Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Richard III": Shakespeare Still Gets the Last Word

In all the recent public acclaim for the discovery and DNA identification of King Richard III of England and Wales and Calais and all that, one is reminded how popular this figure from real history melded with literature and historic conjecture ,really is.

"Richard III" was Shakespeare's first truly great history play, conceived and first performed around 1593. As has often been reported it was a play designed to win crowds and solidify the legitimacy of the Tudor line of his monarch, Elizabeth I. Earlier in the 16th century, Henry VIII had commissioned Sir Thomas More to write a rather unflattering biography of the last line of Planetgenet kings to make Richard out to be "as bad as I want to be" in the modern parlance.

He's quite a famous guy, this King.  So famous everybody knows when he's being sent-up

There is something at first charming about this villain, especially in the way he addresses his audience in a frank and up front manner about how he will go about knocking off his brothers and marrying a widow, Lady Anne, after killing off her husband and father. It's almost a send-up---'"was a woman like this ever wooed? Was a woman like this ever won?" and all that. Of course, eventually all the ghosts of his murdered victims give him a bad case of insomnia the night before the Battle of Bosworth and by that time in the play Richard is not talking to the audience so much as ranting to himself or his servants and generally acting crabby.

Was Richard really as all bad as that? Well, there is a society in England (with a branch in Canada and the USA) dedicated to rehabilitating his memory, so that's a good thing to have for your public relations after a half century buried in a car park. Maybe if they keep digging there they will find Amelia Earhart's bones too.

If Richard spirit is out there, he can console himself that he is a well-remembered king. Who would put out serious money to see a play about, say, Henry III ,and he was on the throne for decades while Richard was on top for all of 26 months!

There is of course the many revivals of Shakespeare (the actor Kevin Spacey recently did a world tour playing Richard) and books like Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time" and all the retelling of the Wars of the Roses by other writers and documentaries about the poor Princes in the Tower. Did Richard off them? Well, Shakespeare seemed not to have any doubts, but he thought Julius Caesar built the Tower of London, so take your choice there.

And now he finally has his bones found (in a car park, lese majeste) and he's likely to get a nice funeral in Leicester Cathedral. So there's more good publicity.

Bu, when all is said and done, I think Shakespeare will have the last word on Richard. My favorite adaptation is not the 1955 classic directed and starring Lord Laurence Olivier, although I'm glad we have that adaptation. Al Pacino did a interesting film documentary about the play, "Searching For Richard", where he gave it his all, along with Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey and Winona Rider as Lady Anne in small but effective supporting roles.

But my vote for best cinematic "Richard" goes to Sir Ian McClellan's 1995 filmed version of "Richard" set in an alternative history Britain of the 1930's where fascism has taken hold of the United Kingdom and all the Lords and Ladies hang out in tuxes and fancy frocks and nervously cling to their positions in a jazzy but dour police state.

Some information on the film from Wikipedia:

The film's concept was based on a stage production directed by Richard Eyre for the Royal National Theatre, which also starred McKellen. The production was adapted for the screen by McKellen and directed by Richard Loncraine....

The visually rich production features various symbols, uniforms, weapons and vehicles that draw openly from the aesthetic of the Third Reich as depicted in Nazi propaganda (especially the Triumph of the Will) and war films. At the same time obvious care is put into diluting and mixing the Nazi references with recognizable British and American uniform styles, props and visual motives (also familiar to the average cinemagoer). The resulting military uniforms, for instance, range from completely �Allied� in cases of positive characters to almost completely �SS� in the case of Richard's entourage. Another example of this balanced approach to production design is the choice of tanks for battle scenes between Richmond's and Richard's armies: both use Soviet tanks (T-55s and T-34srespectively), mixed with German, American and British World War II era vehicles.

The film features a new spin on the "my kingdom for a horse" ending that left me laughing and satisfied by the twist, even though purists of the Bard might have been taken aback. It also features an amazing supporting cast: Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Robert Downey Jr, Anette Bening, Nigel Hawthorne, and McClellan himself. Those who are interested in how great storytelling and the grasp of power can be placed in almost any period of history I think would find this film worth looking up.

Come to think of it, I imagine a lot of people will revisit the play in one form or another in the coming months which may be the best thing about his bones being found after all.


  1. I'm one of those who thinks Richard got a rather bad press, to some large degree because of my fellow Brummie Will Shakespeare's, dramatic characterisation of him. Bill was playing to a Tudor Royal Household and it was what they wanted to hear.

    However Richard devolved political power and he was during his short reign a stalwart supporter of legal rights for the poorest classes.

    He introduced into the English legal system 'bail' to protect the accused from imprisonment before trial and to protect their property from seizure during that time.

    Richard instituted what later became known as the Court of Requests, a court to which poor people who could not afford legal representation could apply for their grievances to be heard.

    He was not only a champion of the legal rights of the lowest classes though, he also liberated the distribution of information by removing existing restrictions on the printing and sale of books.

    Finally, and so far as English national identity is concerned most importantly in my view.... he ordered the translation of the written Laws and Statutes from the traditional French into English. This was a very enlightened move I think which for the first time demystified the legal system and brought the law to within the grasp of ordinary people.

    I have recently pitched into the battle to have his bones interred in York and NOT Leicester.

    I feel quite strongly about this. It is known that Richard had expressed his wish to be buried in York then the Plantagenet seat of power.

    My argument is that you simply cannot bury somebody in the wrong place TWICE!

    It is absurd and disrespectful of the known wishes on Richard the man.
    I am appalled and have on other sites stated my objections to the chagrin of the great and the good of Leicestershire.

    Personally I think it is time to set the historic record staight on Richard !!!.... the last English king to die in battle.

    The entire British state and the English (Scots, Welsh and Irish) Crown (s) is/are rooted in murder, deceit and skulduggery.

    Richard was no better nor worse than any other monarch in that respect and that includes the current British one.

  2. Thanks for the extra information on Richard III, AA. From what I've read and what you have added here it is clear that the historical claim of York should override any legalistic claim that any other cathedral might make to his proper internment. Richard was likely from my reading (and in the opinion of many) no better or worse than your average monarch, and, given his concern for bail and the rights of the poor, maybe he has a better case than most. If there is any online petition or e-mail or whatever needed for this cause that those in other countries can add participate in, let me know here.

    And thanks for your informative response.