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Richard III: Fact and Fiction in Shakespeare's History Plays

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  • 1:48 Characters
  • 3:32 Act I
  • 12:14 Act II & III
  • 17:28 Act IV
  • 20:36 Act V
  • 25:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

We'll tease apart the real and the invented in Shakespeare's Richard III and discuss Shakespeare's particular brand of historical fiction. We'll also go over the plot and characters, as well as some famous quotes from the work.

Richard III

This is about a king who's not supposed to be king. Richard III was really not a good guy. Shakespeare wrote a play about him. He was a real king, reigning from 1483-1485. It's known as a history play - that's a genre that Shakespeare did.

To me, that's enough to recommend the play right there because I am a nerd, and I'm really into English history. (I had a deck of playing cards that had all of the English kings and queens on them... I think Elizabeth was an ace... that is horrifying that I don't remember!)

Anyway, that might not be enough to recommend it to you. I understand that. So what else is in there? Lots of cool stuff. We've got murder of children! We've got physical deformities! We've got an explanation of how the Tudors came to power and then sort of by extension how that wonderful TV show came into being. And we've also got a really famous but also often misunderstood opening line. Those are the best kind of famous lines because I get to then explain what they really mean, which is a lot of fun for me, again, because I'm a big nerd.

So we're going to talk about who's who, what happens and then get a little bit into what's real - because remember, he was a real king - and what's made up by Shakespeare in order to spice it up a little bit - what he changes about history.

Fair warning: it can get pretty confusing because everyone has the same name, and sometimes people have more than one name. I'll try to keep it straight for you, but also pay attention! It's important to know who's who.

Characters

So who's in this?

We've got Richard III, obviously. He's our hero...not! He's actually an awful dude who schemes to get the throne, but he is the main character. He's also got sort of a hunchback and a weird, withered arm. He starts out as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and he's known as Gloucester in the text. So if you read it and read 'Gloucester,' that's Richard III. (Obviously not Richard III yet at the beginning of the play.)

He's the brother of King Edward IV, who is the king of England as the play begins. Then there's also Richard's brother George, Duke of Clarence. He's referred to as 'Clarence' throughout the whole thing. He's Edward IV's other brother. So those are three brothers: the King and Richard and Clarence.

Then you've got Queen Margaret, who's the widow of the previous king, who was Henry VI. She's kind of the old, bat-type person (kind of like Maggie Smith on 'Downton Abbey' - that's kind of her deal). We've got Lady Anne, who is sort of a love interest for Richard (though it's not exactly mutual). She is the widow of Henry VI's son - remember: Henry VI, Queen Margaret is his widow; Lady Anne is the widow of his son.

Then we've got Buckingham, who is Richard's henchman, basically. We've got Richmond, who's the Earl of Richmond and is also known as Henry Tudor, and that will become important later.

So that's who's who. We gave you a little family tree for you to sort it out - hopefully that helps a little bit.

Act I

The play begins with a really famous speech by Richard. The first line is often quoted on its own: 'Now is the winter of our discontent,' and when you say it like that, it sounds like he's saying, 'Right now - it's the winter of our discontent,' like it's happening right now, right this very second. That's actually not what it means, but that's usually how it's quoted and often how it's parodied. (There was a frat at my school that threw a wonderful party called 'Now is the winter of our disco-tent.') But this is wrong - this is not a correct interpretation.

If you look at the speech as a whole, what he's saying is that the 'winter of our discontent' is basically put away, finished, fixed by Edward IV (who, remember, is the king when the play starts) coming to power and making peace. The whole speech reads (the beginning of it):

'Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.'

So, 'winter' is made 'summer.' The clouds are buried. Things sound like they're going great. So now isn't the winter - now is actually the summer. So that's a good thing to keep in mind. But even though things sound like they're going okay, Richard just can't be happy because he's just that kind of guy. He suffers from some kind of unspecified deformity - it doesn't really say much about it. People kind of agree it's sort of hunchback-ness. He's also got this withered arm thing going on.

And this makes him unable to take full advantage, at least in his mind, of peacetime, which to him seems to connote frolicking around. He calls it, 'prancing about to the tune of the lascivious lute,' which I think is sort of a metaphor for sex. So he concludes:

'And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,

By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,

To set my brother Clarence and the king

In deadly hate the one against the other:'

So basically, because he's bored and can't get laid, he's decided that he's going to be the villain. This is a rather unusual turn for a Shakespeare play. He writes about 'bad guys' - this is not the only play about a bad guy. Macbeth is a bad guy. Julius Caesar is kind of about the people who plot to kill Caesar, so they're kind of bad guys. But the weird thing about this is that in those plays, at least, those characters start out sympathetic. Here, right off the bat, literally the first page of the play, for his opening minute, he's saying, 'I'm the bad guy, and I'm deciding to be that way because I'm bored, and I want to get the throne.'

He's a little vague about why, but it becomes pretty clear that what he wants is to have power - that makes sense, I guess. What he's saying at the end of that speech - the bit about the 'plots I've laid' - is that he's already started laying out strategies to get Clarence, his brother, and King Edward, his other brother, to fight with each other and not like each other very much because that's going to be his path towards getting to the throne, he thinks.

What we find out, soon after he gives that speech, is that the plot is already working because we see poor Clarence being dragged off to the Tower because the King is angry with him and kind of suspicious of him. So it's kind of moving forward as planned. Clarence says, 'Oh, no, I have to go to the Tower.' Richard doesn't let on that he set all this in motion - he just blames the king's wife and his mistress as being the instigators of it.

He hears from Clarence that King Edward is in poor health, which he already knew - that's sort of common knowledge among the people. But it's really good news for Richard because this is someone that he will not have to kill to get to the throne because he probably will just die on his own.

So he starts thinking about his next steps. The next step is to marry somebody noble because that will only help him gain another route to power. He's got his sights set on Lady Anne, who is still in mourning over her husband - remember, that was Henry VI's son - who was killed by some members of Richard's family. He doesn't see this as an obstacle at all - he actually sees this as kind of a fun thing.

So he embarks on this horrible seduction scene literally over Henry VI's dead body. So, the father of her dead husband is dead as well, and Richard is trying to seduce her over this guy's body. He kind of bullies her into forgiving his family for inflicting so much death and destruction on hers. He keeps saying how beautiful she is, and he really seems to get pleasure out of coercing her into marrying him - that's part of the fun for him.

And he's successful! His use of rhetoric - his sly way of talking and convincing people - comes up again and again in the play. He takes pride in his ability to get these people to do what he wants.

As you might expect in a court that just went through a big, frustrating, bad civil war, there are tons of people who do not like each other very much in the court. Now we get to meet some! Next in the play, we have Elizabeth, who is the current Queen of England, Edward IV's wife. She's nervous about how sick he is because if he dies, then his brother Richard, who we've been with (not a good guy), will be in charge of the throne until Edward's oldest kid comes of age because they're too young to rule.

Elizabeth really hates Richard because there's some old family conflict there, so she really doesn't want him to be anywhere near the throne. She's worried that her husband will die. She's complaining about him at the moment when Richard blusters in and accuses her of spreading lies and making gossip and drama in the court. He actually says that she is the reason that Clarence got imprisoned - remember, that was the guy we saw getting dragged off to the Tower in the beginning - which we know is not true. We know that Richard was behind that. But he doesn't believe in the truth - he thinks that he can lie and get away with it (which seems to be true thus far).

So he and Elizabeth are fighting. Watching from the sidelines is Margaret, who was the wife of the now-dead Henry VI - the king who just died. Margaret really hates Richard, too, but she also isn't a big fan of Elizabeth. She jumps in and does this big speech where she curses everybody. She says, 'I hate you. I hate you.' It's sort of like, 'You suck. You suck. You suck. You're cool.' - that kind of a speech. Except I don't think anybody's cool - I think she pretty much disparages everybody. Her curses, which are sort of on all of their houses, end up being strangely prophetic, which we will see as the play moves forward.

I just want to pause and say I warned you about all the names - there's so many people, but I hope you're trying to keep track. It's rough.

Now it's time for Richard's first big murder of the play. He hasn't actually killed anybody yet, although he's been plotting it. He hires some goons to go and kill his brother Clarence, who's in the Tower. What they decide is that they're going to drown him in a big barrel of wine. Clarence wakes up when they're coming in. He's like, 'No, don't kill me - I'll tell Richard that you were doing this.' And they're like, 'No, dude. Richard sent us. He wants you to be dead.' So that kind of clicks for Clarence - 'Oh, no. I guess Richard's after me.' So he gets drowned. They actually strangle him, and then they drown him in the barrel.

Act II

So Clarence's death by wine drowning brings us to Act II (a lot happened in Act I!). Edward IV, who's the current king, is sick and not doing that well, but he's desperately trying to make everyone not hate each other. He seems to be kind of getting somewhere - he's having a big meeting and people are talking. Even Richard gives a semi-convincing speech about how he's not actually an awful person, which, again, we know is a lie.

The King gets up and says that he's pardoned Clarence as a way to make peace. Richard, of course, comes in and pretends like that order had been delayed, and so Clarence was killed anyway, even though Richard had him killed.

This makes Edward feel horribly guilty - like he didn't get there in time to pardon him. It kind of sends him into a tailspin of guilt and poor health. This is what does him in. Soon enough we find that he's actually died, which is good news for Richard but bad news for everybody else.

Richard quickly swoops in and says, 'Better make sure the heirs are protected - have to make sure they're safe.' He enlists his buddy Buckingham, one of his henchmen, to help him secure the young princes, which, again, he says is for their safety. I think you can probably see where this is going.

He also starts arresting members of Elizabeth's family (remember, Elizabeth is now the widow of Edward IV, who has just died), for intimidation and just because he can - that's sort of his attitude towards villainy. 'Oh, I think I'll just be a bad guy now.'

Now the first bit of Margaret's big curse speech is starting to come true, because she hates Elizabeth's family, and she cursed them. Now they're being arrested and potentially, maybe later, killed.

Act III

This bring us to Act III where the young princes, who Richard is shepherding and making sure are okay, arrive. The oldest is rightfully suspicious of Richard - he kind of knows what's what. He wants to know why none of his relatives are there to meet him. Imagine you come home from somewhere, and you're at the airport, and only your least-favorite friend is there to meet you - might unnerve you a bit. That's basically what he thinks, like, 'Oh, why is it only my creepy uncle?'

It turns out that his mother Elizabeth and his younger brother are hiding out in a church, claiming 'sanctuary,' which just means that you can't go and bother someone if they're in sanctuary in church - that's all it means. But Richard is not deterred by this because he's a self-declared villain. He just sends someone to go in and drag them back out again, and they do that. He sends both of the boys, the older boy and the younger boy, off to the Tower to 'await coronation.' We know that this is not a good thing because that's where Clarence went, and then he ended up drowned in a wine barrel. Going to the Tower - not a good thing, but they do.

So then Richard's plotting some more with his henchman Buckingham. They're trying to figure out which lords are going to follow Richard and which lords are going to be the squares who stay loyal. They find out there's this dude named Hastings, who is not going to help them out.

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