Richard III
A Study Guide
Home: Shakespeare Index

Shakespeare Study Guides in Kindle Format
With Complete Texts That Define Difficult Words and Explain Difficult Passages

Table of Contents
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016
(Revised and Updated in 2016 After Archeologists Exhumed the Skeletal Remains of Richard III)

Type of Work 

William Shakespeare's Richard III is a stage play that is both a history and a tragedy. It is the last of the four Shakespeare plays that focus in part on the Wars of the Roses. The others were Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II, and Henry VI Part III.  Although there are many murders in the play, it is not a whodunit but a character study of the remorselessly evil title character.

Composition and Publication
Richard III was probably written between 1591 and 1593. It was first published in a quarto edition in 1597. A quarto was a sheet of paper folded in half to create four pages. Five other quarto editions appeared between 1598 and 1622. Friends of Shakespeare published the play again in 1623, seven years after the author's death, in a collection that included thirty-five other Shakespeare plays. This collection was carefully edited and proofread, then printed in folio format. A folio was a larger sheet of paper than a quarto. Like the quarto, it was folded to create pages. Because the folio book was the first publication containing a collection of Shakespeare's plays, it came to be known as the First Folio after other folio editions were published in 1632, 1663, and 1685.

First Performance

Richard III was first performed in the 1590s, although the place of its performance and the exact date of its debut are uncertain. It is likely that the play was performed at the Globe Theatre after it opened in 1599. A record exists that the play was performed at the royal court in November of 1633.


Shakespeare based Richard III partly on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Raphael Holinshed (1529-1580). This history was published in 1577 in two volumes. Other sources Shakespeare used were The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke (published in 1548), by Edward Hall (1497-1547); The Mirror for Magistrates, published in 1559 and edited by William Baldwin and George Ferrers; and The History of King Richard the Thirde (published in 1557), by Sir Thomas More (1477-1535).

The action takes place in England. The locales are London, an open place near Salisbury, a camp near Tamworth, and Bosworth Field (about twelve miles west of Leicester in the East Midlands). Although the historical events depicted in the play took place over approximately fourteen years, Shakespeare compresses them into about a month. The play ends in 1485 after the Battle of Bosworth Field.


Richard, Duke of Gloucester: Richard is the son of the late Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. The play script refers to Richard as Gloucester in the first three acts (when he is a duke) and as King Richard in the last two acts (when he is England's ruler). Gloucester gleefully murders his way to power to become King Richard III. At the beginning of the play, Richard is in his early twenties; at the end, when he dies in the Battle of Bosworth Field, he is thirty-two. Richard is the main character, or protagonist.
Edward IV: Sickly King of England and brother of Richard (Duke of Gloucester) and George (Duke of Clarence). Edward dies and leaves two boys as heirs to the throne—and prey for the murderously ambitious Richard.
George, Duke of Clarence: Brother of Edward IV and Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Because he stands in the way of Richard's evil plans, Richard has him murdered. 
Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth Woodville): Wife of King Edward IV. She was the widow of Sir John Grey.
Elizabeth of York: Daughter of Queen Elizabeth and King Edward IV.
Edward, Prince of Wales: Twelve-year-old son of Edward IV.  After his father dies, Edward reigns briefly as king—from April 9,1483, to June 29, 1483. In Richard III, he dies in the Tower of London at the hands of murderers hired by Richard.
Richard of Shrewsbury, First Duke of York (also referred to as Prince Richard): Younger brother of Edward, Prince of Wales.The murderers who kill his twelve-year-old brother also kill young Richard.
Lady Anne: Widow of Prince Edward, the son of King Henry VI. She was the daughter of Richard Neville, the Sixteenth Earl of Warwick. She despises Gloucester; however, through guile and lies, he persuades her to marry him.
Richmond: Henry Tudor, Second Earl of Richmond. A long-standing foe of Richard III, he leads an army against Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Lord Thomas Stanley: First Earl of Derby and stepfather of Richmond.
Duke of Buckingham: Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham. He is a key supporter, then enemy, of the title character. He turns against Richard after the latter announces plans to murder Prince Edward and Prince Richard, the children of Edward IV.
Lord William Hastings: Close friend of King Edward IV. Before King Edward's death, Hastings served as his lord chamberlain. Because Hastings supports the accession of Prince Edward after Edward IV dies, Richard orders his execution.
Duchess of York: Mother of Edward IV, Richard III, and the Duke of Clarence.
Earl Rivers (Anthony Woodville): Brother of Queen Elizabeth with the title of Second Earl Rivers.
Marquess of Dorset (Thomas Grey): Son of Queen Elizabeth and her first husband, Sir John Grey. 
Lord Richard Grey: Son of Queen Elizabeth and her first husband, Sir John Grey.
Sir William Catesby: Loyal supporter and advisor of Richard III.
Sir Richard Ratcliff: Loyal supporter and confidant of Richard III.
Queen Margaret: Margaret of Anjou and widow of King Henry VI.
Cardinal Thomas Bourchier: Archbishop of Canterbury. He crowned Gloucester as King Richard III, although historically he may not have been a supporter or Richard.
Thomas Rotherham: Archbishop of York.
John Morton: Bishop of Ely.
Boy: Son of George, Duke of Clarence.
Daughter: Daughter of George, Duke of Clarence.
Sir James Tyrrell: Unscrupulous nobleman whom Richard hires to kill Prince Edward and Prince Richard.
Duke of Norfolk (John Howard): Loyal supporter of Richard III.
Earl of Surrey (Thomas Howard): Son of the Duke of Norfolk and supporter of Richard III.
Lord Francis Lovel (also spelled Lovell): Loyal supporter of Richard III.
Earl of Oxford (John de Vere): Supporter of Richmond against Richard III.
Sir Thomas Vaughan: Loyal supporter of King Edward IV. He is executed by Richard III.
Sir James Blount: A leader of forces supporting Richmond against Richard III.
Sir Walter Herbert: Supporter of Richmond
Sir William Brandon: Standard-bearer in Richmond's army.
Sir Robert Brakenbury: Lieutenant of the Tower of London.
Christopher Urswick: Priest and chaplain in the Stanley home.
Tressel, Berkeley: Attendants of Lady Anne.
Dighton, Forrest: Murderers.
Mistress Shore: Elizabeth Shore, a mistress of King Edward IV. She has no speaking part in the play.
Ghosts: Spirits of Richard III’s murder victims.
Others: Another Priest, Lord Mayor of London, Sheriff of Wiltshire, Lords, Attendants, Citizens, Messengers, Soldiers, Pursuivant, Scrivener. (A pursuivant is an attendant or an officer ranking below a herald. A scrivener is a copier of documents. The scrivener in Richard III prepares papers indicting Lord Hastings.) .

