Shakespeare’s genius as a writer emerges in a number of ways. His poetry is incomparable. His sense of what is dramatic and theatrical is ground-breaking. His genius in creating character is unparalleled. All three have their place in “Richard III” – character above all.
Richard himself first appears in “Henry VI Part Three”. There, he is a savage but frustrated individual, cruel and rash. He joins his brothers in stabbing to death the King’s son, then takes the knife to King Henry, defenceless in a prison cell. But his anger lacks direction.
In this play a bolder, more confident character takes centre-stage. Also one more selfish and sadistic than anything Shakespeare had written up to this point. It’s a remarkable portrait, because this grotesque and provocative figure completely dominates the play and the stage.
Shakespeare was a relatively young writer when he created Richard. What if his audience had decided they couldn’t stand this bestial creature, and voted with their feet? The creation of Richard is brave. Shakespeare gave him one third of the lines in the play, and it isn’t too many.
Richard III is the first in a sequence of odious characters Shakespeare creates and places front and centre: Iago in “Othello”, Edmund in “King Lear”, Macbeth in the play named after him. There is something compelling about these abysmal individuals, of whom Richard is the prototype.
In practice, characters like these – brave as it was to create them – were not Shakespeare’s copyright. The medieval morality plays, simple street dramas that preceded the flowering of the theatre in Elizabeth’s reign, delighted in pitting good against evil through a character called The Vice.
There are times when Richard certainly seems like a personification of evil. It’s no coincidence that the play ends with Henry Tudor praising God for his victory at Bosworth. This was a defeat for evil, Shakespeare implies, and a victory for Christian values.
It was also, of course, a victory for the Tudors, so Shakespeare’s concluding scenes are something of a safe option. Even so, the final picture of Richard, unhorsed and vulnerable, surrounded by his enemies, provides a graphic contrast to the all-powerful criminal mind that has dominated the play, and serves as a vivid summary of his decline and fall..
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
In his opening soliloquy, Richard notes the Wars of the Roses are over and now is the time for peace.
But because of his physical condition – “Deformed, unfinish’d” – he is not made for “sportive tricks”.
So his energies will be invested in playing the villain, and dividing his brother Clarence from the King.
Clarence appears en route to the Tower, revealing he has fallen foul of the superstitious monarch.
But Richard blames the King’s wife Lady Grey, and promises Clarence he will try to have him freed.
Lord Hastings reports that the King is unwell – seeing Clarence despatched soon becomes urgent.
Once the King is dead, Richard will focus his attention on the late King’s daughter-in-law, Lady Anne.
Act One Scene Two
Lady Anne accompanies the coffin of the late King Henry, father of her late husband Prince Edward.
Cursing their murderer, she hopes if Richard ever has children, they may be “ugly and unnatural”.
Henry’s wounds bleed afresh when Richard appears – evidence to her that he was their murderer.
Anne denounces him as a “lump of foul deformity”; he calls her “divine perfection of a woman”.
He denies killing her husband, blaming his older brother, but admits that he killed King Henry.
Richard expresses the desire to sleep with Anne but she spits at him: “thou dost infect my eyes”.
He claims he has never until now felt so moved, never mastered the “sweet smoothing word”.
He hands her his sword and invites her to stab him, admitting that he “stabb’d young Edward”.
She drops the sword, and he puts a ring on her finger, claiming to shed “repentant tears” for Henry.
Alone Richard reveals “I’ll have her but I will not keep her long” as he refines plans for her seduction.
Act One Scene Three
The King is gravely ill and his wife Elizabeth reveals that, if he dies, their son’s “protector” is Richard.
News comes that the King wants to repair relationships between Richard and Elizabeth’s family.
Richard arrives, complaining that because “I cannot flatter [and] deceive”, he feels he is unpopular.
Among other complaints Richard accuses Elizabeth of having Clarence imprisoned, which she denies.
Henry’s widow Margaret accuses Richard of killing her husband Henry and Edward, “my poor son”.
Richard denies that he harbours any ambitions for the throne, claiming “I would rather be a pedlar”.
But he reminds Margaret that she was responsible for the cruel deaths of his father and brother.
She curses the whole dynasty, hoping that like her they’ll live to see the death of a husband and son.
She is especially insulting to Richard, denouncing him as an “elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog”.
She warns against Richard, observing that “when he fawns, he bites”, and advising “beware of him”.
Alone, Richard summarises how he disguises his crimes with “odd ends stolen out of holy writ”.
Two murderers collect the warrant they need to get access to the Tower to murder Clarence.
Act One Scene Four
Clarence dreamt he was accidentally pushed into the sea by Richard, amid “ugly sights of death”.
But he could not die – the “envious flood” refused to release his soul from “within my panting bulk”.
Visions of victims from the recent Wars of the Roses “howled in my ears” until “I trembling waked”.
Clarence sleeps as his murderers arrive to take control of him, despite their misgivings and doubts.
The Second Murderer reflects on the power of the conscience and its unwelcome inhibiting effects.
Clarence wakes up and tries to appeal to the murderers’ Christian faith – “thou shalt do no murder”.
They accuse him of the murder of the late Prince Edward – for which, he says, others are guilty too.
He tells them to ask Gloucester to authorise his release, but “your brother Gloucester hates you”.
Clarence believes it impossible that Richard hates him – he promised “he would labour my delivery”.
The First Murderer stabs him and hides his body while his companion repents his part in the killing.
Act Two Scene One
The King sensing he is close to death is relieved to see friendly relations among the governing family.
Richard joins in the general amnesty with an apparently heartfelt “desire [for] all good men’s love”.
The Queen wishes Clarence included, whereupon Richard rounds on her for insulting his memory.
It seems the King’s “first order” for his execution – rather than his “countermand” – was followed.
Edward blames his nobles for failing to remind him of Clarence’s love when he ordered his death.
Act Two Scene Two
Clarence’s children realise their father is dead and believe the King is to blame: “God will revenge it”.
Evidently Richard told them to blame the King – though his mother calls him “foul” and “my shame”.
The Queen announces the death of the King while his mother describes her remaining son as “false”.
Amid general lamentation, the Queen’s brother Lord Rivers calls for Edward’s son to be crowned.
Buckingham suggests that Edward be brought forthwith to London from Ludlow for his coronation.
Buckingham and Richard agree they – not “the queen’s proud kindred” – will escort the young King.
Act Two Scene Three
Three ordinary citizens discuss the death of the King: “O full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester”.
Act Two Scene Four
The late King’s mother, wife and youngest son cheerfully anticipate young Edward’s arrival.
News arrives that Queen Elizabeth’s brother and son have been arrested and imprisoned.
She predicts “the downfall of our house” while the late King’s mother cries “let me die”.
Supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the three hurry to find sanctuary from Richard’s plans.
Act Three Scene One
Edward, newly arrived in London, asks Richard why there are not “more uncles to welcome me”.
Richard reveals that there was “poison” in “their hearts” and warns him against “false friends”.
Edward disputes that his family is false, and wonders why they have not “met us on the way”.
Hastings reveals Edward’s mother sought sanctuary with his brother and is sent to collect the boy.
Doubts about the ethics of breaking sanctuary are aired by the Cardinal, but quickly dismissed.
Richard tells Edward that he will best “repose” at the Tower, though Edward has reservations.
Edward’s younger brother the Duke of York is brought from sanctuary, and banters with Richard.
The Duke of York is reluctant to stay at the Tower but his older brother Edward reassures him.
Richard and Buckingham task Catesby with engaging Hastings as a co-conspirator in their plot.
Act Three Scene Two
Hastings is told of Lord Stanley’s dream in which a boar (Richard’s symbol) attacked and killed him.
Hastings is advised to flee but confidently replies that flight will only “incense the boar to follow us”.
Catesby suggests that Richard should be crowned king but Hastings reveals he would prefer to die.
Hastings accepts the Queen’s relatives be executed, but repeats his opposition to Richard as King.
Stanley questions Hastings’s confidence, reminding him of the fate of the Queen’s family at Pomfret.
Buckingham is happy to accompany Hastings to the Tower – where (he confides) Hastings will stay.
Act Three Scene Three
At Pomfret, Prince Edward’s relatives prepare for their executions with prayers for Edward’s safety.
Act Three Scene Four
Buckingham, Hastings and others meet to arrange the coronation, confident of Richard’s support.
Richard privately conveys to Buckingham that Hastings will not support the coup against Edward.
Hastings cheerfully praises Richard for his seeming honesty: “by his face … shall you know his heart”.
