Of all his plays, Shakespeare's history plays are likely to challenge
the reading and interpretation skills of high school and college students
because of the complexity of background information, the quick shifts
of action, and the large number of characters—some who only appear
for a short scene. Preparing students to read any text is important; it
is crucial to ensure comprehension and enjoyment of a history play. Solid
preparation will make this play accessible to advanced high school students
and to most college students.
The name of Richard III may call up some associations. Students may know
that Richard is reported to have had his two nephews killed in the Tower
of London. But their knowledge may be limited to this one legendary aspect
of Richard's history. Sorting out the stuff of legends from historical
reality could be one of the goals of reading this history play.
At times Richard is cast as an allegorical figure, a representation of
evil whose downfall provides a moral lesson to the reader and playgoer.
Students' understanding of Richard's character may be enhanced if they
explore other allegorical representations of evil both in the sixteenth
century and in the Jacobean revenge tragedies of the early seventeenth
century. Students can see similar types of stock villains in popular culture
Also, underlying the portrayal of Richard is the question of Shakespeare's
purpose in writing the play. What shape does he give to the historical
facts and why? If Richard is cast as the villain, who are the good people?
What is the moral order within the world of the play? This guide includes
a variety of activities and discussion questions to stimulate students'
reactions and responses to the play before they begin to read, while they
are reading, and then after they have read the play. It is assumed that
the teacher of a Shakespearean history play has taught some of his other
plays as well and can draw on this experience. Teachers should choose
the activities which best meet students' needs and interests.
List of Characters
House of York
Henry, Earl of Richmond Princes Edward and Richard
George, Duke of Clarence
Richard, Duke of Gloucester
House of Lancaster
King Edward IV
Characters by Relationship
King Edward IV
His sons: Edward, Prince of Wales; Richard, Duke of York
His brothers: George, Duke of Clarence; Richard, Duke of Gloucester
His wife: Queen Elizabeth
His mother: Duchess of York, also mother of Clarence and Gloucester
Allies of Queen Elizabeth: Lord Rivers, brother of Queen;
Elizabeth; Marquis of Dorset and Lord Grey, sons of Elizabeth; Sir Thomas
Allies of Richard: Lord Hastings, Duke of Buckingham
Other important characters: Queen Margaret, widow of King Henry VI; Lady
Anne, her daughter-in-law, widow of Edward Prince of Wales, who was the
son of King Henry VI
Note: Send students to the Internet for more detailed background information
about the War
of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster and for more
information about the chronology of monarchs on the British throne.
Act I, scene i
In the first lines of the play, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, reviews the
current state of affairs in England. War is over and the house of York
is on the throne. Everyone has put aside the rigors of warfare for the
pleasures of peacetime, except for Richard. He says he is not interested
in such playfulness. Because he is physically deformed, he cannot see
himself playing the role of courtier. Instead he commits to villainy.
He plots to set King Edward against his brother George, Duke of Clarence,
using as provocation the prophecy that someone with the letter G in his
name will murder Edward's heirs.
Directly, George is led forth by soldiers on the way to the Tower to be
imprisoned. Richard suggests that this is really the doings of the king's
wife, Lady Grey, and that no one is safe from her treachery. Richard promises
to intercede for Clarence, but as soon as he is led away, Richard reveals
his true motive is to kill Clarence and get him out of the way.
Lord Hastings, who is the Lord Chamberlain, brings news of the king's
sickness. This adds to Richard's desire to get George out of the way.
Once the king is dead Richard believes he will be in a strategic position
to take over the kingdom. He also plans to marry Lady Anne, Warwick's
youngest daughter, even though he has killed her husband Edward and her
father-in-law, King Henry VI.
Act I, scene ii
Lady Anne follows the hearse carrying the body of her father-in-law Henry
VI. She mourns the deaths of Henry and his son Edward, her husband, and
curses Richard who murdered them both. Richard demands that the procession
stop, and Anne calls him a devil, saying that while he could kill Henry,
he has no control over his soul. The wounds of Henry begin to bleed; this
most unnatural act is caused by the presence of his murderer Richard.
Richard asks permission to tell his story. He claims that Anne's husband
was actually killed by his brother Edward. He admits to killing Henry,
but thinks he did him a service by sending him to heaven. Anne rails against
Richard, saying he should go to hell, but Richard insinuates that she
was the cause of the two deaths, since her beauty haunted his mind, and
he was willing to do anything to win her. He says, that he, who never
cries, has shed tears of longing for Anne.
Richard, who never speaks gentle words, now tries to move the heart of
Anne. If he cannot convince her of his love, he would rather be dead.
He gives her his sword, telling her to kill him. He confesses his crimes,
but says it is her beauty that provoked him to do these deeds. Richard
insists Anne must choose, either kill him or accept him. He will kill
himself if she commands it. Anne relents even as she wonders about Richard's
sincerity. However, she accepts his ring and leaves the funeral procession
to await Richard at Crosby House.
Richard is overjoyed at his success, wondering if anyone has been successful
in wooing a woman in such circumstances. How could Anne forget Edward,
a royal prince with a wise and gracious nature, and choose Richard who
killed him? He considers himself a wondrous handsome man to turn a woman's
heart in such a way.
Act I, scene iii
At the palace Queen Elizabeth and two advisors, Rivers and Grey, discuss
the health of the king. They are fearful Richard will be entrusted with
the protection of the young son of King Edward. Meanwhile the king tries
to reconcile the factions. Richard complains that he has been slandered
by the Queen and those loyal to her. He blames them for the imprisonment
of Clarence who fought for Edward's party.
Queen Margaret listens to their quarrel and condemns all of them. They
turn on her, accusing her of crimes, scorning Richard's father and killing
the baby Rutland. Margaret, hoping for justice, curses each person to
suffer just as she has. She launches into a lengthy curse of Richard,
but he interrupts, saying her name—claiming she curses herself.
The company has no patience with her. She warns them they will remember
this day when they feel Richard's treachery.
