Having read all of Shakespeare’s Histories and the major Tragedies (Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra), I prefer the Histories because to me they best depict human nature and life itself. As Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil (259):
…life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation….
The Histories show this life in its perpetual repetition, what Jan Kott has called the Grand Mechanism:
Shakespeare’s Histories…constitute an historical epic covering over one hundred years and divided into long chapters corresponding to reigns. But when we read these chapters chronologically, following the sequence of reigns, we are struck by the thought that for Shakespeare history stands still. Every chapter opens and closes at the same point. In every one of these plays, history turns full circle, returning to the point of departure. These recurring and unchanging circles described by history are the successive kings’ reigns. (Shakespeare, Our Contemporary)
At the beginning of his chapter The Kings , Kott begins with a catalogue of the murders committed by Richard III:
* King Edward IV deposed Henry VI where he was murdered by Edward’s brothers Gloucester (Richard III) and Clarence. A few months earlier the only son of Henry VI had been stabbed to death by Richard
* Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Edward IV, murdered in the Tower at Richard’s order. Richard Duke of York Edward’s other son murdered on Richard’s order
* George, Duke of Clarence, Edward’s brother murdered by Richard’s order
* The Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s confidant, beheaded at Richard’s request
* Rivers and Gray, brothers to Edward’s Queen Elizabeth, murdered by Richard
* Lord Hastings beheaded by Richard on a charge of plotting
The case of Richard is particularly noteworthy because to me he embodies the character of Nietzsche’s ubermensch – someone ruled by absolute will, and beyond good and evil. Although others in the Histories had their moments – Bolingbroke had Richard II executed; Henry VIII had his share of beheadings; King John at least tried to murder Arthur; etc. – none were so single-minded, without remorse (Richard quickly gets over his two minutes of reflection when visited by the ghosts of those he murdered), and as ruthlessly in pursuit of his goal as Richard.
Nietzsche could have been talking about Richard when he continues the passage quoted above. In a world of appropriation, injury, etc. there is only one way to act:
[The act] will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant – not from any morality or immorality, but because [the actor] is living and because life is simply the will to power (259)
In Nietzsche’s world, there are no higher values or morality, both created by “the herd”, and which only serve to constrain the individual and his will, and the realization of his self:
What they (the herd) would like to strive for with all their powers is their universal green pasture happiness, with security, lack of danger, comfort, and an easier life for everyone; the two songs and doctrines which they repeat most often are “equality of rights” and “sympathy for all that suffers” – and suffering itself they take for something that must be abolished.
Nietzsche’s man (“We opposite men”) was different. “His power of invention and simulation (his spirit) had to develop under prolonged pressure and constraint into refinement and audacity, his life-will had to be enhanced into an unconditional power-will” (44).
Why is Richard so attractive? and why does it remain one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays? I think for two reasons: First and foremost because we know that we are watching real life. Despite the many centuries that have passed since the 1500s, nothing has changed; and Man is still the greedy, aggressive, acquisitive, and amoral animal he was then and before (Shakespeare’s Roman plays depict the same workings of Kott’s Grand Mechanism found in the Histories). Richard, is no caricature – history confirms most of what he did - and Shakespeare creates his character to exaggerate this very human nature.
Second, although we may not admit it, we admire Nietzsche’s Superman. In this very politically correct world, in which religion, morality, and the strictures enforced by both dominate and reduce the individual to a flaccid, herd-following being, we would like to be Richard. We would want to:
sail right over morality, we crush, we destroy perhaps the remains of our own morality by daring to make our voyage [to a world where hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule are the conditions of life and must be present “and must therefore be further enhanced if life is to be further enhanced” (23)
This fundamental principle of Nietzsche – if we beyond good and evil and simply take life as it is, then the will to action – any action - is the highest form of human expression.
No other character in Shakespeare’s Histories or Tragedies even comes close to this ideal. Other kings and pretenders plot and murder, but not with Richard’s singularity of purpose. Others become very human and reflective. Richard II was the most poetic character in the Histories, but he was a weak king. John was a weak king, following the dictates of his domineering mother, and his actions were often misguided. Henry VI was also a weak king, marrying foolishly and giving up his lands, bungling his rule and crowned twice, then outmaneuvered by Edward and killed. Henry IV once he acceded to power became too concerned with, then too dependent on his son, Henry V.
Hamlet can’t make up his mind; and may be a tragic thinker-hero, but he is not the force of will that is Richard. Nor Macbeth, riven with guilt. Nor Othello, eaten alive by virulent jealousy. Nor Brutus, Cassius, Antony, or Octavius. Perhaps Cleopatra, but her scheming and manipulation are benign compared to that of Richard.
The other classic villains of Shakespeare – Edmund and Iago – also pale in comparison. It is never clear what Edmund wants. He is a womanizer, with some vague idea of garnering all the wealth of his father, Gloucester; and maybe sees that allying himself with Albany and Regan he might have even more power; but he misjudges everyone. Iago is just a bad character, not great (he is a subaltern if that) with jealousy and revenge guiding his actions. Nietzsche, by the way, states that revenge is a more violent but predictable action to restore the status quo.
Richard III is my hero.