It is three days before election day, 2016, the 5th of November, and the US is facing a decision about whether to elect a reality show celebrity and businessman or a lawyer and career politician to the presidency. On the Republican side, we see a man with little respect or regard for women, people of color, immigrants, non-Christians, or social liberals. On the other, a woman with decades of political experience, including a wide variety of political and personal scandals.
For me, as a Shakespeare scholar, this election and its participants bear an alarming resemblance to one of Shakespeare’s history plays–Richard III (1593) . The play itself begins with the famous “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York” (1.1.1-2). The situation of the play is the end–or so it seems–of a war and the return of troops to their homes and families, a situation not unlike that in the US following the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
In Shakespeare’s play, the country seems mostly stable, but not perfect. The nobility are moderately discontent, and the monarch–Edward IV–provided political stability, but was struggling with an economy ravaged by the Wars of the Roses. Again, this situation is not dissimilar to the US in 2016. We are in the long process of recovery from a significant economic recession. Barack Obama’s presidency has been largely politically stable, but the social underpinnings of both Edward’s reign and Obama’s terms are highly divided along partizan lines: Lancaster versus York and liberal versus conservative, respectively.
In Richard III, when Edward dies, England is plunged into a crisis, pulled between two factions: those supporting Elizabeth Woodville, Edward’s wife, as the Queen Mother to the very young Edward V; and those supporting Richard of Gloucester, the Lord Protector known in the court as “Crooked Dick” because of his physical deformity (a hunchback) as well as his warped mind.
Although Obama is not dying–just ending his term–the end of his presidency nevertheless represents the end of an era and, whether or not you like his politics, marks a clear divide between politics as largely centrist–as in the 1980s and 1990s–and as highly polarized, particularly after 9/11. The court in Richard III is therefore not unlike the current American political atmosphere.
Taking the parallel further, we also see a dichotomization between a female leader following in the lineal tradition of the previous leader–by primogeniture in the case of Elizabeth, and party affiliation for Hillary Clinton–and a radical male leader with a penchant for performance, demagoguery, and witchhunts–Richard himself, and Donald Trump.
If this were the extent of the parallels between the election of 2016 and Shakespeare’s Richard III, that would be enough to be noteworthy. But–alarmingly–the parallels do not end there.
For instance, early in their rivalry, Elizabeth and Richard engage in mutual accusations of legal, moral, and spiritual transgressions. Elizabeth bands together with the other women of the court, including Richard’s mother, the Duchess of Gloucester; his wife, Anne; and Margaret, the ostracized wife of the former King Henry VI, killed by Richard at the end of a previous play. Despite their animosity, these women come together in mutual fear and hatred of Richard, and they curse him for murdering their families (including Elizabeth’s brother and sons, Richard’s own brother, Anne’s first husband, and Margaret’s son and husband) and corrupting the throne.
In 2016, we see a similar pattern as multiple women come forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault, from undesired kissing to an accusation of rape involving a 13-year-old girl–something else he shares with Richard, who pressures Elizabeth to allow him to marry her teenage daughter (after he poisons his first wife, Anne).
We also find a parallel between Trump’s campaign to incarcerate Clinton in Richard’s attempt to have Elizabeth arrested for witchcraft, blaming her for his withered arm (a defect he had from birth). Both accusations also have a similar level of (in)accuracy.
Yet what is most disturbing about the similarity between Richard and Trump is what has yet to happen. In Richard III, Richard campaigns for the ratification of the Lord Mayor and his council, the wealthy and powerful men of the court and the church, convincing them of his support of Christian morals and his love for England. In this scene, Richard uses performance to convince the powerful that he can benefit them. For courtiers like the Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s closest advisor and supporter, Richard’s promises of lands and titles are enough to counteract his negative reputation.
In contrast, the common people in Richard III remain unconvinced by Richard’s act, and remain silent when Buckingham names him king. The Third Citizen says, “O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester!” (2.3.27) and the citizens discuss fears of impending doom, war, and hardship:
When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Untimely storms make men expect a dearth.
All may be well; but, if God sort it so,
‘Tis more than we deserve, or I expect.
Truly, the souls of men are full of dread:
Ye cannot reason almost with a man
That looks not heavily and full of fear. (2.3.32-40)
In this scene, the people are deeply uncertain about Richard and the rumors he has spread about the bastardy of the young Edward V–not unlike the rumors Trump’s campaign have spread about Clinton or those Trump himself encouraged claiming Obama was born in Kenya. Like the citizens in Richard’s England, many people today in the US are afraid of what will happen if Trump is elected, yet are also uncertain about Clinton, just as Richard’s subjects were uncertain about Elizabeth.
This is where the parallels end, if only because we have not yet made our collective choice. But if the rest of the play is any indication of the trajectory of a Trump presidency, then we must agree with Shakespeare’s citizens and not with the power-hungry and politicians who enabled Richard to take the throne.
After Richard’s confirmation as king, he embarks upon a campaign of lies and murder. He has both his nephews murdered in the Tower, poisons his wife, and executes Elizabeth’s political allies and friends. When even Buckingham turns against him, Richard does not hesitate to execute his strongest supporter, as well. His tyranny and paranoia produce widespread discontent, the populace revolts, and the Wars of the Roses reignites, ravaging the nation, which suffers socially, politically, and economically as the partizan factions tear England apart.
Let us learn from Shakespeare, who, if nothing else, was an expert in human nature. Trump, like Richard, is a self-centered demagogue unconcerned with the needs or welfare of those unlike or unconnected to him. We know, from his own actions and admissions, that he is unconcerned with facts, laws, or the rights of others, particularly when they conflict with his own desires.
Leaders should be servants dedicated to the common good of all their constituents, all the more so in a modern democracy, and Trump is incapable of both service and humility. For no other reason than this, a Trump presidency puts at risk the very heart of American democracy. So let us recognize the wisdom in Shakespeare’s Third Citizen and reject the toxicity which would lie at the core of a Trump presidency.
For the sake of our country, our sanity, and, yes, even our souls, we cannot vote Trump.