The play's tone (its attitude toward its subject matter and audience) can be hard to pin down and largely depends on a couple of things: 1) how we interpret Richard's character, and 2) whether or not we think Shakespeare is trying to promote the "Tudor myth" – the idea that the Wars of the Roses and King Richard III's reign was one of the darkest periods in English history. Let's break this down.
If you've read King Henry VII's big speech at the end (go to "What's Up With the Ending?" for the 411 on this), then you probably picked up on the play's patriotic tone. Like we've said before, Shakespeare gives his monarch's (Queen Elizabeth I's) grandfather some major props at the end of Richard III. The guy basically swoops in from France and saves England from a tyrannical monarch who's been making everyone miserable for the past five acts. It's an ending that Shakespeare's original audience could really cheer for, because Richmond/Henry VII's victory over Richard was considered the moment that ushered in the Tudor dynasty and a veritable golden age for England.
But what about the rest of the play? Let's face it, Shmoopsters, we may feel compelled to root for Richmond/Henry VII at the end of the play, but overall, Richard has been an entertaining villain. At times we've even admired him for his audacity, his wit, and his evil-genius political moves. What's more, Shakespeare seems to have wanted it that way. At the beginning, Shakespeare practically invites us to kick back, relax, and enjoy the ride Richard takes us on. The fact that Richard addresses us directly (making us his confidants) has a lot to with why we enjoy him.
As the play progresses, though, Richard addresses us less and less, and he crosses a major line when he orders the murders of the young princes in the tower. (Even his wingman, Buckingham, is repulsed by the idea of killing innocent kids.) In other words, Richard's villainy is sort of hilarious at first, which suggests the play has a sense of humor. But then Richard becomes grotesque, which alters the play's tone in a very big way.
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.
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.
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.
Today we know this work as simply Richard III, which makes a lot of sense given the fact that it's all about the rise and fall of King Richard III. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Not so fast.
If we look at the play's publication history, we learn that the title is more complicated. In fact, it's changed a few times over the years, raising questions about which genre the play fits into. Here's why:
In the First Quarto edition of 1597 (the first time the play appeared in print), the play was called The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, containing his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the whole course of his detested life and most deserved death. Yep, that's a mouthful alright and you can check out the title page here.
What's interesting is that the publisher felt the piece fit into the genre of "tragedy." Later, however, when the play appeared in the First Folio edition of 1623, it was listed under the "Histories," where it was referred to as The Life and Death of Richard III. (See it for yourself here.)
So which is it, a "tragedy" or a "history" play? Well, we happen to think it fits into both categories, and you can find out why by going to "Genre."
Richard III ends like every other Shakespearean tragedy – there's some major bloodshed and our hero/protagonist goes down pretty hard during the Battle of Bosworth Field.
But even though the final act of the play is a "tragic" ending for Richard, it's a glorious new beginning for England – thanks to Richmond/King Henry VII, who defeats Richard in battle (Stage Direction, Act 5, Scene 8). The outcome of this battle, by the way, puts an end to the Wars of the Roses and kicks off the Tudor dynasty, so it's a pretty big deal and deserves a grand gesture (i.e., England's new king needs to deliver a big, fancy speech).
If you haven't read it already, check it out below before reading our take on it.
And then, as we have ta'en the sacrament,
We will unite the white rose and the red:
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frown'd upon their enmity!
What traitor hears me, and says not amen?
England hath long been mad, and scarr'd herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughter'd his own son,
The son, compell'd, been butcher to the sire:
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire division,
O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so.
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!
Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloody days again,
And make poor England weep in streams of blood!
Let them not live to taste this land's increase
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace!
Now civil wounds are stopp'd, peace lives again:
That she may long live here, God say amen! (5.8.3)
There's a whole lot to say about this passage, but here's what we think is most important: Richmond/Henry VII's final speech tells us that Shakespeare is interested in continuity and the restoration of political order. Here Henry (a Lancaster) promises to reunite the two warring royal households (York and Lancaster, "the white rose and the red") by marrying young Elizabeth, the daughter of the late Yorkist King Edward IV. Even though a whole lot of Yorkists and Lancastrians have been wiped out during the grisly civil wars, the play suggests that King Henry VII's reign will usher in a time of peace and unity, which is all part of God's will ("fair ordinance").
