Coming to Know Richard III: The Fictional Character vs. The Actual Man
In the late 80s, I made the acquaintance of a classically trained British actor. Born in Guernsey, he served in the Royal Air Force during World War II and was imprisoned in a German prisoner-of-war camp for three years, from 1942 to 1945. Until I learned that he and his fellow prisoners were forced to perform Shakespeare before the guards, and that the guards had demanded he take the female roles, I did not understand his groundedness, his wicked sense of humor, his unspoken but clear compassion for a friend who had been abused in certain ways during her youth, and his unfailing attitude of, “I’ve seen bad, and this isn’t it.”
Until we know someone’s past, we can’t understand him. We also can’t know what he cares about or what motivates him.
While developing Richard as a character for multiple novels, and wanting to make him different in each novel, I realized that both historians and writers of fiction already see him and his motivations as if through a glass prism or a spectroscope. Some might argue that Shakespeare is to blame for the archetypal Machiavellian villain many think of when they think of Richard, but the human need to shoebox and categorize things and people, and the majority’s willingness to accept a traditional category without personally researching its historical validity likely have more to do with what the average person thinks about Richard…if the average person ever thinks about Richard.
Will the Real Richard III Please Step Forward?
In Richard’s case, we know some events of his life, but we do not know which events were meaningful enough to him to have helped shape who he was.
The major historical events are known and can be traced. Only occasionally can Richard’s reactions be traced, and we are entirely ignorant as to his motivations even when we think we know his motivations. But a plethora of writers – both of history and of fiction – have looked at the events Richard lived through or participated in, and they’ve gone on to decide what was important to him, and why. And so it is that most who have bothered to write about Richard have assigned subjective motivations to him.
It’s doubtful this will ever change because the temptation is too strong in most people for them to resist overlaying their personal feelings and reactions in response to the historical events that affected Richard or his contemporaries. A problem occurs when one writer accuses another writer’s reasoning as “wrong” when there can be no proven “right” answers to the mysteries in Richard’s life. Some people seem to forget the mysteries are many. Things like “What happened to the princes in the Tower?” and, “Did Edward IV marry Lady Eleanor Talbot before he married Elizabeth Woodville?” and, “What did Anne Neville die of? What did Edward of Middleham die of?” will always remain mysteries. Some people seem to forget that, too.
It can be fun to debate the points and possibilities, but many of us don’t know how to have fun debating. Many of us don’t even know how to debate. As the old Goon Show line goes, “I’m not saying she’s insane, but she leaves her premises immediately.”[i]
YOUR Richard is Too Hot, Cold, Romantic, Incestuous, Weak, Murderous, Tender, Loving, Psychotic, Paternal, Devoted, Comical, Tedious, Arrogant, Sneaky, and I Love/Hate Him, So Nyah!
When a writer of fiction uses Richard as a character, the writer makes certain subjective decisions about the character which are dictated by the story the writer wishes to tell. The Richard a writer creates is his or her own interpretation of the man, and the events and people in the real Richard’s life influence that interpretation as the story demands. A romantic novel featuring Anne Neville and Richard would focus on different events and character actions and reactions than an historical novel featuring Richard training as a squire to become a knight under the Earl of Warwick’s men.
No fictional Richard-construction is “better” or “worse” than any other. As Oscar Wilde said, “Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.” If you don’t like a particular flavor of tea, you can be nice and leave the pot for others to enjoy. You might even wander off to create your own flavor of Richard-tea. In any case, your flavor of Richard-tea is over there safely shelved on your bookshelf or still in your head. No one has messed with him, and you’re free to drink him up as you like.
MY Historical Rendition of Richard is The Definitive Version, Full Stop, Forevah! I’ll Snarl at Anyone Who Says Otherwise, So Nyah!
