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).