Summary and Analysis
As Buckingham is led to his execution at Salisbury, he is told that Richard will not grant him an audience. He thinks of Henry VI, Henry's son Edward, Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and others who had died "By underhand corrupted foul justice." If from the other world they view his plight, he continues, let them mock his fate. It is All Souls' Day, and he recalls that on another such sacred day he had given Edward IV his pledge to remain at peace with the dying king's children and the queen's allies, inviting God's punishment if he broke that pledge. He then recalls Margaret's curse when he had scoffed at her warning. "Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame," he concludes. He is saying that this unjust death is only retribution for the unjust deaths he has been responsible for.
Scene 2 shifts to Richmond's camp near Tamworth. Richmond, entering with drums and trumpets, addresses his "Fellows in arms" and "most loving friends," inciting them against Richard, "that wretched, bloody, and usurping boar," who has placed upon them the "yoke of tyranny" and has despoiled their "summer fields and fruitful vines." He acknowledges the receipt of good news from Lord Stanley and reports that Richard is at Leicester, only one day away. In God's name, he urges them on. Oxford and Herbert predict that all Richard's friends will desert him since they are only friends through fear. "All for our vantage," exclaims Richmond, and again invoking God's name, he commands them to march onward.
On Bosworth Field, Richard, fully armed, enters with Norfolk, the Earl of Surrey, and others. He orders that their tents be pitched. When Richard chides Surrey for looking sad, the earl assures him that his heart is light. Then the king rallies Norfolk, who agrees that they must take blows as well as receive them. Richard states that he will rest here for the night; where he will rest tomorrow, he knows not. Philosophically he adds: "Well, all's one for that." He has reason to be confident, for he learns that his forces outnumber Richmond's three to one. With characteristic vigor, he gives commands preparatory to the battle and calls for men of competent leadership.
On the other side of the field, Richmond enters, accompanied by several distinguished nobles. While some soldiers are pitching his tent, Richmond takes note of the sunset, which gives promise of a fair day tomorrow. Calling for ink and paper, he plans the deposition of his forces for the battle. Before parting from the rest, he sends Captain Blount off with an important message to Stanley, whose forces lie about half a mile south of the king's. As they withdraw into the tent to finish the battle plans, Richard, with Norfolk, Ratcliff, Catesby, and others, claim our attention.
It is now nine o'clock and time for the evening's repast, but Richard decides not to sup. His thoughts are solely on the fight with Richmond. He calls for ink and paper; he asks if his armor is in readiness; he orders Norfolk to check the sentinels. Next, the king instructs Catesby to send a herald's officer to Stanley, ordering that lord to bring his regiment before morning unless he wants his son's head to be forfeit. He asks about the "melancholy Lord Northumberland" and is somewhat cheered to hear that the earl and Surrey have gone among the soldiers encouraging them. But Richard concedes that his own spirits lack alacrity and his mind its wonted cheerfulness. Therefore, he calls for a bowl of wine. Having instructed Ratcliff to come about the middle of the night to arm him, the king asks to be left alone.
Now attention is attracted to Richmond, who is in his tent with various lords and attendants. Derby (Lord Stanley) enters, and the two exchange greetings. Derby brings blessings from Richmond's mother, who prays constantly for her son's welfare. He counsels Richmond to put his fortunes to the test in tomorrow's battle but explains that in view of his son's plight, he cannot openly join the claimant's forces. Regretting that the encroaching battle prevents them from more time together, Stanley leaves. Richmond prepares himself for sleep, aware that he must be rested before he fights the good fight. Alone, he solemnly prays for God's good will, and to Him he commends his "watchful soul."
As both Richard and Richmond sleep, they are visited by a procession of ghosts of those the king had killed. They come in order of their deaths — Prince Edward, Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, the little princes, Hastings, Lady Anne, and Buckingham. Each ghost appears to Richard as an image of retribution, indicting him for his crime and telling him to "despair and die." In the words of Anne, each fills his sleep with perturbations. In contrast, each ghost offers praise and words of comfort to the sleeping Richmond: let him "live and flourish," for good angels guard him and fight on his side. The ghost of Hastings especially urges him to "Arm, fight, and conquer, for fair England's sake!" And the two princes urge him to "Live, and beget a happy race of kings!"
As the ghosts vanish, Richard starts out of his sleep. He has been dreaming of "bloody deeds and death." He cries out for a horse and for someone to bind his wounds. Realizing that he has been dreaming and that he is a victim of "coward conscience," he goes through a self-examination that ends in bitter condemnation of isolated and unpitied guilt. Ratcliff enters to rouse him for battle. Still unnerved, he tells Ratcliff his dream. Ratcliff tries to rally him, and Richard turns his mind to the question of his followers' loyalty. He leaves with Ratcliff to eavesdrop at their tent and see if any mean to shrink from him.
Attention is now directed to Richmond's tent, where nobles enter to greet their leader. He has rested well, having enjoyed the "sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams." He tells the lords how the souls of Richard's victims had come to his tent and "cried in victory." Told that it is now four o'clock in the morning, Richmond replies that it is "time to arm and give direction." There follows his formal address to his soldiers.
"God and our good cause fight on our side," he assures the troops, and adds that the "prayers of holy saints and wronged souls" stand before their faces. Even Richard's followers, he continues, want him to be defeated. Denouncing the king as "A bloody tyrant and homicide," Richmond urges his men to fight against God's enemies and their country's foes. Then may they expect to thrive in a prospering land, their wives and children free from danger. Richmond declares that he himself will fight unto death if necessary. If he wins, all will share in the gain. He calls for drums and trumpets to sound "boldly and cheerfully." And with the stirring cry, "God and Saint George! Richmond and victory!" he leads the way offstage.
It is Richard's turn now to receive full attention. He asks what Northumberland has said of Richmond and is pleased to hear Ratcliff tell him that the earl thinks very little of Richmond's capacity as a soldier and that Surrey was no less pleased with Northumberland's opinion. Richard then asks the time of day. He takes notice of the weather and remarks that the sun should have risen an hour ago. At first Richard is dashed by the thought that the skies are lowering down on him, but he realizes that the sun is not shining on Richmond either. Aroused from these thoughts by Norfolk, Richard tells that noble his plan of battle. A vanguard of horse and foot is to be spread out in front, with archers in the midst. Norfolk and Surrey are to command the foot and horse. Richard will follow in the main battle, his power on each side well-winged with foot and horse. Norfolk approves all this but passes Richard a taunting note he has found on his tent that morning. Richard dismisses it from his mind and sends his captains to their commands. He is determined not to let "babbling dreams" disturb his soul nor his conscience to bother him. Strong arms will be his conscience and swords his law: "March on, join bravely, let us to't pell-mell — / If not to Heaven, then hand in hand to Hell" (312-13).
In his oration to the troops, Richard denounces the enemy as a pack of foreign vagabonds and robbers who threaten to devastate the land and attack wives and daughters. He makes much of their being French, reminding his soldiers that their fathers had beaten the French on French soil. He concludes with a stirring call to arms. At this moment, a messenger comes, saying that Stanley refuses to bring his forces in. Richard wants to have young George's head cut off at once but is persuaded to wait until after the battle since the enemy are already past the marsh. Crying "A thousand hearts are great within my bosom" and invoking the name of Saint George, the king charges into action.
The battle is in progress. Catesby is crying to Norfolk to rescue the king, whose horse is slain and who continues to fight on foot. Richard enters, crying out for a horse. Catesby urges him to retire. He refuses, for he is determined to risk all. He leaves this part of the field, still crying for a horse and seeking Richmond.
Richard and Richmond fight, and Richard is slain. Richmond retreats and returns, receiving the congratulation of his friends for the victory, which is now assured. Derby (Lord Stanley) is carrying the crown, which he has taken from Richard. He places it on the head of Richmond. To the new king's question about young George Stanley (Richmond's half-brother), Derby replies that the youth is safe in Leicester. Richmond asks the names of nobles on both sides who have been slain and orders that they be buried "as becomes their births." In accordance with his wishes, all soldiers who have fled are to be pardoned if they return in submission to him. After taking the sacrament, he will marry Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's daughter, thus uniting the Yorkist and the Lancastrians. The harsh wars that have caused so much grief and injury, even among members of the same family, are now over. God willing, England will enter a reign of peace and prosperity. His concluding words are a prayer that traitors may perish and peace reign now that civil wounds are healed.
