Three ordinary citizens on a street in London discuss the state of national affairs. They share the news of King Edward’s death, and, although one of them is optimistic about the future, saying that Edward’s son will rule, the others are very worried. These citizens insist that, of the king’s sons, the oldest, young Prince Edward, is still too young to reign. They state that the two sides of his family—the kinsmen of Queen Elizabeth on one side (Rivers, Dorset, and Gray) and his uncle Richard on the other—are locked in a jealous power struggle. Moreover, they see that Richard himself is dangerous, cunning, and thirsty for power, and they discuss his villainous nature. The citizens complain that it would be better for the prince to have no uncles than to have uncles struggling over control of him and the country. They dread what the future will bring.
Back in the palace, the cardinal, an ally of Elizabeth’s family, tells Elizabeth, the duchess of York, and Elizabeth’s youngest son that young Prince Edward has nearly reached London and should arrive within two days. The prince’s mother, grandmother, and younger brother say that they are looking forward to seeing him.
Suddenly, the marquis of Dorset arrives with terrible news. He says that Elizabeth’s kinsmen, Rivers and Gray, have been arrested along with an ally of theirs named Sir Thomas Vaughan. They have been sent to Pomfret, a castle where prisoners are held and often killed. The order to arrest them came, not surprisingly, from Richard and his ally, Buckingham. Elizabeth and the duchess realize that this news probably means the beginning of the end for their family. They wail for their loss—and for what is to come. Knowing that Richard means her ill, Elizabeth decides to take her youngest son and flee to sanctuary—to a place where, she hopes, Richard cannot come after them. The cardinal promises his support and hands over to Elizabeth the Great Seal of England, a highly symbolic artifact.
Act II, scene iii is what critics sometimes call a window scene, because it briefly turns away from the actions of the noble characters to give us a glimpse into the minds of the common people. Because almost the entire play focuses so intensely on a close-knit group of noblemen, this technique of showing us the thoughts of people in the street offers a new point of view and gives the play a greater sense of perspective. We learn from this episode that the commoners are deeply concerned about the results of the power struggle that they know is going on in the highest levels of government. This concern heightens the tension of the play and also reminds us that the effects of these court struggles are not confined to the royal palace. Rather, they have profound consequences for everyone who lives in England. Historically, this window scene also would have made the play resonate deeply with a large portion of Shakespeare’s audience, many of whom were commoners who, like those in Act II, scene iii, worried about how the behavior of powerful men and women such as the nobles would affect their lives.
In Act II, scene iv, the younger prince’s jokes and puns at his uncle’s expense show us that, unlike Clarence’s young son, this boy sees through Richard’s schemes. We also see that he is precociously clever, fully justifying his mother’s reference to him as a “parlous,” or dangerous, boy, and warning that he is “too shrewd” for his own good (II.iv.35). As we see later in the play, Richard does not like the people around him to be too shrewd, for when people can see through his lies they become a threat to his schemes.
Elizabeth’s response to the news of her kinsmen’s imprisonment might seem an overreaction to somebody unfamiliar with the situation, but given the context, her cry of fear, “Ay me! I see the ruin of my house,” is perfectly justified (II.iv.48). She knows that an imprisonment engineered by Richard is likely to lead to death, as it has already done for Clarence. But, beyond her fear for Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan, Elizabeth can also see the larger meaning of this action. With Edward out of the way, Richard has begun to use his power fearlessly and without concern for reprisal. Elizabeth is now frightened for her own safety, as well as for that of her two young sons. The heir to the throne is in a particularly precarious position, since Richard has good reason to want him dead. Elizabeth’s decision to take her youngest child and head for sanctuary is the only rational response. The sole question that remains is whether even this maneuver can protect her and her family from Richard’s unleashed malice.
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: