Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth's brother Earl Rivers, and Lord Grey worriedly discuss King Edward's health at the Palace. Rivers and Grey try to comfort Elizabeth but she fears that, should Edward die, Richard—"a man that loves not me, nor none of you"—will seize power because her sons, the heirs to Edward's throne, are still too young to rule.
Queen Elizabeth's fears concern the rules of succession to the throne – though her sons are first in line after King Edward, Richard (who's technically behind her sons and his brother Clarence) might be able to wield his own power by manipulating her sons who are still too young to rule alone.
The Duke of Buckingham and Lord Stanley enter, having just visited King Edward. They report that the king wants to make peace between Richard and Queen Elizabeth's brothers. Richard enters complaining that Elizabeth and her friends have slandered him to the king. He is, he claims, a plain, peace-loving, honest man, slandered by "silken, sly, insinuating Jacks." Elizabeth denies slandering him and claims that Richard is just jealous of her and her friends. Richard, pretending to be disgusted, accuses her of imprisoning Clarence. Elizabeth vehemently denies the accusation. They argue.
It's evident that Richard and Queen Elizabeth don't get along. Richard tries to get the members of the royal court to side with him against her by claiming to be an honest man attacked by Queen Elizabeth and her friends' slander. Richard is, of course, lying. In fact, he's been the one slandering Queen Elizabeth to Clarence and, now, to everyone in court by blaming her for Clarence's arrest.
Queen Margaret, the wife of King Henry VI and mother of Edward of Westminster, enters unnoticed. She berates everyone under her breath, accusing Elizabeth of stealing the throne that belongs to her, and accusing Richard of killing her husband (Henry VI) and son (Edward of Westminster). Meanwhile, Richard accuses Elizabeth and her friends of originally siding with the House of Lancaster, then switching over to side with the House of York later. Rivers protests that he and Elizabeth weren't traitors, they were just loyal to whomever was England's king at the time, like good citizens.
Margaret's bitterness is tied up with the struggles for the throne that played out in the Wars of the Roses. During the wars, Richard (a York) killed her husband and son (Lancasters) to consolidate power for the House of York. As a Lancaster, she resents seeing a York (Edward) wear the crown. But Richard's argument with Rivers shows how complicated house allegiances are: it's unclear whether one's ultimate loyalty should be to one's house or to the current king.
Queen Margaret's accusations grow louder and Richard notices her. He asks why she is in England since she was banished on pain of death. Margaret says she prefers death to banishment. They owe her, she claims, a husband, a son, a kingdom, and happiness. Richard reminds her that she has been forever cursed by his father for killing his baby brother Rutland and that her misery is God's will. Everyone teams up to criticize Margaret, calling her crazy.
Aside from suffering the pain of lost loved ones, Margaret is the victim of some powerful words: she's been officially banished and the penalty for disobeying the terms of that order is death. Furthermore, Richard's father cursed her with a curse that Richard suggests God himself stands behind.
Queen Margaret starts hurling curses. She curses Elizabeth to "outlive [her] glory," her children, her husband, and her throne, as Margaret has. She curses Rivers, Dorset, and Hastings to die before they reach the age her son was when he was killed. She curses Richard to be "be-gnaw[ed] by "the worm of conscience," to mistake his friends for traitors and vice versa, and to be unable to sleep without nightmares. She calls him an "elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog," calls Elizabeth a fool for taking Richard's side against Margaret, and says the queen will one day wish Margaret were there to help her curse him. She warns everybody against Richard saying that they will look back on this day "and say, poor Margaret was a prophetess!" She exits. Richard claims to forgive Margaret and everyone is impressed by his gentleness.
Margaret's curses are articulated in powerful, biting language, but it remains to be seen whether they'll actually end up affecting the characters' reality. Margaret's insult to Richard twists his heraldic symbol – the boar – from something noble into something grotesque and crude (and more fitting for Richard's true character). At this point, Richard thinks little of the power of Margaret's curses, and uses his response to those curses in order to cast a good impression of himself, pretending that he is so merciful and kind that he can forgive even an outburst as nasty as Margaret's.
Sir William Catesby enters with a message from King Edward, who calls Elizabeth, Rivers and the other lords to his bedside. All exit but Richard, who recounts with satisfaction the success of his plot: he has tricked Clarence, Stanley, Hastings, and Buckingham into thinking Elizabeth and her friends are to blame for Clarence's imprisonment. Furthermore, he has convinced them of his own moral rectitude by quoting the Bible and pretending to show Christian forgiveness towards her and her company.
Richard describes further developments of his plot to the audience: through lying and verbally manipulating those around him, he has shifted blame that should rest on his shoulders onto Queen Elizabeth's. He has also polished his own public image by quoting the Bible and parroting Christian values that he does not actually believe in.
Two murderers enter to report to Richard. Richard sends them off to kill Clarence, but warns them to do it quickly because Clarence is articulate and he doesn't want them swayed by his pleas. The first murderer assures Richard that "talkers are no good doers" and that they won't engage in discussion. Richard approves.
As a savvy manipulator of language, Richard is well aware of the power of words and wants to make sure Clarence's own eloquence doesn't get in the way of his plot.