Written by: Julia Lauer
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton, April 1887.
In William Shakespeare’s historical play, Richard III, the playwright poses his view of the end of the Plantagenet family reign over the English kingdom while simultaneously integrating commentary on royalty’s temptations. In his most notable example, Shakespeare examines the concept of guilt and justice through George’s allegory, Duke of Clarence’s prophetic dream.
Shakespearean characters who slain another in the pursuit or service of power are often visited by ghosts, as a form of emotional torture and a plea for justice. Although George is not the primary antagonist in Richard III, he and Richard fought together against the Lancaster family in the War of Roses, killing the previous king and placing their elder York brother, Edward, on the throne.
Imprisoned in the infamous Tower of London, Clarence finds himself tossing and turning in his sleep, tormented by visions of death and horror, in which the phantom of the slain Prince Edward of Lancaster appears, condemning him with the words:
The characterization of guilt presented here takes the form of “foul fiends,” who serve as a form of retribution from beyond the grave. George, who abandoned Warwick to fight for his brother Edward, is ethereally punished by those he betrayed and, ironically, by those he defended. Richard, who planted the prophecy that “G/ Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be” (1.1.39-40), leads to George’s imprisonment in the Tower – later intercepts Edward’s pardon for Clarence’s life.
Instead, someone kills George under King Edward’s writ and Richard’s plot. However, guilt – just as it did for his elder brother, finally catches up with the tyrant king Richard, who is visited by George and the spirits of others he has murdered, on the night before the battle at Bosworth Field.
Shakespeare indicates here that Richard has ultimately damned himself from beyond the grave through his bloody ascension to power. In slaying countless men, including his brother, and King Edward’s young heirs, the murtherer “G” is revealed to be Richard of Gloucester. Clarence’s dream turns prophecy as his ghost seals Richard’s fate, just as the Lancasters sealed George’s.
George also dreams of escape from his confinement, where he finds himself sailing across the ocean with his brother, Richard of Gloucester. However, the dream turns to a nightmare when Richard trips him, causing George to fall overboard and drown in the murky sea. As he suffocates underwater, his vision focuses on the seabed, which he describes:
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. (1.4.24-28).
Here, Clarence experiences the wisdom of an older man reflecting upon his life at his deathbed. As his life flashes before his eyes, he finally understands how pointless he is vying for power. The men searching for the riches are now dead underneath the sea, and the jewels are left untouched, for they cannot take anything with them to the afterlife. Clarence’s dream predicts Richard’s fate: he succeeds in obtaining the power he desires, just as the sailors discover their treasure.
Once the riches have come, the ship must sink; he who has wronged will watch jewels glimmer from beyond the grave. The lines “Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wracks,/ A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon,” (1.4.24-25) suggest the countless deaths that Richard’s search for power has caused, and finally, his death. Despite his valiance on Bosworth Field, fate condemns Richard when he loses his horse. The king cries out in panic, “A horse a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” (5.5.6)
Just as George’s dream mocks him in its prediction of his death, the throne that Richard greedily sacrifices so much to gain crumbles just as quickly when the tyrant king dies in vain. After Clarence’s nightmare leads him to the bottom of the sea, he drowns, turning his head to the bed of sand, where he observes jewels,
…lay[ing] in dead men’s skulls, and 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. (1.4.29-33).
Mocking takes the form of cruel humor at the expense of someone else. In Clarence’s dream, the jewels “mock” the skeletal remains of the men who had sacrificed their lives to seek the power that jewels represent. The “gems” serve as a metaphor for management “woo[ing]” us with desire, not unlike a siren, until it pulls us into the deep and drowns us. Later on, as Clarence faces his impending murderers, his dreams of his brother’s betrayal are revealed to be true.
In Richard’s case, it was not jewels or gems that tempted him to his grave, but the idea of power and kingship. Richard has his brother murdered so that he can be king. The cycle of violence continues as folly, perpetrated by Richard’s death so Henry of Richmond can ascend to the throne. Now, the power that Richard III sought so deeply taunts him, just as the loss of his horse at the battle of Bosworth Field emphasizes his deformity and confirms his demise.
Shakespeare elaborates upon the historical aspects of the end of the Plantagenet reign by complementing the plot with his commentary in Clarence’s dream. However, his play not only focuses on the Plantagenet story but also serves as a warning against absolute power by illustrating how dire the consequences can be. Clarence’s dream ultimately mirrors Richard’s fate, and both brothers die so that another may take control.
So the cycle continues. Unfortunately, only before their deaths, George and Richard finally comprehend how ironically pointless vying for power is. Shakespeare’s play puts the blind, violent hunt for power into question – is it worthwhile to all end in corruption and tragedy?
Shakespeare, William. Richard III. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 748-804.