Richard III remains to this day one of the most misunderstood of England's kings. Immortalised in Shakespeare's play, he is the ultimate embodiment of treachery and corruption at the highest levels of power. Yet he was not all bad; some of his accomplishments while he was king have affected major aspects of modern society.
This entry focuses primarily on the play, but with reference to known historical facts.
For several decades near the end of the 15th Century, England's royal family was involved in a power struggle which regularly erupted into violence. This period is known as 'The Wars of the Roses', after the family symbols of the two contending groups: the York family (symbolised by a white rose), and the Lancaster family (symbolised by a red rose).
These problems started when Edward III died near the end of the 14th Century, leaving seven sons, the third and fourth of which became fathers of two separate dynasties (the aforementioned Lancaster and York).
Richard II, descended from Edward III's oldest son (making him neither a Lancaster or a York), ruled for several years after the death of Edward III. However, his rule was overturned by a Lancastrian, Henry IV (son of John of Gaunt) and he subsequently died in prison in 1399. Henry IV was succeeded by his son, Henry V, who in turn was succeeded by his son Henry VI.
In the late 15th Century, fighting broke out again. Richard, Duke of York, led the charge for the Yorks, passing the mantle on to his son Edward, following his death in 1460. Henry VI (Lancaster) was defeated by Richard (York), captured, exiled, imprisoned in the Tower of London, briefly regained power and was finally executed by Edward (York) in 1471. Henry's son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Lancaster), died at the Battle of Tewkesbury the previous day. It's probably fair to say that this was not a good time to be king!
The crown then passed to Richard's children: Edward (who we've already mentioned), Clarence and Richard. Edward, as the oldest, laid claim to the throne, and became King Edward IV. This is the situation at the start of Shakespeare's play.
Although Shakespeare sometimes twists the historical facts in order to make events more dramatic, most of the play is based on known history. However, some comments on Richard's character would perhaps be helpful. In the play, Richard is presented as a conniving, evil, and altogether corrupt man, but history tells us that there was another side to him.
For instance, as King, he pioneered the modern system of bail, decreed that the law of the land must be in the language of the land (rather than Latin or French as previously) and standardised the system of weights and measures. He also abolished the use of benevolences (whereby wealthy citizens could pay for positions of responsibility, even if they didn't have the necessary qualifications). Richard believed that if a position required knowledge in a particular area, then only somebody with that knowledge could hold it.
As an aside, there are no historical records detailing whether Richard was actually born with a disfigurement or not - but there is nothing to say that he was.
Presumably, Shakespeare felt that it would spoil the impact of the play if any of these positive elements were introduced into Richard's character. The influence of Elizabeth I is also likely to have affected his portrayal. Shakespeare was a realist after all and Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII, deposed Richard as ruler, so painting him in a poor light would have met with the firm approval of his monarch. History, after all, is written by the winners...
King Edward IV - The older brother of Richard and Clarence, and (at least at the beginning of the play) the King of England.
Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York - More often referred to collectively as 'the Princes', they are the young sons of King Edward IV and Elizabeth. Richard has them murdered in the Tower.
George, Duke of Clarence - Brother to King Edward IV and Richard. Too trusting in a time where innocence was rewarded by treachery, Richard has Clarence murdered in order to clear his path to the throne.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, afterwards King Richard III - Brother to King Edward IV and Clarence. Cursed with a deformed body, and a corrupted mind, Richard is the central character of the play, but he is by no means a hero. His intelligence, political manipulations, and tremendous eloquence means that although he is not liked, he still retains control over most of those around him.
Henry, Earl of Richmond - Part of the Lancastrian royal family, at the end of the play he fights Richard for the throne. In most of his character attributes, he is the complete opposite of Richard.
Duke of Buckingham - Richard's right-hand man, and almost as lacking in morals as Richard himself. He helps Richard in many of his schemes to gain the crown.
Earl Rivers, Marquis of Dorset, Lord Grey - Earl Rivers is Elizabeth's brother, while Grey and Dorset are her sons from her first marriage. All three support her after Edward IV's death, which in turn causes them to be Richard's enemies.
Lord Hastings - One of the few lords who retains his integrity, and his loyalty to King Edward IV's family, causing him to be one of the many who Richard murders.
