Scene 1.3 - The royal place at Westminster
Edward's wife, Queen Elizabeth, waits anxiously outside the dying king's sick-room surrounded by members of her family whom she has advanced at court. Her brother, Lord Rivers, and her son by a previous marriage, Lord Grey, try to soothe her worries by reassuring her that even if the king dies, the fact that she is the mother to Prince Edward, the heir to the throne, will protect her from her enemies. The queen fears for her young son's safety, however, because in the event of Edward's death, his brother Richard will become Protector of the realm until Prince Edward reaches maturity. She fears (rightly) that Richard would harm her family.
The duke of Buckingham and Lord Stanley, earl of Derby, pass by from visiting the sick king. Stanley's wife has been accused of plotting against the queen, and Stanley seeks to excuse her to Elizabeth. Buckingham and Stanley are hopeful that the king's health may improve because he is in good spirits. They reveal that Edward has called Richard and the queen's brothers to appear before him in order to end their quarrel.
Obeying the king's summons, Richard and Hastings appear on stage. To the room at large, Richard complains that the queen's relatives have slandered him by making the king believe that he hates them. He pretends complete innocence in the matter, alleging that they have mistaken his plainspokenness and honest refusal to speak flattery for ill will. When Lord Grey asks Richard whom he is speaking to, Richard attacks him, asking when he has ever injured Grey, and accusing Grey and the rest of the queen's family members of troubling the sick king with their false complaints. The queen defends herself and her family by telling Richard that no one has spread false rumors about him-- it was the king's own idea to bring together Richard and her brothers to resolve their dispute, probably because the king himself knows of Richard's "interior hatred" of her family.
Concealing his own responsibility for Clarence's imprisonment, Richard pretends that it is the queen's fault, and begs her to help free him. When she (truthfully) disclaims responsibility for Clarence's arrest and vows that she has already asked the king to release him, Richard scornfully asks her to deny, if she can, that she was behind the arrest of Lord Hastings. Richard implies that neither the queen nor her relatives can be trusted to tell the truth because they are intent only on gaining power and titles for themselves. Although Richard pretends to be more sinned against than sinning, he can't resist insulting the queen for being a gold-digger and her relatives for being social climbers-since she has been queen "every Jack," or unimportant, common person, "became a gentleman" and "there's many a gentle person made a Jack." Fed up with his taunts, the queen threatens to tell the king about Richard's abusive words. She would rather be a "country servant maid" than a "great queen" subject to Richard's scornful abuse.
As Elizabeth laments that "small joy have I in being England's queen," the dead King Henry VI's wife, the deposed Queen Margaret, enters unobserved. Richard points out that he was instrumental in bringing Edward to the throne, shedding his own blood for his brother long before Edward married Elizabeth. He reproaches Elizabeth with the fact that during the civil wars, Elizabeth's previous husband and her brothers fought on behalf of King Henry against the Yorkists. While they now prosper, Edward's faithful supporters suffer-particularly Clarence, who now finds himself in prison on suspicion of treason. Like Richard, Clarence also fought for Edward in the wars, even betraying his father-in-law, who supported Henry. In typical fashion for Richard, his ostensible praise of Clarence's loyalty undermines itself at the same time by reminding his hearers that Clarence perjured himself twice during the civil wars-first by turning against his brother to fight for King Henry, and later by abandoning Henry's cause. (These events are related in Shakespeare's 3 Henry VI.) Ever the actor, Richard claims that "I am too childish-foolish for this world," meaning that he is too innocent and simple to understand Edward's ingratitude and Elizabeth's treachery. Rivers reminds Richard that his family fought for Henry VI because at that time they believed him to be their true king. Obviously suspecting Richard's secret ambition to become king, Elizabeth warns him that he could expect as little happiness from being king as she has found from being queen of England.
At this, Queen Margaret can no longer keep her peace and discovers herself, declaring that "little joy enjoys the queen thereof, / For I am she, and altogether joyless." She calls Elizabeth and Richard and their factions "wrangling pirates" who now fight over the spoils they robbed her of, for "all the pleasures you usurp are mine." She reproaches Richard with the murder of her husband and son, and Elizabeth with the usurpation of her kingdom. Richard maintains that her suffering is the just result of the curses his father laid upon her when she captured him in battle and forced him to wear a mock crown made of paper and wipe his eyes with a cloth dyed with the blood of his murdered youngest son, Rutland. Elizabeth and Rivers join Richard in denouncing Margaret's complicity in the murder of a mere child. Scornfully amused to see that those who were "snarling" at one another before are now united against her, Margaret declares she will now test whether curses actually have the power to "prevail so much with heaven" by cursing the Yorkists herself. Drawing parallels between the events of the civil wars and the future, she prays that Elizabeth's son Edward will die violently in his youth like Margaret's son Edward did, and that Elizabeth, like herself, will outlive her glory as queen. For standing by when her son was killed, she prays that Rivers, Dorset, and Hastings will die sudden deaths.
Margaret reserves special venom for Richard, praying that he will be killed when "thy sins be ripe," so that his soul will be damned for lack of absolution, that he will mistrust his true friends and trust only traitors, and that his sleep will be troubled with terrible nightmares. Before she can finish this lengthy curse by pronouncing his name, Richard he fills in her own, joking that now the curse will turn against her. When Elizabeth laughs at this, Margaret warns her not to trust "that bottled spider" who will spin webs to ensnare her, and prophecies that someday Margaret and Elizabeth will curse Richard together. Only Buckingham is exempt from Margaret's curses, because he bears no responsibility for her family's downfall, but she begs him to "take heed of yonder dog," i.e. Richard, for "when he fawns he bites." Buckingham tells her that he does not believe in curses, which she hopes will rise to heaven "and there awake God's gentle-sleeping peace." Buckingham assures Richard that Margaret has told him "nothing I respect," causing her to include him in her parting curse on the entire company. Later, Buckingham will have cause to remember Margaret's prophecy.
After Margaret leaves, Elizabeth is called to the king's bedside. Richard stays behind and lets the audience in on the secret that he has only been pretending to be virtuous and godly as a cover for his ambitious designs, for "thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol'n forth of holy writ, / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil." Two murderers come to speak with him, and he orders them to kill Clarence in prison before the dying king can set him free. He commands them not to listen to Clarence's words, lest he plea for his life and make them pity him.
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Scenes 2.3 and 2.4
Scenes 3.3 and 3.4
Scene 3.6 and 3.7
Scenes 4.2 and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 5.1 and 5.2
Scenes 5.4 and 5.5