. . . since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Richard, the duke of Gloucester, speaks in a monologue addressed to himself and to the audience. After a lengthy civil war, he says, peace at last has returned to the royal house of England. Richard says that his older brother, King Edward IV, now sits on the throne, and everyone around Richard is involved in a great celebration. But Richard himself will not join in the festivities. He complains that he was born deformed and ugly, and bitterly laments his bad luck. He vows to make everybody around him miserable as well. Moreover, Richard says, he is power-hungry, and seeks to gain control over the entire court. He implies that his ultimate goal is to make himself king.
Working toward this goal, Richard has set in motion various schemes against the other noblemen of the court. The first victim is Richard’s own brother, Clarence. Richard and Clarence are the two younger brothers of the current king, Edward IV, who is very ill and highly suggestible at the moment. Richard says that he has planted rumors to make Edward suspicious of Clarence.
Clarence himself now enters, under armed guard. Richard’s rumor-planting has worked, and Clarence is being led to the Tower of London, where English political prisoners were traditionally imprisoned and often executed. Richard, pretending to be very sad to see Clarence made a prisoner, suggests to Clarence that King Edward must have been influenced by his wife, Queen Elizabeth, or by his mistress, Lady Shore, to become suspicious of Clarence. Richard promises that he will try to have Clarence set free. But after Clarence is led offstage toward the Tower, Richard gleefully says to himself that he will make sure Clarence never returns.
Lord Hastings, the lord Chamberlain of the court, now enters. He was earlier imprisoned in the Tower by the suspicious King Edward, but has now been freed. Richard, pretending ignorance, asks Hastings for the latest news, and Hastings tells him that Edward is very sick. After Hastings leaves, Richard gloats over Edward’s illness. Edward’s death would bring Richard one step closer to the throne. Richard wants Clarence to die first, however, so that Richard will be the legal heir to power. Richard’s planned next step is to try to marry a noblewoman named Lady Anne Neville. An alliance with her would help Richard on his way to the throne. Lady Anne recently has been widowed—she was married to the son of the previous king, Henry VI, who recently was deposed and murdered, along with his son, by Richard’s family. Anne is thus in deep mourning. But the sadistic and amoral Richard is amused by the idea of persuading her to marry him under these circumstances.Read a translation of Act I, scene i →
In the play’s well-known opening lines, Richard refers to events that Shakespeare chronicles in his earlier plays Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, and with which he would have expected his viewers to be familiar. The Henry VI plays detail an exhausting civil war for the throne of England, which boiled down to a contest between two families: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. This civil war is known as the Wars of the Roses, because of the white and red roses that symbolized the houses of York and of Lancaster, respectively. Richard’s side, the House of York, eventually wins, and Richard’s oldest brother, Edward, is now King Edward IV.
This knowledge of the recent civil war helps us make sense of the opening lines, spoken by Richard: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York; / And all the clouds that loured upon our homes / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried” (I.i.1–4). Richard’s brother Edward is the “son of York” who has brought “glorious summer” to the kingdom, and Richard’s “winter of our discontent” is the recently ended civil war. The “house” is the House of York, to which Richard and his brothers Edward and Clarence belong, and which now rules the kingdom.