Summary: Act 5, Scene 1

The captured Buckingham is led to his execution by an armed sheriff. Buckingham asks to speak to King Richard, but the sheriff denies his request, leaving him time to ponder before his head is cut off. Upon discovering that it is All-Souls Day, Buckingham’s thoughts turn to repentance and judgment, and he recalls the promises he made to King Edward IV that he would always stand by Edward’s children and his wife’s family. He also recalls his own certainty that Richard, whom he trusted, would never betray him and seems to be recalling Margaret’s prophecy: “[R]emember this another day, / When he [Richard] shall split thy very heart with sorrow” (I.iii.297–298). Buckingham concludes that Margaret was right, and that, moreover, he deserves to suffer for his own wrongdoing—for breaking his vows, for being an accomplice to foul play and murder, and for his folly in trusting Richard, who has indeed broken his heart. He tells the officers to bring him to “the block of shame,” and he is led away to die (V.i.28).

Read a translation of Act 5, Scene 1.

Summary: Act 5, Scene 2

At the camp of Richmond’s army, which is marching through England to challenge Richard, Richmond tells his men that he has just received a letter from his relative Stanley, informing him about Richard’s camp and movements. Richard’s army, it seems, is only a day’s march away. The men recall the crimes that Richard has perpetrated and the darkness he has brought to the land. A nobleman points out that none of Richard’s allies is with him because they believe in his cause—they stay with him only out of fear and will flee when Richard most needs them. Eager for the battle, Richmond and his men march onward toward Richard’s camp.

Read a translation of Act 5, Scene 2.

Analysis: Act 5, Scenes 1 & 2

The action accelerates in the scenes leading up to the battle. Shakespeare paces the scene so that events happen and news arrives in quick succession, leaving little time for contemplation on the parts of the main characters. At the same time, these scenes reflect back on important scenes earlier in the play, revealing the consequences of past actions and the fulfillment of past prophecies. Just as Elizabeth, Margaret, and the duchess’s reconsideration of earlier times in Act 4, Scene 4 prepares the ground for their extraordinary moral transformation in learning to curse, Buckingham’s memory of Margaret’s curse here prepares him for an equally significant transformation—his sudden desire to repent and accept his fate. Margaret’s curse, written off as an eccentricity when it is first delivered, is now revealed to be an accurate instrument of prophecy, and thus assumes its full importance as an instrument of foreshadowing in the play.

The re-emergence of the prophetic curse naturally carries with it an overtone of supernatural oversight, implying that God or fate controls the action of the play. In this light, Buckingham’s declaration that his execution is due to the justice of God, who, he feels, is punishing him for having aligned himself with evil, brings the notion of moral justice into full focus in the play. This focus on moral justice anticipates the dissolution of Richard’s unjust reign by redirecting the narrative toward the idea of just outcomes overseen by the will of God. Buckingham underscores this point when he declares, “Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men / To turn their own points in their masters’ bosoms” (V.i.23–24). In other words, the justice of God requires that evil men will be undone through their own wickedness. Buckingham intends this point to refer solely to himself, but Shakespeare frames it as a moral generalization that points clearly toward Richard.

Read more about the supernatural as a motif.

The sense of impending justice that Shakespeare introduces through the execution of Buckingham is carried over into Act 5, Scene 2, in which Richmond and his advisors’ complaints about Richard’s behavior amount to a moral indictment, a list of all the reasons why Richard’s removal from power is the outcome that justice demands. The sense of justice, strength, courage, and optimism inherent in the frank and determined conversation of the rebels stands in direct contrast to the sense of corruption, death, and impending doom that clings to Richard’s court. Richmond’s advisors employ language of defiance and resolution that takes Richard’s crimes as the impetus for the action that the rebels must take. For example, Oxford declares, “Every man’s conscience is a thousand swords / To fight against this guilty homicide” (V.ii.17–18). Like Oxford’s, each of the short speeches made by the men here revolves around the idea that Richard has been a murderous and oppressive king who deserves to be overthrown and that, as a result, Richmond’s army is morally unwavering in its quest to overthrow him. Whereas the lust for power characterized Richard’s rise to the throne, the principle of justice now directs Richmond and his army to challenge Richard’s wrongful rule.