Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

The Yorkists have won the Wars of the Roses, a civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, to decide who should possess the throne of England. Edward IV now reigns as king. Richard, the king's younger brother, plans to seize the crown for himself, but first he must do away with those who come before him in the order of succession to inherit the throne. As a first step, he has convinced Edward to imprison their brother, the Duke of Clarence, on suspicion of treason. At the funeral of Henry VI, the previous king, Richard attempts to woo Lady Anne, Henry's daughter-in-law. At first she spurns his advances—understandably so, since Richard has killed Anne's husband on the battlefield and murdered King Henry in cold blood. Against all odds, he gets the politically vulnerable widow to consider his offer. By the next time she appears onstage, Anne has married Richard and become Duchess of Gloucester.

Meanwhile, quarrels escalate between King Edward's family and the Woodevilles, his wife Queen Elizabeth's family. As the fighting reaches its peak, Queen Margaret—Henry VI's widow—reappears in the palace to curse all who had a part in the deaths of her husband and son. Richard hires two murderers to infiltrate Clarence's prison cell and stab him to death.

Act 2

King Edward falls ill and dies, throwing England into a state of shock. The late king's son, Prince Edward, is due to receive the crown as soon as he can make it to London. In the meantime, the throne is empty and Richard governs as Lord Protector. The dowager Duchess of York, mother to Richard, Edward, and Clarence, rightly suspects her surviving son is up to no good; she struggles to explain to Clarence's orphaned children their uncle has killed their father. Meanwhile, with King Edward out of the picture, Richard moves to imprison Queen Elizabeth's relatives and supporters at Pomfret Castle. When word of this development reaches the queen, she flees to the sanctuary at Westminster with her younger son, the Duke of York. In the streets of London, citizens murmur of evil times to come.

Act 3

Prince Edward arrives in London, and his brother Duke of York is taken from sanctuary to greet him. Richard asks the two boys to stay in the Tower of London for a little while until better accommodations can be sorted out; the princes, being mere children, agree to his request. Once those two are out of the public eye, Richard goes on the offensive, killing off Queen Elizabeth's family members and executing his henchman Lord Hastings on the mere suspicion of disloyalty. He then attempts to convince London's leaders he has a greater right to rule than Edward's offspring—who, he insinuates, are not the king's legitimate heirs in any case. Using the Duke of Buckingham as his spokesperson, Richard manages to cultivate a fake grassroots movement upholding his claim to the throne, eventually winning the support of the Lord Mayor of London. Brimming with false modesty, Richard pretends to refuse the throne, then "reluctantly" agrees to be crowned as soon as possible.

Act 4

Richard assumes the throne, but his subjects grow fearful, and a few of his noblemen begin to defect. He orders the murder of the princes in the Tower, then kills off Anne as well so he may remarry for political advantage. Word arrives Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, is gathering an army in preparation for an invasion. As yet, however, Richard sees Richmond as more of an annoyance than a true rival. Buckingham, finally fed up with Richard, who is slow to give him land and property he promised him in return for his loyalty, leads a short-lived rebellion of his own but is defeated and captured within the space of a single scene. As Richmond's forces continue to grow, Richard marches forth from London to do battle with the invading army.

Act 5

The captive Duke of Buckingham is executed at Salisbury. Richard then proceeds to Market Bosworth, where he clashes with Richmond in the famous Battle of Bosworth Field. On the eve of the battle, both commanders are visited by the ghosts of Richard's victims, who frighten and demoralize Richard but inspire Richmond. That day, in the thick of the fighting, Richard is unhorsed but refuses to retreat; he encounters Richmond on foot and is slain in the resulting one-on-one struggle. As soon as the battle is over, Richmond accepts the crown (as Henry VII) and promises to lead England into an era of peace. His marriage to Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the late King Edward, spells an end to the decades-long feud between York and Lancaster.

Richard III Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Edward IV regains the throne after a lengthy civil war.

Rising Action

2 Richard hires assassins to murder his brother Clarence.

3 King Edward dies suddenly, leaving the throne vacant.

4 The nobles prepare to crown Prince Edward the new king.

5 Richard seizes the throne before the prince can be crowned.

6 Richard orders the murder of Prince Edward and his brother.


7 Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, invades with a rebel army.

Falling Action

8 Richard is slain at the Battle of Bosworth Field.


9 Richmond accepts the crown as Henry VII.

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