Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face for all occasions…
“No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore am no beast.”
British scientists announced Monday they are convinced beyond reasonable doubt that a skeleton found during an archaeological dig in Leicester, central England, last August is that of the King Richard III, the last Plantagenet King, who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
The spine of the skeleton is bent like an aerial view of the river Thames. Severe scoliosis and evidence of horrendous injuries sustained on battlefield… With the spinal deformation like that, it’s a marvel of fortitude he could have fought at the battles of Barnet, Tewkesbury and Bosworth.
The King’s spine is twisted, all right, but it doesn’t make him a twisted psychopath he was portrayed by Tudor propaganda. Shakespeare’s story evolved from a history penned by Sir Thomas More some two decades after Richard died.
Even at the worst estimates, Richard III seems mild-mannered in comparison to what was before and even more so – what followed.
King Richard III died young and his reign was short – mere 28 months, but he managed not to waste his time playing Shakespearean villain. Instead, he enacted impartiality of the judiciary, introduced Bail system and the Court of Requests — an earlier version of Legal Aid for the poor. Under his rule, the framework of English common law was formed and Parliament was set up with Magna Carta. Richard III was a defender of free speech, lifting restrictions on publications.
The ascendance of Tudors was a period of discontent. Henry VII was mean and overtaxed his people. Henry VIII was cruel and destructive. Edward VI was a murderous Protestant fanatic. Mary Tudor was a murderous Catholic fanatic, and Elizabeth’s was “normal” only by comparison to her crackpot relatives. Stuarts and Hanoverians weren’t angels either.
Since 1924, the Richard III Society has been pursuing a more balanced assessment of the king, supporting research into his life and times. The recent Greyfriars excavation has raised the king’s profile, handing the Richardians new hope to redeem the ‘Good King Richard‘.
The public now questions whether the dramatic caricature devised by Shakespeare is depicting a real man or somebody who is the target for one of the earliest character assassinations in English history.
Richard III will get a “new face” as well.
Update (February 5, 2013): And he got it today.
The society doesn’t diminish the brilliance and enormous popularity of Shakespeare’s play.
It’s superbly written with wonderful speeches. It’s a very good yarn. The characterization of Richard is so compelling. He is the archetypal ‘trickster’, an anti-hero whom we should hate but we can’t. Baddies are always so much more interesting than goodies. He invites the audience to join with him in his career to the throne and confides in them, inviting them to be complicit in his villainy. He is such an out-and-out villain that audiences find themselves fascinated by him, despite his crimes.
But his ‘determination to prove a villain’ belongs to the realms of psychology rather than history. We should bear in mind that the play is the culmination of a hundred years of propaganda against the last Plantagenet king and the playwright used the character created by Sir Thomas More who was one of the earliest exponents of the ‘Tudor myth’ about the life and character of Richard.
It’s not easy to find another example of such deliberate historical inaccuracy. Speak of the fictional literature as a Public Relations institution carving public personas out of historical ones, personas that often have little in common with the real thing.