Shakespeare's Richard III shows us how to resist tyranny

In Richard III, Shakespeare shows us how easy it is to fall under the spell of a tyrant. IDEAS explores the parallels between Richard III and the Trump era, and the play’s eerily prescient lessons about complicity, conscience and speaking truth to power.

'We must be seduced by Richard III... to receive the inoculation against tyranny,' says Shakespeare expert

Colm Feore was cast to play Richard III when the pandemic closed the Stratford Festival for the 2020 season. He first played the role of Richard III at Stratford in 1988. (David Cooper)

*Originally published on April 2, 2021.

Shakespeare's Richard III offers a prescient warning about tyranny, complicity and how easy it is to become an enabler. 

The play is eerily relevant to our time. According to McGill University professor Paul Yachnin, it's as though Shakespeare "got in a time machine and it came to 2020 before the election in the United States. 

"He looked around and he says: right. He went back to 1592, and he wrote Richard III and he says, 'Just wait — this play will flower in several hundred years and people will see how extraordinarily valuable it is.'" 

Montreal actor Jessica B. Hill came up with a list of parallels between the play and the Trump presidency, including: "a Bible publicity stunt, two realities, children in cages or towers, spreading gossip, rumours and fake news to sway people, spreading doubts on lineage, [and] an overthrow of the normal order of things." 

The play puts the audience in the uncomfortable position of falling under the spell of an unorthodox leader determined to upend the status quo — and then seeing where his actions lead. 

Donald Trump supporters riot as they storm the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

"Those rioters who went and committed acts of violence against the democracy in the United States said that [Donald Trump] spoke to them. He was in their souls, in their hearts. Richard III does that to his followers in the play. The thing is, of course, he does it to us in the audience as well," says Yachnin. 

"I think that Richard III is a play that is able to inoculate us against the extraordinary charisma of the tyrant. And I think we must be seduced by Richard III in order to receive the inoculation against tyranny." 

Seducing Lady Anne — and the audience

Before the pandemic hit, Colm Feore was preparing to play Richard III at the Stratford Festival, and Jessica B. Hill was preparing to play Lady Anne — a woman Richard manages to woo even though he's murdered both her husband and her father-in-law. 

Richard III is part of the lineup for the 2022 season at Stratford

"He does something very simple, and it's alarming in its Penn and Teller nature. He says, 'Look, I'm going to lie to this woman. I'm going to tell her I didn't kill her husband or his father. And I'm going to tell her that I love her. It's all her fault. It's because she's so beautiful,'" says Feore. 

'To me, the play reads as a play by play on how to become a tyrant,' says actress Jessica B. Hill about Shakespeare's Richard III. (Ann Baggley )

When the scene begins, Lady Anne is accompanying her father-in-law's coffin to the churchyard. "Her first speech, when she comes out with that body, it's a public protest. It's a public accusation of an assassination," says Hill. 

Then Richard appears. 

"The one person that she's been cursing about is suddenly in front of her. The first thing he does is be incredibly violent to the guards around her.  He isolates her," says Hill. 

In private, Richard destabilizes Anne — playing on her conscience, shifting the focus from his actions to the harshness of her words, and twisting what she says to fit his narrative. 

"Anne is drawn out of public space and public speech into this really intimate, kind of pornographic exchange with Richard III. And her cursing is over," says Yachnin. 

After Anne exits the scene, Richard turns to us. "He says, 'Now, I told you I was going to lie to her. You saw me lie to her. You saw her accuse me of lying to her. And yet she still did what I asked. Now, what do you make of that?'" asks Feore. 

"It's Shakespeare working on so many multiple levels. He says, examine your humanity and your vulnerability and your weakness as a human being. Why is it that you choose to believe these ridiculous things that I can show you on the face of it are not true?"

A 1896 painting by Edwin Austin Abbey of Richard III of England and Lady Anne. (Edwin Austin Abbey/Wikimedia)

Hill says even though Richard is clearly a villain, the audience still falls under his sway — just as Anne does. 

"It reads as a cautionary tale," she says. "We follow him merrily along until it suddenly stops being funny. And we are put in the situation of: 'Oh, am I an enabler?'"

Enablers vs those who say 'no'

One of Shakespeare's most prescient warnings in Richard III is about the role of enablers. 

"I think he gives us a kind of taxonomy of enablers," says Randall Martin, professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. "Like any tyrant, the tyrant doesn't act alone."

"A tyrant acts with cronies [who] execute the tyranny. Then there [are] the enablers who are more who are more mixed. They're either passive or they're kind of complicit in a fearful way. There are also people who give in," he says.

"And then there are the resisters, the people who are fearful and actually managed to speak up and say no."

Grieving brings people together, but power drives people apart.- Jessica B. Hill

Though Lady Anne was silenced, women's cursing later re-emerges as a way of speaking truth to power. 

"There's a group of women who run a cursing workshop and they actually teach each other how to curse," says Yachnin.

All of the women in the cursing workshop are bereaved mothers. Yachnin says the scene reminded him of the role bereaved mothers have played in the Black Lives Matter movement, and "how grief can be turned into public cursing, into public speech, that can make a difference."

Tamika Palmer (right), mother of Breonna Taylor, at a news conference held by attorneys for the family, in Louisville, Ky, Sept. 25, 2020. Taylor was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police officers during a 'no-knock' raid at her apartment, March 13, 2020. (Darron Cummings/The Associated Press)

"They don't have the physical power to go to war against Richard, and he actually says all you're doing is talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. It turns out that talk, if it takes place in a public space and creates a public space, actually has tremendous political power."

While Richard managed to isolate Anne, the women who condemn him later in the play find strength in numbers. 

"Grieving brings people together, but power drives people apart. So this idea of uniting through that to be able to oust the evil is, I think, where you're left with at the end of the play," says Hill. 

'My conscience hath a thousand several tongues'

On the eve of battle, after the ghosts of the people he's murdered visit him in his sleep, Richard has a moral awakening — albeit a brief one. 

Feore says when he plays tyrants, he tries to "find some degree of humanity in them to make them playable, some conscience, some moment where they are recognisable human beings and not just psychopaths whom we can push away and say: well, that's not us."

In Richard's last soliloquy, Shakespeare "gives him a bookended conscience just before he's going to sacrifice him," says Feore. As Richard starts to fall apart, he says, "My conscience hath a thousand several tongues … and every tale condemns me for a villain."

It is believed that Richard III was responsible for the murder of his nephews in the Tower of London, but the accusation has never been proven. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?

Hannah Arendt, the political theorist who wrote about totalitarianism and the banality of evil, saw this scene as an example of moral thinking in action. She was particularly fascinated by how Richard confronts himself as if he were a stranger. 

Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!

"She thought that that is part of what prevents political disaster, moral escapism," says Geoffrey Sigalet, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University's Research Group for Constitutional Studies.

"She thought that was part of the secret of the rise of totalitarianism … that people were often just following the rules and doing and not thinking about not thinking about things that way." 

The play reminds us that while we don't operate this way in every moment of our lives, every human being has the capacity to confront themselves and their actions. 

"It's not natural to human beings to confront ourselves that way," says Sigalet.

"But if Richard struggled with Richard earlier in the play, he might not become the tyrant."

Guests in this episode:

Jessica B. Hill was entering her sixth season with the Stratford Festival and was preparing to play Lady Anne in Richard III when the pandemic closed the festival.

Colm Feore was slated to perform Richard III when the pandemic closed the Stratford Festival for the 2020 season. He has performed King Lear, Coriolanus, and Iago, among many other roles at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. 

Paul Yachnin is Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at McGill University. His books include The Culture of Playgoing in Early Modern England and Making Publics in Early Modern Europe.

Randall Martin is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick and Adjunct Research Professor at Western University. His most recent book is Shakespeare and Ecology

Geoffrey Sigalet is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill's Research Group on Constitutional Studies and a research fellow at Stanford Law School's Constitutional Law Center. 

* This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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