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Richard III | Context

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The Wars of the Roses

Richard III dramatizes the second half of the Wars of the Roses (1455–85), picking up where Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy leaves off. These earlier plays portray England's gradual descent into anarchy as the rival Houses of York and Lancaster struggle for control of the kingdom. Richard, the third son of the Duke of York, makes a brief appearance in Henry VI, Part 2, then rises to prominence in Part 3 as his brother Edward makes his bid for the throne to become Edward IV. At the end of Henry VI, Part 3, the Yorkists seize the crown after a series of decisive victories at Barnet (April 14, 1471) and Tewkesbury (May 4, 1471). They then consolidate their power by murdering the deposed Henry VI (d. May 21/22, 1471); in Shakespeare's version, Richard carries out this deed personally. Broadly speaking, Henry VI, Part 3 shows the Duke of York and his sons overcoming enemies from without: representatives of a rival dynasty with its own hereditary claim to kingship. In Richard III, however, the House of York is destroyed from within: Richard plays his relatives off against one another, often murdering them to secure the crown for himself.

The real Edward IV presided over an era of relative calm and prosperity, bringing some relief from the political and economic chaos of civil war. As was his usual practice for history plays, Shakespeare compresses these long periods of peace to focus on more exciting dramatic material, like battles and assassinations. The result of this nipping and tucking is a work in which 14 years play out over a span of three to four hours. Act 1 takes place in 1471, with Henry VI not yet buried and the Battle of Tewkesbury a recent and painful memory. By Act 2, however, the play has leapt forward to the early 1480s: Edward IV (d. April 9, 1483) is on his deathbed, and Richard is already scheming to dispose of the young heirs who stand in his way. The remainder of the play covers Richard's tense and turbulent reign, beginning with his coronation (July 1483) and ending with his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field (August 22, 1485). Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the victor in that fight, is crowned on the spot, concluding the civil war and inaugurating the Tudor dynasty.

Who Was Richard III?

Shakespeare's characterization of Richard III follows a precedent set down by the major English chroniclers of his time. Historian Edward Hall, in his Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), presents Richard as a wily and unrepentant villain whose violent end was well deserved. The curators of the British Library summarize Hall's writings as "a propagandist account ... suitable to the tastes and politics of the time, which demonizes Richard and legitimizes his overthrow by Henry VII." Hall, in turn, got much of his material from earlier Tudor historians Sir Thomas More and Polydore Vergil, both of whom took a similarly dim view of the last Yorkist king. English historian Raphael Holinshed, whose Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577; 2nd ed. 1587), another major source for Shakespeare, closely followed Hall in most aspects of his Wars of the Roses narrative—including his antipathy toward Richard III.

In drawing from these historians, Shakespeare lent further credence to what has been called the "Tudor myth." One tenet of this myth is the notion Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, rescued England from an era of chaotic violence. Henry VII, known as the Earl of Richmond in Richard III, reigned from 1485–1509. To promote this biased view of history, it has been argued, 16th-century authors emphasized the evils of the Yorkist dynasty and played up the virtues of their Tudor successors. Whether or not Richard III is considered to be propaganda as such, the play certainly reflects the anti-Yorkist bias of its times—understandably so, since Elizabeth I, the reigning queen, was the granddaughter of Henry VII. Paulina Kewes, coeditor of the Oxford Handbook of Holinshed's Chronicles, notes the playwright "actually paints Richard in an even darker light than the Chronicles," not least by making him "directly responsible for the killing of the princes in the Tower"—his two young nephews.

Shakespeare's presentation of Richard III was also informed by medieval drama, including the genre of the morality play, in which sins, virtues, and other abstract qualities are personified by individual characters. In Act 3, Scene 1 Richard likens himself to "the formal Vice, Iniquity," thus explicitly linking himself to these religious dramas. As medieval professor Malcolm Hebron explains in his article "Richard III and the Will to Power," the scheming Duke of Gloucester has a great deal in common with the medieval Vice figures. Both Richard and the Vices are "given to clever puns, cunning plots, and unstoppable energy," and both enjoy divulging their evil schemes to the audience through monologues. Richard, however, is much more nuanced than these medieval creations, with thoughts and motivations beyond a mere wish to do evil for evil's sake. Referring to Richard's crisis of conscience late in Act 5 when he is confronted by the ghosts of his many victims, Hebron points out "a morality Vice would not see ghosts, or be prompted by them into existential self-examination."

The discovery of Richard's remains in the English city of Leicester in 2012—over 500 years after his death in 1485—has fueled an ongoing debate about the king's depiction in Shakespeare. Some facets of Tudor propaganda about Richard, such as the emphasis on his physical deformity, were shown as simply incorrect. Richard's skeleton is of a man who suffered from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. He was not the "bunch-backed toad," or hunchback, Queen Margaret makes him out to be. The political and ethical aspects of Richard's reign have also been reevaluated, partly through the efforts of the Richard III Society, which aim "to secure a more balanced assessment of the king." Still, as history professor Michael Hicks observes in an article for BBC News Magazine, Shakespeare's version of Richard is more of an exaggeration than an outright lie: "No responsible historian would say the whole of Shakespeare's picture is wrong." Fellow historian Michael Wood adds the violence portrayed in Richard III was hardly exceptional by medieval standards: "Sure, [Richard] may have polished off the princes, he certainly executed some of his enemies," Wood concedes, "but so did every king in the [earlier] Dark Ages."

Early Texts and Performances

The first known performance of Richard III took place more than a decade after Shakespeare's death: a November 1633 court record notes the play was acted before King Charles I. Although this is the only performance that can be securely dated, it is generally believed Richard III was a well-known part of the London theatrical scene during the bulk of Shakespeare's career in the 1590s and 1600s. Printed versions of the play, known as quartos, were in circulation by 1597, when the first quarto edition appeared. The text of this anonymous edition is thought to have been produced by Shakespeare's fellow actors based on their recollection of the play, a practice known as memorial reconstruction. Seven more quartos followed between 1598 and 1634, but the differences among them are relatively slight. A more substantial revision is evident in the First Folio edition of the play (1623), which is significantly longer than the quartos and serves as the basis for most modern editions.

In 1700 actor-turned-playwright Colley Cibber produced an adaptation of Richard III that proceeded to displace Shakespeare's original for nearly two centuries. Coming in at two-thirds of the length of Shakespeare's version, Cibber's abbreviated Richard III retained the basic outline of the original but only a small portion of its script; several characters, including Clarence, Queen Margaret, and Hastings were cut altogether. This play did, however, introduce some conventions still followed by modern directors, such as the inclusion by Cibber of choice lines from the less frequently performed Henry VI, Part 3. Moreover, Cibber's version established the role of Richard as a challenging and coveted part, a star vehicle for the likes of famed English actors of the time, such as David Garrick, and in the 19th century, Edmund Kean. Only toward the end of the Victorian era did a version closer to the Shakespearean original become popular.

Stage and Screen Adaptations

Unlike the Henry VI plays, which precede it in the first tetralogy, Richard III has frequently been performed both as a freestanding work and as part of a series. The play's memorable antihero provides a compelling focal point—something frequently said to be lacking in the Henry VI trilogy. Like those earlier histories, Richard III sometimes suffers from an overlarge cast. However, a few key characters—Richard III himself, but also his queen consort Anne and his brothers Edward and Clarence—consistently stand out above the fray of feuding nobles and knights. The famed Victorian actor Henry Irving relished the role of Richard, naming it one of his four favorite Shakespearean parts on account of the character's "subtle intellect" and "superb daring." Many leading actors since Irving's time have shared his admiration for the role: Christopher Plummer (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1961), Antony Sher (RSC, 1984), and Kevin Spacey (Old Vic, 2011) are just three of Richard's most notable interpreters.

For many, however, the definitive 20th-century version of Richard III is the 1955 film adaptation, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. This version is so well-known and so highly regarded, in fact, it has sometimes been blamed for perpetuating the unfavorable Tudor-era myths about Richard. In a 2015 review, Guardian film critic Alex von Tunzelmann calls Olivier's adaptation an "exaggeration of a distortion" and gives it a grade of D- for historical accuracy. Although von Tunzelmann faults Olivier for "prancing about onscreen with a fake nose" and "rolling his R's like there's no tomorrrrrow [sic]," other 21st-century critics have been somewhat more charitable to the classic film. Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish, in a 2016 roundup of notable Richard III performances, praises Olivier's "lordly, scene-stealing showmanship," though he admits the actor's dramatic gestures can feel "archaic."

Another screen version of note is Richard Loncraine's 1995 adaptation, which stars Ian McKellen in the title role. This highly acclaimed reimagining of the play takes place in an alternate 20th-century Britain where the royal court has fascist overtones and Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe's poetry is set to jazz-influenced big-band music. Reviewing a commemorative 2016 screening organized for Shakespeare's quadricentennial (marking the 400-year anniversary of his death), Peter Bradshaw found the film "exciting and lucid," energized by a "terrifically personal and distinctive" performance from McKellen. Although more documentary than strict adaptation, Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996) provides another modern vantage point on the play, combining performance footage with commentary from actors and historians. In his 2016 BBC series The Hollow Crown, which includes material from several of Shakespeare's histories, director Dominic Cooke takes a different and in some ways more traditional approach to Richard III. Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of Cooke's medieval-dress rendition of the play, has drawn praise for depicting Richard not as a mere monster, but as a tortured soul.
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