I take as my text Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies of English history. The first begins with Richard II, recounts the reign of Henry IV in two parts, and ends with Henry V. The second, consisting of three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, dramatizes the Wars of the Roses.
The two tetralogies trace the transition from medieval to what we call modern politics. For Shakespeare’s Richard II, royalty is secured by divine rite: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.” Sanctified by royal anointing, Richard thinks himself invulnerable to the “breath of worldly men” (Richard II, 3.1).
Except he isn’t; Henry IV overthrows Richard. And if he can do this to the Lord’s anointed, surely someone else can do it to him. Sacred oil can’t ward off usurpers, so Henry searches for an alternative ground of legitimacy. Among other things, he advises his son, Prince Hal, to distract restive rivals by sending them off to wars in distant places: “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” As Henry V, Hal feels the precariousness of his claim to the throne. On the night before the decisive battle of Agincourt, he meditates, in a very un-Richardlike way, on the uselessness of ceremony.
With Richard III, Shakespeare creates a character who bustles cheerfully in a field of amoral, godless power politics. Richard dabbles in the symbolisms of medieval political theology as it suits him, but at bottom he’s a self-confessed “Machiavel.” He tries on the mask of penance and piety (“I thank God for my humility”), then changes it for masks of innocence, victimhood, and transparency.
Behind these masks, he relentlessly pursues the crown. He accuses and murders his brother Clarence, schemes against his other brother King Edward IV, and denounces Edward’s sons as bastards. To retain the throne, he has to keep killing, executing relatives of Edward’s widow Elizabeth and deploying a thug to murder Edward’s sons in the Tower. Richard schemes, deceives, kills, kills, kills, kills, and smiles whilst he kills.
Richard’s Machiavellian politics is successful, but only for a moment. Richard III strips politics to a naked lust for power, but it also depicts the forces that subvert every Machiavel.
Uniquely among Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III begins with a soliloquy, in which Richard confides his hatreds and resentments, and gleefully describes the “inductions dangerous” he has initiated. Each of the first three scenes concludes with a monologue in which Richard gloats over the success of his stratagems. The early scenes of Act II end with Richard and Buckingham conspiring against Richard’s rivals. Richard’s plotting frames the action structurally as well as dramatically. He’s the puppet master from the outset.
As the play continues, this tight structure loosens and eventually bursts wide open. Richard stops talking to the audience, and eventually he cannot even communicate with Buckingham. His co-conspirators betray him. In the last acts, messengers repeatedly interrupt Richard with news of events that Richard has not planned. A successful Machiavel has to be an omnipotent stage director, but none can be.
A successful Machiavel also has to delete the past and start from square one, lest unfinished business come back to haunt him. In Shakespeare the past is ever present, and Richard is literally haunted by his sins. On the night before the battle of Bosworth Field, a ghostly procession of his victims parades through his dreams, repeating the refrain “Despair and die!”
England’s past is embodied in Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI, whom Richard (according to Shakespeare) killed in the Tower. Early in the play, Margaret unleashes eye-for-eye curses against everyone who prospered from her husband’s death—King Edward, his son Edward, Queen Elizabeth, the nobles who stood by while Richard killed her husband and son. She saves the most severe censure for Richard:
If heaven have any grievous plague in store Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee, O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe, And then hurl down their indignation On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace! The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul! Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest, And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends! (Richard III, 1.3).
Richard III is crammed with curses and, as Margaret hopes, they “pierce the clouds and enter heaven” (1.3) to break up the Machiavel’s machinations. Margaret’s curses provide a more accurate preview of Richard III than Richard’s soliloquies.
So far this has all been exposition. As for application: Politics is brutal business, and we’re all well nigh hopeless if it’s politics all the way down. Richard III reminds us that there are meta-political realities that exceed politics. Our plots are overwhelmed by plots that are not of our making, plots plotted by a King of Kings who, as Clarence tells the two assassins, “holds vengeance in his hands, / To hurl upon their heads that break his law” (1.4).
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.