Richard III Themes: Power

The Theme of Power in Richard III

Sir Laurence Olivier in costume as Richard III
Picture Post / Getty Images

The most important theme in Richard III is power. This central theme drives the plot and, most importantly, the main character: Richard III. 

Power, Manipulation, and Desire 

Richard III demonstrates a mesmerizing ability to manipulate others into doing things they would not otherwise have done.

Despite the characters acknowledging his penchant for evil, they become complicit in his manipulations--to their own detriment. Lady Anne, for example, knows that she is being manipulated by Richard and knows that it will lead to her downfall but she agrees to marry him anyway.

At the beginning of the scene Lady Anne knows that Richard killed her husband:

Thou wast provoked by thy bloody mind, that never dream’st on aught but butcheries. 

(Act 1, Scene 2)

Richard goes on to flatter Lady Anne suggesting that he murdered her husband because he wanted to be with her:

Your beauty was the cause of that effect – Your beauty that did haunt me in my sleep to undertake the death of all the world so I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.

(Act 1, Scene 2)

The scene ends with her taking his ring and promising to marry him. His powers of manipulation are so strong that he wooed her over the coffin of her dead husband. He promises her power and adulation and she is seduced despite her better judgment. Seeing that Lady Anne is so easily seduced, Richard is repulsed and loses any respect he may have had for her:

Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour won? I’ll have her but I will not keep her long.

(Act 1, Scene 2)

He is almost surprised by himself and acknowledges the power of his manipulation. However, his own self-hatred makes him hate her more for wanting him:

And will she yet abase her eyes on me...On me, that halts and am misshapen thus?

(Act 1, Scene 2)

Richard's most powerful tool language, he is able to convince people through his monologues and orations to commit heinous acts. He blames his evil on his deformities and tries to elicit sympathy from the audience. An audience wants him to succeed out of respect for his deep malevolence.

Richard III is reminiscent of Lady Macbeth in that they are both ambitious, murderous and manipulate others for their own ends. Both experience a sense of guilt at the end of their respective plays but Lady Macbeth redeems herself (to an extent) by going mad and killing herself. Richard, on the other hand, continues his murderous intentions to the very end. Despite ghosts tormenting him for his actions, Richard still orders George Stanley’s death at the very end of the play; his conscience does not override his desire for power.

When Richard is equally matched in repartee he uses out and out violence. When he failed to convince Stanley to join him in battle he orders his son’s death.

At the end of the play, Richmond talks about how God and virtue are on his side. Richard--who can't claim the same thing--tells his soldiers that Richmond and his army are full of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways. He tells them their daughters and wives will be ravished by these people if they do not fight them. Manipulative to the end, Richard knows he is in trouble but motivates his army with threats and fear.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Richard III Themes: Power." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Jamieson, Lee. (2023, April 5). Richard III Themes: Power. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Richard III Themes: Power." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).