In his 2007 book, Shakespeare the Thinker, A. D. Nuttall says:

We know what Milton thought about many things. He didn’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity; he thought the execution of Charles I was morally right; he thought that married couples who didn’t get on should be allowed to divorce. But we have no idea what Shakespeare thought, finally, about any major question. The man is elusive.

It is certainly true that Shakespeare had no doctrine or explicit philosophy to expound, much less an ideology. You would not go to Shakespeare to clarify your thoughts about epistemology or economic theory. And yet a man as brilliant as he was must surely have been aware of the attractions, and sometimes the necessity, of theorizing. Perhaps, then, his lack of doctrine was in itself a kind of negative doctrine: that he knew that trying to capture the whole of human existence in a theory is like trying to catch a cloud with a butterfly net—which is foredoomed to failure.

But if we cannot know Shakespeare’s positive thoughts about any major question, as Nutall puts it, we can at least surmise some of the things that he did not believe. No one, I think, could imagine that Shakespeare romanticized the common man or was impressed by a crowd’s capacity for deep reflection. If there is one thing that he was not, it is a utopian.

Apart from the absence of direct evidence, one reason that it is so difficult to know what Shakespeare thought is that he seemed uniquely able to imagine himself into the minds of an almost infinite number of characters, so that he actually became them. He was, in a sense, like an actor who has played so many parts that he no longer has a personality of his own. A chameleon has many colors, but no color. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that, by some verbal alchemy, Shakespeare turns us into a pale version of himself. Through the great speeches or dialogues, we, too, enter a character’s world, or even become that character in our minds. I know of no other writer able to do this so often and across so wide a spectrum of humanity.

Included in this spectrum are the two King Richards, the Second and the Third. Shakespeare wrote the two plays in reverse historical order, about four years apart. The usurpation of Richard II’s throne in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke, Henry IV, led to political instability and civil war in England that lasted until the death of Richard III in battle in 1485. Because everyone loves an unmitigated villain, Richard III is said to be the most frequently performed of all Shakespeare’s plays, but its historical verisimilitude is much disputed. It is clearly an apologia for the Tudor dynasty, for if Richard III were not the absolute villain he is portrayed as having been (and such is the power of Shakespeare’s play that everyone’s image of the king, except for those specially interested, derives from it), then Henry VII, whose dynastic claims to the throne were meager, to say the least, was not legitimately king—in which case neither was Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth’s father, nor, therefore, was Queen Elizabeth legitimately queen: a dangerous proposition at the time Shakespeare wrote. So reminiscent of sycophantic Soviet historical apologetics does a Soviet emigré friend of mine find the play that he detests it. In 1924, a surgeon in Liverpool, Samuel Saxon Barton, founded what became the Richard III Society, which now has several thousand members globally, to rescue the reputation of the king from the Bard’s calumnies.

If Richard III were merely a propaganda play on behalf of the Tudors, however, it would hardly have held its place in the repertoire. It does so because it tackles the perennially fascinating, and vitally important, question of evil in the most dramatic manner imaginable; its historical inaccuracy does not matter. Richard III may not have been the dark figure Shakespeare portrays, but who would dare to say that no such figure could ever have existed?

The two plays offer a contrast between different political pathologies: that of ambitious malignity and that of arrogant entitlement, both with disastrous results, and neither completely unknown in our time. They share one rather surprising thing in common, however: before reaching the throne, both usurpers—Richard III, when still Duke of Gloucester; and Henry IV, when still Duke of Hereford—felt obliged to solicit the good opinion of the common people. This is perhaps surprising, in view of the extremely hierarchical nature of society in both the age depicted in the plays and the age in which they were written, and suggests a nascent populism, if not real democracy. However powerful the king or nobility, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, early in the reign of Richard II (as much a revolt of merchants as of peasants), must have alerted them to the need to keep the populace at least minimally satisfied.

The methods of Henry and Richard to win over the fickle mob would not have shamed candidates in a modern democratic election. Richard, when Duke of Gloucester but aspiring to the Crown, is told by the Duke of Buckingham, his campaign manager, as it were, that his name arouses no enthusiasm among the people. The solution is for him to appear so pious that he is reluctant to abandon his religious devotions for the sake of mere elevation to the throne. Buckingham explains the reluctance of Richard to appear before the crowd:

When holy and devout religious men

Are at their beads. ’tis much to draw them thence,

So sweet is zealous contemplation.

This ridiculous mummery, given what we know about Richard’s true character, brings to mind candidates in modern elections posing as devout family men, complete with grandchildren and clergymen hovering in the background. And it is no credit to the people that they are so easily taken in by it.

In Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke, returning illegally from the exile to which Richard has consigned him, plays the humble public servant as he rides through London’s crowded streets:

he, from one side to the other turning,

Bareheaded, lower than his proud steed’s neck,

Bespake them thus: “I thank you, countrymen.”

And thus still doing, thus he passed along.

But we know that he is proud, ambitious, and far from the humble petitioner of hoi polloi that he passes himself off as being, with great success—again, not a great testimony to the shrewdness of the common people.

The Richard of Richard III is often regarded as a caricature, a cardboard-cutout villain rather like the Sweeney Todd of Victorian melodrama. But he is far more: in fact, he is a fascinating figure, from a psychological point of view.

In his opening soliloquy, he explains his villainy to himself and to us, the audience. He is a villain, he says, because he has been the victim of cosmic unfairness. Peace temporarily restored to England, Richard finds himself unsuited to its pleasures because of his physical handicap. He is not made to court an amorous looking glass, he tells us; he has been rudely stamped by the mold of Nature, cheated of feature, deformed, unfinished, sent before his time into the breathing world scarce half-made-up, and so lamely and unfashionably that dogs bark at him as he halts by them. In what he calls the “weak piping time of peace,” he has no delight to pass away the time unless to spy his shadow in the sun and descant on his own deformity: “And therefore, [he continues] since I cannot prove a lover . . . I am determinèd to prove a villain.”

This, he implies, is his only alternative. But in fact, his excuse or explanation is bogus. In short order, he woos and wins Anne, whose husband and father he has murdered. Immediately afterward, Richard says triumphantly: “Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour won?”

In fact, he is an extremely efficient and successful lover. Later in the play, he persuades Queen Elizabeth, the mother of the two Princes in the Tower whom he has had murdered in order to sustain his claim to succession to the throne, to get her remaining daughter to accept him as husband (Anne having in the meantime died, largely of despair). In other words, the “therefore” of “therefore, since I cannot prove a lover” is utterly unjustified—a lie, to deny responsibility for his evil.

This distancing from his own actions explains his ironic aside while talking to Prince Edward, the true heir to the throne, whom he is soon to have murdered. Edward makes a little speech about his years in maturity, and Richard remarks, “Short summers lightly have a forward spring.” This is presented as a kind of law, when, in fact, any shortness of Edward’s summer would be attributable only to Richard’s action.

Is Richard aware of his dishonesty (and can it be called dishonesty if he is not)? The answer is yes and no. We are capable of holding contradictory ideas—I am a free agent; I am forced to do what I do—in an unstable equilibrium in our minds. Psychopaths like Richard are particularly prone to, or good at, doing so. At some level, Richard acknowledges this, for shortly before the Battle of Bosworth Field, where he will die, he awakes from nightmares populated by the people whom he has killed.

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.

Finally, the psychopath becomes unenviable, however successful he might at one time have been:

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;

And if I die, no soul will pity me.

Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself

Find in myself no pity to myself?

Immediately afterward, however, Richard returns to his Nietzscheanism:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,

Devised at first to keep the strong in awe;

Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!

Seesawing between moods, intense but shallow, is a characteristic of a certain kind of disordered personality that (I suspect) is more prevalent today than in Richard’s or Shakespeare’s day.

Having shown us that Richard has engaged in special pleading, Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, puts the other side of the question. Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, says to her son:

Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell.

A grievous burden was thy birth to me;

Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;

Thy schooldays frightful, desp’rate, wild, and furious;

Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous;

Thy age confirmed, proud, subtle, sly and bloody,

More mild, yet more harmful, kind in hatred.

