use of the word "conscience" also mirrors the subtleties of Richard's personality and his behavior, almost all of which defies a more moral and ethical person's conscience and choices.
The first time "conscience" appears in the play, the word is spoken by Duke Richard of Gloucester, later King Richard III, after his scene with Lady Anne in his famous "Was ever woman in this humor wooed?" speech.
GLOUCESTER. Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?Was ever woman in this humour won?...What! I that kill'd her husband and his father,...Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,...And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!(act 1, scene 2, lines 247–259)
Here, "conscience" refers primarily to Lady Anne's better judgment, or lack thereof, in choosing Richard and only incidentally to her choosing evil—meaning Richard— over good.
One of the many curses that Queen Margaret hurls at Richard in act 1, scene 3 pertains to Richard's conscience.
QUEEN MARGARET. The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Margaret curses Richard with a conscience that eats away at his soul and which she hopes might one day cause him to regret his evil actions.
Margaret's curse actually comes true but only for a fleeting moment when Richard awakes from his nightmare before the battle at Bosworth Field.
RICHARD. Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft, I did but dream.O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!... My consciencehath a thousand several tongues,And every tongue brings in a several tale,And every tale condemns me for a villain.(act 5, scene 3, lines 190–191, 205–207)
However, Richard quickly recovers from the seeming depths of regret, despair, and pangs of his conscience and instead uses conscience as a derogatory term to urge his troops to defeat Richmond in battle.
RICHARD. Go, gentleman, every man unto his chargeLet not our babbling dreams affright our souls:Conscienceis but a word that cowards use,Devised at first to keep the strong in awe:Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.(act 5, scene 3, lines 326–329)
In act 1, scene 4, Shakespeare shows how inconsistent and changeable a person's conscience can be, depending on the circumstances in which it is used.
Two murderers go to Clarence's cell in the Tower of London to carry out Richard's orders to kill him.
One of the murderers has a sudden attack of conscience but only for a moment.
FIRST MURDERER. How dost thou feel thyself now?
SECOND MURDERER. 'Faith, some certain dregs of conscienceare yet within me.
FIRST MURDERER. Remember our reward, when the deed is done.
SECOND MURDERER. 'Zounds, he dies: I had forgot the reward.
FIRST MURDERER. Where is thy conscience now?
SECOND MURDERER. In the Duke of Gloucester's purse.
FIRST MURDERER. So when he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscienceflies out. (act 1, scene 4, lines 124–135)
Shakespeare gives "Gloucester's purse" two meanings here. In the first instance, it means that the second murderer's conscience is "bought and paid for," and in the second instance it means that Gloucester keeps the murderer's conscience and scruples in his pocket.
In act 3, scene 7, the mayor of London and a small delegation go to Richard to entreat him to accept their invitation for him to be king. Richard feigns reluctance to take the throne.
Richard has enlisted the aid of two clergyman to stand by his side while he pretends to reject the throne. The duke of Buckingham acts his part in the charade by entreating Richard to take the crown, then praising Richard for refusing it, only to offer it to him again.
Richard is offered the crown, and he argues that there's no need for him to accept it because there are others more deserving of it, and the dead King Edward has a young son to take his place.
RICHARD. But, God be thank'd, there's no need of me,... The royal tree hath left us royal fruit,Which, mellow'd by the stealing hours of time,Will well become the seat of majesty,And make, no doubt, us happy by his reign(act 3, scene 7, lines 167–172)
Buckingham plays along, praising Richard's conscience—here meaning his good heart and suitability to be king.
BUCKINGHAM. My lord, this argues consciencein your grace.(act 3, scene 7, line 176)
Richard is finally persuaded to accept the crown, against what he says is his "conscience," meaning his feigned reluctance to accept such a responsibility against his misgivings, his better judgment, and his will.
RICHARD. Will you enforce me to a world of cares?Call them again. I am not made of stones,But penetrable to your kind entreaties,Albeit against my conscienceand my soul.(act 3, scene 7, lines 225–228)
It's not long, however, before Richard plots the deaths of Edward's son and his young cousin, Richard's namesake. Tyrell, the murderer who oversees the deaths of the two princes in the Tower, has a true moment of conscience and pangs of remorse and guilt on his way to report the princes' deaths to Richard.
TYRELL. The tyrannous and bloody deed is done.The most arch of piteous massacreThat ever yet this land was guilty of.... Thus both are gone with conscienceand remorse;They could not speak; and so I left them both,To bring this tidings to the bloody king. (act 4, scene 3, lines 20–22)
In act 5, scene 2, Richmond exhorts his troops to victory, and Oxford, one of Richmond's commanders, makes a remark that will be echoed by Richard in later scenes.
OXFORD. Every man's conscienceis a thousand swords,To fight against that bloody homicide [meaning Richard].(act 5, scene 2, line 18–19)
Some of Oxford's words reappear in Richard's speech when he awakens from his nightmare.
RICHARD. My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,And every tongue brings in a several tale,And every tale condemns me for a villain....By the apostle Paul, shadows tonightHave struck more terror to the soul of RichardThan can the substance of ten thousand soldiersArmed in proof and led by shallow Richmond.(act 5, scene 3, lines 205–207, 229–232)
Oxford's words also foreshadow Richard's death under a hail of blows from many of the "Six or seven thousand" of Richmond's troops (act 5, scene 3, line 11).