In the New York Times Sunday Review this weekend, Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt wrote an opinion piece entitled Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election in which he draws parallels between the events surrounding the rise of Richard III and Donald J. Trump. Quite fascinating.
For me, the crux of his analogy is summed in one paragraph:
Shakespeare brilliantly shows all of these types of enablers working together in the climactic scene of this ascent. The scene — anomalously enough in a society that was a hereditary monarchy but oddly timely for ourselves — is an election. Unlike Macbeth (which introduced into the English language the word “assassination”), Richard III does not depict a violent seizure of power. Instead there is the soliciting of popular votes, complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.
I can definitely see the point Greenblatt is making and there are strong parallels in the story, but I think he missed the mark on the personalities of the leaders in question.
Rather than Richard III as a model for Trump, I would have gone with Richard II.
The great fall and ultimate execution of Richard II was very much the result of his debilitating belief in his own divinity and his completely disconnection from the lives and needs of real people, including those closest to him. In short, he didn’t understand politics and simply felt everyone should get in line because he was the voice and arm of God.
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.
Richard II; Act III, sc. ii.
He was also surrounded by sycophantic parasites who fed Richard’s ego and grew bloated on everyone’s desire to serve the King. They were ultimately destroyed by this bloat and the belief that they too had divine protection, as though the crown served as an umbrella.
It was Richard II’s blinkered existence and unbridled self-aggrandizement that kept him from seeing the dangers that lie ahead, and the simple solutions that would have averted disaster. If he merely acknowledged the just requests of the exiled Henry of Bolingbroke (eventually, SPOILER ALERT, Henry IV) for his family titles, Richard would have retained the man’s fealty and love, and thus would have kept his throne.
For me, Richard III was too aware of his limitations and was therefore much more manipulative than I believe either Richard II or Donald Trump feel they need to be.
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.
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
Richard III; Act I, sc. i.
For Donald, as for the second Richard, what is the need for manipulation when you speak with God’s voice and rule with His hand?
Richard II (play)
Richard III (play)