A Pair of Shakespeare’s Rulers and the Timeless Lure of Power

Stanley (Richard Sheridan Willis) crowns Richard (Drew Cortese) king. Photo taken by Teresa Wood. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library

By Esther Ferington

Fall weather in the United States comes at the height of each year’s political campaigns, which fill the news with both famous and newly familiar names and voices. Out of the hundreds of millions of Americans, a relative handful of men and women become their party’s chosen candidates. To an extent, each one has put everything on the line–their family, their health, their peace of mind, and their career, money, and reputation. By the end, almost all are campaigning in a state of exhaustion. And yet, half of them will fail.

What motivates such politicians every year? If the candidates win, what choices will they make, and what temptations will they face? Every four years, the stakes are heightened, as the most powerful office—the presidency—is on the ballot, too. What can or will a president do with the power of that position? And how will the country respond?

As the weeks tick down to Election Day, you can hear or read about such questions in stories, opinion pieces, social media, and seemingly countless cable TV discussions. The rules for winning and maintaining power are surely not the same as those in Shakespeare’s England or the other settings of his plays—and the system of checks and balances restricts the players today far more than in those other times and places. But the same core ideas are found in Shakespeare’s plays: the lure of power and its many dangers.

Power in Shakespeare’s time

Born during the first decade of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, Shakespeare lived his whole life subject to rulers with enormous power. In a sense, he was also quite close to them, as he worked in London and his plays were regularly performed at court. Yet it was also an uncertain age. By the time his theatrical career took off, Queen Elizabeth, who had no direct heirs, was the subject of a steady, growing concern as to who would come after her. Once she died, her successor, King James I, arrived with a deep-seated belief in expanded royal power, producing new fears about the balance between liberty and the monarch’s authority.

With such concern and interest in politics as a perennial background, it may be no surprise that the vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays are packed full of kings, queens, princes and other rulers. These characters don’t just appear in Shakespeare’s history plays, but in his tragedies—think of Hamlet and Macbeth, for example—and in his comedies, which are filled with dukes.

Some of these characters have minor roles within the plays. But certain rulers dominate his other works. For a look at how Shakespeare explored the quest for absolute power and its ultimate consequences, consider two of his most familiar plays: Julius Caesar and Richard III.

Julius Caesar: “Become a god”

Although Shakespeare’s play has the title Julius Caesar, Caesar is assassinated midway through it, and Brutus, who conspires against him, is the leading part. As Brutus and the other conspirators debate whether to kill him, Caesar’s political power becomes almost mythic. “This man,” says Cassius, “is now become a god.” He later says, “He doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about.”

Brutus agrees to the assassination because he fears that the population, which adores Caesar, will continue to add to his power, ultimately destroying the republic. To him, it thus seems logical to plot his death. With Caesar dead, Brutus believes that the political order is at last restored. He urges his fellow conspirators, their hands dipped in blood, to rally the public, crying out “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”

As it turns out, not one of these three items is achieved. Instead, Mark Antony turns the crowd against Brutus and the rest with his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, delivered over Caesar’s dead body. Caesar had become vain and arrogant because of his near-total power. Yet his death leads to civil war, not peace. In this play, Shakespeare holds out no good answer to the peril of excessive power.

Richard III: “To prove a villain”

If Julius Caesar traces a reasonably familiar, tragic story of great authority, high praise, arrogance, growing distrust, and a final fall from power, Richard III offers an exotically different take. Richard behaves in an extraordinarily evil manner from the very beginning, yet he charms the audience at once. Famously explaining “I am determinèd to prove a villain,” Richard wants to be an unchecked monarch, for no reason other than to have supreme power and to suppress, and kill, all other contenders.

But while the play’s audience may delight in Richard’s clever-but-evil maneuvers, his behavior holds little appeal to the English citizenry, as Shakespeare reveals onstage. As his power grows, Richard becomes even more tyrannical, using death and violence to make his ascent still more secure and turning suddenly on some of his own followers.

Richard becomes king at last, his ultimate goal in hand. Almost predictably, however, his long-sought power, the motive for all his actions, begins to dissolve. In the end, he meets a kingly fate, falling on the field of battle.

Timeless issues—and dueling legacies

This pair of Shakespeare’s plays presents two very different, almost absolute rulers and the effect of power on them and those who serve them. As we read or watch them, each offers a reflection on political maneuvering and the temptations of power, with characters, insights, and ideas that still ring true today.

On stage, however, the stories of Julius Caesar and Richard III end with very different legacies. Julius Caesar is mourned in death, not only by Mark Antony, but by the people of Rome. Even the conspirators Cassius and Brutus remember and speak of him when they die. (Today, we still commemorate him with the month named July.) For Richard, as he appears in Shakespeare’s play, all the raw power he accumulated leaves nothing behind—perhaps the ultimate verdict on his violent, ultimately not-so-charming scramble for royal power. The victor of the final battle, who will become King Henry VII and found the Tudor dynasty that includes Queen Elizabeth, says simply: “The day is ours; the bloody dog is dead.”

Esther Ferington is a writer and editor in Northern Virginia, whose clients include museums, cultural institutions, and publishers. Learn more about her work at: www.ferington.com