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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.