Richard plots with two murderers to kill Clarence. He plans to blame this
murder on the Queen and her allies, Rivers, Dorset, and Grey. Derby, Hastings,
and Buckingham will back Richard when he takes revenge. Meanwhile Richard
will put on a pious face to cover his evil.
Act I, scene iv
Clarence, imprisoned in the tower, has a fretful night, full of nightmares
of death by drowning caused by his brother Richard. He begs his Keeper
to stay with him so he can get some rest.
When the murderers enter with Richard's commission, they find Clarence
sleeping and begin to consider the crime they have been sent to do. They
are torn between conscience and greed. Clarence awakes and realizes they
have come to kill him. He begs them to consider their own salvation and
the reward that they can get from Richard. They tell him that Richard
is in fact the murderer. One falters, but the other stabs Clarence and
drowns him in a barrel of wine.
Act II, scene i
King Edward, who is very sick, rejoices that he has united enemies and
made alliances that will keep the kingdom in order after his death. Richard
swears that he is committed to this peace. When Elizabeth asks the King
to be reconciled to Clarence, Richard strikes with news of Clarence's
death, killed by the order of the King, even though he had reversed it.
Edward is saddened that he had been so rash. He fears that this act of
injustice will have serious repercussions. Richard tries to create new
enmity between the two factions, insinuating that the Queen's allies actually
Act II, scene ii
Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, realizes that Richard has killed
Clarence and fears what will happen when the king is dead. Elizabeth enters
to announce Edward's death. Elizabeth, the duchess, and the children of
Clarence all proclaim sorrow, but the Duchess claims the greatest grief
since she has lost the most with the death of her two sons. Elizabeth's
advisors council to be moderate and to send for the young prince Edward
so he may be crowned.
Richard enters to give his comfort and to confer with the others about
the company to be sent to get the prince. Buckingham urges Richard to
join in the embassy so they can plan how to separate the prince from the
Act II, scene iii
Several citizens discuss recent events—the death of Edward and promised
reign of his son. They fear that this will be a dangerous time for the
state since the prince is too young to rule and there is a strong rivalry
between his uncles on both sides.
Act II, scene iv
Richard, the young Duke of York, Queen Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York
await the arrival of the prince. A messenger arrives to report that Lords
Rivers and Grey and Sir Vaughan have been imprisoned on the orders of
the Dukes Gloucester and Buckingham. Fearful of the outcome of this power
struggle, Elizabeth decides to place herself and her son in sanctuary.
Act III, scene i
Prince Edward arrives in London with Gloucester and Buckingham. Richard
assures the prince that he does not recognize the treachery of his uncles
and he is better off without them. Hastings arrives to report that the
Queen will not allow the Duke of York to join his brother, the prince,
and he and the Cardinal are sent to argue with her.
While they wait, Edward hears that he will stay at the Tower, even though
he does not like the place. His brother, the Duke of York, arrives, escorted
by the two ambassadors. It is clear that he feels insulted by Richard,
and he mocks him as they talk. Richard and Buckingham surmise that his
feelings arise from his mother's influence. Now they send an embassy to
Lord Hastings so he will approve of the installation of Richard as king.
For his part in this plot, Buckingham will be rewarded with land and goods.
Act III, scene ii
Hastings is drawn into Richard's net. Because he thinks he is safe as
an ally of Richard and that his enemies will be executed in the Tower,
he does not fear that two separate councils are being held. When Catesby
queries if he will support Richard's bid for the throne, he refuses, saying
he will not overthrow the legal line of inheritance from his master, the
late king. Lord Stanley warns him not to be so confident—others
were unsuspecting when disaster was about to strike.
Act III, scene iii
Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan are taken to their execution in Pomfret Castle.
They remember the curse of Margaret that they would suffer for standing
by while Richard killed her son. Their only hope is that her curse on
Richard, Buckingham, and Hastings will also be heard.
Act III, scene iv
The councilors meet in the Tower to discuss the date for the King's coronation.
Hastings feels secure in Richard's loyalty. He believes that he can read
Richard's heart through his appearance. Just then Richard returns and
claims that his withered arm is a sign he has been bewitched by the Queen.
When Hastings is slow to agree, Richard pronounces him a traitor and demands
beheading immediately. Hastings also remembers the curse of Margaret.
Act III, scene v
Hastings's head is brought in and Richard and Buckingham convince the
Lord Mayor he was a traitor. Richard urges Buckingham to follow the Mayor
to the City Hall, spread rumors that Edward's children are illegitimate,
and that Edward is both a lecher, and illegitimate himself.
Act III, scene vi
A scrivener, bearing the indictment for Hastings, says it took longer
to write the document then it did for Hastings's fortunes to change. Bad
things are happening in the world.
Act III, scene vii
Buckingham returns from the City Hall, saying the citizens listened to
his insinuations without a word. Finally, some of his men shouted that
Richard should be king, and he took that as the general will. The Mayor
waits outside to speak to Richard, and Buckingham counsels Richard to
appear to be uninterested.
When the citizens enter, Richard pretends to be deep in prayer with two
clergy and refuses to meet with them. Finally, after they have sent several
messages, he appears before the group to see what they want. Buckingham
acts as spokesperson for the group and offers Richard the throne as his
lawful and legal due as a legitimate heir. Richard refuses several times,
until finally Buckingham says that if he will not accept, Edward's son
will never reign. A new family will be installed on the throne. Richard
pretends to give in to the wishes of the assembled group, and he is proclaimed
Act IV, scene i
Anne meets Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York at the Tower. They
have come to visit with the young princes, but the guard refuses to let
them enter. All visitors are barred by Richard's orders. Meanwhile Stanley
arrives to take Anne to Westminster to be crowned queen. Anne remembers
the curse she made that Richard's wife would know no peace. This has come
true for her.
