Thursday, October 5, 2006

Richard III - Richard the Good


At the end of my hurried recapitulation of Richard in Henry VI, I said I would be off-(my)Island for a week, but I promised an anecdote about the guide on a sightseeing bus in York. Since then, Ernst who is currently in NEW York has been sending me his Manhattan phone number, hoping I found a cheap hotel, and asking for reviews of any shows I might see. Actually, I was only in dark and mysterious Tacoma, whose motto is "the wired city" -- I'm not making that up -- to go with the state's tourist motto, "just say WA" -- ditto.

So back to OLD York. Jean and I rented a car in Yorkshire in 1994, drove to the village where I lived when I was an adolescent, Great Ayton, birthplace of Capt. Cook and site of the River Leavin (Leavin what? Leavin' Great Ayton), drove to my old school, Wennington, now closed, in Wetherby where we visited my English master, a poet, who once had me memorize Sonnet 29 to salve adolescent heartbreak; then, in York, visited my old headmaster, who, indifferent to my professorial career in English, boasted of the Old Wenningtonians who had degrees in Science. We saw The Madness of King George at a York theatre said to be haunted by the Grey Lady, and indeed there was moaning and mumbled dialogue during the performance, but the ushers escorted the inebriated unghostly woman out at intermission. (Otherwise, a good show, Ernst.) We ate at a pub owned by -- alas! -- Budweiser, which has a brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, so I amused myself by teaching the buxom Yorkshire lasses how to say "Buhdd."

We walked the York wall, looked at both Roman and Saxon ruins (try to get a building permit in York), then took a double-decker sightseeing bus around the city. The guide was bright, hugely informed, and both witty and joke-inclined, but when we arrived at York Minster, he turned passionately serious, and denounced the villainous William Shakespeare for slandering, libeling, and otherwise lying about the great Yorkist king, Richard III. How quaint, thought I, this is an anachronistic salvo in the War of the Roses.

Well, you will remember that I thought the Henry VI plays were choked with history and the obligation to get almost everyone who lived in England in the 15th century into the dramatis personae. Notes made clear that Shakespeare had taken some liberties for dramatic effect: Henry should have been a baby when he is bring crowned in 1 Henry VI or Rutland an adolescent warrior killed in battle rather than a boy murdered by Clifford in 3 Henry VI. Shakespeare sends Richard into the battle of Tewksbury when he was, historically, eight. Riverside or Signet notes often say, historically, Shakespeare has conflated two battles or placed a death several years earlier than history.

But, our impression was that the Henry VIs are overwhelmingly historical, taken from the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed. Ernst's starter, then, was to explore how Richard III is different from the Richards we see in the Henry VI plays. I tried to summarize that earlier Richard, straight-forward dutiful son and successful warrior up to act III, scene ii of 3 Henry VI, when in soliloquy, Richard gives us an outline of how his deformity will shape (sic) his ambition for the crown. Then, Randall took on the first scenes of Richard III, especially the war imagery, and we can confront, at last, Richard III's Richard.

But not so fast (well, fast is the wrong word). After my "Crookback Dick" posting, I reread Josephine Tey's detective novel The Daughter of Time (1951) in which her detective, Alan Grant, is hospitalized with a sprained back and a broken leg (apparently, such injuries in 1951 England confined one to a hospital for several months). Intrigued by the suffering implied in a portrait of Richard III and to pass the time, he connects with an American graduate student who is hanging out at the British Museum. Recognizing that the popular "knowledge" of Richard is a monster, the crunchbacked murderer of the princes in the Tower, Grant sends young Carradine on multiple research missions, and "solves" the historical truth ("Truth is the daughter of time") about the king.

The history that we all know was written by John Morton (Bishop of Ely in our play), transcribed by Saint Sir Thomas More as The History of King Richard the Third, adapted by Hall, then Holinshed, and the latter three were Shakespeare's sources. All were writing under the patronage of the Tudors, Henry VII, Henry VIII, and then Elizabeth. Winners write history. Henry VII had a most marginal claim to the throne, his father Owen Tudor, married the granddaughter of John of Gaunt's illegitimate son. We know from Henry IV through Henry VI how usurpation is the stain from which there is no escape. Henry VII, with such tenuous legitimacy, then disposed of every more legitimate claimant, including -- TA DA! -- the princes in the tower. Then, his historians "murdered" Richard's reputation post mortem. Richard was not even deformed, though apparently thin and one shoulder was slightly higher than the other.

Yeah, it's only a detective novel, but it apparently is built on the more accurate account of Richard who, after the Tudor reign and their creation of the Tudor myth, has been rehabilitated. So, instead of being at a show in NEW York, I have spent the fortnight back on a sightseeing bus in old York, screwing up my ability to read Shakespeare. Start with Horace Walpole, Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third (1768), Sir Clements R. Markham, Richard III, A Doubtful Verdict Reviewed (1891), Alec R. Myers, "The Character of Richard III" (1954) and Peter Saccio, Shakespeare's English Kings (1976), 156-186. Richard Plantagenet was apparently quite an admirable personage, who ably administered the North as deputy to his brother Edward IV, to whom he was unwaveringly loyal. According to Myers, he showed zeal for trade and English interests abroad; he tried to repress disorder and promote justice; he showed generous magnanimity toward the dependents of some of his fallen opponents; he made it easier for poor suitors to present their petitions to him and his council; he strove to make financial reforms; he instituted law on land uses.

He did not kill Prince Edward of Lancaster (so much for Margaret's curses in I.iii). He did not kill his brother Clarence, whose death was the responsibility of Edward IV, against whom Clarence had madly plotted (though I am pleased that my favorite part of the myth, death by drowning in a butt of malmsey, is apparently accurate). He did not poison his wife Anne. "The existing historical evidence does not permit a firm conclusion on the fate of the princes. There is really no courtroom evidence upon which to convict anyone. We must rest content with a probability, and the probability points to Richard" (Saccio, 177). Still Sir James Tyrell did not confess to killing the princes until nineteen years later, having lived abroad with good livings provided by the Tudors. But disaffected nobles began to support the insurgency of Henry Tudor, our Richmond, and Richard died ("courageously," say even the Tudors) at the Battle of Market Bosworth, leaving the ruthless Henry Tudor to exterminate the remaining Plantagenets, and reign over the revision of history.

I'm left with four Richards: 1) the historically accurate, in so far as post-Tudor historians are able to reconstruct him; 2) Thomas More's and others' Tudor mythical monster, twisted of body and mind; 3) the young, valiant, loyal Richard of Henry VI, except for that little out-of-character soliloquy in 3 Henry VI, Act III, Scene ii, 124-195 ("Why, I can smile, and murther whiles I smile"); then 4) Shakespeare's Richard constructed from the sources and legends available to him. Unlike the Henry VIs, Richard III is not history; it is a complex drama, constructed and directed, then acted in by Shakespeare's fascinating character, Richard. "As myth, the Tudor Richard is indestructible, nor should one try to destroy him. This demonic jester and archetypal wicked uncle is far too satisfying a creation, and the works of More and Shakespeare are far too vigorous, for us to wish them otherwise" (Saccio, 159). So, once more, "now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this crunchback Dick."


No comments: