Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is brother to King Edward IV, and a member of the York clan, who have emerged in power from the long and bloody War of the Roses. In the play’s opening monologue, “in the winter of our discontent,” delivered over the corpse of King Henry VI, whom Richard has slain (see Henry VI, part 3). Richard makes clear his disdain for his brother’s frivolity and his own designs for advancement. Richard’s other brother, the Duke of Clarence, appears on his way to prison, where he has been sent by Edward, upon suspicions raised by Richard.
Lord Hastings appears, newly pardoned and delivered from prison, where he had been sent by the Edward’s Queen Elizabeth and her kinsmen. Lady Anne arrives, mourning her father-in-law, King Henry VI, and is confronted by Richard, who makes good on his promise to woo her for political gain.
Richard crashes a gathering of noblemen and starts stirring up emotions, while the banished Queen Margaret (Henry VI’s widow) appears like a spectre and curses everyone in court, most notably Richard, the “poisonous bunch-backed toad.”.
Richard converses with two murderers whom he has hired to snuff out his brother Clarence. Despite some hesitation and remorse, the murderers carry out their task.
King Edward, in an effort to clean house as he sees his health failing, encourages Elizabeth and her kinfolk (Rivers, Grey, Dorset) to make amends with their late rivals (Hastings, Buckingham). Richard arrives and announces Clarence’s death, to the shock of all, especially Edward, whose frail health cannot bear the news. Elizabeth comes in and announces the death of King Edward, and her own fears about succession of the crown to her young son, Prince Edward, particularly as Richard is the Lord Protector. Lord Buckingham, now apparently in cahoots with Richard, persuades the noblemen to fetch the Prince to London “with some little train.”
The Duchess of York, Elizabeth, and her son, the young Duke of York, await the arrival of Prince Edward and his impending coronation. Buckingham and Richard then engineer the diversion of Rivers and Grey to Pomfret, where they are executed. Elizabeth and York decide to flee to sanctuary.
The Prince arrives in London, young York is retrieved from sanctuary, and the two are sent to the Tower by Richard. Buckingham sends Catesby to determine if Hastings with “yield to our complots.” Hastings ignores Stanley’s early-morning warnings, and confirms to Catesby that he is not inclined to side with Richard against Edward’s natural hier. The royal council meets to decide on the coronation of the young Prince, where Richard trumps up a claim of treason against Hastings, and makes good on his promise to chop off his head.
Richard and Buckingham’s plot then goes into full gear, as they persuade the mayor and citizens that Edward’s children are bastards, and that pious Richard should be named king.
The Duchess and Queen try to visit the young princes in the tower, but are denied entrance. Richard is crowned king with Anne by his side. Richard then speeds up his plotting, disposing of Anne (on rumour she is “grievous ill”), and suggests to Buckingham that the young princes be murdered. Buckingham hesitates at this, and comes back to Richard requesting the land Richard had earlier promised him. His reticence is enough to turn Richard against him, as he claims he is “not in the giving vein.” Buckingham flees, and Richard hires Tyrrell to do away with the princes.
Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess, and Margaret, lamenting the princes’ death, intercept Richard on his way to quell a growing rebellion. Richard seemingly convinces Elizabeth to let him marry her daughter, Young Elizabeth Dorset. Richard begins to fall apart, lashing out at his allies, as news that the Earl of Richmond’s army is marching on Richard.
The night before the battle, Richard is visited by the ghosts of everyone he’s killed. The armies meet, Richard is unhorsed and duels Richmond on foot. Richmond wins, and is crowned King Henry VII, finally bringing peace to England and the founding the Tudor dynasty.