This history play narrates the rise to power through treachery and murder of Richard Plantaganet, Duke of Gloucester and last king of the House of York. Set in England during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), the play opens after the Lancastrian King Henry VI and his son Edward have been killed and Richard’s brother has been crowned Edward IV.

In the course of the play, Richard woos and wins Prince Edward’s widow Anne Neville and engineers the murders of his other brother (George, Duke of Clarence), his nephews, his closest advisor, possibly his wife, and other members of the court. He is crowned king but later dies a violent death in the Battle of Bosworth, defeated by Henry Tudor, Duke of Richmond, who will become the first Tudor King Henry VII.


In Richard’s opening soliloquy, he characterizes himself as "rudely stamped . . . Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, / Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world scarce half made up" (I.19-21). "[S]ince I cannot prove a lover," he asserts, "I am determined to prove a villain" (I.28,30). From the very first act, then, Shakespeare establishes Richard’s villainy as inextricably bound to his embodiment.

The wit and irony of Richard’s words are apparent in the next act, in which he proves himself a capable lover, at least in language, by successfully wooing Anne Neville as she walks in mourning behind her father-in-law’s casket. The play is thus engaged not only with the body and "deformity," but also with deformity’s social and rhetorical aspects. Richard knows, uses, and even performs the cultural meanings of his body, as emphasized by his dramatic display of his arm in Act III.4 as evidence that his brother’s widow has used witchcraft against him, making political use of what Erving Goffman would call his "spoiled identity."

Other characters connect his immoral actions and his disabled body more directly, calling him a "foul bunchbacked toad," for example. Act III.1, in which the young Duke of York makes jokes about Richard’s body, and Act IV.4, in which Richard’s mother blatantly rejects him, suggest but do not reveal the emotional damage discrimination can cause, but we never really know how Richard feels about his disabilities. Further, because we only meet him as a villain, the play reiterates that Richard’s body and his morality are one.

Francis Bacon’s essay, "Of Deformity" (1625), which presents the deformed as "void of natural affection," crafty, and ambitious, reads well as a companion text that locates the play in historical relation to beliefs about the social body, disability, and morality. Taught with Bacon, Montaigne’s quite differently oriented essay, "Of a Monstrous Child" (1580), and Ambroise Paré’s "Des monstres et prodiges" (1573), the play works as a gateway to a discussion of historical and present-day views of the causes and social effects of congenital disabilities.

A point of recurrent interest has been the fact that Shakespeare’s rendering of the historical Richard, which makes him a pure villain, was written under Tudor rule. Other sources present him as a capable ruler, loyal brother, and good husband. In addition, there is no clear historical evidence about the nature and extent of Richard’s disabilities, which are not apparent in existing portraits. Richard III Societies in Britain and the U.S. seek to reclaim him from Shakespeare’s portrait as the quintessential villain.


First printed in 1592. This edition (The New Folger Library) includes explanatory notes opposite each page and has an introduction, a critical perspective, and numerous textual notes.


Pocket Books/Washington Square

Place Published

New York




Barbara A. Mowat & Paul Werstine

Page Count