Thanks to the Warehouse Theatre, and thanks to you all for coming along to support Amnesty International and to marvel at this spectacular play, with its glittering poetry and tumultuous action. It’s certainly a play that has human-rights aspects — tyranny and wickedness a-plenty! But it has another, if inadvertent, lesson:
History is written by the winners. Truth matters.
This was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, preceded only by the three-part Henry VI. In other words, Shakespeare began by dramatizing the history of the previous century. He lived under the Tudor dynasty, the climax of the Renaissance in England. Richard III was the last king of the preceding dynasty, the Plantagenets. He was, you might say, the tail of the Middle Ages.
The play has a huge cast, though not as complicated as was the reality. Kings and lords of those times intermarried plurally and had many children. Here’s a simplified outline.
In late Plantagenet times, England — or its lords — had become divided into two factions, called Lancastrians and Yorkists, because they supported two lines of royal cousins, the Dukes of Lancaster and of York. Their badges were the red rose and the white, so the wars between them were later dubbed the Wars of the Roses. These wars between warlords ravaged fifteenth-century England. The Lancastrians had perhaps the poorer claim to the throne, but they gave us Kings Henry IV, V, and VI. The last of these was infirm of mind, so in a series of battles in 1471 the Yorkists led by Edward IV took over. That’s what his brother Richard refers to in the play’s opening lines:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.
But Richard was only the eleventh of twelve children. He had yet to murder his way to power. He murdered his brother George, his brother Edward’s children, the old Lancastrian king and his child, and his own wife. He had dozens beheaded without trial (“Off with his head!” is from our play). He was a venomous murdering ogre! Furthermore, he was a weak, stunted, ugly cripple, as he self-hatingly emphasizes in the play. He kept his ill-gotten throne for only two years. The revulsion against him was led by someone with a far more remote claim to the throne, Henry Tydder or Tudor, who called himself earl of Richmond. He was the grandson of a handsome Welsh squire who had had children by the widow of Henry V. He claimed to represent the Lancastrian cause. In 1485 he arrived from France, overthrew the monster Richard, and reconciled the two sides by marrying a Yorkist princess, as he says at the end of the play:
We will unite the white rose and the red.
He became Henry VII, founding the great Tudor dynasty.
All this Shakespeare dazzlingly shows us, following the historians of the time. And it’s a pack of lies!
The historians were writing under the Tudors. And the Tudors were more absolute and unapproachable monarchs than their predecessors had been. They had a state security system worthy of Stalin or Saddam. No one would have dared by defending Richard III to imply that Henry VII, who was certainly a tyrant, was also a usurper. Researchers have found reason to doubt every detail.
For a start, Richard was not a hunchback. (Nor was he two years in the womb or born with a full set of teeth, hair to his shoulders, or a withered arm.) He may have had a slight scoliosis and one shoulder slightly higher than the other (as I do myself).
You would hardly know from the play that he was only eighteen at the beginning, thirty-two at the end. Or that he and his wife Anne Neville had been childhood companions and were a loving pair; he wept bitterly at her death. Or that it was his brother George who was really a traitor.
About all that Richard’s detractors would grant him was that he was brave (despite his puniness). Almost all his actions were later deliberately misinterpreted. In most of them he was not only brave but loyal, generous, popular, and trusted. During his time as governor of the troubled north of England, he had become loved throughout it, setting it on the road to prosperity. He eased royal demands for money, enabled poor suitors to bring their petitions for justice, started the system of bail (so that people waiting to be tried need not wait in prison), stopped the censoring of books, even founded the postal system. He made good laws “for the ease and solace of the common people”; England, unlike other nations, had a parliament and a relatively strong populace, on whose approval the king’s power had to rest. Considering that Richard when eight had to see his father’s and brother’s heads stuck on the gates of York, he was relatively unbloody and forgiving, sometimes unwisely so.
The remaining doubt is about the crime for which he is most remembered and which gave the pretext for the rebellion against him: the death of the two little princes, his nephews, in the Tower of London. At the death of the king their father, the elder of them came to London to be crowned, Richard meeting and escorting him as Lord Protector. But at this point a bishop announced that he had witnessed the marriage of their father to someone else before their mother; and if they were illegitimate they, like several other illegitimate children of Edward IV, could not reign. The parliament agreed, and asked Richard to accept the crown instead. The boys were housed in the Tower, which was a royal residence as well as a prison. They were seen for a while playing in the garden, then seen no more. Two centuries later their bones were found under a staircase.
Richard’s defenders claim quite a lot of evidence that the princes were alive and well treated just before his own death, and were murdered by his successor Henry. Mainline historians believe that Richard must have had a hand in it, that if the boys had survived he would have been in a shaky position (as would Henry, much more so); that he did his best to live down the crime (true or rumored) by being a kindly and effective king, which might have worked (political murders were, after all, common) but he had too little time. Here are the makings of a detective story. (One has indeed been written, Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time.)
After the Battle of Bosworth, when Richard was betrayed by his pretended allies the Stanleys and died fighting bravely, his naked and bloody body was trussed on a horse and taken away for common burial.
The winners get to write the history. It’s the truism of truisms, but: the most important thing is truth. Distortion of truth underlies the larger part of human rights violations. It underlay the three atrocious wars in the former Yugoslavia. The suppression of journalists and other truth-seekers, that we in Amnesty hear so much of, makes other suppressions possible.
This is one of the Shakespeare plays without a Prologue. I crave pardon that my prologue isn’t in rhyme — I’ll do it again that way if you like! My merry masters and mistresses, let us begin—
“he Life and Death of King Richard the Third.”