The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most -popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Richard III belongs to the genre of Shakespeare’s plays known as the histories, which deal with events in England’s historical past after the Norman Conquest, in 1066. Although it is often viewed as a sequel to three of Shakespeare’s earlier history plays—1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, and 3 Henry VI—Richard III is usually read and performed on its own. The play chronicles the bloody deeds and atrocities perpetrated by its central figure—the murderous and tyrannical King Richard III. Richard invites an eerie fascination, and generations of readers have found themselves seduced by his brilliance with words and his persuasive emotional manipulations even as they are repelled by his evil.
But Richard is difficult to understand psychologically because, while he is clearly power-hungry and sadistic, the deep-rooted motivations for his malevolent hatred are hard to pinpoint. Some critics feel that Richard is not really a fully developed character in the way that Shakespeare’s later characters, such as Macbeth or Hamlet, are. Such critics argue that Richard does not possess a complex human psychology but instead recalls a stock character from early medieval drama. Like the “Vice” character of medieval morality pageants, who simply represented the evil in man, Richard does not justify his villainy—he is simply bad. Indeed, Richard, with self-conscious theatricality, compares himself to this standard character when he says, “Thus like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one word” (III.i.82–83). We should note that the mere fact that he reflects upon his similarity to the Vice figure suggests that there is more to him than this mere resemblance. Watching Richard’s character, Shakespeare’s audiences also would have thought of the “Machiavel,” the archetype of the scandalously amoral, power-hungry ruler that had been made famous by the Renaissance Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince (first published in 1532).
Bloody though he was, nevertheless, the historical King Richard III was not necessarily more murderous than the kings who preceded or succeeded him. Nor is it likely that he was deformed, as Shakespeare portrays him. Winners, not losers, write history. When Shakespeare wrote this play, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England; Eliza-beth was a descendant of King Henry VII, the ruler who overthrew Richard. Thus, the official party line of the Elizabethan era was that Richard was a monster who was not a legitimate ruler of England. It would have been thoroughly dangerous for Shakespeare to suggest otherwise.
For a number of decades in the late fifteenth century, England’s royal family was locked in a power struggle that periodically erupted into violence. Historians have labeled this battle the Wars of the Roses, after the family symbols of the two contending groups: the Lancaster family, symbolized by a red rose, and the York family, symbolized by a white one.
The problems began in the late fourteenth century, with the death of the long-lived King Edward III, of the house of Plantagenet. Edward III had seven sons, of whom the fourth and fifth became the fathers of dynasties. The elder was called John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, and his younger brother was called Edmund of Langley, duke of York. Their descendants formed two important clans—the Lancasters and the Yorks. Both clans derived from royal blood, and both produced ambitious men who were willing to fight for the throne. The Lancasters and their allies are sometimes called the Lancastrians; the Yorks and their allies are called the Yorkists.
After the death of Edward III, King Richard II—who was descended from Edward’s eldest son, and was thus neither a York nor a Lancaster—ruled for twenty-two years. However, he was soon overthrown by his cousin (the son of John of Gaunt), a Lancaster named Henry Bolingbroke who became Henry IV. Henry IV was in turn succeeded by his son, Henry V, who was succeeded by his son, Henry VI.
But in the late fifteenth century, fighting broke out again, this time between Lancasters and Yorks. After a bloody struggle, the Lancastrian Henry VI was deposed in 1461, and the head of the house of York took the throne as King Edward IV. Henry VI briefly resumed the kingship in 1470, but again he was deposed. In 1471, Henry's son and destined heir, known as Edward, prince of Wales, (a title always given to the current heir to the throne) was killed in battle, and Henry was put to death. The sons of the York family—King Edward IV, Clarence, and their younger brother Richard—were victorious. After the executions, Edward took the throne once again. The action of Richard III begins shortly after this event, but in reality the hostility between the two families was much older. The Lancastrians had killed a second York son—Edmund, earl of Rutland—when he was still quite young. (Shakespeare’s other history plays—Richard II,Henry IV Parts One & Two,Henry V, and Henry VI Parts One, Two, & Three—cover all of these events.) Shakespeare often plays fast and loose with the facts, stretching and altering the timeline to suit his dramatic purposes, but the plays generally are based upon historical records.
The events of this civil war—including the murders of King Henry and Prince Edward by the York brothers, and the earlier killing of the Earl of Rutland by Henry’s family—are important background to Richard III. In Shakespeare’s version, for one thing, both Henry and Edward leave widows: Henry’s is the former Queen Margaret, who bitterly curses the Yorks in Act I, scene iii; Edward’s is Lady Anne, who mourns his death and that of Henry in Act I, scene ii, and who later becomes Richard’s wife.
When the action of Richard III begins, Edward IV and his brothers have overthrown the Lancastrians, but Edward is growing older and is often sick. His malicious and slightly deformed younger brother, Richard, is power-hungry and is plotting to get his hands on the throne. However, a great many people stand between him and the kingship. For example, even when King Edward himself dies, he will leave behind two sons who are in line for the throne: the young Prince Edward, the crown prince, and his brother, the young duke of York. Fortunately for Richard’s purposes, they are still children, and they meet their final fate as the unfortunate “princes in the Tower.” The mother of the princes is Queen Elizabeth, of the Woodeville family, and she has powerful and intelligent kinsmen who will try to protect her and her children, thus making the queen’s kin yet another threat to Richard. The royal couple also has a daughter, young Elizabeth, who will later become an important pawn in royal marriage negotiations.
In addition to all of these obstacles to the throne, Richard’s trusting elder brother, the duke of Clarence, also blocks Richard’s road to power. Richard must dispose of Clarence in order to clear the line of descent and seize the throne. Finally, Richard finds himself under threat from an unexpected source: Henry Tudor, the earl of Richmond, a descendant of a secondary branch of the Lancasters (from John of Gaunt’s third wife), has been gathering power overseas. Richmond feels that he has a claim to the throne for which he is willing to challenge Richard—setting us up for the final showdown between the Houses of York and Lancaster at the Battle of Bosworth Field.