King Richard III

Shakespeare wrote King Richard III around 1593, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was descended directly from Richmond (the character in the play). Of course, it is Richmond who dethrones the evil Richard. 

 

There were several, equally important discourses and schools of thought that were either emerging or already circulating during the time in which Shakespeare was writing King Richard III. They have been identified and defined individually to make your study of them easier.

Context

Christian Humanism

Humanism is a philosophy that emphasises the value and agency of human beings. It emerged as a result of the rediscovery of Classical Greek and Roman texts. The idea that humans were powerful beings capable of individual thought ran against the ideas promoted by the Church, which argued that the Bible should be the ultimate source of moral authority and that humans were inherently corrupt. 

Christian Humanism emerged as a response to that conflict and suggested that humans are capable of making their own moral judgements, but that those judgements should be made with Christian values taken into account. 

Renaissance Feudalism

There was a strong emphasis on peoples' place in society; those at the top were believed to have been placed there by God because they were pious and moral, while those at the bottom were corrupt and sinners. There was an expectation that if you were at the top of society, you would do whatever was necessary to protect your place. The idea that you had to get revenge for any challenges to your power is obviously very anti-Christian, which partly explains the emergence of Christian Humanism.

Great Chain of Being

Everyone's position in society is predetermined by God. To seek to change your or someone else's position in society was considered to be a challenge to God's will, which was a great sin. The natural order thus relied on the Great Chain of Being remaining intact. If it was disrupted, the natural order would be out of balance. 

The Divine Right of Kings

The ‘Divine Right of Kings’ thought that kings were appointed directly to the throne by God, and that they therefore had divine protection. Kings were the most powerful of humans according to the Great Chain of Being. To kill a king, or to challenge his rule, was to disrupt that order and the natural balance. 

Machiavellianism

Machiavellianism is a behavioural or political philosophy that holds that the ends justify the means. It was conceived of by Niccolo Machiavelli and was first explained in his seminal text The Prince. Many of Shakespeare’s villains are Machiavellian, insofar as they betray the trust of the protagonist, and the audience are left to watch as they further their own agenda unbeknownst to the hero. 

Role of Women

Throughout the early 17th century women were disenfranchised and confined to the domestic sphere. They were viewed as being too emotional and therefore 'dangerous', or that they were volatile and manipulative.  The Madonna-Whore complex materialises as considering women who did not conform to strict expectations of demure and innocent behaviour, as immoral.

Plot

Act 1 Scene 1

In his opening soliloquy, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, complains about the peace that the House of York’s victory in the War of the Roses has brought to England. His brother, Edward, is now King Edward IV. Richard explains that his deformity means that he is better suited to times of conflict and the kind of tension that exists during war than peace. 

 

He continues to say that because of his ‘dissembling nature’ (his deformity), which he attributes his internal corruption to, he has resigned himself to evil, and has given up on trying to be virtuous (‘a lover.’) He decides to seek power for himself, knowing that he will have to rely on Machiavellian methods if he is to be successful. Specifically, he has plotted to cause tension between his brothers Edward and George (the Duke of Clarence). If things go to plan, the Duke of Clarence will be jailed for threatening the King’s safety. 

 

Richard’s soliloquising is interrupted by the arrival of the Duke, who is accompanied by armed guards. The Duke states that a prophecy revealed to the king that he should beware of ‘G.’ Taking ‘G’ to mean George (the Duke), the king ordered his brother to be imprisoned in the Tower of London. The first part of Richard’s plan has worked: his brother is now out of the picture, and we see a classic example of Shakespearean dramatic irony when Richard expresses sympathy for his brother’s situation. 

 

Hastings then arrives, bearing news of the king’s illness. Richard is quietly overjoyed by news of the king’s condition, as it means he is one stop closer to assuming the throne himself – as long as Clarence is disposed of for good before the king dies. Richard then announces that he intends to marry Anne, before continuing to reveal that he actually killed her father (the Earl of Warwick) and husband (the former Prince Edward) in the wars. He believes that by marrying her, he will make his remorse for killing the men clear to her. His desire to make amends is not emotional in nature, rather, it is fuelled by a ‘secret close intent’: politics. 

Act 1 Scene 2

Richard explains to Anne that it was his passion for her that drove him to kill her father and husband. He then attempts to propose to her, but she angrily refuses for obvious reasons. His plan is not a total failure, however – she agrees to meet him later. 

Act 1 Scene 3

On his deathbed, King Edward IV attempts to make peace between Queen Elizabeth and Richard. Queen Elizabeth and Richard begin arguing, much to the displeasure of Margaret, King Henry IV’s widow, who curses them all. Margaret believes that the family is responsible for her downfall and suffering. 

Act 1 Scene 4

At the tower of London, Clarence dreams about drowning, falling into the underworld, and being forced to confront those whom he has killed. Richard’s assassins arrive shortly afterward. They hesitate to kill Clarence as their conscience briefly arrests them, but ultimately go through with the plan, and Clarence is murdered. 

Act 2 Scene 1

Even closer to death now, King Edward IV desperately urges his family and friends to make peace with each other. Richard makes a convincing apology (another example of dramatic irony – we know he’s just had his brother killed). The king orders the release of Clarence, but it is announced by Richard that he is already dead. Richard blames Edward. 

Act 2 Scene 2

The Duchess of York comforts Clarence's children, and Queen Elizabeth announces King Edward’s death. An alliance is formed between Richard and Buckingham, and the two men decide to take Prince Edward to London to be crowned. 

Act 2 Scene 3

A group of citizens express their worry that Prince Edward is too young to be king. They also worry about Richard’s obviously evil nature, and the looming power struggle between him and Elizabeth’s family, and what it will mean for the future of England and the monarchy. 

Act 2 Scene 4

As Queen Elizabeth awaits the arrival of her son in London, she hears that her supporters are being rounded up and arrested. She escapes into hiding. 

Act 3 Scene 1

Richard, Buckingham and Catesby discuss whether it is worth asking the Lords Hastings and Stanley for their assistance in making Richard king. They decide to meet the next day for more discussions, under the guise of crowning Prince Edward. 

Act 3 Scene 2

After a dream about Richard’s evil nature, Lord Stanley tries to convince Lord Hastings to flee with him. Hastings is dismissive of his counterpart’s fears, but then expresses horror at Catesby’s suggestion that Richard should be king, and that King Edward should not be crowned. Hastings is unaware of Richard’s plan to have him decapitated should he not cooperate. 

Act 3 Scene 3

Rivers, Gray and Vaughan express their torment as they enter Pomfret Castle to be executed. They arrive at the conclusion that Queen Margaret cursed them as punishment for their role in Henry IV’s death. They pray that God permits the curse against Richard, but that Queen Elizabeth escapes any harm that should come from it. 

Act 3 Scene 4

Buckingham tells Richard that Hastings will be loyal to King Edward. After accusing Queen Elizabeth of conspiring with Hastings’ mistress to make him deformed, Richard sentences Hastings to death. 

Act 3 Scene 5

Buckingham convinces the Lord Mayor of Hastings’ treasonous actions. He then plants the seeds of a rumour that the princes are not legitimate heirs, which would disqualify them from rising to the throne. 

Act 3 Scene 6

While copying the letter that will be used to announce Hastings’ death sentence to the public, a scribe implies that everyone knows it is false, and is aware of Richard’s evil plot. 

Act 3 Scene 7

Buckingham’s proposal that Richard becomes king does not receive public support. Richard and Buckingham rely on trickery to try to get the Lord Mayor to ask Richard to be king. 

Act 4 Scene 1

The Duchess of York comforts Clarence's children, and Queen Elizabeth announces King Edward’s death. An alliance is formed between Richard and Buckingham, and the two men decide to take Prince Edward to London to be crowned. 

Act 4 Scene 2

In arguably the play’s most explicit act of evil, Richard orders the princes killed by Buckingham. Again, conscience forces Buckingham to hesitate, and Richard gives the plan to Tyrell. Richard plots to have Anne murdered and to marry the young Elizabeth. 

Act 4 Scene 3

Richard proudly recounts his successes in his journey to become king so far. But he is interrupted by Ratcliffe, who informs him that some noblemen have deserted to Richmond in France, and that Buckingham is now organising for an army to march against him. 

Act 4 Scene 4

Margaret complains to the Duchess of York and Elizabeth for Richard’s obviously evil nature, disregard for morality and willingness to kill. The women curse him. Richard raises the idea with Elizabeth of marrying her daughter in order to avoid a civil war. News arrives of the size of Richmond’s army. Buckingham has been captured. 

Act 4 Scene 5

Stanley meets with one of Richmond’s lords in secret and reveals that he wishes to desert Richard, but that Richard has taken one of his sons hostage as a way of discouraging such actions. He sends his best wishes to Richmond and informs the lord that Elizabeth has agreed to let Richard marry her daughter. 

Act 5 Scene 1

As he prepares to be executed, Buckingham reflects on his life, and comes to the conclusion that he deserves to die because of all the wrongs he committed. 

Act 5 Scene 2

Stanley sends Richmond a letter informing him of the location of Richard’s army. Thinking that Richard’s men are bound to him only by the fear of what would happen if they were to desert him, Richmond and his men ride confidently into battle. 

Act 5 Scene 3

Richard has a dream in which the victims of his schemes appear as bad omens. He comes to the dramatic realisation that he has completely corrupted himself in his pursuit of absolute power. The same ghosts appear in Richmond’s dream as good omens. 

 

The next morning, as the battle approaches, Stanley mutinies and refuses to send his army to Richard, depriving him of a sizable force. 

Act 5 Scene 4

Richard, driven crazy by guilt and fear, searches desperately for Richmond in the battle. He refuses Catesby’s help. 

Act 5 Scene 5

Richmond kills Richard, winning the war. He is crowned and plans to marry Elizabeth. England is restored to peace.

quote table

Quote
Technique
Idea
“O Buckingham, take heed of yonder dog. / Look when he fawns, he bites; and when he bites, / His venom tooth will rankle to the death”
Animalistic imagery, Metaphor
Manipulation, Portrayal of Richard
“Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray, / to have him suddenly conveyed form hence. / Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray”
Religious imagery, Repetition
Providentialism, Portrayal of Richard, Morality
“What means this armed guard that waits upon your grace?”
Dramatic irony
Manipulation, Power
“If heaven have any grievous plague in store...O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe”
Religious imagery
Providentialism
“Welcome, destruction, blood and massacre. / I see, as I a map, the end of all”
Allusion, Simile
Morality
“I shall shortly send your soul to heaven”
Religious imagery
Determinism
“What shall we do if we perceive / Lord Hastings will not yield to our complots?/ Chop off his head! … when I am king, claim though of me / The earldom of Hereford”
Allusion, Foreshadowing, Questioning
Power
“I that am not shaped...I that am rudely stamped”
Anaphora
Portrayal of Richard
“That I may live and to say, the dog is dead”
Animalistic imagery, Metaphor, Foreshadowing
Morality, Portrayal of Richard
“I am determined to prove a villain … to set my brother Clarence and the King in deadly hate”
Soliloquy
Determinism

King
Richard III

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