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Act 1, Scene 1: We meet Richard already deep in plotting, though his brother just made it back onto the throne. Now that the kingdom is in peacetime, all the men's efforts of war have turned to efforts of love. Richard, however, turns his attentions to evil scheming. We then meet Richard's brother Clarence, who Richard has maneuvered to get locked up. Richard makes a big show of sympathy for him. He also takes the opportunity to slander his brother Edward as weak, saying his wife is domineering. No sooner is Clarence out of spitting distance than Richard tells us he plans for Clarence to be executed, for his brother Edward to sicken further and die, and for himself to marry Lady Anne. Richard alludes to some greater plot he's looking forward to.
Act 1, Scene 2: Richard then stops the funeral procession of his victim Henry VI so he can flirt with Henry's daughter-in-law Anne, whose husband Richard just murdered. He appeals to Anne's Christian charity to forgive him, then manages to convince her to marry him, suggesting that he only killed so she could have a better husband. After Anne submits to marriage and leaves, Richard gloats again. This time he's pleased as punch with himself for getting a woman to marry him despite the fact that he's hideous and has murdered her husband and father-in-law.
Act 1, Scene 3: A meeting of the queen's family and various hangers-on is interrupted by Richard, guns blazing. He charges that because he's not full of false flattery, people think he's full of hatred. His particular occasion for anger is the meeting with King Edward, which was suggested by somebody else because of the animosity between Richard and everyone else. Richard first denies that he hates them, then says why he hates them: they imprisoned Clarence and they're getting promotions they don't deserve, which debases the other nobles. He further suggests that Queen Elizabeth married Edward for her own advantage, and he brings up the fact that Elizabeth and her family were enemies of the Yorks (Richard and Edward's family) before Elizabeth switched sides.
Act 1, Scene 3: Richard's railing then turns to Queen Margaret, who's just emerged from the shadows. He brings up Margaret's cruelty toward his father and suggests that she suffers because of her own ill deeds. Richard dismisses Margaret's haranguing by turning her curse against her. Then Richard puts on a saintly face and encourages everyone to forgive Margaret out of Christian charity. Richard also slyly notes that it's better to forgive than to curse, because if he cursed villains he'd be cursing himself.
Act 1, Scene 3: When everyone but Richard exits, Richard reveals his plan to us: he's blamed the queen and her allies for his wrongs against Clarence, and he's gotten Hastings, Derby, and Buckingham worked up enough to want to seek revenge against them on Clarence's behalf. Meanwhile, he's sighing about how they should turn the other cheek, so no one suspects his evil intent to take over the kingdom.
Act 1, Scene 3: Speaking of evil, Richard then chats with the murderers he's hired to handle his wrongfully imprisoned brother Clarence. Richard warns them not to let Clarence talk, because that might move them to be merciful and spare his life. Richard commends the murderers for being as heartless and efficient as he is.
Act 2, Scene 1: At the conciliatory meeting orchestrated by the sickly King Edward, Richard makes a big show of making nice with everyone, especially Queen Elizabeth. He insists he has love enough to go around and thanks God for his humility. No sooner has he done this than he accuses Elizabeth of joking about Clarence's death. Everyone is shocked at the news (except Richard, since he orchestrated it). Richard gets in a jab at Edward for letting Clarence die, as Edward's pardon of Clarence traveled slower than his condemnation. He's basically hinting that Edward is somehow guilty of Clarence's death. After the royals have exited, Richard suggests that the queen and her allies looked less surprised than the others, so they must have encouraged Edward to execute Clarence. He then makes a point of going to comfort his brother Edward.
Act 2, Scene 2: Richard walks in on Queen Elizabeth and his mother wailing for Clarence and Edward, who has died. He tells them to get over it and notes that his mom is cold to him. He then revisits King Edward's recent peace among the family, which he says he hopes will hold true (though he's already working to erode it). Richard dismisses the women to figure out who will lead little Prince Edward to his coronation. Privately with Buckingham, he confirms that he needs to be close to the little princes and praises Buckingham as his oracle, confidante, and other self.
Act 3, Scene 1: Richard chats with Prince Edward, who's just made it into London. Richard plays good cop to the bad cop represented by the queen's family. Richard counsels that the prince is too young to know men's hearts from their lying faces (which, considering that the prince trusts Richard, is true). Richard says that the prince's other uncles were dangerous, and he prays that the prince will be safe from "false friends." Richard then suggests that Prince Edward should stay in the Tower of London. During a brief conversation with the prince about the history of the Tower, Richard makes it clear that he plans to kill the little boy. He makes a gleeful aside that he is like Iniquity, the theatrical device that bounds up all vices into one.
Act 3, Scene 1: Richard then has a silly little conversation with the young Duke of York, Prince Edward's brother, where Richard promises to give the little boy his dagger (one way or another). Richard is irritated by the keen observations and sharp wit of the young Duke, and after the boys leave for the Tower, Richard suggests to Buckingham that the boy is a peevish bother like his mother.
Act 3, Scene 1: Richard and Buckingham then talk about what to do about Hastings. He wants his messenger, Catesby, to stress the news that Hastings's enemies, the queen's relations, are slated to die at Pomfret castle, which should put Hastings in a mood for more villainy. Richard glibly announces that if Hastings isn't amenable to this plan, he can lose his head. He also promises Buckingham the earldom of Hereford. This is an assurance that even if Hastings is no longer in the inner circle, Buckingham is secure there (which is ironic and a lie).
Act 3, Scene 4: Richard pretends to be a sleepyhead, arriving late to the council meeting to discuss young Prince Edward's coronation day. He teases that Hastings could have acted on his behalf, as Hastings knows him so well. Then he sends the Bishop of Ely to get him some strawberries and disappears briefly with Buckingham to inform his confidante that he's learned that Hastings is not on their side.
Act 3, Scene 4: When he comes back to the scene, Richard is full of accusations against Queen Elizabeth and Jane Shore for causing his arm to wither and for generally plotting his death. Presumably in defense of Richard, Hastings starts to meekly reply, "If they have done this deed . . .". Richard seizes on the "if" to suggest that Hastings is protecting the strumpet Jane Shore (Hastings's latest mistress). Richard immediately condemns Hastings to die and says he can't eat happily until he has Hastings's head.
Act 3, Scene 5: Richard speaks alone with Buckingham. He asks whether Buckingham is a confident actor, able to feign terror and madness from grief. Satisfied with Buckingham's obsequious answer, Richard faces off with the mayor, defending Hastings's totally uncalled-for execution. Richard puts on a melodramatic performance, mourning that one he loved so much could be such a bad seed. He waxes on for a bit about how Hastings seemed so good (except for his love affair with a harlot) and generally acts the picture of shocked innocence at Hastings sudden "betrayal."
Act 3, Scene 5: As soon as the mayor questions Hastings's execution, Richard leaps on him in accusation, asking whether he thinks so little of Richard and Buckingham that he suspects they would defy the law. Richard frames Hastings's execution as a matter of personal and national safety, asking if the mayor would like to stand in the way of such things. Further, Richard absolves himself and Buckingham by putting the blame of the execution on Lovel and Ratcliffe, whom he says acted rashly. Richard insists he wanted the mayor to hear Hastings's own traitorous confession so the mayor could assure the citizens (who might suspect foul play) that Hastings's death was just.
Act 3, Scene 5: As soon as the mayor is out of the way, Richard instructs Buckingham about further ill deeds. Buckingham should spread the rumor among the people that Edward was a lustful and rash ruler, and that he wasn't even legitimately their father's son, as their dad was in France when their mom got pregnant. Richard softens the blow on his mother's behalf by asking Buckingham to tread lightly on her reputation, as she's still alive.
