Richard III: Novel Summary: Act 1 Scene 4

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Act 1, scene 4

In the Tower of London, Clarence talks with the guard. He says he dreamed the previous night that he had escaped from the Tower and was with Richard sailing for France. But Richard pushed him overboard and he drowned. Entering Hades, the underworld, which is also hell, he encountered other souls there, including his father-in-law, Warwick, who reproached him for turning away from the Lancastrian cause that he had once supported. As devils roared in his ears, Clarence woke up.

Tormented by the sins he believes he has committed for the sake of Edward, the king, Clarence prays to God that if God’s wrath is to fall on him, his wife and children should be spared. Clarence then sleeps.

Brakenbury, the Lieutenant, enters, followed by two murderers. The murderers carry a commission from the king that authorizes them to take charge of Clarence. Brakenbury does not inquire further as to their purpose but hands them the keys to the cell. Brakenbury and the guard exit.

The second murderer confesses to the first one that he is having some pangs of conscience about killing Clarence, even though they have a warrant from the king to do so. The first murderer reminds him of the money that Gloucester has promised them for carrying out the murder, and the other man forgets his misgivings.

Clarence awakes and sees the two men. Alarmed, he guesses they are there to kill him. Clarence asks what his offense is, that he is to be killed for it. He argues that he has not been legally tried and convicted. Therefore, he says, the men face damnation if they kill him, since to do so would be unlawful. The murderers respond that they are acting under the authority of the king, and that Clarence is guilty of supporting the Lancastrian cause. They also say that Clarence is guilty of killing Prince Edward, the son of the former king, Henry VI. Clarence points out that his brother, the current king, is also guilty of that act. Clarence tries to bargain with the murderers, saying they should go to see Richard, who will reward them well for not killing him. The murderers tell him the truth: Richard hates him and wants him dead. Clarence can barely believe this. He continues to try to argue his way out of his fate, but the murderers stab him. If he is still alive they plan to drown him in a butt of malmsey wine. 

The second murderer feels remorse at what they have done.



Clarence does his best to argue his way out of an impossible situation but he never has a chance. Once again, understanding this scene depends on a knowledge of prior events, which are being to justify his murder. In Henry VI, part 3, Clarence at one point allies himself with Warwick in support of the Lancastrians rather than with his own brother Edward, because Edward did not provide him with a suitable wife. However, after Warwick appeared to renege on a promise to install Clarence as the heir to the throne, Clarence switched sides again, and was forgiven by his brothers Edward and Richard. Following the Battle of Tewksbury, Clarence helped to kill the captured Prince Edward. Now, in this scene, Clarence’s past is coming back to haunt him, although of course his past actions are simply being used as flimsy excuses to justify the murder.

Shakespeare has taken some liberties with history in order to present Richard as being behind Clarence’s death. In reality, Clarence was executed following a legal trial for treason, and the verdict, historians say, was not unjust. The historical Richard, it seems, loyal to his brother, tried to intervene to prevent the execution.

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