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The usurpation of Macbeth is said to have been foretold by the three witches; and the tyranny of Richard by omens. John Black’s study of the Elizabethan era reiterates that ‘in spite of its learning, culture and realism the elizabethans were permeated with superstition.’ Thus Shakespeare effectively used imprecations and prophecies to arouse suspense in his audience, as they placed strong credibility in the forces of the supernatural.
The audience is first introduced to the powerful element of prophecy in Richard’s first soliloquy as it exposes us to his natural propensity to be evil. It is because of Richard’s rancorous envy of those who have greater advantages of figure compared to him who is ‘curtailed of this fair proportion’ that causes him to swell with insecurity hence thriving on infamy. Richard’s psychological acuity of the people around him works to his advantage as he cleverly uses prophecies as a catalyst to his plot to ‘prove a villain’. In act 1 scene 1, the word prophecies is mentioned twice in the phrase ‘ By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams’ and ‘About a prophecy which says that ‘G’’ which leads to the audience’s realisation of the potency of prophecies and its dramatic effect on the play as King Edward IV who ‘hearkens after prophecies and dreams’ and arrests his own brother merely based on a soothsayer’s premonitions. The fact that prophecies are personified to be ‘drunken’ places further emphasis on the effect of a prophecy, which manages to influence and overcome one’s ability to think rationally. Furthermore, the prophecies act to forebode the future events which cause the audience to anticipate Clarence’s unfortunate fate at the hands of King Edward IV as both of them have fallen prey to Richard’s ‘suble, false, and treacherous’ schemes to cause conflict in the monarchy thus manipulating his brothers to be ‘In deadly hate the one against the other’.
Prophecies serve to link the past, present, and future and have elements of connection and self-containment in the play as stated in Aristotle’s Poetics. It is only two scenes later in Act 1 Scene 4 the fate of Clarence is unveiled as his nightmare that contained ‘So full of fearful dreams, of ugly sights’ serves to foreshadow his death at the hands of Richard at the end of the scene. A person’s dream is a series of thoughts, images and sensations that occurs out of one’s subconscious mind. Thus Clarence recollects his nightmare that ‘Gloucester stumbled, and and in falling Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard’ which reveals Clarence’s underlying subconscious sense of Richard’s menace and conjuring intentions. Clarence’s dream invokes self realization as he talks about the ‘wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, inestimable stones, unvalued jewels, all scattered at the bottom of the sea’ as he was drowning. However the dream displays a mocking tone of the worthlessness of wealth which is portrayed in the phrase ‘And mocked the dead bones that lay scattered by’. This alludes to the fact that countless lives were lost in pure futility during the War of the Roses. It is only through Clarence’s dreams that he is able to realize that materialistic goods such as wealth and status are of no value when one’s soul is absolved off the face of the earth. His dreams drag him down to hell. He passes ‘the melancholy flood’ which is the River Styx in classical mythology that led to Hades, the underworld and unto the ‘Kingdom of perpetual night’ which represents the afterlife. His journey to the depths of hell evokes a strong sense of fear and pity in the audience as we see Clarence purge his regrets and admits to the crimes he committed. In this scene he is accused of perjury by Warwick through the phrase ‘What scourge for perjury Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence’ and is cursed by Edward, Prince of Wales who he has stabbed ‘in the field by Tewkesbury’ which echoes the same fate of Richard as he is visited by his victims in Act 5 scene 3 which serves as a parallel comparison that exposes Richard’s lack of penitence as compared to Clarence even as death remains eminent. In the vivid imagery portrayed through the phrase ‘Dabbed in blood, and he shrieked out aloud’, both the reader’s auditory and visual senses are ignited as the horrific and ghostly image of Edward, Prince of Wales appears and displays his repulsive disgust for Clarence through the double emphasis of the shrill sound of him as he ‘shrieked out aloud’. Edward, Prince of Wales curses Clarence as he calls to ‘seize on him, furies, take him unto torment’ which chillingly manifests as the entrance of the two murders shall carry out Richard’s promise to deliver him ‘from this earth’s thraldom to the joys of heaven’ as seen in he usage of double entendres to fool Clarence by his phrase ‘I will deliver you or else lie for you’ in Act one scene one.
