Shakespeare Saturday: Richard III

Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end.

If Shakespeare had stopped after Titus Andronicus, he’d probably be like Christopher Marlowe or (more accurately) John Webster – of his plays, maybe Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus would have survived, and we might know that he also probably wrote something about Henry VI, but that would be it. But he kept going, and wrote Richard III next, and suddenly everything is different – Shakespeare the genius is suddenly standing on the stage, commanding our attention. It may not be his best play, but a lot of people probably consider it their favourite (it certainly ranks high on my order of preference). Like Hamlet and Lear and Malvolio, it’s a part actors dream of playing – he’s been portrayed by everyone from John Wilkes Booth to Martin Freeman to Al Pacino. It is very quotable. More than any other play he wrote, it has influence how we view a historical figure. Shakespeare assassinated Richard III’s character in such way that it has never recovered – no amount of fresh PR can convince us that he wasn’t the power-hungry, murderous monster Shakespeare made him into.

King_Richard_IIIRichard III is the final part of the “War of the Roses” Tetralogue, the story picking off from where 3 Henry VI finished – King Henry and his son are dead, and Edward, the eldest son of York, has become the King of England. Richard of Gloucester offers his rather insincere congratulations:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York

Richard also boasts about a prophecy according to which someone by the letter G will murder Edward’s heirs; this has made the King to send his brother George Clarence to the Tower. Edward is gravely ill, and it is vital that Richard deposes of Clarence before he dies; that way he will be made the Protector of Edward’s children. In the funeral of Henry VI, Richard seduces the king’s daughter-in-law Anne Grey, the widow of Prince Edward, trying to convince her that he killed her husband and the king out of love for her.

Richard is in conflict with Queen Elizabeth; he accuses her of nepotism, and they argue over who is more loyal to the King. While the courtiers are at it, King Henry’s widow Queen Margaret enters, cursing everyone. In the Tower, Clarence repents the things he has done; his murderers (appointed by Richard) enter, and after hesitation from their part, he’s stabbed and drowned in a barrel of wine. The King is not dying fast enough to Richard’s liking, so he speeds him along the way by telling him that Clarence is dead, and that the relatives of the Queen are to blame.

Edward dies.

Richard forms an unholy alliance with Duke of Buckingham; they conspire to declare the King’s marriage to Elizabeth void – this would make her sons illegitimate and thus ineligible to take the throne. As Elizabeth mourns her husband, Clarence’s children blame Edward for their father’s murder. Their grandmother, Duchess of York, just knows that Richard was really behind it – her instinct as his mother tells her that Richard is the villain of this story. Rivers and Buckingham go to get the young Prince of Wales, saying that it’s best that he’s crowned as soon as possible – only, soon enough Elizabeth and the Duchess receive news that the Queen’s supporters and relatives, including Rivers, have been imprisoned by Buckingham. They decide to flee.

Richard sends the young princes to the Tower, with the premise that they will be safe there until the coronation – in reality he is planning to depose of them, to secure his position on the throne. Various courtiers and supporters of the Prince of Wales are killed. To prove that Edward’s heirs are not legitimate, Richard claims that the late King himself was a result of an affair their mother had while their father was in France. He emphasises his own Christian virtue vs. the sinful background of Edward’s heir; this hamfisted plot works, and he is crowned king.

Richard then takes Anne Grey as his wife. The three women, Anne, Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, all understand the gravity of the situation; Elizabeth sends her youngest son to safety with Henry, Earl of Richmond. She is not wrong in her fear; the newly crowned Richard III reveals to Buckingham that he intends to have the young Prince of Wales murdered, tasking one Sir James Tyrrell to take care of it. The king also refuses to reward Buckingham for his loyalty, and disillusioned, he takes his leave.

The women learn of the fate of the princes in the Tower. Anne, who has been gravely ill, has died. Richard III decides to take Princess Elizabeth, his niece, as his wife. Queen Margaret makes another appearance, and persuades Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York to ally themselves against Richard. They accordingly confront him, with unexpected consequences – after a long debate the Queen agrees to the marriage between Richard and her daughter, but the old Duchess curses her son with a death on the battlefield.

