Richard III simplified


In this last in a series of eight fifteenth century histories, Richard duke of Gloucester, the late Richard Plantagenet’s third son, the soon-to-be Richard III, is in charge of events.  In the last play, this Richard (along with his two brothers) had stabbed to death the eighteen year old Prince Edward.  Immediately before he was murdered, the young prince, the heir to England’s crown, had said to the Plantagenet brothers “I know my duty --- you are all undutiful. I am your better, traitors as ye are, and thou usurp’st my father’s right and mine.” Prince Edward’s mother, the queen, having fainted and then recovered at the time of her son’s murder, had said “He was a man --- this, in respect, a child; and men ne’er spend their fury on a child.”  She was soon taken away, to be banished from England.  Following the murder of the young Prince Edward, showing no compassion and taking no time, Richard moved quickly on to the infamous Tower of London where he stabbed to death the weak and defenseless Henry VI. Pretty much by default, Richard’s older brother, Edward IV, was now king.

This is the Plantagenet brothers’ time.  At the end of the last play, Edward IV and his queen, the Lady Grey, had celebrated the birth of their son, the new Prince Edward.  Edward IV had recently wooed and won the widowed Elizabeth Woodville, known as the Lady Grey, she becoming his queen.  Warwick, The Kingmaker, the strong leader who mid-way through the last play had turned on Edward IV; turned on him at the moment he learned to his considerable surprise that the philandering Edward had just married Elizabeth Grey; the moment being when Warwick was on a delicate mission in France to secure the Lady Bonne as Edward’s wife, Lady Bonne being the French king’s sister-in-law. This audaciously quick marriage by Edward was an embarrassing moment for the proud Warwick, who then promptly shifted his allegiance to the weak Henry VI.  So Warwick can be added to the list of key players who were murdered or died late in the last play, all of which opened the door to the young and physically challenged Richard duke of Gloucester who came to be, as you will soon see, the most ruthless of English kings.  This play is a story of the shift of Plantagenet power from the house of Lancaster to the house of York.   

The family name for Edward IV, Clarence and Richard was Plantagenet, Plantagenet having been the royal family’s surname since early in the twelfth century.  As descendents on their father’s side of Edward III’s fifth son, the original duke of York, and as descendents on their mother’s side of Edward III’s third son, the original duke of Clarence, the three young men, the Plantagenet brothers, have strong blood lines, and justifiably can make the case that they are the ones who should be kings.  Edward III had died in 1399 and was, as we’ve said before, the patriarch of all these royals.  The late Henry VI represented the house of Lancaster, as had his father and his grandfather, all tied to Edward III’s fourth son.  Within this greater Plantagenet family, the Yorks and Lancasters have been fighting among themselves for decades. 

Shakespeare opens this play with a soliloquy, letting Richard set the play’s theme. Clarence soon enters, led in by guards on his way to London’s Tower, Richard blaming Queen Elizabeth (The Lady Grey and, by association, her husband and his brother, the king) for Clarence’s arrest. Clarence was the duke of Clarence, or George, the second of three remaining Plantagenet brothers.  A royal (Lord Hastings) is also imprisoned; quietly the result of Richard’s doing, as was Clarence’s imprisonment.  Hastings, always loyal to Richard, is soon released and reports to Richard that his brother Edward IV is “sickly, weak and melancholy.”  Richard responds that “He hath kept an evil diet long, and overmuch consumed his royal person.”  We soon learn that Hastings’ loyalty to Richard isn’t reciprocated.  Alone on the stage, Richard lays out his plans.  Back in Part 3 Warwick had offered Anne, his younger daughter, as a wife to Prince Edward, Henry VI’s only child.  Prince Edward and Anne later married, he being a young groom, but when the Plantagenet brothers stabbed her husband to death, Anne became a young widow. 

Early in this play the late King Henry VI’s body is carried onto the stage.  Anne, as we say, Warwick’s daughter and the late king’s daughter-in-law, mourns the death of her father-in-law. Richard, physically disadvantaged, known earlier as Crookback Richard, having killed Anne’s father, her father-in-law (Henry VI), and her young husband (Prince Edward), deftly and disbelievingly, successfully woos Anne, the young widow. Meanwhile during a meeting between Queen Elizabeth (Lady Grey) and her brother and two sons from her prior marriage, Richard and Hastings enter, Richard wanting to know who has been saying nasty things about him to the king, his brother.  He places most of the blame on the queen.  The testy Margaret, the widow and queen of the late Henry VI, supposedly having been banished from England by Edward IV in the last play, quietly enters unseen by the others.  Margaret soon steps out onto center stage, having listened to the heated exchanges between and among Queen Elizabeth, her family, Richard and Hastings. That she is there in London, much the less that she has the courage to step into the middle of this angry conversation, is a distinct surprise to every one.  Margaret and Richard lash out at each other. Both have a rough edge, he having killed her husband and her son; she having helped to kill his father and Rutland, his brother.  Margaret says “What, were you snarling all before I came, ready to catch each other by the throat, and turn you all your hatred now on me?”  All except Richard soon exit.  Richard, alone on the stage, tells us how he plans to have his brother Clarence killed, and how he plans to transfer blame to his other brother Edward IV.  Two hired assassins enter.  Richard provides them with last minute instructions. The two murderers enter London’s Tower, present papers to the guards, and meet with Clarence.  The three of them have a candid, adult conversation about the subject of murder.  The two murderers take different routes; one walks away; the other kills Clarence. 

