Richard III, slandered by Shakespeare

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard 3

It took them more than half a millennium to find old Crookback Dick’s remains, I just read.  They’d wound up under a parking lot in the northern English provincial city of Leicester, where the onetime king of England slept with the crankcase drips like some 15th Century Jimmy Hoffa.

Only now, after 528 years, is he finally getting a decent burial at — maybe -- Leicester Cathedral.  But yesterday, the nearby city of York,  of which Richard was long the duke, set out a strong claim for the remains  on a favorite-son basis.

Richard was the only English king to die on an English battlefield since 1066, so you might have expected he’d already have a mighty memorial. But Richard III has the undying reputation of being the single most evil of all England’s kings. Not just penny-ante evil like old King John or real stupid evil like Ethelred the Unready ...

... but a devoutly evil being on a genius level; like, well, Satan.

The problem with assuming that everyone knows all about Richard III is that this is the 21st Century and quite often, they don’t.  Don’t even try to explain. Instead, rent them a movie. Make sure it is Laurence Olivier’s classic 1955 (color, Vistavision) version of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Richard III.  And let the world’s greatest writer and one of its greatest actors tell them all about Richard, Britain’s last medieval king.

Medieval, that is, in Quentin Tarantino’s “going all medieval” sense of the term: drowning your brother in a barrel of wine, murdering your trusting little nephews, killing your wife, inviting your close friends to dinner in order to slaughter them.  The truth is, however, that Shakespeare’s play is a propaganda piece justifying the Tudor regime, which began with Henry the VII’s 1485 slaying of Richard.  So there's no effort is made to touch on the reported high points of Richard’s 2-year reign, like fairer laws for the common man, the beginnings of freedom of the press and whatnot. The Tudors knew that if Richard were seen as even a semi-nice guy, their reign would appear illegitimate.  Any working playwright in their absolutist era would be sure Not to Go There.

So Shakespeare instead collapsed the historical chronology and even made Richard an older man so he could make him accomplish more misdeeds than his actual 32-year lifetime would allow. The result is one of literature’s greatest characterizations and a glorious hatchet job. Around 90 years ago, there was a reactive boomlet  of  factual and fictional studies suggesting that Richard III, while maybe just a bit rough around the edges, was otherwise a reasonably decent monarch. The most popular of these was mystery writer Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which is still definitely worth a read.

But since then, the consensus is that Richard was pretty much of a bad egg and the state of his newly discovered skeleton suggests he indeed was likely the victim of a consensus mass stabbing.  So you might as well go with the Will and Larry show, and let Shakespeare and Olivier’s Crookback Dick take you affectionately into his confidence as he announces, in his initial monologue, “Many lives stand between me and home… (But) I can smile and murder while I smile.”  

And goes on from there.

(Rabe adds: Ian McKellen did a pretty good job in 1995, too.)

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