As a summary of the career of a psychopath, this could hardly be bettered; and every doctor is conversant with the histories of patients, who, as soon as they were able to choose how to act, invariably chose the bad way rather than the good, to lie systematically rather than to tell the truth, to be cruel rather than kind, and so forth, a precocity in evil that inevitably raises the question of a biological or neurological deficit.

Thus the puzzle, or mystery, of evil remains, and Shakespeare does not disguise it. We make ourselves, certainly—but from the clay that we were born with.

King Richard II could hardly have been more different from the Third of that name; and though he was not particularly virtuous, neither was he evil or ill-intentioned like Richard III. Rather, he was weak, frivolous, vain, conceited, and convinced of his divine right to rule. Despite his moral superiority over Richard III, however, his reign was, if anything, even more disastrous. His overthrow—understandable, if not fully justified—ushered in a long period of instability and violence. The whole cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays suggests two conclusions: first, that the legitimacy of a ruler is of value in itself; second, that the personal virtue or otherwise of rulers is not a sufficient measure by which to judge them.

After his overthrow, Richard II became a figure of immense tragic dimension. Though most of us have never been in positions of great power, Shakespeare conveys exactly what it is like to lose such power and have to abase oneself to those who have taken it away. When we hear—even more than when we read—Richard’s great speeches, we not only feel for him; we also feel as if we were Richard ourselves. His pain becomes ours, in more than a shallowly Clintonian sense:

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,

Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:

And yet not so, for what can we bequeath

Save our deposed bodies to the ground.

Resigning his crown to Henry, he says:

Now, mark me how I will undo myself.

I give this heavy weight from off my head,

And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,

The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,

With my own hands I give away my crown,

With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,

With mine own breath release all duteous oaths.

Richard’s piercing desolation could hardly be greater:

I have no name, no title,

No, not that name was given me at the font

But ’tis usurped. Alack, the heavy day!

That I have worn so many winters out,

And know not now what name to call myself.

One of Richard’s speeches proclaims a type of egalitarianism—not the crude egalitarianism of those who think that any difference in a desired outcome is ipso facto evidence of injustice, but of a kind of existential equality that should recall even the grandest person from pretension to modesty and the inescapable fragility of his situation:

for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be feared and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence; throw away respect,

Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;

For you have but mistook me all this while:

I live with bread like you, feel want,

Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a king?

This is the monarchical, or ex-monarchical, equivalent of Shylock’s great speech, that the late John Gross said never lost its force however many times it was heard or read:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,

dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with

the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

to the same diseases, healed by the same means,

warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as

a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

So powerful are these speeches that it is difficult to believe that even Shakespeare could have written them without some belief in the point that they were making: namely, the fundamental (but not superficial) equality of mankind.

Certainly, Shakespeare’s plays have always had a powerful effect, and sometimes an effect on the powerful. “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” asked Queen Elizabeth when the play was given at the Globe Theatre on the eve of a rebellion against her. But she had no ambition to play the part of Richard, and she executed the rebels.

During the International Festival of Youth and Students that I attended in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 1989, in the vast, intimidating, empty urban space in front of the Great People’s Study House, I passed a North Korean, who asked me, sotto voce, “Do you speak English?” This was the only time (Kim Il Sung was then still alive) that a North Korean spoke to me spontaneously.

“Yes,” I said.

“I am a student of the Foreign Languages Institute,” he said. (The Communists were brilliant teachers of languages.) “Reading Dickens and Shakespeare is the greatest, the only, pleasure of my life.” In both authors, even the meanest and poorest of the characters speak in their own voice: a liberty impossible in North Korea.

“Would it be correct English to say,” he continued, “that this festival is as welcome as the snowstorm before the harvest?”

In Richard III, the Duke of Clarence says to the First Murderer who has been sent by his brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester (as he then still was), to murder him, that his brother would order no such thing because he is kind. “Right as snow in harvest,” replies the First Murderer.

Could it be that the North Korean student was trying to tell me something about North Korea—and that Richard III had given him the key to understanding his own country?

Photo: British actor George Hayes as King Richard III, circa 1925 (HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)


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