For continuity, back in Henry VI Part 2, Richard Plantagenet duke of York, the Plantagenet brothers’ father, had killed Young Clifford’s father, Old Clifford having been a confidant of the house of Lancaster king, Henry VI.  Late in the last play, avenging his father’s death, Young Clifford had killed this duke of York.  In Part 3, Young Clifford (now Lord Clifford), continuing to seek revenge, had had a hand in killing the young Rutland, Rutland being York’s (Richard Plantagenet) second son.  Henry VI’s queen Margaret also had had a part in the stabbing death of young Rutland.

Meanwhile, a seriously ill Edward IV does his best to bring harmony to his fractured extended family.  When his brother Richard lets all know that Clarence is dead, the king gently recalls how kind Clarence had been to him. As Cecily Neville, the Duchess of York, the Plantagenet brothers’ mother, enters mourning the death of her son Clarence, a shrieking Queen Elizabeth enters, announcing the death of the king, her husband (and another of the Duchess’ sons).  The Duke of Buckingham, a very loyal-to-Richard noble, hearing the news, suggests that the young Prince Edward, heir to his father’s throne, be brought quickly and quietly to London.  Richard exits, recognizing the depraved opportunity this moment represents for him. With events moving quickly, a messenger reports that Richard and Buckingham have imprisoned Rivers and Grey, Queen Elizabeth’s brother and older son from her prior marriage. A legitimately frightened Queen Elizabeth takes her younger son, the current Richard duke of York, to hide in a sanctuary.

Having earlier been appointed Lord Protector of Edward IV’s sons, Richard unconscionably suggests Prince Edward be sequestered in London’s Tower to await his coronation, the boy now having been brought to London. Shakespeare portrays the young Prince Edward as a talented, confident, spirited young man, characteristics we attribute to the revered late Henry V.  Richard and Buckingham learn that their friend Lord Hastings supports the effort to appoint the young Prince Edward to succeed his father as king.  Hearing that bit of intelligence, Richard says Hastings must die.  In the meantime Rivers and Grey are executed at Pomfret Castle.  Richard claims Hastings, his long time ally, has plotted his death through witchcraft, using that excuse to have him executed.

Richard and Buckingham then hatch a plan to win London’s mayor’s support in their effort to have Richard succeed his brother as king.  Buckingham is quite the good salesman.  Richard coyly plays the reluctant candidate. As part of their act, Buckingham publicly and persuasively convinces the appearing-to-be-reluctant Richard as well as the mayor and others that Richard, representing the house of York, must serve as king, for the benefit of England. With London’s mayor and the public convinced, Richard shyly says “Even when you please, for you will have it so.”

At about this point Queen Elizabeth and others arrive at the Tower to visit the queen’s sons.  Richard duke of York, the younger of the Elizabeth’s two boys, has been transferred to the Tower, on instructions from Richard duke of Gloucester, ironically being the Lord Protector of his brother’s (the late king’s) sons.  The prison visitors promptly learn that Richard duke of Gloucester, acting under his authority as the boys’ Lord Protector, has denied the boys all visitor rights.  Anne, Warwick’s daughter and the late Henry VI’s daughter-in-law, learns that she must rush to Westminster to be named Richard’s queen, having recklessly, naively and recently married Richard, Richard having just been crowned King Richard III. Fearing the worst, Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth instructs her son Dorset (son by a prior marriage) to flee to the Earl of Richmond, a prospective king in waiting, now living in France.  Richard III tells Catesby to start the rumor that his brand-new wife Anne is “very grievous sick.”  Richard III soon says that at Anne’s death he plans to marry the young Elizabeth, the Lady Grey’s daughter.  Interestingly, we learn that the identity of the young Elizabeth’s father is known only to her mother. Meanwhile Richard III asks Buckingham, his generally willing cohort in crime, to kill his late brother’s and Elizabeth’s two sons.  Buckingham begs time to think about it.  The king, tolerating no act of insubordination, then summons a “discontented gentleman,” James Tyrrel, to kill the boys, offering him a reward.  Tyrell does what he was hired to do.  Richard dismisses Buckingham, summarily reneging on his promises to Buckingham of an earldom and many of the late king’s possessions.  Richard III then tells us that Anne has “bid this world goodnight” and that he will now as “a jolly thriving wooer” seek to win the young Elizabeth. The bishop of Ely leaves for France to join Richmond.  A legitimately vengeful Buckingham forms an army of “hardy Welshmen.” 

Queen Elizabeth, Queen Margaret and the Duchess share the miseries of their lives, mostly caused by the new king. Elizabeth envies Margaret’s cursing skills. Queen Margaret exits as Richard III enters.  The Plantagenet brothers’ mother (Cecily Neville) proceeds to curse her son and exits.  Richard III, in an amazingly persuasive performance, convinces the Lady Grey (Elizabeth) to persuade her daughter to become his wife and queen.  The Lady Grey tells him “I will confess she was not Edward’s daughter.” Shakespeare casts Richard as both smooth and despicable.  Richard III soon learns that Richmond is on his way to England “to claim the crown.”  Stanley offers the king his help, but the king, suspecting Stanley’s loyalty, holds Stanley’s son George as a hostage.  The king learns to his joy that Buckingham’s forces have “dispersed and scattered.” But he also learns to his misfortune that Richmond “with a mighty power” has landed in Wales.

Buckingham is captured.  Richard has him executed, his most loyal friend and aide throughout the play.  Richmond and his army move from Wales into England.  The king and Richmond march separately to war; Richmond confident; Richard III discouraged.  Ghosts of those murdered by Richard visit the sleeping adversaries.  The ghosts say to Richard, “Despair and die.”  To Richmond the ghosts say, “Live and flourish.”  The next morning Richmond eloquently encourages his troops; Richard III’s comments to his troops are less inspiring. The fight begins at Bosworth Field near Leicester in central England.  Richard’s horse dies beneath him and he famously cries “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”  Richard III is slain.  Richmond accepts the crown offered by Stanley.  Stanley’s son is found to be safe.  Richmond (now Henry VII) tells his troops how he plans to draw the wounded nation together, which we’re led to believe he does. The reign of the Tudor kings begins.

Principal Characters

Anne.  Anne is Lady Anne, the young widow of the late Prince Edward, the son and only child of Queen Margaret and the late King Henry VI.  Anne was Warwick’s second daughter, promised to the young prince at the time Warwick shifted his allegiance from Edward IV to Henry VI.  Warwick was also known as Richard Neville and as “The Kingmaker”.  Most unbelievably, she briefly becomes Queen Anne, the wife of Richard III, the Richard who had killed her father, her first husband and her father-in-law.  Richard III has her killed soon after their marriage.

Buckingham.   Buckingham is the Duke of Buckingham.  For most of the play he is extraordinarily loyal to Richard duke of Gloucester, who tells him half way through the play that “when I am king I will name you earl of Hereford and provide you with all the movable possessions whereof the king my brother was possessed.”  More than any other one person, Buckingham guides Richard to the crown.  However, immediately upon being named king, Richard III rescinds his promises to Buckingham; Buckingham responding reasonably “made I him king for this?” 

Clarence.  Clarence is George Plantagenet duke of Clarence, the third son of the late Richard Plantagenet.  He is the hapless brother who was imprisoned early in the play, thought by many to be imprisoned by Edward IV, seeking retribution, since Clarence had briefly supported Henry VI  back in Henry VI Part 3, his brother’s arch rival.  But, in truth, Richard, Clarence’s younger brother, had imprisoned him, wanting him out of the way so that he more easily might be able to succeed the current king, his brother.  Richard had him killed.

DorsetDorset is the Marquess of Dorset, also known as Marquess.  He is one of Queen Elizabeth’s sons by a prior marriage.  He survives Richard’s assault on those who might threaten his ambition to be king, Dorset included.  Late in the play Dorset joins Richmond in France; later returning with Richmond to England to defeat Richard III.

Duchess of York.  The Duchess is Cecily Neville, the widow of Richard Plantagenet.  She is the mother of the Plantagenet brothers, Edward, Clarence and Richard.  She spends most of her time in the play offering her remorse for being Richard’s mother and asking others for their forgiveness.

