Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is.
Elizabeth and the duchess of York lament the deaths of the young princes. Suddenly, old Queen Margaret enters, and tells the duchess that the duchess is the mother of a monster. Richard, she says, will not stop his campaign of terror until they are all dead. Margaret rejoices in this fact because she is very glad to see her curses against the York and Woodeville families come true. She is still as bitter as she has been throughout the play about the deaths of her husband, Henry VI, and her son, Prince Edward, and she says that the York deaths are fair payment.
The grief-weary Elizabeth asks Margaret to teach her how to curse, and Margaret advises her to experience as much bitterness and pain as Margaret herself has. Margaret then departs for France. When Richard enters with his noblemen and the commanders of his army, the duchess begins to curse him, condemning him for the bloody murder of his extended family and telling him that she regrets having given birth to him. The enraged Richard orders his men to strike up loud music to try to drown out the women’s curses, but it does not work, and the duchess curses him to die bloodily.
Although shaken by this verbal assault, Richard recovers and, speaking with Elizabeth in private, broaches his proposal to her: he wants to marry her daughter, the young Elizabeth. The former queen is horrified, and sarcastically suggests to Richard that he simply send her daughter the bloody hearts of her two little brothers as a gift, to win her love. Richard, using all his gifts of persuasion and insistence, pursues Elizabeth, insisting that this way he can make amends to what remains of her family for all he has done before. He argues that the marriage is also the only way the kingdom can avoid civil war. Elizabeth seems to be swayed by his words at last and tells him she will speak with her daughter about it. As soon as Elizabeth leaves the stage, Richard scornfully calls her a foolish and weak-willed woman.
Richard’s soldiers and army commanders start to bring him reports about Richmond’s invasion, and as bad news piles up, Richard begins to panic for the first time. Richmond is reported to be approaching England with a fleet of ships; Richard’s allies are half-hearted and unwilling to fight the invader. All over Britain, noblemen have taken up arms against Richard. The only good news that Richard hears is that his forces have dispersed Buckingham’s army, and that Buckingham has been captured. Richard then learns that Richmond has landed with a mighty force, and he decides it is time to fight. He leads out his army to meet Richmond in battle.
Elsewhere, Stanley, earl of Derby, meets a lord from Richmond’s forces for a secret conversation. The suspicious Richard has insisted that Stanley give his son, young George Stanley, to him as a hostage, to prevent Stanley’s deserting Richard’s side. Stanley explains that this situation is all that prevents him from joining Richmond. But he sends his regards to the rebel leader, as well as the message that the former Queen Elizabeth has agreed that Richmond should marry her daughter, young Elizabeth. The other nobleman gives Stanley information about the whereabouts of Richmond (who is in Wales) and about the vast number of English noblemen who have flocked to his side. All are marching toward London, to engage Richard in battle.
Act IV, scene iv presents the fulfillment of predictions made in Act I, scene iii. The main female characters of the play—Elizabeth, the duchess, and Margaret—are together again. This time, though, they are all in the same situation. All of the women have suffered loss, defeat, and the death of their children and husbands. The gleeful Margaret seems to feel that a kind of cosmic justice has been attained. To her, the death of Elizabeth’s children seems a fair return for the murder of her own husband, Henry, and son, Edward. She tells the duchess, “Bear with me. I am hungry for revenge, / And now I cloy me with beholding it” (IV.iv.61–62). Margaret sees just retribution in the fact that nearly everyone who has died since her husband and son was either a participant or a bystander during the murders of her husband and son. We cannot help but see the irony in this vision of justice, as we see the recurrence of a few common names within the royal family. Thus, for example, the dead Edwards of the York family become clearly symmetrical with Margaret’s dead Edward, from the Lancaster family.
The idea of divine justice comes to the forefront in this scene, as Margaret’s curses have come true. Elizabeth, whom Margaret views as a usurper and an accomplice to murder, is now just as miserable as Margaret earlier hoped she would be (“Die, neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen” [I.iii.206]). In Act IV, scene iv, Margaret announces the fulfillment of her curse, and her accuracy as a prophetess: “Thus hath the course of justice whirled about / And left thee [Elizabeth] but a very prey to time” (IV.iv.105–106). Justice has caused Margaret’s curses to come true, and now Margaret can metaphorically lift off her “burdened yoke” of sorrows, slipping it onto Elizabeth’s neck even as Margaret herself departs (IV.iv.111–113).
Convinced of Margaret’s power, Elizabeth and the duchess ask her to teach them how to curse, and the duchess applies the lesson only a moment later, as Richard enters with his accomplices and noblemen. Richard’s sound cursing-out by his mother can be seen as marking another step in the downward slide of his fortunes—as well as his control over his situation. Richard is as calm as possible when Margaret curses him in Act I, scene iii, but under the assault of his mother he is clearly embarrassed, awkward, and enraged. When his mother demands of him, “Thou toad, thou toad, where is thy brother Clarence?” Richard desperately calls for his musicians to sound a noise of drums and trumpets (IV.iv.145). Unable to answer the accusations, he can only drown out their words.
But, of course, Richard’s ploy is not successful for long. The duchess has no patience left for her son, nor any love. She seems to agree with Margaret’s statement that “[f]rom forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept / A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death” (IV.iv.47–48). The duchess tells Richard grimly that he has her “most heavy curse,” which, she prays, will wear him down on his day of battle, while the souls of the children he has murdered will give his enemies strength (IV.iv.188).
Richard recovers from this rather devastating attack, but the events that follow foreshadow his downfall. In the very long discussion with Elizabeth that follows, Richard’s rhetoric is impressive. He uses tactics from gentleness to rage to urge Elizabeth to let him marry her daughter. It seems as if Richard may be successful, as Elizabeth departs with a promise to let Richard know her daughter’s decision. Just as when he convinces the grieving Anne to marry him in Act I, scene ii, Richard seems here to have won over a hostile woman. But when we learn in Act IV, scene v that Elizabeth has, in fact, promised her daughter to Richard’s enemy, the earl of Richmond, we realize that Richard has failed to win over Elizabeth; instead, Elizabeth has deceived Richard. As we watch Richard turn frantically from one lord to another at the end of Act IV, scene iv, forgetting what he has just said and changing his mind, we sense that the situation is rapidly slipping out of his control.
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: