Richard III Summary

William Shakespeare

Richard III

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Richard III Summary

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Richard III is a play by English playwright William Shakespeare, first performed around 1592, among the most famous of his historical dramas. Based loosely on real events, it depicts the rise to power and short but brutal reign of King Richard III of England. Depicted as a mad hunchback, Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic villain protagonists alongside Macbeth. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the play does not include much violence, with only the title character dying on-stage and all other fatalities happening off-stage. It is known for its dry, fatalistic sense of humor, and explores themes including free will versus fate, and the idea of an anti-hero who the audience is inclined to root for even as they do horrible things to keep power. It is one of the only plays where a character directly addresses the audience throughout. Richard III remains one of the most enduring of Shakespeare’s histories, and has continued to be staged consistently since its debut in the 16th century. There have been several movie adaptations, and the title role has been played on stage and screen by luminaries including Basil Rathbone, Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, and Al Pacino.

The play begins with Richard, also known as “Gloucester” as he is called in the text, speaking of his brother Edward IV ascending to the throne. This famous speech begins with “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Richard is a hunchback who walks with a limp and is embittered by his condition. He is determined to prove himself a villain and conspires to have his brother Clarence sent to the Tower of London thanks to a prophecy he bribed a Soothsayer for. Edward now believes Clarence will kill him, while the prophecy actually states Richard will. He is also scheming to marry Anne Neville, widow of the Prince of Wales – whose husband and father he killed, he confesses to the audience. Lady Anne, meanwhile, is attending the corpse of the late King Henry VI and mourns the fate of the House of Lancaster. Richard shows up and orders that the corpse is set down. Although he and Anne feud at first, she is won over by his pleas of love and agrees to marry him. He exults in his victory as soon as she leaves.

The royal court is filled with rivals, as there is a split between established nobles and the heirs of Queen Elizabeth. Queen Margaret, Henry IV’s widow, returns and tries to warn the court about Richard, but she is ignored. Richard orders two murderers to kill the imprisoned Clarence, while Clarence tells his keeper about a dream he had, involving falling from a ship as a result of Gloucester and seeing the ghosts of Gloucester’s other victims. As the killers arrive, the keeper and the Lieutenant of the Tower let them in on the king’s orders, despite Clarence’s pleas. Clarence begs for his life, saying it is a sin before God, but they call him a hypocrite and tell him that his own brother sent them to kill him. One murderer has an attack of conscience and doesn’t participate, but the other stabs Clarence and drowns him. Act one ends with the murderer looking for a place to bury the body.

As act two begins, Edward IV takes ill after hearing of Clarence’s death, and Richard implies that the Queen was behind the killing. When Edward dies, he leaves Richard as Protector, and Richard begins ruthlessly removing the final obstacles to his ascension. He has allies of the Queen executed and attempts to recruit the help of his nephew Edward V and his younger brother, the Duke of York. Although Richard tries to manipulate them, they are unintimidated and openly mock him. Richard attempts to portray himself as the true heir to the throne and executes all who oppose him, like Lord Hastings. He spreads rumors that his nephews are illegitimate, and the court is intimidated into accepting Richard as King. He asks his cousin Buckingham, his closest ally, to kill his nephews, but when Buckingham hesitates, he recruits Sir James Tyrell, and the boys are soon dispatched. Buckingham turns against Richard and sides with Henry, Earl of Richmond. Richard soon poisons his wife, Lady Anne, and sets his sights on seducing Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s last remaining heir. Queen Elizabeth, mourning the deaths of the Princes, asks Queen Margaret’s help in cursing Richard. Richard meets with Queen Elizabeth and asks her for her help in marrying her daughter, but she is not fooled and stalls him.

Richard soon becomes increasingly paranoid, facing rebellions by Buckingham and the invading Earl of Richmond. Buckingham is captured and executed, but when Richard faces Richmond on the battlefield, he is visited by the ghosts of his many victims and driven to near insanity, begging for forgiveness. At the Battle of Bosworth Field, he is deserted by his few remaining allies. He loses his horse in the battle, crying out “My Kingdom for a horse!”. Richmond kills Richard III in the final battle, and ascends to the throne as Henry VII, soon marrying Princess Elizabeth of the House of York.

William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous English author and the most famous playwright of all time. He is often called England’s national poet, and many of his works are considered among the greatest classics of English literature. He was responsible for eleven tragedies, seventeen comedies, ten histories, and a wide selection of poems and sonnets, the majority of which are still widely read, taught, and performed today. His impact on English-language literature is among the greatest of any author, and he is widely honored today in his homeland and around the world.