As he and his brothers, that comprise the House of York, have claimed England’s throne by subduing the House of Lancaster, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, muses upon the state of peace that now exists in England where before civil war raged. But peace doesn’t sit well with Richard who admits that he is deformed and ugly and is therefore unsuited for the pastimes of peace--pastimes such as song, dance, and love. Consequently, Richard, confiding the audience, resolves to resort to mischief and evil if only to break the monotony of peace.
Richard has made his brother, King Edward IV, suspect that their brother, Clarence, is a threat to his--Edward’s--throne. Consequently, Clarence has been condemned to the Tower. He is thus being led there by Brackenbury when Richard engages his brother to Brackenbury’s objection. Brackenbury points out that the King has expressly forbade any interaction with the prisoner by any and everyone. Nonetheless, Richard manages to get a word in with Clarence who informs Richard that Lord Hasting, who had been confined to the Tower just recently, has managed to get himself in the King’s good graces by appealing to Jane Shore, the King’s mistress. Richard argues that the way to get in the King’s good graces is to appeal to his women, namely the Queen and/or Jane Shore, which Richard presently promises to do on behalf of Clarence.
Anon, Richard encounters Lord Hastings who informs him that the King is sickly, weak, and bed-ridden. Presently, they both go to the King, Lord Hastings to vindicate himself from the people who had caused his confinement (the Queen and her brother), and Richard to prevail upon the King to murder Clarence by heightening the King’s paranoia.
In addition to contriving Clarence’s murder, Richard has resolved to marry the widow Lady Anne, never mind that it was Richard who had killed both her husband, Edward the Prince of Wales, and her father-in-law, Henry VI. Presently, Lady Anne is mourning the corpse of Henry VI, which is being conveyed to a monastery, when Richard interrupts. Lady Anne demands that Richard disappear from her sight--to no avail. Richard proclaims his love for Lady Anne, arguing that it was love that had motivated him to kill both her husband and father-in-law. Lady Anne is so disgusted that she spits at Richard, and yet Richard only doubles the intensity of his ardor, going on his knees and urging Lady Anne to kill him with his sword if that is what she wishes. When she refuses to kill him, he urges her to give the command and he will kill himself, as a testament of his love for her. She refuses to give the command, however, and even accepts a ring from Richard albeit grudgingly. He invites her to make herself at home in his residence, promising to take care of the obsequies owed her father-in-law himself. She accepts the proposal. Alone, Richard asks the audience if a woman has ever been wooed with such audacity and boasts that he will keep her for only as long as he’s required. For now, he decides to acquaint himself with the fashions of the day that would enhance his image as a lover.
King Edward IV’s illness has created a discord within the royal family of which the two major factions are that of Queen Elizabeth and of Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. As Richard is less than sympathetic to Queen Elizabeth’s children, and as the King has appointed Richard to be England’s provisional ruler should the King succumb to his illness, Queen Elizabeth is anxious to see her husband fully recover (and thereby safeguard her legacy). As to Richard's antipathy to the Queen, he is critical of Queen Elizabeth because she has married twice, and because she has gone out of her way to use her status to reward her brother and her children by her previous marriage to positions of wealth and power. Then there is Queen Margaret, the wife and mother of the slain Henry VI and Edward (the former Prince of Wales) who believes that all the benefactors of King Edward IV’s rule owe her obedience. She is especially critical of Richard who she predicts will be the cause of universal grief--Richard by whose hand her husband and son had met their deaths. But no one minds Queen Margatet’s prediction. Indeed, they dismiss the prediction as the ravings of an old lunatic.
By and by, boasting of his machinations which have caused others to suspect one another of Richard’s doings, Richard adds another to that list by issuing a written command that authorizes two murderers to execute Clarence.
Having awoken from a nightmare, in which he dreamt himself drowning, and then, having died, encountering the dead spirits of the people whom he had betrayed in life, for which reasons Clarence has been confined to the Tower, Clarence begs the jail-keeper to keep him company lest Clarence, out of fright, fails to fall back asleep. Clarence has thus fallen back asleep when two murderes take custody of Clarence, dismissing the keeper and Brackenbury with a written commission from the King.
Earlier, Richard had cautioned the murderers to avoid engaging Clarence conversationally, arguing that Clarence’s eloquence may talk them out of their commission. Presently, the 2nd Murderer finds his conscience getting the better of him. Mention of their reward brings him to his sense, however, and he is about to do his part when Clarence awakes. Realizing that the two strangers intend to murder him, Clarence makes a case for having his life spared. Murderer #1 is unmoved, but Murderer #2 is hesitant. By and by, Murderer #1 kills Clarence, conceals the corpse in a wine barrel, and chides Murderer #2 for failing to do his part. Murderer #2, regretting that he had agreed to undertake the murder in the first place, tells his partner to take his share of the reward.