Richard III and Machiavelli

Richard III and Machiavelli

Machiavelli's The Prince was a much-discussed text in Renaissance England. Michael Donkor considers how, in Richard III, Shakespeare engages with Machiavelli's ideas about what constitutes appropriate behaviour in a ruler.

Both literally and metaphorically, Richard III is a text fascinated with the unsightly and the disfigured: within its dark world, innocent young bodies are subjected to ‘ruthful butchery’ (4.3.5) and ‘entrails’ are disembowelled (4.4.229). Wounds fail to heal, becoming infected and ‘congealed’ (1.2.56), and protracted war leaves nations horribly ‘scarred’ (5.5.23). But of course, the most obvious manifestation of this thematic concern is in our villain’s famously ‘bunch-backed’ (1.3.245) appearance.

Richard III, portrait with overpaint, c. 1504–20

Richard III, portrait with overpaint, c. 1504–20

Richard III’s body has become the site of a problematic fascination with the meaning of ‘deformity’.

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At the end of Henry VI, Part 3 Richard determinedly asserts that ‘since the heavens have shaped [his] body so / Let hell make crook’d [his] mind to answer it’ (5.6.78–79). This is a ‘daring’ (Richard III, 4.4.171) acknowledgement and ownership of his distorted physicality, a vow that also plays on Bacon’s complex linking of bodily irregularity and moral depravity. But, conversely in Richard III, the villain’s opening ‘descant[ing] on [his] deformity’ (1.1.27) can be perceived as having a much more pathetic quality to it. Here Richard catalogues the difficulties and social exclusions caused by his disabilities, describing himself as ‘rudely stamped’ (1.1.16), ‘Deformed, unfinished’ (1.1.20). Such an outpouring of self-loathing almost transforms this cunning ‘boar’ into a victim worthy of our sympathy. In this light, this soliloquy can be viewed as Richard parroting the ugly and abusive taunts he has endured for years. Modern audiences in particular might reasonably wonder if it isn’t this barrage of unseemly insults about Richard’s shape that are partly responsible for the ugliness of his ensuing actions. But the idea of disfigurement in the text, particularly in relation to the presentation of Richard, goes further than this interest in the physical. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Richard’s behaviour – one that both delights and frustrates us – is his refusal to fit neatly and attractively within the ideological boundaries that we would like him to.

Henry VI, Part 3

Henry VI, Part 3

Richard, Duke of Gloucester murders Henry VI in a chapel.

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Machiavel?

Knowing audiences aware of the theatrical archetypes of Shakespeare’s day might be keen to unequivocally identify Richard as a classic Machiavel. We can’t be sure that Shakespeare studied or even read Machiavelli’s seminal work The Prince (1532). But we can be more confident that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have hotly debated its ideas of statesmanlike conduct. So at first glance, Richard’s rampant self-interest, insatiable hunger to dominate and willingness to commit ‘heinous deeds’ (1.2.534) might justify our view of Shakespeare crafting Richard to fulfil the expectations of this trope. However, as the play progresses, Richard’s actions disfigure Machiavellian ideas.

Machiavelli’s The Prince

Machiavelli’s The Prince

The lesson that ruthlessness and depravity was necessary to statecraft lies behind the concept of the stage Machiavel.

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Cruelty

With characteristic pragmatism, The Prince suggests that for the aspiring politician, cruel actions can play an important role in achieving and maintaining power. However, such brutality needs to be enacted in one fell swoop. It should not, we are instructed, be frequently returned to as a device for securing authority, as tyrannous behaviour of this kind is likely to invite protest. Cruelty, in the Machiavellian universe, is to be carefully and sparingly deployed.

In its explorations of brutality, Richard III often draws on images of predatory acts. Characters struggle to make sense of Richard’s tyranny, which seems so deeply inhuman, and in their attempts to understand his thinking rely on references to pursuit and ferocity from the animal world – bloodthirsty wolves, eagles and kites – for explanation. But there is an important distinction to be made here. These natural acts of predation are indeed just that – natural; the seemingly vicious appetites of these beasts and their killing of the prey are part of an organic circle of life. Like the archetypal Machiavel’s misdemeanours, there is a clear purpose and design to such savagery. Richard’s barbarism, however, is gratuitous. In The Prince, Machiavelli uses the conceit of a flooding river to symbolise the uncontrollable nature of fortune, a chaotic force that Man must try hard to master. Here, the symbol of swollen waters spilling beyond their boundaries seems an equally pertinent description of Richard’s ceaseless barbarity. Perhaps the clearest and most shocking example of Richard flouting this instruction for restrained uses of cruelty is the fate suffered by the Princes in the Tower.

By the beginning of Act 4, with the blistering speed characteristic of this thriller of a play, King Edward has died and Richard’s ambitions have brought about the gory executions of Clarence, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan. With the crown in his grasp, he has crushed dissent, and is now armed with allies in the form of Buckingham and Derby. This might be a moment when the conventional Machiavel considers ending such a campaign of violence. However, Richard refuses to rein in such behaviour.

The killing of the Princes strikes the audience as poignant and, importantly, excessive. This is principally due to the emphasis placed on the unthreatening nature of these adolescent figures, making their mistreatment seem all the more disproportionate: in Act 3, Scene 1, Prince Edward’s speech is littered with questions that serve to cast him as a charming and curious ingénue. Equally, young York’s entrance into the same scene is notable for the ‘lightness’ it brings to the text; the young Duke’s enjoyment of the ambiguities of language and his quick wittedness are both counterpoint to and relief from the way Richard continually revels in the misfortune of others. But a curious mind and a playful sensibility are met with extreme punishment, punishment described in haunting detail by the Princes’ remorseful executioner. Though Tyrell is first introduced to us as a gruff, ‘discontented gentleman’ (4.2.36) his emotive eulogising of the Princes offers the audience moving poetry. Full of pathos, his recalling of the ‘piteous massacre’ (4.3.2) likens the Princes to statuesque icons and then highlights their almost floral beauty. The thoroughness and length of this description, from a character who is otherwise distinctly concise in expression, seems to suggest the extent of Tyrrel’s disbelief at the unreasonable extremes to which Richard will go.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

The Princes in the Tower. King Richard III, Act 4, Scene 3 by James Northcote.

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Consistency

As well as avoiding undue aggression, Machiavelli also advises that leaders need to show consistency in the treatment of their subjects. Although Machiavellianism is often taken as a byword for a kind of two-facedness, in the text itself the author often seems to assert that the best leaders are those with a clear uniformity of approach. Though in contemporary politics U-turns can be re-spun so they appear to indicate a politician’s adaptability, for Machiavelli such changes made one vulnerable to attack from opponents.

As Hastings is escorted to his death, he uses a folkloric motif to express regret for his immoral past:

Who builds his hope in air of your good looks
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready with every nod to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.
(3.4.98–101)

But this rather dizzying image of instability and its dangers also speaks to Richard’s anti-Machiavellian wavering between roles and modes of conduct.

Richard finds great value in his almost improbable skill for adopting different positions; vicious one minute, seemingly benevolent the next; in one speech concerned only with his gain, in a subsequent exchange espousing the need for national unity. In a pointed aside, he congratulates himself and his talent for slippery speech as he ‘moralis[es] two meanings in one word’ (3.1.83). These reflections on his ability to transform at will and the effect that this ability has on others are often revealed to us through soliloquies after Richard’s manipulations; moments when his ‘virtuous visor’ (2.2.28) is gleefully tossed aside. In one such example, after corralling Elizabeth into offering her young daughter to him as a wife, Richard pejoratively dismisses her as a ‘relenting fool, shallow and changing woman’ (4.4.431). Ironically, Elizabeth’s reversals in thought and attitude cast her as weak whereas, up to this point in the play, such shifts are used by Richard as a strategy for aiding his ascent. But the dangers of the predilection to morph and fluctuate that Richard so prizes in himself become apparent when this shifting stops affecting the external world to Richard’s advantage. Instead this wavering becomes internalised.

After witnessing the procession of ghosts on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth, Richard launches into a feverish rant of self-criticism. Here he skittishly declares, ‘I am a villain! – Yet I lie, I am not.’ (5.3.191). With its conjunctions, splintered phrasing and oppositions, the speech continues to move maddeningly between confidence and cowardice, resolve and ruefulness, defiance and despair, in clear contrast with the steely clarity of Richmond’s thinking before battle, clearly foreshadowing the outcome of this war. In his last dramatic shift of character, Richard is, of course, able eventually to ‘pull himself together’ and present himself to his troops as the rousing Commander-In-Chief. But for the audience our perception of Richard’s conduct on the battlefield and his eventual death is haunted by our knowledge that, when under pressure, he was unable to maintain the uniformity of thinking that allows the true Machiavel to prosper.

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

Richard on the eve of battle, haunted by the ghosts of his victims.

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Richard is such a compelling figure because his physical damage is matched by complex psychological impairment. His inner world is a wild and inhospitable terrain where ambition, misanthropy, hubris and self-loathing are knotted ‘weeds grow[ing] apace’ (2.4.13). An individual wrestling with such unsettling internal conflicts is, then, not well disposed to adhering steadfastly and straightforwardly to a particular code or set of beliefs. Though Anne and Elizabeth sometimes use pedagogical metaphors to explain how others ‘teach’ and transform them (1.2.223; 4.4.18), Richard is no such dutiful student. A mind as rogue, roving and recalcitrant as his will never learn – from Machiavelli or anyone else.

  • Michael Donkor
  • Michael Donkor is a writer and is currently working on his first novel Hold. He also teaches English Literature at St Paul's Girls' School in London.

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