A flourish of trumpets sounds, and the sickly King Edward IV enters with his family, his wife’s family, and his advisors. Edward says that there has been too much quarreling among these factions, and he insists that everybody apologize and make peace with one another. He also announces that he has sent a letter of forgiveness to the Tower of London, where his brother Clarence has been imprisoned and sentenced to death. (At this point, King Edward does not know that his other brother, Richard, has intercepted his message and has caused Clarence to be killed.)
With a great deal of urging, King Edward finally gets the noblemen Buckingham and Hastings to make peace with Queen Elizabeth and her kinsmen (Rivers, Dorset, and Gray), promising to forget their long-standing conflicts. Richard himself then enters, and, at the king’s request, gives a very noble-sounding speech in which he apologizes for any previous hostility toward Buckingham, Hastings, or the queen’s family, and presents himself as a friend to all. Peace seems to have been restored.
But when Elizabeth asks King Edward to forgive Clarence and summon him to the palace, Richard reacts as if Elizabeth is deliberately making fun of him. He springs the news of Clarence’s death on the group. With calculated manipulation, he reminds Edward of his guilt in condemning Clarence to death and says that the cancellation of the sentence was delivered too slowly. The grieving, guilty Edward begins to blame himself for his brother’s death.
Stanley, the earl of Derby, suddenly rushes in to beg the king to spare the life of a servant condemned to death. Edward angrily blasts his noblemen for not having interceded to save Clarence when the king himself let his anger run away with him. The already sick Edward suddenly seems to grow sicker, suffering from grief and guilt. He has to be helped to his bed.
Later, in another room in the palace, the duchess of York, the mother of Richard, Clarence, and King Edward, is comforting Clarence’s two young children. The boy and girl ask their grandmother if their father is dead, and she, lying to try to spare them, tells them he is not. But the duchess knows how evil her son Richard really is and that he killed his brother, and she grieves that she ever gave birth to him.
Suddenly, Elizabeth enters, lamenting out loud with her hair disheveled, a common sign of grief on the Elizabethan stage. Elizabeth tells the duchess that King Edward has died, and the duchess joins her in mourning. All four make ritualistic lamentations. The two children cry for their dead father, Clarence; Elizabeth cries for her dead husband, Edward; and the duchess cries for both of her dead sons—Edward and Clarence.
Elizabeth’s kinsmen, Rivers and Dorset, remind Elizabeth that she must think of her eldest son, the prince. Young Prince Edward, named after his father, is the heir to the throne; he must be called to London and crowned. Suddenly, however, Richard enters, along with Buckingham, Hastings, Stanley, and Ratcliffe. Buckingham and Richard smoothly agree that the prince should be brought to London, but say that only a few people should go to get him, deciding the two of them will go together. All the others depart to discuss who should go to fetch the prince, but Richard and Buckingham linger behind. It is clear that Buckingham has become Richard’s ally and accomplice. He suggests to Richard that the two of them ought to go together to fetch the prince and says he has further ideas about how to separate the prince from Elizabeth and her family. Richard happily addresses Buckingham as his friend, right-hand man, and soul mate, and he quickly agrees with Buckingham’s plans.
Richard’s calculated hypocrisy is demonstrated once again in Act II, scene i. He pretends to be a good person unjustly accused of harboring ill will, only to deliver the news of Clarence’s death with a sense of timing calculated to send his brother Edward over the edge with grief, surprise, and guilt. Here again we see Richard’s extraordinary unscrupulousness, his skill at lying, and his ability to manipulate other people’s emotions. Richard’s shameless hypocrisy allows him to say, perfectly convincingly, “‘Tis death to me to be at enmity. / I hate it, and desire all good men’s love. . . . / I thank my God for my humility” (II.i.61–73). It may seem strange that the noblemen believe him, but we have already seen how convincing Richard can be. Just as Clarence proves incapable of believing that Richard engineered his death even as the murderers sent by Richard prepare to kill him, so does Clarence’s son, responding to his grandmother’s suggestion that Richard ordered Clarence’s death by saying, “I cannot think it” (II.ii.33).
Edward’s long, angry speech at the end of Act II, scene i is his only major speech, and his last before he dies. It is unusually touching and powerful, and it appeals to the importance of loyalty and love over the maneuvering and flattery that prevails in the court. Edward asks why no member of his court reminded him in his rage of how much he owed his brother Clarence; he then asks why no one advised him to refrain from issuing a death sentence. He puts these questions succinctly: “Who spoke of brotherhood? Who spoke of love?” (II.i.109). Instead, the death sentence was issued, and, according to the story Richard tells, the letter of reversal that Edward sent out did not arrive at the tower in time. Of course, Richard deliberately intercepted the reversal and sent the death sentence, along with his murderers, to the tower. Richard is too evil to be affected by Edward’s eloquent words.
Unfortunately for the king, the effort of his speech and his guilt over Clarence’s death seem to wear him out. The results of this stress on the already sick king are apparent in Act II, scene ii, in which we discover that Edward has suddenly died. The mourning scene of Elizabeth, the duchess, and Clarence’s children is highly ritualistic. The formality of their language and the symmetrical structuring of their mournful cries shift the focus of the play away from psychological realism toward a more stylized and theatrical depiction of grief. The manipulations and maneuvering that go on at the end of the scene demonstrate that the death of Edward is to have more far-reaching consequences than may immediately be apparent. The imminent shift of power should, in theory, give the reins of power to young Prince Edward, the son of Elizabeth and the late King Edward and the next in line for the throne.
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: