Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Character Assassination of King Richard III by William Shakespeare

The Daughter of Time
By Josephine Tey
(Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

The cover of the current edition of the book from Simon & Schuster.

     Shakespeare wrote many history plays, but what he wrote was often at odds with history. The recent discovery of King Richard III's remains reminded me of Josephine Teys The Daughter of Time, in which her Inspector Alan Grant character is bedridden for quite some time. To stave off “the prickles of boredom,” Grant starts investigating historical mysteries. When the expression on a portrait of Richard III seems at odds to him with the popular opinion (now based largely on Shakespeare’s portrait) of the dead monarch, Tey through Grant investigates further. Rather than a historical novel or a mystery novel, Tey gives us a book about the (fictional, or perhaps Tey went through some similar process herself and then decided to write it up in fictional form?) investigation of a real historical mystery.
     I haven’t studied the historical facts of Richard III, and so have no opinion on whether Tey/Grant is right, but it’s a fascinating narrative.
     (The title comes from a proverb -- real or made up, I don't know -- that says “The daughter of time is truth.”)

Richard III by an unknown artist, from Wikimedia Commons. This portrait sparks Inspector Alan Grant's investigation into the much maligned monarch's innocence or guilt in Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.

     Richard III has had other defenders.
     In an Associated Press story about the body, Jill Lawless notes that “Few monarchs have seen their reputations decline as much after death as Richard III. He ruled England between 1483 and 1485, during the decades-long battle over the throne known as the Wars of the Roses, which pitted two wings of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty — York and Lancaster — against one another.
     “His brief reign saw liberal reforms, including the introduction of the right to bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.
     “But his rule was challenged, and he was defeated and killed by the army of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as King Henry VII and ended the Plantagenet line. ...
     “After his death, historians writing under the victorious Tudors comprehensively trashed Richards reputation, accusing him of myriad crimes — most famously, the murder of his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower.
     “William Shakespeare indelibly depicted Richard as a hunchbacked usurper who left a trail of bodies on his way to the throne before dying in battle, shouting My kingdom for a horse.
     “That view was repeated by many historians, and Richard remains a villain in the popular imagination. But others say Richard's reputation was unjustly smeared by his Tudor successors.
     Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society — which seeks to restore the late king's reputation and backed the search for his grave — said that for centuries Richards story has been told by others, many of them hostile.
     “She hopes a new surge of interest, along with evidence from the skeleton about how the king lived and died — and how he was mistreated after death — will help restore his reputation.”

     A less scholarly, serious or factual defense was mounted in the opening episode of the 1983 British historical comedy series The Black Adder. The action begins with preparations for the battle of Bosworth Field, focusing on Edmund (Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson), an unwanted scion of one of Richard's nephews. Richard (Peter Cook, a frequent Dudley Moore collaborator) is well-loved and kind, and easily defeats Henry Tudor, who flees the battlefield like a coward. Edmund then mistakenly beheads Richard when the battle is over (he thought Richard was another soldier stealing his horse). For the remainder of the episode, Richard haunts Edmund in a manner similar to Banquos haunting of Macbeth. Edmund then happens upon three witches who tell him he will be king of England ... though, after hes left, they realize they had mistaken him for Henry Tudor.
     Speaking of Macbeth, he was also a real historical figure, and his true character is not reflected in Shakespeare's tragedy either ... but that's a story for another day.


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