The War of the Roses: the Historical Facts of the Tudor Myth (Shakespeare’s Histories)

  E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century (1961); P. M. Kendall, The Yorkist Age (1962, repr. 1965); S. B. Chrimes, Lancastrians,

The War of the Roses: the Historical Facts of the Tudor Myth (Shakespeare’s Histories)

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attle, and utters the often-quoted line: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” He is defeated in the final “hunting of the boar”, so to speak, and Richmond succeeds as Henry VII, even going so far as to marry a York, effectively ending the War of the Roses (to the evident relief of everyone involved).

In dramatic terms, perhaps the most important (and, arguably, the most entertaining) feature of the play is the sudden alteration in Richard's character. For the first 'half' of the play, we see him as something of an anti-hero, causing mayhem and enjoying himself hugely in the process:


I do mistake my person all this while;

Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,

Myself to be a marvellous proper man.

I'll be at charges for a looking-glass;


Almost immediately after he is crowned, however, his personality and actions take a darker turn. He turns against loyal Buckingham (“I am not in the giving vein”), he falls prey to self-doubt (“I am in so far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin;”); now he sees shadows where none exist and visions of his doom to come (“Despair and die”).

Depiction of Richard

Shakespeare's depiction of Richard and his “reign of terror” is unflattering, and modern historians find it a distortion of historical truth. Shakespeare's “history” plays were not, of course, intended to be historically accurate, but were designed for entertainment. As with “Macbeth”, Richard's supposed villainy is depicted as extreme in order to achieve maximum dramatic effect. In addition, many previous writers had depicted Richard as a villain, and Shakespeare was thus following tradition.

Nevertheless, it is important to question why this particular king became a symbol of villainy during the Elizabeths period. Critics have argued that this dark depiction of Richard developed because the ruling monarch of Shakespeare's time, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry VII of England, the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond, who had defeated the last Yorkist king and started the Tudor dynasty, and Shakespeare's play thus presents the version of Richard that the ruling family would have wanted to see.

Shakespeare's main source for his play was the chronicle of Raphael Holinshed but it also seems likely that he drew on the work of Sir Thomas More, author of the unfinished “History of King Richard III” published by John Rastell after More's death. Rastell, More's brother-in-law, compiled the text from two work-in-progress manuscripts, one in English and one in Latin in different stages of composition. More's work is not a history in the modern sense. It is a highly coloured and literary account which contains accurate and invented details in (arguably) roughly equal portions. More had many sources available for his account (most of whom, like his patron Cardinal John Morton, were extremely hostile to the old regime) but like Shakespeare his main source is his own imagination: over a third of the text consists of invented speeches.

Richard III is the culmination of the cycle of “Wars of Roses” plays. In “Henry VI”, part II and part III, Shakespeare had already begun the process of building Richard's character into that of a ruthless villain, even though Richard could not possibly have been involved in some of the events depicted. He participates in battles in which historically he would still have been a boy. From an overview of the cycle, it can be seen that Shakespeare's inaccuracy works both ways.

Historical context

Shakespeare is not famous for his historical accuracy; this play is representative of his work in that respect. Queen Margaret did not in fact survive to see Richard's accession to the throne; her inclusion in the play is purely dramatic, providing first a warning to the other characters about Richard's true nature (which they of course ignore to their cost) and then a chorus-like commentary on how the various tragedies affecting the House of York reflect justice for the wrongs the Yorkists performed against the Lancastrians (“I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him; I had a Henry, till a Richard kill'd him. Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him; Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him...”).

It is perhaps strange that in presenting the cycle of vengeance Shakespeare omitted the fact that the real-life Richard himself had a son who died prematurely, which some contemporary historians viewed as divine retribution for the fate of Edward's sons - which of course Margaret would claim as retribution for the fate of her son. Shakespeare's Tudor patrons might have welcomed this additional demonstration of Richard's wickedness.

Comedic elements

Despite the high violence of the play and the villainous nature of the title character, Shakespeare manages to infuse this play with a surprising amount of comic material. Much of the humor rises from the dichotomy between what we know Richard's character to be and how Richard tries to appear. The prime example is perhaps the portion of Act III, Scene 1, where Richard is forced to “play nice” with the young and mocking Duke of York. Other examples appear in Richards attempts at acting, first in the matter of justifying Hastingss death and later in his coy response to being offered the crown.

Richard himself also provides some dry remarks in evaluating the situation, as when his plan to marry the Queen Elizabeth's daughter: “Murder her brothers, then marry her; Uncertain way of gain....”

Other examples of humor in this play include Clarences ham-fisted and half-hearted murderers, and the Duke of Buckingham's report on his attempt to persuade the Londoners to accept Richard (“...I bid them that did love their countrys good cry, God save Richard, England's royal king!” Richard: “And did they so?” Buckingham: “No, so God help me, they spake not a word....”)

Puns, a Shakespearean staple, are especially well-represented in the scene where Richard tries to persuade Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter on his behalf.

Film versions

The most famous player of the part in recent times was Laurence Olivier in his 1955 film version. His inimitable rendition has been satirized by many comedians including Peter Cook and Peter Sellers (who had aspirations to do the role straight). Sellers' version of “A Hard Days Night” was delivered in the style of Olivier as Richard III. The first series of the BBC television comedy Blackadder in part parodies the Olivier film, visually (as in the crown motif), Peter Cook's performance as a Richard who is a jolly, loving monarch but nevertheless oddly reminiscent of Olivier's rendition, and by mangling Shakespearean text (“Now is the summer of our sweet content made o'ercast winter by these Tudor clouds...”)

More recently, Richard III has been brought to the screen by Sir Ian McKellen (1995) in an abbreviated version set in a 1930s fascist England, and by Al Pacino in the 1996 documentary “Looking for Richard”. In the 1976 film “ The Goodbye Girl”, Richard Dreyfusss character, an actor, gives a memorable performance as a homosexual Richard in a gay stage production of the play.




The war of the Roses (also called the war of the two Roses) is a very important period for the British culture and history. It has been a turning point in the history of the United Kingdom: a very large part of the aristocracy was killed (some noble families even disappeared) and the royal dynasty changed. It has also been a vast source of inspiration for English authors, such as Shakespeare.

The history of the war of the two Roses is really propitious to literary narration: you have a Queen with a strong personality (Marguerite), a mad King, traitors, multiple reversal of situation, ... But the myth is different from the reality: what is disappointing is that the version of Shakespeare is a bit far from the reality whereas it needed not to be thrilling. For instance, Richard III was not the nice King of Shakespeares play. However we must not forget that he could not question the foundation of the Tudor dynasty ands its legitimity!

This period will remain one of the most epic in the English history, even if it concerned principally the aristocracy (the armies were small and one implicit rule was to kill the nobles, not the simple peasants).




  1. E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century (1961);
  2. P. M. Kendall, The Yorkist Age (1962, repr. 1965);
  3. S. B. Chrimes, Lancastrians, Yorkists, and Henry VII (1964);
  4. J. R. Lander, The Wars of the Roses (1965);
  5. C. D. Ross, Wars of the Roses: A Concise History (1976);
  6. E. Hallam, Wars of the Roses and Chronicles of the Wars of the Roses (1988);
  7. J A.J. Pollard. Richard III and the Princes in the Tower
  8. Alison Weir. The Princes in the Tower.
  9. Anne Sutton, Livia Visser-Fuchs. Richard III's Books.
  10. Anne Sutton, Peter Hammond. The Coronation of Richard III.
  11. Bertram Fields. Royal Blood.
  12. Charles Ross. Richard III. Methuen, 1981
  13. Charles Wood. Joan of Arc and Richard III.
  14. Desmond Seward. Richard III: England's Black Legend.
  15. Jeremy Potter. Good King Richard?
  16. Keith Dockray. Richard III: A Reader in History, Sutton, 1988
  17. Michael Hicks. Richard the Third, Tempus, 2001.
  18. Paul Murray Kendall. Richard III: The Great Debate.
  19. Paul Murray Kendall. Richard the Third.
  20. Peter Hammond and Anne Sutton. Richard III: The Road to Bosworth Field

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