Richard’s speeches in this scene display his calculated hypocrisy. We know that Richard has manipulated matters behind the scenes to have Clarence imprisoned and that he plans to ruin everybody else in the court and elevate himself to power. But when Richard enters this scene, he complains that other people have falsely accused him of evil actions. By boldly going on the offensive, Richard puts other people on the defensive and forestalls anybody accusing him, thus effectively managing to cover up his villainy. It takes a great deal of gall for the manipulative, rumor-spreading Richard to say of himself, “[c]annot a plain man live and think no harm, / But thus his simple truth must be abused / With silken, sly, insinuating jacks?” (I.iii.51–53). With these words, Richard accuses other people of conspiring to slander him. As Richard gleefully says at the end of the scene, he is so brilliantly hypocritical that he can “clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends, stol’n forth of Holy Writ, / And seem a saint when most I play the devil” (I.iii.334–336). Here, as often, Richard seems reminiscent of the devil himself, who is renowned in literature for his ability to quote scripture to his own purposes.
Nonetheless, not everyone is deceived. Elizabeth seems to be well aware of Richard’s hostility toward her, and their conversation, before Margaret interrupts them, is loaded with double meanings and subtle jabs. Furthermore, in her conversation with her kinsmen before Richard’s entrance, Elizabeth seems to foresee the harm that Richard intends toward her family. She is savvy enough to be afraid of what Richard may do if he is named Lord Protector after King Edward’s death, and, refusing to be cheered up by her kinsmen, says sadly, “I fear our happiness is at the height” (I.iii.41).
Margaret’s extravagant and detailed curses, which she hurls at nearly every member of the royal family, create an ominous sense of foreboding. Since Shakespeare’s world is Christian, we might expect curses, prophecies, and other forms of magic to be discounted as superstition in his plays. But curses and prophecies carry great weight in many of Shakespeare’s works. Margaret hates the Yorks and the Woodevilles (the name of Elizabeth’s family) because she feels they have displaced her and blames them for killing her own family. “Thy honor, state, and seat is due to me,” she says of Queen Elizabeth, and she curses the royal family to suffer a fate parallel to hers (I.iii.112). Because her own son, Edward, was killed, she prays that Elizabeth’s young son, also named Edward, will die. In addition, because Margaret’s own husband Henry was murdered, Margaret prays that Elizabeth will also outlive her husband to “[d]ie, neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen” (I.iii.196–206).
For Richard himself, Margaret saves the worst. After heaping terrible insults upon him, she curses him never to have rest. She warns both Elizabeth and Buckingham not to trust Richard. She says to Elizabeth, “Poor painted queen . . . / Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider / Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about? / Fool, fool, thou whet’st a knife to kill thyself” (I.iii.239–242). The metaphors and similes with which Margaret describes Richard—”thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog” (I.iii.225), for instance, or “this poisonous bunch-back’d toad” (I.iii.244)—refer to both Richard’s physical deformities and his corrupt inner nature.