Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Themes


In Richard III William Shakespeare explores the lengths one man will go in order to become king, revealing the often brilliant, but diabolical, schemes that underlie the pursuit and maintenance of political power.

Deceit and Betrayal

Richard III rises to power through multiple acts of deceit and betrayal. A master at manipulating appearance and reality to suit his own ends, Richard puts on a good show, serving as playwright, actor, director, and producer all in one, as he stage-manages everyone around him to reach the throne. Richard does whatever it takes to gain power, from planting rumors to discredit his rivals to secretly hiring assassins to kill of heirs to the throne who inconveniently get in his way. By the end of the play, the body count necessary for Richard to get and to keep the crown stands at 11, including his own brother and two princes who are mere children.

Richard thrives on the trust others place in him, whether they do so willingly or out of desperation, because it aids him in fulfilling his devious schemes. He has a knack for finding the right combination of words—flattering or threatening as the case may be—to get others to comply with his wishes. Then, when he has been taken into their confidence, Richard laughs at these same people for being so gullible. This pattern is evident from the first scene of the play, in which Richard pretends to have no clue why the Duke of Clarence is being hauled off to the Tower of London—a situation for which Richard himself if responsible. He commiserates with Clarence in a brotherly way and offers some misleading suggestions about who might be responsible for his imprisonment to take the spotlight off himself. Clarence falls for it, accepting Richard's phony sympathy at face value. The moment Clarence is offstage, however, Richard congratulates himself in a sarcastic soliloquy, knowing his brother will languish in prison and die at the hands of assassins.

Richard is so skilled at deceit, he can convince people who loathe him to go along with his diabolical plans. His wooing of Lady Anne demonstrates this and also shows how Richard seems to derive positive enjoyment from his performance as a con artist, above and beyond any practical benefit he gets from his deceptions. Richard has already betrayed her by killing her husband and father-in-law. She knows how terrible he is and calls him a "foul devil" to his face. Nevertheless, he deceives Lady Anne into considering him as a suitor through clever wordplay and a show of fake remorse. With Lady Anne, Richard puts on the persona of the spurned lover, pretending he has murdered her husband just so he could take his place. Throwing himself into the role, he takes a seemingly dangerous risk by handing Lady Anne his sword and offering her the chance to kill him on the spot; in fact, he is quite sure she will lack the nerve to do so. The façade of love and repentance works, or at least seems to, and Lady Anne reluctantly agrees to consider him as a suitor. Richard is elated: as soon as he is left alone, he crows about having "wooed" and "won" Anne, mentally tallying up all of the obstacles to his success and congratulating himself for overcoming them. Lady Anne later marries him, but Richard kills her when he finds another possible wife who would be more politically advantageous.

Throughout the play, even as Richard lies, cheats, and kills to get what he wants, he is oddly charismatic. Energetic, articulate, and bold, he is the quintessential archvillain, and it is hard to look away, even as he does his worst. Richard's many soliloquies and asides allow the audience to see the deceits and betrayals he plans, even as the characters in the play are left in the dark. His actions may be horrifying, but the means by which he attains power are fascinating to watch.

Verbal Manipulation

The fight for power in Richard III happens not only with weapons or political strategies, but with words. Richard depends on his facility with language to manipulate everyone around him, and his clever use of words is an essential tool in his rise to power to the English throne. This facility with language takes many forms. For example, Richard is fond of wordplay, the clever or witty use of words, often in the form of puns, which plays off the meanings of words against each other. When he first appears onstage in Act 1, Richard makes a clever pun by contrasting the winter of civil war in England with the summer of the nation's newfound peace: "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York." The tone sounds celebratory, but it, too, takes a dark turn. Richard isn't really happy about this situation at all. "This son of York" is Richard's brother, King Edward. Richard feels left out and he wants Edward's power for himself. Richard's language reveals that, for him, conflict is at the heart of everything.

In order to get the throne, Richard resorts to rumormongering, devious remarks, and outright lies. In Act 1 Richard sets up his brother Clarence's death by convincing King Edward through a fake prophecy Clarence wants to kill him. After Clarence's demise, Richard covers his tracks with some truly twisted verbal manipulation: he plants a rumor in the ear of Clarence's young son it was actually Queen Elizabeth who influenced King Edward into ordering Clarence's death. Even worse, the boy reports that, as his uncle gave him this false information, Richard "kissed my cheek, / Bade me rely upon him as a father."

This is only one in a series of outrageous verbal productions in which what Richard says and what he means are often two very different things. In Act 3, Scene 7 Richard desperately wants the crown, but when he learns the English people are not enthusiastic about his becoming king, he and his closest henchman, Buckingham, cook up a clever scheme to change their perception of him. Richard, a decidedly ungodly man, appears before the English citizens accompanied by two bishops, in order to appear devoutly Christian by association. When he is offered the crown, Richard, in a display of false humility, insists repeatedly he is not worthy and can't possibly accept it, until Buckingham pretends to talk him into it, while convincing everyone Richard is doing them a favor by becoming king. In this case language is truly power.

Richard is not the only character who is adept at wordplay; many of the female characters are verbally articulate in their own right. Queen Margaret's curse, for example, in Act 1, Scene 3, in which she predicts the ruin and death of various characters, including Richard, eventually comes to pass. And the women in the play are often Richard's most vocal opponents. They don't hesitate to call out his dishonest, murderous tactics to his face. His own mother curses him memorably: while their verbal skills may not change their circumstances, or bring back their loved ones whom Richard has slaughtered, the women's use of language serves as a strong reminder they know who Richard really is and resistance against him is possible.

Family Ties

Richard III might also be seen as a drama of family ties strained and severed. Generally speaking, the play's most sympathetic characters are those who place great emphasis on family relationships and do their best to sustain them. The Duke of Clarence, who loves his brothers and is crestfallen at their betrayal, falls into this category. So does King Edward, who spends his final days vainly trying to broker peace between his own famous family, the House of York, and his queen's less illustrious clan, the Woodevilles.

The Duchess of York, mother to Clarence, Edward, and Richard, couches her sorrows in terms of losses to her family: she mourns the deaths of her two elder sons, but she is even more pained to see what has become of Richard, who has been a constant vexation and disappointment. In fact, the most sentimental scenes in the play are given over to those characters—the duchess, but also Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Anne—who have lost husbands or children to Richard's scheming. Queen Margaret, in contrast, derives much of her bitter, wrathful character from her inability or unwillingness to empathize with these losses; like the other royal women, she is a bereaved wife and mother, but she prefers revenge to commiseration. The other women eventually come over to her point of view, with Queen Elizabeth asking Margaret to instruct her in how to curse those who have betrayed her—Richard and his henchmen.

Among the male characters, the play's valorization of family is most easily seen by comparing Clarence's death scene (Act 1, Scene 4) to those of Hastings (Act 3, Scene 4) and Buckingham (Act 5, Scene 1). Clarence, a family man, thinks of his wife and children and begs they be spared; the self-serving Buckingham and Hastings may have wives and families, but the audience is not alerted to the fact. Richard himself has little use for the idea of family: he wishes to rule uncontested in his own right and measures every relationship, no matter how intimate, in terms of its usefulness to his political power. He thus has no qualms about cutting his brother Clarence out of the picture or hiring assassins to kill his young nephews, who are heirs to the throne.

The one scene in which he interacts with children (Act 3, Scene 1) is a chilling affair: Richard puts on a friendly face for his nephews' amusement, snickering all the while about how he will betray them. The royal in-laws aren't safe either: once King Edward is dead, Richard rids himself of the Woodevilles with astonishing speed, sending Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan to their deaths at Pomfret Castle before the king is even cold in his grave. Richard would prefer to have no parents to chide him, no wife to share power with, no brothers to outshine him, and no heirs to stand impatiently at his deathbed. By the time he leaves for the battlefront in Act 5, Richard has gone a long way toward making this dream a reality. By the end of the play, however, Richard is dead, and Richmond, the play's eleventh-hour hero, reverses the trend, unifying England on the basis of a royal marriage.

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