Some people are naturals at chasing a goal, but they do not know how to maintain hold of it. This is Shakespeare’s critique of Machiavelli, using Richard III as his example. King Richard III. was not next in line to acquire kingship in England, but through certain Machiavellian actions, such as appearing religious, marriage and eliminating others, Richard quickly became the King of England. Although these actions may have helped him achieve the kingship, they did not however help him in maintaining it.
Shakespeare’s use of Richard succeeding then failing is a clear critique of his views on Machiavelli’s teachings in the Prince. Shakespeare’s assessment is that an evil man, such as Richard, can use Machiavelli’s political and moral teachings to acquire a principality successfully, but his teachings will not help those men maintain those principalities. Richard III was not next in line for the throne. First, he had two brothers, Edward and Clarence, who were both older than him. Then, each of those men had children of their own.
Machiavelli would agree that Richard is going to have to do a lot in order to have a legitimate claim to the throne. Shakespeare agree’s with Machiavelli in that it is important for an individual to obtain some legitimate claim to the throne in order for them to be granted the power from the people and acquire the kingdom. The subjects of a state are more willing to love a king who had a legitimate claim. Machiavelli says, “For the natural prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence it is fitting that he be more loved” (Machiavelli 7).
Without the support of the people Richard would not be able to become King of England, therefore he must find a path to acquire a valid claim to the throne. Richard’s actions in the first three acts of the play prove that he is worried about having such an authentic claim. One action Richard carries out in order to advance his progress in acquiring the throne is wooing Lady Anne (Edward’s ex wife). This tactic in finding a legitimate advancement to the throne through marriage was one of Machiavelli’s teachings and it proved to work for Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Another way Richard III is successful in acquiring the kingship is due to him appearing to be religious and other virtuous qualities, which according to Machiavelli is extremely important. Machiavelli pronounces that in order to be virtuous an individual should “appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religion” (Machiavelli 70). Shakespeare is praising this quality of Richard’s and supports the claim that it is a huge reason why Richard was offered the crown. In Act 5 scene 7 of Richard III, many of these qualities appear to exist in Richard.
Buckingham says, “As being got, your father then in France, and his resemblance being not like the Duke. Withal, I did infer your lineaments, Being the right idea of your father, Both in your form and nobleness of mind; Laid open all your victories in Scotland, Your discipline in war, wisdom in peace, Your bounty, virtue, fair humility” (3. 7. 13-17). This demonstrates to the citizens, that Richard is in-fact the legitimate ruler and he is a generous and good man. Another example is when Richard appears to be religious and refuses to take the crown because he wants to read the scriptures.
While pretending to be religious he says after being interrupted,” My lord, there needs no such apology. I do beseech your Grace to pardon me, Who, earnest in the service of my God, Deferred the visitation of my friends” (3. 7. 105-108). Richard’s act of appearing religious and surrounding himself with two priests allows for him to win over the people. Shakespeare is agreeing with Machiavelli, in that if an individual appears religious to the people, then they are often much more successful in acquiring such kingdom.
One final example of Richard’s actions that allowed him to easily obtain the kingship using Machiavellian methods, was through eliminating others who were before him in line to the throne. Richard begins to start rumors about his nephews in order to delegitimize their claim to the throne. Richard tells Buckingham to spread rumors says, “Infer the bastardy of Edward’s children. Tell them how Edward put to death a citizen Only for saying he would make his son Heir to the Crown…
Moreover, urge his hateful luxury And bestial appetite in change of lust, Which stretched unto their servants, daughters, wives, Even where his raging eye or savage heart, Without control, lusted to make a prey” (3. 5. 76-86). This rumor would delegitimize and in a sense, eliminate part of the bloodline. Later on in the play, King Richard has someone murder his nephews so that there is no chance for them to return to claim the throne. Machiavelli agrees and says, “one only to fear the bloodline of the prince.
If this is eliminated, there remains no one whom would have to fear, since others do not have credit with the people” (Machiavelli 18). Shakespeare, though not agreeing morally with murder, does show that through Richard’s cruel actions toward eliminating the bloodline, creates for him a much easier time of rising to power in England. An inspiring King will find the act of maintaining a principality extremely different than the actions required to achieve it. Machiavelli has many different teachings when it comes to maintaining a principality.
He says, “And whoever acquires them, if he wants to hold them, must have two concerns: one, that the bloodline of their ancient prince be eliminated; the other, not to alter either their laws or their taxes” (9). He also says that a ruler must be feared more than anything else. In summary, Machiavelli is saying that no conscience is needed and that a ruler needs to maintain fear and control in order to maintain his principality. Shakespeare has multiple criticisms of this view and expresses them through the demise of King Richard III.
One example of when Richard’s actions that led to the failure of his kingship is when he ignores religion when speaking to his men in Act 5. Richard disregards all aspects of religion when speaking to his men and focuses on his control over them through enforcing fear. Machiavelli would say this is a successful tactic. In the prince Machiavelli says, “it is much safer to be feared then loved” (66). Shakespeare shows his disapproval of Richard’s Machiavellian methods by contrasting Richard’s speech with a speech by Richmond (Richard’s rival who is fighting for the crown).
Richmond speaks to his men embracing religion and creating the idea of hope through belief in God. He wants his men to trust and love him, according to those ideals rather than fear. He says, “Fellows in arms, and my most loving friends… God, and our good cause, fight upon our side” (5. 3. 251). Despite having less than a third of the men Richard had, Richmond defeated King Richard in battle. Richmond is Shakespeare’s critique of Machiavelli’s idea that fear over one’s army is more important than their love.
The harsh contrast of the two shows Shakespeare disagreed with Machiavellian methods and shows how they were not successful in maintaining a kingdom. Conscience is another one of Shakespeare’s critiques of Machiavellian moral teachings. Through King Richard’s dream involving the ghosts of the people he had murdered, Shakespeare is putting forth the idea that the human conscience cannot simply be ignored. An individual may try to put it aside when trying to acquire the principality, but once he does, the harsh deeds he has committed will come back to haunt him, as they did Richard.
In Richard’s dream, the ghosts of all the men he has murdered return and tell him he will lose the battle and the crown. For example, the ghost of Buckingham says, “The last was I that helped thee to the crown; The last was | that felt thy tyranny. O, in the battle think on Buckingham, And die in terror of thy guiltiness. Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death. Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath (5. 3. 178-183). This was not the only time in which King Richard had a hard time dealing with his conscience.
Before this, Shakespeare tells us, through Anne, that Richard is having difficulty sleeping. Though Machiavelli’s ideology may work in theory, according to Shakespeare, they disregard the human factor of the individual actually committing the heinous acts to acquire it. Richard says, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! ” (5. 3. 192), which shows that Richard could not simply ignore it. Shakespeare’s critique of Machiavelli is that a person’s conscious can affect their ruling ability and negatively affect the ability to maintain a principality.
Shakespeare clearly wrote Richard as an evil man who did whatever was necessary in order to achieve his goal of being King of England. His critique of Machiavelli came after he had achieved this goal. Shakespeare’s big evaluation of Machiavelli’s school of thought was his teachings applied to individuals that had already acquired the kingdom. This is where Shakespeare believed that an individual must value love over fear when ruling their subjects and never to ignore religion and the human conscience.