Richard questions Buckingham about his loyalty and his capabilities. Buckingham answers that he is able to lie, cheat, and kill, and is willing to use any of those skills to help Richard. Now that Lord Hastings and Elizabeth’s family have been killed, and the court is under Richard’s control, Richard and Buckingham know that they need to start manipulating the common people of England in order to ensure the crowning of Richard as king. The first thing to do is to manipulate the lord mayor of London into believing that Hastings was a traitor. Buckingham assures Richard that he is a good enough actor to pull off this feat.
The lord mayor enters the castle, followed by Catesby with Hastings’s head. Buckingham tells the mayor about Hastings’s alleged betrayal. He says that Hastings turned out to be a traitor, plotting to kill him and Richard. Richard tells the lord mayor that Hastings confessed everything before his death. The mayor, who is either very gullible or eager to go along with the claims of people in power, says he believes Richard and Buckingham just as if he has heard Hastings’s confession himself. He says that he will go and tell all the people of London what a dangerous traitor Hastings was, and that Richard was right to have him killed.
After the mayor departs, Richard, very pleased with their progress, tells Buckingham the next part of the plan: Buckingham is to make speeches to the people of London in which he will try to stir up bad feeling against the dead King Edward IV and the young princes, implying that the princes aren’t even Edward’s legitimate heirs. The goal is to make the people turn against the princes and demand that Richard be crowned king instead. While Buckingham is on this errand, Richard sends his other henchmen to gather some more allies, and he himself makes arrangements to get rid of Clarence’s children and to ensure that no one can visit the young princes imprisoned in the tower.
On the streets of London, a scrivener (someone who writes and copies letters and documents for a living) says that he has just finished his last assignment, which was to copy the paper that will be read aloud to all of London later that day. The paper says that Hastings was a traitor. The scrivener condemns the hypocrisy of the world, for he, like everybody else, can see that the claim in the paper is a lie invented by Richard to justify killing his political rival.
Buckingham returns to Richard, and reports that his speech to the Londoners was received very badly. Buckingham says that he tried to stir up bad feelings about King Edward and his sons and then proposed that Richard should be king instead. But, instead of cheering, the crowd just stared at him in terrified silence. Only a few of Buckingham’s own men, at the back of the crowd, threw their hats into the air and cheered for the idea of King Richard, and Buckingham had to end his speech quickly and leave.
Richard is furious to hear that the people do not like him, but he and Buckingham decide to go ahead with their plan anyway. Their strategy is to press the suggestible lord mayor to ask Richard to be king, pretending that this request would represent the will of the people. Richard, instead of seeming to desire the crown, will pretend to have to be begged before he will finally accept it. They successfully carry out this trick, with various clever embellishments. Richard shuts himself up with two priests before Buckingham leads the lord mayor to him to give the impression that he spends a great deal of time in prayer. In a long and elaborately structured speech, Buckingham makes a show of pleading with Richard to become king, and Richard finally accepts. Buckingham suggests that Richard be crowned the very next day, to which Richard consents.
The king-making strategy that Richard and Buckingham carefully lay out and then implement is a brilliant example of political maneuvering and manipulation. But the plot is also likely to drive us wild with frustration, as we observe the transparent hypocrisy with which unscrupulous politicians can sway the course of nations. On the other hand, the scenes are also clever and convincing deconstructions of political hypocrisy on a massive scale, in which audiences are likely to recognize reflections of their own time and nation.
The lord mayor of London, with his easy suggestibility, provides an example of a citizen who believes everything he is told by politicians and is all too happy to overlook the holes in a story. Richard and Buckingham are not called to account for the execution of the well-liked Lord Hastings. Instead, they simply use Richard’s strategy of taking the offensive with a bold lie. By telling the lord mayor that Hastings was discovered to be “a subtle traitor” who was plotting murder and pretending to be shocked and grieved at the discovery, Richard and Buckingham prevent the lord mayor from having a chance to consider that perhaps, instead, they themselves plotted against Hastings (III.v.35).
The lord mayor is also happy to accept their suspicious story that the “loving haste” of their men accidentally has caused Hastings to be executed before the mayor could hear his confession—a confession that the innocent Hastings, of course, would never make (III.v.52). By anticipating any potential disagreement and bringing up opposing arguments before anyone else can, Richard forestalls antagonism. When he expresses concern that the citizens “haply may / Misconster us in him [Hastings], and wail his death,” the Lord Mayor assures him that “my good lord, your graces’ words shall serve / As well as I had seen and heard him speak,” and that he will tell all the citizens so (III.v.58–64). For the king-making spectacle of Act III, scene vii, Buckingham and Richard use this tactic again, as well as bringing in several other clever ways of manipulating the people’s opinions. Richard himself brings up arguments as to why he should not be king, but Buckingham effectively counters these arguments, making it seem as if Richard is being unwillingly pressured into accepting the crown.
Richard’s refusal to accept the crown at first makes him seem even more hesitant—and, according to the principles of reverse psychology, makes it seem more desirable that he should be prevailed upon to accept. This tactic is reminiscent of one that the Roman general Julius Caesar employed. According to legend (and as Shakespeare recounts in the play Julius Caesar), Caesar was offered the crown three times. He refused it twice, but accepted it the third time, to the joy of the people, who had of course been whipped into a frenzy of excitement by the tantalizing delay. Buckingham uses a rather crude analogy for the tactic, which nonetheless conveys the visceral sense of tantalizing excitement that lies at the bottom of the strategy. His advice to Richard is that he “Play the maid’s part: still answer ‘nay’—and take it,” meaning that Richard should keep saying no, but accept anyway (III.vii.51).
The brief interlude with the scrivener, in Act III, scene vi, is another so-called window scene. Like Queen Elizabeth’s kinsmen just before their deaths, the scrivener reflects on how transitory earthly happiness is: “within these five hours, Hastings lived, / Untainted, unexamined, free, at liberty” (III.vi.8–9). He also comments on the obvious falsehood of the manufactured accusation against Hastings, and thus shows us, as the citizens do in Act II, scene iii, that the common people can see through Richard’s act well enough to be disgusted and frightened by him. “Who is so gross / That cannot see this palpable device?” asks the scrivener, showing that he clearly can perceive Richard’s hypocrisy. “Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?” he ponders further, meaning that nobody is brave enough to say out loud that Richard is lying (III.vi.10–12). Like the citizens of Act II, scene iii, he perceives the direction that things are taking and is afraid of what will happen to England under Richard’s reign.
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: