Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Act 2, Scene 4 | Summary



At the palace, the Duchess of York is awaiting the arrival of her grandson Prince Edward. With her are the archbishop, Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Edward's younger brother, the Duke of York. The duchess wonders aloud how much the prince has grown since last she saw him, and young York makes a "biting jest" about Richard, who was said to have grown so quickly he "could gnaw a crust at two hours old." Queen Elizabeth, whose distrust of Richard has been established in earlier scenes, chides her son for this joke.

A messenger arrives, bearing bad news for Queen Elizabeth. He announces Earl Rivers (her brother) and Lord Grey (her son) have been imprisoned at Pomfret Castle on the orders of Richard and Buckingham. Sir Thomas Vaughan, another supporter of the queen's family, has also been taken prisoner. Hearing this, Queen Elizabeth panics, predicting "destruction, blood, and massacre" in the days ahead; the duchess joins her in her lament. Then, pausing to collect herself, Elizabeth decides to bring her son York to sanctuary (i.e., the sanctuary at Westminster) for his own protection. The archbishop seconds this plan and offers his signet ring as a pledge of his support.


This scene provides fresh material for Queen Elizabeth's mounting anxieties. When her son York cracks a joke about his uncle Richard, the queen calls him "parlous" (cunning or sharp-witted) and complains he is "too shrewd." In print the line might seem lighthearted or even read as a kind of backhanded compliment, like a modern adult calling a child "too smart for his own good." However, the duchess's reply ("Good madam, be not angry with the child") suggests the queen is not kidding around. Nor should she, necessarily: with Edward dead, it is no longer safe to make jokes at Richard's expense—if indeed it ever was. She fears, as she should, for her son's safety.

Once she receives word of her relatives' imprisonment, the widowed queen makes an eminently practical move: she heads for the sanctuary at Westminster, where even Richard will likely refuse to pursue her. In doing so Elizabeth places herself at the mercy of an ancient religious custom whereby wanted criminals were permitted to seek refuge on sacred ground; although she has not yet been accused of a crime, Elizabeth wisely decides not to wait until a trumped-up charge of treason leads to her arrest and execution. This is not even her first visit to the sanctuary: in 1470 (which corresponds to Act 4 of Henry VI, Part 3), Queen Elizabeth took up residence in a fortified chapel on the Westminster Abbey grounds. Her son Edward, the heir apparent at this point in the play, was born during her stay there.

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