Richard III is one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays, probably written in 1592. Shakespeare had started writing plays in 1590, with the three parts of Henry VI, telling the story of the Wars of the Roses – wars between two factions of the Plantagenet house: the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. Richard III continues this story with the story of the rise and fall of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets, overthrown at the end of the play, by Richmond, a Lancastrian, who married Elizabeth, the leading Yorkist. Richmond was crowned as Henry VII, the first of the Tudors, and grandfather of Elizabeth, in whose reign Shakespeare was writing.
As an early play, written well before Shakespeare joined The Chamberlain’s Men in 1594, it lacks some of the practicality of later plays:
At 30,000 words, it is long. In a recent play-reading, it took 3 1/2 hours to read the play. Of course the play can be cut for production.
Richard’s part is particularly long at over 1,200 lines. This compares with Lear’s 724 lines and Hamlet’s 736 lines in our MFFE edition.
It has a cast of 55 (including 11 ghosts, and 4 messengers onstage together). This compares with a cast of 32 in Hamlet, and 24 in King Lear.
There is a lot of experimentation with dramatic effects, not all of which work that well.
Richard III tells the (his)story of the last of the Plantagenets, Richard III, who was overthrown by the Duke of Richmond, who became the first of the Tudors, Henry VII. The Tudor dynasty continued with Henry VIII, and then (after Edward VII and Mary), Henry VIII’s third surviving child, Elizabeth, the monarch when Shakespeare wrote the play. So Henry VII was Elizabeth’s grand-father, and one key question is how much Tudor propoganda is contained in the story told by the play – probably quite a lot.
The Plantagenets had been ruling England for three hundred years or so when Richard III became king. The first Plantagenet was Henry II, son of Matilda, who married Eleanor of Acquitaine, with whom he had a number of children, notably another Henry (who rebelled against his father, and died); Richard (who rebelled against his father who died) who became Richard the Lionheart, and John, who rebelled against his brother. Richard came back from the Crusades to put his brother in his place. After Richard died, John became king, messed things up somewhat, signed Magna Charta with the barons, and lost all his wealth in The Wash, and died soon after. The Plantagenets continued behaving badly, and before Richard III, were engaged in a civil war known as the Wars of the Roses, between the Yorkist branch of the family and the Lancastrian branch.
Shakespeare’s play tells the story of the end of The Wars of the Roses. The Duchess of York has had three sons: King Edward IV, Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard is a cripple and has ambitions to be king. Edward IV is very sick, and if Clarence can be got rid of, Richard will be the only adult male likely to become king when Edward dies. Richard turns the king against Clarence, who is arrested and put in the Tower of London, where Richard has him murdered – drowned in a butt (barrel) of Malmsey wine. Shortly afterwards, Edward IV conveniently dies and Richard becomes Lord Protector, regent for Edward’s son.
The play opens with Clarence being sent to The Tower of London, with Richard commiserating with him, and then Hastings, the Lord Chancellor, being freed from the same prison, is welcomed by Richard.
Then follows one of the more difficult scenes to play, or believe in. Richard’s wooing of Anne, widow of Henry VI’s son. Both Henry VI and his son have been killed by Richard. Anne is accompanying her father-in-law’s (Henry VI’s) corpse to burial. In a scene which requires virtuouso acting from Anne, Richard moves Anne from outright hatred, to accepting his proposal of marriage. They do marry, but later in the play, she becomes inconvenient, and so Richard has her killed.
Shortly afterwards, Edward IV dies. He has two young sons, but they are too young to rule. Richard is already Lord Protector (guardian and regent) but he arranges to become king. He then promptly arranges for the two young princes (The princes in the Tower) to be held in The Tower of London, where he has them murdered.
If the first half of play shows Richard carefully manipulating himself into a position to become king, the second half of the play is about securing himself on the throne. His strategy is fairly simple. If he sees any sign of resistance from anyone, it’s “Off with his/her head!”
Hastings is one of the first to go, for expressing reservations about Richard becoming king. Even before that, followers of Queen Elizabeth (Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan) have been executed, really for being supporters of the Queen. Once Richard is king, he immediately turns against Buckingham, who has helped him to the throne, for having some reservations as to whether the Princes in the Tower should be murdered. Buckingham has the sense to realize that he is at risk and joins the growing number of rebels.
The rebels are led by Richmond, a Lancastrian who has had the sense to be out of Richard’s grasp in Brittany. He now returns to England and most of the nobility, or at least those that can, join with him. We are heading for a battle to try and replace Richard.
Before we get to the battle, the three main females in the play Queen Margaret (wife of the murdered Henry VI), Queen Elizabeth, (the wife of Edward IV), and the Duchess of York (mother of Edward IV, Clarence, and Richard III) have a scene of lamenting almost worthy of a Greek tragedy, though it goes on too long. At the end of this scene Richard enters, preparing for war and is cursed by his mother in one of the more chilling scenes from the play, before trying (unsuccessfully) to persuade Queen Elizabeth, who has been his enemy and whom he has wronged in too many ways to detail, to help him to marry her daughter Elizabeth, whom Richmond intends to marry.
Buckingham is captured and is executed before we head for the battle of Bosworth in Act 5. Act 5 Scene 3 is particularly interesting dramtically, with the two opposing leaders (Richard and Richmond) in their tents on stage together for the night before the battle, so that the ghosts of those killed by Richard can come on stage to curse Richard, and bless Richmond.
The day of the battle dawns. The two leaders inspire their men. Richard fights bravely, but is unhorsed, and is met by Richmond who kills him. Richmond becomes Henry VII and marries Elizabeth to unite the two houses of York and Lancaster, and found the Tudor dynasty
C21 performance considerations:
As noted at the beginning of this Introduction, the play has a number of problems for a modern audience:
It’s too long (around 3 1/2 hours, uncut).
Some of the scenes are too long, and lose dramatic effect because they go on and on
It has a huge cast
The factional fighting, which may have been crystal-clear for an Elizabethan audience, is confusing for a modern audience.
Some of the scenes border on the incredible