For this week’s blog post, I would like to highlight a recent surge in Richard II’s popularity. Not as a topic of discussion at the average family dinner table, of course (this would be quite odd indeed), but among historians and literary scholars. This is due to a fascinating connection made between our current political situation and the reign of Richard II as depicted by Shakespeare. In several articles I have read online, Donald Trump has been compared to Shakespeare’s version of Richard. I thought it would be interesting to explore this comparison in my blog post, since it connects my project (which can easily come off as being remote from and insignificant to our lives today) to the modern world.
Before diving any further into this topic, I should give a disclaimer that I am in no way an expert on Shakespeare. I have watched the 2012 BBC production of Richard II several times (and would highly recommend it), but when I sat down and actually attempted to read the play, I only made it halfway through before returning to my history books. To keep this post relevant to my project and within my area of knowledge, my own analysis will focus on Richard II as an historical rather than literary figure. However, I will first provide a summary of some of the comparisons made by others between Shakespeare’s Richard and Trump.
Ben Whishaw as Richard II in BBC’s 2012 production of the play
In an article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Cornell history professor Rachel Weil claims that Trump shares Richard’s inability to live up to the role assigned to him. Richard II can be seen as embodying the concept of the “King’s Two Bodies”, which was prevalent during Shakespeare’s time. According to this idea, being crowned king gave a man a second, more divine body, described by Weir as being “powerful, wise, immortal, and protected by God.” In Shakespeare’s play, Richard II’s fatal flaw is his failure to realize that this concept is a delicate fiction, for which his subjects will suspend their belief only as long as he lives up to the role of king, remaining above personal interests in order to serve as the kingdom’s ultimate source of justice. Instead, Richard seems to believe that his second, immortal body is real, and can protect him from the weakness and vulnerability of his human body. This gives Richard the confidence to act entirely in his own interest, without any regard for the consequences of his actions. Ultimately, his subjects depose him, putting aside the notion that their incompetent king is sacred and untouchable. Weir then goes on to argue that like Richard, Donald Trump has failed to realize that the ideal perception of the president – that is to say, the rightful representative of the whole nation who advocates for the common good- is not inherent to the office, but will melt away if he fails to sustain it. If Trump continues to behave in a divisive and self-interested manner, his citizens will no longer buy into the grand illusions of the presidency, just as Richard’s subjects gave up on the illusions of kingship.
In his Los Angeles Times article, theater critic Charles McNulty is a bit less direct, but still quite clear, in his comparison of Trump and King Richard. Like Weir, McNulty highlights Richard’s overconfidence in his own divinity, which leads him to disregard deeply embedded ideas about the role of the king. Ultimately, “in the company of parasitic flatterers, he takes his royal prerogative too far.” According to McNulty, the critical words of Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt, who laments, “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”, are applicable to the dominance of private interests over the public good in modern day America. Although not explicitly stated, this seems to me to be a reference to Trump, who has frequently been accused of allowing his interests as a private business man to influence his decisions as president. Once again, therefore, a parallel is drawn between the self-interested policies of Trump and Richard II, both of whom exhibit a false sense of security regarding the power given to them by their high office.
It is important to keep in mind that the Richard II referred to by Weir and McNulty is much more a fictional character than an historical figure. Therefore, an obvious question remains to be addressed: does the comparison between Shakespeare’s Richard II and Trump hold for the historical Richard? Although this question deserves a much deeper analysis than I have the time and space to provide, I will do my best to come up with an answer in the remainder of my blog post.
Although Shakespeare almost certainly exaggerates Richard’s haughty conception of his own divinity, he is fairly accurate in portraying Richard’s personal interests as getting in the way of good government. In the 1390s (and possibly even earlier), Richard began retaining members of the gentry and nobility from around the kingdom to his own personal affinity. While this was normal behavior for magnates in their own power bases (ex. the Earl of Warwick would have been expected to solidify his local power by retaining members of the gentry in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, where his landed interests were greatest), it was very much out of the ordinary for a king to build up a royal affinity. This is because of the fundamental difference in the roles of the king and the magnates. The magnates maintained local order by promoting their own interests and thus remaining in firm control of their respective power bases, while the king acted as the neutral overseer of this process, stepping in to dispense justice whenever any magnate overstepped his bounds. One way that the magnates ensured their own dominance in a region was by promoting members of their affinity for local administrative positions and as MPs in Parliament. Ordinarily, the king would support the appointments of members of the dominant magnate’s affinity to local offices so as to ensure that local government had enough backing from the regional power structures to be effective. However, once Richard II created his own royal affinity with members spread throughout the various counties, the men he retained began to vie with preexisting magnate affinities for power. Since it was the king’s own affinity disrupting local order, the king could no longer be relied on to promote stable government by dispensing justice from a neutral standpoint. Thus, due to the intervention of his own personal interests, Richard failed to fulfill the principle role of the king as the realm’s ultimate source of justice.
In the vocabulary of the Trump era, we would refer to the problematic balance between Richard’s duties as king and his interests as lord of a private affinity as “conflicts of interest”. The reason this term has been thrown around so frequently in current political discourse is because Trump’s interests as a major business owner have the potential to cause serious corruption in the White House. According to the BBC, “Donald Trump’s extensive, international business holdings mean he will have to make decisions as leader of the US that also affect his businesses.” In a sense, this situation mirrors the way that Richard II had to make decisions as king that also affected his private affinity. While, as described in the same BBC article, Trump did put his two adult sons in charge of his business holdings before being inaugurated as president, he retains “a long-term interest in making sure his companies are doing well.” This fact makes it extremely easy for Trump to put his own interests ahead of the public good, just as Richard II did more than 600 years ago.
Now let me take a moment to emphasize this last point, as it is crucial in determining whether an apt comparison can be made between Richard II and Donald Trump. Richard II was in power 600 years ago. He ruled over a bastard feudal system in which birth was, for the most part, the single factor which determined who held ultimate power. Richard did not choose to be king. He did not run a campaign promising good government prior to his coronation. Furthermore, his subjects supported his rule because of his birth, not because of any competence he had demonstrated (Richard was, after all, 10 years old upon becoming king). Thus, no one would have expected that Richard governed with the greater good in mind at all times. In fact, there would have likely been an anticipation that Richard’s own self-interest would have influenced policy to some extent (as long as this influence was kept within reasonable limits, which Richard ended up exceeding). After all, every medieval English king was a private landowner on account of the existence of crown lands, such as the county of Chester under Richard and the duchy of Lancaster under his successors. It does not take an historian to determine that the political situation in modern day America is far from that of medieval England. The United States is a democracy in which leaders derive their power from the people. Presidents are chosen with the expectation that their first and foremost concern is the greater good of the country. Unlike in medieval England, it is generally accepted that the president should relinquish all private interests upon being inaugurated. Thus, while Richard II and Donald Trump may have engaged in similar wrongdoings, they were accountable to entirely different expectations. It can be said quite easily that within the context of their respective times and places, Donald Trump has been much more of a tyrant than the infamously tyrannical Richard II – and this should be a cause for concern
Gentry, Marvin. Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Huntsville, Alabama, September 22, 2017. 22 Sept. 2017. The Nation, 25 Sept. 2017, http://www.thenation.com/article/the-fragile-toxic-masculinity-of-donald-trump/. Accessed 26 Sept. 2017.
Whishaw, Ben, performer. The Hollow Crown: Richard II. Directed by Rupert Goold, NBC Universal Television, 2012.