In reading through Sir Isaac Asimov’s discourse on Act I of Richard III, I decided it might be a good idea to step back and assess what we know about the troubled king.  Asimov repeatedly states that the Richard portrayed in the play does not align with the historical record, which caused me to do some checking…and voila.

I had forgotten that his body had recently been discovered by a team of archeologists after all these years.  They positively identified it both by DNA and its similarity to known descriptions.  More on that can be found HERE.

Though most people don’t know it, historians have all but agreed that Richard III was nothing like the monster that Shakespeare demonized.  To better understand their position, a good place to start would be none other than the Richard III Society, available HERE.

For me, the biggest question is why.  Why would Shakespeare knowingly involve himself in a slander campaign against a decent king?  To understand this involves a thorough knowledge of English history and the lingering disputes between the Tudors and their rivals for the throne.  The short story being that Richard’s side (the Plantagenets) lost power, and Shakespeare, desiring to be employed, knew better than to portray a bitter historical enemy of the current regime in a positive light.

It’s a lot more more complicated than this, I realize.  NOTE: If anybody with a sound working knowledge wants to write a guest post and explain all this for us, I’m more than willing to turn over the keys.  Middle class Americans don’t receive much education about English monarchy beyond the Magna Carta, the Boston Tea Party and the Prince of Wales, unfortunately, and I haven’t made a great deal of headway sorting it all out on my own.

Perhaps by the time I have worked my way through the history plays, none other than Shakespeare himself will be my instructor.  However, since I made the rash decision to dive headfirst into Richard III, it will take me awhile to do some necessary catching up.

Suffice it for now to say that Shakespeare’s Richard III was not the bastard he’s made out to be.  For example, he was not a hunchback, but had a non-debilitating case of scoliosis.  His arm was not shriveled.  He, not his brother George, was the loyal defender of Edward.  He did not murder George, an upstart and rabble-rouser determined to unseat Edward; Edward saw to it that George was condemned by trial.  And, for the record, he wooed Anne as a smitten lover with a guiltless conscious, not as a devious murderer with a hidden agenda.

We could go on and on.  Do some research. You might be surprised.  I’ll update these pages as I learn more over the year and beyond.  This won’t affect the reading of Richard III qua Richard III – the text is still the text, whether it be true or not.  But it certainly impacts how we treat Shakespeare the historian if not the dramatist.

Suffice it to say that there’s much going on behind the scenes here than has yet been brought to light!

For more:

LISTEN TO THE STORY (NPR)    Absolutely. Hands down, Richard III has been slandered. The Tudor legend is very much a black legend. It takes certain facts of Richard’s biography and certain lacunae and Richard’s biography and builds into this myth of absolute evil. Shakespeare’s play is very much within that tradition. That having been said, the answer to a black legend is not necessarily complete exoneration.

THE SLANDERED KING   He was the youngest son of a Duke and staunchly loyal to his family. He was an able administrator and a general at age eighteen. He was his brother the king’s right arm and peacemaker. He succeeded to the throne through lawful means and ruled wisely. His parliament was noted for reforms.

He was plotted against and betrayed, killed in battle, stripped, mutilated, flung over a horse and sent through the battlefield where his troops lay dying. Long after his death he was blamed for the murder of his own nephews, who may have outlived him, and of his brother George, whose execution he protested. 

LOYAL TO THE TRUTH  No monarch in history has been so maligned and slandered as Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. Although he was king for only a short time, Richard continued the benevolent rule of his elder brother, Edward IV, and, indeed, proved himself one of England’s most enlightened and far-sighted rulers, with progressive ideas on government and religion.

But, following his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, the victorious Tudors began a process of re-writing history to destroy Richard’s reputation – a process that reached its zenith with the Shakespeare play “The Tragedy of Richard III”, first performed in the 1590s. 

SLANDERED BY SHAKESPEARE   Only now, after 528 years, is he finally getting a decent burial at — maybe — Leicester Cathedral. But yesterday, the nearby city of York, of which Richard was long the duke, set out a strong claim for the remains on a favorite-son basis. Richard was the only English king to die on an English battlefield since 1066, so you might have expected he’d already have a mighty memorial. But Richard III has the undying reputation of being the single most evil of all England’s kings.


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