Thursday, 15 November 2012


Was Richard III really the scheming, villanous tyrant Shakespeare so powerfully  depicted in his tragedy? 
The Richard III Society, believes it untrue. They state: 

 "… the purpose and indeed the strength of the Richard III Society derive from the belief that the truth is more powerful than lies - a faith that even after all these centuries the truth is important. It is proof of our sense of civilised values that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for." 

What they reject is the portrait Shakespeare drew from Sir Thomas More's biography of the last Plantagenet kings, Edward IV first, his younger brother Richard III then.

What was the full Thomas More treatment, that still seems to be current in some quarters?  Let us look at the dossier that has been built up against Richard III:
- he was a nasty hunchback who plotted and schemed his way to the throne;
- he killed Henry VI’s son Edward;
- he killed Henry VI (a sweet, innocent saint);
- he got his brother, the duke of Clarence, executed;
- he killed the Princes in the Tower (sweet, innocent children);
- he killed his wife Anne because he wanted to marry his niece Elizabeth;
- he was a bad king;
 and so it was lucky that Good King Henry Tudor got rid of him for us.
A lot of people still accept the whole eight-point package.  Why?  There seem to be three kinds of people who do so:
- unthinking people with lazy minds who have come across the package, perhaps at school, perhaps by general cultural osmosis, or perhaps in the works of William Shakespeare.

- people who find it satisfying to have the past shaped by storytellers into a moral lesson, following the old Greek idea of natural vengeance lurking at the heart of things: that is, if you disturb the balance of the universe, the pendulum will come back and sock you on the skull.  They like to believe that Richard did terrible things, and so inevitably got his comeuppance.  This was Sir Thomas More’s approach.

- people with axes to grind.  Perhaps they feel that progress is continuous, and that every age improves on what went before, therefore the brilliant ‘early-modern’ Tudor age was better than the nasty medieval age (there is such a strange power in the word ‘modern’); perhaps they simply feel that it is a better bandwagon to be anti-Richard.

It is the general public who still go along with the full anti-Richard package.  Why?

Perhaps, two words: William Shakespeare.
 A work of art generates its own momentum.  Art gives shape to themes and bullies facts into submission. When facts get in the way of art, it is the facts which lose credibility.  Shakespeare’s Richard III is a brilliant play, a shapely surge of satisfying wordcraft – but it is not history.  I love Shakespeare’s play Richard III.  I love the Richard depicted in it.  I love the villain who turns and winks at me at intervals as he sets about his villainy.  But he is not the Richard III I recognise as a historical figure.  When I first joined the Richard III Society, someone told me he thought that the play should be known as Derek IV – it does not depict the real Richard, so could be about anybody.  There have been other attempts to pervert history in the same way (do you remember MacBird? – suggesting that President Johnson connived at the killing of Kennedy?) – but Shakespeare was an eternal genius, and his play has entered the all-time repertoire, and so Richard’s posthumous reputation is in the hands of the theatre as President Johnson’s never was.  So the Richard III Society is needed to say, ‘Yes, it’s a wonderful play, but it isn’t history’.  We are not here to belittle Shakespeare simply to say, ‘he shaped Richard in the image of a villain because it was good theatre – now go away and look at the facts’.

Leicester,  England - Site of the dig in search for Richard's remains
There has been great interest about Richard III in the news lately since the University of Leicester has dug out the probable remains of the last Plantagenet king, who was buried in that city after being defeated and slained at Bosworth (22 August, 1485)
Read the article: The discovery that could potentially rewrite history

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