Richard III


William Shakespeare

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Richard III: Foreshadowing 4 key examples

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Definition of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved directly or indirectly, by making... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Inductions Dangerous :

In Act 1, Scene 1, Richard lays the groundwork for his sinister plot for the throne, foreshadowing his machinations through a soliloquy:

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate, the one against the other; [...]

This soliloquy explicitly foreshadows the dark and twisted schemes that Richard will unravel throughout the play. He speaks of plots and “dangerous inductions.” An “induction” is an initial move or a strategy. Importantly, too, it’s a term that refers to an explanatory scene that occurs before the main body of a play. With this wordplay, Shakespeare points to the fact that this soliloquy is happening somewhat outside of the regular timeline of Richard III. The protagonist is speaking aloud in order to explain important facts to the audience. This speech works almost like a primer on Richard, so the audience understands why he makes the choices he does.

The Duke of Clarence and King Edward IV are both his brothers, so Richard’s declared intent here is to not only disrupt a monarchy but also to cause turmoil within a family unit. It’s a glimpse into the future, a warning of the deviousness that he’ll unleash. It’s also an echo of the past. This passage mirrors the many years of pain and unrest that the interfamilial conflicts of the Wars of the Roses imposed on England. Through this soliloquy, the audience is let in on Richard's plans. He speaks directly and confidingly to them, sharing his intentions. This establishes a connection, where the audience is in on—and feels complicit in—his secrets. Richard spends a lot of time convincing people that he is a good person, so it’s important that the audience knows not to trust him. The soliloquy provides them with valuable context for his untruths and manipulations.

This soliloquy is a cornerstone of the play’s plot. It’s one of the very first things the audience sees, literally setting the scene for Richard as a scheming, unscrupulous man ready to sow discord for personal gain.

Act 4, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Worm of Conscience :

Queen Margaret, filled with bitterness and sorrow, publicly curses Richard and those around him who support him. Her cursing, which centers on the metaphor of a biting parasite, is loaded with foreshadowing for Richard’s incoming troubles. Margaret tells Richard that she hopes

The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul.

Queen Margaret's curse is a dark prophecy. It foreshadows the guilt and mental torment that will consume Richard by Act 5. Although he has previously been able to avoid the emotional consequences of his crimes, the price of his ambition will eventually catch up to him. The curse foreshadows the psychological toll of Richard’s actions. It also hints that his own conscience will eventually become his tormentor. The visceral language of “gnaw” works to intensify the description here. Richard’s conscience won’t be just an annoyance. Like a maggot gnawing at a wound, Margaret's curse implies it’s going to be a persistent and wearing source of pain.

The conscience of a sinner like Richard in this metaphor is depicted as a worm that gnaws incessantly. It eats away at Richard’s soul, causing internal turmoil and agony. When something is being “gnawed” or eaten by worms, it degrades gradually. This mirrors the gradual breakdown of Richard’s psyche as the play progresses. This metaphor also emphasizes the idea that Richard’s conscience, which should have been his guide, will later become his enemy. Instead of leading him in the right direction, it’ll punish him for his crimes.

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Act 5, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Fairest-Boding Dreams:

Richmond speaks to one of his lords the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, describing the quality of sleep and dreams he had:

How have you slept, my lord? 

The sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams 
That ever entered in a drowsy head
 Have I since your departure had, my lords [...]

Richmond uses hyperbole when he describes his sleep as “the sweetest sleep” and his dreams as the “fairest-boding dreams that ever entered in a drowsy head.” He’s doing so in order to comfort his men, who are nervous because of the upcoming battle. By exaggerating how well he slept, he is portraying himself as being at peace and confident, boosting the morale of his troops. By describing himself as being unworried about the violence swiftly approaching, Richmond aims to instill the same feelings in his men despite the terrible weather and overall grim circumstances. This is typical of Richmond, who is portrayed as being both a good leader and very confident that God is on his side in this fight. 

The reference to “fairest-boding dreams” also serves as foreshadowing for the outcome of the Battle of Bosworth Field. By emphasizing the positive nature of his dreams, Shakespeare hints at Richmond’s impending victory. This victory, of course, also signals the end of Richard’s tyrannical rule. The “dreams” Richmond has in this scene set the stage for the climax of the play and his establishment as a new, just ruler.

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Explanation and Analysis—Have Mercy, Jesu!:

Just before the Battle of Bosworth Field comes a powerful scene where Richard experiences a prophetic nightmare. The words he utters when he wakes are both situationally ironic and dense with foreshadowing:

Richard starteth up out of a dream.

RICHARD: Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds! Have mercy, Jesu!—

This plea is dripping with situational irony. Richard, a character notorious for his ruthlessness and disregard for human life, now finds himself pleading for mercy. Throughout the play, Richard has been a character defined by his lack of compassion. His cold and calculating demeanor, coupled with his merciless acts of violence, paints him as a man devoid of empathy. Yet, in this moment, the tables are turned. Richard’s own desperation and helplessness mirror the very emotions of those he tormented. It is ironic that he, who showed no mercy, seeks it so fervently now. His plea is also religious in nature, invoking Jesus for help. As Richard’s actions comprise many "mortal sins"—acts for which one would be damned without sincere repentance and restitution—crying out for Jesus at this point seems pathetically pointless. He defied all religious morals and disregarded all cries for mercy directed toward him, but he reaches for divine comfort when he's afraid.

The scene also explicitly foreshadows what is coming for Richard at Bosworth Field. His plea for a horse and for his wounds to be bound is immediately mirrored in the battlefield scene that follows this nightmare. The play makes use of several moments of supernatural warning, so Richard dreaming of his own death doesn’t seem all that unusual. However, his unraveling is indicative of the fall that is to come. His cry for mercy, from human or divine sources, remains unheeded, much like the cries of those he wronged. This call for "mercy, Jesu!" sets the stage for the approaching poetic justice of Richard's defeat and death.

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