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Act IV, scenes i–iii

Summary Act IV, scenes i–iii
Read a translation of Act IV, scene iii →


Now that Richard has attained the throne, it is more difficult to sympathize with him than it was before. He begins the play as a brilliant, driven underdog—a brutal and possibly psychopathic one, albeit, but an underdog nonetheless. After attaining his goal, however, Richard directs his actions toward securing and maintaining his power. We no longer feel any sense of suspense about when and how he will seize the throne. He has reached the pinnacle of success and must scramble to keep his prize in the face of all his opponents. Instead of using his skills at deception and manipulation to achieve clearly defined, difficult-to-achieve goals, he has started killing everyone in sight. As he notes, his goal is to “stop all hopes whose growth may damage me”—which amounts to killing everybody who could possibly be a threat (IV.ii.61). This new campaign of blood makes it much harder to find Richard attractive—even in the morbid, slightly perverse way in which we may be attracted to him earlier in the play.

This shift in Richard’s personality—from self-assured confidence into paranoia—causes him to alienate Buckingham. Although Buckingham is the loyal right-hand man who has been with Richard since nearly the beginning of Richard’s rise to power, Richard’s wish to kill the children in the tower is something that repels even Buckingham. Whether Buckingham would have agreed to help Richard in the end, we cannot know, since Richard privately decides to drop Buckingham the moment he first hears him hesitate. This crack in the unity of his men is a turning point in the play—the start of a downward slide for Richard’s fortunes. It seems that Margaret’s earlier curses upon Richard (“[t]hy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv’st, / And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends” [I.iii.220–221]) are starting to come true.

Richard is determined not to let anything sway him from the course he is set on. As he ponders the idea of trying to coerce Elizabeth’s young daughter into a marriage that will help secure his -tenuous hold on the crown, he says to himself, “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” (IV.ii.64–67). These words contrast intriguingly with the Tyrrell’s speech in Act IV, scene iii, which demonstrates that even a hardened murderer can have pangs of conscience. Richard’s understanding of himself, however, leaves no room for such pangs—he sees himself as an embodiment of absolute evil and amorality.

Richard’s complicated maneuverings accelerate in pace during the first part of Act IV, as he works to get rid of anyone with a legitimate claim to the throne. He has engineered the deaths of young Prince Edward and the young duke of York, the princes in the tower, since they are the sons of the late King Edward IV and thus the true heirs to the throne. He has already had his brother Clarence killed. Now, he has disposed of Clarence’s two children by locking up the dim-witted boy and marrying off the girl to a lower-class man, to keep her from marrying a nobleman who might be able to use his wife’s lineage to justify an attempt to seize the throne. Similar reasoning drives Richard to want to marry Elizabeth’s daughter, young Elizabeth. Since she is the daughter of Edward IV, the last king, Richard intends to use her lineage to cement his own claims to power. (For similar reasons, it should be noted, young Elizabeth might also be a desirable bride for Richmond, the challenger from overseas and a relative of Henry VI who claims the throne by virtue of that relationship.) Richard muses that “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass” (IV.ii.62–63). Perverse as it may seem for him to marry his niece, prevailing Renaissance ideas about lineage and royalty validate such an action.