Historically, Richard III was the brother of Edward IV, King of England. When Edward IV died, Richard kidnapped the assumed successor, Edward V, and eventually siezed the crown himself in 1483. Shortly after assuming the throne Richard announced the deaths of Edward V and Edward's brother Richard. King Richard was defeated and killed at Bosworth Field in 1485 by the Earl of Richmond who would become Henry VII, the first Tudor king.

Richard III was probably not nearly as bad a man as William Shakespeare's play portrays him to be -- remember, Shakespeare was writing to please Elizabeth I, granddaughter of the man who deposed Richard. At least he was no worse than many other English kings. Legend and Shakespeare say that Richard was a hunchback, which is a great exaggeration of the truth (that he had one shoulder higher than the other). He fought for his brother Edward IV on the Yorkist side of the War of the Roses at the Battle of Tewkesbury, where Henry VI's son Edward died. Richard married that Edward's widow Anne.

Richard became king in 1483 as a result of the assertion by the Bishop of Bath and Wells that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had not been legal and thus his son Edward V was illegitmate and shouldn't be king. The people asserting this in Parliament basically didn't like the Woodville family and wanted them out of power; Richard did not engineer the entire thing.

Unfortunately, Richard and Anne's son Edward died in April 1484 and Anne less than a year after. Richard sought to name his nephew as heir to the throne, but The War of the Roses flared up again after a series of Yorkist kings, and Henry Tudor, third cousin once removed to Henry VI, was supported by the Lancaster side (though his claim to the throne was a stretch). Both gathered their armies and ended up meeting at Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485. Richard was killed and his helmet placed on Henry Tudor, now Henry VII's head.

The Tragedy of

King Richard the third.

Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence:
the pittiefull murther of his innocent nephewes:
his tyrannicall vsurpation: with the whole course
of his detested life and most deserued death.

As it hath beene lately Acted by the
Right honourable the Lord Chamber-
laine his seruants.

Printed by Valentine Sims, for Andrew Wise,
dwelling in Paules Chuch-yard, at the
Signe of the Angell. 1597.

(Title page of the first edition)

Richard III

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In his essay on Richard III, “Angel With Horns: The Unity of Richard III”, A. P. Rossiter gives a brilliantly detailed account of the play’s many paradoxes, most specifically those involving the character of Richard, the ‘angel with horns.’ The core of Rossiter’s argument lies in his understanding of Richard as both “God’s agent in a…plan of divine retribution”, punishing the “living damned” that populate the play, and as a Machiavellian “cacodemon born of hell”, himself one of the ‘living damned’ that must be destroyed if England’s “civil wounds” are to be “stopped” (Richard III, 5.5.40). While he pays much attention to the ironies and paradoxes present in Richard’s actions as ‘avenging angel’ towards the other characters in the play, one paradox that Rossiter fails to develop—the greatest paradox, it would seem, in the entire play—is that of Richard’s vengeance against Richard: that is, the manner in which Richard eventually turns against himself, leaving himself frustrated and open for destruction on the eve of his greatest triumph.

Throughout the play, Richard acts with extreme energy and arrogance, reveling in his diabolical machinations with “demonic gusto”, glorying in his twisted nature in his self-aware asides to the audience, wherein he shares his Machiavellian glee at playing the villain. He lays his plans with a solitary cunning, as self-reliant as he is self-confident, and the audience responds to this, throughout the play “accepting the Devil as hero”. Richard, the Devil, is ‘accepted’ by the audience for his self-conscious joy in evil for the sake of evil, as in the masterful ‘wooing’ of Anne when she is most against him—which does nothing to assist his plans, and is done solely to prove that it can be done—and the audience cannot help but be drawn into sharing his diabolic glee. The compliance of the audience with such a villain is made more palatable by the equally villainous natures of his victims; we know that everyone else is tainted, and so can root for Richard as he predictably brings each to ruin. As Rossiter notes, it is only when Richard has the innocent princes killed that the audience begins to pull back, drawing away from his unbridled blood-lust.

Not coincidentally, it is after this action, the murder of the princes and Richard’s subsequent securing of the long-sought title of ‘King’, that Richard begins to turn upon himself. Having captured the object of his desire—the crown—and having destroyed all his companions in villainy, Richard becomes psychically paralyzed, unable to advance and solidify his position. He loses the jocular confidence and wit that surrounded him throughout the earlier acts, faltering in the moment of his greatest triumph. Nowhere is this more evident than in 4.4, first in his verbal sparring with Elizabeth (where he seems but a shadow of the Richard who ‘wooed and won’ Anne; he is unable even to finish his sentences for the latter half of the argument, defeated by a shadow Queen who previously posed no challenge), then in his confused directions to Catesby (where he needs to be prompted to complete his instructions) and Ratcliffe (Richard changes his instructions for no good reason) and finally culminating in the flurry of messengers that so discomfits Richard that he strikes one before hearing his news—news which turns out to be the best of the lot. The scene, with its choppy stichomythia, Richard’s angry outbursts {“Dull unmindful villain!” (4.4.445), “Out on ye, owls!” (4.4.507)} and the hectic coming and going of messengers, acquires a harried and frantic atmosphere, far removed from the implacably calculated and unstoppable atmosphere of Richard’s earlier plots.

