Act Two of Richard the Third begins in the palace, as King Edward IV has gathered together the nobles for a reconciliation session. This is some urgency in this for Edward, as he “every day expect(s) an embassage // From (his) Redeemer to redeem (him) hence” (II.i.3-4). Thus, no one is “exempt” (II.i.18); even the Queen and her kinsmen must set aside their differences with others in the court.
The only persons of note missing are George and Richard, the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester, respectively. When Richard arrives and is told by Edward how all have been reconciled, how all have forgiven, Richard strikes the perfect note:
If I unwittingly, or in my rage,
Have aught committed that is hardly borne
By any in this presence, I desire
To reconcile me to his friendly peace:
'Tis death to me to be at enmity;
I hate it, and desire all good men's love.
He then goes on to personally beg reconciliation with the Queen, Buckingham, Rivers, and Dorset. And all seems well until Elizabeth asks Edward to take “our brother Clarence” (II.i.77) into reconciliation as well. And this is the opportunity Richard needs: he blasts her for this “flout(ing) in the royal presence” (II.i.79), as Clarence has been executed.
This is a shock to all. Dorset immediately asks Edward to spare his servant who lately had killed a man in a fight. Edward is shocked… how can he pardon someone when he himself had condemned his own brother. He then goes on to recount the great acts George committed for him (“forsak[ing] // The mighty Warwick” [II.i.110-111] and “in the field at Tewkesbury … rescu[ing]” Edward [II.i.112-113]). Guilt grips him, and he needs assistance to his chamber, clearing the stage.
Act Two, Scene Two takes place in another room of the palace, where we find the Duchess of York (Edward’s mother) and the two children of George Duke of Clarence. The children want to know if their father is dead (especially as she is weeping and saying, “O Clarence, my unhappy son” [II.ii.3]). She tries to play it off as best as she can, saying she’s only worried about the health of the king, but the children are smarter than that (as they often are in Shakespeare… the Elizabethan precursors to Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things”).
When the Duchess finally admits that their father is dead, the boy immediately blames the king (which would be true); she then enigmatically tells the kids, “You cannot guess who caused your father’s death” (II.ii.19). For a moment, we think this might just be a way of saying, “Don’t say your uncle the king did it… we don’t know that.” But that interpretation immediately withers when–after boy describes how Richard told him that it was “the king, provoked to it by the queen” (II.ii.21)–the Duchess throws Richard (her son, too) under the anachronistic bus:
Oh, that deceit should steal such gentle shapes,
And with a virtuous visor hide foul guile!
He is my son; yea, and therein my shame;
Yet from my dugs he drew not this deceit.
Not only does she protect her son Edward, but she damns Richard, accusing him of “guile” and “deceit.”
Elizabeth enters with Dorset and Rivers in pursuit, and she delivers to the Duchess the sad news: “Edward, my lord, thy son, our king, is dead” (II.ii.40).
For those keeping score at home: Prophecy #1 of Margaret’s has come to pass.
Both women bewail their fates, throwing a neat little pity party for the children in the process. All three generations lament their situations, with the Duchess claiming the greatest part of pain, with no one to comfort her:
But now two mirrors of his princely semblance
Are crack'd in pieces by malignant death,
And I for comfort have but one false glass,
Which grieves me when I see my shame in him.
Interesting comments. A “false glass” … ok, that COULD be a reference to Richard’s deformity, BUT it “grieves” her and she is ashamed. No, this seems to be going WAY beyond sadness over a surface deformity, and veering closer to believing Richard at the root of all this “malignant death.” And yet, she doesn’t make this public to Elizabeth or the Woodevilles or the grandchildren. Like I said… interesting.
And the comments only get more interesting when the pity party runs rampant in the poetic verse itself, with calls-and-responses, rhyme, and comparisons. Through all of these, the Duchess again needs to cap the woes with hers: “Alas, I am the mother of these griefs” (II.ii.80). And, again, this COULD be taken as a mere statement that her griefs are greater, but the underlying implication is that she is the mother of THE CAUSE of these griefs. Rivers attempts to bring some hope into the proceedings by calling for the Queen to send for young Edward to have him crowned.
With Richard’s (and Buckingham’s) entrance, the pity party is put on hold. Buckingham announces that young Edward V should be escorted from Ludlow with “some little train” (II.ii.120). While this is immediately questioned by the Woodevilles, they agree to it to maintain the peace. This call for a small escort is either a way of getting Edward in a situation without any military support [for a possible coup… though this doesn’t happen], or a way for Buckingham and Richard to exert political power… When the queens and the Woodevilles leave to send for the young king, Richard and Buckingham decide that it’s best that they go to escort Edward, if for no other reason than to “part the queen’s proud kindred from the prince” (II.ii.150), a prudent and expected political move.
In Act Two, Scene Three, three London citizens discuss the changing royal landscape. Even the lower classes see that “woe to the land that’s governed by a child” (II.iii.11), especially given the recent history of Henry the Sixth. They’re even more insightful than the nobles (many of whom don’t see that “full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester” [II.iii.27]).
In Act Two’s fourth and final scene, the scene returns to the palace, where the Archbishop of York informs the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, and her youngest son Richard, that young Edward and his escort are still at least one day away from London. We have a moment of familial small talk, as the Duchess (young King Edward’s grandmother) says that she hopes Edward has grown since she last saw him, to which Richard, the young king’s younger brother, says, “Ay, mother, but I would not have it so” (II.iv.8), because Gloucester once told him that “Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace” (II.iv.13).
The Duchess then takes this occasion to badmouth Richard Duke of Gloucester subtly, calling him “the wretched’st thing when he was young… (and) if his rule were true, he should be gracious” (II.iv.18,20). Young Richard also mentions the legend that Gloucester was born with teeth, a tale told to him by Gloucester’s nurse (who the Duchess says “was dead ere (young Richard) was born” [II.iv.33]).
is this Shakespeare’s way of hinting that his sources were questionable? probably not
The casual family talk dies quickly, though, when a messenger arrives with news: “Lord Rivers and Lord Grey are sent to Pomfret, // And with them Sir Thomas Vaughan, prisoners” (II.iv.42-43). Fear grips both the Duchess and Elizabeth, and they decide at Act’s end to take young Richard and go into sanctuary.