Donald I Meet Richard III

CONSIDER THIS PSYCHOLOGICAL PORTRAIT: He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency…He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something the losers like to talk about….He has always had wealth; he was born into it and makes ample use of it. But though he enjoys having what money can get him, it is not what excites him most. What excites him is the joy of domination. He is the bully. He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble and wince with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult…His possession of power includes the domination of women, but he despises them far more than he desires them. Sexual conquest excites him, but only for the endless reiterative proof that he can have anything he likes.

You are not reading an excerpt from Republican columnist George Will writing about the president who currently heads his discredited party. You are not reading the brief from one of the 27 psychologists who  contributed to The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, a work in which these professionals broke their silence to weigh in on the mental health of the president.

No, what you are reading are the first few paragraph of the 5th chapter of literary critic and Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. It’s a work that examines the character and leadership style of many of Shakespeare’s monarchs, some (Macbeth, Lear, and Richard III, the subject of Chapter 5) well-known and some (Coriolanus, Timon) not so much. Greenblatt is best it seems when he is writing about Richard III, a king that many readers and scholars see as the most villainous (and the easiest to hate) of the array of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae. Richard is a case study in the mind of the tyrant.

It may seem that Greenblatt has open alongside his annotated Shakespeare the essays of Hannah Arendt who wrote about totalitarianism in the 20th century and presciently predicted the emergence of political figures like The Donald. Or that he got down to his daily writing task fresh from reading any of the anti-Trump New York Times op-ed writers like Thomas Friedman and Charles Blow. We can only wait to see whether another critic well-versed in Richard III will tell us that Greenblatt has bent the details of the life of the twisted tyrant to lay bare the souls of and to warn us about contemporary autocrats of similar temperaments. Does the description above apply equally to Putin and Assad and Duterte?

As he does with the other members of the tyrants’ gallery, Greenblatt is quite good in exploring how the play and historical accounts on which Shakespeare drew explain the origins of the tyrant’s character. With Richard III the conventional interpretation is that the king’s misshapen body is the source of a lifetime of inferiority and shame and a whole set of behaviors that might be read as compensatory for the cruel fate of body disfigurement. (Shakespeare is largely responsible for the enduring belief that Richard was hunchbacked and clubfooted, facts that came under dispute when his skeleton has exhumed, examined and reburied in 2012.)  The play documents the record of vengeful actions taken against the world (from members of the immediate family, to political confidants, to distant subjects). Just as the examined skeleton has led to a reconsideration of elements like the manner of death, some scholars, believing Shakespeare’s portrait is too harsh, have been about the business of saving his reputation from further distortion.

Not only is Greenblatt good with his psychoanalysis, he is also a good social psychologist who in a full chapter, “Enablers,” ask the questions that many of our contemporaries are asking about Trump’s ascendency: How did this happen? and Why can’t legislatures and the citizens they represent stop and remove an administration so obviously and brazenly corrupt, inept, divisive? He presents an inventory of character types (represented by members of the court and political rivals) but wants to make clear that the reign of the nasty man is a collective failure. Citizens feel powerless and are too unimaginative to realize how bad the leader really is. The mob is so easily captivated by the king’s cruelty. Dulled by the public spectacles of witch burnings and cock fights, they can hardly serve in an army of resistance. The powerful naively believe that as “the adults in the room,” they can provide the necessary restraints on the king’s misguided ambitions and socially destructive plans, while discovering that it’s not that easy when the leader is so mercurial and untethered from reality. And there are enough others who are parasitic, quite content to tolerate the mayhem while profiting personally, even if it means that the fickle king will find an easy reason to remove them from favor.

It will be interesting to see whether directors of any new productions of Richard III will fall under the influence and make the connection between this late 16th century historical figure and contemporary politics explicit in their vision for the performance. While you’re waiting for the Chicago Shakespeare Festival to do a Richard III in the Age of Trump, you may have to settle for the playscript and Greenblatt’s astute reading of it. One thing is clear from reading Greenblatt: Shakespeare, making dramatic hay out of the life of one of Britain’s kings dead for more than 100 years before the playwright takes up the quill in 1699, has an uncanny understanding of human nature and a prescient vision of political life in the future.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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