King Richard the Third

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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Chronicles | More’s Richard III | “King under the Car Park” | 100 Years’ War Timeline | Historical Figures | Wars of the Roses | Key People | Edward III’s Family Tree

Introduction to Richard III’s Era: The Wars of the Roses (1455-87)

Shakespeare prefers to deal with the dynamics of royal power from a distance. By the Tudor-Stuart era, which featured a centralized royal court, the feudal infighting of older times had diminished, so it was reasonably safe to deal with the religious and dynastic struggles that had marked medieval Britain. Shakespeare took an especially strong interest in the stretch of history from Richard II (1377-99) to the Lancastrian King Henry IV (1399-1413) who deposed him and passed the kingdom on to his son Henry V (1413-22), victor of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415,[1] and on through the Wars of the Roses (1455-87). The fighting saw the Lancastrian King Henry V’s incapable successor Henry VI (1422-61, 1470-71)[2] and his strong queen, Margaret of Anjou, trying to hang on in the face of Yorkist opposition led by Richard Plantagenet, Third Duke of York (1411-60 and then by his sons Edward (the future Edward IV, 1461-70, 1471-83) and Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III, 1483-85).[3]

The backdrop of the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) is the wider Hundred Years War (1337-1453), which saw England and France (assisted by other European powers) fighting over which country should control France. That wider conflict started when Charles IV of France died in 1328 without male heirs, and his sister Isabella claimed the French throne for her son and Charles’s nephew, the young king Edward III of England (1327-77). The French Barons disputed this possibility because, in their reading, Salic law[4] provided grounds for disallowing succession to the throne by royals whose claim traced solely to a female. The French throne went to King Charles’s paternal cousin Count Philip of Valois instead, who was also (unlike Edward III) a native Frenchman. The English, for their part, never fully relinquished their claim to France, so war raged on in several phases across eleven decades. The final phase was the so-called Lancastrian War (1415-53), which began when Henry V invaded France and achieved stunning victories, only to die of dysentery in 1422[5] while in France and then have his son Henry VI lose nearly all of the territory that his father had won.

The English “Wars of the Roses” (1455-87) began in the wake of this last phase of The Hundred Years’ War. Social problems at home in late-feudal England, combined with the loss of territories and prestige in France, served to destabilize the English throne, paving the way for the fierce factional struggles to capture it which make up the Wars of the Roses. Mid-fifteenth-century England was marked by savage infighting and betrayal between these two great branches of the Plantagenet line descended from Edward III: the houses of Lancaster (named after an earldom created by King Henry III in 1267 for his second son) and York (named for the First Duke of York, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III). The action started in earnest in May 1455 when Richard, Third Duke of York, captured Henry VI during the First Battle of St. Albans and was granted the title of Lord Protector by Parliament. Then, in July 1460, the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, captured King Henry VI again during the Battle of Northampton. Richard, Third Duke of York tried to seize the throne, but ended up being killed at the Battle of Wakefield in late December 1460. Nonetheless, “York” met with dynastic success: from 1461-71, and then from 1471-83, his son reigned as Edward IV.

Briefly in 1471, thanks mainly to Warwick’s disillusionment and anger over the king’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and other issues, Edward IV was booted from the throne and replaced with Henry VI and Queen Margaret. But Edward came on with an army and killed Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471 and then won a decisive victory at Tewkesbury in May 1471. The captured Henry VI and his heir Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales ended up dead—the son in battle and Henry probably murdered at the behest of the reinstalled King Edward IV. This Yorkist king ruled securely from 1471-83, when he died of an illness, thereafter to be replaced, at least technically, by his young son Edward V.

Technically and very briefly, that is: in less than three months in 1483, the young heir’s Uncle Richard of Gloucester managed to move him out of the way and, along with the earlier judicial elimination by Edward IV of his brother George, Duke of Clarence (historically, in February 1478), the way was clear for Richard’s seizure of the crown in June 1483. Henry Tudor[6] became the focus of many English noblemen’s hopes for turning out the wicked King Richard III, which he did at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485. The Lancastrian Henry Tudor ruled as Henry VII (1485-1509), and united the claims of York and Lancaster by marrying Edward IV’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth. From 1485 through the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, we are in the Tudor Era. One might think that King Edward  III’s having produced five sons who survived to adulthood[7] would ensure continuity in the transferal of power, but that was not the case. In a dynastic order, should the sovereign or the immediate heir die, the intricate web of royal relations is touched, and it begins to vibrate. If multiple claims to the throne are plausible, the lurking spider Ambition soon comes out to prey. Essentially, the Wars of the Roses concerned the ambitions of a privileged group of men and women closely related to King Edward III.

While King Richard III ruled only for a little more than two rebellion-marked years and much—perhaps even all—of his evil reputation from 1485 onward is the product of authors such as Raphael Holinshed and Sir Thomas More, those two years from 1483-85 were all the time he needed to attract the attention of one William Shakespeare. From there, it was just a hop-skip to poetic immortality. The reign of Richard III deals with an historical subject familiar to many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The playwright borrows his story in the main from the Holinshed Chronicles and Sir Thomas More’s brief biographical account, both of which portray the king in a negative light.[8] Still, Shakespeare was capable of reading between the lines of the chroniclers, so he must have understood that nearly everyone involved in the action had divided loyalties and mixed, often selfish motivations.

The resultant qualities of backbiting, edginess, and ambivalence emerge in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, but Shakespeare’s skill as a storyteller drives him to generate sympathy for some of the doomed characters at strategic points in the action. The diabolical and strangely charming Richard of Gloucester aside, some of the worst rascals in the play are gifted with genuinely moving passages. The real Duke of Clarence, for example, was disloyal to his brother Edward IV—he shifted back and forth between Edward and Warwick the Kingmaker when those two men were engaged in their deadly feuds. Clarence would probably just as well have deposed Edward and taken the throne for himself, but fortune did not favor him and he never had Edward’s highest regard, which went to Richard.[9] All the same, in Act 1, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s play, Clarence speaks mesmerizing lines about a fearsome nightmare on the eve of his murder, moving us to pity him: from “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon …”[10] and forward for many lines, our attention belongs to Clarence.

As for Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430-82),[11] when she was trying to maintain her afflicted husband Henry VI on the throne and thereby preserve a path for his heir (the couple’s ill-fated son Edward, Prince of Wales), this Frenchwoman, who wielded great power in England during her husband’s frequent periods of infirmity, treated it like a foreign country, allowing her armies to pillage their way through conquered territories.[12] A deadly foe to the future Richard III’s father Richard, Third Duke of York, Margaret, as Kendall describes her, was a “dynast” to the core, her conduct invariably governed by a “savage instinct to protect the birthright of her child.”[13] In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and then in Richard III, however, she is accorded considerable respect, and in Richard III, shespeaks with prophetic accuracy about the villainous end of others. “These English woes,” says Margaret near the end of a lengthy diatribe, “will make me smile in France.”[14] This and many other passages show Shakespeare freely reconfiguring the historical characters in his play, suiting them to the needs of a production designed foremost to please an audience.

But again with regard to Shakespeare’s Richard,[15] this character, with his razor-sharp asides and flair for theater, is well-suited to the needs of Tudor mythology, even if the play as a whole hardly amounts to propaganda. Queen Elizabeth I, after all, was the daughter of Henry VIII, the heir of the Lancastrian Henry VII, who emerges as an icon of early English nationalism of the sort Queen Elizabeth I would come to depend on during her reign (1558-1603). To be fair, perhaps we should attribute the subtlety and deviousness of Shakespeare’s Richard to the author’s understanding that in real life, Richard would have had a difficult childhood not unlike Elizabeth I’s harrowing youth. Worst of all, his father Richard, Third Duke of York rashly claimed the throne and paid with his life for the miscalculation. That kind of loss leaves a terrible mark upon an eight-year-old child. So the future Richard III’s Machiavellian qualities can to a great extent be put down to sheer necessity, the times being what they were. What Shakespeare’s Richard calls “Tear-falling pity”[16] was not encouraged, except perhaps when someone on one’s own side of the fence happened to be the victim, in which case the savagery of the mortal foe could be called out for what it was. Of course, one was already in search of opportunities to visit the same barbarity on the enemy.

All said, there was no place for naiveté or excessive tenderness in the heart of English sovereigns or their supporters. That seems to be true not only in Shakespeare’s dramatic creations but also in real life. Once we enter the character Richard of Gloucester’s world, which coincides with Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 2-3 and Richard III, we are, as he, “in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin”[17] and must bear witness to just how vicious things can become when a political culture is broken as badly as late-medieval England’s was. Aristotle nobly thought that politics was the way to the good life. Reading history and studying Shakespeare makes us painfully aware that it can pave the way to other places, too.

Act 1, Scene 1 (385-88, Richard soliloquizes about his lot, puts on a duplicitous show of affection for brother Clarence, and informs us of his plans to “bustle” in a brotherless world and marry Anne Neville, widow of Edward, Prince of Wales.)

To open the first scene, Richard, still the Duke of Gloucester, makes his famous “winter of our discontent” speech (385, 1.1.1-41), which resembles his monologue at the end of Henry the Sixth, Part 3, where, in Act 5, Scene 6, he kills the defeated Henry VI In the Tower of London and offers a sinister prayer for future success: “since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.”[18] In Richard Loncraine’s film production starring Sir Ian McKellen,[19] this speech is partly public rhetoric, but in the text, it is spoken as a soliloquy. Richard justifies his wicked ways by pointing to his contorted body. Like that of many villains, his evil is fueled by a sense of injured merit and a demand for compensation. He is part of the illustrious House of York, and one of his brothers is no less than Edward IV, the present King of England.

The real Richard of Gloucester was loyal in action to his older brother Edward IV,[20] but Shakespeare’s Richard, as the second part of his soliloquy makes clear, cannot truly be part of the “we” to which the first part of his speech refers. Near the end of the Third Part of Henry the Sixth, Richard says starkly, “I have no brother, I am like no brother.”[21] He is by his own understanding an unappreciated outsider to his family and to the scene of joyous expectation that he describes. Others may enjoy the time, but Richard’s deformities and personality defects render that impossible for him. He was “stamped” (385, 1.1.16) in a certain unfortunate way, and so his course must be separate. Where others revel in strength and victory, Richard sees only a “weak piping time of peace” (385, 1.1.24). He is a man “unfinished” (385, 1.1.20), as he says, and just as his own physical elements seem to have been mixed up and confused from birth, his peculiar genius is to embrace the gale-force winds of anarchy and chaos, staying always somehow ahead of his fellow royals. Richard lives in a time full of opportune chaos and confusion. These things are his very elements, and they will furnish him with everything he needs to advance his cause. That quality accounts for his ability to marshal “drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams” (385, 1.1.33) against his brothers Clarence and Edward IV, setting them off against each other.

Another thing to notice about this soliloquy surfaces at its end, when Richard bids his scheming ideas to hide themselves as his brother Clarence enters: “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul …” (385, 1.1.41). Although Richard can do little about his appearance, he is a master of disguise when it comes to language and moral sentiment. He is one of Shakespeare’s most skillful actor kings.

How does Richard play upon his brother Clarence? His underlying assumption is that anyone close to power wants still more of it and therefore cannot be trusted. This assumption he applies to Elizabeth, Edward IV’s queen, and blames her for Clarence’s imprisonment: “Why, this it is when men are ruled by women” (386, 1.1.62) After all, she has two young sons by Edward who stand to inherit the throne. Historically, Elizabeth Woodville, whose first husband was Sir John Grey, seems to have been a Machiavellian upstart. She understood power and wanted to augment her family’s influence. Edward’s marriage to her, in fact, had already made her powerful enemies. Her family has been newly planted in the soil of English royalty, and its only real chance, as we can see from the vicissitudes of the great houses of York and Lancaster, is to grow quickly and strongly. That is the way Richard portrays her, for the most part. He makes witticisms at her expense, carrying forward the grudge between the Woodville faction and himself dating from the last two parts of Henry VI. While keeper Brackenbury’s discomfort grows, Richard takes shots at Elizabeth and her kin as well as at the king’s mistress Jane Shore: “We say that Shore’s wife hath a pretty foot … / … / And that the Queen’s kindred are made gentlefolks” (387. 1.1.93-95).

Towards the end of the first scene, Richard tells us in good stage-villain fashion precisely what he plans to do. Clarence must be executed just before King Edward IV dies; with his elder brothers out of the way, Richard will be free to marry Anne Neville, the daughter of the late kingmaker Warwick (Richard Neville) for political advancement. His troublesome relatives, he says, must pack off and “leave the world for me to bustle in” (388, 1.1.151).

The thing that keeps this play from slipping into melodrama is the brilliance and exuberance of Richard’s language, as evidenced in the scheming passage just alluded to. Richard III is one of those villains whom the neoclassical moralist critic Samuel Johnson worries about—his ebullience doesn’t keep us from condemning him, but it carries us along to a disturbing degree.[22] Like Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Shakespeare’s Richard is always in the know, always ahead of the pack. No one likes to side with losers who are in the dark, who never have the right word for the right occasion, and whom fortune seems to have abandoned. Renaissance poets understood, as of course did the ancients from Homer onwards, that shunning the unlucky, although it’s cruel, is often the safest course of action. Bad luck is contagious, and incompetence loves company. No wonder we sometimes side with the villains for a time: knowledge gives us a sense of power and immunity. As modern critic Stanley Fish writes in discussing Paradise Lost, Christian poetry often labors to surprise us with our own propensity towards sinfulness, at our seemingly endless capacity—even knowingly—to be taken in by situations we should recognize as dangerous, and by the rhetoric and charming personalities of villains we know to be such.[23]

Act 1, Scene 2 (388-94, Anne laments the death of Edward and Henry VI, and is courted strangely by Richard, who marvels at his actorly performance.)

Anne Neville laments over King Henry VI’s body and remembers her slain husband Prince Edward (388-89, 1.2.1-30). Henry VI died, or rather was snuffed out, not long after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 after having been out of power for a decade, with one very brief restoration by Warwick. Edward, Prince of Wales was either killed during battle or upon discovery by Clarence’s men, and Warwick was killed during the battle. The widow Anne makes the first of several references to Richard as poisonous and monstrous, cursing him to greater ill than she can wish even “… to adders, spiders, toads, / Or any creeping venomed thing that lives” (389, 1.2.18-19).

Immediately, she is confronted with the devil himself when Richard appears from nowhere to charm her in a long and famously improbable dialogue (389-93, 1.2.32-211). That dialogue is a contestation of absolutes, with the lady declaring her supreme disgust for Richard and he playing up the absoluteness of her beauty and even claiming it spurred him to kill the prince and Henry VI: “As all the world is cheerèd by the sun, / So I by that; it is my day, my life” (391, 1.2.127-28). Anne has been dangerously left in the lurch by the death of powerful men, so underlying the invective are the mechanics of power. Richard is offering her a place in the new order of things. He tries to make her believe in her own personal charm as a moving force behind great events. Her eyes, as he tells her, have moved him to weep when even the pitiful story of his brother Rutland’s death, or the murder of his father the Duke of York by Queen Margaret’s faction, failed to do so (392, 1.2.151-56). He treats her like the Helen of Greek myth: Helen, in Christopher Marlowe’s telling in Doctor Faustus, possessed “the face that launched a thousand ships.”[24]

At the center of this strange argument between Anne Neville and Richard of Gloucester is the latter’s stagey insistence (after a first call to die by her hand) that she “Take up the sword again, or take up me” (392, 1.2.169), which elicits not violence but only, “Though I wish thy death, / I will not be the executioner” (392, 1.2.170-71). What follows is even more improbable, with Richard offering Anne a ring, and Anne ambivalently offering him hope of success and even expressing some gladness to see that this bad man has “become so penitent” (393, 1.2.207).

Towards the end of the second scene, Richard again speaks only to himself and the audience, expressing nothing short of disbelief at his success—or rather at the success of his performance. He waxes metadramatic, seeming to join Shakespeare the playwright in patting himself on the back: “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” (393, 1.2.214-15) As the Norton textual gloss implies, the word “humor” logically refers both to the fact that Anne is grieving and to Richard’s strange, theatrical way of courting her.

Does Richard believe the lady finds him “a marvelous proper man” (394, 1.2.240) and that he has now become fashionable? Perhaps the fashionable thing is power, which, as the late diplomat Henry Kissinger said, is “the great aphrodisiac.”[25] The most generous way to construe Anne’s apparent fickleness is to acknowledge that although she is not personally weak, by position she is a pawn in a deadly dynastic chess game. In truth, the wedding between Richard and Anne took place in July 1472, whereas the battle during and after which Edward, Prince of Wales and King Henry VI died occurred a little over a year earlier, in May 1471. But strict timelines aside, Anne’s sudden, implausible change of heart may be Shakespeare’s way of characterizing the devastating effects of the dynastic violence of the Wars of the Roses on even the deepest human feelings and loyalties. Richard seems to understand that Anne, who is coveted as a ward by Clarence because he wants her estates as Countess of Warwick, is incapable of opposing him. We should note here that the historical Anne Neville was a girl of about sixteen at the time, not an adult counter to the also young but wily Richard. Thus, his gesture of offering her a blade with which to kill him may be less risky than it appears.

Well, all these historical matters aside, Richard is exuberant, and why shouldn’t he be delighted with himself? He that is “not shaped for sportive tricks” (385, 1.1.14) and whose villainy is stamped, as he and everyone else says, into the very fabric of his body, now plays the rogue in precisely the guise he had said was forbidden to him: that of a lover: “Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, / That I may see my shadow as I pass” (394, 1.2.248-49). This is Richard at his best and worst: protean, ebullient, unpredictable, a rider of chaos involving events and the human heart. In the theater of cruelty and power, the clever can represent themselves as they would be and stand a good chance of carrying their audience with them.

The overt meaning of the language here is straightforward: the villain is so delighted with his performance as a great actor on the stage of life that he wants to watch himself as he goes to work on his hapless fellow beings. But perhaps Richard is also recalling to himself his opening soliloquy’s “son/sun” metaphor, a usage that may in turn remind us not only of his alleged attitude towards his brother Edward IV but also of a moment in Shakespeare’s earlier effort, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry VI (Henry VI, Part 3), wherein three suns mysteriously appear in the sky, prompting Richard and Edward to wonder if it betokens unity amongst the sons of the great Duke and claimant of the throne.[26] Might Richard’s present reference to the shining sun be an oblique allusion to Clarence, shortly to be dimmed forever thanks to his younger brother’s unholy ambition?

Act 1, Scene 3 (394-402, Dysfunctional family dinner: Richard and Queen Elizabeth Woodville savage each other, Margaret curses the lot of them; Richard admits in soliloquy that he’s responsible for the dissent he says others are creating.) 

In this long scene, the royal family gather and bicker over old crimes and divided loyalties. Queen Elizabeth Woodville and Richard go at each other’s throats with intensity. The reason for her anger is palpable: she says to Richard, “You envy my advancement and my friends’” (396, 1.3.75). Richard dares them all—Elizabeth, Rivers, and Gray—to go straight to Edward IV and air their grievances, reminding them pointedly that while their faction for a time supported the cause of the Lancastrian Henry VI, he remained loyal to his elder brother: “I was a packhorse in his great affairs … / … / To royalize his blood I spent mine own” (397, 1.3.122-125).

Queen Margaret of Anjou, the indomitable widow of Henry VI and mother of the slain Edward, Prince of Wales, puts in an appearance, serving as a dire example of one who has held and lost great power and place. She herself is not innocent, having been responsible for the death of Richard of Gloucester’s father the Duke of York when he tried to get himself crowned king. What we have at present is not so much a solution to the power struggle between the great houses of York and Lancaster as an uneasy truce. In any event, Queen Margaret rails at all assembled: “Hear me, you wrangling pirates, that fall out / In sharing that which you have pilled from me” (388, 1.3.157-58). Her cutting prophecy regarding Elizabeth Woodville will turn out to be truer than she can guess: “after many lengthened hours of grief, / Die neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen” (399, 1.3.204-05).

What do these people really want? we might ask, since it’s obvious that power does not bring security in its train. Their pursuit of ultimate power sometimes resembles the quest for sexual experience as described in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.”[27] Near the end of the third scene, Richard yet again steps in with a soliloquy explaining how he is behind the vicious maneuvering he ascribes to others, hiding it all the while with false piety: “thus I clothe my naked villainy … / And seem a saint when most I play the devil” (402, 1.3.332-34; see 401-02, 1.3.320-34). The pair of murderers he has summoned now arrive, waiting for Richard’s orders to make away with George, Duke of Clarence.

Act 1, Scene 4 (402-08, Clarence has a strange vision and is murdered by Richard’s agents.)

This scene contains the remarkable dream vision of Clarence (402-03, 1.4.9-60). One purpose it serves is to generate sympathy for Clarence, who in historical terms doesn’t seem to have been a particularly warm and fuzzy character, or even a trustworthy one.[28] In this speech, he is given beautiful poetry of the sort that one wants to detach from its context and enjoy for its own sake. We may remember Shakespeare’s song in The Tempest, in which Ariel whispers to Ferdinand that his supposedly drowned father Alonso of Naples “… doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”[29] Clarence dreams of a sea-change, but one of a more dreadful aspect: “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon. / Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, / Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels” (403, 1.4.23-26). He never really sees to the bottom of his brother’s deceitful behavior—this is shielded from him even in his dream, as we can tell from the way he describes Richard’s part in his vision: “Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in stumbling / Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard…“ (402, 1.4.17-18). That is a classic piece of dramatic irony since we know something Clarence doesn’t. His dream is strangely beautiful, but it does not yield him clarity about the end of his life. It does not rise to the level of full prophecy. The keeper may be injecting a little humor when he asks Clarence how he had time to notice so much detail while drowning in his vision (403, 1.4.32-33).

The second part of the speech (403, 1.4.40-60) shows that Clarence is riddled with guilt over his betrayal of brother Edward IV in favor of Warwick and his complicity in the death of the Prince of Wales. The word “shadow” (403, 1.4.50) invokes the ghost of Edward, Prince of Wales, who demands retribution for his death, supposedly by Clarence’s own hand.

After Clarence has recounted his dream, two unnamed murderers enter to make away with him. They may remind us of characters from a medieval morality play in their anxious banter regarding a half-personified Conscience (404-05, 1.4.91-40). These two men are operating at a much lower level than Richard or the other noble characters in the play, and the inferior quality of their station renders them insecure. They show a spot of moral conscience—something Richard seems to lack, judging from his soliloquies to this point—but it doesn’t go very far.

Also on display in this part of the scene is Shakespeare’s macabre sense of humor: Clarence, not knowing that he is about to be dumped into a cask of wine to make sure he’s dead, says to his assassins, “Give me a cup of wine” (405, 1.4.147). Playing the penitent, Clarence tries to sweet-talk the two killers out of their plan, but as they point out, a man who has done such things as he has done has no business employing religious rhetoric (406-07, 1.4.182-205). In sum, Shakespeare may be playing with our sympathies in his handling of Clarence. Doubtless the fine poetry this character is given generates sympathy for him, but Shakespeare at least partly undermines that sympathy with several mentions of the role that the historical Clarence played in the Wars of the Roses. That a person’s penitence is situational does not necessarily render it thoroughly false—perhaps penitence is always to some extent situational. Still, it complicates matters, a thought we may carry forward when, at the beginning of Act 2, King Edward IV takes on the role of reconciler. It is difficult to put much stock in Edward’s pious declaration that he is, to borrow a phrase, “a uniter, not a divider.”[30] The Wars of the Roses were about insidious divisions between interrelated feudal houses.

Act 2, Scene 1 (408-11, Edward IV tries to make peace amongst all factions; Richard blurts out that Clarence is dead, devastating Edward.)

This scene plays with some irony. Here we have Edward IV trying desperately, in the most unpromising of circumstances, to practice the art of dying well, and it comes off badly. He wants his factious relatives to embrace and to exchange loving words; he apparently even wants them actually to mean those words and gestures. As he tells Richard, who plays along initially with magnificent rhetoric of amity, “Brother, we have done deeds of charity …” (409, 2.1.48). But once again, Richard masterfully sows the seeds of chaos and discord, injecting at just the right moment to deflate Edward’s piety the fact that Clarence is dead, supposedly by order of the king himself: “Who knows not that the noble Duke is dead?” (409, 2.1.77) At the scene’s end, Richard even insists to Buckingham that the pale visages of everyone around should be interpreted as an emblem of guilt (411, 2.1.133-36). Edward IV is shattered, and announces in the presence of all assembled, “O God, I fear Thy justice will take hold / On me and you, and mine and yours for this” (411, 2.1.129-30). The king’s penitence may be genuine, but it cannot prevent the consequences of past violence. It is a commonplace in Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays that blood, once shed, draws more blood: violence and sin generate spirals of still more violence and sin. That is a lesson Shakespeare surely learned from the Bible, which teaches it from Genesis onward: “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” and God reproached him for it with, “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me, from the earth.”[31]

Act 2, Scene 2 (411-14, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and Clarence’s children all lament their griefs, but not in unison or harmony: the Duchess says only her grief encompasses all the sad events.)

Again, what seems to be genuine grief is undercut by a long history of unkindness and injustice. Richard’s mother, the old Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and the children of murdered Clarence engage in a lamentation-fest (412-13, 2.2.33-87). One-line or stichomythic exchanges of the sort we find from lines 71-77 are typical of early Shakespeare. The form of the dialogue works very well in this case since the point seems to be to draw out the shallowness or inadequacy of the characters’ grief, the essentially self-centered and factional nature of it. The children will not weep for Elizabeth because she did not weep for the death of Clarence, while the Duchess insists that her grief is alone general while everyone else’s is merely particular: “Alas, I am the mother of these moans. / Their woes are parceled; mine are general” (413, 2.2.79-80).

All the same, we should not discount the genuine pathos of the scene; it functions at two heterodox levels. Shakespeare’s first goal must have been to please an audience, and so it is unlikely that he would completely undercut a good tearjerker scene like the present one. His audience members were not historians, after all, though it would be wrong to claim they were unsophisticated. Many people in attendance were probably capable of catching the subtleties in Shakespeare’s handling of historical and emotional registers. And there’s always Richard, of course, with those mean-spirited asides of his, making it plain just how insincere he is when he trots out his moralistic rhetoric and protestations of good will. Shakespeare will often counterpoint statecraft, violence, and villainy on a grand scale with small-scale, intimate domestic scenes showing the consequences for the powerless, but we will have to wait for the fourth scene to witness anything of that sort.

Act 2, Scene 3 (414-15, citizens share their anxieties about the future: to them, the changes to come portend danger and uncertainty.)

Three citizens air their thoughts and anxieties about Edward’s death and what is to come. In this, they function like a chorus, and they sense that the great will not be able to restrain themselves from seeking still greater power. Says the third citizen, “full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester, / And the Queen’s kindred haughty and proud” (414, 2.3.27-28), and as for the general atmosphere, his pronouncement is, “By a divine instinct men’s minds mistrust / Ensuing dangers …” (415, 2.3.42-43). Dynastic and inter-dynastic change will come, but it is something to be feared.

Act 2, Scene 4 (415-17, Queen Elizabeth Woodville is informed that Rivers and Gray have been sent to the Tower; she sees “the ruin of our house” and no escape from Richard.)

While the princes are on the way to London, the Duchess of York subtly reinforces the old Tudor propaganda about Richard’s evil nature (415, 2.4.16-20), the better to underscore the genuine pathos of Queen Elizabeth’s situation. If even a tough woman like Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s widow) has been sidelined by the loss of her men, what will happen to Elizabeth and her children by King Edward IV? When Elizabeth hears that Gloucester and Buckingham have slyly committed Lord Rivers and Lord Gray to Pomfret, she senses with dread that she and hers are caught up in Richard’s web of intrigue and blood, and there’s no way out: “Ay me! I see the downfall of our house. / The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind” (416, 2.4.48-49).

Act 3, Scene 1 (417-22, Richard makes conversation with the young princes on their way to the Tower, and convinces the cardinal to separate them from their mother; Richard and Buckingham resolve either to bring Hastings over or chop off his head.)

The third act as a whole hinges upon the sense of pageantry and carefully managed theater shown by Richard and Buckingham; they advance Richard’s cause by means of sophistical arguments and false shows of religious piety.

Here in the first scene, Richard has a merry-seeming conversation with the young Prince Edward, and among the most striking parts of it is the one in which the prince declares, “Methinks the truth should live from age to age …” (419, 3.1.76). Buckingham makes easy work of the Cardinal’s scruples about snatching the youth out of sanctuary with his mother (419, 3.1.44-56). The effect is comic since it shows how simple a thing it is to take advantage of those who—unlike Richard and Buckingham—take the rules seriously. But of course Cardinals were by no means non-political figures, so another way to interpret the Cardinal’s complacency is that he knows which way the wind blows.

Obviously, what everyone wants is the settled appearance of legitimacy, and they are likely to go along with the plans of whoever seems most likely to deliver it. Prince Edward’s comment about “the truth” particularly rankles Richard because the child has the temerity to insist that the deep truth should live on from age to age, and that historical truth is not simply a matter of what has been written down for posterity. Richard is right in the middle of staging his own inevitable accession to power in front of everyone who matters, no doubt believing that so long as he can arrange the visual feast to everyone’s liking, the near-term historical record will break his way. By implication, perhaps, we are to understand that those who look on while Richard schemes his way to the kingship know what is really going on, and will one day find the courage to say so. Prince Edward also sets himself up as the future king who will wash away England’s humiliation over the loss of French territory originally procured by Edward III and Henry V (419, 3.1.91-93). Most appropriately, his little brother York fears that he “shall not sleep in quiet at the Tower” (420, 3.1.142) thanks to the unhappy ghost of uncle Clarence.

Towards the end of the first scene, Richard and Buckingham engage in an almost obscene exchange whereby Buckingham accedes to the murder of William Lord Hastings and may claim when Richard is king the earldom of Hereford, “And look to have it yielded with all willingness” (422, 3.1.195; see lines 188-97).[32]

Act 3, Scene 2 (422-25, Lord Hastings reacts angrily to Catesby’s suggestion that Richard should be king, unsuspectingly sealing his own fate.)

Lord Stanley has a fearful dream about Richard the boar and fears the separate councils by which decisions are being taken (422, 3.2.7-12), but Hastings will have none of it. By messenger, he tells Lord Stanley that once they reach the Tower, “he shall see the boar will use us kindly” (422, 3.2.31). Perhaps more so than anyone else in the play, Hastings seems incapable of discerning Richard’s true character. Even so, his response to Catesby’s insinuation that Richard should become king is swift and unmistakable: “I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders / Ere I will see the crown so foul misplaced” (423, 3.2.41-42).

This is not to say that Hastings is an admirable or innocent man—any such notions are quickly rendered impossible by the way he takes the condemnation of his enemies in this scene. Hastings considers himself secure in Richard’s good graces, and he supposes there is a place for him in the new order heralded by Richard. The way Shakespeare handles Hastings resembles something straight from The Mirror for Magistrates,[33] or from an old morality play—prideful and triumphant one moment, humiliated and cut down the next. We notice that, as so often, Shakespeare gives both sides of the argument regarding the validity of prophecy—on the whole, his plays give the nod to popular superstition. It is mainly villains like Edmund in King Lear who scorn such powers of prophecy, witchcraft, and the like.[34] Throughout the second half of his career, Shakespeare wrote during the reign of King James I, who was a great believer in witchcraft and even wrote a learned treatise on the subject.[35]

Act 3, Scenes 3-4 (425-28, Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan are executed at Pomfret; Richard corners Hastings at a meeting and orders him beheaded: forcing allegiances on the eve of irrevocable action.)

In these two scenes, several of Richard’s enemies meet their end. In the third scene, Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan go to their deaths at Pomfret (425, 3.3.1-23). In the fourth scene, Richard, informed that the Lord Chamberlain, William Lord Hastings, will not assent to shoving aside the young prince in favor of his so-called protector, devises a ridiculous piece of theater that ends with the present death of Hastings. This man’s crime is failing to respond appropriately to Richard’s rhetorical question in council, “I pray you all, what do they deserve / That do conspire my death with devilish plots / of damnèd witchcraft, and that have prevailed / Upon my body with their hellish charms?” (427, 3.4.64-67) Hastings’s conditional response beginning with an “If” costs him his head. Anyone who doubts Richard’s claims about the malignant conspiracy of the queen’s party against him is thereby tagged as neatly aligned with the conspirators. The real purpose of this mini-drama is, as we can see, to force others in the room into a show of support. This is no time for bet-hedging, and even Lord Stanley must follow along in Richard’s train of sycophants, leaving the hapless Hastings by himself, awaiting execution.[36]

Act 3, Scene 5 (428-30, Buckingham and Richard dupe the Lord Mayor about Hastings’s sudden execution, and trashes his deceased brother Edward IV’s reputation.)

Yet another excellent piece of theater is here: Buckingham and Richard nicely allay suspicion, taking in the Lord Mayor with their feigned alarm and specious claim that Hastings’s execution was untimely (429, 3.5.38-43). The scene may remind us of the one in Macbeth where Macbeth has just killed the two servants who will falsely be blamed for Duncan’s murder, and he claims to repent what he has done rashly.[37] Many of Richard’s accusations revolve around sexual innuendo, and we may suppose this topic is especially satisfying to him, if we recall his opening soliloquy. Here, his character assassination of Edward IV is particularly vicious, as he rehearses the claim that his own brother Edward was not the legitimate issue of their father Richard, Third Duke of York (429-30, 3.5.82-91).

Act 3, Scene 6 (430, a scrivener explains why Richard’s plot is going so smoothly: “none dare call it treason,” as John Harington would say.)

The scrivener can’t believe that anyone is taken in by Richard’s transparent absurdities in justification of his conduct. But as he suggests, the problem is not that nobody perceives the truth; it is that no one dares to acknowledge it openly: “Why, who’s so gross / That sees not this palpable device? / Yet who’s so bold but says he sees it not?” (430, 3.7.10-12) Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir John Harington (a godson of Queen Elizabeth I) puts the matter succinctly in one of his epigrams: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.”[38] Had Richard succeeded as King, what record of him would have come down to Shakespeare’s time? Certainly not the one Shakespeare offers us here since, after all, he writes in defense of Elizabeth’s Tudor line, founded by the illustrious Lancastrian Henry VII.

Act 3, Scene 7 (430-35, Theater of Power: Buckingham woos Richard to accept the crown; Richard accepts with false modesty and reluctance.)

Here Shakespeare has outdone himself in the representation of villainy: Buckingham’s quip about Richard’s role being that of a woman who must “Play the maid’s part: say no, but take it” (431, 3.7.45) is followed by some fine stagecraft in which Richard of Gloucester walks around with his Bible, flanked by priests, and utters ridiculous bits of false piety such as, “my desert / Unmeritable shuns your high request” and “Alas, why would you heap these cares on me?” (433-34, 3.7.133-34, 182) By reverse logic, the taking of power is once again compared to an aggressive sexual act—the very thing Richard sounded so resentful about in his opening soliloquy. While Buckingham and Richard’s exchanges are often short to the point of stichomythia (one-line exchanges), the dialogue becomes fittingly prolix as the two rogues finish off their pageant in front of the Lord Mayor and some leading citizens. As so often, Shakespeare’s supposed prolixity turns out to be situational: it’s needed here because the characters must not say too frankly what they really mean, aside from blunt and repeated assertions about the Princes’ illegitimacy and Edward IV’s depraved dalliances. Finally, Richard is able to utter his supremely comic line, “I am not made of stones” (435, 3.7.202), and the affair is ended successfully, with the coronation planned for the next day.

Dynastic rivalry can be a nasty, root-and-branch extirpatory affair just as much as it can be a matter of delicate intermarriages and intricate understandings between rival houses. Here, it isn’t enough that Richard should succeed; he must appear holy while others are slimed beyond recognition and utterly destroyed.[39] It isn’t only the living bodies of his rivals that he must deal with; their posthumous image and report must be degraded for his benefit. How powerful an anxiety this business of popular image and report was for Richard is highlighted by ordinary people’s failure to respond to the lies fed them by Buckingham regarding King Edward IV and the princes. Story and spectacle are enormously significant accompaniments to the getting and maintaining of power, and Shakespeare, a reader of Holinshed’s Chronicles especially but also of some other accounts of English royal history, must have understood how important a force popular images and oral history were as a potential threat to the official stories set forth by monarchs and their supporters. They could result in direct rebellion on the part of the people themselves, or they could serve the interests of rival factions. Richard, a Machiavel before Machiavelli, is striving to avoid becoming not simply feared rather than loved, but outright hated, and he willingly uses religious props and language to achieve that goal.

Act 4, Scene 1 (435-37, Anne Neville explains her acceptance of Richard’s suit; Queen Elizabeth Woodville fears for her princes in the Tower: royal women’s perspective.)

This act begins with a concentration on the misfortunes of the women in the play. Anne Neville, who is now married to Richard,[40] claims that her “woman’s heart / Grossly grew captive to his honey words” (437, 4.1.73-74) so that he won her over on the spot, improbable as that may seem. In the First Folio version (but not in the Quarto version that the Norton editors use), Elizabeth Woodville ends the scene with haunting lines about her two vulnerable sons imprisoned in the Tower of London: “Pitty, you ancient Stones, those tender Babes, / Whom Envie hath immur’d within your Walls, / Rough Cradle for such little prettie ones….”[41] In the Quarto version, the aged Duchess of York gets the final word, and she longs for peace in death, after a life filled with grief upon grief (437, 4.1.88-91).

How right is Elizabeth Woodville to fear for her sons? Did Richard really order the princes killed? It was common speculation that he had the princes murdered when he became king, but there is no solid evidence to prove it. Certainly, he stood to benefit from the deed, but as Paul Murray Kendall points out in his biography of Richard III,[42] so did Buckingham (i.e., Henry Stafford). The bodies were never definitively discovered (though some remains were discovered in 1674 and then in 1789), so the whole affair remains a mystery.[43]

Act 4, Scene 2 (438-40, Now king, Richard solicits Buckingham’s complicity in murdering the princes; Buckingham balks and deserts when Richard refuses him Hereford; Richard tells Catesby to float a rumor that Anne is dying—he must marry Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter; Richard chooses Tyrrell as his agent and declares himself immune to “tear-falling pity.”)

The newly crowned Richard III compounds his wickedness as the pace of events picks up, broaching the need with Buckingham of doing away with the young Edward V and his brother: “shall we wear these honors for a day?” (438, 4.2.5) and fuming to himself when Buckingham hesitates in consideration of his own selfish interests: “Buckingham / No more shall be the neighbor to my counsel” (439, 4.2.41-42).

Richard also gives an oblique order to Catesby to make away with Anne, his queen: “Rumor it abroad / That Anne my wife is sick and like to die” (439, 4.2. 48-49). There is no historical evidence for this assertion aside from popular suspicion and Tudor propaganda, but it makes for compelling drama. Shakespeare’s villain Richard glosses his actions revealingly: always a major concern with Shakespeare is that those who fail to act instead of just talking and planning quickly end up on the sidelines, or worse. It was a Renaissance commonplace that a well-born person’s formation should be oriented towards action. Unlike, say, Shakespeare’s Richard II, Richard III is a master of words and deeds; he isn’t one to be caught sitting on his hands when something needs doing. It’s easy to see this when he sums up the logic underlying his alleged murder of Anne: “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass” (439, 4.2.58-59). But Richard’s mastery is short-lived, and his own words suggest the reason Shakespeare offers for his failure to hang onto the kingdom he has stolen for more than a few years: “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (439, 4.2.61-63). A man who admits that his soul is dead cannot hope to remain unhated for long, and when political rulers make themselves hated, they are not far from disaster.

James Tyrrell is King Richard’s choice for the matter of the princes currently being held in the Tower of London, and this bad man is quick to pledge his assistance: “’Tis done, my gracious lord” (439, 4.2.79), he tells Richard in advance of the deed. The scene ends on a sour note between the king and distrustful, impatient Buckingham, who has already returned to claim the Earldom of Hereford that Richard had promised him in exchange for his support (440, 4.2.87-90). The answer from a distracted Richard (who is more concerned at the moment with recollecting Henry VI’s prophecy about Richmond becoming king) is a contemptuous no. Richard simply says, “I am not in the giving vein today” (440, 4.2.116), prompting Buckingham, once alone, to ask himself, “Made I him king for this?” (440, 4.2.120) And with that, the allegiance of Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham to King Richard III is at an end.

Act 4, Scene 3 (441-42, Tyrrell has had the princes killed; Richard tallies his villainous accomplishments; Buckingham has turned traitor and joined Richmond’s army.)

We are told that James Tyrrel has contracted with his subordinates Dighton and Forrest to effect the murders—this is information from Holinshed and/or Thomas More’s study of King Richard III[44]—and are treated to another of the play’s more lyrical passages, this time about the piteous nature of the princes’ death: “Their lips were four red roses on a stalk, / Which in their summer beauty kissed each other” (441, 4.3.12-13; see lines 1-22). Richard promises Tyrrel a great reward, and moves on to sum up his own accomplishments, among which are that “The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom, / And Anne my wife hath bid the world goodnight” (441, 4.3.38-39). Buckingham has by now turned traitor to him with an army in the field along with the Bishop of Ely and Henry, Earl of Richmond. 