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2006, 2010, 2016

. Introduction

Richard III centers in part on events at the end of the Wars of the Roses, fought between 1455 and 1485. These conflicts pitted the House of York (symbolized by a white rose) against the House of Lancaster (symbolized by a red rose). Both houses were branches of the House of Plantagenet. The House of York maintained that only members of its family had a legitimate right to the throne of England. The House of Lancaster made the same claim for members of its family. 

At the beginning of the wars, Henry VI, a Lancaster, sat on the throne. He lost it in 1461 to Edward IV, a York. Edward ruled from March 1461 to October 1470, when Henry VI regained the throne. Henry lost it again to Edward in April 1471. Henry died in the Tower of London on May 21 of that year. Edward continued to reign until his death from illness in 1483. Shakespeare picks up the story during Edward's second reign, when the king becomes ill. Edward's brother Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, covets the throne. He is ruthless and unscrupulous and is willing to do anything—even commit murder—to eliminate those ahead of him in the line of succession.

The Story

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, appears alone on a London Street and announces to the audience his plans to overthrow his brother, King Edward IV. Richard is evil—so evil, in fact, that he derives immense satisfaction from committing vile deeds. There appears to be a measure of revenge—against nature and against the world and its people—in his motives. For he was born into this world as a lame hunchback, “deformed, unfinished . . . scarce half made up” (1.1.22-23). His misshapen form annoys even the dogs that bark at him as he limps by. Cheated of the fairness of feature that marks others around him, he decides to cheat them of position, power, even life. His vengefulness abets another motive: ambition. Richard covets the throne and will stop at nothing to get it. All options are open, including murder.

I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous. (1.1. 32-34)

First, he convinces King Edward that their brother, the Duke of Clarence, craves the crown. Edward then claps Clarence in chains and imprisons him in the Tower of London. Edward, meanwhile, becomes seriously ill. (How lucky for Richard.) Richard wants Edward to die, of course, but not until Clarence is dead. “Clarence still breathes; Edward still lives and reigns: / When they are gone, then must I count my gains” (1.1.168-169).

Of course, kings-to-be must have queens-to-be. Richard is no exception, he believes, in spite of his villainous reputation and grotesque appearance. So he woos Lady Anne—the daughter-in-law of the late King Henry and widow of Henry's son—even as the coffin of the dead king passes with Lady Anne attending it in mourning. When Richard orders the procession to halt, Lady Anne glares at Richard and exclaims, “What black magician conjures up this fiend / To stop devoted charitable deeds?” (2.1.37-38). Anne has good reason to loathe Richard. It was he who murdered King Henry (according to Shakespeare's version of historical events.) What is more, he murdered Anne’s husband. Anne, who well knows that Richard committed the murders, tells him,

Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!
Thou hadst but power over his [the dead king's] mortal body,
His soul thou canst not have; therefore be gone. (1. 2. 47-49) 

Richard blames Edward for the death of Lady Anne's husband, but she says she knows better, reminding him that there was a witness to the murder:

In thy foul throat thou liest: Queen Margaret saw
Thy murderous falchion smoking in his blood;
The which thou once didst bend against her breast,
But that thy brothers beat aside the point. (1. 2. 98-101)

When she asks Richard to own up to killing the king, he admits the deed and says he did the king a favor by sending him to heaven: “He was fitter for that place than earth” (1.2.114). Lady Anne pronounces Richard fit for only one place: hell. Boldly, Richard retorts that he is fit for another place, her bed-chamber. Lady Anne spits at him.

By and by, however, Richard’s wheedling tongue persuades her that he is repentant and worthy of her attention. He offers her a ring and, wonder of wonders, she puts it on and agrees to marry him. Later, Richard laughs up his sleeve at her for falling victim to his words, and he thinks he might be a fine figure of a man after all.

At court, Richard pretends to be sensible and selfless, with only the king’s best interests at heart. But behind the king’s back, Richard accuses the king’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, of scheming against Clarence, who remains Richard’s prisoner in the Tower of London, and convinces important noblemen—the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Hastings, and Lord Stanley—of her guilt. Then he dispatches henchmen to kill Clarence. They are thorough. First, they stab him; then they submerge him in a barrel of wine. Richard also orders the arrest of three supporters of Elizabeth—the Second Earl Rivers, Sir Thomas Vaughn, and Lord Richard Grey—and imprisons them in Pomfret Castle, located in Pontefract, West Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, King Edward dies, and Richard confines the king’s children—Prince Edward, heir to the throne, and his brother, Richard—to the Tower of London under a pretense that Edward is to be prepared for coronation. Events then begin to move swiftly as Richard advances his scheme to win the throne. First, he orders the execution of Grey, Rivers, and Vaughn and follows up with the beheading of Lord Hastings, a supporter of the accession of Prince Edward. However, Richard has duped Buckingham into becoming one of his supporters after making the following claims: first, that the late king’s sons were illegitimate and therefore ineligible to inherit the throne; second, that the king ordered the murder of a citizen simply for speaking of the matter of royal succession; and, third, that Edward lusted after “servants, daughters, wives” (3.5.86) of the House of York.

Buckingham then speaks on Richard’s behalf to the people of London, repeating what Richard said. As a result, a delegation of citizens, including the Lord Mayor of London, comes to offer Richard the crown at Baynard Castle. After Buckingham greets them, they see Richard going to prayer with two bishops. In his hand is a prayer book. Buckingham praises Richard as a devout man. Then the citizens importune Richard to accept the crown. Ever playing the innocent, Richard replies,

I am unfit for state and majesty;
I do beseech you, take it not amiss;
I cannot nor I will not yield to you. (3.7.210-212)

 When the citizens press Richard further, he tells them that

    I am not made of stone,
    But penetrable to your kind entreats,
    Albeit against my conscience and my soul. (3.7.228-230)

So, in June of 1483, Richard is crowned King of England and his wife Anne queen. There remains, of course, unfinished business: the two little boys in the Tower, Princes Edward and Richard. In a room of state in the palace, he tells the Duke of Buckingham: “I wish the bastards dead; / And I would have it suddenly perform’d” (4.2. 21-22). When he asks Buckingham to endorse his murder plan, the duke asks for time to reflect on the matter, then leaves.

Richard then sends for a man of meager means reputed to be willing to do anything for money. His name is Sir James Tyrrell. When Richard asks him whether he will serve his king by killing the boys, calling them “foes to my rest, and my sweet sleep’s disturbers” (4.2.79), Tyrrell replies, “I’ll rid you from the fear of them” (4.2.83).

When Buckingham returns to inform the king of his position on the murder plan, he first asks the king to make him Earl of Hereford. Richard ignores the request and instead speaks of a prophecy of King Henry VI that Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, would become king. Buckingham then repeats his request several times until the king finally replies that he is not in a giving mood. Furthermore, he tells Buckingham, “Thou troublest me” (4.2.127). Buckingham now realizes that he is out of favor and probably in mortal danger. After the king and his attendants leave the room, Buckingham flees the court “while my fearful head is on” (4.2.131).

Elsewhere Tyrrell hires two men, Dighton and Forrest, to murder the boys. After the young Edward and Richard lie dead, Tyrrell does something that Richard never does: he owns up to the foulness of his action.

The tyrannous and bloody act is done.
The most arch of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.
Dighton and Forrest, whom I did suborn
To do this ruthless piece of butchery,
Albeit they were flesh’d villains, bloody dogs,
Melting with tenderness and kind compassion
Wept like two children in their deaths’ sad stories. (4.3.3-10)

Pleased with the success of the mission, King Richard replies, “Come to me, Tyrrell, soon after supper, / And thou shalt tell the process of their death” (4.3.37-38).

Next, Richard arranges the death of Queen Anne so that he can marry the sister of the murdered boys, thereby giving him stronger royal connections. England, though, is coming to its senses, and the Earl of Richmond (Henry Tudor) raises an army to overthrow Richard. Buckingham now backs Richmond with a force of Welshmen. John Morton, Bishop of Ely, also supports Richmond’s cause, as does the Marquis of Dorset, a son of Elizabeth. In addition, Lord Stanley supports Richmond but cannot fight on his behalf, for Richard is holding Stanley's son as a hostage, threatening to kill him if Stanley enters the fray.

Armies of Richard and Richmond gather at Bosworth Field in August of 1485 to settle the issue. While the two foes, Richard and Richmond, sleep in their tents before the battle, the ghosts of the persons murdered by Richard appear to both of them, predicting Richard’s defeat and death.