According to Holinshed, Buckingham made a full confession in the hope that Richard would agree to see him. He "sore desired" the meeting whether "to sue for pardon . . . or whether he being brought to his presence would have sticked him with a dagger." The execution actually took place in Shrewsbury.
Scene 1 again makes apparent that throughout the play Shakespeare never lets one lose sight of the major theme: the execution of God's judgment on those guilty of perjury and murder. To Buckingham's credit, let it be said, he acknowledges his own guilt, and his words add up to a justification of God's ways to man.
Scene 2 could easily be cut out. Shakespeare included it as essential to the theme he develops throughout the play and to point up Richmond's virtues. From a political point of view, never to be ignored in the chronicle history plays, Shakespeare now teaches the orthodox lesson: Richmond is the rightful heir to the throne, moving against a usurper and murderer. He fights in God's name to save England from the ravages of one who, for a time, had been permitted to function as the Scourge of God.
In Scene 3, Shakespeare especially remained quite faithful to Hall and Holinshed in his account of Richard and Richmond just before the Battle of Bosworth Field. Now, so near to the end of the play, the conflict has become completely centralized. Early there is evidence that Richard's downfall may be imminent. Surrey looks sad, and his insistence that he is really light of heart is not convincing. A bit later the king inquires about the "melancholy Northumberland." He has reason to be doubtful about that noble. Holinshed reported that Richard suspected him, and later wrote that, when it came to fighting, Northumberland stood aside "with a great company and intermitted not in the battle." And Lord Stanley still poses a problem for the king. Nevertheless, Richard's soldierly courage is apparent, as when he says, "Here will I lie tonight. / But where tomorrow? Well, all's one for that" (7-8). More to the point is Norfolk's report that Richmond's forces are far outnumbered by Richard's.
Richmond, having risen from "sweetest sleep," is in his tent carefully drawing up his plan of battle. He makes reference to his "small strength" but says nothing that suggests doubt or fear. In fact, his opening lines reflect confidence and peace of mind: "The weary sun hath made a golden set, / And by the bright track of his fiery car / Gives signal of a goodly day tomorrow" (19-21). Richmond's prayer, voiced in formal, impressive language, is anything but humble in tone. To understand its full import, one must take the historical point of view. The most obvious point to make is that Shakespeare was writing about Elizabeth I's grandfather, the first of the Tudors, whose claim to the throne had never been wholly secure. Richmond is moving against the man who wears the crown. Throughout the sixteenth century and beyond, the doctrine of absolute obedience to the ruler was inculcated. Even if, like Richard of this play, he was a usurper and murderer, no subject legitimately could rebel against him. In Richard II, written two years later, the wise old John of Gaunt, uncle to the king and a voice of orthodoxy, replies to the Duchess of Gloucester, who has implored him to avenge the murder of her husband, Gaunt's brother, a crime attributed to Richard II:
God's is the quarrel, for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death. The which if wrongfully,
Let Heaven avenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm agains His minister. (I. ii. 37-41)
Granted that Richard II was not an arch-criminal as is Richard III. But, according to the accepted doctrine, it was through God's sufferance that Richard III wore the crown; he functioned, for a time, as has been stated earlier, as the Scourge of God. Now his time to be scourged approaches. Richmond presents himself as God's captain and prays that he and his followers may be "Thy ministers of chastisement." In other words, he now becomes the instrument of God's justice. Thus heralded, the ghosts appear, bringing blessings to Richmond ("Live and flourish!") and curses on Richard ("Despair and die!").
Admittedly the verse in this "ghost" part of the scene is mediocre; in such pageant-like scenes Shakespeare never achieved his best poetry. His aim was to make the most telling use of the supernatural as a way of keeping his major theme to the fore. Since the ghosts appear in the order of their deaths, Shakespeare recapitulates, crime by crime, the whole catalogue. Richard's sleep indeed is filled "with perturbations," to use Anne's phrase. And as the last ghost vanishes, the king wakes in terror and calls for another horse. He has dreamed prophetically that "white Surrey" has been killed under him. His waking thoughts relate directly to the last words spoken by the ghost of Buckingham.
Things have come full circle now. Richard is a deeply troubled soul in contrast to Richmond, God's captain. When he first appeared in the play, the villain-hero revealed his over-powering egotism; he gloated that he was "subtle, false, and treacherous"; he had expressed his determination "to prove a villain." He spoke these words with an insolence that showed him to be utterly devoid of conscience. Now his words appear as overwhelming reproof as he makes his first — and last — homage to moral law. Especially the horror of his isolation from humanity oppresses him: "There is no creature loves me, / And if I die no soul shall pity me" (200-201).
"Cowardice conscience" afflicts him. Only when he slept and will was dormant could conscience stir. In that sense it was cowardly. But so vivid had been his dream that he cannot immediately escape conscience even when he wakes: "O Ratcliff, I fear, I fear — ," he exclaims. The fact that he feels impelled to eavesdrop on his troops illustrates his faltering confidence.
Richmond's oration to his soldiers requires only brief comment. If there has been any doubt up to this point, now that doubt is resolved: Richmond emerges unmistakably as the divinely appointed champion of justice opposing one who "hath ever been God's enemy." The action now assumes the character of a holy crusade, not against an anointed ruler but against a bloody tyrant who has enslaved true-born Englishmen.
When Richard re-enters, he has completely recovered himself. For one thing, it would not do to have the tragic hero collapse before the battle and prove himself to be a straw man. Like Macbeth, that other great criminal, he is the soul of courage, a worthy adversary. Does the sun "disdain to shine" on his army? It does not shine for Richmond either. Richard is his Machiavellian self again: "Conscience is but a word that cowards use, he now exclaims (309).
In the chronicle histories of Hall and Holinshed, Richard was made to confess the murders of the little princes and to express sorrow for the deed when he addressed his army. Not so in Shakespeare's play. In the king's oration there is no place for regrets, despondencies, or sense of violated honor. We have here what has rightly been called "a masterpiece of bold mockery of the foe." Northumberland had reported that Richmond was "never trained in arms" (272); now Richard refers to his adversary as a "milksop, one that never in his life / Felt so much cold as over shoes in snow" (325-26). The epithet derives from Holinshed, and Shakespeare makes the most of it. Similarly, Richmond's followers are described in the most contemptuous terms — "overweening rags of France," "famished beggars," "poor rats," "bastard Bretons." No leader could have done more to instill confidence in his troops, to convince them that "Victory sits on our helms." If Richmond is to defeat Richard, God indeed must be on his side.
Of chief importance in Scene 4 is evidence of King Richard's unsurpassed courage and martial skill. He is depicted as one "enacting more wonders than a man." From one point of view, this goes far to enhance his stature as the tragic hero; from another point of view, it redounds to Richmond's credit, for the claimant is opposed by one who seems to be superhuman in courage and determination.
Richard's cry ("A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"), so stirring in context, is the best-known line in the play. It was much admired, quoted, and imitated by his contemporaries. The line does not appear in either Hall or Holinshed. One close to it ("A horse, a horse, a fresh horse") is found in The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, a quite inferior version of the villain-hero's rise and downfall that, according to critical consensus, predates Shakespeare's historical tragedy. As one critic notes, "A stage-entry on horseback being impractical, such a cry was an effective one for a general entering on foot in a battle scene."
As regards the "six Richards in the field," Shakespeare employed the same device in Henry IV, Part 1, wherein several of Henry's knights were dressed like him in the Battle of Shrewsbury. Obviously it was a precaution since the leader's death often meant defeat.
Appropriately in the final scene there is a clearing of the moral atmosphere. The "bloody dog" is dead; order is restored. In hand-to-hand combat Richmond slays the adversary who had performed apparently superhuman deeds on the battlefield. Everywhere the new king's moral superiority is emphasized: his concern for George Stanley, his chivalry in ordering that all nobles slain, enemies included, be given proper burial; his proclamation of an amnesty; his profound religiosity. Shakespeare lived and wrote in an England beset with repeated threats to peace: the Northern Rebellion (1569); the Ridolphi Plot (1572); the Babington Plot (1586); attempted foreign invasion and fear of a rising against a queen who had been declared excommunicate and deposed by the Papal Bull of 1570. In official sermon and numerous polemical tracts and ballads, the horrors of civil war and the heinous crime of treason were dominant themes. In the latter part of this scene, Shakespeare finds occasion to offer the same doctrine. To Elizabethans especially, Richmond's fervent prayer was most apposite and inspiring.