84. Thoughts on Richard III, Part 1: Stages of Tyranny

Shakespeare’s Richard III, although fairly simple in structure, is rich in philosophical insights. In this series of posts I will explore many of these insights. Let’s begin by looking at how the play illustrates stages of tyranny that can be applied to real life political realities.

Plato, in his dialogue the Republic (Oxford: 1945, translated by Cornford), provides an amazing account of political and psychological tyranny that prefigures many of the ideas found in Shakespeare’s play. Consider this remarkable description of the tyrant’s ascent to political power:

“In the early days he [the would-be tyrant] has a smile and a greeting for everyone he meets; disclaims any absolute power; makes large promises to his friends and to the public; sets about the relief of debtors and the distribution of land to the people and to his supporters; and assumes a mild and gracious air towards everybody. But as soon as he has disembarrassed himself of his exiled enemies by coming to terms with some and destroying others, he begins stirring up one war after another, in order that the people may feel the need of a leader, and also be so impoverished by taxation that they will be forced to think of nothing but winning their daily bread, instead of plotting against him. Moreover, if he suspects some of cherishing thoughts of freedom and not submitting to his rule, he will find a pretext for putting them at the enemy’s mercy and so making away with them. For all these reasons a despot must be constantly provoking wars….This of course will lead to his being hated by his countrymen more and more. Also, the bolder spirits among those who have helped him to power and now hold positions of influence will begin by speaking their mind to him and among themselves and criticize his policy. If the despot is to maintain his rule, he must gradually make away with these malcontents, until he has not a friend or enemy left who is of any account.” (297)

These machinations lead to an unjust soul with neither friends nor freedom:

“In private life, before they gain power, men of this stamp either consort with none but parasites ready to do them any service, or, if they have a favour to beg, they will not hesitate themselves to cringe and posture in simulated friendliness, which soon cools off when their end is gained. So, throughout life, the despot character has not a friend in the world; he is sometimes master, sometimes slave, but never true friendship or freedom. There is no faithfulness in him; and, if we were right in our notion of justice, he is the perfect example of the unjust man.” (300-301)

Shakespeare’s play helps us piece together a very similar analysis. Agnes Heller, in chapter 11 of her amazing book The Time is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History (Rowman and Littlefield: 2002), argues that Richard III shows us a pattern of tyranny that can be applied to all other tyrannies. She writes:

“The mechanisms of all tyrannies have certain things in common, and there are even closer resemblances among tyrannies where the tyrant is evil or radically evil. Introducing us into the mechanism of tyranny in Richard III, Shakespeare offers us insight into his vision of the mechanism of all tyrannies. Tyranny is in Shakespeare the most abstract form of rule….It is because of the abstract mechanisms of tyrannies—in Shakespeare’s portrayal—that the role of Richard III was so well fitted to Hitler and Stalin alike. One need not modernize the story to have a perfect fit. No strenuous effort was needed to recognize the political essence of the present in the past. Richard III was Hitler, and he was also Stalin….A rational—and rationalistic—tyrant like Richard offers a simple, and in this respect also entirely transparent, insight into the working and fate of radically evil tyranny.” (253-254)

Let me go over my slightly modified formulation of Heller’s stages—perhaps the stages Queen Elizabeth sees “as in a map, the end of it all” (2.4.55). These stages, of course, have some overlap and mutually inform one another. But the general pattern is clear enough.

Stage 1: The would-be tyrant must become an actor, a dissembler, who spreads lies, slanders others, and generates various conflicts between people in order to set the stage for evil plots and “inductions dangerous” (1.1.32). Obviously, Richard is always acting until he seizes the throne and reveals his evil nature (and even then he still acts a lot). But here are a few specific examples:

  • The false prophecy against Clarence: 1.1.30ff; 1.1.52-60; 1.1.144-152.
  • False love to manipulate Anne: 1.2.
  • His false apologies to Rivers and Dorset: 2.1.53-73.
  • Slander of Mistress Shore: 3.4.66-71.
  • Slander of Hastings: 3.5.24-39.
  • Slander of his brother King Edward: 3.5.72-94.
  • Slander of the children as bastards: 3.5.75
  • Acting as a pious man of God who doesn’t want to serve in politics: 3.7.140-246.
  • His rumor that Anne is “grievous sick”: 4.2.51.
  • False proclamations of love for Elizabeth’s daughter: 4.4.262ff.