In act 3 scene 2, Lord Stanley sends a messenger to Lord Hastings at the ungodly hour of ‘upon the stroke of four,’ which implies that the message is of crucial urgency and importance. The context of dreams comes into play as Stanley ‘dreamt the boar had razed off his helm,’ which derogatorily refers to Richard as the white boar in his coat of arms. The phrase ‘razed off his helm’ incites fear and gives the reader a tactile sense as Richard is described to have ripped off Stanley’s head. which provides the reader with a poignant visual imagery of the boar’s repugnant audacity to reach his means. Characters who receive dreams are given a sense of foresight and knowledge as to what might happen in the future thus they are seen to be wiser than the rest of the characters however Stanley’s early realization of Richard’s treachery proved to help him survive the play as compared to Clarence’s dream which only occurred at the eleventh hour before his execution. Stanley’s dreams accurately prophesizes ‘that there are two councils kept, And that may be determined at the one Which may make you and him to rue at th’other’ which is soon reflected in Hastings’ conversation with Catesby as he obliviously expresses his disapproval of the crowning of Richard III as king. Thus, Hastings’ hubris is largely reflected in Act 3 scene 2 as he foolishly dismisses his only chance of escaping ‘the danger that his soul divines’ by immediately sending off Stanley’s messenger as he misreads Richard and confidantly tries to convince Stanley’s messenger that ‘his fears are shallow,without instance’ and ’the boar will use us kindly’. Stanley’s dream starts to materialize as the rising action of the scene starts with the audiences’ anticipated arrival of Catesby to gauge Hastings’ view on Richard’s reign through the phrase ‘Till Richard wear the garland of the realm. Hasting’s inability to interpret signs of danger is portrayed in his reply ‘I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders Before I’ll see the crown so foul misplaced.’ He has sealed his own fate by stating his will to die instead of seeing Richard III crowned which occurs in act 3 scene 5 with the gory entrance of Lovvell and Ratcliffe with Hastings’ head. Hastings’ strong objections ‘To bar my master’s heirs in true descent’ demonstrate his sense of loyalty to Edward IV and his adamancy can be shown in the phrase ‘ God knows I will not do it, to the death.’ This statement further emphasizes the blatant obliviousness of the characters towards Richard’s dissemblance that ironically curses their own fates, such as Anne Neville in Act 1 scene 2. As with the other characters at their time of death, Hastings realizes too late that he has gone beyond the point of redemption and is defamed as being Richard’s traitor. As soon as Richard says ‘Off with his head!’ the audience feels sympathy for Hastings; he reflects upon how he could have saved himself if he had heeded Margaret’s curses that echoed throughout the play in the phrase ‘ O margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse is lighted upon poor Hastings’ wretched head’’.
Curses serve the purpose to inflict harm upon someone and Shakespeare chooses to emphasise the role of women in the play as they hurl their indignations at Richard III because of their prolonged mistreatment by him. In act 1 scene 2, the morbid scene depicts Anne, the new widow, who laments upon the corpse of Henry VI through the phrase ‘Oh , cursed the the hand that made these wounds. Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it, cursed the blood that had let this blood from hence’. Ironically Anne parallels Hastings when she does not realize that her words backfire against her. She fervently says ‘If ever he have wife, let her be made more miserable by the death of him,’ which proves to be to her disadvantage as in act 4 scene 1 she reaps her curses in the phrase ‘And proved the subject of mine own soul’s curse’.
Queen Margaret on the other hand is Richard’s most feared adversary in the play. Shakespeare personifies Queen Margaret as the ancient Nemesis from the Greek myths as she was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris. Queen Margaret has larger than human proportions, and is represented as a sort of supernatural apparition. Although she is an exiled queen, she is able to walk in and out of scenes unobstructed and fearless. Her skill in the play is the ability to hover around other characters unnoticed even as her curses are echoed throughout the play. From the phrase ‘The curse my noble father laid on thee’ suggests that Queen Margaret herself has sinned just as much as she was sinned against as she mocked the captured Yorkist King, Richard III’s father and then killed him. From Margaret’s disposition as an ambitious sentimentalist seen in the phrase ‘A husband and a son thou oust to me – And thou a kingdom- all of you allegiance. This sorrow that I have might is yours, and all the pleasures you usurp are mine,’ she seamlessly switches to an avenging angel who curses all the characters – from Queen Elizabeth in the phrase ‘outlive thy glory, like my wretched self’ to Richard so that ‘The worm of conscience bengaw thy soul’ in act 1 scene 3. She serves to be a powerful character as all of her prophecies and curses materialise with the exception of Dorset’s flee to Richmond in Act 4 scene 1. However, violent invective does not affect Richard as a reproach; it serves him only for a pretence to commit the murder he came resolved on and his answer while he is killing Henry VI is, ‘I’ll hear no more, die, prophet, in thy speech!’ which alludes to Act 4 scene 2 whereby Richard reminisces ‘I do remember me, Henry the Sixth Did prophesy that Richmond should be king’. This implies that no matter how much Richard attempts to regain his composure, the combined curses proved to be too much as it aroused panic in Richard III as he says ‘A flourish, trumpets! Strike alarum,drums’ in hopes of suppressing the voices of the women. Richard’s downfall as a character evolves from the curses and prophecies.
In essence, the curses and prophecies are central accessories of the play that enforce the idea of the importance of superstition in the Elizabethan era. Not only do the maledictions and prophecies perform the dramatic function of highlighting the imminent downfalls of the characters, but at the same time it creates anticipation and suspense in the audience as they await the fate of the characters.
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