edited by James R. Siemon
Richard III is the final play of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, the culmination of the War of the Roses and the inception of the Tudor dynasty. The play picks up where Henry VI Part 3 left off, with the Lancastrian king dead and the house of York in the ascendant. Richard, the youngest son of York, orders the murder of his middle brother, the Duke of Clarence, and awaits the death of the eldest, King Edward IV; he marries the Lady Anne, the late Prince of Wales’ widow, to seal his power. In his role as Lord Protector to Edward’s young sons, Richard rules as a tyrant and orders the deaths of the two princes as they lie in wait at the Tower of London. Meanwhile, the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, is gaining support in England and France to launch an attack on Richard’s Yorkist army. They come together at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard is killed, and Henry becomes the first Tudor monarch, King Henry II, uniting the houses of York and Lancaster through his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV.
The play first appears in the 1597 first Quarto (Q1) as The Tragedy of King Richard the third. Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his iunocent nephews: his tyrannicall vsuration: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserued death. While he has been regarded as a medieval Vice, or a Machiavellian devil through and through, the characterization of Richard as a ‘lump of foul deformity’ has come under scrutiny in recent years. Shakespeare’s written sources were all sixteenth-century chronicles or ‘histories’; historians have argued that sources such as Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (1513) present a biased account of disjointed Plantagenet rule in order to emphasise the ‘Tudor myth’ of the harmonious, united reign initiated by Henry VII. By the 1623 First Folio (F), the play is catalogued in the Histories section. F is significantly longer than Q1 (the second longest play in the Folio, after Hamlet), with manifold textual differences; this edition incorporates both, generally deferring to F).
From 1700 until the mid-nineteenth century, the play text used in performance was not Shakespeare’s original, but a revised and abridged version by Colley Cibber, The Tragical History of King Richard III. Twentieth-century performances of Richard ranged from the king as monstrous, bestial caricature (Anthony Sher, 1984) to extreme right-wing dictator (Ian McKellen, 1995 – film based on earlier stage performance).