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Richard III Act 1, Scene 4 Summary

  • We cut to George, Duke of Clarence, imprisoned in the Tower of London.
  • Clarence tells the prison-keeper about a nightmare he had the night before. He dreamed he'd escaped from the Tower and was on a ship with his brother Richard, on their way to Burgundy, France (where the two were sent as boys for safety after their father was murdered).
  • In the dream, Richard convinced Clarence to come up to the loose planks that made up the deck. From there the two looked toward England and recounted all the bad things that had happened to them during the long war between the Yorks and the Lancasters. Just then, Richard tumbled, and though Clarence was trying to steady him, Richard actually knocked his brother down, forcing him overboard.
  • Clarence dreamed of falling slowly through the sea. Though he felt the pain of drowning, it took a really long time for him to die, so he had plenty of time to witness all sorts of awful things under the sea: old shipwrecks, the bodies of drowned men that had been gnawed on by fish, sunken treasure, and so forth.
  • Finally Clarence died in the dream, but that didn't end all the agony. Instead, Clarence dreamed he passed over the mythological River Styx into death, and as he reached the underworld, he met his father-in-law, the Lancaster supporter, who cursed him for his double treachery. Not to be outdone, the man whom Clarence helped murder at Tewksbury, Prince Edward of Wales, also showed up and cursed Clarence, who was then seized by hell's minions. Fortunately, hell's minions are a rather rowdy bunch, and they made enough noise to wake Clarence from his dream.
  • Clarence, still talking to the prison guard, laments that all of his sinning was to help his brother Edward, and Edward rewarded him by having him locked away. He prays that if God wants to punish him for his evil deeds, fine, but he hopes God will spare his wife and children.
  • Having asked for his family's protection, Clarence readies to sleep again and asks the guard to sit by him awhile.
  • No sooner than Clarence sleeps does Brackenbury, the Lieutenant, join the prison guard. Brackenbury makes a pretty speech about how fleeting powerful titles are, and how little they mean.
  • He's interrupted by the two murderers, who say they're there to "guard" Clarence.
  • Brackenbury says OK, but runs off to tell the king that he's surrendered the watch over Clarence.
  • Though the two new guards do intend to murder Clarence, the business is not as straightforward as it had first seemed.
  • The second murderer hesitates to kill Clarence in his sleep, and this pause inspires a long talk between the two murderers about conscience. The second murderer claims he isn't afraid of killing Clarence, but he does fear the judgment he knows will follow. Though they have a commission for the murder, no commission can free them from damnation.
  • All of this back-and-forth is easily quashed when the first murderer reminds the second murderer that, conscience be damned, this is a very well-paying job. The debate about the virtues of conscience is settled by the decision to kill Clarence and then leave the body in a vat of wine.
  • Then Clarence wakes up and basically asks, "Have you guys come to murder me?" to which the murderers reply, "Yes." Clarence thinks they must not be serious, as they seem rather undecided about their chosen career paths as assassins.
  • Clarence then tries to reason with them – though they claim to follow the order of the king, Clarence tells them they'll be judged ultimately by the king of Kings (read: God).
  • Clarence suggests that they wouldn't want to follow the king's order knowing it defied God's order not to kill.
  • The murderers point out that actually, whatever their eternal fate is, Clarence will share it. After all, Clarence murdered the Lancastrian Prince Edward of Wales, though he had sworn to protect him (betraying his own family of York in the process).
  • Clarence claims he only murdered to help out his brother, King Edward. Anyway, Clarence would like the murderers to go see his other brother, Richard of Gloucester, as Clarence is sure Richard will straighten the whole thing out.
  • The first murderer reveals to Clarence that Richard isn't a likely source of help, seeing as he was the one who sent the murderers.
  • Poor Clarence. He doesn't believe them at first, but he's soon pleading for his life.
  • The second murderer seems moved by Clarence's pleas. Still, his tender feelings for Clarence aren't enough to stop his partner from stabbing Clarence and then drowning his body in a big vat of wine for good measure.
  • Though the second murderer is repentant, the deed is done, and the two flee.

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