Edward.   Edward is Edward IV; the late Richard Plantagenet’s oldest of four sons.  Mistress Shore was his mistress.  He married Elizabeth Lady Grey in Henry VI Part 3.  Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth had two sons, Prince Edward and Richard; Richard in time becoming the Duke of York.  Edward IV was not the father of Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth’s daughter, born while they were married.  The beautiful Elizabeth (the daughter) later married Richard III, and even later married Richmond, who became England’s Henry VII.

Hastings.  Lord William Hastings is a loyal confidant to both Richard and Buckingham.  But when Richard learns that Hastings has thrown his support to the young Prince Edward to succeed his late father as king, Richard turns on him and has him killed.  Hastings is also known as Lord Chamberlain.  Hastings married a Neville, one of Warwick’s and Montague’s sisters.  Oxford is his brother-in-law, marrying Margaret, another of Warwick’s and Montague’s sisters.  Lord Hastings seems like a fine guy, another victim of Richard’s whatever-it-takes-to-be-king ruthlessness.  

Lady Grey.  Lady Grey is Queen Elizabeth, King Edward IV’s wife, also known as Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth Lady Grey.  Her brother is Anthony Woodville, also known as Earl Rivers.  She was the widow of Sir John Grey.  Her two sons by her first marriage are Lord Grey and the Marquess of Dorset.  She and Edward IV have two sons: Prince Edward and Richard, Duke of York, both killed in 1483 in London’s Tower by Richard Plantagenet duke of Gloucester.  Her daughter, Elizabeth, was born while she was married to King Edward IV.

Prince Edward.  The Prince Edward in this play is Edward IV’s and Elizabeth’s older son.  Shakespeare makes him out to have the makings of a strong king, though he has but a brief appearance in the play.  Richard says, “So wise so young, they say, do never live long.”  Richard soon has him killed. 

Queen Margaret.  Margaret is often referred to as the old Queen Margaret.  She was the daughter of Reignier, a French nobleman, who married the young Henry VI. The married William de la Pole, better known as Suffolk, who had his eye on her when she was a maid in France, believed that if he could match her up with the young King Henry VI, he could influence public policy in England.  He was right.  She was the widow of Henry VI and the mother of Prince Edward, both of whom were stabbed to death by Richard duke of Gloucester.  She was appealing to men but had a ruthless streak, taking part in the stabbing deaths of Rutland and Richard Duke of York, the Plantagenet brothers’ brother and father. 

Richard.  Late in the play Richard duke of Gloucester becomes Richard III.  He marries Warwick’s younger daughter, Anne, the widow of Prince Edward, the late King Henry VI’s son.  This helped secure his rise to king, he being a descendent of the York side of the Plantagenet’s and Anne, by marriage, being of the Lancaster side, these two competing factions of the extended family fighting for the crown.  Richard duke of Gloucester is often referred to as Gloucester.  Back in Henry VI Part 3 he was named Lord Protector of King Edward IV’s two sons.  Soon after he was crowned king, Richard tells Catesby of his plans to kill his wife Anne and marry his “brother’s daughter.”  He was physically misshapen at birth, known earlier as Crookback Richard.  He is a ruthless and remorseless young man who represents the epitome in the abuse of power.  Richard was killed by Richmond at Bosworth Field in 1485.


Richmond.  This Earl of Richmond is Henry Tudor.  At the very end of the play he becomes Henry VII.   His mother was Margaret Beaufort, a descendent of John of Gaunt and the widow of Edmund Tudor, the Earl of Richmond. This Richmond was their son.  Lord Stanley then married the widow Margaret, Margaret Beaufort.  Richmond, therefore, is Stanley’s stepson.  Richmond marries Elizabeth of York, Queen Elizabeth’s daughter, who was briefly married to Richard III.  Richmond’s grandfather was Owen Tudor.  Richmond’s grandmother was Katherine, Henry V’s widow.  Richmond had real talent and of course a unique ancestry and a politically important wife in Elizabeth.   He led the ending of the century-old War of the Roses.   Richmond becomes the first of those who become known as the Tudor kings. 

StanleyStanley is Thomas Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby.  His wife is Margaret Beaufort, the widow of Edmund Tudor, the Earl of Richmond.  Margaret and Edmund Tudor had a son, Henry Tudor, who succeeded his father as Earl of Richmond.  Richmond becomes Henry VII late in the play.  Stanley is Richmond’s step-father.  Richmond’s mother, Margaret Beaufort was a descendant of John of Gaunt and his second wife, Catherine Swynford.  In Henry VI Part 3, Henry VI had prophesied that Richmond would in time be king. 

York.  York in this play is Edward IV and Elizabeth’s younger son, Richard duke of York.  He has almost no role, this young Richard duke of York, being killed by Richard duke of Gloucester; killed soon after his father died.

The Play