Either thou wilt die, by God’s just ordinance,
Ere from this war thou turn a conqueror,
Or I with grief and extreme age shall perish
And never look upon thy face again.
Therefore take with thee my most heavy curse;
Which, in the day of battle, tire thee more
Than all the complete armour that thou wear’st!
My prayers on the adverse party fight;
And there the little souls of Edward’s children
Whisper the spirits of thine enemies
And promise them success and victory.
Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end;
Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend.

Both Richmond and Buckingham have raised armies. The inevitable is happening – when he had the young princes murdered, Richard pushed too far, and his enemies are rising in revolt. Before the final confrontation, Buckingham is captured and executed. Both the King and Earl of Richmond make their way to Bosworth, where in the night before the battle they both dream – the ghosts of all the people Richard has killed in this play appear to them both, cursing Richard and blessing Richmond. The following morning Richmond wakes up confident, but Richard III is troubled by these dreams. They both address their supporters, before going into battle. Richard’s horse is killed:

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Richmond kills Richard, and is crowned the king of England; the rule of the Plantagenets is over, and it is time to restore the country to it’s true glory. Richmond marries the young Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of King Edward IV; from the white of York and red of Lancaster come the red and white of the Tudors.

Richard is an intriguing character; straight from the start, his opening speech shows his deeper motivations. He was born deformed; his mother later recounts (mirroring Henry VI in 3 Henry VI) how his birth was difficult for her, probably both physically and mentally. He grew up a difficult child. Because of the circumstances of his birth, his mother never really bonded with him; rejected from the start, he feels it his twisted duty to live up to people’s expectations of villainy. It seems like a role that sits naturally on him, and yet he is gripped by guilty conscience, probably much more than he’s willing to admit – this sense of guilt is something he keeps pushing away, fighting to keep it at bay, almost but not quite successfully. Yet it doesn’t justify any of his actions; for a long time he gets away with it, but once he has the young princes killed, without any reason but his own paranoia about losing the crown he has plotted to get, his luck runs out. It’s something too monstrous even to his supporters.

The way Richard is self-deprecating at all times, gently mocking himself for his own deformity, is darkly funny. While there’s no humour in the Contention, Richard III will make you chuckle occasionally, one of the funniest moment coming in the end when Richard pleads for a new horse. It’s a comical scene, and yet true – had he been on horseback, visible to his troop and able to fly his flag, Richard III would have been able to rally his troops and quite possibly this could have affected the outcome of the Bosworth battle.

1612 Quarto of The tragedie of King Richard the third, on display in the Weston Library in Oxford.

Is it any good?

Yes. Richard III is a artistically a huge step up for Shakespeare. The violence of the earlier plays is gone – while Shakespeare couldn’t resist the temptation to have one severed head on the stage, only Richard himself dies in view. It is darkly humorous. It is his first play that meditates on some really big, important questions – Richard’s ruthless desire for power, his battles with his conscience, as well as his battles with the limitations his disability puts on him.

Fun fact

The play refers a few times to “mistress Shore” – her name was Jane Shore, and she was the mistress of King Edward IV, but also had affairs with Hastings and with Thomas Grey, both characters in the play. She was sent to prison by Richard III, where she attracted the attention of the King’s Solicitor General Thomas Lynom. They married, and the formerly notorious beauty reached an old age as a wife of a mid-level civil servant, dying in 1527 – over 40 years after the events of this play.

What say thou?

Richard III is the first Shakespeare play with really serious quotability. “The winter of our discontent”, divorced from its original context, is almost as famous as expression as “to be, or not to be”. There are some great speeches, but none of them better than Richard’s opening soliloquy, in which is explains himself:

But I, that am not shaped 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,
Deformed, 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.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.

Best character?

Richard III himself. Honourable mention the old Duchess of York, his mother.


For the sake of consistency, the BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation from 1983. Same set, same cast.

I also watched the documentary Now! about the Old Vic production directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kevin Spacey; it focuses on the cast as the play tours the world in 2011-12. Haydn Gwynne plays a magnificent Queen Elizabeth:


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