Underlining the Main Theme of Death by Foreshadowing the Fates of Characters in Richard Iii

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The Foreshadow in the Death of Richard III in Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s tragedy of Richard III is a play where death is one of the central themes. It is therefore essential that Shakespeare makes this theme obvious to the audience even before characters die, and his primary way of doing this is through the foreshadowing of these deaths. He does this through dreams, language forms, imagery, curses, character and broken oaths. Due to these devices, the audience is already aware that certain characters will die, enabling Shakespeare to create dramatic irony. The context of the play is fundamental in ensuring that foreshadowing is taken seriously. Richard III would have been originally performed in front of an Elizabethan audience, an audience who would have believed that foreshadowing, both obvious and discreet, would have been extremely important. In addition they would have taken dreams, one of the principal devices that Shakespeare uses in Richard III to foreshadow death, very seriously.

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Dreams in Richard III play a vital role in ensuring that the plot moves along, moreover they play a significant part in the foreshadowing of death. ‘So full of fearful dreams and ugly sights’. Clarence’s dream in this scene is one of the more evident techniques Shakespeare uses to foreshadow death. Clarence interprets his death as being an accident, however, as the audience is very much aware of Richard’s true character, it becomes evident that it was not

an accident at all. ‘What sights of ugly death within mine eyes. Shakespeare makes very obvious references to Clarence’s death in this dream, as well as using very morbid imagery, particularly of the sea, which strongly connotes the idea of drowning within the context of the dream. In addition throughout Clarence’s retelling of the dream, he uses words which are synonymous with death and pain; ‘drown’ ‘dreadful’ ‘fearful’ ‘gnawed’ ‘pain’ ‘dead men’. The use of these words aids Shakespeare in creating an ominous feeling which surrounds the character of Clarence. This ties in heavily with the context of the play, as an Elizabethan audience would have taken these signs seriously. This results in the audience becoming aware of Richard’s true character, creating successfully dramatic irony within the play.

Furthermore the audience is already aware by this point in the play that Clarence is likely to die in the play, as his death has been previously foreshadowed through that character of Richard, ‘Well your imprisonment shall not be long’. Shakespeare has previously used Richard’s opening soliloquy to establish Richard as a character, so the audience is able to see the hidden meaning behind these words; that in fact his imprisonment shall not be long because he is going to die, not because he is going to be released. This succeeds in adding heavy irony to the play, as Clarence is very much unaware of the hidden meaning behind Richard’s words.

In addition to Clarence, Hastings is another character whose death is very much foreshadowed, primarily through the ‘loyalty plot’ set up by Richard. One of the first instances when it becomes evident that Hastings’ death is being foreshadowed is when he reveals his trust in Catesby, ‘And at the other is my good friend Catesby. However the audience is very much aware by this point, due to the dramatic irony created by Shakespeare that Catesby is in fact plotting against Hastings, so the revelation of his trust in him is a very ominous sign for Hastings. Also, Hastings believes himself very much to be safe. ‘With some men think themselves as safe as thou am I’. However as the audience is aware that Hastings is being trapped the line becomes extremely ironic, and Catesby’s previous line seems to confirm this, ‘Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord when men are unprepared and look not for it.’ This introduces the irony into the situation, and this enables Hastings demise to be successfully foreshadowed. Also, Hastings’ death is foreshadowed more literally, ‘I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders before I’ll see the crown so misplaced.’ As the audience is aware that Richard does eventually become king, this oath prefigures the fate of

Hastings, with the crown being a pun for Hastings’ head, (the crown of his head) and the royal crown, Hastings’ curse then comes true at the end of the play. Moreover, the dream by Stanley serves as a warning to Hastings ‘He dreamt the boar had razed off his helm’. The boar here is symbolic of Richard, although in its literal context this is neutral, this symbolism of Richard as a boar has been used throughout the play, particularly by the women, in a negative context, along with other bestial imagery used for Richard, ‘The tiger hath seized the gentle hind’. This therefore results in the audience realizing that when Richard is being compared to an animal, than it is in a negative sense, thus the audience realizing that the dream cannot be dismissed. However Hastings dismisses this dream, not only subsequently foreshadowing his death in the sense that the dream needs to be taken seriously, but it is effective, as it serves to show to the audience that Hastings is blind to Richard’s villainous behavior, and he therefore will not be watching out for Richard.

Additionally Shakespeare uses curses to a great extent in Richard III, and they become a fundamental technique in the foreshadowing of death. Anne is a character who manages to curse, and consequently foreshadow her own death. ‘if ever he have wife, let her be made more miserable by the death of him’. The audience then becomes aware that Richard manages to successfully woo Anne, and she is therefore foreshadowing her own unhappiness, and implying her death. Anne later acknowledges this curse ‘Lo, ere I can repeat this curse again’. Here the audience can see Anne’s change in perspective, as at the time, she was merely speaking of her misery towards the deaths of Henry VI and Prince Edward, but now she realizes that anyone would be ‘mad’ ‘and be they wife, if any be so mad’ to marry Richard. Anne’s death is also foreshadowed after her curse with the ominous line ‘I’ll have her but I will not keep her long’ this line strongly signifies death for Anne. Anne’s death is also slightly foreshadowed through Richard ‘That Anne my queen is sick and like to die.’

