Understanding the Context of Richard III – Learning with Confidence

Understanding the Context of Richard III

Richard III is probably my favourite Shakespeare play, but it’s also definitely one of the most difficult to understand. The main reason for this is assumed knowledge – the play cuts in abruptly in the final days of Edward IV, playing out the closing stages of a drama which Shakespeare could confidently assume his audience knew intimately well. For the modern audience, however, this can be extremely confusing. This being the case, it’s useful to lay out the ground and the players in order to have the best possible chance of understanding who all these people are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. This is the first in a series of posts explaining aspects of Richard III, and what we’ll deal with here is context.

The Plantagenet family, rulers of England and big chunks of France for about three centuries, are often described as being a dynasty soaked in their own blood. When a chronicler of the middle ages proposed that the family’s origins were demonic in nature, the Plantagenets leaned right into it, with King Richard I, known as Lionheart, famously saying, “I came from the devil and to the devil I shall return.” This should give you some idea of the kind of family we’re talking about.

The Plantagenet line starts soon after William the Conqueror, with the marriage of Geoffrey of Anjou to Eleanor of Acquitaine. This merger of kingdoms and families set the stage for centuries of bloody strife owing to the immense wealth of the territorial empire thus created. At some point the family split, as families do, down two major lines, each headed by the Duke of York and the Duke of Lancaster respectively. Richard’s side of the family is the Yorkist side.

Let’s say, for the sake of convenience, that what we’re talking about begins with the murder of King Richard II some time around 1399. Henry Bolingbroke, a Lancastrian, murdered or had murdered King Richard II and took his throne, becoming Henry IV. He and his son, Henry V, were strong and popular kings, but the fact remained that they were usurpers in the minds of many. The ‘true’ heir to the throne, by the rules of primogeniture (inheritance of the first born) was actually Richard Duke of York (let’s call him York from now on, to avoid confusion), the father of the Richard we’re talking about. Owing to the strength and popularity of Henry V, York generally kept pretty quiet about this, contenting himself with a senior role in government. All this changed, however, when Henry VI took power. This Henry was a quiet, bookish fellow – the sort of person who’d probably be an excellent statesman today, but did not meet the mediaeval benchmarks of physical strength or ability in war. There was also the fact that when placed under sufficient stress, Henry VI would go into a sort of cataleptic trance, sometimes not talking or moving under his own power for weeks or months at a time. What all of this represented was an opportunity for York’s side of the family to muscle their way into some serious power, and perhaps even the throne.

And this is exactly what they did. York himself wasn’t too successful marching from his stronghold on multiple occasions, only to turn back and head home, uncertain of his support or the mood of the people. Luckily for the Yorkists, he had three sons: Edward, George, and Richard. Edward, who was to become Edward IV, was a tall, dashing, and highly popular young man who was basically the diametric opposite of poor old Henry VI. Over the course of a few very bloody battles, notably Towton, Barnet, and Tewkesbury, Edward firmly established himself as the king of England.

It’s worth mentioning here that a certain Richard Neville, otherwise known as Earl Warwick or Warwick the Kingmaker, was a major factor in these wars. Briefly, Warwick was so important because his territories included Calais, in France, which meant that he always had to hand a large force of battle hardened soldiers, out of easy reach of spoilers and provocateurs in England. Warwick shifted sides several times, and at one point put Henry VI back on the throne. In the course of this, he recruited George (the middle York brother) to his cause. Warwick was defeated by Edward and his loyal brother Richard (yes, our Richard) at the battle of Tewkesbury, during which battle George was brought back into the fold. Warwick was killed, Henry VI was captured and later killed, and his son, Edward, the Prince of Wales, was summarily executed. This is notable as these three men were the father, father in law, and fiancee of Anne Neville – the woman who Richard III convinces to become his wife.

So, at the opening of the play we have a Yorkist dynasty on the throne. The king, who is at this moment on his deathbed, is Edward IV, married to a woman called Elizabeth Woodville, of a family universally hated by the people. They have two sons, conveniently named Edward and Richard, the famous ‘princes in the tower’. Young Edward is heir to the throne. Woodville (Queen Elizabeth) and her relatives, headed by Earl Rivers, form a distinct faction within the Plantagenet court. Edward’s younger brother, George, is Duke of Clarence. He’s in lockup because, owing to his shaky record of loyalty (remember Tewkesbury), he can’t really be trusted. And finally we have Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the titular character of the play, who has a reputation for loyalty (Tewkesbury again), piety, and modesty. Added to this mix are Hastings, of a long and highly respected line of nobles, who has been both in and out of favour with the ruling family and its factions, and Stanley, of whom more in another post.

With Edward dying, and the young Prince Edward not yet old enough to be king in his own right, everything is up for grabs. It’s for this reason that George Duke of Clarence is in prison and about to be executed – with things up in the air like this, an unreliable quantity like him cannot be allowed to run loose. As for the rest of the court, there is Richard Duke of Gloucester, and the Woodville brood, both fighting to gain control of the princes, and therefore of the keys to the kingdom. It is at this highly tense and exciting juncture that the action of the play abruptly begins, and one of my favourite cascades of evildoing and righteous and pitiable bloodletting really gets going.