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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

 

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I wonder …

Was the late Ronnie Barker a Ricardian?

He made something of a habit of referring to Richard’s family. In “The Two Ronnies”: His rhyming slang vicar spoke of “a small brown Richard III” (bird),
The pair did a Shakespeare scene mentioning as many television programmes as they could (eg “…the Tyrannies…” for themselves),
Peter Sellers guested once, impersonating Laurence Olivier as Shakespeare’s Richard, declaiming “A Hard Day’s Night”.
In his 1973 series, “Seven of One”, he created characters including:
The short-sighted removals man CLARENCE Sale
and the lecherous, flamboyant Welsh photographer PLANTAGENET Evans.

Geoffrey Wheeler has consulted Barker’s co-star Josephine Tewson who doesn’t think this was the case. Still, it remains a slight possibility.

The passing of Bernard Hepton….

Bernard Hepton as Cranmer

I always admired Bernard Hepton, who could be guaranteed to bring Class, capital “C”, to any production. His voice was smooth and creamy, and his understated approach always seemed to fit his role to perfection. I remember him in various historical roles, particularly Cranmer. But I didn’t know he was renowned for arranging film fights, including those of Olivier’s Richard III. It’s sad that he has gone

Read more here: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/bernard-hepton-obituary-6xvj83qp5

Ten great films set in the Middle Ages….

canterbury-tales-1972-001-poster-00m-yv6

Well, I confess I only know a few of these, and am disappointed that one of my personal favourites, Kingdom of Heaven, doesn’t make this list.

 

Peter Sellers’ version of Shakespeare’s Richard….

Peter Sellers

OK, there are times when I really do like Shakespeare’s Richard! This may be from back in 1965, but it’s still absolutely brilliant.

http://www.broadwayworld.com/article/VIDEO-FLASHBACK-1965-Peter-Sellers-Mimics-Laurence-Oliviers-Richard-III-Reciting-The-Beatles-A-Hard-Days-Night-20160405

 

Coming soon -Plantagenet Ninja Supermarket Sweep!

Giaconda's Blog

Donald CBE FSA FRHistS  -‘ that’s how many letters I have after my name and still no mention of a knighthood! Snarkey’ will be the talking head behind Channel 5’s new documentary/ game show/ reality tv series which will be launched later this year in response to the great feedback on Dan Jones’s ‘Britain’s Bloody Awful Crown of People who lived before the Tudors.’

The channel is looking to attract a new target audience of students and Big Brother types who want to test their limited knowledge of stuff that happened before the Tudors but in a funky format which allows for ad breaks every five minutes so they can tweet during the show segments.

‘It’s going to be a light-hearted mash-up of the old Supermarket Sweep format meets Ninja warriors with a history angle in the form of questions posed by Donald ‘I’ve been to Buck House and met…

View original post 640 more words

Revisiting Azincourt – 600 years of myth making.

Giaconda's Blog

King Henry Vth King Henry Vth

‘O for pity!–we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt. Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mockeries be.’

I have always been fascinated by the battle of Azincourt since I first watched the grainy images of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version on a wet afternoon off school sick as a child. What I found so compelling about the film was the layer on layer interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Olivier set the action in The Globe theatre of 1600 with his actors wearing Elizabethan dress and contemporary hair styles but then as the camera moved through a gauzy curtain as he took the action to Southampton the viewer was transported back to August 1415 and the costumes changed to elaborate and very beautiful copies of C15th dress as he left the confines of…

View original post 1,500 more words

The Tragedy of King Richard 111 (not by William Shakespeare)

Part 5 – …” these dukes showed their intention, not in private but openly…”

 “Catesby hath sounded Hastings in our business

And finds the testy gentleman so hot

That he will lose his head ere give consent

His master’s child, as worshipfully he terms it,              

Shall lose the royalty of England’s throne’

(William Shakespeare)

 

“A black day will it be to somebody”

It is 9 o’clock on Friday the 13th June 1483. William Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain enters the council chamber at the Tower for a meeting with the Lord Protector. Already there and seated are the duke of Buckingham, Lord Stanley, the earl of Derby, Thomas Rotherham the Archbishop of York, John Morton the Bishop of Ely and others. Hastings doesn’t notice three men standing ominously in the shadow: the Rat, the Cat and Lovell the dog. Hastings sits down at the head of the table. Nobody speaks to him.

