Unlike his previous tragedy Titus Andronicus, the play avoids graphic demonstrations of physical violence; only Richard and Clarence are shown being stabbed on-stage, while the rest (the two princes, Hastings, Brackenbury, Grey, Vaughan, Rivers, Anne, Buckingham, and King Edward) all meet their ends off-stage. Despite the villainous nature of the title character and the grim storyline, Shakespeare infuses the action with comic material, as he does with most of his tragedies. Much of the humour rises from the dichotomy between how Richard's character is known and how Richard tries to appear.
Richard himself also provides some dry remarks in evaluating the situation, as when he plans to marry Queen Elizabeth's daughter: "Murder her brothers, then marry her; Uncertain way of gain ..." Other examples of humour in this play include Clarence's reluctant 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 country's 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.
Free will and fatalism
One of the central themes of Richard III is the idea of fate, especially as it is seen through the tension between free will and fatalism in Richard's actions and speech, as well as the reactions to him by other characters. There is no doubt that Shakespeare drew heavily on Sir Thomas More's account of Richard III as a criminal and tyrant as inspiration for his own rendering. This influence, especially as it relates to the role of divine punishment in Richard's rule of England, reaches its height in the voice of Margaret. Janis Lull suggests that "Margaret gives voice to the belief, encouraged by the growing Calvinism of the Elizabethan era, that individual historical events are determined by God, who often punishes evil with (apparent) evil".:p.6–8
Thus it seems possible that Shakespeare, in conforming to the growing "Tudor Myth" of the day, as well as taking into account new theologies of divine action and human will becoming popular in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, sought to paint Richard as the final curse of God on England in punishment for the deposition of Richard II in 1399.:p.6–8 Irving Ribner argued that "the evil path of Richard is a cleansing operation which roots evil out of society and restores the world at last to the God-ordained goodness embodied in the new rule of Henry VII".:p.62
Scholar Victor Kiernan writes that this interpretation is a perfect fit with the English social perspective of Shakespeare's day: "An extension is in progress of a privileged class's assurance of preferential treatment in the next world as in this, to a favoured nation's conviction of having God on its side, of Englishmen being ... the new Chosen People".:p.111–112 As Elizabethan England was slowly colonising the world, the populace embraced the view of its own Divine Right and Appointment to do so, much as Richard does in Shakespeare's play.
However, historical fatalism is merely one side of the argument of fate versus free will. It is also possible that Shakespeare intended to portray Richard as "a personification of the Machiavellian view of history as power politics".:p.6–8 In this view, Richard is acting entirely out of his own free will in brutally taking hold of the English throne. Kiernan also presents this side of the coin, noting that Richard "boasts to us of his finesse in dissembling and deception with bits of Scripture to cloak his 'naked villainy' (I.iii.334–8) ...Machiavelli, as Shakespeare may want us to realise, is not a safe guide to practical politics".:p.111–112
Kiernan suggests that Richard is merely acting as if God is determining his every step in a sort of Machiavellian manipulation of religion as an attempt to circumvent the moral conscience of those around him. Therefore, historical determinism is merely an illusion perpetrated by Richard's assertion of his own free will. The Machiavellian reading of the play finds evidence in Richard's interactions with the audience, as when he mentions that he is "determinèd to prove a villain" (I.i.30). However, though it seems Richard views himself as completely in control, Lull suggests that Shakespeare is using Richard to state "the tragic conception of the play in a joke. His primary meaning is that he controls his own destiny. His pun also has a second, contradictory meaning—that his villainy is predestined—and the strong providentialism of the play ultimately endorses this meaning".:p.6–8
Literary critic Paul Haeffner writes that Shakespeare had a great understanding of language and the potential of every word he used.:p.56–60 One word that Shakespeare gave potential to was "joy". This is employed in Act I, Scene III, where it is used to show "deliberate emotional effect".:p.56–60 Another word that Haeffner points out is "kind", which he suggests is used with two different definitions.