Act 4, Scene 4 (442-53, Queen Margaret scorns Elizabeth Woodville, yet advises her how to curse her enemies; Richard works at convincing Elizabeth to agree to a match with her daughter.)

The play’s women again congregate (from pp. 441-45, 4.4.1-141, until Richard enters), this time with bitter effect: Queen Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s widow, stands beside Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV, to sharpen the pangs of her grief over the death of her husband and the disappearance of her two sons by the king. Margaret feels Elizabeth’s pain, and feeds upon it at length: as she says, it will make her glad on foreign soil: “These English woes shall make me smile in France” (445, 4.4.109), France being the erstwhile center of Margaret’s hopes for power in England. In response to Elizabeth’s request for advice on how to curse deeply, Margaret speaks chillingly: “Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days. / Compare dead happiness with living woe …” (445, 4.4.112-13, see lines 112-17).

The real Margaret died in August 1482 in France, so she didn’t live to see Richard III’s demise, but Shakespeare situates her so as to sharpen our sense of the cruelty of the times, with their fierce dynastic rivalries and constant betrayals: the old feudal, chivalric order had long since begun the process of ripping itself apart, with the nobility casting aside all responsibility to their subjects and ravaging the land in a quest for individual and familial gain. It seems that nobody in the disintegrating order Shakespeare describes is willing to serve for the correct reasons. Nobody’s place is acknowledged by anyone else as rightful and permanent—all is scheming and self-interest. Shakespeare is perfectly capable of idealizing the old order: consider his favorable treatment of Henry V, victor of Agincourt in 1412.[45] Still, whatever the historical inaccuracies of the play Richard III and leaving aside its Tudor bias, the overall picture it presents of this final episode of The Wars of the Roses seems just.

Another thing to notice in this scene once King Richard enters is the curious dilation of his rhetoric even as its effectiveness diminishes to nothing. He first endures his mother the Duchess of York’s terrible curse: “Bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end; / Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend” (446, 4.4.184-85), and then it’s on to the business at hand with Elizabeth Woodville. It takes King Richard a good long time to convince Elizabeth of absolutely nothing (446-50, 4.4.188-347). Their at times curt, at times long-winded exchange amounts to wrangling over Richard’s desire to marry the widowed queen’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, lest the girl’s hand be given to Henry, Earl of Richmond. Richard ends up pathetically swearing by the future, when, of course, he will become as mild as mother’s milk. The frequent repetition of the words “myself” and “yourself” in this exchange play up, respectively, Elizabeth’s distrust of dynastic bloodlines as a measure of safety (in her experience, they portend peril as much or more than safety since the language of fealty, honor, and birth has become a cipher), and Richard’s need for others to regard not his personal misconduct but the majesty of the king’s “other body,” the one that symbolizes or incarnates the whole people.[46] Richard’s cynical way of expressing this doctrine of “the king’s two bodies” is to conclude his pitch, “Urge the necessity and state of times, / And be not peevish-fond in great designs” (450, 4.4.333-34). He wants Elizabeth to act with regard for the imperatives of statecraft and policy; namely, his own safety as a dynast.

Finally, King Richard receives mixed news about the impending battle, and pins down Lord Stanley, or so he thinks, by holding his young son hostage: “Look your faith be firm, / Or else his head’s assurance is but frail” (452, 4.4.409-10). The real Stanley, by the way, seems to have been a slippery character, as evidenced by his dubious loyalties to both Edward IV and Warwick when those two feuded.[47]

Act 4, Scene 5 (453, Lord Stanley learns about the augmentation of Henry, Earl of Richmond’s supporters; Stanley asks Sir Christopher to tell him the vital news that Elizabeth Woodville consents to a match with her daughter.)

Stanley gathers information from the priest Sir Christopher regarding Henry, Earl of Richmond’s movements and the addition to his ranks of those nobles who are falling away from King Richard (453, 4.5.1-20). Stanley also wants Sir Christopher to pass along secretly the news that Elizabeth Woodville consents to the proposed match between Henry, Earl of Richmond and her young daughter Elizabeth (453, 4.5.17-19).

Act 5, Scene 1 (454, Buckingham is executed at Richard III’s order.)

Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham goes to the block at last, with a morality-play-style flourish, Queen Margaret’s curses on his lips: “Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame” (454, 5.1.29).

Act 5, Scene 2 (454-55, Henry, Earl of Richmond addresses the lords in his army confidently.)

Richmond addresses his lords, expressing moral disgust at the usurping reign of “The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar, / That spoiled your summer fields and fruitful vines …” (454, 5.2.7-8) and radiating confidence on the eve of battle: “In God’s name, cheerly on, courageous friends, / To reap the harvest of perpetual peace / By this one bloody trial of sharp war” (455, 5.3.14-16). If we place pro-Tudor and Lancastrian bias aside (for the battle being recounted did,at least, mostly end the gut-wrenching Wars of the Roses), Shakespeare and his audience must have felt the hollowness of any such statement made about ending humankind’s propensity to settle their differences by extreme violence. We in the twenty-first century look back with sadness upon the serial carnage that followed the conclusion of “the war to end all wars” in 1918, and we have little reason to predict that things will become more peaceful in the near future.

Act 5, Scene 3 (455-63, Richard speaks with Catesby and Norfolk, expressing confidence; Richmond draws up battle plans in his tent; Richard fires off a threat to Stanley, and asks his men to help him arm for battle; Stanley praises Richmond; Richmond prays for victory and sleeps; meanwhile, Richard suffers a guilt-ridden nightmare, and awakens in a panic; Richard confesses his fear to Ratcliffe; Richmond wakes up refreshed by a dream and delivers a speech to his troops; Richard broods, but harangues his army with a defiant speech; Richard is told that Stanley has deserted him; battle is imminent.)

In the third scene, Richard expresses confidence of his own, saying to Catesby and Norfolk, “the King’s name is a tower of strength, / Which they upon the adverse party want” (455, 5.3.12-13). He gives Norfolk and Catesby their final orders and sends with a herald’s attendant a threat to Stanley reminding him that his little son’s life hangs in the balance: “Bid him bring his power / Before sun-rising, lest his son George fall / Into the blind cave of eternal night” (456, 5.3.58-60). Around midnight, Ratcliffe is to come and help Richard suit up for battle.

Meanwhile, Richmond’s mind is also directed towards the struggle at hand: “I’ll draw the form and model of our battle …” (456, 5.3.39). As the battle looms, Stanley offers Richmond encouraging words, though he must be circumspect in his movements because King Richard still holds his son hostage: “on thy side I may not be too forward …” (442, 5.3.92; see lines 81-100). Richmond intends to lie down for a nap soon, but not before he prays for success, asking God, “Make us Thy ministers of chastisement / That we may praise Thee in the victory” (457, 5.3.111-12). He will rest well, enjoying the “sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams / That ever entered in a drowsy head,” (460, 5.3.225-26), as he tells his lords, and in that dream will “their souls whose bodies Richard murdered” (460, 5.3.228) visit him to cheer him on to victory.

By contrast, around the same hour, King Richard’s tortured conscience rears, forcing him to confront the same ghosts that come so pleasantly to the sleeping Richmond. All the king’s victims constitute a nightmare that at least  momentarily shakes the practiced warrior’s confidence. Visiting him in succession are eleven shades: those of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the little princes, Hastings, Anne Neville, and Buckingham (443-44). Buckingham’s final couplet speaks sufficiently for all the injured parties: to Richard he says sternly, “Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death. / Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath” (459, 5.3.169-70), while to Richmond he is kind: “God and good angels fight on Richmond’s side, / And Richard falls in height of all his pride” (459, 5.3.173-74). Richard wakes up and tries to sort through his confused thoughts, saying, among other things, “And if I die, / no soul will pity me. / And wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (460, 5.3.199-201)[48] Then Richard confesses his terror to Ratcliffe (460, 5.3.210-17), and his life now takes on its final, medieval shape, that of a pride-induced fall from the height of Fortune’s Wheel to the plummet of sin and wretchedness. He will stand alone in the midst of an army of men who do not love or honor him, and there’s no way out of his fatal predicament—at least none that an unrepentant sinner such as he could accept. King Richard bids Ratcliffe follow him on an eavesdropping tour of the camp tents, the purpose of which will be to discern “if any mean to shrink from me” (460, 5.3.220). He hopes by this shift to allay his fear.