The clock ticks and still Richard has not arrived, it is now past the time appointed for the meeting. The silence is becoming oppressive and the tension palpable. Hastings plays anxiously with his chain of office. He is right to be nervous; last night he had a visit from Lord Stanley’s man. Stanley had dreamt ‘the boar razed off his helm’. Was it a sign they were discovered? Hastings’ palms are sweating and his mouth is dry. Gloucester’s personality dominates the chamber despite his absence. The silence is now thunderous, the tension physical.

Hastings shuffles nervously in his chair, coughs and speaks hesitantly: “Now noble peers, the cause why we are met is to determine of the coronation. In God’s name speak. When is the royal day?” Buckingham suggests that the Lord Chamberlain probably knows the Lord Protector better than anyone present; what does he think Gloucester would say? Hastings demurs: “…I know he loves me well, but for his purpose in the coronation I have not sounded him, nor he delivered his gracious pleasure in any way therein. But others may name the day and in the Duke’s behalf I’ll give my voice, which I presume he will take in good part”. Suddenly the door flies open. Gloucester, dressed in black, hunched and intimidating stands framed in the doorway. He fixes Lord Hastings with a demonic stare and steps purposefully into the chamber, grinning malevolently. He is dangerously cheerful: “ My noble lords and cousins all, good morrow, I have been long a sleeper…” After asking Morton to fetch some strawberries from his garden, Richard takes Buckingham outside for a private conference. Hastings, Stanley and Rotherham remain seated. They look at each other nervously, their fear unspoken. As Ratcliffe and Lovell step out from the shadows to stand threateningly behind Hastings, Stanley and Rotherham shuffle along to the other end of the table. The returning Morton sits with them. Their faces drawn and pale, they are all dreading what is to come and wishing themselves anywhere but in this chamber at this time.

On his return, Richard’s mood has changed. He asks pointedly “Pray you all tell me, what they deserve that do conspire my death with devilish plots?” Hastings gulps and fidgets in his chair. Richard is looking straight at him. He stammers “The tender love I bear your grace makes me most forward to doom the offenders. I say they have deserved death”. Richard moves forward, his hot breath on Hastings’ face: he roars: “ Then let your eyes be the witness of the evil. See how I am bewitched! Mine arm is like a blasted sapling all withered up…” Hastings can barely control his panic now; he stutters, “If they have done this deed — If! Talks thou to me of ifs! Though art a traitor! Off with his head, now by Saint Paul I will not dine till I see it done.” And that according to William Shakespeare (and Laurence Olivier) was how Lord Hastings met his end.

Thanks to Olivier’s definitive performance as Richard in his 1955 film, the sheer drama of this scene has overshadowed any doubts I may have had as to its accuracy. From the perspective of dramatic art, I doubt if it can easily be bettered. But is it historically correct?   Shakespeare got this version of events from Thomas More, who got it from John Morton, who was an eyewitness[1]. Yet, as we all know, John Morton was Richard duke of Gloucester’s mortal enemy: an inveterate dissembler and traducer of his posthumous reputation. Can we trust his account?   The answer to that question is an unequivocal ‘probably’.   Although there are differences between the various accounts, they generally confirm the gist of the Morton/More/Shakespeare version. That said, More’s history contains obvious falsehoods. For example, we now know from the recent medical opinion of Richard III’s scoliosis that there was no withered arm or claw hand. Also, Mancini is wrong to say that Hastings was killed in the scuffle and there is disagreement about whether Stanley was wounded, and whether Gloucester’s accused the queen of witchcraft. But generally, it seems to have gone pretty much as described in the sources. The Protector revealed his knowledge of the plot, the conspirators’ response was heated, the word treason was used, swords were drawn, the room was flooded with the Protector’s men, there was a scuffle and the plotters were swiftly overwhelmed. It was over in a trice. Stanley et al were taken into custody; Hastings was rushed outside to meet his maker.   The conspiracy was crushed[2].

However, the cries of ‘treason’ roused the city. There was consternation amongst the citizens. The tension was racking-up. Shortly, a herald appeared with a proclamation and the citizens listened in stunned silence to the Protector’s communiqué. It seemed to everybody that the Yorkist regime was imploding. So much for the deed: what about the consequences? To answer that question, we have to go back in the chronology to Wednesday 11 June 1483.

 

“ My friends are in the north…”

It was on the 11 June 1483 that Richard duke of Gloucester wrote to Ralph Neville of Raby. “My Lord Neville, I recommend you to me as heartily as I can; and as you love me and your own weal and security and this realm, that you come to me with that ye may make, defensibly arrayed, in all haste that is possible and that you give credence to Sir Richard Ratcliffe, this bearer that I now send to you, instructed with all my mind and intent”. The tone of this letter is so completely different from the duke’s earlier letter to the citizens of York that it suggests something else has happened since the 10 June to persuade him to move quickly. That and the fact that the letter was sent north immediately, suggests that the ‘something ‘ was of supreme importance and urgency.   In his earlier letter, Gloucester requested the Mayor and citizens of York to send troops with due diligence. Whereas, he asked Neville, to come as soon as possible with whatever troops he can muster. Is he panicking? I think not. Everything we know about Richard duke of Gloucester suggests that he is good at handling this type of situation. We will never know what knowledge of Gloucester’s private ‘mind and intent’ Sir Richard Ratcliffe carried north, but I think he is probably relaying verbal messages to the duke’s northern adherents with the real reason for his urgent request. The duke had just discovered that Hastings was involved with the Woodville’s in the plot to kill him. The revelation of the pre-contract had forced them to bring forward their plan to murder the Lord Protector and the duke of Buckingham, and to crown Edward V[3]. It seems that Hastings had known of the pre-contract for some time but had neglected to tell the Lord Protector. It was the most unforgivable example of a breach of trust that Richard duke of Gloucester could imagine

Whilst the knowledge of Hastings treachery had infuriated Gloucester, it also alarmed him. Hastings was a seasoned soldier. He was Captain of Calais; he had fought in Edward’s battles for the throne. He was a man of power and influence with a posse of armed retainers in London. And he was ferociously loyal to the dead king. Unlike the Woodville dilettantes at Stony Stratford, Hastings posed the most serious threat yet to Gloucester’s life.   He knew he must act quickly and decisively if he was to survive. The arrangement of two meetings fixed for the 13 June suited his purpose precisely. It separated the conspirators from the remainder of the Council. Bishop Russell would chair one meeting at Westminster with the non-aligned council members, who could discuss routine arrangements for the coronation. Richard, Buckingham and the conspirators would attend the other meeting in the Tower; ostensibly, they were going to give the formal go-ahead for the coronation. The reasons for holding this meeting at the Tower are self-evident. The Protector would face the conspirators on ground of his own choosing, in a place where the presence of his armed men would not be taken amiss and where he was secure from interference. He knew who the conspirators were, he knew about the pre-contract and —decisively— he knew what they knew. They were at a disadvantage because they only had part of the story: they had no idea what he knew or what he was planning.

If we look at this from Hastings’ point of view he believed that the conspiracy was going well and that time was still on his side. He knew of  the pre-contract before anybody else and he is anxious to keep that under wraps. Hastings’ interest is in the preservation of the status quo ante, which means ensuring that Edward V is crowned on the 22 June 1483. His alliance with the Woodville’s is one of convenience but he is confident he can thrive once he has disposed of Gloucester and Buckingham. However, Stillington’s revelation of the pre-contract was a setback. Gloucester was always going to be an obstacle to his plans. But now that he knew of the pre-contract, his uncompromising nature meant that he was unlikely to turn a blind eye to Edward IV’s bigamy[4].  It didn’t need a genius to see the threat to Edward V’s coronation. To ensure that the coronation did take place, Hastings was prepared to do anything; even to murder the man he had campaigned with and who shared his devotion to Edward IV.  Neither do I think Hastings motives were entirely driven by loyalty. Like other over-mighty subjects he was acquisitive; a grateful Edward V was his best chance of retaining and even enlarging the gifts, privileges, offices and the influence he had enjoyed during Edward IV’s reign.   It was an outcome not to be sniffed at and one he was unlikely to achieve should the morally conservative and pious duke of Gloucester extend his Protectorship after the coronation[5].

