Dr. D. Stymeist
October 16, 2002
The Supernatural’s Natural Place in Shakespeare’s Richard III
Casting a darkly mythical aura around Richard III, supernatural elements are intrinsic to this Shakespearean history play. The prophetic dreams of Clarence and Stanley blur the line between dream and reality, serving to foreshadow impending doom. The ghosts that appear before Richard III and Richmond before their battle create an atmosphere of dread and suspense, and they also herald Richard’s destiny. The curses of three female royalties are fulfilled at the end, serving as reminders that the divine powers are stronger than Richard’s malice. Together, the supernatural elements of dreams, ghosts, and curses unify the plot of Richard III and allow the divine to triumph over evil.
Dreams can lead even a king awry, as in the case of King Edward IV who “hearkens after prophecies and dreams” and wrongly locks Clarence up in the Tower (I, i. 53). Thus, Clarence and Stanley’s prophetic dreams are taken somewhat lightly by both characters, even though their dreams not only predict the future, but are also laden with symbolism. Clarence dreams that his brother Richard III causes his drowning at sea. Almost immediately afterwards, Clarence is killed and drowned in a cask of wine by Richard’s hired murderers. His dream paralleling reality, Clarence speaks of the horror and the pain of drowning: “O Lord! Methought what pain it was to drown,/What dreadful noise of waters in my ears,/What sights of ugly death within my eyes” (I, iv. 21-23). This speech evokes sympathy for Clarence, so that although he too participated in the killing of Edward, the son of Henry VI, he is no longer the main character to blame – the burden of the atrocious crime is laid upon Richard III, the killer of his own brother. Clarence’s dream about drowning is reminiscent of the River Styx, and this is reinforced by his thoughts about the afterlife. Clarence dreams of the torments he must face from the spirits in the netherworld because he has killed Edward, and this foreshadows the appearance of the ghosts in Richard’s dream before his battle against Richmond.
Stanley’s dream, too, reveals Richard’s murderous streak. In Act III scene iv, Stanley dreams that Hastings is being gored by a boar, Richard’s heraldic symbol. Soon after, this dream merges into reality as Richard orders Hasting’s execution. Cursed by Margaret as an “elvish-marked abortive, rooting hog” (I, iii. 225), Richard is seen as a deformed and dangerous changeling. The boar in Stanley’s dream reinforces this image of Richard, and it reinstates Richard’s aggressive and violent tendencies. Although Hastings is involved in Stanley’s dream, he does not dream, but curses Richard by saying to his executioners: “Come lead me to the block; bear [Richard] my head./They smile at me, who shortly shall be dead” (III, v. 106-107). This reality follow-up to Stanley’s dream foreshadows Richard’s imminent death due to his ruthless killings.
Beginning with Anne’s declaration of Richard as the “devil” that no mortals can endure (I, ii. 45-46), the motif of ghosts and demons continues to weave its way into Richard III as Richard is continually associated with hellhounds and with the shape-shifting Proteus, and as the two young princes Edward and Richard discuss the ghosts of their dead uncles. The significance of ghostly apparitions culminates in Act V scene v, when the eleven ghosts of Richard’s murdered victims appear. These eleven ghosts prophesy the impending battle between Richard and Richmond at Bosworth Field. The ghosts speak to both Richard and Richmond, thus revealing the contrasting qualities of the two men – one symbolizing evil, the other virtue.
Although Richard says to Ratcliffe that the apparitions strike “more terror to the soul of Richard/Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers" (V, v, 171-172), he shows no remorse for his murders. Moreover, Richard seems to accept the ghosts as they appear and does not question their existence. This shows that the supernatural is seen as a fact of life for Richard, not to be doubted. Richard does not repent for his crimes nor tries to appeal to the others’ sympathies; instead, he attempts to shatter the ghosts’ prophecies by continuing with his battle plans. However, as the ghosts’ prophecies are seemingly being fulfilled, Richard appears resigned to his fate and says that he has “set [his] life upon a cast” (V, viii. 9). The appearance of the ghosts has cast a primal, animal-like fear on Richard; he panics, offering to trade his kingdom for a horse. Thus, one could almost feel sympathy for this Machiavellian character as supernatural influences reinsert their power over Richard supernaturally and psychologically.
