What is the importance of act 5, scene 3 for the play Richard III as a whole?

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This key scene at Bosworth Field presages the end of Richard. It both creates a tense, pre-battle atmosphere as it begins with the leaders’ preparations and an eerie atmosphere through the appearance of multiple ghosts. These are echoed in Richard’s dual modes of thought as he worries about the outcome...

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This key scene at Bosworth Field presages the end of Richard. It both creates a tense, pre-battle atmosphere as it begins with the leaders’ preparations and an eerie atmosphere through the appearance of multiple ghosts. These are echoed in Richard’s dual modes of thought as he worries about the outcome and, for the first time, doubts his goals and methods. As the scene opens, Richard seems confident in their victory, and the men settle down for the night. Then not one, not two, but more than a dozen ghosts of all those whom Richard has killed and wronged appear. Shakespeare presents their individual complaints but uses variants of the same language. They all condemn Richard to “despair and die” while they praise and support Richmond, often with the parallel “live and flourish.” Other repeated words for Richmond are “comfort,” “quiet,” “conquer,” and “victory.” Their purpose is summed up as all together tell Richmond,

Awake, and think our wrongs in Richard's bosom

Will conquer him! awake, and win the day!

The last ghost to appear is Buckingham, the last person to help him and then pay with his life. His final words anticipate Richard’s guilt upon awakening, expressed in an introspective soliloquy that uniquely shows self-doubt.

God and good angel fight on Richmond's side;

And Richard falls in height of all his pride.

Richard wakes wondering at the terrible dream, speaking of his own sense of guilt and of the multiple voices that “condemned” him. He not only echoes their collective sentence to “despair,” but wallows in self-pity at being unloved. This is not a good state of mind for leading men into battle.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain . . . .

All several sins, all used in each degree,

Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;

And if I die, no soul shall pity me . . .

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This scene builds up intense tension as well as anticipation for the climatic battle on Bosworth field coming in the next scene that will determine whether Richard III or Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, will wear the crown. As well as we in the US know that the North won the pivotal battle of Gettysburg, the audience knows that Richmond will win the day. After all, his granddaughter, Elizabeth Tudor, now sits on the throne. Nevertheless, Shakespeare also realizes he has to set up events to justify this victory. Henry Tudor is about to defeat an anointed king, a shocking and normally sinful event in the Elizabethan worldview. However, the legitimacy of the Tudors and Elizabeth I must be emphasized. Henry Tudor must be shown to deserve the throne.

Shakespeare shows this in act 5, scene 3 by painting Richard III as a monster who murdered his way to an undeserved reign. For example, a series of ghosts come to Richard in this scene to accuse him (and remind the audience) of his foul misdeeds. He is also contrasted unfavorably in this scene to Henry (Richmond): Henry, for example, shows generous decency in his speech to rouse his troops, while Richard III appeals to his troops' lowest instincts in telling them they are better than the scum and dregs of the enemy. By the time the scene is over, the audience is well primed and rooting for the very satisfying win that will come when Henry and Richard meet in battle, and Henry defeats the monster.

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As theatrical imitation of an action, the scene dramatizes the tensions and the physical preparations before a battle, something the audience knew little of in detail, since they lived in a peaceful time domestically during Elizabeth’s reign.  By showing both sides preparing, Shakespeare demonstrates the bravado, the loyalty, the strengths and weaknesses of both sides; he lets go momentarily of the moral and political abstractions, right and wrong of battle, concentrating instead on the physical.  “God and our good cause fight upon our side” says Richmond, in his famous oration to his troops. Ratcliffe bring his report of Nothumberland to a despondent Richard III (as shown by his response to the weather) as he weighs the rumors and the news, and voices his personal doubts about the battle to come.  In Richard’s oration to his soldiers, he dismisses the enemy, “ A sort [an assortment] of vagabonds, rascal, and runaways…”  So, dramatically, the scene prepares the audience for Richard’s death, by not only setting the scene for the battle by staging the preparations on both sides, but also by voicing the moral right and wrong that the audience is asked to evaluate.  It is a brilliant piece of pure story-telling, with virtually none of the poetic language Shakespeare is famous for, except in the rhetoric of the orations themselves, a sort of verbal dualing before the London audience.

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