Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Symbols


Richard III's symbols represent various aspects for the struggle for power that underlies the entire play as Richard obsessively pursues his dream of becoming the king of England.

Tower of London

Apart from the palace, which is the focal point of the play's political activity, the Tower of London is the most frequently used setting in Richard III. Though not the only prison to figure in the play—Pomfret Castle plays an important role in Act 3—the Tower is far and away the most infamous. In the play it symbolizes Richard's bloodthirsty plans to dispose of anyone who gets in his way. Part castle and part jail, the Tower serves Richard as a kind of disposal chute for enemies and rivals. He conspires to have the Duke of Clarence sent there in Act 1, knowing the setting will suggest the duke was executed rather than murdered. Later, he calls Lord Hastings to the Tower for a meeting, which adjourns abruptly when Hastings is dragged into the next room and his head struck off (Act 3, Scene 4). The most famous victims to occupy the Tower are Prince Edward and the young Duke of York, together known to history as the "Princes in the Tower." In Act 4 Richard arranges for these two to be smothered in their sleep by a gang of hit men when the boys stay overnight in the Tower.

The truly innocent figures in the play—including children and even animals—instinctively shun the Tower. Hastings's horse almost refuses to carry him there, "as loath to bear" his rider "to the slaughterhouse" (Act 3, Scene 4). The young Prince Edward speaks truer than he knows when he says, "I do not like the Tower of any place," and his little brother complains, not entirely without reason, the Tower is likely to be haunted. Queen Elizabeth, when she finally realizes her boys are prisoners rather than guests in the Tower, proclaims the place a "rough cradle," a "rude ragged nurse," and an "old sullen playfellow / For tender princes" (Act 4, Scene 1).

Shakespeare's original audiences would likely have shared this negative if not downright superstitious view of the Tower, given that it continued to be used as both a prison and an execution site throughout the Elizabethan era. Queen Elizabeth I herself was briefly held there during the reign of her half sister Queen Mary; she later used the Tower as a holding tank for courtiers who incurred her displeasure, including Sir Walter Raleigh. It's important to note, however, that in inviting Prince Edward to stay in the Tower, Richard was not proposing his nephew spend the night in a jail cell. Until the 17th century, the Tower included a royal residence as well as a prison.

White Boar

Richard's enemies often refer to him as a "boar," "swine," or "hog." Unlike the other animal-themed insults in the play (and there are plenty, as other characters label him everything from a frog to a dog), these jabs have a unique basis in English history: the white boar was Richard's personal emblem. His reasons for selecting this symbol are unclear: some, including British Museum curator Michael Lewis, suggest boar was an erudite pun on Ebor (Latin for "York").

However he came to choose it, Richard likely intended the boar as a representation of ducal (and later, regal) dignity and power: a vigorous, even violent beast with sharp tusks to defend itself. To the other characters in Richard III, however, the boar is a kind of rallying point symbolizing all of Richard's bad traits. Margaret, never one to pull her punches, leads off by calling Richard an "elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog" in Act 1, Scene 3 mockingly linking the boar emblem to Richard's hunched back and other deformities. Other members of the court—those with more to lose—use "boar" more cautiously, as a code word for discussing Richard's actions and intentions. Hastings, for example, explains his show of allegiance to Richard by means of a hunting analogy: "To fly the boar before the boar pursues / Were to incense the boar to follow us / And make pursuit where he did mean no chase." In other words Richard must be handled with caution: if you follow your first instinct and run away, he'll just charge afterward and mow you down. Richmond, in Act 5, Scene 2, builds on this notion of "boarish" behavior, describing Richard as a "wretched, bloody, and usurping boar" who tramples fields and vineyards and "swills ... warm blood like wash." Ultimately, he declares, Richard's behavior is that of a "foul swine," not a majestic forest creature.

Taken together, these reinterpretations of Richard's personal coat of arms symbolize a broader truth about power and reputation: Richard can silence and suppress his enemies, but his image will suffer in the process. Around the end of Act 4, hatred will override fear, and the boar spears will come out as Richmond and his allies prepare to remove Richard from power.

Curses and Prophecies

At first it appears curses and prophecies are easy to dismiss in Richard III. As the play opens, Richard has arranged for his brother, King Edward, to hear a fake prophecy: someone with the initial "g" will kill him. Edward falls for the scam and sends his and Richard's brother, Clarence, whose first name is "George," to the Tower to be executed. When Queen Margaret curses those who she feels are responsible for her husband and son's death, no one takes her seriously. But it is a mistake to dismiss curses or prophecies as meaningless or as cheap tricks. Both are a powerful force in Richard III, especially when wielded by women.

To place a curse on someone is to wish them harm in the future. Queen Margaret, infuriated by the death of her husband and son, wants revenge against Queen Elizabeth, Rivers, Dorset, and Hastings, but especially against Richard, who is most responsible. Her curse is prophetic because it successfully predicts the outcome of the play: every person she curses meets the bitter outcome she foretells. In Act 4, Scene 4 Richard's own mother curses him, prophesying ghosts of the dead young princes he killed will "promise [his enemies] success and victory" and his death will be violent: "Bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end. / Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend." Like Queen Margaret's prophetic curse, the Duchess of York's prediction about her son will come true. After being visited by the ghosts of his victims, including the two princes, he dies in combat in the Battle of Bosworth Field. Curses and prophecies in the play represent a power which is greater than Richard's own, and which he cannot control, no matter how clever he is: the power of the supernatural.


In Act 3, Scene 1 young Duke of York is afraid to stay in the Tower of London overnight with good reason: he fears he might encounter his Uncle Clarence's ghost. After all, he is a child who comes from a family with a dark history. The House of York has been at war for decades with the House of Lancaster, and both are haunted by the ghosts of their many dead family members. Lady Anne, Queen Margaret, and Queen Elizabeth, for example, spend much of the play mourning their dead husbands, children, and kinsmen. Queen Margaret, in particular, is so grief-stricken over the loss of her husband and son, she becomes a living ghost, haunting the other characters in the play and vowing revenge.

At the end of the play, a parade of ghosts crosses the stage: all of Richard's many victims. They have come to condemn him before the Battle of Bosworth Field, which will decide the fate of his kingship. Throughout the play, Richard has remained calm and collected as he slaughtered one person after the next. But these apparitions disturb his sleep and contribute to a startling event: Richard develops a guilty conscience at last. The ghosts symbolize the need for remorse, especially important for such a cold-blooded killer. In contrast, the ghosts offer their support to Richmond, the man who will ultimately kill Richard and become England's king. While the ghosts inRichard IIImay represent England's terrible past, they also symbolize its brighter future.

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