A few posts I made around the election (pre-election and post-inauguration) made a comparison between our current President and Shakespeare’s Richard III. I still think that comparison is horrifyingly apt, and the past few weeks have only added to the Shakespearean parallels.
For instance, Trump’s “hope” that Comey would end the investigation into Flynn, as many folks have noted, smacked quite strongly of Henry II’s “Will no one rid me of that troublesome priest?” regarding Thomas a Becket–but also Henry IV’s similar desire in Richard II which resulted in the murder of Richard II (by then deposed).
Recent concerns about the “treasonous” nature of the Public’s production of Julius Caesar is yet another comparison, one that has resurfaced today in the wake of the shooting of the GOP baseball team:
If only someone would stage a play about how violence in service of political ends hurts everyone. #JuliusCaesar
— ❄️Jaclyn Friedman❄️ (@jaclynf) June 14, 2017
And then there’s yesterday’s first Cabinet meeting, which was taken directly from act one of King Lear, when the aging and mentally-deteriorating Lear asks each of his daughters to tell him how much they love him in exchange for part of his kingdom:
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) June 12, 2017
Both history and literature tell us that none of these things is going to end well. Henry IV dealt with decades of open rebellion; Caesar was stabbed repeatedly on the steps of the Forum; Lear goes completely mad and ends up naked in a storm when none of his daughters will shelter him and then dies knowing that he caused the death of the only person who ever loved him.
But to turn back to Richard III for a moment. As if the horrifying parallels of the election campaign and inauguration weren’t bad enough, we can find even more in Trump’s push to further polarize the nation by riling up the prejudices and bigotry of his most enthusiastic supporters. In England, the parallel comes during the reign of Henry VI, an admittedly weak and possibly mentally-ill monarch, whose inability to appropriately govern led to the polarization of his people in something we now call the Wars of the Roses. The Yorkists and Lancastrians (whose emblems were the White and Red roses, respectively) engaged first in riots and looting, then civil war over which royal line (York or Lancaster) should hold the throne.
The Lancastrians were the “new blood,” descendants of the same Henry IV who had caused the death of Richard II by “hoping” someone would eliminate the deposed king. The Yorkists were those who believed that Richard II had been wrongfully deposed and killed, and would have stood next in line to inherit after his death had he not been convinced to name Henry IV (Bolingbroke) as his heir.
The finagling of inheritance under both Henry IV and Henry VI (who was convinced to name Edward of York instead of his own son under threat of deposition and rebellion) summons the possible interference in the 2016 election by Russia–the choice is not being made in good conscience or of our (the people’s) free will, but, rather, is being coerced and manipulated from the outside (although what the outcome would have been, I cannot say).
Furthermore, we see a king deliberately stoking the fires of violence and separatism, accusing his “enemies” of collusion with foreign powers (Richard blamed Henry VII for collusion with France and labeled him a foreigner; Trump declared Obama a foreign national and a Muslim) and encouraging his followers to spy on and engage in violence against their neighbors for wearing the wrong color rose… or, in our case, for being liberal, Democratic, gay, Muslim, Jewish, or a person of color.
Shakespeare’s Richard III was meant as a cautionary tale disguised as propaganda; while it celebrated the rise of Henry VII (Henry Tudor) and his triumph over Richard, it also called attention to the fact that the kind of factionalism being perpetuated by the Elizabethan government (Catholic vs. Protestant, for instance) was setting the country up for potential violence and civil war when Elizabeth died.
We don’t have a monarchy reliant on inheritance anymore, so we don’t have the same kinds of succession crises England faced in Shakespeare’s day. We have elections… elections which are increasingly problematized by an antiquated system which doesn’t reflect the popular vote and which, we have now learned, can be compromised by foreign countries with agendae of their own. We, too, face our own crises of succession, crises exacerbated–not solved–by the polarization of politics being stoked by the GOP and Trump in particular, but also by the more radical supporters of libertarianism and even Bernie Sanders.
I don’t have an answer, and neither, honestly, did Shakespeare. I can only hope that his conclusion–that, come what may, England was a strong enough nation to survive whatever was going to happen upon Elizabeth’s death–proves to be the same for us. England did indeed survive (and more peacefully than we currently are, by the way) Elizabeth’s death, and had a smooth transition of power, although to a less than perfect king in James VI & I. Whether we will be as lucky over the next 3.5 years, I cannot say, but unless something changes, and soon, I fear we will be looking at something far worse than civil war.