by David Brailow
Usurpations, executions, intrigue, murders, and war—no wonder Shakespeare found the 15th century fertile ground for eight of his 10 English chronicle plays. But while the material is ceaselessly dramatic, it is difficult for a contemporary audience to follow the details, partly because the events and the genealogies of the persons involved are so deliciously tangled. Making use of a pared-down genealogical chart, come along for a quick dash through the bustling times of Richard III, as Shakespeare presented them.
The Wars of the Roses
Richard III, though written early in Shakespeare's career, represents the culminating events of the chaotic period between 1399 and 1485, ending with the defeat and death of Richard at Bosworth Field and the accession of Henry Tudor (known in the play as Richmond), who became Henry VII. Later, Shakespeare was to return to the early years of the century in four plays which chronicle Richard II's loss of his crown to his usurping cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) and the passing of that ill-gotten crown to Henry's son Prince Hal (Henry V).
During the so-called "Wars of the Roses," the Yorkists, descended from two sons of Edward III, Edward of Langley, first Duke of York, and Lionel, Duke of Clarence, struggled for power with the Lancastrians, descended from John of Gaunt, another of Edward III's sons (see chart). In 1461, the Yorkists placed Edward IV on the throne. After a succession of revolts and counter revolts—during which Edward IV and Henry VI were alternately knocked off and restored to the throne—Henry VI was assassinated in 1471, following the death of his son, Edward Prince of Wales.
Shakespeare opens this play somewhere between 1471 (the death of Henry VI) and 1483 (the death of Edward IV). The time between these two events seems only a matter of days in the play. Edward IV is securely on the throne, but the hero-villain, his youngest brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, covets the crown for himself. Unfortunately (mostly for them), four males and one female stand between Richard and glory. First is Edward IV, of course. Second and third are Edward's little sons, Edward the Prince of Wales (later Edward V for a few days) and Richard, 4th Duke of York. Fourth is George, Duke of Clarence, Richard's other surviving older brother. The female is Princess Elizabeth, the oldest of five surviving daughters of Edward IV, though no one seems to think of the daughters as likely successors.
Richard dispatches Clarence through a spot of intrigue and murder-for-hire, and Edward conveniently expires of natural causes. Richard gets himself named Lord Protector, then accuses Edward and his sons of being born out of wedlock and simply takes over the throne. Just to make sure, though, he has his little nephews smothered in the Tower of London. To eliminate the final competitor, Richard proposes to marry Princess Elizabeth, after poisoning his wife, Queen Anne.
Thus when Richard III dies at the end of the play, he has succeeded in virtually wiping out both the great lines of descent from Edward III, the house of York and the house of Lancaster (Shakespeare makes Richard the murderer of both Henry VI and his son, Edward the Prince of Wales). Of all likely heirs, only Princess Elizabeth remains. But the candidate who emerges to take the throne is Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond. Henry's mother was descended from John of Gaunt and his second wife, Katherine Swynford, but his father was a minor Welsh nobleman. To cement this extremely shaky claim to the throne, Henry marries Princess Elizabeth, thereby joining together the two rival royal houses of York and Lancaster.
Three Queens and a Duchess
Though juicy female roles are relatively sparse in the history chronicles, Richard III has four crucially important royal women. The first is Lady Anne Neville, who appears early in the play. She is the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales, as well as a cousin of the Duchess of York (coming up below). She is first seen following the corpse of her father-in-law, Henry VI, to its grave and cursing Richard, the murderer of both him and her late husband. Not at all put off by her attitude, Richard woos her with at least moderate success, and when we next see poor Anne she is Richard's miserable queen.
Throughout the play, Richard is haunted by the vengeful figure of Margaret of Anjou, the aged widow of Henry VI. In her prime, Margaret has been a major and often deadly force in English power politics, but now she wanders about the palace like a cursing spirit. In a magnificent scene which gives full expression to the themes of loss and revenge that seem to dominate the Yorkist plays, Margaret joins Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York in a powerful dirge for their families, decimated by war and treachery.
Queen Elizabeth, the second mourner, is Elizabeth Woodville, a woman without previous royal connections, whom Edward IV married apparently for love. She brought with her scores of relatives and friends (including Rivers, Vaughan, and Grey, whom Richard later executes), who went to work making themselves rich and powerful, thus incurring the wrath of Edward's younger brothers. This is the root of the family squabbling which Edward IV tries to quell from his deathbed. In the dirge scene, Elizabeth mourns the loss of her husband and her two children, Princes Edward and Richard. Later, Richard persuades her to let him court her daughter, Princess Elizabeth.
The third mourner is Cicely Neville, known in the play only as the Duchess of York. She is the widow of Richard, Duke of York, and the mother of Edward IV, Rutland (the brother killed earlier by the Lancastrians), Clarence, and Richard III. The Duchess mourns the deaths of her husband, first three sons, and two grandsons, while Margaret tartly points out that it was the Duchess's womb that produced Richard, the "hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death."
The litany of names cited during the mourning scene demands from the listener the ability to distinguish among no less than three Richards and an equal number of Edwards, not to mention the odd Henry, Clarence, and Rutland, one of the reasons that no one misses the incantatory effect of these repetitions.
If you become fascinated by the history behind Shakespeare's kings, read Peter Saccio's highly entertaining and mercifully clear Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama.