Lessons from Shakespeare’s Richard III

Why is Shakespeare as popular today as he was in his own time 400 years ago? Is it the beauty of his language, his incredible ability to paint a picture that captures the imagination so well, his intricate plots so full of suspense and intrigue, his characters, so often larger than life, but so real and reminiscent of those we all know, or his great sense of history and the ability to bring this to life? How can a man writing 400 years ago still speak to us today, with such insight and relevance?

Richard III is a fascinating but shocking character who allows nothing to stand in his way to achieve his dreams. He is a member of the house of York who has been victorious in the long war against the Lancasters, but he resents the power of his oldest brother and the happiness of those around him. Bitter about what life has dealt him so far-a deformed body and a lowly rank in the family hierarchy-he is determined to make sure that this will not stand in his way to achieve his ambition to become king.

Richard’s despicable acts include manipulating Lady Anne into marrying him although he murdered her husband, colluding to bring about the execution of his older brother Clarence, and shifting the suspicion of guilt onto his oldest brother King Edward which in turn accelerates his death. Richard becomes protectorate of England until the elder of Edward’s sons grows up, but even this does not satisfy his need for total control. He imprisons the young princes and has them murdered. He kills Lady Anne and then tries to bring about his marriage to his late brother Edward’s daughter Elizabeth.

Richard’s intrigue and scullduggery gets the better of him as all about him come to fear and despise him. Ultimately there is a defection of his supporters to a rival- Richmond, who invades England and Richard is killed. Richmond marries Elizabeth and the houses of York and Lancaster are again united and this promises a new era of peace for England.

Richard is obsessed with his ambition to become king. He shows no ability to see the disaster approaching, or to read the signs of discontent around him. He is amoral, and totally oblivious to the needs of others, even his close friends and family.

The women in this story are particularly interesting. Margaret, the wife of the late King Henry VI and head of the Lancaster family, can see what is happening and prophesises early on what the outcome will be. She is seen as placing a curse on the York family, but it is her wisdom that allows her to sense the forces at work and to be able to predict how the situation will play out.

The Duchess of York Richard’s mother has no love and little time for her son. Perhaps the lack of warmth from her has assisted in his self absorbed and malevolent approach to life.

Queen Elizabeth, the wife of Richard’s oldest brother King Edward IV plays a big part in the play, but only at the end does she realize the strife around her, the nature of the forces at play, and make plans to delay Richard’ proposed marriage to her daughter long enough to allow this to become a possible alliance with Richmond who becomes Henry VII.

All of these women were strong and influential figures, yet only Margaret could see the big picture. If either Lady Anne, or The Duchess of York or Queen Elizabeth had recognised Richard for the villain that he was, could they have influenced events and brought about change for a better result for the family of York and the people of England?

Richard is an extreme character, and at first glance the response to this brutal villain is to put him down to fiction and the stuff of good storytelling. But I have been struck since seeing this play at how many examples there are in the world right now that share many of Richard’s characteristics.

The play catches the current situation regarding Trump and his leadership of the US-the way he grabbed power, the degradation of language and the role of the leader of the US, the way fear is used to incite loyalty in times of political unrest. It also points to his inner circle who have supported him in his rise to the top and find themselves now in an untenable situation. Trump is an unlikely candidate for president in the same way that Richard was to be King. The element of the unexpected means that most around him do not see what he is doing until it is too late, but by then he has enough power and people around him to force the situation. The parallels with Trump are numerous!

Two other examples come easily to mind-first, there is the poisoning of Kim Jong-Nam at the Kuala Lumpur airport on February 13. He is the half brother of Kim Jong-Un and had reportedly fallen out of favour with his family and the dictatorial North Korean government. Could this be an action by Kim Jong-Un akin to Richard in killing his brother Clarence and bringing about the death of his other brother Edward?

Second- on April 7 there were reports of a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria. It was alleged that the Syrian regime was responsible for this act that killed at least 70 people, including women and at least 10 children among the dead. Could this act of war be seen as similar to the actions of Richard- motivated by an obsession for success no matter what the cost, with no insight whatsoever as to the likely impact on innocent women and children?

The beauty of Shakespeare is that his stories are universal, his characters seen in those around us, and his situations still resonate today. His use of language is equal to very few, but what I admire most is the insight he gives into human nature, and the opportunity he provides to learn from the past, to understand and apply this to the present, and to look for better alternatives for the future.

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