Shakespeare’s greatest psychopath

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Is character destiny, as the ancient Greeks thought, or is it the other way round? Are people made, or do they make themselves? About this question there is still no universal agreement: it is the heart of our mystery, that I believe shall never be plucked out, as Hamlet put it.

Richard III is Shakespeare’s greatest psychopath. He seems to be that disconcerting character, the natural born criminal, who delights in evil. In Act IV, scene IV, his mother, the Duchess of York, says to him:

Thou cams’t on earth to make the earth my hell.
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy,
Thy schooldays frightful, desp’rate, wild and furious;
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous;
Thy age confirm’d, proud, subtle, sly, and bloody:
More mild, but yet more harmful, kind in hatred.

This is the perfect encapsulation of the career of the intelligent psychopath; to the end, Richard remains what he has always been, and therefore true (if that is quite the word) to type:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe.

This sounds distinctly Nietzschean, as does the following chilling line:

Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.

Nearly four hundred years before the so-called Me-Decade, Richard exclaims:

Richard loves Richard, that is, I and I.

Richard tells us that ‘All unavoided is the doom of destiny,’ yet his very opening speech suggests that he has choice in the matter of how to live. Of course, he cannot help that he was born:

Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up –
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them –

But yet his villainy is freely chosen:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Well, you might say, that is only too understandable in his circumstances; and yet, in the play, Richard, despite the fact that he has:

No delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity…

…he proves, in fact, an ardent and successful wooer of women. He seduces not one, but two, women whose husbands or children he has killed. After he has seduced Anne, he exults with all the pride of his evil:

Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Was ever woman in this humour won?

Before dismissing this as preposterous caricature, it is worth recalling that serial killers of woman seldom lack for declarations of love or offers of marriage immediately afterwards. The same is not true of serial burglars.

Shakespeare gets an astonishing number of things right, but some things change nevertheless, for example forensic science. When Richard is in the presence of the corpse of Henry VI, whom he stabbed to death, the wounds open up and begin to bleed anew, indicating that the murderer is near. Now, of course, we have DNA, to say nothing of the polygraph machine. Richard III wouldn’t get away with it today – or would he?

One thought on “Shakespeare’s greatest psychopath

  1. Brian

    Funny coincidence that TD used the same Richard III quote in his Bastards of Privilege piece i which you just posted today. I’ve often wondered whether TD happens to be reading the things he pulls quotes from at the time when he is writing an essay, or whether his memory is so good as to recall them at will. I would love to put that question to him as the range of quotes in his pieces is so broad. I vote for some sort of Reddit Ask Me Anything or google hangout where we can put questions to TD.

    Reply

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