The rise and fall of Assemblyman Vito Lopez is a tragedy, but is it truly a Shakespearean one? To find out, we asked one of the country’s foremost Shakespearean scholars, Columbia University Professor Jean Howard, to compare Lopez with
the characters and themes of some of England’s greatest history plays and dramas(time to reread Richard II). And yes, today’s reading is part of the core curriculum.
City and State: Is there one play that matches the circumstances that led to Lopez’s downfall? He developed a reputation over the past three decades for providing affordable housing and senior services for thousands of people in Bushwick, but he amassed so much power and Democrats across the state were afraid of him.
Jean Howard: There isn’t one play that matches this guy’s rise and fall. It’s a kind of
tragic rise and fall. To compare it to Macbeth, he had to have had a certain stature,
but there is no one Shakespeare tragic figure that he resembles completely. He’s
most like Richard the III in his ambition to aggregate power for himself and block
his enemies, and that ambition that Richard has for the crown that he has had in
from the beginning.
There is no Shakespearean figure who is corrupt. That’s not how Shakespeare saw
tragedy. It wasn’t about political corruption so much. The only tragic figure that we
might at all call corrupt is Richard II. There are hints in the play that he has been
spending the English treasury on favorites, giving tax revenues to friends. He would
give them monopolies on products and so forth so they would garner tax revenues
that should have gone to the public good. The most stinging indictment is from John
of Gaunt, midway through the play, an old figure from the prior generation.
C&S: Not exactly Meade Esposito.
JH: John of Gaunt, who is the uncle of Richard II, on his deathbed says that Richard
II has wasted English patrimony, and he reams Richard out. It’s from Act II, Scene
1 and it goes for about 70 lines. That’s the chief accusation against Richard II, by a
Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
C&S: I don’t think any of the state prosecutors investigating Lopez would like this
JH: Both Richard II and Richard III are clearly tragic figures and they may more clearly resemble this guy than King Leer, Macbeth, or Hamlet. Richard the III is evil, he kills princes in the tower, but Richard II is accused of corruption. Most Shakespearean tragic figures fall from blindness, being unable to understand what they see in front of them, like Othello, or a kind of obtuseness.
C&S: But in a way, isn’t that what happened here in the sexual harassment charges, where Lopez is blind to the consequences of the actions?
JH: He thinks he’s impervious of the consequences to what’s happening him. It’s more like Coriolanus, where he’s rigid and inflexible, and cannot see the effects of his action. It’s a Roman play where a general returns to Rome triumphant and is asked to be a ruler in peace, but he’s blind to consequences of how his words hurt
others. He’s cruel to plebeians who ask for corn. They’re hungry. He says he won’t give them corn and they shouldn’t be asking these things. He calls them names. And the tribunes, they’re the officers who are elected to represent the plebeians, rise up and banish him from Rome for his actions. Coriolanus thought he was too patrician too be brought down. It’s a late Roman tragedy. Most people don’t like it very much.
C&S: What about the comedies?
JH: I don’t find anything comic about what happened with Vito. I don’t think this is a comic story. A Shakespearean hero is one of undisputed greatness. You could make a case for this guy, that he’s the size of a Macbeth, or a Marc Anthony, but it’s hard to make. It’s a miniature version of a Shakespearean paradigm of the rise and fall.
C&S: And what about the sex romps such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
JH: The sex romps are so innocent. They’re about young people in the prime
of life doing exactly what they should be doing. It’s all about reproduction and
marriage and it’s not about sleaze. Shakespeare doesn’t approach sex about sleaze.
In Antony and Cleopatra, you get mature sex, but it’s positive. There’s very little
leering and raunch in Shakespearean sex. There’s a little bit in Troilus and Cressida,
but you have to go to the other dramatists for that.
C&S: What about Macbeth, and the aspects about this couple that rises to power and
JH: Lady Macbeth he breaks first and he never breaks, and he wills himself to die at
the end. I suppose there are parallels in his actions in a minor kind of way.
C&S: And Julius Caesar?
JH: Well that’s filled with ambition. There’s Brutus who is inscrutable, and there’s
Anthony who is an ambitious man who comes on top. It’s about power struggles. It’s
not really a story of a fall. Julius Caesar is a proud man stabbed in the Forum, but he
isn’t corrupt. He refuses the crown that’s offered to him. People say he’s amassing
too much power, but it’s never really proved in the play that he is. There’s a massive
power struggle. You could say Rome is like Albany because it’s an arena where
people jockey for power and fall when stronger people come to the front of the
stage. But in the Vito Lopez case, it’s a man who destroyed himself by overreaching.
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