Richard III primarily belongs to two of Shakespeare’s best known genres of theater: it is both a “history play” and a tragedy. The protagonist of this piece is one of the playwright’s most famous villains, but Richard III was also a real former king of England. "History plays," a subgenre within Shakespeare's writing, reflect on and dramatize eventful periods in English history. Like all of Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard III is rooted in real historical events and figures from English history. This one centers on the historical figures of the Plantagenet family, the events surrounding the end of the Wars of the Roses, and the rise of the Tudor dynasty in the late 1400s.
The play focuses on the story of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. He was the youngest of three sons and very unlikely to inherit the throne, so he schemed and manipulated his way to become Richard III, the King of England. It is important to note that Shakespeare took creative liberties and added fictional elements to dramatize historical events in all of his history plays. Although the events of this monarch's life were certainly very dramatic, some were exaggerated or distorted by the playwright. Through the characters’ conversations, asides, and soliloquies, Shakespeare provides a glimpse into the political maneuvers, family rivalries, and treacheries that preoccupied 15th-century England.
Richard III is also a tragedy, as it focuses on the protagonist’s rise to power and subsequent downfall. Richard is the quintessential flawed main character. His physical deformities are mirrored by a twisted and villainous personality. Through Richard’s sinister ambition and ruthlessness, Shakespeare explores the consequences of unbridled ambition in powerful people. Although some might say that the brutal murder of two innocent children is the saddest moment in the play, the tragic genre’s key elements are most apparent in the fall of Richard himself. Despite his cunning and resourcefulness, Richard cannot escape being humbled by his destiny. More than any other of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Richard III warns of the dangers that come with the pursuit of power at all costs.