Bad Press for Richard III?

Was Richard III a villain in the mould of Shakespeare’s Iago, Shylock or, even, Macbeth? Or was the Sainted Bard, the Holy Cow of Chroniclers, rewriting history (as he demonstrably did to stoop and scrape to the Stuarts with ‘the Scottish play’) in order to toady up to the Tudors by planting one on the Plantagenets?

 We know little about Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England from 1483 to 1485, and, what we think we know, may well not be true. There is a saying, even a cliché, that, ‘History is written by the victors’. On August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth, a rightful king and the line he might have sired, expired. At a later point, due to Shakespeare’s hatchet-job and the demonisation of the previous regime required by the Plantagenet’s successors – the Tudors – the birth of a myth occurred, a legend about a person who was presented as a caricature – a deformed, depraved cartoon image of the reality. This misrepresentation dispossessed him of what made him a human being and replaced it with a one-dimensional villain.  Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was born almost at the start of a civil war, the War of the Roses, that lasted for fifty-three years and revolved around who was or was not a legitimate claimant to be king. Edward IV, of the House of York (and Richard’s brother), seized the throne from the mentally ill and unstable Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, when Richard was only nineteen years old. Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was murdered on 21st May 1471.  Folk myth has accused Richard of this act, as well as the murder of Henry VI’s son, Edward of Westminster, his brother Clarence and his wife. Edward IV suddenly died eleven years later, leaving two young sons – the twelve year old who would have become Edward V, and Richard, Duke of York. These two Princes in the Tower did not live and Richard III has been indicted for their murder as well. Such is the fate of serial killers, he ruled less than two years before he was killed on Bosworth Field. 

Was he a ‘politicide’? Did he ruthlessly remove those who were between him and orb, crown and throne? Or did the well-organised Tudor propaganda machine and Shakespeare, its pre-eminent ‘spin doctor’, conspire to convert Richard into the fictional, but quite monstrous, Hannibal Lecter of the Elizabethan period (minus, presumably, the cannibalism)? As Ronald R. Stockton said in A Meditation Upon the Life of Richard III,

‘Let us think for a moment about the villainy attributed to Richard by his most famous detractor, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare describes Richard in the following way: unfinished, a lump of foul deformity, inhuman, unnatural, misshapen, with a dissembling nature, a rooting hog, the slander of his mother’s womb, the loathed issue of his father’s loins, a yonder dog, a hell hound, a carnal cur, a bloody dog, scum, and vomit. Shakespeare says Richard incited the king against his conspiratorial brother Clarence, even though historians agree Richard was Clarence’s chief defender; Shakespeare says Richard killed his own wife so he could make a more propitious marriage, although historians say he was distraught at her death; and Shakespeare says Richard had his trusting nephews killed to clear his way to power, although there is no firm evidence of this and much of the evidence that exists (all of it circumstantial) points to his enemies and accusers as the possible culprits.’The Richard III Society has been established to counter the bad press he received and its mission statement is,‘In the belief that many features of the traditional accounts of the character and career of Richard III are neither supported by sufficient evidence nor reasonably tenable, the Society aims to promote in every possible way research into the life and times of Richard III, and to secure a reassessment of the material relating to this period, and of the role in English history of this monarch.’Somewhere is the balance that is the truth and that is how history comes to life.But is he the pantomime baddie to be hissed and booed or the tragic hero to be worshipped from afar?

June 27, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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