"So Much Blood in Him": Power and Corruption in Three Plays of Shakespeare by Paul Green
Shakespeare's tendency to plumb the depths of the human psyche has become almost a cliché. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of his plays are concerned with the intricacies of human corruption, especially in its links to power. Shakespeare often examines the ways in which rulers (kings, dukes, and others) abuse their lofty position, as well as the ways in which ambitious aristocrats plot to gain additional power, usually the throne, by unsavory means. These are certainly not the only forms that corruption assumes in his plays, but they are among the most significant for Elizabethan England, whose recent past was filled with self-centered tyrants and would-be monarchs that fomented bloody civil wars. In both of these categories two major Renaissance political ideals, which can be traced as far back at least as ancient Greece, are clearly threatened if subverted: 1) the notion that order results from a tightly knit, hierarchical society with a legitimate ruler at the top, and 2) the frequently reiterated humanistic belief that the function of a ruler is to make the welfare of the state and its citizens (not the ruler's self-interest) his (or her) highest priority. We find useful examples of these generalizations in three of Shakespeare's plays: one comedy (Measure for Measure), one history play (The Tragedy of King Richard the Second), and one of his great tragedies (Macbeth).
In Measure for Measure, one of the so-called Dark Comedies, Angelo, whose name is both symbolic and increasingly ironic, is appointed Deputy to Duke of Vienna, who announces he is taking a leave of absence. As nominal ruler of Vienna, Angelo must bring order to a political entity whose laws have been inadequately enforced under Vincentio, the Duke. With a reputation for probity and purity (it is said that melted snow flows through his veins instead of blood), Angelo is actually being tested by the Duke--who is aware that Angelo has a shady past he has managed to conceal--and inevitably he fails the test. When Isabella, an attractive young woman about to become a nun, pleads with Angelo for the life of her brother Claudio, condemned to die for the crime of fornication. Angelo after some internal conflict, tells her that he will spare her brother's life if she yields to his sexual advances. In other words, the enforcer of the laws against fornication is suddenly transformed into a would-be fornicator himself. Isabella, who is young and naive, threatens to denounce the new ruler as hypocritical villain, but Angelo, intent on breaking the law with impunity, and thereby invoking the infamous but time-honored double standard, uses his reputation as a shield: in a contest of words, he claims who will believe this unknown young woman against a man whose integrity is considered unassailable? Ultimately, with the Duke in tight control of the complicated events of the play, Isabella's chastity is preserved, Claudio's life is spared, and the nature of Angelo's brief but corrupt rule is publicly revealed.
Like Angelo, Shakespeare's King Richard II is a man in power who places his own interests above his country and his subjects. Unlike Angelo, Richard has come to power through legitimate succession, and he rules far longer than Angelo, whose appointment is temporary; Richard is also guilty of many more corrupt practices. Although he is intelligent, sensitive, and poetic, he is temperamentally unfit to rule. Encouraged by parasites and flatterers, Richard spends lavish amounts of money on himself and his friends, in the process virtually bankrupting the country. To conduct the country's business, therefore, he is forced to impose heavy taxes on his subjects.
At the beginning of the play, Richard's cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who will later become King Henry IV, implicates Richard (without ever saying so directly) in the murder of their uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who tried to curb Richard's extravagant lifestyle. The beginning of the end for King Richard II comes when he unlawfully confiscates the property of another uncle immediately after his death: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, father of the recently exiled Bolingbroke, who returns to England, allegedly to reclaim his patrimony, without royal permission and accompanied by a sizable army.
The play is structured around the conflict between these opponents: a weak king and the man who, it seems, wishes to replace him. Characteristically Shakespeare does not tell us which of the two has the greater "right" on his side, but instead provides multi-faceted views. By dint of succession Richard is legitimately King of England, and he and his supporters emphasize the medieval concept of the divine right of kings throughout the play; i.e., a lawful monarch rules with heavenly sanction as God's lieutenant on earth and any attempt to usurp his/her power is interpreted not merely as treason but also as sacrilege. But on the other side, Richard is more than just inept: as John of Gaunt informs him, he is arrogant and corrupt and threatens the well-being of England. He ignores what is best for his country and its residents in favor gratifying his personal whims and pleasures.
The position of his cousin Bolingbroke is equally complicated. As John of Gaunt's legal heir, he has a right to his father's wealth and property, which Richard has illegally appropriated to pay for his costly Irish wars. However, Bolingbroke's re-entry into England with a large and powerful force (augmented by the many defectors from the legitimate king to his more popular cousin) is essentially a treasonable act and appears to give the lie to his assertion that he has returned for only what is rightfully his, not for the English throne. An additional complicating factor in the two rivals' competing claims to the throne is Bolingbroke's royal blood: like Richard, he is descended from King Edward III, their paternal grandfather. For Bolingbroke, Might makes Right, and shortly thereafter, Richard is deposed, forced to read before Parliament a confession of his crimes and made to ride into London, where the commoners "threw dust and rubbish on King Richard's head" with simultaneous cheers for Bolingbroke. Their political fortunes continue to change, as Bolingbroke ascends the throne as King Henry IV and foils an attempt on his life, whereas Richard, reduced from king to prisoner, is murdered in his prison in Pomfret Castle by a sycophantic nobleman hoping to win favor with the new king.
In Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's later tragedies the central figure embodies, in succeeding stages, major aspects of the principal adversaries in Richard II: the overweening ambition of Bolingbroke, and, subsequently, the tyrannical rule of King Richard. Like Bolingbroke, Macbeth obtains the throne to which he aspires, but as with Richard and other corrupt kings in Shakespeare, his end is inglorious. At the opening of the play Macbeth appears to be an honorable man, one of the most formidable warriors in Scotland, loyal to good King Duncan, and victorious against rebellious Scotsmen in league with a foreign power (Norway) against the Scottish king. Not long after the opening scene Macbeth comes face to face, so to speak, with his own ambition, in the form of the three witches--representations of both external evil in the universe and the capacity for evil in human beings: in Macbeth's case, repressed ambition lurking in his subconscious.
The witches' prophecy that Macbeth will be "king hereafter" forces him to confront consciously the darker side of his nature. His reluctance to murder Duncan, not merely his king, but also his kinsman and a guest in his castle, is worn down by his loving but aggressive wife, Lady Macbeth, who pushes and taunts him until he agrees that Duncan will not leave their castle alive. (The old adage that behind every successful man is an ambitious woman driving him on applies here. Some have unkindly--but not unjustifiably--called Lady Macbeth the fourth witch: whereas the three witches prophesy that Macbeth will become king, Lady Macbeth demands it--and helps fulfill the prophecy.)
Like Angelo in Measure for Measure, Macbeth is afflicted by pangs of conscience before he finally resolves to do the evil deed, but once his scruples are overcome, he moves forward inexorably with more hesitation. As soon as he crosses the line into murder, he moves from corruptible thane (roughly the Scottish equivalent of Baron) to bloodthirsty king in order to secure his shaky kingdom. Following the murder of Duncan, he orders the death of his friend and fellow soldier Banquo (who has also heard the witches' prophecies about Macbeth but learns from them as well, with Macbeth beside him, that he himself will be progenitor of a great line of kings), Banquo's son, Fleance (who escapes--to fulfill witches' prophecy concerning his family), Lady Macduff and her children, and a host of unnamed Scottish victims. Lady Macbeth, ironically, has her bout with conscience after, rather than before, the slaying of Duncan (technically the only of one of Macbeth's victims in whose death she has complicity); in her well-known sleep walking scene, holding a candle aloft, she is overheard asking, "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" And shortly afterwards she hangs herself.
And even grislier fate awaits her husband. Macbeth faces English forces, led by Duncan's older son, Malcolm, who have come to overthrow him; and like Richard II, he sees his soldiers defecting to the enemy. But Macbeth refuses to "play the Roman fool and die on mine own sword." Always the valiant soldier, he chooses to fight to the death and meets his match in fellow Scotsman Macduff. Grief-stricken at the slaughter of his innocent wife and children Macduff defeats the usurper in battle, decapitates him, and carries his head to the new king, Malcolm, lawful heir to the throne of Scotland. The ending of the play would have no doubt reminded--and warned--Shakespeare's original audiences that in Early Modern England the heads of traitors were cut off and set up for public display on London Bridge.
These three plays of Shakespeare demonstrate how he treats two significant, interrelated kinds of corruption--overweaning ambition and self-interested (rather than public-spirited) rule--and their devastating effects. The three venues for these plays (Vienna in Measure for Measure, England in Richard II, and Scotland in Macbeth) conveniently suggest that corruption, which has no geographical limitations, occurs everywhere. Nor does time set boundaries. It was, to be sure, a nineteenth century baron who in a letter coined the famous phrase, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," and we need not look far today to recognize the worth of his coinage. Few writers or thinkers of any era, however, have dramatized the link of power and corruption as brilliantly as Shakespeare.