Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 75,000 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.Try it risk-free
Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hastings thought things were going to go his way because of the whole Elizabeth's family getting arrested thing, and he doesn't like Elizabeth's family. I told you - all these people hate each other! It doesn't mean that they can't ally sometimes, but...Anyway, he thought it was going to be okay. Turns out, it is not okay because Richard finds out that he still wants to be loyal. He has him executed for thinking that maybe the princes have a right to the throne. At this point, he'd probably execute the whole audience if he could because we probably all think that the princes have a right to the throne - they do.
It's becoming clear that the princes are problematic, even though they are confined in the Tower. Richard decides that what he's going to do is spread a rumor that they're actually illegitimate. (You'll see this happening on 'Game of Thrones,' except he actually is illegitimate - Prince Joffrey. I love that show.) So, he says that Elizabeth was fooling around on Edward, and they're not actually Edward's kids, therefore they're not actually royal and not legitimate heirs.
If the king doesn't have any legitimate heirs, guess who the throne passes to - his brother! That's Richard because he's the only surviving brother after he had Clarence drowned in the wine barrel. So basically he manipulates the mayor of London into begging him to take the throne.
He refuses a few times to make it look good - 'No, I don't want to be king' - but, of course, we know he wants to be king. He ends up saying he's going to do it.
The people of London are not happy about this - the mayor seems super gullible, but the people seem to kind of know what's what. They're not pleased.
That brings us into Act IV where Richard is crowned king. Now he is really Richard III - no longer the Duke of Gloucester. Elizabeth, the widow of the old king, Lady Anne, who's his wife now - he successfully married her, and some of their supporters are starting to get seriously worried. What they're hoping for is that the Earl of Richmond, who if you remember is Henry Tudor, might come in and save the day because he's kind of a distant claim to the throne - that's what he's got going on.
Meanwhile, Richard really can't sit still for two seconds without deciding that he needs to kill somebody. We're up to a lot of dead people - that's just what he does. Next on his hit list is those damn princes, who he was kind of able to take care of by saying they're illegitimate, but that was really a temporary solution. He's still worried that they're alive even though now he's been crowned.
So he asks Buckingham, the loyal Buckingham, to kill them, but even Buckingham is a little squeamish about killing kids and doesn't really want to do that. So he runs back home, and Richard is worried about this - thinks maybe Buckingham's going soft and wonders if it might be Buckingham's turn to die and has to find a new henchman.
He also preps for killing the princes by spreading a rumor that his wife Anne is in poor health. Remember, this is the woman he strong-armed into marrying him - he was dead set on having this woman to be his wife, and now he's spreading this rumor that she might be sick. It seems like we kind of know where this might be going, which is horrifying, because he starts looking into marrying somebody else - this is where it gets really confusing - somebody else called Elizabeth. This is Edward IV's daughter, the sister to the young princes that he just ordered killed. So he wants to marry Edward IV's daughter, and he's spreading rumors that his current wife is sickly. That's what's going on.
Her mother, who is also named Elizabeth, is justifiably horrified when she finds out because he killed her brothers. It also looks like Anne's probably going to get the ax, too. So, the princes were smothered with a pillow in their sleep - check. But this one bright spot for Richard is quickly marred by the news that pretty much everybody hates him. Not only do they hate him, but they're amassing armies to come and fight him, including that pesky Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, who's got an army in France that's going to come and get him. Also, Buckingham, his faithful servant ('Et tu, Brute!'), is coming with an army to whomp on Richard, too. Not looking good.
Buckingham gets captured, and now he gets the ax, too. But Henry Tudor is on the march. They really feel - his army, which we get scenes of - like they're on the side of the right because Richard's pretty much an unmitigated monster at this point. He is not doing anything good. Even his own allies are terrified of him.
He's trying to get these allies excited for battle, but there's hardly any cause - there's nothing really to fight for - because the cause is just Richard's own boredom and his desire to be a villain. There's no unifying thing for the people who are fighting for him, whereas Richmond's got bringing back England and restoring the country on his side. That's a difference right there between the two leaders.
We get a cool scene where we see both Richard and Richmond, who's Henry Tudor, in their tents before the battle, and they both have the same dream about ghosts. It's not a proper Shakespeare story without ghosts - you probably realize this by now. It's basically a series of all the people the Richard has killed. It's kind of like in Harry Potter when Voldemort's wand disgorges all the shadows of people that he's murdered with it - kind of the same idea. Richard looks at them, kind of freaks out and starts to feel scared about what's about to happen because they all come out and tell him how awful he is.
Then they all go over to the other side of the stage and tell Richmond how they're on his side and that they think he's really awesome. Richard finally starts to feel scared of what might happen but also scared of who he is and how he feels about himself. He gives this very odd speech. It goes like this:
'Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.'
He seems to be losing it a little bit. There's this re-articulation of, 'I am a villain,' but also this weird denial of it that doesn't totally make sense. There's this kind of doubt that he should love himself just because he is himself - 'Richard loves Richard. I am I.' - those two things might not actually imply one another is what he's realizing. What he also is getting, which is scary for him, is that if he dies in battle, nobody will care because not even he totally cares about his own survival - that's what he's realizing in this speech.
This is really the beginning of the end. The armies fight. Richmond is sneaky and puts lots of decoy soldiers that are all dressed like him, so they go to kill Richmond, and it's not actually Richmond. This is also then taken in the final Harry Potter book where they send all the decoy Harry Potters with the polyjuice potion - same kind of idea.
Richard's horse ends up getting killed, and then he cries out one of the most famous lines of anything, I think: 'A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!' This is really total desperation here, and it's also kind of interesting because if it weren't his kingdom, he wouldn't be in this trouble at all. It shouldn't be his kingdom and yet, he's got it - he's stolen it - and now he's sort of saying, 'I'd give it all up if I just had a horse to get myself out of it.' But it's like, 'No, you got yourself into this by stealing the kingdom in the first place.'
That happens, and then he gets in this final climactic duel with Richmond, in which he is killed. He actually doesn't get a chance to give a speech - most Shakespeare characters, when they die, give little dying gasp kind of speeches. Richard doesn't get one of those - it's just literally in the stage directions, 'He dies,' which is weird for Shakespeare.
Richmond has won the battle! And now he gets to be Henry VII (remember, Henry Tudor), and he starts a long line of Tudors. Henry VIII comes next, and there's a whole bunch of them, and that's English history.
That's the story of Richard III, and some of this is certainly real. Most of these people did exist, and the tension and infighting that was present in all of this was caused by the very real Wars of the Roses, which was fought between these two families, the Yorks and the Lancasters. This was all through the 1400s.
And the line of kings went in that order - Henry VI, Edward IV (who was the king at the start of the play), little prince Edward V (who gets killed), Richard III, Henry VII - that really is the line of kings. (I could line them all up with my playing cards if I still had them.)
But we don't know for a fact that Richard had the princes murdered - this is kind of a big historical mystery. They just disappeared - no one really knows what happened to them. It was very conveniently timed, before Edward, the little prince, could actually be crowned king. So he might have killed them.
We also don't actually know if Richard III was really a hunchback, or if he just woke up one day and decided to be a villain - that's all Shakespeare's imagination. There's really no evidence. He was a good solider, so he probably actually wasn't physically deformed - Shakespeare just added that to make it more interesting.
So, the idea that there's historical fiction, as a genre, is kind of epitomized in this. Shakespeare takes something that is very real and makes it his own. He makes a real story out of it, and he embellishes it where he needs to in order to make it more interesting.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to describe the basic plot of Richard III and understand which parts are true history and which are fiction.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Already a member? Log InBack
Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets