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Henry Irving, Richard III, Lyceum, 1877

Richard III

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's Richard III

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): Richard wants to become King no matter who he has to kill to get there; he kills everyone who stands in his way; spooky ghosts appear; Richard is killed.

Richard III Summary

Jealous and crippled, Richard of Gloucester wants to be King of England and uses manipulation and deceit to achieve his goal. He murders his brothers, nephews, and any opposition to become King Richard III. In the end, Henry of Richmond raises an army, kills Richard in battle, and becomes King Henry VII. 

More detail: 1.5 minute read

Act I

Richard III follows the events portrayed in Henry VI Part 3. Richard of Gloucester, the brother of King Edward IV, is determined to gain the crown of England for himself, no matter what. His plot begins as he romantically pursues Lady Anne, a widow. He woos her as she accompanies the funeral procession of her father-in-law, King Henry VI (whom Richard murdered). Anne is unable to resist Richard's advances and becomes Duchess of Gloucester. Richard engineers the imprisonment of his elder brother, Clarence, in the Tower of London. Clarence tells his jailer a dream he had of drowning. Shortly afterwards, Richard's hired assassins kill him and place the body in a cask of wine.

Richard is grasping Anne round the waist and holding her left wrist, as he leans his head against her shoulder. His eyes are closed and he is smiling; she looks down at him with a slight air of puzzlement.
Richard III, RSC, 2003

Act II

King Edward IV is ill, and Richard is appointed to govern in his place, aided by Lord Hastings and the Duke of Buckingham. Three women mourn their state: Margaret, former queen of Henry VI; Queen Elizabeth, Edward's wife; and the widowed Duchess of York, Richard's mother. Margaret curses Richard and the kingdom.

Now is the winter of our discontent.

— Richard III, Act 1 Scene I


To counter any claims to the crown, Richard confines his nephews, the young Prince of Wales and his brother, in the Tower of London.  Buckingham assists Richard's rise to power by helping persuade the Lord Mayor and the people of London to support their faction. When disease kills Edward, his brother is proclaimed King Richard III.

Richard has Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain, executed for attempting to thwart him. Richard also sends an assassin to smother the princes in the tower in their sleep. Buckingham suspects Richard's role in the death of the young princes. Then when he is denied an earldom, Buckingham seeks to raise an army against Richard. Richard captures and executes him. Meanwhile, Richard wants Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's daughter, as a new wife to secure his position as King. He has his current wife, Anne, murdered.

Richard has a two-legged walking aid which fits over his left arm, and he rests against it with his legs bent. The pose emphasises his hump. the background is a medieval building.
Antony Sher as ‘Richard III’, with foam ‘hump’ worn beneath black tunic, RSC, 1984

Act V

Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, is the heir to the Lancastrian claim to the throne, and he gathers an army in France to oppose Richard's tyrannical reign. Their armies meet at Bosworth in Leicestershire. The night before the battle, the ghosts of his victims haunt and curse Richard, while appearing to Richmond and blessing him for the battle. Richmond kills Richard III on Bosworth Field and is proclaimed Henry VII of England. He plans to end the ‘Wars of the Roses' by marrying Elizabeth of York and becoming the link between the white rose of York to the red rose of Lancaster.

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

— Richard III, Act 5 Scene 4

For additional reading, see our blogs on Richard III

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