Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary



The scene shifts to the Tower of London, where Clarence is telling the jail's keeper about a nightmare he has had. In the dream, Clarence says, he was walking with Richard on the deck of a ship when Richard stumbled and knocked him overboard. Clarence drowned in the ocean, then met with the accusing ghosts of those he betrayed in the Wars of the Roses. His former ally, the Earl of Warwick, was there, as was the late Prince Edward, Lady Anne's husband, whom Clarence and his brothers stabbed to death at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Clarence is still agitated by this vision, which weighs heavily upon his conscience. He asks the keeper to stay by his side as he tries to go back to sleep.

As Clarence nods off, Brackenbury (lieutenant of the Tower) enters, just in time for the two murderers from Scene 3 to join him onstage. They present him with a royal commission granting admission to Clarence's cell. Brackenbury senses shady business is afoot, but he hands them the keys and leaves along with the keeper. The two murderers then stand over the sleeping Clarence and debate whether to kill him: the second has some serious pangs of conscience, but the first talks him back into it.

While the two murderers argue, Clarence wakes up, startled by the unfamiliar visitors. He quickly realizes the purpose of their visit and attempts to reason with them, saying his brother Richard will pay them more not to murder him than Edward will give them to go through with it. The murderers tell him Richard hates him, but Clarence refuses to believe it. The second murderer seems moved by Clarence's pleas, but the first carries out his orders remorselessly, stabbing the duke and dragging the body into an adjoining room to throw it in a wine vat. Almost immediately, the second murderer repents of his part in Clarence's death, but the first calls him a coward and insists on collecting his fee before he leaves town.


In the previous scene, the murderers gave themselves out to be remorseless killers: "Talkers are no good doers. Be assured / We go to use our hands and not our tongues." Now, however, they find themselves wrestling with their own consciences. The first murderer successfully suppresses his, but the second murderer fears the judgment of God, from which no royal warrant can protect him. Although the murderers themselves are minor characters, their moments of contrition are important because they make Richard look even more diabolical by comparison. If even these dagger-wielding ruffians lose their nerve, Richard must be truly heartless.

Clarence's nightmare adds to the general air of pity in this scene: although he recounts his dream with the eloquence of an expert storyteller, emotionally he is reduced to the status of a frightened child. He pleads with the jail's keeper to "sit by me awhile" and worries that his "guiltless wife and ... poor children" will be victims of the conspiracy that is about to claim his life. The keeper behaves as compassionately as his job allows, and even Brackenbury, the head of Tower security, pities the "restless cares" that have prevented Clarence from sleeping. Like the murderers' reluctance, these shows of sympathy are a foil, revealing Richard's ruthlessness by contrast. Nobody present in this scene really wants Clarence to die, but none dare risk the consequences of defying orders.

Clarence's response to the murderers' assertion Richard hates him shows how successful Richard's deceptions can be. He has manipulated Clarence successfully because he knows his brother is "gullible." Even when the murderers virtually admit Richard is behind his murder, Clarence insists otherwise: "O no, he loves me, and he holds me dear." He still doesn't change his mind when the first murderer responds bluntly, "Come you deceive yourself." Other characters in the play are likewise taken in by Richard's deceit. Still others, like Lady Anne, know Richard is bad news, but are nevertheless seduced by his facility with words, which gives him a sinister charisma.

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