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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Teaching Strategies:
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Shakespeare's Richard III

These activities and writing prompts are designed to elicit students' initial responses and lead to analysis of the themes and ideas explored in the prereading activities.

A. Getting Down Initial Reactions

1. As students are reading the play, have them discuss what they already know and also what they would like to know about the characters and the events of the play. Write these ideas on large chart paper so they can be displayed in the room. Use these lists to review what has happened, add additional information, and make connections as students learn more with each scene.

2. Using the prereading exercises about the purpose of history plays and the Renaissance idea of just rule, create charts on these two topics. As a gathering strategy for each day's discussion, consider these topics from their reading of the latest scene. What generalizations can they begin to make about Shakespeare's attitude toward the qualities a ruler should possess and the practices that should prevail in government.

B. Reader Response

Students need to have the opportunity to express their initial reactions to the reading, based on their personal experiences and understanding of what they have read. Reader response writing encourages this type of personal, subjective response to the reading. Use open-ended questions, such as, how do you respond to the scene or what do you know about Richard? Ask students to choose the most important line in the section and explain why they consider it important. Or choose quotations and invite students to explain what it means to them. Tell students to write freely for three to five minutes about ideas the quotation brings to mind. Have students share their responses in pairs and then invite reactions as a way to start a whole-class discussion.

The following quotations may lead to rich responses:

Act I

1. "And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days." (I, i, 28-31)

2. "Why, this it is when men are ruled by women." (I, i, 62) 3. "And I no friends to back my suit at all
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing" (I, ii, 235-237) 4. "But then I sigh, and with a piece of Scripture
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil;
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol'n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil. (I, iii, 333-337) 5. "Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in the falling
Struck me (that thought to stay him) overboard
Into the tumbling billows of the main." (I, iv, 18-20)

Act II

1. "Yet none of you would once beg for his life.
O god, I fear thy justice will take hold
On me and you, and mine and yours, for this!" (II, i, 132-134)

2. "This is the fruits of rashness. Marked you not
How that the guilty kindred of the Queen
Looked pale when they hear of Clarence' death? (II, i, 136-138) 3. "Ah, that deceit should steal such gentle shape
And with a virtuous visor hide deep vice! (II, ii, 27-28) 4. "Better it were they [uncles] all came by his father,
Or by his father there were none at all;
For emulation who shall now be nearest
Will touch us all too near, if God prevent not." (II, iii, 23-26) 5. "The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind;
Insulting tyranny begins to jut
Upon the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see, as in a map, the end of all." (II, iv, 50-54)


1. "Sweet Prince, the untainted virtue of your years
Hath not yet dived into the world's deceit;
Nor more can you distinguish of a man
Than of his outward show, which, God he knows,
Seldom or never jumpeth with the heart." (III, i, 7-11)

2. "Now Margaret's curse is fall'n upon our heads,
When she exclaimed on Hastings, you, and I,
For standing by when Richard stabbed her son"
(spoken by Grey to Rivers, III, iii, 17-19) 3. "I think there's never a man in Christendom
Can lesser hide his love or hate than he,
For by his face straight shall you know his heart. (Spoken
by Hastings about Richard, III, iv, 51-53) 4. "Who builds his hope in air of your good looks
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready with every nod to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep. (III, iv, 97-100) 5. "Here's a good world the while! Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world, and all will come to nought
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought. (III, vi, 10-14) 6. "Your brother's son shall never reign our king,
But we will plant some other in the throne
To the disgrace and downfall of your house" (III, vii, 214-217)

Act IV

1. "Lo, ere I can repeat this curse again,
Within so small a time, my woman's heart
Grossly grew captive to his honey words
And proved the subject of mine own soul's curse" (IV, i, 77-80)

2. "But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin." (IV, ii. 62-63) 3. "Oh thou well skilled in curses, stay awhile
And teach me how to curse mine enemies!" (IV, iv, 116-117) 4. "Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end" (IV, iv, 195)

Act V

1. "That high All-seer which I dallied with
Hath turned my feigned prayer on my head
And given in earnest what I begged in jest." (V, i, 20-22)

