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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Shakespeare's Richard III

These activities are designed to build students' background knowledge about the chronology of events, the historical persons, and the themes explored in the play.

Note: Consult other teacher's guides to Signet Classic editions of Shakespeare's plays; they contain many ideas that can be adapted to prepare students to read this play.

A. Building Background Knowledge through a Problem Situation

By getting students to think about how they might solve Richard's "problem," this activity prepares them to connect their own knowledge of human behavior, especially about ambition and abuse of power, with motives and behaviors they will discover in the play. Give students the following problem to write about and discuss in small groups:

1. You are Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, the third son of a duke who is killed in a civil war against Henry VI, the King of England. In revenge, you join with your brothers to overthrow the King and kill his son, leaving his wife, Lady Anne, a widow. Your oldest brother, Edward, has become the new King of England. However, Edward is dying, and you want to become the King when he is gone. There are some barriers to your ambition, though. King Edward has a wife, Queen Elizabeth, who has two brothers and two grown sons from a previous marriage. The King and Queen have two young sons, Edward and Richard, who are in line before you, and a pretty, young daughter, Elizabeth. And also, there is your popular older brother George, Duke of Clarence, who might stand in your way. Clarence has two children, Margaret and Edward.

2. Although you are intelligent and courageous in battle, you suffer from a physical deformity. You are of small stature, sinister looking, and have a crooked back that hunches you over and raises your left shoulder higher than your right. You have an aggressive attitude, a persuasive tongue, and are quick to argue or fight. You aren't interested in love or the benefits of peace. All you want is the ultimate power of kingship. How will you get it?

3. Write a plan for overcoming the obstacles before you and gaining kingship. Figure into your plan: Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth and her daughter Elizabeth, your persuasive ability, the Tower of London, some unscrupulous nobles, and a couple of common murderers.

4. Give students ten to fifteen minutes to develop their plans for becoming King. After sharing in small groups, several students can share their plans with the whole class. The class can vote on the plan they think will be most similar to Shakespeare's play. Discuss why they chose a certain plan. Have students keep their writings, and after reading the play the students can see which plan is closest to Shakespeare's plot.

B. Building Background Knowledge Through Internet Searches

To many students the history of Britain covered by Richard III is unfamiliar. One way to increase their familiarity is through searches on the Internet. Have students individually or in pairs conduct searches of the World Wide Web on historical topics related to the play. Then have the students make three-to-five minute presentations on their findings. In order to ensure the attention of the class to these reports, the presenters can ask the class review questions based on their presentations. Some of these questions can also be used in subsequent quizzes. It is usually helpful to have predetermined criteria for evaluating the student presentations, e.g., clarity, interest, use of visuals, and relevance of information for understanding the historical context of the play.

C. Studying Genre: Characteristics of the History Play

1. Before reading any Shakespearean play, review with students their knowledge of other plays and conventions of the stage by having students list and compare the plays they already know. For example, have students generate titles of comedies and tragedies and discuss the type of action that usually occurs in these genres. What is the usual conflict in a comedy? in a tragedy? How do these kinds of plays usually end? What subjects are common to each genre? If students have read a history play, you can ask how histories compare to the other two genres in terms of subject, tone, and themes. If students have not read a history play, have them articulate ideas that come to mind from this term.

Look at p. lxiii in the Signet Classic edition of Richard III or a good handbook of literary terms for a clear definition of history plays. Then have students create a visual diagram that shows the characteristics each genre shares and how they differ.

2. Discuss with students the concept of historical writing. The following questions and activities can be used for writing or discussion:

Is history a collection of facts? How does a writer shape historical information? From two different history texts or nonfiction young adult sources, choose two descriptions of a historical person or event, for example, the causes of the Civil War in the U.S. or why Christopher Columbus wanted to discover a new route to the Indies. Compare the passages for different emphases and details. How can you explain the differences? How does the writers' interpretation affect the way history is presented?

3. A discussion about writing history might lead directly to a consideration of Shakespeare's motives in writing Richard III. These questions and activities can be used:

Review biographies of Shakespeare to piece together a sense of his political affiliations. What royal family was on the throne during the time Shakespeare was writing? Would he be likely to write to please them? What would be his advantages in doing so? What disadvantages could he expect if he did not write flattering histories of the royal family? What were conditions that worked for and against the theater during Shakespeare's time?

4. This would also be a good time to review the sources Shakespeare used as he wrote the play. Activities for students include:

Read the brief essay, "The Sources of Richard the Third" in the Signet Classic edition (pp. 151-52), and the excerpt from Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard the Third (pp. 153-154). Advanced students could read all or parts of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (pp. 155-176). Outline the key events covered in the chronicles of Richard's life.

Role play: You are a playwright who has only the information included in the sources and you wish to create a portrait of Richard. What five events in his life would you choose? Which event would you emphasize and why? What other historical figures would you include in the play? What things would you definitely leave out and why? Compare your plans and determine what overall portrayal of Richard each of you would create. How are your portraits different or the same? What does this exercise suggest about the process of writing a story or play about a historical person?

D. Initial Explorations of Themes

1. Before reading Richard III, have students think about ideas of leadership and statecraft that were prevalent during the Renaissance and the development of the nation states. Activities for students include:

Renaissance humanists insisted upon the role of virtue in the leader's life to overcome Fortune and to build the best political environment. Choose a brief excerpt from Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man describing the perfectibility of the individual. Compare Pico's ideas to the pragmatic views of Machiavelli. Read the short section of Machiavelli's The Prince where he argues that a strong state needs a strong ruler who is crafty and amoral, willing to do whatever is necessary to promote the good of the state, that is, that the ends justify the means. Discuss how these two views promote different types of leadership. What are the benefits and disadvantages of each philosophy?

2. To make connections to the present day political scene, choose several contemporary leaders and read articles on these persons in magazines and newspapers, noting their decisions and behaviors. Questions to be discussed include:

Do political decisions seem to be based on principle or made for pragmatic ends? Which philosophy seems to rule the leaders' political behavior? How do you know? What are the benefits and disadvantages of each leader's style of political leadership?

3. In the play individual women interact directly with Richard while at other times a group of women act as a chorus, commenting on the events taking place. Richard has little respect for women ("Was ever woman in this humor wooed?/Was ever woman in this humor won?" Act I, ii, 227-228); he often speaks contemptuously of their moral character and emotional reactions. Richard feels he is superior in the "battle of the sexes" and prides himself on his ability to control and master the women he encounters. Richard, in fact, acts as a mouthpiece for many medieval views about women's natures - views which are still prevalent in contemporary culture. Students can explore these gender issues through several exercises (some of these exercises have been adapted from The Harper and Row Reader, 3rd ed., 1992, edited by Marshall W. Gregory and Wayne C. Booth).

These activities will get students talking about commonly held ideas about women's and men's roles and attributes. Return to this discussion as the class reads the play and identifies opinions of women's nature and abilities.

a. Make two lists: the common personality traits of women and men. List all the terms on the board. Mark the traits viewed as positive and/or negative in contemporary culture. Discuss: Do males or females have more of the traits commonly considered to be positive? Why? What view of males/females arises from this listing of traits?

b. List slang words used to identify males/females (only terms suitable for a mixed group in a school setting). Which terms are positive/negative? What differences do you see between terms used for males/females? What do these differences suggest about the commonly held assumptions about gender differences?

c. Write a brief definition of "feminist." Is "feminist" a positive or negative term? Do a poll. Ask ten different women if they consider themselves "feminists" and why or why not. Record their responses for comparison and discussion. Ask ten different students for their definition of "feminist." Compare and discuss the responses as a class. Discuss: What is the common view of women's roles?

d. Skim newspapers for articles pertaining to women, women's rights, attitudes toward women. Create a profile of the "modern woman." What are commonly recognized positive traits for women? Negative traits? What overall view of women emerges from media coverage of women? What is the common view of women's nature today?

4. The true life of Richard III is shrouded in legend. Being sensitive to this issue will give students a greater appreciation of Shakespeare's purposes in writing the play.

Activities for students:

Consider what you know about one or more other historical figures, for example, Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar. Consult with your social studies teacher about historical figures you have recently studied. Gather all the information you can about one of these people. Mark the ideas you believe are factual and the ideas you think are legend or myth. Check the Internet, an encyclopedia, or other scholarly source to verify if you are correct in distinguishing between fact and legend. Discuss how many common notions about historical persons are actually myths. Discuss how legends grow up around historical persons and what purpose these legends serve.

Consider the legends surrounding the life of Richard III. Using at least two sources - again a reliable Internet source or library resources - list the facts that are known about the life of Richard III. What legends have emerged about Richard? Discuss the reasons for each legend. Who would have told this story about Richard and what would have been the purpose?

