Richard III, Act 5


At 5.1 Buckingham’s acceptance of the fittingness, almost the symmetry, of his execution seem to stand as a contrast to what Richard has become. And he allies himself with Margaret’s prophecies. Beginning in 5.2 Richmond’s language has a clarity and piety that also contrasts with Richard’s. In the ensuing scenes, his engagement with his followers is also evident. When Richard speaks of Bosworth field at the beginning of 5.3, we’re aware that the end is in sight.

The parallel sleeping and dreaming of Richard and Richmond becomes a recapitulation of Richard’s bloody career: first, Prince Edward, then King Henry, Clarence, Rivers and Gray and Vaughan, the “little princes in the Tower,” Hastings, Anne (it’s not mentioned that at least he didn’t kill her), and Buckingham. When Richard starts up and imagines himself in the battle, he confronts what he is, and the “Richard loves Richard, I am I” seems to accept his guilt, even admitting his identity as murderer. His final acceptance of what he is and his self-accusation might seem almost a repentance, but in fact it isn’t, and his “I shall despair” appears to signify his damnation. And this contrasts with Richmond’s “sweetest sleep and fairest boding dreams” and leads to his speech to his troops that expresses the necessity of Richard’s defeat. The earlier scene about conscience is alluded to in Richard’s declaration that conscience is but a word that cowards use, and that his conscience is his sword and arms. And his speech to his troops consists in abuse of Richmond and his army.

5.7 and 5.8 are the end of Richard’s kingship, including his pleading for a horse, and the conclusion is taking the crown from Richard’s head and Stanley’s setting it on Richmond’s head; Richmond is now Henry VII in the text and his speech signals the end to the York/Lancaster war. Do we see in Richard III the achievement of history play writing? Much depends on the unity of Richard’s character in the play. And several big scenes, e.g., the two wooing scenes, allow the characterization of hypocrisy and evil with a rhetorical cleverness that an audience can enjoy.

I am a little puzzled about the “psychology” of the series of ghosts that appear to Richard and Richmond in 5.3. I can understand why Richmond might confidently dream of victory on the morrow, but why should he dream of those whom Richard killed? Maybe we are not supposed to think about “psychology” here. Maybe the scene is just about symmetry and good theatre. I suppose it’s clear enough that the appearance of the victims in Richard’s dreams indicates that he in fact has a guilty conscience, even though he dismisses “conscience” as something only cowards have. (Does the word here mean “conscience” in our sense, or “consciousness,” as it may mean in Hamlet’s “thus conscience doth make cowards of us all”? If he does have a guilty conscience, then should we think less ill of him, because at least, and for the first time, he feels bad about what he has done?

But his speech at 5.3.178-206 is strangely full of questions. He appears to be engaged in a dialogue with himself. “What do I fear?” seems to really mean “Why should I be afraid?” “Is there a murtherer here?” maybe means “Is there anybody in my tent about to murder me?” and the answer is “No.” But then he acknowledges that yes, there is a murderer here: he himself is a murtherer, though I don’t think he really feels guilty about it. Does he hate himself or love himself? Does he think he is a villain, or not? Does he think he is guilty, or not? I was surprised to hear him say “I shall despair.” Since when did he care what
anybody else thought about him? I think he is perhaps afraid not for what he has done but for what will happen to him the next day, on Bosworth Field.

It’s odd that he says he will become an eavesdropper at the tents of his men, but we then hear nothing more about it. (It’s a kind of reverse/reprise of Henry 5 at Agincourt.) The audience is invited to compare the speeches to their men by, first, Richmond, and then Richard. Both appeal to St. George. Both make patriotic appeals to their countrymen. But Richmond appeals repeatedly to God and Richard never mentions him. Still, Richard’s confidence seems to have been restored and his fears suppressed. Does that make the audience admire his courage?

In 5.4 Richard apparently fights valiantly, even after losing his horse. It’s not made clear how Richmond, with a smaller force, managed to win. I gather that historians have tried to explain it. But Shakespeare departs from history by having Richmond (who is not supposed to be an experienced soldier) kill Richard in single combat in 5.5. (Shakespeare also changes history in his treatment of Stanley, who, according to historians, apparently held back not to save his son but to make sure he sided with the winner.) The brief remainder of 5.5 is all about the reuniting of the red rose and the white. Interesting that the play does not end with line 34 — a prayer for “smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days!” — but with an imagined (feared?) bloody future, when England might again “weep in streams of blood.”

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell