Study Guide

Richard III Fate and Free Will

By William Shakespeare

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.