Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Designer Monsters: How Shakespeare Deformed Richard III

Shakespeare cut his teeth on Richard III.  This tragedy, as it was labeled, was to remain throughout Shakespeare’s life one of his most popular plays.  In designing this monster Richard III, Shakespeare took the Machiavellian archetype made famous by Kit Marlowe then tricked out his villain so as to make Richard actually charm and seduce the crowd.  It was quite a revolutionary moment in theater history: the first time an audience was asked to cheer on evil incarnate.

Shakespeare’s Richard emerged shrieking from the womb with a shriveled arm, a humpback, a mane of black hair, and a mouthful of lamprey teeth.  And from this point forward, villains would have to be charming bastards.  Their job--all flaying, decapitating, cannibalizing aside--was to seduce the audience.  And, in that sense, Richard III became the father of our modern day cult of cut-and-slash.  Like Freddy Krueger, Richard not only joyfully slaughters children but he can get you in your dreams.  (Just ask his brother Clarence).  Toward the end of the play, we see a ghosted Richard conversing with himself via his own split personality.  

I am a villain.  Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well.  Fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree.
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree,
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, ‘Guilty!  Guilty!’
I shall despair.  There is no creature loves me;”
                                      V, iii

The historical monster Shakespeare crafted was, centuries later, absolved of all its atrocities not by any historian (at least not initially) but by the British detective writer pen named Josephine Tey ( a pseudonym for the Scottish writer Elizabeth Mackintosh).  In her novel The Daughter of Time, Tey attempted to prove that Richard could not have killed the little lamb princes nestled in the tower.  Following Tey, historians have risen to Richard’s defense, the current consensus being that Richard III had no motive to murder the young princes.  The real Richard III, it turns out, was brave, capable, and one of the few English kings to die, however unhorsed, in battle.  The monster wasn’t a monster.  It was all made up by a string of biased historians then cemented in history by a genius playwright.  

Tey further argued that, since Richard was innocent, it becomes obvious he was framed, following his death, by the people who benefited the most from the murders of the two young princes, a.k.a. the Tudor clan; however, since these atrocities were performed by Queen Elizabeth’s forbears, therefore a suitable villain had to be cobbled together in order to take the historical fall.  In other words, the Tudors, in order to stay the throne, needed a designer monster.  

Elizabeth I, who controlled no standing army, ruled England by inducing both playwrights and preachers to champion her versions of history.  England and its theaters thrived under these tactics, and the rest is, well, a sort of anti-history: history deformed, shriveled, humped, maned, and insisored.
Late in her book Tey wrestles with another strange cultural phenomenon, the reaction of many of us when faced with evidence that our views have been perverted by propaganda.  Tey expresses it with her typical grace:

It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you.  They don’t want to have their ideas upset.  It rouses some vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it.  So they reject it and refuse to think about it.  If they were merely indifferent it would be natural and understandable.  But it is much stronger than that, much more positive.  They are annoyed. (DOT p. 131-132)
Update: now there's a 3D Richard III (above image from Daily Mail) to go along with the 3D Shakespeare.

Update II: Now the Daily Beast has an article up defending Richard as well.

Bonus link: a nice write up on Richard's exhumation in NMissCommentor.

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