Richard The Third Play Essays

SOURCE: de Somogyi, Nick. Introduction to The Shakespeare Folios: Richard III, edited by Nick de Somogyi, pp. xxvii-xlix. London: Nick Hern Books, 2002.

[In the following essay, de Somogyi provides an overview of Richard III, tracing the play's performance and textual history as well as providing Richard's family tree.]


The lank black hair and sharply prominent nose are unmistakable; so is the limp, as the hunchback King turns towards the camera's slow zoom, and (to the sound of a gently strummed lute) delivers, in that inimitably clipped bark, some of the most famous opening lines in the world: ‘It has been a hard day's night, and I have been working like a dog …’1 Peter Sellers's sublime impersonation of Laurence Olivier as Richard III (as John Lennon), recorded for a 1965 TV Beatles ‘spectacular’, is variously true to the play he didn't quote. The pleasure of Olivier's iconic performance—premièred on the London stage in 1944, immortalized on film in 1955—has been shrewdly located in ‘watching Olivier the consummate actor play Richard the consummate actor’;2 how apt, then, that Sellers, the arch-mimic, should add his own twist to the sequence of eerily accurate impersonations by which Shakespeare's hero-villain usurps the throne. From the very first, Richard III has provided a ‘peerless vehicle for a virtuoso actor’,3 a tradition embodied in John Gielgud's gift to Olivier, ‘in appreciation of his performance’, of the sword Edmund Kean had worn in the rôle in 1814, which had in turn been presented to Sir Henry Irving in 1873.4 The theory that Sellers pinched Olivier's own wig for the part may represent a suitably Goonish extension of this tradition.5

‘Come, cousin,’ says Richard in Shakespeare's play, in a brief backstage masterclass with his protégé Buckingham,

canst thou quake and change thy colour, Murder thy breath in middle of a word, And then again begin, and stop again, As if thou were distraught and mad with terror?

(3.5, pp. 128-9)

‘Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian,’ replies Buckingham. Richard's range is broader: he can counterfeit the faithful brother (1.1), the wooing lover (1.2), the political loyalist (1.3), the indulgent uncle (3.1), the persecuted innocent (3.4), and—perhaps his finest performance—the pious Christian prince, reluctantly enthroned (3.7). The play—his play—is indeed, as a recent editor has called it, ‘conspicuously a performance piece, and in many ways it is about the nature of performance’.6 Impersonation lies at the heart of the story Richard III tells, as one of Shakespeare's most influential sources acknowledged: ‘[King Richard] was of a ready, pregnant, and quick wit, wily to feign, and apt to dissemble.’7 And the seed—or better, perhaps, the replicating germ—of the play's conceit seems to have occurred to Shakespeare midway through its predecessor, the play known in the First Folio as Henry VI, Part Three. ‘I can add colours to the chameleon,’ boasts Richard in that earlier play, towards the end of a 70-line soliloquy that suddenly propels him centre-stage (3.2). Olivier shared in that boast, inserting this section of the speech into Richard III's opening soliloquy (see ‘The Story So Far’ below, pp. li-liv).

Richard III is often described as Shakespeare's most popular play, a statistic borne out by its enduring profile in the twentieth century, the era of mass entertainment—and mass murder. A scene from the play was among the first pieces of drama to be televised by the BBC (in 1937);8 and when Olivier's film was broadcast on NBC in 1956, American television audiences were estimated at over 60 million, a record number, and ‘more … than had seen the play in the theatres of England since it was first performed in 1592’.9 Olivier had partly modelled his performance in that film on the same detested individual—the theatre director Jed Harris—as had inspired the Big Bad Wolf in Walt Disney's cartoon, Three Little Pigs (1933).10 The other influence, of course, was Hitler—though Olivier's biographer revealingly detects ‘echoes of the mannerisms caricatured by Chaplin in The Great Dictator’.11 Film, television, Chaplin, Disney, Hitler, the Goons, the Beatles: it is entirely fitting that the vast celebrity of each of these twentieth-century phenomena finds a place in the cultural history of Richard III. For the play was Shakespeare's first smash-hit, his first ‘Number One’; it also laid the foundation of his twenty-year partnership with Richard Burbage. The massive popularity of Richard III—an unbeatable combination of Burbage's starring performances and Shakespeare's masterpiece of script—accordingly prompted a sequence of parody, pastiche, and anecdote that place Richard III at the heart of sixteenth-century pop culture.

‘A boat! A boat!’ cries a character in the City Comedy Eastward Ho! (1605), ‘A full hundred marks for a boat!’12 John Marston was particularly fond of this deflationary gag—the speaker is here merely hailing a river-taxi—and his earliest version of it appeared in his 1598 satire The Scourge of Villainy (1598).13 A few years later, in 1601, students at St John's College, Cambridge, went a little further. At around the same time that the Lord Chamberlain's Men were presenting their touring production of Hamlet in the town,14 they wrote and performed a play (a satire on the London literary scene known to scholarship as The Second Part of The Return from Parnassus) that features in its cast the real-life figures of Dick Burbage and Will Kemp. These glamorous figures (the leading actor and the clown of the Lord Chamberlain's Men) audition some dim-witted Cambridge undergraduates: ‘I like your face and the proportion of your body for Richard the 3,’ says Burbage, rather archly, to one of them; ‘I pray … let me see you act a little of it.’ ‘Now is the winter of our discontent,’ obliges his hapless protégé. ‘Very well I assure you,’ comments Burbage; ‘we see what ability you are of.’15

By this time, of course, Burbage and Shakespeare's abilities were very well known to London audiences. So much so, in fact, that they featured in a racy piece of theatrical gossip, first recorded in a diary entry (by the law-student John Manningham) in March 1602. ‘Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III,’ it relates, a star-struck member of the audience (a ‘groupie’, so to say) ‘grew so far in liking with him’ that she arranged an illicit liaison with him. Burbage was to announce himself ‘by the name of Richard III’ when he called; but:

Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that ‘Richard III’ was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III’.16

The punchline for twenty-first-century audiences might better read ‘William the Conqueror came before Richard III’, but the story's modern status is plain: Burbage and Shakespeare are the subject of celebrity gossip—and, significantly, it is Richard III that underpins the joke. Burbage was as long identified in the rôle as Olivier remains to this day;17 and it was on the title-page of Richard III's second Quarto edition that Shakespeare's name was first used to advertise a printed play.18 Contemporary readers and playgoers alike testify to its vast popularity. Between 1597 (when its first edition appeared) and 1623 (when it was published as the ninth play in the Folio's ‘Histories’), no fewer than six separate Quarto editions were printed.19 But the play that Heminge and Condell laboured to procure for their discerning readership in 1623 was, in a thousand various ways, quite different to the play those readers and playgoers had known for the previous thirty years of its celebrity.

Modern students of pop-culture are familiar with the lavish boxed sets, anthologies, and re-issued CDs that continue to re-package the music of the 1960s. The inclusion of first takes, demos, ‘out-takes’ from rehearsal sessions, and ‘original’ tracks shorn of subsequent ‘overdubs’ are obligatory; one such re-issue boasts of the ‘intensive archival research to find the original masters’ from which it was produced.20 Heminge and Condell would have recognized the principle (if not the vocabulary) of such claims. The preface to their collection, after all, claims to have restored to their readership the authoritative texts of previously bootlegged editions of some plays (‘cured and perfect of their limbs’), and ‘all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them’ (see above, p. x). The following section is designed to explain what exactly it was that Heminge and Condell unearthed from the archive at their disposal, and how precisely they re-mastered The Tragedy of Richard the Third.


‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III’: Heminge and Condell arranged the second section of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies on the very same principle, sequencing its ten history plays in the chronological order of their reigns rather than in the order of their composition. Their procedure made grand sense of Shakespeare's achievement—an unbroken dramatic chronicle of England's history from 1398 to 1485, topped and tailed by related episodes from both her distant (King John) and recent (Henry VIII) past;21 but it skewed the astonishing trajectory of his creative development. For the so-called second tetralogy (Richard II to Henry V) there precedes the first (1 Henry VI to Richard III); and Richard III, the ninth in the Folio sequence (occupying pp. 173-204, sig. q5r-t2v)22 comes immediately before Henry VIII—despite the twenty years separating their theatrical premières. More confusing still is the fact that Henry VI, Part One is what we would nowadays call a ‘prequel’: it seems to have been written after the plays known in the Folio as The Second and Third Part of King Henry the Sixth;23 and to make matters worse, Henry VI, Part Two was originally known (in its 1594 Quarto edition) as The First Part of the Contention of the two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster.

Something of the same dizzying perspective closely attends the textual history of Richard III itself: for its earliest printed edition (the First Quarto, 1597) preserves a much later version of the play than the one Heminge and Condell subsequently published in their 1623 collection. The Folio, as it were, came before the Quarto. The following chronological narrative represents (more or less) the expert consensus surrounding what has been called ‘the most difficult question which presents itself to an editor of Shakespeare’,24 based on a minute analysis by generations of scholars of the seven editions of Richard III that were published between 1597 and 1623. (Scholarly consensus being what it is, however, it should be noted that almost every detail in the following account has been challenged.)

In around 1592, fresh from completing work on the three-part Henry VI sequence, Shakespeare decided to resume the historical chronology by developing the character of Richard, Duke of Gloucester into a play of his own, and so fulfil Richard's stated vow ‘to catch the English crown’ (3 Henry VI, 3.2. A modernized text of this originating soliloquy can be found below, pp. li-liii). Possibly he was influenced—perhaps even irritated—by an anonymous play on the same subject, The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, first performed around 1591.25 Working from the chronicle sources of Edward Hall (1550) and Ralph Holinshed (1587), Shakespeare sat down to write the longest play he had so far written—and the second longest of his entire career.26 Shakespeare presented this bundle of manuscript—possibly a fair copy he had prepared for the purpose, tinkering and tweaking as he went—to the theatrical company to which he was then attached: either Lord Strange's Men or Lord Pembroke's Men, depending on when precisely it was that he completed the play. (He certainly seems to have taken care to introduce gratuitously flattering references to both lords' descendants into the historical record that his script condensed.)27

Shakespeare's Richard III probably first reached the stage in 1592-3, whereupon it swiftly established the simultaneous celebrity of both its author and its star (Richard Burbage). Both men joined the newly formed Lord Chamberlain's Men in the early summer of 1594; with them went the successful script of Richard III—but in a form already substantially removed from the manuscript draft Shakespeare had submitted, which would merely have formed the raw material from which to assemble (via a process of ensemble reading and collective rehearsal) the so-called ‘prompt-book’ (or ‘theatre copy’, or ‘play-book’): a ‘definitive’ transcript of the performed play, incorporating cuts, additions, and revisions, and marked up with the stage-directions, effects, and props necessary to ensure a smooth performance. The play remained in the repertoire of the Chamberlain's Men, and its enduring success led others to seek reflected glory: The True Tragedy of Richard the Third (the play it had outshone) was entered for publication in June 1594.

Just over three years later, in July 1597, the fragile relationship between London's players and its government violently broke down when news reached the Privy Council of the performance on Bankside of a scandalous, lewd, and seditious play called The Isle of Dogs.28 That play—by Thomas Nashe and a young Ben Jonson—is lost, so it is impossible to know why it caused such a fuss. What is known is that on 28 July, the Council ordered the immediate closure—and subsequent demolition—of all London's theatres. In fact the theatres survived, and the storm had blown over by mid-October, when Philip Henslowe resumed his recording of box-office receipts at the Rose.29 Meanwhile, however, faced with the collapse of their principal source of income, Shakespeare's company went on tour, mainly around the southern coast of England.30 And now the textual history of Richard III gets complicated. For this play—by now a slightly dusty jewel in their crown—was evidently among those presented during this enforced touring season. But somehow, somewhere along the way, the prompt-book (the performance-text of the play that had been adapted from Shakespeare's original manuscript) went missing.

And so, in around August 1597, the assembled company gave a private performance of Richard III, at dictation-speed (by the seaside at Rye or Dover, it is pleasant to imagine), reconstructing from their collective memory the version of the play they were then touring. These speeches were written down, and an approximation of the prompt-book reproduced—an ‘approximation’ because not only did this transcript rely on the fallible memories of its cast, but the laborious recital of their parts would also necessarily have incorporated the fully rehearsed adaptation of the play that had been prepared in advance so as to cater for the more limited resources available to the smaller troupe that was touring it.31

The Chamberlain's Men's provincial tour came to an end in October, when news may have reached them that the Admiral's Men—their chief rivals in the city—had resumed performances at the Rose. They were certainly back in London by the 20th, when ‘The tragedie of kinge Richard the Third wth the death of the duke of Clarence’ was entered in the Stationers' Register for publication. The version of the play they submitted for publication was the ‘memorial reconstruction’ of the touring script they had only recently compiled.

A play's publication generally signalled the end of its box-office pull. The formal rhetoric of Richard III must indeed have come to seem rather creakily old-fashioned by the time its First Quarto (‘Q1’) appeared a few months later—certainly by contrast with the supple naturalism of the Henry IV plays that Shakespeare was now in the throes of composing. Still, the appearance on London's book-stalls, in 1597, of the paperback of Richard III (‘As it hath beene lately Acted by the Right honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants’) can scarcely have done the company's profile or reputation any harm. Unusually, the publisher (Andrew Wise), divided the printing work between two separate workshops, possibly in an effort to rush forward the publication date.32

The book was a phenomenal success. A second edition appeared (this time under Shakespeare's name) within the year (Q2, 1598), and further reprints (Q3-Q8) were regularly issued until 1634. Each of these editions was laboriously typeset from its predecessor (the possibility of ‘Saving to Disk’ remaining an unimaginable luxury for the next four centuries). So although the odd ‘typo’-correction was here and there made by each new generation of compositors, each of these successive Quartos introduced errors of its own—rather as, these days, when photocopies are made of photocopies, each successive print displays a sometimes illegible degeneration. (It seems, however, that someone was well enough aware of the entropy of this process to insist that Q5 (1612) was set from a copy of Q3 (1602) that had been marked up with corrections.)33

Shakespeare's Richard III was being read in paperback throughout his subsequent career—even as Much Ado About Nothing (1598), Hamlet (1602), King Lear (1605), and The Tempest (1612) were being performed. By the time of its Sixth Quarto in 1622, however, both its presiding geniuses (Burbage and Shakespeare) were dead; and their literary and theatrical heirs (Heminge and Condell) were well advanced in preparing their edition of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. The editorial policy they adopted transformed the play from the ‘Tragedy’ by which it had been known and praised, into the volume's penultimate History;34 but their work did not stop there. True to the pledge they made in the Folio's preface, Heminge and Condell took care to provide their readership with something new: ‘and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them’ (see above, p. x).

Their easiest course would simply have been to reprint the play from one or other of its many previous Quarto editions (as they more or less did, for example, with Much Ado About Nothing).35 Instead they worked hard to improve on that variously distorted abridgement. The Life & Death of Richard the Third (as the play is called on the Folio's contents page) presented to its readers a version of the play previously unknown to more than a handful of professional actors: the manuscript bundle that Shakespeare had originally compiled. But the clarity of Shakespeare's handwriting seems to have been erratic; and besides, these pages were by now close to thirty years old. And so, rather than risking a fresh sequence of errors and misreadings at the printer's, Heminge and Condell devised a means by which to combine the legibility of the Quartos with the variant original text of Shakespeare's manuscript. What is certain is that a copy of Q3 (1602)—possibly also a copy of Q6 (1622)—was used as a sort of convenient template against which Shakespeare's original manuscript was checked, and onto which its variant readings were transplanted. From these two—or three—separate texts was created (or better, perhaps ‘recreated’) the ‘authoritative’ text of Richard III that appears in the First Folio. What is less certain is how this ‘collation’ was managed—what material, in other words, was presented to the Folio typesetters (‘compositors’) in early 1623. The two main alternative opinions are as follows.

The play was either typeset from a scissor-and-paste composite of the Quarto play, systematically annotated from Shakespeare's manuscript (‘insert’, ‘delete’, ‘substitute’, and so on); or from a fresh transcript prepared (by a ‘collator’) from the mess of correction such a process would have entailed. Whatever the truth, in around March 1623, two separate compositors, identified by scholarship as ‘A’ and ‘B’,36 began work on typesetting the play. The text they prepared was the closest so far published to the play Shakespeare had conceived in the early 1590s. That is the text which this edition exactly reproduces—the version presented as definitive by its first editors. Yet (as the last four pages have sought to demonstrate) every step of a reader's way stands upon a shifting quicksand of gradually yielding authority. A single leaf of this 1623 edition may usefully illustrate the complex process of textual mediation that lies behind it.

Pages 181-2 (r3r-v) of the ‘Histories’ section of the First Folio advances the action of Richard III from the moment that the Duke of Clarence's murderers resolve to set about their work (1.4, pp. 60-61) to the public announcement of that murder at the meeting King Edward has convened (2.1, pp. 74-5). The second page (r3v) is reproduced in facsimile below, p. 274.

Certain elements of this 250-line sequence clearly found their way into the text at the time of its 1623 printing. The play's division into acts and scenes, for example (‘Actus Secundus. Scœna Prima.’), is unique to the Folio, and was probably introduced to smoothe the play's transition from stage to page: the sumptuous Folio is a book to read rather than an acting edition.37 Other unique features were less helpful. As, for example, in the careless slip (by Compositor ‘B’) in the first line of r3r, when the First Murderer characterizes conscience as the devil: ‘'Tis euen now at my elbow, perswading me not to kill the Dkue...

Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for Richard III by William Shakespeare that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in Richard III and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of Richard III by William Shakespeare in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Richard III at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Relationship Between the Monarch and the People

From the beginning of Richard III's reign, his relationship with the people of England is strained. This Shakespeare play first investigates the public’s feelings for him after the death of Edward, in Act II, Scene III where the citizens are worriedly gossiping about who will become the new King—they fear Richard’s presence at the throne. As Shakespeare's play progresses, the noblemen’s feelings are shown to be growing negative as well. However, Richard continues on, believing that his quest for King will be won, and that his people will grow to love him. In what ways does the relationship between Richard III and his subjects foreshadow the future of the King and his country? For more ideas on this subject, this article on divine right in the other king plays by Shakespeare will be of great help.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Richard III and the Role of Ambition

Throughout Richard III, Richard is consumed by the notion of taking the crown as his own. His primary ambition is to rule England, and he will use any means necessary to obtain that goal. From the murder of his brother Clarence, to the plot of Edward’s death, and the assassination of the princes in the tower, Richard’s deeds grow more and more deplorable. Although Richard’s mind gradually grows more clouded with the desire to fulfill his ambition, do you think that his lofty aspirations can be wholly to blame for the acts that he commits? If it’s not pure ambition that drives him to these deeds, what causes him to act this way? Resentment because of his deformity? Genuine evil?

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Role of Intelligence, Wit and Wordplay in Richard III

Many of Shakespeare’s plays include a fair bit of word play, and Richard III is no exception. However, it seems that Richard’s intelligence and quick wit get him out of troublesome situations quite often. His discussion with Lady Anne at the side of her husband’s corpse especially displays this unnatural talent with words. In the course of a few moments, she goes from a distraught and angry widow to a woman wooed by Richard’s charms and considering taking his ring. In what other situations does Richard’s way with words get him out of trouble? Why is this especially important, especially considering that Shakespeare is himself, a wordsmith?

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Richard III : Premonitions and the Significance of Dreams

While the supernatural is important throughout Richard III, the most important manifestation of the supernatural is found in the prophetic dreams. Both Clarence and Stanley have dreams that prophesize either their own death, or the death of someone close to them. Clarence dreams of drowning at sea, but is instead murdered by being thrown into a wine cask by Richard’s thugs. Stanley also foretells the execution of Hastings. What do you think is the purpose behind these divining dreams? It seems that the sequence of events occurs to quickly for the dreamers to stop them, however, the dreams must have a purpose.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5: The Historical Impact of Richard III and Shakespeare’s Retelling

The historical figure of Richard III was very important, especially in Elizabethan England. With the defeat of Richard III came the end of the War of the Roses, and the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty. Considering these political implications and the influence that Elizabeth (who was also a Tudor) had over Shakespeare, how much of Richard’s tendency towards evil do you think was hyperbole? Of course, there is historical evidence that supports Shakespeare’s interpretation of Richard, however, his relationship with the Queen no doubt had influence over the writing of his play. In what ways do you think the portrayal of Richard III could have affected the current political climate in Shakespeare’s day?

* For articles on this and other plays by William Shakespeare, be sure to browse through the Literature Archives at as there are several to choose from to gain ideas *

This list of important quotations from Richard III by Shakespeare will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Shakespeare's “Richard III” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for “Richard III” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text by Shakespeare they are referring to.

“The lights burn blue. It is now midnight. Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh. What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am. Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why: Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself? Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good that I myself have done unto myself? O no, alas, I rather hate myself for hateful deeds committed by myself. I am a villain. (V.v.134-145)

“Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days; Compare dead happiness with living woe; Think that they babes were sweeter than they were, and he that slew them fouler than he is. Bett’ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse. Revolving this will teach thee how to curse." (IV.iv.118-123).

“Better it were they all came by his father, or by his father there were none at all. For emulation who shall now be near’st Will touch us all too near, if God prevent not. O full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester, And the Queen’s sons and brothers haughty and proud. And were they to be ruled, and not to rule, this sickly land might solace as before." (II.iii.23-30)

“O bloody Richard! Miserable England, I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee that ever wretched age hat looked upon.—Come lead me to the block, bear him my head. They smile at me, who shortly shall be dead." (III.iv.103-107)

“Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry; But ‘twas thy beauty that provoked me. Nay, now dispatch: ‘twas I that stabbed young Edward; But ‘twas thy heavnly face that set me on. Take up the sword again, or take up me." (I.ii.167-170)

“Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour won? I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long. What, I that killed her husband and his father, to take her inher heart’s extremest hate, with curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes, the bleeding witness of my hatred by…" (I.ii.215-221)

“O I have passed a miserable night, so full of fearful dreams, of ugly sights, that as I am a Christian faithful man, I would not spend another such a night though ‘twere to buy a world of happy days, so full of dismal terror was the time." (I.iv.2-7)

“Good lords, conduct him to his regiment. I’ll strive with troubled thoughts to take a nap, lest leaden slumber peise me down tomorrow, when I should mount with wings of victory. Once more, good night, kind lords and gentlemen." (V.v.56-60).

Source: Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.


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