Shakespeare’s Richard III: The Power of Speech

Sir Ian McKellen in the 1995 remake of Shakespeare's Richard III
Sir Ian McKellen in the 1995 remake of Shakespeare’s Richard III

What gives a man power? Is power demonstrated by intense sword wielding? Is it proven by the amount of followers a man may have? Or can power be demonstrated by rhetoric and the ability to persuade an audience? In Richard III, William Shakespeare gives us two powerful orations given by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (who later became King Henry VII) and King Richard III right before the two men go into battle against one another at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The speeches are proclaimed in front of their respective soldiers in order to coerce said soldiers into wanting to defeat their opponents. Ultimately, King Richard III is killed at the end of the play, however, this does not mean his previous abilities in persuading his soldiers were futile. In fact, both men, Henry and King Richard III, possessed the gift of eloquence and used it to their advantage.


At this point, according to the play, it is important to note that Henry Tudor had been preparing for battle against King Richard III ever since he was a boy, when King Henry VI told him that he would be the new hope for England. Every day that Richard was transforming himself into King Richard III, Henry had been in Brittany training English noblemen to become soldiers.

In contrast, the deformed King Richard III began his career as Richard, Duke of Gloucester and worked his way to King Richard III by firstly, informing King Edward IV about a prophecy that he would be disinherited by George, Duke of Clarence. Next, at the funeral of Henry VI, Richard convinced Lady Anne to marry him by claiming that he killed her husband out of love for her. He persuaded the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Hastings and Lord Stanley that Queen Elizabeth was behind the plot to kill George. Richard then imprisoned and killed Queen Elizabeth’s adherents, Earl Rivers, Lord Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan. Finally, Richard schemed with his ally, the Duke of Buckingham (who later joins Henry’s forces and is killed by King Richard III’s order), and tell all that the late King Edward was immoral and that he and his children were illegitimate. Ultimately, the citizens of London and the Lord Mayor decided to offer Richard the crown. From a balcony and accompanied by two bishops, Richard accepted the royal position with a prayer book in his hand.

The night before battle, both Henry and King Richard III were met by the ghosts of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, George, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, the Young Princes, Lady Anne and the Duke of Buckingham. All of the ghosts praised Henry, giving him the confidence that he will win the war, while tormenting King Richard III about how he will be reduced to ruin and die.

Henry’s Oration and Character Analysis

A portrait of Henry Tudor as King Henry VII
A portrait of Henry Tudor as King Henry VII

Right in the beginning, Henry addresses his soldiers as “loving countrymen” (V.iii.238). Battles are not for the faint of heart and will most likely result in gore and death, so the fact that Henry calls his men “loving” may symbolize that his men are not blood-lusting brutes, but are doing what must be done out of respect for their families and for the preservation of their land. Next, Henry mentions, “God and our good cause fight upon our side” (V.iii.241). Henry uses God as an influential figure in his speech to assure his soldiers that what they are fighting for is bigger than themselves–that they are fighting for righteousness. No soldier wants to fight against God. With God and His power on their side it is impossible for them to lose, which also acts as a morale booster and gives them the confidence they need to succeed. Henry goes even further in addressing his soldiers’ power when he proclaims that not even King Richard’s military wants to fight for him:

Richard except, those whom we fight against
Had rather have us win than him they follow.
For what is he they follow? truly, gentlemen,
A bloody tyrant and a homicide;

With this, Henry is letting his soldiers know even more that what they are fighting for is to rid their country of a malicious and devilish human being–that King Richard III is not a king, but a murderer of his people. He backs up this claim by stating that King Richard III only “earned” his royal position by “slaughtering those that were the means to help him” (V.iii.250). Henry’s imagery of this scenario depicts to his audience an unholy blood bath surrounding King Richard III and his reign. Henry concludes his speech by declaring that he and his soldiers will be rewarded by God for slaying “God’s enemy”–that by “putting a tyrant down” the soldiers will be able to sleep peacefully at night knowing that their land, wives, and children will be safe from harm.

Henry’s speech is effective because he expresses knowledge of his soldiers’ beliefs and priorities in order to gain their acceptance. He characterizes his men as powerful and righteous individuals whose mission is to slay the country of its evils. The imagery Henry presents promotes a clear division between the light of God and his army and the darkness of evil and King Richard III.

Judging by his speech, we can tell a lot about Henry’s character. For one, he knows how to show empathy for his fellow citizens. Henry understands that these men want to protect their land and families, so by declaring King Richard III as the enemy who will destroy their lives, the soldiers will obviously side with Henry. Henry also displays great intellect, because in the matters of a battle, he always remains one step ahead. He understands that even if there was the possibility of his soldiers not wanting to fight for their lands or families, adding the will of God into the cause for battle would sway them completely. He knows that should these men have the reassurance that God was on their side, then they would know the power and protection apparent in their favor. Therefore, if we believe Henry is genuine, and what he says is not just rhetoric, we may see Henry as a compassionate individual who wishes to rid the world of evil. One may see him as a religious man who cares about his people, and perhaps does not want to fight, but believes it is the right thing to do to protect the greater good.

It’s hard to believe characters while they are giving speeches because the audience does not know if the orator is being genuine or simply trying to get his people riled up. Nevertheless, by his speech alone, Henry exhibits a powerful, holy, and empathetic personality that make his soldiers seem like family to him. This effectiveness (with the help of Shakespeare’s choice of language, of course) could very well have won him the war, because whether or not he is telling the truth about God and his “loving countrymen,” it gave his soldiers an added incentive and security to fight for him.

King Richard III’s Oration and Character Analysis

A portrait of King Richard III
A portrait of King Richard III

King Richard III, on the other hand, has a different strategy for motivating his soldiers. First, he notes that his soldiers are not fighting against other men, but are “coping” with, or rather, tolerating them:

Remember whom you are to cope withal:
A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and run-aways,
A scum of Britaines and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o’ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate adventures and assur’d destruction

What King Richard III is trying to convey is that his men are so much better than their opponents. He states that his men would be ridding the country of the unworthy and disgusting–that they would be doing a service for the land by getting rid of all of the “scum.” The imagery he uses creates a horrid image of these “dirty” men being projected from the earth as if they were some kind of disease that England wanted to spit up and get rid of. By using this imagery, King Richard III is assuring his men that their opponents are certainly not worthy of living in their same beautiful homeland, England. Next, King Richard III makes sure he reaches his soldiers’ “soft spots”–their families and land–by declaring that their opponents would also “restrain” and “distain” their “beauteous wives” and land, which, of course, his soldiers hold dearly. Next, King Richard III attacks Henry by calling him a “paltry fellow” and noting that the only hardship he had to face in his life was as “cold as over shoes in snow” (V.iii.327). King Richard III is demeaning Henry’s credibility by calling him nothing more than an insignificant boy whose only negative experience in life was feeling a chill beneath his shoe in snowy weather. This example ties into the end of his speech where he notes, “If we be conquer’d, let men conquer us” (V.iii.333). King Richard III, to further motivate his soldiers bombards them with even more imagery:

Let’s whip these stragglers o’er the seas again;
Lash hence these overweening rags of France,
These famish’d beggars, weary of their lives;
Who, but for dreaming on this fond exploit,
For wants of means, poor rats, had hang’d themselves

King Richard III verbally obliterates Henry and his military’s reputation, making them sound like worthless beasts who only wish to scavenge and act like parasites on the land. By using this tactic, King Richard III’s military probably feels as though the battle will be an easy and quick fight against boys and “rats.” Then, King Richard III adds that even his father’s men fought in wars against these opponents and that by fighting this battle, they, too, will be honoring their fathers. In closing, King Richard III repeats what he said about the wives and land being stolen, and adds that the enemy will also “ravish” their daughters. And amidst the bloody and gruesome imagery of “drawing arrows to the head,” “riding in blood,” and encompassing the “spleen [wrath] of fiery dragons,” King Richard III shouts that they will have victory (V.iii.349-51).

As the audience, we know already that King Richard III (by Shakespeare’s terms) is not a squeamish, or holy man–he will do whatever he needs to do in order to secure his plan will come to fruition. He will also continue to say anything that will allow him to secure his place on the throne that he has “worked so hard” for. His speech actually represents him in his purest form because he has no problem elaborating on how he wants to shower his enemies with violence and gore. He delivers a raw and graphic depiction of ridding England of the vermin that would destroy it if they had the chance. He embeds in his soldiers’ heads the thought that not only will their grotesque enemies attack them if given the chance, but destroy their homes and families–that their precious daughters will be forced to lie with vermin.

We can tell a lot about King Richard III’s character by the dark images and vocabulary he depicts and uses. He is the epitome of the dark and devilish. Judging by this speech alone and putting ourselves in the place of the soldiers, we might even believe that this king truly thinks there will be battle between men and monsters. Yes, his word choice can give some hint of his evil character, but when he mentions at the end of his speech that they will have “Saint George” on their side, we might think again that he is religious and simply has immense anger towards his enemies.

A Comparison Between Light and Dark

A depiction of The Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard III on the white horse.
A depiction of The Battle of Bosworth Field with King Richard III on the white horse

If we look at Henry as goodness and light and King Richard III as evil and darkness, would we even be able to see similarities between them? For one thing, both men use graphic imagery. Henry depicts King Richard III’s reign as being one that is drenched in blood because of the many people King Richard III has killed. King Richard III mentions blood when he proclaims that he wants his soldiers to ride in it. What Henry states about King Richard III sounds very gory, but it seems to be the truth based on King Richard III’s quote for actually wanting to be surrounded by blood.

The two men also mention Saint George in their speeches, which is curious for King Richard III because he has done evil acts throughout the play. Perhaps it was just a ploy for his soldiers to feed off of. Henry, in this instance seems to be the holier of the two, despite the similarity, because he continuously mentions God and being on God’s side, while King Richard III only mentions the saint at the end. We also already know that King Richard III is no stranger to only mentioning God when it will benefit him.

Henry and King Richard III are completely alike in the instance where they tell their soldiers about the enemy attacking their land and families. It seems as though land and family are the two most important aspects to their soldiers, therefore both leaders need to mention it so their soldiers are truly motivated and persuaded. Ultimately, both leaders use religion, family, land, and honor as the main tactical points in their speeches. It just so happens that Henry encompasses a more virtuous, poetic, and righteous attitude, while King Richard III’s words are harsher, brutal and almost cacophonous like war itself.

Eloquence, both Beautiful and Grotesque

What gives a man power? In the cases of Henry and King Richard III, eloquence. Regardless of being virtuous or devious, both men possessed the same characteristics of being powerful leaders and speakers. In the analysis of their speeches we were able to see that both men use different techniques in successfully motivating their soldiers. Whether it was by religious righteousness or determined hostility, the men and their soldiers set out for success in battle. From Henry’s viewpoint, King Richard III was a devil whose only wish was to stay as king, and for King Richard III, Henry was just an ignorant child trying to get involved with things he did not understand. From either side, there are motivating points and strategies, so it is hard to decide who is more powerful in terms of speech giving. Regardless of the outcome of battle, both leaders were masters of eloquence, and in the case of a verbal battle, both were victorious.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. Ed. Jack R. Crawford. 8th ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.

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  1. Mcadams

    I’m fairly sensitive to the portrayals of Richard III in media and books, simply because there always seems to be an unfairness to how he is portrayed.

    • I actually heard a lot about the propaganda that surrounds his name. It’s really interesting how Shakespeare portrays him and it makes one wonder if Shakespeare had certain motives for writing him in such a way.

      • You have the clue in the form of the fact that Henry VII was the grandfather of the reigning monarch at the time, Elizabeth I.

  2. furtherfrancew

    I found this to be excellent. There really is no better villain I’ve come across than Richard himself.

  3. I have been avoiding reading Shakespeare’s Richard III for some time now. I did not want to have this villianized picture of him in my mind, no matter how popular. Preferring the Richard who is loyal, brilliant, loving, and tragic, I kept myself from this portrayal. Maybe neither extreme is completely true.

    • I’m glad you said that because it’s so important to be able to analyze all sides of the story. I think understanding both portrayals would make a really well-rounded idea of him, which, is probably a good thing to do for all characters in general. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think you should give it a go. With your preference, you might be able to find some hidden gem that could connect the ideas or at least, give Richard some kind of loophole for his actions!

  4. Shakespeare’s Richard is one of the great anti-heroes of English literature, and it’s very enjoyable to watch him in action and marvel at everything he gets away with.

    • Yes, definitely! It’s so entertaining. I love anti-heroes, for me, they make some of the greatest, interesting and dimensional characters.

  5. McKellan gets Richard’s sense of humor.

  6. Thank you for the deconstruction; this was a very good exercise in understanding the importance of well-crafted language.

  7. Munjeera

    I have always focused on Richard II but after reading your article feel more interested in reading Richard III. Thanks for an insightful article.

  8. LetShake

    Shakespeare’s Richard was such a choice villain.

  9. My favourite history of Shakespeare’s no doubt, and maybe my favourite of his period.

  10. Weatherford

    Richard III’s character was too over-the-top. His eloquence made him fascinating, which might have saved this from being merely a piece of melodramatic propaganda. But I would have like to see some more moral conflict in him…

    • Mm. That’s a really good point and would make for a great piece in itself. A complete analysis of Richard III in and out of Shakespeare’s text, and how we as readers perceive him. If anything, people might then see him more as an antihero.

  11. elroood

    Absolutely brilliant.

  12. Olene Garber

    Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian!

  13. This is genius.

  14. I read Richard III as part of my Shakespeare class.
    Richard III is my favorite British king!

  15. Many years ago, I attempted to read Richard III, and never got very far. I largely blame my unfamiliarity at the time with English history, but I also have to admit that it really helps to hear this play performed.

    • Most definitely! When you can actually hear the intonations in the words and lines you can get a better sense for how it’s supposed to be read or said. A lot of times it’s hard to distinguish the tone and actors do well to breath life into what’s on the page.

  16. It has been a long time since I read this play and I had forgotten how backwards Shakespeare got the facts – for dramatic purposes or political, I do not know.

  17. Aida Loera

    What drama! What a pocture of the sinful human heart! Richard is today’s perfect victim.

  18. Richard the III is perhaps the greatest villain in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Depending on how an actor plays him, Richard is incredibly funny and likable for at least half the show.

    • Yeah. This is my sense of him right until he delivers the line, “I wish the bastards dead.”

  19. Chadwick

    This is the greatest example of why having the villain as the main character is awesome.

  20. Marvellous article.

  21. I don’t like reading plays, really. I much prefer to see them performed — they make much more sense when you do.

    • It’s difficult, sometimes, especially when interpreting the language.

    • Katheryn

      Plays are definitely meant to be seen rather than to be read. Lighting, sound, scenic design, costumes, and actors’ interpretations make it into a completely different beast. While I think it’s important to introduce students to Shakespeare in the schools, I wish they were able to see the play in conjunction with reading it, to be able to fully appreciate it. I was able to do this when teaching in Wisconsin at one point, and the teenagers (who had only read, never seen Shakespeare) were surprised at how much they enjoyed it. This is more and more impossible now that we’ve cut so many theatre programs from schools (ohhh…don’t get me started).

      • Don’t even get me started, either! Ugh. The wonderful things that can be done to spark students’ interests in English courses.

        Another problem is that a lot of people don’t read the queues while reading the rest of the play. Every side note or action should be read if one is to be able to imagine the whole picture. A lot of people don’t realize the importance of those details and think only the speech is important. It’s everything from the lighting to the music to the costumes and blocking and so on and so forth, that make a play truly special. When those notes are skipped, the reader misses a lot. Even if it boils down to something as simple as, say, Character (condescendingly): You’re so smart. If the reader skips the notes, he/she might think a completely different thing about the character and find themselves getting confused in the long run.

  22. Am I the only person who thinks Richard is kind of sympathetic? Seriously, *every* other person in the play is a moron.

  23. What a clever article to increase Shakespearean literacy.

  24. Katheryn

    The Richard of Shakespeare’s play was definitely a master at manipulation, but I have never thought about it being described as “eloquence”. Very thought-provoking, and well-supported. Eloquence (including invoking a higher power to justify the message – however horrible) as described here, is a strategy for many demagogues. It is unfortunate that Shakespeare’s works perpetuate a distorted (or at the very least, one-sided) view of historical figures, but this is in part due to the fact that he was Elizabeth I’s patron, and therefore was obligated to write historical plays in a way that that pleased her; as well as the fact that his sources at the time were Thomas More and other historians who had already bent history to their will, writing Tudor propaganda. It is possible Shakespeare was writing allegory, but most likely that he took what he read as established history and simply made it as entertaining as possible.

  25. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Very wonderful read- I enjoyed learning more about these characters. Thanks

  26. Felipe Mancheno

    I agree with the point you make about the power in Richard’s speeches. I just saw a documentary where Kevin Spacey played the part and I would add that a good performance only helps to make them more magnetic.

  27. Sammie Baron

    I like to imagine this play being acted out by the cast of House of Cards. Richard III’s rise to power must have been at least somewhat influential on the mind that begat Frank Underwood.

  28. i love how ww2 is transformed into the war of the roses, with Richard as Hitler.

  29. i wish they would make a new movie about Richard III…maybe based on The Sunne In Splendour…there are so many movies and shows about the Tudor era…yet I find the York and Lancaster era much more interesting…if only they would concentrate on that era for a little bit in the entertainment industry.

  30. I have mixed feelings about this play but I found it one of the more accessible of Shakespeare’s plays.

  31. Even when Shakespeare is serving bad history and a cartoon villain to flatter the Tudor court, his imagination can cast magical spells.

  32. mchammer

    Thank you for posting this piece.

  33. I’m taking a Shakespeare in Focus class and this was the first play I had to read. Really good analysis you have here.

  34. Oh poor Richard. He’s quite possibly the most unfairly maligned king ever.
    Great essay. I think we must remember that an artist, such as Shakespeare, is just that. Not an historian, the playwright or filmmaker has a primary purpose: entertain.

  35. For all of those who jump to Richard III’s defense and claim that Shakespeare was only writing Tudor propaganda, I would direct you to the works of historian Thomas B. Costain.

    The pivotal issue is whether or not Richard cold-bloodedly murdered his two young nephews to seize the throne and the answer, according to Costain’s research, is most certainly yes. When the nobles were turning against Richard’s excesses, he had only to do one thing: produce the two children from the tower to show they were still alive. This he could not do, not even to salvage much needed loyalty of the nobles, because he had had the children murdered – hence leading to the Battle of Bosworth Field.

    Does this make Richard III a supervillain? No, it makes him a very typical king for that time. People who worship royalty should realize that kings were simply the biggest thugs amongst a hoard of power hungry thugs. So, yes, Richard was a conniving murderer – there really is no denying that.

  36. Interesting story.

  37. I love Shakespeare’s Richard because of his eloquence and deviousness. He is the perfect anti-hero.

  38. CostanzaCasati

    Very interesting article and very good analysis, Richard III is one of my favourite Shakespearian characters! Power as eloquence is also a very significant element of Julius Caesar, and your confrontation of Henry and Richard immediately reminded me of Brutus’s and Antony’s speeches at Caesar’s funeral!

  39. Who would ever know there are two extreme sides to someone. Great stuff!

  40. Richard says that “the King’s name is a tower of strength” (5.3.12), alluding to the Old Testament proverb, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower” (Proverbs 18.10). This alteration of godly authority into kingly power, especially in the context of towers and the power of words, suggests that the Tower of London parallels the Biblical tower of Babel, where God confounded human speech for their overreaching acts of ambitious building. It is in this atmosphere of discordant language and usurpation that Richard so eloquently gets away with murder. After all, he is the very incarnation of linguistic violence, or, as Shakespeare prophesises: the “G” / Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be” (1.1.39-40).

  41. When you say King Henry don’t you mean Richmond?

  42. John Wells

    So, countdown until someone gives us a retelling of Richard III in orange-face?

  43. I have seen a number of productions of “Richard III,” including the Ian McKellan production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the author has captured in succinct verbiage the power of the play itself but also the power of speech in a chaotic world.

  44. I have seen many productions of “Richard III,” including the Ian McKellan production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the author has explained carefully and in succinct verbiage, the power of speech in today’s chaotic world.

  45. Joseph Cernik

    An enjoyable essay to read. Nice to read an essay that clearly explains Shakespeare.

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