85. Thoughts on Richard III, Part 2: Forms of Evil

In the last post, I considered how Shakespeare’s Richard III can be used to illustrate five stages of tyranny in politics. Now let’s look at how the play, on the one hand, illustrates four forms of evil, namely, demonic, instrumental, idealistic, and stupid and, on the other hand, helps us ponder our relationship to these forms and the tyrannies that all too often flow from them.  This analysis will build on what we have established in the previous post.

Demonic Evil

The demonic person, according to Soren Kierkegaard’s analysis in his book The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton: 1980), has “anxiety about the good” which means he is both repelled by, and attracted to, the good (see chapter 4). This ambivalent anxiety gives rise to defiant actions that seek to undermine the good in various ways.  But what is the good?  The good, for Kierkegaard, is free, unified selfhood and, ultimately, the power of God that makes this personal unification possible. So the demonic person acts in defiance of freedom, unification, and, in some cases, God.  Indeed, the demonic is “unfreedom that wants to close itself off”. This defiance takes place through three interrelated modes of behavior: “shutupness” which is shutting oneself up with oneself in order to be as mute as possible; the “contentless or the boring” in which one seeks to drain meaning from the world and one’s interactions with others; and “the sudden” in which the continuity of the personality gives way to discontinuity. These modes of action in defiance of the good are evil insofar as they willingly destroy integrated selfhood in oneself and others by negating continuity, communication, and meaning and leaving meaningless disintegration, muteness, and isolation in its wake. Since integrated selfhood presupposes communication and revelation, the more the demonic person’s defiance succeeds the more he disintegrates himself and, in the process, may unfreely disclose what was so carefully hidden. Demonic evil, so it seems, is self-defeating in many ways. But this shouldn’t lead us to overlook the fact that the more demonic someone is the less we may know about them: evil is inevitably inscrutable on some level. Of course, Shakespeare gives us what we want: a way to see first hand the hidden machinations of the hidden demon. Literature comes with its power of the imagination to break the silence so we can hear what in normal life usually remains, sadly, inaudible.

Richard is clearly demonic in this sense insofar as:

  • He sees the good—the unity, peace, and freedom of the post-war time at hand—and is “determined to prove a villain” (1.1.30) in order hate and defy the good.
  • He manifests shutupness through most, if not all, of the play: he remains mute while speaking since his essence rarely appears. His heart doesn’t jump with his face (3.1.9). He is closed to the Good insofar as he will not honestly communicate and enter into a genuine first-person plural: there is no “we” for Richard who is always alone.
  • He manifests contentlessness/boring insofar as he actively seeks to drain meaning and life from the people around him. He slanders, lies, stifles, sickens, tempts, corrupts, murders, and takes away those powerful supports that allow people to flourish (2.2.34-88). Richard’s “shadow in the sun” (1.1.26) is his disintegrating effect on those powers of the Good that allow for growth, understanding, and justice.
  • He manifests the sudden in his personality breakdown after his nightmare (5.3.177-206), in his quick emotional and mood shifts throughout the play, and in Olivier’s film adaptation of Richard’s hateful reaction to his playful nephew trying to ride on his back (3.1.131). It is important to note that some of these aspects of the sudden should be seen as involuntary disclosures, something Kierkegaard thinks we should expect from someone who is trying to do the impossible: destroy their freedom.

Instrumental Evil

In his excellent book A Philosophy of Evil (Dalkey Archive: 2010), Lars Svendsen claims instrumental evil occurs when people commit acts they know are evil for some outcome they think is good (see pp. 110-122). For example, many saw the ending of WWII as a good. But they also accepted that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to achieve that peace as evil. So the dropping of the bombs, on this interpretation, was an evil means or instrument to a good end.

In Richard III, murderer 2 feels terrible pangs of conscience before murdering Clarence but wants the money his evil act will bring (1.4.100-127). And Richard’s seemingly virtuous brother Clarence, too, engaged in instrumental evil when he, to assist his brother Edward, committed perjury and murdered (1.4.50-56). Buckingham’s actions seem to be instrumental evil as well: he will commit evil acts in order to receive an earldom.

Idealistic Evil

Svendsen also discusses idealistic evil which occurs when people do evil but do not realize it because they think they are doing good (see pp. 122-137). For example, a brainwashed Hitler youth might think he is doing good by murdering Jews. He would think, in accordance with his crippling ideology, that he is doing good in ridding the world of threats to the good. So unlike instrumental evil, there is no recognition that what he is doing, whether in terms of the means or the end, is evil.

In Richard III, I think the common people who are persuaded by Richard’s propaganda campaign represent this form of evil: they think they are doing the good by supporting Richard for peace and a form of legitimate rule when they are, of course, willing their own demise and the demise of so many others. We might also ponder King Edward’s idealism with regard to making peace between the families and how, in the name of the good, it overlooks things he needed to see—like Richard and Buckingham’s plot.

Stupid Evil

Lastly, Svendsen, influenced by Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Adolf Eichmann as illustration of the banality of evil, claims stupid evil occurs when people commit or facilitate evil acts because of their thoughtlessness (see pp. 137-193).

This form of evil is quite popular in the play. For example, Brakenbury claims, in the face of evil deeds, that he “will not reason” and that he is “bound by oath” (1.4.85, 4.1.26); Murderer 1 says “My voice is now the King’s, my looks mine own” (1.4.167) and “What we will do, we do upon command” (1.4.192); Hastings, facing his death, laments that “I, too, fond [foolish], might have prevented this” (3.4.79); Tyrrel, faced with Richard’s request to murder the children, says he will “dispatch it straight”; the Cardinal, in the face of mockery, says: “My lord, you shall o’errule my mind for once” (3.1.57); and Anne (and possibly Elizabeth for a while) allows herself to be charmed by evil thus supporting it.

Tyranny and the Common Person

It is clear from the play and Svendsen’s analysis that all these forms of evil work together to allow the stages of tyranny (see previous blog) to develop. Shakespeare’s play doesn’t depict one tyrant and many innocent people who suffer at his hand. Rather, we see many levels of corruption, delusion, greed, and, of course, evil. And these levels implicate all of us on some level. Consider Svendsen’s radical comments in his conclusion to A Philosophy of Evil:

“But, without exception, we are all evil. We have all done evil in one of the aforementioned forms, even if we don’t always recognize our actions as evil. Most of us have only done evil on a small scale, but all of us could have done evil on a much larger scale. It’s not only “others” who are evil. It’s we who are evil” (232).

And Plato, according to this passage from his dialogue the Republic (Oxford: 1945), seems to agree: “The despot and his comrades will be maintained by the common people which gave him birth” (295).

Given this widespread nature of evil, it appears we all can indeed do something to stop it—Richard, it appears, could have been stopped in many places on his path and the same goes for Hitler, Stalin, and others. But is that really true? Can tyranny be stopped in most cases? Any cases? Why? Why not? These are serious questions for us all to ponder.


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