History Play, Tragedy
Most literary critics refer to Richard III as a "history play." In fact, it's the final sequel to a series of Shakespearean history plays known as the "first tetralogy," which also includes Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3.
But if you've read "What's Up With the Title?" you already know that Richard III is also considered a tragedy (like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet). But don't just take our word for it. Check out our nifty checklists below and decide whether or not the play fits into these genre categories.
What makes Richard III a History Play
Portrayal of English historical events: When Richard III opens, Edward IV has just been re-crowned king of England, which sets the year at 1471. The play then chronicles the rise and fall of Richard III, who ruled England from 1483 to his death in 1485. His death at the Battle of Bosworth Field put an end to the Wars of the Roses and ushered in the Tudor dynasty. (For the record, Shakespeare condensed 14 years of events into about 14 days of action and shmooshes all this stuff into a five-act play.)
Historical events resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion: When we say "current" political issues, we mean around 1592, when the play was first performed (so just over a hundred years after the events it depicts). Just like us, the Elizabethans enjoyed looking at a romanticized versions of their past; it helped give them a sense of national identity as they moved forward.
Richard III was also timely because Queen Elizabeth I was unmarried and had no heir, which made the people a tad bit angsty about the future. The civil wars and unrest of the history plays likely mirrored the uncertainty felt by Shakespeare's 16th century audience. So even though historical fiction is about a bygone part of history, it's a chance for a contemporary audience to reflect and think about the national future.
Shakespeare spices up "history" with a little fiction: If all this has you wanting to hit the snooze button, think again. Shakespeare is the master of focusing on the good stuff and blowing it out of proportion for dramatic effect. In Richard III Shakespeare took the best bits of English history at the end of the War of the Roses, condensed it, omitted the boring stuff, and fictionalized entire interactions to create this play.
You want examples? Shakespeare's description of Richard is based on a very biased historical account. We aren't exactly sure what the real Richard looked like, but Shakespeare's version of him as hunchbacked and crippled is most likely completely untrue (and based on what a historian named Thomas More said about him). Also, Richard's orchestration of the murder of the two princes in the tower is perhaps his most villainous act, but historically, it's uncertain what actually happened to the princes. It may have been Richard, but there are many suspects for this unsolved crime. Also, it's highly unlikely that the real Richard III put the moves on Lady Anne in front of Henry VI's corpse, but it sure is entertaining the way Shakespeare portrays it on stage. These are just a few of the historical stretches that occur, never mind the curses and the ghosts.
What makes Richard III a Tragedy
Dramatic work: Check. Richard III is a play all right.
Serious or somber theme: Sometimes Richard is so unapologetically wicked that we find ourselves giggling out loud. Let's face it, Richard's villainy is sort of fun in a Sue Sylvester kind of way. Still, the play as a whole takes on some of the most somber and serious themes imaginable: family betrayal, civil war, and so on.
The hero has a major character flaw or conflict with some overpowering force: Hmm, Richard has no conscience, thinks nothing of killing family members and innocent children, and puts the moves on a grieving widow right in front of the corpse of her recently slain father-in-law. Sounds like a bit of a "character flaw" to us. (And yes, Richard is definitely the play's hero, or protagonist. See "Character Roles" for more on this.)
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Check. We know that Richard experiences a downfall when he's killed in battle at the end of the play. And the play's historical foreknowledge suggests that Richard was basically destined to be taken down. Read what we say about prophesies in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory, " for more on this.
Not all tragedies end in death, but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do: We all know the play ends with a major bloodbath. Hello – we're talking about Shakespeare's version of one of the nastiest civil wars in history – the Wars of the Roses – which ends with Richard's death at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Despite the death of individuals at the end, the play's conclusion also seems to promise the restoration of political order: Even though the decks are cleared when many of the play's characters get wiped out, Richard III is all about perpetuating what's called the "Tudor myth," which says that Richard III's reign was awful and Henry VII's reign brought about prosperity and peace in England. This has a lot to do with the fact that Shakespeare's monarch, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), was Henry's descendent.