For the duke of Gloucester the execution of Hastings and the arrest of Stanley, Rotherham and Morton was a Rubicon. From his perspective the day was a success. He has crushed a dangerous conspiracy with ease. Of course, he doesn’t have the benefit of knowing what the future holds, as we do, and his mistakes are not yet apparent to him. Furthermore, he still has to grapple with the pre-contract problem and especially it’s bearing on the succession. He has yet to consider whether to depose his nephew, exclude Edward’s children from the succession and take the crown himself. He is not sure what to do. His inclination, as always, is ‘to do the right thing’ but what is the right thing? Is it doing right by Edward’s children, or doing right by the realm?

[1] Richard J Sylvester – The complete Works of St Thomas More, Volume 2: the History of King Richard III (Yale 1963) at page Ixvi. Morton was not More’s only source but he was an important one. There is much in the ‘History of King Richard III’ that is not taken from eyewitness testimony and is not from Morton. For instance, he was not present at Stony Stratford or during the disappearance of the Princes. However, More’s version of the events on the 13 June 1483 does have the ingredients of an eyewitness account: its obvious errors and embellishments notwithstanding.

[2] The main primary and Tudor sources support the gist of More’s version despite their differences of detail. See Mancini at pages 89-91 (AJ Armstrong (ed) – Dominic Mancini: the Usurpation of King Richard III [Oxford, 1969]). See also the Great Chronicle at page 231 (AH Thomas et al [Eds] – The Great Chronicle of London [London 1938]) and the London Chronicle at page 190 (C L Kingsford – Chronicles of London [Oxford 1905]). The remaining primary sources need not trouble as they add little or nothing to the above. The only other worthwhile source is Vergil at page 180 (Sir Henry Ellis (ed) – Three books of Polydore Vergil’s English History; comprising the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III [The Camden Society 1844]). Vergil is the only source to suggest that Gloucester attributed his ‘blasted sapling’ to the queen’s witchcraft. It is worth pointing out however, that their credibility as accurate recorders of events is challenged by their collective failure to get the chronology right (Thomas More also got it wrong). They all Place the duke of York’s release from sanctuary before the council meeting on the 13 June 1483, whereas it actually happened on the Monday after Hasting’s execution. Thankfully, we have Simon Stallworths letter of the 21 June 1483 (See Peter A Hancock- Richard III and the murder in the Tower – [The History Press 2011] at Appendix 1, pages 158-59) and an entry in the duke of Norfolk’s household accounts to fix the correct dating sequence.

[3] Two possible reasons have been offered for Hastings’ involvement in this murder: one noble, the other ignoble. The noble reason is that owing to his loyalty to Edward IV, he would not countenance the deposition of Edward V. The ignoble reason was that he saw the coronation of Edward V as his best chance of continuing the licentious lifestyle of Edward IV’s courtiers, and preserve the privileges, grants and power he had enjoyed during the dead king’s reign.   It matters not for my purpose what Hastings reasons were. High treason is an absolute offence: if it is proved, there is only one outcome. For Gloucester’ enemies (then and later) the summary execution of Hastings is definitive proof of his intention to usurp the throne and that would stop at nothing to achieve his aim. The protector’s actions are also problematic for Ricardians. Even the staunch old Ricardian Sir George Buck is unable to exonerate him for that action, though he offers reasons of state (artes imperii) as mitigation.

[4] See Prof Mark Lansdale and Dr Julian Boons psychological profile of Richard III (The Ricardian Bulletin March 2013) at pages 46-56.

[5] Due to the absence of hard evidence, Ricardian history is a fruitful subject for personal speculation. I do not apologize for theorizing. What I offer is an explanation of events on the 13 June 1483 ; though I appreciate it may not be the explanation.

The Search for Ricardian Music

What is a “musical biography”? We know about operas, and their stagings as to certain persons from the past. But, what did composers write about Richard III?

Turns out, it’s rather minimal. Why this is, I don’t know. Verdi wrote about past kings of Italy and about other political dynasties, although he was always careful to disguise them. Does music not lend itself to historical expression? Is music incapable of providing a narrative?

