Shakespeare as Political Analyst: Richard the Third and Barack the First

I’ve long been impressed by the value of William Shakespeare’s work as masterpieces of political analysis that often can be applied to our own times. And I hope to do a series of such studies for your edification.

Let’s begin with one of my favorites, the opening speech by the future Richard III in the play of the same name. Before we start, note that there is some satirical aspect to this article. It should not be taken completely literally though it is literary. But Shakespeare's magnificent insight into human psychology and politics definitely has something to teach us here.

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See also my article about Egypt and why it is so important to know who was throwing things at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "Yankee Go Home!" Saith the Good Guys."

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The framework of "Richard III" is based on a contradiction very appropriate for the contemporary West today. The House of York, to which Richard belongs, has won the War of the Roses. All its members need to do is stick together and maintain their principles in order to rule a peaceful, happy England  for a very long time to come. So Richard should be joyous, shouldn’t he? He begins:

“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York;/And all the clouds that lour’d [lowered] upon our house/In the deep bosom of the ocean [are] buried.”

It's 1483, the “sun,” actually son, of York [King Edward IV] has won the kingship and everything is great. Think of the situation of the West, and of Western civilization in our era. Almost exactly 500 years after the events in the play it has won the long Cold War with the USSR. Communism is pretty much dead; democracy is triumphant. The Western world is stable, democratic, and prosperous, headed for a new era of peace and plenty. Everyone should be rejoicing in the most wonderful, prosperous, and happiest countries in world history, right?

“Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;/Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;/Our stern alarums [alarms] changed to merry meetings,/Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.”

Yes, definitely—as many said back in the 1990s—everything is going to be great. No more war; no more bloodshed.

No. For Richard continues:

“But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,/Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass…./Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,/Have no delight to pass away the time….”

Richard’s material problem--the motivation in Shakespeare's play--is a physical deformity, his being a hunchback. But the real issue is a psychological deformity: the thirst for power at all costs, the taking of delight from the act of betrayal. We have no shortage of modern Richards who reail against a society that might be highly successful but bores them and does not give them the power that they claim to deserve. They do not question their own anger, jealousy, and resentment. They justify their actions by pyramids of ideas, ideology, to highlight every deformity of their own societies, never to be satisfied with their own progress or that of their country. Western history in general, American history in particular, must be reshaped to atone for a long history of allegedly unjust and sinful behavior in need not of celebration along with gentle improvement but of fundamental transformation.

“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain/And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

Thus, the professional radicals, grim-visaged, eternally offended, angry at injustice real or imagined, and insatiable in their accusations, denunciations, and manipulation of forces to set one group against another stride the stage. Living standards are too high, the environment and man-made global warming loom as punishments for the fair, the enjoyment of victory over totalitarianism and the pleasures of technological progress.

Richard fills the gaps in his own self-esteem, the contradictions in his identity, the insecurities that underlie his ego by mastering, manipulating, and ultimately making miserable his ill-fated subjects. For him, those he envies must be called to account; the high-living brought low; hatred and conflict inflamed:

“Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,/By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,/To set my brother Clarence and the king/In deadly hate the one against the other….”

Today we would call this the fomenting of class, racial, ethnic, and gender warfare.

And what is the other political judo trick that Richard will use to ensure his plots will work? Nothing less than playing on the good intentions, decency, naivete, and softness of the intended victim:

“And if King Edward be as true and just/As I am subtle, false and treacherous”

He will fall into the trap.  Note, in contemporary terms, the gap between the cynical pretense--the society is evil, intolerant, and closed to opportunity--coupled with the use of its actual virtues as a way to subvert it.

As Clarence approaches, Richard conceals his true aims:

“Dive, thoughts, down to my soul….”

And puts on the pretense of being a kindly soul, concerned for the betterment of the kingdom, in current terms an advicate if social justice, fairness, and equality.  Of course, the twenty-first century Richards are equally concerned with hiding their true views and intentions, disguising radicalism as liberalism, self-interest as social justice.

When Clarence expresses dismay at believing—a false idea planted by Richard—that the king is out to get him, that things are unjust and that he has no fair chance, Richard replies:

“Alack, my lord, that fault is none of yours…./O[h], belike [perhaps] his majesty hath some intent/That you shall be new-christen’d [sent to] the Tower [prison].”

So Clarence must be convinced that he is a victim in order to battle against a man who in reality bears him no ill-will. In modern parlance, the whisper in the ear is that the one percent wants to cheat and persecute the ninety-nine percent.

Richard plays Clarence like a violin, manipulating him like the rod of the axle turns the wheels of a wagon. Within a few scenes and a couple of acts, Richard has succeeded in wiping out pretty much everyone else. He becomes king, the nation becomes ruined; his state eventually falls.

Richard is a master of manipulation who succeeds in large part because he so successfully hides his wolfen visage within the mild smile of a sheep, he pretends to be shaven when he is as hairy as a reed.

Might this have some relevance for how politics so often work, even in our own time?

Of course, in the fifteenth century they had wars and battles, not elections, to settle disputes. In the end, the Duke of Richmond, of the rival House of Lancaster [the future Henry VII], defeats Richard and establishes the Tudor dynasty, uniting the previously warring houses in bipartisan conjugality to begin the golden age of England. He concludes with these words:

“Now civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again:/That she may long live here, God say amen!”

May it be so.

Who says the classics are not relevant?