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Trial by combat attended by the King of England….

Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, and James Purefoy as Mowbray. From The Hollow Crown.

On 16th September 1398, at Gosford Green near Coventry, there was a tournament involving a trial by combat between Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Almost the entire nobility of England attended this event, including the king, Richard II, who had ordered the trial to settle a dispute (concerning treason) between the two magnates. It was to be a glittering occasion, everything our modern minds think of when it comes to medieval pageantry and jousting.

Medieval tournament

The two lords would appear in their most dazzling armour and colours. Mowbray’s armour was German, and his horse was “barded with crimson velvet embroidered richly with silver lions and mulberry trees”. His shield was the white lion of Mowbray on red ground. Bolingbroke’s armour was from Milan, and he was “mounted on a white courser, barded with green and blue velvet embroidered sumptuously with golden swan and antelopes. But all this glamour was beside the point, because danger was the order of the day, and death was to be the arbiter.

From the Tournament Book of King Rene of Anjou

But first, some background. Thomas Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk, died in Venice in 1399. His full clutch of titles was 1st Duke of Norfolk, 1st Earl of Nottingham, 3rd Earl of Norfolk, 6th Baron Mowbray, 7th Baron Segrave, Knight of the Garter and Earl Marshal (I know of no more) and he was born on 22 March 1366, making him 32 in 1398. His activities during the later years of the reign of RII contributed to the eventual downfall of that unfortunate king.

Thomas Mowbray’s arms as Earl Marshal, 1395

Mowbray had once been close to Richard, a favourite, but became estranged, even going over to mix with the king’s enemies, known as the Lords Appellant. It is thought that his defection was born of jealousy over Richard’s clear preference for another favourite, Robert de Vere, Duke of IrelandMarquess of Dublin, and 9th Earl of Oxford, also a Knight of the Garter. De Vere raised an army for Richard against the Appellants, and was trounced at the Battle of Radcot Bridge. He fled into exile, and died on 22nd November 1392, in Leuven in what is now Belgium. Richard was distraught.

Battle of Radcot Bridge, by the Thames in Oxfordshire,
19th December 1387

Mowbray had found himself on thinner and thinner ice, and then a quarrel arose between him and the king’s first cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, son and heir of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the greatest magnate in the realm.

The Arms of Bolingbroke

Bolingbroke (once a Lord Appellant himself) was 31, and would, of course, eventually see to Richard II’s downfall (and probably his demise as well). He would usurp Richard’s throne for himself, as Henry IV.

The gauntlet is thrown down in front of the King

The two men accused each other in the King’s presence, and Richard ordered a trial by combat. Bolingbroke was generally reckoned to be the innocent party, and received more support than Mowbray. The protagonists were to meet in single combat on Monday, 16th  September, 1398, at Gosford Green, near Caludon Castle, which was Mowbray’s Coventry residence.

Artist’s impression of Caludon Castle in the 16th century.
By English Heritage artist, Pete Urmston
.

Richard II was generally frowned upon for allowing the matter to reach such a point, and his closest advisers felt that great ill could result if it went ahead. But, it seemed, the king was determined to let the two lords slug it out in the lists.

The following is paraphrased from the Chronique De La Traison Et Mort De Richart Deux, Roy Dengleterre, 1846 translation by Benjamin Williams:-

At daybreak on the 16th September, Mowbray took leave of the king and after hearing three masses at the Carthusian monastery of St Anne’s, near Coventry, rode to his tent, near the lists at Gosford Green.,

Part of the original St Anne’s Monastery, Coventry

The world and his wife would be present, for it was an amazing occasion, news of which had been proclaimed far and wide.

Proclamation of a Tournament 1843
antique engraved hand-coloured medieval print

At the tent, his esquire, Jacques Felm of Bohemia, began dress him in his armour.

by Jan Provoost, 1515
Gosford Green still exists. Picture taken from Stoke Property Guide

The Constable and Marshal, with 20 followers, all armed and wearing livery of short doublets of red Kendal cloth, with silver girdles bearing the motto: “Honniz soit celluy qui mal pense”. They entered the lists at eight o’clock, together with many who can come from overseas to witness the duel.

Mediaeval Marshal – origin of image not known

At nine o’clock, Bolingbroke arrived, with followers on six chargers. He presented himself at the barrier of the lists, and the Constable and Marshal went to meet him, to formally request that he identify himself. He replied that he was the Duke of Hereford, come to prosecute his appeal in combatting the Duke of Norfolk, who ‘is a traitor, false and recreant to God, the King, his realm, and me’.

Jousting at Calais in the 1390s

The Constable and Marshal required him to swear an oath, and asked if he would enter the lists at that point. He said he would and ‘placed forward’ his shield, silver with a red cross, like that of St George. Then he closed his visor, crossed himself, called for his lance, and rode through the opened barrier to his pavilion, which was covered with red roses. Then, as was the custom, he alighted and went inside to await his opponent’s appearance.

Next, Richard II arrived, accompanied by all the nobles of England, Archbishop Walden of Canterbury, and the Count of St Pol/ The king had with him full 20,000 archers and men-at-arms in great number.