When a professional or amateur historian writes about history, he or she usually takes a position regarding their subject, and they back up their stance by interpreting historical events. (When you find an historian who’s neutral, send them roses, thank them profusely, and buy everything they’ve written. New. Yes, from that expensive university or independent press.) In the case of someone like Winston Churchill, there’s a plethora of contemporary source material, and the subject’s reactions and motivations are on record, so the historian has only to extrapolate Churchill’s reactions and motivations. But then, Churchill knew he was making history. Richard III didn’t. He was likely only trying to survive and take care of what mattered to him…like thousands of other people, noble and commoner, around him. (See what I did there? Create motivations for R3’s actions and other people’s actions, too? See how easy it is?)
In the case of Richard III, contemporary source material is so sparse, it’s not possible for anyone to reliably extrapolate Richard’s reactions and motivations, so contradictory interpretations are inevitable and multiple from the 15th century long into the future.
Every historian writing about Richard forms and expresses his or her opinions and theories without being able to provide definitive proofs to convince their audience because definitive proofs do not exist in Richard’s case.There is evidence. There is probability. Good writers weigh both, but ultimately nothing but conjecture is possible where his reactions and motivations are concerned because the king’s skeleton was not found clutching a thick tome in its bony fingers that contained its owner’s private thoughts in neat middle English, and no archive has yet yielded same.
So whenever a professional or amateur analyst of Richard III, his life and his times, expounds on Richard’s personal motivations and goes on to offer definitive answers to any of the myriad mysteries regarding him, they’re actually expounding on what their own imagination has come up with. So unless an historical writer or blogger confines themselves to the known facts and doesn’t venture into the realm of, “Richard did X because he felt Y,” it’s all conjecture…unless someone has a direct line to the Unseen Realm and to Richard, or to the elusive Akashic Records. And if they do, I wish they’d bottle and sell it so the rest of us can play, too.
All we can do as The Audience is apply or not apply critical thinking to what we read and hear regarding Richard. If all we do is absorb the opinions and theories of others, then we have no studied, deliberate theories or opinions of our own. And that’s sad, and perhaps lazy of us. But then I wonder…how many of us have been taught critical-thinking skills?
Shakespeare Knew How to Have Fun with His Duke of Gloucester
Like it or not, Richard III as a character in fiction is forever fair game. He’s also a wonderful character to play with. You can let your imagination run riot to create a romance, a comedy, or a tragedy with him, and no one can tell you that you’re wrong to do so. (Actually, they will tell you, but you’re free to pity the Mrs. Grundys of the world for missing out on all the fun while you go back to playing with him and irritating them.)
In Richard’s real life, events continued shaping who he was throughout his life. It’s the same with us as well, but in fiction a writer will assign a character only one (1) meaningful life event. That one event helps the reader to understand the character, know what he cares about, and know what motivates him. The meaningful event is also the foundation for:
- What the character wants
- What choices the character makes when he’s stressed
- The story’s theme
When the writer chooses the meaningful event carefully and uses it to their best advantage, they’re able to manipulate their audience’s emotions and reactions. This is great fun, hopefully for the audience as much as for the writer — if the writer does it right.
Shakespeare’s audience couldn’t claim they weren’t warned as to his Richard’s Meaningful Event, since the Bard has the Duke of Gloucester lay it all out in the soliloquy opening “Richard III.” What’s amazing is that this particular Meaningful Event was created full-cloth in Tudor times, by Tudor writers, and traditional historians have taken it as religious historical dogma ever since. It took Philippa Langley, John Ashdown-Hill, a whole lot of money from a whole lot of international Richard supporters, and Richard’s voice speaking from beyond the grave through his bones to offer the definitive proof that hey, he wasn’t at all as the Tudor writers (*cough* Thomas More, the Croyland Chronicle, etc. etc. etc.) and Old Willie presented him. And if the Tudors and Willie were wrong about Richard’s physical attributes, the next question to ask is: What else did they get wrong about him?
