The attack of "conscience" that King Richard suffers in Act 5, Scene 5 of Shakespeare's Richard III (133-157) can be seen as the psychological climax of the drama, one that is critical to both Richard's development as a character and the play's ultimate success. Richard's struggle to reconcile the many different roles he attempts to play into one unified self, reflected in the tone and composition of his speech, adds depth and humanity to his character; at the same time, his ultimate failure to maintain his "self-made" identity simplifies the play in a way that allows the author to satisfy his audience by punishing the villain and reaffirming the world views that Richard's character appears to challenge (Luxon). While examining his own vision of himself, Richard finds his identity at a breaking point, and is forced to rely on the very ideas he used for his own advantage to judge himself. As the king, who seemed to be above the "afflict[ion] of "coward conscience" (5.5.133) is overwhelmed by the many different conceptions of who he is that are presented in the play, the audience cannot help but feel a mixture of sympathy and relief.
Richard's self "love" (5.5. 141), the kernel of his own identity, is threatened by the "fear" (5.5.136) his conscience instills in him. Throughout most of the play, the statement "Richard loves Richard" (5.5.137) functions as the character's motivation ‹ Gloucester consistently acts for his own "gain" (1.2.162). That self, however, has never been firmly worked out. The many "outward appearances" (Luxon) that Richard projects in the play are often contradictory, as he himself admits when he states that he "seem[s] a saint when most [he] play[s] the devil" (1.3.336). His interview with Anne shows just how malleable his self-identity is. Picturing himself through her eyes after he has wooed her, he states "I do mistake my person all this while" (1.2.239) and is determined to "maintain" his heightened opinion of himself with "some little cost" (1.2.245-6).
As Richard tests the strength of the assertion "I am I" (5.5.137), these inner divisions that plague his self-identity become apparent in the both the series of rhetorical questions that he asks and the contradictory, almost schizophrenic composition of the speech. The inconsistency of Richard's self-conception is reflected in the fact that just about half of the sentences in lines 136-144 are questions, as well as in the halting, choppy rhythm that the piling up of short sentences and fragments creates in lines 136-140. As he struggles to determine the logic or "reason" (5.5.139) with which to judge himself, the quick tempo of the sentences and the bright sounds created by the assonance give the impression of a mental duel. The opposing logics of his own "machiavellianism" (Luxon) and the "metaphysical" (Greenblatt) views of society provide two alternate ways for him to view his actions, pitting "[him]self against [him]self" (5.5.136). The breaks in meter within a line, especially when combined with oxymoronic statements, emphasize these internal contradictions. The ruptured meter and conflicting nature of Richard's self-directed admonition "Fool, of thyself speak well. ‹ Fool, do not flatter." (5.5.146) demonstrate the extreme directions in which Richard's self identity is being pulled. In many ways, Richard is in a no-win situation; he is a "fool" if he accepts this negative description as his true self, because it will cause him to be damned, but he is a also a fool to pretend it is not the truth, especially since so many other characters seem to believe that it is.
Faced with these problems, the many selves that Richard has been trying to keep straight escape him and his identity shatters into a "thousand separate tongues" (5.5.147) or pieces, each of which seems to be a "sin[ful]" (153). In the absence of one controlling identity, Richard has to rely on societal standards and allow his conscience to "condem[n...him] for a villain" (5.5.149). The shift in verse style at the end of the speech corresponds to this idea that Richard comes to a resolution in the speech ‹ as Richard begins to condemn himself and his sins, the composition changes to more complex and surprisingly evocative sentences. The sense of "despair"(5.5.154) and loneliness that the king expresses at the end of the speech, especially when coupled with the honesty of emotion expressed, perhaps for the first time, in lines like "Cold, fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh" (5.5.135), move the reader to "pity" (5.5.155) Richard, even though he denies our sympathy.
This shift in the audience from viewing Richard as an antihero to, at least in some ways, an object of pity is necessary from Shakespeare's point of view. Although the author can present a character who uses his skepticism do get others to do his will, he cannot let that character win out in the end. For Richard III to successfully "please" the audience, King Richard has to be punished for his transgressions of contemporary beliefs (Luxon). The loss of self-identity is an ingenious way to undo Richard, a character who is known only in his outward appearances. Hastings' belief that "by his face straight you will know his heart" (3.4.53, cited by Luxon) is obviously ironic. Stage directions are often used to create deceitful personas for Richard; in 3.7, Shakespeare has Richard "enter aloft...between two bishops" (3.7.sd) Richard the character even describes himself as acting the part of a character in another play (3.1.82), thus doubly removed from any inner self.
The author seems to encode in the soliloquy a measure for measure revenge of all the wrongs Richard has committed, especially with the vocabulary he has the king employ. Richard's references to himself as a "villain" (5.5.145, 149) must be viewed in reference to his opening speech, where he states that he is "determined to prove a villain"(1.1.30). The metaphysical language and imagery also suggests that the very ideas that he mocked earlier are what destroy him in the end. One of the first images given to the reader is that of "lights burn[ing] blue" (5.5.134), a sign that was "thought to indicate the presence of ghosts" (Greenblatt). This image is followed by the placement in time at "dead midnight" (5.5.134), the traditional witching hour. These superstitions were exactly what Richard used for his own devices at the beginning of the play. For example, the "plot" that he devises to kill Clarence is based entirely on a "drunken prophec[y]" (1.1.33). The religious beliefs that Richard has previously tried to use to his own advantage are also conjured by him in a serious way in this speech. Richard describes his sins, in "each degree," as "throng[ing] to the bar" (5.5.152) to condemn him, an image that seems to be an allusion to Judgement day. Further, he finally seems to take the idea of revenge seriously. When he states "I will despair" (5.5.), he is fulfilling the curses of the ghosts that visited him. Every single ghost wishes for Richard to "despair and die." He even seems to imply that he may be curse on himself when he states "lest I revenge. Myself against myself?" (5.5.140). Richard has cursed himself from one point of view by sinning, but from another by finally coming to believe in the idea of sin and retribution.
By causing Richard to condemn himself with the very principles that he used to raise himself up, Shakespeare manages to satisfy the audience without threatening their belief system. As Richard shifts from believing, as the first murderer does, that conscience is a "blushing, shamefaced spirit that mutinies in a man's bosom...[that] every man that means to do well endeavors to trust to himself and live without it" (1.4.130-135) to seeing it as something that can indeed "afflict"(5.5.133) and "condemn"(5.5.149) him, the "humanistic possibilities" that his character presented are "contained" (Luxon).
Luxon, Thomas. Lecture and Study Questions, Summer 1997.
Shakespeare, William. Richard III. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), 515-600.