Richard’s disintegration is furthered in 5.3, where Richard himself admits that he “has not the alacrity of spirit/ nor cheer of mind” (5.3.73-4) that he possessed earlier in the play. With the entrances of the ghosts Richard, formerly a pragmatic heretic, capable of turning both religion and conscience to his own ends while being unaffected by both, becomes almost shrill in his superstitious worrying; his soliloquy upon waking demonstrates to what extent he has fallen prey to indecision and conscience, and how far removed he is from the confidence that allowed him to manipulate bishops, mayors and the populace of England. This speech, and the terrified conversation with Ratcliffe that follows, demonstrate a man turned against himself, filled with self-loathing—“Alas, I rather hate myself/ for hateful deeds committed by myself” (5.3.190-1)—and fear of the future—“O Ratcliffe, I fear, I fear!” (5.3.215)—where once he was filled with a self-confidence bordering on arrogance and boundless optimism.

This is the greatest paradox of Richard III, a paradox filled with a Lacanian irony: upon achieving the object of his desire, the height of kingship, Richard finds it empty and meaningless, and is left with nowhere to go but down. Lacking any fit targets for his wrathful and manipulative villainy (having killed them all already), Richard has no fit nemesis but himself. In becoming King, Richard becomes the target of his own vengeance, and is crippled by the failure of his desire to satisfy his need for action; the Richard of the latter half of Act 4 and all of 5 is the antithesis of the self-confident, cunning and coercive anti-hero of the earlier acts, as trusting and weak (in showing weakness to his follower, Ratcliffe, and in falling victim to pangs of conscience and superstition) as was his foolish brother Clarence and, indeed, all of the other victims he destroyed in his rise to glory. Richard speaks truer than he knows when he declares himself “too childish-foolish for this world” in 3 Henry VI; like a child who grows bored and restless with a new toy, Richard, once the getting of the crown is over, loses both interest and concentration, and falls victim to the same spirit of vengeance that has already destroyed so many, wiping the kingdom clean of the last of the ‘living damned’ and opening the way for the redemptive entrance of Richmond. In his self-destruction, Richard is truly an ‘avenging angel’, destroying at the last the greatest devil of all: himself.

William Shakespeare's "King Richard III".

"Richard III" is the fourth of William Shakespeare's plays, a History following on from the "Henry VI" History trilogy.

The Lancastrian Henry is dead, murdered at the Tower of London by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of the Duke of York. Richard's elder brother, Edward, reigns but is the victim of his brother's "inductions dangerous", as is the middle brother, George, Duke of Clarence .

Gloucester has already made clear in "Henry Vi Pt III" that the throne is his sole aim:

"I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown
And, whiles I live, t'account this world but hell
Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown"

and, for that prize, he will pay any and all costs:
"I have no brother, I am like no brother...
I am myself alone -
Clarence, beware; thou keep'st me from the light;
But I will sort a pitchy day for thee
...thy turn is next, and then the rest;
Counting myself but bad till I be best."

Now , in "Richard III", these schemes to remove those who stand between him and the crown are set in full motion.

Edward has imprisoned Clarence in the Tower because he "hearkens after prophecies and dreams" (and Gloucester's insidious machinations)

"...a wizard told him that by G
His issue disinherited should be
And, for my name of George begins with G,
It follows in his thought that I am he".

Notice here Shakespeare's superb use of dramatic irony; the audience know (or should do) what Edward (or Clarence, for that matter) doesn't, that it's Gloucester, not George, who is the danger.

Once in the Tower, Clarence - followiing a guilt-ridden preomonitory torment (he broke an pledge to support Henry in the previous play) is murdered by drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine.

Edward follows - we are given to believe he dies of a broken and, perhaps, mortified, heart - leaving the two princes, yet to reach their majority.

Turn And Turn About.,

Swiftly, Richard places the young duke of York and the new king Edward V in the Tower "for your best health and recreation", as he tells the prince. They are also speedily despatched and now follows, perhaps, the crux of the play.

Richard now has it all, crown, country, treasury. But no loyalty, certainly no friends; the Duke of Buckingham, was, not so very long ago,

My other self, my counsel's consistory
My oracle, my prophet - my dear cousin"

Now he is"like a Jack...troublest me". Now Richard, too, fears "prophecies and dreams", now he sees treason, sees enemies all around - corporeal and otherwise.

"Despair and die!"; the ghostly refrain is almost incessant, as are the benedictions to his foe, the earl of Richmond, future Tudor king, Henry VII.

"I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain today instead of him"

It has been suggested more than once that Richard was, in all likelihood, nowhere near as black as Shakespeare paints him; that, with Richmond being an usurper, the religious tumult of his son Henry VIII's reign and then with many English considering their present monarch, his granddaughter Elizabeth I, illegitimate and, therefore, also an usurper, the Tudor dynasty was sorely in need of popular legitimisation.

Whatever the historical truth, there can be little doubt that, artistically, Shakespeare's Richard is a triumph, a tour-de-force in drama.To be able to make one as ruthlessly, venomously evil not only attractive but almost heroic is a dazzling achievement.

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