Play Of the Month: Richard III

Artwork for “Richard III” by Elizabeth Schuh from “Immortal Longings.” Used with permission

Movie pitch

“Now is the winter of our discontent.” The Wars Of the Roses are over and the York family has taken the crown of England, and one man will stop at nothing to take it! Richard III! He has been called the greatest villain of all time, and you get to see him slaughtering his way to power!

Rated PG13 for violence, suggestive language, and attempted incest.

My two cents

I believe there are two basic types of villains: the ones we love to hate, and the ones we secretly love. Shakespeare invented both in Richard III. From his first speech to the audience to his bloody death at the end of the play, we as the audience watch as he gleefully plots his murderous conquest of the royal family. We are repulsed by his brutality, but we love his brilliance and his gleeful love of villainy. Dr Peter Saccio of Dartmouth college calls Richard a “self- conscious actor,” who plans out every scene, performs it with gusto, (while also directing the unwitting actors around him), and then comments on his performance to us. He is actor, playwright, director, and drama critic and has a great time with each Machiavellian scene.

Richard’s deformity

I’ve written extensively about the significance of Richard’s deformities in the play: his hump, his limp, and his withered arm. At its core, Richard’s deformed mind and body make him an anti hero, who feels reviled and excluded from the rest of humanity. His quest for the crown is basically a misguided attempt to win love and respect from an uncaring world. In this age of school shootings, ethnic- cleansing, and racial violence, this story needs to be told. It’s accuracy as history is not as important as its truth.

Famous Lines

” Now is the winter of our discontent.” Act I, Scene i.

“I am determined to prove a villain.” Act I, Scene I.

“Off with his head!”

“I am not made of stone.”

“The king’s name is a tower of strength.”

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”
Bonus: Great insults from Richard III

  • Bottled Spider
  • Poisonous Bunch-backed toad
  • This most bloody boar
  • A paltry fellow, a milk-sop

For more quotes and analysis of the characters, click here:


General Data

Title: Richard III

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Year Written: approx. 1593

Source: Sir Thomas Moore’s History of Richard III

Genre: Elizabethan History

Play Data

Structure: Five Acts,

Setting: London 1483-1485

Character Notes

Play Summary

  1. After years of civil war, King Edward IV, son of the Duke of York, has been declared the legitimate king of England. Meanwhile, his deformed brother Richard plots to murder Edward, his brother the Duke of Clarance, and anyone else who stands between Richard and the crown!
  2. Richard hires two murderers to drown his brother George in a vat of wine.
  3. Richard marries the Lady Anne, one of the last living member of the royal house of Lancaster, even though he murdered her husband and father in law!
  4. Richard’s eldest brother Edward, dies from old age. With him gone, Richard executes all who oppose him, and spread a rumor that the two crown princes are illegitimate, making him the only heir to the throne.
  5. Richard is crowned king, but immediately faces a host of threats to his crown, who are rallying behind Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond.
  6. Richard hires James Tyrrel to murder his young nephews in the tower.
  7. Richard is haunted by the ghosts of the people he murdered the night before his great battle with Richmond.
  8. Death, chaos, ruin, and decay ensues.

Modern Adaptations

  1. House of Cards In both the UK and US versions, the plot revolves around a lone government employee, who plots and schemes his way to the highest level of power, and makes the audience accomplices in his crimes. As if that weren’t enough, Ian Richardson and Kevin Spacey, who played the programs’ respective protagonists, have also played Richard III!
  2. Game of Thrones The bloody intrigue of the House of Westeros has Shakespeare’s DNA flowing through it. In some ways you can trace all four plays of Shakespeare’s War Of the Roses cycle; families tearing each other down to obtain the throne. In addition, as I remarked in my thesis, Tyrian Lanister, (arguably the show’s greatest character), is played by Peter Dinklage, who back in 2007 played the title role in… guess who?
  3. Peter Dinklage as Richard III
  4. Every Slasher Movie Ever Made- Norman Bates, Jason Voorhees, Freddie Kruger, Ghostface. All of the greatest horror icons owe a little to Richard. They use their ugliness to strike fear into the hearts of their victims. Some even talk directly to the audience! But the greatest similarity between these villains and Richard, is the fact that they kill in secret, and nobody can see it coming.
  5. Every James Bond villain ever. The tired cliche of the villain telling the audience his evil plans started with Richard, although he had the good sense to only share his thoughts with the audience.

Concerns for Teachers

  1. The Ultimate wicked uncle story Shakespeare often referenced fairy tales when creating his plays as a shorthand to help the audience understand them. In Richard we see another wicked uncle who deceives his young nephews. In addition, murdering young children connects Richard to the greatest villain in the Bible- King Herod. As a boy Shakespeare himself watched with terror as the wicked Herod ordered the deaths of innocent children in the old Mystery Plays of Stratford Upon Avon, and based all of his wicked kings upon Herod.
  2. This play is too long. Richard III is the second longest play in the Shakespearean cannon. It’s also part of a tetrolology, four plays that it’s extremely unlikely that your students have read; Henry VI Parts 1-3 are rarely performed and are often highly cut. Ever since the 1680s, theatrical productions have been making adaptations of Richard, that focus on just his story instead of the decline of the house of Lancaster, (which happened in the three previous plays). Still, in this age of multiple sequels and episodic dramas like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, audiences are showing that they can tolerate long epic dramas like this, as long as they appear on TV. This is one reason for the success of the British mini series “The Hollow Crown,” which condensed all of Shakespeare’s histories into an action-packed TV mini series. Click here to read my take on their episode of Richard III, where Benedict Cumberbatch played Richard.

Discussion Questions

  • Richard and contemporary politics. In addition to being an icon of villainy, Richard is also the classic corrupt politician, who manipulates people’s hate and fear to get their political support. Discuss how
  • Again, while Richard ‘campaigns’ for the throne, he also performs for the people of London. Former president Reagan was also an Hollywood actor, Donald Trump is a reality TV star turned President. How does play-acting relate to elections and what tactics does Richard share with Actors and politicians of today?
  • Richard and religious hypocrisy- in order to deflect suspicion for his gruesome murders, Richard pretends to be pious. Every time he is in public he uses an oath to God or a saint, and when he accepts the crown, he appears in a bell tower between two priests. Discuss how Richard and other tyrants manipulate people’s religious beliefs.
  • Richard’s deformity and bullying
  • Richard as anti hero Arguably comic book anti heroes like Deadpool and Hellboy have their roots in this play- their ugliness puts them outside of society and they have their own moral codes that they use to justify the vengeance they inflict on others. What other anti heroes do you think share traits with Shakepeare’s Richard III?

Concerns for Directors

  1. To cut or not to cut? As I mentioned before, this is a very long play, and few people have seen the three plays that preceede it. It is the director’s job to decide what parts of the story on which to focus: Richard, the history of the Wars Of The Roses, or the victims?
  2. How to play Richard’s deformity
  3. Period- Nazis? Arab Tragedy? 15th century England?
  4. Richard’s dream speech?

Lesson plans for teachers

Royal Shakespeare Company

American Shakespeare Center

Folger and DC?