Although I am not particularly well-versed in how England’s royal hierarchies work, I find that Shakespeare is calling into question what it means to live in a society where the royal families rule. The tone in Act I suggests that Shakespeare is skeptical of this predetermined fate of who will rule.
Beginning with Richard’s speech, he raises question about predetermination when it comes to his looks. Richard goes on about how he was “rudely stamped” and “cheated of feature” (1.1.16-19). The words “stamped” and “cheated” suggest that Richard has adverse feelings toward the idea of predetermined reality because he did not receive the same gift of good looks at the rest of his family. Richard resents that he was not born with good looks, and resents the fact that his brother is in line for the throne before he is. By putting into motion a plan to kills his brother, it’s as if Richard is compensating for his lot in life—he’s trying to gain a sense of agency in this world of predetermined fate.
After he discusses his looks, he takes the idea of predestination even further when he says “I am determined to prove a villain” (1.1.30). On the side of the Norton we see that determined in this context might also mean resolved or fated. Richard is lonely and feels that because of the way he looks—he does not fit in. Therefore, he believes he’s destined for villainy. Here I find the text raising questions about what it means to be different from other people (not only in physical attributes—this can extend to race, gender, etc.). Did Richard’s sense of otherness lead to his malicious demeanor? How does being othered affect life more generally? In addition, is fate the blame for otherness?
Shakespeare also asks us to consider fate during 1.3 when Queen Elizabeth, Queen Margaret, and Richard are in disagreement. Their clashing of beliefs humanizes the royals, but also asks us to question who we want ruling the country. Elizabeth and Margaret are both characterized as self-centered in that they’re both very worried about what life is like for them without their husbands and children. Elizabeth is especially overtly worried about her own affairs, even though her husband is on his deathbed; her first line in the play is: “If he were dead, what would betide on me?” (1.3.6). Her self serving attitude suggests that she is not looking out for the people or country as a whole; rather, she is too wrapped up in herself to think of anyone else. The banter between Elizabeth, Margaret, and Richard feels very trivial in the sense that they do not seem competent to rule.
By considering the predetermination and hierarchical structures, questions will be raised about whether the text is exposing, critiquing, or reinforcing these ideas about life that we still discuss contemporarily.