Richard III

Explore Shakespeare's Richard III includes a variety of activities and discussion questions to stimulate students' reactions and responses to this history play. The complexity of background information, the quick shifts of action, and the large number of characters makes this play appropriate for high school students who need a challenge.
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Richard III

by William Shakespeare
Richard III
  • Overview
  • Synopsis
  • Prereading Activities
  • While Reading the Play
  • After Reading the Play
  • Extended Learning
  • About the Guide Authors
  • About the Guide Editors
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Penguin Group


Of all his plays, Shakespeare's history plays are likely to challenge the reading and interpretation skills of high school and college students because of the complexity of background information, the quick shifts of action, and the large number of characters – some who only appear for a short scene. Preparing students to read any text is important; it is crucial to ensure comprehension and enjoyment of a history play. Solid preparation will make this play accessible to advanced high school students and to most college students.

The name of Richard III may call up some associations. Students may know that Richard is reported to have had his two nephews killed in the Tower of London. But their knowledge may be limited to this one legendary aspect of Richard's history. Sorting out the stuff of legends from historical reality could be one of the goals of reading this history play.

At times Richard is cast as an allegorical figure, a representation of evil whose downfall provides a moral lesson to the reader and playgoer. Students' understanding of Richard's character may be enhanced if they explore other allegorical representations of evil both in the sixteenth century and in the Jacobean revenge tragedies of the early seventeenth century. Students can see similar types of stock villains in popular culture today.

Also, underlying the portrayal of Richard is the question of Shakespeare's purpose in writing the play. What shape does he give to the historical facts and why? If Richard is cast as the villain, who are the good people? What is the moral order within the world of the play? This guide includes a variety of activities and discussion questions to stimulate students' reactions and responses to the play before they begin to read, while they are reading, and then after they have read the play. It is assumed that the teacher of a Shakespearean history play has taught some of his other plays as well and can draw on this experience. Teachers should choose the activities which best meet students' needs and interests.


List of Characters

House of York
Henry, Earl of Richmond Princes Edward and Richard
George, Duke of Clarence
Richard, Duke of Gloucester

House of Lancaster
King Edward IV

Characters by Relationship
King Edward IV
His sons: Edward, Prince of Wales; Richard, Duke of York
His brothers: George, Duke of Clarence; Richard, Duke of Gloucester
His wife: Queen Elizabeth
His mother: Duchess of York, also mother of Clarence and Gloucester

Allies of Queen Elizabeth: Lord Rivers, brother of Queen;
Elizabeth; Marquis of Dorset and Lord Grey, sons of Elizabeth; Sir Thomas Vaughan

Allies of Richard: Lord Hastings, Duke of Buckingham

Other important characters: Queen Margaret, widow of King Henry VI; Lady Anne, her daughter-in-law, widow of Edward Prince of Wales, who was the son of King Henry VI


Act I, scene i

In the first lines of the play, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, reviews the current state of affairs in England. War is over and the house of York is on the throne. Everyone has put aside the rigors of warfare for the pleasures of peacetime, except for Richard. He says he is not interested in such playfulness. Because he is physically deformed, he cannot see himself playing the role of courtier. Instead he commits to villainy. He plots to set King Edward against his brother George, Duke of Clarence, using as provocation the prophecy that someone with the letter G in his name will murder Edward's heirs.

Directly, George is led forth by soldiers on the way to the Tower to be imprisoned. Richard suggests that this is really the doings of the king's wife, Lady Grey, and that no one is safe from her treachery. Richard promises to intercede for Clarence, but as soon as he is led away, Richard reveals his true motive is to kill Clarence and get him out of the way.

Lord Hastings, who is the Lord Chamberlain, brings news of the king's sickness. This adds to Richard's desire to get George out of the way. Once the king is dead Richard believes he will be in a strategic position to take over the kingdom. He also plans to marry Lady Anne, Warwick's youngest daughter, even though he has killed her husband Edward and her father-in-law, King Henry VI.

Act I, scene ii

Lady Anne follows the hearse carrying the body of her father-in-law Henry VI. She mourns the deaths of Henry and his son Edward, her husband, and curses Richard who murdered them both. Richard demands that the procession stop, and Anne calls him a devil, saying that while he could kill Henry, he has no control over his soul. The wounds of Henry begin to bleed; this most unnatural act is caused by the presence of his murderer Richard.

Richard asks permission to tell his story. He claims that Anne's husband was actually killed by his brother Edward. He admits to killing Henry, but thinks he did him a service by sending him to heaven. Anne rails against Richard, saying he should go to hell, but Richard insinuates that she was the cause of the two deaths, since her beauty haunted his mind, and he was willing to do anything to win her. He says, that he, who never cries, has shed tears of longing for Anne.

Richard, who never speaks gentle words, now tries to move the heart of Anne. If he cannot convince her of his love, he would rather be dead. He gives her his sword, telling her to kill him. He confesses his crimes, but says it is her beauty that provoked him to do these deeds. Richard insists Anne must choose, either kill him or accept him. He will kill himself if she commands it. Anne relents even as she wonders about Richard's sincerity. However, she accepts his ring and leaves the funeral procession to await Richard at Crosby House.

