William Shakespeare's Use of the Supernatural in Richard III

Essay, 2014

6 Pages, Grade: 2,3



The Shakespearean history play King Richard III deals with the ruthless usurpation of the English throne by evil and malicious Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who stops at nothing to reach his aims. In dramatic method this play is the most non-realistic of Shakespeare’s history plays (Smidt, 18). By way of example Richard’s bad character is associated with features of the underworld such as demons or the hellhound. These comparisons are just a link to a motif William Shakespeare makes use of several times during the play: the Supernatural. He does not only use it because Elisabethans had a special interest in witches, exorcists, narratives about demons, fairies, spells, charms and dreams (Tiryaki, 7), but also because they serve functions to thrive the plot and to influence the dramatic events. The supernatural elements help to fully expose Richard’s evil character and create the dark atmosphere of the play. Even so, it is to notice that they appear in variant forms. First of all the play includes several prophetic curses by different characters. More important for this study are the prophetic dreams of different characters, each one with its own impact on the play, and the appearances of ghosts. The focus lies on the investigation of three specific examples in terms of the dramatic aspect of dreams and ghosts in King Richard III, in order to learn how they influence the play structurally and psychologically. To examine which functions these supernatural elements serve, and how respectively in which context Shakespeare uses them to affect the development of the play, it is inevitable to take a look at the regarding scenes and analyse how they affect the events of the play.

The first prophetic dream of the play, which is the longest narrated dream in Shakespeare (Aerol, 52), appears in Act I, Scene IV. Richard’s brother Clarence, who is locked in the tower, has a nightmare which is full of warnings of Richard’s intentions to murder him. He gives a vivid account of the dream to Brackenbury, the lieutenant of the tower. For instance he says:

Methought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,

Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard,

Into the tumbling billows of the main.

Lord, Lord! methought what pain it was to drown (1,4,18-21)

The dream provides useful information for the audience. Firstly it foreshadows what is going to happen next, in particular that Clarence is going to be murdered by his beloved brother Richard and that he is going to be killed by being drowned. The dream is used to prepare the audience for the murder. Secondly it also recalls events of the past, in particular of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. In this part the audience learns about Clarence’s misdeeds, which justify his murder. A shade of one whom Clarence killed appears in the dream and shrieks: “Clarence is come, - false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence, / That stabb’d me in the field of Tewksbury;” (1,4,55-56). The reference of the shade is to Prince Edward, Lancastrian claimant to the throne and son of Henry VI and Queen Margaret, who has been stabbed by Clarence because he twitted him with perjury (Aerol, 53). The crucial aspect in this scene is that Clarence denies the truth of the monitory nightmare, even if an Elisabethan audience would have immediately sensed a meaning behind it. His unconscious mind is trying to warn him, but his conscious mind is not listening because he trusts Richard. On the other hand Richard declares his intentions to the audience already early in the play. He says that he lays plots and “drunken prophecies, libels and dreams” to set Clarence and the king against each other (1.1.32-35). Clarence, who claims he has done his deep wrongs “for Edward’s sake” (1,4,68) and provides an insight in his Christianity, generally can be seen as a quite human character who regrets his deeds. On the other side is Richard who is fundamentally evil. In other words the dream is used to illustrate the difference between the two characters. As a result of knowing the consciousness of both characters, and that means mainly Clarence’s wrong trust in Richard, the negative connotation of the murder of Clarence is increased and Richard’s actions feel even more gruesome. In fact it is used to show that Richard’s evilness is to enormous to imagine for the other characters.

Another prophetic dream, exemplified in a very simple form, appears in Act III, Scene II. A messenger from Lord Stanley informs Lord Hastings of a nightmare Stanley has had, that showed a boar, which is Richard’s heraldic symbol, attacking and killing him. Anxious that the prophecy might come true, Stanley tries to persuade Hastings to flee with him before the sun rises. Similar to Clarence earlier in the play, Hastings trusts Richard and dismisses Stanley’s fears, haughtily wondering if “he’s so fond / To trust the mockery of unquiet slumbers” (3.3.26-27). Again we have, as Garber states it, “the fundamental design of early Shakespearean dream: the monitory dream which is true, but not believed” (15). Once again a warning is sent out, but it keeps being ignored. If we compare it to Clarence’s dream, there is one crucial difference. If Clarence would believe his dream, he still would be locked in the tower and would not have a chance to escape from Richard’s men. So it is more the psychological aspect of fratricide that is devastating, and not so much the fact of ignoring the dream. In the case of Hastings and Stanley it is different. They have the chance to escape after the warning, but they don’t take it. The audience is deliberately shifted into a situation, where they pity the characters, but especially in this case feel angry about them because they are too stubborn and hesitant to trust the omen.

