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.