Richard is overjoyed at his success, wondering if anyone has been successful in wooing a woman in such circumstances. How could Anne forget Edward, a royal prince with a wise and gracious nature, and choose Richard who killed him? He considers himself a wondrous handsome man to turn a woman's heart in such a way.

Act I, scene iii

At the palace Queen Elizabeth and two advisors, Rivers and Grey, discuss the health of the king. They are fearful Richard will be entrusted with the protection of the young son of King Edward. Meanwhile the king tries to reconcile the factions. Richard complains that he has been slandered by the Queen and those loyal to her. He blames them for the imprisonment of Clarence who fought for Edward's party.

Queen Margaret listens to their quarrel and condemns all of them. They turn on her, accusing her of crimes, scorning Richard's father and killing the baby Rutland. Margaret, hoping for justice, curses each person to suffer just as she has. She launches into a lengthy curse of Richard, but he interrupts, saying her name - claiming she curses herself. The company has no patience with her. She warns them they will remember this day when they feel Richard's treachery.

Richard plots with two murderers to kill Clarence. He plans to blame this murder on the Queen and her allies, Rivers, Dorset, and Grey. Derby, Hastings, and Buckingham will back Richard when he takes revenge. Meanwhile Richard will put on a pious face to cover his evil.

Act I, scene iv

Clarence, imprisoned in the tower, has a fretful night, full of nightmares of death by drowning caused by his brother Richard. He begs his Keeper to stay with him so he can get some rest.

When the murderers enter with Richard's commission, they find Clarence sleeping and begin to consider the crime they have been sent to do. They are torn between conscience and greed. Clarence awakes and realizes they have come to kill him. He begs them to consider their own salvation and the reward that they can get from Richard. They tell him that Richard is in fact the murderer. One falters, but the other stabs Clarence and drowns him in a barrel of wine.

Act II, scene i

King Edward, who is very sick, rejoices that he has united enemies and made alliances that will keep the kingdom in order after his death. Richard swears that he is committed to this peace. When Elizabeth asks the King to be reconciled to Clarence, Richard strikes with news of Clarence's death, killed by the order of the King, even though he had reversed it.

Edward is saddened that he had been so rash. He fears that this act of injustice will have serious repercussions. Richard tries to create new enmity between the two factions, insinuating that the Queen's allies actually killed Clarence.

Act II, scene ii

Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, realizes that Richard has killed Clarence and fears what will happen when the king is dead. Elizabeth enters to announce Edward's death. Elizabeth, the duchess, and the children of Clarence all proclaim sorrow, but the Duchess claims the greatest grief since she has lost the most with the death of her two sons. Elizabeth's advisors council to be moderate and to send for the young prince Edward so he may be crowned.

Richard enters to give his comfort and to confer with the others about the company to be sent to get the prince. Buckingham urges Richard to join in the embassy so they can plan how to separate the prince from the Queen's family.

Act II, scene iii

Several citizens discuss recent events - the death of Edward and promised reign of his son. They fear that this will be a dangerous time for the state since the prince is too young to rule and there is a strong rivalry between his uncles on both sides.

Act II, scene iv

Richard, the young Duke of York, Queen Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York await the arrival of the prince. A messenger arrives to report that Lords Rivers and Grey and Sir Vaughan have been imprisoned on the orders of the Dukes Gloucester and Buckingham. Fearful of the outcome of this power struggle, Elizabeth decides to place herself and her son in sanctuary.

Act III, scene i

Prince Edward arrives in London with Gloucester and Buckingham. Richard assures the prince that he does not recognize the treachery of his uncles and he is better off without them. Hastings arrives to report that the Queen will not allow the Duke of York to join his brother, the prince, and he and the Cardinal are sent to argue with her.

While they wait, Edward hears that he will stay at the Tower, even though he does not like the place. His brother, the Duke of York, arrives, escorted by the two ambassadors. It is clear that he feels insulted by Richard, and he mocks him as they talk. Richard and Buckingham surmise that his feelings arise from his mother's influence. Now they send an embassy to Lord Hastings so he will approve of the installation of Richard as king. For his part in this plot, Buckingham will be rewarded with land and goods.

Act III, scene ii

Hastings is drawn into Richard's net. Because he thinks he is safe as an ally of Richard and that his enemies will be executed in the Tower, he does not fear that two separate councils are being held. When Catesby queries if he will support Richard's bid for the throne, he refuses, saying he will not overthrow the legal line of inheritance from his master, the late king. Lord Stanley warns him not to be so confident - others were unsuspecting when disaster was about to strike.

Act III, scene iii

Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan are taken to their execution in Pomfret Castle. They remember the curse of Margaret that they would suffer for standing by while Richard killed her son. Their only hope is that her curse on Richard, Buckingham, and Hastings will also be heard.

Act III, scene iv

The councilors meet in the Tower to discuss the date for the King's coronation. Hastings feels secure in Richard's loyalty. He believes that he can read Richard's heart through his appearance. Just then Richard returns and claims that his withered arm is a sign he has been bewitched by the Queen. When Hastings is slow to agree, Richard pronounces him a traitor and demands beheading immediately. Hastings also remembers the curse of Margaret.

