Act One, Scene One
Richard gives a short speech detailing his plot against his brother Clarence, who comes before him as heir to the throne of England. Richard has just succeeded in having Clarence arrested and it as a prisoner that Clarence walks onto the stage, guarded by Sir Robert Brackenbury.
Richard asks Clarence what the reason for his arrest is. Clarence replies that someone told King Edward that a person with a name starting with the letter "G" would cause his family to lose the throne. Since Clarence's full name is George, Duke of Clarence, he was considered to be the primary suspect. Richard complains that this arrest is the result of the women plotting against Clarence, most notably Queen Elizabeth and possibly also Mrs. Shore.
Brackenbury tells the men he is not allowed to let anyone converse with the prisoner, and takes Clarence into the Tower of London. Richard comments that he will soon remove Clarence permanently and thus clear the path to the throne for himself.
Lord Hastings, also known as Lord Chamberlain, emerges from the Tower, having just been freed. Lord Hastings tells Richard that King Edward IV is sickly and ailing, and cannot hope to live much longer. After he departs, Richard remarks that he will first have Edward kill Clarence. This will put Richard into a position where upon Edward's death he can assume the throne. He also plots to marry Lady Anne Neville, who is the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales and the daughter-in-law of Henry VI, whom Richard just killed.
Act One, Scene Two
Lady Anne enters the stage accompanied by halberdiers who are carrying an open coffin with King Henry VI in it. She asks the men to stop, during which time she laments the death of the king. Lady Anne then curses any future children which Richard might have, and prays that after Richard's death his future wife will know even more grief than Lady Anne currently feels.
Richard enters and is immediately cursed by Lady Anne for his role in the death of her husband. Richard tries to woo her by telling how lovely he thinks she it, but Lady Anne scorns him after each attempt. He finally tells her that he killed her husband so that he alone could love her. In a moment of decision, Richard bends down on his knees and tells her to kill him if she cannot forgive him. She replies, "I will not be thy executioner" (1.2.172)
Richard stands up and proposes marriage to her, succeeding in making Lady Anne wear his ring. He tells her to go wait for him in one of his London residences while he mourns the death of Henry VI. Lady Anne leaves after saying farewell to Richard, who delivers a soliloquy in which he expresses surprise about the fact that she seems to like his looks.
Act One, Scene Three
Queen Elizabeth enters the stage with Lord Rivers and Lord Gray. They discuss the fact that King Edward is ill. Queen Elizabeth is apprehensive about her future if he should die. She remarks that Richard Gloucester becomes her son's Protector if Edward passes away, and that Richard does not like her or her companions.
The Duke of Buckingham and Lord Stanley arrive. They have just been to see the king, and they inform Queen Elizabeth that he is looking well. Buckingham informs her that the king want to meet with her brothers and with Richard in order to get them to make peace.
Richard and Lord Hastings enter the room, with Richard complaining bitterly about the lies which "they" tell the king. When asked who "they" are, Richard implicates the queen's brother, Lord Rivers, and her two sons. He then blames them for the recent imprisonment of Lord Hastings, and for the current jailing of his brother Clarence. Queen Elizabeth is outraged at these suggestions, and threatens to tell the king.
Queen Margaret arrives, she is the widow of Henry VI and the mother of Edward whom Richard killed. She speaks directly to the audience, without the other characters hearing her. She remarks that Queen Elizabeth has her to thank for the throne, and calls Richard a devil for the murders he committed.
Richard defends himself vehemently, pointing out his fierce loyalty to his brother Edward. He then points out the fact that the Queen and her brother fought against his brother in the war between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, to which Richard belongs.
Queen Margaret, fed up with the arguments and accusations, steps forward and addresses them all. She plans to tell them once again about how Richard killed her son Edward, but all of the gathered characters attack her for having killed Rutland. This refers to a previous play in which Margaret crowns the Duke of York with a paper crown and waves a handkerchief dipped in his son Rutland's blood in front of his eyes. She tells them that because her Edward died, so too must the current Edward, Prince of Wales meet his death.
Following several curses made by Margaret, most of which are directed at Richard, the entire company is summoned into King Edward's chambers. Richard remains behind and meets with two murderers whom he sends to kill Clarence. A revealing quote is when Richard says, "And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends, stol'n forth of Holy Writ," meaning he hides his crimes with Christian behavior.
Act One, Scene Four
Clarence and Brackenbury enter the stage. Clarence has had a terrible nightmare in which he breaks free of the Tower and attempts to cross to Burgundy accompanied by his brother Richard. While on the ship, Richard stumbles. When Clarence tries to help support him, he is flung into the ocean by Richard, where he slowly drowns.
Clarence falls asleep with Brackenbury sitting next to him for protection. The two murderers sent by Richard arrive and hand Brackenbury their commission. He acknowledges the paper which says to hand his prisoner over to the two men.
