Thursday, February 07, 2013
Culture Shock 02.07.13: Alas, poor Richard III, do we know him?
The last English king to die on the battlefield, Richard was disinterred last year from his resting place beneath a car park in Leicester, England. (Still no sign of Jimmy Hoffa.) This week, scientists revealed the results of a DNA comparison and proclaimed the 527-year-old remains those of of the last Plantagenet king, killed on Bosworth Field, some 20 miles away, on Aug. 22, 1485.
If his bones could talk, they'd shout, "A hearse! A hearse! My kingdom for a hearse!"
Even his enemies admit his courage. He died fighting and he died badly, sustaining multiple fatal wounds to the skull, along with postmortem injuries for good measure. He played the game of thrones and lost.
The archaeologists who found him haven't said if there was any good interred with his bones, not that one would expect it given his reputation as the most villainous of English monarchs, a Machiavellian schemer who likely — but it is disputed — had his nephews murdered to secure his throne, and who was cursed with a twisted, deformed body matching his dark, twisted soul.
Turns out Richard III did indeed have a twisted spine, likely from scoliosis.
The results of CSI: Leicester's investigation may yet embolden revisionists and Yorkist dead-enders bent on rehabilitating the king, but history is written by the victors, and plays are written by the victors' bards. In this case, the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare.
Richard's death ended the War of the Roses, the House of York's dynasty and the entire Medieval period. It ushered in modernity and the Tudors, beginning with the coronation of Henry Tudor as Henry VII. Henry VII begat Henry VIII, who begat Elizabeth I, who reigned over the age of Shakespeare, as those of you who have seen "Shakespeare in Love" no doubt recall.
Judi Dench won an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in that film, but I'm partial to Miranda Richardson's daffy and bloodthirsty portrayal of the queen in "Blackadder II." Richardson's capricious Elizabeth is always threatening to chop off people's heads, which is a good summation of what happened to those who offended monarchs back in the day.
So, when it comes to Shakespeare's portrayal of the House of Tudor's old foe, he doesn't spare the cheap seats. Building on other contemporary portrayals of Richard III, Shakespeare's version is a hunchback with a limp and a withered arm, all outward symbols of his villainy. (The recovered skeleton shows no sign of a withered arm.) It is Shakespeare's Richard that has, through intervening centuries, entered the public consciousness and devolved into caricature. (See, for example, the Richard III ward in Monty Python's "Royal Hospital for Overacting" sketch.)
History is a moving target. Even the exact location of the Battle of Bosworth Field wasn't settled until three years ago, when archaeologists put the location a mile southwest of what had been taken as fact for 500 years. Bosworth Field tourists have been getting lost since Columbus got lost.
Shakespeare may have been a Tudor propagandist, but Richard III's remains on their own won't improve the king's image. Mostly, they confirm what history and drama have said, from the hunchback to the brutality of his death. His shallow, forgotten grave hints at just how disliked he was — at least by the Tudors and Lancasters.
Whether he really did in his nephews or whether he was a good and fair administrator, when not vying with his rivals, will remain matters of debate. No amount of forensic detective work, apart from finding the nephews walled up in the Tower of London, will change that.
Without a doubt, Richard III was a nasty piece of work, but so were the Tudors and Lancasters.
For what it's worth, Vlad the Impaler has his revisionist admirers, too.