After a long civil war between the royal family of York and the royal family of Lancaster, England enjoys a period of peace under King Edward IV and the victorious Yorks. But Edward’s younger brother, Richard, resents Edward’s power and the happiness of those around him. Malicious, power-hungry, and bitter about his physical deformity, Richard begins to aspire secretly to the throne—and decides to kill anyone he has to in order to become king.
Using his intelligence and his skills of deception and political manipulation, Richard begins his campaign for the throne. He manipulates a noblewoman, Lady Anne, into marrying him—even though she knows that he murdered her first husband. He has his own older brother, Clarence, executed, and shifts the burden of guilt onto his sick older brother King Edward in order to accelerate Edward’s illness and death. After King Edward dies, Richard becomes lord protector of England—the figure in charge until the elder of Edward’s two sons grows up.
Next Richard kills the court noblemen who are loyal to the princes, most notably Lord Hastings, the lord chamberlain of England. He then has the boys’ relatives on their mother’s side—the powerful kinsmen of Edward’s wife, Queen Elizabeth—arrested and executed. With Elizabeth and the princes now unprotected, Richard has his political allies, particularly his right-hand man, Lord Buckingham, campaign to have Richard crowned king. Richard then imprisons the young princes in the Tower and, in his bloodiest move yet, sends hired murderers to kill both children.
By this time, Richard’s reign of terror has caused the common people of England to fear and loathe him, and he has alienated nearly all the noblemen of the court—even the power-hungry Buckingham. When rumors begin to circulate about a challenger to the throne who is gathering forces in France, noblemen defect in droves to join his forces. The challenger is the earl of Richmond, a descendant of a secondary arm of the Lancaster family, and England is ready to welcome him.
Richard, in the meantime, tries to consolidate his power. He has his wife, Queen Anne, murdered, so that he can marry young Elizabeth, the daughter of the former Queen Elizabeth and the dead King Edward. Though young Elizabeth is his niece, the alliance would secure his claim to the throne. Nevertheless, Richard has begun to lose control of events, and Queen Elizabeth manages to forestall him. Meanwhile, she secretly promises to marry young Elizabeth to Richmond.
Richmond finally invades England. The night before the battle that will decide everything, Richard has a terrible dream in which the ghosts of all the people he has murdered appear and curse him, telling him that he will die the next day. In the battle on the following morning, Richard is killed, and Richmond is crowned King Henry VII. Promising a new era of peace for England, the new king is betrothed to young Elizabeth in order to unite the warring houses of Lancaster and York.
Richard III is the last of the four plays in Shakespeare’s minor tetralogy of English history: it concludes a dramatic chronicle started by Henry VI: Part I and then moving through Henry VI: Part II and Henry VI: Part III. The entire four-play saga was composed early in Shakespeare’s career, most scholars assigning Richard III a composition date of 1591 or 1592. Culminating with the defeat of the evil King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth field in the play’s final act, Richard III is a dramatization of actual historical events that concluded in the year 1485, when the rule of the Plantagenet family over England was replaced by the Tudor monarchy. A full century after these events, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audiences were certainly familiar with them (as contemporary Americans are of their own Civil War), and they were particularly fascinated with the character of Richard III. Shakespeare’s audiences could readily identify the various political factions and complex family relationships depicted in the play as they proceed from the three parts of Henry VI.
Today, readers and audiences may find it exceedingly difficult to follow the overlapping webs of political intrigue, family relationships, and personal vendettas. Fortunately, while a full knowledge of historical context would certainly enhance a modern reading of the text, it is not really necessary. The play, in fact, is dominated by Richard the hunchback Duke of Gloucester, who becomes Richard III through a series of horrible acts, killing off his enemies, his kinsmen, his wife and most of his supporters before reaching the Battle of Bosworth and crying out "My kingdom for a horse." In a work that is as much melodrama as history, Richard is a pure, self-professed villain of monstrous proportions. His evil drives the plot; and until his final defeat by the Duke of Richmond (who became Henry VII) in the play’s last act, the good forces opposing him are weak, splintered, and ready prey for his schemes.
Richard III Summary
Richard opens the play by declaring all in England is well, except with himself. Richard III convinces Edward IV to send his own brother Clarence to jail because his name starts with a G (George, Duke of Clarence). Hastings, recently released from jail, and Richard go to see the sickly King Edward IV. On the way, Richard III meets Anne Neville (Warwick’s daughter), widow of Edward, Henry VI’s son, who is transferring Henry VI’s body to his funeral. They fight over the royals’ deaths. Richard III tells Anne that he killed them because he loves her. He even gets her to like him. At the London palace Queen Elizabeth (Edward IV’s wife) informs Rivers and Grey that Richard III would be the protector if Edward IV dies. [Dorset and Grey are Elizabeth’s kids by a different husband than Edward IV; Rivers is her brother]. Richard III enters and fights with Queen Elizabeth about his loyalties and intentions. Queen Margaret (Henry VI’s wife) shows up and curses: 1) Edward IV to die of sickness; 2) Edward V to die young; 3) Queen Elizabeth to live long, and be not wife, mother, or Queen; 4) Rivers, Dorset, and Hastings to die an unnatural death; 5) Richard III to be friends of traitors and betrayed by friends; and 6) Queen Elizabeth to later wish for Margaret’s help to curse Richard III. Margaret spares Buckingham telling him he hasn’t wronged her, but he insults her so she curses him too.
