of a servant woman he accused of poisoning his wife drove Edward IV to order his death, five years before Edward himself died. Richard argued against Clarence's execution despite his previous feuds with Clarence, and when the verdict was announced Richard left the court for his estate in Middleham, which is thought to be one of the reasons he was on such bad terms with the Woodvilles; he blamed them for his brother's death and feared that they might try to get rid of him next. Contrary to the claims of the play, there was no belated commuting of the sentence — Edward wanted Clarence dead, for reasons that had nothing to do with prophecies. As for the manner of Clarence's death, while rumour did spread at the time that he had been drowned in wine, that was probably down to a joke that Edward had made; Clarence was 'privately executed' in a likely more conventional fashion.
- In the play, Clarence asks that his wife and children be spared from execution; in real life, his wife had already died by this point and his children were still very young and thus in no danger of being executed note .
- Richard never himself formally accused his mother of being an adulteress; his claim to the throne was based on his brother's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville being illegal due to a previous (secret) marriage to Eleanor Butler. It was Clarence who tried using the accusation of his brother's illegitimacy to gain the throne. Whether or not that was proven, Edward's long pattern of horn-dog behavior made it easy for people to believe. On the other hand, Richard's adherents (notably Dr. Ralph Shaw (or Shaa), in a public sermon given at St. Paul's Cross) had already floated rumors of the Duchess of York's misconduct, hinting that Richard resembled his father far more than Edward did.
- Buckingham's rebellion was intended to put Buckingham himself on the throne, not restore the throne to Edward V. It is possible, of course, that he knew that the young King was already dead; alternatively, the idea of a Yorkist and Woodville king might have been utterly distasteful to him, a long-time adherent of the Lancastrian cause and an embittered opponent of the Woodville faction. Buckingham quickly transferred his support to Henry Tudor, however, perhaps having been convinced of the impossibility of receiving the support either of the Yorkist nobles (as he was rebelling against the Yorkist King Richard) or of the Lancastrians (as he had been for so long identified with Richard's interests).
- As for the body count, Richard's was fairly low compared to many monarchs of the time period.
- Big Bad: Richard
- Black-and-Grey Morality: Unsurprising, considering that this is part of a tetralogy 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.
- Blatant Lies: Richard says that Edward's wife and "that harlot strumpet Shore" used witchcraft to shrivel up his arm. The men hearing this claim know perfectly well that Richard's arm has always been that way since his birth; it's merely an excuse for Richard to accuse Hastings of treason and get rid of him.
- 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.note And her father-in-law's body is lying right there still bleeding. Richard claims he was driven to kill her husband by his love for her.
- Compressed Adaptation: The play does this for Edward IV's second reign. note The first scenes of the play are presumably soon after Edward's second coronation, since Henry VI is still un-buried, but it starts going downhill rapidly from there. In reality Edward lasted for twelve more years, evidenced by Prince Edward, a newborn baby at the close of the preceding play, now being a pre-teen with siblings. Also, Richard ruled for two years after 'usurping' the crown, rather than being overthrown almost straight away by Richmond.
- 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.
- Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery The opening soliloquy is mostly about this.
- 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.Grey: Tyrants wept when they heard of it.
- Evil Cripple: Richard was born prematurely, with a gnarled spine and hunchback which makes him unappealing. This is partly true: the real Richard had severe scoliosis, as was discovered when his grave was uncovered beneath a parking lot in Leicester.
- Evil-Detecting Dog: Richard notes in his opening monologue that dogs bark at him as he passes.
- Evil Uncle: Richard to the Little Princes.
- The Fate of the Princes in the Tower: Richard arranges the murder of his little nephews.
- Faux Affably Evil: Richard, in his own words, "I can smile, and murder whiles I smile."
- Flat Character: Richmond's characterization can be summed up as "being the opposite of Richard". As the future Henry VII, whom the audience know is going to defeat Richard and take the throne, he presumably didn't need any character traits other than 'good'.
- 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.
- Mistress Shore, Edward IV's mistress and also Hastings' lover, who wields not a little influence at court and is later used to bring down Hastings, all without ever once setting foot onstage.
- Give Me a Sword: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
- God Save Us from the Queen!: Richard pushes this view, blaming the Queen and her newly-titled relatives for George Clarence's imprisonment (which Richard was actually responsible for himself):Why this it is when men are ruled by women;
'Tis not the King that sends you to the Tower.
My Lady Grey his wife, Clarence, 'tis she...
We are not safe, Clarence, we are not safe.
- Handicapped Badass: Richard is no slouch in the battlefield despite his disabilities, and dies fighting.
- Haunting the Guilty: King Richard has a dream, the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, in which the ghosts of the people he killed tell him to "despair and die".
- Heel–Face Turn:
- Clarence was originally fighting for the House of Lancaster until the very end, when he switched sides to York.
- 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...though, granted, it's not like he lives very long to be otherwise.
- Historical Ugliness Update: The relatively normal-looking Richard was turned into a palsied, foul hunchback. But Shakespeare was writing the play for the royalty descended from those who defeated Richard.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Perhaps the most famous example. Doing this to Richard is largely the whole point of the play.
- Humans Are Bastards: How Richard is able to manipulate his way to power, by playing off the ambitions and desires of everyone else.
Anne:No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity
- Also mocked in one of the play's famous passages:
Richard:But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
- 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.
- Kill Me Now, or Forever Stay Your Hand: Richard uses a slightly modified version of this on Lady Anne, in order to convince her that he only killed her first husband because he loved her. "Take up the sword again, or take up me." He's a Magnificent Bastard, so it works.
