Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams, To set my brother Clarence and the king In deadly hate, the one against the other; And if King Edward be as true and just As I am subtle, false, and treacherous, This day should Clarence closely be mewed up[.] (Act I, Scene i, lines 32–38)
As the play opens, Richard reveals the workings of his plot to seize power from King Edward. His plans are based on creating fictitious threats and outright lies, and his first act involves making the king believe that their brother, Clarence, wants to kill him. King Edward readily believes Richard because familial ties among the Plantaganets are weak, tenuous, and linked with suspicion. Richard will play upon this distrust throughout, using lies, treachery, and deceptive language to pit allies against one another. In this way Richard rids himself of any person who threatens his rise.
Happy indeed, as we have spent the day. Gloucester, we have done deeds of charity, Made peace of enmity, fair love of hate, Between these swelling, wrong-incensèd peers. (Act II, Scene i, lines 52–55)
From his death bed, King Edward forces Rivers and Hastings to drop their enmity and swear to friendship, along with the other bickering nobles. He uses his power as king to bring about unlikely alliances in order to bring peace to the country he will soon leave. Edward knows that having the nobles and those connected to the court work as a team will only benefit the country. In this way, Edward demonstrates a truly noble way of exerting power, which stands in direct contrast to Richard’s guile, treachery, and brutality.
Ay me! I see the ruin of my house. The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind. Insulting tyranny begins to jut Upon the innocent and aweless throne. Welcome, destruction, blood, and massacre. I see, as in a map, the end of all. (Act II, Scene iv, lines 51–56)
Queen Elizabeth speaks here to Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, after learning that her friends and brother have been taken to prison. Queen Elizabeth correctly understands that Richard’s bold action marks the beginning of her family’s fall from power. While King Edward still retains the throne, he remains ill and unable to defend his position. The king’s impending disempowerment, along with the removal of the queen’s champions, means that Elizabeth and her children will no longer be safe in the court. This text highlights the tenuous nature of power that characterized the time period in England.
I must be married to my brother’s daughter, Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass. Murder her brothers, and then marry her— Uncertain way of gain. But I am in So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye. (Act IV, Scene ii, lines 62–67)
Once Richard gains power, he feels determined to keep that power at all costs and here determines to kill the princes and marry their sister. In this way, Richard expects to eradicate any threat from the family to his hold on the throne. He rationalizes his heinous actions because he has already committed murder so another sin won’t matter. Richard believes his plot for power will work when the history of his family says otherwise—the Yorks only obtained the throne by murdering the sitting king. By relying on treachery and murder to come to power, Richard builds his kingdom on slippery ground.