Henry VIII arriving at the Field of Cloth of Gold, 1520

The king ascended to the royal stand, which was very handsomely adorned in royal array, and once he was seated, the king of the heralds cried out, ‘Oyez, oyez, oyez! Behold here Henry of Lancaster, Duke of Hereford, appellant, who is come to the lists to do his duty against Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, defendant; let him come to the lists to do his duty, upon pain of being declared false.’ This proclamation was called out three times.

Herald, from the Tournament Book of King Rene of Anjou

When this was done, the Constable and Marshal went to Mowbray, who had made his appearance before the barrier of the lists. He was sworn to his oath, they opened the barrier and he entered the list, saying ‘God speed the right!’

A very unlikely long-haired, thick-bearded Richard II presiding at a tournament. From the St Albans Chronicle

It was ordered that the contestants’ lances be brought and checked, to be sure they were the same length. When the lances had been returned, it was announced that the men’s chargers should be loosed, and that each man should perform his duty. Bolingbroke advanced seven or eight paces, but Mowbray remained motionless.

from Froissart

At that breathless, heart-stopping moment, the King rose and cried a halt. This amazing snapshot-in-time is a favourite subject for artists.

The crowds cried out in astonishment as he ordered the bemused contestants to their seats. There they remained for two hours, until it was decreed that although both men had appeared valiantly, prepared to defend their honour, the King had decided that Bolingbroke should quit the realm for ten years. There was uproar, but eventually it was also announced that Mowbray was to be banished from England for the rest of his life.

Mowbray and Bolingbroke before Richard II
from The Hollow Crown

Unlike the above illustration, the two men were not permitted to meet, but had to come separately into the King’s presence, where they swore to obey his command. And obey they did, which is how Mowbray came to die in Venice. Bolingbroke hadn’t long left the country when his father, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster died, and Richard seized all Lancastrian property lands. Thus he gave Bolingbroke a cast-iron reason to come back to England and demand the return of his heritage. Then he, Bolingbroke, took all Richard’s lands…and his crown, throne and life as well.

Richard II is forced to abdicate

So, those far-off events on 16th September 1398 had far-reaching consequences, and led to the usurpation of the House of Lancaster.

Coronation of Henry IV, from BL Royal 18 E II, f. 404
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Might there be another reconstruction of another English king called Richard….?

3-D model of King Richard III from the channel 4 programme ‘Richard III: The King in the car park’. Experts revealed what he would have looked like (Daily Mail grab).

We all know the amazing reconstruction of the head of Richard III, and the confirmation it gave of how he really had looked. Forget Shakespeare’s Richard III, the real man had been young, good-looking and altogether normal, except for scoliosis that affected his spine. But when he was dressed, it wouldn’t have shown, especially in the sumptuous clothes of the 15th century. So, no murderous, hump-backed monster he. Ricardians always knew it, but the reconstruction from his skull was final, undeniable proof.

I have always been fascinated by the actual appearance of great figures from the past, and want to know if my imagination is creating something even remotely close to the truth. Take Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. I can imagine so much about him, but all I really know of his physical appearance is from his stone likeness of the tomb of his Beauchamp father-in-law in Warwick. There he is, one of many hooded weepers around the tomb, but does that rather grim face really bear any resemblance? Frustratingly, we will probably never know.

Warwick, the “Kingmaker”

Now, while Richard III was the first king I could ever have called my favourite, he now has a companion, his predecessor with the same name, Richard II. And for Richard II, we have what is reckoned to be the first true painted likeness of a King of England – the full-length portrait that now hangs in Westminster Abbey.

Richard II, Westminster Abbey

Richard II’s looks would seem to have been almost oriental, with heavy-lidded, almond-shaped eyes, but his complexion is pale and his curling hair a tumble of auburn curls that is decidedly not oriental. There is another likeness of him, as an older man, taken from his tomb, which bears a marked resemblance to the Westminster Abbey portrait.

 

Richard II, from his Tomb Effigy

Richard III’s portraits were eventually proved to be very like the real man. But would the same be said of Richard II’s portraits, if we were to be fortunate enough to see a reconstruction of his head?

To me, Richard II is visually unlike any other king, but then, we don’t actually know what his predecessors (and some of his successors) really looked like. I think we can be sure from Richard III, Henry VII and onward, but before then, the likenesses we have are rather standard, as if selected from a pattern book.

Effigy of Edward, Prince of Wales, father of Richard II

For instance, we have no true portrait of Richard’s father, the “Black Prince”, unless we count his tomb effigy in Canterbury Cathedral. But as this depicts him in full armour, with close-fitting headwear that rather confines and squashes his features, it’s hard to say what he was really like.

Edward III

However, we surely have a credible image of Richard’s grandfather, the great Edward III, because his tomb effigy is based upon this death mask. And so we see a handsome old man with long hair and matching beard, and a slight droop of the mouth that is reckoned to be proof of a stroke. But we still do not have an actual portrait of him. His grandson’s likeness in Westminster Abbey holds the honour of being the first.

So, did Richard II look like his Westminster Abbey portrait and effigy?

Tomb of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia

In the case of Richard III, we had his skull and sufficient advance in scientific and artistic knowledge to recreate his head. We may not have the skull of Richard II, but we do have the next best thing, because his tomb was opened in 1871, and very detailed drawings were made of his skull, complete with measurements.

One of the 1871 sketches of Richard II’s skull – Fox News

Thought to have been lost, those drawings have been rediscovered in the basement in the National Portrait Gallery, together with a cigarette box containing what are believed to be relics from Richard’s tomb—fragments of wood, probably from the coffin, and a piece of leather thought to have been part of the king’s glove.

The find was made by archivists who were cataloguing the papers of the Gallery’s first director, Sir George Scharf, who had been invited to witness the opening of royal tombs (Richard II, Edward VI, Henry VII, James I and Elizabeth of York) and the date on the cigarette box containing the relics matches that of Sir George’s visit—31st August 1871.

Sir George Scharf

One thing the drawings prove is that Richard was not bludgeoned to death, for there is no sign of damage to the skull. So Shakespeare was wrong about that! He’s wrong about a lot of things when it comes to kings by the name of Richard.

There is more about the skull drawings and relics at this blog and at this article.

And for more of the images, go to this post.

Shakespeare theatre producer discovers he is related to First Folio publisher….

Discovering one’s illustrious ancestors appears to be quite the thing these days, and now we have someone who is descended from the man responsible for publishing Shakespeare’s First Folio.

“….A theatre producer who has brought the Elizabethan era to York City Centre and Blenheim Palace has discovered that he is related to the man who published Shakespeare’s First Folio.

“….James Cundall MBE, the founder of the new Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is staging four of the poet’s plays in the grounds of the Oxfordshire country home and near the 13th Century Clifford’s Tower, York this Summer….”

To read more, go to this Telegraph article.

The first “red carpet” in England….?

 

We’re all accustomed to seeing dignitaries, film stars and so on walking along a red carpet, and know it’s a sign of great respect, courtesy or just plain flattery. According to Wikipedia :-

“The earliest known reference to walking a red carpet in literature is in the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus, written in 458 BC. When the title character returns from Troy, he is greeted by his vengeful wife Clytemnestra who offers him a red path to walk upon:-

“ ‘Now my beloved, step down from your chariot, and let not your foot, my lord, touch the Earth. Servants, let there be spread before the house he never expected to see, where Justice leads him in, a crimson path.’

“Agamemnon, knowing that only gods walk on such luxury, responds with trepidation:

“ ‘I am a mortal, a man; I cannot trample upon these tinted splendours without fear thrown in my path.’ “

From the above, I imagine that Aeschylus wasn’t the first one to know about red carpets, just the first to mention such a thing. So how much earlier did they in fact come about? I don’t know, but I was curious enough to wonder when the first reference appeared in England.

I’m afraid I could go no further back than 16th July, 1377, and the coronation of Richard II. According to King Richard II by Bryan Bevan (and various other sources): “Scarlet cloth had been laid down by William de Latymer, the king’s almoner, from the hall of the Palace of Westminster to the Abbey. So the boy, Richard, wearing white robes and a pair of red velvet shoes with fleurs-de-lis worked on them in pearls, passed in procession to the Abbey.”

Finding an illustration of this first coronation procession to the Abbey has defied me. There appear to only be images of the boy king on the throne during the ceremony, and one afterwards, when the exhausted boy was carried shoulder-high from the Abbey. No glimpse of the “red cloth”.

As for finding any medieval illustration of a red carpet of any description, all I could locate was another from the reign of Richard II – concerning the death, on 7th June 1394, of his much loved wife, Anne of Bohemia. This shows only that the artist decided to furnish her bedchamber with a patterned red carpet. Whether or not this signifies her “film star” status, I don’t know.

So, was Richard’s coronation the first time in England? I doubt it, but must appeal to you for any earlier references.

The “Dark Sovereign” in Leicester this month

Robert Fripp, author of that new play, will be speaking at the Richard III Visitor Centre at 18:30 on 30 July.

Full address:

King Richard III Visitor Centre

4A St Martins

Leicester

LE1 5DB

Tel: 0300 300 0900

Email: info@kriii.com

The Bard’s Richard, as played by Richard’s grandfather. . .!

Serial killer? Murdered his nephews? Infamous? Had no children? Oh, well, this New Zealand article does go on to say that the actual Richard had a much better reputation than the Bard saw fit to bestow upon him. But if the illustration above is supposed to be Richard….it’s more like his grandfather! Or Jeremy Corbyn admiring the new colour of his beard!

For more, see here.

Films about the monarchy in Britain….

Not that I think William Wallace counts as part of the British monarchy. I don’t believe Old Longshanks would have had any of that! Anyway, to read an article about films concerning various kings and queens, go here.

But where’s King Arthur?????

Ye gods! Now it’s Richard and Zombies….!

Zombies

“…But I have to admit that even I hadn’t seen a Shakespearean production in which Richard III was dragged off screaming by zombies, or in which the conflict between Othello, Iago and Desdemona was played out on the set of The Jerry Springer Show…”

The above is an extract from a review here, which production is clearly something to avoid at all costs!!

SHAKESPEARE’S RICHARD III: HERO OR VILLAIN?

” Never let it be said that fate itself could awe the soul of Richard.

           Hence babbling dreams, you threaten here in vain;

           Conscience avaunt, Richard’s himself again”

(The tragical history of King Richard the Third)[1]


 

Richard’s himself again: or is he?

There is a moment in Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tragedy of King Richard the Third’ that is not Shakespearean. It occurs during the Bosworth scene just as the king is about to ride into battle. Unnerved by the ghostly apparitions in the night of his vengeful victims, Richard’s courage seems to desert him (‘O Ratcliffe, I fear, I fear ‘). However, the sight and sound of Richmond’s army approaching rouses his natural ‘heroical temperament’ and as he rides away he whispers in White Surrey’s ear ‘Richard’s himself again’, which is not a phrase you will find in any extant Quarto or Folio edition of the play. It is, in fact, an interpolation from Coley Cibber’s seventeenth century adaptation and a small but significant example of Olivier’s editing. Its purpose is to reinforce the notion that Richard’s courage and resolution are unimpaired on the morning of battle. Its importance to Cibber (and presumably to Olivier also) is that it counters the insinuation in some interpretations of the play that King Richard was demoralized by guilt, fear and desperation at Bosworth.

 

Even though Olivier’s film is so heavily modified that much the subtlety of Shakespeare’s original play is lost, it should not be thought that his adaptation is inartistic. He is simply one of a number of distinguished actors and directors who between the reigns of the first and second Elizabeth have imposed their artistic ambition on the play. The point is that Shakespeare’s plays are not fossils set in stone. They are each subject to historical relativity and usage. Succeeding generations of actors, directors and producers have adapted them according to their artistic taste or the cultural, social and political ethos of their society. Indeed, it is possible that this play was used as a metaphor for exploring the concerns of contemporary first Elizabethans as well as those of later cultures. Modern performances of the play have portrayed Richard as a proxy for Hitler, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and ‘Rikki Ortega’ (a fictitious Californian gangster) among others.[2] Henry Goodman in the RSC’s 2003 production found ‘parallels for Richard’s deranged mind’ in the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter.[3] Anthony Sher (1984), looking for clues of Richard’s stage personality studied the psychology of the real serial killer and necrophile Dennis Nilsen who murdered at least twelve men between 1978 and 1983. Contemporary socio-cultural themes such as physical and mental disability, gender, racial and class discrimination, and the importance of Richard III as a ‘case study’ of tyranny, are all now aspects of modern performances. [4] In fact, so different is the public taste for this play today that I wonder whether Shakespeare would recognize it as the one he wrote for Richard Burbage in the last decade of the sixteenth century.

 

Sign of the times

The play that Shakespeare actually wrote was an immediate smash-hit financially and critically. Moreover, Burbage’s portrayal of Richard was so powerful that it defined performances of the play for generations afterwards and contributed an epic snippet of Shakespearean erotic mythology, which we learn from John Manningham, a student at the Inner Temple, who wrote in his diary in 1602: ‘Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. The message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.’ I don’t know whether this anecdote is true or not, but it is at the very least an indication of the sensuousness of Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard and the popularity of his play.

 

The old adage that ‘plays are meant to be performed not read’ may be corny but it’s true nonetheless. The importance of actors and directors in shaping our opinion of this play cannot be overstated. In my copy of the RSC’s text, it states quite clearly that the best way to understand this play is to see or ideally to participate in it. It is my aim in this article to explore the theme of change in the production, presentation and performance of Richard III. Naturally, I am aware that it is this play that is in no small part responsible for the historical Richard’s bad reputation. Nevertheless, having written some articles in favour of the factual Richard III, I feel compelled to write a few lines in defence of the fictional one and the man who created him.

 

The distinction I make between the fictional and the factual Richard is not artificial and it is important. It is ignored or blurred too often and for too long in discussions and analysis of the play or the man. [5]  There are almost as many myths about the play as there are about Richard. Chief among these is the notion that Shakespeare is personally to blame for the misjudgement of history. I hope to show that is not true and that Shakespeare was far from being a Tudor stooge. While there is no doubt that he embraced the Tudor narrative of Richard as a villain or that he structured his play around the Tudor histories of Thomas More and Edward Hall, Shakespeare doesn’t make Richard out to be as bad as he might have done.

 

‘Matters of state, not fit to be suffered’

We now have a better appreciation of Tudor bias. The depiction of Richard as a monstrous villain without any redeeming characteristics was necessary to bolster Henry VII’s weak royal title. The fact is that in Tudor England and particularly during the Elizabethan period the condemnation of Richard in literature was practically unanimous. Regardless of his personal opinion, therefore, Shakespeare had little choice other than to conform to the ‘tenets of Tudor orthodoxy’. The Privy Council enforced strict censorship of ‘certain matters of state not fit to be suffered’. Shakespeare would have been extremely foolish to depart from the prescribed doctrine on touchy issues such as the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty.[6] The contemporary notion of kingship held that it was contrary to God’s law to depose a crowned and anointed king. Even a tyrant enjoyed God’s protection; however, whereas a tyrant must be endured a usurper was outside God’s law and could be overthrown with impunity. It was, therefore, necessary to depict Richard III as a usurper and a tyrant. Otherwise, it would call into question Tudor legitimacy and, more importantly, the validity of Elizabeth’s succession.[7]

 

In that context, it is all the more remarkable that Shakespeare does not depict Richard as the unrelieved monster of Tudor dogma. He is charismatic and his sardonic humour soon has the audience laughing with him; indeed, they are, in a sense, his co-conspirators. From the moment he enters the stage, Richard takes control of the play and the audience. Conversely, Shakespeare does all he can to downplay Richmond’s role. He writes nothing to make him personally attractive to the audience. He is not even mentioned until the fourth act and doesn’t appear on stage until the last. There is no scope for the audience to form any sort of relationship with such a boring, distant and obscure antagonist. Neither does Shakespeare write anything to counter suggestions that Richmond’s claim to the throne is questionable. In fact, it is soon clear that Richard cannot be defeated by any human adversary, least of all Richmond whose sole purpose is to be the clunky deus ex machina figure who is still alive at the end;[8] it is an indication of his dramatic irrelevance. I will return to these points later but for now I want to mention the play’s textual history.

 

Textual problems

Shakespeare wrote this play either in 1692 or 1694. The case for 1692 is based entirely on speculation about Shakespeare’s professional relationship with Ferdinando Lord Strange, a descendant of William Stanley the earl of Derby.[9] Although that date cannot be dismissed out of hand, it seems more likely that the play was written in 1594 for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. They were by far the most important and influential company of actors and in Richard Burbage they had the greatest actor of his generation. Writing for them was a good career move for Shakespeare who needed a star actor to play Richard. The Tragedy of Richard III together with the three parts of Henry VI comprised Shakespeare’s first tetralogy of history plays.[10] He wrote the second tetralogy about a few years later. Confusingly, these plays are about earlier kings: Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. The two tetralogies together chart the course of English history from the reign Richard II to the death of Richard III.

 

It is disappointing — to say the least — that none of the surviving Quarto and Folio texts of this play were authorised by Shakespeare. Experts cannot even be sure whether the synthetic text currently used in performance is an accurate representation of the version first performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Quarto text of the play (a small booklet) was printed in 1597 (Q1) and thereafter re-printed five times (in 1598,1602,1605,1612 and 1622). Unfortunately, each re-print was copied from the previous one, thus perpetuating existing errors and adding new ones. Consequently, every print after Q1 is different from every other print, which makes the Quarto version useless as a performance text. It is possible (I put it no higher) that Q1 is a ‘memorial’ version of the play assembled from memory by actors who had lost or forgotten their prompt sheets, or who wished to streamline the play for a provincial performance.[11] The First Folio (F1) version of the play was published in 1623 as part of a compendium of Shakespeare’s plays. It might have been copied from an independent manuscript that pre-dates Q1 (Is it Shakespeare’s original version? Who knows?) Understanding the relationship between these versions of the play is the most difficult textual problem of all Shakespeare’s plays; it has troubled scholars for years. F1 is longer than Q1. Whether, this us due to a reduction in Q1 or an enlargement of F1 is anyone’s guess. All we can truthfully say about these texts is that they differ from each other and are error-full.[12]

 

Coley Cibber (1671-1757) was an actor-manager, who at the turn of the eighteenth century wrote and printed a vigorous and populist adaption of Shakespeare’s play. He reduced its length by cutting all but eight hundred lines from Shakespeare and adding two thousand of his own, together with lines from Henry V and Henry VI part 3. The characters of Clarence, Edward IV, Rivers and Queen Margaret are omitted altogether. Despite being mocked at the time for its crudity, Cibber version became the standard performance text from 1700 until 1821. It was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that the F1 became the preferred stage text play. Cibber understood his audience. Shakespeare’s play was too long for eighteenth century playgoers who had no connection with, or understanding of fifteenth century politics. The real problem for purists is that Cibber’s adaptation concentrates attention even more on Richard at the expense of his lively interactions with Edward, Clarence, Margaret and Buckingham, which make Shakespeare’s play so compelling.[13] In that sense, Cibber’s alterations are crude.

 

‘The Play’s the thing…’

‘The tragedy of King Richard the Third’ is indubitably a psychological profile of a dramatic villain. Richard’s solo entrance and memorable opening soliloquy are indicative of his dramatic dominance and also of Shakespeare’s artistic intention to create a star theatrical villain rather than continue the cyclic theme of atrocity and revenge, as seen in the Henrician plays.[14] It is a change, which whether intended or not, challenges the idea that the first tetralogy represent a serial epic that is intended to be seen as a set and in sequence after the second tetralogy. It is a conundrum that has produced two distinctly different schools of thought. One is teleological in nature; the other is analogical.

 

The teleological theory interprets the cycle of history plays from Richard II to Richard III within the context of Tudor historiology and literature. The death of Richard III is seen as the preordained end of a curse that had afflicted England since the murder of Richard II. In the three parts of Henry VI, Shakespeare constantly links the present with the past. He never lets us forget that the usurpation of Henry Bolingbroke and the murder of Richard of Bordeaux were the root causes of division and tumult. Professor EMW Tillyard writing in the mid twentieth century argues that all four plays are united in political themes of order and chaos, and unity and civil war. : “The main business of the play [Richard III] is to complete [the] national tetralogy and to display the working out of God’s plan to restore England to prosperity…in its function of summing-up and completing what has gone before, Richard III inevitable suffers as a detached unit.” [15] He asserts that such a conclusion is inescapable in view of the ‘plays failure to remember’ Clarence’s perjury to Warwick, Queen Margaret’s mock crowning of York, the murder of Rutland and the murder of Prince Edward by York’s sons; If it were not so, implies Tillyard, the play would not make sense to audiences. ” For the purposes of the tetralogy and most obviously for this play, Shakespeare accepted the prevalent belief that God had guided England into the haven of Tudor prosperity” [16] Tillyard’s suggestion that Richard III is a religious play can only be substantiated if it is judged according to the traditional Tudor narrative, wherein both Richard and Richmond are God’s instruments. Richard is God’s scourge; Richmond, his emissary.

 

Tillyard’s only concession to Richard’s dramatic importance is that he is so evil and depraved, and his sins are so vast that his evil is absorptive and not contagious “He is the great ulcer of the body politic into which all impurity is drained and against which all the body politic are united.”[17] Nowadays, Tillyard’s ideas are regarded as sentimental “The view from a Cambridge college window looking out at a world at war [the Second World War] and nostalgic for a more stable and comprehensible historical process”[18] Whilst there are some obvious flaws in professor Tillyard’s logic, it is ridiculous to suggest that his ideas are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. However, his assumption that all Elizabethan’s shared the Tudor view of harmony is patently untrue. There was extreme political and religious division among the population.

 

The play’s theatrical history shows that from the sixteenth century until the twenty first century, political thinkers have used it as a medium for expressing their concerns in times of oppression and/or suppression. These performances use Richard’s rise to power, his elimination of opponents, his dissembling and his amorality as an oblique warning against the onset of tyranny in their own times. The fact that the play lends itself to this approach indicates that it is far more complicated than professor Tillyard suggests. It’s a point picked up by Sir Richard Eyre, former Artistic Director of The National Theatre. His production of Richard III starring Ian Mckellen toured the world in 1990 and inspired the subsequent film. Eyre’s decision to set the play in the 1930’s during the rise of Fascism was an artistic one based on his opinion that ” We have to keep thinking of ways of doing Shakespeare’s plays. They don’t have absolute meanings. There is no fixed, frozen way of doing them. Nobody can mine a Shakespeare play and discover a ‘solution’ [sic].” [19] However, in 1991 he took the play to Rumania, which he regarded as its spiritual home and used its enduring political power as a warning against tyrants such as the Romanian despot Ceausescu, and others such as Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. Eyre even suggests that Richard III could be seen as a handbook for Tyrants.

 

I must admit that the most memorable performances that I have seen (Olivier, Mckellen, Sher and Rylance) have been when the play was performed alone rather than as one of a sequence of plays. As a schoolboy, I watched the BBC’s 1960 production ‘Age of Kings’ in which  the first and second tetralogies were broadcast over many weeks. As I recall, Paul Daneman was a drab and unconvincing Richard and Sean Connery was a surreal Hotspur. I found Peter Hall’s 1963 RSC production of the Wars of the Roses, which was based on the first tetralogy, equally uninspiring. Ian Holm’s Richard being small of stature was incapable of dominating the play physically or dramatically. I was not impressed. I learned later that this casting was deliberate. The aim was to portray Richard as just another royal pretender.

 

My difficulty with the teleological and analogical concepts is that they are prescriptive. Tillyard’s Richard is God’s instrument and therefore not responsible for his actions as the end is pre-ordained. The notion that the play is actually a metaphor for tyranny is equally limiting since it dismisses Richard as nothing more than a cruel brute of a type that historically were responsible for countless innocent deaths. In my personal opinion, neither approach does justice to Shakespeare’s artistry and this play’s complexity. The reality is that Richard displays aspects of both theories and more. We cannot even be sure of the play’s genre. Shakespeare called it a ‘tragedy’; the compilers of the First Folio, classified it as a ‘history’. In the last century, professor AP Rossiter identified elements of comedy in the play. What are we supposed to think? I don’t believe that Shakespeare’s creativity was limited by anything so rigid as genre. Polonius’ suggests as much in this little speech to Hamlet wherein he introduces ‘the actors’ to the prince. “The best actors in the world either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, not Plautus too light for the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.” [20] I like to think that Shakespeare was writing from his experience with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

 