When the armies clash on August 22, Richard fights with remarkable tenacity. One of his comrades in arms, Catesby, says,

The king enacts more wonders than a man,
Daring an opposite to every danger:
His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death. (5.4.4-7)

But as the tide of battle turns against Richard, he loses his mount and cries out, “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” (5. 4.10). When Catesby offers to help Richard to another horse, Richard replies, “Slave, I have set my life upon a cast, / And I will stand the hazard of the die” (5. 4.12-13). The Earl of Richmond then slays Richard, and says, “The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead” (5.4.19). Richmond is to ascend the throne as Henry VII, King of England, and the Wars of the Roses ends.


The tone of the play is generally dark and threatening, with Richard's evil machinations driving the plot. Richard establishes the tone in his opening soliloquy, when he speaks of his villainy and the hatred he will stir up.

      I, in this weak piping time of peace,     
Have no delight to pass away the time,     
Unless to see 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.  (1.1.-26-37)

Richard at times is gleefully evil, taking great pleasure in his murderous adventures. His delight in ruining and ending the lives of others is sometimes perversely comic, as is the dialogue between the two murderers hired by Richard after they enter the Tower of London to kill the Duke of Clarence.

SECOND MURDERER:   What! shall we stab him as he sleeps?     
FIRST MURDERER:   No; he’ll say ’twas done cowardly, when he wakes.     
SECOND MURDERER:   When he wakes! why, fool, he shall never wake till the judgment-day.     
FIRST MURDERER:   Why, then he’ll say we stabbed him sleeping. (1.4.101-104) 

The murderers plan to stuff Clarence into a barrel of wine after killing him. While they stand over him, Clarence awakens and cries out to the keeper of the Tower, "Where art thou, keeper? give me a cup of wine." The First Murderer replies, "You shall have wine enough, my lord, anon."


The main conflict of the play pits Richard against anyone who stands between him and the achievement of his goals, notably the Earl of Richmond, who leads an army against Richard. Richard is also an enemy of his own brothers, his mother, and his nephews.

Climax and Conclusion

The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Richard III occurs, according to the first definition, when Richard ascends the throne (Act 4, Scene 2) as King of England. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Richard, who has lost his mount, shouts “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (5.4.10; repeated in line 16).

The play concludes after Henry, Earl of Richmond, slays Richard and announces plans to unite the Houses of York and Lancaster.

Great Buys on the Following Items at Amazon.com



After reading Richard III or attending a performance of it, one inevitably asks: Why is Richard such a thoroughgoing villain? Why is he so ruthless? Why does he covet the throne with such passion that he is willing to kill members of his own family to sit in it as king?

One can make a strong case that his main motive is vengeance. Unable to lead a normal life because of his grotesque appearance—and the envy and anger it generates in his psyche—he seeks revenge against a world of people blessed with the qualities he lacks. He will gain his revenge by making himself superior to everyone; he will become king of England!  On his way to his goal, he will step over anyone who opposes him—even family members, even children. His all-consuming ambition to win the crown leads him to lie, cheat, and kill. He becomes Macbeth raised to the second power, showing no mercy, no compassion. But he does delight in the misery he causes and the murders he orders. For example, after Richard's henchman, Tyrrell, reports that he has carried out Richard's charge to murder the late King Edward's sons, Richard is eager to hear the gruesome details of their death. He tells Tyrrell to sit down with him after supper to "tell the process of their death” (4.3.38).


During most of the play, Richard wears a mask of innocence. He is almost always pretending, always deceiving. In the first act, for example, he tells his brother Clarence that he will work on his behalf, then sets about arranging the murder of Clarence. In the same act, he tells Lady Anne—who loathes him—that he loves her beyond measure and that he sincerely repents his past evildoing against her loved ones, including her dead father and dead husband. He goes on to say that his repentance will make him a worthy husband for her. She heaps insult after insult upon him and curse after curse. In the end, though, after he continues to act remorseful while continuing to vow love for her, Anne relents and agrees to marry him. After Richard becomes king, he begins plotting her murder so that he can marry another woman for political reasons.

Richard also pretends that he does not wish to become king even though his desire for the crown permeates every fiber of his being. When Lord Stanley mentions what stance he would take if Richard should become king, Richard answers, "If I should be! I had rather be a pedlar: / Far be it from my heart, the thought of it!" (1.3.154-155). By pretending that he eschews the crown, Richard believes he will become more attractive as a kingly candidate. He is right. And his deceit pays off. Eventually, though, many of his associates and friends see through his mask and rise up against him.

The Supernatural

Belief in witchcraft, omens, auguries, ghosts, curses, soothsaying, and everyday superstitions was commonplace among the British in Shakespeare's day. One confirmed believer in the paranormal was none other than England's King James I. In 1591, when he was the king of Scotland, a group of so-called witches and sorcerers attempted to murder him. Their trial and testimony convinced him that they were agents of evil. Thereafter, he studied the occult and wrote a book called Daemonologie (Demonology), published in 1597. This book—and an earlier one called Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer, 1486, by Heinrick Kramer and Jacob Springer), describing the demonic rites of witches—helped feed the interest of the English in the supernatural.

