Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Richard the Third, Reinterred

Richard III, as reconstructed from his bones

Below is a short view of the passage of the coffin of England's last Plantagenet king to Leister Cathedral, where he was interred today, not far from where he died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1484.

His body was found in 2012, buried under a parking lot, only the latest indignity suffered over many hundreds of years by Richard III, whose name has become synonymous with craven plotting and evil.

Shakespeare made the case against Richard in his often-performed 1592 tragedy.  In it, Richard schemes to gain the monarchy and along the way arranges the death of two of his brothers, his wife's first husband and father, his wife, his two nephews and assorted others.  A description from Richard III:

Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end;
Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend.

Shakespeare's view fit the narrative of his times, when England was ruled by Tudor monarchs who cast Richard, of the York family, as unrepentantly evil.  (Indeed, if Shakespeare had written a Richard who was honest and heroic, the playwright might have been escorted quickly to the Tower of London.)

This view of Richard, called the Tudor Myth, remains the subject of historical argument.  In his day, Sir Francis Bacon called Richard "a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people."  He was said to be an honest administrator and an efficient warrior as the duke of England's northern territories and in his short monarchy of just over two years.

Even today, though, the play's the thing.

True or not, Shakespeare's play is compelling. Every serious actor of a certain age gives us his rendition of Richard.  Thespians love to strap on the hunchback (Richard had scoliosis, a different problem) that the Bard gave Richard, a physical deformity to match his odious character.

Done well, a Richard III performance examines the hollowing out of an evil man's soul and his descent into paranoid incomprehension.  But there is always the hazard of taking the performance too far --  chewing the scenery and such -- as the Monte Python comedy ensemble demonstrated in 1970.

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