Act III, scene v

Hastings's head is brought in and Richard and Buckingham convince the Lord Mayor he was a traitor. Richard urges Buckingham to follow the Mayor to the City Hall, spread rumors that Edward's children are illegitimate, and that Edward is both a lecher, and illegitimate himself.

Act III, scene vi

A scrivener, bearing the indictment for Hastings, says it took longer to write the document then it did for Hastings's fortunes to change. Bad things are happening in the world.

Act III, scene vii

Buckingham returns from the City Hall, saying the citizens listened to his insinuations without a word. Finally, some of his men shouted that Richard should be king, and he took that as the general will. The Mayor waits outside to speak to Richard, and Buckingham counsels Richard to appear to be uninterested.

When the citizens enter, Richard pretends to be deep in prayer with two clergy and refuses to meet with them. Finally, after they have sent several messages, he appears before the group to see what they want. Buckingham acts as spokesperson for the group and offers Richard the throne as his lawful and legal due as a legitimate heir. Richard refuses several times, until finally Buckingham says that if he will not accept, Edward's son will never reign. A new family will be installed on the throne. Richard pretends to give in to the wishes of the assembled group, and he is proclaimed king.

Act IV, scene i

Anne meets Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York at the Tower. They have come to visit with the young princes, but the guard refuses to let them enter. All visitors are barred by Richard's orders. Meanwhile Stanley arrives to take Anne to Westminster to be crowned queen. Anne remembers the curse she made that Richard's wife would know no peace. This has come true for her.

Act IV, scene ii

Richard, newly crowned king, complains to Buckingham that he cannot truly be king as long as young Edward lives. He wants Buckingham to consent to the execution of the princes, but Buckingham says he needs time to think.

Richard also decides that he wants to marry Edward's daughter. Because he must eliminate his wife first, he orders Catesby to spread a rumor that Anne is very sick. Richard believes things are out of control, but he has committed so many crimes he cannot turn back. He instructs Tyrrel, an assassin, to murder the princes. When Buckingham comes in and demands the land and possessions Richard had promised him for his loyalty, Richard refuses to hear him, saying, "I am not in the giving vein today." Buckingham thinks of what happened to Hastings and decides to leave the court while he still has his head.

Act IV, scene iii

Tyrrel reports that the bloody deed is accomplished and the two young princes are dead. Richard thinks he now has to marry the daughter of Edward so no one will be able to overthrow him. Just then news comes that Buckingham is mounting a challenge.

Act IV, scene iv

Queen Margaret, lurking near the palace, learns of the destruction of her enemies. She thinks the deaths of Queen Elizabeth's sons repay the deaths of her husband and son, and she reminds Elizabeth how all things have come around so that she is no longer queen, mother, or wife, and has no subjects to do her will. Now she prophesies the death of Richard who has caused so many deaths. Elizabeth calls on Margaret to teach her how to curse Richard.

When Richard passes in procession, both Elizabeth and his mother, the Duchess of York, accuse him of committing many crimes. He listens impatiently, and then tries to convince Elizabeth to counsel her daughter to accept his suit. He uses devious arguments and Elizabeth relents.

Richmond is invading by sea, and Buckingham is joining with him in rebellion against Richard. Richard fears that Stanley will prove false too and join the forces against him. Later messengers arrive to report that a great storm has destroyed Buckingham's army, and he has been taken prisoner.

Act IV, scene v

Stanley speaks with an ally of Richmond, saying that he would join him, except that Richard has imprisoned his son and he is powerless to do anything at the present time.

Act V, scene i

As he is led to his execution, Buckingham remembers the day he cursed himself if he should prove false to King Edward and his children. He accepts the justice of his fate; his wrong acts have brought him to this end.

Act V, scene ii

At a camp near Tamworth, Richmond gathers his troops to attack Richard. The nobles speculate that Richard's allies only stay with him out of fear and soon will desert him.

Act V, scene iii

At Bosworth Field, Richard arrives with his troops and surveys the field while his tent is set up for the night. In another part of the field, Richmond gathers with his troops and sends a secret message to Stanley who plans to aid Richmond even as he appears to fight for Richard. As both Richmond and Richard sleep in different parts of the field, ghosts appear, cursing Richard and wishing Richmond good fortune. Richard wakes in a fearful mood, wanting to spy on his soldiers to see if they are loyal. Richmond, on the other hand, is rested, full of great confidence in victory. Each leader makes a speech to his soldiers, and then it is time for the battle. Richard learns that Stanley will not fight, but there is no time to kill his son - that must wait until after the fighting.

Act V, scene iv

Richard is thrown from his horse but still refuses to leave the battlefield until he has met and killed Richmond.

Act V, scene v

Richard and Richmond fight until Richard is killed. Stanley takes the crown from Richard's head and places it on Richmond, proclaiming him king. Richmond pledges to forge an alliance between the families of York and Lancaster by marrying Elizabeth and so heal the wounds of division in England.

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