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Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York.
The play opens as Edward IV lies dying. Hoping to prevent the generation of dynastic warfare that ended with his (second) ascension to the throne from starting up again, Edward calls together all of England's powerful factions and makes them shake hands and promise to be nice to each other and his young son once he croaks.
They all do, and everyone lives happily ever after.
With the aid of the Duke of Buckingham, and to the great delight of Lord Hastings and the rest of nobility, upon Edward IV's death his younger brother, Richard, after taking a brief detour to successfully woo the widow of a man he killed, quickly has several of the Queen's relatives arrested and executed and sends the young princes off to the Tower of London.
Lord Hastings, under the impression that Richard was just going to chop the heads off of the Queen's relatives and leave it at that, is dismayed to find that Richard plans to have Edward's children declared illegitimate and to take the throne himself and refuses to go along.
And so, with the aid of Buckingham, Richard has Hastings' head chopped off too.
From there, Richard decides that the kids will be trouble as long as they're alive, and he might as well have them whacked too as long as he's got the ax out, but by this point even Buckingham begins to get squeamish and, not having noticed the pattern, leads a failed rebellion and gets his head chopped off. (For those keeping score at home, add the princes to the body count at this point as well.)
Once Richard murders his wife so that he might marry his niece, the remaining non-villainous members of the cast finally DO manage to notice the pattern and band together under some guy who hasn't even appeared in the play yet, and, with a night before assist from the ghosts of everyone Richard has had killed, successfully kill Richard in battle and install Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, on the throne. The play is decidedly slanted against Richard -- for one thing, though it seems he did have some kind of noticeable deformity, it was certainly minor and in no way disabling, and for another, so far as we know the real Richard didn't run around delivering cool monologues about what a Magnificent Bastard he was. The play is even more slanted for Henry Tudor -- that is, what little we actually see of him, since he only turns up in the final act.
Trivial note: For all of the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century, any Richard III performed on stage was not Shakespeare's, but a reworking penned by Colley Cibber, which included only about 800 of the original's 3600 lines, excised several characters (including Clarence and Queen Margaret), and added a large amount of new material.
This page is exclusively concerned with the play by Shakespeare. For the historical Richard III, please look here.
Tropes in Richard III include:
- And Your Little Dog, Too: The final straw leading to open rebellion is when Richard tries to forcibly marry his niece.
- Age Lift: In various productions, he's been played by 47-year-old Basil Rathbone, 48-year-old Laurence Olivier, 51-year-old Vincent Price, 46-year-old Peter Cook, 56-year-old Ian McKellen, and also 56-year-old Al Pacino. It should be noted that Richard was only 33 when he died at the battle of Bosworth Field, and only five years older than his usurper, Henry VII, who, unlike Richard, is usually played by a reasonably young actor. Then again, Shakespeare's Richard starts appearing in the Henry VI plays, as an adult, at a time when the historical Richard would have been a toddler, so playing him as older even in his own play makes a certain amount of sense.
- Beam Me Up, Scotty: "Off with his head! So much for Buckingham." For many years one of Richard's most iconic lines -- but not part of Shakespeare's play. It was added in 1700 by leading-man Colley Cibber.
- Big Bad: Richard
- Bury Your Disabled: Type 2, but of course Richard III is hardly helpless.
- The Caligula: Once Richard kills the princes, he really starts to become one of these.
- Card-Carrying Villain: "I am determined to prove a villain."
- C.S. Lewis wrote in an essay on the English language that that was actually a mistake in usage. Villain at the time meant "commoner"; and by pejorative extension "ruffian" (kind of like the word "redneck" in America). So it could be interpreted as, "If everyone thinks I'm just a common thug, by golly I'll show them how scary a thug I can be". Interpret that thought how you will.
- Cassandra Truth:
- Margaret foretells the fate of most of the characters and is ignored and mocked for it.
- Stanley tries to tell Hastings about his dream in which the latter had been decapitated by Richard. Naturally, he is ignored.
- Comforting the Widow: Richard to Anne, with the squicktastic twist that he killed her husband and father-in-law, and she knows it. And her father-in-law's body is lying right there still bleeding.
- Disabled Snarker: Possibly the Ur Example.
- Even Evil Has Standards: The murder of children, as seen in the examples below:
Grey: Tyrants wept when they heard of it.
- Evil Cripple
- Evil Uncle: Richard to the Little Princes.
- Evilly Affable: Richard. To the point where in a recent production, the audience was enjoined to chant his name to get him to take up the throne at the public urgings of Buckingham. The fact that he likes breaking the fourth wall to point out exactly what a Magnificent Bastard he is only adds to the allure.
- Flat Character: Richmond's characterization can basically be summed up as "being the opposite of Richard".
- The Ghost: Princess Elizabeth of York, much talked-about and crucial to the plot as a bargaining chip but never seen (in the 1995 film, she's in a lot of the royal family scenes and gets a line reassigned from another character (in a completely different context).
