Richard III

   Written probably in late 1591, Richard III is the final component in William Shakespeare’s tetralogy (i.e., four-play cycle) depicting the WARS OF THE ROSES. Because of its powerfully drawn central character, Richard III is among the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and this popularity has allowed the playwright’s striking depiction of the villainous king to become the dominant popular image of the historical RICHARD III. Based largely upon Edward Hall’s chronicle, THE UNION OF THE TWO NOBLE AND ILLUSTRIOUS FAMILIES OF LANCASTER AND YORK, the play ultimately relies upon Hall’s chief source, Sir Thomas More’s HISTORY OF KING RICHARD III, for much of its portrayal of the last king of the houses of YORK and PLANTAGENET. Concluding with Richard’s defeat and death at the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD, the play completes the main theme of the tetralogy, which is that the suffering and civil war brought upon England by the house of LANCASTER’s usurpation of the throne in 1399 and intensified by Richard III’s murderous seizure of the Crown in 1483 were happily ended by the accession of the house of TUDOR (see Richard II, Deposition of). By magnifying Richard’s capacity for evil, and by giving the king a witty enthusiasm for the commission of crime, Shakespeare makes Richard the perfect contrast to his virtuous Tudor successor, HENRY VII. Although his wicked king is based on an image of Richard III created a century earlier by Tudor PROPAGANDA, Shakespeare sharpens the villainy he found in More and other sources to serve the dramatic purposes of his work.
   To illustrate the king’s evil nature, Shakespeare gives Richard a hunched back, a detail taken from More. Shakespeare also makes Richard responsible for a host of deaths, including, in the earlier plays of the cycle, those of Edmund BEAUFORT, duke of Somerset; HENRY VI; and (with his brothers) EDWARD OF LANCASTER, Prince of Wales. In Richard III, Shakespeare has Richard arrange the murders of his brother, George PLANTAGENET, duke of Clarence; his wife, Anne NEVILLE (whose killing by Richard is implied); and his nephews, EDWARD V and Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York. Clearly innocent of Somerset’s death, which occurred in 1455 at the Battle of ST. ALBANS when Richard was only two, the king has also been absolved of each of the other deaths by at least some modern scholars, and his physical deformity has been rejected by many. While most historians now accept that Richard ordered the murders of his nephews, the fate of EDWARD IV’s sons remains highly controversial, and many other possible culprits have been suggested. However, wherever they stand on the question of the PRINCES IN THE TOWER, almost all modern writers accept that Shakespeare’s Richard III is a highly distorted and inaccurate view of the historical monarch.
   Further Reading: Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings (New York: Scribner, 1999); Saccio, Peter, Shakespeare’s English Kings, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); the text of Richard III can be found online at

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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