Also, did you pick up on the way Henry mentions his future "heirs"? That's Shakespeare's way of giving his monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, a major shout-out (she was the granddaughter of King Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth).
P.S. You probably noticed that Henry talks about "smooth-faced peace" as if "she" is human. Talking about something non-human as if it had human qualities is called "anthropomorphism." Richard does this at the play's very beginning when he tells us that "grim-visaged [grim-faced] war hath smoothed his wrinkled front" (1.1.1). Interesting that the play begins and ends with the same concept.
Richard III is set at the tail end of the English Wars of the Roses, which concluded with Richard's defeat and the establishment of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII. From Richard's opening speech, we learn that Edward IV has just come to the throne again, which (from a historical standpoint) sets the year at 1471. The play ends with the Battle of Bosworth Field, which took place in 1485.
Yet, if interpreted tightly, the action of this Shakespeare play could occur over a mere 14 days. That means Shakespeare condensed the actions of about 14 years into less than a month. Obviously, he had to sacrifice a little historical accuracy. (Shakespeare never claimed to be a historian, or at least we hope he didn't, because he would he have been a bad one.)
This is why scholar G. Blakemore Evans referred to Shakespeare's flexibility with time as "telescoping." Basically Shakespeare tightly condenses the timing of the actual historical events, then mixes them around to suit his liking. He zooms us in to events he finds of interest and leaves out the more boring stuff.
The result is that the historical events are transformed into a narrative of tight pacing and lively action. Richard III is one of Shakespeare's longest plays but it doesn't feel that way because Richard is in a seriously big hurry to get his hands on the crown.
For being such a long play, Richard III is set in remarkably few places. For the first four acts, every scene (except one) is staged somewhere in London: anonymous streets, the palace rooms, the Tower of London, or at a handful of London houses. (The execution of Gray, Rivers, and Vaughn at Pomfret Castle in Act 3, Scene 3 is the only exception.) Only in Act 5, as the rival camps prepare for battle, do we get a refreshing scene change, passing through Salisbury and Tamworth before arriving at Bosworth Field for the final battle scene.
We might be tempted to think those Elizabethan acting companies were just being stingy with how many stage sets they had to create, but actually, the scene setting just might be significant. (After all, this is Shakespeare – everything is significant.) London was the seat of royal power in England, so it makes sense that this play about royal power would be anchored there. But then the departures from this pattern matter too.
Bear with us for a little bit here. The first four acts of the play occur while Richard is totally in control of his situation. Even for the period that he isn't king, Richard is carefully manipulating everything around him to lead to his coronation. Basically, while Richard is firmly in control of what's going on, the play focuses on the place where power is firmly stowed: London. Richard is entirely in control of himself and at home in the seat of royal politics; he's been able to hold the courtly world captive with his words and political maneuverings. That courtly world is symbolized by London, which is characterized by fear-stricken subjects and impressionable nobles.
However, as soon as Richard steps outside the safety zone of London's courtly world, his words can no longer protect him. He meets Richmond in hand-to-hand combat, and the two never speak a word to each other before Richmond just strikes him down.
Thus the few scene settings are arguably very deliberate. For the first four acts of the play, the world belongs to Richard; it's his to "bustle" in. The change of Act 5, Scene 1 isn't merely for pacing; it's a flashing neon sign. The stark change of location signals that the tides of the play have finally turned. Richmond comes from abroad; he's had nothing to do with the London court. His victory at Bosworth is a symbolic promise that the court of London is really about to change.
You probably noticed that the language in Richard III is pretty formal. This has a lot to do with the fact that much of the play is written in verse (mostly iambic pentameter), and characters' speeches tend to be carefully constructed.
Let's talk about iambic pentameter, a type of verse that tends to be spoken by the nobility in Shakespeare's plays. Don't let the fancy name intimidate you – it's really pretty simple once you get the hang of it.
An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:
da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM.
Let's try it out on the second line of the play, taken from Richard's famous "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech:
made GLORious SUMMer BY this SON of YORK
Every second syllable is accented (stressed), so this is classic iambic pentameter. (Note: The word "glorious" is pronounced "glor-yus," which has just two syllables.)
Not every line in the play is verse. The lower-class characters, like the two murderers and the citizens, mostly speak in prose, just like we talk every day. Prose is less formal than verse, so it's befitting of their "low" social status.
