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Richard III (play)

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The Tragedy of Richard III is a play by William Shakespeare, in which the monarch Richard III of England is unflatteringly depicted.

Contents

Synopsis

The play beings with Richard eulogising his brother, King Edward IV of England, eldest son of the late Richard, Duke of York .

Now is the winter of our discontent
made glorious summer by this sun of York

The speech reveals Richard's jealousy and ambition, as his brother Edward rules the country successfully. Richard is an ugly hunchback, describing himself as "rudely stamp'd" and "deformed, unfinish'd", who cannot "strut before a wanton ambling nymph." He responds to the anguish of his condition with an outcast's credo: "I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days." With little attempt at chronological accuracy (which he professes to despise), Richard conspires to have his brother George, who stands before him in the line of succession, conducted to the Tower of London as a suspected assassin; having bribed a soothsayer to confuse the suspicious king.

Richard next ingratiates himself with "the Lady Anne" -- Anne Neville, widow of the Lancastrian Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. Richard confides to the audience, "I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter. What though I kill'd her husband and her father?" Despite her prejudice against him, Anne is won over by his pleas and agrees to marry him. Richard, in collaboration with his friend Buckingham (Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham), plots to be the next king, and presents himself to the other lords as a modest, devout man with no pretensions to greatness. This causes them to select him as king after Edward IV's death - a death in which, ironically, Richard played no part - eventually putting aside the claims of his innocent young nephews (the Princes in the Tower).

Richard ensures his grip on the crown in a proactive manner. He murders all who stand in his way, including the young princes, Lord Hastings, his former ally Buckingham, and even his wife. These crimes do not go unnoticed, and when he has lost all popular support, Richard faces the invading Earl of Richmond (Henry VII of England) at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Prior to the battle, Richard is visited by the ghosts of those whose deaths he has caused, all of whom tell him to Despair and die! He awakes screaming for 'Jesu' (Jesus) to help him. Though the battle initially goes well, Richard is soon lost and alone on the field at the climax of the battle, and utters the often-quoted line, A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! He is defeated in hand-to-hand combat by Richmond, and dies dramatically, a sword sheathed in his bowels.

In dramatic terms, perhaps the most important (and, arguably, the most entertaining) feature of the play is the sudden alteration in Richard's character. For the first 'half' of the play, we see him as something of an anti-hero, causing mayhem and enjoying himself hugely in the process:

I do mistake my person all this while;
Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
I'll be at charges for a looking-glass;

Almost immediately after he is crowned, however, his personality and actions take a darker turn. He turns against loyal Buckingham ("I am not in the giving vein"), he falls prey to self-doubt ("I am in so far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin;"); now he sees shadows where none exist and visions of his doom to come ("Despair & die").

Depiction of Richard

Shakespeare's depiction of Richard and his "reign of terror" is unflattering, and modern historians find it a distortion of historical truth. Shakespeare's "history" plays were not, of course, intended to be historically accurate, but were designed for entertainment. As with Macbeth, Richard's supposed villainy is depicted as extreme in order to achieve maximum dramatic effect. In addition, many previous writers had depicted Richard as a villain, and Shakespeare was thus following tradition.

Nevertheless, it is important to question why this particular king became a symbol of villainy during the Elizabethan period. Critics have argued that this dark depiction of Richard developed because the ruling monarch of Shakespeare's time, Elizabeth I, was a descendant of Henry VII of England the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond, who had defeated the last Yorkist king and started the Tudor dynasty, and Shakespeare's play thus presents the version of Richard that the ruling family would have wanted to see.

Shakespeare's main source for his play was the chronicle of Raphael Holinshed but it also seems likely that he drew on the work of Sir Thomas More author of the unfinished 'History of King Richard III' published by John Rastell after More's death. Rastell, More's son-in-law, compiled the text from two work-in-progress manuscripts, one in English and one in Latin in different stages of composition. More's work is not a history in the modern sense. It is a highly coloured and literary account which contains accurate and invented details in (arguably) roughly equal portions. More had many sources available for his account (most of whom, like his patron Cardinal John Morton, were extremely hostile to the old regime) but like Shakespeare his main source is his own imagination: over a third of the text consists of invented speeches.

Richard III is the culmination of the cycle of "Wars of the Roses" plays. In Henry VI Part III, Shakespeare had already begun the process of building Richard's character into that of a villain, even though he could not possibly have been involved in some of the events depicted. From an overview of the cycle, it can be seen that Shakespeare's inaccuracy works both ways.

Film versions

The most famous player of the part in recent times was Sir Laurence Olivier in his 1955 film version film version. His inimitable rendition has been satirised by many comedians including Peter Cook and Peter Sellers (who had aspirations to do the role straight). Sellers' version of A Hard Day's Night was delivered in the style of Olivier as Richard III. The first series of the BBC television comedy Blackadder in part parodies the Olivier film, both visually (as in the crown motif) and by mangling Shakespearean text.

More recently, Richard III has been brought to the screen by Sir Ian McKellen (1995) in an abbreviated version set in a 1930s fascist England, and by Al Pacino in the 1996 documentary, Looking for Richard. In the 1976 film The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss' character, an actor, gives a memorable performance as a homosexual Richard in a gay stage production of the play.

Dramatis personae

(Links are to articles on the historical personages, who may not precisely correspond to Shakespeare's portrayal of them.)

External links

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