Richard III

Pdf fan
Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
Themes and Colors
Power Theme Icon
The Throne and the State Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Richard III, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Power Theme Icon

Richard III tracks Richard's bloodthirsty ascent to power. The play is almost all action – it contains less meditation and soliloquy than many of Shakespeare's plays – and nearly every action is orchestrated by Richard to facilitate his own rise to the crown. The play begins right after King Henry VI's death vacates the throne and ends as soon as Richard is slain by Richmond at the end of Act V, its dramatic shape framing a zoomed-in view of Richard's violent power grab. The peacetime England presided over by King Edward at the start of the play and Richmond at the end is a world apart and can't coexist with the murderous, terrified atmosphere that Richard thrives in. Indeed, Richard himself admits at the play's start that he has no place in peacetime England: "Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, have no delight to pass away the time." Indeed, in creating Richard, Shakespeare creates an image of unadulterated greed for personal power, a true Machiavellian leader who lacks all moral and emotional compunction. His own advancement is the only thing he pays attention to and, much to the other characters' chagrin, Richard remains deaf to people's grief and pleas for mercy no matter the circumstances. Unfazed by the fact that he himself is to blame for Lady Anne's mourning (since he killed her husband and father-in-law), Richard woos the grief-stricken lady just to make himself feel powerful. When his own mother, the Duchess of York, tries desperately to articulate her anger to him, he ignores her. Likewise, Richard spurns his loyal friend Buckingham's entirely justified request for the reward Richard himself has promised. He is numb even to the enraged misery of Queen Elizabeth, whose two sons Richard has slain, and has the nerve to ask the devastated mother for her daughter's hand in marriage.

Yet while most of the play's action focuses on Richard's ruthless self-empowerment, it opens with a glimpse into Richard's profound disempowerment, which, though it doesn't excuse any of Richard's brutality, offers psychological insight into his behavior. In Act 1 scene 1, Richard walks into the play with hideous features and a severe hunchback, the result of a premature birth. Alone on stage, all attention is focused on Richard's body whose deformity and weakness Shakespeare probably exaggerated for dramatic effect (the historical Richard suffered from scoliosis but had no hunchback). Those around him frolic and make love in celebration of peacetime, Richard says, but he, "curtailed of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished…so lamely and unfashionable," cannot partake of their joy. "And therefore," he adds, "since I cannot prove a lover…I am determined to prove a villain." Implying that Richard's physical disempowerment is the root cause of his blood-thirst for political empowerment presents Richard's power grab as compensatory, an effort to outweigh the disadvantages he was born with. From this perspective, Richard is still a villain and his violence is still horrifically unjustified, but it is, however perversely, more understandable.

Get the entire Richard III LitChart as a printable PDF.
Richard iii.pdf.medium

Power Quotes in Richard III

Below you will find the important quotes in Richard III related to the theme of Power.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity;
And therefore,--since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,--
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams…

Related Characters: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III (speaker), King Edward IV
Page Number: 1.1.24-33
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard has gone on to describe his deformity, greatly exaggerated in the play, which prevents him from enjoying "sporting tricks," "love's majesty," or the benefits of peacetime. He says in this time of peace, he has "no delight to pass away the time," other than spotting his own "shadow in the sun" and make fun of his own deformities. Note that he is from the first speech obsessed with the passage of time, and that he now puns on "sun" the other way, suggesting that he is in his brother's (the son of York's) shadow.

Because he "cannot prove a lover" and cannot take part in the peaceful festivities, Richard decides to "prove a villain." He consciously decides to be evil, and he announces it to the audience in the very first scene of the play--in a way almost implicating them in the scenes that follow, whether they like it or not. His motives are hatred, boredom, frustration, and a hunger for power. As he begins to outline in the last lines of the excerpt, Richard has already laid a plot to set his brothers against each other by telling King Edward of a false prophesy.


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Richard III quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ;
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

Related Characters: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.356-358
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard offers this soliloquy after everyone has left the stage, and before two murderers enter; Richard will send the murderers to kill Clarence. In the soliloquy, Richard excitedly outlines the plan he has put into action: he has cast doubt on Clarence, but placed the blame on this doubt and Clarence's imprisonment on Elizabeth and her circle. What's more, he has recited scripture in order to appear religious and innocent, compounding the forgiving image he built after Margaret's curses.

This excerpt concludes the soliloquy and explains what Richard has done with his plan, specifically with the invocation of the Bible. He has done so in order to "clothe" his "naked villainy," which is apparent to the audience from the beginning of the play, but carefully obscured to the characters within it. To cover himself, Richard uses bits and pieces of the Bible to "seem a saint" but acknowledging "I play the devil." This line echoes his opening claim to "prove a villain," extending the claim with the meta-theatrical notion that he is 'playing' a character, in this case a devil. The devil himself is known to use scriptures for his own purposes, which is exactly what Richard has done.

Note also the interesting sonic features of the line "With odd old ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ." Metrically, it breaks from the typical pattern of 5 iambs, giving five consecutive stressed syllables in "odd old ends stol'n forth." The line is also drawn out by use of assonance, and the repeated use of 'o' sounds in odd, old, stol'n, forth, of, and Holy draws out the line in delivery. The line then is followed by five classical iambs, a typical line of Shakespeare's verse.

Act 2, Scene 4 Quotes

Ay me, I see the ruin of my house!
The tiger now hath seiz'd the gentle hind;
Insulting tyranny begins to jet
Upon the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome, destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see, as in a map, the end of all.

Related Characters: Queen Elizabeth (speaker), Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III
Page Number: 2.4.54-59
Explanation and Analysis:

Edward is dead, and his son, Prince Edward of Wales, is in line to be crowned king. But Richard and his sidekick Buckingham plot to have Richard crowned; they imprison and plan to kill Queen Elizabeth's relatives Rivers, Dorset, and Grey. In this scene Elizabeth's younger son, Duke of York, has recounted a strange interaction with Richard, and Elizabeth sees through Richard's manipulation of her son. A messenger then enters and informs Elizabeth of her relatives' imprisonment.

To this news Queen Elizabeth responds with the lamentation excerpted in the quote. She claims to see the "ruin of her house," since by imprisoning or killing everyone, Richard has disempowered her family. She refers to him as a "tiger" that has pounced on his opportunity, characterizing him as tyranny ascending to the throne that should be pure ("innocent"). She dramatically welcomes "destruction, blood, and massacre," saying that she sees the end of everything like she's viewing a map. This language is powerful and dramatic, but Elizabeth is essentially correct--she sees what will happen, but can do nothing to stop it.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

Your are too senseless-obstinate, my lord,
Too ceremonious and traditional.
Weigh it but with the grossness of this age,
You break not sanctuary in seizing him.
The benefit thereof is always granted
To those whose dealings have deserv'd the place
And those who have the wit to claim the place.
The Prince hath neither claim'd it nor deserv'd it,
And therefore, in mine opinion, cannot have it.
Then, taking him from thence that is not there,
You break no privilege nor charter there.

Related Characters: Duke of Buckingham (speaker), Duke of York, Cardinal Bouchier
Page Number: 3.1.45-55
Explanation and Analysis:

After learning that her family was captured, Queen Elizabeth and her younger son Duke of York took sanctuary, meaning that they are hiding in a church, where they are supposed to be safe regardless of who is in power. In this scene, Edward, Prince of Wales and new uncrowned king, is greeted by Richard, Buckingham, and a Cardinal. Soon Hastings enters and reports the news that the king's mother and brother cannot greet the king since they have taken sanctuary, which is sacred.

But Buckingham instructs the cardinal to retrieve the Duke of York. When the Cardinal refuses, Buckingham uses a careful, twisted argument to justify doing so: seizing the Duke of York is not breaking sanctuary, since the benefits of sanctuary are only granted to those who have specifically requested it. Since the Prince hasn't requested sanctuary, instead being taken by his mother, Buckingham argues that technically he doesn't deserve protection. Thus the "obstinate" Cardinal is convinced (or forced) by a loophole into breaking sanctuary and fetching the young Prince. Here, we see Richard's power overstepping usual boundaries: he exerts his will over the young King and over what is usually allowed by the Church.

Act 3, Scene 5 Quotes

Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian;
Speak and look back, and pry on every side,
Tremble and start at wagging of a straw,
Intending deep suspicion. Ghastly looks
Are at my service, like enforced smiles;
And both are ready in their offices
At any time to grace my strategems.

Related Characters: Duke of Buckingham (speaker)
Page Number: 3.5.6-12
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene clearly exhibits the theatrical nature of Richard's manipulation and schemes. The scene begins with Richard instructing Buckingham on how to convincingly pretend that he's sad, much like a director giving notes to an actor. As Richard's co-conspirator, Buckingham is comfortable in the role: he claims that he "can counterfeit the deep tragedian," explicitly calling himself an actor (a tragedian is an actor in a tragedy--which is exactly what the actor who is playing Buckingham already is, giving an added layer of meta-theatricality).

Buckingham (and the actor playing Buckingham) knows all the tricks of the trade: "Ghastly looks / Are at [his] service," just like fake smiles. This acting, he says, is a crucial tool ready to be employed in any moment for the benefit of their strategy. Richard and Buckingham proceed to act in front of the mayor to win public approval, and now we see that this manipulation and acting is calculated, practiced, and coached by the master manipulator/director Richard.

What! think you we are Turks or Infidels?
Or that we would, against the form of law,
Proceed thus rashly in the villain's death
But that the extreme peril of the case,
The peace of England and our person's safety,
Enforc'd us to this execution?

Related Characters: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III (speaker)
Page Number: 3.5.42-47
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines come from the performance in which Buckingham and Richard convince the Mayor (and through him the common people) that Hastings was a traitor who deserved death. Such a performance is key to maintain public image and ease Richard's pathway to the throne. Buckingham and Richard first claim that Hastings was a traitor, and that he plotted their deaths. When the mayor questions them, Richard responds with this quote.

He invokes both his status as Christian and Englishman, asking rhetorically, "think you we are Turks or Infidels?" He implies that since they are English Christians, they would never execute someone without a good reason (invoking a sense of racial superiority that is ironically undercut as soon as it leaves Richard's mouth--for Richard himself proves that Christian Europeans are as bloodthirsty as anyone else). He continues by saying that they wouldn't go against the law or kill Hastings so quickly unless the case was so extreme as they described. Richard fashions the killing as necessary for the peace of England and to save their own lives. Thus framed as moral and essential, the execution appears justified to the Mayor. Very quickly, the Mayor determines that Hastings deserved his death; the deceptive theatre of Richard and Buckingham is convincing. Note that again, language is Richard's weapon and method of obtaining power. He commits atrocities of violence, but it is through language that he is able to translate that violence into power, false innocence, and the crown.

Act 3, Scene 6 Quotes

Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who's so bold but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world; and all will come to nought,
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought.

Related Characters: Scrivener (speaker), Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III, Lord Hastings, Sir William Catesby
Page Number: 3.6.10-14
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines are spoken in a soliloquy by a Scrivener (basically a notetaker or transcriber) who enters the stage alone in this brief scene. With him, he carries the indictment of Hastings, which took him eleven hours to write. However, Hastings has been executed before his sentencing could even be read, indicating to the Scrivener (and the public) that the execution was extralegal and suspicious.

The Scrivener asks rhetorically who is so stupid or lacking in perception ("gross") that they cannot see what is clearly going on (the "palpable device" of Richard's deception). At the same time, the Scrivener comments on the frustrating dilemma by asking who is brave enough to speak out loud what everyone internally knows to be the truth about Richard--everyone knows, but because they are afraid, they pretend they don't. The Scrivener concludes that the world is bad and will come to nothing when people must think about such an evil as Richard. Note that the rhyming couplet of nought and thought end the scene with emphasis.

Act 3, Scene 7 Quotes

No, so God help me, they spake not a word;
But, like dumb statues or breathing stones,
Star'd each on other, and look'd deadly pale.
Which when I saw, I reprehended them,
And ask'd the mayor what meant this willful silence.

Related Characters: Duke of Buckingham (speaker), Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III, Edward, Prince of Wales, Duke of York
Page Number: 3.7.24-28
Explanation and Analysis:

Buckingham is reporting to Richard on the results of the rumors they spread and on the citizens' reaction to Richard's rise to power. The people were silent, so Buckingham tried rousing them, asking them to cry out "God save Richard, England's royal king!" But, as he explains in the quote, they were still silent and "spake not a word." Buckingham describes the people as "dumb statues or breathing stones," staring at each other and looking pale.

This response is deemed a "willful silence," meaning that there is an intention and clear message given by the lack of words. The silence of the citizens speaks loudly: they are scared to voice their opinions directly, but they resist Richard as a king. Their hesitancy to support him shows that their wishes can affect those in power, and the limitations of language. At a certain point, the manipulative rhetorical powers of Richard and his followers become insufficient to convince the common people that he is not corrupt. Likewise, the citizens are unable to articulate their discomfort or true opinions, instead being forced to communicate through their silent speech and resistance. 

Act 4, Scene 2 Quotes

I must be married to my brother's daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.
Murder her brothers, and then marry her!
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin:
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.

Related Characters: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III (speaker), King Edward IV, Edward, Prince of Wales, Duke of York
Page Number: 4.2.63-68
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard is now King, but he fears that he might lose his power to Edward Prince of Wales. Richard tells Buckingham to kill the young princes, and when Buckingham hesitates, Richard becomes irate and ultimately decides to hire someone else and drop Buckingham. Killing the young princes isn't the only precaution Richard will take to preserve his power--he also instructs Catesby to spread rumors that Anne is sick. He will then lock away Anne to hide her health so that he can marry someone else to solidify his position as king.

Richard's plan is to marry King Edward's (his brother's) daughter Elizabeth. He believes such a marriage is the only way to save the fragility of his power, which he suggests stands on "brittle glass." The disgusting irony of such a plan is not lost on Richard. Elizabeth is the sister of the Prince of Wales, and thus Richard plans to "Murder her brothers, and then marry her!" He calls the plan an "uncertain way of gain," suggesting for a moment that he feels some discomfort or remorse, but Richard soon clarifies that he is remorseless--his uncertainty seemingly only regards the feasibility of such a plan working out smoothly. But by now he is "so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin." He is literally and figuratively drenched in blood and sins, so much so that he is immune to pity, remorse, or tears.

Compare this line to murderous Macbeth, who also gains the throne through murder: "I am in blood / Stepped in so far" (3.4.167-168).

Act 5, Scene 2 Quotes

The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,
That spoil'd your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your embowelled bosoms—this foul swine
Is now even in the centre of this isle

Related Characters: Richmond, King Henry VII (speaker), Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III
Related Symbols: The Boar
Page Number: 5.2.7-12
Explanation and Analysis:

We have learned that Elizabeth lied to Richard and has in fact promised her daughter's hand in marriage to Richmond. Before being executed, Buckingham has cried out that he wishes he had repented during Edward's reign, and that Margaret's curses have come true. In this scene, we see Richmond with his troops, indicating that battle is eminent and Richard's hold on his throne is growing weaker and weaker.

In the quote, Richmond addresses his troops, whom he says have been "bruised" by Richard's "tyranny." He informs them that he has good news, information provided Lord Stanley. It is this information that Richmond delivers in the excerpted lines. He calls Richard a "wretched, bloody, and usurping boar," indicating that he is evil, violent, and that his claim to the throne is illegitimate. The boar has "spoil'd" the "summer fields and fruitful vines" of the people, and he "swills" their "warm blood like wash." His reign is terrible and is hurting the people, enraging them. In Richmond's language the boar (which should be noble, as the sign of Richard's herald) is transformed into a disgusting beast that feeds on the disembowelled "trough" of his victims. Richard is then characterized as a "foul swine." All of these insults and characterizations are to the service of Richmond's simple announcement: Richard is nearby ("at the centre of this isle").

Act 5, Scene 3 Quotes

What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No-yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why-
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself!
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deed committed by myself!
I am a villain; yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.

Related Characters: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III (speaker)
Page Number: 5.3.194-204
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard and Richmond's armies have camped for the night, preparing for battle the next day. Between the two camps, the ghosts of King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, Edward Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, Anne, and Buckingham rise in succession. Each ghost speaks to both commander, cursing Richard and wishing Richmond well; the ghosts call for Richard's death. After this haunting, Richard wakes from a nightmare. Startled, he delivers a shaking soliloquy in which he debates with himself, going back and forth between self-love and self-loathing.

Here, he begins by asking what he is so afraid of. Is it himself? Since there is no one else around (he is in denial of or only subconsciously aware of the ghosts), but at the same since "Richard loves Richard" and is himself ("I am I"), he thinks he has no reason to be afraid. He asks if there is some murderer there, and his first answer is no, since there is no one there threatening him. But he quickly changes to "yes, I am" since he himself is a murderer. We see his guilt constantly resurfacing only to be repressed again. We can compare him to Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost, who can fly from hell "no more than from himself." Richard cannot flee from himself, or get revenge upon himself, but he is tortured by merely being himself and enduring his guilt.

Thus he undulates between "I love myself," and "I hate myself." He calls himself a villain and says he is not. He instructs himself to speak well of himself, but then says not to flatter himself. Wracked by guilt, blood, and power, Richard has become fractured--his very language, the tool of his power, now falling apart--and he now appears alienated and powerless. His downfall is almost complete, and towards the end of his speech, Richard even realizes that no one will pity him since he has no pity for himself.

Act 5, Scene 5 Quotes

And then, as we have ta'en the sacrament,
We will unite the white rose and the red:
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frown'd upon their enmity!
What traitor hears me, and says not amen?
England hath long been mad, and scarr'd herself

Related Characters: Richmond, King Henry VII (speaker)
Page Number: 5.5
Explanation and Analysis:

The chaotic battle has been fought and lost; the crazed Richard has fulfilled his prophetic nightmare and uttered the famous line, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Richmond has killed Richard, and entered with the crown. In his final speech, he pardons all of the traitorous soldiers who fought for Richard. We see Richmond is a very different kind of ruler than Richard, truly seeking to bring peace and prosperity to England.

Richmond says that he will "unite the white rose and the red," meaning that, by marrying Queen Elizabeth's daughter (whom Richard planned to marry), he will unite the houses of Lancaster and York. He cries out for heaven to smile upon this union, and for England to cease being "mad, and scarr'd." Richmond goes on to proclaim that England will know peace, saying that he will end the injustices and the countless years of civil war that have plagued the country.

And so begins the Tudor dynasty, which provided the lineage of Elizabeth I, the Queen of England who ruled when Richard III was first written and performed. Thus, as in many of Shakespeare's "histories," the story at least partly ends up glorifying and justifying the current monarch.