Strangely enough, as I sat in the Church of St. James the Greater, waiting to hear the performance of the Middleham Requiem by Geoff Davidson on the 26th of March, 2015, I reflected on why there is a paucity of musical biography of kings from the Wars of the Roses in our musical canon. It would seem the fodder was there, certainly a good narrative arc, and very fascinating people to give a good aria or two.

To date, I’ve only found two compositions that relate to Richard III, both of which are tied into the Shakespearean narrative. One is by Bedrich Smetana, a Czech composer of great reknown, who composed a symphonic tone poem in 1858. It’s actually rather fantastic if you listen to it:

And, then of course, there is the music written by Sir William Walton, who wrote the cinematic music to Laurence Olivier’s Richard III.

Both are good, but there is still much room to explore the ideas that haven’t quite been given delved into. More on this later.

A Defense of Olivier’s Richard the Third

olivier2Laurence Olivier once took a bullet for Richard.

Well, not a bullet, exactly, but an actual arrow shot into his unprotected calf from a professional archer during the making of his 1954 film “Richard the Third.”  Sir Laurence would go on to take many more arrows in his career – from being pilloried for “The Betsy” to many Ricardians who refuse to see any merit in his Shakespearean film adaptation.  I believe it is a great film and forms a bookend to the trio of classic movies that Olivier directed – the others being “Hamlet” and “Henry V.”  These three have secured his place as one of the most inventive film directors of the 20th Century.

Olivier had a great stage success with this role in 1944 at the Old Vic.  In this, he was following so many actors who are drawn, like catnip, to the engaging, witty, duplicitous, sexy and obviously fictional character of Richard III.  Their past and present names are Legion:  David Garrick, John Barrymore, Anthony Sher, Ian McKellan, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, Mark Rylance and now Benedict Cumberbatch – all have wanted to sink their sharp little teeth into this multifaceted part.

Olivier’s Richard the Third begins with a disclaimer on an illuminated scroll:  “The story of England, like that of other lands, is an interwoven pattern of History and Legend.  The History of the World, like letters without poetry, like flowers without perfume and thought without imagination, would be a dry matter indeed without its legends, and many of those, though scorned by proof a hundred times, seem worth preserving for their own sake.”  (Italics are mine.)  In other words, as the newspaper publisher in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” observes:  “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

One aspect of the charm of the film is Olivier’s Richard immediate establishment of a rapport with the audience- making us amused accomplices to his devious schemes.  To deny that Richard is attractive is to deny Olivier’s prodigious theatrical gifts and manly beauty which shine through the makeup.  His sensual wooing of the Lady Anne (Claire Bloom) and her almost instant capitulation to him (over her husband’s casket) manages to be sacrilegious, profane and yet deeply felt.  Despite the heavy facial makeup (Olivier always built up his nose after his acting teacher, Elsie Fogerty, pointed to the bridge of his nose and said:  “there’s something weak there,” which resulted in years of false noses and disguises) this Richard is a dynamic, sparkling, sardonic fellow undermining his own view that “since I cannot prove a lover…I am determined to prove a villain.”  Of course, all of Olivier’s amazing bag of tricks are on display:  athleticism and catlike grace, hectoring, staccato speech inflections,eye rolling and gesticulating arms and hands used for emphasis and irony.  A feast for discriminating audiences with its audaciousness that makes so much “modern” film acting seem anemic!

For Ricardians, this movie is at its most historic and sympathetic during the Bosworth sequence.  Suddenly, we see the wonderfully artificial, sumptuous sets and costumes, based on illustrations from a Book of Hours, with its blistering VistaVision colors dominated by murrey and blue, dissolve to reveal a realistic Bosworth.  Here Olivier and his masterful collaborators (including composer Sir William Walton) recreate the beauty, excitement and terror of medieval warfare – a distant mirror of whipping standards, flurries of arrows and brutal melees.  It is in these scenes that we finally realize the tragic Richard – mounted on White Surrey watching the conniving Stanley cross over to “Tudor’s” side.  Surely, the shocked and hurt expression on the King’s face would melt the heart of the most anti-Shakespeare Ricardian.

So, just as Olivier stoically continued to shoot the film with an arrow intact in his leg, I suggest we continue to watch this movie into the future and not to deny it’s greatness, or, I’m afraid, the Bard’s. For better or worse, The Tragedy of Richard the Third is here to stay.

 

 

 

 

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