Inside the Tower of London, the imprisoned Clarence tells Brackenbury, the lieutenant of the tower, about the strange dream he had the night before. Clarence says he dreamed that he was outside of the tower and about to set sail for France, along with his brother, Richard. But as they walked along the deck of the ship, Richard stumbled, and when Clarence tried to help him, Richard accidentally pushed him into the ocean. Clarence saw all the treasures of the deep laid out before him, as his drowning was prolonged for a very long time. He struggled to give up the ghost, but had to feel the terrible pain of drowning over and over again. Clarence then dreamed that he visited the underworld, where he saw the ghosts of those for whose deaths he had been partly responsible in the recent overthrow of the monarchy. In particular, Clarence dreamed that he saw the ghost of Prince Edward—the son of Henry VI and first husband of Lady Anne—whom Clarence himself had helped to kill. Prince Edward cried out aloud, cursing Clarence, and the Furies seized Clarence to drag him down to hell. Clarence then woke from the dream, trembling and terrified.
Brackenbury commiserates with Clarence, and Clarence, who has a foreboding of evil, asks him to stay with him while he sleeps. Brackenbury agrees, and Clarence falls asleep.
Suddenly, Richard’s hired murderers enter unannounced. They rudely hand Brackenbury the warrant that Richard gave them—a legal document that orders Brackenbury to leave them alone with Clarence, no questions asked. Brackenbury leaves quickly.
Left alone with the sleeping Clarence, the two murderers debate how best to kill him. Both suffer some pangs of conscience, but the memory of the reward Richard offers them overcomes their qualms. Eventually they decide to beat him with their swords and then to drown him in the keg of wine in the next room. But Clarence suddenly wakes and pleads with them for his life. The murderers waver in their resolve, and Clarence finally asks them to go to his brother Richard, who, Clarence thinks, will reward them for sparing his life. One of the murderers hesitates, but, the other, after revealing to the unbelieving Clarence that it is Richard who has sent them to kill him, stabs Clarence, and puts his body in the keg. The murderers flee the scene before anyone comes to investigate.
O Lord! Methought what pain it was to drown. . . .
Clarence’s description of his dream is notable for both its striking language and its portentous foreshadowing. Clarence is unaware that Richard is behind his imprisonment, but he nonetheless dreams that his brother causes his death. His vivid description of the terror of drowning is also memorable: “O Lord! Methought what pain it was to drown / What dreadful noise of waters in my ears, / What sights of ugly death within mine eyes!” (I.iv.21–23). The evocative phrases Shakespeare uses, such as the descriptions of the strange treasures Clarence sees and the “[t]en thousand men that fishes gnawed upon” (I.iv.25), juxtapose earthly wealth and human mortality—a frequent concern of Renaissance writers. Some of the images used here, such as that of the dead men’s skulls at the bottom of the sea into whose eye sockets reflecting gems have fallen, are similar to images that Shakespeare uses in his later play The Tempest. In that play, a fairy sings to a young prince whose father is believed to have drowned at sea, describing the way his father’s bones have turned into coral and his eyes to pearls.
Clarence’s dream is also an eerie foreshadowing of his actual drowning later in the scene. Moreover, it foreshadows the nightmare Richard himself experiences just before battle in Act V, scene v. Like the appearance of Margaret’s curses in Act I, scene iii, the use of a foreshadowing dream here indicates the predominance of the supernatural in Richard III. While the play is technically classified as a history play, in many respects it more closely resembles Shakespearean tragedy, given its villainous central character, Richard, and the crucial role played by supernatural occurrences such as curses, ghosts, prophecies, and dreams.
When the murderers arrive, they debate between themselves before actually killing Clarence, introducing flashes of humor into the grisly scene. “[S]hall I stab him as he sleeps?” asks one, to which the other replies, “No. He’ll say ‘twas done cowardly, when he wakes” (I.iv.96–98). In a lighthearted tone that disguises a serious meaning, the hesitant murderer speaks later of the inconvenience of having a conscience: “A man cannot steal but it accuseth him . . . a man cannot lie with his neighbour’s wife but it detects him” (I.iv.128–130). The use of humor in what would otherwise be an extremely grim and serious context indicates the dramatic complexity of the play. While, on one level, the evil of Richard and his murderers is unambiguous, Shakespeare nevertheless introduces significant psychological conflicts and subtleties.
When Clarence finally does wake, he comes very close to persuading the murderers to let him live, and in fact manages to hold them off for quite a while with his words. Richard’s warning to the murderers seems justified: “do not hear him plead, / For Clarence is well-spoken, and perhaps / May move your hearts to pity, if you mark him” (I.iii.345–347). Eloquence is apparently a gift that Clarence shares with his brother. But, in the end, language does not save Clarence. His eventual murder comes at the same time as the revelation that Richard is behind his murder, an announcement that Clarence, with touching naïveté, refuses to believe (I.iv.221–234). Even after one of the murderers tells Clarence, “You are deceived. Your brother Gloucester hates you” (I.iv.220), Clarence falters, “O do not slander him, for he is kind. . . . It cannot be, for he bewept my fortune, / And hugged me in his arms” (I.iv.229–233). This refusal to believe that Richard could be wicked is a poignant illustration of just how convincing Richard’s deceptions can be.
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:
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