Themes Issues Richard Iii

Themes, Concerns in Richard III #

Most of Shakespeare’s plays raise multiple issues and a variety of themes, however, Richard III appears to be focussed singularly on Power and how it is achieved and maintained. It poses situations of unashamed evil and how it is justified. There are a multitude of theories on the basis or source of power. Early societies believed all power derived from the gods, the sun or the earth and these had to be appeased by sacrifice if the tribe was to survive. Early rulers claimed to derive their power directly from a deity and in many civilizations leaders were considered demi-gods. Western monarchs too asserted the Divine Right of Absolute power and the only way to dissuade them was to detach their heads from their bodies which happened in England in 1648, France 1789, while Russia resorted to a firing squad in 1918.

The dark arts in the machinations of power have fascinated people throughout the ages. Recent Television series that treat this issue include: Yes Minister, its sequel, Yes Prime Minister, (1980 - 88) played by Paul Eddington, to The House of Cards, (1990) introducing the ruthless Francis Urquhart, followed by the American version with Kevin Spacey in 2013, to Julia Louis Dreyfus in Veep. Each one an anti-hero demonstrates that politicians are driven by impure political motives, using questionable political means to strive for grubby political ends. Expediency and pragmatism rule while treachery and betrayal are the inevitable result.

Power as a Corrupting Force

Politicians can be: idealists, or visionaries with altruistic values or; corrupt self-seeking power mongers without any scruples.

*People who fall in between these two extremes are called Pragmatists *or Realpoliticians. ** Their Machiavellian philosophy is that the ideal is seldom attainable so the compromise is that as you work toward the ideal, you may use questionable means. They believe in expediency; the ends justify the means. They may play dirty politics as long as the end result could be considered worthy. They are not interested in the process; only in outcomes. Pragmatists believe that “righteous ends justify violent means.” Machiavelli maintained that unscrupulousness in Politics was necessary because men are “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowards, covetous” and Pragmatists agree that mankind is essentially treacherous.

Some advice from Machiavelli to rulers:

“The promise given was a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present.” “He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.”

The Prince is an intensely practical guide to the exercise of raw political power. Machiavelli argued that it is primarily the character or vitality or skill of the individual leader that determines the success of any state. The book surveys various bold means of acquiring and maintaining the principality. It is this focus on practical success by any means, even at the expense of traditional moral values, that earned Machiavelli’s scheme a reputation for ruthlessness, deception, and cruelty.

Machiavelli’s conception of the proper application of morality to practical political life is one that judges the skill of all participants in terms of the efficacy with which they achieve noble ends. Whatever the form of government, Machiavelli held, only success and glory really matter.


Richard III uses a number of devious underhanded tactics to manipulate situations to his advantage. A main one is to stir the pot; play on people’s hatred for each other by the ruse of divide and conquer. Let other people do the dirty work for you. Today this divisive tactic is known as dog whistle politics also known as wedge politics. You take an emotive issue such as racism and obliquely raise public awareness of it and people will strongly react viscerally rather than intellectually.

Richard also uses unfounded rumours spread by others to undermine or subvert his opponents, such as requesting Buckingham to question the legitimacy of the two Princes. It was well known that Edward IV had many mistresses, but that the heirs to the throne were bastard children had little substance. This smearing made it easier to dispose of their claim to the throne.

Dictionary. com’s definition of a demagogue


  1. a person, esp. an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people.

  2. (in ancient times) a leader of the people. –verb (used with object)

  3. to treat or manipulate (a political issue) in the manner of a demagogue; obscure or distort with emotionalism, prejudice, etc. –verb (used without object)

  4. to speak or act like a demagogue. Also, dem•a•gog.

[Origin: 1640–50; < Gk démagōgós a leader of the people, popular leader.

Demagogues tend to play on our basic, primordial, primal fears or instincts. They appeal to the animal or savagery in us. The most effective lure is the drum beat of war. For some reason the anticipation of war fosters impressions of strength and resolution while rational debate is portrayed as a sign of weakness.

Tyrants and transparency: #

In a democracy once accountability and transparency have disappeared, there is no room left for trust. While sunshine may be the best disinfectant, and It’s amazing how quickly cockroaches and rats scurry back into the shadows when you shine a light on them, however, pachyderms have enough hide, they don’t need to hide.

As Tacitus put it,

misdeeds, once exposed, have no refuge but in audacity”.

The aim of satire is to ridicule the world, and through shame to change it. If, however the target of your satire is shameless, its effect is limited. John Gay’s 18^(th) century satire of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, had the Prime Minister book a box at the theatre and loudly applaud.

Fear as controlling Force #

“Those who are willing to sacrifice an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither”. Benjamin Franklin.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. F.D. Roosevelt.

‘Fear is the mother of morality’. Nietzsche

Dirty politicians however know how to harness fear to their advantage. In times of crises, there is no shortage of critics who say governments and the media dangerously stoke fear out of naked self-interest to be re-elected because there is something deep in the human psyche that leads people to respond irrationally to threats.

Fear can be a frighteningly effective sales pitch – one that has worked well for leaders with few other skills to inspire the masses. Primitive societies had the fear of the wild, religious fanatics used burning at the stake and the threat of Hell fire to deter heretics, convicts in Australia were contained by the fear of savages surrounding the colony and Americans used fear of Communism since the days of the Cold War Red Scares, and fears of Terrorism especially since 9/11." Each tyrant finds an appropriate bogey man to keep the masses in their place.

Al Gore in The Assault on Reason says:

The wilful, exploitative linking of the attacks of September 11 to Saddam in this context becomes a springboard into the deepest recesses of fear, with these fears overwhelming our ability to reason collectively together. “If the consent of the governed is extorted through the manipulation of mass fears,” Gore writes, “or embezzled with claims of divine guidance, democracy is impoverished.”

Richard’s call to arms is consistent with Shakespeare’s portrayal of a Machiavellian tyrant. He first resorts to denigrating Richmond’s followers as desperate nobodies who are guilty of envy and then appeals to his followers by assuring them of his secure protection for their lands and wives as long as he remains their sovereign. After derisively referring to Richmond as a paltry fellow and milksop, he turns to the device used by all insecure tyrants – FEAR.

The threat that:

these rats will lie with our wives and ravish our daughters.”
It is more of a rant, an abusive diatribe rather than an uplifting or inspiring call to arms.

As a contrast, look at the positive inspiring tone of Richmond’s address to his troops or that of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt.


Why, then ’tis time to arm and give direction.

His oration to his soldiers

More than I have said, loving countrymen,
The leisure and enforcement of the time
Forbids to dwell upon: yet remember this,
God and our good cause fight upon our side;
The prayers of holy saints and wronged souls,*
Like high-rear’d bulwarks, stand before our faces;

Henry V

France. Before Harfleur Alarum. Enter the KING, EXETER, BEDFORD, GLOUCESTER, and soldiers with scaling-ladders


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect; …….

Shakespeare does not necessarily share Henry V’s glorification of war.