Richard III is the eighth and last episode in Shakespeare’s great adventure serial. The first episode is Richard II, which sets up many of the conflicts that will afflict the royal family for nearly a century and which provide the plot line for Shakespeare’s greatest history plays (although the Bard at times does play fast and loose with the facts).
It helps to understand two thoughts when reading or viewing Richard III. First, when it suited them, the patriarchal nobility of England considered descent through a female decidedly inferior to descent through an unbroken male line; and, second, everyone who wants to be king in these eight plays traces his lineage back to one of the seven sons of Edward III: Edward the Black Prince, William of Hatfield, Lionel of Antwerp (Clarence), John of Gaunt (Lancaster), Edmund of Langley (York), Thomas of Woodstock (Gloucester), and William of Windsor.
Edward III became king at fifteen and reigned for fifty years, outliving all his sons except John, Edmund, and William. Richard II was the son of Edward the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III, and succeeded his grandfather as king when he was ten years old. His three uncles, especially Gloucester, ran things. Richard was nearly thirty before he managed to break free of his uncles, who had not taught him how to rule. He banished Gloucester, who conveniently died.
In Richard II, King Richard banishes his cousin, Bolingbroke (Gaunt’s son), who is in line for the throne after Lionel’s heirs and who obviously has ambitions. Bolingbroke raises an army in France and brings it back to England, where he defeats Richard and forces him to give up the crown. Richard is murdered, and Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV.
Thus the scene is set for the slaughter and upheaval of the next seven episodes. The Elizabethans believed that Richard II, as the heir to the previous king, was God’s anointed, and to rebel against him was to violate God’s will--the country thus had to suffer and repent until God forgave its citizens and sent a ruler to restore God’s order. This paragon appears much later in the person of Henry VII (no matter that he was, in fact, as much of a gangster as the men he replaced). Thus, the Elizabethans, aided by writers who revised history to allow Henry VII look good, could justify and celebrate the prosperity and world prominence they enjoyed under Henry’s granddaughter, Elizabeth I.
In Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV rules England but is plagued by rebellion in the north and in Wales, in behalf of Mortimer, heir to Lionel. In his own family, his son and heir, Hal, seems on his way to being a bad king.
Henry IV, Part 2, is more of the same. Henry died, and Hal (now known as Harry) becomes Henry V, rejects his bad companions, and shows signs that he will be a good king after all. In the play Henry V, we see a slight easing of God’s punishment of the country, perhaps because Harry succeeds his father and doesn’t have to depose anyone in order to become the king. He wins great victories in France and even becomes heir to the French throne. But the respite is over; Harry dies, leaving his nine-month-old son Henry as king., which sets up the next three plays: Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.
The death of Henry V leaves the inexperienced young King Henry VI to cope with an ambitious and divided nobility at home and a difficult war in France. The English forces ultimately defeat the French, led by Joan La Pucelle, but two English rivals set their sights upon the throne: the earl of Somerset, who is a descendant of John of Gaunt and whose followers wear the red rose of Lancaster, and the duke of York, who is a descendant of Lionel of Antwerp and whose royal symbol is the white rose.
King Henry VI marries Margaret of Anjou, who is secretly in league with the earl of Suffolk. Queen Margaret and Suffolk destroy the king’s only loyal minister, the duke of Gloucester, and the duke of York raises a rebellion against the crown and defeats King Henry’s forces at the Battle of St. Albans. In a desperate attempt to save his crown, Henry VI disinherits his own son in favor of York. Queen Margaret raises an army and kills York, but his three sons strike back and place the eldest on the throne as Edward IV. Henry VI is murdered in the Tower by Richard of Gloucester (soon to be Richard III), who secretly covets the throne for himself.
And thus begins Richard III, with years of history behind it. And now Richard goes through the same cycle that many of his predecessors did. He plots and murders to be king, only to be plotted against and murdered by someone else who would be king. Richard begins his bloody progress toward the crown by instigating the murder of his own brother, the duke of Clarence. When the ailing King Edward dies, Richard imprisons the king’s two sons, one of whom is briefly named King Edward V, and kills them at the earliest opportunity. Then, crowned as King Richard III, he executes murderous revenge upon his enemies.
Yet, Henry Tudor, the earl of Richmond and descendant of John of Gaunt is approaching with his army. Richard III ends with Richmond killing Richard in battle, being crowned as King Henry VII, and reuniting the warring factions of the white rose and the red rose.