Take note that in Richard III the philosophical distinction between essence and appearance is played out in many ways. Consider these lines where Richard tells his young nephew, who he will eventually have murdered, about the discrepancy between the heart and the face: “Sweet Prince, the untainted virtue of your years / Hath not yet dived into the world’s deceit: / Nor more can you distinguish of a man / Than of his outward show, which, God He knows, / Seldom or never jumpeth with the heart” (3.1.9). Richard maintains that the inner very seldom becomes the outer. The heart is the “essence”; the face, that which we commonly judge a man by, is often a mask. Machiavelli says: “Men in general judge by their eyes rather than by their hands; because everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to come in close touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are”. [1] Richard knows this and uses it to his advantage several times in the play. Consider the fall of Lord Hastings. At one point Hastings claims that Richard “…looks cheerfully and smooth this morning;” and that “…by his face straight shall you know his heart” (3.4.52-58). When Derby asks Hastings if he knows this by some livelihood Richard has shown, Hastings answers: “Marry, that with no man here he is offended; / For were he, he had shown it in his looks” (3.4.62). Of course, Richard arrives moments later accusing the Queen of witchcraft and orders Hastings to be killed due to his lack of belief in the accusations! Perhaps if his relationship with Richard had been more like Buckingham’s, who understands that the heart rarely jumps with the face, he might have lived. Buckingham says of his relationship with Richard: “We know each other’s faces; for our hearts, / he knows no more of mine than I of yours; / Or I of his, my lord, than you of mine” (3.4.12). Buckingham nevertheless will be betrayed, and ultimately killed, by Richard. One might say his death is foreshadowed by a curse – a curse of mistaken identity – which Buckingham claims will come upon himself should his love for the queen turn to hatred: “When I have most need to employ a friend, / and most assured that he is a friend, / deep, hollow, treacherous, and full of guile / Be he unto me!” (2.1.41). Buckingham’s bad deeds will bring forth his own curse and nothing – not his temporary escape, not his campaign against Richard, not even his inability to kill the queen’s sons – will save him. Buckingham dies a victim of a false friend; the type of friend Richard, in an empty prayer, asks God to deliver from his young nephew: “God keep you from them [the nephew’s uncles], and from such false friends” (3.1.18).

Stage 2: The would-be tyrant must make false promises to others—promises of wealth, land, peace, love, power, etc.—in order to start removing obstacles between himself and the throne.

  • Two murderers: money, 1.4.120-129.
  • Buckingham: an earldom, 4.2.89.
  • Anne: true love, 1.2.
  • Elizabeth: her daughter as a queen, 4.4.295, and grandchildren, 4.4.295-317.
  • The public: peace, legitimate rule, the general good: 3.7.67.
  • Tyrrel: love and preferential treatment: 4.2.80; 4.3.31-33.

It is important to recognize that the tyrant is able to enlist people’s help in his effort to seize and maintain power by appealing to their tyrannical impulses. Tyranny, to be established and to continue, must beget tyranny in some form. For example, consider this passage: “My dukedom to a beggarly denier, / I do mistake my person all this while! / Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot, / Myself to be a marv’lous proper man” (1.2.283). Here we find Richard amazed when he realizes that Anne, the woman whose husband he has killed, actually covets him!  Within the space of a short conversation she has gone from calling him a poisonous toad that “…dost infect mine eyes” to accepting his proposal that she move into his house.  The same hatred which leads Richard to deny the reciprocity of love makes him an object of love in Anne’s eyes.  But how? Consider Soren Kierkegaard’s discussion of Richard III in Stages on Life’s Way (Princeton: 1988):

“Then he learned, then he discovered that there is a power that works upon woman with certainty, the power of falsehood and lies, when they are declared with the flame of wild enthusiasm, with the unhealthy excitement of lust, and yet with the chilling coldness of the understanding, just as the strongest wines are served cooled with ice.  He himself hated, and yet aroused erotic love, even though women do not love someone like that but are disgusted with him and succumb to him only when dizzy and stunned” (352-3).

But what are these lies about and how do they work so well? Anne needs to be loved and Richard’s false love, which in being prepared to die for Anne seems to know no limits, gives absolute power to Anne over Richard: she would, like a tyrant, command the powers of life, death, and love. And it is this love of tyrannical power that Richard, much to his surprise and benefit, arouses.

Stage 3: The would-be tyrant then has to secure ways to make murder legitimate.

  • Mayor scene: 3.5.14-71. Richard convinces the Mayor that the execution of Hastings was not rash but was undertaken to preserve “the peace of England” and “our persons’ safety” (3.5.45). He manipulates the Mayor into backing his decision even though he has no evidence Hastings was a traitor. There is no need to have recourse to the Recorder (3.7.30) and this makes the people fearful since a Recorder referred to a “man of some legal knowledge appointed by the Mayor or Alderman to record facts and recite them orally when necessary as evidence to the truth” [2].  The Scrivener, of course, presents a fraudulent indictment and tells the people to “mark how well the sequel hangs together” (3.6.4). But the people are not convinced despite Richard’s grasp of legal power.
  • So Richard, with the help of a propaganda campaign eloquently presented by Buckingham (3.5.72-246), persuades the people he should be king because, like Plato’s philosopher kings, he doesn’t want to rule. Once he is king he can murder with impunity.

Stage 4: Power is established, the tyrant is revealed as a tyrant, and the multitude of voices is negated insofar as no one can speak in conditional statements: no IF this THEN that. To say ‘if’ to a tyrant is to question him and to assert some degree of autonomy against him. And this is something he will not accept.

  • Hastings: 3.4.72.
  • Buckingham: 4.2.24 when he pauses after Richard asks him to murder the children; also Richard pushes him down after Buckingham talks back after being told that Richard is not in the “giving vein”: 4.2.114-116.
  • Tyrrel, by contrast, says “I will dispatch it straight”: 4.2.81.

Agnes Heller explains:

“No contrary opinion is listened to, no disagreement accepted. It is either absolute subsumption or death: this is the logic of tyranny….Hastings says: “If they have done this deed, my noble lord” (73, emphasis mine). Hastings utters the phrase in conditional form. But what if not? Yet there is no “if-not.” If itself casts the death spell on the man who transforms an apodictic sentence into a conditional one….As there are no ifs, there can be no moments of hesitation. When the tyrant speaks, one has to obey unconditionally, immediately. Buckingham changes (or seemingly changes) his mind and expresses his readiness; but it is too late….This is the moment when the king remains alone; the final loneliness of the evil demon sets in. On the stage, only one embodiment of radical evil plays solo. God can have but one single Gegenspieler who is ready to go to the extreme.” (264, 266, 271)

Now we know from Machiavelli that this complete domination of discourse is a great mistake; the prince should at least allow wise advisers to speak: “This is because the only way to safeguard yourself against flatterers is by letting people understand that you are not offended by the truth; but if everyone can speak the truth to you then you lose respect.  So the shrewd prince should adopt a middle way, choosing wise men for his government and allowing only those the freedom to speak the truth to him, and then only concerning matters on which he asks their opinion, and nothing else”[3]. But tyrants are extreme and do not recognize the mean in anything whatsoever. And this, of course, is one of the reasons why tyrants fall from power.

