Bridgette Redman's Reviews > Richard III

Richard III by William Shakespeare
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Nov 20, 2011

it was amazing

How does one review William Shakespeare, the Bard, arguably the greatest playwright of all time? That his plays—especially such epics as Richard III have literary merit is beyond dispute. This site, though, is not meant for disputing literary merits of classic works. It is a site for helping people make purchasing decisions.

So here lies the question: why do I think you should or shouldn’t buy and read Richard III by William Shakespeare? Is there even a reason to read such a dusty classic once you’ve left the halls of academia?

My dog ate it…

It’s fairly easy to give excuses why not to read this very long play. First, it contains a great deal of historical inaccuracies and might be considered largely responsible for the bad name that King Richard III has carried over the centuries. It’s a long play that completely ignores our desire to see a production in 90 minutes or less. It also assumes a great deal of political and historical knowledge on the part of the reader. Shakespeare never explains how the nobility is related or who was on which side of the War of the Roses. His audience knew all this and didn’t need any introduction to the huge cast of characters in this play.

So find another copy

Despite all this, I would still highly recommend Richard III to just about anyone. Never mind that it is a “history” that slants its facts to the greatest dramatic effect. It’s a great play and one that is as relevant today as it was when it was written. Indeed, in many ways, Richard III is about us and how easily we succumb to charm, ignoring the righteous complaints of others. It’s a play about how easily we put faith where it is not deserved.

Who is Richard?

Richard was the last of the Plantagenets, a king with a short reign. In the play he declares to us that he is a villain and that because of his deformed figure, he cannot enjoy the luxuries of his brother’s realm. So he determines to overthrow it—telling us about his plans as he goes.

Shakespeare breaks the “fourth wall” with Richard. He addresses the audience directly, telling us that he plans to wed the widow whose husband and father-in-law he murdered, kill his brothers, and cut a bloody path to the throne. Sounds pretty horrible, doesn’t he? Yet, Richard is charismatic and the reader struggles to keep from feeling sorry for Richard. One director of Shakespeare said that the audience finds itself on Richard’s side as long as Richard keeps talking directly to them. It is only when Richard pulls away from the audience and becomes more introspective that the audience begins to pull away from him and root for his enemy, Richmond.

There is something to that theory. Richard is always “honest” with us. He tells us what villainy he is planning and we as the audience are invited to share in his glee. Subconsciously, we excuse Richard because he is being open and honest with us. We sympathize with the villain because he has told us who he is.

What about the language?

Many people avoid Shakespeare because it is not written in modern English and many of the words are unfamiliar. Yet, to this day, few writers have managed to surpass the pure beauty and lyricism of Shakespeare. Richard III isn’t necessarily his best example, but there are lines in it that are so compelling that you just have to stop and read them over and over again.

My husband was recently quoted in our local newspaper as saying, “The attraction to Shakespeare is manifold. The language is astounding; the rhythms can be analogous to the rhythm of the human heart.” I couldn’t have stated it better. It’s a wonderful way to describe the effect of the meter that Shakespeare uses.

It is worth noting that the language of Shakespeare is the same language of the King James Bible. So if you have read that version of the Bible and were able to understand it, then I encourage you not to be intimidated by Shakespeare.

Harold Bloom in Invention of the Human complains that many of the speeches in Richard III are so ponderous that it is impossible for any actor to deliver well. I have to disagree. There are some passages—especially when Richard frightens himself before the battle with Richmond—that are challenging to deliver. There are other lines that have become cliché because they are now so overused. Yet, I have seen a good actor deliver these lines well and would posit that Bloom simply didn’t see the right production.

Of course, Bloom also claims that every woman in the play is simply an undeveloped, cardboard cut-out, incapable of real human emotion or action. While I would agree that it is primarily Richard’s play, there are some wonderful scenes with Queen Margaret and Queen Elizabeth shows incredible strength of character, even when she is most frightened and threatened.

Ah, but I’m starting to wander into academic criticism, aren’t I? I’ll wander back.

Prepare to be amazed

Richard III contains some scenes that are simply a marvel. They are the scenes that make this play a must-read and which have established Richard as forever a villain.

Was ever woman in this humor woo’d?

Forget for a moment that Anne Neville and Richard Gloucester were actually a love match and were quite devoted to each other. This is a play, not a textbook. In the play, Richard comes to woo Anne while she is escorting the corpse of her father-in-law to its grave. Her father-in-law—the former king—was killed by Richard, as was her husband. (Again, this is in the play, not historically.)

He stops her pilgrimage and after enduring her curses, begins to woo her and insist that he killed her husband and father out of love for her—to help her to a “better love.” We watch amazed as his charisma overcomes her loss and horror and he succeeds in drawing out her pledge.

What pain it was to drown!

Clarence is Richard’s brother. Richard has protested his love to Clarence’s face and then told the audience of his plans to murder him. As Clarence wakes from fitful sleep as he is incarcerated in the Tower of London, he tells his jailer of the fierce dream he had. Although the entire speech is worth reading, sample it here:

Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower,
And was embark'd to cross to Burgundy;
And, in my company, my brother Gloucester;
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches: thence we looked toward England,
And cited up a thousand fearful times,
During the wars of York and Lancaster
That had befall'n us. As we paced along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,
Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard,
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatter'd by.

And then come Richard’s goons to drown Clarence in a vat of Malmsey wine, murdering him before his other brother, the king, could pardon him.

Now prosperity begins to mellow

Queen Margaret is widow to King Henry—the king overthrown by King Edward, Richard’s brother. Queen Elizabeth is Edward’s wife. After Richard kills the sons of Edward and Elizabeth, Elizabeth comes onto the stage mourning her loss, begging the souls of her princes to hover around her and hear her lamentation. Queen Margaret overhears her and confronts her in her misery.

How does she comfort the grieving mother? By saying:

Hover about her; say, that right for right
Hath dimm'd your infant morn to aged night.

In other words, “you deserved it!”

Stock up on your insults

Richard III is also immortalized in the insults the play has spawned. Nowadays, we insult simply by adding an uncreative obscenity, but Shakespeare apparently took great glee in stringing words together that his characters might sting each other most cruelly. Here is a sampling:

Thou lump of foul deformity

Tis thy presence that exhales blood from cold and empty veins where no blood wells

Thou unfit for any place but hell

Never hung poison on a fouler toad

Out of my sight, thou dost infect mine eyes

Poisonous bunch backed toad

Deep, hollow, treacherous, and full of guile

A knot you are of damned bloodsuckers

Thy mother’s name is ominous to children

A word about the rapscallions who were the Bard’s contemporaries

It’s easy to point fingers at Shakespeare now and rebuke him for his historical inaccuracies and blatant exaggerations. Yet, old Billy Wigglestick was a smart man. Looking at the fates of many of his contemporaries, one almost wonders if Shakespeare is our greatest playwright because he managed to survive longer than any of the others and stayed out of politics. Christopher Marlowe was murdered—probably by the government. His roommate, Thomas Kyd, was arrested on charges of atheism and tortured until he gave evidence against Marlowe. He died in poverty at age 35. John Fletcher died of the plague.

Shakespeare managed to avoid much of the intrigue surrounding his contemporaries. He would not have fared so well had he written a sympathetic play about the last of the Plantagenets. After all, it was a Tudor on the throne and a favorable play about Richard would have called into question her right to rule. Shakespeare was much too smart for that.

So read it already

OK, many of you probably had to suffer through reading Shakespeare in school and have vowed never to cast willing eyes upon his work again. I can offer little blame for that, as I know that when I read Shakespeare in school he held little appeal to me. It makes me wonder if perhaps students yet lack the experience with the world necessary to truly appreciate a work like Richard III. Can a teenager understand how a charismatic politician can woo an audience to love his words and excuse his villainy? Can a teenager understand the pain and vengeful curse of a widow whose children have been murdered?


Revisit Shakespeare if you haven’t since school. And consider starting with Richard III. Let the words beat to your heart’s rhythm and let Shakespeare introduce you to some personalities you’ll never forget.

Review originally posted at

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Richard III.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.