Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell.
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Queen Elizabeth, the wife of the sickly King Edward IV, enters with members of her family: her brother, Lord Rivers, and her two sons from a prior marriage, Lord Gray and the Marquis of Dorset. The queen tells her relatives that she is fearful because her husband is growing sicker and seems unlikely to survive his illness. The king and queen have two sons, but the princes are still too young to rule. If King Edward dies, control of the throne will go to Richard until the oldest son comes of age. Elizabeth tells her kinsmen that Richard is hostile to her and that she fears for her safety and that of her sons.
Two noblemen enter: the duke of Buckingham, and Stanley, the earl of Derby. They report that King Edward is doing better, and that he wants to make peace between Richard and Elizabeth’s kinsmen, between whom there is long-standing hostility.
Suddenly, Richard enters, complaining loudly. He announces that, because he is such an honest and plainspoken man, the people at court slander him, pretending that he has said hostile things about Elizabeth’s kinsmen. He then accuses Elizabeth and her kinsmen of hoping that Edward will die soon. Elizabeth, forced to go on the defensive, tells Richard that Edward simply wants to make peace among all of them. But Richard accuses Elizabeth of having engineered the imprisonment of Clarence—an imprisonment that is actually Richard’s doing (as we have learned in Act I, scene i).
Elizabeth and Richard’s argument escalates. As they argue, old Queen Margaret enters unobserved. As she watches Richard and Elizabeth fight, Margaret comments bitterly to herself about how temporary power is, and she condemns Richard for his part in the death of her husband, Henry VI, and his son, Prince Edward. Finally, Margaret steps forward out of hiding. She accuses Elizabeth and Richard of having caused her downfall and tells them that they do not know what sorrow is. She adds that Elizabeth enjoys the privileges of being queen, which should be Margaret’s, and that Richard is to blame for the murders of her family. The others, startled to see her because they thought that she had been banished from the kingdom, join together against her.
Margaret, bitter about her overthrow and the killing of her family by the people who stand before her, begins to curse all those present. She prays that Elizabeth will outlive her glory, and see her husband and children die before her, just as Margaret has. She curses Hastings, Rivers, and Dorset to die early deaths, since they were all bystanders when the York family murdered her son, Edward. Finally, she curses Richard, praying to the heavens that Richard will mistake his friends for enemies, and vice versa, and that he will never sleep peacefully.
Margaret leaves, and Catesby, a nobleman, enters to say that King Edward wants to see his family and speak with them. The others leave, but Richard stays behind. He announces that he has set all his plans in motion and is deceiving everybody into thinking that he is really a good person. Two new men now enter, murderers whom Richard has hired to kill his brother, Clarence, currently imprisoned in the Tower of London.