Stage 5: With no conditional statements possible, there can be no room to think, question, communicate, and engage in any real form of solidarity. Everyone is isolated from everyone else; disintegration takes the place of unity. In his book Modern Philosophy, Roger Scruton discusses the message of the Devil—a message I think applies perfectly here:

“Religion is the affirmation of the first-person plural [i.e., we]. It tells us that, actually or possibly, we are members of something greater than ourselves, which is the source of consolation and continuity. Nor do you have to believe in the devil to accept the corollary: that communities may dissolve under the stress of disaffection, and that the force of dissolution can become active and willful in the manner of a god. The devil has one message, which is that there is no first-person plural. We are alone in the world, and the self is all that we can guarantee against it. All institutions and communities, all culture and law, are objects of sublime mockery: absurd in themselves, and the course of absurdity in their adherents. By promising to ‘liberate’ the self, the devil establishes a world where nothing but the self exists. This is the final triumph of the demon.”[4]

  • Buckingham tells Richard that he was able to persuade the people to believe the lie that King Edward’s children are illegitimate; yet they wouldn’t cheer for Richard. Buckingham says:  “No, so God help me, they spake not a word, / But, like dumb statues or breathing stones, / Stared each on other, and looked deadly pale” (3.7.25).

As already mentioned, a Recorder originally referred to a man of legal knowledge appointed by the Mayor to record facts and, if necessary, recite them orally to provide evidence for truth claims. Now Buckingham, when the people do not respond to his demand to celebrate Richard, asks the Mayor why they are dumb.  The Mayor’s answer is that people “…were not used to be spoke to but by the Recorder” (3.7.31). The Recorder’s words would enable the people to respond insofar as such words would be evidence to the truth rather than conjecture.  Now this doesn’t entail that the Recorder’s words always are evidence to the truth; but at least the Recorder would be believed to represent the Truth.  Thus we can draw a distinction between Richard’s attempt to envelop the people in a fog of lies and the Recorder’s attempt to reveal an inter-subjective truth.  I would go so far as to suggest that the Recorder is a symbol of sanity: a symbol of a unified public truth which is not only open to all but which is legitimated by the law.  So what if the Recorder is replaced by a man who makes conjectures and represents a tyrant who will behead a man, like Hastings, for speaking?  Would this not turn everyone into breathing stones?  Without the reciprocity of dialogue there can only be individual thoughts without corroboration: the inner cannot become the outer.  It is at this point that the line between the real and the unreal can be erased.

So we see that Richard III begins with Richard alone, continues with Richard alone, and ends with Richard alone as he faces death. The night before the final battle, when he awakens from his troubling dream, he says: “I shall despair. There is no creature loves me / And if I die, no soul will pity me” (5.3.200). For a few moments Richard sees what it is like to have no first-person plural, no we, no solidarity with his fellow humans. To be sure, he had opportunities to overcome his self-imposed isolation with Anne’s love and his young nephew’s admiration and joy. But he was determined to prove a villain. In this sense he is tragic anti-hero who, in remaining authentic and perishing due to his determined will, invokes our admiration on some level – we may even pity him. But since he was determined to prove a villain, since he orchestrated such fearful murders, our admiration can only go so far.

For part two of the series go here.


[1] Machiavelli, The Prince.  (New York: Penguin, 1961), p. 101.

[2] Richard III, The Folger Library General Reader’s Shakespeare (New York: Washington Square Press, 1960), p. 84, note to line 31.

[3] Machiavelli, The Prince.  (New York: Penguin, 1961), p. 126.

[4] Modern Philosophy (New York: Penguin, 1994), p. 480.

2 replies on “84. Thoughts on Richard III, Part 1: Stages of Tyranny”

  1. Pingback:Whoops, I Accidentally Used a Photo of Donald Trump in this Blog Post on Richard III | Jerz's Literacy Weblog

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