Of “Coward Consciences:” Richard’s Condemnation

In Shakespeare’s Richard the III, Richard’s conscience ultimately condemns himself from his deception and enjoyment of murder throughout the play. While his conscience puts himself before a court and judge, he allows himself to either defend or take ownership of what he’s done. Richard’s trial, showing in Act V.3, determines his fate by his guilty conscience.

Richard admits to himself that his “coward conscience” afflicts him. In most stories, villains aren’t the ones who have a heart-to-heart with their consciences to figure out their motive for what they have done. Richard is the rare exception to this because he becomes self-aware. He says to himself, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me.” Because he recognizes that his conscience forces him to become a coward, he’s taunted by the knowledge that his lies and murders were not justifiable.

From this moment forward in the play, Richard’s trial begins. Since he’s recognizing that he is a villain by his “coward conscience” he says, “The lights burn blue/It is now dead midnight/Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.” Richard’s regret, being exemplified by the blue light, leads him to become empowered to see the grace and mercy that is needed to redeem himself. However, the “dead midnight” doesn’t provide Richard a way to redeem himself since the day is over. Richard realizes this from his “coward conscience” and his flesh beings to tremble.

“Trembling flesh” is a result of one of two things: The flight or fight response. Richard’s “trembling flesh” makes him want to flee from his own condemnation. Yet, he can’t because it’s already pass “dead midnight.” Richard then asks himself, “For any good that I myself have done unto myself? O no, alas, I rather hate myself for hateful deed committed by myself.” As Richard accepts his fate as a villain in front of his court and judge, he questions if he has done “any good” by the “hateful deed[s] committed.”

Richard’s case now becomes clear as to why he is a villain. He says, “I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not.” For a split second, readers are left on the edge of their seat. Is Richard truly convinced that he is a villain? Is Richard pleading his case to his court (or conscience) that he was right by his acts of lies and murders? Will Richard remember that he is beginning to feel the discomfort in the lies that he as spun? However, readers stop questioning what Richard will do next when he says, “Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter. My conscience hath a thousand several tongues.” Despite Richard’s “thousand several tongues” he cannot further rationalize (or even attempt to) because he has accepted himself as a villain and is now facing the consequences of his actions.

Richard continues by saying, “And every tongue brings in a severaltale, and every tale condemns me for a villain.” It is interesting that Richard gives credit to each of the ghosts that appear to him because of how their tales have impacted him. Characters’ stories are told in thousands of different ways. Writers express each individual story by how their character reacts, positions himself, and by allowing the reader to learn about their past. Shakespeare does this by having ghosts appear to Richard so that he can hear their tale and know that he is held accountable by his actions. Richard knows that his plots for murders are going to come and bring him to justice. His guilt is eating his soul away and is forcing him to beg for mercy from the Catholic Church. Richard says, “Bind up my wounds! Have mercy, Jesu-Soft!” Richard’s reference to Christ’s mercy is almost twisted in a sense because Richard’s deeds were far from the teachings of the Catholic Church of the time period. However, Richard knows that mercy comes when justice has been met.

Richard continues by saying, “All several sins, all used in each degree throng to the bar, crying all, “Guilty, guilty!” I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;” Perhaps Shakespeare is trying to convey a point to his audience by saying that if a person is guilty and justice needs to be met, no one will have pity for him. Richard’s deeds and acts leave him with no friends. He is left with no one. Not one “creature loves [him]” and because of that, he is left with nothing. He knows that everyone will be crying, “Guilty, guilty!” and that he has no opportunity to fix what he has inflicted upon everyone. He then says, “Methought the souls of all that I had murdered came to my tent.” The final lines of Richard’s condemnation not only confirms the pity that the audience has from their knowledge of what will happen to Richard the next day, but also confirms that Richard ultimately does condemn himself.

In Richard’s final lines of his speech, he says, “And every one did threat tomorrow’s vengeance on the head of Richard.” Ultimately, this final line from Richard’s speech confirms that Richard has condemned himself as a villain from the murders and lies that he brewed throughout the play. Richard comes to terms with this by his “thousand several tongues” and his “coward conscience.” He believes that he deserves “tomorrow’s vengeance” and is prepared to face it since he knows that he committed “hateful deed” amongst his kingdom and is ultimately condemned by his “coward conscience.”

NOTE: This was written in my Shakespeare class last semester. We were not asked to include a works cited page because we only used Richard the III.

Any comments? What could I have done better? How can I improve my writing?

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