The first definition is used to express a "gentle and loving" man, which Clarence uses to describe his brother Richard to the murderers that were sent to kill him. This definition is not true, as Richard uses a gentle façade to seize the throne. The second definition concerns "the person's true nature ... Richard will indeed use Hastings kindly—that is, just as he is in the habit of using people—brutally".:p.56–60
Haeffner also writes about how speech is written. He compares the speeches of Richmond and Richard to their soldiers. He describes Richmond's speech as "dignified" and formal, while Richard's speech is explained as "slangy and impetuous".:p.56–60 Richard's casualness in speech is also noted by another writer. However, Lull does not make the comparison between Richmond and Richard as Haeffner does, but between Richard and the women in his life. However, it is important to the women share the formal language that Richmond uses. She makes the argument that the difference in speech "reinforces the thematic division between the women's identification with the social group and Richard's individualism".:p.22–23 Haeffner agrees that Richard is "an individualist, hating dignity and formality".:p.56–60
Janis Lull also takes special notice of the mourning women. She suggests that they are associated with "figures of repetition as anaphora—beginning each clause in a sequence with the same word—and epistrophe—repeating the same word at the end of each clause".:p.22–23 One example of the epistrophe can be found in Margaret's speech in Act I, Scene III. Haeffner refers to these as few of many "devices and tricks of style" that occur in the play, showcasing Shakespeare's ability to bring out the potential of every word.:p.56–60
Richard as anti-hero
Throughout the play, Richard's character constantly changes and shifts and, in doing so, alters the dramatic structure of the story.
Richard immediately establishes a connection with the audience with his opening monologue. In the soliloquy he admits his amorality to the audience but at the same time treats them as if they were co-conspirators in his plotting; one may well be enamored of his rhetoric while being appalled by his actions. Richard shows off his wit in Act I, as seen in the interchanges with Lady Anne (Act I, Scene II) and his brother Clarence (Act I, Scene I). In his dialogues Act I, Richard knowingly refers to thoughts he has only previously shared with the audience to keep the audience attuned to him and his objectives. In 1.1, Richard tells the audience in a soliloquy how he plans to claw his way to the throne—killing his brother Clarence as a necessary step to get there. However, Richard pretends to be Clarence's friend, falsely reassuring him by saying, "I will deliver you, or else lie for you" (1.1.115); which the audience knows—and Richard tells the audience after Clarence's exit—is the exact opposite of what he plans to do.:p.37 Scholar Michael E. Mooney describes Richard as occupying a "figural position"; he is able to move in and out of it by talking with the audience on one level, and interacting with other characters on another.:p.33
Each scene in Act I is book-ended by Richard directly addressing the audience. This action on Richard's part not only keeps him in control of the dramatic action of the play, but also of how the audience sees him: in a somewhat positive light, or as the protagonist.:p.32–33 Richard actually embodies the dramatic character of "Vice" from medieval morality plays—with which Shakespeare was very familiar from his time—with his "impish-to-fiendish humour". Like Vice, Richard is able to render what is ugly and evil—his thoughts and aims, his view of other characters—into what is charming and amusing for the audience.:p.38
In the earlier acts of the play, too, the role of the antagonist is filled by that of the old Lancastrian queen, Margaret, who is reviled by the Yorkists and whom Richard manipulates and condemns in Act I, Scene III.
However, after Act I, the number and quality of Richard's asides to the audience decrease significantly, as well as multiple scenes are interspersed that do not include Richard at all,:p.44 but average Citizens (Act II, Scene III), or the Duchess of York and Clarence's children (Act II, Scene II), who are as moral as Richard is evil. Without Richard guiding the audience through the dramatic action, the audience is left to evaluate for itself what is going on. In Act IV, Scene IV, after the murder of the two young princes and the ruthless murder of Lady Anne, the women of the play—Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and even Margaret—gather to mourn their state and to curse Richard; and it is difficult as the audience not to sympathise with them. When Richard enters to bargain with Queen Elizabeth for her daughter's hand—a scene whose form echoes the same rhythmically quick dialogue as the Lady Anne scene in Act I—he has lost his vivacity and playfulness for communication; it is obvious he is not the same man.:p.32–33
By the end of Act IV everyone else in the play, including Richard's own mother, the Duchess, has turned against him. He does not interact with the audience nearly as much, and the inspiring quality of his speech has declined into merely giving and requiring information. As Richard gets closer to seizing the crown, he encloses himself within the world of the play; no longer embodying his facile movement in and out of the dramatic action, he is now stuck firmly within it.:p.47 It is from Act IV that Richard really begins his rapid decline into truly being the antagonist. Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt notes how Richard even refers to himself as "the formal Vice, Iniquity" (3.1.82), which informs the audience that he knows what his function is; but also like Vice in the morality plays, the fates will turn and get Richard in the end, which Elizabethan audiences would have recognised.
In addition, the character of Richmond enters into the play in Act V to overthrow Richard and save the state from his tyranny, effectively being the instantaneous new protagonist. Richmond is a clear contrast to Richard's evil character, which makes the audience see him as such.:p.32