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In William Shakespeare’s Richard III, the protagonist and the central villain are one and the same, a power-hungry individual whose unrelenting ambition and lack of morality pose a lethal combination to anyone who stands between the tyrant and his crown. Arguably one of the most unscrupulous and dastardly characters of Shakespeare’s works, Richard III is seen throughout the play committing despicable acts from easily lying to set his machinations into motion to planning the murders of his relatives. The fact that Richard executes his schemes without the slightest itch of remorse is what truly completes his loathsome persona. The only time that the audience finds some humanity and regret in Richard is in the final act of the play when the man is frightened by a dream he has. It is through this midnight vision in V.iii.176-205 that Richard first experiences internal conflict and uncertainty about his actions. While he does express concern for his heinous crimes, Richard ultimately falls short of sympathy and redemption as he is solely concerned with himself and not his victims throughout the soliloquy.
Richard’s remorseful soliloquy is precipitated by a nightmare that visits him before his battle with Richmond. The cause of Richard’s self-searching is important as it shows why he suddenly feels the need to consider his actions when the play is nearly over. Fear is the overriding factor that forces Richard into his self-reflection. He blames his “coward conscience” (V.iii.178) for haunting his dreams and scaring him in the middle of the night. Richard wonders at the cause of his trepidation: “Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh. / What do I fear?…” (V.iii.180-181). By the end of his soliloquy, the audience learns that Richard dreamt that the ghosts of every one of his victims promised revenge on him in the upcoming battle. True guilt or regret are not the reasons that Richard is awoken in the night to consider his character and actions. Rather, fearing for his own life, Richard searches for a reason he should be worried and stumbles upon the truth of his evil ways. Evidence of his narcissism and lack of compassion for others, it is not the moral consequences of the murders he carries out but a nightmare in which his victims threaten his life that brings about Richard’s self-doubts.
It is not until halfway through the final act of the play that Richard begins to reflect upon himself and actually consider his own character. Up until this point, Richard has carried out many wicked plots, among them the murders of his two young nephews, without a hint of regret. After being awoken by a frightening dream, Richard wonders if perhaps he is afraid of himself but quickly dismisses the possibility, for “Richard loves Richard” (V.iii.182). By phrasing this assertion of self-esteem in such a way, and following it with the clarification “…that is, I and I” (V.iii.182), Richard shows a complicated view of himself that is split and somehow conflicted. Richard continues with this representation of himself as a divided person into the next several lines. As Richard continues to extrapolate his logical evaluation of himself, it becomes even clearer that he possesses a conflicted self-image. He says:
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself. (V.iii.186-189)
Here Richard proceeds with his pattern of ricocheting from one view of himself to an opposite position. First Richard claims he would not take revenge upon himself for he loves himself, a common idea held by many. However, he goes on to assert that he could not possibly love himself because he has not done anything respectable or righteous for himself. By saying this, Richard shows the audience that he bases self-worth on how one furthers oneself and not on the good one does for others. Still focusing on his person and not those he has affected, Richard condemns himself for the heinous crimes he has committed, never mentioning the victims he has hurt. While Richard does finally scrutinize himself and his actions, the would-be king is concerned solely with his own feelings and perceptions.
As his soliloquy moves forward, Richard continues to consider how his actions have shaped him into a damnable person. Though self-realization and self-loathing in a character are typically cause for sympathy, the fact that Richard thinks only how his sins will affect him bar the man from any sort of redemption. Shifting from abstract wrongs into specifics, Richard admits that he is both a perjurer and a murderer. He then talks about how he will despair if he should be found guilty in court of law for his many crimes. Obscene in his self-absorption, Richard bemoans:
…There is no creature loves me,
And if I die, no soul will pity me.
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?” (V.iii.198-202)
In an obvious bout of repetition, Richard uses the word “myself” three times, driving home the theme of his soliloquy. Instead of feeling any regret over the many lives he has taken, Richard is upset that he is alone and that no one loves him. He then brings up the situation of his own death, which he says will pass without any pity from others. Using himself as the standard of all thoughts and actions, Richard finds it logical that others should not pity him as he, the center of the universe, does not even pity himself. Richard’s sins are too great and his despair too misdirected to warrant any compassion from the audience. While he recognizes the error of his ways, he never once repents or wishes he did not carry out his evil plans. Content with his newfound power, he merely wishes his victims’ apparitions would leave him in peace, not that he never made them victims in the first place. While self-realization and regret are paths to redemption and winning the compassion of the audience, Richard misses the mark by being too engrossed in his own plight and directing no remorse towards the many lives he took.
At the onset of Richard’s soliloquy, it seems as though the wicked villain has stumbled upon a conscience and will possibly repent for his wrongdoings. Woken at midnight by a frightening dream, Richard seems posed to express regret, realizing the pain he has caused and the lives he has taken. Midway through his ruminations, it is clear that Richard is too self-absorbed to be concerned with any life other than his own. In his soliloquy, Richard examines his actions and the state of his character. He condemns his wrongdoings, reasserts his love for himself, and then despairs at his wickedness and isolation in the matter of three lines. During this complicated self-evaluation, Richard becomes aware of his character but falls short of winning sympathy or redemption, as his focus remains exclusively on himself and not on the lives he has hurt or sacrificed in his plot for power.
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