Richard reappears abruptly, complaining of “devilish plots of damned witchcraft … Upon my body”.
He blames the Queen and Hastings’s lover for his “wither’d” arm, and demands Hastings’s execution.
Hastings realises he has been too confident of his own safety despite numerous ominous warnings.
Hastings feels the ebb and flow of human fortune, and predicts “the fearful’st time” for England.
Act Three Scene Five
Buckingham reassures Richard that he is capable of every kind of deception and “counterfeit”.
They deceive the Lord Mayor that Hastings betrayed their confidence in plotting against them.
The Lord Mayor is convinced that Hastings freely confessed his treachery before he was executed.
He’ll persuade “our duteous citizens” that Hastings’s execution was the result of “just proceedings”.
Richard instructs Buckingham to question the legitimacy of his brother Edward and of his children.
Richard resolves to “draw the brats of Clarence out of sight” so that he alone has access to them.
Act Three Scene Six
A scrivener who has copied out evidence of Hastings’s treachery looks to the future with foreboding.
Act Three Scene Seven
Buckingham reports that he informed “the citizens” that Edward – unlike Richard – was illegitimate.
Also he recounted Richard’s achievements and bravery, and pronounced him “England’s royal king”.
His audience were “like dumb statues”, he reports, except for a small group at the rear of the hall.
Buckingham advises Richard to arm himself with a prayer-book to speak to the Mayor and citizens.
Armed with “right Christian zeal”, Richard is begged by Buckingham to reluctantly accept the crown.
Richard modestly admits to “so many my defects” and pretends to take comfort in Prince Edward.
Buckingham argues that Prince Edward is the fruit of an “unlawful bed” through his mother.
Richard’s apparent resistance elicits a threat from Buckingham to seek the “downfall of your house”.
Richard accepts the crown with evident reluctance, disclaiming responsibility for any consequences.
Plans are laid for his coronation to follow the next day, leaving Richard (it seems) to his prayers.
Act Four Scene One
Richard’s mother, his sister-in-law and his wife Anne meet at the Tower to visit the young Princes.
The warden informs them that “The king” (“I mean the lord protector”) does not allow the visit.
Stanley tells a reluctant Anne she must get to Westminster Abbey urgently to be crowned Queen.
Anne reports that Richard suffers from “timorous dreams” at night which prevent her from sleeping.
Richard’s mother desires “my grave”, while Elizabeth yearns for her imprisoned “tender babes”.
Act Four Scene Two
Richard plans to kill the Princes – “I want the bastards dead” – but Buckingham is unenthusiastic.
Richard orders rumours to spread that Anne is “sick and like to die”; he means to marry his niece.
Tyrrel, recruited for his cynicism, is tasked by Richard with murdering “those bastards in the Tower”.
Buckingham returns to find Richard distracted by fears of Richmond, and resolves to flee.
Act Four Scene Three
Tyrrel reports that the Princes have been murdered in the Tower – evidently a painful operation.
Richard is told of their murder, and reflects on the demise of all extant threats other than Richmond.
News arrives that Buckingham has raised an army to oppose Richard, prompting an urgent response.
Act Four Scene Four
Margaret of Anjou, widow of Henry VI, will return to France, leaving behind an England in turmoil.
The widows of Henry VI, Edward IV and the Duke of York lament the loss of so many loved ones.
Margaret blames the Duchess of York since Richard “From forth … thy womb hath crept”.
She reminds Edward’s widow how far she has fallen – for her the “wheel of justice wheel’d about”.
She tells them that to curse is to exaggerate, leaving them to plan to “smother / My damned son”.
Richard arrives, to be met with accusations of multiple family members from the two women.
His mother denounces Richard’s life as a baby, a child, a schoolboy, a young man and in maturity.
She tells him she will “never speak to thee again” and curses his prospects in the coming battle.
Elizabeth, the late King’s widow, resists Richard’s interest in her daughter, replying with sarcasm.
Richard understates his many crimes: “I cannot make amends” he says, so “accept [my] kindness”.
Promises of advancement for her son Dorset combine with “a conqueror’s bed” for her daughter.
Richard offers numerous inducements for the marriage, all questioned or rejected by Elizabeth.
He claims, in her “consists my happiness”, but without her, “Death, desolation, ruin and decay”.
Richard offers to replace her murdered children with new childbirth, and Elizabeth seems to agree.
News arrives that Henry has landed in Wales with numerous allies, Buckingham among them.
Stanley is made to leave behind his son with Richard to guarantee that he won’t defect to Henry.
Further news arrives from many sources that “every hour more competitors” flock to Henry.
But reports that Buckingham has been taken lead Richard to command he be brought to Salisbury.
Act Four Scene Five
Derby admits he cannot oppose Richard while his son is his hostage, but many others are doing so.
A message to Richard that despite her promise in 4.4, Elizabeth’s daughter is to marry Henry.
Act Five Scene One
Buckingham, about to be executed, reflects on Margaret’s curse that Richard will destroy him.
Act Five Scene Two
Henry addresses his troops at Tamworth, encouraging them to confront Richard at Leicester.
Act Five Scene Three
Richard pitches his camp at Bosworth, confident of victory with three times Henry’s troops.
Elsewhere Henry prepares for the battle, and secretly writes to Lord Stanley on Richard’s side.
Richard sends instructions to Stanley to join him on pain of losing his son, held the King’s hostage.
Stanley appears at Henry’s tent to warn him “I may not be too forward” because of his son.
Henry asks God to favour his side in the forthcoming conflict, and concludes “O defend me still!”
Richard is visited by the ghosts of eleven victims, including Prince Edward, Henry VI and Clarence.
The same ghosts appear to Henry, encouraging him, inter alia, to “beget a happy race of kings”.
Troubled by his “coward conscience”, Richard feels the weight of his crimes and cannot sleep.
Henry enjoyed the “sweetest sleep”, and now reassures his men that “God fight[s] upon our side”.
His men will be amply rewarded, he says, by God, by the country and by their wives and children.
Richard regrets the gloomy weather but prepares for battle, denouncing the enemy as “beggars”.
News comes that Stanley denies to bring his men forward, and it is too late to execute his son.
Act Five Scene Four
Richard having lost his horse cries out for another while he “enacts more wonders than a man”.
Act Five Scene Five
Henry kills Richard and, along with an amnesty, pledges to “unite the white rose and the red”.
He condemns those who “wound this fair land’s peace”, and proclaims that “peace lives again”.
Richard’s anxieties about his body are a central theme in the second half of “Henry VI Part Three”. In 3.2 of that play, he resolves that, since fate conspired to “disproportion me in every part”, he can’t “make my heaven in a lady’s lap”, so instead “I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown”. There’s a measure of self-hatred in this presentation of Richard: later in the play, after he has stabbed Henry to death in his Tower of London cell, he resolves that “since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crook’d my mind”. These themes are taken up in the opening scene of “Richard III” – the only one of Shakespeare’s plays (as the critic Emma Smith points out) to open with a soliloquy.
Richard’s relationship with his brother Clarence has a convoluted history. In “Henry VI Part Three”, Clarence abandons the Yorkist cause temporarily to join forces with Henry and the Lancastrians. His defection is short-lived and he soon returns to his family’s colours, but his brief dalliance with the old King’s party sows seeds of doubt in the new King’s mind. So when Edward is warned that “by G / His issue disinherited should be”, the focus sharpens on George Clarence rather than Richard Gloucester. The audience, meanwhile, privy to Richard’s “subtle, false and treacherous” manoeuvrings all along, recognise in Clarence a harmless and ineffectual innocent abroad.
Richard opens and closes the first scene with soliloquies. We are never in doubt about his thinking. In his closing remarks, he looks forward to the deaths of his two remaining brothers, “For then I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter” – who is Clarence’s wife. This strategy reflects Richard’s tendency to elide or confuse power with sex, and to discuss them more or less in the same breath. This is a theme opened up in “Henry VI Part Three” as suggested above.
Improbable as his successful seduction of Lady Anne may seem, Richard’s behaviour in 1.2 reinforces the key theme of 1.1, namely that his public performance has little in common with his private thoughts. In 1.1, he pledges his sympathy to his brother Clarence while privately planning his death – Clarence is duly taken in, as events in 1.4 will show; then in 1.2 Richard rivals Romeo in his romantic appeal to the grieving Anne while privately relishing the cruelty he intends for her. To speak of Richard’s performance is to borrow a metaphor from the stage – the part of Richard III was almost certainly written for Richard Burbage, who later played (among other parts) Henry V, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Lear – and Romeo.
