Richard III by William Shakespeare.

Richard III.
I've been focusing on Shakespeare's histories for about six months now and the plays (I'll exclude King John for now), Edward III (assuming Shakespeare did write that), Richard II, the Henry IV plays, Henry V, and the Henry VI plays, have all led to this, the greatest play (I think) that William Shakespeare ever wrote. It truly is a masterpiece. 

I'm hoping, after this post and after I've read and written about Henry VIII, I'll write a post on all the histories, so at this point I don't want to get too bogged down in writing about the events that lead to Richard III, but it is essential to have some background. First, take the Henriad: Richard II (1595-6), Henry IV Part I and II (1596-7), and Henry V (1599): in these plays we see King Richard II illegally deposed and murdered, and King Henry IV come to the throne. He re-established the House of Lancaster and from Henry IV there are a further two Lancastrian kings, Henry V and Henry VI. Here we come into the 'Wars of the Roses' section of Shakespeare's plays: Henry VI Part I, II, and III, and now Richard III. We have seen in the previous Henry VI plays the rise of Richard of York, he who challenged Henry VI. However he was murdered by Henry VI's wife Queen Margaret, and he left behind three sons (the fourth, Edmund, was also murdered), the eldest is Edward, Duke of York, then George, Duke of Clarence, and finally Richard, Duke of Gloucester. After the murder of Henry VI and Richard of York, the king is now Edward, Edward IV. Were he to die childless, England would have had George I (though as it happens England didn't have a George I until 1714), and had George have died Richard of Gloucester would have inherited the throne. However Edward IV did have sons: Edward, who would become Edward V, and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York: the Princes in the Tower as they are now known. 

That is a stark and yet still complicated history of the kings and key events in the dispute between the two rival houses of the Plantagenet Kings, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, as told by William Shakespeare. It is crucial in understanding Richard III and it's why I think the only way to read Shakespeare's histories is in order of the action of the plays. 

Finally, then, let's get to Richard III. It was written around 1592, shortly after the Henry VI plays, and it tells of the rise and fall of Richard. The play begins with Richard as the Duke of Gloucester and Edward IV on the throne, but before he had even been properly 'in line' for the throne we saw some unnerving aspects of Richard's sociopathic Machiavellian ambition; shortly after Edward IV was crowned Richard said in an aside (this is in Henry VI Part III),
... Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry 'Content' to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.
Richard III opens with one of the most famous speeches in the Shakespeare canon:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'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 changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Richard does not feel a part of these good times,
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...
He adds,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. 
Edward IV.
And so he plots to secure the throne for himself. In his way: Edward IV, his two sons Edward and Richard, and his brother George. At the start of the play Edward IV is gravely ill and to exacerbate the illness and get rid of George (referred to as Clarence in the play) he has Clarence, imprisoned for treason, executed and takes some joy in telling Edward:
Kɪɴɢ Eᴅᴡᴀʀᴅ IV: Is Clarence dead? the order was reversed.
Gʟᴏᴜᴄᴇsᴛᴇʀ: But he, poor soul, by your first order died,
And that a winged Mercury did bear:
Some tardy cripple bore the countermand,
That came too lag to see him buried.
God grant that some, less noble and less loyal,
Nearer in bloody thoughts, but not in blood,
Deserve not worse than wretched Clarence did,
And yet go current from suspicion!
Dᴇʀʙʏ: A boon, my sovereign, for my service done!
Kɪɴɢ Eᴅᴡᴀʀᴅ IV: I pray thee, peace: my soul is full of sorrow.
By this stage Richard has married Anne: Anne is the widow of Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, the only son of Henry VI and Queen Margaret, who (in Shakespeare's play) was murdered Richard and Clarence (the truth is Edward simply "died in battle"). When Edward IV dies, and with Clarence dead too, Edward IV's son Edward becomes Edward V of England at the age of twelve. Richard becomes Lord Protector to 'guide' his and his brother's interests until they were older, and he starts by putting them in the Tower of London despite their reluctance,
... If I may counsel you, some day or two
Your highness shall repose you at the Tower:
Then where you please, and shall be thought most fit
For your best health and recreation.
Edward V.
To clear the path, Richard needs not only to get rid of Edward V and his brother Richard, but also the supporters of the two brothers, beginning with Lord Hastings. He accuses Elizabeth, the widow of Edward IV, of witchcraft and Hastings cautiously replies, "If they have done this thing, my gracious lord..." The reply:
If I thou protector of this damned strumpet--
Tellest thou me of 'ifs'? Thou art a traitor:
Off with his head!
Lord Hasting's death and other arrests of relatives of Queen Elizabeth (n.b. Queen Elizabeth is so called because she was the wife of a king; she was not a monarch herself like Queen Elizabeth I, who came to the throne in 1558) leaves Edward V, young Richard, and Elizabeth vulnerable, and indeed Richard has Edward and Richard killed by his ally Tyrrell (Sir James Tyrrell, who did allegedly confessed to the crime). With the help of his other allies, most notably Buckingham (Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham), Richard is crowned Richard III of England.