- 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.
- In fact it's the very very late middle ages, for historians generally use the death of Richard III and the accession of Henry VII as the boundary between the medieval and early modern periods in England.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: So much of Richard's lines are spoken to the audience that the fourth wall may as well not exist. Notably, Richard stops doing this after the murder of the princes in the tower, marking the loss of his vivacious wittiness, and the start of his decline.
- Manipulative Bastard: Richard again.
- Metaphorically True: In arranging the imprisonment and death of George, Richard has played up a wizardly prophecy that King Edward's sons would be disinherited by "G" (apparently George, Duke of Clarence; but really Richard, duke of Gloucester). And he comfortingly tells George: "I will deliver you, or else lie for you." The obvious meaning is that he will lie in prison in George's place; but really he will lie in wait for George's life.
- 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 (or try to, at least).
- Never My Fault: When he learns of Clarence's death, King Edward (who gave the order and revoked it too late) blames everyone else for not trying to talk him out of it.
- Queen Margaret for her part refuses to accept the fact that her sorry state is half her own fault due to her heinous actions in the previous plays—or even that those actions were wrong to begin with.
- 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.)
- One-Steve Limit: Averted; Edward, who has a brother called Richard, named his sons Edward and Richard. Queen Elizabeth's daughter is likewise called Elizabeth, and one of her sons from her previous marriage is Richard Grey; plus there's Richard Ratcliffe.
- 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. She doesn't go through with it.
- Outliving One's Offspring: Queen Elizabeth isn't allowed to see her sons, and comes to realize they've been murdered. When she realizes Richard sees her daughters as threats, she desperately begs him to leave them alone and says she'll even lie and claim they were born as the result of an affair if Richard won't kill them. Then, she finds out that Richard (who is their uncle) actually wants to marry the older girl.
- Pet Rat: Tyrell as well as the murderers of Clarence.
- Pet the Dog: After two messengers bring Richard reports of disaster, a third one enters bringing news about the traitorous Buckingham and Richard strikes the man in a rage before he can even finish talking... only for the messenger to report that Buckingham has been defeated and taken prisoner. Richard apologises to the messenger for his actions and gives him some money to make it up to him.
- 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.
- Prophecy Twist: Richard created a false prophecy to set his brother Clarence and the king against each other. The prophecy stated that "G" would murder the king's heirs. The king decided this must be George, Duke of Clarence. Richard, who ultimately did murder the king's heirs, was Duke of Gloucester.
- Protagonist Title
- 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).
- 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.
- When Richard refuses to reward Buckingham with the dukedom that he was promised, and since Buckingham's already seen him get rid of Hastings and knows that he's plotting to kill the two princes, Buckingham decides to defect to Richmond...though it doesn't do him any good in the long run, since he's soon captured and executed.
- 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, Grey 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.
- Suicide Dare: Invoked and Averted.Lady Anne: Arise, dissembler; thought I wish thy death, I will not be the executionerGloucester: Then bid me kill myself, and I will do it.Lady Anne: I have alreadyGloucester: Tush, that was in thy rage; speak it again, and, even with the word, that hand, which, for thy love, did kill thy love, shall, for thy love, kill a far truer love; to both their deaths thou shalt be accessary.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth:
- The Little Princes.
- Also, in memory, Henry VI (who was portrayed in the previous plays as pious and good, but far too weak). In one scene, Anne reproves Richard for having murdered him:Anne: Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!
O he was gentle, mild, and virtuous!Richard: The better for the king of Heaven that hath him...
Let him thank me, that holp to send him thither,
For he was fitter for that place than Earth.
- Unaccustomed as I Am to Public Speaking...: Richard's claim that people hate him because he's plain-spoken and incapable of flattery.
- Villain Ball: Richard makes a colossal error almost as soon as he is crowned; when Buckingham requests the dukedom that he was promised, Richard (angered at Buckingham's refusal to kill the princes) refuses to give it to him. Buckingham promptly decides to switch sides, and while he's quickly caught and executed, Richard likely would have fared much better against Richmond if he'd still had Buckingham's help.
- 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. And this is actually historically accurate; even the most blatant Tudor propaganda acknowledged that the real Richard went down fighting.
- 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.
Adaptations with their own pages include:
- Richard III (1995 film with Ian McKellen as Richard)
- The Hollow Crown (TV adaptation of the history plays with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard)
- Requiem of the Rose King (2013 serialized manga that also takes inspiration from Henry IV)
Other productions and adaptations add examples of:
- Age Lift:
- Richard was only 32 when he died at the battle of Bosworth Field. In various productions, he's been played by 35-year-old Peter Dinklage, 38-year-old Benedict Cumberbatch, 46-year-old Peter Cooknote , 47-year-old Basil Rathbone, 48-year-old Laurence Olivier, 51-year-old Vincent Price, 53-year-old Kevin Spacey, 56-year-old Ian McKellen, and also 56-year-old Al Pacino. 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.
- The same goes for Edward IV, who was actually only 40 when he died - but since he's supposed to be Richard's older brother, and is also sick/close to death during practically all of his scenes, he is usually played by older actors.
- 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.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: In the 1955 version, Laurence Olivier thought it was a bit much for the audience to accept that Anne agrees to marry Richard in the space of about seven minutes, so he split the 'seduction scene' in two, with the main bulk of it taking place later (when they're not talking over her father-in-law's butchered corpse.)