- King Edward IV
- Edward, Prince of Wales and later King Edward V (Edward IV’s son)
- Richard, Duke of York (son of Edward IV)
- George, Duke of Clarence (brother of Edward IV)
- Richard, Duke of Gloster and later King Richard III (brother of Edward IV)
- Henry, Earl of Richmond and later King Henry VII
- Duke of Buckingham
- Earl Rivers, brother to Edward IV’s Queen
- Marquis of Dorset and Lord Grey, sons of Edward IV’s Queen
- Lord Hastings
- Lord Stanley
- Queen Elizabeth (Edward IV’s wife)
- Queen Margaret (Henry VI’s widow)
- Duchess of York (Mother of Edward IV, Clarence, and Richard III)
- Lady Anne, it’s complicated but she eventually marries Richard III
The Play’s the Thing: The play opens with Richard bemoaning the fact that everything is too peaceful for his tastes although he’s doing his best to stir up trouble. Edward IV is ill and paranoid and Richard has planted rumours that there’s a prophecy that someone who’s name starts with G will kill his sons, with the hopes Edward IV will imprison and/or kill George, leaving open the road for Richard to more easily nab the throne. He then sees George being carted off to the tower and has one of many two-faced moments where he swears that he’ll do his best to get Edward IV to release George. Richard worries that Edward IV will bite the dust before Richard can have George whacked. Meanwhile, in another part of London, Anne is following the corpse of Henry VI which is on its way to be buried. To get things straight now, Anne is Henry VI’s daughter-in-law who was married to his son, Edward, who is also dead, both of whom we’re killed by Richard. She curses Richard (literally, she places a curse on his future wife) but then through some very impressive verbal exercises, Richard charms her into agreeing to marry him. Bad idea, Anne. Back at the palace, Queen Elizabeth is discussing her concerns about Edward IV’s health with her sons and then there’s some insults tossed around as some of the lords are not fans of the fact that Elizabeth has raised much of her family into the nobility even though they were nobodies prior to her marriage to Edward IV. Queen Margaret then shows up and curses everyone in sight, and this being Shakespeare these are all curses to take note of as they all come true later in the play. Everyone then gets called on to see Edward IV but Richard lingers behind to chat with two murderers he’s sending to whack George in the Tower. They head over to see George who tries desperately to talk his way out of the situation but only succeeds with one of the murderers and George is killed with the other.
Back in the palace, Edward is getting everybody to kiss and make up for the sake of his heirs. He then gets news George has been killed and gets depressed about it because while he briefly wanted him dead, he rescinded the order. Richard spreads rumours among the lords that Queen Elizabeth’s family made sure George was killed. The Duchess of York is hanging out with George’s kids when they bump into Queen Elizabeth who has gone a bit ’round the bend as Edward IV has died. The Duchess and Elizabeth have a grief off and it comes across as a bit Greek chorus-y (there will be more of this later). Meanwhile, Richard and the lords make plans to have Prince Edward, now Edward V brought to London for his coronation. Richard and Buckingham conspire to have Rivers and Grey (Queen Elizabeth’s family members) whacked. Elizabeth gets word of this and she and the Duchess worry about what Richard could possibly be up to.
Gloster meets Edward V and brings young Edward’s brother, York (referring to him by his title is just easier than having two Richards floating around right now). He sends the two brothers of to the Tower, even though Edward V isn’t too fond of the idea, to prep for the coronation. Meanwhile, Richard is conspiring with Buckingham to have himself crowned king. Queen Elizabeth’s family members are taken off to a place of execution (the first set of off-stage deaths). Richard breaks up plans for Edward’s coronation and manages to have some more lords executed for supposedly using witchcraft to cause Richard’s physical deformities. Despite some initial reluctance from the people, Richard eventually manages to wrangle mass support for his claim to the throne.
The Duchess, Anne, and Queen Elizabeth all meet up in front of the Tower where they’re headed to congratulate Edward V on his upcoming gig as King when they get word that Richard has made himself King. No one is pleased and there’s another grief off where Anne foretells her own death (which happens off-stage, of course).. Richard confides in Buckingham that he wants him to whack the two princes in the tower but Buckingham balks. Richard then gets someone else who’s so desperate for money he’ll do anything to organize the murders (more off-stage deaths). Richard is pleased as punch with the news his nephews are dead but then receives word that Richmond is sailing to England, likely in a bid for the throne himself (Henry VI foretold in the last play that Richmond would one day be king. Surprise! Any prophecies or curses in Shakespeare always come true! Too bad, Richard). Meanwhile the ladies have yet another grief off over all the horrible things Richard has done to them. Richard then shows up and attempts to convince Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter on his behalf (a ploy to cement his position as King) but Elizabeth has none of it and although she says she relents, she really doesn’t. Richard then gets word of rebels and Richmond and heads off to battle.
Buckingham is executed (off stage!) for joining the rebels against Richard. Richmond and Richard set up their camps and prepare to face off the next day. While Richard’s forces are larger, what he doesn’t know is that most of his troops don’t like him and are willing to switch sides at the smallest provocation. While Richard and Richmond sleep the ghosts of Edward IV, Henry VI, George, Queen Elizabeth’s family members, another lord, the two young princes, and Buckingham all show up to curse Richard and bless Richmond. Richard wakes up and has a bad feeling about his odds but heads off to battle anyway. We get news that Richard is fighting like mad on foot even after losing his horse. There’s a brief sword fight between him and Richmond which ends with Richard’s (surprise!) off-stage death. Richmond then gives a speech about ending the civil war by joining the houses of the red and white roses through his marriage with Queen Elizabeth’s daughter.
Heroes and Villains: Richard III is considered one of Shakespeare’s best villains, right up there with Iago. And for good reason as he manipulative, charming, and scheming throughout. You never like him nor is he ever sympathetic, but he is fascinating to watch in his inexorable rise to and later fall from power.
- Take that, and that (I.iv)
- dance attendance (III.vii)
- a very prey to time (IV.iv)
- A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse! (V.iv)
Speech to Know: Richard’s speech which opens the play begins with one of Shakespeare’s better known lines and gives the first glimpse of Richard’s hideous plots for the future.
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lower’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, – instead of mounting bared steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries, –
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, – that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
to strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time,
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them; –
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, – since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days, –
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” (I.i)
View from the Pit: I had high expectations for Richard III, which were only half-met. Richard comes with a reputation as being a villain on par with Iago, who is not only my favourite Shakespearean villain but probably my favourite villain in all fiction, so I was looking forward to my first encounter with him. And while as a character he is fascinating and his actions heinous, his climb to power and later fall from the throne are diluted by a lot of subplots and scenes that may be important for the historical context but slow down the action. The play is not as tightly plotted as some of the tragedies I’ll be spending time with later this year. That being said, it is far more interesting than much of the Henry VI trilogy. My only major complaint is that we have strong women who stand up to Richard for pages of fast-paced dialogue only to cave to him over and over. Now admittedly, this makes him even more interesting as a character to see how he can manipulate these women into changing their minds, but I would have liked to have seen Elizabeth beat him out in their verbal match instead of hearing later that she had ultimately turned against him.