Preceded by Henry VI: Parts I, II, and III, Richard III concludes Shakespeare's four-part dramatic series chronicling the end of the Plantagenet family as rulers of England. Upon the defeat of Richard, the hunchbacked Duke of Gloucester, at the battle of Bosworth field in 1485, the Plantagenets are replaced by the Tudors, marking the end of a long period of civil war in England.
Richard III is an early play in Shakespeare's oeuvre, probably written in 1591 when the century-old events it portrays were still part of the collective memory of the audiences at the Globe Theatre. The ruthless and self-destructive Richard, who rises to power solely by means of a succession of horrific murders, is portrayed as a particularly evil and bloodthirsty villain, Shakespeare's worst—a characterization that subsequent scholarship has seen as possibly unfair. In the play, written in a period when a physical deformity was often considered an emblem of a moral defect, Richard's vileness is seen as arising from his hunchback, his revenge against Nature for making him too ugly to be loved. Shakespeare took some liberties with history and geography—Richard, for example, takes part in a battle that occurred when he was two years old—and Richard III (like much of Shakespeare) is rife with anachronisms. The play also shows the influence of medieval morality plays, in which good and evil stood in stark contrast as a way of showing how human nature could be corrupted by temptation and sin.
Whatever the sources and inaccuracies of the play, what interested Shakespeare was the study of character, and the events of Richard III as he saw them afforded him an opportunity to explore evil and its consequences in one of his most fascinating works.
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