In Richard III, the supernatural manifests itself mainly in the results of curses, dreams, and prophecies; in references to Richard as a demon from hell; in references to witches and witchcraft; and in the appearance of ghosts.

Old Queen Margaret is the champion curser in the play, if one judges by the effectiveness of her curses. Most of them come true. After she curses King Edward, he dies. After she curses his son, young Prince Edward, saying he will die "by untimely violence," he dies at the hands of two murderers. She tells Lord Rivers, Lord Hastings, and the Marquis of Dorset that they stood by, doing nothing, when her 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! (1.3.217-219)

Rivers and Hastings lose their heads at the chopping block. Dorset (Thomas Grey) escapes to Brittany, France. So Margaret got one wrong. However, Dorset's brother Richard Grey was not so fortunate. Richard had him executed at Pomfret Castle in West Yorkshire, England.

Dreams and prophecies have the same effect as curses. For example, after the Duke of Clarence is imprisoned in the Tower of London under suspicion that he is plotting against his brother, King Edward IV, Clarence has a terrifying dream about drowning at sea. When he awakens, he tells the keeper of the Tower, Brakenbury:

Lord, Lord! Methought what pain it was to drown,
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears,
What sights of ugly death within my eyes” (1.4.23-25)

Soon afterward, Clarence dies at the hands of two murderers hired by Richard. They stow his body in a "sea" of wine—a barrel of malmsey.

Lord Stanley also has an ominous dream. It suggests that Richard has marked him and Lord Hastings for death. Stanley takes the dream seriously and acts to protect himself. He sends a messenger to Hastings to warn him "to take horse with him, / And with all speed post with him toward the north" (3.2.19-20). But Hastings dismisses the dream as merely the product of "unquiet slumbers" (3.2.30). Later, after openly stating that he opposes Richard's plan to seize the throne, the ax falls on his neck in the Tower of London. Before dying, Hastings prophesies Richard's death: “Come lead me to the block; bear [to Richard] my head. / They smile at me, who shortly shall be dead” (3.4.110-111). Richard, of course, dies in the Battle of Bosworth Field.

In Act 3, Richard accuses Queen Elizabeth and Mistress Shore of practicing witchcraft on him. Exposing an arm, he says,

Look how I am bewitch’d; behold mine arm   
Is like a blasted sapling, wither’d up:   
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch   
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,          
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me. (4.71-76)

References to hell and to Richard as a devil abound in the play. For example, Queen Margaret tells him in the third scene of Act 1, "Hie thee to hell for shame, and leave the world, / Thou cacodemon [evil spirit]! there thy kingdom is" (148). Later in 1.3, she says,

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! (230-235)

She warns Buckingham not to associate with Richard, saying, "Sin, death, and hell have set their marks on him, / And all their ministers attend on him.

In Act 5, the ghosts of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence and others who died at Richard's behest appear to Richard to terrorize him and to Richmond to hearten him for the coming battle. Here is what Clarence says:

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!—

Thou offspring of the house of Lancaster
The wronged heirs of York do pray for thee
Good angels guard thy battle! live, and flourish! (5.3.145-152)

Afterward, the ghosts of Rivers, Grey, and Vaughn each curse Richard and then, speaking in unison, tell Richmond to "awake, and win the day" (5.3.160). The ghosts of Hastings, young Edward and brother, Lady Anne,and Buckingham then appear to condemn Richard and encourage Richmond. Buckingham tells Richard, in part:

          Die in terror of thy guiltiness!   
Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death:           
Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath! (5.3.189-191)

Richard's Talented Tongue

Richard is a master of the English language, using it with astounding skill to lie, rebut accusations, parry insults and curses, and stir up hatred between his enemies. In Act 1, Richard's way with words manifests itself in his clash with Lady Anne, as in the following passage.

ANNE: Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!  [killing Henry VI, Anne's father]
O! he was gentle, mild, and virtuous.          
GLOUCESTER:  The fitter for the King of heaven, that hath him.
[The fitter . . . him: Those virtues made him fit for heaven, where he is now.]  
ANNE:  He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.   
GLOUCESTER:  Let him thank me, that help’d to send him thither [there];   
For he was fitter for that place than earth.   
ANNE:  And thou unfit for any place but hell.           
GLOUCESTER:  Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.   
ANNE:  Some dungeon.   
GLOUCESTER:  Your bed-chamber. (1.2.109-118) 

After more insults and curses from Anne, Richard—wonder of wonders—persuades her to marry him. Anne later says of this moment:

Within so small a time, my woman’s heart   
Grossly grew captive to his honey words,           
And prov’d the subject of mine own soul’s curse:   
Which hitherto hath held mine eyes from rest;   
For never yet one hour in his bed   
Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep,   
But with his timorous dreams was still awak’d.           
Besides, he hates me for my father Warwick,   
And will, no doubt, shortly be rid of me. (4.1.84-92) 

Richard does, in fact, murder her.

