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]...
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...ea 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.
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