Act 1, scene 1
Richard III begins shortly after Henry VI, part 3, left off. The three Henry VI plays
depicted the struggle between Henry VI (the House of Lancaster) and the Duke of York (the House of York) for the throne of England in England’s Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century. Henry VI has been killed by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and succeeded by Edward IV, who is also of the House of York. Peace has been declared, but Richard now plots to seize the throne for himself, as he explains in his opening soliloquy. To achieve his goal, he must eliminate his rivals. He has managed to convince the king that their brother Clarence is the king’s enemy, and Clarence has been duly arrested.
Clarence enters, guarded. He is being taken to the Tower of London to be imprisoned. Richard feigns ignorance of the situation and asks Clarence what is happening. Clarence explains that he is being imprisoned because his name begins with the letter G (his name is George, Duke of Clarence), and the king has been told that his heirs will be killed by someone whose name begins with G. Richard knows this because he was the one who hatched the plot, but he pretends to know nothing about it. He tells Clarence that it is not the king’s wish that he be imprisoned but that of his wife Elizabeth, the former Lady Grey. Richard says that both Elizabeth and Margaret, the wife of the dead Henry VI,have a lot of power in the court. Richard commiserates with Clarence and promises to visit the king and ensure that he is freed.
After Clarence exits, Richard makes it clear that he is going to arrange for Clarence to be killed.
Lord Hastings enters. He has recently been freed from prison. (He is a supporter of the king but an enemy of the queen, which is why he was imprisoned.) Hastings brings the news that the king is sick. Richard pretends to think that is bad news.
After Hastings exits, Richard, alone, says that Clarence must die before the king does. (He does not want Clarence to have a chance at being crowned king.) He hopes that Clarence will be dead within a day, and that the king will die, leaving Richard a clear route to the throne. He then says he plans to marry Anne Neville, who is the widow of Prince Edward (the son of Henry VI), who was killed by Richard.
Ideally, the reader or audience of Richard III should also be familiar with the trilogy that preceded it, Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3. Otherwise it can be hard to grasp the significance of all the characters and their relationships—like tuning into a TV miniseries just for the last episode. Richard III appears in Henry VI, part 3, and his character is presented from the outset as entirely evil. He already is plotting to seize the throne, and he murders both Prince Edward and Henry VI, when the king is imprisoned in the tower.
Richard’s opening soliloquy in this play is therefore no surprise to anyone who is familiar with how Shakespeare is telling the story of England’s Wars of the Roses. Richard makes no attempt to disguise his own nature in this and other soliloquies. He knows he is ugly (Richard was traditionally described as a hunchback) and has little hope of happiness through love. So he becomes a villain instead, with power his only goal. He is good at scheming, and he knows how to put on a show of rectitude and compassion.
In many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the main character does not appear in the first scene or two, but minor characters give some clue to the audience as to how he is to be regarded. But not in this play. Richard bounds on stage right at the beginning, a full-fledged villain, completely unapologetic. He knows exactly who he is and what he is about. There is no subtlety here. It is safe to say that Richard III has no redeeming features at all, from the point of view of morality, although his wit and ability to stand back and observe himself constitute a well-developed sense of irony.