The two armies fight a pitched battle. Catesby appears on stage and calls to Richard’s ally Norfolk, asking for help for Richard. Catesby reports that the king’s horse has been killed and that the king is fighting like a madman on foot, challenging everyone he sees in the field as he attempts to track down Richmond himself.
Richard himself now appears, calling out for a horse. But he refuses Catesby’s offer of help, saying that he has prepared himself to face the fortunes of battle and will not run from them now. He also says that Richmond seems to have filled the field with decoys—that is, common soldiers dressed like Richmond—of whom Richard has already killed five. He departs, seeking Richmond.
Finally, Richmond appears, and Richard returns. They face each other at last and fight a bloody duel. Richmond wins, and kills King Richard with his sword. Richmond runs back into battle. The noise of battle dies down, and Richmond returns, accompanied by his noblemen. We learn that Richmond’s side has won the battle. This revelation is hardly surprising, since Richard is dead. Stanley, swearing his loyalty to the new king, presents Richmond with the crown, which has been taken from Richard’s body. Richmond accepts the crown and puts it on.
Relatively few noblemen have been killed, and Stanley’s young son, George, is still safe. Richmond, now King Henry VII, orders that the bodies of the dead be buried, and that Richard’s soldiers—who have fled the field—should all be given amnesty. He then announces his intention to marry young Elizabeth, daughter of the former Queen Elizabeth and of the late King Edward IV. The houses of Lancaster and York will be united at last, and the long bloodshed will be over. The new king asks for God’s blessing on England and the marriage, and for a lasting peace. The nobles leave the stage.
Richard’s death is conveyed only in stage directions in the text—uncharacteristically, Shakespeare does not even give him a dying speech. Richard’s death comes as no surprise, however. His final scenes only enact the outcome that the play has already established as inevitable, both in terms of narrative shape and in terms of moral resolution. In broad terms, the first part of the play shows a gradual rise in Richard’s fortunes and power. These fortunes peak and then decline dramatically. Buckingham’s hesitation to help Richard kill the young princes in Act IV, scene ii, moments after Richard’s coronation, marks the beginning of Richard’s decline into paranoia and his gradual loss of control of the events around him. The duchess of York’s curses and Elizabeth’s deception of Richard in Act IV, scene iv confirm this downward slide, which reaches its low with Richard’s nightmare—and subsequent self-questioning—in Act V, scene v. After all of these events, it is clear that Richard’s death, which has been predicted and prophesied many times by many people, is only a matter of time.
Richard’s final scenes do illustrate something of the frenzied selfishness of his mind. Shakespeare depicts the gradual devolution of his bold and reckless fighting on the battlefield, as he goes from fighting to protect his power and his kingdom to fighting simply to protect his neck. Richard lacks the sense of higher purpose with which Richmond has been endowed, and thus he lacks the ability to die nobly. In the end, Richard is obsessed with his own self-preservation, as indicated by his cry of “[a] horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (V.vii.7, 13). In this moment, Richard clearly reveals his priorities. He would trade everything for a horse on which to improve his chances of surviving the battle rather than die honorably for his cause.
Richmond’s final speech primarily serves a narrative purpose, showing that Richard, the villain of the play, has been definitively vanquished, although his death has occurred offstage. Richmond’s simple, judgmental declaration that “[T]he bloody dog is dead” indicates the relief and exhaustion that he (and everyone else) feels after Richard’s long campaign of cruelty (V.viii.2). Many dead kings, even wicked ones, are remembered kindly by their enemies after they die, but Richard is so universally hated that he is spoken of merely as a “bloody dog.” Symbolically, then, Richard’s death and Richmond’s ascension to the throne suggest that the conflicts that have plagued England for so long are at an end. “England hath long been mad, and scarred herself,” says Richmond, referring to the wars among the royalty (V.viii.23). Richmond’s intention to claim the kingdom’s “long usurpèd royalty,” as Stanley puts it, heralds the symbolic end not just of the particular conflict with Richard but of the Wars of the Roses in general (V.viii.4). Moreover, with his marriage to young Elizabeth, Richmond will meld the houses of York and Lancaster in a fertile and peaceful union, uniting “the white rose and the red”—the symbols of the houses of York and Lancaster, respectively (V.viii.19). Richard’s long reign of terror has come to an end as the play closes with the promise of a marriage, and with the new King Henry’s fervent prayer for “this fair land’s peace” (V.viii.39). The play, then, ends tragically for Richard but happily for England.
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: