The Tragedy of Richard the Third
Shakespeare’s first group of historical plays comes to a harmonious conclusion with the defeat of wicked King Richard at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The victorious Henry, Earl of Richmond, belongs to the House of Lancaster. He marries the Princess Elizabeth, of the House of York, thus unifying the nobility and bringing to an end the Wars of the Roses. In the final scene of Richard the Third, the Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby, places the crown on Richmond’s head and he becomes King Henry VII, inaugurator of the Tudor dynasty. The play closes with a speech in which Henry looks back on the civil strife that has been the subject not just of this play but also of the Henry VI sequence, and forward to the golden age over which his wife’s namesake, Queen Elizabeth, liked to believe that she reigned. On hearing these lines, Shakespeare’s audience would themselves have looked both forward and back: back to a bloody period in the nation’s history, with relief at how it was providentially ended by the Tudor dispensation; forward to an uncertain future, in the knowledge that the queen was now too old to sustain the line.
The play draws us to identify with Richard and his fantasy of total control of self and domination of others. Not yet king at the start of the play, Richard presents himself as an enterprising villain as he successfully plans to dispose of his brother Clarence. Richard achieves similar success in conquering the woman he chooses to marry. He carves a way to the throne through assassination and executions.