Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Act 5, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

This scene dramatizes the run-up to the Battle of Bosworth Field. Both armies are now making their way to Market Bosworth, north of London and considerably further inland than Richmond's location in the previous scene. Richard is the first to arrive, accompanied by his supporters, Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the Duke of Norfolk, and the Earl of Surrey. Norfolk reports Richmond's forces number six or seven thousand at most; Richard gloats his army is three times larger. Once the tent is pitched, the four men leave to survey the battlefield.

On the opposite side of the stage, Richmond enters, attended by a larger group of supporters: Sir William Brandon, the Earl of Oxford, Sir Walter Herbert, Sir James Blunt, and the Marquess of Dorset are all present. The sun, Richmond observes, is setting: it's time to draw up the battle lines and pitch the tent. He urges Blunt to sneak a letter to Lord Stanley, his father-in-law, who is reluctantly fighting on King Richard's side. Subsequent "mini-scenes" play out in each camp: Richard prepares his armor before going to sleep, and Richmond confers with Stanley, who promises to help him covertly. After praying for victory (and revenge), Richmond retires to his tent.

Now that night has fallen, a parade of ghosts appear one by one and in small groups. Most of them have been killed by Richard; all have been wronged by him. First comes Prince Edward, the former husband of Lady Anne; then come King Henry VI; Clarence (killed in Act 1, Scene 4); Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan (Act 3, Scene 3); the young Prince Edward and the Duke of York (Act 4, Scene 2); Lord Hastings (Act 3, Scene 4); Lady Anne (Act 4, Scene 2); and the Duke of Buckingham (Act 5, Scene 1). The ghost's speeches are somewhat formulaic: each visits Richard's bedside, urging him to "despair and die," then appears to Richmond and exhorts him to "live and flourish."

When the last of the ghosts departs, Richard wakes up, troubled by bad dreams and a guilty conscience. Richmond, meanwhile, has slept soundly and feels upbeat about his prospects in the day's battle. Each commander addresses his soldiers: Richmond urges the justice of his cause, while Richard emphasizes the weakness of the opposing army and Richmond's lack of military experience. Donning their helmets, the two commanders march offstage to battle.

Analysis

Richard, it turns out, has a conscience. In a sense, this is reassuring: it means despite his rap sheet of murders, Richard is human after all. In terms of Richard's battlefield performance, however, the sudden rush of feelings is terrible news: he thinks he's killed off his conscience, or at least numbed it out, when really he has been tamping it down like gunpowder with every death warrant he signs. Now, on the eve of a decisive battle, Richard's guilt comes rocketing forth so explosively literal ghosts are needed to capture its intensity.

It's important to understand, however, the ghost vignette—strange and striking as it might be—is not really about the ghosts. They're merely a symbolic means to get at a more fundamental point: Richard can hide from his guilt, but not forever. The Elizabethan stage had no equivalent of a flashback or a backstage mic, so figures from Richard's past must literally reappear onstage if they are to make their presence felt. Think of them as distant ancestors to the spirits who visit Scrooge in A Christmas Carol: external projections who serve to make a character's inner drama more visible. In addition, the ghosts not only curse Richard, they show strong support for Richmond, urging him to victory in battle.

Richmond, meanwhile, continues to rack up good-guy points in various ways; dramaturgically, this will help to make his victory in Act 5, Scene 5 feel like a real win and not just an ending. The prayer on the eve of battle is a "hero" move that allows Richmond to demonstrate his humility, placing his victory in God's hands, rather than assuming he himself controls its outcome; Richard, in contrast, seems to insist on regarding himself as a self-made man. In his speech to the troops the next morning, Richmond builds on his favored themes of piety and self-effacement, declaring "the prayers of holy saints and wrongèd souls, / Like high-reared bulwarks, stand before our faces." Richard's speech, on the other hand, refers to the enemy as "scum" and "peasants," brimming over with exactly the sort of pride that tends to precede a fall.

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