In college a teacher once remarked that Shakespeare’s Richard II is tragic not because he evidences great vanity, ambition, and moral collapse. Shakespeare’s tragic touches come through the flashes of Richard’s promise.
Take this speech for instance, where Richard rises to the stature of a man:
Tell Bolingbroke–for yond methinks he stands–
That every stride he makes upon my land
Is dangerous treason: he is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war;
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mother’s sons
Shall ill become the flower of England’s face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation and bedew
Her pastures’ grass with faithful English blood.
Richard doesn’t draw from his well of strength until his rule is beyond hope, but when he does the reader wonders, ‘what a man he might have been.’
Lady Gaga, in her recent classless performance, affirmed that Bill Clinton will always be known as the president who lacked a moral compass. This Rhodes Scholar, this graduate of Yale, and former governor used all his powers not to underscore America’s virtues, but to persuade the nation that sex is as meaningless as junk mail. Lady Gaga might be richer for this cultural shift, but I think the country is poorer. Clinton displayed his political skill most as he lied, evaded, and mobilized power to control the narrative of his character flaws. Like the audiences who witnessed the potential of Richard II, many who witnessed the masterful duck and weave of Bill Clinton thought, “What a man he might have been.”