Is Richard the hero of the play or its villain?

Richard is obviously a villain—he almost single-handedly generates all of the evil and violence in the play. But Richard III makes us reconsider our definition of what a hero is because, as evil as he is, Richard is certainly the play’s protagonist. The entire plot is built around his struggle to become king and stay in power. We find out more about his mind and thoughts than about the mind and thoughts of any other character. In fact, Shakespeare intrigues us with the workings of Richard’s mind and even asks us to sympathize with Richard’s jealousy and pain, despite the fact that he is a murderer and a sadist. Richard is one of the most unsavory characters in literature, but his psychological depth invites us to try to understand his actions. The play thus compels us to explore our values. Even though we recognize Richard’s actions as heinous, it is tempting to hope that he succeeds, and we are fascinated with the skill he demonstrates in manipulating other characters.

Read more about anti-heroes as protagonists in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

How does Richard’s personality change over the course of the play?

At the beginning of the play, Richard seems very much in control of the situation around him. Bitter and alienated from others, he nonetheless enters into a close relationship with the audience, pausing frequently to let us know what is going on in his mind. Richard therefore has a closer relationship with us than he does with anyone else in the play, at least in the early acts. However, as Richard’s plot unfolds and he rises in rank, his speeches change. He ceases to offer monologues to us and is instead surrounded by noblemen all the time. He also stops using his subtle powers of manipulation and veers toward achieving his goals by force, ordering executions overtly and no longer pretending to be a friend to all. Moreover, almost at the moment of his coronation, he alienates Buckingham—his only friend, whom he later has executed. Richard does not seem to be able to return love; he solicits it only in order to twist it to his own purposes, as when he seduces Anne, and when he attempts to make friends with Elizabeth. Furthermore, he exploits the selfless love of his family members to take advantage of them. By the time Richard is finished, all his friends, lovers, and family either are dead at his hands or hate him. This state of affairs leads to Richard’s sudden revelation and nightmare in Act 5, Scene 5, that “[t]here is no creature loves me” (V.v.154).

What roles do women play in Richard III?

Women play a number of different roles in this play, but these roles are for the most part defined by their relationships to men, and the capacity of the female characters to act is mostly frustrated by men. Young Elizabeth and Anne are wives or potential wives whom Richard tries to use as pawns to shore up his power. Queen Elizabeth and the duchess of Windsor are mothers who unsuccessfully try to use their influence to protect themselves and their children. Once Richard kills his brothers and Queen Elizabeth’s kinsmen, Queen Elizabeth and the duchess become like Margaret—irrelevant and seemingly powerless. Interestingly, however, women seem to acquire power in this play only when they lose their male relatives—and, thus, their social influence and power in the court—and forge their own power out of grief and pain. This pain lies behind Margaret’s terrifying cursing, and Elizabeth and the duchess try to learn the skill of cursing from her after the deaths of the Princes.