As Shakespeare pans, so to speak, from the horrid scene that reveals King Richard III’s terror, Richmond is shown haranguing his assembled troops in set-piece style: his is the language of moral right, spoken by a man who’s certain that providence is on his side and that his enemy is a mere usurper and tyrant: “if you fight against God’s enemy, / God will, in justice, ward you as His soldiers” (461, 5.3.251-52).

Richard, too, now harangues his troops in set-piece style. Before he addresses them, he says to Norfolk, “Conscience is but a word that cowards use” and “Let us to it pell mell; / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell!” (5.3.307, 310-11). To the whole army, Richard’s language is a combination of stubborn possessiveness and strong contempt for the enemy. The opponents, he says, are “A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways, / A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants …” (462, 5.3.314-15). Shall such trash, asks Richard of his men, “enjoy our lands, lie with our wives, / Ravish our daughters?” (463, 5.3.334-35) This is the last hurrah of a desperate rogue addressing men who already hate him. Aside from what he says to his great lords, Richard really makes no appeal to camaraderie between him and his troops: since when has this selfish monarch ever done anything for common Englishmen? He served Edward IV’s cause for a time, but otherwise, Richard’s only concern has been for himself, and he is leading hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of men to their deaths to extend his own wicked reign.

Act 5, Scene 4 (463-64, the battle rages, with Richard now fighting on foot: “My kingdom for a horse!”)

One thing we can’t say of Richard is that he is a physical coward: Shakespeare grants him a king’s death, betrayed by many but hacking his way valiantly through a host of false Richmonds to get to the real one: he twice shouts out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (463-64, 5.8.7, 13)[49] What does this famous call mean? Probably not, in the fashion of irrational exuberance, that he would trade his entire kingdom for a horse, but instead that “My entire kingdom, my reign as king, depends on whether I can get my hands on a horse right now.” Richard III needs something simple and material without delay, or all is lost—such is the fragility of human strength, and such the power of fate, or providence. Then, too, this interpretation honors the turn-on-a-sixpence nature of many medieval battles, at least as Shakespeare represents them: strategy and tactics matter just as they do today, but the king’s personal courage is also considered a major factor in how a battle turns out. Richard III is diabolically plucky, but in spite of his pluck, he cannot commandeer the beast he desperately requires, and so will end his brief, troublesome reign. The scene concludes with Richard, on foot, still seeking out the real Henry, Earl of Richmond for single combat.

Act 5, Scene 5 (464-65, King Richard III goes down fighting Henry, Earl of Richmond; Stanley presents Henry with the crown; Henry issues a pardon to all who return and promises to unite the houses of Lancaster and York, and end the long spell of violence in England.)

At last, as they fight on Bosworth Field,[50] Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, cuts down the Yorkist Richard III, and proclaims the time of troubles at an end: “The day is ours; the bloody dog is dead” (464, 5.5.2). Henry will pardon all those who are willing to be reconciled, and marry princess Elizabeth of York, the daughter of the deceased King Edward IV by Elizabeth Woodville, and thereby unite the houses of Lancaster and York: “Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again. / That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’” (465, 5.5.40-41). This happy union is what keeps Shakespeare’s play from being a tragedy: its centering on Richard of Gloucester finally gives way to the triumph of Tudor history.

However crafty and bold King Richard III may have been, in the arc of Shakespeare’s play he becomes the creature of his own evil deeds, doomed to repeat them with less and less control over the outcome, until disaster can no longer be kept at bay. Only his death at the hands of Henry Tudor, along with Henry’s intra-dynastic marriage, puts an end to the bloody chaos of the Wars of the Roses. The lesson thereby conveyed seems strongly Augustinian: sin begets sin, and free will negates itself thereby, so that all of Richard’s cunning schemes and furious action come to naught. Like all things evil, Shakespeare’s model of badness Richard of Gloucester ultimately has no substance, no staying power.[51]

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

Copyright © 2012 / 2024 (Revised) Alfred J. Drake


[1] A major victory for England during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). The basic historical narrative in this introductory account claims no originality, and the author has where necessary drawn upon various sources such as Wikipedia, Britannica, and several sites covering the history of the United Kingdom.

[2] Henry VI was born in December 1421, so he was a baby when his father Henry V died in 1422. The boy’s uncle Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester (1390-1447) functioned as Lord Protector during Henry VI’s minority.

[3] Richard, Third Duke of York was the son of Richard of Conisbrough, Third Earl of Cambridge and the grandson of Edward III’s fourth son Edmund of Langley, First Duke of York.

[4] See Britannica’s entry on the millennium-old Salic Law, which (at least as it came to be adapted and interpreted) barred the succession to the throne of anyone whose claim came from a woman. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[5] Henry V was just short of his 36th birthday when he died.

[6] Henry Tudor was the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and descended from John of Gaunt through his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort.

[7] The sons were Edward the Black Prince (Duke of Cornwall, Prince of Wales), Lionel of Antwerp (Duke of Clarence), John of Gaunt (First Duke of Lancaster), Edmund of Langley (First Duke of York), and Thomas of Woodstock (Duke of Gloucester).

[8] See the exact beginning of the Holinshed account at Holinshed’s Chronicles (Holinshed Project), and Sir Thomas More’s Richard III. ( For an interesting account of Richard III’s recent exhumation, examination, and reinterment in a place befitting his status and historical significance, see “Richard III: The King under the Car Park.” Matthew Morris. University of Leicester. Accessed 2/23/2024. (YouTube).

[9] Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. New York: Norton, 1956. The author covers Clarence in some detail. See in particular 92-96, 142-49.

[10] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465. 403, 1.4.23-24.

[11] Queen Margaret plays a key role in Henry VI, Parts 2-3, Shakespeare’s setup plays for Richard III.

[12] Kendall, ibid. 43.

[13] Kendall, ibid. 31.

[14] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465. 445,4.4.109.

[15] Richard of Gloucester becomes King Richard III by Act 4, Scene 2; he is sometimes called simply “Richard” for brevity’s sake. Henry Earl of Richmond will at various points be called Richmond, Henry, or Henry Tudor: by the end of the play, he becomes King Henry VII.

[16] Shakespeare, ibid. 439, 4.2.63.

[17] Shakespeare, ibid. 439, 4.2.61-62.

[18] Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96. 5.6.78-79.

[19] Shakespeare. Richard III. Film dir. by Richard Loncraine. United Artists et al. 1995.

[20] Murray, ibid. See Ch. 6, “The King’s Man.” 89-106.

[21] Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96. 294, 5.6.80.

[22] Johnson, Samuel. “Preface to Shakespeare.” Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/4/2024. Johnson the moralist writes sternly of Shakespeare, “His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.”

[23] Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2­nd ed. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

[24] Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[25] Kissinger, Henry. “Power is the great aphrodisiac.” Quoted in The New York Times, Jan. 19, 1971. Accessed 2/23/2024.

[26]  Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96.229-30, 2.1.20-42.

[27] Shakespeare. The Sonnets. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 656-709. 700, “Sonnet 129,” lines 1-2.

[28] Kendall, ibid. The author covers Clarence in some detail. See in particular 92-96, 142-49.

[29] Shakespeare. The Tempest. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 397-448. 386, 1.2.404-05.

[30] The phrase belongs to President George W. Bush.

[31] See Genesis 8:8, 8:10. The 1599 Geneva Bible. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[32] Kendall, ibid. 299-300. Buckingham already possessed half of the Earl of Hereford Humphrey de Bohun’s huge estate, but he wanted the rest of it, which had gone to King Henry IV. Kendall explains that when Henry VI and the Prince of Wales died, Buckingham felt the rest of the estate belonged to him by right. Richard apparently granted this wish, but made it provisional upon an act of Parliament for somewhat complicated reasons relating to Henry VI’s lost title to the estate. Kendall says that Buckingham “must have been satisfied with this provision” (300). In Shakespeare’s play, Richard balks at his subordinate’s urging, thereby angering him. The playwright has clearly taken this information from Holinshed’s account of Richard’s reign: “And forsomuch as the title, which he claimed by inheritance, was somwhat interlaced with the title to the crowne by the line of king Henrie before depriued, the protector conceiued such indignation, that he reiected the dukes request with manie spitefull and minatorie words.” This makes dramatic sense; but then, Holinshed also airs an equally plausible supposition: “Verie truth it is, the duke was an high minded man, and euill could beare the glorie of another; so that I haue heard of some that say they saw it, that the duke, at such time as the crowne was first set vpon the protectors head, his eie could not abide the sight thereof, but wried his head another way.” Gutenberg e-text. (Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles … “Richard the Third.”) Accessed 3/8/2024.

[33] See Mirror for Magistrates, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Hathitrust. 3/4/2024.

[34] Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund shows contempt for his father’s naïve faith in astrology, saying in soliloquy, “I should have been that / I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on / my bastardizing.” Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. 774, 1.2.118-20.

[35] King James I. Daemonology. 1597. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[36] Such shows are common under authoritarian regimes. Stalin’s infamous “show trials” come to mind, as might, more recently, a chilling 1979 video showing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, then VP, seizing power and brutally condemning his enemies one by one. Accessed 2/28/2024..

[37] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Macbeth. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 917-69. 935, 2.3.103-04.

[38] Harington, Sir John. “Of Treason” from The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington. Accessed 2/24/2024.

[39] The maxim, “It is not enough that I should succeed; others must fail” has been attributed to any number of authors.

[40]  In real life, that event occurred in late spring 1472.

[41] Folger Shakespeare Richard III. Act 4, Scene 1. First Folio, 1623. Lines not numbered. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[42] Kendall, ibid. See Appendix 1: “Who Murdered the Princes?” 465-95. Kendall briefly discusses Henry VII, but finds the case for his guilt weak; he appears to consider Buckingham the most likely culprit.

[43] With regard to this question about the fate of the young princes Edward and Richard, the debate continues. One interesting conversation is logged at Ars Technica, “We now have evidence….” (Jennifer Ouellette, 2/9/2021. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[44] Sir Thomas More. The History of King Richard III. 1513. Accessed 3/4/2024. See also Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles … “Richard the Third.”) Accessed 3/8/2024.

[45] Shakespeare. The Life of Henry the Fifth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 790-857.

[46] Ernst Kantorowicz, W. C. Jordan, et al. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016; orig. pub. 1957.

[47] Kendall, ibid. 95-96.

[48] Richard III’s fearful attack of conscience renders his thoughts in a way that does not really call upon any sense of interiority. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), Harold Bloom cites this orderly, speechified rendering of conscience as characteristic of Shakespeare’s earlier period; from Hamlet onward, circa 1600-01, says Bloom, the playwright learned to convey a sense of interiority that—where necessary—avoided such grammaticality and logical coherence in favor of silences and broken or partial but suggestive utterances. Sometimes, as the romantic poets would later insist, the fragment, the part, signifies more than the whole. See Bloom’s chapters “Shakespeare’s Universalism” (1-17) and “Richard III” (64-73).

[49] Perhaps the best rendition of this famous line comes from a modern production directed by Richard Loncraine: Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard III shouts it as the wheels of his 1930’s-era jeep spin uselessly in battlefield mud.

[50] See “The Battle of Bosworth Field.” Accessed 2/29/2024.

[51] Augustine of Hippo. The Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love. See Ch. IV, The Problem of Evil, which provides a useful summary. Trans. Albert C. Outler, 1955. Accessed 2/29/2024.. See also Augustine’s The City of God, Vol. 1, Book Twelve. Trans. and ed. Marcus Dods. Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 2/29/2024.

King Richard the Third

Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 361-450).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, Richard starts the play off with his remarkable “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy (speech delivered alone, not to other characters). How does he represent himself in this passage, and indeed throughout the first scene? How does he characterize his own nature and ambitions, the times in which he lives, and his powerful relatives?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, Richard woos, and apparently wins, the unfortunate Anne Neville, who mourns Henry VI and her betrothed, his son Edward Prince of Wales. Richard is complicit in their deaths. How does he go about this delicate task? What accounts for his success?

3. In Act 1, Scene 3, The royal dysfunctional family gather over a meal to bicker. What are some of their complaints? In particular, how does Queen Margaret (Henry VI’s widow) reproach Queen Elizabeth and Richard, and what warning does she make to Buckingham about Richard? How does Richard represent himself to others in this scene?

4. In Act 1, Scene 4, Clarence, about to be murdered by a pair of thugs on the order of Richard, offers a starkly beautiful rendition of his uneasy dream — what happens in that dream? What does it reveal to him? To us? To what extent does this scene generate real sympathy for Clarence, and to what degree do his remarks more generally suggest his complicity in the less savory side of power politics?


5. In Act 2, Scene 1, what figure does the soon-to-be-departed Edward IV, Richard’s Yorkist elder brother, cut in this scene: namely, what hopes does he express for the future of his dynasty? What does he expect of his family? And to what self-analysis is he driven when Richard deftly undercuts him with the news that Clarence is dead?

6. In Act 2, Scene 2, what quality breaks the unitary effect of Elizabeth, Clarence’s children, and the Duchess of York’s lamentation over Clarence and Edward IV? Still, to what extent is the grief expressed in this scene genuine, and the scene effective as an expression of sorrow?

7. In Act 2, Scene 3, three citizens air their thoughts and anxieties about Edward’s death and what is to come. What does this chorus of citizens apparently think of the great events and noble “actors” to which they are partly witness? What are their fears and expectations?

8. In Act 2, Scene 4, this scene in which Queen Elizabeth foresees the destruction of her family (the Woodvilles) rehearses Tudor propaganda about Richard’s ill-favored appearance and wicked ways from childhood onwards. Do some brief research on the Internet and set down what you can find about Richard’s character as modern historians represent it, or as it appears on websites devoted to Richard III. What opinion seems to prevail today?


9. In Act 3, Scene 1, describe the exchange between the young Prince Edward (Edward IV’s heir), his little brother York, and Richard: how does Edward size up his current situation? Why do Edward’s observations in particular disturb Richard, as we may discern after the boys have been sent to the Tower?

10. In Act 3, Scenes 2-3, how does this scene set Hastings up for what is to come in scene 4 (his execution) — what does he think of his prospects at this point? How does he react to the undoing of his own enemies? What does he say in response to the Messenger who tells him about Stanley’s ominous dream?

11. In Act 3, Scene 4, in a meeting to discuss matters pertaining to the coronation, what piece of stagecraft does Richard contrive to get rid of the troublesome Hastings? What is the further point of this brief drama — what does Richard accomplish thereby?

12. In Act 3, Scene 5, how do Richard and Buckingham dupe the Mayor of London into accepting their version of events surrounding Hastings and his sudden execution? Shakespeare makes it clear that the Mayor accepts their claims — why, in your view, might such a public figure accept what seems to us such a spectacle and justification for judicial murder?

13. In Act 3, Scene 6, the Scrivener enters with an indictment of the condemned Hastings. How does this ordinary fellow sum analyze the nature of the great events taking place in his midst? What lies at the root of the problem, as far as he is concerned?

14. In Act 3, Scene 7, analyze the “theatrics” of the episode in which Buckingham and Richard make a show of the latter’s alleged reluctance to accept the crown. What reasons does Buckingham employ to advance the cause of Richard’s acceptance, and what reasons does Richard give in feigning to decline it? What logic or assumptions about power and about the audience underlie this piece of political theater?


15. In Act 4, Scene 1, three of the play’s women (Elizabeth, Anne, and the Duchess of York) gather to consider their plight. How does Anne, once betrothed to Edward IV’s heir, explain her acceptance of Richard’s offer of marriage? Does her explanation seem credible? Explain.

16. Act 4, Scenes 2-3, in these scenes, Richard moves with great speed to consolidate his power, commanding the murder of the young princes in the Tower of London and taking other vital actions. How do Buckingham and Tyrrel, respectively, react to Richard’s demands to do away with the princes? What accounts for the difference in their reactions? How does Richard take Buckingham’s response?

17. Act 4, Scenes 4-5, what role does Queen Margaret play in her exchange with Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess (Richard’s mother)? What accusations do these three level at one another, and to what extent is there any understanding between them about their sufferings or their position as women in a world of dynastic intrigue?

18. Act 4, Scene 4, what logic and rhetorical emphasis does Richard employ to try to win over Queen Elizabeth to his desire for the hand of her daughter (also named Elizabeth) in marriage? How does she respond to him?


19. Throughout Act 5, contrast the language and actions of Richard and Richmond: what state of mind does each appear to be in on the eve of their fateful meeting? How do they justify the upcoming battle to their followers?

20. Act 5, Scenes 3-5, how does Richard conduct himself during the Battle of Bosworth, up to and including his death? In what sense is his comportment at the end characteristic of his life? What future does Richmond (soon to become Henry VII) lay out as the play concludes?

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake