(Greenblatt’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/8; via Pam Green.)
In the early 1590s, Shakespeare sat down to write a play that addressed a problem: How could a great country wind up being governed by a sociopath?
The problem was not England’s, where a woman of exceptional intelligence and stamina had been on the throne for more than 30 years, but it had long preoccupied thoughtful people. Why, the Bible brooded, was the kingdom of Judah governed by a succession of disastrous kings? How could the greatest empire in the world, ancient Roman historians asked themselves, have fallen into the hands of a Caligula?
For his theatrical test case, Shakespeare chose an example closer to home: the brief, unhappy reign in 15th-century England of King Richard III. Richard, as Shakespeare conceived him, was inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage, the consequences of a miserable, unloved childhood and a twisted spine that made people recoil at the sight of him. Haunted by self-loathing and a sense of his own ugliness — he is repeatedly likened to a boar or rooting hog — he found refuge in a feeling of entitlement, blustering overconfidence, misogyny and a merciless penchant for bullying.