A month before Election Day, Stephen Greenblatt published an insightful essay in the New York Times comparing Donald Trump to one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, Richard III. The parallels between the two are clear (though Shakespeare’s tyrant is, not surprisingly, better spoken and more deeply strategic), as are the parallels between those who foolishly or selfishly enable Richard to the throne and those who made it possible for Trump to occupy the White House. While the transition process unfolded, however, and now that we have seen the first few weeks of what a Trump administration looks like, another, far less clever Shakespearean villain comes to my mind. Not his greatest villain, but, rather, his saddest.
In The Winter’s Tale, one of the tragicomedies that Shakespeare wrote towards the end of his career, Leontes, King of Sicilia, and his pregnant wife Hermione entertain at their court the king’s childhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. The friendship that blossoms between Hermione and Polixenes, however, kindles jealousy in Leontes and he lashes out in a fury of irrational violence: he compels an unwilling courtier to attempt to assassinate Polixenes (the courtier warns his quarry, though, and the two flee the country) and he locks up his wife on the trumped-up charge that the child she carries is Polixenes’ and not his. By the middle of the play, the king’s envious tantrum is repaid with death and despair: his young son Mamillius dies of shame, his wife apparently dies of a broken heart, and his newborn daughter Perdita is lost after he dispatches her to be abandoned in the wilderness (she survives, though the lord tasked with abandoning her gets eaten by a bear and the ship on which he travelled is lost with all hands). Left with no family and, most pressing politically, no heir, Leontes is a wretched man, broken by his reckless adherence to belief over facts.
In his first scene, watching Hermione and Polixenes hold hands and speak quietly to each other, Leontes squirrels himself into a corner, talking to himself in a rambling, self-interrupting style of speech, as if he cannot regulate the flow of his thoughts or control the manner of their expression. His distrust of his wife broadens into a general misogyny and the assumption that women are all dissemblers and liars. From this distrust grows also his insecurity about what others might be saying of him laughingly behind his back – especially what he imagines to be their aspersions upon his masculinity and virility – and his blanket conclusion that anyone who does not immediately and unquestioningly accept his version of reality is a traitor. Having talked himself into believing his wife and his friend’s affair, Leontes next enlists the courtier Camillo in his plot. Rather than present evidence to Camillo, the king merely states what he believes to be true and demands that his retainer obediently agree: “Say / My wife’s a hobby-horse, deserves a name / As rank as any flax-wench that puts to / Before her troth-plight. Say’t, and justify’t.” When Camillo denies having seen anything that would cause him to suspect Hermione’s honesty, Leontes rages and, like any self-deceived bully, instead of explaining his reasoning, he attacks Camillo for not conforming to his imagined version of reality: “Say it be, ’tis true…. It is. You lie, you lie. / I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee, / Pronounce thee a gross lout, a mindless slave.” Not surprisingly, after telling Leontes that he agrees with him and will consent to murder Polixenes, Camillo instead warns the King of Bohemia and the two flee from Sicilia – an action that Leontes, of course, interprets as proof of their treason.
When Leontes confronts Hermione, his case has no ground other than his suspicion. He assumes that because he, the king, has declared her guilt, she must be guilty, and he silences the rest of the court by decreeing that anyone who even speaks on her behalf is just as guilty as her. When some of the lords do object, Leontes cites merely his authority as his evidence: “Why, what need we / Commune with you of this, but rather follow / Our forceful instigation? Our prerogative / Calls not your counsels….We need no more of your advice.” To silence his critics, he sends to the oracle of Apollo at Delphos to learn whether his suspicions are valid, though he himself thinks it “but weakness / To bear the matter thus, mere weakness” – as if taking action with knowledge rather than by impulse were to diminish his strength.
The only character brave enough to confront Leontes is the queen’s waiting-woman, Paulina. She charges him with being ruled by a “tyrannous passion” and slyly admonishes, “I’ll not call you tyrant; / But in his cruel usage of your queen— / Not able to produce more accusation / Than your own weak-hinged fancy—something savours / Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you, / Yea, scandalous to the world”: not only does Leontes’ tantrum put his family at risk, it imperils Sicilia’s reputation. Leontes blames Paulina’s husband for being complicit in his wife’s insolence, but he professes his innocence and the other lords support him; “you’re liars all”, spits Leontes, denying reality once again the only refutation the king can offer.
No scene better reveals Leontes’ flaw than the trial of Hermione. Deluding himself that he can “be cleared / Of being tyrannous since we so openly / Proceed in justice”, Leontes stages a show-trial to persecute his wife. He produces no evidence beyond his accusation, though, compelling her to fall back on a defense that consists merely of her word against his: “Sir,” she resignedly replies, “You speak a language that I understand not. / My life stands in the level of your dreams.” At the climax of the trial, the envoys from the oracle finally give their report – a moment that even Leontes has awaited eagerly since he recognizes that Apollo will “have / The truth of this appear”. Hermione welcomes the report, too, since she has been, as she says to her husband, “condemned / Upon surmises, all proofs sleeping else / But what your jealousies awake.” Her trial, she argues, has been entirely based upon the tyrannical abuse of power rather than justice: “’Tis rigour, and not law.” As such, the words of the oracle are her one recourse. Or one would think.
With no rhetorical flourishes or ambiguity, in one of the most direct passages in all of Shakespeare, sounding almost like a modern newspaper headline rather than the usual cryptic voice of a god, the oracle tells Leontes what the rest of us already knew: “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten.” Unable to accept that his belief stands wholly at odds with the facts, Leontes commits his gravest error: “There is no truth at all i’th’ oracle,” he sneers, “The sessions shall proceed. / This is mere falsehood.” Immediately, a servant arrives to report that the king’s son, Mamillius, has died of shame, news that causes the queen to collapse from an apparent heart attack. With that one declaration – “This is mere falsehood” – Leontes hubristically proposes that his conception of reality is superior to actual reality, that what everyone knows, what every fact and even the divine word confirms, must give way to what he wants to be true. If this part of Shakespeare’s play is meant to dramatize anything, it is that wishing for the power to make reality conform to one’s invented truth is not only selfish and foolhardy but dangerous and inevitably doomed to failure.
Leontes in the first half of The Winter’s Tale is an obstinate, self-regarding tyrant who refuses to accept facts (or prophecies, which, in the world of Renaissance drama, are just as good as facts) and who punishes those advisers who tell him the truth that he doesn’t want to hear. Substantiation is irrelevant to his belief: “I am a feather for each wind that blows,” he admits, confessing his willingness to follow impetuously whatever seems at any given moment to be the most useful version of the truth. Like every bully tyrant, Leontes is a child in the form of a man – someone whose fatuous grasp of reality cannot even conceive of his own error in judgment. As Paulina accuses Leontes after the trial, his “tyranny” is infantile, working “Together with thy jealousies— / Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle / For girls of nine”. His rigid adherence to the a priori assumption that his wife has been unfaithful lacks even the flimsy grounds of visual evidence and manipulative logic that Iago uses to make Othello think the same of his wife. Leontes is both Othello and his own Iago. And it’s his desperate clinging to the fiction he has written for himself, despite the voices of opposition around him, despite the facts that he plainly sees, despite even divine disagreement, that makes Leontes Shakespeare’s saddest villain. He brings himself, his family, and his country to the brink of utter ruin because of his stubborn – and, as it turns out, fallacious – insistence that reality does not apply to him. Because, in spite of every reason to think the opposite, he adheres to an imagined version of events in which he is the party wronged and victimized. Leontes’ fall could have been avoided – it should have been avoided. There was no reason or need for it. It was neither malicious nor ambitious: it was just sad. Or, to use the term from Greek drama, pathetic.
Denial of reality. Insistence on one’s beliefs as facts. Abuse of power to intimidate advisers into confirming one’s pre-formed assumptions. Manipulation of the instruments of justice to obtain unjust results. Hazarding the state’s political stability and international reputation for personal ends. Alienating the country’s allies and friends. As we watch our American Leontes come to power – as we witness the slippery, self-serving denial of reality, of evidence, of science, of fact that characterize both Trump’s own thinking and that of so many of his followers – it is difficult to conclude that the same kind of disasters that befall Shakespeare’s king and his Sicilia will not await us as well. It’s terrifyingly easy to see a petulant Trump lashing out at advisers who bring him factually accurate, though ideologically inconvenient, information with the Leontian sulk, “You’re liars all.” Easier to deny without proof the veracity of others than confront one’s own irrational mendacity. Unfortunately, the results of such magical (childish) thinking are catastrophic.
But, as I mentioned at the start, The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s late tragicomedies. Like The Tempest and Pericles, the play turns from bleak despair to hope through the power of reconciliation, forgiveness, revelation, and the miraculous. In the second half of the play (SPOILER ALERT), sixteen years after the first, Perdita falls in love with Polixenes’ son and they flee from Bohemia back to Sicilia to find a deeply repentant, morose Leontes. And it turns out that Hermione didn’t actually die when she collapsed; in the ensuing sixteen years, Paulina has kept her secretly alive until Perdita was found. Tremendous suffering and needless sacrifice are in the end repaid with redemption and a second chance to get things right (except, of course, for Mamillius and the sycophant who was eaten by a bear). Shakespeare’s late plays are filled with such troubled second-chances and The Winter’s Tale is no exception. My own great hope is that the American story also gets its redemptive resolution – not in sixteen years, but in four.
Original image by Gage Skidmore.