Ambition and the Lust for Power
Ambition and the lust for power is the simplest and most obvious theme of the play. Richard III is driven relentlessly by ambition for the crown, and once having gained the crown, he seeks to keep it by any means necessary. It appears that he loves power, pure and simple. He lusts for it. There is never any suggestion that he wants power so that he can use it to benefit his country or that he believes himself to have a rightful claim. He seems to want power to compensate for what he sees as the bad hand that nature has given him by making him an unattractive hunchback. As he says in his very first speech, if he cannot be a lover, because women do not find him attractive, then he will be a villain. He will plot his way toward the ultimate power in the realm. It is notable that no other character in the play plots so single-mindedly to gain power, although others may be guilty of various other crimes. The Duke of Richmond has no interest in power for its own sake, but only the use of it to redeem the country from the terrible state it has fallen into under Richard.
Divine Redemption and Providence
The theme of divine redemption and providence becomes fully apparent only in the final phase of the play, when Richmond enters the picture. Up to that point, evil in the form of Richard has been allowed to flourish. Following the death of Edward IV, a murderer and a tyrant sits on the throne of England, but Richmond comes to end the period of civil war and return England to the path of peace and prosperity. Richmond is clearly presented as not acting from personal ambition, and in that he is the opposite of Richard. Richmond is a pious man who invokes God with sincerity and humility. When the Ghosts visit him in dreams before the Battle of Bosworth Field, they all refer to the righteousness of his cause and the fact that heavenly powers support and watch over him. “God and good angels fight on Richmond’s side” says the Ghost of Buckingham (act 5, scene 3, line 203). In presenting Richmond in this light Shakespeare was following his sources, the English historians of the sixteenth century who regarded Richmond, King Henry VII, as a divine savior. His accession to the throne ended the Wars of the Roses and he was an efficient king. Over the following century the Tudor dynasty Richmond established had provided England with a stable government, with no repetition of the civil wars that had plagued the 1400s.
Guilt and Retribution
Although the theme of guilt and retribution reaches its fullest expression in the death of Richard at the hands of Richmond in Act 5, there are several other examples of how justice is still operating in England even while Richard III is either on the throne or plotting to acquire it. This can be seen in the characters of Clarence, Edward IV, and Buckingham, all of whom die during the course of the play. Clarence may have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges engineered by Richard, but he nonetheless has crimes of his own, which he acknowledges and expresses regrets about before his death. He did betray his brother Edward IV by siding with his father-in-law, the Earl of Warwick, on the Lancastrian side, because Edward did not provide him with a suitable wife. (This is presented in Henry VI, part 3.) He was later reconciled to Edward. Clarence was also one of the killers of young Prince Edward, the son of Henry VI. When he is imprisoned, he feels his guilt keenly. He has a dream in which he is reproached for his sins. Although he dies unjustly, murdered even after the king has issued an order of clemency, the impression of guilt followed by retribution is clear. Similarly, just before Edward IV dies, he regrets his treatment of Clarence and the fact that he did not manage to save his brother from being murdered. The king fears that he and his whole family will suffer divine retribution for this failure. This is Shakespeare’s way of presenting the guilt that has accrued in the Yorkist family during the Wars of the Roses. Buckingham too shares in this guilt, having helped Richard plot his way to the throne. When he is facing execution, he acknowledges his complicity in the crimes of Richard and accepts thathe is facing divine retribution.