Richard III

Key characters


RICHARD III (Gloucester)

What do I fear? my selfe? There's none else by.

Act 5, Scene 3

Richard is the youngest son of the Duke of York and brother to Edward IV and Clarence. When the play opens he is the Duke of Gloucester and is later crowned King, before being swiftly overthrown. Being physically deformed, ambitious and a somewhat embittered character, Richard reflects the Vice of the early morality play, and even calls himself so: “the formal Vice, Iniquity” (Act 3, Scene 1). He is also considered to be drawn from Machiavellian traditions, something Shakespeare would have been well versed in. Richard is the consummate performer, a calculated hypocrite and a creative chameleon, who can “frame his face to all occasions” (Act 3, Scene 2, Henry VI, Part 3). He plays the tyrant, the lover, the soldier, the repentant sinner, the clown, and the politician. He dominates the play in terms of text, and wins the audience’s favour with masterful rhetoric and charisma. Often deemed a precursor to the infamous Iago (Othello), Richard is Shakespeare’s first attempt at the anti-hero as the central figure.

Richard is constantly defined by his physicality. He is described by himself and other characters as a “lump of foul deformity” (Act 1, Scene 2), a “poisonous bunchback’d toad” (Act 1, Scene 3), “deformed, unfinished” and sent into the world “scarce half made up” (Act 1, Scene 1). He accepts isolation as an innate feature of his being, and declares in his opening soliloquy that he resents those around him. Richard says that he is “determined to prove a villain” (Act 1, Scene 1), because he has no “delight to pass away the time” (Act 1, Scene 1). Like Iago, his audience confessions are questionable, but unlike Iago his motives are clear; Richard wants the crown and his ascent is ruthless. Richard appears to be deeply suspicious of women and engages with them for no other reason than his own gain. He shows no sign of remorse for his actions until he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field and his final demise.

In Shakespeare’s prior trilogy of Henry VI, Richard plays the role of the fighter and military instigator, brought in to provoke the Lancastrians. Here he appears to believe strongly in his father’s right to the throne and honours this and their relationship above all. In the Henry trilogy he is responsible for the deaths of Somerset, Henry VI himself, and Henry’s son and heir, but his most volatile relationship is with Margaret and the animosity continues into Richard III. Most notably, after the death of his father, York, Richard begins to dominate the trilogy in action and text. His infectious villainy forces events to orbit around him, and here he expresses his ultimate skill of being able to “smile and murder whiles [he] smiles” (Henry IV Part 3, Act 3, Scene 2). In Richard III he thrusts his way into the title role and we observe him go from hungry watchdog to astute orator and manipulator. As Richard is limited physically, he learns to achieve status through deception and performance, rather than brute strength and physical prowess.


Why, so, now have I done a good day’s work.
You peers, continue this united league.

Act 2, Scene 1

Edward is the eldest son of the Duke of York, husband of Queen Elizabeth, and the new reigning monarch. He is ageing and of ill health, and due to his sinful past he is now trying to create and maintain a “united league” and “peace on Earth” (Act 2, Scene 1) between Elizabeth’s and his own family. Like most characters in the play he is trusting of Richard, which leads him to be hoodwinked into ordering the death of his brother Clarence for Richard’s secret gain. After his brother’s death, Edward shares remembrances of Clarence protecting him in the battlefield where he lay “frozen almost to death” and laments fears of his own condemnation: “Oh God, I fear thy justice will take hold of me” (Act 2, Scene 1). This loss and regret for his brother’s death appear to hasten Edward’s own death. Later in the play, Edward’s children are accused by Richard of being illegitimate, as Edward was believed to have had a secret union prior to his marriage to Elizabeth.


My soul is heavy, and I fain would sleep.

Act 1, Scene 4

Clarence is a son of the Duke of York, younger brother to Edward IV and elder brother to Richard. He first appears in Henry VI Part 3 where he mocks his brother’s wooing of Lady Grey, defects against his brothers to join forces with Warwick, and is described as the “quicksand of deceit” (Henry VI Part 3, Act 5, Scene 4. Realising he does not want to “ruinate” (Henry VI Part 3), Act 5, Scene 1) his father’s house, he returns support to Edward, proclaims Warwick a mortal foe, and joins Richard in the stabbing of Margaret’s son.

In Richard III, Clarence is framed and later murdered in the Tower on the orders of Richard, as he stands in his way to succession of the throne. Although it is not discussed in the play, Richard’s treatment of Clarence and Edward’s distrust is somewhat justified due to his prior treason. Clarence is trusting of his brother Richard, and openly accepts and believes his offer of assistance. When locked in the tower he is consumed by fearful dreams of his past sins: they make him believe he is in fact in “hell” or “the Kingdom of perpetual night.” (Act 1, Scene 4)


God keep me from false friends...

Act 3, Scene 1

The eldest son of King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth, and nephew to Richard III. Intelligent and precocious, he begins the play as the rightful heir to the throne and is therefore a hindrance to Richard’s plot for the crown. He is initially abroad in France and travels back to England at his mother’s request, due to the death of his father. His travelling companions Rivers and Gray are captured and later killed. Richard then places the Prince in the Tower for his supposed protection. Despite his age, he shows good judgment. He rejects any claim that his mother’s brother and allies were unfaithful, “God keep me from false friends; but they were none”, and alludes to Richard and his mistrust of him, “I hope I need not fear” (Act 3, Scene 1). The Prince’s claim to the crown is then labeled illegitimate and his murder is arranged by Richard.


Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend.

Act 4, Scene 4

Widow of the late Duke of York and mother of Edward, Clarence and Richard. She claims that her pain and loss outweighs all others, having lost her husband and her sons Edward and Clarence: “Was never mother had so dear a loss” (Act 2, Scene 2). Nevertheless she offers comfort to her daughter-in-law and grandchildren: “I am your sorrow’s nurse, and I will pamper it with lamentations” (Act 2, Scene 2).

As Richard’s villainy progresses beyond belief, the Duchess regrets giving birth to him. She recalls the circumstances of his birth with horror, and states, “Thou camest on earth to make the earth my hell” (Act 4, Scene 4). She even says that she wishes she had strangled Richard in her “accursed womb” and utterly disowns him, ruing “the hour that ever he was born”, and curses him to “die by God’s just ordinance”. (Act 4, Scene 4)



Shall I be tempted of the devil thus?

Act 4, Scene 4

Elizabeth is a widow, who was wooed and wed by Edward IV in the earlier trilogy, becoming Queen of England. She is a member of the Woodville family, considered somewhat lowly and unsuitable for her position, and was originally connected to Edward’s enemies, the Lancasters. Despite Richard’s attack on the Woodvilles’ loyalty and Elizabeth’s claim that he envies her “advancement” (Act 2, Scene 1), she still addresses him as “brother” and maintains allegiance to him, rejecting Margaret’s initial curse.

She encounters great loss over the course of the play at the hands of Richard. First, her husband falls ill and dies after his sickness is exacerbated by Richard pressing him with unjustified guilt. As a result, she loses her position as Queen: “I’ll join with black despair against my soul and to myself become an enemy” (Act 2, Scene 2). She then endures the capture and imprisonment of her sons, and pleads that the Tower and its “ancient stones” will use her “babies well” (Act 4, Scene 1). Her sons are then renounced as illegitimate heirs, and their murder is arranged by Richard.

Richard assumes success over Elizabeth in the wooing of her daughter. However, Elizabeth postpones his proposal and lives to see her daughter become Queen of England, thus proving Richard’s dismissal of her as a “relenting fool and shallow, changing woman” (Act 4, Scene 4), to be a drastic misjudgment.


O Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison.

Act 3, Scene 3

Rivers is brother to Queen Elizabeth and a representative of the Woodville family. When we meet him in Act 1, Scene 3, he shows unwavering faith in divine rule and loyalty to Edward IV and Richard, stating, “We follow’d then our lord, our lawful king: so should we you, if you should be our King”, and thus could be deemed too trusting and naive. He trusts that King Edward will regain his health and believes Richard’s forgiveness of his enemies to be “a virtuous and a Christian-like conclusion” (Act 1, Scene 3). Rivers is easily fooled, captured and murdered at Pomfret, blundering the delivery of the Princes safely to his sister.


A knot you are of damned blood-suckers!

Grey, Act 3, Scene 3

Dorset and Grey are Elizabeth’s sons from her first marriage to Sir John Grey, a staunch ally of the Lancastrians. Grey is murdered alongside Rivers at Pomfret, but Dorset manages to flee and survives.



Bear with me: I am hungry for revenge…

Act 4, Scene 4

Margaret is the wife of the late King Henry VI. In Richard III we meet Margaret as a cursing, resentful, aged widow, unable to contain her rage. A woman who has lost all: son, husband and her position as Queen. After the battle of Tewkesbury, (at the end of the Henry VI trilogy) Margaret was historically imprisoned and released to France on payment of ransom. In Richard III, she survives and functions as the chorus or a symbolic figure, lamenting the losses of the House of Lancaster.

She inhabits a sort of moral and resentful purgatory and refuses to leave the court until she instils strength in her younger counterpart, Queen Elizabeth. Her curse in the opening act is almost a prologue, laying out the events of the play, “The time will come when thou shalt wish for me to help thee curse that poisonous bunchback’d toad” (Act 1, Scene 3). Once she has fulfilled Elizabeth’s request in Act 4, Scene 4, “teach me how to curse mine enemies”, she retires, but not without disclosing that these courtly woes quench her “hunger for revenge” and somewhat bring her comfort: “These English woes will make me smile in France” (Act 4, Scene 4).


Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!

Act 1, Scene 2

Anne is the widow of Margaret’s son Prince Edward (killed by Richard) and wife to Richard. She is the first woman we encounter in the play, at the funeral of her late father-in-law (also killed by Richard). Her grief-stricken state sets up the role of women in this play. She initially scorns Richard, denigrating him as a “lump of foul deformity” (Act 1, Scene 2), but is eventually won over by his flattery and remorse, which appeals to her faith in moral reform and possible vanity. She agrees to marry him, but soon regrets that her “woman’s heart” was so easily wooed, stating that since her marriage she has not “one hour in [Richard’s] bed…enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep”. (Act 4, Scene 1) Richard eventually has her murdered, reporting “Anne my wife, hath bid this world goodnight”. (Act 4, Scene 2)



The Cardinal is Prince Edward’s companion on his way to London. He then goes to Queen Elizabeth to convince her to let her youngest son, York, come out of hiding. He is pious, but easily manipulated.


The Bishop was historically a clerical politician and astute lawyer famously responsible for drafting bills against the Yorkists before they gained power. In Richard III he appears with several Lords in the debate over the young Prince’s coronation date. Knowing his unwavering support for the Prince, Richard strategically removes Ely from the conversation by asking him to fetch strawberries from his garden, to allow for discussions of his usurpation. Later in the play, Ely flees England, joining Richmond’s cause against Richard.



And is it thus? rewards he my true service
With such deep contempt? Made I him king for this?

Act 4, Scene 2

Buckingham is a skillful politician and a kinsman and supporter of Richard. Holinshed described him as ‘”easie to handle”, and for most of the play he serves Richard in this fashion, easily persuaded and quick to act without question. He masterfully assists most of Richard’s endeavours, including his pursuit of the crown, but is unwilling to permit the murder of the young Princes. Because of this, he loses Richard’s favour, flees, changes allegiance and then is captured and killed.


Norfolk is a supporter of Richard’s, and fights on his side at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He is unable to rescue Richard in the battle and is killed.


Hastings is a loyal and devoted Chamberlain of Edward IV and supporter of the Yorkists. As a victim of the workings of the Woodvilles, he foolishly places his faith in Richard, openly accepting his supposed innocence. Hastings is devastated by Richard’s slaying of Queen Elizabeth’s family: “how they at Pomfret bloodily were butchered” (Act 3, Scene 4), and his rejection of this proves his downfall. He is surprised when Richard so suddenly names him traitor and proclaims “Off with his head”, to which he laments “O bloody Richard! Miserable England!” (Act 3, Scene 4)


Tyrell acts as a henchman for Richard and is responsible for organising the murder of the two young Princes, an act which he mournfully reports to the audience; “The tyrannous and bloody deed is done, / The most arch deed of piteous massacre / That ever yet this land was guilty of” (Act 4, Scene 3). He is wise not to share his reservations with Richard, and offers quite a contrasting and clinical report of the deed: “Be happy then, my Lord, for it is done”. (Act 4, Scene 3)


Ratcliffe is another loyal and chief supporter of Richard. He is responsible for the deaths of Rivers, Grey and Lord Hastings and is in attendance with Richard until the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field.


Catesby is a proficient leader who remains a loyal advocate of and advisor to Richard throughout the play. Historically, he was integral to Richard ascending to the throne. In Richard III he is afforded the role of persuading Hastings to support Richard’s advancement, but when Hastings refuses, Catesby is well aware what fate will follow, “for they account his head upon a bridge” (Act 3, Scene 2). He continues to advise Richard until the final moments of his death on Bosworth Field: “Withdraw my Lord, I’ll help you to a horse”. (Act 5, Scene 4)


The Earl is a supporter of Richard’s, and is with him until the Battle of Bosworth Field.



Brakenbury is the lieutenant of the tower who allows for the killing of Clarence by two murderers. He is killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field.



True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings

Act 5, Scene 2

The Earl of Richmond is Richard’s great enemy as he is the nearest male representative of the Lancastrians, and becomes the heroic figure of the play. He was the son of Owen Tudor and Katherine, the widow of Henry V. He escaped to France after the Battle of Tewkesbury, but continued to gain English support. Mostly positioned in France throughout the play, regarded as a place of refuge for those fleeing Richard’s tyranny, he finally leads a navy towards England and confronts and defeats Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field. His new position as King Henry VII (Tudor), his marriage to Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth, and his final words promise a peaceful future, to heal the wounds of the civil unrest between the royal houses of York and Lancaster: “The day is ours, the bloody Dog is dead. / I will unite White Rose and the Red” (Act 5, Scene 5).


Derby is Richmond’s stepfather, though he stays quite neutral with his allegiances throughout the play to avoid the wrath of Richard. He supports Richmond, but doesn’t travel to join his forces. He survives to see his stepson crowned King.


Oxford is a great supporter of Richmond and the Lancastrians, and serves as one of Richmond’s military leaders.



The Lord Mayor plays the role of blindly accepting Richard’s claims against Hastings, and confirms and reports to the citizens that he “deserved his death” (Act 3, Scene 5).


Scrivener is the public scribe assigned the task of writing the indictment for Hastings’ execution to be posted publicly. He is well aware of Richard’s “ill dealings” (Act 3, Scene 6) with the matter and functions in the text as a mouthpiece for the growing discontent and suspicion rising amongst the citizens.

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