Richard is Duke of Gloucester, and, man, is he unhappy about it. He tells us that his brother Edward has become the king of England after a series of long civil wars (a.k.a. the Wars of the Roses) between his people (the Yorks) and the Lancasters. Despite the happy news about King Edward and his family's victory, Richard is bummed and feels inadequate because 1) he was born a "deformed" hunchback and 2) he's got no love life to speak of. Richard lets the audience in on a big secret: to amuse himself, he's hatched an evil-genius plot to get his hands on the crown.
Clearly Richard's got his work cut out for him, so he wastes no time. First he needs to get his older brother George (Duke of Clarence), who is next in line for the throne, out of the way. He tells us he's manipulated King Edward into believing a prophesy warning that Edward's heirs will be murdered by a family member associated with the letter "G." *G*eorge, Duke of Clarence is jailed and accused of treason. (We probably don't have to tell you that Richard, Duke of *G*loucester's name also start with a "G.")
Next Richard thinks that marrying Lady Anne (the widow of the late Prince Edward and daughter-in-law of the late King Henry VI) would be politically strategic. So he puts the moves on Anne during her father-in-law's funeral procession and convinces her to marry him, even though she knows that Richard is responsible for the deaths of her husband and his father. (Hmm. Richard was obviously fibbing to us when he claimed to have no game with the ladies. Also, he seems to have made his "deformity" disappear while wooing Lady Ann. Note to self: This guy's a terrific actor. Don't trust a word he says.)
With Lady Anne under his thumb, Richard quickly moves on to the task of having Clarence executed so he can get that much closer to the throne. Richard sends a couple of murderers to do the deed. They go to the Tower of London, stab the Duke of Clarence, and ditch his body in a vat of wine.
When the sickly king finds out his brother is dead, he blames himself and becomes even sicklier. (All part of Richard's evil-genius scheme.) When Edward IV finally croaks, his son, young Prince Edward, is the immediate heir to the throne. Since the kid is so young, Richard becomes England's "Lord Protector," which means he's basically in charge until the little guy's old enough to rule competently.
But Richard's still not happy. He wants the crown for himself, and there are too many people out there who are loyal to Prince Edward and his little brother. Richard has the two princes locked up in the Tower of London for their "protection" and then kills a bunch of their followers and some relatives on their mom's side of the family.
Next, with his wingman Buckingham's help, Richard campaigns hard for the throne, while pretending he's not interested in it. He successfully snags the crown and acts like he's doing England a really big favor.
But Richard's still not happy. He orders Buckingham to snuff out the little princes. (We can't have them going around claiming rights to the throne, can we?) Buckingham gets nervous and waffles, so Richard quickly runs out and hires a hit man (Tyrrell), who has no problem killing kids. Tyrell outsources the job to a couple thugs who smother the little boys in their sleep. Since Buckingham turned out to be such a wimp, Richard puts Buckingham on his list of enemies, which means the guy is as good as dead.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Richmond (a.k.a. Richmond) is gathering troops and allies in France so he can storm England and take Richard down. Also, the everyday Joes of England have caught on to Richard's shenanigans and have just about had it with the guy. Plus, Richard's mom (the Duchess of York) has finally turned against her son and has cursed him to die in battle. (Apparently Richard was a major pain in the womb from the moment he was conceived.)
Richard couldn't care less about his mom, but he knows he could be stripped of his crown. So he decides he needs a new wife whose family ties will help strengthen his claim to the throne. He spreads a rumor that his current wife (Lady Ann) is sick, then has her murdered.
Next, Richard meets with his sister-in-law, old Queen Elizabeth, and tries to convince her that she should let him marry her daughter, young Elizabeth. (Yep, Young Elizabeth is Richard's niece and also the sister of the little princes that Richard just had murdered. By this point, Richard's behavior is no longer amusing to the audience. Plus, he's pretty much stopped confiding in us.) Old Queen Elizabeth is all "Yeah, Richard, that could work," but secretly she's negotiated young Elizabeth's marriage to Richmond (the guy who's on his way to England to beat up Richard).
Geesh. We need to stop and take a breather, because Shakespeare (thanks to Richard's "hurry up and snag the crown and kill all my enemies" strategy) is zooming through about 14 years of history in five acts. (Go to "Setting" if you want to know more about this.)
Let's quickly recap, because, even though Richard III is one of Shakespeare's longest works, Richard has motored through the play like a teenager with a long list of chores and a hot date. We're not kidding. If he had a "to-do" list, here's what it would look like:
Get older brother Clarence out of the way
Marry Lady Ann Neville
Wait until Edward IV croaks
Become Lord Protector of England
Kill off anyone who supports the rightful heirs to the throne (the young princes)
Murder the young princes
Murder current wife
Marry niece (Young Elizabeth)
Beat up Richmond
Rule England forever
OK, let's get back to the plot. Richard can't just ignore Richmond, so he throws together an army and assembles them at Bosworth Field for the big rumble. Richard tries to stay up all night outlining a strategy so he can get the drop on Richmond, but he falls asleep. He has a scary nightmare where all the ghosts of his murder victims show up and tell him that he's going down. (Specifically, they all say "despair and die.") Uh oh. Time is definitely running out for our villain.
Richard wakes up and has an "Ah ha!" moment in which he talks to himself as if he's been split into two people, like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. He realizes that he's all alone on the world, that he's a murderer and an all-around bad guy with no conscience to speak of. Instead of scheduling an appointment with a psychiatrist who could help him with his personality disorder, he says something like, "Oh well, I'm not going to be changing my evil ways any time soon."
In the morning Richard heads to battle and is quickly knocked off his horse. He loses all composure and famously shouts, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Richmond shows up and kills Richard in battle without uttering a single word. (Looks like Richard won't be finishing that to-do list anytime soon.)
Richmond then helps himself to the English crown and becomes King Henry VII. King Henry VII then makes a big, fancy speech about how awesome his reign will be. It's a pretty great speech – go to "What's Up With The Ending?" and we'll tell you all about it.