Richard III

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Analysis of Richard III Passage

Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower

And was embarked to cross to Burgundy,

And in my company my brother Gloucester,

Who from my cabin tempted me to walk

Upon the hatches. Thence we looked toward England

And cited up a thousand fearful times,

During the wars of York and Lancaster

That had befall'n us. As we paced along

Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,

Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling

Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard

Into the tumbling billows of the main.

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.

Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wracks,

A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon,

Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,

Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,

All scattered in the bottom of the sea.

Some lay in dead men's skulls, and in the holes

Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept—

As 'twere in scorn of eyes—reflecting gems,

That wooed the slimy bottom of the deep

And mocked the dead bones that lay scattered by. (I:IV:9-33)

Clarence's prophetic dream sequence in Act I scene IV begins and ends with foreboding, as we see the murder of Clarence and also visualise the eerie and supernatural glimpse of an underworld beneath the ocean as we see Clarence painfully drown. The passage begins with Richard and Clarence setting sail to Burgundy, reminiscing on the horrors of the battles they had won and lost together throughout the war of the roses. As their ship begins to destabilise, Clarence is cast overboard after trying to prevent Richard from falling. The text leads us to believe this is accidental despite logic telling us to immediately assume this was planned by Richard. As Clarence painfully drowns, he begins to describe the dark, supernatural underbelly of the ocean. Multitudes of lost wealth and treasure are seen alongside rotting corpses and the spirits of thousands of men, men whose deaths, it has been suggested, Clarence was partly responsible for as a result of the recent overthrow of the monarchy. Clarence's dream sequence is laced with both striking language and ominous foreshadowing throughout. An array of poetic devices and literary techniques are employed to successfully reinforce major issues and themes of the play as a whole within this passage. Numerous themes are reinforced and introduced in this passage such as the juxtaposition of earthly wealth and human mortality, the disturbing trust that Clarence has for Richard, horror and tragedy, and also the motifs of the dark and the supernatural. Furthermore if we read the passage from a modern perspective we can incorporate a Freudian reading when analysing what seems to be Clarence's subconscious mind.

Whilst watching Richard III, the character of Richard is difficult to side with however at the same time there is a certain charm and ingenuity about him that is hard to dislike. There are instances throughout the play which help to show Richard as a fantastic linguist and a likeable Machiavellian hero. However, at the same time the dramatic irony used in the form of Clarence's helplessness and naivety is possibly the most powerful example throughout the entire play which shows the cold and evil inner core of Richard's character. When Clarence dreams of Richard killing him, the text seems to suggest that Richard did this by accident as Clarence says that Richard “in falling, Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard.”[[1]] The way Clarence has made a point of saying how Richard only pushed him “in falling” is interesting as it makes us question the reliability of Clarence's account. This dramatic irony works because from an audience's perspective we are already aware of the dark nature and ruthlessness of Richard, furthermore we know that Richard is in the process of masterminding the murder of his brother Clarence. These factors make us question the “accidental nature” of Clarence's story despite it being a dream. Could this dream in fact be a message directly from Clarence's subconscious attempting to warn him of his impending death? We could in fact read this passage as Shakespeare attempting to demonstrate a 16th century equivalent to Freud's concept of the subconscious mind. The audience is now fully expecting the impending death of Clarence, and the helpless audience is forced to sympathise with him and begin to despise Richard. The experience of this scene could be summed up by a quote from critic Charles Barber, who believes “Clarence's disbelief in his own dream creates the impression that Richard's evil is too monstrous for those around him to accept or imagine, and thus it amplifies our horror of Richard.”[[2]]

The previously mentioned concept of Shakespeare intending to show the workings of Clarence's subconscious is also intriguing as it demonstrates a sample of a theory that was not to become popularly recognised for hundreds of years. This element adds depth and verisimilitude to the play and also adds to our hatred for Richard. Freud describes the unconscious mind as “a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness.”[[3]] It would seem that these feelings are more perceptive in some ways than Clarence's conscious ones. Somehow Clarence's unconscious has picked up more about Richard's character than his conscious mind. This poses an interesting question, even to a modern audience, about the fantastic complexity of our minds. An audience who embraces this reading is likely to find this thought provoking and be intellectually stimulated by this concept. If we take this passage to mean that that Clarence's unconscious mind is trying to tell him something, then we also read that his conscious mind is dismissing it for not only does he assume his dreamed death was an accident, but he later goes on to state how his brother “loves me dear” and says to the murderers (hired by Richard) that “if you be hired for meed, go back again, And I will send you to my brother Gloucester, Who shall reward you better for my life.”[[4]] Clarence's refusal to act upon this omen and furthermore dismiss his own self is significant in showing the power and manipulation Richard is capable of.

When the audience listens to Clarence's account of his dream, the passage should render as highly significant as it foreshadows many of the events yet to come in the play. When Clarence begins to drown this is in fact an eerie foreshadowing of his eventual death, and more specifically drowning moments later in the scene. One critic has also read this dream as also foreshadowing the nightmare Richard himself experiences prior to the battle of Bosworth in Act V scene V.[[4b]] There is much foreshadowing throughout the play, such as when Queen Margaret, a witch like character, is introduced. Queen Margaret begins to tell cursed prophecies as a bitter attempt to avenge all of those who have previously wronged her.

It is also interesting to note that through this passage, Shakespeare has included a theme that was popular amongst renaissance literature, whereby earthly wealth is shown in juxtaposition with human mortality.[[4c]] This was a common concern among writers of the time as earthly wealth's value was questioned in many ways because of the realisation that we cannot buy “life” and wealth will mean nothing in the afterlife. While absorbing the speech, we notice that there are countless images in this passage that barrage us with this theme. The lost treasures are described heavily and frequently such as the “wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, inestimable stones, and unvalued jewels.” However it becomes clearer why Shakespeare has made a point of doing this when we consider this theme of human mortality versus earthly wealth. When we then go on to see “Some [jewels] lay in dead men's skulls, and in the holes Where eyes did once inhabit” death and wealth are not only in juxtaposition, they are essentially merged as one. The way the jewels have been incorporated into the eye sockets of the skull makes the juxtaposition even more dramatic as they almost seem as one entity because of the way we associate the jewels as eyes slotting into the sockets of a skull.

This passage is also significant in the way it introduces the motif of the gothic into the play. Clarence's dream sequence accompanied with the eerie cursing of Queen Margaret later in the play, are both scenes which contribute to the gothic elements of this play through references to the supernatural and the unknown, and moments of horror. Horror as a literary term can be described as “The feeling of revulsion that usually occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced.”[[5]] We see horror in the passage when Clarence describes in detail the scenes of the underworld and the nature of his painful drowning. Clarence explains “what pain it was to drown, What dreadful noise of waters in my ears, What sights of ugly death within my eyes.” This dramatic speech forces the audience to begin to experience the drowning themselves as Clarence uses powerful imagery such as the water in his ears and the pain that he experienced. Furthermore the grotesque and macabre images of “a thousand men that fishes gnawed upon” also help to horrify the audience. Supernatural elements that also contribute to the gothic feel of the play are seen in another subsequent prophecy style dream of Clarence's where he sees the ghost of Prince Edward, a Lancastrian whom Clarence had helped to kill. Edward begins to curse Clarence as spirits begin to drag him below to the underworld.

After analysing Clarence's dream in Act I scene IV, it can be concluded that Shakespeare has employed a range of literary techniques and ideas that help to reinforce and introduce important themes that permeate the entire play. Techniques such as dramatic irony encourages us to appreciate the evil of Richard, and the inclusion of a subconscious help add depth and intrigue to the play. Furthermore the passage is a useful insight into the play as a whole through the introduction of other important themes and issues of the day such as horror, the supernatural, and the juxtaposition of earthly wealth and human mortality.


Barber Charles, Notes on Richard III, (London, Longman, 1999)

Devendra, Varma The Gothic Flame, (New York: Russell and Russell, 1966)

Radcliffe, Ann On the Supernatural in Poetry, Exert taken from New Monthly Magazine vol.16 No.1 [22.4.09]

Shakespeare, William, Richard III, (London, The Arden Shakespeare, 2006)

Strachey, James (Trans.), ed. Anna Freud, The Essentials of Psychoanalysis, (London: Vintage Books, 2005.)

[[1]] William Shakespeare, Richard III, (London, The Arden Shakespeare, 2006) I.IV.19-20

[[2]] Charles Barber, Notes on Richard III, (London, Longman,1999) p.75

[[3]] James Strachey (Trans.), ed. Anna Freud, The Essentials of Psychoanalysis, ‘the unconscious' (London: Vintage Books, 2005.) p.46

[[4]] William Shakespeare, Richard III, (London, The Arden Shakespeare, 2006) I.IV 217-218 p.183

[[4b]] Barber Charles, Notes on Richard III, (London, Longman, 1999) p.96

[[4c]] Ibid.

[[5]] Varma Devendra, The Gothic Flame, (New York: Russell and Russell, 1966) p.17