Shakespeare’s description of the play as a tragedy does not imply an ethical or emotional judgement. It is a definition of the plays structure, which is based on the classical Senecan tragedies that depict the rise of great men and their downfall at fortune’s wheel.[21] It is Shakespeare’s way of heralding his artistic transition from the dramatization of chronicle histories to the creation of a histrionic and complex theatrical protagonist as the centrepiece of his drama. It was professor A P Rossiter in a lecture given ten years after Tillyard’s book who drew attention to the paradoxicality of Richard’s character, which he suggests “…decisively complicates the plays moral and political significance.[22] The problem as Rossiter sees it, is the illogicality between the concept of Richard as ‘a huge triumphant stage figure’ and his depiction by Tillyard within a rigid Tudor concept of retributive justice. Richard contradicts the expressly Christian notion of the Vice character in medieval morality plays; he is “…a heroic exemplar of humankind as being able to exert will; the world is poorer for his loss.”[23] This characterization also undermines the simplistic analogical idea that Richard is simply an evil man in a long line of evil men.

 

Shakespeare’s apparent conformity with conventional Tudor historiography is therefore complicated by his depiction of Richard as a caricature combining features from three theatrical characters familiar to Elizabethan audiences: the ‘de Casibus tragedian’[24], the demonic-comedian Vice character of the morality plays and the Marlovian Machiavellian of the Elizabethan stage. Above all, Shakespeare’s Richard is an actor. He is charming, witty, intelligent and eloquent, and dissembles his many parts so brilliantly that those whom he intends to kill do not realise until the very last moment that he is not their friend. He is Shakespeare’s version of a ‘thoroughly bad man in the role of a monarch and hero’ Rossiter describes him thus: ” He [is] a mocking comedian, a ‘Vice’ king but with a clear inheritance from the old Vice moralities: part symbol of evil, part comic devil and chiefly — on stage — the generator of roars of laughter at wickedness the audience would …condemn in reality.”[25]

 

His sardonic sense of humour is not a conventional rendering of Tudor doctrine. He makes us laugh. We are on his side. We enjoy this gritty comedy because we are Richard’s confidantes. We see the fools he dupes through his eyes and with his mind. We rejoice in their downfall. Richard is not just a consummate actor; he is also a consummate villain. He knows what he wants. He delights in telling us what he is going to do, and he does it. He can assume any mood or passion at will. He is believed without question. He has perfected simulation of every feeling and phrase to serve his purpose. And he has eliminated any weakness that might betray him, such as feelings of compunction, pity and uncertainty of mind.[26] Richard has all the qualities of the complete Machiavellian: ” …lifelong and unremitting vigilance in relentless simulation and indomitable deception.” [27] By presenting Richard in this form, Shakespeare is neither proving nor de-bunking the Tudor myth. Instead of certainty we have only ambiguity.

 

[1] Coley Cibber – The tragical history of King Richard the Third. Altered from Shakespeare by Coley Cibber, Esq. (London 1769 print) p.66

[2] John Jowett (ed) – Richard III by William Shakespeare (Oxford 2000) p.17; Annalieze Connelly (ed) – Richard III: a critical reader (Bloomsbury/Arden 2013) pp.111-150 passim.

[3] Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (eds) – Richard III by William Shakespeare (Macmillan/RSC Shakespeare 2008) p.167.

[4] Bate ibid; Connolly pp.33-45 passim; the rise of Material Culturism has politicized the play. Material Culturists use a close examination of the play’s text to identify the ‘dominant hegemonic force in society’ (e.g. Crown, Church, Family and so forth) and the methods for disseminating their doctrine/ideology. By analyzing the text Material Culturists hope to spot examples of dissent and complicity with the dominant force’s doctrine/ideology. It is a methodology that tends to spotlight those people who are disadvantaged and/or marginalized by society, by virtue of their race, religion, gender, class or disability.

[5] Stephen Greenblatt – Tyrant: Shakespeare on power (The Bodley Head 2018) pp.53-95; professor Greenblatt has an interesting theory on tyrants and especially how they come to power. His view of Richard is wholly negative. He is a ‘worthless piece of work. There is no secret about his cynicism, cruelty and [treachery], no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe he could ever rule the country effectively… he leaves nothing behind except wreckage. It would have been better had he never been born’. Greenblatt is a professor of the Humanities and an expert on the works of Shakespeare: I am not. Nevertheless, there is much about his book with which I disagree. It is, I believe a good example of the simplistic thinking that comes from basing an opinion of the play on a study of the text conducted in an academic vacuum without the context of performance. But most of all I cannot accept his premise that Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard is an accurate representation of the real man, or that it was ever intended to be

[6] Greenblatt pp.1-23; contains a discussion on Shakespeare’s freedom of speech in the context of late Elizabethan religious fanaticism, domestic political intrigue and the threat to the English succession from a foreign power.

[7] Jowett pp.11-16

[8] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary – “dues ex machina (literally: ‘God from the machine’): a divine power, event, or person arriving in time to solve a difficulty (often rather contrived) interposition, esp. in a novel or play”. For example, ‘and then I woke up’.

[9] Jowett PP. 4-6; Shakespeare’s manipulation of history to put a positive spin on William Stanley’s part in Richard III’s downfall has tempted some scholars to speculate that the play was written in 1692 for Lord Strange’s Men. Ferdinando Lord Strange was a descendant of the said Thomas Stanley Earl of Derby and also of Henry VII (by Henry’s granddaughter Margaret Clifford). This may explain why Shakespeare has tactfully ignored Stanley’s acquiescence in Hastings’ execution, his part in crushing Buckingham’s rebellion, the rewards he received from King Richard and his ‘wait and see’ policy in 1485. Thomas Stanley is also portrayed as leading the Stanley contingent that surrounded and killed the King, whereas it was actually his brother William. It might also explain why Thomas Stanley has such a prominent role in the final scenes: presenting Henry with his crown and predicting the joyous union of York and Lancaster. Lord Strange and his family were noted for their Roman Catholic sympathies; however, in true Stanley fashion they managed to keep on the right side of the Reformation by hunting down Jesuits. From both the protestant and the catholic perspectives, Strange’s loyalty was suspect.

[10] Jowett pp. 73-74; the three Henrician plays were first published under the following titles: The First part of Henry VI (taken from the First Folio, there being no earlier text); The Contention of the Houses of York and Lancaster (now Henry VI part 2) and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth (now Henry VI part 3).

[11] Bate p.18; the title of the 1597 print makes interesting reading: “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, containing the treacherous plots against his brother Clarence; the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews; his tyrannical usurpation; with the whole course of his detested life and deserved death. As has been lately performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s men, his servants”

[12] Jowett pp.110-120; Bate pp.9-15; both these editors provides extensive discussion on the textual chronology and problems arising from Quarto and Folio editions. See also Julie Hankey (ed) – Shakespeare’s Richard III in Performance (Junction Books 1981) pp. 27-32. It is also worth considering EAJ Honigmann (ed) – Richard III by William Shakespeare (Penguin 1968) pp. 242-244. His textual notes were still helpful to me fifty years after they were written.

[13] Bate p.16; Richard had 32% of the lines in F1; more than any other Shakespearean protagonist except Hamlet (37%). Richmond by comparison has 4% of the lines, which is an index of his artistic importance. In Cibber’s adaptation, Richard’s share rises to 40%.

[14] Richards solo appearance and his opening soliloquy are unique in the Shakespearean canon. He is the only protagonist to open and speak first in his own play.

[15] EMW Tillyard – Shakespeare’s History Plays (Penguin 1962) pp.200-04

[16] Tillyard ibid

[17] Tillyard p.208

[18] Connelly pp. 33-45;

[19] Bate and Rasmussen p.200

[20] TJB Spencer (ed) – Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Penguin 1996) p.115 Act 2, Scene 2; ‘the law of writ and the liberty plays’: Polonius is distinguishing between plays that follow classical principles, like Ben Johnson’s and plays like Shakespeare’s with greater freedom of structure. The mixture of tragical-comical-historical-pastoral seems absurd until we recall that Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline.

[21] Jowett pp. 23-24; Seneca (BC 4-AD 65) was a Roman stoic philosopher and dramatist. He is famous for ten tragical plays that depict the rise of great men and their ruination or self-destruction due to uncontrolled emotion or madness. Seneca was widely read in medieval and renaissance Christendom. His tragedies influenced Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers.

[22] AP Rossiter – Angels with Horns: fifteen lectures on Shakespeare (Longman 1989 edition) pp.1-22; see also Jowett p.10.

[23] Jowett pp.10-11 citing Nicholas Brooke – Shakespeare’s Early Tragedies (1968) pp. 78-79.

[24] De Casibus vivorum illustrium (on the fate of famous men): this is an encyclopedia of historical biographies dealing with the fortunes and calamities of famous men from Adam until the fourteenth century: not only their lives, but also their moral virtues.

[25] Rossiter p.15

[26] Rossiter p.17

[27] Rossiter ibid

 

Children learn the gory truth about the Battle of Bosworth and Richard’s demise….

skull and richard

I do not like including images of Richard’s remains, but the above double-image is from this article, in which Professor Sarah Hainsworth, who has given a talk to 10-11 year olds from Turves Green School.

I quote from the article:-

“….World renowned forensic scientist and engineer, Professor Hainsworth, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Aston University shared her expertise with 80 Yr10 and Yr11 students from Turves Green Girls’ School on 23rd October.

Sarah Hainsworth

“….Professor Hainsworth led the research into the final death blows of King Richard III during her time at the University of Leicester. She spoke about her scientific analysis of the wounds found on the skeleton of King Richard III. This related the tool marks to possible weapons and identified through the study of forensics the exact nature of his death at the Battle of Bosworth, 1485. She also explained how scientists proved that his curvature of the spine, made famous by Shakespeare’s hunched backed king, was in fact the bone disease scoliosis….”

The students were apparently shocked by the bloody details of his terrible death, but let’s hope that the talk inspires them to not only want to know more about our history, but about Richard in particular.

Too little history is taught in our schools these days, and the next generation is in danger of losing touch with its roots. It’s a rot that should be stopped! NOW!

 

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