Advice for Reading Richard III and a Summary of the First Two Scenes

Richard III seems complicated because, as the last of a group of four plays, its characters share a bloody past that is unfamiliar to most readers.

But the play isn't as complicated as it seems. In the first half, Richard does everything he can to get the crown. In the second, he does everything he can to keep it. Stay focused on Richard and you won't get lost.

Here's a detailed summary of the first two scenes to help get you started.

In the first scene, Richard tells us that the Yorks have beaten the Lancasters and put his brother Edward on the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses. Peace doesn't agree with Richard, who is too deformed to practice the arts of love. He's determined to be a villain and has plotted against brother Clarence, letting the king hear a prophecy that implies Clarence will murder Edward's heirs. When Clarence appears, under guard, Richard greets him and says that the king's wife, Elizabeth, is behind his downfall, just as she was behind the recent imprisonment of Lord Hastings. Only the queen's relatives and those with influence on the king's mistress are safe in the new order.

Richard tells Clarence he will do what he can to help him, and, after Clarence is led off, meets newly released Hastings. They discuss the king's illness, which Richard attributes to Edward's decadent way of life. After Hastings leaves, Richard tells us that the king will die soon. Because Richard wants Clarence to die first, he will make sure the king executes Clarence before another day goes by. When both brothers are dead, Richard will marry Lady Anne, even though he killed her husband Prince Edward of Lancaster and her father-in-law Henry VI.

The second scene begins with Lady Anne following Henry VI's funeral procession. She asks men carrying the coffin to set it down, then laments the dead king and curses his killer, who also killed her husband. The men pick up the coffin, ready to continue the procession, but are interrupted by Richard, who makes them set the body down again.

Anne calls Richard a devil and uncovers Henry's body, saying its wounds bleed afresh because it's near its murderer. Richard tries to explain what he's done. When he claims that he didn't kill Anne's husband, Anne says that her mother-in-law Margaret of Anjou saw him with his sword covered in Edward's blood; Richard would have killed Margaret as well if his brothers hadn't stopped him. Anne asks Richard if he's also going to deny killing Henry VI. Richard admits killing Henry but says he was simply helping Henry get to heaven: the pious Henry was more fit for heaven that earth. Anne retorts that Richard is most fit for hell. Outrageously, Richard responds by saying he is more fit for Anne's bedroom. He goes on to argue that her beauty caused the death of her husband and father-in-law. Anne says that if she thought that she would rip the beauty from her cheeks.

When Richard says he killed her husband to give her a better one—himself—Anne spits at him and tells him to get out of her sight: he infects her eyes. Richard says that her eyes have drawn tears from his own and gives her his sword; if she wants revenge she should go ahead and kill him. She can't do it. She drops the sword, and Richard picks it up, saying that, if she can't kill him, she should command him to kill himself. When she says she already did that, he tells her that that was when she was enraged. He says that just as he killed others for her love, he will now kill himself for it. Anne says he's a liar but tells him to put away his sword. Richard offers her a ring, and she takes it, saying that it's meaningless. She agrees to go to his house, where he will meet her after he's finished mourning Henry.

Anne leaves, and Richard orders that Henry's body be taken to the Blackfriars' priory. He exults that he has successfully wooed Anne, despite having killed her husband and father-law, despite her hating and cursing him, and despite Henry's bleeding corpse being nearby. Anne has replaced her handsome husband with the deformed Richard, who has now discovered that he's handsome; he'll have to buy a mirror and get tailors to make him clothes. As soon as he gets Henry buried, he'll go to Anne.

Edwin Austin Abbey, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne (1896)

Here are some other ShakespeareFlix posts on the opening of Richard III: Laurence Olivier performs the first soliloquy; Ian McKellen performs the first soliloquy; Laurence Olivier as Richard seduces Lady Anne (Clare Bloom).


Cdm940 said…
In Richard the III there is a lot betrayal and miss doings to get to the top. All Richard wanted was to have the heir and he would do anything to get to the throne. He killed Henry and Edward because he wanted to get to the throne as quickly as possible. Even though Richard killed Edwards, Lady Anne’s husband she still accepted a ring from Richard and agreed to be with him. This will put Richard at the throne, where he wanted to be the whole time. The play had a lot of emotions and excitement in it with all of the killing and back stabbing going on throughout the play.
Rcurrier said…
Richard the III is a stimulating and shocking play. Richard demonstrates how selfish a human-being can become. He thinks of only himself in order to get the crown and become King. Richard the III will not let anything or anyone stop him, even if this means murdering his close friends or family.
Norris said…
This play truly demonstrates how cruel a human being can become for his own selfish needs. Richard the III is willing to throw away his family and friends for his own greed. Shakespeare really shows how corrupted we as humans can become in this well thought out play.
Sable V said…
I think one of the best scenes of the play is the second scene in which Richard successfully wins Lady Anne. In my personal opinion Richard is one of Shakespeare’s best villains and this “courtship” scene exemplifies both his cunning and ruthlessness. The fact that he is able to successful woo Lady Anne not only after killing her husband and father-in-law, but to do so actually while standing over their dead bodies seems impossible. He shows his craftiness by taking Anne’s hate and curses and using them against her in fact to win her over. By actually putting himself at her mercy and bidding her to actually kill him, he entraps her into accepting him instead. While she has said multiple times she wishes him dead, wishing him dead and actually being the one to kill him are two very different things. Because she can not actually be the one responsible for his death herself, he tells her to “take up me instead” and winning her. His success is horrifying yet the audience can’t help but be enraptured by the fact that he is able to do so.
Mary Larson said…
Although this passage suggests that Richard III was hard to follow, I actually believed it to be one of the easiest to follow. I often find myself very confused while reading or watching Shakespeare's plays, but Richard III was one of the easiest for me to follow along with. I think it was easy for me to follow along with it because of how often he had a soliloquy and as an audience, we could watch his character evolve. We could see how evil he was from the beginning and how he strived for power throughout the film. Once Richard III had the power he had always wanted, he focused on keeping it and killing anyone who he thought might get in his way.