Aside from the ghosts, the curses of the female royalties also hold supernatural and psychological influences over the characters in Richard III. In Act IV scene iv, Queen Elizabeth takes a lesson in cursing from Queen Margaret. Elizabeth curses Richard to “die by God’s just ordinance” (IV, iv. 184), reinforcing the belief that the higher powers will eventually revenge the deaths of Richard’s murdered victims, restoring justice to bleak England. As well, Elizabeth’s curse foreshadows the appearance of the ghosts before Richard: “And there the little souls of Edward’s children/Whisper the spirits of thine enemies,/And promise them success and victory” (IV, iv. 192-194). The haunting images of Edward’s murdered children serve to harden one’s feelings towards Richard, especially when Richard dismisses Elizabeth’s curses as mere angry words and nothing more. In fact, after Elizabeth finishes cursing Richard, the latter kisses Elizabeth and asks her to persuade her daughter to marry him, displaying not the smallest trace of guilt.
As Richard calls her, the “foul wrinkled witch” Margaret (I, iii. 163) holds psychological and supernatural power over the fates of Richard and other characters in the play. Her curses “pierce the clouds and enter heaven” (I, iii. 192) and result in remarkably accurate prophesies. Paralleling the deaths in her own house, Margaret correctly predicts the deaths of King Edward IV and Prince Edward. She also parallels herself with Queen Elizabeth, cursing the latter to be wretched like her. Though Margaret is unobtrusive in the play physically, theses curses bring forth her bitterness and grief that remain the psychological backbone of Richard III. Margaret prophesies the fates of Rivers, Dorset, Hastings, and Buckingham, even though these men have not directly harmed her family. Thus, her sorrow extends widely and touches even those who are not necessarily Richard’s allies. Margaret curses Richard to be gnawed by conscience and tormented by nightmares. These prophecies are not fulfilled until the end of the play, when the eleven ghosts visit Richard. However, Margaret’s curse that Richard will mistake his enemies for friends and friends for enemies come true, and this paves the way for Richard’s eventual downfall.
In Act I scene ii, lines 1-30, Lady Anne curses Richard. She draws the supernatural into her speech by addressing the ghost of the King Henry VI, whom she pleads to revenge his own death and to restore justice. This foreshadows the appearance of Henry’s ghost at the end of the play. The repetition of “cursèd” three times (I, ii. 14-16) suggests that Anne is casting a spell. Richard is depicted as less than human in Anne’s speech, for she curses not the man himself, but the composite of his body parts such as his hand, his blood, and his heart. Naming the traditional animals associated with the supernatural – wolves, spiders, and toads – Anne reinforces the usage of witchcraft in her curse on Richard. Upon cursing Richard, Anne curses his son and his wife. Ironically, the wife she describes is her future self, and the ill fate she wishes on his son parallels Richard himself, who is a deformed, premature child that brings grief upon the world. Anne’s curses come true one by one throughout the play, but they serve better as foreshadowing rather than prophecies, because they describe events that are very human and very probable – unlike the events in Margaret’s curses, some of which take supernatural intervention to occur.
Altering the “facts” of Richard III’s history, supernatural elements inconspicuously blend into the play and create a strong backbone for the plot. Clarence and Stanley’s dreams bridge the abyss between dream and reality, while the ghosts’ appearance lends horror to the play and reminds all that the higher powers will triumph over mortal evils. The curses of the female royalties add psychological and supernatural forces to drive the character’s actions, thus furthering the plot. Dreams, ghosts, and curses – these supernatural elements all have a natural place in Richard III, for they weave together the fascinating horror in the storyline and ensure that the tyranny of a mortal man will not reign in the end.
Shakespeare, William. Richard III. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen.
New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1997. 515-596.