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When one thinks of great Russian literature, one does not associate it with the time period of Stalin. Venezuela probably has great literature in its history, but I doubt much of it is written today by some crony of Maduro. But such is the oddness of the English language and the English people that the greatest flowering of English literature happened during the time of an illegitimate, usurping dynasty that had its thumb squarely upon the people and the arts created, a dynasty that resorted to execution more than any since.
Some say Shakespeare was a genius for his accomplishments. But how much more of a genius was he that he accomplished all that he did in an oppressive atmosphere that saw many locked up or executed for offending the Tudor monarch? A play like Romeo and Juliet might not have been too dangerous. Classical comedies and tragedies were not too dangerous, especially when set in places like Italy. The Taming of the Shrew? Two Gentlemen of Verona? But Shakespeare delved into another realm altogether: the history play. With histories from far off in time, indeed, apocryphal histories, such as King Lear and Macbeth, danger was not so apparent, yet Shakespeare came closer in time, right up to the time of his monarch. And in the writing of these nearer histories, Shakespeare prostituted himself, becoming the propagandist of the Tudor Dynasty, or did he?
The history plays that cover the War of the Roses and beyond are named after monarchs: Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard III, and Henry VIII. Henry IV and Henry VI both have their reigns covered in more than one play. Richard II came to the throne as a child and had a reign full of rebellions. He was a bit on the tyrannical side, which led to his eventual overthrow by his cousin, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, later known as Henry IV. The play Richard II probably serves as the casus belli, the raison d’être and origin of the Lancastrian line, which Henry Tudor, Second Earl of Richmond, was later the claimant. The plays from there are focused on the Lancastrian line of kings: the wily (and usurping) Henry IV, the glorious and victorious Henry V, and his son, the weak and probably mentally ill Henry VI. Then we have the Yorkist King Richard III, followed by Henry VIII. There are a few interesting omissions there, kings with no plays.
But before discussing that, let me look very quickly at the last play in the cycle: Henry VIII. The basic plot of the play is that King Henry is ill-served by Cardinal Wolsey, and that Wolsey was standing in the way of Henry’s cleansing himself of the taint of incest brought about by his marrying his elder brother’s widow and also in the way of true love between Henry and Anne Boleyn. Wolsey dies, Queen Catherine dies, and everyone lives happily ever after, sort of. As the last paragraph from a summary of the play says:
The new Archbishop of Canterbury has a plot hatched against him by Wolsey’s secretary, Gardiner, who is tried and executed for treason. Henry has a daughter, Elizabeth, by Anne Bullen. Cranmer christens her and makes a speech foretelling a noble rule for Elizabeth and a glorious period of history during her reign.
Yeah, that didn’t happen. The Cranmer speech was pure, ahistorical claptrap. When Elizabeth was christened, Henry was still hoping for a son. She was no big deal. In fact, she was a disappointment to Happy Hank the Wife-Slayer. So much so that he had her mother’s head off and married another woman by whom he did finally have a legitimate son. Henry VIII is probably the most propagandistic and self-serving play Shakespeare wrote during the Tudor era. Have you ever seen a production? No? That’s probably why. He had to censor himself so heavily and toe the Tudor line so much, his genius was not shining through. Just as a side note, the events of this play occurred over eight years’ time.
The other Henry plays, those about Henry IV, V, and VI are not exactly paragons of historical perfection, but considering that Shakespeare was the Hollywood mogul of his day, they are not too bad. They compress time to get more battles in one on top of the other, when in truth they were separated by years. Still, for exciting plays squeezed out of history, they are no more inaccurate than many World War II movies, and more accurate than many.
Henry VI died in 1471. Henry VIII did not start working on his annulment from Catherine of Aragon until 1525. There is a gap between the history plays of the Henries, Henry VI and Henry VIII of fifty-four years. So, what happens in that gap? In real history, it is the second reign of Edward IV, the first Yorkist king, the reign of Richard III, the entire reign of Henry VII, and the early years of Henry VIII. But all that Shakespeare gave us was Richard III.
If you have seen the play but not studied the history, you might be surprised to find that the play covers a period of more than fourteen years. It opens in May of 1471 with the deaths of Edward, the Prince of Wales (to Henry VI) and then the death of Henry VI himself. At the time of these events, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was eighteen years old. The character in the play seems older, a mature, misshapen schemer. The real Richard had scoliosis, which made him a bit shorter than some of his family members and gave him one shoulder slightly higher than the other. But scoliosis tends to develop in the teen years, he was not misshapen from birth. In fact, he was accorded to be a handsome man, much as his father and brother Edward were handsome.
One of the character Richard’s first acts in the play is to woo and marry Anne Neville, the widow of the late Prince of Wales. Did it really happen? Sort of. First, Lady Anne was Richard’s first cousin once removed. They had known each other in childhood, and there was probably some sort of agreement for them to marry before her father switched sides in the war and married her off to Henry VI’s son. Second, the main impediment to marriage was not Anne’s grief, but Richard’s elder brother George’s greed. George, the Duke of Clarence, had married Lady Anne’s elder sister, Lady Isabella. Since her father, Richard, Earl of Warwick, had died in battle, George stood to inherit his rich properties and titles, so long as Lady Anne was not married. But if Lady Anne married, George would have to split his father-in-law’s estate with Anne’s husband. Even with Anne’s wanting to marry his younger brother, George was not up for the plan. Finally Richard had to renounce his right to most of the Warwick properties, and give his brother one of his offices, The Great Chamberlain of England, in order to marry the girl he had known for years and had probably planned to marry before her father’s side-switching maneuver. The marriage was probably in 1472 for those keeping score.
The next incident in the play is the death of Clarence. In real history, this happened in 1478. In real history, Richard probably tried to save his brother, despite all of George’s failings. There is evidence that the reason Edward IV was so eager to get rid of his younger brother George was that George had revealed the fact of Edward’s bigamy, making all of Edward’s children illegitimate. Was this the case? It is certainly more likely than the version seen in Shakespeare’s play, where Richard stage-manages George’s execution in an act of gleeful evil.
Again, in the play, cut almost immediately to the death of Edward IV. In reality, this happened five years later. Edward’s son, numbered Edward V, is to be the king until Richard manipulates things such that his brother’s bigamous marriage comes to light. Young Edward and his brother Richard are taken away to the tower and disappeared, as we might say in this day and age. Of course, in the play, Richard is blamed, but in all likelihood, it was someone else who killed “the princes in the tower,” and it could even have been done by Richard’s successor, Henry VII. Do you think such possibilities are in the play? No. Of course not. Richard does it.
Richard then reigned as Richard III for about two years before Henry Tudor’s invasion. During those two years, Richard’s only legitimate son died. Then his wife died at the grand old age of twenty-eight. Again, in the play, this is much compressed, and Anne’s death is blamed on Richard, as every death in the play is blamed on him.
The truth of Richard’s short reign is that he was a good and enlightened monarch. He was definitely better than either his brother Edward IV or his predecessor, Henry VI. He was also a better king and man than any of his next seven successors with the Tudors all being murderous tyrants when given their chance to reign. The first couple of Stuart kings were not much better, although James I (and VI) mostly kept his executions to the lower classes who were accused of witchcraft.
In the play Henry Tudor invades and on the eve of battle, all of Richard’s ghostly victims come in dreams to curse him and bless and cheer on Henry. The battle happens. Richard is killed. Henry is crowned as Henry VII. Huzzah.
There is no Shakespeare play called Henry VII. Who wants to write about a miserly tyrant who killed off any of his relatives who posed a risk to his ill-gotten throne? If anyone is close to the evil Richard III of the play, it is Henry VII, not the real Richard III. But Shakespeare would have been hung (or worse) for treason if he had written truthfully about his monarch’s grandfather.
From a historical perspective, Richard III is Shakespeare’s worst play. It is Tudor propaganda. It is calumny against a good man and a prince among men, and that is all to tear down what had come before to prop up the usurpers and their reign of terror and tyranny. Another note is that Richard III was a brave man, and was a warrior who died in battle because he was a bit too brave and also a bit too trusting of his supposed allies.
From a historical perspective, the play is bunk and calumny. But how about from an artistic perspective? That is where the play shines. Were it billed as a the pure work of fiction that it is, what is there not to love? The play is probably one of the first with an anti-hero as the protagonist. Make no mistake, Richard in the play is the protagonist. Henry shows up at the end to win, but Richard is the star. One does not see actors like Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellan going out of their way to play Richmond. The Richard of the play is a black-hearted double-dyed in the wool villain who manipulates all around him except for fate itself. And he is delightful from his opening lines. As with the King John portrayed in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, Richard is so bad he’s good. The character is so over-the-top that none could believe that such a person would really exist.
And therein we might find the artful genius of Shakespeare shining through. Perhaps he was subtly signaling that Richard was not such a character. If no man could be so bad, then Richard was not really so bad. He was twirling his mustache, raising an eyebrow, and winking all at once to say, “You know I have to make the queen’s grandfather look good, but we all know Richard was done over by the Tudors.”
Or perhaps I am projecting much more onto Shakespeare than he had in him? What do you think of the play Richard III? How about the king and the man?