Queen Margaret is a prominent figure in the prequels to this play: in “Henry VI Part Two” she emerges as the King’s formidable if untrustworthy wife, and in “Part Three” as his most savage supporter, responsible for atrocities unparalleled in Shakespeare. Here she is marginal, but in 1.3 she issues a curse that reverberates through the rest of the play: may Edward the Prince of Wales die as my son died; may Elizabeth his mother live to know the pain as I have done; may her innocent relatives Rivers and Dorset be killed and Hastings too; and may the new King Richard make friends of traitors and be betrayed by them. The curse is successful – every element of it comes to pass – to the point where Elizabeth asks Margaret “teach me how to curse mine enemies!” (4.4), and at his execution the treacherous Buckingham admits that “Margaret’s curse is fallen upon my head” (5.1)
When in 1.4 the two hired assassins arrive at Clarence’s cell with murder in mind, the Second Murderer allows himself some brief reflections on the subject of the conscience: it “makes a man a coward”, he observes, ruining his natural pleasures – like sleeping with “his neighbour’s wife”, for example. Better, he concludes, to “trust to himself and live without it”. Later in this scene the Second Murderer will forgo his payment (“Take thou the fee … / For I repent”), prompted by the very impulse he earlier questioned. The conscience will remain an essential tool in Shakespeare’s approach to character, figuring prominently in his depiction of (among others) Macbeth and Hamlet.
When in 2.1 Edward IV calls for a show of friendship from the ruling elite, he is particular that it should be genuine: “Dissemble not your hatred”, he tells them, and “what you do, do it unfeignedly”. After all, as he points out, God himself will reject any “hidden falsehood”. The call for honesty is timely, because Richard is about to arrive, and his performance will once again foreground cynicism over sincerity: I have no enemies, he claims, but the Queen is insulting Clarence’s memory, and the King is responsible for his death, influenced by the Queen’s family. All are lies.
The Duchess of York cuts an interesting figure in 2.2. On the one hand, she seems to be the only character who understands the real nature of Richard of Gloucester: so though she is proud of her late sons Edward and Clarence, she has no compunction in describing Richard as a source of shame – a word she uses twice. At the same time, she laments that “death hath snatch’d my husband from mine arms / And pluck’d two crutches from my feeble limbs, / Edward and Clarence”. Students of “Henry VI Part Three” will be mystified that the Duchess has forgotten a third crutch, Edmond Rutland, her fourth and youngest son, whose shocking murder in 1.3 triggers much of the bloodshed that follows.
So far the play has focused narrowly on the rulers. In 2.3, for the first time, the focus falls on the ruled. Shakespeare invests the three citizens he presents with a confident appreciation of recent history (“So stood the state when Henry the Sixth / Was crown’d”), together with a canny understanding of politics (“then this land was famously enrich’d / With politic grave counsel”) and a reliable insight into character: “O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester!” This last is especially notable since Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that the ordinary citizen is less easily fooled than the governing elite: a daring statement.
Cardinal Bourchier is tasked with collecting the new King’s younger brother the Duke of York from the “sanctuary” intended by his mother to protect him from Richard. The Cardinal is reluctant, because “the holy privilege / Of blessed sanctuary” in medieval England was a religious imperative and not to be infringed. But like many representatives of the church in the History plays – necessarily, like the Cardinal, Roman Catholics – Bourchier is weak and easily persuaded, and the young Duke of York soon falls into Richard’s clutches.
Hastings’s downfall in 3.4 reminds him of life’s unpredictability: good luck in life, he now acknowledges, is to build “his hopes in air” – a thought he illustrates with the image of a sailor in a crow’s nest, vulnerable to “tumble down / Into the fatal bowels of the deep”. This image is a reminder of Clarence’s dream, described in 1.4, in which “the deep” is again an image of desperation and oblivion. In fact, Clarence is a good example of Hastings’s more general point: one moment he is the King’s brother, the next the prey of murderers. A very Shakespearean theme.
Hastings’s closing thoughts in 3.4 underline the significance of dreams for the Elizabethans. In 3.2, Hastings is told of Stanley’s dream, which seems to suggest the danger Richard poses. Elsewhere in Shakespeare’s plays, dreams play a significant role. In “Julius Caesar”, for example, Caesar’s wife foretells her husband’s murder at the prompting of her dream; in “Henry VI Part Two”, similarly, Gloucester foresees his own demise when he dreams “this staff, mine office-badge in court”, is snapped in two, each fragment driven into the severed heads of his enemies. Gloucester is confused about how to interpret these images: “what it doth bode, God knows”, he says. Hamlet would have an answer to that question: “A dream itself”, believes the Prince, “is but a shadow”. But Hastings might not agree.