Act 3, Scene 5: Having laid Buckingham's plans, Richard prepares to cloister himself away from the public with men of the church, so that when they come to find him for his "surprise coronation" he will look like a pious guy deep in prayer. Finally he plans to get Clarence's children hidden out of sight and to block anyone from speaking to Edward's children, the heirs to the throne.
Act 3, Scene 7: Richard confers eagerly with Buckingham, hoping to hear that the citizens were responsive to his speech about Edward's villainy and Richard's rightful ascendance to the throne. He brushes off the news that the crowd was silent at the suggestion of his coronation. He urges Buckingham to plead with him so that he can pretend to reject the crown. All of this cajoling will hopefully convince the people of Richard's good intention and rightful status.
Act 3, Scene 7: Richard and Buckingham meet again before a crowd of the mayor and some citizens. Richard is flanked by bishops to prove his piety. He plays innocent, unaware of the purpose of Buckingham's big visit. Richard says he's grateful to be considered for the crown, but even if the more rightful heirs were to suddenly be removed (fancy that!), Richard's personal defects would make him unfit to accept the honor. Richard then stresses that he's happy there is an actual heir to the crown, paving the way for the news that Edward's children are the sons of a bastard.
Act 3, Scene 7: Richard keeps shunning the crown (slightly less insistently each time it's offered). He says he is hesitant to accept, as he is unfit for majesty. Finally, though, Richard "graciously" gives in to Buckingham's "insistence." He asserts that he's only accepting the crown out of necessity. Up front, he says that if there's any scandal surrounding his coronation, it should be remembered that he was pressed into it unwillingly. Richard agrees to clear his calendar for a crowning the next day, then he rushes off to get back to his "holy task" with the bishops.
Act 4, Scene 2: Richard arrives, decked out like the king and calls Buckingham to his side. He says he's happy to be the king now, and he'd like to assure him that he'll be king in the future too. Buckingham doesn't take the hint, so Richard says plainly, "I wish the bastards dead." By "bastards" he means the two young princes, his own nephews, who are the rightful heirs to the throne. As Buckingham hesitates a moment to give his consent, Richard evidently dismisses him from his confidence. He arranges for a heartless murderer, Tyrell, to kill the kids instead.
Act 4, Scene 2: Richard receives news of Dorset's defection to Richmond's side. He quickly makes preparations for a confrontation. He tells Catesby to send out rumors that his wife Anne is sick (to prepare the people for her "surprise" death). Anne has to die soon, as Richard announces his plans to marry Edward's little daughter, which will secure his seat on the throne. He delights that he'll marry the sister of the princes he murdered, and hopes it will work.
Act 4, Scene 2: Richard then gets lost in his own thoughts for a while. He warns Stanley aloud that he should give no aid to his stepson, Richmond. He notes that during Richmond's childhood, Henry VI had prophesied that Richmond would one day be king. He wonders why Henry didn't also prophesy that Richmond would be killed by Richard. (Perhaps because...that's not going to happen!) Richard thinks aloud about another prophecy he heard from an Irish bard, who promised Richard he wouldn't live long after he saw Richmond. All the while, Richard has been ignoring Buckingham, who is interjecting about wanting his promised earldom. Richard finally addresses him sharply and dismissively, clearly showing he is no longer interested in his old confidant.
Act 4, Scene 3: Richard receives the news that the two princes have been smothered to death and buried. He wants to get the details of the princes' murder from Tyrrell later. Now, he announces, he's busy trying to get little Elizabeth's hand in marriage, since Richmond is also seeking it. Richard also mentions, in passing, that his wife is dead, which makes finding a new wife a more convenient prospect. Giddy with his plans, which still seem to be going well, Richard prepares for some kind of battle.
Act 4, Scene 4: Richard is intercepted by his mother, who would really like him to pay attention to her for a minute so she can curse him to hell. He tries to drown out her curses. Eventually, though, he listens to her say that she wishes she'd strangled him in her womb – and make various other curses.
Act 4, Scene 4: After delivering the rousing reply of "So what?" to his mother, Richard turns his attention to Queen Elizabeth. He tries to convince her to woo her daughter on his behalf, insisting that he loves the young girl. When Elizabeth calls him on this obvious lie, Richard changes tack, claiming that marriage to little Elizabeth is the only thing that can bring peace to England. He suggests that Queen Elizabeth should be happy for him to impregnate her daughter and give her grandchildren, who will take the place of the sons that he murdered. This conversation goes on, until it seems like Elizabeth has finally relented. As soon as she's out of the room (to tell her daughter to marry Richard – or so he thinks), Richard dismisses her as a fickle woman, foolish in her stances.
Act 4, Scene 4: Richard then receives definite news that Richmond's navy is approaching the western coast, and that the king's men are deserting him – or just neglecting to defend him. For the first time, Richard seems confused and disoriented, and he gives his lackeys some harried instructions to try to raise some allies in the impending fight. As news of the defections mount, Richard cries out with leading questions. He asserts that Richmond has no right to take to the seas to challenge him, since England already has a king. Richard is suspicious of everyone around him. Even as he sends Lord Stanley to gather allies, he insists that Stanley leave his son, George Stanley, as assurance that Stanley will not mutiny with the rest of his forces.
Act 4, Scene 4: Richard is visibly frustrated at his waning power, but he perks up at the news that Richmond's army has suddenly been scattered and Buckingham has wandered off alone. Richard again strikes up the battle march. He's set back momentarily by the news that, while Buckingham was captured, Richmond's numerous forces have actually landed and are ready for battle. Richard declares that now is the time for action.
Act 5, Scene 3: Richard bustles about with orders at Bosworth Field. He demands wine and assurance that all his tools of war, including his horse, are prepared for the next day's battle. Before doing any work, Richard goes to sleep, ordering his lackey Ratcliffe to come and arm him in the middle of the night.
Act 5, Scene 5: Richard has a scary dream about ghosts. He wakes up in a panic, asking for Jesus to have mercy on him. He condemns his conscience for being a thorn in his side, then considers his fear. He's torn between his fear, his sense of self, and his sudden bout of conscience. Most important, he struggles over whether he's a villain. He admits to himself that, having so many public faces, he can barely figure out who he is.
Act 5, Scene 5: Richard reiterates that he is unloved. He realizes that he has felt pity for no creature, so no creature feels pity for him. He could always handle other people's lack of pity, but he seems to only now realize that, by never pitying others, he never learned any pity for himself. The capstone to these reflections is the fact that all the ghost visitors have promised vengeance against him in the next day's battle. Richard is interrupted before he can interpret this. Tellingly, he confides in Ratcliffe, who has awoken him. Richard says he had a scary dream, but mostly he's worried that his friends will betray him. Ultimately he dismisses his fear as the stuff of shadows. He reverts to his covert methods: he'll go eavesdrop at the troops' tents to hear if anyone is planning mutiny.
Act 5, Scene 6: As Richard prepares for battle in the morning, he notes that the sun still hasn't come out, although it should have by now. He comforts himself with the thought that if he doesn't see the sun, then neither does Richmond, since they're under the same heaven. Richard gives out his battle plans and says (perhaps to soothe himself) that conscience is the stuff of cowards. Richard then gives a speech to the troops to be brave. Rather than stress the justice of his cause and the worthiness of his men, he denigrates the enemy and their intentions. His final command before battle (upon learning that Stanley refuses to bring his troops) is for Stanley's son George to be beheaded. Still thirsty for blood, Richard claims that a thousand hearts beat in his bosom. He declares that victory belongs to them.
Act 5, Scene 7: Richard is on the field and falls off his horse. He famously calls out, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" As Catesby tries to soothe him and bring him to his senses, Richard gives us his final thoughts. He says he's given his life up to chance, and he'll stick around to let the dice fall where they may. He cries out that he's looking to slay Richmond. He calls for his horse again, then he tumbles into the fray.
Act 5, Scene 8: The stage directions tell us that Richard is killed by Richmond in battle.