Richard III: My kingdom for a horse

Drawn by A. Hopkins, engraved by C. Carter. Richard at Bosworth Field. Folger Shakespeare Library.

It’s a famous line, and it’s also the last line that Richard III speaks.

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”
Richard III, Act 5, scene 4, line 13

A titanic villain in Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard III departs the stage and this life with these words, fighting to his death on foot after losing his horse in battle. In that moment, the Wars of the Roses near their end. The victor in the battle, Henry Tudor, becomes Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs and the founder of the Tudor dynasty.

It’s possible that you may not have noticed, but last Sunday, August 22, marked the 536th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field, the dramatic conclusion of Shakespeare’s play Richard III—and a turning point in British history.

William Shakespeare, who was born, grew up, and rose to professional success under the final Tudor ruler, Elizabeth I, wrote only one history play set in the period after Richard’s death—Henry VIII, whose title character is Elizabeth’s father. That play draws to a close with praise of the royal infant Elizabeth, prophesied to be a “pattern to all princes.” All of the other history plays by Shakespeare are set before Richard’s death, or lead up to it.

The historical Richard III (as opposed to Shakespeare’s theatrical character Richard III) also made history far more recently, when a body that is widely believed to be that of Richard III was discovered in 2012. It was found in what appeared to be a hastily arranged grave, under a parking lot in Leicester, England. Researchers used DNA to help identify it.

Learn, see, and hear more about Richard III in life and on stage, and the different ways that scholars, actors, and others have thought about him through the guide below.

Shakespeare Unlimited

Mr. Kean as Richard III (Tinsel print). Folger Shakespeare Library.

If you’d like to learn more about Richard III—including whether his historical story was the same as Shakespeare’s theatrical tale, or what it’s like for an actor to play this major role—the Folger podcast Shakespeare Unlimited may be a good place to begin.

Here are a few starting points to explore, from an episode that brought together a historian and a Shakespearean “in search of the real Richard III,” to a 2021 episode on “Richard III in prison.”

Richard III in Prison. Frannie Shepherd-Bates, founder of the Detroit Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in Prison program, discusses SIP’s newest project: a planned critical edition of Richard III that pairs Shakespeare’s text with ideas and perspectives from incarcerated women who went through the program.

Antony Sher. In a conversation about his past Shakespearean roles, Antony Sher discusses his seminal performance as Richard III in 1984 and his published acting diary about the performance, Year of the King.

In Search of the Real Richard III. What was Richard III like, and did Shakespeare’s fictional Richard III resemble him? Join us for a conversation with a historian and a Shakespearean as we look for the real Richard III.

Shakespeare & Beyond

The Shakespeare & Beyond blog has often tackled Richard III, too. Here are just a few of our Richard-related posts:

Costume worn by Edwin Booth in the role of Richard III (ca. 1870s). Folger Shakespeare Library.

Richard III and disability: Excerpt – “Unfixable Forms” by Katherine Schaap Williams. What did Richard III and his disability represent to Shakespeare’s original audiences? And how has this Shakespeare villain shaped the field of early modern disability studies today?

An edition of Richard III “adapted for amateurs” by 19th-century Black actor, editor, and journalist J.A. Arneaux. This edition, aimed at amateurs and household productions, includes changes like cutting speeches by minor characters and making the Battle of Bosworth Field a symbolic scene with fewer actors.

Drawing Shakespeare: Richard III. The eighth post in a series by artist Paul Glenshaw about drawing the bas-reliefs by sculptor John Gregory on the Folger Shakespeare Library facade. Here, Glenshaw writes about the fact that Henry Folger chose a quiet scene to represent the play, in which Richard talks with his young nephews—and how Gregory infuses it with menace.

In the Giving Vein: The Pop-Cultural Legacy of Olivier’s Richard III. Austin Tichenor writes about the surprising pop-cultural, and often silly, echoes of Laurence Olivier’s classic movie—in itself a sign of its impact. Among other absurd echoes, he discusses a Peter Sellers parody, Monty Python parallels, and TV villains with an Olivier / Richard III take on their roles.

And Much More

If you’d like to find out more about Richard III, there is far more Folger content to explore.

Read or download the play for free at The Folger Shakespeare. Explore some of the many images of Shakespeare’s Richard III from our collection—as well as page-by-page images of the earliest printed texts of the play. Look for many more Folger resources for teachers, families, kids, Shakespeare enthusiasts, and researchers, including ways to watch and read the plays, in our list of digital experiences and resources. And search for still more posts about Richard III and other Shakespeare topics on this blog and the other Folger blogs (The Collation, Teaching Shakespeare, and The Folger Spotlight).

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