In the Tower of London, Clarence relates a dream to his keeper, in which Clarence drowns and sees his father-in-law, Warwick, cursing Clarence for deserting him at Tewksbury. Two executioners, paid by Richard III, then murder Clarence by drowning him in a wine barrel. At the London palace, sick Edward IV makes Queen Elizabeth, Hastings, Dorset, Buckingham, and Rivers make up old differences and be friends. Richard III enters and makes peace too, then informs them all of Clarence’s death, afterwhich Edward IV repents the death. Cicely Neville (Duchess of York, 3rd Duke of York’s widow) tells Clarence’s children, Edward and Margaret Plantagenet, that their father is dead. Edward IV dies and Queen Elizabeth laments. The children criticize Elizabeth for not mourning Clarence’s death. Buckingham quietly tells Richard he will pursue their aim to separate Dorset and Grey from their mother.
Queen Elizabeth learns that her sons, Grey and Dorset, have been committed to Pomfret Castle by Richard III and Buckingham. Queen Elizabeth, her son Richard Duke of York, and the Duchess of York flee to sanctuary. Prince Edward V arrives in London and sends Hastings to bring his brother Richard Duke of York out of hiding and to him. Richard III sends Richard Duke of York and his brother Edward V to the Tower of London to "sleep", though he, Buckingham, and Catesby plan to kill the boys and crown Richard III king. In return, Richard III promises Buckingham land. Stanley dreams Richard III beheads Hastings and tells him of it, but Hastings thinks nothing of it. Catesby tries to convince Hastings to side with Richard III, but he refuses. All learn that Rivers, Vaughn, and Grey have been executed at Pomfret castle (same place as Richard II). At a meeting at the Tower, Richard III accuses Hastings of treason and has him beheaded.
Richard III tells Buckingham to start rumors that Edward IV’s children are bastards, and furthermore, that Edward IV himself was a bastard. Also, Richard devises a plan to get rid of Clarence’s children. The mayor of London comes to Richard III and offers him the throne, which Richard, reluctantly (faking) accepts. The Duchess of York (Grandma), Queen Elizabeth (Mother), and Anne (Aunt of the princes Edward V and his brother Richard Duke of York) mourn because Richard III imprisoned the princes in the Tower of London. Queen Elizabeth tells her son Dorset to leave England to see Richmond (Henry VII), after Stanley brings news that Richard III plans to crown Anne Neville queen, fulfilling Anne’s own curse that Richard III’s future wife be cursed and miserable.
At court, King Richard III asks Buckingham to murder Prince Edward and his brother, yet Buckingham hesitates to respond favorably. Richard III plans to have Clarence’s daughter married off to a poor man to get rid of her. Richard also plans to kill his own wife Anne Neville, then marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth, Richard’s own niece. Richard III pays Tyrrel to kill the princes since Buckingham is unwilling to do it. Richard III remembers a prophesy that Richmond (Henry VII, Henry VI’s nephew) would be king someday. Anne and the princes are killed, Elizabeth is married off, Clarence’s son Edward is killed, and Richard III goes to woo his niece Elizabeth away from Richmond. However, Ely joins Richmond and Buckingham who raise an army against Richard III. Old Queen Margaret (Henry VI’s wife) meets the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth and tells them to curse Richard III, and they do. Richard III tells Queen Elizabeth that he wants to marry her daughter Elizabeth. Battle ensues, Richmond attacking England and Buckingham losing while defending it. Stanley would help Richmond, but Richard III keeps Stanley’s son as insurance against Stanley’s defection. Richard III has Buckingham executed. Richmond has Oxford, Blunt, Herbert, and William Brandon as his allies. Richard III’s allies are Norfolk, Ratcliffe, Surrey, Catesby, and Northumberland, though they’re not very supportive of Richard.
All of Richard III’s victims come to him in a dream to haunt and torment him: Henry VI’s son Edward; Henry VI; Richard III’s brother Clarence; Rivers, Grey, and Vaughn; Hastings; Richard III’s nephews Edward V and Richard Duke of York; Richard III’s wife Anne Neville; and finally Buckingham. All say, "Despair and die" to Richard III, causing him to go crazy. The same ghosts also visit Richmond and wish him luck. The two armies meet in battle on Bosworth Field, both generals giving orations to their armies before battle. Richard III fights valiantly screaming, "A Horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Richmond kills Richard III and Stanley crowns Richmond Henry VII. Henry VII, a Lancaster, marries Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth, a York, ending the War of the Roses by uniting the houses of York and Lancaster.