Plays, Poems & New Writing Story

Richard III: what’s it all about?

Shakespeares history plays are not so much about plot twists, but the way in which he turns history into a powerful study of character. 

You could call it a story of three brothers.  

Theyre Edward, George and Richard, sons to Richard Duke of York, the tragic anti-hero of Shakespeares earlier play Henry VI Part III. 

At the end of that play, the Yorkists seize the English crown. The Duke of Yorks eldest son proclaims himself King Edward IV after the death of his father; and Edwards hot-tempered younger brother Richard takes himself to the Tower of London to deal with the ineffectual ex-King Henry who is quickly rendered an ex-Henry, too, killed to wipe out the legitimate line.  

Rising to sudden kingship creates challenges. Edward IV chooses himself a queen from among his own subjects, an attractive English widow who brings in tow sons from a previous marriage and an ambitious brother. These distinctly un-royal new royals expand the family in unstable ways 

Kathryn Hunter as Richard III in Shakespeare’s Globe 2003 production.

And signs of the previous reign are everywhere Henry VI might be gone, but hes not forgotten. Not the least of the old kings memory-keepers is Queen Margaret, his widow, who hasnt forgiven the killers of her husband and only son (her late sons young wife, Lady Anne, is another mournful reminder of the past carnage). 

But as Richard III opens, the new Yorkist regime looks like it might have achieved something approaching stability. King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth now have two sons of their own: an heir and a spare. The blood-soaked devastation of the previous decades the brutal cycles of civil strife between royal houses known as the Wars of the Roses seems in the past: one could say the wintry discontented years of war have been supplanted by gloriously peaceful summer with the accession of the Yorkist king Edward.

But Edwards brother the malcontent, unsatisfied Richard – isn’t finished. Hes watched his family ascend to the very highest point of kingly power, and he doesnt see why an accident of birth youngest son not eldest should disbar him from a taste of the glory. Hes also seen the ease with which kings and princes meet violent ends. The game of thrones hasnt stopped: the crown has not come to permanent rest upon brother Edwards increasingly sickly head. 

It’s time for Richard to make his move.

The title gives it away that Richard, who starts the play as Duke of Gloucester, achieves his ambition to be king of England albeit for a short and unhappy reign. But Shakespeares history plays are never about surprises in the plot. Their power and innovation lie in the way he was able to turn the relation of history into the study of character.

A portrait of Richard III of England, currently in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

A portrait of Richard III of England, currently in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

As Richard massacres his way through his kin, the sprawling historical storytelling that Shakespeare had presented in the Henry VI plays takes on a much tauter dimension. His Richard is a villain whose downfall is brought about by Richmond, later Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. By responding to the propagandist need to heap the blame on a single malign figure, Shakespeare also fashioned a new kind of compellingly awful dramatic character. Shakespeares Richard set the pattern for future depictions of charismatic tyrants, men (its usually men) whose evil is compounded by an ability to sway the crowd and win a sort of curdled loyalty from those who follow in their wake.

Cover of the 1594 quarto of Richard III.

Cover of the 1594 quarto of the play.

But those followers should take care. Shakespeare’s Richard III is also the ancestor of another chilling genre: the serial killer horror. The York family come to realise, to their dread, that although they might have reached the safety of the royal palace, their most lethal enemy is among their own party. The call is coming from inside the house. 

Richard is here. You have been warned.  


A new production of Richard III plays in the Globe Theatre from 9 May – 3 August, 2024.