Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
Richard III remains to this day one of the most mis-understood 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 article focuses primarily on the play, but with reference to known historical facts.
For several decades near the end of the fifteenth 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 was symbolised by a white rose, while the Lancaster family was symbolised by a red rose.
These problems started when Edward III died near the end of the fourteenth century, leaving seven sons, the third and fourth of which became fathers of two separate dynasties, namely the Lancasters and the Yorks.
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. He was soon replaced by a Lancaster, Henry IV (son of John of Gaunt). Henry IV was succeeded by his son Henry V, who in turn was succeeded by his son Henry VI.
In the late fifteenth century, fighting broke out again, this time between the separate dynasties of the Lancasters and Yorks. Henry VI (a Lancaster) was killed, along with his son, Edward Prince of Wales. They were murdered by Edward, Clarence, and Richard, sons of the York family.
The oldest of these three brothers, Edward, now 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 Richard III, he invented the modern system of bail, he decreed that the law of the land must be in the language of the land (rather than Latin or French which it had previously been written in), he standardised the system of weights and measures, and abolished the system of benevolences (whereby wealthy citizens could pay for positions of responsibility, even if they didn't have the necessary qualifications). Richard believed that if the job required particular knowledge in particular areas, then only somebody with that knowledge could have the job.
As an aside, it is not known from history 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, but nevertheless it is interesting to see that in fact he did make some beneficial contributions to the country during the period of his reign.
After a lengthy civil war between the Yorks and the Lancasters, the Yorks have triumphed, and England is enjoying peace under King Edward IV. However, all is not well, because Richard (younger brother to King 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 King 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 (King 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 the 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 the Yorks and Lancasters), and a peace settles on England once again.
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 Lancaster royal family, at the end of the play he fights Richard for the throne. In most of his character attribues, 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.
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 uses 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 cousins, 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.
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.
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 good 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 bunch backed toad"
"A knot you are of damned blood suckers"
"Wretched, bloody and usurping boar"
Richard III on film
Generally considered to the definitive Richard III, and perhaps one of the greatest British films of all time. Olivier directs, as well as starring 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.
Ian McKellen takes on the role of Richard in this adaptation, which has been cleverly modernised to be set in the 1930's. He makes the character a psycopathic 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.