David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth (Wikipedia)
The revision of the figure of Richard III is nice, but let’s respect the many awesome things of the play and its main character.
In the last few years we’ve been seeing a sort of revival for the era of the Wars of the Roses, accompanied by a historical revision of one of its most controversial figures: Richard III.
Because yes, as it looks from the new evidence unearthed, he was far from the figure Shakespeare made famous, the misshapen monster with a penchant for power and killingeveryone in his way.
In fact, he seemed actually not out of the norm for kings in his time. Yes, he got to power by sending his nephews to the Tower, but we don’t know if he killed them. He more than surely did not conspire to kill his brother Clarence, or kill his wife Anne so he could marry his niece (In fact, as it seems, after the death of Anne by natural causes, he started to negotiate a marriage with Joanna of Portugal). He was kind of a the end justifies some means guy, not the the end justifies all means guy that Shakespeare and the Tudor writers before him gave us.
All these discoveries are honestly, something that I am cool with. We live in an era that allows for historians to do proper research with a lesser bias than in the times of Shakespeare. This not only impacts the general public knowledge, but the way the character is portrayed in fiction, allowing for more nuanced portrayalsthat reflect all the facets of the people depicted.
Here’s where I start to take issue. Because what is seen of the non-Shakespeare portrayals of Richard III does not achieve that. In fact, it seems as if most of the fiction authors, in their intent of setting right the reputation of Richard III, make him this bland, boring, can-do-no-wrong guy surrounded by a nest of vipers. (The Lancaster-Tudors are a specially egregious case of moustache-twirling bad guys in these novels.)
From a writing standpoint, this definitely makes me miss Shakespeare’s Richard. As historically inaccurate* as he is, he is probably one of the most compelling characters in world literature. Not only he is deliciously evil, but he also happens to be the epitome of the underdog we actually root for, and that, more than 400 years after Shakespeare wrote the play, that is still a g-ddamn stroke of genius.
Perhaps yes, he did the opposite to what I mentioned before: by making Richard this evil mastermind, the rest of the characters seem sometimes gullible to the point of stupid, but then again, in a play you have to compress all the events and characters for the action. (In the case of Richard III it is, more or less 10 years what is compressed) And again, that is something that Shakespeare does wonderfully, bringing a highly entertaining play that does not have a dull moment.
Plus, Richard is met by some wonderful adversaries too. Aside from Queen Elizabeth, who manages to deceive Richard himself and manage an alliance with Henry Tudor (Yes, the future Henry VII), one of his greatest foes, at least in the beginning, turns out to be his future wife.
Because yes, contrary to the interpretations, at least in cinema where all the versions seem to be soft and weak, when he meets Lady Anne, she is pretty friking brutal against him. She throws at him all kinds of insults from «Minister of Hell» to «hedgehog» (which in the Tudor era was pretty much at the level of rat). She spits at him, and almost kills him.
And even at the start of the scene, before he enters,she curses him. Repeatedly, and in a way that backfires on her because she becomes his wife after this scene, she pronounces a series of curses as a sort of desperate vengeance for the deaths of her husband, Edward of Lancaster, and his father, King Henry VI, whose funeral she is attending (You can listen to a version of the monologue here). She is in the losing side, in a weak position, and still defends herself like a lioness, to the point that after she leaves, Richard himself says:
What! I, that kill’d her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
Even he can’t believe his own luck in this point. This, along with his conspiracy to end Clarence, starts his path to power. And let’s remember that this Richard is a Richard for whom the end really does justify the means.
So, the rest is (fictional) history.
*(Actually Shakespeare was super accurate considering the sources he had access to were scarce and all pro-Tudor, and that he wasn’t going to risk his head writing against the ancestors of the family of Queen Elizabeth I. He had a family to take care of!)
Some sources for this post:
- Richard III in Opensource Shakespeare
- David Garrick as Richard III in Wikipedia