Keeping all the characters (the dramatis personae) straight in Richard III requires constant attention, especially on the first reading. Here are some helpful notes. Keep in mind that these are the characters as Shakespeare depicted them, not necessarily true to history. See Peter Saccio's Shakespeare's English Kings for both historical and Shakespearean information. Also helpful are the genealogies on the endsheets of the Norton Shakespeare edited by Stephen Greenblatt. Links on the names below will take you to the British Monarchy website for historical sketches and genealogies, also very helpful.
King Edward IV was the first of the York dynasty.
Queen Elizabeth's family is the Woodvilles (considered "upstarts" by Richard, Duke of Gloucester).
Other Queens in the play include
Henry, Earl of Richmond is later Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. Henry VII's great-great-grandfather (on his mother's side) was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. His father was Edmund Tudor. By marrying Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth of York in 1486, he "unites" the white rose with the red and initiates the Tudor dynasty as Henry VII. His second son becomes Henry VIII, father of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, who reigned when Shakespeare was born in 1564.Study Questions
Stephen Greenblatt, in his introduction (Norton Shakespeare 510), calls attention to three major perspectives the play offers on the events it depicts: "psychological, metaphysical, and political." Try to reconstruct these three perspectives as you re-read the play.
Metaphysical. Curses, oaths, and providential retribution and design. Queen Margaret's curses all appear to come true, but does the play invite us to see her as a special prophet of God's revenge? Look again at 1.3 and how ridiculously overdone Margaret's cursing frenzy appears. Also consider the farcical tone of the cursing scene in 4.4 where Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York spell out the logic of cursing and divine(?) retribution. They imagine a God who follows such eye-for-an-eye logic, but what about the God who says "Vengeance is mine" (Deuteronomy 32:35) or who teaches "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39)? (Try the Bible Search Engine.) Which sort of Divine Providence does the play endorse? Which sort of attitude towards Divine Providence does it endorse?
Consider the various characters' appeals to God's vengeance or justice: King Edward at 2.1.132, Gloucester agrees at line 140. Lady Anne at 1.2.62 & 106. Margaret at 1.3.138, and Gloucester responds at line 182, backed by Elizabeth at line 83. Margaret prays that God will kill "all of them" at 1.3.213. Buckingham doesn't believe that Margaret's curses (or anyone's can actually invoke God's wrath (1.3.289), but Margaret argues that curses can give God a wake-up call (1.3.292). Gloucester disingenuously invokes the Christian principle of praying for one's enemies (1.3.319 & 340) instead of seeking vengeance; he's the only one in the play who ever does this, even cynically. Clarence believes that God's vengeance is always public, not hugger-mugger as murder (1.4.205). Clarence's children have been taught to pray for God's revenge (2.2.14) and to refuse to cry for their enemies' misfortunes (2.2.62-64). Queen Maragaret even thanks God for Richard's bloody deeds against her rivals (4.4.55). The citizens' faith in God's justice is pretty much worn out (2.3.38). Queen Elizabeth's faith in God's justice is strained at 4.4.22; she cannot curse with conviction, but feels that cursing may at least ease the heart (4.4.127-131). Even the Duchess of York wavers in her confidence in God's justice (4.4.188). Richmond, of course, believes God is on his side in battle (5.5.194) and that Richard is "God's enemy" (5.5.207). Richard, significantly, never invokes God or his justice in his speech before the battle (5.6.37-71); rather he says they may be marching all to Hell.
Consider Richard's opening speech (1.1). When he says he is "determined to prove a villain," in what sense does he mean "determined"? That he has made up his own mind? or that "dissembling nature" (1.1.19) has "determined" his character and fate? or that he has been providentially "shaped" to be a villain? When he plays the role of "the formal Vice, Iniquity" (3.1.82), does he decide to play this role or does he mean he is destined to be God's evil "scourge and minister"? What difference does it make?
Also in the first scene, note that Clarence speaks of "prophecies and dreams" as "suchlike toys" (1.1.60) and Richard ascribes such superstitious beliefs to the disingenuous machinations of "women" (1.1.62) who appear to hold much sway with the King and the court. Does Richard, then consider prophecies, omens, and dreams so much silly superstition, or a mask for machiavellian designs? Does he not employ such superstitions for his own designs? What does he think when he dreams the night before battle of those he's murdered (5.5)?
Psychology. Richard can so well perform the affections of love (1.2) and repentance (1.2.204-208) that he convinces Lady Anne to begin to think well of him, even to marry him. Is he almost convinced by his own performance (1.2.239)? Can he play the lover, the plotter, the pious courtier, the villain, even the king so well that he loses track of who he is (see 5.5.131-157)? Does his manipulation of other's desires finally subvert his own?
Politics. Richard admits to Lady Anne that he killed Henry VI, and he offers a political reason for doing so: Henry VI (the last Lancastrian King) was considered a disaster as an administrator, too intent on piety and prayers to attend to the business of the realm. During his reign factions grew into civil wars (the Wars of the Roses), France was lost, and the king suffered from bouts of mental illness. Did Richard have some political justification for helping to depose and kill him? Similarly, Edward IV proved a less-than-effective king. His lust for women and high living was proverbial; his death was attributed to too much sex, food, and drink, the classic vices of intemperance1.1.140-41). He had illegitimate children which made it easy to call in question proper blood succession; Richard even implies Edward himself may not have been his father's son (3.5.84-90). Would not Richard be a better king than either of them? But what does the play suggest his motives are?
Richard pretends to believe in nothing, but uses other's beliefs to set his traps and plots. He uses superstitious beliefs to imprison Clarence, and to mock the women; he uses psychology to woo Lady Anne; he uses Hasting's bland confidence in bloodlines and divine ordination to trip him up. He appears through much of the play to prove the effectiveness of utterly cynical self-promotion, playing upon others' oversimple faith to use them to his ends. Does the play run any risk of endorsing such a cynical machiavel? Are we invited to admire Richard's stunning successes? Does he fall victim to his own cynicism, or does he just prove unable to keep track of so many different selves?
Other Features to consider. The play persistently invokes a discourse of inwardness and outwardness, always calling attention to the problem of discerning one's inward attitudes and intentions from one's outward performances and speeches. For example, Queen Elizabeth (1.3.62-69) infers Richard's "interior hatred" from his "outward" acts of hostility towards her and her family. She imagines that the King can "learn the ground" of his hostility and "remove it." This makes the matter seem all too simple, doesn't it? In the rest of the scene Richard makes it appear that everyone's interior motives are made suspect by their outward acts, whether they know it or not (1.3.126ff). Lord Hastings also believes that Richard's "heart" is perfectly displayed in his face, and his misreading of Richard's face is catastrophic for him (3.4.48-53). What are Queen Elizabeth's "inward" motives? Stanley's (1.3.25-29)? Hastings'? Buckingham's? Rivers' and Gray's?
Consider also all the various forms, gestures and rituals that attempt to reconcile inward attitudes with outward behaviors. In 2.1 King Edward believes he can reconcile everyone if only they swear they are sincere. How good are such oaths? In 1.4, the murderers have a warrant for the king's word. Does this warrant make the outward deed the King's or theirs (1.4.105ff). Does the sealed warrant truly reflect the King's will at this moment? How good are such warrants at guaranteeing that actions and words accurately represent desires?
All the prophecies, curses, and omens littered throughout the play also suggest a desperate attempt to discover God's secret providential intentions by reading outward signs. Are we meant to believe that Richard's ugliness truly denotes his inward evil? Do obscure prophecies and omens (like the letter "G" for George [or Gloucester]) truly reveal the future? Can we make omens and signs mean whatever we wish, just as Richard can make his behavior and words signify a false "inwardness"? Hamlet, we remember claims to have "that within which passeth show," a special interior self no one can discern, not even his good friends. But he also subscribes to the notion that "There's a divinity doth shape our ends/ Rough-hew them how we will."