Another reason for editing is that Shakespeare assumed that his audiences would be familiar with the Henry VI plays, and frequently made indirect references to events in them, such as Richard's murder of Henry VI or the defeat of Henry's queen Margaret. Nowadays the previous plays are less well-known, so the character of Margaret is often cut and extra lines are sometimes invented or added from the trilogy to explain the characters' relationships.
Colley Cibber produced the most successful of the Restoration adaptations of Shakepeare with his version of Richard III, at Drury Lane starting in 1700. Cibber himself played the role till 1739, and his version was on stage for the next century and a half. It contained the immortal line "Off with his head; so much for Buckingham" — possibly the most famous Shakespearean line that Shakespeare didn't write. The original Shakespearean version returned in a production at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1845.
(Note: Links are to articles on the actual historical personages, who may not entirely correspond to Shakespeare's portrayal of them — particularly with respect to the title character, Richard III.)
The speech reveals Richard's jealousy and ambition, as his brother, King Edward the Fourth 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." Richard plots to have his brother Clarence, who stands before him in the line of succession, conducted to the Tower of London over a prophecy that "G of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be" - which the king interprets as referring to George of Clarence (although the audience later realise that it was actually a reference to Richard of Gloucester).
"I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter. What, though I kill'd her husband and his father?"
Despite her prejudice against him, Anne is won over by his pleas and agrees to marry him. This episode illustrates Richard's supreme skill in the art of insincere flattery.
The atmosphere at court is poisonous: the established nobles are at odds with the upwardly-mobile relatives of Queen Elizabeth, a hostility fueled by Richard's machinations. Queen Margaret, Henry VI's widow, returns in defiance of her banishment and warns the squabbling nobles about Richard. The nobles, all Yorkists, reflexively unite against this last Lancastrian, and the warning falls on deaf ears.
Richard orders two murderers to kill his brother Clarence in the tower. Clarence, meanwhile, relates a dream to his keeper. The dream includes extremely visual language describing Clarence falling from an imaginary ship as a result of Gloucester, who had fallen from the hatches, striking him. Under the water Clarence sees the skeletons of thousands of men "that fishes gnawed upon." He also sees "wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, inestimable stones, unvalued jewels." All of these are "scatterd in the bottom of the sea." Clarence adds that some of the jewels were in the skulls of the dead. Clarence then imagines dying and being tormented by the ghosts of his father-in-law (Warwick, Anne's father) and brother-in-law (Edward, Anne's former husband) in a hellish afterlife.
After Clarence falls asleep, Brakenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, enters and observes that between the titles of princes and the low names of commoners there is nothing different but the "outward fame," meaning that they both have "inward toil" whether rich or poor. When the murderers arrive, he reads their warrant (which is falsely portrayed as being from the king), and exits with the Keeper, who disobeys Clarence's request to stand by him, and leaves the two murderers the keys.
Clarence wakes and pleads with the murderers, saying that men have no right to obey other men's requests for murder, because all men are under the rule of God not to commit murder. The murderers imply Clarence is a hypocrite because he "unripdst the bowels of (his) sovereign's son (Edward) whom (he was) sworn to cherish and defend." Tactically trying to win them over, he tells them to go to his brother Gloucester who will reward them better for his life than "Edward will for tidings of (his) death." One murderer insists Gloucester himself sent them to perform the bloody act, but Clarence does not believe this. He recalls the unity of Richard Duke of York blessing his three sons with his victorious arm, bidding his brother Gloucester to "think on this and he will weep." Sardonically, a murderer says Gloucester weeps millstones.
Next, one of the murderers explains that his brother Gloucester hates him, and sent them to the Tower to perform the foul act. Eventually, the murderer with a conscience does not participate in the act, but the other killer stabs Clarence and drowns him in "the Malmsey butt within". The first act closes with the perpetrator needing to find a hole to bury Clarence.
Edward IV, weakened by a reign dominated by physical excess, soon dies, leaving as Protector his brother Richard, who sets about removing the final obstacles to his accession. He meets his nephew, the young Edward V, who is en route to London for his coronation accompanied by relatives of Edward's widow. These Richard arrests and (eventually) beheads, and the young prince and his brother are coaxed into an extended stay at the Tower of London.
Assisted by his cousin Buckingham (Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham), Richard mounts a campaign to present himself as a preferable candidate to the throne, appearing as a modest, devout man with no pretensions to greatness. Lord Hastings, who objects to Richard's ascension, is arrested and executed on a trumped-up charge. Together, Richard and Buckingham, spread the rumor that Edward's two sons are illegitimate, and therefore have no rightful claim to the throne. The other lords are cajoled into accepting Richard as king, in spite of the continued survival of his nephews (the Princes in the Tower).
His new status leaves Richard sufficiently confident to dispose of his nephews. Richard asks Buckingham to secure the death of the princes, but Buckingham hesitates. Richard then recruits James Tyrell for this act, which Tyrell causes to be executed. In the meantime, Richard turns against Buckingham for the latter's refusal to kill the princes, and denies Buckingham the prior-promised land grant. At this, Buckingham turns against Richard and defects to the side of the Earl of Richmond, who is currently in exile. Richard tries his old dissembling to get into princess Elizabeth's "nest of spicery", but her mother is not taken in by his eloquence.
In due course, the increasingly paranoid Richard loses what popularity he had. He soon faces rebellions led first by Buckingham and subsequently by the invading Earl of Richmond (Henry VII of England). Buckingham is captured and executed. Both sides arrive for a final battle at 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, slowly realizing that he is all alone in the world and that even he hates himself. Richard's language and undertones of self-remorse seem to indicate that, in the final hour, he is repentant for his evil deeds; however, it is too late.
At the battle of Bosworth Field, Lord Stanley (who is also Richmond's stepfather) and his followers desert Richard's side, whereupon Richard calls for the execution of George Stanley, Lord Stanley's son. This does not happen, as the battle is in full swing, and Richard is left at a disadvantage. Richard is soon unhorsed on the field at the climax of the battle, and utters the often-quoted line, A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! Richmond kills Richard in the final duel. Subsequently, Richmond succeeds to the throne as Henry VII, and marries Elizabeth from the House of York, effectively ending the War of the Roses.
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:
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").
Richard himself also provides some dry remarks in evaluating the situation, as when he plans to marry the Queen Elizabeth's daughter: "Murder her brothers, then marry her; Uncertain way of gain...." Other examples of humor in this play include Clarence's ham-fisted and half-hearted murderers, and the Duke of Buckingham's report on his attempt to persuade the Londoners to accept Richard ("...I bid them that did love their country's good cry, God save Richard, England's royal king!" Richard: "And did they so?" Buckingham: "No, so God help me, they spake not a word....") Puns, a Shakespearean staple, are especially well-represented in the scene where Richard tries to persuade Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter on his behalf.
One of the central themes of Richard III is the idea of fate, especially as it is seen through the tension between free will and fatalism in the actions and speech of the villain-hero, Richard, as well as the reactions to him by other characters. There is no doubt that Shakespeare drew heavily from Sir Thomas More’s account of Richard III as a criminal and tyrant as inspiration for his own rendering. This influence, especially as it relates to the role of divine punishment in Richard’s rule of England, reaches its height in the voice of Margaret. As Janis Lull, a noted Shakespeare scholar from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, suggests, “Margaret gives voice to the belief, encouraged by the growing Calvinism of the Elizabethan era, that individual historical events are determined by God, who often punishes evil with (apparent) evil”.
Thus, it seems possible that Shakespeare, in conforming to the growing “Tudor Myth” of the day, as well as taking into account new theologies of divine action and human will becoming popular in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, sought to paint Richard as the final curse of God on England in punishment for the deposition of Richard II in 1399. The late Irving Ribner, former chair of the English department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, argued that “…the evil path of Richard is a cleansing operation which roots evil out of society and restores the world at last to the God-ordained goodness embodied in the new rule of Henry VII”.
Victor Kiernan, a Marxist scholar and historian, writes that this interpretation is a perfect fit with the English social perspective of Shakespeare’s day: “An extension is in progress of a privileged class’s assurance of preferential treatment in the next world as in this, to a favoured nation’s conviction of having God on its side, of Englishmen being…the new Chosen People”. As Elizabethan England was slowly colonizing the world, the populace embraced the view of its own Divine Right and Appointment to do so, much as Richard does in Shakespeare’s play.
However, historical fatalism is merely one side of the argument of fate against free will. It is also possible that Shakespeare intended to portray Richard as “…a personification of the Machiavellian view of history as power politics”. In this view, Richard is acting entirely out of his own free will in brutally taking hold of the English throne. Kiernan also presents this side of the coin, noting that “He [Richard] boasts to us of his finesse in dissembling and deception with bits of Scripture to cloak his ‘naked villainy’ (I.iii.334-8)…Machiavelli, as Shakespeare may want us to realize, is not a safe guide to practical politics…”
Kiernan suggests that Richard is merely acting as if God is determining his every step in a sort of Machiavellian manipulation of religion as an attempt to circumvent the moral conscience of those around him. Therefore, historical determinism is merely an illusion perpetrated by Richard’s assertion of his own free will. The Machiavellian reading of the play finds its most convincing evidence in Richard’s interactions with the audience, as when he mentions that he is “determinèd to prove a villain” (I.i.30). However, though it seems Richard views himself as completely in control, Lull suggests that Shakespeare is using Richard to state “the tragic conception of the play in a joke. His primary meaning is that he controls his own destiny. His pun also has a second, contradictory meaning – that his villainy is predestined – and the strong providentialism of the play ultimately endorses this meaning”.
Like many of William Shakespeare’s plays, language plays a large part in Richard III. Literary critic, Paul Haeffner writes that Shakespeare had a great understanding of language and the potential of every word he used. One word that Shakespeare gave potential to was "joy." This was employed in ACT I, SCENE III, where it was used to show “deliberate emotional effect”. Another word that Haeffner points out is "kind". He makes the suggestion that the word "kind" is used with two different definitions.
The first definition is used to express a “gentle and loving” being, which Clarence uses to describe his brother Richard to the murderers that were sent to kill him. This first definition is, of course, not true in the case of Richard. He hides under that definition of kind to achieve his desire to be king. The second definition concerns “the person’s true nature ... Richard will indeed use Hastings kindly – that is, just as he is in the habit of using people – brutally”. In several cases, Richard does use people as a habit. His first victim was Clarence and then it was Lady Anne. If Richard had married Elizabeth, he would also make sure that he uses her properly as he would kindly do.
Haeffner also writes about how speech is written. He compares the speeches of Richmond and Richard to their soldiers. He describes Richmond’s speech as “dignified” and formal, while Richard’s speech is explained as “slangy and impetuous”. Richard’s casualness in speech is also noted by another writer. However, Lull does not make the comparison between Richmond and Richard as Haeffner did, but between Richard and the women of Richard III. However, it is important to note that the women share the formal language that Richmond uses. She makes the argument that the difference in speech “reinforces the thematic division between the women’s identification with the social group and Richard’s individualism”. Haeffner agrees that Richard is “an individualist, hating dignity and formality”.
Janis Lull also takes special notice of the mourning women. She suggests that they are associated with “figures of repetition as anaphora – beginning each clause in a sequence with the same word – and epistrophe – repeating the same word at the end of each clause”. One example of the epistrophe can be found in Margaret’s speech in ACT I, SCENE III. Haeffner refers to these as few of many “devices and tricks of style” that occur in the play, showcasing Shakespeare’s ability to bring out the potential of every word.
More recently, Richard III has been brought to the screen by Sir Ian McKellen (1995) in an abbreviated version, set in a fictional 1930s fascist England, and by Al Pacino in the documentary, Looking for Richard. In the film The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss' character, an actor, gives a memorable performance as a homosexual Richard due to his director's unconventional interpretation of the play. In 2002 the story of Richard III was re-told in a movie about gang culture called The Street King.
A 2006 film version of Richard III is part of the independent film-noir titled Purgatory, a retelling of three classic Shakespeare tales, including Richard III. The 2008 version, Richard III, stars Scott M. Anderson and David Carradine.
In 1996, a pristine print of Richard III (1912), starring Frederick Warde as Richard III was discovered by a private collector and donated to the American Film Institute. The 55-minute film is considered to be the earliest surviving American feature film.