When Shakespeare wrote Richard III and where the story came from.

'Richard III', Act II, Scene 4, the Duke of York Resigned by the Queen. Oil on canvas painting.
The Duke of York Resigned by the Queen, 'Richard III', Act II, Scene 4. Oil on canvas painting.
John Opie © RSC Theatre Collection Browse and license our images

Dating Richard III 

Richard III built on the success of Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 3, in which Richard first takes centre stage as a fully-fledged villain.

A memorable line from Henry VI Part 3 was parodied by Robert Greene in his pamphlet,Greene's Groatsworth of Wit. Since Greene expected his readers to recognise the allusion, Henry VI Part 3 must have been well-known on the London stage by 1592, the year in which the pamphlet was published.

Following on as it does from the Henry VI trilogy, Richard III was probably written in 1592-3.

At around the same time, Shakespeare was writing Titus Andronicus and the long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis.

Richard III was first published in 1597.

The sources behind Richard III

The chronicles of Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed provided Shakespeare with material for his history plays. The period of the Wars of the Roses and the reign of Richard III was amply covered in Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York (1548) and in Holinshed's Chronicles of England (second edition 1587).

These historians had themselves drawn on material written by the early Tudor scholar, Polidore Vergil. However, their most important source was Sir Thomas More's unfinished History of King Richard III, which was written around 1513. Much of Shakespeare's characterisation of Richard as a wittily sardonic villain, deformed in mind and body, can be traced back to More's account.

All these historians were writing during the reigns of Tudor monarchs, whose claim to the English throne derived from that of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who had won the crown by force from King Richard III. It is not surprising, then that their versions of history should be biased against the defeated Richard, the last King of the Plantagenet dynasty.

Other writers of the 16th century chose the reign of Richard III as their subject:

  • Richard, Clarence, Edward IV, Buckingham and Hastings are all included in A Mirror for Magistrates, a 16th century verse account of the fall of great men.
  • In the late 1570s, Thomas Legge, the Master of a Cambridge college, wrote a long Latin play called Ricardus Tertius, which remained in manuscript only and was never performed.
  • An anonymous play, The True Tragedie of Richard the Third, was published in 1594; it was probably written a few years earlier.

Like Shakespeare's Richard III, both Legge's work and the anonymous play drew on the chronicle histories of Hall and Holinshed.

Richard III shows the influence of the Roman tragedian Seneca in its elaborately patterned rhetoric; its use of ghosts and its chorus-like group of lamenting queens. Shakespeare had also learned from Thomas Kyd's masterly emulation of Seneca in his successful revenge drama, The Spanish Tragedy, written in the late 1580s.

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