Now With a Paper: Death Note, a Shakespearean Tragedy?

Hey all! Today’s post is a requested post from Arken. They wanted to see the paper I referenced in Death Note: Shakespearean Tragedy? – so I’m actually going to post it. I will say that this is an old paper – I wrote it in 2008 while I was in college, so it might not be the best paper out there. I’m not editing it or anything either.

I will say that I remember it being a trip to figure out how to properly cite anime and manga in an academic paper.

So here’s the paper~

Obviously, there will be spoilers for Death Note from this point on.

Shakespeare in Anime: A comparison of Death Note and Richard III

One would think that between anime and Shakespeare the parallels would be slight.  However, with the anime Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and many tragedies, but mainly Richard the III by William Shakespeare, the similarities are there.  In Death Note, a prep school student by the name of Light Yagami finds a Death Note on the ground outside of his school.  Upon reading inside the notebook and discovering that it allows a person to kill another person with only the knowledge of their name and face, Light decides to try it out and confirm the notebook’s powers.  Once he does this, the true owner of the Death Note, Ryuk, a shinigami, or rather, death god, appears to Light and scares him half to death. After realizing that it does, indeed, kill people, he takes it upon himself to rid the world of evil and become the new world’s God.  His decision to use the Death Note in that manner eventually leads to him being found out and his eventual demise. In Richard the III, the tragic hero is Richard, the duke of Gloucester.  In the play he is bitter towards his brother, King Edward IV, and in general, everyone’s happiness at the end of the bloody civil war, the War of the Roses.  Throughout the play he manipulates those around him and kills everyone who is ahead of him in the line for the throne. At the end, he is defeated by Richmond, who takes the throne as King Henry VII.

While these seem like two vitally different storylines, there are parts that intersect with each other.  The first of which is the personalities of both Light Yagami and Richard. In the anime, Light is described as an attractive young man, highly intelligent, as intelligent as to be the top scoring on the practice entrance exams, and quite personable.  All of these traits are vital to his role in the series. Richard, however, isn’t described as being physically attractive and is even said to be a monster for his physical deformities. His intelligence, on the other hand, is on par with Light’s, as both use their intelligences to their advantage.  Richard is also personable and uses his charms to manipulate people and deceive into showing a darker side of their personality. However, both of these characters are fundamentally tragic. Light imposes his own values on the people and eliminates the world of filth rather than letting the cosmos/God deal out justice.  Richard’s ambition puts him into a position where he can fall for what he’s done.

Light’s intelligence becomes important after he’s been using the Death Note for awhile.  The police notice that people have been dying and bring in a world renowned detective who goes by the code name of L.  L is another of those highly intelligent characters that challenges Light, or Kira, as he’s referred to by those who don’t know how the killings are being done.  Light has to use all of his intelligence to manipulate those around him and to figure out the most successful ways to survive. When his house is bugged with cameras, to avoid being suspected as Kira, he buys a miniature TV and puts it in a bag of potato chips while he writes in the Death Note to continue his judgments, which makes it look like he’s simply having a snack and doing his homework.  After this, he cleverly singles out the FBI agent who is following him around, tails him for a day while communicating to him as Kira, and has the agent retrieve the names of the other FBI agents in Japan and subsequently kills them all. He kills any who oppose him. The first of the people he manipulates is Misa Amane. Misa is characterized as an airhead super model that lacks patience and is quite childish.  Misa also has a Death Note of her own and a shinigami following her around as well, Rem. Light manipulates Misa into helping him by promising her that he’ll love her forever when it’s clear that he has absolutely no care for her feelings. She is truly in love with him as he inadvertently killed the man who murdered her parents. Also, he goes as far as to have the Death Note, and all memories of it, taken away from him if it seems like he’s going to be convicted, he does the same with Misa due to a threat from Rem and because she might spill information about him.  When he gets the notebook back, his memories come back as well. Another who Light deceives is the shinigami, Rem. Rem is in love with Misa, which is a fatal sort of thing for a shinigami. Due to her love for Misa, Rem will do anything to save her. Light takes advantage of this fact by putting Misa in a situation where she is very close to being convicted of being Kira, so that Rem will kill L, who is heading the investigation. Earlier on, L had asked Light to take over the position as “L”, the world’s best detective. Light is aware that the position of “L” is a safer one, because then he’ll be the one conducting the investigation and will be able to control it better.  Rem is put into a situation where she has to save Misa and because of this, she pays the ultimate price of a shinigami, death.

As for Richard, he uses his charm, wit, and intelligence to achieve his goal of becoming king.  From the beginning, he is scheming to take over the throne, “But yet I run before my horse to the market / Clarence still breathes, Edward still lives and reigns; / When they are gone, then must I count my gains.” (Act I.i.160-162.)  What this means is that Richard is aware that he needs to slow down and work things out and that he needs to get rid of both Clarence and Edward before he can take over the throne. One of the first people that Richard deceives is Lady Anne.  Lady Anne is daughter to the murdered Henry the VI and was wife to his son Edward, who was also murdered. Richard murdered these men (along with his brothers). Using his intelligence, Richard woos the Lady Anne. At the beginning of their scene, she has the right impression of Richard, he’s a monster.  But as she allows Richard to talk, her opinion of him changes and the two end up getting married. This is a big issue for her, since she just married the man who murdered her husband and father. “[O,] if you love my brother, hate not me! / I am his brother and I love him well. / If you are hir’d for meed, go back again, / and I will send you to my brother Gloucester, / Who shall reward you better for my life / Than Edward will for tidings of my death.” (Act I.iv.226-231).  The character of Clarence is another who is deceived by Richard. At the beginning of the play, Richard convinces Clarence that he is on his side, that he will do anything to free him, and that his imprisonment for having a name beginning with the letter ‘g’ will be short (his true name is George). Clarence is blaming Edward for his imprisonment, while it is truly Richard who is behind it. Also, Richard managed to get Edward to sign a death warrant for his own brother. The cause of Clarence’s death is caused by Richard deceiving those around him.

Another similarity between Death Note and Richard the III is that there are characters that are not deceived by Richard or Light, or are at least suspicious of their motives.  In Death Note, there are three main characters that are suspicious of Light from the moment they’re introduced. The first of these characters is L (his name is not released in the series).  L is the one brought in to bring down Kira and begins to suspect Light after reading certain information that pointed towards Kira being a student and being close to the police force (Light’s father is a chief in the Japanese police force).  L invites Light to join in on the Kira investigation, not because he trusts Light, but because he would prefer to watch Light’s behavior in person to see if he can deduce that he really is Kira. Throughout the series, L has an ongoing percentage of how likely it is that Light is Kira, normally saying 7% out loud for everyone when he’s thinking that it is over 90%.   Even when Light goes through with his plan to get rid of the Death Note to make him seem like he’s innocent, L still suspects him. After L’s death, two new detectives are introduced, Near and Mello, who were raised in the same orphanage that L was. They are both very young, but prove to be intelligent and worthy to take over the position of L, even though Light has done this.  Near is suspicious of the new “L” from the start, as L’s avatar, Watari had informed Near and Mello that L had died. Neither Near or Mello fall to Light’s guiles or tricks; but neither of them can prove concretely that Light is Kira. They finally band together, which isn’t revealed until after their plan works, of course. They had meticulously set up a plan that involved switching out the actual Death Note and replacing it with a  fake so when Light’s acting Kira of the time, Mikami Teru, showed up and wrote down everyone’s name, no one would actually die and they would be able to corner Light.

In Richard the III, one of the characters who is not deceived by Richard is Queen Elizabeth.  She sees through what Richard is trying to do from the beginning; he’s trying to make everyone but himself out to be the villains when he himself is behind most everything.  “Come, come, we know your meaning, brother Gloucester; / You envy my advancement and my friends’. / God grant we never may have need of you!” (Act I.iii.73-75). Elizabeth knows that Richard is jealous of the power that she gained by marrying his brother Edward.  While she is flaunting her power and threatening to go to the king, she is aware of Richard’s character and that he is the villain behind this. 

“What were I best to say?  Her father’s brother / Would be her lord?  Or shall I say her uncle? / Or he that slew her brother and her uncles? / Under what title shall I woo for thee, / That God, the law, my honor, and her love / can make seem pleasing to her tender years?” (Act IV.iv.337-342).

This is the scene in which Richard is attempting to convince Elizabeth that he should be allowed to marry her daughter.  Elizabeth doesn’t give in to him in the slightest. This quote shows her adamancy against Richard marrying her only daughter, especially since Richard is the man that murdered her brother and uncles just so he could be king.  Richard tries all the manipulation that would work on anyone else, but Elizabeth won’t budge, she’s intelligent and has just lost too many people to this man. Elizabeth is aware that Richard wants to marry her to continue to bring the bloodlines together; but the battle the next day would be deciding who really got to marry her daughter.  At the very end of the scene, she plays her part as King and pretty much tells Richard to wait instead of giving in to him. Another character who isn’t deceived by Richard is Queen Margaret.”[Aside.] Out devil! I do remember them too well: / Thou kill’dst my husband Henry in the Tower, / And Edward, my poor son, at Tewksbury.” (Act I.iii.116-118).  Margaret remembers Richard from the War of the Roses and the horrible things he had done. She seems him for what he is and can tell that he’s manipulating almost everyone around him. While she is biased against him, she is never deceived by him because of her hatred for him.

Another similarity between Death Note and Richard the III is that once they gain the power, they are no longer as mobile as they once more.  Meaning, they are not able to do things that they once were. For example, when Light is brought on to the Kira investigation team, his abilities to use the Death Note as he had been drop a bit.  He has to be careful that the killings he is going through with don’t make noticeable patterns and he has to be certain that he’s only killing people who appear on public television. When he takes over the position of L, he both loses power and gains mobility.  He loses mobility in the means that he has to be very careful in who he is killing on his own, however, he has a few proxy Kiras to do this work for him. Light has to be even more careful when Near and Mello come into the picture and has to in perfect synch with how the old L used to act.  When Near and Mello come into play Light is under a lot of scrutiny about his innocence; especially since Near quickly deduced that Light was, in fact, Kira. He had to be more careful for the fact that unlike L, Near and Mello don’t play by the rules. They worked together and kidnapped one of Light’s proxy Kiras, Takada Kiyomi, so that Mikami would feel obligated to kill her by making her commit suicide as Light would feel obligated to do the same so his secret doesn’t get out.  This led to Light’s downfall.

When Richard succeeds in gaining the throne of England, he loses the mobility that he had before.  It was discussed in class that Richard the III could be compared to a mystery play.  The mystery plays were performed on carts, which was called a locus.  Before being crowned king, Richard was on the platea, or the ground, with the low characters and was able to address the audience personally and manipulate those around him.  When he was crowned king, he lost all of that mobility and was put on top of the locus and loses all the ability to move around and speak to everyone. He becomes considerably less likeable due to this. 

“K. Rich.: Tut, tut, thou art all ice, thy kindness freezes. / Say, have I thy consent that they shall die?

Buck.: Give me some little breath, some pause, dear lord, / Before I positively speak in this. / I will resolve you herein presently” (Act IV.ii.22-26).

This is the first scene in which someone does not immediately do what Richard wishes they do.  Buckingham shows a bit of backbone by not running off and killing the King’s two young nephews.  Richard seems to have lost a lot of the charm and wit he possessed when he was below the locus on the platea.  Richard does manage to get the two young princes murdered by Tyrell. Richard is aware that he has lost power and like before, delegates, but can no longer do much on his own.  Another person who shows Richard that he has lost his mobility and charms is the former Queen Elizabeth. Richard approaches her after Queen Anne has died (presumably murdered by Richard) and expresses interest in marrying Queen Elizabeth’s daughter.  

“K. Rich.: You mock me, madam, this [is] not the way / To win your daughter.
Q. Eliz.: There is no other way, / Unless thou couldst put on some other shape / And not be Richard that hath done all this” (Act IV.iv.283-287).

Queen Elizabeth is flat out refusing that Richard will be able to woo her daughter.  She is going against what Richard wants and is actually thinking for herself. She is one of the few characters that does not give in to Richard and she also shows how his mobility has been limited.  Prior to gaining the throne, Richard convinced Lady Anne to become his wife and Lady Anne was well aware that Richard had been involved in the murder of her father and husband. However, once he gains the crown, his personable nature is diminished.  He can no longer mingle with those lower than him. Because he took the throne, he has set himself up for his fall.

The final similarity between Death Note and Richard the III is that the world has benefitted from Light and Richard.  In the case of Light, the world is rid of crime, not from the endless killing, but people have learned that they will be punished for crime.  They fear that they will be ‘judged’ by Kira. People are, in general, being more moral and kind to each other. Once Light has died, the propaganda of “Kira will kill you if you’re bad” has vanished, but the effects of his ‘judgments’ continue.  The world is practically rid of violent crime. With Richard, he killed all people vying for the throne of England, leaving it so when he is killed; there wouldn’t be anymore turmoil in the kingdom over the throne. He leaves a clean field for Henry VII to take over.  Without what Light and Richard did, their worlds would continuously be spiraling out of control.

While there are similarities between Death Note and Richard the III, they are there own tragedies onto themselves.  The characters of Richard and Light are quite similar between their personable natures and the fact that they are each an example of the just deceiver.  The nature of tragedy is to have someone in a high position fall to a lower position; both Richard and Light put themselves into positions where they are able to fall.  Richard makes himself king and Light takes over the Kira investigation as the new L. However, it should be suggested that Death Note is not just a modernization of Richard the III.  It is a tragedy that can stand on its own.  It contains numerous tragic characters, besides the character of Light Yagami.  Light brings out hamartia, the error that proceeds from the flaw in his character.  Instead of just tossing away the Death Note, he keeps it, and tests it. This is the error that proceeds the flaw in his character and brings his daimon, the unacknowledged portion of his personality out in the open.  A tragedy is designed to evoke pity and fear from its audience and Death Note does just this.


Works Cited

Death Note. By Tsugumi Ohba. Dir. Tetsurō Araki. Nippon Television. 6 Oct. 2006.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Richard the III.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Second edition. Ed. G.Blakemore Evans. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 748-804.


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