Shakespeare's history plays offer us case studies contrasting different kinds of leaders. Mostly these leaders are medieval monarchs, whose modes of governance and levels of power differ hugely from those of contemporary heads of state (or would-be heads of state). But we wouldn't still be staging, watching, and reading Shakespeare if we didn't see ourselves in his characters, and our culture in his culture, as in a distant mirror (to adapt the famous phrase of the medievalist historian Barbara Tuchman).
And so, as I prepare to teach Shakespeare's Richard III to a group of undergraduates for perhaps the thirtieth time, I newly notice aspects of the play that speak to, and seem to speak of, the politicians among us, vying for power in this third decade of our twenty-first century. What I'm noticing this time is the two very different speeches given by two rival leaders in the fifth act of Shakespeare's play.
The first speaker is Henry, Earl of Richmond, soon to be crowned Henry VII, the first Tudor king. The second is Richard III, the Yorkist usurper who is defending his throne. In Shakespeare's play, Richard is the villain and Henry is the hero, in two-dimensional characterizations that ignore much of actual history. Shakespearesuppressed all record of Henry's weak claim and various character flaws and exaggerated Richard's villainy. But hey, this was theater, and, moreover, theater under the rule of Henry's granddaughter, Elizabeth I, who cared deeply how her ancestors were represented. In embroidering and, to a certain extent, falsifying history, Shakespeare not only stayed on Elizabeth's good side, he achieved a paradoxical truth. Departing from the complex particularities of these two fourteenth-century political rivals, he gave his audiences -- then and now -- universal portraits that depict a leader who is not worth following, and one who is.
Richard isn't. Everyone knows that. But it's the way he isn't that repays study. It's not that he isn't a good speaker or a valiant warrior. It isn't even that he lacks royal blood (the play makes plain that he has more of that than Henry Richmond). The malignant quality of his generalship is that, fearful himself, he gains support by frightening others. He attracts such followers as he does attract by appealing to their fear and stoking their hatred.
Fear of what, and hatred of what? Well, like every other tyrant in history, Richard urges his people to hate and fear "outsiders." He creates images of barbaric interlopers who are not "true" countrymen, and are coming to wreak havoc and destruction on "our" towns and villages. Bad hommes. Listen to King Richard on Bosworth Field:
Remember whom you are to cope withal,
A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,
A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate adventures and assured destruction.
You sleeping safe, they bring you to unrest;
You having lands and blessed with beauteous wives,
They would restrain the one, distain the other ....
Let's whip these stragglers o'er the seas again,
Lash hence these overweening rags of France ....
Shall these enjoy our lands, lie with our wives,
Ravish our daughters?
This sort of leader gains followers by presenting his hearers with the narrowest sense of what it is to be loyal to one's country. It is to hold on to what they own and refuse to share. In this doubtful enterprise, they should follow him, rather than his compatriot Henry (whose Englishness Richard disclaims on the grounds of his French exile, and whose thousands of British followers Richard mischaracterizes as aliens). If "we" don't beat Henry back, you know what's in store -- rape, pillaging, chaos, and the destruction of our homeland. Be afraid, hate, and fight.
Richard does fight. But Richard loses. Henry's mode of leadership proves more powerful. He appeals not to fear but to friendship and unity, and to a collective national revulsion, not from outsiders, but from one man's tyranny. He calls his men "Fellows in arms, and my most loving friends," and acknowledges their suffering under Richard's governance. Together, they are "Bruised underneath the yoke of tyranny." Henry looks past the "bloody trial of war" to a "harvest of perpetual peace." He does not villify entire classes of people. Instead, he observes that the problem is one single man, "A base foul stone, made precious by the foil / Of England's chair, where he is falsely set." He offers hope rather than terror, once the witch is dead. He urges them to think of themselves as a folk with a future; to work for the benefit of "your children's children." Don't be afraid of each other, he says. Just get rid of that toad, who "hath no friends but what are friends for fear."
To adapt Richard's opening line, what shall I say more than I have implied? In reality, Henry might not have been a better king than Richard. Neither of these speeches were actually given on the battlefield. Shakespeare made them up out of whole cloth. Shakespeare knew he took liberties with history, and that he trafficked in ideals. He did it as an artist, for the benefit of the children's children, foreseeing future leaders or failed leaders who might arise past time's horizon. He thought it was worth teaching the children's children, and their children's children, that friendship is better than hate, and hope always trumps fear.