In his camp, King Richard orders his men to pitch their tents for the night. He says that they will engage in their great battle in the -morning. Richard talks to his noblemen, trying to stir up some enthusiasm, but they are all subdued. Richard, however, says he has learned that Richmond has only one-third as many fighting men as he himself does, and he is confident that he can easily win.
Meanwhile, in Richmond’s camp, Richmond tells a messenger to deliver a secret letter to his stepfather, Lord Stanley, who is in an outlying camp. Stanley is forced to fight upon Richard’s side, but Richmond hopes to get some help from him nonetheless.
It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself?
Back in King Richard’s tent, Richard issues commands to his lieutenants. Because Richard knows of Stanley’s relationship with Richmond, he is suspicious of Stanley, and is holding Stanley’s young son, George, hostage. He has an order sent to Lord Stanley telling him to bring his troops to the main camp before dawn, or else he will kill George. Declaring that he will eat no supper that night, Richard then prepares to go to sleep for the night.
Stanley comes secretly to visit Richmond in his tent. He explains the situation, but promises to help Richmond however he can. Richmond thanks him and then prepares for sleep.
As both leaders sleep, they begin to dream. A parade of ghosts—the spirits of everyone whom Richard has murdered—comes across the stage. First, each ghost stops to speak to Richard. Each condemns him bitterly for his or her death, tells him that he will be killed in battle the next morning, and orders him to despair and die. The ghosts then move away and speak to the sleeping Richmond, telling him that they are on Richmond’s side and that Richmond will rule England and be the father of a race of kings. In a similar manner, eleven ghosts move across the stage: Prince Edward, the dead son of Henry VI; King Henry VI himself; Richard’s brother Clarence; Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan; the two young princes, whom Richard had murdered in the tower; Hastings; Lady Anne, Richard’s former wife; and, finally, Buckingham.
Terrified, Richard wakes out of his sleep, sweating and gasping. In an impassioned soliloquy, he searches his soul to try to find the cause of such a terrible dream. Realizing that he is a murderer, Richard tries to figure out what he fears. He asks himself whether he is afraid of himself or whether he loves himself. He realizes that he doesn’t have any reason to love himself and asks whether he doesn’t hate himself, instead. For the first time, Richard is truly terrified.
Ratcliffe comes to Richard’s tent to let him know that the rooster has crowed and that it is time to prepare for battle. The shaken Richard tells Ratcliffe of his terrifying dream, but Ratcliffe dismisses it, telling Richard not to be afraid of shadows and superstition.
In his camp, Richmond also wakes and tells his advisers about his dream, which was full of good omens: the ghosts of all of Richard’s victims have told him that he will have victory. Richmond gives a stirring pre-battle oration to his soldiers, reminding them that they are defending their native country from a fearsome tyrant and murderer. Richmond’s men cheer and head off to battle.
In Richard’s camp, Richard gives his battle speech to his army, focusing on the raggedness of the rebel forces and their opposition to himself, the allegedly rightful king. A messenger then brings the bad news that Stanley has mutinied and refuses to bring his army. There is not enough time even to execute young Stanley, for the enemy is already upon them. Richard and his forces head out to war.
These scenes are the psychological high point of the play, and the turning point at which Richard’s downfall becomes certain. The play vividly dramatizes the contrast between Richard’s character and Richmond’s character, shifting its perspective back and forth between them six times. The leaders, in their respective camps, make almost identical preparations as they ready for the next day’s battle, but the difference between them can be seen in the way they go about their business. Richard speaks brusquely to his lords, and, as we can see, essentially is isolated from all human contact. As a result of his malicious nature, he kills anyone who becomes close to him, gradually destroying all his close human relationships. He is in power, but he is alone: his brothers, nephews, and even his own wife are all dead at his hand, his mother has cursed and abandoned him, and even the person who was once his closest friend—Buckingham—has been sent to execution.
Richmond, on the other hand, is gracious and friendly to both his noblemen and his soldiers. The battle speeches of the two leaders clearly show their different styles: Richmond asks his men to remember the beauty of the land that they are protecting from a tyrant, and the wives and children whom they will be making free. He reminds his men that he himself will die in battle if he cannot win, and that, if he does succeed, all his soldiers will be rewarded. In contrast, Richard simply mocks the enemy soldiers, calling them “a scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants” (V.vi.47). As Richard says to his noblemen before his speech, he believes that might makes right, and that “[c]onscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devised at first to keep the strong in awe” (V.vi.39–40). Very much Richard’s opposite, Richmond claims to fight for honor, compassion, and loyalty—in effect, he fights on the side of conscience.
The effect of the ghosts’ procession is something like having eleven bitter curses (“Despair and die!”) cast upon Richard in sequence. When Richard wakes, he is shaken by a bout of self-doubt and soul-searching that is unparalleled in the play, and that many readers think is one of Shakespeare’s greatest moments of insight into human psychology. Richard—the two-dimensional villain, the bloody “hell-hound”—is forced to look into his soul, and is terrified by what he finds there (IV.iv.48). His uncertainty as to what he finds within himself, more than the ghosts’ curses, shakes him to the core.
Sweating and terrified, Richard asks desperately, “What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. / Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. / Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am” (V.v.136–138). With this sudden, horrible revelation that there is a murderer in the room, and that he is it, Richard is suddenly uncertain of whether to be afraid even of himself. His lines dramatize the realization that the ghosts have inspired—that he is a dramatically different person than he has imagined himself to be. He suddenly recognizes that he is a murderer. His statement “I am I” can be read as an effort to assert his own self-identity. After Richard realizes that he has become something that scares even himself, the divide between who he once was and who he has become is astonishingly clear. This divide threatens even his existence. Once he realizes that he is afraid of himself and that he is a murderer, his immediate question is whether or not he will kill himself. His answer is conflicted. Although he avoids this possibility by claiming that he loves himself and therefore would not kill himself, he realizes moments later, “I rather hate myself / For hateful deeds committed by myself” (V.v.136–144). In this scene it is very clear that Richard has moved beyond a simple, flat version of the medieval character, Vice, and experiences the deeply divided emotions that characterize real human beings.
In a strange, haunting, and even moving conclusion, Richard unexpectedly turns to thoughts of others, and grieves for his isolation: “I shall despair. There is no creature loves me, / And if I die no soul will pity me. / Nay, wherefore should they?—Since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (V.v.154–157). With these words he realizes, angry and desperate, that he doesn’t even sympathize with himself. Even after he manages to put aside his terror and resumes the semblance of his old arrogance, this sensation does not fade. Clearly, for Richard, the end is near.
Richard III is a fun read because the king is so evil. I'm reading all of Shakespeare by his 450th birthday, and this play gave me a great gift idea. See my blog about Richard III and a present for the Bard: