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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Shakespeare and the Real Richard III

I have been following the story of the discovery of King Richard III's skeletal remains and the DNA confirmation of the identity of the bones.



It is thrilling to be alive at a time when a discovery like this is made, and it convinces me that there is so much more out there for us to discover.

I just watched the excellent documentary about the process of discovering the bones, how they were dug up, the painstaking process of studying the remains and the exhausting work that many people across several fields of expertise did to once and for all declare to the world that Richard III has in fact been found.

It is well worth watching (on the Shakespeare Solved YouTube channel) if you have not seen it before, and it's not very long, only 47 minutes.

By the way, I read elsewhere that Philippa Langley, a screenwriter who was in the process of writing a play based on Richard III (and who works as a secretary to the Richard III Society) was the one who found the spot where Richard III was buried.

How did she find it? Intuition.

I just love that it took the intuition of a screenwriter -- not an academic, but an amateur in the field -- to discover Richard III.

Philippa Langley meets Richard III

On the one hand, I love the fact that such a discovery has been made, and it is very interesting to try and deduce what kind of man Richard III was from his skeleton. The part about his scoliosis, which they find not to be congenital, is fascinating.

The part about the wounds to his body, which has been said to be "humiliation wounds" is also quite interesting. The fact that he was buried without much care of the body, and without a proper tomb also says something.

The fact that he was not very tall, and had feminine characteristics, in his pelvis and his arms, is also of interest.

But while I am fascinated by these things on a historical level, I don't really think it does much to change the meaning of Shakespeare's character of Richard III.

The reason I say this is because I don't think that Shakespeare much cared who the real Richard III was. That wasn't the point in writing his play.

His play served other purposes, and none of them had anything to do with events over 100 years old -- at the time that Shakespeare was writing the play.

Shakespeare wrote his Richard III play, about a bad man with a hunch back, to paint a portrait of Robert Cecil, another bad man with a hunch back.

Cecil was Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State, and would later become her Lord Privy Seal. After her death, King James would keep him on as Secretary of State, and would make him Lord High Treasurer.

By 1593, when Shakespeare was writing Richard III, Cecil was well on his way to becoming the most powerful man in England.

When Elizabeth died, it was Cecil who paved the way for James to become king. In fact, as soon as she died, Cecil publicly declared James king without consulting just about anyone else.

It begs the question -- who had the real power? The king or Cecil?

Shakespeare may well have feared that a man like Cecil would ruthlessly seize power, and there are indications that Cecil did. I wrote about these in my version of Hamlet, and Richard III.

Suffice to say that there were a few young men in Elizabeth's court, who were enemies of Cecil's, and who ended up dead.

There are other reasons why Shakespeare wrote his Richard III play that have to do with Christopher Marlowe, which I address in my version of the play. However, the most important point is that when Shakespeare staged his Richard III play in around 1593 the audience could not have mistaken what Shakespeare was up to.

Shakespeare could not write a play about Cecil. But he could write a play about a man like Cecil, a man who had a body like Cecil's and a will to power like Cecil's.

Shakespeare would write other history plays which were thinly veiled portraits of other powerful people.

I recently discovered that the real identity of Shakespeare's character Othello is in fact the Roman Emperor Otho. But Otho was a very thinly veiled portrait of King James, for whom Shakespeare wrote his Othello play. The first recorded performance of the play was in front of King James in 1604.

According to Ian Mortimer, an historian and author of the brilliant Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England, Queen Elizabeth strongly identified "herself with the figure of Richard II -- a king who was deposed and murdered -- so much so that, in 1599, she personally accuses the lawyer John Hayward of sedition for daring to write a book about Henry IV, the king who deposed Richard II. Hayward is accordingly locked up in the Tower for the rest of her reign."

So what was Shakespeare up to when he wrote and performed a play called Richard II in 1595?

What was Shakespeare up to when he performed his Richard II play on the night before the Essex Rebellion against the queen in 1601?

What was Shakespeare up to when he continued to perform the Richard II play throughout the subsequent imprisonment of Essex, trial of Essex and execution of Essex?

Why would he perform it 40 times?

We are looking at the relationship between Shakespeare and Richard III the wrong way.

We are assuming that Shakespeare was trying to be faithful to the historical records he had as his primary sources for his Richard III play.

No, he wasn't trying to be faithful at all.

The primary source of Richard III for Shakespeare was Robert Cecil.

I hope you watch this great documentary. All of this hard work has finally given us the face of the real Richard III -- the historical one.

Reconstructed face of the historical Richard III

But when you watch it, please keep in mind that the real face of Shakespeare's Richard III is this man, Robert Cecil.

Robert Cecil -- Shakespeare's Richard III


Cheers,

David B. Schajer


Related Articles:

Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified

A Five-Part series on Shakespeare and the Essex Rebellion



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