However, even though Anne’s death is foreshadowed through her curse, Margaret’s character is used more principally with regards to curses. Richard is the first character whom Margaret manages to curse. ‘Hie thee to hell for shame, and leave this world’. Margaret is being very blunt here, and is literally damning Richard to hell. She then goes on to curse Richard further, ‘The sorrow that I have by right is yours’. As the sorrow that Margaret has is the death of her husband and son, this would suggest that the only way that Richard can have this ‘sorrow’ is through his own death. She also puts Richard in the same context as words such as ‘venom’ ‘sin’ and ‘death’, and by doing this she is consequently relating Richard to death, and subsequently foreshadowing his death. Margaret then manages to curse everyone who is of the York family. ‘That none of you may live his natural age, But by some unlooked accident cut off’. The use of the word ‘unlooked’ implies that none of the characters will expect their death, or know when they are going to die, which not only succeeds in foreshadowing their death, but also the means surrounding their deaths. This adds further to the heavy irony surrounding the situation, as the characters do not believe in her curses. ‘False-boding woman’, however this is ironic in the sense that Margaret is ‘false-boding’ in that she predicts Richard’s falsity to Hastings, Buckingham and the others. Margaret also foreshadows Buckingham’s demise in this scene, however not through curses as such, ‘O Buckingham, take heed of yonder dog…Have not to do with him, beware of him’. Margaret is here warning Buckingham of Richard, however Buckingham dismisses Margaret’s warning ‘Nothing that I respect, my gracious lord.’. This therefore implies that Buckingham will become subject to Richards treachery, as dramatic irony has previously been created so that the audience is aware of Richards true nature, and therefore know that Margaret’s words are in fact of truth. Even though the context of the play means that the audience will already take the curses that Margaret has put upon the characters seriously, Margaret herself seems to confirm that they are to be taken seriously ‘And say poor Margaret was a prophetess’. This further emphasizes the importance of her curses. Margaret’s curses also serve to show to the audience that anybody who has killed (the York family) will imminently die, highlighting significance in the fact that those who have done a wrong will be punished. In addition the fact that it is written in third person emphasizes Shakespeare’s message that the curses should be taken seriously.

Furthermore Buckingham’s demise is very much foreshadowed within Richard III. It seemingly becomes first apparent prior to the battle, when Richard and Buckingham have fallen out, ‘True, noble prince/O bitter consequence’. The split line implies an unusually quick response by Richard, ‘That Edward still should live, true noble prince’. Richard then reveals that Buckingham’s response is bitter to him because he says that Edward is the ‘true noble prince’, the fact that Buckingham has angered Richard is enough to partially foreshadow his death, as the audience is very much aware of Richards true character. ‘High-reaching Buckingham grows circumspect’, Richard is aware by this point that Buckingham is not fully on his side, as he says he has become wary, which is very portentous for Buckingham’s character. Additionally, references to clocks are used to foreshadow both the deaths of Buckingham and Richard. The dialogue about the clock in act four is in accordance with Shakespeare’s dramatic use of clocks throughout Richard III, the first occurring when Hastings is awoken by a messenger at an ominous hour. ‘What is’t o’clock?/Upon the stroke of four’. Buckingham is later associated with the clock when he is promising Richard to persuade the citizens to support him. ‘I go, and towards three or four o’clock Look for the news that Guildhall affords’. This mildly foreshadows the death of Buckingham, however with regards to Richard, he asks the time just before his nightmare on the battlefield, ‘What is’t o’clock?/It’s supper time, my lord; it’s nine o’clock.’.

The clock the actually strikes, which is a signal of the sun’s absence, and Richard’s impending doom, ‘Tell the clock there. Clock strikes Give me a calendar. Who saw the sun today?’

Edward is another character whose death is very much foreshadowed throughout Richard III. The audience is very much aware by the second act that Edward is very ill anyway, however Edward’s death is one of the first to be clearly foreshadowed. ‘And says a wizard told him that ‘G’. His issue disinherited should be’, dreams are used here to foreshadow the death of Edward. In addition he, along with the rest of the York family gets cursed by Margaret.

In addition to curses, imagery is also a vital technique used throughout the play to foreshadow the death of characters in Richard III, ‘That cropped the golden prime of this sweet prince’. This language suggests a premature harvesting of the ‘golden’ and ‘sweet’ young prince, and thus his death. This harvest imagery is also used to reflect Richard, ‘Right as a snow in harvest’. The first murderer intuitively links Richard to Winter, a symbol of death, and in the context of the play harvest imagery is a metaphor for death rather than fruition, thus foreshadowing the death of Richard, as the ‘snow’ (Richard), has been but with the ‘harvest’ (death).

Furthermore, shadow imagery is another technique used in Richard III to foreshadow death, ‘Unless to see my own shadow in the sun’. Richard had previously in scene one expressed his hatred of the ‘glorious summer’ and Richard claims that the only use for the sun is to see his own shadow, this shadow imagery is continued throughout the play, ‘Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, That I may see my shadow as I pass’, this echoes Richards previous shadow references. The use of this imagery is very dark, and is somewhat reflective of the theme of tragedy, and therefore death, principally of Richard.

In the final scene of Richard III, his death is foreshadowed for what appears to be the final time, right before the battle, however this foreshadowing just emphasizes his impending death, as the audience is very much aware by this point that Richard will imminently die. His death is finally foreshadowed through the use of the ghosts, principally through the comparison of what the Ghosts say to Richmond, whom the audience know will be victorious, and what they say to Richard, whom the audience know will die. The Ghosts use very ominous language when talking to Richard, and the phrase ‘Despair and Die’ is repeated many times, which goes to further accentuate Richard’s impending death.

Considering these ideas it can be concluded that from Richard’s first appearance, the entire play has been veiled with death, which is foreshadowed throughout the play of Richard III using techniques such as imagery which reflects the theme of tragedy, and using it to associate characters with seasons. Techniques such as these are fairly discreet; nevertheless they are still evident to the audience. However here are techniques used that are clearly apparent to the audience, for example Margaret’s curses which are sometimes very literal in their meaning, and often straight to the point.

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