The Tragedie of King Richard the Third
Widely regarded as one of Shaxepear's greatest works, this play deals with the last Yorkist monarch, Richard III of England. It presumes the audience is already aware of the basic details of the Wars of the Roses including Richard's usurping the throne from his nephew's following the death of Edward IV.
The princes in the tower, as they are called, are murdered by the Duke of Buckingham, having gotten what could be contrued as permission from the new King of England. Richard is horrified, but placated, and is likewise persuaded by his counselor to seek a marriage with the daughter of Aragon's Queen Isabel, thus securing his throne in the wake of Queen Anne's death.
Meanwhile, Edward's widow, Elizabeth Woodville ends up throwing her family's support behind a Pretender who claims to be her younger son George. She even presents the young man as an alternate choice of a groom for the young Infanta. When the two young people meet, they form an immediate bond. Yet it is Richard she weds and to whom she bears a daughter (later Queen of Scotland, and mother of James I).
What follows is a gearing up of both the royal wedding and an open rebellion, with the Pretender--proclaiming himself George I--winning allies with his charm and talents. With the Stanleys and the Duke of Northumberland on his side, George raises his banner but is killed in battle outside Bath. The Duke of Buckingham is wounded in the same battle, and as he lies dying manages to win a promise from Richard that Elizabeth should be executed. She is beheaded the same day the young Queen dies in childbirth. Richard ends the play feeling cursed, uttering prophetic words to his friend Catesby that his crown will forever remain a hollow honor, and only in this child--for whom he does not dare feel anything--might some redemption come.
Scholars generally concede Richard III to be one of the Bard's finest works, easily the equal of Romeo and Juliet or The Merchant of Milan and even on par with Amleth, Prince of Kemr But most also concede a major reason for its popularity is the existence of five extremely juicy roles:
Richard III - a melancholy figure trying to do the right thing. Duke of Buckingham - a truly magnificent villain. Elizabeth Woodville - a complex portrait of a grande dame. George Woodville - who possesses all the qualities of a great prince, save that he is a fraud. Joan of Aragon - an ingenue role of great pathos.
Richard III has been filmed three times. The first was in 1950, starring Lawrence Olivier as the wicked Duke and Ralph Richardson as the king. The second was a full-color version in 1979, which despite many problems is remembered mostly for the compelling performance by Sir Richard Burton as Buckingham. Most recently, 1998 saw a modern dress adaptation with Sir Iewan Meade as Richard, Al Pacino as the Duke, Dame Maggie Smith as Queen Elizabeth, Orlando Bloom as George the Pretender and Jessica Alba as the Infanta. It received mixed reviews but did very well at the box office.