Three generations and almost 100 years have passed since the Lancastrian Henry of Bolingbroke usurped the throne of the Yorkist king, Richard II. A long and bloody dynastic struggle between the powerful houses of York and Lancaster tore at the fabric of fifteenth-century England.
King Edward IV of York has reclaimed the throne, and England prospers in a rare moment of peace. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the king's younger brother misshapen since birth, now embarks upon an elaborate crime spree to secure the crown. Lady Anne mourns the deaths of her father-in-law, the deposed King Henry VI, and her husband the Prince of Wales, both murdered by Richard. As she follows the funeral procession of Henry VI, Richard addresses her, transfiguring Lady Anne's curses into a betrothal of marriage. He plots his brother Clarence's execution and, placing the guilt upon King Edward, hastens the king's own death. Reprising the role of peacemaker, Richard pits courtier against courtier, confiding in them one moment and turning upon them the next.
Queen Margaret, the banished widow of Henry VI, returns to the Court and, cursing her usurpers, prophesizes their doom. One by one as Richard's detractors are executed, each comes to understand the truth of Margaret's prophecies. Declaring the king's two sons illegitimate and locking them away in the Tower of London after Edward's death, Richard claims the throne.
The crown sits uneasily upon the new king, who constructs his brutal reign out of the murders of his closest associates, the young princes, and his wife. Rebellion against Richard's tyranny grows. And as the army of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the last heir of the Lancastrian line, prepares to meet Richard's, the ghosts of Richard's victims rise to torment him.
Richard III's literary DNA can be traced in part to the work of Sir Thomas More, the History of King Richard the Thirde, published in 1543. According to More,
Richard...was...little of stature, ill featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favoured of visage...He was malicious, wrathful, envious, and from afore his birthe ever forward...He came into the world with the feet forward...[and] not untoothed...Friend and foe were to him indifferent; where his advantage grew, he spared no man's death whose life withstood his purpose.
More's account has generated considerable controversy among historians and scholars, who account Richard an able and loyal leader. According to academics committed to salvaging Richard's tarnished reputation, the Tudor dynasty—established by Queen Elizabeth's grandfather Henry VII with his defeat of Richard III—had a shaky claim to the Crown. Italian historian Polydore Vergil, among others, was commissioned to write a Tudor version of past events. Even the truth of Richard's deformity is called into question by the memory of an aging countess who recalled having danced with the young Richard of Gloucester, "the handsomest man in the room with the exception of his brother Edward."
Shakespeare also drew from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) and Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1550), histories similar in their portrayal of Richard III. Shakespeare may have written a "libelous" play, but he was writing in a tradition already established.
The life of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (1452–1485), who became King Richard III, coincided with the Wars of the Roses, a bloody civil war extending over 30 years between the House of York (bearer of the white rose) and the House of Lancaster (bearer of the red rose). The Lancastrian monarch King Henry VI's mental state began to seriously deteriorate at the end of 1453, and Richard, Duke of York (father of Richard III), was made Protector of the Realm. Henry VI eventually recovered, but not before his wife, Queen Margaret, had given birth to a son, Edward, Prince of Wales, who displaced the Duke of York as heir to the throne.
Fighting broke out in 1455 between the Duke of York's supporters and King Henry VI's Lancastrian supporters—a dynastic struggle with its roots stemming from the Lancastrian Henry IV's usurpation of the Crown from the Yorkist Richard II in 1399. In 1460 Henry VI was captured and forced to recognize Richard, Duke of York, as heir apparent. As a result, Queen Margaret, whose son was thus disinherited, retaliated by killing the Duke of York in the bloody Battle at Wakefield. But the following year, in 1461, the Duke of York's eldest son Edward (Richard III's brother), defeated the Lancastrians, recaptured the dynasty for the Yorkists and was crowned King Edward IV.
King Edward IV's marriage to a commoner, Elizabeth Woodville, ignited a battle between Yorkist factions. With support from Louis XI of France, Henry VI's wife, Queen Margaret, teamed up with the defectors—most notably King Edward's brother George, Duke of Clarence—and together they restored Henry VI to the throne in 1470.
Edward IV and his youngest brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, went into exile. Forming a series of alliances, they reclaimed the crown within the year. The only child of Edward and Queen Margaret was killed in the battle, and Henry VI, imprisoned in the Tower, was left without an heir. He died there, according to the official record, of melancholy.
Shakespeare's Richard III begins at this point in history, although it departs from the historical record. The Wars of the Roses, like the play, ended with the death of Richard III.
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Richard III has been a stalwart of the stage since its first performances. Written ca. 1591, it is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays and the final episode of the "first tetralogy," preceded by the three parts of Henry VI.
Richard Burbage, the preeminent tragic actor of Shakespeare's company, originated the role that remained one of the playwright's most popular creations. There is little documentation of revivals during the seventeenth century, but in 1700 the English actor-manager Colley Cibber adapted the play—cutting Shakespeare's text by more than two-thirds, eliminating several major characters, adding lines from Richard II, Henry V and Henry VI, and entirely reworking the original verse to suit his contemporaries' tastes.
The great tragedians created era-defining performances in the role of Richard. David Garrick revolutionized the conventions of eighteenth-century tragic acting with the psychological depth he brought to the role. The Romanticism of the early nineteenth brought Edmund Kean's passionate, electrifying performance. The great Victorian actor Henry Irving reinstated Shakespeare's original text, although Cibber's text remained on English and American stages into the twentieth century. Creating perhaps the best-known Richard of the modern era, Laurence Olivier's virtuoso performance in 1944 at London's Old Vic dazzled and chilled its war-fatigued audiences. Olivier reprised the role in the widely praised 1955 film version that he also directed.
Barbara Gaines directed CST's only previous presentation of Richard III at the Ruth Page Theatre in 1996, with scenic design by Alex Okun, resident designer with the Moscow Art Theatre, and lighting designer by Kenneth Posner.
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