Bad Is the World, and All Will Come to Naught

Liar (Kid)

Richard III, Act III

If Shakespeare were Sesame Street, today’s word of the day would be “dissembling.”  It’s a word we don’t hear much today, either in its gerund form or its root verb, “to dissemble.”  In fact, I had to look it up to make sure that its usage would not be listed as archaic.

To my  surprise, it remains very much in the active, English vocabulary.  Here is the definition from my Encarta dictionary:

dis·sem·ble [di sémb’l]

(past dis·sem·bled, past participle dis·sem·bled, present participle dis·sem·bling, 3rd person present singular dis·sem·bles)

1. vi put on false appearance: to put on a false appearance in order to conceal facts, feelings, or intentions
2. vt give appearance: to put on the appearance of something not actually felt or true (formal)
3. vt hide by pretense: to hide real beliefs or intentions through misleading speech or behavior (formal)

[15th century. From Old French dessembler “to be different,” from des- “dis-” and sembler “to seem” (see semblance).]

dis·sem·blance, noundis·sem·bler, noun

Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2005. © 1993-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Now semblance is a word I know and use all the time.  Why hadn’t I grasped the connection?  As I learned with Othello, Shakespeare seems more than a little preoccupied by the gap between appearance and reality, that which can be seen and that which can remain concealed.  For in that gap, a dishonest person may take ruthless advantage of the innocent, honest and trusting.

Richard III fits a similar mold to both Othello and Titus Andronicus.  In fact, I’m wondering how often Shakespeare resorts to the same device to drive his plots and motivate his villains.  Or, to be even more blunt, now that I have discovered this trope running through all three plays read thus far this year, I hope I don’t get bored by the same ol’ pattern again and again and again.

Did Shakespeare discover a winning formula that worked so well he only need repeat it?  For in Othello we had Iago, the devious schemer.  In Titus, Aaron the Moor filled that role.  And now we have Richard, the dastardly power-grabber up to no good.

Yet again, trust, devotion and honesty are played for fools.  In Act III of Richard III, poor Hastings discovers too late that his faith in Richard’s word was misplaced.  He had been better off listening to a friend’s foreboding dream:

Woe, woe for England, not a whit for me,

For I, too fond, might have prevented this.

Stanley did dream the boar did raze our helms;

But I did scorn it and disdain to fly.

Hastings is not alone.  Remember poor George, Duke of Clarence, murdered in the Tower, believing to the end that his brother was his friend.  Then there is the nephew’s entourage, intercepted, betrayed and executed.  And of course the two young nephews who are “disappeared” for the crime of standing in the way of Richard’s succession.  Crimes and deceptions every which way you turn.

For Richard, inauthenticity is a way of life.  He’s such a conniving snake that he never presents himself with integrity – unless that too serves an ulterior purpose.  He’s so adaptable and chameleon-like that I wonder to what extent he deceives himself.  Does he trust anybody?  Can anybody trust him?  Is this the fatal flaw that will bite him in the end?

Buckingham has been Richard’s closest ally and partner in crime thus far.  Yet I keep expecting Richard to betray and sabotage him before long as well.  Perhaps Act III is still too early. Buckingham serves a useful purpose, therefore Richard lets him linger.

It reminds me very much of the brilliant opening to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises:

How does the saying go?  No honor among thieves.  Richard has created a world in which he is the mastermind of dishonesty and deception.  Yet in such a world he himself has nobody upon whom he can trust.  Once he gets what he wants, will he discover that he has no solid ground upon which to stand?

Was that not Margaret’s curse upon Richard?  That he shall trust the deceitful and doubt the loyal?  If that’s the case, a more fitting end could not be found for such a treacherous, back-stabbing double-crosser as Shakespeare’s master dissembler, Richard III.


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