What happens in Richard III

Friends, in the time of coronavirus, I trust you’re safe and well, or if by some feared but daily increasing chance you’re not, I trust “what is infirm from your sound parts shall fly, health shall live free, and sickness freely die.” *

In the meantime, once you have enough toilet paper stocked to satisfy the most anxious in your household, the next thing you need is a good story. Richard III is a very good story.

Richard III might be the best (worst) Shakespeare villain. I know I said that about Iago. I know the Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth combo is hard to beat. Titus Andronicus killed and ate so many people I wouldn’t even try to tot up the body count. But Richard III blithely killing his brother, his nephews, and finally his wife, before trying to marry his niece? Profound mental illness all sealed up behind that unforced charm? Richard III is terrifying. Maybe I’ve known too many criminals, but there’s something unsettlingly believable about him.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “The end justifies the means. Horses are very valuable, worth kingdoms.”

What happens in Richard III
(King of England from 1483-1485)

Richard III of the House of York, the brother of King Edward IV, wants to be the King of England.

The last time we saw Richard, he was murdering King Henry VI. Now we’re at Henry VI’s funeral. Richard pitches woo at Lady Anne, the widow of Henry VI’s son. Against her patently better judgment, it sticks and they get married.

Richard schemes to get his older brother Clarence locked up in the Tower of London. Then he hires assassins to kill him. They drown Clarence in “a butt of Malmsey,” or a barrel of wine, which seems like a waste of wine, but everybody in the cast of Richard III has a budget in excess of requirements.

King Edward IV is ill. He appoints Richard to govern in his place. Richard gets a taste of what it’s like to sit on the throne. There’s no turning back now.

Next up on the path to kingship: eliminate the competition. Richard locks up his two young nephews, King Edward IV’s children, in the Tower of London. You remember what happened to the last relative he sent to the Tower of London.

The Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s ally, drums up support for Richard’s claim to the throne.

Edward IV dies of his illness. Richard becomes King Richard III.

The first thing Richard does is execute a key adviser, the Lord Chamberlain, for trying to undermine him.

Richard’s nephews are in line for the throne, so he sends an assassin to the Tower of London to smother them.

Buckingham suspects Richard had the two boy princes killed. So then Richard denies Buckingham a promotion to earl. So then Buckingham tries to raise an army to fight Richard. Murdering little kids is one thing, but don’t even think about coming between the nobility and their pursuit of property. Richard captures and executes Buckingham.

Not satisfied even though he has killed off all the surviving heirs to the throne and at least two of his naysayers, Richard now wants to marry Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter, to cement his position as king.

Let us pause and reflect. Edward IV was Richard’s brother. Richard wants to marry his own niece.

Richard is, inconveniently, still married to poor Lady Anne, whom he seduced in such bad taste in Act 1. He has her murdered.

Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and the heir to the Lancaster family’s claim to the throne, hears the news in France about Richard’s murder spree. He raises an army.

The two armies meet at Bosworth in England.

There are some supernatural shenanigans, unusual for such a realistic play, where the ghosts of Richard’s victims haunt him the night before the battle.

During the battle, Richard’s horse dies and he says “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Then he goes around on foot and kills a lot of people anyway.

Henry Tudor kills Richard and becomes King Henry VII of England.

He ends the Wars of the Roses by planning to marry Elizabeth of York (Richard’s niece), uniting the York and Lancaster houses.


Richard III is a hard play to do live, because you pretty much need Ian McKellen, and how often can you have him? But the 1995 film with Ian McKellen is terrific. Even though they made assorted American actors be in the movie with the top alumns of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which hardly seems like apples to apples.

*From All’s Well That Ends Well. Whenever they talk about health in Richard III, it’s a thinly veiled threat about assassination. Such a quote wouldn’t be very friendly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s