Study Guide

Richard III Themes

  • War

    Richard III opens toward the tail end of the Wars of the Roses, a series of nasty civil wars that had the Lancasters and the Yorks (two branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet) vying for the English crown.  England has been enjoying newfound peace under the reign of Edward IV.  This tranquility doesn't last long: Richard immediately sets out to steal the crown and takes out plenty of his family members and political rivals along the way.  The play's one major battle (the Battle of Bosworth Field) is a climactic moment that brings Richard's tyrannous reign and the Wars of the Roses to an end, ushering in the Tudor dynasty and a golden age of peace and prosperity. 

    Questions About War

    1. Analyze the first and last speeches of the play and discuss Shakespeare's portrayal of civil war.
    2. According to Richard, why isn't he cut out for times of peace?
    3. Discuss how the civil wars have impacted England in the play.
    4. Compare and contrast the military styles of Richard and Richmond.

    Chew on This

    In <em>Richard III</em> warfare is portrayed as a family affair, where brothers, fathers, sons, and cousins are pitted against one another.

    Although King Henry VII is not opposed to warfare, he is genuinely devoted to bringing about peace in England.

  • Fate and Free Will

    When Richard murders and manipulates his way to the crown, is he acting of his own free will? Or is he merely an agent of divine providence (a.k.a. fate)? Literary scholars and historians are divided on this issue, because Shakespeare presents two competing views of history in Richard III.

    On the one hand, the drama suggests that Richard's historical rise and fall from power and the subsequent establishment of the Tudor line is all part of a divine plan. (This is in keeping with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which was a hot topic in Shakespeare's day.)

    On the other hand, the play also presents the idea that Richard is a typical "Machiavellian" leader whose charisma, self-determination, and adaptability enable him to take the crown of his own free will. This view of history doesn't see any kind of divine plan at work. Instead, it attributes the events of history to human actions. There's plenty of evidence in the play to argue either position, and it seems more fruitful to simply acknowledge the ambiguity and tension between them.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Discuss the implications of Richard's famous declaration that he is "determined to prove a villain" (1.1.1). How does this line speak to the play's attitude toward fate and free will?
    2. Richard III is chock-full of prophetic curses in which characters call on God's divine justice to punish crimes committed in the past. Do these curses lend themselves to the idea that history is shaped by a divine plan? Why or why not?
    3. Margaret argues throughout the play that God uses Richard to punish those who have sinned against her family. Is Margaret's point of view endorsed by the play?
    4. As we know, Shakespeare's Richard III is a play based on historical events. How does the play's historical foreknowledge influence the way we read the play? How does it shape our understanding of how and why events unfold?

    Chew on This

    Richard III's historical foreknowledge suggests that all the events that unfold throughout the course of the play are inevitable and were therefore fated to happen.

    Richard is not controlled by divine forces. Rather, he exercises his own free will throughout the play and is responsible for his own actions.

  • Time

    Although it's Shakespeare's second-longest play, Richard III quickly motors through about 14 years of English history. The action is compressed into less than a month, making this five-act drama seem to go by an instant. The play's fast pacing is mostly due to Richard's "hurry up and grab the crown" strategy, which involves acting quickly (he proposes to Lady Anne while she's grieving the deaths of her husband and father-in-law) and accelerating events (like ordering Clarence's death before Edward can reverse the execution order).

    The play is very self-conscious about this speeding up of time, and Shakespeare constantly makes us aware of it. (It seems like someone is always asking what time it is.) Yet there's also a sense that Richard simply doesn't have enough time to maintain his power. Just before the Battle of Bosworth Field (where Richard dies almost the instant he encounters Richmond), a clock strikes ominously, signaling that Richard's time has run out.

    Questions About Time

    1. Discuss how Shakespeare compresses 14 years of history into a five-act play.  How does this shape the audience's experience of <em>Richard III</em>?
    2. Why is Richard always asking "What is't o'clock?"  (What time is it?) What's the effect?
    3. What's the significance of the clock striking in Act 5, Scene 6?
    4. Richard seems to have an ability to speed up time.  Discuss how his acceleration of events works in his favor.  Also, how does this strategy end up working against him?

    Chew on This

    Despite the fact that Richard is a master of accelerating time, his past crimes catch up with him in the end. When the ghosts of his murder victims appear in Richard's dream, we're reminded that our sins always come back to haunt us.

  • Art and Culture

    Most of Shakespeare's plays are full of self-conscious references to the workings of the theater, but in Richard III the characters almost seem to be aware that they're performing parts in a play.  Richard declares almost immediately that he plans on playing the role of a "villain." At other times, he talks about himself as though he's a stage director, especially when he shares his "plot" to become king.  Even Margaret suggests that witnessing Richard's villainy is like watching the "induction" (prologue) of a tragic play.  Throughout, Shakespeare implies that being an effective politician like Richard requires serious acting chops and the ability to adapt to any situation. Being a successful ruler involves the ability to manipulate one's followers and adversaries.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Explain how Richard's acting skills help him achieve the crown.
    2. Why are there so many self-conscious references to the theater in this play?
    3. Literary critic Stephen Greenblatt calls Richard a "consummate role-player."  Do you agree with this assessment?  If so, what textual evidence can be used to support this opinion? If not, explain why. 
    4. Discuss the relationship between politics and acting in <em>Richard III.</em>

    Chew on This

    Richard sees himself as an actor in a play in which his ultimate role is that of a villain.

    In <em>Richard III,</em> Shakespeare portrays politics as inherently theatrical. 

  • Manipulation

    Manipulation greases the wheels of Richard III. Richard is constantly manipulating characters around him in an acrobatic performance of subtlety and wordplay. Richard's skill at manipulating everyone around him is key to his success.  It also increases our begrudging admiration of him, even though it's pretty clear that he manipulates us, his audience, as well.  By letting us in on the secret details of his scheming, he creates an atmosphere of complicity.

    Richard's manipulative tactics also keep the play lively, and the skill with which they're executed keep us on his side throughout most of the play. It's like looking inside an incredibly artful machine.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. In what ways does Richard manipulate the audience? 
    2. How is it, exactly, that Richard succeeds in wooing lady Anne (over the corpse of her dead-father-in-law)? 
    3. Is Buckingham a victim of Richard's manipulation, or does he get what he deserves?
    4. What is it that makes Richard such a master manipulator?

    Chew on This

    By making the audience members his confidants at the beginning of the play, Richard manipulates us just as he manipulates the characters around him. 

    Richard is able to manipulate everyone around him because he's a good actor, has strong rhetorical skills, and can think on his feet.

  • Justice

    In Richard III, justice is divine and retributive.  In other words, every character who has ever sinned or committed a crime gets what's coming to him or her.  Since we're dealing with characters who don't hesitate to stab their friends and families in the backs (literally and figuratively), a whole lot of justice is distributed in this play – even for crimes that date back to earlier plays in the tetralogy – Henry IV Parts 1, 2, and 3.  (At one point we're told that Margaret is suffering for something awful she did back in Henry VI Part 3.)  At times the play even suggests that Richard's entire reign is God's way of punishing all the Lancasters and the Yorks for the Wars of the Roses.  By the end of Richard III, Shakespeare has pretty much cleared the decks of all the bad guys, and the play looks forward to a new beginning under Henry VII's reign. 

    Questions About Justice

    1. Does anyone who deserves to be punished escape justice in this play?
    2. Is there any difference between justice and revenge in <em>Richard III</em>?
    3. Is it "just" when the young princes are murdered in the Tower of London?
    4. Queen Margaret's curses seem to suggest that all the ills falling on the House of York are actually just tit-for-tat for past crimes. Does the play suggest that "eye-for-an-eye" justice is valid? 

    Chew on This

    Richmond is the only agent of the play who's depicted as having completely clean hands. Free from perjury, murder, and corruption, he's a golden boy. Accordingly, Richmond is the only one who can act as an agent of justice and finally take Richard down.

    The play suggests that Richard is an instrument of divine justice – God uses him to punish the Royal House of Plantagenet for fighting over the crown.

  • Power

    Richard III is about the struggle to get and hold on to political power, a topic Shakespeare returns to repeatedly in his history plays and tragedies.  On the one hand, the play portrays Richard as a "Machiavel," an unscrupulous ruler who'll do just about anything to gain the crown and remain in power.  Richard's antithesis is Richmond/King Henry VII, a monarch divinely appointed by God whose reign marks a fresh start for war-torn England.  Because Henry VII's reign marks the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, Shakespeare seems to be celebrating his own Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I.  At the same time, power can also operate on a more personal level: Richard's path to the throne involves several small-scale power struggles between him and his adversaries.  

    Questions About Power

    1. How does Richard fit the profile of a Machiavellian ruler?
    2. Does <em>Richard III</em> ever show us what the correct path to the throne looks like?  Does it portray any ideal monarch?
    3. What kind of power, if any, do the women of the play have?
    4. What is the play's attitude toward the Tudor myth – the idea that the Tudor reign ushered in a harmonious golden age of peace and prosperity in England?

    Chew on This

    Richard is not driven to be King of England because of the power it promises. He is actually more delighted with the wickedness he'd have to perform to get there.

    Personal politics trump power politics for Richard.

    The play is a criticism of Machiavellian power politics. Shakespeare makes Richard an interesting character but ultimately punishes him.

  • Betrayal

    Richard III is full of little (and not so little) betrayals. This sets the mood for the play: nothing is sacred and no one is safe.  Richard betrays his friends and family, and his friends and family betray him.  Through it all, there's hardly a moment of surprise or shock, even when Richard orders the executions of his nephews, whom he's supposed to be protecting.  Betrayal is an expected part of power politics, and the audience learns to be wary of the motives and intentions of nearly every player. Betrayal is also a contagion that drives everyone to preemptive deceit. Only Richmond, who refuses to betray the state's interests for his own gain, can break the cycle of distrust and exploitation.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Explain why Richard turns on his wingman, Buckingham.
    2. Why can't Richard's supporters – Edward, Clarence, and Buckingham – see that Richard will eventually betray them?
    3. Is there evidence that the young princes know their uncle Richard will betray them?
    4. Are there any sacred relationships in the play – ones above betrayal?
    5. Is betrayal just a natural consequence of having power?

    Chew on This

    Even though Prince Edward is just a little kid, he seems to be one of the only characters in the play who knows that Richard will betray him. 

    In the realm of power politics, betrayal is to be expected. 

  • Man and the Natural World

    The relationship between man and the natural world is a very big deal in Richard III. From the very first lines, the health of the political state is likened to the health of nature and the earth.  Times of war are compared to a wintry, frozen period in English history and are likened to ruined fields and destroyed crops.  Because Richard interrupts the "natural" political order by taking the throne, his reign is likened to the natural world out of order.  (He is also portrayed as being "unnatural" because of his physical "deformity.")  Later, however, England experiences a spring-like beginning with the arrival of golden boy Richmond (Henry VII). 

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Discuss how the play portrays Richard's physical "deformity."  What is the relationship between Richard's physical features and his lack of morality? 
    2. Why do you think there are so many allusions to the natural world in the play?  For example, what's up with all the agriculture and horticulture references? 
    3. Read the play's opening speech ("Now is the winter of our discontent"). Discuss how Richard uses the seasons as a metaphor for England's national mood and the political climate.
    4. What's up with all the references to monsters and unnatural beings in the play?

    Chew on This

    Shakespeare uses agriculture metaphors when he compares civil war and peacetime to spoiled crops and bountiful harvests.  This helps convey the idea that peace brings prosperity while war brings nothing but destruction and ruin. 

  • Family

    In Richard III family is not the lovey-dovey stuff of The Simpsons' Flanders family. After all, we're talking about a family that was at each others' throats for a good 30 years.  The play takes domestic backstabbing, treachery, and murder to a whole new level. The worst offender, of course, is Richard, who has his brother murdered, hires a hit man to snuff out his nephews, and manages to turn his own mother against him.  (And these are just warm-up exercises.)  Although Richard embodies the horrors of family violence, very few characters in this play are innocent. 

    Questions About Family

    1. Explain how politics and domestic matters intersect in this play.  Can family ever be separated from politics and matters of state?
    2. Pointing to specific examples in the play, discuss how acts of familial violence come back to haunt the characters.
    3. When and why does Richard's own mother turn against him?
    4. Mothers are ever-present in the play, advocating for their sons, but also judging them. Discuss the role mothers play in <em>Richard III</em>.  What role, if any, do <em>fathers</em> play?

    Chew on This

    Richard is the embodiment of familial violence.

    Family matters are inextricable from political affairs in <em>Richard III</em>.

  • Gender

    Women play an intriguing role in Richard III. On the one hand, they can be considered powerless – they do little but talk about and react to the actions of the men. On the other hand, their words (specifically their curses) seem to have a prophetic power.  The women fit into a variety of female character stereotypes, but they still manage to be nuanced. In one sense, women are the property of the men who marry them. But the women elevate themselves by sheer emotive force. The women provide much of the emotional force behind the political action of the play. Focusing on the men alone, the play would mostly be about shrewd political strategizing and power. Only when the women come into view do we really see the emotional reality and toll of this politically volatile situation.

    Questions About Gender

    1. What do you make of all the allegations about women and witchcraft? Is "witchcraft" just a convenient way of explaining (and dismissing) powerful women?
    2. How do the women of the play relate to each other? Are they more bound together by sisterhood, or are they divided by their respective ties to the men in the play?
    3. How does marriage function in the play? Are women just used as political pawns?
    4. How are mothers portrayed in <em>Richard III</em>?

    Chew on This

    Although the women in the play are helpless as they watch Richard's reign of terror, their prophetic curses suggest that they do wield some power in the play.

    Whether she married Richard or Richmond, Young Elizabeth was to be used as a political pawn.