Summary and Analysis
The scene shifts to the palace. King Edward, whom we meet for the first time, has called the queen and members of the family and court to his bedside. He commands them to be reconciled to one another and to swear to refrain from enmity in the future. Successively Rivers, Hastings, the queen herself, Dorset, and Buckingham solemnly take the sacred vow. Only Gloucester is absent "To make the perfect period of this peace," to use the king's words. But Richard makes his appearance immediately, wishing all present "a happy time of day." When he is told that all differences have been settled and that hate has now given place to "fair love," he pronounces the king's action to be "a blessed labor" and, insisting that he desires "all good men's love," declares himself to be devoted to all present. He concludes by piously thanking God for his humility.
When Queen Elizabeth, anxious that the newfound amity be extended to all members of the court group, urges the king to pardon Clarence, Richard delivers the shocking news that Clarence is dead: Edward's reprieve had arrived too late. Almost at once Derby enters and begs that his servant's life, declared forfeit for murder, be spared. This request fills Edward with remorse as he contrasts the zeal of a master for a servant with the neglect of Clarence. Especially he remembers all that Clarence had done for him, and he blames not only himself but all others present, none of whom had interceded in Clarence's behalf. Edward concludes that he and the rest have rendered themselves subject to God's punishment. Calling Hastings, the lord chamberlain, to accompany him, he leaves with the queen and some members of the court.
Gloucester promptly takes advantage of the occasion to draw Buckingham's attention to what he describes as the guilty looks of the queen's relatives. He charges that they had urged the king to put Clarence to death, and he predicts that "God will avenge it." He then asks Buckingham to join him in comforting Edward.
In a mood consistent with Edward's remorse and sorrow, Scene 2 introduces the young son and daughter of Clarence, who suspect that their father is dead. They are talking to their grandmother, the Duchess of York, who is weeping not, as they think, for Clarence but for the mortally sick king. Richard has succeeded in convincing these children that Edward, influenced by Queen Elizabeth, is responsible for their father's death. He has assured them of his devotion to them and has told them to rely on him. Richard's mother, fully aware of her son's intent, laments that she has given birth to so foul a monster. But Clarence's young son finds it impossible to believe that his uncle could be such a villain.
Queen Elizabeth, grief-stricken and all disheveled, enters. All now learn that King Edward is dead, and a general chorus of grief ensues. The duchess weeps for her husband and two sons, the queen for her husband, and the children for their father. Dorset and Rivers try to comfort the queen, Rivers immediately introducing the comforting thought of her son, who should be summoned from Ludlow immediately to be crowned.
Gloucester comes in with Buckingham, Derby, Hastings, and Ratcliff. He is in good form as usual, offering words of comfort to Queen Elizabeth and asking his mother's blessing. Buckingham suggests that the Prince of Wales be brought from Ludlow with a small group of followers and succeeds in convincing Rivers that a larger group might lead to a new outbreak of trouble. All the while, Richard presents himself as one only too ready to cooperate in carrying out the will of the others. All except Buckingham and Gloucester retire to discuss the proposal. The exchange between the two makes clear the fact that Richard has been letting Buckingham play the man of action and do the talking and that there is an arrangement for them "to part the Queen's proud kindred from the king." They set forth for Ludlow.
Three London citizens meet in a street and discuss the news of the king's death. Each has a clearly marked character. The first citizen is optimistic, almost buoyantly so. The second citizen is not so confident as he voices the traditional fear that change, particularly in matters relating to the state, is not usually for the better. He places his hope in the conviction that Edward IV's young son will be guided wisely by his counselors. The third citizen, however, is a thoroughgoing pessimist. He predicts "a troublesome world," especially because the new king is "in his nonage" — that is, his boyhood. When Henry VI, then a mere child, came to the throne, virtuous uncles were at hand to give him prudent counsel. Not so now, for "full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester," and "the Queen's kindred [are] haughty and proud." In a series of sententious lines, he concludes that it is wise to fear the worst. All three, instructed to appear before the justices, depart together.
The archbishop announces that the party bringing the young prince will arrive within a day or so. This begins a conversation about the appearance of the prince, whom the mother, grandmother, and younger brother are anxious to see. The queen hopes that he has grown; his grandmother has heard, however, that the nine-year-old duke has almost overtaken him. The boy hopes this is not so, for his uncle Gloucester has told him that "small herbs have grace, great weeds grow apace." The old duchess retorts that, since Richard grew slowly, if this were so he should be full of grace, about which she ironically expresses her doubts. The precocious boy remembers a story he has heard that Richard was born with all his teeth and must have grown fast since he could "gnaw a crust at two hours old," a biting jest indeed for a boy of nine! Since getting teeth early was also believed to be a sign of villainous disposition, the two women recognize the boy's shrewdness, and his mother rebukes him for being mischievous.
Dorset enters with the upsetting news that Lord Rivers, Lord Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan have all been sent to Pomfret Castle, imprisoned by the "mighty dukes" Gloucester and Buckingham. Dorset does not know what accusation had been brought against them. The queen, rightly seeing the downfall of her house, bemoans the tyranny that preys on the young king's innocence. The Duchess of York cries out against yet another indication of the dreadful war of blood against blood and self against self for the crown. The queen takes the boy to sanctuary, led by the Archbishop of York, who gives the Great Seal into her keeping.
Conflict is, of course, the essence of drama. In Act I, Richard emerged ahead in his conflict with a society, indeed with the state itself. Now events occur that suggest that the odds have shifted. The ailing king appears to have quieted the quarreling factions, as the first two lines of Scene 1 make clear. This is a solemn occasion for all concerned, for England's king is on his deathbed. As Tudor political philosophy had it, the subject, whatever his rank, is to the ruler as is the child to his parent. Vows made to a king are especially sacred, thus the import of Edward's admonition beginning "Take heed you dally not before your King" (13-15). Note that both Rivers and Hastings are vehement in their avowals, and so the rest. But most eloquent is Buckingham, who had been held blameless by the rapacious Queen Margaret. Each has committed himself irrevocably, inviting God's punishment if the oath is violated.
The ethical significance of Clarence's death is now made crystal clear: Inexorable justice is operating once more. Practically all of the characters in Scene 1 deserve or will deserve divine punishment. And in this connection, note that the last two lines of King Edward's long reply to Derby are portentous: "O God, I fear Thy justice will take hold / On me and you, and mine and yours for this!" How ironical are Richard's words addressed to Buckingham, spoken as they are by the one who is directly responsible for Clarence's death: "God will revenge it" (138).
Score another point for the villain-hero, that master dissembler who had intercepted the orders countermanding the execution of Clarence. So far from amity flourishing, the split is greater than before. The immediate point is that God's justice continues to be administered and Richard continues to function as His scourge. Significantly, it is Buckingham who has the final line. If we had any doubts heretofore, we now know that he has committed himself to serve Richard for his own purposes.
The first part of Scene 2 serves to point up the tragedy that has befallen the house of York. There is much that is formally ritualistic here, and the pronounced religious tone is evident enough. Thus one of Clarence's children, having been led to believe that King Edward was directly responsible for his father's death, says, "God will avenge it, Whom I will importune / With daily prayer to that effect" (14-15). And Dorset, seeking to comfort his bereaved mother, Elizabeth, voices the orthodox views on Christian forbearance in the passage beginning "God is displeased That you take with unthankfulness His doing" (89-95). In this way, the major theme is kept to the fore.
To some, it may seem that the Duchess of York takes a rather heartless attitude toward the death of Clarence when she explains that she laments "the sickness of the King," not the loss of her other son: "It were lost sorrow to wail one that's lost" (11). But this is consistent with Christian teaching, certainly with that which flourished in Shakespeare's England. Elsewhere in Shakespeare, one finds expression of the idea that life is a loan from God to be repaid when He demands it, and Dorset's speech addressed to Elizabeth repeats this idea. Undue grief for the dead was thought to imply a question of God's dealings with mortals. Moreover, Edward is not only the duchess's son: He is the king, and she is one of his subjects. What happens to Edward is a matter of public concern; the welfare of the state is involved. And, of course, all this adds to the religious tone.
Queen Elizabeth, "with her hair about her ears," is the very symbol of tormented grief. In Scene 2, her first speech provides a good example of the highly mannered, rhetorical style to which reference was made in the critical introduction above. This is typical of early Shakespeare, reflecting the influence of Seneca — at least the Seneca of the popular stage. In this connection, note the sententious elements in her speech, as when she exclaims, Why grow the branches now the root is withered? / Why wither not the leaves, the sap being gone?" (41-42). Senecan also is the exchange between the children and the two queen-mothers beginning "Oh, for our father, for our dear lord Clarence!" (72-79) These lines provide an example of stichomythia.
Edward did not die a violent death, as did Clarence. Nevertheless, his death is part of the larger pattern: The grievous sinner cannot escape God's justice.
While tracing the dominant theme in Richard III, we must not ignore the skill with which Shakespeare delineates the character of Gloucester, who early and late holds the interest of all readers and members of an audience, whether or not they be interested in or concerned about the major theme of the play. Consistently this Machiavellian villain who rejects God gives us a good example of his cynical humor in his aside after his mother complies with his expressed wish that she give him her blessing.
The action continues to rise, and an element of suspense is introduced in Scene 2. Rivers urges Queen Elizabeth to see to it that her son be crowned as soon as possible. Obviously, the coronation would be a great setback for the ambitious Richard and might make it impossible for him to advance his evil fortunes. But Richard is never to be underestimated. He has taken steps to forestall the coronation and to remove the prince from the protection and influence of the queen's family. And Gloucester, who more than once has made reference to his simplicity and humility, grossly flatters his dupe, Buckingham, speaking of himself as a child willingly guided by this "oracle" and "prophet." At his level, let it be remembered, Buckingham is no less selfishly ambitious than Richard.
Scene 3, a short scene, allows for the necessary passage of time for the arrests of which we learn in Scene 4. But its chief importance is to emphasize the fact that (as in all Shakespeare's chronicle history plays) the state is the real protagonist in the larger sense, for it is the welfare of England, the wellbeing of all subjects, that is of first importance. When the sententious third citizen exclaims, "Woe to that land that's governed by a child," he is paraphrasing Ecclesiastes 10:16 ("Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child"). The text is voiced twice by Buckingham in Edward Hall's chronicle history of these events (1548) and had long since become proverbial. Note that the third citizen expresses the conviction that, if England is to suffer as a result of Edward IV's death, it deserves to suffer since all things are in God's hands (36-37). This constant reference to God is a tacit reminder that His justice always is operative, whatever the conditions may be, and particularly so with reference to the state. The "virtuous uncles" of Henry VI (21) were the Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, who prosecuted the war against France. The commoners of England, it is clear, are aware of the bitter rivalries at court, rivalries that may lead to violence and destruction at this time of the succession. And they can only voice their hopes and fears and remain passively obedient.
The young Duke of York's instinctive dislike and distrust of his uncle is a prelude to the news that Gloucester has struck his first blow against the princes. Having seen to it that the queen's son and brother, as well as Sir Thomas Vaughan, constant and faithful attendant on young Edward from the new king's infancy, are imprisoned in Pomfret Castle, Richard now has all active power in his hands. That Pomfret should be the place of imprisonment is in itself especially ominous, for there Richard II and many others had met their deaths.
Scene 4 derives, at least ultimately, from More's account, in which it is stated that the archbishop had been roused "not long after midnight" by a messenger from Lord Hastings, who had reported that Gloucester and Buckingham had taken young Edward V, then on his way to London, from Stony Stratford back twelve miles to Northampton. It has been argued that "if the Archbishop knew that the young king had been carried back to Northampton, he must also have known that the lords who accompanied him were sent to prison." Long since it has been pointed out, however, that Shakespeare deviates from historical truth in order to attain dramatic effect. As Shakespeare dramatizes the event, one must assume that the news of the return to Northampton made the archbishop so apprehensive that he hurried to the queen bearing the Great Seal, without which the highest acts of state could not be ratified formally.