My rating: 4 of 5 stars to William Shakespeare‘s famous play, Richard III, one of his “War of the Roses” tragedies produced in the 16th century in England. People have generally heard of this King, and know more about him than they realize, but he is not one of the more famously read plays in high school or college, falling behind the more popular comedies and tragedies of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream.
Why This Book
Although I read this play in high school, I had a more in depth read in a Shakespeare course where we compared each play to a painting (of our choosing) and a TV or Film adaption (instructor choice). We watched the 1995 film version starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith and Robert Downey, Jr., a modern re-appropriation of the film using themes from the play and fairly current politics.
Overview of Story
Richard III wants to be king, but he’s third in line behind his brothers. He’s also angry over a physical deformity, carrying a rather huge chip on his shoulder. He goes on a small killing spree, then forces one of the widows into marrying him. He has his brother (the king) executed and makes it look like his other brother committed the crime. All that stands in his way are his 2 young nephews, and while Richard is ruling the country until his nephew is older, it’s just not enough for him. He manipulates others into asking for him to become the permanent king, and then secretly locks the princes in a tower or kills them. The world may never know. Over a short period of time, he becomes mocked and disliked, as the people know he is a horrible man. When his wife is no longer valuable to him, he has her killed and attempts to marry the daughter of the former Queen (young enough to be his granddaughter supposedly), to strengthen his claim to the throne. The battle begins for the throne, and Richard has a dream he will die. The next day, he is killed by his rival, who then marries the daughter of the former Queen and becomes the new King.
Approach & Style
1. It’s written in the late 16th century, so some of the language requires some interpretation.
2. It was a play, so not a typical book read with a specific point of view.
3. It’s based on reality; most of the plot actually happened to the kings and queens of that time.
Shakespeare knew how to write. His language was beautiful. His words created vibrant and memorable images. He included themes and motifs across the scenes. He took as much from reality as he could, interjecting only enough balance of humor to offend some, but not those who would imprison him.
The story is simply fantastic. So many things people talk about today come from Richard III, including a few lines from this play. “My Kingdom for a horse” is a very famous line. Most everyone who knows a thing or two about British kings and queens are familiar with the young boys imprisoned in the tower. And when Richard III’s body was dug up in 2012 in a parking lot in Leicester, the world waited to find out if it was actually him or just some other skeleton. (It WAS him).
Brothers fighting brothers. Power-hungry man with either a hunchback, curled hand or limp leg — many different versions / interpretations. It’s a bloody story, but helps teach a lot of history to kids in school.
Open Questions & Concerns
For one thing, it’s Shakespeare, so there’s little wrong with it. But it’s not for everyone. And not an easy read.
Questions and concerns are more about:
1. Did Shakespeare really write it, or was it a ghost writer?
2. Did Richard III really kill the boys, or did they die somehow else?
3. What was his deformity?
4. Was he really all that bad, or did Shakespeare mock him and for 450 years, we’ve all played a game of telephone. (If you don’t know that one, email me)
5. Which TV or Film was the best adaption? You must see the one I noted above. It’s brilliant. A masterpiece in acting, plot re-creation and scenery.
If you’re going to read it, invest the time in reading all the plays tied together for the War of Roses. Get to know the characters, look up their realities, understand their relationships, and jump in with eyes wide open. Don’t just read it because it sounds like a good story. There’s more to it, and you won’t enjoy the style of the play without having the affinity for 450 year old words and a love of British royalty.
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