The idea of divine justice comes to the forefront in this scene, as Margaret’s curses have come true. Elizabeth, whom Margaret views as a usurper and an accomplice to murder, is now just as miserable as Margaret earlier hoped she would be (“Die, neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen” [I.iii.206]). In Act IV, scene iv, Margaret announces the fulfillment of her curse, and her accuracy as a prophetess: “Thus hath the course of justice whirled about / And left thee [Elizabeth] but a very prey to time” (IV.iv.105–106). Justice has caused Margaret’s curses to come true, and now Margaret can metaphorically lift off her “burdened yoke” of sorrows, slipping it onto Elizabeth’s neck even as Margaret herself departs (IV.iv.111–113).
Convinced of Margaret’s power, Elizabeth and the duchess ask her to teach them how to curse, and the duchess applies the lesson only a moment later, as Richard enters with his accomplices and noblemen. Richard’s sound cursing-out by his mother can be seen as marking another step in the downward slide of his fortunes—as well as his control over his situation. Richard is as calm as possible when Margaret curses him in Act I, scene iii, but under the assault of his mother he is clearly embarrassed, awkward, and enraged. When his mother demands of him, “Thou toad, thou toad, where is thy brother Clarence?” Richard desperately calls for his musicians to sound a noise of drums and trumpets (IV.iv.145). Unable to answer the accusations, he can only drown out their words.
But, of course, Richard’s ploy is not successful for long. The duchess has no patience left for her son, nor any love. She seems to agree with Margaret’s statement that “[f]rom forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept / A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death” (IV.iv.47–48). The duchess tells Richard grimly that he has her “most heavy curse,” which, she prays, will wear him down on his day of battle, while the souls of the children he has murdered will give his enemies strength (IV.iv.188).
Richard recovers from this rather devastating attack, but the events that follow foreshadow his downfall. In the very long discussion with Elizabeth that follows, Richard’s rhetoric is impressive. He uses tactics from gentleness to rage to urge Elizabeth to let him marry her daughter. It seems as if Richard may be successful, as Elizabeth departs with a promise to let Richard know her daughter’s decision. Just as when he convinces the grieving Anne to marry him in Act I, scene ii, Richard seems here to have won over a hostile woman. But when we learn in Act IV, scene v that Elizabeth has, in fact, promised her daughter to Richard’s enemy, the earl of Richmond, we realize that Richard has failed to win over Elizabeth; instead, Elizabeth has deceived Richard. As we watch Richard turn frantically from one lord to another at the end of Act IV, scene iv, forgetting what he has just said and changing his mind, we sense that the situation is rapidly slipping out of his control.