Richard III Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for The Tragedy of Richard III

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols in The Tragedy of Richard III


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes and Ideas to Discuss

The Dangers of Ambition and Power

Richard’s ambition to become king leads him to kill many people, and to be cursed by both Queen Margaret and his own mother, the Duchess of York. By the end of the play, he has virtually no allies left. His greed and lust for power lead him to murder two innocent young boys, his own brother, and his wife. However, this ambition does lead to his total ruin, prophesied by the ghosts of the souls he murdered in cold blood. The play highlights the evil that accompanies the quest for absolute power.

The Art of Manipulation

Richard can’t simply get by on his looks: he is ugly, deformed, and ill-made. He gets by on his words. His oratory skills allow him to win over Lady Anne, whose husband he had just murdered; he is also able to sway the Lord Mayor of London to believe that he is a reluctant (and pious) candidate for the crown. Much of Richard’s accomplishments in the play come from his pure ability to manipulate those around him, through betrayal and deceit.

Origins of Evil

At the beginning of the play, Richard tells the audience that because he is so ill­-made, he has decided to become a villain in order to accomplish his goals. This would suggest that Richard has made a conscious choice to be evil; however, many people were thought at this time to be defined by their physiognomy. Because Richard was born deformed, this would suggest that he was born evil, and that it was not a choice.

Fate vs. Free Will

Like many Shakespearean plays, this one also highlights the question of fate vs. free will. Because of Richard’s choices, it seems inevitable that everything will come crashing down on him eventually. However, he hires a soothsayer at the beginning to pit Edward against Clarence, saying that “G” will murder Edward’s children. The “G” seems to come to fruition when Richard, Duke of Gloucester, does indeed murder Edward’s children. In addition, Queen Margaret’s curses and the ghosts of Richard’s victims seem to indicate that fate is coming for Richard, even when he expresses some horror at the fact that he has committed so many murders.

Motifs & Symbols to Look For

Animal Imagery

Richard’s royal symbol is a boar, which Lord Stanley sees in a dream and subsequently begins to fear for his and Hastings’ safety from Richard (and rightly so). A boar is also an animal that can only be killed by a nobleman; this foreshadows Richard’s death at the hands of Richmond. Richard is also referred to as a spider, a toad, and a hedgehog. These ugly animals accentuate Richard’s deformities and appearance.

Richard’s Physiognomy

Richard’s deformities indicate an inner evil to his soul. He has a hunchback, his arm is withered (which he later attributes to witchcraft from Queen Elizabeth and Lady Shore, giving him a reason to kill Hastings), his face is ugly, and he was born prematurely. Shakespeare makes a point to focus on Richard’s physical defects to show the audience that yes, indeed, his defects run much more deeply: only someone this ugly could commit such horrible acts.

Prophecies, Ghosts, Curses, and Dreams

Richard uses a false prophecy to manipulate Edward into imprisoning Clarence; but this prophecy actually does highlight Richard’s plan to murder the two young princes, even if he does not know it yet. Queen Margaret’s curses come true: Edward IV and his son die; Queen Elizabeth lives to see it all happen; and she wishes that Richard never be able to trust his allies, and that he be tormented by nightmares. Clarence has a dream that Richard throws him overboard; Stanley has a dream that “the boar” will kill him and Hastings. The ghosts of Richard’s victims curse Richard and bring hope and high spirits to Richmond. All of these elements work together and to highlight fate’s role in driving the battle to the throne.

The Murder of the Two Princes

Richard’s request that the two princes be murdered seems to be the ultimate evil in many ways. First, it gives Buckingham pause, and essentially drives a wedge between his and Richard’s alliance. At the same time, if the audience had any sort of sympathy for Richard before this, it is the breaking point for sympathy. The two boys are young and innocent, and to kill children is the ultimate sin in most people’s eyes. This plan is quickly followed up by the announcement that Richard will also kill poor Queen Anne and marry his own niece. This is the beginning of the end for Richard’s quest for power.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Tragedy of Richard III. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Tragedy of Richard III you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

Template: Theme


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