For example, when the two murderers show up at the Tower of London to kill Clarence, they speak a lot of plain old prose, which is fitting because they're two "lowly" slime balls. Check it out:
Ho! who's here?
Yep, that's as plain as it gets.
Like we've said, Shakespeare wrote Richard III when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne. As we know, Elizabeth I's grandfather was none other than Henry, Earl of Richmond – a.k.a. Richmond, a.k.a. King Henry VII, a.k.a. the guy who bumped Richard III off the throne and established the Tudor dynasty.
Not long after Richard III was taken down, the Tudors and their supporters (like the historian Sir Thomas More) began a smear campaign against Richard III in order to make the Tudor dynasty seem more legitimate. As literary critic Stephen Greenblatt reminds us, said smear campaign involved portraying Richard as a "monster of evil, a creature whose moral viciousness was vividly stamped on his twisted body."
Historians and literary scholars call this the "Tudor myth." It basically says that the Wars of the Roses and King Richard III's so-called wicked reign were one of the darkest periods in English history. That is, until King Henry VII's divinely sanctioned reign brought about a time of peace and prosperity in England.
Like we said, Henry VII was the grandfather of Shakespeare's very own monarch, Elizabeth I, so Shakespeare is sort of obligated to promote the idea that the Tudors brought about a golden age in England. Not only that, but Henry VII's reign was divinely sanctioned, meaning God supposedly wanted him on the throne.
"Lump of foul deformity."
"Elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!"
"Poisonous bunchback'd toad."
"Slander of thy mother's heavy womb."
Dang, this play sure makes a big, nasty deal out Richard's physical "deformity." It seems like every time we turn around some character is ragging on Richard's physical appearance. What's more, the play goes out of its way to tell us that our villain's "deformity" is directly related to his wicked behavior.
What's up with that?
Well, part of this has to do with the way Richard is portrayed in the sources Shakespeare used when writing his play. Like we've said, Richard III wasn't actually a "hunchback" (or even a "bunchback"). Actually, he probably wasn't even that bad of a guy, but that's how some historians, like Sir Thomas More, portrayed him. Check out how More described Richard in The History of King Richard the Third (c. 1513):
[…] little of statue, ill featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage [...] he was malicious, wrathful, envious and from his birth ever froward.
As we can see, Shakespeare is following in More's footsteps when he makes his character a physically "deformed" villain.
In the play's opening speech, Richard tells us he was born "deformed, unfinish'd" and was "sent before [his] time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up" (1.1.1). The idea is that Richard was born prematurely, before he could fully develop. More important, Richard also claims that his "lameness" is the reason no woman wants anything to do with him, which is why he is "determined" to be a "villain." Check it out:
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
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. (1.1.1)
In other words, Richard says he's decided to be a bad guy because of his deformity. Should we believe him? Some scholars do; they say that Richard's villainy is the result of his feeling rejected, inadequate, and unloved. On the other hand, some scholars say that Richard has just found a very convenient excuse for being bad. In fact, literary critic Stephen Greenblatt argues that "Richard's deformity is less the cause of his evil nature than its sign."
So what do you think? Is Richard's deformity the cause of his wickedness, or is his deformity a reflection or a sign of his wicked ways?
Various characters refer to Richard as "the boar" throughout the play. What's up with that? Well, Richard's heraldic symbol (on his coat of arms) is the white boar, which is often considered to be a fierce and hideous creature...just like Richard. (Check out his coat of arms here.) So we're not surprised when Lord Stanley has a dream that a "boar had razed off his helm[et]" (3.2.5) – it doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that Stanley's afraid Richard is going to cut off his head.
Earlier in the play, Queen Margaret declares that Richard is an "elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog," which is a not-so-nice reference to Richard's emblem and the fact that Richard (according to Shakespeare's play) was born prematurely and "deformed" (1.3.11). Margaret's not the only one who suggests that Richard is more animal than human.
Later, Richmond calls Richard a "foul swine" and refers to him as a destructive boar during his speech at Bosworth field:
The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,
That spoil'd your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your embowell'd bosoms, (5.2.1)
Translation: Just as a boar might destroy a field of crops or feast on a man's guts (ever seen the famous "killer boar scene" in Hannibal?), Richard has ruined England by taking the throne and trampling all over the rights of his people.
"Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I plead. / That I may live and to say, 'The dog is dead'" (4.4.7). In "Characters: Queen Margaret," we told you that the old queen is like the Olympic champion of curse hurling. As you can see here, we weren't kidding around. When Margaret prays for Richard to be punished for his treachery, she asks God to execute divine justice. So later, when Richard is killed in battle (5.8), we get the sense that God really has answered Margaret's plea and that Richard's death (along with Henry VII's establishment of Tudor rule) has been ordained by God.
This isn't the only example of Margaret's curses coming true. The old woman sees just about everything coming, which is why her curses are considered prophetic. It also doesn't hurt that we (as good students of history) pretty much know how things are going to turn out. In other words, the play's historical foreknowledge helps establish the sense that events unfold according to some divine plan. (Plus, it suggests that when people get murdered and done away with in the play, they were basically asking for it.)
Also, every time a curse is fulfilled (even if we knew it was coming) the audience gets the satisfying feel of a real narrative at work. It's as if the curses give us some dramatic tension to look forward to. We as the audience know that the curses are serious business, so we also enjoy knowing the fate of the curse's victims before they do. That's the definition of dramatic irony – keeping the audience engaged with some secret that the characters don't know. Without the curses (and the fulfilling feeling they give us when they come true), the play would really just be a long boring string of deaths and executions that we knew were coming.
Curses serve a dramatic theatrical function. Remember that Shakespeare's audience was subject to the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I, and this is their national history that led up to her. They already know the whole story – for them not to know that Richard's defeat was inevitable would be like us watching a movie about JFK and being surprised when he was shot at the end. The curses of the women (and the ghosts, Rivers, Gray and Vaughn, and Hastings) all lend a mystical aura to the play.
Margaret isn't the only character who likes to curse people. Actually, all of the adult women in the play curse Richard at some point: Lady Anne curses him (and herself) over her father-in-law's corpse (1.2), and the Duchess of York curses her son by asking for his bloody death (4.4). Interestingly, Elizabeth begs Margaret to learn how to curse (4.4), but she admits that curses are a little unsatisfying. They are, in reality, just empty words that often vent anger and soothe the heart. Of course, the irony is that the women's curses are much more than windy words. The women curse because they feel powerless, but their curses actually give them power, as all of their curses come true.
We don't want to be redundant, Shmoopsters, so if you want to know more about all this cursing business, go read what we have to say in "Characters: Margaret."
On the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard dreams that he's visited by the ghosts of some of his murder victims – Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the young princes, Hastings, Lady Anne, and Buckingham. (Dang. The stage sure gets crowded during this scene.)
Each of the ghosts recalls what Richard has done to them and condemns him to death on the battlefield. Each one chants "Despair and die" (5.5). Yikes!
Oh, and did we mention how the ghosts also pay Richmond a visit (in his dream, of course) in order to give the guy a pre-battle pep-talk? It's a terrifying moment, and Richard's pretty shaken up when he awakens. Check out his reaction:
Methought the souls of all that I had murder'd
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
To-morrow's vengeance on the head of Richard. (5.5.5)
Shakespeare's point? It seems pretty clear that Richard's evildoings have come back to haunt him – literally. (Hmm, was Dickens thinking of this play when he created the Ghost of Christmas Past?)
P.S. Shakespeare really has a thing for ghosts. If you think Richard's supernatural pals are scary, check out the "spirit" that goes around haunting Hamlet.
Richard isn't the only character who tosses and turns at night. Clarence has a nightmare, too, and it turns out to be highly symbolic and prophetic. Let's discuss.
The day Clarence is murdered by Richard's goons, he says "O, I have pass'd a miserable night, / So full of ugly sights, of ghastly dreams" (1.4.1). Uh oh. We learn that Clarence dreamed about escaping the Tower of London (where he's locked up on treason charges) by ship. Guess who else was on the ship in Clarence's dream? Richard. Guess what they were talking about? The horrors they've seen (and committed) during the Wars of the Roses. Clarence reveals that in his dream, it seemed like Richard was falling overboard, and on his way down, he bumped Clarence off the ship into the water where he drowned. (Whoops. This probably foreshadows the fact that Richard "bumps off" Clarence when he has him executed, don't you think?)
In any case, Clarence wakes up thinking he's in hell. He's mostly right, as he's almost immediately greeted by his murderers, who stab him, then drown his body in a vat of wine. So basically, Clarence's dream about drowning turns out to be the nonalcoholic version of his actual death.
But what about all the freaky stuff Clarence sees on his journey to the bottom of the ocean? Check it out:
Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatter'd by. (1.5.2)
There are lots of ways to interpret what Clarence sees, but here's our take: All those dead "men that fishes gnaw'd upon" and all that scattered treasure (some of which is lodged in human skulls) seem to symbolize all the lives Clarence helped destroy during the bloody civil wars. This passage is gorgeous poetry, but the fact that men become nothing more than fish food after they die (or food for worms, as in Hamlet) seems pretty fatalistic. Feel free to disagree or elaborate with your own analysis, Shmoopsters. Like we said, there's more than one way to read all of this.
What? You want to know about Lord Stanley's dream? Fine. Read what we have to say about "The Boar" above.
Of course you want to know about the most famous lines of the play. We talk about the "winter of our discontent" speech in "Characters: Richard III," which is where you should head now if you want to know what we think about it.
From the moment we meet Richard, we learn that he's dissatisfied. He announces that he's "determined to prove a villain." We then get the outline of how this will happen: as Richard chats with a prison-bound Clarence, it becomes clear that he has no qualms about deceiving and conspiring against people. He hints at his full plan once Clarence is safely in jail. He'll have Clarence killed, wait for Edward to die, then marry Anne. While Richard details his plot to us, he's still careful not to celebrate it, as a lot of things need to fall into place before he has a chance at the crown.
Everything is going swimmingly for Richard. With both his brothers dead, his path to the throne is only blocked by two little boys, whom he has decided are sniveling and inconsequential little kids. Richard has also successfully removed Queen Elizabeth's family from the picture. Rivers, Gray, and Vaughn were politically irksome to Richard, and they also provided some protection to the young princes. With the protectors out of the way (and Queen Elizabeth's sanctuary for her young son disabled), Richard has unfettered access to both boys, meaning he can get them out of the way easily.
Richard has to figure out who's with him and who's against him. Hastings is not an easy sell, and Richard has him killed easily enough, but he has to cover his tracks to the mayor and the people. Not surprisingly, the citizens are not at all enthusiastic about Buckingham's suggestion that Richard should be king. This frustrates Richard, and though he gets the crown anyway, he's in a pretty foul mood about the whole thing.
Even after he's been crowned, Richard is worried about maintaining his power; he has to have the little princes in the tower murdered. When Buckingham hesitates on this point, Richard dismisses him without a second thought. This might be Richard just being rash, but it also might indicate that Richard knows that his position is precarious: he has no time to appease people who don't support him wholeheartedly, because he's beginning to gather a crowd that opposes him wholeheartedly.
Richard is already receiving word of desertions to Richmond's side when Buckingham readies to leave him. Weirdly, Richard's calm (if glum) reaction to all of this is a reference to a prophecy he once heard that Richmond would be the end of him. He's not yet in a panicky stage, and he's still making plans to seal up his power by marrying young Elizabeth. He also gets the comforting news that his nephews have been smothered to death.
The situation begins to worsen when Richard learns that Richmond is being joined by more powerful forces than Richard had anticipated. After Richard's mother curses him to die a bloody death, things just keep going downhill. Richard really seems to break when he learns for certain that Richmond's navy, fat with Richard-deserters, is headed for Richard's shores.
For the first time, Richard appears disoriented and confused. He's not used to losing control, and his inability to hold himself together doesn't bode well. The best evidence that this is Richard's nightmare stage is that he, in fact, has a literal nightmare. He's confronted by the ghosts of everyone he's had a hand in murdering, and they all condemn him to die in the next day's battle. (Just so we're clear on Richard's inevitable end, the ghosts also visit Richmond and encourage him to defeat Richard.) Richard awakens and is visibly shaken. He can't seem to get a grip on who he is or what he's about.
Richard keeps receiving news of his supporters deserting him, and he seems to content himself with the declaration that he and his men will face whatever is coming to them head on. When Richard says "March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell; If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell," it's a pretty good indicator that he's ready to meet his end. He's determined not to be cowed, and he'll go down fighting. Richard has no regrets, and his last-ditch effort is to try to kill Richmond. His final lines on the stage illustrate that he's ready to face the consequences of all the chances he's taken, even if he knows the odds are against him.