Act IV, scene ii
Richard, newly crowned king, complains to Buckingham that he cannot truly
be king as long as young Edward lives. He wants Buckingham to consent
to the execution of the princes, but Buckingham says he needs time to
Richard also decides that he wants to marry Edward's daughter. Because
he must eliminate his wife first, he orders Catesby to spread a rumor
that Anne is very sick. Richard believes things are out of control, but
he has committed so many crimes he cannot turn back. He instructs Tyrrel,
an assassin, to murder the princes. When Buckingham comes in and demands
the land and possessions Richard had promised him for his loyalty, Richard
refuses to hear him, saying, "I am not in the giving vein today." Buckingham
thinks of what happened to Hastings and decides to leave the court while
he still has his head.
Act IV, scene iii
Tyrrel reports that the bloody deed is accomplished and the two young
princes are dead. Richard thinks he now has to marry the daughter of Edward
so no one will be able to overthrow him. Just then news comes that Buckingham
is mounting a challenge.
Act IV, scene iv
Queen Margaret, lurking near the palace, learns of the destruction of
her enemies. She thinks the deaths of Queen Elizabeth's sons repay the
deaths of her husband and son, and she reminds Elizabeth how all things
have come around so that she is no longer queen, mother, or wife, and
has no subjects to do her will. Now she prophesies the death of Richard
who has caused so many deaths. Elizabeth calls on Margaret to teach her
how to curse Richard.
When Richard passes in procession, both Elizabeth and his mother, the
Duchess of York, accuse him of committing many crimes. He listens impatiently,
and then tries to convince Elizabeth to counsel her daughter to accept
his suit. He uses devious arguments and Elizabeth relents.
Richmond is invading by sea, and Buckingham is joining with him in rebellion
against Richard. Richard fears that Stanley will prove false too and join
the forces against him. Later messengers arrive to report that a great
storm has destroyed Buckingham's army, and he has been taken prisoner.
Act IV, scene v
Stanley speaks with an ally of Richmond, saying that he would join him,
except that Richard has imprisoned his son and he is powerless to do anything
at the present time.
Act V, scene i
As he is led to his execution, Buckingham remembers the day he cursed
himself if he should prove false to King Edward and his children. He accepts
the justice of his fate; his wrong acts have brought him to this end.
Act V, scene ii
At a camp near Tamworth, Richmond gathers his troops to attack Richard.
The nobles speculate that Richard's allies only stay with him out of fear
and soon will desert him.
Act V, scene iii
At Bosworth Field, Richard arrives with his troops and surveys the field
while his tent is set up for the night. In another part of the field,
Richmond gathers with his troops and sends a secret message to Stanley
who plans to aid Richmond even as he appears to fight for Richard. As
both Richmond and Richard sleep in different parts of the field, ghosts
appear, cursing Richard and wishing Richmond good fortune. Richard wakes
in a fearful mood, wanting to spy on his soldiers to see if they are loyal.
Richmond, on the other hand, is rested, full of great confidence in victory.
Each leader makes a speech to his soldiers, and then it is time for the
battle. Richard learns that Stanley will not fight, but there is no time
to kill his son—that must wait until after the fighting.
Act V, scene iv
Richard is thrown from his horse but still refuses to leave the battlefield
until he has met and killed Richmond.
Act V, scene v
Richard and Richmond fight until Richard is killed. Stanley takes the
crown from Richard's head and places it on Richmond, proclaiming him king.
Richmond pledges to forge an alliance between the families of York and
Lancaster by marrying Elizabeth and so heal the wounds of division in
These activities are designed to build students' background knowledge
about the chronology of events, the historical persons, and the themes
explored in the play. (Note: Consult other Teacher's Guides to Signet
Classic editions of Shakespeare's plays; they contain many ideas that
can be adapted to prepare students to read this play.)
A. Building Background Knowledge through a Problem Situation
By getting students to think about how they might solve Richard's "problem,"
this activity prepares them to connect their own knowledge of human behavior,
especially about ambition and abuse of power, with motives and behaviors
they will discover in the play. Give students the following problem to
write about and discuss in small groups:
1. You are Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, the third son of a duke who
is killed in a civil war against Henry VI, the King of England. In revenge,
you join with your brothers to overthrow the King and kill his son, leaving
his wife, Lady Anne, a widow. Your oldest brother, Edward, has become
the new King of England. However, Edward is dying, and you want to become
the King when he is gone. There are some barriers to your ambition, though.
King Edward has a wife, Queen Elizabeth, who has two brothers and two
grown sons from a previous marriage. The King and Queen have two young
sons, Edward and Richard, who are in line before you, and a pretty, young
daughter, Elizabeth. And also, there is your popular older brother George,
Duke of Clarence, who might stand in your way. Clarence has two children,
Margaret and Edward.
2. Although you are intelligent and courageous in battle, you suffer from
a physical deformity. You are of small stature, sinister looking, and
have a crooked back that hunches you over and raises your left shoulder
higher than your right. You have an aggressive attitude, a persuasive
tongue, and are quick to argue or fight. You aren't interested in love
or the benefits of peace. All you want is the ultimate power of kingship.
How will you get it?
3. Write a plan for overcoming the obstacles before you and gaining kingship.
Figure into your plan: Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth and her daughter Elizabeth,
your persuasive ability, the Tower of London, some unscrupulous nobles,
and a couple of common murderers.
4. Give students ten to fifteen minutes to develop their plans for becoming
King. After sharing in small groups, several students can share their
plans with the whole class. The class can vote on the plan they think
will be most similar to Shakespeare's play. Discuss why they chose a certain
plan. Have students keep their writings, and after reading the play the
students can see which plan is closest to Shakespeare’s plot.
B. Building Background Knowledge Through Internet Searches
To many students the history of Britain covered by Richard III is unfamiliar.
One way to increase their familiarity is through searches on the Internet.
Have students individually or in pairs conduct searches of the World Wide
Web on historical topics related to the play. Then have the students make
three-to-five minute presentations on their findings. In order to ensure
the attention of the class to these reports, the presenters can ask the
class review questions based on their presentations. Some of these questions
can also be used in subsequent quizzes. It is usually helpful to have
predetermined criteria for evaluating the student presentations, e.g.,
clarity, interest, use of visuals, and relevance of information for understanding
the historical context of the play.
Possible topics and internet sites (found by searches on key words using
the Alta Vista search engine) include:
This site lists Britain's monarchs from a.d. 802 to the present day. Individual
biographies include links to genealogies, maps, and other resources. The
monarchs in the Lancastrian Line, the Yorkist Line, and the House of Tudor
are easily accessed.
Battle of Bosworth Field
Included here is a brief description that connects the battle with the
prophecies of a Welsh monarch ruling Britain.
III Society maintains this site and offers articles that discuss what
is really known about the battle, battlefield images, and legends that
surround the battle.
Battle of Tewkesbury
This site includes a vivid description of the battle along with details
about the kind of fighting and weapons employed during this time in history.
III, the movie, 1996
Students will find film clips, graphic images from a film version of the
play, set during World War II and directed by Richard Longraine.
C. Studying Genre: Characteristics of the History Play
1. Before reading any Shakespearean play, review with students their knowledge
of other plays and conventions of the stage by having students list and
compare the plays they already know. For example, have students generate
titles of comedies and tragedies and discuss the type of action that usually
occurs in these genres. What is the usual conflict in a comedy? in a tragedy?
How do these kinds of plays usually end? What subjects are common to each
genre? If students have read a history play, you can ask how histories
compare to the other two genres in terms of subject, tone, and themes.
If students have not read a history play, have them articulate ideas that
come to mind from this term.
Look at p. lxiii in the Signet Classic edition of Richard III or a good
handbook of literary terms for a clear definition of history plays. Then
have students create a visual diagram that shows the characteristics each
genre shares and how they differ.
2. Discuss with students the concept of historical writing. The following
questions and activities can be used for writing or discussion:
Is history a collection of facts? How does a writer shape historical information?
From two different history texts or nonfiction young adult sources, choose
two descriptions of an historical person or event, for example, the causes
of the Civil War in the U.S. or why Christopher Columbus wanted to discover
a new route to the Indies. Compare the passages for different emphases
and details. How can you explain the differences? How does the writers'
interpretation affect the way history is presented?
3. A discussion about writing history might lead directly to a consideration
of Shakespeare's motives in writing Richard III. These questions and activities
can be used:
Review biographies of Shakespeare to piece together a sense of his political
affiliations. What royal family was on the throne during the time Shakespeare
was writing? Would he be likely to write to please them? What would be
his advantages in doing so? What disadvantages could he expect if he did
not write flattering histories of the royal family? What were conditions
that worked for and against the theater during Shakespeare's time?
4. This would also be a good time to review the sources Shakespeare used
as he wrote the play. Activities for students include:
Read the brief essay, "The Sources of Richard the Third" in the Signet
Classic edition (pp. 151-52), and the excerpt from Sir Thomas More's History
of King Richard the Third (pp. 153-154). Advanced students could read
all or parts of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and
Ireland (pp. 155-176). Outline the key events covered in the chronicles
of Richard's life.
Role play: You are a playwright who has only the information included
in the sources and you wish to create a portrait of Richard. What five
events in his life would you choose? Which event would you emphasize and
why? What other historical figures would you include in the play? What
things would you definitely leave out and why? Compare your plans and
determine what overall portrayal of Richard each of you would create.
How are your portraits different or the same? What does this exercise
suggest about the process of writing a story or play about an historical
D. Initial Explorations of Themes
1. Before reading Richard III have students think about ideas of leadership
and statecraft that were prevalent during the Renaissance and the development
of the nation states. Activities for students include:
Renaissance humanists insisted upon the role of virtue in the leader's
life to overcome Fortune and to build the best political environment.
Choose a brief excerpt from Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity
of Man describing the perfectibility of the individual. Compare Pico's
ideas to the pragmatic views of Machiavelli. Read the short section of
Machiavelli's The Prince where he argues that a strong state needs a strong
ruler who is crafty and amoral, willing to do whatever is necessary to
promote the good of the state, that is, that the ends justify the means.
Discuss how these two views promote different types of leadership. What
are the benefits and disadvantages of each philosophy?
2. To make connections to the present day political scene, choose several
contemporary leaders and read articles on these persons in magazines and
newspapers, noting their decisions and behaviors. Questions to be discussed
Do political decisions seem to be based on principle or made for pragmatic
ends? Which philosophy seems to rule the leaders’ political behavior?
How do you know? What are the benefits and disadvantages of each leader's
style of political leadership?
3. In the play individual women interact directly with Richard while at
other times a group of women act as a chorus, commenting on the events
taking place. Richard has little respect for women ("Was ever woman in
this humor wooed?/Was ever woman in this humor won?" Act I, ii, 227-228);
he often speaks contemptuously of their moral character and emotional
reactions. Richard feels he is superior in the "battle of the sexes" and
prides himself on his ability to control and master the women he encounters.
Richard, in fact, acts as a mouthpiece for many medieval views about women's
natures—views which are still prevalent in contemporary culture.
Students can explore these gender issues through several exercises (some
of these exercises have been adapted from The Harper and Row Reader, 3rd
ed., 1992, edited by Marshall W. Gregory and Wayne C. Booth).
These activities will get students talking about commonly held ideas about
women's and men's roles and attributes. Return to this discussion as the
class reads the play and identifies opinions of women's nature and abilities.
a. Make two lists: the common personality traits of women and men. List
all the terms on the board. Mark the traits viewed as positive and/or
negative in contemporary culture. Discuss: Do males or females have more
of the traits commonly considered to be positive? Why? What view of males/females
arises from this listing of traits?
b. List slang words used to identify males/females (only terms suitable
for a mixed group in a school setting). Which terms are positive/negative?
What differences do you see between terms used for males/females? What
do these differences suggest about the commonly held assumptions about
c. Write a brief definition of "feminist." Is "feminist" a positive or
negative term? Do a poll. Ask ten different women if they consider themselves
"feminists" and why or why not. Record their responses for comparison
and discussion. Ask ten different students for their definition of "feminist."
Compare and discuss the responses as a class. Discuss: What is the common
view of women's roles?
d. Skim newspapers for articles pertaining to women, women's rights, attitudes
toward women. Create a profile of the "modern woman." What are commonly
recognized positive traits for women? Negative traits? What overall view
of women emerges from media coverage of women? What is the common view
of women's nature today?
4. The true life of Richard III is shrouded in legend. Being sensitive
to this issue will give students a greater appreciation of Shakespeare's
purposes in writing the play.
Activities for students:
Consider what you know about one or more other historical figures, for
example, Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Alexander the
Great, or Julius Caesar. Consult with your social studies teacher about
historical figures you have recently studied. Gather all the information
you can about one of these people. Mark the ideas you believe are factual
and the ideas you think are legend or myth. Check the Internet, an encyclopedia,
or other scholarly source to verify if you are correct in distinguishing
between fact and legend. Discuss how many common notions about historical
persons are actually myths. Discuss how legends grow up around historical
persons and what purpose these legends serve.
Consider the legends surrounding the life of Richard III. Using at least
two sources—again a reliable internet source or library resources—list
the facts that are known about the life of Richard III. What legends have
emerged about Richard? Discuss the reasons for each legend. Who would
have told this story about Richard and what would have been the purpose?
5. In the opening lines of the play, Richard declares he is a villain:
"I am determined to prove a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these
days" (Act I, i, 30-31). Other villains in Shakespeare's plays also declare
their intention to do as much evil as possible; for example, Don John
in Much Ado About Nothing and Iago in Othello. In a small group, study
other villains in Shakespeare's plays; list the characteristics of each
villain and gather quotes from the plays that reveal their motivation.
Compare these characters for similarities and differences in motivation.
Are the characters interested in securing some personal rewards from their
evil or do they simply enjoy inflicting chaos and pain on others? Discuss
the nature of evil in humans.
Also on this theme, have students identify several villains from popular
culture, as portrayed in films or books. Discuss: What motivates these
characters? What reactions do storytellers expect from an audience when
they create a villain? What happens if the audience is sympathetic to
This discussion could lead to an exploration of how Shakespeare expected
his audience to react to Richard. The common idea of tragedy is that a
good and noble person suffers a downfall because of a weakness or failure
of judgment. Why did Shakespeare label this play a tragedy when the hero
is an evil person? Discuss how Shakespeare uses the idea of tragedy in
E. Studying Shakespeare’s Language
1. Syntax Some of students' difficulties with Shakespearean language stem
from the complex syntax used to create poetic effects. Choose some lines
from the play. Rearrange the words in a more usual word order, then convert
the embedded phrases and clauses into simple sentences. Add, change, or
omit some of the words.
Act I, ii, 188-192:
Richard: That was in thy rage. Speak it again, and even with the word
This hand, which for thy love did kill thy love,
Shall for thy love kill a far truer love.
Act I, ii, 242-245:
Richard: A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford.
2. Rhymes Look at the way in which Shakespeare plays with syntax in order
to create rhymes. Find other examples throughout the play. Act I, ii,
Richard: Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass
That I may see my shadow as I pass.
Act III, vii, 232-235
Richard: Your mere enforcement shall acquittance me
From all the impure blots and stains thereof;
For God doth know, and you may partly see,
How far I am from the desire of this.
Arrange some of the speeches in the play into rhyming couplets. Vary and
omit words as necessary. Find others throughout the play.
Act III, iii, 24-25
Rivers: Come, Grey, come Vaughan, let us here embrace.
Farewell, until we meet again in heaven.
Come, Grey, come Vaughan, let us here embrace.
Farewell, until in heaven we find grace.
Act III, iv, 58-61
Richard: I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevailed
Upon my body with their hellish charms.
I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish verve
By damned witchcraft, and that have prevailed
Upon my body and with their hellish charms against me railed.
3. Blank verse
Although Shakespeare often used couplets, he more frequently employed unrhymed
blank verse, a regular pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. Say
aloud the ten syllables that follow, stressing each "dah": da DAH da DAH
da DAH da DAH da DAH. (In order to create this pattern, Shakespeare had
to carefully consider the placement of each stress in the line. He would
have to rearrange words in order to achieve the regular pattern of unstressed
and stressed syllables that he desired.)
Read the section on blank verse in "Shakespeare: An Overview" by Sylvan
Barnet (pp. xli-xliii). In this section Barnet shows how Shakespeare uses
blank verse with variations. After reading and discussing this section,
find examples of blank verse in Richard III and point out the iambs in each
line as well as the variations.
Example: Act 2, i, 104-127
King Edward: Have I a tongue to doom my brother's death,
And shall that tongue give pardon to a slave? ...
4. Dramatic Irony
Because of Richard's propensity to say one thing while meaning something
else, usually something sinister, this play is full of dramatic irony. Formulate
a definition of dramatic irony from your past experiences reading and seeing
plays. (The effect of dramatic irony is to create tension and anxiety. In
some cases the audience knows more about the situation than the unwitting
character and, consequently, feels anxiety and pity for the character. At
other times the use of irony allows the character to mask their real intentions,
which are evident to the audience.) Look at several instances of irony in
For example: Act I, ii, 26-28 Anne curses herself when she curses Richard's
wife. Act I, iv, 4 Clarence predicts his own death when he says he won't
live another night with such terrible nightmares. Identify other examples
of dramatic irony. Write in pairs the lines containing dramatic irony on
chart paper with an interpretation of the meaning of the lines. Create word
maps in pairs including a definition of the term, nonexamples and valid
examples of the term. Act out in pairs a brief scene using the ironic lines.
Ask the class to explain what the lines really mean. Post charts and word
maps and discuss the impact of this literary device on the reader and viewer
of the play.
These activities and writing prompts are designed to elicit students'
initial responses and lead to analysis of the themes and ideas explored
in the prereading activities.
A. Getting Down Initial Reactions
1. As students are reading the play, have them discuss what they already
know and also what they would like to know about the characters and the
events of the play. Write these ideas on large chart paper so they can
be displayed in the room. Use these lists to review what has happened,
add additional information, and make connections as students learn more
with each scene.
2. Using the prereading exercises about the purpose of history plays and
the Renaissance idea of just rule, create charts on these two topics.
As a gathering strategy for each day's discussion, consider these topics
from their reading of the latest scene. What generalizations can they
begin to make about Shakespeare's attitude toward the qualities a ruler
should possess and the practices that should prevail in government.
B. Reader Response
Students need to have the opportunity to express their initial reactions
to the reading, based on their personal experiences and understanding
of what they have read. Reader response writing encourages this type of
personal, subjective response to the reading. Use open-ended questions,
such as, how do you respond to the scene or what do you know about Richard?
Ask students to choose the most important line in the section and explain
why they consider it important. Or choose quotations and invite students
to explain what it means to them. Tell students to write freely for three
to five minutes about ideas the quotation brings to mind. Have students
share their responses in pairs and then invite reactions as a way to start
a whole-class discussion.
The following quotations may lead to rich responses:
1. "And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days." (I, i, 28-31)
2. "Why, this it is when men are ruled by women." (I, i, 62)
3. "And I no friends to back my suit at all
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing" (I, ii, 235-237)
4. "But then I sigh, and with a piece of Scripture
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil;
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol'n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil. (I, iii, 333-337)
5. "Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in the falling
Struck me (that thought to stay him) overboard
Into the tumbling billows of the main." (I, iv, 18-20)
1. "Yet none of you would once beg for his life.
O god, I fear thy justice will take hold
On me and you, and mine and yours, for this!" (II, i, 132-134)
2. "This is the fruits of rashness. Marked you not
How that the guilty kindred of the Queen
Looked pale when they hear of Clarence' death? (II, i, 136-138)
3. "Ah, that deceit should steal such gentle shape
And with a virtuous visor hide deep vice! (II, ii, 27-28)
4. "Better it were they [uncles] all came by his father,
Or by his father there were none at all;
For emulation who shall now be nearest
Will touch us all too near, if God prevent not." (II, iii, 23-26)
5. "The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind;
Insulting tyranny begins to jut
Upon the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see, as in a map, the end of all." (II, iv, 50-54)
1. "Sweet Prince, the untainted virtue of your years
Hath not yet dived into the world's deceit;
Nor more can you distinguish of a man
Than of his outward show, which, God he knows,
Seldom or never jumpeth with the heart." (III, i, 7-11)
2. "Now Margaret's curse is fall'n upon our heads,
When she exclaimed on Hastings, you, and I,
For standing by when Richard stabbed her son"
(spoken by Grey to Rivers, III, iii, 17-19)
3. "I think there's never a man in Christendom
Can lesser hide his love or hate than he,
For by his face straight shall you know his heart. (Spoken
by Hastings about Richard, III, iv, 51-53)
4. "Who builds his hope in air of your good looks
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready with every nod to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep. (III, iv, 97-100)
5. "Here's a good world the while! Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world, and all will come to nought
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought. (III, vi, 10-14)
6. "Your brother's son shall never reign our king,
But we will plant some other in the throne
To the disgrace and downfall of your house" (III, vii, 214-217)
1. "Lo, ere I can repeat this curse again,
Within so small a time, my woman's heart
Grossly grew captive to his honey words
And proved the subject of mine own soul's curse" (IV, i, 77-80)
2. "But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin." (IV, ii. 62-63)
3. "Oh thou well skilled in curses, stay awhile
And teach me how to curse mine enemies!" (IV, iv, 116-117)
4. "Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end" (IV, iv, 195)
1. "That high All-seer which I dallied with
Hath turned my feigned prayer on my head
And given in earnest what I begged in jest." (V, i, 20-22)
2. "He hath no friends but what are friends for fear,
Which in his dearest need will fly from him" (V, ii, 20-21)
3. "There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul will pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?" (V, iii, 201-204)
4. "Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe" (V, iii, 309-311)
5. "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" (V, iv, 13)
C. Strategies to Build Students’ Dramatic Presentation Skills
Drama promotes and encourages students' oral development, kinesthetic body
movement, the imagination and it’s connections to everyday experiences,
and development of communication skills and public speaking skills. However,
we are often disappointed when we ask students "to act" out a scene. Students
are uncomfortable varying their voices, making gestures, or moving about
the classroom. Students are embarrassed and we become frustrated, returning
to videos, recordings, or whole-class group reading. Dramatic presentation
skills must be taught, just like other reading, writing, and listening skills.
Students need to be eased into dramatic presentations.
It is better to start with small scenes and more limited actions. Students
will gain confidence and a comfort level, enabling them to risk more detailed
dramatic presentations. Following is a list of strategies to use to develop
students' speaking and acting skills:
1. Reading for meaning Student one reads several lines of a character. Student
two explains what the character "really" means.
Ex. Lady MacBeth: "Out, out damn spot."
Explanation: I've got to wash this blood off my hands or everybody will
know that my husband killed the king.
Richard: "Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Explanation: Our bad times are over and we have time to enjoy more pleasant
2. Reading for dramatic action
One student reads the lines of a particular scene or part of a scene while
other members of the group pose as specific characters and perform the actions
in pantomime, giving more meaning to the words. (Note: Students need time
to plan this activity by reading the lines together and deciding on the
best actions to convey the meanings of the lines. Students should also practice
reading aloud to increase their ease and fluidity with the complex syntax
of Shakespeare's language.)
Suggested scenes: Act I, ii where Richard woos the Lady Ann while she mourns
her husband whom Richard has killed.Act I, iii, 338-356 and Act I, iv where
Richard hires two murderers and they kill his brother Clarence. Act IV,
ii where Buckingham falls out with Richard because he will not approve of
killing the young prince Edward.