- Not to be confused with Henry VI.
- Mistress Shore.
- Give Me a Sword: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
- Heel Face Turn: Meta-example with the entire Yorkist faction other than Richard. In the preceding Henry VI play cycle they were the villains, but (in a process beginning in the final scene of Henry VI, Part 3) in this one they're all quite nice. Particularly pronounced with George, Duke of Clarence, who in the earlier plays was a fairly historically-accurate opportunistic bastard but here becomes utterly harmless and a bit of a fool.
- In the case of Clarence there's also an in-universe case of this trope (as well as Face Heel Turn) because he was originally fighting for the House of Lancaster until the very end, when he switched sides to York.
- The House of Plantagenet: This play purports to be a chronicle of the overthrow of the Plantagenets; Richard III's death marked the end of their 331-year reign.
- Illegal Guardian
- Irrevocable Message: Edward's execution order for Clarence, sort of...
- Karmic Death: Richard, who after spending the entire play scheming to gain the crown ends the play (and his life) with the line "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!"
- Kavorka Man: Despite Richard being deformed and a Card-Carrying Villain, he still manages to woo Anne... over the corpse of her first husband's father, King Henry VI, whom Richard had killed prior to the events in the play.
- King on His Deathbed: Edward IV's illness creates this situation at the beginning of the play, since Edward's son is too young to be an effective ruler, and Richard not-yet-III devotes a great deal of his energy to knocking off everyone who'd be a more respectable regent than himself.
- The Late Middle Ages: Set in this period, and helping to establish its bad reputation.
- Manipulative Bastard: Richard.
- Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Buckingham helps Richard to the throne; in return, Richard promises him an extra title of nobility. When Richard refuses to grant it to him, he soliloquizes, "Made I him king for this?" and runs off to join the nascent rebellion.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name / Putting on the Reich: Both extensively used in the 1995 Richard Loncraine film version starring Ian McKellen
- Richard's coronation scene was straight out of Triumph of the Will
- In this version, Edward IV is heavily implied to be Edward VIII, while his wife Elizabeth and the rest of the Woodvilles are played by Americans, suggesting Wallis Simpson. The Earl of Richmond and Princess Elizabeth rather resemble Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
- Offstage Villainy: Most of Richard's acts. Justified by the fact that in Shakespeare's time the stage had no curtains (or only on the innermost portion), and it required considerable "business" to get "dead" characters removed. (The Elizabethans weren't all that squeamish - they loved them some bear-baitings and public hangings.)
- Pet Rat: Tyrell as well as the murderers of Clarence.
- Prophecies Are Always Right: Margaret shows up at the beginning to predict everyone's eventual horrible fate, and then reappears at the end to rub their noses in how right she was.
- Rasputinian Death: Clarence, stabbed multiple times and then drowned in a barrel of wine.
- Red Right Hand: The Richard character being a hunchback (which, incidentally, his historical counterpart was not, exactly).
- Regent for Life: Richard
- Remember the New Guy?: Practically two thirds into the story, Richmond suddenly shows up and he and his wife are treated as if they have been in the story the whole time, and need no introduction or explanation. (Because, to an Elizabethan audience, they wouldn't have; he's Queen Elizabeth's grandfather.)
- Rightful King Returns: Richmond
- Smug Snake: Hastings does little to hide his hate of the house of Lancaster, only pretends to be friendly with them in front of Edward IV, celebrates the fact that Rivers, Dorset and Vaughan are going to be executed by Richard and refuses to listen to Stanley about his visions of Richard decapitating him, saying that Richard and Duke Buckingham would never turn against him. Unfortunately for him, he makes the mistake of refusing to support Richard's claim to the throne and only realizes it when it's far too late.
- Supporting Leader: Averted, by making Richmond the battlefield commander at Bosworth Field. In Real Life he wisely confined himself to politicking and left the fighting to his crack general, the Earl of Oxford, whose descendent, ironically, has been speculated to have been the true author of Shakespeare's plays (though the previous Earl's minute part in the play can be taken as evidence against the Oxfordian theory).
- Those Two Bad Guys: The two killers sent to off Clarence are a proto-example of this.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The Little Princes
- Unaccustomed as I Am to Public Speaking: Richard's claim that people hate him because he's plain-spoken and incapable of flattery.
- Villainous Valor: Richard at the end of the play.
- Villain Protagonist: Richard
- Villain with Good Publicity: Richard again.
- Villainous Breakdown: Richard has one in the final act when confronted by the ghosts of his victims.
- A Worldwide Punomenon: The opening lines are a pun on "Sun of York" (the commonly used badge of the Yorkists, more so than the White Rose) and Richard describing King Edward as a "son of York."
- Written by the Winners: Not the play, but it's pretty obvious what Shakespeare was drawing on.
- The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: Richard tries to convince everyone of this, claiming that his nephew is unfit to rule, and that he's only taking the throne for the good of the kingdom.