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  • Speaking Truth to Power as Feminist Ethics in Richard III
  • Cristina León Alfar (bio)

Stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me

—Margaret in Shakespeare's Richard III (1.3.216)1


parrēsia is the ethics of truth-telling as an action which is risky and free.

(Foucault 2010, 66)

In The Government of Self and Others, Michel Foucault offers an analysis of parrhesia (parrēsia in Foucault), a term he defines, in part, as "not just the license to say anything but an obligation to tell the truth on the one hand, and an obligation accompanied by the danger that telling the truth involves on the other" (Foucault 2010, 299). Truth, then, is inherently risky. There may be danger in telling it, but we are obliged to do so. Parrhesia does not provide us with a pass to say anything. Rather, it is a privilege, inextricably bound to good government. As a form of speaking truth that is simultaneously united with taking a stand, parrhesia is a right of the citizen to correct the sovereign, to express dissent, and to offer a critique of policy, procedures, actions, and/or judgments. But parrhesia is not just adversarial; it is also a form of care. In regard to the weight of this responsibility, Foucault asks, [End Page 789]

How should one guide the Prince's soul, and what form of true discourse does the Prince need, as an individual, to form an appropriate relationship to himself that will guarantee his virtue, and also such that, thereby and through this teaching, he is formed as a morally worthy individual, as a governor who takes responsibility for and care of others as well as himself?

(2010, 47)

Parrhesia enacts a care for the sovereign, then, a care for his soul, for his virtue, so that he will rule not to benefit himself nor to increase his power but for his subjects' well-being. Parrhesia is, therefore, both a form of loyalty to good government and a form of dissent, a necessary rebellion against the prince. Its relationship to dissent makes it risky, dangerous, because the sovereign may become angry so that "parrhesiasts are those who undertake to tell the truth at an unspecified price, which may be as high as their own death" (Foucault 2010, 56). Such a high price may mean that no one speaks, that fear of the prince will result in silence, or, even worse, in a sycophantic parrhesia that fills the silence and, rather than truthfully correcting the prince, confirms his "goals, policies, and practices" in "a distorted discourse … the bad mimēsis of parrēsia" characterized by "the pretence of telling the sovereign or the people the truth, but the person speaking will know full well that what he is saying is not true. He knows simply that what he says conforms exactly to what the people or the sovereign thinks, or to what the people or the sovereign would like to hear" (302). As a result, speaking truth to power requires courage, faith that what one says is the truth, and that the truth will serve an ethics of responsibility for others, both the prince and citizens, to safeguard good government.

In Shakespearean tragedy, the ethics of good government recurs as a central motif or concern. Macbeth comes to the throne by killing the sleeping King Duncan, who is a guest in his home. The murder is a double betrayal of hospitality and of monarchy, with which Macbeth grapples throughout the play. Moreover, once he is [End Page 790] king, he discovers that, "To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus" (3.1.47). To be safely thus requires the loyalty of Macbeth's followers, of his men, and of Scotland. Loyalty, however, is slippery, and as Macbeth himself demonstrates, a loyal subject can become a rebel and betray his king in an instant. The potential for betrayal is something that Richard II already knows. When two men come to court to accuse one another of treason while also protesting their undying loyalty, Richard II remarks dryly, "We thank you both. Yet one but flatters us, / As well appeareth by the cause...


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