Archive for the Richard III Category

Richard III in 90 Seconds

Posted in Richard III with tags on 2014/01/23 by mattermind
Image: Financial Times (see LINK below)

Image: Financial Times (see LINK below)

Richard III in 90 Seconds

In a short-but-sweet BBC interview, Adam Long from the Reduced Shakespeare Company tells you everything you need to know about Shakespeare’s Richard III in a minute and a half.  Remind me why I’m bothering to read the whole play again?

NOTE: For a longer and more complex summary of Richard, please see “Richard III, a King in Machiavellian Mode” in the Financial Times HERE

Richard III – Identifying the Remains

Posted in Richard III on 2014/01/23 by mattermind

From the University of Leicester, a fascinating tale about the quest to recover the remains of Richard III


Posted in News, Richard III on 2014/01/21 by mattermind


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.

Blush, Blush Thou Lump of Foul Deformity

Posted in Richard III with tags , , on 2014/01/20 by mattermind

Richard III, Act I

I read only three plays by Shakespeare during high school: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and Richard III.  Everyone reads Romeo & Juliet – no big surprise there.  Macbeth has that undeniably witchy element used to bait restless young people to pay attention.  But Richard III instead of, say, Hamlet, Othello or King Lear – surely, that was the outlier of the group.

The class my sophomore year ostensibly covered world literature, but my brilliant teacher had a fondness for the Brits.  We read Sherlock Holmes and a Tale of Two Cities, so I suppose Richard III fit the bill as the most accessible of Shakespeare’s histories.

To me it read more as a tragedy though than any history.  More than anything else, I remember Richard’s hunchback and diabolical scheming to kill the young princes in the tower.  Oddly enough, I can’t recall much else, but then that’s often how it goes with the literature we’re exposed to when we’re young.  We pick out certain details that startle us or appeal to us in the moment, discard the subtle details or the overarching context that we do not yet have the means to grasp.  And of course, with Shakespeare, there are complexities of language that most courses do not have the time or interest to elucidate, especially those with racial or sexual connotations.  As with Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, either we’re not mature enough to handle them, or the system would implode from the resultant controversy.  Thus, most teachers are content to hit the major plot points, draw out the usual test questions from Richard’s villainous personality, and let the rest go.  For the majority of students this will suffice, as they will rarely, if ever, encounter the play again.

My teacher, though, took a decidedly different tack. She had us read Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time” as an accompanying text immediately afterward.  That book, for those unfamiliar with it, sets forth a case in the guise of a murder mystery that Richard III was framed by history and not the demon we have come to know.

I can’t recall if my teacher believed Tey’s argument, or whether she just wanted to drive home the idea that we shouldn’t accept even Shakespeare’s word as fact.  If that was her point, it worked since to this day I have my doubts about whether Richard was as dastardly as the play portrays him, even if I can’t remember why Tey’s argument had been so convincing.

I bought the book to read again, but I now doubt that one week will suffice to absorb both the play and the book and make any sense of them together.  While reading the first act, I became aware that most of the history was flying straight past me, that I am too poorly versed in English dynastic succession to make anything but a hash out of the plot without some form of guide for help.

As usual, my plan is to turn to Isaac Asimov for the historical background while I make a go of the literary aspects on my own.  Unfortunately, that’s all the time I have allowed myself on the syllabus.  Then again, since there will be a lot more cushion later on, I may just expand Richard from one week until the end of the month and then adapt the schedule accordingly.

Although it may have made more sense to read Richard III after Henry VI, I’m glad I placed it on the heels of Othello and Titus instead.  Having already encountered Iago and Aaron puts me on familiar territory when I meet Richard.  In fact, I found myself saying “here we go again,” when he reveals his diabolical plans to the audience in an early aside.

What’s different here, though, is Richard’s motivations.  I don’t exactly feel sorry for him, but I do at least understand when he relates that his deformities have prevented him from having a normal life like other people.  He can’t (or doesn’t think he can) go a-wooing like more handsome men.  And since he can’t share in their joviality, he believes he has few options than to be what he was made and to revel in the darkness.

Once we learn the breadth and scope of Richard’s intentions, we can’t justify his subsequent behavior.  But like with his crafting of Iago and Aaron, Shakespeare has a way of bestowing his villains with such audacity that they can’t help but become the most compelling characters on the stage.

Certainly the “wooing” scene from the first act is one of the most startling courtships ever concocted.  I can only marvel how my adolescent brain missed Shakespeare’s pluck at having Richard set his sights on the woman whose father and husband he has murdered.  What am I to make of this?  Which is more troublesome, Richard’s seduction or Anne’s capacity to bend?

She certainly starts out appropriately contemptuous.  Her eyes are wide open to Richard’s guilt.  In fact, he confesses – out of sheer audacity – that he has killed the two men she loved most in the world.  How could she even think to allow such a man close to her heart?

The implausibility is not lost on Richard himself who – thoroughly shocked at even his modest success – professes:

Was ever woman in this humor wooed?

Was ever woman in this humor won?

I’ll have her, but I won’t keep her long.

What, I that killed her husband and his father,

To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,

With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,

The bleeding witness of my hatred by,

Having God, her conscious, and these bars against me,

And I no friends to back my suit at all,

But the plain devil and disembling looks?

And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!


Richard can’t believe it himself.  It’s like he’s pursuing her to test the limits of his own dark perversity, to prove to himself that he could pull off such a drastic, dastardly deed.  His success startles him to such a degree that he can only assume that he must not be as loathsome as he knows himself to be.

From where does Shakespeare draw this level of abject wretchedness?  And what am I to supposed make of Anne that she could allow this beast anywhere near her, knowing what she knows about what he has done?

Once again, Shakespeare opens the can of worms about human nature, forcing us to look at who we are and what we are capable of becoming.  He doesn’t just write horror and tragedy as mere spectacle, to wow us for its graphic entertainment values alone.  He seizes these opportunities to make us turn within ourselves and to probe our human frailties, capacities and limitations.

You might say that this is just a play exploiting its sensationalism for a box-office draw. If that were the case, we might easily dismiss it as we do the Friday night features that plead for our $12 by offering a shockfest forgotten by Saturday morning if not as soon as we exit the theater.

Shakespeare mines a field much deeper and closer to home.  His characters are scarier because we can’t dismiss them.  They hold up funhouse mirrors to our self-conceptions, distorting casual assumptions about everyday social relations and hidden personal motivations.  We are forced to ask hard individual questions about our potential for evil.

Richard does not go away.  He festers in a literary cast alongside other infamous scoundrels and villains such as Ahab and Roskolnikov, practitioners of evil so embedded in our collective psyches that they assume the role of cultural metaphors.

And we haven’t even begun to address the beastly murder of Clarence, Richard’s brother.  Egad!