"The second act opens with King Edward on the stage for the first (and only) time. He appeared in Henry VI, Part Two as a teen-age earl, and in Henry VI, Part Three as a vigorous, sensuous King. Now he seems a sick old man" (Asimov 699). "The weak, self-indulgent, and lascivious King Edward affords an effective contrast to Richard and permits Shakespeare to imply that violence and lust are brothers" (Goddard, I 36). Here, the dying Edward insists that all family members and lords be reconciled and vow to cooperate with one another: "Dissemble not your hatred, swear your love" (II.i.8). (Can this kind of request really work?) Buckingham unintentionally curses himself prophetically:
When I have most need to employ a friend,
And most assured that he is a friend,
Deep, hollow, treacherous, and full of guile
Be he unto me! This I do beg of God,
When I am cold in love to you or yours.
Richard arrives late but also takes the vow, adding, "I thank my God for my humility" (II.i.73). He then reveals the news of Clarence's death and Edward's reprieve arriving too late. Edward is stricken. When the Earl of Derby arrives and requests a pardon for a servant's supposedly justifiable homicide, Edward laments, "Have I a tongue to doom my brother's death, / And shall that tongue give pardon to a slave?" (II.i.103-104). He remembers Clarence's help at Tewksbury: "When Oxford had me down, he rescued me" (II.i.113). He rails at the others present, none of whom reminded him of Clarence's service or spoke up on his behalf. An enfeebled Edward needs help being escorted off.
Richard draws Buckingham's attention to the supposed guilty looks of the Woodvilles.
Clarence's kids (Edward and Margaret Plantagenet), their grandmother the Duchess of York (Richard's mother), and the newly widowed Queen Elizabeth melodramatically mourn the deaths of Clarence and now Edward too in a rather stilted Senecan style. Richard has gotten into the good graces of the kids, to the disgust of his own mother. Queen Elizabeth (note!) wails:
Give me no help in lamentation,
Oxford has his own Queen Elizabeth in mind partially here, and perhaps himself as Lord Edward (Ogburn and Ogburn 1117). The group lamentations grow rhetorically artificial, and into stichomythia:
Elizabeth Was never widow had so dear a loss.The Queen's brother Rivers recommends sending for her son, the Prince of Wales (who will briefly be Edward V): "Drown desperate sorrow in dead Edward's grave, / And plant your joys in living Edward's throne" (II.ii.99-100). Richard enters with Buckingham and some others, and soon it is agreed that to avoid factions and strife, only a few should go to fetch young Edward. When Buckingham is alone with Richard, he urges that they go themselves in order "To part the Queen's proud kindred from the Prince" (II.ii.150). Richard is delighted with Buckingham.
Children Were never orphans had so dear a loss.
Duchess Was never mother had so dear a loss.
(II.ii.77-79; cf. II.ii.74-76)
Three citizens of London comment on the state of the nation. "The characters in this scene are of small importance to the story: they are common rather than noble, they are unnamed, and they appear only here. For precisely those reasons, the audience can trust what they say, since they exist only to speak their choric lines" (Garber 153). England itself is in some ways the most important "character" in the history plays.
One is optimistic, one less confident, and one pessimistic, the last of these offering up the traditional lament: "Woe to that land that's govern'd by a child!" (II.iii.11). But another remarks,
In him there is a hope of government,They recall Henry VI being crowned at the age of nine months, and he had "virtuous uncles to protect his Grace" (II.iii.21). (And look how well that all worked out. They're also forgetting the case of Richard II, which Shakespeare, the Chaucerian, would not.)
Which, in his nonage, council under him
And in his full and ripen'd years, himself,
No doubt shall then, and till then, govern well.
The Archbishop of York, soon-to-be Queen Mother Elizabeth, grandmother the Duchess, and the younger brother of little Edward (called the Duke of York and historically named Richard) anticipate the arrival of the Prince. The young boy has heard that his uncle Richard was born with teeth, a sign of a villainous nature: "Marry (they say) my uncle grew so fast / That he could gnaw a crust at two hours old" (II.iv.27-28). Elizabeth notes that "Pitchers have ears" (II.iv.37).
News that various nobles have been imprisoned by Richard and Buckingham convinces Elizabeth that tyranny and bloody times have come. She will retreat to sanctuary with the one son and the royal seal (needed to ratify royal decisions officially).