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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Was Shakespeare's Richard III Propaganda?


     On 26 June, 1483, Richard, Duke of Gloucester ascended the throne as King Richard III.


Richard III's recently discovered skull


But he died in 1485, defeated in battle by Henry Tudor, who would then become King Henry VII.

When you read about Richard III, on Wikipedia for example, he was not quite the villain that Shakespeare made him out to be.

What was Shakespeare up to?

Shakespeare's sources for the play, such as Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, and Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard the Thirde, were political propaganda against Richard and the House of York. 


Henry VII


This propaganda was necessary to legitimise the House of Tudor, and the new King of England, Henry VII and any heirs, such as Henry VIII and later Queen Elizabeth I.

What better way than to establish the legitimacy of your reign than to smear the reputation of your defeated foe, in books and later in plays?

Shakespeare's play was not the only stage depiction of Richard III.

There was also a play called Richardus Tertius, by Thomas Legge, and first performed in 1580 at Cambridge University. Christopher Marlowe may have seen it at the time, since he was at Cambridge, and was one of their University Wits.


Christopher Marlowe


The True Tragedy of Richard III, was written by an unknown playwright and was probably performed in the period from 1585 to 1590. It is commonly believed that Shakespeare first came to London around 1587-8, so it is very likely that he saw it on stage.

Why do we know so little about these plays, yet so much about Shakespeare's version of the story?

Is it just because Shakespeare was such a genius that every last play of his is worth remembering?

But what about his plays made them so memorable? What was it about his plays that made them so popular in the first place, so successful, that thousands of people would pay money to watch his plays, again and again, year after year?

It is my belief that Shakespeare's Richard III play was his first masterpiece, his first really big hit. 

He had already established himself with his history plays about King Henry VI, written in the period between 1589-92, but it is my contention that it was this play, about Richard, and written around 1592-3, that firmly established Shakespeare as the greatest playwright of the period.

But what made this play so successful?

What if the play's success was due to the fact that it is actually a comedy? 

What if it is in fact a very funny play with some dramatic moments, and has been misunderstood as a drama with comedic moments?


Mark Rylance's brilliantly funny Richard III


If you have seen, or read about Mark Rylance's widely acclaimed and ground-breaking performance, or Kevin Spacey's performance (which he is virtually re-creating in the House of Cards Cable series) you know that Richard is a funny character, and the play has tons of jokes.

Mark Rylance's performance is breaking ground because he is playing it for laughs.


Kevin Spacey as Richard III


The previous plays about Richard were serious and sober depictions of Richard III, and are almost forgotten. Shakespeare's play is not serious at all, and is remembered for centuries.

It is almost an inescapable conclusion that Shakespeare's play is the masterpiece it is because it is a hilarious send-up of the traditional (and boring) history play.

If we can believe that Shakespeare's play is in fact a comedy, then is it not therefore clear that he was not demonizing Richard and the House of York, but in fact ridiculing the House of Tudor?

So, is Shakespeare's play anti-Tudor propaganda?

I have previously written about Robert Cecil, who was quite possibly the most feared and despised man in England in the 1590's. 


Robert Cecil, the man behind Shakespeare's Richard III


He was the son to William Cecil, who was the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth. When his father died in 1598, Robert would become the most powerful person in England. 

Robert Cecil's power was so great, that he installed King James on the throne after Elizabeth died in 1603.

Robert Cecil was a manipulative, and dangerous man. He was in charge of the Queen's spy network. When Christopher Marlowe was murdered in 1593, it may have been on Robert Cecil's order.

Cecil also had a hunched back. He probably suffered from Scoliosis, and had a curved spine like the real Richard III.


Richard III's bones
Notice the curved spine


In 1592-3, as Shakespeare premiered this new play about Richard III, a hunchback, manipulative, and murderous king, there would not have been one person in the audience who would not have seen it as a caricature of Robert Cecil.

Was Shakespeare's Richard III play propaganda?

It is entirely plausible to believe that the play was in fact propaganda, not against Richard III, but in fact against Queen Elizabeth and her court, which included Robert Cecil.

Shakespeare was turning the propaganda around and attacking the Tudors, not the Yorks.

Which in itself is quite funny.

Cheers,


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