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  • Richard III in the Era of Trump
  • Dan Venning (bio)

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.

King Richard III

One month before the 2016 election that would usher in Donald J. Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States, Stephen Greenblatt, a Renaissance drama scholar at Harvard and prime mover in the New Historicist approach to literary studies, published an impassioned plea to readers to "not stay silent or waste your vote" in order to avoid "bring[ing] a monster to power." In this opinion piece, entitled "Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election," Greenblatt draws numerous connections between Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, and William Shakespeare's arch-villain Richard of Gloucester/King Richard III. He examines the "psychopathology" that Shakespeare depicts in Richard, a "weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude." Then Greenblatt examines the "nation of enablers" that help to bring Richard to his throne.1

Greenblatt doesn't precisely name these enablers, but their roles are clear for those familiar with the play, from the descriptions he gives. There is Lady Anne Neville, Richard's wife (and formerly the wife of a man murdered by Richard), whom Richard manages to convince, in one of the strangest seduction scenes in all of Shakespeare's plays, that he isn't quite as bad as he obviously, unabashedly is. There is Lord Hastings, a political man and ally of Richard's family who trusts in the systems of government, established precedent, and that hallowed institutions such as royal succession will be honored. When Hastings balks at Richard becoming King of England ahead of his nephew, Prince Edward, the son of Richard's elder brother, the previous King Edward IV, Richard has Hastings executed for uttering the word "if," noting that he won't have another meal until he sees Hastings's decapitated head. [End Page 1]

There are those in the room who witness Richard's order for Hastings's execution, terrified into submission as they fear that they might be next on the chopping block. There is Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, who believes that he can use the crass and obviously villainous Richard to climb to even greater power himself. When Buckingham proposes isolating the two princes from their relatives who might protect them and ensure Prince Edward's coronation, Richard calls Buckingham "My other self, my counsel's consistory, / My oracle, my prophet, my dear cousin."2 Buckingham orchestrates the spectacle of Richard's fake piety that leads directly to his coronation. Yet as soon as he loses this usefulness, Richard discards his former ally. Finally, Greenblatt describes those who simply enjoy Richard's viciousness, or share in it, like the hired killers whom Richard orders to murder his own brother, George, Duke of Clarence. With such wicked people, Greenblatt suggests, Richard finds a natural affinity.

One doesn't have to look far to see parallels between these characters in Shakespeare's play and figures in the recent election. There are longtime Republican voters who held their noses or pretended that Trump isn't as venal, abusive, and morally bankrupt as he reveals at every turn. There are those from his own party who objected, and whom Trump verbally bludgeoned into submission: Paul Ryan, John McCain, and Ted Cruz, who refused to endorse Trump at the Republican convention. And, like Buckingham, there are those who were central to his victory and then abandoned: in his 3:00 a.m. acceptance speech on November 9, 2016, Trump thanked men like Steve Bannon, Chris Christie, and especially Reince Priebus, whom Trump called "a superstar […] like Secretariat […] the hardest-working guy," and who personally ensured Trump obtained the nomination at a Republican convention where some seemed prepared to rebel. None of these men are any longer associated with his administration; they were discarded as soon as their usefulness expired.

Richard's reign over England was exceptionally brief and disastrous: he was crowned on July 6, 1483, and died just a...


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