Thursday, March 7, 2013

Skeletal Richard

Hi! Welcome to this month's commentary on Shakespeare in the news.
In recent months lots of people have been talking about the finding of King Richard III’s skeleton under a parking lot in Leicester, England. Several people who I didn’t (and don’t) think cared about Richard III at all asked me for my reaction. Did I think it was really him? My own husband asked me this last night.  He thinks I know! In fact, through the wonders of DNA evidence, it’s been established that yes, it’s really Richard III – or was. He was lying in the ruins of a church buried under centuries’ worth of dirt and finally paved over, resident there more or less since he was killed by a serious knife to the head during the last great battle of the Wars of the Roses at Bosworth Field in 1485. That’s a big date, 1485. Henry Tudor, whose forces defeated Richard’s at Bosworth, was crowned that year and began the more than century-long-lasting Tudor dynasty, which ended in 1603 with the death of Henry Tudor’s granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth I. 1485 was also very close to the time William Caxton brought to England the printing press, an excellent invention that would radically expand public literacy and facilitate, over the subsequent century, the mass distribution of ancient and modern books in print, and enable hundreds of English writers of all social levels, including Shakespeare, to speak to the people (kind of like the Internet, our own time’s great textual leap). So 1485 is a pretty good date to choose if you want to mark the end of the middle ages in England and the beginning of the Renaissance. And if we see it that way, Richard III, who perished that year, was the last medieval English king. Maybe that’s why so many people are excited about this dead and now very skinny royal.

 Most excited, and largely responsible for his exhumation, are members of an international group called the Richard III Society. Judging from their website (though not necessarily from interviews with individual members), the members of this society are a reasonable group who devote themselves to trying to clear Richard’s atrocious historical reputation. For centuries he’s been considered a kind of bogeyman, the devilish scourge with which God punished England for the deposition and murder of an earlier Richard, the anointed King Richard II, in 1399 (history is complicated). History has told us Richard III was a monster whose physical deformities (a curved spine, a withered arm) were not ordinary handicaps, but outward marks of his inner evil. He has been considered a demon who hacked and murdered his way to the throne, even ordering the killing of children: his two young nephews, royal rivals who stood in his way. Not only the Richard III Society, but many scholars (some of them members of the Society) have challenged this negative view of Richard, calling it calumnious slander (I guess that’s redundant), pointing out that no solid evidence links Richard to the more heinous murders which occurred on his watch, and noting that lots of English people mourned the king’s death and called him good King Richard even after the new king, Henry VII, was on the throne, which means they probably weren’t faking their affection.
Where does Shakespeare come in? Well, as the Richard III Society website correctly points out, it is Shakespeare’s play Richard III that is largely responsible for the persistence of this final Plantagenet king’s nasty reputation. No, Shakespeare didn’t invent King Richard the Nasty. He got him from Renaissance historians like Raphael Holinshed, who got him from that saintly Thomas More, whose early sixteenth-century History of King Richard III was the most important literary basis for all later accounts of bloodthirsty Richard. Shakespeare came along somewhat late in the Richard-bashing game. His crime was to write a really good play that people liked and still like, with lines like the one Richard snarls to his partner-in-crime, the Duke of Buckingham, about his plans for his young princely nephews: “Shall I be plain? I want the bastards dead.” We and generations of playgoers enjoy stuff like this so much that tons of people who have never heard of Holinshed or even of Thomas More can summon to mind the scowling Laurence Olivier with his sinister fake nose sneering, “Now is the winter of our discontent . . . .” and cackling as he plots to get his brother executed. (Yes, he does that too.) In fact, while blaming, we could blame Laurence Olivier for the nasty Richard (and that horrid needle-nose), or, better yet, Ian McKellen, whose 1990s film made Richard look literally like Adolf Hitler, toothbrush moustache, jackboots, and all.
The Richard the Third Society would like to impose a sharp division between the historical Richard (good!) and such dramatic incarnations (bad!). When interviewed for a recent BBC 4 documentary, “Richard III: The King in the Car Park,” several such “Ricardians” made that wish plain. But the fact is, the dividing line between fact and representation is never absolute. This is evident even in the documentary, in some of the “Ricardians”’ resistance to the facts about Richard’s body discovered by the forensic scientists who dug up his bones. When told by the documentary’s narrator Simon Farnaby that the skeleton showed a spinal irregularity, one “Ricardian” simply said, “No!,” not in surprise but in disagreement. In her rival historical fantasy, Richard’s physical handicaps were invented by Tudor propagandists to suggest his evil in an age when deformity was thought to indicate demonic influence. So, even if the dug-up bones really were twisted, “No!” from this “Ricardian.” In using scare quotes around “Ricardian,” I’m pointing to a more subtle but no less self-deluding way in which some members of the Richard society substitute their own fancy for fact. Just as “Jacobeans” were English subjects of King James I, and “Elizabethans” were subjects of Elizabeth I, actual “Ricardians” were people who lived under the reign of an English king called Richard. These modern Richard fans – many of whom aren’t even English – are not such people. But some of them pretend they are. Richard III is their Arthur, their once and future king.
I’m not criticizing these few Richard extremists (who are certainly not all of the Society) for pretending to be Richard’s subjects. We “Shakespeareans” can be similarly guilty of idolatrous behavior. I’m just pointing out the ways that real history is inextricably bound up with fiction, and fiction with real history, as Shakespeare himself knew. Watching the car park king documentary, I myself was struck by how much Shakespeare actually got right. The pathologists examining Richard disclosed that Richard not only really had spinal scoliosis, he also had, if not the “withered” arm Shakespeare gave him, an unusually feminine bone structure, evident in the arms and the pelvis. In Shakespeare’s play’s first scene, Richard calls himself “Deformed” and “unfinished,” which is early-modern sexist shorthand for “feminine” (since Galenic medical theory, revived in the Renaissance, held that women were “unfinished” men). It goes without saying that nobody with osteopathic abnormalities deserves to be called a “lump of foul deformity” or a “bunch-backed spider” (great Shakespearean insults though these be), and that women don’t deserve to be called half-baked men. But how can we deny the existence of a historical reality reflected by such verbal slurs, not only in Shakespeare’s play, but in the earlier work of Thomas More? We should remember that More’s History was drawn from oral accounts of Richard’s reign, given to him by witnesses recalling at thirty years remove the Battle of Bosworth Field and the time just before it. “[M]en constantly say” is a frequent refrain in More’s History. More himself questioned the factuality of some of the worst things said about Richard even as he reported them, wondering “whether men of hatred [could possibly] report . . . the truth” (quoted in Schwyzer, 856). But clearly there were men and women who’d hated Richard, as well as men and women who’d loved him. It must have been difficult even that close to Richard’s own time to sort fact from fantasy. And we run into a problem if we want to accuse More of simply painting the most vicious portrait of Richard he could in order to flatter his Tudor king, Henry the Eighth. In later life, and on the executioner’s block, More didn’t conduct himself like a person who cared about flattering kings.  
The point is, time and memory distort fact, and the process begins as soon as fact happens. What’s most fascinating about Shakespeare’s Richard III is that in it, Shakespeare shows as much interest in the way tales about Richard got distorted by time as he does in constructing Richard as an over-the-top villain. In a recent article, scholar Philip Schwzyer* points to some events in Shakespeare’s play that, having no clear source in any written chronicle, might well come from Shakespeare’s own memory of the stories told him by doddering grandparents, or by someone their age; tales about which Shakespeare might, as an adult, have thought, “Now, wait a minute. Born with dragon’s teeth, was he?” So when Shakespeare came to write his great and, in fact, career-making play, he subjected it to a sly critique not just of its own veracity, but of the veracity of historical memory in general. Richard III is full of scenes where oral accounts of what “really happened” get questioned, like the one where the brat-prince York (I’m sorry, but he is) makes this claim about Richard’s prodigious childhood: “Marry, they say my uncle grew so fast / That he could gnaw a crust at two hours old.” Richard’s mother smacks the boy down, saying sharply, “Who told thee this? . . . His nurse? Why, she was dead ere thou wast born.” At this the boy backtracks, saying sheepishly, “I cannot tell who told me.”
The kid knows what Shakespeare knew. He knows a good story when he hears one. But it took Shakespeare to write a scene like that one, which pulls the carpet out from under his own play even as he stages it.
*This article is ”Lees and Moonshine: Remembering Richard III, 1485-1635,” Renaissance Quarterly 63 (2010): 850-83. If you like Richard, read it!


  1. Great first post, Grace. Can't wait to read more. For a while I was resisting the Richard III DNA evidence out of nothing more than scientific ignorance. But it really *is* skeletal Richard!

  2. Poor Richard's almanac: "Can I do all this, and cannot get a crown?". "My kingdom for a horse!". He got what he wanted (except for the horse, of course, of course), and then what he deserved: crushed by a Mustang (ultimate irony) in a Leicester car park.

  3. Glad to see you are writing some about Gloucester. He is my favorite character. Hands down. Please keep writing about him. He is in other Shakespeare plays besides Richard III as well.