Henry VII.
Richard's determination to be crowned is the driving force until he is crowned, after which is driving force is the paranoia and ruthlessness in keeping the crown, and it is this that loses him many allies, even Buckingham. Marrying Elizabeth and Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth of York, his niece, would help secure his rights, and so Richard kills his wife Anne. Queen Elizabeth however stalls the marriage and secretly promises young Elizabeth to the Earl of Richmond. And it is the Earl of Richmond who ends Richard's bloody tyranny. He is of course Henry Tudor, who will be the first Tudor king: Henry VII. He invades England and his and Richard's army do battle: the Battle of Bosworth on the 22nd August 1485 in Bosworth, Leicestershire. In this, Richard famously loses his horse, and his last words were, "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!". Richard III would have given everything he had fought for for so very long to survive that battle. 

The play ends with Henry VII a hero who has slayed a villainous king. The final words of the play are from Henry VII:
England hath long been mad, and scarr'd herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughter'd his own son,
The son, compell'd, been butcher to the sire:
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire division,
O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so.
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!
Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloody days again,
And make poor England weep in streams of blood!
Let them not live to taste this land's increase
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace!
Now civil wounds are stopp'd, peace lives again:
That she may long live here, God say amen!
And so Henry goes on to marry Elizabeth: Henry is of the House of Lancaster, Elizabeth of the House of York, and their marriage unifies the two rival houses. The roses too: the red of Lancaster and the white of York are combined and produce the Tudor Rose, which you can see here in what is called "the Pelican Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth I, the final Tudor monarch, from 1572:

Detail of the "Pelican Portrait" of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard (1572)
That, then, is a rough guide to Richard III. It is astonishingly forceful: Richard changes from a conniving ambitious duke and dies a demented king. Another aspect of the play I loved very much was the supernatural element: so far I haven't mentioned the exiled Queen Margaret, the wife of Henry VI. She returns very early in the play and curses all of them. To Elizabeth,
Long mayst thou live to wail thy children's loss;
And see another, as I see thee now,
Deck'd in thy rights, as thou art stall'd in mine!
Long die thy happy days before thy death;
And, after many lengthen'd hours of grief,
Die neither mother, wife, nor England's queen!
Rivers and Dorset, you were standers by,
And so wast thou, Lord Hastings, when my son
Was stabb'd with bloody daggers: God, I pray him,
That none of you may live your natural age,
But by some unlook'd accident cut off!
And then to Richard,
And leave out thee? stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me.
If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world's peace!
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be whilst some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!
Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that wast seal'd in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell!
Thou slander of thy mother's heavy womb!
Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins!
Thou rag of honour! thou detested...
Her rage in this play, this is Shakespeare at his very best. And then, towards the end, Richard is indeed tormented by dreams: before the Battle of Bosworth all of those he killed appear to him. Edward V:
Let me sit heavy on thy soul to-morrow!
Think, how thou stab'dst me in my prime of youth
At Tewksbury: despair, therefore, and die! ...
Henry VI:
When I was mortal, my anointed body
By thee was punched full of deadly holes
Think on the Tower and me: despair, and die!
Harry the Sixth bids thee despair, and die!
Let me sit heavy on thy soul to-morrow!
I, that was wash'd to death with fulsome wine,
Poor Clarence, by thy guile betrayed to death!
To-morrow in the battle think on me,
And fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die! ...
Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, Buckingham, and his wife Anne, who tells him:
Richard, thy wife, that wretched Anne thy wife,
That never slept a quiet hour with thee,
Now fills thy sleep with perturbations
To-morrow in the battle think on me,
And fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die!
It becomes almost Greek-like, Margaret, the personification of rage foretelling the fate of Richard III and events, as predicted, come to pass.

Richard III is exhausting, but it's the best. I love Shakespeare's histories and have loved them more and more as I read them, but I'm decided on this being the absolute finest.

So far William Shakespeare has written about King John, perhaps Edward III, and then the final kings of the House of Plantagenet: Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III. In Richard III he writes of the first Tudor king, Richard's successor, Henry VII. The only play of Shakespeare's histories left is Henry VII's successor, his son Henry VIII. This I will read this week!

David Garrick as Richard III by William Hogarth (1745).


  1. shakspeare's use of language is truly remarkable in its accuracy and telling force; if nothing else, that alone would have made him famous...

    1. Yes, it really is an astonishing play, Shakespeare absolutely hit the nail. Unfortunately it ruined the reputation of the real Richard III, however... :S


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