Richard informs us in the first scene that things have swung round to his family's side, but we immediately learn that he doesn't value family, as he plans to drive a wedge between his two brothers, Edward and Clarence. We also learn a lot about Richard's character: not only is he responsible for having Clarence imprisoned, he's incredibly two-faced, letting Clarence believe he'll support him in this time of need. We learn that Richard has some plans to "bustle" in the world (though we're not yet sure what that means), and we know he seems pretty ruthless, likely to do anything necessary to reach his goals.
Richard is far removed from the throne. Before he can have a legitimate claim to be king, his sick brother will have to die, and he'll have to kill his other brother Clarence and murder Edward's two sons. Besides Richard's personal problems, the we learn about the strife in the York family. Edward's wife (Queen Elizabeth) and her family are enemies to Richard.
Then enters Queen Margaret, widow of the former King Henry VI. Margaret's curses frame all these problems for us: she wishes everyone to anticipate all the treachery and death that will follow, and her curses are prophetic. Queen Margaret adds a third orbit to the play's central conflicts: Richard's got his own issues, he's got issues with the family, and the family has broader issues within the greater scheme of England's political history.
In this thicket of problems, Clarence's murder pushes Edward over the edge. As he dies and the women wail, the question arises of who will replace him. The throne is getting a little closer for Richard, and we're assured that his actions will only become more devious and bloody.
The citizens' scene, Act 2 Scene 3, frames the difficulty of the approaching situation. Though Edward's young son should be secure in the throne for now, the citizens note that the prince's youth makes him more vulnerable to power politics than they're comfortable with. The citizens also note that the enmity between Richard and the queen promises to complicate the prince's security. Prince Edward is the son of Queen Elizabeth, and Richard has been named his protector, the advisor acting in his stead while he's still young. England is definitely not safe in this situation, and everyone is worried.
Richard meets his nephew and begins planning how to exploit his position of power. He starts sending out feelers to see who would support him if he made a grab for the crown. He's growing more vicious, ready to murder anyone who stands in his way. While Richard is effectively able to kill Hastings, Buckingham has little luck in trying to convince the people that Richard should rightfully be their king.
So Richard is on the throne, and we know that nothing good can follow. Richard's taking of the throne may have been a bit anti-climactic, but it's fascinating to watch the way he fights to keep the crown. Here he becomes rather coarse in his cruelty: he orders the princes to be murdered and is gleeful to hear they've been smothered and disposed of. Growing even more bloodthirsty, as the first reports come in about a force gathering to fight him, Richard fiercely declares himself ready to battle "the traitors."
With the princes out of the way and his wife Anne suddenly and mysteriously dead, Richard makes a move to take the young Elizabeth's hand in marriage, which would seal off all avenues for another challenger to the throne. Freshly cursed by his own mother, Richard is utterly without shame. He thinks he's won Queen Elizabeth's consent to marry her daughter. We're left in suspense as to whether Queen Elizabeth will actually help Richard but are quickly distracted by the news that Richmond is on his way.
Richard, fierce as he may be, begins to seem flustered and confused, but no less bull-headed in his battle plans. We're unsure whether he can secure a wife or hold up under the stress of battle. Ultimately we know Richard will be defeated, but we're still unclear how that will happen. Richard is still scheming, but we have hints that he might be losing his wits.
Once Richmond has the blessing of the dead and Richard receives their damning curses, it's clear that Richard will lose on the battlefield. Throughout the play Richard has been cursed by others, but the true sign that Richard's doom is upon him is a rare moment of self-doubt. Waking from his dream, Richard seems unsure of who he is and how he feels about himself. Until now Richard has never doubted himself or his ability to manipulate others. No one can ever be sure of him – except himself. Now that it's clear that he's lost touch with himself, he has no one left in his court. He knows this, and he prophetically declares, with his characteristic cavalier attitude: "let us to it pell-mell, If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell." Richard's assurance about keeping the crown has cracked. Warned by all the ghosts of his past, he irreverently faces his own death.
Richard concludes the play without ever repenting. He fights for the fruits of his evil to his last breath. He meets his end with a strange violence that we can't help but admire: he was determined to prove himself a villain, and he ends a villain. Even if we can't empathize with Richard's evil aims, in the end we've got to respect him for sticking to his guns. Everything ends well enough: Richard's evil is vanquished and the kingdom is protected from usurpers. And since the whole play has had us following Richard's evil, we derive some satisfaction in watching our protagonist reach his inevitable end on his own terms.