2. "He hath no friends but what are friends for fear,
Which in his dearest need will fly from him" (V, ii, 20-21) 3. "There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul will pity me. Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?" (V, iii, 201-204) 4. "Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe" (V, iii, 309-311) 5. "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" (V, iv, 13)

C. Strategies to Build Students' Dramatic Presentation Skills

Drama promotes and encourages students' oral development, kinesthetic body movement, the imagination and it's connections to everyday experiences, and development of communication skills and public speaking skills. However, we are often disappointed when we ask students "to act" out a scene. Students are uncomfortable varying their voices, making gestures, or moving about the classroom. Students are embarrassed and we become frustrated, returning to videos, recordings, or whole-class group reading. Dramatic presentation skills must be taught, just like other reading, writing, and listening skills. Students need to be eased into dramatic presentations.

It is better to start with small scenes and more limited actions. Students will gain confidence and a comfort level, enabling them to risk more detailed dramatic presentations. Following is a list of strategies to use to develop students' speaking and acting skills:

1. Reading for meaning Student one reads several lines of a character. Student two explains what the character "really" means.


Lady MacBeth: "Out, out damn spot."

Explanation: I've got to wash this blood off my hands or everybody will know that my husband killed the king.

Richard: "Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Explanation: Our bad times are over and we have time to enjoy more pleasant things.

2. Reading for dramatic action

One student reads the lines of a particular scene or part of a scene while other members of the group pose as specific characters and perform the actions in pantomime, giving more meaning to the words. (Note: Students need time to plan this activity by reading the lines together and deciding on the best actions to convey the meanings of the lines. Students should also practice reading aloud to increase their ease and fluidity with the complex syntax of Shakespeare's language.)

Suggested scenes: Act I, ii where Richard woos the Lady Ann while she mourns her husband whom Richard has killed.Act I, iii, 338-356 and Act I, iv where Richard hires two murderers and they kill his brother Clarence. Act IV, ii where Buckingham falls out with Richard because he will not approve of killing the young prince Edward.

3. Slide show

Choose four key moments in a scene or part of a scene. Plan a fixed tableau to present each moment and then present the scenes in succession to the class. Each time you switch positions, call out "switch." The "audience" closes their eyes until the actors call out "open." This happens four times in succession creating a visual "slide show."

4. Interview

Interview another student who poses as a character in the play, for example, Lady Anne. It is important to remain in character and respond in ways that most naturally reflect the actions and words of the character in the play.

5. Monologue

In character, describe a particular locale in the play. Talk about the best/worst thing about living in this particular place. Talk about your daily life. Describe your relationship to other characters. This might be especially useful to contrast the natures of the two young princes: Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York.

D. Guidelines for Teaching Drama

1. Read speeches aloud to model for students how pauses, actions, and gestures add meaning to the words.

2. Explain and model inflections and subtle voice changes to show how they affect how the lines of the play are interpreted by the audience.

3. Encourage students to read plays aloud by giving them time to read short sections of scenes in pairs and small groups. This shows how important it is to hear the speech of characters in order to begin to understand their behavior and thinking.

Exercise: Read the opening scene in Richard III where Richard describes the current political situation and his sense of himself and his plots. In groups of three plan a "performance" of this speech. One student/director directs the actor in voice changes and movements. Visualize the place where the speech will be delivered. Create a simple costume for Richard. Imagine a variety of places where Richard might be and a variety of ways in which he might deliver this speech.

After the performances: analyze how the differences in performance affect perceptions about Richard's character. Watch the opening scene from the film version of Richard III, directed by Richard Longraine in 1995 for United Artists Pictures. Discuss the director's conception of Richard's character and situation in this version.

E. Discussion Questions

Students' personal responses to the play can be deepened through small group and whole-class discussion. The goal of discussion is not to summarize the plot, but to try to understand connections between what characters say and do and their motivation and how all these actions taken together suggest Shakespeare's overall ideas about human social and political behaviors. You may want to use students' reader response reactions as the starting point of discussion or you may use some of the following questions to explore character, action, and symbolism more fully.

