Two gamekeepers travel through a Scottish forest. They see a man approaching and hide to observe him. It is King Henry, who has escaped to Scotland to flee the wars. They listen as Henry mulls about the news that Margaret and Prince Edward traveled to France to ask for aide, even as Warwick has arrived to ask the French king for the hand of his sister for Edward. He fears the French king will be swayed by Warwick, a subtle orator.
The gamekeepers emerge and ask Henry, if he is a king, then where is his crown. He says it is in his heart. They arrest him, having sworn allegiance to Edward. Henry asks them if they did not swear and break an oath to him when once they swore to be his subjects. They say that they were his subjects only while Henry was king. Henry observes that the common men are fickle, blown like a feather from one allegiance to another. So, he agrees to be arrested, and they lead him away.
In the palace in London, King Edward enters with Richard, George, and Lady Gray. The brothers discuss Lady Gray's fortunes; her husband was killed and his lands seized, and she presents a suit to repossess them. Richard and George chuckle to each other, convinced Edward means to give her lands back in exchange for becoming her lover, and they watch Lady Gray and Edward talk. He says she can have her lands if she loves the king, which she says she does--as a subject. He explains that he meant he wants to sleep with her, and she replies that she will not get her lands back, then. Edward, seeing his efforts fail, decides to ask her to marry him. She says she is not good enough to be queen, and she assumes he teases her. But he insists that she will be his queen.
Edward calls his brothers back and announces his decision. They are astonished but soon distracted by the arrival of a messenger announcing Henry's imprisonment in the Tower. The others go to the Tower, leaving Richard alone.
Richard ponders the turn of events, hoping Edward's new wife will not bear him children. He enumerates the people in line to the throne before him, including Edward, George, Henry, Prince Edward, and any of their children. He dreams of the crown, like one who stands on a cliff and dreams of walking on a far-off land. If the route to the throne is too long, then what are his other possibilities? A world of pleasure, perhaps, with wonderful clothes and women swarming around him. But, he says: "Why, Love foreswore me in my mother's womb.... / She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe / To shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub / To make an envious mountain on my back... / To disproportion me in every part..." (3.2.153-60). He is physically deformed, so no one will love him, he declares.
And since he will have no worldly or sensual pleasure, Richard can see no other enjoyment but to dominate those who have more pleasing appearances than himself. He will set his mind on the crown and create disruption in the world until he possesses the crown. But how? So many lives stand between him and the crown. Like someone lost in a thorny forest, not knowing how to get out and constantly pricked in every direction, Richard torments himself with ideas about how to get the crown. But he will free himself from that torment with blood. He will be devious and misleading: "Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile, / And cry 'Content!' to that which grieves my heart, / And wet my cheeks with artificial fears, / And frame my face to all occasions.... / I can add colours to the chameleon / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel to school. / Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?" (3.2.182-5,191-94).
In this first long soliloquy in this play, Richard's plans become clear. Upset that his brother decides to marry Lady Gray even while Warwick negotiates for a French bride, Richard thinks about his desire for the crown and how far he is from inheriting it. It is too difficult, he first thinks, to negotiate through all these people. But when he considers the courtly life of a noble, he knows it is not for him.
He believes he will never enjoy the pleasures of the world, including the love of women, because of his appearance. Richard was said to be lame, hump backed, with one arm shorter than the other. Since his mother cursed him with such a horrible appearance, he believes he will enjoy no pleasure in the court. His alternative, then, is to set his sights on the crown and to get it through devious means. From now until he gets the throne, Richard will play a role and become an actor in the court of England. He will seem to be charming while he plots the downfall and death of others, he will seem innocent and harmless while he cuts a swathe of destruction through the court.
Richard is a figure fashioned after the Vice figure of medieval religious dramas, a witty and engaging character who embodied the principle of evil. Richard, too, evokes Nicolo Machiavelli, a fifteenth century Italian political philosopher most known in England as an advocate of ruthless political cunning. This draws an association to the figure of the stage Machiavel, a character, like the Vice figure, who embodied the hypocrisy attributed to modern political schemers.
While Richard shares affinities with both these characters, he is not fully either. He seems to represent what happens when the identifying ties of family, like "son" or "brother" are disrupted. And Richard epitomizes the deforming effects of ambition. Hence, Richard's actual physical deformity raises curious questions. Is his outward appearance a marker of his corrupt inner being? Or is his outward appearance a cause (or excuse) for his behavior? These questions come up again and again, as Richard refers to his deformity of body and mind throughout this play and the later play, Richard III.