The year 2016 was meant to be the Year of Shakespeare. It was 400 years since the English language’s greatest poet and dramatist died, leaving behind an unrivaled artistic legacy that has endured not simply because his imagery is exquisite (although it is), nor because academics are masochists that enjoy torturing their students with impenetrable anachronisms (although they are). Shakespeare’s plays have lived on because they articulate fundamental truths about human nature; truths that, rather than fade into obscurity, often speak across time to our modern concerns so acutely that they seem oddly prescient.
It was with this thought in mind that I was going to write an article about Richard II…
Richard II is one of the less-familiar works in Shakespeare’s canon. Ironically, though, for an English history play written in the 1600s, and concerning events that took place 300 years previous, it’s one that has some striking things to say about 21st century culture. My original plan for this article was to write about how Richard II explores universal existential fears, how it speaks directly to our modern preoccupations with fame, and how it even sets itself up for all sorts of fun snarky Justin Bieber references.
I was going to argue all that and more through celebrating Shakespeare for his psychologically multifaceted vision. But then, like seemingly everything else left standing in 2016, that reading became hideously distorted by the emergence of Donald Trump on the political stage.
The original point I was going to make was that from one perspective, at its core, Richard II is all about the perils of celebrity at a young age. The titular character, Richard, is a young, calamitously un-liked king — one eventually so hated that his entire country effectively conspires to dethrone him. From a more sympathetic perspective, however, he’s a victim of his rise to stardom. Preceding the action of the play, he was appointed monarch at the age of ten after his grandfather, father, and brother all died, thereby thinning what was otherwise a healthy line of succession. He went from an indulged ten-year-old boy to God’s appointed ruler on Earth — literally told that he was anointed from on high by the sacred blood of monarchy. The young king grew up in privilege; pampered, praised, his every desire met, his word literally law. He could do no wrong because he was King and kings, as his own experience repeatedly proved, are above and beyond the rules of the commoners they deign to rule.
As Shakespeare’s play reveals, that has got to screw a person up.
Like Bieber at the height of his arrogant self-entitlement (abandoning his pet monkey; musing that Anne Frank would have been a fan; peeing in a mop bucket; drunken drag racing) or present day Shia LaBeouf (trying to explain away his plagiarisms and general dickishness by turning himself into a walking performance art parody), Richard goes on to enact the downward spiral of every child celebrity who flipped out in adolescence and burned away all the good will their fame once cultivated. He doesn’t hold up a liquor store or go on a drug-fuelled bender down a freeway, but he does start unfairly taxing his dukes and stealing their property to fund his unpopular wars. He has his political rivals secretly killed and presides over sham court proceedings. He alienates himself from the people of his kingdom by spending all day snarking with his mean-girl entourage.*
Eventually his people, who have resoundingly had enough, rise up in protest, revolt, and eject him from his rule. They install Bollingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, in his place, and the second half of the play becomes an introspective exploration of a Richard who, now stripped of his fame, tries to grapple with the question of his own identity. If he is no longer a king — the sole thing that has defined him his entire life — then what, or even who, is he?
The play’s examination of this descent from celebrity to pariah seems a more prophetic examination of contemporary culture than it could have ever been in the entire history of its performance. From the vantage point of the 21st century, when every actor, musician, politician, YouTube star, Chewbacca Mom, and vacuous-yet-inexplicably-omnipresent-nobodies (Hi there again, Kardassian brood!), are all forced, inevitably, to grapple with the impact their public persona has had upon their lives, when the adoration of the crowd abates, and the wan ineffability of fame threatens to expose the figure behind the facade, this play’s central themes seem ever more urgent.
And what Richard II says about this struggle is profoundly moving.
At first, for the majority of the narrative, Richard balks at his forced abdication, grappling with the loss of his old, exalted identity by desperately struggling to substitute a new, false one in its place. For a time he tries, unsuccessfully, to bluff his challengers, attempting to still throw his now-undermined royal authority around. When that doesn’t work he waxes lyrical about being a monk, living in seclusion, giving himself up to the quiet adoration of God. Later he goes into long, pitiful laments about how forgotten and forlorn he has become, romanticising his dissolution into nothingness with a messianically sacrificial tone. But all of these attempts at self-description are just feints, lies striving to reconstitute a new meaning for himself, a way to avoid dealing with the vacuous hollow beneath his empty facade.
Despite this, in the final moments before his untimely death, Richard does finally reach an epiphany. Wrestling with his wayward sense of self, he finally comes to accept ownership of his actions and identity, reaching an almost Zen state of being:
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king.
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar;
And so I am. Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then am I kinged again; and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. (5.5.31-41)
Having been imprisoned, and left both figuratively and physically alone in his thoughts, Richard sees, finally, his own role in the shaping of his sense of self. In the past he has been charmed by the delusions of his infallibility — of his people’s love, of his noblemen’s devotion, of God’s blessing — but once all that has been stripped from him, once he confronts the nothingness within himself, he sees it was all an illusion permitted by his own ego. Bolingbroke may have taken his crown, but whatever remains of Richard is his alone, prey only to his self-delusion.
Once he arrives at this revelation, Richard is free (albeit tragically briefly) to become his best self. When assassins arrive to kill him, he implores the stableboy who has come to visit to flee and save himself, and he fights back valiantly, even killing one of his assailants, showing a valor at the moment of death that was previously obscured by his untested fame.
In my original version of this article, I would have said all this and more besides, gone into the knowing artifice of his royal pageantry and the struggle to align with one’s own mythos, but then the 2016 US presidential election happened…
Suddenly a story about the dangers of an indulged, thin-skinned, egomaniacal, vainglorious leader with no impulse control and a staggering deficit of real-world knowledge seemed a little less abstract. Suddenly Richard II was no longer just about the tragedy of a man disentangling himself from his own celebrity, it was about the dangerous destabilisation that one man’s catastrophic rule could have upon a country’s entire political order.
Although, it should be noted that Trump is nothing if not a celebrity. In many ways, it’s all he is. It’s the principle way in which he has peddled the fiction of his ‘business savvy’. After ricocheting from one farcically failed business enterprise to the next for several decades, becoming a joke in his home state of New York for his many calamitous blunders, Trump eventually landed the role of ‘cartoon billionaire’ on The Apprentice, a vanity project designed to mythologise him as the ultimate dealmaker, no matter how repeatedly reality revealed it a fraud.** From there he took to sharing his unchecked id and torrent of narcissistic complexes on Twitter and played the role of conspiratorial Magic 8 on Ball FOX News, where, once shaken up with a phone call, he would spew whatever nonsense Birther/the-Chinese-invented-global-warming drivel he could into the airwaves.
Indeed, dishearteningly, there are numerous superficial analogies to draw between the two men, the Richard and the Donald. Richard shares something of Trump’s petty greed and vindictiveness. He gleefully wishes his uncle Gaunt dead so he can immediately start pilfering his wealth, just as Trump applauds himself for stiffing contractors and burying them under litigation for seeking what is legally owed, or in the exploitative vulgarity he showed by allegedly using his ‘charity’ as a slush fund to buy himself gifts or to pay his legal debts.
There’s the ugly entitlement that both men exhibit. Richard, thinking himself appointed by God to rule, cannot fathom that he might need to treat others with respect. He’s so convinced of his righteousness that he literally believes that he can bless his country by touching it with his hand. Trump’s similar feeling of privilege is emblazoned on every phallic building, scam ‘university’, and shiny bauble to which he has affixed his name. (As we well know, he has boasted in video footage that he believes he’s entitled to stick his hand wherever he wants.)
Both men are similarly infantilised, throwing tantrums when they do not get their way — Richard whimpering off to Flint Castle; Trump walling himself away from reality by constructing comforting fictions on Twitter. Richard doesn’t think he needs to answer for unjustly having his uncle murdered because he thinks himself above the law; Trump is outraged that he should be accountable for his own words and actions, claiming the media is ‘mean’ to him when they report on the things that he himself does and says, that the people who protest him are ‘unfair’, and that Meryl Streep and the cast of Hamilton are big meanies.
There are, however, some differences between the two men. As I have noted, Richard is at times capable of producing stirring lyricism, far from the pugnacious, playground incoherency of Trump. And by the end of his narrative journey, having felt defeat most acutely, Richard exhibits a level of self-assessment and introspection that Trump has repeatedly proved himself incapable of achieving.
But more than their evident character flaws, parallels can also be drawn between the state of the two lands these men seek to govern. Richard II is, after all, not only a personal tragedy (indeed, some may well argue whether or not it is even that), it’s moreover the tragedy of a nation. The play catalogues the shift from England’s history of Kings appointed by holy decree to a rule dictated by political concord. England shifts from a land unified around a singular, unquestioned monarch, to a family feud that would play out over several generations and erupt, frequently, into full-blown civil war.
Worryingly, Trump’s election signals an analogous shift in the identity of America and its traditional ideals. A fundamental part of Trump’s appeal in the 2016 election was his defiance of — in many cases his complete contempt for — established democratic norms, something that has only escalated in the days since his inauguration. Trump, for better or worse, represented the rejection of the established political order of the United States. He was a protest vote, a way to shake up a system that was seen to be stagnating. It’s why his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ rang so loudly (and why his cabinet picks post-election, effectively relocating the swamp into his White House, have rung so resoundingly hypocritical). It’s why, to many of his supporters, Trump’s reprehensible behaviour throughout the election was not seen as a detriment, but a curious boon.
On the campaign trail he repeatedly made wildly inflammatory, unsubstantiated (often proved abjectly false) statements about other races, religions, and groups, in defiance of established political decorum. He called Mexicans rapists and murderers, circulated bogus statistics about ‘Black on White’ crime, and implicated all Muslims in the actions of terrorists by suggesting that ‘they’ weren’t doing enough to help stop terrorist acts. Many of his supporters, however, saw these insults — and many more besides — as a refreshing willingness to ‘speak his mind’ (even when his mind was wilfully inaccurate) and proof that he wasn’t ‘following a script’ (even when he appeared to read his remarks directly from teleprompters).
America Hath Made a Shameful Conquest of Itself
Trump threatened — on multiple occasions, from most every conceivable angle — the right of free speech; the first amendment of the American Constitution. From vowing to look into ‘changing the libel laws’ (despite these laws not actually existing), to threatening to sue journalists for printing anything he doesn’t like, to openly harassing members of the press, he created a uniquely hostile relationship with the news media. Some of his supporters likewise clearly enjoyed this game of Trump biting the hand that fed him, as they raucously booed and hissed the media at his rallies like pantomime evil-doers, and joyfully resurrected the derogatory term Lügenpresse, a Nazi German word for ‘lying press’.
He refused to accept the peaceful transition of power when it looked like he was not going to win, following up on the hissy fits he threw during the primaries whenever he lost by threatening one of the country’s most sacred democratic traditions: the peaceful transition of power, even claiming that voter fraud and mass conspiracies were rampant. (Predictably, the second he won any question of a rigged election was swiftly abandoned — despite still, bafflingly peddling the lie that as many as five million people voted illegally.) And yet again many of his supporters appeared to adore this too, as both they and the then president-elect got to work hypocritically admonishing anyone who wanted to examine the clear influence of Russian interference in the election.
He has refused to release his taxes — at first cowardly lying that the IRS wouldn’t allow him to release them — breaking with several decades of practice, and exhibiting what would become a pattern of refusing to be transparent with his voters, from his business dealings to the ‘blind trust’ of his children running his company, all while hypocritically attacking his opponent for that very thing.
He vowed to lock up his political opponent, the signature threat of a petty dictator; he suggested that ‘second amendment people’ should assassinate his rival should she win; he insulted and attacked a Gold Star family; argued that a ‘Mexican’ judge was not able to properly adjudicate the fraud trial against Trump University; talked with relish about unleashing America’s nuclear arsenal; mocked a disabled reporter; refused to hold a press conference for almost an entire year; spent his time, both at his rallies and through the cowardice of social media, offending, belittling, and attacking those less powerful than he, all while quoting war criminals he admired and rehashing sad old grudges to make himself feel big; and after dog-whistling white nationalists, received his only endorsement of any status from the KKK.
To his voters, Trump presented the end of the system they knew and that they felt had failed them, but for all of his rhetoric about making America ‘great’ again, what he actually presented was not a return to some mythologised past, but the fundamental remaking of all of America’s founding principles.
Of course, the analogy breaks down slightly in that it is the white-supremacist-baiting Bannons, the Orwellian Conways, and the spinelessly compliant Ryans and Spicers — not the needy orangutan toddler with the Twitter account — who are really to blame for the carnival of cruelties and mismanagements that have categorised Trump’s time in the White House; Richard II, in contrast, is ultimately more about the two central characters, Richard and Bolingbroke, and their individual psychologies. There’s a bit of scheming around the edges, people who want to see Richard taken down, but it’s peripheral, and cuts against the grain of Richard’s blame, which seems to be Shakespeare’s central interest.
We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.
Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.
Whoever is ultimately at fault, however, just like in Richard II, in which the elevation of a young, unprepared boy to the station of King eventually leads to the undermining of the hereditary tradition that had defined the English monarchy right back to William the Conqueror, Trump’s ascendency to President of the United States can be seen as the dramatic end of an era. Just as Richard’s reign saw England’s (relatively) peaceful transfer of power through birthright and familial lineage fall into question, Trump’s impending rule, more in the styling of a petty dictatorship or the ramblings of a Twitter troll, represents the end of the ideals of the American Republic as it has traditionally been understood.
A nation built on immigration, religious freedom, and unfettered speech is now being governed by a man who campaigned, aggressively, against all of those things. The notion of American exceptionalism that led the United States to becoming a beacon of moral authority in global politics has been abandoned for an inward-looking, paranoid, ‘America first’ nationalism. In only his first week in office, Trump and his team advocated torture, inflicted a religiously discriminatory and unconstitutional Muslim ban on entry to the United States, stood in front of a memorial for unnamed CIA operatives to whine about his television coverage, gagged government employees from speaking to the public, deceived and threatened the free press, and coined the term ‘alternative facts’ — an Orwellian synonym for desperate, repeated, demonstrable lying.
Richard II is about the moment of awakening from a beautiful dream; the glorified England of the past is already just a remembrance, but the fantasy clings, even as it is dissolved from within. When John of Gaunt, on his deathbed, foretells the ruin of his nation — peering through time out at the audience of the play who can confirm his prophesy — it marks the end of a period of idyllic wonder:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden — demi-paradise —
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out — I die pronouncing it —
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! (2.1.31-68)
In the face of Richard’s misrule, Gaunt foresees an age of greed and ruin. Over the course of one rollicking, thunderous, building sentence, all prologue to its final declamatory insult, Gaunt paints the image of a proud land already lost in a fantasy of itself. For the moment England still believes itself blessed by God’s grace, but Gaunt can see through the facade into the ghastly, self-defeating hypocrisy already eating away at its heart. Shakespeare didn’t write those lines with Donald Trump in mind, of course, but it remains impossible to hear them without thinking of his ‘yuuuuuuge’ victory.
Gaunt’s prophesy is such a powerful moment that now, as the free world looks to the future with a leader who is an apologist for (and likely beholden to) Russian Oligarchs, who is a vociferous advocate for torture and human rights violations, who holds paying taxes and avoiding conflicts of interest with open contempt, who skips intelligence briefings and subscribes to insane conspiracy theories, and who lies openly and brazenly on a daily basis, one wonders if the United States needs its own Scepter’d Isle speech.
And perhaps it already has one…
In Back to the Future Part II (1989) Marty McFly glimpsed a world run by a deranged, vain, sexually abusive gangster-wannabe with a tower fetish and comically fake hair. Bob Gale, writer of the film, intentionally fashioned Biff Tannen as an analogy for Trump (the one major difference apparently being that Biff was actually successful at running casinos), and his nightmare scenario for the dark timeline created by the sports almanac is a world of gilded trash in which the greed, corruption and pettiness Trump embodies are given license.
Of course, much as I love it, Back to the Future Part II lacks much of the sombre, tremulous beauty of Shakespeare’s original text — no ‘That America hath made a shameful conquest of itself’ here. But for a year like 2016, telling democracy that it should ‘Make like a tree and get out of here’ seems sadly appropriate.
Thankfully, the words of the Duke of York, tragic in the context of Richard II, offer some hope in the wake of Trump’s degradation of the American electoral process. York is arguably the most interesting character in the play, with his shift of allegiance from Richard to Bolingbroke embodying the dramatic political upheaval unfolding, and when he laments the passing of Richard’s rule, he likens him to a celebrity who has passed out of favour with his audience:
As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious:
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard. No man cried ‘God save him!’
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home (5.2.23-29)
Even for all of Richard’s failings, the image is sombre and heartbreaking. That which was once so highly regarded is treated with disdain; not merely forgotten, but immediately condemned.
When Trump inevitably implodes, however, these words will seem like a blessed relief to those people who see his presidency as an affront to America’s founding beliefs. When Trump — a figure more celebrity than man, more bluster than substance — can no longer hide from his supporters that he has no answers for the fears he exploited, and that his vision extends nowhere beyond himself, even his most loyal audience will similarly turn against him. Even though Trump, the oldest man to be sworn in as US President, is no child celebrity, he will get to feel the same sting that has marked Justin Bieber and Shia LaBeouf.
It’s not much.
It’s barely anything.
But as Richard himself says, sometimes we must all be content with nothingness.