Act I: Before you begin reading the play, I recommend bookmarking the “Persons of the Play” and the genealogy chart that is in the back cover of the Norton Shakespeare. You will need to make frequent reference to both in order to understand what is going on, especially at first!
One of the things that is most confusing about reading Shakespeare’s history plays is that the same character can be (and often is) referred to by a number of names. For instance, Richard, the titular character, has the title of Duke of Gloucester (pronounced “Gloster”), and he will often be called by that title (hey, Gloucester!). But he can also be Richard, “the Duke,” and, later, “King.” Likewise with George, his brother, who is Duke of Clarence, and so often named “Clarence.” (Note how the prophesy mentioned at the opening of the play is based on this confusion with naming!)
- Make sure that you read Richard’s famous opening speech very carefully, for he gives some important information about the plot and his background. What has just ended? Why can’t Richard join in the celebration? What does Richard look like? What does he say he’ll do because he does not fit in? Make note of the many contrasts he is drawing throughout his speech.(Here is an interesting resource to help with these questions–an interactive website with Ian McKellan discussing this opening speech).
- At the opening of the play, who stands in the way of Richard becoming King? (take a look at the genealogical chart at the back of the book for help in figuring this out)
- Why is Richard’s brother being sent off to the Tower of London? Who made the order? Why? (the why is a little tricky!)
- What news do we hear about the King’s health in the opening act?
- Why is it so outrageous that Richard attempts to woo Anne in 1.2? (see 1.1.153-4) What arguments does Richard make in proposing marriage to Anne? Do you think he actually wins her over?
- Does Richard take the body of the dead King Henry VI to where he says he would?
- Why is Richard so abrasive with the queen and her family in 1.3? What accusations does he make against the queen?
- Who interrupts the scene? What curses/prophesies does she make?
- At the end of 1.3, what instructions does Richard give to the murderers? Do they follow those instructions in 1.4?
Acts II and III:
- What is Kind Edward trying to do at the opening of this scene? Is he successful by the end of it? What news disrupts his plan?
- What request does Stanley make to the King in 2.1? Is it granted?
- How does the Duchess of York feel about her son, Richard? What evidence do you see of this in 2.2?
- Where is Edward V, the “Prince of Wales” and thus heir to the throne? Who is sent to fetch him?
- Whom do we learn in 2.4 has been imprisoned? Where? Why? How does Queen Elizabeth respond when she hears the news?
- Where is Edward (the young prince) to spend the night before his coronation? What is the relationship between this Edward, the Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York? (Hint: See the reference to the “Lord Protector” (3.1.141))?
- At the end of 3.1, who does Richard say is to die? (This is the action carried out in 3.3)
- What does Richard promise to give Buckingham for his loyalty at 3.1.191 ff.?
- Why is Catesby at Hastings’s house in 3.2? What are Hastings’ allegiances?
- What does Lord Hastings say is the purpose of the meeting at the opening of 3.4? Why does this turn out to be ironic? Note well the prophecy Hastings makes at the end of 3.4? What is Hastings’s fate (discovered in 3.5)?
- How does Buckingham say he “staged” his appeal to the Lord Mayor and the citizens of London? What arguments does he make (both then, and in this scene) in support of Richard? Try to see how Richard is “playing along” throughout the scene!
Acts IV and V:
- Why is Lady Anne being summoned at the beginning of act 4? What has she come to realize about Richard?
- Where does Queen Elizabeth tell Dorset to flee at 4.1.42 (use your note for some help)?
- Why is Buckingham no longer in Richard’s good graces in 4.2? What demand does he make of Richard in the scene? What does he resolve to do by the end of this scene?
- Whom does Richard say he wants to marry in 4.2? Why?
- What prophesy does Richard repeat in 4.2? What events are described in 4.3 that seem to point to the possibility that it might be true?
- Who actually performs the unspeakable deeds described in 4.3?
- Note how Margaret describes Richard at 4.4.46-58, as well as the Duchess of York’s response. What perspective do you think the queens bring to this play?
- What does Ratcliffe report at 4.4.364 ff.? Who else is joining in the rebellion? How does Richard respond to the news?
- What is the date, according to Buckingham, at the opening of act 5? Why is that significant?
- What metaphor does Richmond use to describe Richard in 5.2.7-12?
- What is Richmond doing at 5.5.61-9?
- How would you characterize Richard’s speech at 5.5.131 ff.?
- Compare Richmond’s speech at 5.5.191 ff. (“his oration to his soldiers”) with Richard’s at 5.6.44 ff.. How do these speeches differ? What is Richard using to motivate his soldiers?
- Don’t miss Richard’s famous line in 5.7–one of the best known in all of Shakespeare!
- What is the last word of the play? Why do you think this is significant?