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...
(This entire section contains 1940 words.)
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 you to unrest;
There is nothing unusual in the content here; he is making the usual "come on men and we'll drive the rabble out" pre-battle speech, but the reference to "sleeping safe" and being brought to "unrest" is a description of what has happened to him that night.
There is another, more direct, parallel to Richard's dream in the same scene. As Richard, newly awake, goes off with Ratcliff to eavesdrop on his allies, we see Richmond rising from his bed before battle, cheerful, well-rested, eager to tell how well he has slept:
The sweetest sleep, and fairest-boding dreams That ever enter'd a drowsy head, Have I since your departure had, my lords. Methought their souls, whose bodies Richard murther'd, Came to my tent and cried on victory: I promise you, my heart is very jocund In the remembrance of so fair a dream.
The same spirits have apparently visited Richmond in his sleep, yet he has a rosy picture of their meaning. For a further parallel, he, too, makes a rousing speech to his men before battle, and he, too, makes a reference to sleep:
If you do swear to put a tyrant down, You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain;
Richard's spirit visitors cried "Guilty!" and Richmond's "cried on victory," in a foreshadowing of the outcome of the battle about to be fought.
In reference to the play as a whole, this speech of Richard's reflects the disorder he has inflicted on the kingdom by clearing his path to the throne through murder and wickedness. Richard's real crime, according to the Elizabethan view of the "divine right of kings," was to take his own destiny and that of his country into his own hands. He has disturbed the natural order of things, and for that he will pay. The audience, while they would have enjoyed his wit and his audacity (at wooing the widow of the man he murdered, in the presence of the corpse, for example), and gasped at his evil, they would have known that he was not going to get away with it, that all those murders would have to be avenged by the end of the play. The speech shows that Richard himself knows that he is not going to get away with it, that the souls of those he has murdered and wronged will not remain silent, and that he must be judged for what he has done. The judgment in his dream foreshadows the judgment that will shortly be rendered by Richmond on the battlefield. He even admits, in his weakest moment,
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me; And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
He has never felt more alone. And yet, he has been isolated, or at least felt isolated, all his life, because of his deformity and his response to the pity of others. He feels bitter about pity, blaming it for the warping of his character. He knows himself to be a man without pity, even for himself:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself Find in myself no pity to … myself?
That quality, in fact, is one of the likeable qualities Richard has, one of the personality traits that makes him such an attractive villain. He is not full of self-pity as many (possibly lesser) men in his position might be; he is heroic in the sense that he has done the best he could with the life and shape he was given at birth. In a sense, we admire him for that. Of course, his lack of self-pity also means that he never developed any sympathy with other human beings, and that is what essentially disqualifies him for kingship, for a king must understand that he is a man like other men if he is to rule justly. Richard has never believed that he was a man like other men; he always knew that he was "different" and it is the special quality of his personality that turned that knowledge to his own advantage and cut him off from the moral mainstream.
In terms of language, this is a different Richard from the one whose language has teased and amazed us throughout the play. For one thing, the speech is almost totally without Richard's typical color and imagery (except for the "thousand tongues" image). For contrast, one of his speeches to the widow Anne, is much richer in imagery, as he explains that she alone has made him cry:
These eyes, which never shed remorseful tear; No, when my father York and Edward wept to hear the piteous moan that Rutland made when black-fac'd Clifford shook his sword at him; Nor when thy warlike father like a child Told the sad story of my father's death, And twenty times made pause to sob and weep, That all the standers-by had wet their cheeks Like trees bedash'd with rain: in that sad time, my manly eyes did scorn an humble tear; And what these sorrows could not thence exhale, Thy beauty hath, and made them blind with weeping. (I, ii, 156-167)
His characteristic speech is as devious as he is, twisting words and images to suit his wicked purposes—wooing Anne, being best friends with his brother Clarence, playing the good Uncle with his little nephews. This speech, though bare of his characteristic imagery, still retains his argumentative style and his peculiar logic. The quick-moving rhetoric is there in his verbal duel with himself:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. Is there a murtherer here? No. Yes, I am: Then fly! What? myself upon myself? Alack ! I love myself.
One other effect of this speech, coming where it does in the play, is that we get one final picture of Richard the man, alone, being honest with himself, before we are plunged into the hectic battle and the final scenes. When we see him just before his death, and he speaks his last, famous, desperate line: "A horse! My kingdom for a horse!", the line takes on more meaning, more poignancy, and more irony because we have so recently seen him being so human.
It is the humanity of this speech, coming as it does when Richard is half-asleep, half-awake, when any man is at his most vulnerable, that makes Richard a heroic figure. Shakespeare has given us this intimate, very personal moment, letting us have just a glimpse of Richard's torment and of the man himself, stripped of his public wickedness and his usual rhetoric. No man is a complete villain without any redeeming virtues at all. Historically, Richard is the evil hunchback who had the little princes murdered in the Tower. And yet, here at least, there is a real man. We are seeing a man who, although he has failed, has attempted greatness, even though he interfered with powers greater than his own, and his great mistake was to underestimate the Nature that deformed him.
Richard's verbal gifts, his wit, his power to attract the common people to his leadership, his outsider's understanding of how men's minds and ambitions work, and of how the political world in which he operates really works—these are the characteristics that-make him an attractive dramatic character, if not a character that audiences or readers can exactly like or want to be like.