Outisde the Tower of London, Elizabeth, her son Dorset, and the duchess of York meet Lady Anne (who is now Richard’s wife) and Clarence’s young daughter. Lady Anne tells Elizabeth that they have come to visit the princes who are imprisoned in the tower, and Elizabeth says that her group is there for the same reason. But the women learn from the guardian of the tower that Richard has forbidden anyone to see the princes.
Stanley, earl of Derby, suddenly arrives with the news that Richard is about to be crowned king, so Anne must go to the coronation to be crowned as his queen. The horrified Anne fears that Richard’s coronation will mean ruin for England, and says that she should have resisted marrying Richard—after all, she herself has cursed him (in Act I, scene ii) for killing her first husband. Her curses have come true. As his wife, she has no peace, and Richard is continually haunted by bad dreams. The duchess of York instructs Dorset to flee to France and join the forces of the earl of Richmond, a nobleman with a claim to the royal throne.
Back in the palace, the gloating Richard—who has now been crowned king of England—enters in triumph with Buckingham and Catesby. But Richard says that he does not yet feel secure in his position of power. He tells Buckingham that he wants the two young princes, the rightful heirs to the throne, to be murdered in the tower. For the first time, Buckingham does not obey Richard immediately, saying that he needs more time to think about the request. Richard murmurs to himself that Buckingham is too weak to continue to be his right-hand man and summons a lowlife named Tyrrell who is willing to accept the mission. In almost the same breath, Richard instructs Catesby to spread a rumor that Queen Anne is sick and likely to die, and gives orders to keep the queen confined. He then announces his intention to marry the late King Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth of York. The implication is that he plans to murder Queen Anne.
Buckingham, uneasy about his future, asks Richard to give him what Richard promised him earlier: the earldom of Hereford. But Richard angrily rejects Buckingham’s demands and walks out on him. Buckingham, left alone, realizes that he has fallen out of Richard’s favor and decides to flee to his family home in Wales before he meets the fate of Richard’s other enemies.
Tyrrell returns to the palace and tells Richard that the princes are dead. He says that he has been deeply shaken by the deed and that the two men he commissioned to perform the murders are also full of regrets after smothering the two children to death in their sleep. But Richard is delighted to hear the news, and offers Tyrrell a rich reward. After Tyrrell leaves, Richard explains the development of his various plots to get rid of everyone who might threaten his grasp on power. The two young princes are now dead. Richard has married off Clarence’s daughter to an unimportant man and has locked up Clarence’s son (who is not very smart and does not present a threat). Moreover, Richard gloats that Queen Anne is now dead—we can assume Richard has had her murdered—and he announces once again that his next step will be to woo and marry young Elizabeth, the daughter of the former King Edward and Queen Elizabeth. He believes that this alliance with her family will cement his hold on the throne.
Ratcliffe enters suddenly with the bad news that some of Richard’s noblemen are fleeing to join Richmond in France, and that Buckingham has returned to Wales and is now leading a large army against Richard. Richard, startled out of his contemplation, decides that it is time to gather his own army and head out to face battle.
Now that Richard has attained the throne, it is more difficult to sympathize with him than it was before. He begins the play as a brilliant, driven underdog—a brutal and possibly psychopathic one, albeit, but an underdog nonetheless. After attaining his goal, however, Richard directs his actions toward securing and maintaining his power. We no longer feel any sense of suspense about when and how he will seize the throne. He has reached the pinnacle of success and must scramble to keep his prize in the face of all his opponents. Instead of using his skills at deception and manipulation to achieve clearly defined, difficult-to-achieve goals, he has started killing everyone in sight. As he notes, his goal is to “stop all hopes whose growth may damage me”—which amounts to killing everybody who could possibly be a threat (IV.ii.61). This new campaign of blood makes it much harder to find Richard attractive—even in the morbid, slightly perverse way in which we may be attracted to him earlier in the play.
This shift in Richard’s personality—from self-assured confidence into paranoia—causes him to alienate Buckingham. Although Buckingham is the loyal right-hand man who has been with Richard since nearly the beginning of Richard’s rise to power, Richard’s wish to kill the children in the tower is something that repels even Buckingham. Whether Buckingham would have agreed to help Richard in the end, we cannot know, since Richard privately decides to drop Buckingham the moment he first hears him hesitate. This crack in the unity of his men is a turning point in the play—the start of a downward slide for Richard’s fortunes. It seems that Margaret’s earlier curses upon Richard (“[t]hy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv’st, / And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends” [I.iii.220–221]) are starting to come true.
Richard is determined not to let anything sway him from the course he is set on. As he ponders the idea of trying to coerce Elizabeth’s young daughter into a marriage that will help secure his -tenuous hold on the crown, he says to himself, “Murder her brothers, and then marry her? / Uncertain way of gain, but I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (IV.ii.64–67). These words contrast intriguingly with the Tyrrell’s speech in Act IV, scene iii, which demonstrates that even a hardened murderer can have pangs of conscience. Richard’s understanding of himself, however, leaves no room for such pangs—he sees himself as an embodiment of absolute evil and amorality.
Richard’s complicated maneuverings accelerate in pace during the first part of Act IV, as he works to get rid of anyone with a legitimate claim to the throne. He has engineered the deaths of young Prince Edward and the young duke of York, the princes in the tower, since they are the sons of the late King Edward IV and thus the true heirs to the throne. He has already had his brother Clarence killed. Now, he has disposed of Clarence’s two children by locking up the dim-witted boy and marrying off the girl to a lower-class man, to keep her from marrying a nobleman who might be able to use his wife’s lineage to justify an attempt to seize the throne. Similar reasoning drives Richard to want to marry Elizabeth’s daughter, young Elizabeth. Since she is the daughter of Edward IV, the last king, Richard intends to use her lineage to cement his own claims to power. (For similar reasons, it should be noted, young Elizabeth might also be a desirable bride for Richmond, the challenger from overseas and a relative of Henry VI who claims the throne by virtue of that relationship.) Richard muses that “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass” (IV.ii.62–63). Perverse as it may seem for him to marry his niece, prevailing Renaissance ideas about lineage and royalty validate such an action.
Richard III is a fun read because the king is so evil. I'm reading all of Shakespeare by his 450th birthday, and this play gave me a great gift idea. See my blog about Richard III and a present for the Bard: