Today, April 23, is William Shakespeare’s birthday! It’s also St George’s Day, making this pretty much the closest thing Great Britain has to a Fourth of July/Australia Day/Canada Day. After all, what’s more British than Shakespeare (aside from bad food and stiff upper lips)?
Now William Shakespeare was obviously not named Richard, but he was certainly no stranger to dicking around with history. I understand he was using poetic license. You have to telescope history when you have a filthy pile of groundlings hurling debris and vitriol at your actors. You put people on stage for more than five acts and you’ve got a hostile work environment. But one must take Shakespeare’s history with a pile of salt.
So, today, in honor of the bard’s birth (and death), I will briefly examine how he treats two eminent English Dicks, Richard II and Richard III, in his plays.
To quickly sum-up, the two receive almost exactly opposite treatments. Shakespeare has Richard II end his life in a far nobler manner than the real king did, while Richard III (who was undoubtedly a bit of a dick since he was a late medieval nobleman) was warped into a hunchbacked monster with a soul worse than the Grinch’s. In Richard II, Richard II is a tragic hero of sorts, brought down by his own pride. He has an epiphany at the end of his life, realizing he has not been a good king, and willingly passes the crown to his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (soon to be Henry IV). Richard even displays some top-notch political thinking at the end, expounding on the notion of the king as man versus king as institution. Richard realizes he has given up his role in the institution of kingship, but as an anointed sovereign, he still retains some attributes of kingship. A king, once anointed, can never have the unction removed. So Richard, sadder but wiser, passes on the crown, goes to prison, and is murdered.
The basic outlines of Shakespeare’s tale are true. Richard II was deposed by Henry IV and he was sent off to a castle, imprisoned, and later murdered. But Richard probably did not cheerfully pass the crown on to a cousin he almost certainly hated and had exiled from England for ten years just one year before. Shakespeare can be forgiven this because Henry IV and his supporters put word out that Richard had given up the crown cheerfully, which was a big fat lie designed to make themselves look better. After all, it wasn’t so bad to kick a king off his throne if he agreed to it, right? I mean, he asked for it. But Richard II should be pleased. Instead of looking like a bad king who resisted his inevitable downfall, he comes off looking like the wise old man on the mountain (or even another Jesus in some renditions). Oh sure, he has suffered, but now he’s reached a higher plane of enlightenment. Being king would just bring him down anyway.
Richard III, title character of Richard III and bit player in the three parts of the Henry VI saga, has more cause to complain. While Richard II comes off as a tragic hero whose death makes you pity him, Richard III is more twisted than a serial rapist-murderer in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. If Henry Tudor and Richard’s lack of a horse hadn’t managed to do him in, the people of England would probably have had to call Batman.
Any assessment of Richard III in Shakespeare should probably start with the basics. Richard III, the actual dude, was too young to do shit in the era of the Henry VI plays. Richard was all of eight years old when his brother Edward IV became king, meaning he was not much of a warrior when Henry VI was still king. Beyond the obvious, Richard III probably didn’t orchestrate all those deaths, years ahead of time, for the sole purpose of gaining the throne. That would have taken years of planning and a lot of luck (such as your brother the king deciding to execute your middle brother for treason). In essence, Shakespeare’s Richard III is an evil genius who manages to kill five people who are blocking his path to the throne in a plot that takes over ten years. That’s some spectacular planning and some amazing patience. He also manages to do all this while having “I’m so ugly you should know not to trust me” stamped all over his crooked, scheming body (in medieval and early-modern times, many people believed that ugly people were bad people. In essence, your evil inside was manifested in your uncouth outside). And Richard manages to marry a hot girl, despite having just killed her other husband, by making her think he’s going to kill himself. Really, Shakespeare, women in the middle ages weren’t that stupid. But the issue with Richard’s wife is my biggest beef with Shakespeare and other anti-Richard III fiction writers (and yes, they exist, although I believe the pro-Richard writers are outnumbering them). While I don’t necessarily believe that Anne Neville, Richard’s wife, was in love with him (or he with her) when they married, I don’t think she was all that attached to her first husband. Her first husband, Edward of Lancaster, was the son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, the biggest enemies of Anne’s father Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Warwick himself had actually called Edward of Lancaster a bastard and his mother Margaret the medieval equivalent of “big, fat bitch.” So growing up, Anne probably heard some not-so-nice things about Edward and his mother, meaning she was probably more than a little shocked when he father switched sides and had her marry the “bastard” son of his enemy. We have no idea what their marriage was like, but it only lasted a few months before Edward died (probably not killed by Richard III but slain in battle). And while Anne might have felt sad to be a widow, I doubt she was mourning for the lost love of her life, unless she was an extremely sentimental teenage girl. And while she was a teenage girl, I doubt Anne Neville, daughter of the most powerful earl in England and obvious political pawn in the politics of marriage, was overly weepy when her husband passed. I also doubt she was a big enough idiot to marry a creepy hunchbacked murderer who was dumb enough to woo her next to a coffin.
But I digress with Anne Neville. Suffice it to say, Shakespeare treats his two Dicks differently. Apparently he took the unused dickishness from Richard II and dumped it on Richard III. But despite their historical inaccuracies, both are really enjoyable characters (albeit for different reasons). Shakespeare was not a historian but he was a master.