In many of Shakespeare’s plays, dreams serve as whimsical commentary on the events and characters or as mystical foreshadowing of what is to come later in the story. Since the subject is asleep, dreaming is usually perceived to be a pleasant or at least entertaining. In Richard III, however, dreams offer terror and misery instead. Sleep and dreams are relevant in three different instances over the course of the play, offering insight into the psychological torment of the effected characters.
The first significant scene involving a dream occurs right before George, the Duke of Clarence is murdered in the Tower. He describes himself as being on a boat with his brother Richard, seeing flashbacks of the battles they had fought in flash across the English shores. When Richard knocks him overboard, Clarence proceeds to drown and sees human skeletons intermingled with sunken ships and treasure on the sea bottom (I. iv. 25-26). Clarence then finds himself ferried into the Underworld where he is punished by his father-in-law, Richard Neville, the Duke of Warwick, whom he slew in battle. Clarence’s dream not only reveals his historical significance and past actions, but prophecies his almost immediate murder: being drowned in a “malmsey-butt” (a.k.a. barrel of wine) by minions of his treacherous brother Richard (I. iv. 269).
The second event involving dreams is not seen onstage, but is mentioned by other characters, first in curses then in reflections. Towards the beginning of the play, Lady Anne calls down curses on her late husband Edward’s killer, his future wife, and potential children. Later, King Henry VI’s widow Margaret curses Richard: “No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine, / Unless it be while some tormenting dream / affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils” (I. iii. 25-27). After Richard has wedded Lady Anne and become King, it is revealed that both curses have come true; Anne can never get a decent night’s sleep because of Richard’s night terrors.
The most remarkable dream of all is in the final act of the play; Richard and his enemy Henry, the Earl of Richmond, are both visited in their sleep by the ghosts of all the characters Richard has murdered before and during the play. Each spirit curses Richard, repeating the words “despair and die” either verbatim or paraphrased (V. iii. 122-174). In contrast, the spirits promise Henry victory and assure him of Heaven’s favor.
The nature of the dreams throughout Richard III are almost never restful, peaceful, or serene; they are distressing and horrific visions assaulting morally questionable characters. The only “good” dream in the entire play is bestowed on Henry, the character who finally slays Richard and ends his tyranny. For the purposes of the play, the dreams can therefore be interpreted as a supernatural device to punish evil and encourage good, providing an ongoing promise of justice which eventually and inevitably comes true.