Moreover is the dream a device to indicate Hastings’ overconfidence and his fatal misjudgement of the situation, which finally leads to his death. For instance he does not only ignore Stanley’s dream, he also mocks Stanley when he enters: “Come on, come on; where is your boar-spear, man? / Fear you the boar, and go so unprovided?” (3,2,72-73). In his complacency he also completely misjudges Richard’s character, since he issues a really questionable statement about him: “I think there’s never a man in Christendom / Can lesser hide his hate or love than he; / For by his face straight shall you know his heart.” (3,4,51-53) Later Hastings is beheaded by Richards orders. The dramatic aspect for the audience is, that due to the dream, they already know Richard’s dark plans, and afterwards see the naive acting by the victims. However they cannot change anything. They have to learn step by step how the dream becomes reality.

The turning point of the play, where Richard’s downfall becomes certain and his psychological state finally collapses, occurs with the final apparition dream at Bosworth Field in Act 5, Scene 3. In a dream during the night before the battle, the leaders of the two camps King Richard and the Earl of Richmond are both each in turn visited by a series of ghosts. Each of the eleven ghosts who represent Richard’s victims in their entirety curse Richard and prophesy his defeat. On the opposite side they encourage Richmond and foretell his victory. While for example the ghost of the dead Hastings disturbs Richard with damnations like “Bloody and guilty, guiltily awake; / And in a bloody battle end thy days! / Think on Lord Hastings, so despair, and die!” (5,3,147-149), he reassures the future Tudor king Richmond to “Quiet, untroubled soul, awake, awake! / Arm, fight, and conquer, for fair England’s sake!” (5,3,150-151). The whole dream is balanced on the contrasts of victory and defeat, calm and worry, hope and desperation. In other words, in clearly showing the contrast of “good” and “evil”, the ghosts are used to control the sympathy of the audience.

The dream at Bosworth Field is another dream foreshadowing the following events, but in contrary to the other two dreams they are predicted on the basis of eleven ghosts, who are “prophetic instruments of revenge and divine justice” (Besnault, Bitot, 120). Nevertheless they are instruments to remind the audience of the past events as well. Garber remarks that the dream “is dramatically useful because of the complexity of the historical events involved”, stating that “points of history are thus clarified at the same time that a psychologically convincing “replay” takes place in Richard’s mind” (16). Historical events of the plays Henry VI and King Richard III are summarised, in order to give the audience a final overview of the many murders Richard has committed, before the dream affects a last change of direction of the plot. In the following Richard is killed two times in a metaphorical sense. Before his body dies during the battle, Shakespeare uses the ghosts to kill Richard psychologically as well. The first time during the play the audience is able to experience weakness in Richard. The ghosts, who sort of represent Richard’s bad conscience, frighten him and his former stable and strong mental condition vanishes. Therefore he loses not only his high-handedness but also his eloquence. Besnault and Bitot remark that his “command of rhetoric seems to have vanished as he utters short, chaotic sentences” and that he is “torn between an old self-love and a new-born self-horror and self-pity” (121):

What? Do I fear myself? There’s none else by.

Richard loves Richard, that is , I am I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.

Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:

Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?

Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? (5.3.185-91)

Roughly speaking the aftermath of the dream is a change of atmosphere and the end of the play. The “evil” represented by Richard dies, and the “good” represented by Richmond and the Tudor dynasty takes over. The dark atmosphere changes into a new peaceful atmosphere, and the War of Roses has an end, just as the eleven ghosts predicted it by foreseeing the “two deaths” of Richard.

By and large the three investigated examples show the crucial role played by supernatural elements such as dreams and ghosts in Shakespeare’s King Richard III, given that they define many parts of the play’s world and influence the dramatic events to the same extent. All three dreams seem to play on a meta level half-way between the living and the death and the past and the future. The first two dreams reflect the evil plans of Richard’s inner self. They are unambiguous warnings, which are misunderstood nevertheless. The notion arouses, that even if there are such things as warnings and omens, there is no human power to escape from Richard’s dark intrigues. The result is an atmosphere of gloom and dread throughout the play and an image of Richard that makes him supernatural himself, also because of his deformed body. The dream at Bosworth Field stands on its own, at least in terms of its target and its importance. It comes as no surprise that it takes eleven vengeful ghosts to finally bring Richard’s strong will and his monstrous evilness down. The fact that Shakespeare uses a dream and ghosts to cause this major change of plot is just another signal to illustrate how important these supernatural elements are for the dramatic events of this play.


Excerpt out of 6 pages


William Shakespeare's Use of the Supernatural in Richard III
University of Passau
Proseminar: Shakespeare's History Plays: Richard II, Henry V and Richard III
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ISBN (eBook)
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Shakespeare, History Plays, Richard III, Supernatural Elements, supernatural
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2014, William Shakespeare's Use of the Supernatural in Richard III, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/423812


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