Lord Stanley, called also Earl of Derby - Stepfather of Richmond, and secretly helps him, although this nearly causes him to lose his young son when Richard discovers what is going on.
Sir William Catesby, Sir Richard Ratcliff - Richard employs these members of the nobility for some of his devious plans.
Sir James Tyrrel - A completely amoral man, whom Richard hires to murder his two young nephews, the princes, in the Tower.
Elizabeth, Queen to King Edward IV - While King Edward IV is alive, she is safe as his Queen. But after his death, she is at Richard's mercy. Since she opposes his rise to the throne, he views her as an enemy. Her relatives - Rivers, Dorset, and Grey - are her allies. The two princes are her sons, and she is also the mother of the young princess, Elizabeth.
Duchess of York - Widowed mother of King Edward IV, Richard, and Clarence. She grows to hate Richard because of his murder of Clarence, and his devious ascent to the throne.
Lady Anne - The widow of Prince Edward, the son of the former King Henry VI. She hates Richard, since it was he who killed her husband. Partly for political reasons, and partly because of his eloquence, she marries him.
After a lengthy civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster, the Yorkists have triumphed, and England is enjoying peace under King Edward IV. However, all is not well, because Richard (younger brother to Edward IV) is resentful of the happiness of the people around him. Richard decides on a cunning, not to mention daring, plan to ascend to the throne. Basically, this involves murdering most of his family and friends.
As his first step, he persuades Lady Anne into marrying him - in spite of the fact that he murdered her husband. He arranges for his brother Clarence to be executed, and then blames his other brother, Edward IV, for Clarence's death. This greatly accelerates the descent of Edward's health, and after Edward dies, Richard becomes Lord Protector of England.
Not satisfied with this, Richard proceeds to kill all of those loyal to the Princes. Once he has murdered all those around Elizabeth (Edward IV's widow), he has the political power and influence that he needs to be crowned King. Still not content, he arranges for the murder of the two young princes, who are imprisoned in the Tower of London.
By this time, Richard is hated and loathed by the people of England, and most of the noblemen in his court have turned against him. Before long, the Earl of Richmond (of the Lancaster family) becomes a contender to the throne, and England is ready to support him.
Richard tries desperately to retain his hold on England, but finds that his grip is loosening. He arranges for his wife Anne to die mysteriously, and then attempts to marry young Elizabeth, the daughter of King Edward IV and the former Queen Elizabeth. However, Queen Elizabeth manages to prevent this.
In the finale, Richmond invades England, Richard is killed, and Richmond becomes King Henry VII of England. He is betrothed to young Elizabeth (thus uniting the houses of York and Lancaster), and peace settles on England once again.
Richard - I am not in the giving vein today.
Richard - I can smile. And murder while I smile.
Richard - Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.
Queen Elizabeth - I have no more sons of the royal blood for you to slaughter.
Richard - You have a daughter.
Richard - Plots have I laid.
Richard - I'll have her, but I'll not keep her long.
Richard - Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead.
Queen Elizabeth - Shall I be tempted by the devil then?
Richard - Yes, if the devil tempt you to do good.
Richard - Conscience is but a word cowards use.
Richard - A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.
Insults from the Play for those times when @#!%£# just Isn't Enough
Curtailed of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished.
Thou lump of foul deformity.
'Tis thy presence that exhales blood from cold and empty veins where no blood dwells.
Thou unfit for any place but hell.
Never hung poison on a fouler toad.
Out of my sight, thou dost infect mine eyes.
Poisonous hunchbacked toad.
A knot you are of damned blood suckers.
Wretched, bloody and usurping boar.
Richard III on Film
1954 - Generally considered to the definitive Richard III, and perhaps one of the greatest British films of all time. Laurence Olivier directs, as well as stars as the hunchbacked Richard, exuding devious cunning. Ralph Richardson takes the role of the Duke of Buckingham, and John Gielgud plays Clarence. A very strong supporting cast round off this fine adaptation.
1995 - Ian McKellen takes on the role of Richard in this adaptation, which has been cleverly modernised to be set in the 1930s. He makes the character a psychopathic and deceptive killing machine, while at the same time expressing the eloquence that gives Richard his influence. Altogether a very good film.
Neither film can be called better than the other, since they approach the play from fairly different points of view. Both have their good points; both are enjoyable.