Whatever view we take of Richard III as depicted in Shakespeare's play, his dominance of the action cannot be doubted. He is the central figure of the story, a demonic force that energizes the plot and constantly makes things happen. The very fact that he begins the play by asserting that all is well in England except with himself, and proceeds on the basis of his own discontent to undermine the content of the nation, demonstrates clearly his own self-centered vision. "I am determined to prove a villain" [act I, scene 1, line 30] is his declaration in his first speech and that is precisely what he does -- not merely "appear" a villain or "be regarded" as a villain, but actively "prove" a villain. Richard, however much he may be a villain to the world, is the hero of his own story, and his actions in that role are based upon the assumption that he is an entirely autonomous agent, free to act upon the world in whichever way he chooses and re-arrange it to suit his purposes, unconstrained by any other power. He boasts of his powers after carrying out the extraordinary feat of persuading Lady Anne to be his wife:
What? I that killed her husband and his father
To take her in her heart's extremest hate
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And yet to win her! All the world to nothing!
[act I, scene 2, lines 230-8]
Yet there are forces greater than Richard's plots and passions. In the second half of the play, from Act IV onwards and following the murder of the princes in the Tower, they gain greater strength against him, and they ultimately overwhelm and defeat him. The motif of the dream plays a key role in the mechanisms through which Shakespeare demonstrates this process.
Dreams are important throughout Richard III, as bringers of warnings and portents. As Clarence complains of King Edward at the beginning of the play, "He hearkens after prophecies and dreams" and because of "such-like toys as these" has condemned Clarence to imprisonment [act I, scene 1, lines 54, 60]. Hastings is warned by a dream that Richard will turn against him and bring about his death, as Stanley's messenger reports to him that "this night / He dreamt the boar had razed off his helm" [act III, scene 2, lines 10-11]. Hastings, however, dismisses Stanley's fears and the dream-warning in a derisive manner:
Go, fellow, go, return unto thy lord
Tell him his fears are shallow, without instance;
And for his dreams, I wonder he's so simple
To trust the mock'ry of unquiet slumbers.
[act III, scene 2, lines 19, 26-7]
As in the case of Clarence, however, this dismissive attitude to the potency of dreams is misplaced. Stanley's dream proves all too accurate, as Hastings recognizes, too late: "Stanley did dream the boar did raze our helms' / But I did scorn it, and disdain to fly" [act III, scene 4, lines 82-3]. The power of dreams as harbingers of future events in the play is thus clearly established. In the case of Shakespeare's treatment of Richard himself, dreams have a still greater significance, to which we now turn.
Characteristically, dreams are at the beginning one of the tools by which Richard carries out his plots, as he exploits an ambiguous dream of King Edward's to bring about the downfall of the Duke of Clarence:
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate the one against the other [act I, scene 1, lines 32-5]
By exploiting the power of dreams over the King, a power he regards as revealing a weakness -- "Why this it is when men are ruled by women" [act I, scene 1, line 62] -- Richard manipulates things so that Clarence is condemned to prison and, he ensures, to death. At this stage Richard has power over dreams as he has over the fabric of reality, but that is already about to change. The potency of dreams which he uses against Edward and Clarence will be turned against himself. The curse Queen Margaret lays upon him prefigures this change and hints at the power of dreams to overcome him:
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be while some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!
[act I, scene 3, lines 224-6]
Dreams alone, however, are not enough; they are rather symbolic channels through which the power that Shakespeare depicts as the ultimate victor over Richard's villainy will defeat and overcome him. The "hell of ugly devils" with which the old Queen threatens Richard are not an external hell, but an internal ones; those devils are within Richard himself, for the power which Shakespeare shows us as greater than Richard's own is conscience.
Conscience is an active principle throughout the play and its actions are woven through almost every scene. The two men who murder Clarence on Richard's orders are haunted by it even as they prepare for the deed:
First Murderer: Where's thy conscience now?
Second Murderer: O, in the Duke of Gloucester's purse.
First Murderer: When he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.
[act I, scene 4, lines 129-32]
After Clarence is killed, one of the murderers goes so far as to discard his fee and repent the killing: "Take thou the fee and tell him what I say, / For I repent me that the Duke is slain" [act I, scene 4, lines 280-1]. Similarly, Dighton and Forrest, the two murderers of the infant princes in the Tower (at Richard's command), described as "fleshed villains, bloody dogs," are nonetheless conscience-stricken at the cruelty of their deed, as Tyrrel reports: "Hence both are gone with conscience and remorse" [act IV, scene 3, lines 6, 20]. King Edward himself, in his personal life an infamous libertine, dies stricken by conscience, as do Richard's sometime allies in villainy Buckingham and Hastings. Throughout the play the transforming and transcendent power of individual conscience is positioned as a counterweight to individual sin, and its ultimate triumph in every human soul which retains the potential for redemption is clear.
The potency of conscience in Shakespeare's vision of the play is made clear in two dream-sequences: that involving Clarence on the night of his murder (act I, scene 4) and the visions that visit Richard and Richmond on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth (act V, scene 3). Clarence has committed bloody deeds in the cause of the House of York; in his imprisonment, at a point where he is at the depths of despair, those deeds return to haunt him in the form of a dream, which he relates to his gaoler:
O, I have pass'd a miserable night,
So full of fearful dreams, of ugly sights,
That, as I am a Christian faithful man,
I would not spend another such a night
Though 'twere to buy a world of happy days-
So full of dismal terror was the time!
[act I, scene 4, lines 2-7]
His declaration that he is "a Christian faithful man" and his recognition of the dream's importance makes clear his understanding of its significance in terms of his deeds and the necessity of remorse for them. In other words, the dream acts upon his conscience. In the dream Clarence re-enacts his crimes and cannot escape them or their consequences. His response on waking is to act in accordance with the voice of conscience that he heard in his dream, accept the wrongness of his acts, his responsibility for them, and his duty to take whatever punishment is his due:
Ah, Keeper, Keeper, I have done these things
That now give evidence against my soul
For Edward's sake, and see how he requites me!
O God! If my deep prayers cannot appease Thee,
But Thou wilt be aveng'd on my misdeeds,
Yet execute Thy wrath in me alone;
O, spare my guiltless wife and my poor children!
[act I, scene 4, lines 66-72]
Clarence's acceptance of the lessons of conscience on waking from is dream is in direct and stark contrast to Richard's response to his dream on the eve of the climactic battle of Bosworth Field. Richard and his opponent Richmond are both visited in dreams by the ghosts of those who were betrayed and murdered by Richard: Prince Edward, son to Henry VI; Clarence; Rivers, Grey and Vaughan; the two young Princes; Anne; Buckingham. For Richmond they have words of encouragement, inspiring him to victory and to act as agent of justice and of their vengeance, even those who were his opponents in life. For Richard their words are those of hatred, condemnation and hostility: "Bloody and guilty, guiltily awake / And in a bloody battle end thy days" [act V, scene 3, lines147-8]. Richard is terrified by his dream…