3. Slide show
Choose four key moments in a scene or part of a scene. Plan a fixed tableau
to present each moment and then present the scenes in succession to the
class. Each time you switch positions, call out "switch." The "audience"
closes their eyes until the actors call out "open." This happens four times
in succession creating a visual "slide show."
Interview another student who poses as a character in the play, for example,
Lady Anne. It is important to remain in character and respond in ways that
most naturally reflect the actions and words of the character in the play.
In character, describe a particular locale in the play. Talk about the best/worst
thing about living in this particular place. Talk about your daily life.
Describe your relationship to other characters. This might be especially
useful to contrast the natures of the two young princes: Edward, Prince
of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York.
D. Guidelines for Teaching Drama
1. Read speeches aloud to model for students how pauses, actions, and gestures
add meaning to the words.
2. Explain and model inflections and subtle voice changes to show how they
affect how the lines of the play are interpreted by the audience.
3. Encourage students to read plays aloud by giving them time to read short
sections of scenes in pairs and small groups. This shows how important it
is to hear the speech of characters in order to begin to understand their
behavior and thinking.
Exercise: Read the opening scene in Richard III where Richard describes
the current political situation and his sense of himself and his plots.
In groups of three plan a "performance" of this speech. One student/director
directs the actor in voice changes and movements. Visualize the place where
the speech will be delivered. Create a simple costume for Richard. Imagine
a variety of places where Richard might be and a variety of ways in which
he might deliver this speech.
After the performances: analyze how the differences in performance affect
perceptions about Richard's character. Watch the opening scene from the
film version of Richard III, directed by Richard Longraine in 1995 for United
Artists Pictures. Discuss the director's conception of Richard's character
and situation in this version.
E. Discussion Questions
Students' personal responses to the play can be deepened through small group
and whole-class discussion. The goal of discussion is not to summarize the
plot, but to try to understand connections between what characters say and
do and their motivation and how all these actions taken together suggest
Shakespeare's overall ideas about human social and political behaviors.
You may want to use students' reader response reactions as the starting
point of discussion or you may use some of the following questions to explore
character, action, and symbolism more fully.
1. What does Richard reveal about his character and motives in his opening
2. What does Richard think of his brothers, King Edward and Clarence? What
picture does Richard paint of Edward's character?
3. Why does Richard insinuate to Clarence that he shouldn't blame Edward
for his imprisonment but the King's wife, Elizabeth?
4. Why is Hastings willing to ally with Richard?
5. Explain Anne's change of heart toward Richard. What does this scene between
Anne and Richard show about Richard's personality?
6. What do you learn about the political situation in Edward's court?
What opportunities does this situation present to Richard? What could be
Shakespeare's purpose in painting this picture of Edward's reign?
7. What strategies does Richard use to set his plots in motion? Why are
they so effective?
8. Why does Shakespeare bring Queen Margaret into Edward's court?
What do the reactions of Richard, Queen Elizabeth, Hastings, Buckingham,
Rivers, and Dorset reveal about their characters?
9. Why is Clarence having nightmares? What are his fears?
10. What is the purpose of the lengthy conversation, first between the two
murderers and then the murderers and Clarence? How do you feel when you
are reading or viewing this scene?
1. How does Richard use his information about Clarence's death to further
2. Explain Edward's reaction to the news of Clarence's death. What sense
of justice does Edward suspect is in control of the lives of all his family
3. What could be Buckingham's motive in suggesting that the young prince
be brought to London with "some little train"?
4. What is the role of the women and children in this act?
5. Why does Shakespeare include a scene where the citizens discuss the political
1. Compare Hastings' speech in III, iv, 48-53 with his speech in III, iv,
95-100. What has Hastings realized by the end of the scene?
2. List the people who die by Richard's orders in Act III. What does each
of them realize as they die? What does this suggest about the idea of justice
presented in the play?
3. How does Buckingham's speech in III, vii, 24-41 support the Scrivener's
speech at the beginning of the scene? What other characters in this scene
act in ways that bear out the Scrivener's speech?
4. How does Buckingham in III, vii live up to the boast he makes in III,
1. What does Anne realize about her relationship with Richard?
2. Why is Richard still not satisfied even when he is crowned king?
3. Why is Buckingham reluctant to do Richard's bidding when it comes to
killing the young prince when he has been willing to go along with all the
4. Do you agree or disagree with Margaret's idea of retributive justice
Must death be answered by death or is there another way justice can come
5. Do you think Richard's arguments to get Elizabeth to woo her daughter
in his name work? Why or why not?
1. What differences do you see between the camps of Richard and Richmond?
What do they suggest about the right order of leadership?
2. What is the impact of the visits of the ghosts to Richard and Richmond?
3. Compare the speeches of Richmond and Richard to their troops before the
battle. What do their choices of words and arguments suggest about the personalities
of the two men?
4. What is Richard's reaction when the fighting seems to be going against
him? What does his reaction show about his character? Has Richard changed
in the course of the action in his motivation or dedication?
5. In the end is Richard totally evil or does his portrayal suggest any
admirable traits? Defend your point of view.
After reading the play and discussing various themes, students are ready
to engage in activities that will deepen their interpretation, help them
see connections between the play and other literary works, and provide
a creative outlet.
A. Deepening Interpretation
1. Students can return to their reports on historical persons and events
prepared in the prereading phase and list characters who either appeared
or were referred to in Richard III. Students can explain orally or make
charts that show how Shakespeare changed or used the historical information
in the play. (This exercise can lead to a discussion about historical
fiction, biography, and autobiography.)
2. Compare coverage of a current story, especially one dealing with national
politics, in a local newspaper to one from the state, one from the region,
and the New York Times. Examine how all information is shaped by the writers
and the editorial policy decisions of the publishers.
3. Queen Margaret has the role of prophetess in the play, but like Cassandra
in The Iliad, her warnings are ignored. In small groups list all of Margaret's
predictions and the events that fulfill her predictions. Research stories
of other prophets, male and female, and their role as teachers about human's
relationship to God and the right relationship among humans.
4. In a lighter vein, look at the rhetoric of Margaret's curses. What
types of insults does she create, and why are they offensive? Create insults
for characters in the play, using Margaret's tactics.
5. Richard displays his fullest command of deceit and guile in the scene
where he woos Lady Anne, drawing her away from duty, loyalty, and virtue
while binding her to him. Analyze his arguments and his ability to mask
evil under the guise of piety. Compare this "seduction" scene to the later
scene where the citizens of London are drawn in by similar stratagems.
Analyze Richard's strategies.
6. Look at films showing villains using trickery and deceit to dupe their
victims; for example, the film, Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Directed by
Stephen Frears) has several examples of cold-hearted manipulation of another
for the sheer sake of villainy. Discuss what makes the villain so powerful;
why are people drawn in by the villain's treachery?
B. Group Projects
1. In 1997 Roscoe Cooper and illustrator Timothy Basil Ering created a
picture book, The Diary of Victor Frankenstein, which is supposed to be
a photographic facsimile of the original diary of Victor Frankenstein
(DK Publishing). Using this text as a model, create a diary or journal
for Richard III, based on information in Shakespeare's play or research
drawn from historical sources.
2. Write a journal entry for Richard on the night before the battle at
Bosworth Field. As he settles in his tent that night, Richard asks for
wine and ink and paper. Imagine you are Richard and write a journal entry
he might write on this night.
3. Research legends about the Battle
of Bosworth Field, August 22, 1485. Go back to the play to see where
Shakespeare uses the legend and how. Discuss the legends about Richard
that Shakespeare chose not to use and speculate about why.
4. What really happened to the two young princes? Conduct research using
internet and conventional sources and develop a theory. Two important
sources are Paul Murray Kendall, Richard III, republished in 1975, and
A.J.Pollard, Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. The Richard
III Society has an excellent web page that links to many discussions
of this issue.
5. An interesting group project is to explore the film versions of Richard
III. Use information in the essay, "Richard III on Stage and Screen,"
(Signet Classic, pp. 232-245) and internet research. Divide the class
into three groups to watch each one of the three most significant film
versions, Olivier's, Pacino's, and Longraine's. Report on the director's
choices in setting, staging, and adhering to Shakespeare's play in each
film version. Each group shows the class a key scene that reveals Richard's
character most clearly or the director's intention in portraying Richard.
Richard III, 1955, directed by Laurence Olivier. VistaVision.
Richard III, 1995, directed by Richard Longraine. United Artists Pictures.
Looking for Richard, 1996, directed by Al Pacino.
6. The 1995 production of Richard III, directed by Richard Longraine,
is a stunning version of the play set in the post WWI period. Take the
time to view the entire film, to see excellent acting and to catch all
the uses of period costumes and setting from 1930s England. Create your
own version of Richard III. Videotape and present one scene to the whole
class for comparison and discussion.
7. Research Shakespeare on the Internet and report interesting or novel
information to the class. Mr.
William Shakespeare is an excellent site at which to begin. The goals
of the site are "To be a complete annotated guide to the scholarly Shakespeare
resources available on the Internet" and "To present new Shakespeare material
unavailable elsewhere on the Internet." Especially useful links include
biography, the Renaissance, and theater.
C. Reading Other Literature and Books Connected to the Themes of the
1. Read another Elizabethan play, Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe,
written around 1592 (Signet Classic, 1969) and compare the downfall of
Doctor Faustus to Richard III. Mephistopheles, a minion of Lucifer, tempts
Faustus to give his soul to the devil, and there is a struggle between
good and evil angels for the soul of Faustus. Is there anything similar
in Richard III? Why or why not?
2. Explore evil and villains in YA books (see the bibliography). At the
"book pass-around," take three minutes to survey the novel and read a
page or two. Pass the book to the next reader. After everyone has had
a chance to survey all the books, list the books you'd like to read in
order of preference. In a reading circle, decide on a reading schedule
and how to read the novel. You may choose buddy-reading, where group members
read aloud alternate pages. You may prefer to combine silent reading with
oral reading of sections. Respond to your reading by writing reactions
and sharing them with group members. Make your reactions open-ended. Keep
a double-entry journal with significant passages from the reading and
interpretation of them. The passage goes on one side of the paper and
the commentary on the other.
3. Extend your understanding of the play and the historical period by
reading novels which deal with Richard III. On the website run by the
Richard III Society, there
is a site, "In Pursuing the White Boar: Approaches to Teaching Richard
III," by Richard Oberdorfer. The author lists several novels dealing with
Richard III and also essays discussing how to adapt the novels to classroom
use. Some of the novels cited will prove especially interesting to students.
They include: The Wizard's Shadow by Susan Dexter, a fantasy novel which
casts Richard as a hero not a villain; The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford,
another fantasy which also provides historical accuracy; and The Daughter
of Time by Josephine Tey, a detective novel which questions the historical
accuracy of the traditional view of Richard as a villain. Reading these
novels may excite students to do further research on the myths and truths
concerning the person of Richard III.
Ideas of Political Order and Government
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan.
Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government.
Machiavelli. The Prince.
More, Sir Thomas. Utopia.
Plato. The Republic.
Villains in Young Adult Novels
Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. Dell, 1986.
Crutcher, Chris. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Dell, 1995.
Duncan, Lois. Killing Mr. Griffin. Dell, 1990.
Golding, William. The Lord of the Flies. Putnam, 1954.
Hobbs. Will. Downriver. Atheneum, 1991.
Gibson, Rex. Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
About the Guide Author
Jeanne M. McGlinn, Assistant Professor in the Department of Education
at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, teaches Children's and
Adolescent Literature and literacy courses for K-9 certification candidates.
She is the coordinator of the Classroom Materials Column of the Journal
of Adolescent and Adult Literacy and a frequent reviewer for this journal
as well as The Alan Review and Voice of Youth Advocates. She is currently
working on a book-length study of historical fiction writer, Ann Rinaldi.