Tricky Dicky, Part 5: By Dissembling


This should be read as, in some ways, a continuation of the previous instalment.

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time.

Richard III, I, I

Used as the epigraph to Ben Aaronovitch's novelisation of 'Remembrance of the Daleks'


In Richard III, as I started to talk about last time (in Part 4), Richard draws upon his ‘deformity’ for an identity. As noted in a previous instalment, Richard is a narcissist (hardly an original observation) and a vital part of his narcissism is expressed in his concentration upon what he sees - or spins to us, the audience - as his own physical monstrosity. He concentrates on his physical ‘defects’, talking them up, poetically riffing on them and exaggerating them (if he were as monstrous as he says he is nobody would be able to look at him let alone accept him as colleague or husband) until he turns the idea of himself as a monster into a source of strength. It motivates him because he makes it motivate him. It imbues him with power. Moreover, it imbues him with shapelessness which allows him to become protean. He becomes a shapeless mess, thus able to shift his shape to fit any and all occasions plausibly. (He’s almost very-proto-Weird… which is interesting in terms of what I said about him being constructed in a way similar to race-making, and thus also potentially of a different race, considering that the idea of race is a preoccupation of the haute Weird.) This is linked to his narcissism in that it stems from the instability of his core self. Narcissism is an attempt to compensate for a great gaping hole at the centre of the being where one’s ability to connect with others should be, where one’s ability to construct a sense of self from your relationships should be. “I am like no brother,” he says, “I am myself alone.” Richard is able to become anyone and anything he needs to be at any given moment because there is no real inner self that anchors him to one state of being. Like other great Shakespearean villains, particularly Iago, he does what he does because he is essentially empty, and is able to do what he does for the same reason. “I am not what I am,” says Iago. Richard never says as much, but he talks at length about his own instability of self via his boasting about his ability to change to fit any circumstance… about his ability to act, essentially. Iago spends the play Othello spinning various contradictory stories about why he’s doing what he’s doing, attempting to work it out himself, or to happen upon an explanation of his own behaviour that makes sense to him. Richard, similarly, has two speeches (one in Henry VI pt 3 and one at the start of Richard III) in which he construct rationalisations for his project to murder and smile his way to the crown.

They both fit into an idea of evil as being emptiness that wants to eliminate fullness, cleanliness that wants to eliminate what it sees as dirty, meaninglessness that wants to eliminate meaning, blankness that wants to eliminate all content. There’s a lot to be said about Iago but one aspect of his pathology is the desire to disprove, drag down, sully, and hold up for scorn anything in the world which seems meaningful, sincere, full, or pure. He feels that he is made ugly by the “daily beauty” that other have in their lives. Apart from wider social dynamics, Iago hates Othello because Othello seems to embody meaning in a world which Iago sees as a meaningless mess run by people who are actually no better than animals. And that’s how he wants to see the world, because then he has licence to be the selfish bastard that he is. And any evidence that shows up his behaviour as aberrant has to be erased, even if it takes the form of a person.

This is all very much applicable to another villain who should be very familiar to readers of this site: Davros. Davros is, in his own way, a player. He uses his own condition for dramatic effect. He embraces it and uses it to buttress his fundamental sense of self and potency. Indeed, he has embraced his disfigurement and disability to such an extent that he wishes to remake his entire race in the image of the crippled, disfigured, chair-bound, mutated version of himself. This is the real reason why Davros doesn’t transplant his own brain into a new body, Hammer!Frankenstein style, or clone himself a new body. He has accepted his wheelchair-bound and mutated form as the right and proper form. Going back to Ben Aaronovitch’s novelisation of ‘Remembrance’, Davros in one of the flashbacks thinks of what he has become as ‘pure’. He wants to purify everyone else, purge them of all extraneous meaning, boil them down to the essence that he sees himself as embodying.

