86. Thoughts on Richard III, Part 3: Theodicy

A theodicy is an attempt to justify God’s attributes (usually all knowing, all good, and all powerful) in the face of evil. One way to justify God in the face of evil is to claim that evil is actually orchestrated by God to ultimately serve the good. In Richard III Shakespeare writes lines that make us ask: are Richard’s seemingly evil acts a manifestation of God’s justice? Margaret’s comment at 4.4.53 suggests the answer is no: Richard, she says, is “that foul defacer of God’s handiwork”. But, as Agnes Heller notes in her book Shakespeare as Political Philosopher (Rowman and Littlefield: 2002), elsewhere “Margaret’s curses sometimes give us the impression that she is right, that Richard is somehow verily “God’s informer”—somehow a godsend, the vehicle, albeit unaware, of divine retribution.” (268). So could it be that Richard is sent by God to purge the evil people around him? This seems hard to believe insofar as Richard seems to be challenging God himself in the play. Richard wouldn’t be king—he would be the King of Kings. In Exodus 3:14, Moses asks God’s name and receives an answer: I am that I am. And Richard says, upon waking from his nightmare, something that sounds very similar: “Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I” (5.3.183). Heller thinks many passages show Richard to be God’s sworn adversary:

“Immediately, in his first, well-known soliloquy, Richard tells us that he is now going to let his brother Clarence be murdered. Everything follows according to his plan. His bids adieu to his brother with the following words: “Go tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return. / Simple plain Clarence, I do love thee so / That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven, / If heaven will take the present from our hands” (1.1.118-21). I have chosen this short passage from among many similar ones because it shows clearly that Richard challenges Heaven, that he plays the devil he has chosen to become, that he has challenged God to a duel. In 1.4, the scene of Clarence’s assassination, Clarence answers the challenge, although the answer is not directed at him. For Clarence still believes he fell victim to his brother, Edward, and that Richard loves him. He turns to the two murderers: “Erroneous vassals, the great King of Kings / Hath in the table of his law commanded / That thou shalt do no murder” (1.4.190-192). But then the murderers justly retort, why has Clarence not discovered this commandment when he was killing others? Clarence answers: “Have you that holy feeling in your souls / To counsel me to make my peace with God, / And are you yet to your own souls so blind / That you will war with God by murd’ring me?” (1.4.245-48). What follows is a familiar Shakespearean scene involving two murderers, one of them unrepentant and the other repentant. The second murderer does not want to touch the murder fee (although he refers to himself as Pilate, not Judas). It is Richard who commits; it is not against Clarence, but against God, that he fights” (263).

And here we can return, from a Christian angle, to the notion of Richard’s tyrannical impulses having no proportion and recognizing no limits. Consider Heller again:

“What does it mean to choose oneself as a villain?….The acts of radical evil are unforgivable, for radical evil crosses all limits. But where are the limits? Who sets the limits? In Richard’s day and age, God and his Ten Commandments set the limits. This was the world of the living God; everyone believed in God. By choosing himself as a wicked person, Richard chose to break all commandments, and he in fact infringed all ten of them. That is, Richard chose himself as God’s Gegenspieler, as Satan.” (255).

Shakespeare certainly goes out of his way to present powerful images of unity, the healing of wounds, and the overcoming of division in Richmond’s pious victory speech and prayer at the end of the play (5.5.15-41). His words are a moving and welcome contrast to all the demonic aspects of Richard’s character (see previous blog).

But could this reading be wrong? Might Richard’s greatest incognito be that he is a force for Good? After all, many of the characters do seem to deserve punishment! But what about Richard’s order to murder his two nephews? Again, Heller: “Shakespeare avoids going as far as Margaret. Richard allows the little princes to be murdered” (269). But is this Shakespeare’s view? Could it be that these murders, and many others in the play, serve the Good via God’s guiding hand? Or are they just powerful and disturbing examples of the lack of that hand?


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