The first murderer has a sudden attack of conscience. He is able to overcome this by remembering the large reward which Richard is paying him. The second murderer tells his companion to drive the devil out of his mind, since the devil is only confusing him. Clarence wakes up and asks for a cup of wine.
The murders engage Clarence in conversation, and inform him that he will die. He pleads to their sense of Christianity, at which they list his many sins, most notably the killing of Henry VI's son Edward. Clarence then begs the men to talk to Richard, whom he promises will reward them well. They inform him that Richard is the man who sent them, a fact that Clarence cannot believe. He seems about to overcome them with his persuasive words when the first murderer stabs and kills him. The second murderer refuses to participate, and even declines to receive his part of the reward.
Analysis of Act One
Richard's opening soliloquy frames much of the play, and reveals a great deal about the personality of Richard's character. The opening remarks are very logical in their progression: because Richard is deformed, he cannot be loved; because he cannot be loved, he must be a villain; because he must be a villain, he will strive for the throne. This logical progression is of course anything but logical. Rather, it hides the fact that for Richard, the deformity is merely an excuse to play the machiavel, a role which he enjoys.
The fact that the deformity is an excuse shines through in the second scene. For even though he claims he cannot be a lover, Richard manages to seduce Lady Anne under the worst circumstances imaginable. She is mourning her father's death with the coffin on the stage, and yet Richard manages to convince her to marry him. This improbable scene is executed by making Richard into an incredibly forceful character.
Lady Anne is overcome by Richard in part because of the very status of women in this play. In order to have power, every woman must be allied with a man who also has power. Thus for Lady Anne to maintain her status, she must capitulate to Richard's proposal. What is truly fascinating is that she agrees to marry him knowing full well that he will at some point kill her.
Richard's role is several times compared to that of a chameleon and to the god Proteus. Indeed, Richard is often seen playing two separate roles. With the audience he portrays his true nature, and reveals his ambitions to seize the throne of England. But when interacting with other characters, he comes across as a gentle and simple man. This is perhaps best portrayed in the fourth scene, when Clarence is told that Richard wants him killed. Clarence replies, "O do not slander him, for he is kind (1.4.229). He continues, "It cannot be, for he bewept my fortune / And hugged me in his arms, and swore with sobs / That he would labour my delivery (1.4.232-34).
The first act brings in the imagery of mirrors and shadows, both of which are used extensively throughout the play to describe Richard. In scene two he wants to look at himself in a mirror after Lady Anne takes his ring. This symbolizes the fact that Richard is able to reflect people back onto themselves. Thus Lady Anne sees him as possibly being a good man because she herself is good. Clarence views him as "kind," which is a better description of himself. And like a mirror, Richard is impossible to see through.
The comparison of Richard to a shadow is often used in relation to the sun. The sun is the symbol of the King, and therefore many allusions are to the fact that Richard is slowly overshadowing the throne. In scene two he asks the sun to make his shadow stronger, essentially indicating that the throne of England will give him more power. In scene three Queen Margaret tells him that he "turns the sun to shade," a phrase with multiple meanings. Shakespeare indicates that she is referring to her son Edward, who was killed and therefore is a shade, or spirit. But it can also be interpreted to mean that Richard is overshadowing the throne of England, and thus putting the symbol of the sun into shade.
The law of talionic justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, is advocated by Queen Margaret. She represents a different sort of play, the Revenge Play, which is an older form or writing based on Seneca's works. Note the language change when she appears, her interactions with other characters are much more stichomythic. Later in the play the old Duchess of York emulates her, both in diction and in cursing Richard. Shakespeare purposefully uses this form of language with the two older, ghost-like women, because he is essentially replacing this form of play with new characters, in the form of the horrifying, seductive Richard.
In scene three Margaret curses several of the people in the room, and states that she wants an Edward for an Edward, indicating that since her son died, so too should the current Edward, Prince of Wales. She then names the people in order whom she curses to die. This point of the play is actually setting up the plot of the play, although that will not become clear until later. Thus, even though throughout Richard III it seems as if Richard is directing the action, it is really Margaret's curse which determines the final course of events.
Scene four has an interesting switch in the roles of the murderers. The first murderer initially has a conscience crisis, in which he is leery about committing a murder. The second murderer eventually convinces him to carry out the murder, telling him first to remember their payment, and second to drive the devil out of his mind. The obvious irony of comparing the devil to a healthy conscience lends the scene an element of humor. However, it is the second murderer who refuses to participate in killing Clarence in the end. He comments, "How fain, like Pilate, would I wash my hands / Of this most grievous, guilty murder done" (1.4.260-1). This switch in roles shows that the second murderer was in fact overcome by Clarence's speech, to the point where he refuses his portion of their fee.