Mark Franke: Trump cast as Shakespeare’s Richard III


A recent conversation with my editor over future writing assignments inevitably led to Donald Trump.

I don’t like writing about him, or about Joe Biden for that matter. That whole situation seems to me to be a surreal collision of “Citizen Kane” and “The Wizard of Oz.” My editor, with his feet more firmly grounded in good literature, called it “Shakespearean.”

That caused a light to go on, just like in the old cartoon strips when a light bulb appears above the head of a particularly dense character.

Being a fan of Shakespeare, I immediately began to recast the main characters from the play “Richard III” as 21st century political players. It proved rather easy, much too easy. Here is my casting:

Donald Trump as Richard III, disparaged as an illegitimate usurper by the Tudor elite and the 15th century equivalent of media moguls.

Joe Biden as Henry Tudor, emerging from his basement — make that France — to win a crown on the metaphorical field of battle.

Mike Pence as Lord Stanley, riding under Trumpian colors to the vote-counting battlefield and then refusing to fight at the critical moment.

Former Trump cabinet secretaries as the Princes in the Tower, whose fate ran afoul of Richard’s need to be top dog.

Hillary Clinton as deposed Queen Margaret, not-so-secretly plotting a revengeful return to the power she craves.

Enough of the whimsey, but there is a resemblance between events today and those of the Wars of the Roses of 500-plus years ago. England then, as the United States today, was a deeply divided nation with frequent changes of regime. Power ebbed and flowed between the Lancastrians and Yorkists, literally cousins in descent from kings such as Richard the Lionheart. It’s the same here and now, only our factions are red and blue rather than red and white but with no less vitriol being spread.

Donald Trump is Richard III come to life, at least the Richard created by Shakespeare. When reading or watching Shakespeare, one must always keep in mind that he wrote history such that it was acceptable to the Tudor court of his day. That meant positive spins for Queen Elizabeth’s Lancastrian predecessors such as Henry V while giving the opposite treatment to Yorkists such as Richard.

Not that Shakespeare was all wrong. He simply understood his role as a publicist for the powers that be. It would be a simple matter for the lord chancellor to shut down an offensive play, that century’s version of cultural cancellation.

Richard’s negative press in Tudor days is like Donald Trump’s treatment by the mainstream leftist media today. He combats the progressive narrative and at times overwhelms it with his own “fake news” narrative. He is the embodiment of evil in the minds of the power structure, much like Richard was back then.

Richard’s character and capabilities are still being debated today. There is a society formed specifically to provide a “accurate, fair and balanced” reading of the man and his legacy. Their success has been mixed at best. We like our villains to be villainous and don’t want them rehabilitated.

One slur on Richard was that he was a hunchback, or crookback in contemporary usage. Some argued this was pure editorial license, but Richard’s remains were recently disinterred in a parking lot, and sure enough, he had a spinal deformity. One point for Shakespeare.

Another was the Princes in the Tower. The academic consensus among historians is Richard murdered the two princes to protect his throne from these rightful heirs. Not all agree with this, however. Josephine Tey wrote a fascinating novel, “The Daughter of Time,” which uses a bedridden Scotland Yard inspector to reexamine all of the evidence and finds in favor of Richard’s innocence. She is in the minority, even though I found her case compelling.

Still, the urge to see Trump as Richard’s doppelganger is nearly irresistible, at least if the caricatures are to be believed.

Shakespeare begins the play with these famous lines put into Richard’s mouth: “And now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Does Donald Trump have the same thoughts now, confident of his courtroom victories and rehabilitation as the Republican presidential candidate in 2024? I certainly have no insight into how that man’s mind works, but the egotistical will that drove Shakespeare’s Richard has its match in our media’s Trumpian demon. They hope Trump’s trials and the Republican primaries may be his metaphysical Bosworth. Time will tell.

But before rooting for our Richard’s permanent destruction, remember the mixed Tudor legacy of brutality amid self-indulgent excesses. I am neither a Tudorite nor a Trumpist, but I worry about where we are headed. Will 2024 give us a 21st century Henry VIII? Please, no.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].

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