Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Act 4, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

This jumbo-sized scene takes place before the palace in London. First to appear is Queen Margaret, whose vengeful heart is gladdened by the general mayhem and slaughter. After a brief soliloquy, she is joined by Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, who are mourning the two slain princes and all the others Richard has killed. Margaret gloats for a little while, savoring the downfall of the House of York. But when she makes for the exit, Queen Elizabeth asks her to "stay awhile / And teach me how to curse mine enemies." It's simple, says Margaret: just think of how happy you used to be, never forget your losses, and cursing will come naturally. With that, she leaves the stage for good.

A fanfare announces the entry of King Richard, attended by his stooge, Catesby. The duchess and Elizabeth besiege Richard with curses and laments; he threatens to drown them out with trumpets and drums. The duchess departs after predicting a bloody end for her son, but Elizabeth stays onstage. Over the next 200 or so lines, Richard lays out his plan to marry Queen Elizabeth's daughter (who, confusingly enough, is named Lady Elizabeth). At first, Queen Elizabeth is horrified by the suggestion: Richard is Lady Elizabeth's uncle, not to mention the murderer of her brothers and her young sons. Richard, however, insists the marriage is in the best interest of both their family and the kingdom; more than that, he describes it as his first step in making up for all the destruction he has caused. Overcome, or perhaps just desperate, the queen agrees to convey Richard's offer to her daughter.

Just as Queen Elizabeth exits, Ratcliffe arrives. He brings bad news: Richmond is landing a navy on the western coast, with little opposition from Richard's subjects. In response, Richard sends Catesby to the Duke of Norfolk with instructions to levy an army. Moments later, Lord Stanley enters: he too has heard of Richmond's arrival and offers to raise an army of his own. Richard, however, demands Stanley leave his son George behind as a pledge of loyalty. One by one, four additional messengers appear and report the defection of other noblemen, along with the more encouraging news Buckingham has been defeated. Catesby, back from his errand, adds Buckingham has been captured. Dismayed but not deterred, Richard orders his officers to march toward Salisbury.

Analysis

This scene mirrors the latter half of Act 1, providing a gruesome "after" picture to match what came before. When she first appeared in Act 1, Scene 3 Queen Margaret tossed out curses like candy from a parade float, half wishing and half predicting a bad end for most of the royal family. At this point, almost all of the curses have come true: Queen Elizabeth's husband and sons are dead, as are Buckingham, Hastings, and several minor noblemen. Margaret is openly pleased with this outcome, which she sees as a form of poetic justice. In fact, she goes so far as to keep score: King Edward's death repays that of her husband King Henry, and Prince Edward's murder repays that of her own son Edward. The young Duke of York, she rationalizes, is merely "boot"—a bonus payment thrown in to sweeten the pot.

The duchess and Queen Elizabeth, meanwhile, have been grieving so long they now struggle to go on living. Their dejection is evident in their words: the duchess is so "woe-wearied" she finds it hard to speak, and Elizabeth longs to "hide [her] bones" in a grave, "not rest them." The stage business in this scene further adds to the sense of defeat: in sitting on the ground, the duchess and Queen Elizabeth make use of a frequent Shakespearean symbol of decline and decay. In his later Richard II, Shakespeare makes this symbolic connection explicit; facing deposal, the title character of that play calls for his noblemen to "sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings."

This scene also provides insight into the role of language, especially in Queen Margaret's use of wordplay. Queen Margaret is a master of taking a concept and twisting it into its opposite to make a point. This reflects her verbal skill, but also embodies the terrible reversals of fortune she has had to endure. She advises Elizabeth, who asks her how she can learn to curse her enemies as Margaret does, to think of what she once was by contrasting it with what she has become: "For happy wife, a most distressèd widow; / For joyful mother, one that wails the name; / For one being sued to, one that humbly sues."

Queen Margaret recognizes how feeling overwhelming sorrow leads to greater verbal skill. As she tells Queen Elizabeth, "thy woes will make [your words] sharp and pierce like mine." She also knows while they have their limitations, words can become deadly weapons with which to exact vengeance, equating them in a clever metaphor with the pillows used to smother Queen Elizabeth's sons: "Go with me, / And in the breath of bitter words let's smother / My damnèd son that they two sweet sons smothered."

Female characters in the play, while having decidedly less political power than men, are often the most outspoken about Richard's dastardly deeds. In this scene, Elizabeth and Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, confront him to his face with a list of his victims, from Elizabeth's sons to Hastings. The duchess goes on to condemn him as being nothing but trouble since his birth. She knows the bloodshed he's caused and curses him: "Bloody thou art; bloody thou will be thou end." This, like Margaret's curse, will come true.

The other "before and after" parallel in this scene is Richard's attempt to win a new wife, which hearkens back to his wooing of Anne in Act 1, Scene 2. At that early juncture, Richard was already something of an outcast; his success in smooth talking Anne was startling, even to himself. Now, however, the full extent of Richard's evil has been revealed: nobody, least of all the royal family, can claim to be ignorant of how he operates. Nor can he excuse his murderous deeds as crimes of passion—the main excuse he foisted upon Anne in Act 1. Elizabeth seconds the duchess's curse on Richard. Like Lady Anne, who called out Richard as the murderer of her husband and her father-in-law in Act 1, Scene 2, Elizabeth doesn't pull punches and is willing to fight Richard word for word. With all this in mind, it would be surprising if Queen Elizabeth took the bait and allowed Richard to marry her daughter. It's not at all clear she plans to do so: indeed, she may just be stalling for time until Richard can be deposed.

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