Lie to Me Once, Shame on You. Lie to Me Twice, and I’ll Never Believe Another Thing You Tell Me
When a witness on the stand in a court trial lies about one thing, their entire testimony is thrown out. They also instantly become a defendant, and they can be put on trial for perjury. So it is with Tudor propaganda. Once you catch a Tudor chronicler in one lie, their entire chronicle – down to the smallest detail – is suspect.
But hey, back to Shakespeare and the fun he had creating his Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
What Meaningful Event Does Shakespeare Assign His Version of Richard?
Shakespeare’s character is physically deformed and unfinished, lame and unfashionable. Even the dogs bark at him when he stops near them. (Or, as Gollum more succinctly put it in the screenplay of The Two Towers, to himself about himself, “You don’t have any friends. Nobody likes you.”)
Shakespeare uses Richard’s physical deformity as the foundation for:
WHAT Richard WANTS: To be a subtle, false, and treacherous villain because he can’t be a lover.
WHAT CHOICES HE MAKES WHEN HE’S STRESSED: When play opens, Richard has already laid plots to make his brothers hate each other. The play goes on to reveal his other, rather nasty choices. Was he under stress before the play began, or after? You can argue either way.
THE PLAY’S THEME: Various themes apply, so take your pick as they relate to Richard’s meaningful event. (There are other possible themes beyond these.)
- Mortal Justice vs. Divine Justice
- Free Will vs. Fate – “Divine Providence” to Renaissance audiences
- Time – Richard seems to have the ability to speed up time. This is seen to work for him, but in the end it works against him.
- Manipulation – He manipulates the audience as well as the other characters.
- Power – Getting it. Holding onto it. Shakespeare’s Richard is portrayed, not as the medieval warlord he was, but as a Renaissance “Machievel” – someone who will do anything to get in power and stay in power.
- Physical Deformity Reflects Moral Deformity — doesn’t much apply today, but aligns with the 16th-century belief system
You Too Can Have Fun with Richard
Wanna start creating your own Richard? It’s not hard, so why not have a go? If you don’t want to create your own, you could pull out your favorite novel that features him and see what the writer used to underlay Richard’s story goal, the choices he made during stressful times, and the story’s theme.
Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to select a meaningful event from Richard’s real life. The event should have happened before your story begins. It should also create ongoing suspense within your reader. You want them to ask and keep asking, “What’s Richard going to do next, and why?”
Story suspense depends on conflict and suffering, so the event you select must be traumatic – a betrayal, an insult, a loss, an injury, something that deeply wounded Richard. There are so many possibilities to choose from in his life, I’m not going to list examples. Part of the fun is making a list of possibilities for yourself and deciding which one to use.
The outcome of the event that wounded Richard should have created two or three specific things within him. Here are the three specific outcomes you’re looking for, compliments of Elizabeth Lyon’s A Writer’s Guide to Fiction.
- The wound should leave the character with a need so intense, he or she will be driven to fulfill it. These needs are universal, such as belonging, love, family, self-worth, or faith.
- The wound should leave the character with a weakness, a character flaw that seems out of the control or beyond the full awareness of the character.
- The wound may also gift the character with a heroic strength that increases his determination to fill the need and reach the plot goal.[ii]
If what you’ve chosen doesn’t create at least two things from this list, select another traumatic, meaningful event from Richard’s life.
The next time you run into the historical Richard or a fictional version (or both wrapped into one work), see if you can identify the meaningful event the writer is using to drive their version of the man. If you can’t identify their premise…I’m not saying they’re insane. Only that their work may be badly written.
[i] Premise, also premiss. Logic. A proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion. If you’d like to search “The Goon Show” radio scripts for the line, some are here: http://www.thegoonshow.net/scripts_alpha.asp … Good luck with that if you’re not a fan of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, et. al. and their brand of humor. And if your first response was, “What’s a goon show?”, fuggedaboudit.
[ii] Lyon, Elizabeth. A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, Perigree, New York, 2004, p. 87.