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What Abraham Lincoln liked about Richard III

Viewed from the American side of the water, the fanfare about the discovery of the bones of the last Plantagenet monarch probably seems a bit quaint.

Having determined that the remains found in Leicester, U.K., a few months back are indeed those of Richard III, our English cousins immediately got into a fight over where to bury the fellow.

Westminster? The queen quietly vetoed that one, say the tabloids. York? Maybe if we want to refight the Wars of the Roses. Leicester Cathedral looks logical and likely, if a little out of the way for royalty.

It’s all so delightfully English. Over here, most of us probably couldn’t name the burial sites of more than two or three presidents. We lack the English sense of the importance of history. History to us is a list of independent facts to be trotted out in the service of political argument, not a set of traditions in which we ourselves are embedded. American taxi drivers, for example, do not get as excited about history as do their English counterparts.

Here in the United States, we don’t keep track of the true villains of our history. We know those who’ve threatened us from abroad. Yet most of us would be hard-pressed to name, for example, the three most important supporters of slavery in the 19th century. The passions of every political moment throw up monsters by the dozens or hundreds, but in our somber moments most of us recognize how foolish it would be to take that rhetoric seriously.

Fictional villains

We mainly keep our villains contained in fiction. Richard of Gloucester is no different. We know him mainly as the bloodthirsty and self-aggrandizing villain of one of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays. The opening couplet — “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York” — is so famous that when President Barack Obama alluded to it in his first inaugural address, plenty of people who’d never read a line of Shakespeare probably caught the reference.

“Richard III” rarely appears on high-school reading lists, and fewer students study Shakespeare in college. That’s a shame. As a tale of ambition run amok, it stands worlds ahead of “Julius Caesar” and rivals the more popular “Macbeth.”

Abraham Lincoln was renowned for his love of Shakespeare. “Richard III” was a particular favorite, biographer Fred Kaplan says, because of its message about the dangers of ambition. And Francis Bicknell Carpenter, in his 1866 volume “Six Months at the White House With Abraham Lincoln,” reported that the president not only could recite the prologue from memory, but argued that few actors delivered it with the appropriate degree of “bitterness and satire.”

This bitterness doesn’t fit the American ethos. Thus Ethan Allen Hawley, antihero of John Steinbeck’s classic 1961 novel, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” is less Richard III and more Huey Long: a familiar American archetype, rising from petit bourgeoisie to a position of political and economic power, yet becoming increasingly corrupt along the way. Like Shakespeare’s Richard, Hawley finds rationalizations for every wrong he commits. Unlike Richard, he proclaims a consistent and terrifying innocence of his own crimes.
And of course, the ambiguity of Steinbeck’s ending lacks the finality of Shakespeare’s. This is also very American: We like to leave our villains the possibility of redemption. Shakespeare left his villains dead.

Hawley is Richard-lite. Small wonder. Richard’s villainy is, in a peculiar way, too large for American sensibilities. Richard is grand and horrible. W.H. Auden concluded his brilliant lecture on the play with this apt description: “He must always make enemies, for then he can be sure he exists.”

Historical villains

In his 2006 essay “Uses of Richard III: From Robert Cecil to Richard Nixon,” M.G. Aune, professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, points out that the play was considered rather dry for much of history, until the ideological currents of the 20th century occasioned a series of stagings intended as direct commentaries on the rise of German militarism. The director Jurgen Fehling’s Berlin production in the mid-1930s “apparently featured Clarence’s murderers wearing SA uniforms.” Laurence Olivier later confirmed that his own stirring rendition on stage in the 1940s and in the famous 1955 film was inspired by Hitler.

This Richard III, Aune muses, seems to have become permanent: “No matter how a production attempts to reinvent Richard,” he writes, “audiences (and actors and directors) will tend to see him in terms of Hitler or Stalin first. This tendency can thus short-circuit attempts to connect him to more recent or topical figures.”
Exactly. Richard III is a villain too large for our times. That’s why partisan efforts to draw analogies between Richard of Gloucester and, say, George W. Bush or Barack Obama look tendentious and silly.

Rather than abuse great literature by trying to twist it to our purposes, we should sit at its feet and partake of its wisdom. Unfortunately, as Shakespeare’s masterpiece drops from school reading lists, its themes and language will probably become less resonant.

Pity, that. I have argued that democracy rests in part on our willingness to study and cope with difficult and challenging texts. “Richard III” is a play that’s easy to get wrong but important to get right.

Some say Richard’s villainy is overstated. That’s the case made by his many supporters, most prominently the mystery writer Josephine Tey in her 1951 novel, “The Daughter of Time.” Most scholars nevertheless stand with Winston Churchill, who famously responded in his “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples” that the evidence of Richard’s villainy is so great that “It will take many ingenious books to raise this issue to the dignity of a historical controversy.”

Maybe Richard of Gloucester really was the monster who murdered the young princes in the Tower of London to gain the throne. Maybe his tattered reputation arose from centuries of Tudor propaganda. (Elizabeth II is a 16th-generation descendant of Henry VII, whose forces slew Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.) Maybe his style of rule was closer to the stability of his predecessor Edward IV than we imagine. Let our English cousins fight over that one, the way they’re fighting over whether to give him a state funeral.

Back on the American side of the water, we would do well just to learn again to appreciate the play. Lincoln was right. “Richard III” has much to teach us, if we are but patient and reflective enough to learn.

Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”

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