Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Could Shakespeare be wrong?
Well, of course he could be and frequently was if you’re demanding historical accuracy.
But he can’t be wrong about this, can he? Richard III is so deliciously evil in Shakespeare’s version! What if the archeological skeleton dug up in the parking lot http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/world/europe/richard-the-third-bones.html?_r=2& manages to prove that Richard III was a good guy, not the villain Shakespeare made him at all?
Hello? We’ve known that all along, haven’t we? There are in fact quite a lot of historical documents to support the claim that as far as kings go, Richard III was rather decent and the victim of a Tudor conspiracy. But that’s what kings did, right? Killed each other and tried to prove that the victim was the bad guy? Just read your Shakespeare.
So was Shakespeare just a liar in the pay of the Queen, granddaughter of Henry VII, slayer of poor Richard III?
Well, kind of. If you want to look at it that way. But looking at it calmly, of course not. He was a writer of drama, a playwright who had to make a living doing it in an extremely explosive political society where a wrong word could lead to censorship or worse, even execution. That makes Shakespeare look like a real hero, brave enough to make everybody look bad but always in the spirit of profound humanity.
Yes, it is unfair to the real Richard III and my historian self protests. But my Shakespearean self says, “Richard III and Richard III are two different things.”
The bones in the parking lot are truly exciting and I really hope they bring conclusive light onto the mystery. Maybe this discovery will inspire Sir Ken to make a film, a faithful but nuanced interpretation of this fascinating person. That would be a Good Thing.
But does the discovery really change the value of Shakespeare? Not at all. If reality were to change works of literature and facts were the only basis for good writing we wouldn’t have anything left.
So long live Shakespeare’s Richard III. And the one in the parking lot too. So to speak.
P.S. The above was written last Monday evening (February 4) in the heat of the moment. Since then several articles have appeared in the Swedish press. In one of the major daily newspaper, Sweden’s leading historian on the Middle Ages, Dick Harrison, writes a very long article in which he tells us, “I will never forget when I saw Laurence Olivier’s classic filming of the drama Richard III (1955) on TV when I was little – it was probably one of the experiences that made me choose the Middle Ages as my field of research.” Harrison goes on to present Richard III as the mysterious and multifaceted person that he was and also his important role in the historical development of his times: “He reorganized parliament…allied himself with the bourgeois and supported sea trade…Richard and his family placed important puzzle pieces in this development, something that has long been ignored in the reveling of Shakespearian orgies of murder and intrigue. Richard III’s big mistake was that he still had one foot in the Middle Ages” and that he didn’t get rid of enough of his enemies. Harrison has seen two TV trials of Richard (one by British Channel 4 and another featuring the then American Chief Justice William Rehnquist) and presents the more or less unanimous conclusion: though Richard is a likely culprit, there is not enough evidence to convict the guy (Svenska Dagbladet February 9, 2013).
I’m also reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory and I’ve reached the chapter about ghosts in Shakespeare and the pages about Richard III. Fascinating reading about the historical significance of ghosts. And evil. And hell and purgatory here on earth.
Since last Monday nothing has really changed. If evil Richard III never existed we’d still have to invent him. Shakespeare did it for us. Poor Richard.