AT LEAST DONALD TRUMP has made America read again. Soaring sales of Plato’s Republic and George Orwell’s 1984 prove that Americans are turning to literature for insight into what’s happening to us. In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday, we should not overlook the King Richard II as the kind of literature that can help us find our bearings.
Richard II is about the connection between personal fictions and political institutions. The historian Ernst Kantorowicz suggested that Richard II is a dramatization of the myth, popular in Shakespeare’s England, that the King possessed two bodies. While people at the time understood that kings “in their natural persons” were mortal, often sick or stupid, and sometimes even female, but they also understood that upon coronation the monarch acquired a second body: powerful, wise, immortal, and protected by God.
The “King’s Two Bodies” was a magical fiction, of course, but it served an essential purpose in an age when powerful nobles threatened to tear the country apart with endless feuding unless one person, a monarch, could command them to stop.
Since monarchs lacked the physical force to overwhelm these nobles, they relied instead on the shared willingness of subjects to believe that kings had been chosen by God and that it was the worst of sins to disobey them. Their subjects in turn had an incentive to believe that story, or at least to pretend to believe it, because the alternative was civil war.
The willingness to believe in the monarch’s miraculous qualities, though, had its limits. A monarch had to put on a good show of rising above special interests, of caring about his people as a whole, in order to earn that second body.
The character Richard II — like Trump — shows us how this agreement to live by a fiction can go wildly wrong. Richard does not realize that he is not really superhuman but that his subjects only grant him their willing suspension of disbelief if he plays the part he has been assigned. He breaks the contract in spectacular fashion almost as soon as the play opens.
Two powerful nobles, Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, accuse one another of horrendous crimes. Settling such quarrels is the raison d’être for kingship, but Richard can’t or won’t do it. Within the short span of the first act, he confuses the audience and characters alike with mercurial, inconsistent decisions. When the two foes challenge one another to a duel, Richard makes a cursory effort to reconcile them. But when that fails, he decides to let the duel proceed. Then he calls off the duel at the last minute, expelling both men from the kingdom. But not in an evenhanded way: he banishes Mowbray for life, but Bolingbroke for only 10 years.
Richard’s behavior in this first act could be fairly described as Trumpian. He approaches the dispute between Mowbray and Bolingbroke with an air of malign insouciance. He shows no interest in asking questions, seeming instead to enjoy the escalating insults, and his rapid changes in direction make it appear like he is toying with people. Did he really need to let Bolingbroke and Mowbray get all dressed up in armor and make brave speeches before pulling the plug on the duel? The first act feels like an episode of Celebrity Apprentice — or an ordinary day in the West Wing.
Richard is not just unpredictable, but nasty. Imposing a life sentence of exile against Mowbray, Richard makes it known he is doing it “with some unwillingness.” When Mowbray, encouraged by this expression of ambivalence, asks for mercy, Richard slaps him down. “After our sentence,” he lectures Mowbray, “[com]plaining comes too late.” Richard then promptly reduces Bolingbroke’s sentence.
The gesture is at once a piece of gratuitous, godlike generosity, and utterly meaningless. He says he is doing it out of compassion for Bolingbroke’s father, who won’t survive 10 years to see his son again. But the father won’t survive six years either. Viewers are left confused: is Richard indifferent, incompetent, or hiding something darker? Trump-watchers may well find this a familiar yo-yo.
Richard’s undermining of the foundations of his own legitimacy also seems familiar in the age of Trump. Just as Trump has repeatedly cast aspersions on the election that brought him to power, so Richard weakens the hereditary principle on which his own title to the Crown depends. When Bolingbroke’s father dies, Richard promptly seizes his lands, depriving Bolingbroke of his rightful inheritance, putting his short-term need for money ahead of the long-term stability of monarchy as an institution.
This action sets Richard’s downfall in motion as Bolingbroke returns to reclaim his rightful land and titles. Faced with rebellion, Richard embraces the myth of his divinely protected second body. He really believes God will defend his title, saying:
For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel. Then, if angels fight
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.
Learning that his soldiers have deserted, he takes comfort in the thought that he embodies the nation: “Is not the King’s name twenty thousand names? / Arm, arm my name. A puny subject strikes / At thy great glory.”
But neither his name nor the angels save him from Bolingbroke’s material assault. He is like an actor who has forgotten that the royal robes he wears on stage are merely a costume. But he can only play the King if others buy into the illusion. If they don’t, the dirty secret of monarchy is exposed: kings are just actors, and actors are just mortal people.
Spoiler alert: Bolingbroke seizes the crown and becomes King Henry IV.
The fiction of the “King’s Two Bodies” was never more an element of modern life that it was on November 14, 2016, when, after meeting with the new president-elect, Barack Obama told reporters that “this office has a way of waking you up.”
Americans are not immune from magical fictions about the transformative power of the presidency. We hope that upon entering the Oval Office after a bitter partisan fight, the winner will represent the entire nation. We need to believe that even when we disagree with his decisions, the president is trying to pursue the common good.
But Trump seems to be falling into the same traps as Richard II. He takes the idea that he represents the people literally. Witness his unsubstantiated claims about having really won the popular vote, or the odd assertion in his inaugural speech that “for the first time in history we are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the People.” But in swallowing the fiction, he has also forgotten that he bears the responsibility for sustaining that fiction. Like Richard II, Trump does not understand that the metaphor of a ruler representing the people, whether in a monarchical or presidential context, is an obligation, not a license. It is his job to make it possible for us to believe in this magical but essential fiction that he represents all of us.
Not doing his part to sustain the fiction has consequences for Trump and for all of us. In a post on Lawfare Blog, Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic have wondered what would happen if the president’s “audience” cannot make the normal presumption that the president intends to abide by his oath of office to uphold the Constitution. Wittes and Jurecic write:
[T]he presidential oath is actually the glue that holds together many of our system’s functional assumptions about the presidency and the institutional reactions to it among actors from judges to bureaucrats to the press. When large enough numbers of people within these systems doubt a president’s oath, those assumptions cease operating.
If a president or a king or an actor doesn’t play their assigned role, then what happens? The choice falls to us, the audience, the people. We could try all the harder to overlook the obvious ill fit between the actor and the role. Some would call this “normalizing Trump.” Or we could call off the show.
Shakespeare’s play leaves its viewers with just this question. Henry’s rebellion unleashes more rebellions, this time against Henry himself, for he has set a precedent. There is not, after all, an easy answer as to whether it is ever justifiable to shatter the shared illusions upon which a political system depends. To be left with a one-bodied leader, serving only himself without any remaining illusions could be the ultimate tragedy of the Trump presidency — not just for Trump, but for all of us.