For better or worse, Richard III is now a worldwide pop-culture icon, joining the ranks of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, Harry Potter and Severus Snape, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Aragorn and Legolas. Many more reams of paper and backlit words on computer screens will be written about him. His fans – whether authors of fiction or non-fiction – will be supportive. His anti-fans will be as venomous as ever.
Methinks, however, that the days of the venom-carriers seeking fame or fortune via the archetype of Villainous Richard may be numbered. The Shakespeare-Tudor creation is archaic, a portrait of Tyme Past, while the real Richard III has managed to get himself rediscovered and inserted firmly and forever into the 21st century.
“Richard liveth yet?” You can bet your medieval gauntlet he does.*
I don’t think it’s common knowledge that professional historians – think university professors who must lecture and publish if they are to survive – encounter fashionable cycles in their discipline. So do professors of literature. I mention this because Richard III has the distinction (or perhaps the unfortunate situation) of being both a literary figure and an historical one. What happens to Richard in the next few years may well mirror what happened to another literary-historical figure in the form of a certain Irish author by the name of Oscar Wilde – a man, incidentally, who was considered worse than a monster by members of his own society during the last years of his life.
Wilde died in November 1900. At the time, Mrs. Grundy dictated that nothing good could be written or said about him unless it was privately whispered or printed, or published by someone who had known him personally and whose aristocratic connections made them impervious to direct attack. Oscar always had his private friends and fans, and they tried to look out for him, before and after he died. Unlike Richard’s fans, these men and women never dared to form a society or attempt to rehabilitate Oscar’s reputation; The Scandal of his downfall was too fresh, and Mrs. Grundy would have burned them all at the stake.
Public attitude began to shift in 1946 after Hesketh Pearson published his Life of Oscar Wilde. However well the book sold, studying or reading about Wilde was a private pastime, not something anyone wanted to be seen doing while traveling on the Tube. Still, there were a hundred other things besides The Scandal to interest someone in Oscar’s life, and his personal warmth and charisma embraced many, even from beyond the grave. So he gathered fans, and those fans did interviews with the men and women who had known him – to preserve their memories before they passed on – and books revealing details of Wilde’s private life were published for a public that was hungry to know more about the amazing man their forebears had despised.
So it was that by the 1980s, it was permitted – grudgingly, but still permitted – for a university student to write a paper or two about Wilde.
By the 1990s, university classes in British literature began studying Wilde’s poetry (usually by clumping him in with Yeats and Shaw, never mind the three were Irish). Professors were now permitted to say nice things about Oscar’s works, but his private life had to be left alone. Only his creations could be considered, as if they had sprung full-blown without any influence or inspiration from his life’s events. A couple of careful professors analyzed Wilde’s plays by comparing old drafts to what finally hit the stage, but what’s important to know at this stage is that the university dons were left in the dust by the graduate students and laymen of that time who basically said, “Sod this. I’m writing about Wilde’s works as they were influenced by his life.” And more books were published.
As 2000 approached, plans were made to celebrate the centenary of Wilde’s death, never mind Victorian society had destroyed his ability to create, hastened his death, and would have celebrated nothing to do with him. His grandson was located and began giving lectures about his illustrious grandfather. Plaques were placed in Oscar’s honor – one of them in Poet’s Corner, Westminster. And lo! Oscar suddenly became much more popular with the masses.
And so it was that Oscar Wilde was again embraced by the public – a thing not seen since the premier of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in London. The universities worldwide had no choice but to be carried along on the tide of resurgence.
Since then, a plethora of authors – including writers whose own lives were influenced by Wilde’s tribulations, graduate students seeing a quick way to get into print, blatant fame-seekers, and enthusiastic students of his life – have run to hop onto the bandwagon and write reams that most times had much more to say about the writer than they ever would about Wilde. Oscar belongs to the world now, in ways that likely would have amused, thrilled, and exasperated him in life. The circus surrounding him is still going strong in some quarters, and his fandom is international.
My point is that once Oscar Wilde was “discovered” by the general public, it quickly became “fashionable” to talk about him positively in professional circles, whereas a few decades before a professor would have been committing professional suicide to so much as breathe his name.
To bring us full circle, it has long been “fashionable” in professional historian and anti-Ricardian circles to accuse some Ricardians as being off with the fairies. Their treatises weren’t foundationed in solid research. They offered only willful flights of fantasy and wishful thinking when it came to the king they were so “mad” about. No self-respecting professional historian would dare shove his or her scholarly toe over the line, not if they wished to keep the respect of their colleagues.
Let the historical record show that Ricardians found Richard. Sniffy university dons did not.
The world has discovered Richard III now. Many have embraced him. Are curious about him. Hunger to know more of him. The Wheel of Fortune ever turns, and it’s already begun running over a few traditionalists who have been thrilled in the past to paint the king as the Eternal Villain. To keep up with public curiosity and opinion, it will now likely become fashionable for professional historians to research Richard and discover lo! he wasn’t vile (or at least as vile) as his detractors painted.
Brace yourself for new archetypal representations of Richard III that may be a bit extreme, like St. Richard of Middleham. These archetypes will step forward to take their place alongside The Evil King, The Murdering Uncle, The Loyal Little Brother, The Ideal Medieval Husband, and Good King Richard. But never fear, for if it’s one thing Richard has always been good at, it’s accommodating myriad archetypes on his not-hunched shoulders. Jung would have had a field day analyzing all of them, as well as those of us attached to one or another of them…but that’s a subject for another, much longer, article.
Whatever comes, if Afterlife Richard is aware of all the hoopla surrounding him now, here’s hoping he’s in agreement with Oscar Wilde, who’s on record as having said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
* The phrase “Richard liveth yet” originated in a poem written about the Duke of York’s family while he was still alive, and Richard was still an infant. It is included on page 5 of James Gairdner’s History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third, to which is added the story of Perkin Warbeck, Cambridge: University Press, 1898. The book is available for free download in any number for formats here:
History of the Life & Reign of Richard III (Gairdner 1898)