by Andrew Root
“Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry 'Content' to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.”
-Richard, Duke of Gloucester
“I’m confused just saying it, so I can only imagine how you must feel, hearing me talk. It’s very confusing. I don’t know why we even bother doing this at all. But we’re gonna give it a little try.”
Is Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States, a psychopath? Yes, he is.
When the term “psychopath” is thrown around liberally in pop culture, it can be easy to forget that psychopathy is a clinical term describing a personality complex; psychopathy does not usually manifest itself in a spectacular Hannibal Lecter or a twisted Norman Bates, although the word itself has taken on monstrous connotations thanks to these—and many other—characters. Clinically speaking, a psychopath must fit many characterizations, and diagnostic tools to identify psychopathic tendencies have been in use since the 1940s. The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—a commonly used assessment tool—lists 20 factors which hallmark a genuine psychopath (which are condensed here for sake of space): does the subject have a glib sense of charm, and a grandiose sense of self-worth? Do they lie without concern of being caught, cheat or manipulate others without remorse? Do they lack empathy or have a limited range and depth of emotions? Are they boastful of fleeting sexual conquests and unable to commit to loving relationships? Is there a history of impulsivity, delinquency and a failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions? Does the subject take pride in “getting away with it?”
While a proper, clinical study would be needed to make the diagnosis official, a highlight reel of campaign footage and interviews with the new president would confirm many, if not all, of these tendencies. Trump has shown his ability to manipulate a crowd of thousands, boasting of his lack of preparation. He lied openly about his intentions to jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton (“That plays great before the election—now we don’t care.”). He has a history of not paying his contractors on the basis of not being satisfied with their work. The issue of his tax returns has been met with minimization after minimization, the President claiming that “no one cares” about his taxes because he was the winner (and his campaign manager confirming that they will never be released). The incongruity of his anti-immigration platform and his marriage to an immigrant. The infamous audio confessions of sexual assault. The Twitter explosions. The video of the newly minted President dancing with his third wife at the inaugural ball, bellowing along to Frank Sinatra’s anthem of self-assurance, “My Way.” He has shown himself a manipulative narcissist who succeeds on the sweat of those he considers disposable. He demonizes racial, gender, economic, and political demographics that do not align with his own personal identity. He is casually cruel, hypocritical, and dismissive, and he would deny these documented personality traits if confronted.
Donald Trump, the President of the United States, fits the clinical definition of a psychopath.
In one of his final interviews as president, Barack Obama mentioned that the works of William Shakespeare (particularly the tragedies) “continue to be a touchstone” in understanding “how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.” You’ll find the great dramatist called to mind often in the coming years as we try to make sense of President Donald Trump. Google “Barack Obama Shakespeare” and you’ll find, along with this interview, a list of articles which fail to overlay the template of a Shakespearean character onto the 44th President (the cerebral self-examination of Hamlet being a close-if-not-quite fit). Obama being a well-read man is a comforting realization for those of us who hope the President would have an understanding of human urges and their effect on the powerful. Several news organizations have confirmed that President Trump is not a big reader (he’ll read chapters, but he “[doesn’t] have the time”), and it’s safe to assume that he has not studied the works of Shakespeare. Ironic then, that a man as obsessed with popularity would not be familiar with Shakespeare’s most popular play—performed more frequently than Hamlet—Richard III.
In the early 1990s, Al Pacino began a project that would span years and continents; a multi-level documentary chronicling his attempt to understand and convey how he felt about Shakespeare’s Richard III, the story of the crookback king who schemed his way to power following the English Civil War of the late 1400s. Pacino and his colleagues—Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Penelope Allen, to name but a few—spent years studying the play, analyzing the historical context and character motivations, playing out the scenes in living rooms, parks, classrooms, theaters, and eventually on film in an attempt to unlock the famously difficult drama. Pacino interviews scholars, classically and contemporarily trained actors, children, homeless people, construction workers, all in an attempt to find out what gets between us and Shakespeare. What is the value of something so complicated and disconnected from us?
In 2014, radio host Ira Glass declared that Shakespeare “sucks,” an estimation shared by a number of interviewees in this film. Glass felt there were no dramatic stakes, that the plays were not relatable and that he could not emotionally connect with the text. A subjective claim such as Glass’s is a difficult one to critique, but it does suggest an unwillingness to meet the text on its own terms. The works of Shakespeare are perhaps not so much boring as they are difficult. Shakespeare was a popular playwright, and was writing for the times he inhabited. But as it tends to do, language has evolved in the 400 years since these plays were written and many references have lost their immediacy. Some investment into the history, the poetics of the time may be necessary to understand the scope of these scenarios. Which is, of course, boring. The labelling of Shakespeare as “boring” is the product of decades of lackluster presentation by teachers who could not bridge the gap between an ambitious outsider whose crowning is the result of his own psychopathy and the man who now sits in the Oval Office. Noteworthy that Glass’s dismissal of Shakespeare and a major turning point in Trump’s presidential campaign both occurred on America’s favorite platform for the lowest common denomination of entertainment: The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
The conversation surrounding our inability to connect with Shakespeare has two great champions in Looking For Richard: Vanessa Redgrave and an unnamed homeless man in New York. The problem, they say, is both the widening gap between object and expression, and also the growing sense of apathy regarding that disconnect. Redgrave cites a scene in the play in which Richard (who has at this point arranged the deaths of his own brother and many of his trusted friends) begins to carry a Bible with him, and make himself seen in the company of religious men: “In the midst of these noble concerts and treaties and diplomatic pacts, Shakespeare is saying the truth beneath all this is absolutely the opposite. The truth is that those in power have total contempt for everything they promise.” The violence of Richard’s past—violence that we, the audience, have been privy to—is at direct odds with his newly religious persona, but the people of England who have not been paying attention eat it up. Stories of recent citizens who feel cheated out of their vote by a dishonest political persona is nothing new, however. According to Redgrave, there have been “centuries in which words have been totally divorced from truth.” This sentiment goes much deeper than simply feeling upended by a change in a person’s duplicitous temperament, but extends into basic human psychological behavior, a point the homeless man furthers:
Intelligence is hooked with language. And when we speak with no feeling, we get nothing out of society ... That’s why it’s so easy to get a gun and shoot each other. We don’t feel for each other. But if we were taught to feel, we wouldn’t be so violent ... We say things to each other that don’t mean anything. But if we felt what we said, we’d say less and mean more.
It’s not hard to conceive of a world which lacks empathy, in which words and truth don’t match up. It’s been predicted in literature for decades, and one need only turn on the news to hear the powerful speak in terms of “alternative facts” in this “post-truth” world. A world where the slaughter of children is met with empty condolences, devoid of any meaningful action. As the homeless man finishes speaking, he leaves the frame and asks a passerby for some change. Any Shakespearean scholar worth her salt would be loath to overlook the double meaning behind the man’s request for change.
Pacino’s attempts to crack open the play are perhaps not entirely successful. Though the acting is world class (Spacey as the ambitious Buckingham has scarcely been better), and the multilayered approach to analyzing the play as it’s being performed is helpful in elucidating the tangled historical and dramatic context, the film spends most of its running time explaining the plot and various relationships between the multitudinous cast. Pacino’s Richard is put through the popular story beats; his brother’s murder (after the king called for his release), his seduction of Lady Anne (a woman whose father and husband were killed by Richard himself), the murder of his young nephews and his ascent to the throne, and his defeat at the hands of a younger, more popular rival. Richard’s charm, manipulation and ambition are on full display as Pacino, in costume as well as street clothes, effortlessly slips in and out of the role. Much weight is given to his reprehensible rise to power, with his downfall treated almost as an afterthought. “I have a feeling your Richard will have earned his death,” says Pacino’s friend and advisor, Frederic Kimball, “and I think we should start thinking about how to do it.” This approach to reading the play is very common.
Much ado is made of Richard’s charm. His monologues delivered directly to the audience are utterly intoxicating as he frames his bloody ascent in sympathetic terms. Especially when played in close up by an actor of Pacino’s pedigree, Richard is magnetic. But when he lies to everyone else, what makes us think that Richard is telling us the truth? We are made to feel special through the vehicle of Richard’s confidence in us, and as such we are implicated in his crimes. Of the dozen productions of Richard III I’ve seen, the seduction of Lady Anne has uniformly been met with thunderous applause. We ought to be disgusted as Richard—the murderer of Anne’s father and husband—wins her trust and love, and then crows “I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.” We ought to renounce Richard and feel sick to our stomachs at the spectacle he prepares for us, but sadly “morally reprehensible” cannot compete with “dramatically satisfying.”
The scholar Barbara Everett explains Richard’s conundrum (and successful play for the audience’s sympathy) at the play’s opening as being an outsider. Richard is portrayed by Shakespeare as a hunchback with a withered arm (the historical Richard may have had scoliosis, but that’s where the resemblance ends), a man who was not made to flourish in peaceful times where the drums of war are substituted for the “lascivious pleasings of a lute.” He is not made for loving, and so determines to hate the idle pleasures of peacetime and all those who dally there. The irony being, of course, that he has set himself up as an outsider, the antithesis to the powerful and successful, a position he then endeavors to inhabit. But, as Everett comments, “irony is only hypocrisy with style.” Richard’s self-identification as an outsider is a key part of his psychopathic personality.
In 1916, Sigmund Freud—in a kind of thought experiment—psychoanalyzed a handful of Shakespearean characters; Hamlet, King Lear, Shylock, and Richard III. He characterized Richard as having what would come to be known as many psychopathic tendencies, primarily the feeling of being an “exception.” Richard’s exception comes (in part) from his physical deformity—he feels that nature has cheated him, and because through no fault of his own he’s different than everyone else, he is therefore owed something in return. As such, the rules do not apply to him and his bloody rise to power. He shares this proud outsider status with the new President, who rose to prominence in part on that very identity. But Trump’s feeling of exception comes from a different place than Richard’s; Trump has spent his life in such overwhelming opulence that he’s come to expect that very exception to the rules, which goes a long way to explain his extreme reactions to any form of criticism. “When you’re a star, they let you do anything,” as they say. “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression,” as they say.
Much of this essay is an attempt to understand a man like Trump; a man so entirely unconcerned with the consequences of his actions. A man void of empathy for anyone not entirely like himself. And so if Trump is like Richard, then I am interested in Richard’s downfall. Much is made in Shakespearean criticism of Richard’s thrilling rise to power, much less so about his fall from grace. Harold Bloom calls the second half of Richard III some of Shakespeare’s most “inept” writing, saying that it is beyond the skill of any actor to salvage the staccato line readings of Richard’s feverish self-exploration. But the fall of Richard is worthy of investigation to those who have a vested interest in the fall of Donald Trump.
The fall of Richard is precipitated by a crisis of conscience. He knows how to get power, but does not know how to keep it. In his meteoric rise to the throne, Richard’s band of cronies and henchmen are eager to sabotage, slander, and dispose of his enemies in exchange for the promise of a favor. But when Richard demands the murder of his two young nephews, Buckingham, his chief aide, balks. This hesitance is enough for Richard to withdraw his favors and promises, a mere hundred lines after he has Buckingham help him onto the throne. Despite its “inept” writing, the scene in which Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those he has slain is nearly never cut from performances of the play (ghosts being great crowd-pleasers). The haunting is followed by a monologue in which Richard vacillates wildly between proclaiming his self-love and his self-hate. It’s usually kept in performance because it lays Richard’s duplicitous soul bare; the audience would hopefully take some satisfaction in this monster feeling poorly about himself. But a subtler moment heralds the first cracks in his charming veneer; often cut from performance (and indeed from Looking For Richard) is a scene in which Richard attempts to convince Queen Elizabeth to give him her daughter’s hand in marriage. The scene acts as a mirror to Richard’s seduction of Lady Anne (truly a high-wire scene, played to perfection in the film by Pacino and Ryder), but this second scene does not go as Richard planned. In order to consent to marry her daughter to the demon king, Elizabeth requires Richard to swear his good intentions by something which he has not profaned. Despite appealing to his love, his father’s life, the future, the Earth and God Himself, Richard cannot name one thing he has not sullied by his words or actions. It’s here in the play that Richard stops talking to the audience, his heretofore gleeful confidante.
While Richard is weighed down by his crimes until they begin to break him, I cannot wait for Donald Trump’s crisis of conscience, or for the boredom of fulfilling his promises to drive him to distraction. I don’t want to wait 400 years to try to figure him out. He has already set into motion the wheels that will crush thousands, and his pursuit of power—peppered as it is with the rhetoric of xenophobia, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and just about every type of othering that you can name—will ultimately alienate him from what little humanity he does not freely give away. If the template of psychopathy holds true for the new president then he will continue to be the rampaging animal he’s shown himself to be in the opening days of his presidency. The scholar Barbara Everett charts an interesting course through Richard’s downfall which may hold true for Trump:
Although he is frightfully clever, he is at the same time a kind of boar who has subsumed into himself all these frightful animal instincts, and all that the rest have got to do is hunt the boar. And that’s what they do. And they get him.
It’s a wonderful metaphor. Hunting a boar—like rejecting a psychopath—takes preparation, the support of a good team, the strength to deal with emergency setbacks quickly and keep moving. Sometimes you have to loose the dogs. When the President lies, call the President a liar. Politicians who attempt to limit the freedoms of the people who elected them should be treated with suspicion and are not owed respect by default. Take a stand that is unshakeable, because this boar is very real and very intent on gutting as many as he can hook on his yellow-orange tusks.
One criticism of Richard III that lines up with a Trump administration is its length. The play is usually hacked to bits when performed and Looking For Richard is no exception, cutting much of the poetry in order to highlight the labyrinthine plot details and character relationships. But the silver lining to this inescapably long dark cloud is that if we chart the ascent of Richard alongside the ascent of Trump, then the play is nearly over. Richard is crowned king in act 4, scene 2; approximately two-thirds of the way through the play. If the timelines of these two tragedies continue to parallel one another, we could be rid of Trump in less than a year.
Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.