Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
For a play supposedly based on actual history, Richard III involves an extraordinary number of supernatural elements. Some of these elements are Margaret’s prophetic curses, Clarence and Stanley’s prophetic dreams, the allegations of witchcraft Richard levels at Elizabeth and mistress Shore, the continual association of Richard with devils and demons (for example, he is often called a hellhound), Richard’s comparison of himself to the shape-shifting Proteus, the Princes’ discussion of the ghosts of their dead uncles, and—most significant—the parade of eleven ghosts that visits Richard and Richmond the night before the battle. These supernatural elements serve to create an atmosphere of intense dread and gloom that matches the malice and evil of Richard’s inner self, and also serve to heighten the sense that Richard’s reign is innately evil, transforming England into a kind of Gothic netherworld.
The language of heaven and hell runs rampant throughout Richard III. Richard is repeatedly referred to as a demon, a hellhound, and a devil by the other characters in the play. The hellish iconography associated with Richard is contrasted with the heavenly iconography associated with Richmond. It is stressed repeatedly throughout the play that God and his angels have aligned themselves with Richmond and his cause and Richmond even invokes St. George, the patron saint of Britain, before he and his soldiers storm the battlefield.
Shakespeare’s use of religious iconography aligns with the play’s thematic emphasis on the birth of the Tudor dynasty. At the time that Shakespeare was writing his plays, people believed in what is referred to as “the divine right of kings.” The divine right of kings is the belief that monarchs are selected by God. By associating hellish iconography with Richard and heavenly iconography with Richmond, Shakespeare is solidifying that Richmond is the rightful ruler of Britain. The motif of religious iconography also assigns benevolent characterizations to Queen Elizabeth I’s ancestors because Shakespeare’s Tudor queen could trace her lineage to Richmond.
The motif of prophetic dreams is part of the play’s larger preoccupation with the supernatural, but the idea of dreams emerges as its own separate motif after Stanley’s dream about Hastings’s death. Clarence and Stanley both have dreams that not only predict the future, but that are also heavy with important symbolism. For example, Clarence’s dream involves Richard causing his drowning at sea. Immediately after it, he is drowned in a cask of wine by murderers hired by Richard. In addition, Stanley’s dream involves Hastings being gored by a boar—Richard’s heraldic symbol. Immediately after it, Richard orders Hastings’s execution.