This post was originally published on Theatre Under Thirty, a Milwaukee theatre blog.
Mass hysteria. Manipulated facts. Bickering politicians. A divided nation. Sound familiar? Probably.
So who wants to see it played out onstage?
It’s a fair question. Few people, especially in the arts community, would have predicted that Richard III would suddenly become, as the kids say, “too real.” The division, corruption, political intrigue, and personal betrayal that run rampant in this tragedy have always had a kind of hauntingly human relevance, but in the past several decades – at least in this country – it’s been more of an abstract meditation on humanity’s dark struggle for power rather than an uncomfortable mirror of specific recent developments. Now, however, the idea of a powerful government in the hands a master manipulator feels closer to our real lives than it did before. Seeing it in art form is not entertaining; it’s disturbing. It’s distressing. It’s our reality now.
And, as is always the case in moments of change or crisis, Shakespeare has something to say about it.
In the fifteenth century, this was England’s reality: a nation limping out of a disastrous civil war that pitted two halves of the same line against each other, the Lancasters and the Yorks, both descended from the Plantagenet kings. (Our last election cycle mimicked this intra-national hostility a little too closely.) In Richard III, this uneasy peace yields a new threat: a brilliant, belittled man who decides to make his move for power, seizing on his country’s instability to make himself strong. We’ve seen this happen a few times in history, too. And to Shakespeare, who above all was gifted with the ability to perceive our deepest truths without judgment or agenda, this was just another part of us – the collective us, the human us – to probe, expose, and explore with art.
Shakespeare speaks to us at a very vulnerable time and place in Richard III. And though it is a tragedy, and certainly not the escapism I predict will soon make a comeback, the Bard gives us much more than a dire picture of the scary state we’ve stumbled into (again). He gives us in Richard III what we do not get in most of his other tragedies. He gives us hope.
I want to be very clear here: It would be easy to work with an agenda now, to craft all productions of Richard IIIs to fit our various perceptions of the new president and use Richard’s downfall to satisfy our frightened desire for control and revenge. It would be easy, and absolutely wrong: creatively, ethically, artistically. Shoehorning any actual figure into this role is a disservice to audiences, actors, and the text. Using Shakespeare’s Richard as a stand-in for a specific individual shortchanges this fascinating character, borrowed from history but ultimately breathed into being by the Bard’s imagination. It undermines the audience’s relationship with Richard, a relationship of humor, horror, and self-implication that is vital for the play to succeed. And it cheapens the theatrical experience of the play, which is not meant to paint a therapeutic fantasy in which we get what we want, even if what we want is violent and personal. Richard III points to the opposite conclusion: if what we want is violent and personal, success is horrifying and decisively impermanent.
And, despite those who love to draw parallels, Richard is not Donald Trump. Apart from a penchant for the dramatic, in many ways they are opposites: Richard is charming and subtle, preferring to manipulate the private sphere in order to take the public by surprise; Trump is brassy, bombastic, and overt, turning the public sphere into private battlegrounds between polarized opinion groups. It is vital to see Trump clearly for what he is and not confuse him with a villain, hero, maverick, or other stock character that would make our lives simpler. We must never trick ourselves into thinking he carries the same infamy or glory as someone who came before him, or that he is somehow more than a man.
In Shakespeare’s hands, Richard is more than a man. He is a force, a movement, a spoke in the ever-turning wheel of time that presses urgently onward in this cosmic drama. He is consciously, unapologetically himself, yet in many ways he is also a buried part of us. And in watching Richard’s rise and demise, we are not so much watching the life and death of an individual as we are watching the rise and fall of the worst we can imagine. This is important, because Richard III gives us the gift of watching the worst imaginable fall.
This is the element of beauty in this ugly story: the massive catharsis it wrings out of us. The nightmare ends. “The bloody dog is dead.” And not just a man: a kind of embodiment of our worst choices, our most selfish inclinations, our darkest thoughts, our most destructive potential. We’re given the terrifying thrill of watching evil – our own evil – succeed, along with all the conflict and doubt and dismay as we find ourselves enjoying Richard’s ride through chaos. But then we’re heeled – and healed – by the reminder that consequences do exist, and even the devil among us eventually becomes, in Queen Margaret’s words, “a very prey to time.”
In Shakespeare’s world – which, never forget, is our own – unchecked evil cannot stand forever. This too shall pass. Damage is done, yes, but change follows. People switch sides. Conscience kicks in. And good old Richmond arrives on the horizon to save what’s left and start anew. A new sun rises.
Don’t avoid Richard III this year. See it. Direct it. Because on the brink of an unknowable future, when many of us are confronting possibilities we’ve never confronted before, Shakespeare is there. Not with easy comfort or optimism; he is far too smart, and too sincere, for that. But he is there, in one of his darkest plays, with hope.