As the play opens, Richard announces his evil intent: since his deformity will not let him be a lover, he will be a villain. In spite of his villainy, however, there is an ingenuity and bravado in Richard that compels the audience’s admiration.
In order to take over the throne from his brother, Edward IV, and his rightful heirs, Richard has one other brother killed; woos and marries Anne, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter (even though he had earlier killed her husband and father); and, after Edward’s death, has his two young nephews murdered. Toward the play’s close, after Anne has died, Richard is trying to arrange a marriage with his niece, Edward’s daughter, so that there will be no rival claims to the throne. Before Richard can achieve this goal, however, Henry of Richmond defeats him in battle.
Throughout this play, an Elizabethan audience would have been aware of the Wars of the Roses, an event of comparatively recent history. In that bloody dispute between the houses of York and Lancaster for the throne, Edward IV’s reign was a triumph for the house of York, but Henry, Earl of Richmond, was a Lancastrian, and his defeat of Richard and later marriage with Elizabeth of York finally united the families in peace. Richmond ushered in the Tudor dynasty culminating in the rule of Elizabeth I. On this level, the play, with its closing speech promising prosperity and an end to civil strife, is Shakespeare’s compliment to his queen.
The melodramatic events of this play are complemented by Shakespeare’s early, highly theatrical style. There is an abundance of wordplay, for example, a style Shakespeare would later abandon for more natural speech. Touches of the supernatural also add to the theatricality of this play: The last act shows Richard and Richmond on the eve of battle, being visited by the ghosts of Richard’s victims, each of whom blesses Richmond and damns Richard. Such theatrical scenes make this play one of Shakespeare’s most arresting character studies.
Farrell, Kirby. “Prophetic Behavior in Shakespeare’s Histories.” Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 17-40. Refers to historical prophecies in examining various kinds of prophecy in the play, both conscious and unconscious.
Hamel, Guy. “Time in Richard III.” Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 41-49. Examines how time is used in the play and how Shakespeare constructs relationships between various references to time.
Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. Songs of Death: Performance, Interpretation, and the Text of “Richard III.” Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. Examines the play from various angles, including the theatrical and acting history of the play, the role of Providence, and the characters and their motives.
Miner, Madonne M. “‘Neither Mother, Wife, nor England’s Queen’: The Roles of Women in Richard III.” In William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. The three sections of the essay examine the depth of characterization given to the women and their interactions. Also discusses the imagery of femaleness in the play.
Neill, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III.” In William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Examines the idea of theatricality in the play. Neill argues that Richard, like Hamlet, is an actor in the dramatic events that surround him.
About 1518, at the age of forty, Sir Thomas More stopped work on his HISTORY OF KING RICHARD III. This was the time when he was about to become a valuable member of the Council of Henry VIII, the beginning of a political career that would lead to his death and martyrdom in 1535. The work itself bears the mark of Thomas More the humanist scholar, rather than Sir Thomas the courtier or St. Thomas the martyr. Written in both English and Latin versions, presumably concurrently, the HISTORY was broken off at the speech of the Duke of Buckingham and Morton, Bishop of Ely, one week after Richard’s coronation. The English version was then completed by Richard Grafton and published in the Hardyng and Halle chronicles, before being published in 1557 as a separate work edited by More’s nephew, William Rastell. More had planned at first to extend the HISTORY to include the record of his own times, up to Henry’s VII’s death, but for reasons of his own he put the work aside.
These reasons may have had their roots in the polemical nature of the work. It is very much a treatise against tyranny and nonmoral statecraft, a refutation of Machiavelli some years before THE PRINCE was even completed. Far from being a Tudor apologist, as he is sometimes thought to be, More is nonpartisan. He is against tyranny in any king, whether it be Richard III or Henry VII. A sense of his own well-being, perhaps, is what leads him to draw his moral lesson from Richard alone and not risk extending his criticism to the kingship under Henry VII. This is the reason why one should remember that it is the Thomas More of the UTOPIA and not the Thomas More of the years of Tudor courtiership who is writing at this time.
The HISTORY OF KING RICHARD III is not only significant as an example of the humanistic education of princes, but it is also important as the model for other histories to follow. Historians tell us it was not equaled in excellence until the appearance of Sir Francis Bacon’s HISTORY OF THE REIGN OF KING HENRY VII, written more than a hundred years later. His historical methodology is not always exemplary, for much of what he says is based on conversations with others and much is used for the polemical thesis he is trying to develop. Though not objective, nor completely accurate, the facts he presents are probably closer to the truth than many scholars in past centuries, notably Horace Walpole, have been willing to admit. Nevertheless, what strikes the reader immediately is the vivid character of the writing and the ability to make the historical characters really seem to have once been alive. The fact that over a third of the work is in the form of speeches and dialogue indicates the book’s dramatic character.
The characters are wonderfully alive. Edward IV is not only a model prince who was politic in counsel and who treasured wisdom, thus fitting in well with More’s thesis about kingship, but also a lustful king whose youthful excesses are duly recorded yet pardoned by More because they did not interfere with the ruling of the kingdom. Jane Shore, moralized if not immortalized by Thomas Churchyard in A MIRROR FOR MAGISTRATES, is sympathetically drawn and her illustrious past contrasted with her harsh old age, for she was still living at the time of the writing. Henry, Duke of Buckingham, is treated as a surprisingly naive conspirator, and the gap between his supposed guile and his actual naivete gives More a chance to exploit fully the irony he sees present throughout the chronicle of the times.
The characters who are drawn in most depth are Queen Elizabeth and King...
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