The Prototypical Two-Faced Politician
A couple weeks ago, licensed grave-robbers (also known as archaeologists) discovered a body in the ruins of an old church in Leicester, England.
The former owner of this corpse seems to have met a bad end. There’s an arrowhead stuck in his spine and signs of blunt trauma to his head. He also has a slightly stooped shoulder—probably the result of scoliosis.
DNA results are forthcoming—but the body could, might, aw hell, probably did belong to former King of England Richard III, born 560 years ago today.
Richard III is best known to us through the Shakespeare play of the same name. It’s one of the great works of literature, for many reasons—one being the great opening, here presented in its glorious original spelling and capitalization:
Now is the Winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke:
And all the clouds that lowr’d vpon our house
In the deepe bosome of the Ocean buried.
The above lines refer to the 15th-century conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, both competing for the throne of England. This conflict was called the War of the Roses, because each House had a rose as a symbol—one a white one, the other a red. The War finally came to an end with the death of Richard III.
Shakespeare, as great a writer as he was, was not above penning propaganda or paying obeisance to the powers that were. You see, Richard III was a member of the House of York, and with his defeat, the House of Lancaster and its remnants continued to rule England in Shakespeare’s time.
History is written by the victors.
When writing Richard III, Shakespeare tried to make the title character as evil and unsavory-seeming as possible—he’s amoral, manipulative, treacherous, heartless. Even Richard’s slightly stooped shoulder gets exaggerated into a hunched back.
In the play, Richard III’s physical deformity mirrors his spiritual deformity. It’s a medieval idea: beautiful people good, ugly people bad. Shakespeare, still having much of the dross of the Middle Ages encrusting his psyche, seemed to subscribe to that.
But the sensibility is still too much with us even today—best evidenced in the fact that we are unable to elect an ugly president.
Having no illusions about his personal comeliness, Richard describes himself thus:
Deform’d, vn-finish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing World, scarse halfe made vp,
And that so lamely and vnfashionable,
That dogges barke at me, as I halt by them.
But, admirably, he decides to not let his physical handicaps hold him back:
And therefore, since I cannot proue a Louer,
To entertaine these faire well spoken dayes,
I am determined to proue a Villaine,
And hate the idle pleasures of these dayes.
He goes on to do the following things: fabricate a prophecy to have his brother imprisoned, woo the widow of a man he killed, have his brother assassinated, behead his other brother, have his two young nephews murdered, and ascend the throne under a cloak of piety and humility.
In his depiction of Richard III’s actions, Shakespeare, scholars say, was drawing on the political philosophy of Nicolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, a kind of guidebook for rulers published in 1532.
Machiavelli expressed a new era in politics, one of cold practicality backed up by brute force. Echoing Machiavelli, Shakespeare has Richard say:
For Conscience is a word that Cowards vse,
Deuis’d at first to keepe the strong in awe,
Our strong armes be our Conscience, Swords our Law.
With Machiavelli, gone were the pretenses of rule based on the tenets of Christianity. From The Prince: “It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”
In Machiavelli’s opinion, keeping up appearances and outright lying are necessary parts of governance:
Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account… But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.
People in Shakespeare’s day were scandalized by such frank talk. Machiavelli gained the perhaps-deserved reputation of being un-Christianly amoral. He is only slightly better-regarded today.
In the play, Richard III is indeed a “great pretender and dissembler,” and his amoral maneuverings for the throne are at times highly entertaining. Basically, he’s the original two-faced politician. Even he is gobsmacked by his own powers of manipulation—here he is after he has won the heart of Princess Anne:
Was euer woman in this humour woo’d?
Was euer woman in this humour wonne?
Ile haue her, but I will not keepe her long.
What? I that kill’d her Husband, and his Father,
To take her in her hearts extreamest hate,
With curses in her mouth, Teares in her eyes,
The bleeding witnesse of my hatred by,
Hauing God, her Conscience, and these bars against me,
And I, no Friends to backe my suite withall,
But the plaine Diuell, and dissembling lookes?
And yet to winne her? All the world to nothing.
I said earlier he had no redeeming qualities. I take that back. It’s hard not to love his sheer bravado. The audience half-roots for the villainous Richard because he is so frank with us and so brilliant at keeping up façades.
Machiavelli spoke of the importance of keeping of facades: “Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.”
Machiavelli’s vision of politics is one that we believe most politicians secretly subscribe to. We just don’t want to know they subscribe to it. We take it for granted that they’re two-faced, but through flattery and the courting of our emotions we consciously choose to forget that.
In other words, we want to be lied to.
But when the façade falls, look out. In his over-reaching, Shakespeare’s Richard III was finally seen through, leading him to shout “A Horse, a Horse, my Kingdome for a Horse!”
We’re still in the midst of a horse race—a presidential one. One candidate has let his façade slip, and he’s currently paying the political cost.