Monday, September 9, 13:40 CDT

I was going to hammer on this for a while, but I think the energy will be better spent elsewhere... I'll put real time into the next one.

Shakespeare Journal, #2

Further, more coherent thoughts on The Tragedy of King Richard the Third:

Earlier, I asserted that Shakespeare was trying to make sense of historical events; Trying to put them in some kind of... Maybe moral order is what I'm grasping at.

Fair enough, but kind of obvious. Whether or not the idea of an objective history was even current in Elizabethan England, I can't imagine it cropping up much on the stage. If nothing else, it would have bored hell out of the audience. Besides, isn't drama supposed to put things in a moral order?

If I'm going to talk about the ways Shakespeare interpreted the moral order of history, I should look at something specific. How about power? Richard III has plenty to say about political power: How it's gained, how it's used or abused, and its ultimate consequences.

The universe Wm. Shakespeare believed in was a fundamentally pretty ordered one, or at least it was supposed to be. Not ordered in the sense a modern individual shaped by a century or two of scientific inquiry and technological advance might perceive, but still structured a certain way. In fact, probably a great deal more structured than most of us would accept. God was in charge, the rightful authority figures were there because He wanted them to be, things happened for a reason, and the broad structures of history were far, far more than random. Everything had consequence and ramification and import on a deeper level than its surface might suggest. Plenty of people still believe these things, or some of them, but not in the way that Shakespeare and his audience would have.

I'm not suggesting Shakespeare always wrote from this point of view, whatever you'd call it. I think his work probably questions a lot of it at different times, and explores all sorts of tensions in such a viewpoint. I do think it's an important backdrop for what Richard III has to say about the exercise of power.

Shakespeare doesn't believe that striving for power, holding it, or exercising it are inherently evil. (At least, he'd do well not to make such suggestions in public.) He might believe that doing any of these things purely for the power itself is wrong and leads inevitably to tragedy, but he doesn't have problems with the right people exercising God-given authority. Here, I think what determines the right people is as much a question of their motives and the way they gain authority as it is of hereditary rights and the legitimacy of claims. (Of course, the two sort of overlap rather conveniently...)

The truth is, I never see Richard's motives as entirely comprehensible. You could make the argument that he's seeking power for its own sake, and schemes to usurp the throne simply because it's the ultimate expression of power available in his world. I don't think it really holds water. I don't think power, in and of itself, is what he's after. I think Richard's a power-monger because it lets him be a more effective evil bastard.

If his prime motivation is a simple desire to wreak havoc on more or less everyone in his life, sheer bloody-minded determination to be an effective bad guy, then his actions make perfect sense. It's still not an especially understandable position, but it fits the facts pretty well. Maybe I'm missing the obvious point that his physical deformity and the uses others have put him to have done a lot to warp Richard's mind.

...

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass,
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love's majesty
etc.

Looking at the other three (or is it four?) plays in this cycle would probably tell me quite a bit more about that. And probably I should remember that to some extent, Richard's playing the role of Nemesis here. Innocent people are getting hurt (the two princes, for example), but by and large, these characters can't have a clean conscience about the past couple of decades.

At any rate, my point was that Richard's motives make all the difference. His motives seem to be I am an evil bastard, if not quite in the literal sense. Nevermind. I'm going to go kill my wife or something. You could say he's purely self-serving, except I'm not sure how much of anything he does is even in his own long-term best interest. His eventual rival, Richmond, who doesn't even make much of an appearance when you think about it, has the country's best interests at heart, loves God, and acts in concert with others. A champion of democracy he ain't, but the contrast is obvious.