Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
When Richard claims that his deformity is the cause of his wicked ways, he seems to be manipulating us for sympathy, just as he manipulates the other characters throughout the play. As a result, Richard III does not explore the cause of evil in the human mind so much as it explores its operation, depicting the workings of Richard’s mind and the methods he uses to manipulate, control, and injure others for his own gain. Central to this aspect of the play is the idea that Richard’s victims are complicit in their own destruction. Just as Lady Anne allows herself to be seduced by Richard, even knowing that he will kill her, other characters allow themselves to be taken in by his charisma and overlook his dishonesty and violent behavior. This tendency is echoed in Richard’s relationship with the audience for much of the play. Even though the audience is likely to be repulsed by Richard’s actions, his gleeful, brilliant, revealing monologues cause most viewers to like him and even hope that he will succeed despite his obvious malice.
The so-called window scenes in Richard III—the conversation of the common people in Act II, scene iii; Buckingham’s speech to the masses and Richard’s acceptance of the crown in Act III; and the scene of the Scrivener in Act III, scene iv—provide a glimpse of how the drama in the royal palace affects the lives of the common people outside its walls. As a history play, Richard III is at least somewhat concerned with the consequences of the behavior of those in power, and with ideas of good rulership and governance. It is significant that the common people come to fear and distrust Richard long before most of the nobles in the palace, and that the opposition of the common people to Richard is one of the main forces that enables Richmond to overthrow him. In these ways, Richard III explores a theme Shakespeare later revisited in Hamlet and Macbeth—the idea that the moral righteousness of a political ruler has a direct bearing on the health of the state. A state with a good ruler will tend to flourish (as Denmark does under King Hamlet), while a state with a bad ruler will tend to suffer (as Scotland does under Macbeth).
An interesting secondary theme of Richard III is the power of language, or the importance of language in achieving political power. Language may not always be a necessary instrument of power, but for Richard, it is a crucial weapon. His extraordinary skill with words enables him to manipulate, confuse, and control those around him. Richard’s skill with language and argument is what enables him to woo Lady Anne, have Clarence thrown in prison, keep the Woodvilles off his track, blame the king for Clarence’s death, and achieve Hastings’s execution, all at very little risk to himself. Interestingly, language also seems to be the only defense against Richard, as is shown when the princes match his skill at wordplay and thus indicate their ability to see through his schemes. In such cases, Richard simply uses violence as an expedient and has his enemies, including the princes, put to death.
Richard III dramatizes a key turning point in English history: the end of the Wars of the Roses and the rise to power of the Tudor dynasty in the figure of Henry VII. The Tudors continued to rule England in Shakespeare’s day—Queen Elizabeth I, who sat on the throne when Richard III was written, was a Tudor. As a playwright in sixteenth-century England, Shakespeare had to court the favor of those in power, who literally could make or break his career. As a result, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III as a vile, hateful villain is in part designed to set up a glorious ascension for Henry VII at the end of the play. Henry overthrew Richard, after all, and the worse Richard seems, the better Henry will seem for defeating him; moreover, the better Henry seems, the more likely the Tudors are to approve of Shakespeare’s play. Had Shakespeare portrayed Richard as a hero, then Henry might have seemed villainous for usurping his throne, and Shakespeare might have fallen from favor with Queen Elizabeth. Of course, these political considerations are by no means the main focus of the play—Shakespeare’s exploration of the psychology of evil stands on its own and transcends mere propaganda. Still, it is important to realize that the history Shakespeare recounts in his story was still very much alive when he wrote it, and that the considerations of his own time strongly affected his portrayal of the past.