Richard, Duke of Gloucester, born with a face and body that makes “dogs bark at” him and unsuited to the peace created by his brother Edward’s reign, is determined to cause trouble. He’s started by spreading rumors that his brother George, Duke of Clarence, intends to murder Edward’s sons. Clarence is imprisoned in the Tower of London as a result and eventually murdered on Richard’s orders.
Lady Anne Neville, the widow of the slain Prince Edward, encounters Richard while accompanying the body of her father-in-law, the deposed Henry VI, to burial. Despite having killed her husband and her father-in-law, Richard woos and wins her as his wife.
At court, Richard quarrels with his commoner sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, and her family members, Rivers, Grey and Dorset, accusing them of stirring up the king’s wrath against Clarence and ambitiously grasping for power. The banished Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow, appears and curses everyone in sight, blaming them for the deaths of her husband and son in the preceding Wars of the Roses. She predicts the downfall of many in the play. The ailing King Edward works to make peace between his wife’s family and Richard until word comes of Clarence’s death.
Edward IV dies, and Richard urges Queen Elizabeth to bring her son, Prince Edward, to London to be crowned. On the road, Richard intercepts the prince’s party, sending the escorts to his castle Pomfret to be executed. Hearing this, the Queen takes her other son, the young Duke of York, into sanctuary. Under duress, she releases her son, and Richard installs both princes in the Tower.
When Richard finds Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain, to be too loyal to the princes to support his bid for the throne, he accuses him of plotting his death and orders his execution. After convincing the mayor of London of Hastings’ treason and necessary death, Richard and his ally, the Duke of Buckingham, put on a show; Buckingham urging then demanding that the “reluctant” Richard take the crown for the good of the nation. Richard finally acquiesces.
But after being crowned, Richard is still insecure about his hold on the throne. So he has the princes killed and spreads rumors that Anne is sick so he can marry his niece, Elizabeth (sister of the princes). Even the loyal Buckingham is starting to fear Richard and ultimately flees.
Richard appears to convince Queen Elizabeth to allow him to marry her daughter. She, however, secretly sends word to Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and last claimant from the house of Lancaster, that he can have her daughter’s hand if he overthrows Richard.
Richmond’s forces arrive at the coast. At a field near Leicester, the two armies set up camp to rest before the next day’s battle. During the night, a parade of ghosts—victims of Richard’s treachery—visit both Richard and Richmond, assuring the latter that they fight on his side while cursing Richard to “despair and die.” In the battle, despite Richard’s frenzied fighting, Richmond slays the king and vows to marry Elizabeth, uniting their royal houses and bringing peace to England.
The Wars of the Roses
Although the Wars of the Roses provided a violent backdrop for Richard III, their roots start much earlier than the play’s setting in the late 1400s. After King Edward III died in 1377, he was succeeded by his 10-year-old grandson, Richard II. The young king was overthrown and deposed in 1399 by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV and established the house of Lancaster.
While Henry IV faced down various civil rebellions, he was succeeded peacefully by his son Henry V, who turned the country’s attention to their longtime enemy, France. He won that war and gained much French land, but died at 35, leaving behind an infant son and a lot of trouble. A council of regents was appointed to rule for the son, until he assumed the reins of government, as Henry VI, at 16. A marriage agreement with Margaret of Anjou, the niece of the French king, stipulated that Henry give over several provinces to France, a move that was deeply unpopular at home. Following a number of outbreaks of civil unrest and a botched campaign in France, Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown, and the Duke of York was named regent.
A little over a year later, Henry regained his senses, but the rivalry between the houses of York and Lancaster had been set. (York’s claim to the throne, his supporters argued, was actually better than the King’s.) After several years of conflict, during which York was killed by Queen Margaret’s forces, Henry VI was deposed, and York’s son Edward took the throne as Edward IV.
Violent clashes between the houses continued for another decade until the battle of Tewkesbury, where Henry VI’s son Edward was killed and the Yorks won a decisive victory. The final battles between the Yorks—Edward, George and Richard—and the Lancasters—headed by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond—play out in Richard III. The Wars’ conclusion, and the advent of the Tudor dynasty, ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity for England, marked by the blossoming of art and culture in the English Renaissance.
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2014 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.