Richard III: Shakespearean Hit Job?

STC 22314, title page

First page of the first edition of William Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”

England’s King Richard III has been experiencing a bit of  renaissance lately after his remains were discovered underneath a carpark (a.k.a. parking lot) in Leicester, UK last year.  Of particular interest has been the debate over whether or not Shakespeare’s portrayal of the late king in his famous play Richard III is historically accurate.  Scholars had suspected for some time that the villainous, deformed version of Richard that appears in the Bard’s script could have been a clever form of Tudor-era propaganda – the Tudors being the English royal dynasty that unseated Richard III and would have been keen to emphasize his illegitimacy as king.

The discovery of Richard III’s skeleton has now proved that at least two details in Shakespeare’s play were incorrect: the king did not have a withered hand, and while he did suffer from scoliosis (side-to-side curvature of the spine), descriptions of a hideous hunchback were exaggerated.  As for the many crimes that Shakespeare alleges – murdering his two nephews and a brother while manipulating his way to the throne – the Richard III Society offers a spirited defense for him.

In addition, a mock trial at Indiana University’s law school  in 1996, presided over by former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist and other legal experts, found Richard III not guilty of murdering the two princes.  Taking all of this into consideration, and remembering that the play was written more than a century after Richard’s death, it seems quite likely that at least part of Shakespeare’s tale was invention.

Richard_III_earliest_surviving_portrait

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III, c. 1520. It was based on an original that has since been lost.

I recently watched a documentary on the archaeological team that discovered this famous skeleton, which included clips from the 1955 film version of Richard III starring one of Britain’s most respected actors of all time, Laurence Olivier.  Having never seen the film, I became curious and decided to check it out when I discovered it on a shelf at my local library.  I found it to be a superb achievement: the lack of modern technological wizardry almost serves to emphasize the great performances.  Olivier strikes all the proper notes of villainy, fake nose included.

One of the aspects of the film that struck me the most occurred during the preamble, where the filmmakers seemed to acknowledge the less than factual nature of Shakespeare’s version of events, while also embracing it.

The history of the world, like letters without poetry, flowers without perfume, or thought without imagination, would be a dry matter indeed without its legends, and many of these, though scorned by proof a hundred times, seem worth preserving for their own familiar sakes.

I doubt this disclaimer has done much to assuage the frustrations of the Richard III Society members, and there are few historical figures who have been more pilloried in death than the late king.  But for what it’s worth, very few of those who do get labeled as villains ever emerge later to such fanfare as Richard III has in recent days.

He is now set for a true royal burial in Leicester Cathedral (pending legal developments) at the price of ₤1 million, as well as a new museum in Leicester dedicated to him (and no doubt hoping to reap the profits of this sudden historical interest).  Thanks to the hard work of some devoted scholars to humanize him, he may be more popular now than he was while actually on the throne (much like the Clintons).

It is tempting to see Shakespeare as nothing but an opportunist doing the bidding of the Tudor monarchy in exchange for their good favor and patronage.  This is hardly the only case of dramatists modelling a real historical figure to fit their preferred narrative.  I also loved the film The Social Network, and its depiction of Mark Zuckerberg certainly veers from the truth on occasion.  Similarly to Olivier’s film, The Social Network contains a bit of a disclaimer in its final scene suggesting that what the viewer has just seen was likely exaggerated.

Artists will always adjust history to achieve their own dramatic ends.  There is a time and place for that, but we must also be careful how we allow it to shape our own views about historical events.  Literature and the arts have a unique ability to shift public opinion through the subtle method of entertainment.  We must simply be aware that accepting one version of events as it is presented to us could lead us to incorrect conclusions, whether it involves a king who lived hundreds of years ago or something in the news last week.  As the line between news and entertainment continues to blur, the fate of Richard III is a good reminder that we should always be vigilant about what we choose to believe.

One thought on “Richard III: Shakespearean Hit Job?

  1. This suggests that the media narrative or “spin” does not always accurately portray the truth, either in the UK or USA. Having the “press in your pocket” creates legends of epic proportions for many in politics or entertainment. Fortunately, we have “The Authority” to give us the unbiased truth on Richard and just about everything else.

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