In this speech, which occurs near the end of the play, Richard is talking to himself, trying to shake himself out of a nightmare and prepare himself for the battle which will take place at dawn. It is "dead midnight" on the eve of battle, the 'witching hour', the time of night when "the lights burn blue", which refers to an old superstition that when ghosts or spirits are about, they affect the lamps. Richard has awakened in a cold sweat ("Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh") with murder on his mind.
The principal (and only) image in the speech occurs in lines 194-200:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree:
Murther, stern murther, in the dir'st degree;
All several sins, all us'd in each degree,
Throng all to the bar, crying all, 'Guilty! guilty!'
In his nightmare, his suppressed awareness of his sins has become a thousand shouting witnesses to his villainy and murder, thronging in a courtroom or some other place of judgment, all condemning him before the "bar", the place of judgment. The metaphor of the courtroom is strangely formal for a man in a cold sweat, trembling in the aftermath of a nightmare horrible enough to awaken him from sleep, but the formal judgment indicates just how serious his crimes are. On a sensual level, the image is striking because the noise of the "thousand several tongues" contrasts so strongly with the quiet of "dead midnight", and the "throng" with- his solitude. He is alone with his sins, but they crowd around him.
The tone of the speech changes as it progresses, paralleling Richa.rd's confusion when he first wakes up, and his growing awareness that what woke him was a dream, and his returning confidence in himself. His first few lines are a flurry of questions that give us some of the flavor of the "thousand tongues" he heard in his dream:
What? do I fear myself? there's none else by:
Is there a murtherer 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?
Asking questions and then answering them in the same breath reveals his confusion. He is neither awake nor asleep; he is not sure if he is awake or still dreaming, and he is not sure if he is alone or surrounded by spirits. He is defending himself to the "thousand tongues" that are crying him guilty. As he begins to wake up, and realize that he has been dreaming, the tone of the speech changes:
I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.