My Kingdom for a Horse!

Richard III, Act 5

Here it is at last, the payoff line that everybody remembers from Richard III.

It seems that no matter what the play, Shakespeare had a knack for creating earworms, catchphrases that have become so familiar that they now sound to us like clichés.

We need to remind ourselves that there was once a time before Shakespeare invented such expressions as: “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” “To be or not to be, that is the question,” and “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!”

Let’s face it.  The man just had a knack. One wonders what he would have created in our cinematic age, and what he’d think of these:

But what does this line in particular mean? And why has it, above all the others, been singled out by time from this play?

In fact, I am more intrigued by what happens and what Richard says immediately after. He stands on the battlefield, surrounded by enemies, his mount having been slain, in grave and mortal danger. And thus he utters the famous line:

RICHARD: A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!

Followed by a most curious exchange between Richard and Catesby:

CATESBY: Withdraw, my lord. I’ll help you to a horse.

RICHARD: Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.

What just happened there?

Catesby urges him to remove himself from the fray and then he’ll help him find a horse. Sound advice offered to a man in dire straights. So why does Richard respond the way he does? “Slave,” he says, attacking Catesby for the very suggestion – what, that he’ll appear weak? But didn’t he just cry out for help? And then: I’ve thrown my lot in with this battle (and rise to the throne), and I’ll see it through to the end. Is that bravery? Foolishness? Stubbornness? Resignation? How can one line tell us so much about Richard’s character, yet leave so much unanswered?

The highlight of Act 5, however, is not the battle scene, but the haunting dream sequence that precedes it. Both Richard and Richmond fall into a slumber, during which time they are both visited by the ghosts of all the men and women that Richard has killed who tell him, in no uncertain terms, to “despair and die.” The forces of justice and righteousness have aligned themselves squarely behind Richmond. Richard will not only have to fight his earthly opponents, but the spirits of those he has deviously murdered as well.

After awakening, Richard attempts to shake off his foreboding dreams by saying:

RICHARD: What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore?

It’s a biting inner monologue that expresses the war of consciousness plaguing Richard as his mental state continues to deteriorate. We have seen subtle signs of this coming on. Shakespeare brilliantly has him forget his thoughts mid-sentence, ordering Ratcliff and Catesby to do his bidding and then wondering what he intended for them to do.

Richard III, then is, the study of a man in mental breakdown from the weight of his consciousness burdened from the wrongs he has committed. The rationalist Richard does not subscribe to such theories about his soul or the invisible forces of guilt from right and wrong. His reality is strictly objective, a clash of power and position.

Richmond, however, displays an entirely different model of humility both on the night before the battle against Richard and immediately afterward. Before he sleeps, he prays to God to assist him in doing what’s right and good:

RICHMOND: O thou, whose captain I account myself,
Look on my forces with a gracious eye.
Put in their hands thy bruising irons of wrath,
That they may crush down with a mighty fall
The usurping helmets of our adversaries!
Make us thy ministers of chastisement,
That we may praise thee in thy victory!

We intuit, by contrast, that what dooms Richard is not just his moral vacuum but his lack of humility. He suffers from the Greek fatal flaw of hubris. His vanity allows him to believe that he can manipulate history, alter destiny, destroy lives for his own gain and get away with impunity. But the ghosts of the dead, and Richmond’s desire to right the realm by uniting York and Lancaster – thus putting an end to the destructive War of the Roses – are much too strong. God, honor, justice and the future of England stand on Richmond’s side.

As much as from his heinous crimes, then, Richard fails because he overlooks the cumulative magnitude of all the niggling details. Individual sins and moral failings don’t add up to much in his own mind. Until the end, that is, when his life and entire kingdom suddenly turn on the presence of a single horse.

But by then Richard knows that it’s already too late. His die has been cast.  He has chosen a path, made his bed a long time ago, and now he will now have to lie in it.

His kingdom for a horse? Aye. Alas…he’s far too gone for that.

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