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.Read a translation of Act V, scene v →
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.
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.47). As Richard says to his noblemen before his speech, he believes that might makes right, and that “[c]onscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devised at first to keep the strong in awe” (V.vi.39–40). Very much Richard’s opposite, Richmond claims to fight for honor, compassion, and loyalty—in effect, he fights on the side of conscience.
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.48). His uncertainty as to what he finds within himself, more than the ghosts’ curses, shakes him to the core.