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Richard III Essays

In this speech, which occurs near the end of the play, Richard is talking to himself, trying to shake himself out of a nightmare and prepare himself for the battle which will take place at dawn. It is "dead midnight" on the eve of battle, the "witching hour," the time of night when "the lights burn blue," which refers to an old superstition that when ghosts or spirits are about, they affect the lamps. Richard has awakened in a cold sweat ("Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh") with murder on his mind.

The principal (and only) image in the speech occurs in lines 194-200:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree:
Murther, stern murther, in the dir'st degree;
All several sins, all us'd in each degree,
Throng all to the bar, crying all, 'Guilty! guilty!'

In his nightmare, his suppressed awareness of his sins has become a thousand shouting witnesses to his villainy and murder, thronging in a courtroom or some other place of judgment, all condemning him before the "bar", the place of judgment. The metaphor of the courtroom is strangely formal for a man in a cold sweat, trembling in the aftermath of a nightmare horrible enough to awaken him from sleep, but the formal judgment indicates just how serious his crimes are. On a sensual level, the image is striking because the noise of the "thousand several tongues" contrasts so strongly with the quiet of "dead midnight," and the "throng" with his solitude. He is alone with his sins, but they crowd around him.

The tone of the speech changes as it progresses, paralleling Richard's confusion when he first wakes up, and his growing awareness that what woke him was a dream, and his returning confidence in himself. His first few lines are a flurry of questions that give us some of the flavor of the "thousand tongues" he heard in his dream:

What? do I fear myself? there's none else by:
Is there a murtherer 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? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?

Asking questions and then answering them in the same breath reveals his confusion. He is neither awake nor asleep; he is not sure if he is awake or still dreaming, and he is not sure if he is alone or surrounded by spirits. He is defending himself to the "thousand tongues" that are crying him guilty. As he begins to wake up, and realize that he has been dreaming, the tone of the speech changes:

I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.

Now he is awake, and now he remembers the dream. He describes it, but he is interpreting it ("My conscience hath a thousand several tongues"), putting it in its place.

It takes him some time to shake off the effects of the dream, even after he briskly dismisses his own self-pity, his moment of weakness (lines 201-204). When Ratcliff wakes him, he blurts out that he has had "a fearful dream," that "shadows" have frightened him more than ten thousand soldiers could. A little later, ordering Norfolk to ready his men for battle, he says:

Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls
For conscience is a word that cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.

That "babbling dreams" is a clue that he still hears the "thousand tongues," and the reference to "conscience" twice in four lines shows that he is still hearing the voices of his victims, the voice of his own conscience. Still later, when he is addressing his troops before battle, delivering what is supposed to be a "pep talk," there is another echo of his dream:

Remember whom you are to cope withal:
A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and run-aways,
A scum of Britaines and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate adventures and assur'd destruction.
You sleeping safe, they bring...

(The entire section is 1,940 words.)