Friday, 27 March 2015

The King is Dead! Long Live the King! - Burying Richard III

Richard III has had the pleasure for centuries of being one of Britain's most defiled kings. A child-killer, a hunchback, a usurper, he has been called everything in the book and yet the audience can never quite seem to get enough of him. There are continuous stagings and adaptations of Shakespeare's Richard III and his burial yesterday garnered a lot of media attention. During the service on the 26th in Leicester cathedral, Rt. Rev. Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said: 'People have come in the thousands from around the world to this place of honour, not to judge or condemn but to stand humble and reverent' (SourceBBC). Yet judge and condemn is exactly what the masses have done since the 15th century. What is it, then, that we find so interesting about this man? And does he deserve the attention?

Historically, Richard III was an important king. He was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty and the battle in which he was killed, the Battle at Bosworth Field, was the last true battle of the famous War of the Roses between the house of York and the house of Lancaster. Richard's rise to the position of king is what has thrown his character into dispute, during and after his life time. Upon his brother's death in 1483, Richard became the Lord Protector of the realm for his nephew, the 12-year-old Edward V. Within the same year, the previous king's marriage was declared invalid and Edward V and his younger brother were never heard of again. Richard was then crowned king. The disappearance of the Princes led to rumours that Richard had had them killed in the Tower of London, starting the trail of rumours that still hasn't quieted down. Although Richard made some beneficial changes in England, such as the creation of the Court of Requests and the Council of the North, and has been acknowledged as a good law-maker, it is his personal life and appearance which has caused the most stir ever since his death in 1485.

Although texts contemporary to Richard's life exist, they are largely subjective and distant therefore proving unreliable. Some sources declared him to be a good and righteous lord, yet most texts since than have deplored him as a truly horrible being. Although he has been remembered as a crippled hunchback, scans of his remains, found in 2014, show that despite having a deformity of the spine he could have easily hidden it. Why is it then, that Shakespeare portrayed this man as such a 'poisonous bunch-back'd toad' in his 1592 play The Tragedy of King Richard III? I always considered Richard III a character similar to Iago in Shakespeare's Othello. Neither are truly the hero and yet both steal the show. They commit horrid acts and are despised by most of the other characters, yet through their soliloquies and monologues they build up a connection to the audience which is almost spell-binding. Shakespeare makes the audience complicit in his characters' dealings and there is almost something of the anti-hero about both Richard III and Iago. Certainly in the 1995 film adaptation of the play, starring Ian McKellen as Richard, this aspect is increased and together with McKellen's attractive quickness and wit it becomes almost irresistible to slightly favour Richard. There is something strangely fascinating about a villain, especially one who seems as unashamed about his villainy as Richard, and I believe it is this that interested Shakespeare about him and continues to fascinate the world.
Richard III coffin and remains
SourceBBC - PA/University of Leicester

In the end, Richard's negative portrayal was largely due to the fact that it served his opponents. Through his rebellion and the killing of Richard Henry VII has effectively seized the throne. By satanizing Richard the Tudors could legitimise their actions and their popularity quiet most of the disagreement. To which extent his portrayal was the consequence of having powerful enemies, much like what happened to female Pharaoh Hatsheput, or was down to him truly being a horrid man and child-killer, will likely remain a puzzle for a long time. The facts are that the discovery of his skeleton and his recent burial have caused a major buzz and reignited the interest in this character. Over 20,000 people have visited his casket and many debates have been started over the morality of "celebrating" this man. These events are certain proof that history is never quite dead and that there remains something mysterious and fascinating about these characters.

I will end this post with some of my favourite lines from Richard III, which feel apt.
“And therefore, — since I cannot prove a lover,To entertain these fair well-spoken days, —I am determined to prove a villain,And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

1 comment:

  1. Such an interesting post! I've found Richard III an interesting figure ever since I saw the Shakespeare play. He is definitely a fascinating character there, and I think you're right that the audience can't help but be drawn to him. Despite the fact that he's depicted as almost a caricature of a villain in the play, his command of language - using it to lie, to cheat, to seduce - is marvellous and intriguing to watch.

    The discovery of his remains was also a very interesting project; I remember watching the documentary about it a few years ago. It's very curious that he had a scoliosis of the spine and yet managed to hide it successfully; how the rumour got out until it mutated into the hunchbacked villain of Shakespeare's play I have no idea.

    As for the morality of 'celebrating' him; it's almost impossible to judge, because we have no conception of what life was like when Richard ascended to the throne, nor the factors that might have prompted him to usurp his young nephews. If nothing else, his death was a landmark moment in English history, and I think it's a worthwhile one to remember.