Thursday, December 19, 2013

William Shakespeare, Richard III (1592)

I usually discover something new in rereading a book I have not touched in a long time.  With the passage of time, there is inevitably a different perspective than the original perspective that yields a different insight.  In some cases the book loses it magic the second time around, and in other cases the book is just as vibrant as it was the first time but for entirely different reasons.

Decades ago, while a mere high school student reading Shakespeare, and in the wake of the 1970 Kent State University shootings, I submitted a paper as part of the Shakespeare course requirements that re-wrote Shakespeare's Richard III in contemporary terms.  I titled it Richard the Third Rate.  I wish I could recall how I dealt with the opening lines, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried."   Certainly I modified "[son] of York" in some way to refer to Richard Nixon's "house."  And certainly I did not rewrite the entire play, but I do recall the closing:  "A chopper, a chopper, My Kingdom for a chopper."  That is how Presidents leave their grounds these days and escape.  They climb into a helicopter and fly away.  And in hindsight this was unexpectedly prescient, because it was just four years later that Richard Nixon climbed into a chopper and fled Washington, DC after he resigned the Presidency.  He resigned his Kingdom for a chopper and avoided an impeachment trial.

To be sure, the parallels between the two Richards are not strong.  By Shakespeare's count, Richard III is directly responsible for the execution of eleven kin, close and distant, as he cleared his path to the British monarchy.  With the commencement of US bombing in Cambodia, Richard Nixon merely set in motion events that indirectly connect him to the deaths of four students at Kent State University.  Richard Nixon suffered a far different fate than Richard Plantagenet of York, Richard III, king of England for just two short years (1483-1485).  While shamed after avoiding a criminal prosecution thanks to a pardon from his successor, Richard Nixon rebuilt his reputation to some considerable degree and lived for 20 more years after relinquishing his kingdom.  Richard III's rule was extinguished when he was slain in battle by his enemies, like many of his Plantagenet kin.

We have a much different means and structure for removing someone from power today, although modern polities are certainly not uniform in the way they approach the transfer of political power.  The manner in which Richard III was removed from power certainly persists in a few nations, and battle to the death, execution, and murder was considerably more common in the 14th and 15th centuries.  The interesting storyline about Richard III's demise and removal from power is that it was all in the family. 

Clearly as I read Richard III in 1970, Richard Nixon was part of my mental association.  Forty-three years later, kin selection was on my mind as I turned the pages.  One definition of kin selection is this: Kin selection is an evolutionary theory that proposes that people are more likely to help those who are blood relatives because it will increase the odds of gene transmission to future generations. The theory suggests that altruism towards close relatives occurs in order to ensure the continuation of shared genes. The more closely the individuals are related, the more likely they are to help one another.  That "help" may include sacrificial behavior.  (See September 17, 2012,  September 12, 2012, October 13, 2010, and November 4, 2009 posts).

The House of Plantagenet obviously did not seriously contemplate increasing the odds of their gene transmission to future generations during their monarchical reign over England in the 14th and 15th centuries.  Altruism and self-sacrifice were not in their blood; conspiring against and slaying each other was.  "A house divided against itself cannot stand," said Abraham Lincoln during his 1858 campaign against Stephen Douglas, nearly four hundred years after the death of Richard III.  Lincoln's remarks, emanating from the book of Mark, and later modified by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, could very well have been written by William Shakespeare for Richard III.

The Plantagenet family tree is worth a look.  There are some recognizable names from the British royal line.  But look a little closer at some in this dysfunctional family:

The House of Plantagenet came to include over time, two "cadet" branches:  the House of Lancaster established by the son of Henry III, and the House of York, established by the son of Edward III. The cadet House of Lancaster captured the British throne with the accession of Henry IV, and lost the throne to the House of York with the accession of Edward IV. Richard III was a member of the House of York, succeeding Edward IV.  These two cadet branches represented the divided House of Plantagenet and ultimately led to the Wars of the Roses between these two family subunits.

Edward II:   His invasion of Scotland in 1314 to suppress revolt resulted in defeat at Bannockburn. When he fell under the influence of a new favourite, Hugh le Despenser, he was deposed in 1327 by his wife Isabella (1292–1358), daughter of Philip IV of France, and her lover Roger de Mortimer, and murdered in Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire. He was succeeded by his son, Edward III.

Richard II: Richard was born in Bordeaux. He succeeded his grandfather Edward III when only ten, the government being in the hands of a council of regency. His fondness for favourites resulted in conflicts with Parliament, and in 1388 the baronial party, headed by the Duke of Gloucester, had many of his friends executed. Richard recovered control in 1389, and ruled moderately until 1397, when he had Gloucester [14th child of Edward III] murdered and his other leading opponents executed or banished, and assumed absolute power. In 1399 his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford (later Henry IV of the House of Lancaster), returned from exile to lead a revolt; Richard II was deposed by Parliament and imprisoned in Pontefract Castle, where he died probably of starvation.

Henry VI:  King of England from 1422, son of Henry V. He assumed royal power 1442 and sided with the party opposed to the continuation of the Hundred Years' War with France. After his marriage 1445, he was dominated by his wife, Margaret of Anjou. He was deposed 1461 in the Wars of the Roses; was captured 1465, temporarily restored 1470, but again imprisoned 1471 and then murdered.  The unpopularity of the government, especially after the loss of the English conquests in France, encouraged Richard, Duke of York, to claim the throne, and though York was killed 1460, his son Edward IV proclaimed himself king 1461.

Edward IV (House of York): He was the son of Richard, Duke of York, and succeeded Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses, temporarily losing his throne to Henry when Edward fell out with his adviser Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Edward was a fine warrior and intelligent strategist, with victories at Mortimer's Cross and Towton in 1461, Empingham in 1470, and Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471. He was succeeded by his son Edward V.

Edward V:  King of England 1483. Son of Edward IV, he was deposed three months after his accession in favour of his uncle (Richard III), and is traditionally believed to have been murdered (with his brother) in the Tower of London on Richard's orders.

Richard III:  King of England from 1483. The son of Richard, Duke of York, he was created Duke of Gloucester by his brother Edward IV, and distinguished himself in the Wars of the Roses. On Edward's death 1483 he became protector to his nephew Edward V, and soon secured the crown for himself on the plea that Edward IV's sons were illegitimate. He proved a capable ruler, but the suspicion that he had murdered Edward V and his brother undermined his popularity. In 1485 Henry, Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII), raised a rebellion, and Richard III was defeated and killed at Bosworth. After Richard's death on the battlefield his rival was crowned King Henry VII and became the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty which lasted until 1603.

Henry VII:  Henry was the son of Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, who died before Henry was born, and Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of Edward III through John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Although the Beaufort line, which was originally illegitimate, had been specifically excluded (1407) from all claim to the throne, the death of the imprisoned Henry VI (1471) made Henry Tudor head of the house of Lancaster. At this point, however, the Yorkist Edward IV had established himself securely on the throne, and Henry, who had been brought up in Wales, fled to Brittany for safety.  The death of Edward IV (1483) and accession of Richard III, left Henry the natural leader of the party opposing Richard, whose rule was very unpopular. Henry made an unsuccessful attempt to land in England during the abortive revolt (1483) of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Thereafter he bided his time in France until 1485 when, aided by other English refugees, he landed in Wales. At the battle of Bosworth Field, Leicestershire, he defeated the royal forces of Richard, who was killed. Henry advanced to London, was crowned, and in 1486 fulfilled a promise made earlier to Yorkist dissidents to marry Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth of York. He thus united the houses of York and Lancaster, founding the Tudor royal dynasty.  Although Henry's accession marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, the early years of his reign were disturbed by Yorkist attempts to regain the throne.

The Plantagenets are hardly the picture of our altruistic nature.  Shakespeare is the chronicler of this blood-stained line of royals (Henry IV, Richard II, Henry V, Henry VIRichard III), and Richard III  brings us to the conclusion of their chronicles beginning in the waning months of the life of Edward IV with the members of the House of York reminding each other just who killed whom over the course of the latter years of the Wars of the Roses.  As one source summarizes this strife, there was division not merely between the two cadet Houses of the same family, but within the House of York itself: "The next round of the wars arose out of disputes within the Yorkist ranks. Warwick and his circle were increasingly passed over at Edward’s court; more seriously, Warwick differed with the King on foreign policy. In 1469 civil war was renewed. Warwick and Edward’s rebellious brother George, duke of Clarence, fomented risings in the north; and in July, at Edgecote (near Banbury), defeated Edward’s supporters, afterward holding the King prisoner. By March 1470, however, Edward regained his control, forcing Warwick and Clarence to flee to France, where they allied themselves with the French king Louis XI and their former enemy, Margaret of Anjou. Returning to England (September 1470), they deposed Edward and restored the crown to Henry VI. Edward fled to the Netherlands with his followers and, securing Burgundian aid, returned to England in March 1471. Edward outmaneuvred Warwick, regained the loyalty of Clarence, and decisively defeated Warwick at Barnet on April 14. That very day, Margaret had landed at Weymouth. Hearing the news of Barnet, she marched west, trying to reach the safety of Wales; but Edward won the race to the Severn. At Tewkesbury (May 4) Margaret was captured, her forces destroyed, and her son killed. Shortly afterward, Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London. Edward’s throne was secure for the rest of his life (he died in 1483)."

Quoth Shakespeare's Henry VII as the curtain closes on Richard III, "England hath long been made and scarred herself:  The brother blindly shed the brother's blood; The father rashly slaughtered his own son; The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire.  All this divided York and Lancaster.  Divided in their dire division."

What Richard III never really enjoyed, but Richard Nixon did, was abiding loyalty.  John Dean ultimately broke the Nixon clique's conspiracy of silence. Everyone else in the President's inner circle maintained their silence, and Nixon stood by his men.  Richard Nixon divided a nation, not his family or followers.  Richard III's inner circle peeled away, some who refused to carry out his purportedly (if Shakespeare's history is accurate) criminal commands, perhaps out of principle, perhaps out of fear of slaughter, and in the end he had few to stand by him as he cried, "A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse." 

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