How we cite our quotes:
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe. (5.1)
Richard's note about conscience here will echo later in one of the most famous speeches of all time. As Hamlet ponders "To be or not to be," he decides, "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, / And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought / and enterprises of great pitch and moment / With this regard their currents turn awry." (Hamlet, 3.1)
Here Richard awakens from his horrible dream before the final battle. He takes pause, realizing his conscience is weighing heavy on him. For a brief moment, Richard is like Hamlet, unsure of who he is or what he wants. But he quickly gets over all the metaphysical pondering and decides he won't be distracted by conscience – he'll stick with his instincts. Hamlet, on the other hand, allows conscience to hamper the strong resolution of the moment. It's a neat comparison: we get a glimpse of what Hamlet would be like if he were more violently self-assured, or what Richard would be like if he were a bit softer and more reflective.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer 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?
O, no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain; yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter. (5.3.1)
For the first time, Richard has betrayed himself, revealing that he's no longer as certain or comfortable about who he is. This sudden bout of conscience, brief though it is, is a mark that Richard's security is over. He no longer has the confidence in his pure villainy that he once did.