A Shakespearean Tragedy Unfolds

Susan Page
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Wednesday - March 07, 2007
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“‘Tis the momentary grace of mortal men that we more hunger for than the grace of God.” - Shakespeare’s Richard III

If you ever want a reminder that human nature doesn’t evolve over time, just go to a Shakespearean play. The canny and perspicacious “Will” Shakespeare pegged the foibles and fallibility of earthlings more brilliantly than any other, and we still find his ink print on our own political and social landscape still today.

I hadn’t seen Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard III since college when our theater department did a production which, as drama major, I thought was magnificent. In truth, I didn’t understand a word of it. Really, what did an 18-year-old small-town coed know of human nature, much less “olde English”?


It wasn’t until my “riper” years (picture a bruised banana) with a substantial amount of life under my belt that man’s character and capabilities became clearer, enabling me to appreciate Shakespeare’s genius. His plots and characterizations more than withstand time’s test - especially in Washington, D.C.

I had a business meeting in Atlanta - so, as we Hawaii folks often do, I added on an East Coast side trip. Surprising my daughter on her birthday was an exciting prospect, and her husband and I conspired to make the day extra special with theater tickets. Shakespeare in Washington was in full swing at the Lansburgh Theater on 18th Street SE - just blocks from America’s power epicenter, surrounded by a supporting cast of government workers and lobbyists.

Richard III, England’s late 15th century king, has been characterized in literature - even before Shakespeare’s version - as a deformed, mercurial villain who murdered everyone who stood in his way. Despite historians’ attempts to set the semi-fictional record straight, Shakespeare’s over-the-top portrayal of Richard III has stuck.


The Richard III Society website (www.richardiii.net) believes Richard’s legacy was sealed when John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough in the late 16th century, declared that despite Shakespeare’s characterization not being widely accepted, he still believed it true.

Then as today, if a lie is told well and often, it eventually becomes truth.

At curtain up, a packed theater clapped at Richard’s first famous line “This is the winter of our discontent.” I thought to myself how this was also the our nation’s winter of discontent - divided by political treachery, war, media untruths, and citizens easily distracted by nonsense. Shakespeare’s Richard was a sly liar, skilled at wielding the sword of human weakness: flattery. Like many of our political figures who are flatterers more than leaders, Richard left his country weak and vulnerable to attack.

The next day, flipping through TV channels at my daughter’s home, I stopped on MSNBC, which was devoting its entire programming to the Anna Nicole Smith burial dispute. “Pre” Richard III, I’d been irritated at the coverage devoted to this pitiful, drugged out woman, who made every bad decision possible and at that moment was lying stiff in a morgue fridge, a circumstance that no amount of hard-fought-for inheritance money could change. Now I watched fascinated at this timeless tale of vanity, greed, megalomania, treachery, lust (“So lust, thought to a radiant angel link’d, Will sate itself in a celestial bed, And prey on garbage.” - Hamlet), slander, lies, alleged murder, warring factions, a comical judge and a somewhat weird mother-son relationship. It begged for Shakespeare’s pen. Would it have been a tragedy or comedy?


Where was “Will” again when Congress was trying to pass a non-binding Iraq War resolution - indeed Much Ado About Nothing. It was like Richard’s cunning aside - “I can smile and murder as I smile” - that gives some people the false sense that, even without an alternate Iraq strategy, Democrats and some Republicans are “on it.” The enemy licks his lips. The curtain drops.

Richard III is a brilliant study in the art of manipulation and how willingly we fall for it. It’s themes of ambition, power, and the end justifying the means should be studied by all ambitious politicians. But would they take heed? The already-begun presidential race should prove a delicious chance to see. Will McCain, Clinton, Giuliani, Obama, Romney and the others succumb to the failings of a tragic character? Will the election be a Comedy of Errors? Will our brave troops prove that All’s Well that Ends Well?

Don’t go far. The second act will begin in 15 minutes.

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