Dedicated to a fellow writer from my newspaper days, who inspired deliberation on this topic through his blog, “A Year of Shakespeare: 38 Plays, 365 Days.”
Some of the assumptions I make here may be false, however it is based on a fair amount of research, some of which I did while researching for my novel, Rings of Passage. I don’t claim to be a Shakespeare scholar. Experts out there – take issue, please, if you will. Let’s get this thing cleared up.
Why did Shakespeare throw Richard III under the bus?
- Political fear
Shakespeare wrote Richard III during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and so his portrayal of Richard is sometimes shrugged off as “toeing the party line.”
Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII dispatched Yorkists whenever he could get away with it. On flimsy charges, he beheaded Richard’s niece Margaret (countess of Salisbury, George, duke of Clarence’s daughter) when she was 68 years old. She was hardly a threat.
He learned his hatred of Yorkists from his father, Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, whose hate was grounded in the reasonable fear that his kingship was both undeserved and usurped.
If you had Yorkist leanings during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, you had good reason to be afraid.
Yet Elizabeth the First did not share the hatred of her father and grandfather. She was a moderate in government and tolerant in religion. She enjoyed the theater, earning the disapproval of the Puritans on her own counsel.
According to Lisa Thyer, author of “Shakespeare Life and Times/Intro to Shakespeare’s life and Historical Context”: “Theater was often used as a covert forum for political criticism: …some may have remembered the swinish face of Henry VIII, and all in the audience knew that it was only under special circumstances that they could publicly share the thought that monarch was a swine.”
Criticism of the Tudor dynasty embedded in a dramatic performance would not be cause enough for Elizabeth to eliminate a playwright, whose work she most likely enjoyed.
To toe the line of the current political climate is not a convincing enough argument for Shakespeare’s trashing of Richard III.
- Chasing the fame
How many tabloids have jumped on the bandwagon to destroy some celebrity’s career for the sheer purpose of selling more copies? Could the Bard’s motivation have been opportunistic?
Although Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays – “preceded only by the three parts of Henry VI and perhaps a handful of comedies,” according to Wikipedia – Richard had been dead a century by then, give or take a few years. Richard’s “dark” reputation had already been convincingly painted against the backdrop of the “Tudor Myth*.”
The rehashing of that old chestnut wouldn’t have gained a playwright much traction – unless he happened to be Shakespeare. Like all great writing, he took an old idea and told the story in such a compelling way that it became new again.
It’s the universality of this theme, molded by the deft hand of a genius, that propelled Richard III to the top of the Elizabethan drama charts.
If there was any bandwagon jumping, it was because Shakespeare knew he could use the legend of Richard’s evil to drive home the idea that, in the karmic scheme of things, crime doesn’t pay. Shakespeare was not adverse to cozying up to his audience’s preferences, however (more on that later).
- Poetic license
By the time Shakespeare penned Richard III, he had already written three historical plays – Henry VI, parts I, II and III.
While researching the intrigues of British royalty, Shakespeare wasn’t looking for truth. He was looking for drama. And something deeper.
Shakespeare grew up on the morality plays popular at the time of his youth. These plays, and the classical dramatic tradition of unity and decorum learned as part of a grammar school education, provided the foundation for his work. Along with his contemporaries, Shakespeare blended old morality drama with classical theory to develop a new secular form for the English Renaissance.
In a nutshell, this new form of drama resonated on an emotional level, but also incorporated themes dealing with the human condition and destiny. And despite its ambiguous themes and complexity, this new brand of drama should be universally understood, not only to the educated elite, but also to ordinary people.
Because of the speed that authors had to produce plays at the time, and the Renaissance theory that tragic plots should be grounded in history, Shakespeare turned to source material typically used by playwrights of the time: Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande.
Among the sources Holinshed used for Richard III was Thomas More’s unfinished, The History of Richard III.
Born in 1478, More was 7 years old when the Battle at Bosworth took place. As a boy, he lived for a time in the household of Dr. John Morton, who was Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VII, and one of Richard’s bitterest enemies. Morton’s conspiratorial machinations against Richard eventually helped put Tudor on the throne.
More’s account of Richard’s life was interpreted through the prism of Morton’s anti-Richard propaganda, which was then reiterated in Holinshed’s Chronicles, which provided the plot for Shakespeare’s play.
Morton’s hatred filtered through Shakespeare’s pen dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s turning Richard into an evil and unredeemable monster who murdered children.
In his quest for drama and theme, Shakespeare had no use for primary sources that proved otherwise.
Even if Shakespeare knew that Richard III could not have perpetrated the crimes he was a accused of, he didn’t care. In Henry VI, Part II, Shakespeare has Richard killing the Duke of Somerset, when in actuality Richard was only three years old. In part three of Henry VI, Richard is seen participating in the Battles of Mortimer’s Cross and Towton. In fact, Richard was 8 years old and living in Burgundy.
Shakespeare’s motivation was not to exonerate, but to exploit plot twists to amplify his theme.
As with the character of “Vice” – of whom Elizabethan audiences would been familiar from the morality plays – the fates turned on Richard in the end**.
“Fate versus free will” was popular with audiences influenced by the growing Calvinism of the Elizabethan era. Inherent was the belief in historical fatalism, in which individual historical events are determined by God, who often punishes evil with (apparent) evil.
Shakespeare used Richard’s “reputation” as the perfect vehicle for conveying this idea.
Does that make him a toady to the Calvinists? I don’t think so. Still, he wasn’t beyond playing to the preferences of his audience.
Yet it is done so brilliantly. Can’t we forgive him?
I never really doubted that Shakespeare’s real motivation behind Richard III was artistic. I need not have taken the journey, just to come to the conclusion I had at the beginning.
However, I have learned much, and do not regret the trip.
- Conspiracy theory
In a nutshell, there are serious scholars who believe “William Shakespeare” was an identity assumed by a member of the nobility, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, to enable him to write plays and sonnets anonymously.
If Oxford was Shakespeare, he would have had strong motivation for painting Richard III’s reputation black.
Prior to Richard’s reign, the de Vere family had been stripped of nearly all its land holdings, after John de Vere participated in the Battle of Barnet in 1471, against the Yorkists. Richard’s elder brother, King Edward IV, confiscated, and then turned around and granted to Richard, all of John de Vere’ s property.
Was Shakespeare’s most famous play written by de Vere out of some kind of revenge?
Food for thought.
Wikipedia entries on William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s Plays, Richard III, and Tudor Myth.
Richard III Foundation, specifically, “Richard III – Shakespeare’s Victim.”
Shakespeare Oxford Society, specifically “The True Tragedy of Richard III: another Early History Play by Edward de Vere.”
Plus, a bubbling brain brew of information from multiple books and articles provided and discovered through my membership in the Richard III Society.