Richard also uses his clever tongue to defend himself against accusations of wrongdoing and turn the spotlight of guilt on his accusers.

They do me wrong, and I will not endure it:   
Who are they that complain unto the king,   
That I, forsooth [in truth], am stern and love them not?   
By holy Paul, they love his Grace but lightly   
That fill his ears with such dissentious rumours.           
Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,   
Smile in men’s faces, smooth [be pleasant], deceive, and cog [cheat],   
Duck [bow] with French nods and apish courtesy,   
I must be held a rancorous enemy.   
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,           
But thus his simple truth must be abus’d   
By silken, sly, insinuating Jacks [knaves]. (1.3.46-57)

Moments later he makes this observation.

                         The world is grown so bad   
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch:           
Since every Jack [knave] became a gentleman   
There’s many a gentle person made a Jack. (1.3.74-77)

The Fragility of Peace

Peace within a country or between countries is fragile, for it depends on the rationality and the mental and emotional stability of human beings. Richard III is obiously irrational and mentally and emotionally unstable. He causes discord, conflict, and finally civil war.

The Tudors

Shakespeare and his theater associates staged Richard III during the reign of a Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1604. In an effort to please the queen—or at the very least not to incur her wrath—Shakespeare depicted Richard, a member of the House of York, as so vile that his enemy, Henry Tudor (the Earl of Richmond), would seem the personification of goodness by comparison. (Historians doubt that the real Richard was as evil the Richard in Shakespeare's play.) After he defeated Richard in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and then took the throne, Henry ended the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster and became the founder of the Tudor dynasty, which began in 1485 and ended with the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603.

Capital Punishment

In Richard III, Shakespeare presents a strong argument—intentionally or unintentionally—against capital punishment, for Clarence and others receive death sentences based on little or no evidence of wrongdoing against the state.  Like Richard, dictators in modern times have routinely sent citizens to death to rid themselves of enemies. Courts in the United States and other countries have delivered guilty verdicts in capital cases against citizens later found to be innocent, perhaps through DNA evidence. Movements are under way to abolish the death penalty entirely.

It's Good to Be Bad

In his soliloquies, asides, and short discourses, Richard gleefully announces his evil intentions and reinforces the paradox that guides his behavior—it's good to be bad. His frequent revelations of the crimes he plans and the delight he takes in committing them resemble leitmotivs in an opera (recurring musical passages associated with a theme, a character, or a character trait). His running commentary generally intrigues audiences and sometimes even amuses them after the manner of crafty villains that people horror films. It all begins in the first scene of Act 1, when Richard proudly discloses his nefarious plans:

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. (32-37)

While alone on the stage after setting his plans in motion, he wryly comments on the fate that awaits the Duke of Clarence.

Go, tread the path that thou shalt ne'er return.
Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so,
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,
If heaven will take the present at our hands.(1.1.123-126)

After he persuades Lady Anne to marry him, he takes delight in ridiculing her for having agreed to wed so heinous a reprobate as he.

Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabb'd in my angry mood at Tewksbury?
A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford
And will she yet debase her eyes on me,
That cropp'd the golden prime of this sweet prince,
And made her widow to a woeful bed?
On me, whose all not equals Edward's moiety?4 (1.2.252-263)

Later, he reveals his plan to blame others for his crimes while presenting himself as beyond reproach.

I do the wrong, and first begin to brawl.
The secret mischiefs that I set abroach
I lay unto the grievous charge of others.
Clarence, whom I, indeed, have laid in darkness,
I do beweep to many simple gulls
Namely, to Hastings, Derby, Buckingham;
And say it is the queen and her allies
That stir the king against the duke my brother.
Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil. (1.3.333-347)

By the way, Richard III has in fact been made into an opera—Giorgio Battistelli's post-modernist production, with lyrics by Ian Burton.

Foreshadowings and Revelations

Curses, dreams, and prophecies all foreshadow future events in Richard III. (See "The Supernatural.") Richard's revelations about his intentions, beginning with the soliloquy that opens the play, also indicate the direction of the plot. The foreshadowings and revelations help to maintain the dark and ominous tone of the play and to develop the play as a study of a remorseless evildoer and the methods he uses to achieve his goals.

Richard as a Psychopath

Shakespeare's depiction of Richard reveals symptoms of what modern psychologists call antisocial-personality disorder. Known as psychopaths or sociopaths, persons with this disorder act without regard to the moral or social acceptability of their behavior. They tend to engage in offensive behavior—and even violently criminal behavior—without feeling remorse, guilt, or regret. They have no conscience.

A psychopath can be winsome, intelligent, self-confident, bold, cruel, and articulate. But he wears a mask. Beneath it is a manipulator and an egotist who is insincere and incapable of loving another person.

As a pychopath, Richard is one of the most brazen examples of this character type in English literature. Give him credit, though. He informs you about himself at the very outset of the play.

Richard as "The Boar"

Lord Stanley and Richmond refer to Richard as a boar. A boar was Richard's heraldic symbol. An image of a boar appeared on his coat of arms to suggest that he possessed the courage and ferocity of a boar against an enemy. However, Richard's enemies use the term derogatorily to suggest that he is no more than a pig with an appetite for evildoing. Old Margaret calls him a "rooting hog" (1.3.233). Richmond calls him a "foul swine" (5.2.12).

The Historical Richard

Shakespeare presented Richard III (1452-1485) as one of the most evil rulers in history. However, the historical Richard, though unscrupulous, may not have been as ruthless as depicted. After his brother King Edward IV (Richard's brother) died in 1483, Parliament declared Richard king instead of Edward's young son on grounds that King Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492) was illegal. Parliament said Edward had earlier agreed to marry another woman. To secure his position as king, Richard confined both of the late king's boys to the Tower of London, where they were later killed. There is no ironclad proof that Richard ordered them killed. Nevertheless, after the boys died, public sentiment turned against Richard; the people favored Henry, Earl of Richmond. Armies of Richard and Henry had it out at Bosworth Field in 1485. Richard fought bravely before suffering mortal blows.

In autumn 2012, archeologists from the University of Leicester exhumed the skeletal remains of Richard from the foundations of a Franciscan friary, Greyfriars. The foundations were beneath a parking lot in Leicester, a large city in England's East Midlands. Scientific tests dated the remains to Richard's time and revealed that the body had suffered ten battle wounds, eight to the head. The DNA of the skeleton matched that of surviving descendants of Richard. The scientific tests also indicated that the spine of the skeleton was deformed as a result of a condition known as scoliosis. In early 2013, the archeologists positively identified the remains as those of Richard. 

After the death of Richard, the Earl of Richmond (Henry Tudor) succeeded to the throne as Henry VII, inaugurating the Tudor dynasty of monarchs and ending the Wars of the Roses.

In a discussion of the approach of historians in Richard's day, Marchette Chute wrote,

         In writing [history plays], Shakespeare had nothing to help him except the standard history books of his day. The art of the historian was not very advanced in this period, and no serious attempt was made to get at the exact truth about a king and his reign. Instead, the general idea was that any nation which opposed England was wrong, and that any Englishman who opposed the winning side in the civil war was wrong also. Since Shakespeare had no other sources, the slant that appears in the history books appears also in his plays. . . .  Richard III fought against the first of the Tudor monarchs and was therefore labeled in the Tudor histories as a vicious usurper, and he duly appears in Shakespeare's plays as a murdering monster. (Stories From Shakespeare. Eau Claire, Wis.: E.M. Hale, 1956 (page 257).

Figures of Speech

Shakespeare wrote Richard III early in his career, when he was attempting establish himself as a writer. One way to show off his talent was to work many figures of speech into his writing. A figure of speech is a group of words that inform the reader or listener (1) in a nonliteral way, as in Michael is as strong as an ox; (2) through the sounds of words or through an unusual arrangement of words, as in the examples of onomatopoeia, alliteration and anaphora below; (3) by addressing an abstraction or an absent person or entity, as in the example of apostrophe below.

Following are examples of figures of speech in the play.

Alliteration: Repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words or syllables


Poor key-cold figure of a holy king! (1.2.7)
(Note that k and c, though different letters, have the same consonant sound.)

For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell.
Fill’d it with cursing cries and deep exclaims. (1.2.54-55)

My woe-wearied tongue is still and mute. (4.4.21)

Anaphora: Repetition of a word or group of words at the beginning of a phrase, clause, or sentence


Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings;
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures. (1.1.8-10)

O God! which this blood mad’st, revenge his death;    
O earth! which this blood drink’st, revenge his death;  (1.2.65-66)

Apostrophe: Addressing an abstraction or an absent person or entity


O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! (5.3.198)
(Conscience is addressed.)

Hyperbole: A gross exaggeration


      I, being govern’d by the wat’ry moon,
May send forth plenteous tears to drown the world! (2.2.72-73)

Irony, Dramatic: Situation in which an audience or reader Is aware of what a character Is not


In the opening scene of Act 1, Clarence is on his way to the Tower of London, under guard, when he meets Richard. Richard asks him why he has been arrested. Clarence says he has been falsely accused of plotting against the king. Richard then persuades him that the queen's wife is responsible for his predicament. The audience well knows, however, that Richard engineered the arrest of Clarence. Dramatic irony continues to play a role in the drama when Richard pretends to be an innocent bystander to the evil machinations he has set in motion.

Irony, Situational: Development that Is the opposite of what one would expect


A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse! (5.4.10 and 5.4.16).
(Richard had supreme power in England as its king. But when his adversaries unhorse him on the battlefield, he is so powerless that he says he is willing to trade his kingdom for a horse.)

Irony, Verbal: Saying the opposite of what Is meant


Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven. (1.1.124-125)
(The speaker is Richard. He does not love Clarence but despises him and arranges his murder.)

Metaphor: Comparison of unlike things without the use of like, as, or than


No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. (1.2.74)
(Lady Anne compares Richard to a beast.)

The world is grown so bad,
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch. (1.3.74-75)
(Playing the innocent, Richard accuses the king’s wife of wrongful deeds, comparing her to a predatory wren.)

                  They spake not a word;
But, like dumb statues or breathing stones,
Stared each on other, and looked deadly pale. (3.7.26- 28)
(Comparison of people to statues and "breathing stones")

True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings. (5.2.25)
(Comparison of hope to a bird)

My conscience hath a thousand several [separate] tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain. (5.3.212-214)
(Comparison of conscience to a creature with many tongues)

Onomatopoeia: Word that imitates a sound


What! were you snarling all before I came,
Ready to catch each other by the throat . . . ? (1.3.193-194)

Oxymoron: Juxtaposition of words that are opposite in meanings


Dead life, blind sight, poor mortal living ghost (4.4.29)

Paradox: Use of opposite words (but not in juxtaposition, as in an oxymoron)

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York. (1.1.3)
(Winter becomes summer.)

Personification: Attributing human qualities to a thing or an abstraction. A personification is a type of metaphor.


Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now,—instead of mounting barbed steeds,
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,—
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute. (1.1.11-15)
(Comparison of war to a person)

Pun: A play on words; a word with a double meaning


Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York. (1.1.3)
(Gloucester, the future Richard III, compares the state of affairs in England to winter and the sun. Sun has a double meaning. Besides referring to the great star in the sky, it refers to King Edward IV, the son of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York.)


(Pronunciation: STIK uh MITH e uh)

Stichomythia is dialogue consisting of short lines spoken by alternate speakers. Generally the speakers, usually two, are insulting each other, arguing with each other, or engaged in a contest of wits. In Richard III, stichomythia occurs most noticeably in the verbal sparring between Richard and Lady Anne. Here is an example.

GLOUCESTER:  Lady, you know no rules of charity,   
Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.   
ANNE:  Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man:   
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.   
GLOUCESTER:  But I know none, and therefore am no beast.           
ANNE:  O! wonderful, when devils tell the truth.   
GLOUCESTER:  More wonderful when angels are so angry.   
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,   
Of these supposed evils, to give me leave,   
By circumstance, but to acquit myself.           
ANNE:  Vouchsafe, diffus’d infection of a man,   
For these known evils, but to give me leave,   
By circumstance, to curse thy cursed self.   
GLOUCESTER:  Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have   
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.           
ANNE:  Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make   
No excuse current, but to hang thyself.   
GLOUCESTER:  By such despair I should accuse myself.   
ANNE:  And by despairing shouldst thou stand excus’d   
For doing worthy vengeance on thyself,           
Which didst unworthy slaughter upon others.   
GLOUCESTER:  Say that I slew them not.   
ANNE:  Then say they were not slain:   
But dead they are, and, devilish slave, by thee.   
GLOUCESTER:  I did not kill your husband.           
ANNE:  Why, then he is alive.   
GLOUCESTER:  Lady, you know no rules of charity,   
Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.   
ANNE:  Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man:   
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.   
GLOUCESTER:  But I know none, and therefore am no beast.           
ANNE:  O! wonderful, when devils tell the truth.   
GLOUCESTER:  More wonderful when angels are so angry.   
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,   
Of these supposed evils, to give me leave,   
By circumstance, but to acquit myself.           
ANNE:  Vouchsafe, diffus’d infection of a man,   
For these known evils, but to give me leave,   
By circumstance, to curse thy cursed self.   
GLOUCESTER:  Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have   
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.           
ANNE:  Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make   
No excuse current, but to hang thyself.   
GLOUCESTER:  By such despair I should accuse myself.   
ANNE:  And by despairing shouldst thou stand excus’d   
For doing worthy vengeance on thyself,           
Which didst unworthy slaughter upon others.   
GLOUCESTER:  Say that I slew them not.   
ANNE:  Then say they were not slain:   
But dead they are, and, devilish slave, by thee.   
GLOUCESTER:  I did not kill your husband.          
ANNE:  Why, then he is alive. (1.2.71-95)
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...Write an essay arguing that Richard is insane. 
2...Write an essay arguing that Richard is sane but extremely evil.
3...Is Richard like any twentieth or twenty-first-century rulers you can think of? Explain your answer.
4...How is Richard III like or unlike Macbeth?
5...Argue in an essay that the historical Richard III was not as ruthless as Shakespeare depicted him. Use library and Internet research to document your thesis.
6...In an essay, identify and analyze the motives of Richard as he executes his murderous plans.
7...Write an essay that focuses on dramatic irony in the play. Dramatic irony is a literary device that allows the audience to know what a character does not know.
8...Which character in the play is the most admirable? Other than Richard, which character is the least admirable?  Explain your answers.


Example of an MLA Citation for This Study Guide

Cummings, Michael J. “Richard III: a Study Guide.” Shake Sphere: a Guide to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. N.p., 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2013.


Note: "5 Feb. 2013" is the date that the essay writer accessed the site. Be sure to insert the date you accessed the site instead of "5 Feb. 2013." Note also that the second line of an MLA works-cited entry is indented.

Example of an APA Citation for This Study Guide

Cummings, M. (2013). "Richard III: a Study Guide." Retrieved from http://shakespearestudyguide.com/RichIII.html#Richard3