Act I

1. What does Richard reveal about his character and motives in his opening speech?
2. What does Richard think of his brothers, King Edward and Clarence? What picture does Richard paint of Edward's character?
3. Why does Richard insinuate to Clarence that he shouldn't blame Edward for his imprisonment but the King's wife, Elizabeth?
4. Why is Hastings willing to ally with Richard?
5. Explain Anne's change of heart toward Richard. What does this scene between Anne and Richard show about Richard's personality?
6. What do you learn about the political situation in Edward's court?
What opportunities does this situation present to Richard? What could be Shakespeare's purpose in painting this picture of Edward's reign?
7. What strategies does Richard use to set his plots in motion? Why are they so effective?
8. Why does Shakespeare bring Queen Margaret into Edward's court?
What do the reactions of Richard, Queen Elizabeth, Hastings, Buckingham, Rivers, and Dorset reveal about their characters?
9. Why is Clarence having nightmares? What are his fears?
10. What is the purpose of the lengthy conversation, first between the two murderers and then the murderers and Clarence? How do you feel when you are reading or viewing this scene?

Act II

1. How does Richard use his information about Clarence's death to further his plots?
2. Explain Edward's reaction to the news of Clarence's death. What sense of justice does Edward suspect is in control of the lives of all his family and allies?
3. What could be Buckingham's motive in suggesting that the young prince be brought to London with "some little train"?
4. What is the role of the women and children in this act?
5. Why does Shakespeare include a scene where the citizens discuss the political situation?


1. Compare Hastings' speech in III, iv, 48-53 with his speech in III, iv, 95-100. What has Hastings realized by the end of the scene?
2. List the people who die by Richard's orders in Act III. What does each of them realize as they die? What does this suggest about the idea of justice presented in the play?
3. How does Buckingham's speech in III, vii, 24-41 support the Scrivener's speech at the beginning of the scene? What other characters in this scene act in ways that bear out the Scrivener's speech?
4. How does Buckingham in III, vii live up to the boast he makes in III, v, 5-12?

Act IV

1. What does Anne realize about her relationship with Richard?
2. Why is Richard still not satisfied even when he is crowned king?
3. Why is Buckingham reluctant to do Richard's bidding when it comes to killing the young prince when he has been willing to go along with all the other plots?
4. Do you agree or disagree with Margaret's idea of retributive justice and why?
Must death be answered by death or is there another way justice can come about?
5. Do you think Richard's arguments to get Elizabeth to woo her daughter in his name work? Why or why not?

Act V

1. What differences do you see between the camps of Richard and Richmond? What do they suggest about the right order of leadership?
2. What is the impact of the visits of the ghosts to Richard and Richmond?
3. Compare the speeches of Richmond and Richard to their troops before the battle. What do their choices of words and arguments suggest about the personalities of the two men?
4. What is Richard's reaction when the fighting seems to be going against him? What does his reaction show about his character? Has Richard changed in the course of the action in his motivation or dedication?
5. In the end is Richard totally evil or does his portrayal suggest any admirable traits? Defend your point of view.


After reading the play and discussing various themes, students are ready to engage in activities that will deepen their interpretation, help them see connections between the play and other literary works, and provide a creative outlet.

A. Deepening Interpretation

1. Students can return to their reports on historical persons and events prepared in the prereading phase and list characters who either appeared or were referred to in Richard III. Students can explain orally or make charts that show how Shakespeare changed or used the historical information in the play. (This exercise can lead to a discussion about historical fiction, biography, and autobiography.)

2. Compare coverage of a current story, especially one dealing with national politics, in a local newspaper to one from the state, one from the region, and the New York Times. Examine how all information is shaped by the writers and the editorial policy decisions of the publishers.

3. Queen Margaret has the role of prophetess in the play, but like Cassandra in The Iliad, her warnings are ignored. In small groups list all of Margaret's predictions and the events that fulfill her predictions. Research stories of other prophets, male and female, and their role as teachers about human's relationship to God and the right relationship among humans.

4. In a lighter vein, look at the rhetoric of Margaret's curses. What types of insults does she create, and why are they offensive? Create insults for characters in the play, using Margaret's tactics.

5. Richard displays his fullest command of deceit and guile in the scene where he woos Lady Anne, drawing her away from duty, loyalty, and virtue while binding her to him. Analyze his arguments and his ability to mask evil under the guise of piety. Compare this "seduction" scene to the later scene where the citizens of London are drawn in by similar stratagems. Analyze Richard's strategies.

6. Look at films showing villains using trickery and deceit to dupe their victims; for example, the film, Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Directed by Stephen Frears) has several examples of cold-hearted manipulation of another for the sheer sake of villainy. Discuss what makes the villain so powerful; why are people drawn in by the villain's treachery?

B. Group Projects

1. In 1997, Roscoe Cooper and illustrator Timothy Basil Ering created a picture book, The Diary of Victor Frankenstein, which is supposed to be a photographic facsimile of the original diary of Victor Frankenstein (DK Publishing). Using this text as a model, create a diary or journal for Richard III, based on information in Shakespeare's play or research drawn from historical sources.

2. Write a journal entry for Richard on the night before the battle at Bosworth Field. As he settles in his tent that night, Richard asks for wine and ink and paper. Imagine you are Richard and write a journal entry he might write on this night.

3. Research legends about the Battle of Bosworth Field, August 22, 1485. Go back to the play to see where Shakespeare uses the legend and how. Discuss the legends about Richard that Shakespeare chose not to use and speculate about why.

4. What really happened to the two young princes? Conduct research using Internet and conventional sources and develop a theory. Two important sources are Paul Murray Kendall, Richard III, republished in 1975, and A.J.Pollard, Richard III and the Princes in the Tower.

5. An interesting group project is to explore the film versions of Richard III. Use information in the essay, "Richard III on Stage and Screen," (Signet Classic, pp. 232-245) and Internet research. Divide the class into three groups to watch each one of the three most significant film versions, Olivier's, Pacino's, and Longraine's. Report on the director's choices in setting, staging, and adhering to Shakespeare's play in each film version. Each group shows the class a key scene that reveals Richard's character most clearly or the director's intention in portraying Richard.

Richard III, 1955, directed by Laurence Olivier. VistaVision.

Richard III, 1995, directed by Richard Longraine. United Artists Pictures.

Looking for Richard, 1996, directed by Al Pacino.

6. The 1995 production of Richard III, directed by Richard Longraine, is a stunning version of the play set in the post-WWI period. Take the time to view the entire film, to see excellent acting and to catch all the uses of period costumes and setting from 1930s England. Create your own version of Richard III. Videotape and present one scene to the whole class for comparison and discussion.

7. Research Shakespeare on the Internet and report interesting or novel information to the class.

C. Reading Other Literature and Books Connected to the Themes of the Play

1. Read another Elizabethan play, Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, written around 1592 (Signet Classic, 1969) and compare the downfall of Doctor Faustus to Richard III. Mephistopheles, a minion of Lucifer, tempts Faustus to give his soul to the devil, and there is a struggle between good and evil angels for the soul of Faustus. Is there anything similar in Richard III? Why or why not?

2. Explore evil and villains in YA books (see the bibliography). At the "book pass-around," take three minutes to survey the novel and read a page or two. Pass the book to the next reader. After everyone has had a chance to survey all the books, list the books you'd like to read in order of preference. In a reading circle, decide on a reading schedule and how to read the novel. You may choose buddy-reading, where group members read aloud alternate pages. You may prefer to combine silent reading with oral reading of sections. Respond to your reading by writing reactions and sharing them with group members. Make your reactions open-ended. Keep a double-entry journal with significant passages from the reading and interpretation of them. The passage goes on one side of the paper and the commentary on the other.

3. Extend your understanding of the play and the historical period by reading novels such as: The Wizard's Shadow by Susan Dexter, a fantasy novel which casts Richard as a hero not a villain; The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford, another fantasy which also provides historical accuracy; and The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a detective novel which questions the historical accuracy of the traditional view of Richard as a villain. Reading these novels may excite students to do further research on the myths and truths concerning the person of Richard III.

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