Richard III

by: William Shakespeare

Act I, scene iv

Summary Act I, scene iv

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.