5. In the opening lines of the play, Richard declares he is a villain: "I am determined to prove a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these days" (Act I, i, 30-31). Other villains in Shakespeare's plays also declare their intention to do as much evil as possible; for example, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Iago in Othello. In a small group, study other villains in Shakespeare's plays; list the characteristics of each villain and gather quotes from the plays that reveal their motivation. Compare these characters for similarities and differences in motivation. Are the characters interested in securing some personal rewards from their evil or do they simply enjoy inflicting chaos and pain on others? Discuss the nature of evil in humans.

Also on this theme, have students identify several villains from popular culture, as portrayed in films or books. Discuss: What motivates these characters? What reactions do storytellers expect from an audience when they create a villain? What happens if the audience is sympathetic to the villain?

This discussion could lead to an exploration of how Shakespeare expected his audience to react to Richard. The common idea of tragedy is that a good and noble person suffers a downfall because of a weakness or failure of judgment. Why did Shakespeare label this play a tragedy when the hero is an evil person? Discuss how Shakespeare uses the idea of tragedy in this play.

E. Studying Shakespeare's Language

1. Syntax

Some of students' difficulties with Shakespearean language stem from the complex syntax used to create poetic effects. Choose some lines from the play. Rearrange the words in a more usual word order, then convert the embedded phrases and clauses into simple sentences. Add, change, or omit some of the words.

For example:

Act I, ii, 188-192:

Richard: That was in thy rage. Speak it again, and even with the word
This hand, which for thy love did kill thy love,
Shall for thy love kill a far truer love.

Act I, ii, 242-245:

Richard: A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford.

2. Rhymes

Look at the way in which Shakespeare plays with syntax in order to create rhymes. Find other examples throughout the play. Act I, ii, 263-264

Richard: Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass
That I may see my shadow as I pass.

Act III, vii, 232-235

Richard: Your mere enforcement shall acquittance me
From all the impure blots and stains thereof;
For God doth know, and you may partly see,
How far I am from the desire of this.

Arrange some of the speeches in the play into rhyming couplets. Vary and omit words as necessary. Find others throughout the play.

Act III, iii, 24-25

Rivers: Come, Grey, come Vaughan, let us here embrace.
Farewell, until we meet again in heaven.


Come, Grey, come Vaughan, let us here embrace.
Farewell, until in heaven we find grace.

Act III, iv, 58-61

Richard: I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevailed
Upon my body with their hellish charms.


I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish verve
By damned witchcraft, and that have prevailed
Upon my body and with their hellish charms against me railed.

3. Blank verse

Although Shakespeare often used couplets, he more frequently employed unrhymed blank verse, a regular pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. Say aloud the ten syllables that follow, stressing each "dah": da DAH DA DAH DA DAH DA DAH DA DAH. (In order to create this pattern, Shakespeare had to carefully consider the placement of each stress in the line. He would have to rearrange words in order to achieve the regular pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables that he desired.)

Read the section on blank verse in "Shakespeare: An Overview" by Sylvan Barnet (pp. xli-xliii). In this section Barnet shows how Shakespeare uses blank verse with variations. After reading and discussing this section, find examples of blank verse in Richard III and point out the iambs in each line as well as the variations.

For example:

Act 2, i, 104-127

King Edward: Have I a tongue to doom my brother's death,
And shall that tongue give pardon to a slave? ...

4. Dramatic irony

Because of Richard's propensity to say one thing while meaning something else, usually something sinister, this play is full of dramatic irony. Formulate a definition of dramatic irony from your past experiences reading and seeing plays. (The effect of dramatic irony is to create tension and anxiety. In some cases the audience knows more about the situation than the unwitting character and, consequently, feels anxiety and pity for the character. At other times the use of irony allows the character to mask their real intentions, which are evident to the audience.) Look at several instances of irony in the play.

For example:

Act I, ii, 26-28 Anne curses herself when she curses Richard's wife. Act I, iv, 4 Clarence predicts his own death when he says he won't live another night with such terrible nightmares. Identify other examples of dramatic irony. Write in pairs the lines containing dramatic irony on chart paper with an interpretation of the meaning of the lines. Create word maps in pairs including a definition of the term, nonexamples and valid examples of the term. Act out in pairs a brief scene using the ironic lines. Ask the class to explain what the lines really mean. Post charts and word maps and discuss the impact of this literary device on the reader and viewer of the play.
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