Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Afterward Richard III
Richard was the youngest son of the third Duke of York, who was killed at Wakefield in 1460. In Henry IV, Part 2,
and more particularly in Henry VI, Part 3,
he first appeared as a vigorous Yorkist and warrior. But then he emerged in the latter play as "hard-favored Richard," "a ragged fatal rock," and "an undigested lump" — each phrase suggesting that his deformity was the reflection of his profoundly evil character. He identified himself as one who would outdo Machiavelli — that is, as a super-Machiavelli — in his efforts to win the crown of England. The basic characteristics of the stage Machiavelli of Elizabethan drama are indeed his: boundless ambition, egotistical action, masterly dissembling, defiance of God, great if misguided intellectuality.
King Edward IV Edward IV, the eldest son of the Duke of York, ruled England from 1461 to 1483. Anything but a weak ruler, he nevertheless had his difficulties. First, his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which had led to the disaffection of the Earl of Warwick, the chief support of the Yorkists, was a continuing source of trouble, for he tended to favor her relatives at the expense of the Nevilles and other families, the members of which had favored the Yorkist cause. Second, his reputation as a loose gallant, and particularly his relationship with the beautiful Jane Shore, daughter of a London goldsmith, made possible charges that his mistress adversely influenced his conduct of public affairs. Finally, a well-known clergyman, one Dr. Ralph Shaw, referred to in Act III, Scene 5, publicly charged that, in the words of the chronicler Robert Fabyan (The Concordance of Histories, 1516), "the children of King Edward IV were not legitimate, nor rightful heirs of the crown." This charge was based upon the widely circulated story that Edward had been secretly married before his union to Lady Elizabeth Grey and that his first wife was still alive. Richard of Gloucester of the play capitalized upon all three of these sources of difficulty. Edward appears in Richard III as the ailing ruler, one actually on his deathbed. His great concern is to quiet dissension and to insure the orderly succession of the crown.
George, Duke of Clarence The third son of the Duke of York and brother to Edward IV and Richard of Gloucester first appeared in Henry VI, Part 3. In that play, he is described as a "quicksand of deceit" and for good reason. Clarence had been elevated to a dukedom by his newly crowned brother after the defeat of Queen Margaret's forces near Towton. But he joined the disgruntled Warwick and was betrothed to the earl's second daughter. It was to Clarence as well as to Warwick that the liberated Henry VI resigned his government, while Edward IV was forced to find haven on the Continent. But once more Clarence changed loyalties, removing the red rose from his helmet and proclaiming himself to be the "mortal foe" of Warwick, who denounced him as "perjur'd and unjust." In Henry VI, Part 3, Clarence also is made to join Edward and Richard in stabbing Prince Edward, son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. History records that he was constantly involved in quarrels with his older brother.
Henry, Duke of Buckingham Buckingham inherited his title from Humphrey Stafford, one of the commanders of the royal forces at the first Battle of St. Albans. Understandably Queen Margaret first praises him as blameless. Holinshed described him as "easie to handle," and for a time so the Richard of this play found him to be. To Richard he was the "deep-revolving, witty Buckingham" who functioned as the villain-hero's Warwick, or king-maker. But unlike Warwick, Buckingham is depicted as, to use another of Richard's phrases, one "of many simple gulls," susceptible to gross flattery and convinced that his fortunes will be advanced if he serves the ambitious Richard. Too late he learns that he has judged falsely.
Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, Afterward King Henry VII Richmond was the nearest male representative of the Lancastrians. He was the son of Owen Tudor and Katherine, the widow of Henry V. He was also the lineal descendant, by Katherine Swynford, of John of Gaunt. Henry thus inherited the Lancastrian line, although he was debarred by Parliament from the throne. Nevertheless, he had many English supporters, and when he escaped to France after the Battle of Tewkesbury, he bided his time for a while and then issued a manifesto calling upon Englishmen to join him in crushing Richard, "the unnatural tyrant who bore rule over them." Thanks to his marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, he was able to unite the dynastic claims of both parties. Shakespeare followed his sources in depicting Henry as the God-sent savior of England.
Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI She appeared with increasing prominence in each of the Henry VI plays. Daughter of the Duke of Anjou, titular King of Naples, and niece of Charles VII, she was a determined, strong-minded woman who offered a complete contrast to her pious, well-meaning, weak husband. When the Duke of Somerset was slain in the first Battle of St. Albans (1455), Margaret came forward as head of the royal party prosecuting the civil war against the Yorkists. After her defeat at Tewkesbury, she was imprisoned, but she was then released on payment of a ransom by France. Actually she died in 1482 but survived in Shakespeare's play, where she functions as a terrifying chorus, a symbolic figure standing for the doom of the house of York.
Elizabeth, Queen to Edward IV Elizabeth was the widowed daughter of Sir Richard Woodville and patron of the Woodville faction, who were of Lancastrian connection. In the play, this faction is represented by her brother, Earl Rivers, and her two sons by her first husband, the Marquis of Dorset and Lord Grey. In Richard III she appears to yield to Richard's blandishments, but since she survived to see her daughter become Queen of England, it may be questioned whether she was the "relenting fool and shallow changing woman" described by Richard.
Lady Anne The widow of Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VI, was the daughter of the Earl of Warwick and thus a Neville. The fact that she possessed much property is not the sole reason why Richard of Gloucester should have turned ardent wooer. The Neville connection fitted in with his ambitions to gain the crown.
The Duchess of York The mother of King Edward IV, Clarence, and Richard was the daughter of Ralph Neville, first Earl of Northumberland. Since her husband first made his bid for the crown, she had endured "accursed and wrangling days," surviving not only the Duke of York's death but also the deaths of her sons. She also endured the agonizing realization that Richard was one who was "damned," one who had come "on earth to make [her] earth a hell" and who deserved his mother's "most grievous curse."
William, Lord Hastings Hastings, an adherent to the Yorkist cause, was described as "a noble man" by Holinshed. He served as lord chamberlain to Edward IV but was opposed by Queen Elizabeth because the king favored him. Like Buckingham, then, he was at odds with the Woodvilles. Holinshed links him with Buckingham as one whom Richard first considered as "easie to handle." It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Hastings was obtuse. When Richard arrested members of the queen's faction, he decided that the action was necessary for the safety of the realm, and he was confident that his own position was secure. Obtuse or not, he emerged as one representing loyal nobility, faithful to the throne rather than to one faction or another. Inevitably, Richard denounced him as a traitor and saw to it that he was put to death without a trial, as Shakespeare's sources reported.