The Feckless King

The president’s fall has come, and it has a Shakespearean flavor.

An illustration of Donald Trump dressed as Richard II with a crown
Brendan Smialowski / Hulton Archive / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

When Donald Trump’s case of COVID-19 became known, commentators began reaching for adjectives, starting with Shakespearean. It is well that they did not call the situation a Greek tragedy, because that would presume a tragic flaw, be it the outrageous arrogance of a formidable figure known as hubris or a virtue that carried the hero over the edge. But is the Bard, at least, being properly evoked?

Trump does elicit torrid metaphors, and in this case some of those gloating observers (in concealed or open fashion, to their particular taste) seem to have in mind something like Act V, Scene iii of Richard III, in which the villainous king, before the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, is visited by the ghosts of those he has murdered. One by one, they make disobliging remarks such as “Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow” and “Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword,” and, simply, “Despair and die.” The equivalent, one supposes, would be the ghosts of John McCain, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and John Lewis giving the president a bad night of it during a fevered sleep.

But Trump is not, and never was, Richard III, or indeed any of Shakespeare’s other great villains, such as Iago or Macbeth. He is not as smart, well spoken, or competent as they are; he has limited self-awareness, and would be incapable of the poignant soliloquies that leave us with a sneaking sympathy for Richard III, in particular.

No, Trump gets little further in tragic stature than the wretched Prince Cloten of Cymbeline, an oafish would-be murderer and rapist who fails in his desire to get the woman for whom he lusts and comes to a sticky end. Cloten is not a major figure, because there just is not enough human interest in him to commend him to either the playwright or us. But within Trump are fragments of other Shakespearean characters. And of these, the most notable is Richard II.

Richard II is the king whose deposition and ultimate murder, in 1400, launched the Wars of the Roses, which culminated in the battle in which Richard III fell 85 years later, and which gave way to the Tudor monarchy. Richard II is, to be sure, far more clever and more literate than Trump. His speeches are glorious Shakespearean set pieces. But shrewd though he can be in reading others, in some of his outlook on his own power and perquisites, he is very Trumpian.

He has, for example, no respect for those who, unlike him, have really been through war. He mocks his uncle John of Gaunt on the latter’s deathbed, just after the old man has spoken the most glorious patriotic speech about England ever composed. And he is not sentimental about wanting the gallant, dying warrior out of the way: “And let them die that age and sullens have / For both has thou, and both become the grave.” He is already planning to seize Gaunt’s land and treasures for his next disastrous project. One thinks of Trump’s treatment of the battle-scarred John McCain, who was in his last months gaunt indeed, and who was treated with contempt by a wayward and cowardly ruler. As in Gaunt’s case, it was the king who “lies in reputation sick.”

Richard II, like Trump, cannot view individuals as peers; he has no real friends. His courtiers, Bushy and Green, are sycophants (“the caterpillars of the commonwealth”) whom Bolingbroke briskly sends to the block. Richard has counselors who try to give him good advice (his other uncle, the Duke of York, most notably), but he pays little more heed and respect to them than Trump ultimately did to Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

The feckless king is intoxicated with his kingship, which he sees not as a weighty responsibility or as stewardship on behalf of the people of England, but as a matter of personal possession and divine right. And that overweening sense of his rightful and absolute claim to the throne—his equivalent of Trump refusing to recognize the possibility that he might lose an election and his repeatedly expressed unwillingness to live by its results—ends up contributing to his fall.

Just before he is deposed, this is what Richard says to the usurper Bolingbroke:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press'd
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.

Someone like that is so besotted by monarchy and so deluded about his own popularity, in heaven as on Earth, that he cannot conceive of the possibility of losing the crown—until he does. The angels, needless to say, do not show up.

In Trump’s case, the revealing moment in his illness was when he implied that those responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak in the White House were soldiers and police officers. They “want to hug you and they want to kiss you, because we really have done a good job for them, and you get close, and things happen.” It was a revealingly Trumpian comment, in its falsehood, its blaming of others, and its insistence—psychologically imperative for someone without a core—that he is deeply loved.

Eventually, Richard II, though, faces reality, and then he falls apart. Unlike what one may expect with Trump, he comes to see how frail he is, and how evanescent human authority and power are.

For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Richard’s own descent into madness comes as he realizes that it is not merely the crown that is hollow, but his very self. “Thus play I in one person many people,” he says in prison. But he knows, in the end, that he is not much in particular, and that “love to Richard / Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.” His identity was so wrapped up in kingship as such (not as responsibility or trust) that when the crown is gone, he has no idea who he really is. Trump will probably not get that far: His narcissism is even more deeply entrenched than Richard’s. But at some point, as with Richard, reality will intervene, and perhaps with his illness to some extent it has.

One may feel somewhat, but only somewhat, sorry for Richard; it is unlikely that many of Trump’s critics will pity and forgive him when his fall comes. Nor should they. If there is human sympathy to be extended here, think of the White House attendants, the Secret Service personnel, and the aircrew of Air Force One, whom the president’s recklessness has exposed to potentially mortal illness. The absence of contact tracing, the late notification to co-workers, and, above all, the pervasive disregard of and derision for the elementary health precautions urged by doctors to limit the spread of the disease bespeak a bad Shakespearean king’s contempt for his soldiers and servants, for his courtiers and lackeys. The Almighty may forgive this, but there is no particular reason why anyone else should. The good news in this sorry tale is that sooner or later—and as of late, it looks to be sooner—the curtain really will fall on this appalling play.