Richard’s opening speech explains important elements of his character. He says that because he cannot be happy—in part because he feels that he cannot be sexually successful with women—he has decided to ruin these prosperous times and make everybody else miserable: “[T]herefore 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” (I.i.28–31). He goes on to tell us how he has begun to spread rumors that should cause King Edward to suspect Clarence (Richard, and Edward’s brother), and to punish and imprison him—plans whose results become visible when Clarence walks onstage under guard.

But Richard is not really as simple and straightforward as his description of himself implies, however. The true motivations for his evil manipulations remain mysterious. In his speech, he speaks of his bitterness at his deformity; Richard is a hunchback, and has something wrong with one of his arms. But the play’s later action shows that Richard is physically very active, and that he is in fact quite confident in his ability to seduce women. Bitterness at his deformity also fails to explain his overpowering desire to be king or his lust for power. For these reasons, Richard may not seem like an entirely realistic and consistent personality to us. Moreover, for Shakespeare’s audience, Richard would have been strongly reminiscent of the two-dimensional “Vice” character of medieval morality plays, a character who was meant to illustrate man’s evil side rather than to present a psychologically realistic portrait. In fact, Richard explicitly compares himself to Vice (III.i.82). But Richard is much more than this stock figure—Shakespeare consistently creates the impression that there is more to Richard than we can begin to grasp.

Richard’s opening monologue also shows us what a masterful speaker he is. His speech is full of striking metaphors and images, such as his pun on “son” when he describes how King Edward has turned winter to summer (I.i.2). Most important, however, this scene shows us the deceptive way in which Richard interacts with the world. Richard has one persona when he speaks alone, but as soon as somebody else comes on stage, his attitude changes. In fact, he lies and manipulates so convincingly that we certainly would believe the sympathy and love he expresses toward his unhappy brother Clarence if we did not hear his earlier vow to destroy Clarence—a vow which he repeats as soon as Clarence leaves the stage. Richard’s remarkable skill at self-presentation has intrigued generations of actors and audiences alike. The character Richard is himself an actor, playing a role to the other characters on stage.

Finally, this scene hints at the complicated web of schemes and alliances that grows even more complex during the course of the play. In Richard’s scheme against Clarence, we see the first concrete result of his subtle and hypocritical designs. Additionally, in the symmetrical exchange of noblemen going in and out of the Tower of London we see how fleeting favor must have been in the royal court: Clarence falls from royal favor and is locked up, while Hastings regains it and is freed. This unpredictability of fortune and favor was a popular literary theme in Shakespeare’s day.