There are many obvious similarities between Davros and Richard III. They both emerge from a civil war. Both are trusted by the political establishments of their own side, even as they scheme to destroy them from within and usurp their power. They are both ‘deformed’ but able to turn their deformity to their advantage; charismatic and commanding despite being physically ‘crippled’; able to charm and trot out professions of duty while inwardly seething with malice; narcissistic; thirsty for power; driven by a fierce and implacable intellect; driven through ambition to self-destruction. Both have echoing holes within them that they attempt to patch up with grandiose narcissism.  Both have that quintessentially Shakespearean form of evil: the desire to reveal meaning as meaningless, and to then annihilate meaninglessness and cleanse the world of it because they consider it filthy.  (With Davros, fascinatingly, this Shakespearean evil is adapted to thinking about Nazism, which had that idea of the meaninglessness of other meanings, and the need to cleanse the world of them, at its core.)  There are even echoes of Shakespeare in some of the dialogue. "Conscience is a word that cowards use" says Richard. To Davros, conscience is an affliction amongst other "creeds of cowards". I wonder if it's entirely an accident that at least one bit of Davros' dialogue is in iambic pentameter:

That power would set me up above the gods
And through the Daleks I shall have that power.

Davros is unquestionably descended from Richard III. There are, however, crucial distinctions between them. Firstly, whereas Richard is only figuratively a ‘monster’, there is a case for saying that Davros actually is a monster, or that he occupies an interesting liminal stage between villain and monster. By being, essentially, the embodiment of a ‘stage’ in Dalek (i.e. Monster) evolution (never minding that real evolution doesn’t have ‘stages’), Davros illustrates a strange way in which monstrosity literalises the ‘deformity’ of the villain, be it interior or exterior ‘deformity’, or - as in Richard’s case - both.  (We don't need to relitigate the issue of linking 'deformity' to evil at this point - let's take it as a given that it's unfair, has squalid origins, and less than desirable ramifications.)

The monster is always a shifting category, but there are ‘human’ monsters and it seems there always have been. From the sirens and harpies of Graeco-Roman myth to the misshapen Grendel of Beowulf and beyond. The line between what is a deformed human and what is a monster has always been fuzzy. (Indeed, it is probably only the cultural imperative to categorize that comes with instrumentalist modernity that even raises the question.)

Is Richard III (in the play) a ‘monster’? He is certainly described in monstrous terms (i.e chimeric animal metaphors, etc) by himself and others. As discussed last time in Part 4, he is constructed in the play in ways akin to race-making, and race (in the modern, constructed biological sense) is one of the most key subtexts beneath all monsters in modern SF and Fantasy. These attenuations are created within the figure of Richard the monstrous villain by the fact that he is being written during early modernity, at the cusp of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, by an artist peculiarly placed to straddle and express that fulcrum (as discussed in Part 3). Even so, he nevertheless grows from older ideas of the monstrous outsider doomed from birth by deformity, whether the deformity is an expression of evil or a cause of it (and the pre-moderns are by no means as simplistic on this as we bigoted moderns might expect).

Further into modernity we find both the project of race-making more advanced and the categories of monster and villain profoundly altered. The monstrous has acquired an entire new track in SF, linked to the constructed ideologies of race and colonialism: the monstrousness of the literal alien race. Davros is clearly a literal embodiment of the process of transition. He is created by working backwards from the Daleks (possibly the ultimate syncresis of the villain/alien/deformed/monster/machine conjunction) to discover a transitional form, a missing link as it were. Davros is human (because he looks human, despite being notionally a ‘Kaled’) and yet inhuman. He’s ‘deformed’ in a way that is left unexplained, though it is implied to be a mutation, with there being notably no attempt made to define whether his villainy is result or cause of his deformation. As well as being ‘human’, he is also a monster. He is literally half-monster. Moreover, his deformity - his ‘mutation’ to use what is in SF simply new lingo for deformity - seems to be the basis for the developed, extrapolated physical monstrosity of the Dalek creature within the shell. He’s a fossil record of the evolution of the modern monster from the early-modern concept of the villain.

He is also a demonstration of a twist in the tale of deformity as villainy: the distinction of disfigurement. Disfigurement is a modern spin on the complex of ideas which links physical monstrosity with moral monstrosity. It is an offshoot on the same evolutionary tree.

Frankenstein’s monster, as ever, occupies a crucial liminal space. He is ‘deformed’ in the sense that he is ‘born’ the way he is, but is ‘disfigured’ in the sense that he is constructed of stitches and sutures and grafts and transplants. Frankenstein is one of the foundations of the Gothic, and the scarred or disfigured person (usually a villain) is donated to the subsequent genre. This fits in with the general way in which the Gothic expresses anxieties about mutilation generated by bourgeois society, but I’ve talked about that elsewhere. The instinct to (ostensibly) rational categorization is suborned to the project of (once again) race-making, which is actually expressed in Frankenstein (as mentioned last time).

The disfigured occupies a connected but distinct space. If ‘deformity’ is about the inborn, or at least the social effect of the inborn, and thus about race or its social effect (when adapted by modernity), then disfigurement is fundamentally about detaching a version of deformity from these things. It’s about an attempt to view deformity as effect rather than cause, as a result of agency.

Modern pop-culture is replete with scarred or disfigured villains. In Batman’s rogues gallery there’s the Joker and Two-Face. Bond fights lots of disfigured villains… indeed, much as we might like to think we’d be better on this subject than previous generations, Bond seems to fight a higher proportion of disfigured villains now than ever. Three out of four of the villains Craig!Bond came up against were (or became) disfigured. Brosnan!Bond has similar numbers, with only one of his opponents being without mutilation of some kind. What you notice in almost every case is that the disfigurement seems to be the logical - even if sometimes tragic - result of a series of conscious mis-steps, moral or technical, or both. If the projects which lead to disfigurement are not immoral or amoral to start with, then they end up there as a result of the disfigurement. You can see Frankenstein’s monster as Frankenstein’s own disfigurement, the disfigurement of his aims and experiments, or perhaps his death drive, or his id, or his paradoxical rejection of modernity, projected externally upon the world. The Gothic, and the genres that have adopted its interest in disfigurement, has generally merged the two figures into one.

It has to be said for Doctor Who that it hasn’t had that many disfigured villains. On the other hand, the ones it has tend to be biggies. (They also tend to be written by Robert Holmes, but that's a side issue.)  There’s Davros, of course. And the dying-version of the Master. And Sharaz Jek, Magnus Greel, and Morbius (though his condition goes beyond disfigurement, I’d say). The only small-fry, one-off, rote villains I can think of with a disfigurement are the Pirate Captain, George Cranleigh and the Borad. Oh, and there’s Max Capricorn, I suppose… though he’s effectively a cyborg, like the Pirate Captain, which is a whole other can of worms. I think there’s a pretty clear pattern discernible in this list. Most of them are disfigured as a result of some form of scientific and/or industrial overreaching, accident, or blowback. The Master artificially extends his life. Same with Morbius and Max. Jek is caught in the intersection between industrial exploitation of the environment and the ruthless competitiveness of capitalism. Greel is disfigured by a scientific technique he invented but did not fully understand. Same with the Borad. Davros was, presumably, maimed and maybe mutated by a Thal shell. Even Cranleigh comes by his disfigurement because, as an English ‘explorer’ in the age of empire and colonialism, he intrudes on native peoples who want to be left alone (whatever problems there might be with that depiction). They are, in short, engaged in scientific and/or technical projects with aims implied by their texts to be immoral or amoral.

In line with lots of the pop-Gothic horror from which it takes inspiration, Doctor Who is here implying a moral dimension to disfigurement. Just as some saw ‘deformity’ as an external sign of inner corruption, or as Bacon reasoned backwards from his own supposed observations to create a pseudo-rational ‘Just So’ story about ‘deformity’ as a cause of certain behaviours (see Part 4), so Doctor Who seems to want to use disfigurement as a symbol of a certain moral deficit. However, as mentioned, the moral deficit implied by disfigurement is usually of a quintessentially modern kind. Jek, for instance, is disfigured as a result of his own involvement with the Sirius Conglomerate’s mining and refinement of a commodity that turns out to be half drug/half anti-aging product, a commodity moreover that is implied to ensnare almost everyone in Jek’s society, and to lead to that society’s utter domination by the same conglomerate. Jek’s sense of injustice is very sharp - where he is concerned. You get the feeling that he would not feel anything like the same yearning for justice if he were still on the board of the conglomerate alongside Morgus. Greel is a war criminal of a distinctly modern kind - i.e. he uses scientific methods to destroy “enemies of the state” - as have countless modern states. The Captain comes by his disfigurement through piratical imperialism based on the technology of travel, which is the basis of all imperialism. Even when the moral deficit isn’t explicitly linked to some kind of identifiable political nightmare, the very technological and scientific background to it implies Western modernity. It’s unfortunate that disfigurement is so often linked to villainous character in gothic fiction and pulp SF/Fantasy, but it’s less a prejudiced or thoughtless association than a by-product to the implied critique of modernity - bourgeois rationality, utility, progress, technology, etc - these genres are so often found to be offering.

Of course, in just as many places disfigurement is still a sign of pre-existing individual moral turpitude, usually of criminality. The Joker has several origin stories, but he is usually a criminal before he ends up with bleached skin, green hair, and a fixed grin. Similarly with those Bond villains. The Brosnan and Craig Bonds both face a disfigured ex-agent of MI6 who is set up as a possible reproach to Bond and his masters… but in both cases, the ultimate effect is to bolster the power structure Bond serves by acquitting it of complicity with the individualistic criminality of deranged villains.

Disfigurement is, of course, an acquired trait rather than an inborn one. Am I being too schematic to suggest that the shift from villains with inborn ‘deformities’ (such as Richard III) to villains who acquire disfigurement through their amoral pursuit of science, rationality, progress, utility, profit, etc, is a sign of the societal shift to the modern? The shift seems to coincide roughly with the dawn of the Gothic, and so would fit quite neatly into the rise of industrial capitalism in Western Europe. If so, we have to make sense of Richard as an example of something proto-bourgeois but pre-Industrial Revolution… which fits perfectly with the ambiguity surrounding the source of his villainy. Just as Bacon insists upon a proto-bourgeois idea of the self-made man, yet also upon the reductionist view of human behaviour, so Richard constructs himself as being self-made (he chooses his villainy) but also as doomed to singularity (See Part 4).

Even so the implication that disfigurement is earned remains uncomfortable. The simple fact is that most actually disfigured people do not bring it upon themselves by meddling amorally with the forces of nature, or being war criminals, etc. Those who are disfigured or disabled without in some way ‘earning it’ are even rarer in Doctor Who. Really, off the top of my head, I can only think of Dortmund in 'Dalek Invasion of Earth' and Ursula in ‘Love & Monsters’. I’ve written a bit about that elsewhere too, but I want to remember the queasiness a lot of people felt about her last scene. Beyond mere prudery about the blow-job gag, some people felt uneasy with the implied violation of her bodily autonomy. Considerably fewer felt uneasy about the explicit violation of Davros’ bodily autonomy that the Doctor commits in ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ (though a few people did raise it).

It's worth noting that all over the world, every year, audiences enjoy the spectacle of Richard III, a 'deformed' and 'disabled' man being killed on stage at the Battle of Bosworth.  We are left with this chain from villainy to deformity or disfigurement, to the end of the story where they must all be punished.  To do anything about that we would have to do several things.  We would have to decouple storytelling from any idea of natural justice, which would be hard to do because storytelling is, in many ways, inherently about questions of justice.  And we would also now have to decouple the nightmarish effects of modernity - science, technology, industry, etc - from the body, which doesn't appear to be happening any time soon either.  We seem to be stuck with some version of this - though obviously there is no reason why representation couldn't and shouldn't improve.  Stories should start featuring people with bodies constructed socially as non-standard simply as a matter of course, with the semiotics accreted around such things deliberately stripped away.  It's worth calling for.

I'm not sure there's any way round the fact that one really shouldn't negate a physically vulnerable person's bodily autonomy (or anyone's for that matter), and the Doctor does do this to Davros in ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, as he does in 'Genesis of the Daleks'. However, Davros is far too dangerous and powerful to convince as a straightforward analogue to most disabled people (or most people generally, actually). Davros, as mentioned, is a human/monster hybrid. Is it okay to violate the physical autonomy of a person if they’re also monstrous (morally, I mean)? I think we have to face the fact that the Doctor Who answer is: yes. And that’s not actually a terrible answer, if we take monstrosity to signify monstrous political threats, which is surely what Davros (the Hitler/Mengele of outer space) has always signified. I mean, does anyone seriously want to argue that it would be wrong to physically restrain Hitler (by, say, kidnapping him) from giving vicious orders in the final months of the war, even though he was near crippled with Parkinson’s disease? Simply by being Hitler, he himself pretty much justifies anything needful you can do to him to stop him. The essential problem with violating someone’s bodily autonomy is that you impose your will on them, which is an abuse of power, which is then magnified if you’re talking about people who are ‘disabled’. But a person with a physical ‘disability’ might have immense political and military power. Though, having said that, social discrimination against persons with physical disabilities is so intense that, like other marginalised groups, they are considerably less likely to have that kind of power in the first place. Obviously, there are no hard and fast answers here because we’re not dealing with fully quantifiable quantities, and yet…

Of course, Hitler is easy. He’s seen as a monster rather than as a ‘world leader’, which is what he actually was. He’s a big fat exception to all the ‘rules’. You can blithely say that he should’ve been assassinated and few would take issue with you, whereas the assertion that, say, FDR (whose legs were paralysed by childhood polio, incidentally) should’ve been assassinated before ordering bombing raids on German, Italian, and Japanese civillians would provoke howls of outrage. Here we find ourselves venturing into a massive digression. And I feel fine about that.

In his biography of Hitler, Joachim Fest asks “can we call him great?”. To be clear, Fest is not sympathetic to Hitler, but is instead interrogating the extent to which the personality of a historical personage plays a role in whether we can declare them a ‘great figure’, in the sense of their influence and importance. At a slight angle to Fest, I want to ask why we even have to question whether or not to call Hitler ‘great’. Why wouldn’t we? It is the business of ‘great figures’ to behave exactly the way Hitler did. They prosecute wars, grab territory, etc. Hitler was singularly destructive, but the difference is mainly quantitative rather than qualitative, and is embedded in the historical fact that Hitler - like all the world leaders around him - was a product of industrial modernity, and that his war-effort was organised along those lines. It’s only the fact that terms like ‘great men’ have fallen out of fashion that stops us referring to people like Clive of India as ‘great men’. As Fest insists, the ‘great man theory of history’ is still popular with the public. We are still very much inclined to use words like ‘great’ when talking about figures from our own history (whoever we happen to be), with the BBC happily running polls on ‘Who is the Greatest Briton’, with Churchill winning (of course). And yet the hands of most of these people are steeped in blood. You don’t get to position yourself as ‘the Great’ without spilling plenty of blood. Alexander the Great was a warmonger, an empire-builder, a conqueror, an enslaver. To ask if we should call Hitler ‘great’ is to deceive ourselves about what ‘great’ means in the context of history, and it is to place Hitler as an aberration rather than as what he truly was: a culmination.

It’s banal to observe that we wouldn’t even be having this debate if the Germans had won World War II, and would probably be having it about Churchill instead… not that we don’t actually need an informed national debate about Churchill’s real conduct and legacy… but then that simply restates the point I’m making. We always place Hitler outside the norm, as if he someone does not represent the class of people to whom he belonged. To an extent there is a warrant for this. He does seem to have been aberrant in some ways, and his crimes outweigh those of his opponents, and even his allies. Yet we do ourselves no favours pretending that he was a uniquely monstrous entity. Whatever atypical, even pathological features he and his regime may have had, he was still part of the class of political leaders of industrialised ‘Western’ states. We are trained to think of him in ideological terms rather than in economic and political terms. The evil of Nazism is usually represented to us, certainly in mainstream non-specialist fora like documentaries, as a dangerous ideology, and the crimes of Nazi Germany as results of what happens when ‘normal’ politics is subsumed under fanatical ideology. Hitler is said to have hypnotised a nation with his ideas and rhetoric, etc. The economic basis of Nazism as a form of well-funded, counter-revolutionary nationalism is downplayed. It is bad ideas run amok. The flipside of this is that ‘we’ are never ideological. The British Empire didn’t have an ideology, it was a structure that was administered. It was not the result of an ideology, but of a series of mistakes. It is not even raised as a subject requiring any explanation in most popular discussion, which skips lightly over it even as it ponders the question of why Germany in the early 20th century suddenly made the quixotic decision to try acquiring an empire of its own. Of course, I’m not actually saying that the British Empire was a result of a nationalist, racist, acquisitive ideology… not in any simple sense anyway. I see it as a question of political economy, with each political and economic step informed and justified by adaptations of older ideas, and with the resulting circumstances generating new ideological patterns which then feed back into the system, and so on. What I’m pointing out is that Nazi Germany is used as the great example of how dangerous it is to have ideologies of any kind, whereas the fact that ‘we’ had and have ideologies of our own is effaced. Our ideas are not ideological, by definition. Ideology is the province of dictators. Ideological dictators are, furthermore, the kinds of people who commit horrible crimes… which is why we hear a lot about the genocide of Hitler and less about the genocides of Kaiser Wilhelm or King Leopold of Belgium. The genocides of the slave trade and the elimination of Native Americans are less stressed because they are so obviously structural to western capitalist imperialist modernity that it’s hard to pin the blame on anyone’s ideology. Even so, when they are talked about it’s in terms of racism (which is actually more effect than cause of both) and in the manner of tragedy… much as Britain’s Empire, when the subject comes up, is often framed as a series of embarrassing mistakes. This approach is not just applicable to history. Our current wars always become mistakes when they go ‘wrong’, whereas the wars of our official enemies (or quasi-enemies, like modern Russia) are always cynical and/or the result of bad ideas. These principles are such obvious and self-evident underpinnings to all rational discussion of modern politics that most mainstream journalists, pundits, and policymakers don’t need to think about them, and indeed become very angry when they are raised.

This does actually lead me back to the point we began with last time (Part 4) because we encounter a similar framing of history when it comes to the person of Richard III. Richard is, as previously mentioned, one of the ‘bad’ English kings. Like Richard II, and Edward II, and John. (All the subjects of plays by Shakespeare or Marlowe.)

As mentioned above, in Richard III, Richard - like Iago - constructs rationalisations for his bloody scheming to seize the crown. But why does he need rationalisations, when others around him try to grab the crown without working out why they want it, or at least without bothering to tell us? It’s partly because, for all that he is undoubtedly evil, Richard is the most sympathetic character on stage simply because he’s the most dynamic and exciting, and because he has interiority that the other lack… or that they seem to lack when we see them through Richard’s perceptions of them. Richard is the Renaissance man, the man of subtlety of thought and complexity of emotion. He may be the ‘bad’ Renaissance man, but once again, how do we decide that a particular king - for whom extortion, murder, and oppression were all in the job description - constitutes a bad one? How, in the world in which Machiavelli at least appears to be offering a lecture on cynical ruthlessness as a guide to Renaissance princes, is it decided that a particular prince is evil? Why is it that, on Shakespeare’s stage, the word ‘machiavel’ (whom Richard boasts he can school in perfidy!) becomes a term for murderous schemers, despite the fact that the advice offered by Machiavelli was followed - directly or indirectly - by the princes to whom Shakespeare and his cohorts were loyal?

It is because Richard is constructed as Other - in terms that, as we already discussed, even resemble race-making - that he can be evil. The ways in which he is Other are multifarious and complex. His Otherness is not even always meant to be straightforwardly unsympathetic! Indeed, as mentioned, he is meant to be viewed as different to the others on the stage precisely in the very richness of his interiority, his thoughtfulness, his dialogue with himself and with us, the audience. It is not that he is admirable or self-knowing, or even without self-deception… because, for all that he represents an implicit critique of the others around him, their gullibility and prejudice, their foolishness and their self-flattering hypocrisies (which he, of course, does not share and takes delight in sneering at), he is, nevertheless, spectacularly self-deceiving. It is that he at least thinks. There is a strange way in which only a creature of heightened moral awareness could possibly choose to flout morality so wantonly. And of course, he reveals the hypocrisy of others around him not by his difference to them but by his similarity to them, by how much better he is than them at playing the same game of competitive contextual political performance. Richard II and Bolingbroke in Richard II offer a more complex riff on the same dynamic, but it is with Richard III that Shakespeare begins looking at it. And don’t think that the argument about similarity invalidates Richard’s Otherness. The Otherness is an integral part of it. If the Other weren’t Other, how would its similarity with us be shocking? It is, in its way, a prototype of the ‘horror of compatibility’ that lies at the heart of many a modern monster, such as the Cybermen and the Xenomorphs.

In reality, Richard III did worse than just order the deaths of two young boys. How many people were exploited, oppressed, slaved, driven, sweated, used, abused, whipped, branded, burned, etc, under his regime? How many people were maimed or died in the wars he fought? How many kids died of neglect and starvation because of the scarcity he maintained in order to prop up his rule? We only harp on about the ‘Princes in the Tower’ for two reasons: he almost certainly ordered their deaths directly, and they were of ‘noble blood’. We remember them, as did Shakespeare, as his ultimate crime, because the blue blood in their veins is thought to make their lives more important. But, as I say, they were just two of his victims. And he didn’t even have so many victims because he was an especially bad man. He had them because he was a king, and in the feudal system it was a king’s job to have victims, to preside over a social structure that manufactured suffering and waste and brutality and misery. As ever, the structural violence upon which hierarchical society rests is ignored, effaced, not even recognised as violence. The Richard II who appears on Shakespeare’s stage is said to be bad because he was fey and wasteful and weak and vacillating, and maybe gay. In reality, the historical Richard II oversaw the vicious oppression which provoked the Peasants Revolt, and then gloatingly ran its bloody suppression - a crime which, to me, is incomparably worse than paying too much attention to boyfriends, or being ‘weak’. Similarly, all the official ‘bad’ kings committed worse crimes than the ones they’re popularly associated with, simply because they were kings and medieval kings were brutal gangsters. And here’s the thing: all the ‘good’ ones did too.  And yet, as with Hitler, you wouldn't catch anyone referring to Richard III as 'great', even though we comfortably talk of Alfred the Great and Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great...  Even Richard's thoughtfulness can be seen as prefiguring something about how we delineate the 'bad' from the 'great'.  Richard is a man of ideas, perhaps a prototype man of ideology. 

We end up back at a rather elementary and depressing point of politics. Richard is evil in this play because it is a play for the Tudor stage, the Elizabethan stage. The last Plantagenet, deposed and usurped by the barely-royal Henry Tudor, had to be beyond the pale in order to legitimate, or rather to not de-legitimate, the ruling monarch’s grandfather. As mentioned previously, it is far too simplistic to call Shakespeare’s play, or the book by More he used as source material, ‘Tudor propaganda’. The moment we start using words like ‘propaganda’ we implicitly disavow the idea that our own society employs methods of ideological management. As discussed above, in mainstream discourse, ‘propaganda’ is something Nazi Germany did, something Soviet Russia did, something North Korea does, something Iran does. Britain, the United States, etc, do not engage in ‘propaganda’. To call the average BBC news report or British newspaper - no matter how heavy-handedly and crassly its ideological messages have been censored and managed - ‘propaganda’ is to reveal yourself as a crank, an outsider, an extremist, etc. We’re allowed to import the term ‘propaganda’ backwards into the past, to the age of absolute monarchs, because there it can still stand as a salutary contrast to the way we behave now. No matter that modern Western capitalism - even in ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ societies - has methods of censorship, ideological control, information management, coercion, surveillance, and the manufacture of consent, that would make Henry VII beat his fists on the meeting table of the Tudor Privy Council in furious envy. Shakespeare doesn’t write Richard III as ‘Tudor propaganda’. He writes it within the mainstream orthodox thoughtworld of his own managed, hierarchical society - just the same way, to pick a name at random, David Aaronovitch writes his newspaper columns.


ADDENDUM: I forgot about Dr Judson, who is an entire can of worms all to himself.




Aberrant Eyes 1 year ago

And yet, as with Hitler, you wouldn't catch anyone referring to Richard III as 'great', even though we comfortably talk of Alfred the Great and Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great...

And Alexander the Great (how big was Alexander, pa?). Henry Fielding wrote a Life and Death of Jonathan Wild the Great, which Wikipedia informs me was just one of many literary treatments that drew parallels between the thieving thief-taker and Robert "Flimnap" Walpole.

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Anthony D Herrera 1 year ago

This has got me thinking about that old question: Is Edward Scissorhands a monster or a robot?

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Anton B 1 year ago

I'm totally enjoying your writing here Jack. Thanks for some heavy duty food for thought.

I wonder if, rather than propaganda, Shakespeare's treatment of historical figures and events would have been received by his contemporary audience in the way we might view today's TV drama-documentaries or 'factions'. We can have no way of knowing what an Elizabethan audience's attitude to historical accuracy or even the concept of a verifiable 'history' might have been.

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Jane 1 year ago

I myself approve of an ethos of emptiness, the better to hone the mirror's edge for reflecting one's current environment.

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Andrew Hickey 12 months ago

Nice piece. As to whether Davros' dialogue was deliberately in iambic pentameter, I'm pretty sure I read somewhere (About Time?) that Tom Baker and Michael Wisher rewrote most of their dialogue in iambic pentameter themselves, because they were unimpressed with Terry Nation's writing...

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