One aspect of Shakespeare’s art as a dramatist is his genius for discomforting and provoking his audience. Characters like Iago in “Othello”, who level with the audience and draw them into their confidence, are almost too painful to observe in action. The character of Richard is designed, so it seems, to shock and dismay, and his performance in 3.5 is a case in point. First he issues bare-faced lies to the Lord Mayor about his erstwhile friend Hastings, whom he has had executed; next he impugns the morality of his own mother; finally he plans to remove his brother Clarence’s children “out of sight” – where their fate is predictable. The audience is powerless to stop any of this, of course. But the sight of such cruelty is compelling.
Shakespeare’s willingness to associate moral corruption with some expressions of Christianity reaches its zenith (or nadir) in 3.7, in which Richard – a composite of evil, as close to the devil as one can imagine – is presented as devout and God-fearing by way of disguising his true character. Whether representatives of the established church frequented the theatre in Shakespeare’s day is perhaps a matter for debate, yet word must have leaked out that this most unChristian of characters was being presented, albeit disingenuously, on the London stage as an upright Christian of unimpeachable integrity. Shakespeare often presents Catholic priests as morally compromised – he does so in this play with Cardinal Bourchier – but here the whole of the Christian faith is tarred by its association with this character, its polar opposite.
Many of Shakespeare’s most grotesque villains seem to grow from his vision of Richard III. Iago in “Othello” is similarly coldly malicious, unencumbered by a conscience. Edmund in “King Lear” is motivated by a deep-seated sense of self-hatred – Richard by his physical infirmities, Edmund by his illegitimate status. Macbeth, like Richard, is plagued with dreams that “shake us nightly” but won’t be assuaged. It’s a striking insight into Shakespeare’s stagecraft that all four are given every chance to address the audience intimately in soliloquies that are excruciatingly hard to hear.
Tyrrel reports in 4.3 that the princes have been murdered in the Tower. It’s a striking contrast to the way the death of Clarence is conveyed to the audience in 1.4. Shakespeare was evidently content to show the murder of the adult – it seems likely that the death of the children was a step too far. Equally, it may be that he is following the principle that the monarch (as the older child may have claimed to be) cannot be killed on stage. See the murder of Duncan.
In very broad terms, 4.4 can be broken down into four separate sections. In the first, covering just under 150 lines, the three aristocratic women (the widows of Henry VI and Edward IV and Richard’s mother) bitterly lament their collective fate. In the second section, lasting around 70 lines, which begins with the arrival of Richard, his mother the Duchess of York is given the chance to discharge her hatred of her son.
The third section, lasting 250 lines, comprises the dialogue between Richard and the former Queen Elizabeth, his late brother’s widow. In this sequence Richard asks her permission to marry her daughter, having murdered her two sons in the Tower. At times her replies to this extraordinary request enable her to speak for the audience: “Say I, her sovereign, am her subject love”, says Richard. “But she, your subject”, Elizabeth replies, “loathes such sovereignty”.
The final section, around 120 lines, is effectively a separate scene, recounting the gathering opposition to his rule and Richard’s attempts to prevent a haemorrhage of his own support.
The first two scenes of Act Five make the same point in different ways: the rebellion against Richard is now a Christian crusade, and unseating and replacing him is a moral imperative. In 5.1, Buckingham delivers the religious perspective, seeing his own execution as “the determined respite of my wrongs” – in other words, God’s punishment for taking the devil’s side. The speeches in 5.2 are notable not for military strategy as one might expect but for moral inspiration – “Every man’s conscience”, opines Earl Oxford, “is a thousand swords / To fight against that bloody homicide”. These points are reinforced in 5.3 when Henry calls upon God to “Look on my forces with a gracious eye”. It is worth re-stating that Queen Elizabeth I was Henry Tudor’s grand-daughter.
Act Five is most memorable perhaps for the ghosts that appear in Richard’s sleep as emblems of his disturbed conscience. They reinforce the supernatural element in the play and serve as a reminder of the importance of dreams in this text. Ghosts play a significant role in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, including most famously “Hamlet” (the hero’s father), “Macbeth” (his former companion Banquo) and “Julius Caesar” where, in scenes similar to these, Brutus is confronted by Caesar’s ghost on the eve of battle. Like Richard III, he loses.
Henry delivers the blow that kills Richard, and in every respect is his opposite and his nemesis. Strongly associated with Christian virtues, Henry is nonetheless (as critic Emma Smith points out) a non-entity as a character, devoid of personality, a function of the play and a vehicle for pro-Tudor propaganda.
Who’s Who / Characters
Richard’s hatred for others begins with self-hatred, which focuses on body image and disability. Power is the consolation and he seeks it without restraint. He owes nothing to anyone – mother, brothers, lovers, allies – has no fellow-feeling, and at the slightest hint of disloyalty, implements the most extreme reprisals. He takes pleasure in his power over others for its own sake, especially in matters of life and death.
Richard is a brilliant actor, an accomplished deceiver, devoid of embarrassment, a bare-faced liar who dares his audience to expose him. The hatred of others, even his mother, who curses her own womb, means nothing to him. Yet beneath the bravado, we are told of his “timorous dreams” – as if his long-dead conscience has been awoken by his grotesque personality and the crimes he has committed.
- Where is Lady Anne going when Richard meets her in 1.2?
- What evidence convinces Lady Anne that Richard murdered Henry?
- What is Clarence doing when the murderers arrive at the tower?
- What does the Archbishop of Canterbury offer to provide after Edward’s death?
- Where does Richard propose the young Prince Edward should stay before his coronation?
- Which wild animal appears in Lord Stanley’s dream in 3.2?
- What does Buckingham suggest Richard carry when he meets the citizens in 3.7?
- Where is Lady Anne instructed to go to urgently in 4.1?
- How does Richard refer to the young Princes in 4.2?
- After victory at Bosworth, what offer does Henry make to Richard’s soldiers?
It goes without saying that “Richard III” is a history play. But in some ways it is also a mystery play. That is, supernatural features play an important part in the unfolding narrative.
One aspect of this is dreams. Clarence dreams in 1.4 that his brother accidentally pushes him into the sea – a premonition perhaps of the very real threat Richard poses, evidenced when the murderers arrive. Richard also figures in Lord Stanley’s dream in 3.2, in the guise of a “boar”, which was his emblem. Hastings might have taken note of this premonition because he too will fall victim to the boar, but he advises Lord Stanley that “the boar will use us kindly”.
A second related element of mystery is the appearance of the ghosts in Act Five. These eleven spectres, ghosts of Richard’s victims, appear to both Richard and to Henry Tudor as they sleep, a reminder perhaps of Lady Anne’s comment about Richard’s sleeping patterns and his “timorous dreams”. Ghosts in Shakespeare don’t always speak, but these are eloquent.
The third mystery is prophecy. As Clarence notes in conversation with Richard in the opening scene, their older brother King Edward “hearkens after prophecies and dreams”, and has been persuaded by “a wizard” that the House of York will be destroyed by one whose name “begins with G”. The King believes the prophecy – he has every reason to, since it turns out to be accurate – though his interpretation is awry.
Similarly supernatural (or superstitious) is the belief that the wounds of a murder victim will begin to bleed when the person responsible for their murder is nearby. This medieval nonsense is revived when Richard encounters Lady Anne with the body of her father-in-law, the late King Henry VI: “see, see!” she exclaims, “dead Henry’s wounds / Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh”. This is apparently evidence of Richard’s crime – though in fact, when accused, he admits it freely: “I grant ye”, he tells her.
A fifth element of the supernatural revolves around the curse Queen Margaret issues in 1.3. As noted above, more or less every part of this curse comes true, including the death of Edward IV and of Prince Edward, together with the survival of the Queen who will experience the intense grief of bereavement. Other curses come true, including the death of Rivers and Dorset as well as Hastings, along with the less likely curse that Richard will not know untroubled sleep. As he goes to his execution, Buckingham observes that “Margaret’s curse is fallen upon my head”, and he notes that “Margaret was a prophetess”.
Taken together these elements of superstition and the supernatural complement the mainstream of the play, which is Richard’s criminal drive, cruelty and ambition. They suggest that, no matter how hard we strive to order events to our purpose, time and chance are perhaps more complex and less pliable than we imagine.