Does history have a meaning?
King Richard the Third

Our exposé has attempted to show that Shakespeare pursues certain underlying goals in his writing. Even though happy solutions are rare in the plays, his life's work helps liberate the spectators, through promoting insight in each of us.

The Polish scholar Jan Kott holds a totally different opinion. In his absorbing book
Shakespeare our contemporary (2nd revised edition 1967; London, Methuen) he attributes a deeply pessimistic view of life to our dramatist, not least in the historical plays. Taking King Richard the Second and King Richard the Third as his starting point, Kott analyses Shakespeare's great dramas about kings as constructions on a common pattern, which Kott calls the Grand Mechanism.

What kind of mechanism?

Each play starts with a struggle for power. This is brought to a conclusion soon afterwards with the downfall of the new king. The fall occurs when yet another pretender to the throne claims a place for himself and turns the wheel anew. The main weapons are treachery, murder and cruelty. All participants are toppled from their summit right into the bottomless pit. — Such is certainly the end of the two Richard's, of Henry the Sixth, of John Lackland, and of Macbeth.

The reason is simple. Kott sees history as an eternal struggle for power, in which the qualities possessed by each individual ruler are immaterial. Everyone is caught in the net of the power game itself, and they all go under in the same maelstrom. Under such conditions, distinguishing good government from bad is impossible. Ultimately there is no higher order, either in nature or in the universe, and it is Falstaff who ends up as Shakespeare's mouthpiece. According to Kott, this full-blooded pleasure-seeker is Shakespeare's reply to the desperation of
Troilus and Cressida, the background being the horrors during England's more than a hundred years of war abroad and civil war at home, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Even in Shakespeare's own lifetime, a hundred and fifty good citizens were executed by Queen Elizabeth the First. We know of similar events and conditions from the Soviet Union and Germany in our own century.

How well does Kott's contention actually agree with Shakespeare's plays?

Richard, Duke of Gloucester

Kott gets the main support for his Grand Mechanism from
King Richard the Third, which is a play about atrocities beyond all ordinary conception. The story shows us Richard from his early twenties onward. When his brother Edward dies, Richard proceeds to remove everyone who might block his way to the throne: his brother the Duke of Clarence, two nephews, and most of the family of Edward's queen Elizabeth. The means employed are in accordance with such goals.

Richard wins the citizens and the aristocracy by claiming that his brother's sons are illegitimate, their mother having been married before. Then Richard intimates that even his royal brother was a bastard since his father was absent in France when Edward was conceived — this in spite of the fact that their mother is still alive.

In his onslaught on power, Richard entices a young princess to marry him, although he has previously murdered her father, her father-in-law and her husband. Soon after the wedding, however, he disposes of his wife in order to propose to Elizabeth, his brother's daughter, while at the same time he has her brothers murdered in the Tower. Henry Tudor finally revolts and unites the house of Plantagenet. We are in the year 1485, and the battle takes place at Bosworth. Richard falls and the civil wars are over.

How is Richard portrayed? — He likes cruelty for its own sake and prefigures a type we have already touched on in Iago, albeit with important differences. Othello's tormentor has at least suffered an insult to his pride, but Richard has nothing to avenge except the fact that he is crippled from birth. The usurper therefore anticipates some of the attitudes expressed by Jean Genet after the second world war, in his attempt to build up a set of anti-values totally in defiance of everything ostensibly accepted by the majority. Even here Richard goes further; he is completely without scruples, without any trace of fellow feeling — more or less a psychopath.

Many of his misdeeds are carried out through others. But when he has received their assistance, Richard is just as ruthless towards these his tools. In everything he is fully cognisant of his own cynicism. During a long scene with the widowed queen Elizabeth he tries to persuade his relative to plead his cause with her young daughter, having just killed the prospective bride's brothers, an uncle and a half-brother. When the dowager queen seems to yield in spite of everything, King Richard ends by whispering: “Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman.”

He especially wants to break down all order and meaning he is at odds with. He is, for instance, completely unappreciative of the more mellow, feminine values of Anne and Elizabeth. Rather, he tries to demonstrate that his own foundation of life is the only one — the flagrant power-lust, ‘conscience’ being an empty word used by cowards in order to tame the strong. “Swords” is the only law of life. — Such reasoning anticipates Nietzsche's views on the morality of slaves and masters by about three hundred years.

One of Richard's most effective weapons is hypocrisy. He pretends attitudes attuned to his different victims, attitudes entirely different to those he shows in action. Towards his brother and his nephews he claims to be their only support. During the meeting with the citizens of London he appears to have Christian worries, akin to those of the Lollards. Having forced them to beg him to seize power, he then humbles them thoroughly and requires pressing when they at last do ask him. In conversation with King Edward, early in the play, Richard does not hesitate to say that he cannot bear to be anybody's enemy!

He does not mind in the least professing different ideals to those anti-values he really pursues. He sometimes actually manages to create a wonderfully twisted logic in his behaviour, as for instance when he expresses regrets regarding his actions towards Henry the Sixth's unhappy queen. The accomplice, his brother Clarence, is pronounced to have received the punishment that he deserved; nevertheless the Duke of Clarence ought to have been forgiven instead, “For had I cursed now, I had cursed myself.”

Richard frequently follows a plan in three stages. First of all he plans a murder. Then he hints that the victims are threatened from quite different quarters. Finally he turns a spokesman for mercy towards and solidarity with the executioners.

Cowardly victims

The king makes use of his insight into other people's weaknesses. Frightened women he reminds of Christian compassion, and his followers rarely see that the bounds of their own decency are overstepped once this decency is made a tool of Richard's cynical ambition.

Towards men Richard plays on his reputation for brute force. When Hastings objects to his plans to be crowned, Richard right away invents a story of witchcraft on the part of some women close to Hastings and demands that the lord die as an accessory to the dark deeds. The rest of the council are horrified but content themselves with leaving Hastings to his fate. Richard is therefore able to do away with his enemies one by one in exactly the way Stalin did during the purges before the second world war, both of them taking advantage of the blindness of society. In the words of Hastings: “They smile at me, who shortly shall be dead.”

Hastings and the queen's family all underestimate the ambition that is part of the villain's strength. With great determination Richard manipulates his victims' eagerness to please him. The guileless Hastings is led to demand the death sentence for witchcraft. Immediately an accusation of witchcraft is levelled at himself.

As his last major weapon Richard makes use of other people's vengefulness. Individuals and groups whose rights have been violated by those whom Richard plans to overthrow make ready allies. In this way Queen Elizabeth sacrifices the king's brother Clarence, and Lord Hastings sacrifices Elizabeth's relatives. Henry the Sixth's widow gives a recipe for attaining the properly vindictive frame of mind: simply to think of one's own side as innocent and the opposition as defiled. — We can recognise this as a near-universal feature in violent conflicts at all levels.

The hunger for revenge emerges as a basic characteristic of the civil wars. Every clash leads to injustice, and each injustice cries out for retaliation. Over long periods of violence the reckoning comes to comprise so many crimes that every clear dividing-line disappears. No matter which offence the king initiates there will be some who accept his brutality towards people they consider enemies. With everyone a party to some wrong or other the unscrupulous leader has an easy time exploiting the sum of the nation's unrestrained hatred.

Limitation and background

Greed, cowardice, and ignorance of the consequences of our actions are factors in all weakness. In
King Richard the Second attention is concentrated on the dignity of royal office, the treacherousness of the renegades and the king's inflated self-importance. King Richard the Third shows us further consequences and is a painstaking study of the sources of civil war.

While his predecessors seized power with the support of aristocracy and mercenaries, Richard the Third makes use of London's own citizenry against the upper classes as well as the rest of the royal house, the citizens having been turned into terrified instruments. The kingmaker Buckingham very soon becomes discontented with Richard, though the usurper's villainy was well known beforehand. When the duke changes sides, however, the result is quite different from what it is in
King Richard the Second; Buckingham is taken by the scruff of his neck and executed right away. In a ghastly scene Richard chats to the Bishop of Ely about the fresh strawberries in the prelate's garden while his head is filled with murderous plans against the decent Hastings.

Richard the Third is the most monstrous character in Shakespeare's theatre. The author shows brilliant insight into the king's psychopathic personality. The limit to his insight concerns its background, of which we are told nothing except that the king is a hunchback. His congenital deformity is explicitly presented as a motive force in the very first scene of the play, however, and gives rise to interesting speculations.

Considered in a social setting Richard is a pure-bred example of the contradictions inherent in the civil wars. The final outcome is that he consumes himself, in that his unreliable behaviour ends up making him completely lonely. Buckingham is gone, and Richard fails against Lord Stanley and the dowager queen Elizabeth. During his conversation with the country's former queen we can see why the cripple is increasingly unable to cooperate with anyone: The king proposes to the young Princess Elizabeth and is to confirm his offer with a solemn oath. But that halts the negotiations, for what can he swear by?

At the end of the fearful night before the Battle of Bosworth Richard is forced to insight: How can he expect the sympathy of others when he is not even able to like himself?

What Shakespeare is in fact showing us are the
limits of history's ‘Grand Mechanism’. Rise and fall make only one pattern among several. King Richard the Second lacks the beginning in which the king struggles for the crown, since he inherits it. On the other hand, there is no continuation beyond Richard the Third, because the struggle ends at the moment when Henry the Seventh ushers in a new era in the history of England.

Kott is right in claiming that his ‘Grand Mechanism’ of history is present as a theme in many of the other plays, but only as an amplification of forces we have already discussed. The most important variant is that found in the three plays about Henry the Sixth, where the misfortunes stem from the fact that Henry was but nine months old when he became king and thereby initiated the wretched rivalry of a rule by regent.

The pattern of the ‘Grand Mechanism’ fits Richard the Third particularly well because he stands as the most extreme example of the dissolution which it is Shakespeare's concern to investigate. The forces originating in Richard are never the only ones, nor do they express the foremost order of life. On the contrary, they represent an aberration that cancels itself out. After all, Richard's horrible regime lasted only two years. By then all of the most belligerent family lines were so decimated that the survivors united to dispose of their crazy leader.

Incontestably Richard's world comes to lack meaning within its own limits. But all the time Shakespeare clearly points to a wider framework beyond Richard's horrors. Anyone who shows a subordinate world to be meaningless is himself the source of a wider and better ordered universe.