From the very first lines of the play, Richard III makes it clear what he wants: power. His older brother, Edward IV, is currently the King, and his other older brother, Clarence is in line after him. While everyone Richard is celebrating the end of a civil war, Richard does not join. He says that he is ugly and deformed so much to the point that “dogs bark at me as I half by them” ; he considers himself to be somewhat of an outsider and a social pariah. His goal in seeking power is to take it away from those around him; he wants to have control over them, and to ensure that they feel some fraction of the unhappiness that he feels. He sees power as the be all and end all of happiness, and is willing to go to whatever lengths he needs to in order to get it: he has his brother Clarence murdered, proposes to a woman that he has essentially no romantic feelings for, and accuses Elizabeth, the wife of his brother Edward, of being against both him and his brother. It’s hard not to wonder while reading this if the costs of Richard’s actions are truly worth the desired result. He says that he wants to feel less like an outsider, but will having control over those around him really achieve that goal and make him happy?
Old Queen Margaret enters the story and is furious with the York family for having killed her husband and son, and taking her out of power. She curses Elizabeth, Richard, and all those who were present when her family was murdered. She once had power and now wants nothing more than to see the downfall of those who took it away from her.
Elizabeth is the only character we meet that does have power. However, she is no better off than anyone else in the play. Her husband is still susceptible to illness, and she still has to defense herself to Richard, Margaret, and worry about her family. She has what everyone wants: power, but it doesn’t put her in any better of a position than those who so greatly seek it. Her life is not perfect, and she is not happy by default. It’s hard to read this and not wonder, what exactly is so great about power? Everyone wants it, and those who have it struggle to keep it, but…what does it really do for anyone? Are people truly attracted to power, or the idea of it; the illusion that having power will somehow make better anything wrong in their lives?
This is a theme that is also present in “Othello.” At the start of the play, both Othello and Cassio are in positions of power. But when Iago, in trying to gain their power, manipulates those around them, they are no less susceptible to harm than anyone else; if anything, they are more susceptible. In the end, Cassio is wounded, Othello, the man with the most power, and Iago, the man who spent the entirety of the play trying to gain power, are both dead. So what could power truly have done for any of them? It didn’t keep Othello and Cassio from being hurt, nor did it rid them of any imperfections in their lives.
Through both of these works, Shakespeare makes his audience think about power, and question its true value. What is more valuable: power itself, or just the idea of it?