Very early in the morning, a messenger knocks at the door of Lord Hastings, sent by Hastings’s friend Lord Stanley. The messenger tells Hastings that Stanley has learned about the “divided counsels” that Richard plans to hold this day (III.i.176). The previous night, the messenger says, Stanley had a nightmare in which a boar attacked and killed him. The boar is Richard’s heraldic symbol, and according to the messenger, Stanley is afraid for his safety and that of Hastings. He urges Hastings to take to horseback and flee with him before the sun rises, heading away from Richard and toward safety.
Hastings dismisses Stanley’s fears and tells the messenger to assure Stanley that there is nothing to fear. Catesby arrives at Hastings’s house. He has been sent by Richard to discover Hastings’s feelings about Richard’s scheme to rise to power. But when Catesby brings up the idea that Richard should take the crown instead of Prince Edward, Hastings recoils in horror. Seeing that Hastings will not change his mind, Catesby seems to drop the issue.
Stanley arrives, complaining of his forebodings, but Hastings cheerfully reassures him of their safety. Finally, Hastings goes off to the council meeting along with Buckingham. Ironically, Hastings is celebrating the news that Elizabeth’s kinsmen will be executed, thinking that he and his friend Stanley are safe in the favor of Richard and Buckingham. Hastings is blissfully unaware of Richard’s plan to decapitate him should Hastings refuse to join Richard’s side.
Guarded by the armed Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the queen’s kinsmen Rivers and Gray, along with their friend Sir Thomas Vaughan, enter their prison at Pomfret Castle. Rivers laments their impending execution. He tells Ratcliffe that they are being killed for nothing but their loyalty, and that their killers will eventually pay for their crimes. Gray, remembering Margaret’s curse, says that it has finally descended upon them, and that the fate that awaits them is their punishment for their original complicity in the Yorkists’ murder of Henry VI and his son. Rivers reminds Gray that Margaret also cursed Richard and his allies. He prays for God to remember these curses but to forgive the one Margaret pronounced against Elizabeth herself, and her two young sons, the princes. The three embrace and prepare for their deaths.
At Richard’s Council session in the Tower of London, the suspicious Hastings asks the councilors about the cause of their meeting. He says that the meeting’s purpose is supposed to be to discuss the date on which Prince Edward should be crowned king, and Derby affirms that this is indeed the purpose of the meeting. Richard arrives, smiling and pleasant, and asks the Bishop of Ely to send for a bowl of strawberries. But Buckingham takes Richard aside to tell him what Catesby has learned—that Hastings is loyal to the young princes and is unlikely to go along with Richard’s plans to seize power.
When Richard re-enters the council room, he has changed his tune entirely. Pretending to be enraged, he displays his arm—which, as everyone knows, has been deformed since his birth—and says that Queen Elizabeth, conspiring with Hastings’s mistress Shore, must have cast a spell on him to cause its withering. When Hastings hesitates before accepting this speculation as fact, Richard promptly accuses Hastings of treachery, orders his execution, and tells his men that he will not eat until he has been presented with Hastings’s head. Left alone with his executioners, the stunned Hastings slowly realizes that Stanley was right all along. Richard is a manipulative, power-hungry traitor, and Hastings has been dangerously overconfident. Realizing that nothing can now save England from Richard’s rapacious desire for power, he too cries out despairingly that Margaret’s curse has finally struck home.
Stanley’s dream of the boar is the latest of many supernatural signs and omens in the play. Given what we know about Richard, Hastings obviously would have been wise to pay attention to this omen. Instead, he dismisses it, due to his supposedly rational skepticism. “I wonder he’s so simple, / To trust the mock’ry of unquiet slumbers,” he says genially of Stanley (III.ii.23–24). Another factor in Hastings’s easy dismissal of the dream, however, is his own inflated ego, which leads him to be overconfident and complacent. He believes that he and Richard are “at the one” in terms of their plans, and that his close friend Catesby will tell him everything that goes on in the second council (III.ii.10). He also makes one of the most egregiously incorrect statements about Richard in the play, indicating the depth of Richard’s skill at deception: “I think there’s never a man in Christendom / Can lesser hide his love or hate than he, / For by his face straight shall you know his heart” (III.iv.51–53).
Clearly, Hastings makes the wrong decision here, and when he realizes his doom in Act III, scene iv, he thinks back to previous omens. Stanley dreams not only that the boar destroys him, but also that Hastings’s own horse stumbles three times on the way to the council “[a]s loath to bear me to the slaughter-house” (III.iv.86). “O Margaret, Margaret! Now thy heavy curse / Is lighted on poor Hastings’ wretched head,” he says (III.iv.92–93). We can interpret Hastings’s fate as Shakespeare’s statement that people ought to pay attention to the omens of their dreams, but we can just as easily read it as a warning against overconfidence. Hastings now regrets his earlier bragging about his enemies’ execution at Pomfret, imagining “myself secure in grace and favor” (III.iv.91). Furthermore, he realizes that, if he had wised up to Richard earlier, he could have avoided his fate and perhaps even saved England from what Richard plans to visit upon it. “I, too fond [foolish], might have prevented this,” he laments (III.iv.81).
Hastings also muses before his death on the “momentary grace of mortal men,” an idea that the play returns to again and again (III.iv.96). The quickness with which people’s fortunes can change was a very popular topic for literature of Shakespeare’s period, and for good reason: in the courts of Renaissance England, a person’s welfare—and his or her life—depended on the whim of the ruler. A shift in political power would regularly cause the downfall and mass execution of dozens of formerly powerful courtiers. Perhaps for this reason, Renaissance court literature exhibits a great fascination with the precariousness of human fortunes. The medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune, in which those at the top of the wheel are inevitably brought to the bottom, and vice versa, was still very current in Shakespeare’s day. This fatalistic view of human life coexisted with a strict Christian mindset that insisted that worldly belongings would cause corruption and could not buy glory in heaven. All in all, despite the burgeoning wealth and materialism of the Renaissance world, Renaissance people were often in great conflict about the real value and meaning of their money and their luxuries.
In the moments before his death, Hastings muses on this theme. He reflects that the person who builds his hopes on material prosperity instead of God’s grace “[l]ives like a drunken sailor on a mast, / Ready with every nod to tumble down / Into the fatal bowels of the deep” (III.iv.99–101). This idea is nowhere better illustrated than in the preceding scene—Act III, scene iii—in which we have a brief last look at Rivers, Gray, and their friend Vaughan before their execution. Hastings earlier rejoices over their downfall, but their execution is as unexpected as his own. Like Hastings, the doomed Woodeville men proclaim their innocence. Like Hastings, they recall Margaret’s curse and foretell dire consequences for England under Richard’s reign. Like Hastings, they predict that their executioners will face retribution for their deeds. “You live, that shall cry woe for this hereafter” (III.iii.6), says Vaughan to his jailers, and Hastings—in a similar mood—ends his last speech with a chilling couplet: “Come lead me to the block; bear him [Richard] my head. / They smile at me, who shortly shall be dead” (III.iv.106–107).
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: