Shakespeare’s Richard III tells the story of Richard III’s bloody rise to, and fall from, power. Richard is a complex character because he is both protagonist and antagonist. He is the protagonist because he is the play’s principle character but he is also the text’s antagonist because the play centers around Richard’s villainous path to becoming king.
The major conflict is Richard’s quest for power. In his opening speech, Richard identifies himself as a villain and reveals the inciting incident of the play: Richard has plotted to poison his oldest brother King Edward against their other brother Clarence. His speech implies that which will become clear throughout the play’s opening act: Richard is conspiring to eliminate the line of succession so that he can become king.
In addition to establishing the play’s central conflict, Richard’s introduction reveals two important aspects of his character. One, Richard was born prematurely which left him deformed. Richard is self-conscious about his appearance, which motivates his desire to outwit and outrank everyone. Two, he is a skilled orator. In Act 1, Scene 1, Richard successfully tricks his brothers and in Act 1, Scene 2, he coerces Anne into accepting his marriage proposal even though Richard killed her husband. These two moments in the play’s opening scenes demonstrate Richard’s intelligence and his ability to manipulate those around him.
In the rising action portion of the novel, Richard successfully orchestrates the deaths of his brothers King Edward and Clarence. With his brothers dead, the line of succession must pass to Edward’s son. However, the prince is too young to rule, so many assume that Richard will be named the Protector until the prince comes of age. By this point, the reader is able to plot the trajectory of Richard’s plan before it is fully revealed and determine that nobody is safe in Richard’s court, especially the young prince whose existence is now Richard’s only obstacle to becoming king.
With King Edward dead and his two young sons on their way to London, people begin to grow uneasy. Shakespeare includes a window scene which offers a brief glimpse into the minds of the British citizens. From this switch in perspective, readers learn that the common people are mistrustful of Richard. This example of rising action reveals that the people of Britain are fearful of a world in which Richard is king.
The climax of the play occurs in Act 3, Scene 7 when Buckingham and the other noblemen entreat Richard to accept the crown, which he pretends to refuse and then accepts. Act 3, Scene 7 is yet another instance that showcases Richard’s gifts for manipulation because he humbly accepts the offered throne while masking that this was his plan all along.
Richard III’s falling action is characterized by Richard’s violent downward spiral after he becomes king. In Act 4, Scene 1, King Edward’s widow expresses concern for the safety of her family and tells her kinsmen to flee and seek refuge with Richmond who could (and eventually does) challenge Richard. Her suspicions are correct because Richard tells Buckingham to murder the two princes in their sleep so that he can cement his rule in the following scene. Richard’s plan to murder the children is his most famous and most sinister act in the play. Even Buckingham, who up until this moment has been Richard’s right-hand man, is stunned. Richard also poisons Anne shortly after the boys are killed because he wants to marry Princess Elizabeth to solidify his claim to the throne. The two back-to-back murders are a turning point in the text because they illustrate that Richard has gone too far and has grown increasingly bloodthirsty and ruthless.
The falling action of Richard III is also characterized by Richard’s loss of control. Most notably, Shakespeare encapsulates Richard’s fraying sanity in Act 4, Scene 4 when he frantically yells at various lords, forgetting the trajectory of his argument and rapidly changing his mind as he gives orders. Shakespeare uses Richard’s erratic speech to convey that he has lost control because his mind and his words, his two most trusted weapons since Act 1, Scene 1, have failed him.
Richard III culminates with a battle between Richard and Richmond. On the eve of battle, Richard and Richmond’s dreams are visited by the ghosts of the people that Richard killed. Each ghost condemns Richard and prophesizes his death and pledges their support to Richmond. Richard is rattled and is forced to confront his crimes for the first time. In a surprising display of doubt, Richard acknowledges that he is a murderer and reflects that “There is no creature loves me; / And if I die, no soul shall pity me” (Act 5, Scene 3, line 198-199). The doubting and frightened Richard is a stark departure from the self-assured man we meet in Act 1, Scene 1.
The ghosts’ prophecy comes true, and Richmond slays Richard in battle. Before his death, Richard is weakened when his horse is killed and he is forced to fight on foot like a common soldier. The manner of Richard’s death is symbolic because he is stripped of his kingly steed just as he will soon be stripped on his crown. At the conclusion of the play, Richmond becomes king and plans to marry Princess Elizabeth, ushering in an era of unity and prosperity with the creation of the Tudor line which puts an end to Richard’s tyranny. The conclusion of Richard III condemns those who seek power by sinister means because Richard is punished for his wicked deeds whereas Richmond is rewarded for his benevolence.