Of course Richard III can be seen as a 'history' describing events of a time long forgotten. But does Richard III not closely resemble some modern dictators? Are not his ruling techniques revolutionary and modern?
In 1956 Friedrich and Brzezinski suggested in their work" Totalitarian Dictatorship" a list of criteria to evaluate dictatorship, indicating as crucial elements the existence of a single mass party led by a charismatic leader who uses terror, propaganda, mass-media , armed forces, modern science and technology to suppress and control the country and its people by using an official ideology to legitimize and maintain the regime.
Is Shakespeare’s Richard III a totalitarian dictator?
If one watches the movie "Richard III" directed by Richard Longcraine, who definitely sees Richard III as a modern dictator (click to see the most significant movie sequence (2.2 MB)) one might find his view convincing. If one is familiar with the play, however, one will easily notice some differences. The elements of propaganda, mass-media, modern science and technology are not, as suggested in the film, relevant for Richard’s dictatorship. Printing, of course, had not been invented before the first half of the fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg, and Caxton had not started to print English books before 1476. Mass-media, modern science and technology did not exist in those days, therefore it was impossible for Richard to use them for his advantage. But on the other hand he used terror and the armed forces shamelessly. Obsessed by power Richard did not hesitate to kill members of his own family just to gain more power and establish his kingdom. Everybody who disagreed with Richard’s opinion or argued with him, went directly into prison or had to die. In his function as king Richard also had the absolute power of the armed forces using them to fight against all his enemies. So one might argue that there are parallels between Richard's rule as seen by Shakespeare and modern dictatorships. We chose particularly two modern dictators we thought would be very interesting to compare to Richard: Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.
Let us take Hussein, for instance:
The most obvious parallel between Hussein and Shakespeare’s Richard III is their absolute willingness to kill everybody who stands in their way. They both came to power in a pseudo-legal way. Before they gained power, both made sure that everyone who could possibly be a threat to their future position would get eliminated. The gain of power itself seemed to be legal and therefore hard to dispute by the opposition, though actually it was a fraud . Like Richard, Hussein is a the single leader of a country as well ( in this case he is the leader of the radical Iraqui Baath party) and rules the country in unscrupulously as well, using terror and violence. For example, he once executed somebody for spilling coffee on his newspaper photo. Invisible for the ordinary citizen, several secret police agencies acting on his order observe the people and denounce everybody getting in Saddam’s way. To maximize his power, Hussein even executed his uncle and mentor, at whose house he had lived from his tenth to twentieth year, as did Richard, who did not hesitate to murder his own family. Like Richard, Hussein is the leader of the army, which he uses to erase whole towns, including the population and buildings. However, Richard did not have the advantage of modern technology like chemical weapons to fulfill his goals.
There are actually several hidden chemical laboratories in the country producing poison gas and other mass destruction items. As a matter of fact, Shakespeare’s Richard III had to use more conventional weapons as swords, but did so very effectively.
But one cannot only compare Richard to Hussein but also to Adolf Hitler. Hitler perfectly fits the definition of a modern dictator. He was the head of a mass party (NSDAP) which soon was the only party in Germany during Hitler’s reign. In contrast to Richard III, he was able to use propaganda and mass-media to achieve his goals. For example, Hitler’s speeches were spread on the radio so that everybody could (and sometimes had to, e.g. in public places) listen to him all the time; other radio-stations were not allowed to be on the air. With Goebbels, he had his own secretary of propaganda managing that most people thought of him being the greatest leader and therefore they did everything to please him. Due to the fact that Hitler had the power of the armed forces, every man, even boys, had to fight during World War II. Richard did not have the opportunities to use modern science and technology as Hitler did, but his psychology is no less suggestive (as can be seen when Richard lets himself be 'persuaded' to accept the crown). Both based their reign on violence and terror. Needless to say that both did not shrink from murder and terror: Their willingness to kill everybody who stands in their way makes them comparable with each other. Although Richard did not have the chance to use the modern devices Hitler used, it is quite probable that Richard would not have hesitated to use them.
After a careful analysis and closer comparison of Richard's actions to those of other dictators it becomes evident that Richard's ruling techniques definitely contain elements of modern dictatorship. In conclusion one can see that even modern dictators copy the political structures and ruling techniques of kings and sovereigns of former times.
"Richard III" / movie of 1995 http://www.r3.org/mckellen/film/homepage.html
The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/iraq/saddam.htm
The Prince by Nicolo Marchiavelli http://www.orst.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/prince/prince_contents.html
Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
Encyclopaedia Britannica CD ROM Multimedia Edition of 1999