The most famous crime of the historical Richard III, and the deed for which he was most demonized in the century following his death, is his murder of the two young princes in the Tower of London. For centuries after the death of Edward IV, the fate of the princes was a mystery—all that was known was that they had disappeared. It was speculated that Richard had them killed, it was speculated that they had spent their entire lives as prisoners in the tower, and it was speculated that they had escaped and lived abroad. The English author Sir Thomas More wrote that they were killed and buried at the foot of a staircase in the White Tower. Many years later, in 1674, workers in the Tower of London discovered two tiny skeletons hidden in a chest buried beneath a staircase of the tower. The skeletons date from approximately the late fifteenth century, and serve as the best evidence that the young sons of Edward IV were in fact murdered in the tower. There is still no conclusive proof that it was Richard who had them murdered—some scholars even think it could have been Richmond. Still, thanks to popular legend, Shakespeare’s play, and the biography of Richard that More wrote a few years before the play, Richard has gone down in history as the most likely culprit.
Because the story of the princes in the tower was so well known, it was crucial to Richard III that Shakespeare make the princes memorable and engaging figures despite their youth and their relatively small roles in the story. As a result, Shakespeare creates princes who are highly intelligent—they are among the only characters in the play to see through Richard’s scheme entirely. They are courageous, standing up fearlessly to the powerful Richard. They are charismatic, outdoing Richard in games of wordplay. However, they are utterly, pitifully helpless because they are so young. Though Elizabeth remarks that her younger son is a “parlous boy,” meaning sharp or mischievous, the princes are never a threat to Richard, and they are unable to defend themselves against him (II.iv.35). Yet Shakespeare creates the sense that, had the princes lived, they would have grown up to become more than a match for their wicked uncle.