Kingship in Shakespeare: Corruption in Caesar, Lear, and Richard III

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Jake Kuenzl


Dr. Barr

Kingship in Shakespeare:

Corruption in Caesar, Lear, and Richard III

It is not out of the realm of possibility for Shakespeare to hide ideas or themes within a rich plot and complex characters. He accomplishes this through engaging dialogue and monologues. Without a closer reading and analysis many things can get lost in the play. Kingship or power is something that is present throughout a number of Shakespeare’s plays. Within these plays, he presents power and kingship in a number of different ways. There are similarities in many of the instances of kingship such as power, corruption, and manipulation. However, there are ambiguities and differences in many instances regarding plot, language and imagery. Although presented a bit differently, there are a number of similarities as far as the theme of power and kingship and it’s relation to corruption and manipulation that can be found within Shakespeare’s King Lear and Richard III. There are also a number of differences in the ways he masks his point in the previous plays and Julius Caesar.

It is clear that Shakespeare sees and demonstrates that kingship or power is something that causes individuals to act in jealousy or manipulation to gain the power that someone else has. One instance of this taking place is in Richard III. In this text, Richard devises an elaborate scheme to gain power and to kill and dispose of a number of people in powerful positions to do so. Richard states “As for another secret close intent By marrying her which I must reach unto. But yet I run before my horse to the market. Clarence still breather; Edward still lives and reigns. When they are gone, then I must count my gains.” (Richard, 1, 1, 162). Although this monologue speaks to what is to come in that it exposes Richard’s plan and intentions, there is much more to the statement. Richard is speaking this after Hastings leaves the stage, so it serves the purpose of thinking out loud, directly to the audience. Not only does it give Richard credibility by bringing him closer to the audience, but the manner in which he communicates it gives it another meaning.

There is something of a sarcastic tone to many of the things Richard says, which in some ways makes him more likable. However, this tone serves another purpose. The tone of Richard throughout the play suggests that Shakespeare is sending the message that power can distort a man’s moral compass, driving him to act deviously to gain the power that has eluded him. Richard’s actions throughout the rest of the play support this claim, alongside monologues similar to the previous one, where he speaks his mind to the audience. However, as the plot drives forward and unfolds, he begins to reveal himself to not just the audience, but the other characters in the play. In act III, Richard says “.Death, desolation, ruin and decay: It cannot be avoided but by this; It will not be avoided but by this.

Therefore, good mother,—I must can you so— Be the attorney of my love to her: Plead what I will be, not what I have been; Not my deserts, but what I will deserve…” (RichardIII, IV). In this case, Shakespeare is showing this manipulation in a more straight forward manner, creating tension between characters. He accomplishes the same point through dialogue that he does by exposing Richard’s thoughts to the audience, creating a sense of manipulation that power drives Richard to perform.

Although there are subtle differences in the way it is presented, manipulation is a theme that is present in many of Shakespeare’s works, and when examining it closely, it is clear the message he is trying to get across. In King Lear, Shakespeare creates the same kind of theme of manipulation. In doing so, he again comments on power causing an individual to go to extreme means to cease it. King Lear’s daughters seek to take power from their father by edging out their honest sister in order to have full control of the throne. They continue to lie and manipulate the king in order to reach their goal. Gonerill states “Sir I love you more than word can yield the matter. Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty, beyond what can be valued, rich or rare, no less than life with grace, health, beauty, or honor; as much as child ever loved, or father found;…” (Lear, 1, 1, 60). Here Shakespeare presents Gonerill answering how much she loves her father in a situation where the kingdom is being divided. She lies, seemingly so in the context, in order to get a larger share. The fact that Shakespeare shows power causing a daughter to manipulate her own father speaks volumes to the fact that power and kingship lead to the destruction of an individual’s moral compass. Only through language and dialogue does Shakespeare succeed in relaying this point to his audience.

Manipulation is something that is revisited throughout Shakespeare’s body of work. However, the way it’s presented in Julius Caesar is in many ways different from the previous plays. In the first, he uses the language spoken to the audience directly as well as dialogue. In the second, he uses dialogue and monologue. In this way, Julius Caesar is different because most of the manipulation comes through the actual action of the characters. The men conspire to kill and overthrow Caesar, and in their conspiracy comes the manipulation. Brutus says “And let our hearts, as subtle masters do, Stir up their servants to an act of rage And after seem to chide ‘em. This shall make our purpose necessary and not envious; which so appearing to common eyes, we shall be called purgers, not murderers.” (Caesar, 2, 1, 188). While this is seemingly similar to the previous example of dialogue showing the manipulation, it is different in that the intention is different. While the fact that Shakespeare uses charismatic language to sway conspirators and ultimately the Romans cannot be ignored, there is another way that manipulation is showed in the play.

One of the most striking images throughout the body of Shakespeare’s work is the shaking of bloody hands by the conspirators and Antony. The significance of the shake works in a number of ways. The first is the obvious symbol of the blood being equally on everyone’s hands. However, there is also a way that Shakespeare uses the handshake. The action itself serves as a way for Antony to manipulate the others into believing that he is on their side, and to allow him to speak at the funeral of Caesar. Antony states “I doubt not of your wisdom. Let each man render me his bloody hand.”(Caesar, 3, 1, 201). With the statement, followed by the action, he puts himself in good standing with the conspirators. This manipulation is different from what is typically seen in Shakespeare’s plays, and different in that power and kingship did not motivate this action in the same way as the other two plays. However, it is clear in each how the plot is driven forward by power and corruption.

Through all of the manipulation for kingship and power, it can get lost the message that Shakespeare is trying to send his audience about the theme. In Julius Caesar, power and kingship lead to the murder of Caesar. Weather it is believed that this was necessary, or that it was ill-advised aside, it is clear that corruption led to the action being performed. By Brutus saying “If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I love Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and be all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?” (Caesar, 3, 2, 22), Shakespeare shows the corruption that power and kingship cause, and the effects of this corruption being death and destruction. He accomplishes this through communication between characters, as well as actions and monologues.

Showing how power and kingship can lead to corruption is something that is present in each of the three plays discussed previously. In King Lear, the corruption comes from the desire of Lear’s daughters to possess complete control over the kingdom. When speaking to Lear about the condition of his kingdom, Goneril shows her intentions: “I do beseech you to understand my purposes alright. As you are old and reverend, should be wise. Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires…makes it more like a tavern or brothel than a graced palace.”(Lear, 1, 4, 245). Here it is clear that she intends to take control of Lear’s men, and further eliminate him from the picture. This relationship seems to be Shakespeare demonstrating that kingship can corrupt even a relationship as pure as a father and daughter. He accomplishes this only through the words and actions of his characters, hiding underlying themes within the text.

Finally, in the case of Richard III, corruption plays a huge part in the plot, where kingship drives Richard to plot the death of many people with an elaborate scheme in which he ends up with the crown. Much like in King Lear, Shakespeare uses the relationships within a family to show that kingship and power cause corruption. In act 4, scene 2, Richard says, “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.” (Richard, 4, 2, 63). Here Shakespeare disturbs the family dynamic again with corruption, showing Richard in an attempt to marry his niece. He does this only to solidify his kingdom. For this reason, it is clear that Shakespeare is using the family being dismantled to show that kingship and power cause corruption that cannot be avoided.

Shakespeare often hides themes and plots within images and dialogue. Many things can get lost without taking a closer look into his plays. Kingship and power are themes that occur throughout a lot of Shakespeare’s plays. Although presented a bit differently, there are a number of similarities as far as the theme of power and kingship and it’s relation to corruption and manipulation that can be found within Shakespeare’s King Lear and Richard III. There are also a number of differences in the ways he masks his point in the previous plays and Julius Caesar. Upon a closer reading, it is clear that Shakespeare is engaging in a commentary on the ways in which kingship and power lead to manipulation and corruption.

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