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Analysis

Clarence's Dream

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Richard isn't the only character who tosses and turns at night. Clarence has a nightmare, too, and it turns out to be highly symbolic and prophetic. Let's discuss.

The day Clarence is murdered by Richard's goons, he says "O, I have pass'd a miserable night, / So full of ugly sights, of ghastly dreams" (1.4.1). Uh oh. We learn that Clarence dreamed about escaping the Tower of London (where he's locked up on treason charges) by ship. Guess who else was on the ship in Clarence's dream? Richard. Guess what they were talking about? The horrors they've seen (and committed) during the Wars of the Roses. Clarence reveals that in his dream, it seemed like Richard was falling overboard, and on his way down, he bumped Clarence off the ship into the water where he drowned. (Whoops. This probably foreshadows the fact that Richard "bumps off" Clarence when he has him executed, don't you think?)

In any case, Clarence wakes up thinking he's in hell. He's mostly right, as he's almost immediately greeted by his murderers, who stab him, then drown his body in a vat of wine. So basically, Clarence's dream about drowning turns out to be the nonalcoholic version of his actual death.

But what about all the freaky stuff Clarence sees on his journey to the bottom of the ocean? Check it out:

Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatter'd by.
(1.5.2)

There are lots of ways to interpret what Clarence sees, but here's our take: All those dead "men that fishes gnaw'd upon" and all that scattered treasure (some of which is lodged in human skulls) seem to symbolize all the lives Clarence helped destroy during the bloody civil wars. This passage is gorgeous poetry, but the fact that men become nothing more than fish food after they die (or food for worms, as in Hamlet) seems pretty fatalistic. Feel free to disagree or elaborate with your own analysis, Shmoopsters. Like we said, there's more than one way to read all of this.

What? You want to know about Lord Stanley's dream? Fine. Read what we have to say about "The Boar" above.

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