With a flourish of trumpets, the young Prince Edward, the heir to the throne, rides into London with his retinue. His uncle Richard is there to greet him, accompanied by several noblemen, including Richard’s close allies, the lords Buckingham and Catesby. Richard greets the prince, but the intelligent boy is suspicious of his uncle and parries Richard’s flattering language with wordplay as clever as Richard’s own. The prince wants to know what has happened to his relatives on his mother’s side—Rivers, Gray, and Dorset. Although he doesn’t tell Prince Edward, Richard has had Rivers and Gray arrested and imprisoned in the castle of Pomfret; Dorset is presumably in hiding.
Lord Hastings enters, and announces that Elizabeth and her younger son, the young duke of York, have taken sanctuary (taking sanctuary means retreating to within a church or other holy ground, where, by ancient English tradition, it was blasphemous for enemies to pursue a fugitive). Buckingham is very irritated to hear this news. He asks the Lord Cardinal to go to Elizabeth and retrieve young York from her, and he orders Hastings to accompany the cardinal and forcibly remove the young prince if Elizabeth refuses to yield him. The cardinal understandably refuses, but Buckingham gives him a long argument in which he says that a young child is not self-determining enough to claim sanctuary. The cardinal gives in, and he and Lord Hastings go to fetch young York. By the time they return, Richard has told Prince Edward that he and his brother will stay in the Tower of London until the young prince’s coronation. Both princes are unwilling to be shut up in the tower.
After he sends the princes off to the tower, Richard holds a private conference with Buckingham and Catesby to discuss how his master plan is unfolding. Buckingham asks Catesby whether he thinks that Lord Hastings and Lord Stanley can be counted on to help Richard seize the throne. Although Lord Hastings is an enemy of Elizabeth and her family, Catesby believes that Hastings’s loyalty to the dead King Edward IV is so great that he would never support Richard’s goal of taking the crown from the rightful prince. Moreover, Catesby believes, Lord Stanley will follow whatever Lord Hastings does.
Buckingham suggests that Richard hold a council in the palace on the following day, supposedly to discuss when to crown young Prince Edward as king. In reality, however, they will scheme about how Richard can become king himself, and they must determine which of the noblemen they can count on as allies. There will be “divided counsels” the following day. First, a secret council will be held to strategize. Next, there will be a public one, which everyone will attend, at which those plans will be carried out (III.i.176).
Buckingham and Richard order Catesby to go to Lord Hastings, in order to sound him out and find out how willing he might be to go along with Richard’s plans. Richard adds that Catesby should tell Hastings that Queen Elizabeth’s kinsmen, who are currently imprisoned in Pomfret Castle, will be executed the next day. This news, he believes, should please Hastings, who has long been their enemy. After Catesby leaves, Buckingham asks Richard what they will do if Hastings remains loyal to Prince Edward. Richard cheerfully answers that they will chop off Hastings’s head. Buoyed by his plans, Richard promises Buckingham that, after he becomes king, he will give Buckingham the title of earl of Hereford.
This scene provides further evidence of Richard’s skill at manipulation and deception, but it also makes it clear that Richard’s manipu-lations are transparent to the right kind of person. When Richard speaks to the intelligent young prince, the boy is clearly not fooled. When Prince Edward says, “I want more uncles here to welcome me,” he reveals that he suspects Richard of having acted against his other uncles—which is in fact the case (III.i.6). The prince may be referring to Clarence, his actual uncle, whom Richard has caused to be murdered. Still, since kinship titles are rather vague in Shakespeare, he probably refers more directly to Rivers, Gray, and Dorset, although two of them are actually his mother’s adult sons.
Richard’s boundless hypocrisy promptly comes to the surface. He assures the boy that his mother’s kinsmen were “dangerous,” since “[y]our grace attended to their sugared words, / But looked not on the poison of their hearts” (III.i.13–14). When he adds, “God keep you from them, and from such false friends,” the irony is vast. Richard himself, of course, has poison in his heart, and is a false friend to the young princes (III.i.15). That the boy is aware of this is suggested in his suspicious reply: “God keep me from false friends; but they were none” (III.i.16). Prince Edward implies that he knows who his false friends really are, and that he is speaking to one of them—Richard.
Buckingham’s urging of the cardinal to “pluck” the younger prince from the safety of his sanctuary is obviously unconvincing on either moral or theological grounds (III.i.36). His argument is based on the idea that a child who is too young to understand the technicalities of sanctuary must therefore be thought of as too young to claim he deserves it. Buckingham is clearly misinterpreting the very aim of sanctuary, which is to defend the helpless, but the cardinal is willing to let himself be persuaded by Buckingham, who is backed by Richard’s threatening power. The cardinal, alas, does not provide a very admirable example of a clergyman willing to stand up for the right. “Not for all this land / Would I be guilty of so deep a sin” (III.i.42–43), he says at first, but it takes only thirteen lines of argument by Buckingham to “o’er-rule [his] mind” (III.i.57).
The young princes seem to have inherited a family intelligence and quickness with words. The younger prince, the young duke of York, jabs at Richard deliberately when he says he will not be able to sleep well in the tower for fear of his “uncle Clarence’s angry ghost” (III.i.144). His older brother responds, “I fear no uncles dead,” and to Richard’s pointed response—“Nor none that live, I hope”—the boy answers, “I hope I need not fear” (III.i.146–147).
Richard demonstrates his political acumen once more later in the scene, when he accepts Buckingham’s suggestion of the “divided counsels” for the following day (III.i.176). He sends Catesby off with what sound like reasonable instructions to find out surreptitiously whether Hastings is likely to be swayed to his side. However, after Catesby leaves, when Buckingham asks Richard what the contingency plan is, Richard replies simply, “Chop off his head” (III.i.190). Yet Richard wisely makes a generous offer to Buckingham a moment later, promising him an earldom when Richard obtains 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: