In his latest book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Stephen Greenblatt analyzes the Bard’s most power-hungry characters. The book never mentions Donald Trump by name, but it is easy to see the parallels between our president and the characters Greenblatt writes about, especially Richard III.
“He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant,” writes Greenblatt. “He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude…He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it…because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt.”
Throughout the play that bears his name, Richard climbs the ladder to power without any moral scruples. Whether seducing the widow of a man he has killed or locking his nephews in the Tower of London, nothing gets in his way. But once he obtains the throne, he realizes that he is completely unskilled in maintaining and executing power, which worsens his insecurities and further alienates him from all the “yes men” who have aided and abetted him on the way up.
In Act IV, someone finally stands up to him and says “no,” when Queen Elizabeth, widow of the murdered king Edward IV, tells him he cannot marry her daughter – a scene with striking parallels to the meeting between Trump and Nancy Pelosi yesterday.
Richard vs. Elizabeth
Faced with Richard’s proposal, Elizabeth challenges him at every turn. Knowing he has killed her only sons, she will go to any extent to save her last remaining child from his clutches, even if she has to deny her birthright as princess. Richard repeatedly lies about the extent of his power and success to woo her: “So thrive I in my enterprise/And dangerous success of bloody wars,/As I intend more good to you and yours.”
As Richard swears to Elizabeth that he will make a good husband, she reminds him of every promise he has broken, and every terrible thing he has done. “What canst thou swear by now?” she asks. “The time to come,” he replies. She says:
“That thou hast wronged in the time o’erpast;
For I myself have many tears to wash
Hereafter time, for time past wrong’d by thee.
The children live whose fathers thou hast slaughter’d,
Ungovern’d youth, to wail it in their age;
The parents live whose children thou hast butcher’d,
Old barren plants, to wail it with their age.
Swear not by time to come, for that thou hast
Misus’d ere us’d, by times ill-us’d o’erpast.”
Elizabeth leaves promising Richard that she will ask her daughter about the proposal, to which he comments, “Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!” Modern definitions of “Relenting” and “Shallow make it seem like he’s dissing the Queen, but the Elizabethan definitions of these words are “soft-hearted” and “naivë,” so he might as well be bragging, “No collusion!”
Richard has become so delusional that he can’t tell he’s lost. In reality, Elizabeth has no intention of conveying the proposal to her daughter. Unbeknownst to him, she has engaged her to the Duke of Richmond, who leads the rebellion against Richard and ascends the throne as King Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty.
Trump vs. Pelosi
Nearly two years into his term, Trump still can’t deliver on his campaign’s signature promise: a wall between Mexico and the United States. Yesterday, in a televised meeting with Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and a mannequin resembling Mike Pence, Trump repeatedly insisted that he could get funding for it passed through the House if he wanted, but it would be worthless because he wouldn’t get the votes in the Senate. This transcript of the meeting, though hardly Shakespearean, shows Pelosi doing what Queen Elizabeth does to Richard – insisting in calm, measured tones, that he cannot have what he wants:
Pelosi: You have the Senate. You have the House…You have the votes. You should pass [the wall] right now.
Trump: No, we don’t have the votes…because in the Senate, we need 60 votes and we don’t have it.
Pelosi: But in the House, you could bring it up right now, today.
Trump: But I can’t get it passed in the House if it’s not going to pass in the Senate. I don’t want to waste time.
Pelosi: Well, the fact is you can get it started that way.
Trump: The House we can get passed very easily, and we do.
Pelosi: Okay, then do it. Then do it.
Trump: But the problem is the Senate…
Eventually, the argument reaches a point where Pelosi tells Trump no, he does not have the votes in the House to pass the bill. Trump keeps saying that doesn’t matter because of the Senate, but Pelosi has already rendered this a moot point.
By the end of the conversation, Trump admitted that he would be “proud” to shut down the government if he does not get his wall funded, which may lead to a last-minute scramble to keep the government open through the end of the year. This would only worsen an already bad situation for Republicans. By never losing her cool and sticking to the facts, Pelosi managed to “get” Trump better than any reporter ever could – just as Elizabeth coaxes Richard to reveal that he has nothing left to swear by, and only wants her daughter for power’s sake.
As with Richard, the noose is rapidly tightening around Trump’s neck. Mueller is making significant headway into his investigation, Michael Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison after cooperating with investigators, and House Democrats may file impeachment charges if proof of collusion or obstruction of justice comes out. We can only hope that the downfall that awaits Trump is as swift and brutal as the one that brought down Richard III. As his mother, the Duchess of York, tells him: “Bloody thou art, bloody will be thine end.”
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.