The predicament of our time

Poor political leadership may be the predicament of our time but, as Richard II shows, not just of our time. The flaws and errors of political life are perennial and on leadership Shakespeare’s insights are so acute he could have a column in The Times. In Richard II alone we find properties of leadership that carry across the centuries since. It does not take a genius to see the contemporary parallels in each.

The loudest echo we can hear in our politics today is Shakespeare’s argument about the source of legitimacy.

The loudest echo we can hear in our politics today is Shakespeare’s argument about the source of legitimacy. Richard II dramatises two opposing ideas about where political authority comes from. Richard himself claims to derive legitimacy from divine right. He is vain, petty and vacillating, indecisive, abrupt and arbitrary. He is prone to colossal blunders such as seizing Bolingbroke's land and inheritance. Yet he is cavalier about all this because, as the heir of a divine calling, he disdains political pressure as the concern of ordinary mortals. An attitude like this can lead to a Prime Minister calling a referendum on the assumption he cannot lose.

Richard discovers that deeds matter in his world too. The highest level of politics is not an arena which forms charter; it reveals it and Richard’s suffers for the things he does by instinct. The rage of Richard seeing his own face in the mirror is the anger of Boris Johnson face to face with the obvious fact that his fantastical version of Brexit has given way to the grubby compromises of the world we actually live in. Never mind that the Richard-Boris figure makes a drama from the crisis. Politics is theatrical but it is also more than theatre, a point that Shakespeare makes beautifully.

The flaws and errors of political life are perennial and on leadership Shakespeare’s insights are so acute he could have a column in The Times.

This case is, in fact, Bolingbroke’s contrasting theory of political leadership. Bolingbroke argues that political skill and intellect matter a lot more than bloodline. He is the modern figure in a dispute that we still have in the language. Aristocracy means rule by the best but in English also denotes a social class. The word nobility has the same dual aspect. The idea that authority comes from expertise and knowledge, rather than birthright, is the great legacy to modern politics from the Renaissance and, before that, from the Rome of Cicero. The link in the chain was Sir Thomas More’s Utopia whose sub-title is Optimus status republicae, the best state of the republic.

Bolingbroke makes a claim for expertise but also for the superiority of action. He is a study in leadership out of Machiavelli as well as More. Copies of The Prince, Machiavelli’s instruction manual for ruthless leaders, were probably available in England from about 1585. Bolingbroke, in his time, would have been as contemporary figure as it was possible to be, unrepentant as he is that political action should be judged by its consequences. "Though I did wish him dead, / I hate the murderer, love him murdered”, as he says of the death of Richard.

The brutal plainness of Bolingbroke’s rhetoric is the second clue to the idea of political leadership in the play. There was, in the ancient world, a dispute between two styles of writing and speaking, The Asiatic style was bombastic, ornate and theatrical. The Attic style was plain, crisp and demotic. Think of the contrast between Martin Luther King and Barack Obama or between Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Though both speak in verse, Richard is extravagantly Asiatic and Bolingbroke is plainly Attic. Richard’s florid metaphors do not travel across the social classes while Bolingbroke’s simpler idiom means he communicates well with the middle and lower orders who give him a political base. This is exactly the conundrum of modern political communication in an era of the mass franchise and the fragmented audience. How do you find a register with which to speak to as many people as possible? Mrs May speaks on language and Mr Corbyn another, depending on whom they are seeking to persuade. Mrs May’s leadership failure during the 2017 general election - the fact that she still won illustrates Mr Corbyn’s political failure - derived from the fact that she was unable to speak a common language.

The prelude to the demise of a political regime is almost always poor leadership.

We also see a study in what happens when leadership ends. The prelude to the demise of a political regime is almost always poor leadership. John of Gaunt’s famous deathbed speech is a classic tale of decline. All radical political movements define the lost past as a golden age and the immediate past as a disaster so that they can appear as redemption. The world before the EU took control, the once great America that has been stolen from the people. Richard’s failure to tend his garden has allowed weeds to flourish and that leadership failure will issue in chaos: "the woe's to come; the children yet unborn. / Shall feel this day as sharp to them as thorn". The end is always rather forlorn even when it is dramatic, like Thatcher or Blair leaving office. There is always a moment in which, like Richard, the departing political leader sits upon the ground and tells sad stories of the death of Kings. Power is fleeting and the crown is hollow.

Though, of course, this is true only for the individual. The main idea of medieval theology was the notion of the King's two bodies - the frail body corporeal and the timeless body politic. Power, of a sort, will always go on, even as we witness the demise of an incumbent. The really vital question, then, is how power and leadership should be transferred. Richard II is the last King to have a clear and direct claim to the throne which is said to derive from the almighty. We are seeing in this play power in a moment of transition, from spiritual to temporal, from authority to action. In developed democracies we are in a moment like this now as power has fled from national government, upward to global capital and to multi-national institutions, and downward through the democratic technologies to the raucous crowds on social media.

This gets us to the heart of the state we are in now concerning political leadership. We have just gone through an uncivil debate about the location of legitimate authority, the question of Richard II. Does legitimacy reside in the referendum verdict of 23 June 2016? Or in the particular interpretation of that event embodied in a deal negated by the Prime Minister? Or should legitimate power be located in Parliament which has demanded the right to thwart the process? Maybe an issue which was contracted out to the people in June 2016 needs to be returned there in 2019. In a country with no written constitutional code, there is no legal answer. There is only a political answer, defined in the drama of conflict between rivals.

Shakespeare is, of course, wonderful on what happens when all these sources of legitimacy are ignored, and just how dangerous that can be. This parable for our times is told to great effect in Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant. Decked out with examples from Richard II, Macbeth, King Lear and Coriolanus, Greenblatt sounds a warning about a certain American President without ever once mentioning his name. The story of Tyrant is one we see here in Richard II: institutions are fragile and weak and may not withstand the assault of individual ambition. Everywhere rancour and unreason reign and the only answer to terrible leadership is not authoritarian leadership but better leadership.

By Philip Collins - The Times Columnist

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second runs at the Almeida 10 December '18 - 2 February '19