I don't quite recall when England's King Richard III entered my life. There was more than one movie, including The Tower of London with Basil Rathbone as the usurper. And a book about English history called The Last Plantagenets by Thomas Costain. Certainly by the time I saw The Goodbye Girl with Richard Dreyfus' hilarious "gay" take on Shakespeare's master tyrant my awareness of both man and role was enough to appreciate the joke.
Of all famous monarchs, I suspect Richard III the most debatable. Living at a cusp of time between the Middle Ages and Renaissance, few enough records have come down about him. For most of his days (which weren't many--he was killed in his early thirties) he seems eclipsed by two charismatic, handsome brothers. Insights to his personality have been the ardent search of many an historian. What usually results reveals more about the viewer than the king, however. His personal "Book of Hours" survived, dedicated to St. Julian the Hospitaller--a man who (according to then-popular legend) killed his parents and won forgiveness from heaven by selfless kindness towards a leper. What to make of that? Did Richard himself feel great guilt for something? Was it justified? For what? Or was this a favorite story from childhood? Maybe he purchased this particular book because he liked the illustrations. We don't know.
Another mystery. Richard wed his first cousin, Anne Neville, heiress to one of the greatest fortunes in Europe at the time. They grew up together in her father's home. But what was their relationship like? No one knows, largely because no letter or real hint of Anne's character shines through. Did they love one another, as so many Romance novels insist? Was she (as one film daringly portrayed) the evil co-conspirator with her scheming husband? Shakespeare immortalized this mysterious lady in a scene considered a favorite for actors--the "wooing scene" wherein Richard claims all his murders were done for her sake, and that for her sake he is sorry.
Kenneth Branagh tells in his autobiography of doing that scene for the first time when attending acting school. After completing his first long speech in it, the actress playing Anne simply said "Are you always doing to do it like a Dalek?"
But I digress...
Shakespeare of course is a major reason both for the interest and the confusion.
In Elizabethan England, Richard III was the equivalent of Adolf Hitler to us--a monster from the past, very nearly an Antichrist figure. Ian McKlellan (clever man) used exactly this motif in his film version of the play. Rather than the 15th century, he firmly placed the story in the 1930s, with Richard as an increasingly obvious fascist dictator. As theatre, it worked (Note: I've often longed to direct a Richard III set in the Southern Confederacy for similar reasons--plus the effect southern accents have on iambic pentameter). To be sure, the Tudors lied a lot about the monarch they deposed. No contemporary account anywhere mentions a hunched back, a club foot or a withered arm.
A year after his death, the people of York rioted in his name, attacking one of the Lords who betrayed him at the Battle of Bosworth Field (then called Redclay Field). Sir George Buck, the first "Ricardian" (i.e. those who reject the image of Richard-as-tyrant) to write a biography of the Last Plantagenet King pointed out that some of the accusations make little sense. If, for example, he'd wanted to wed his niece Elizabeth of York (later mother of Henry VIII) there was no one to stop him. He also claimed to have found a letter in the Duke of Norfolk's archives showing the attraction was actually the other way round--a teen girl with an intense crush on her uncle. Parenthetically, I will say that would make for a great story as well, whether true or not.
"Whether true or not," there's the rub. William Shakespeare was a dramatist, not an historian. No matter what genuinely happened, the popular beliefs about Richard lent themselves to the creation of a memorable character--a man, "not shaped" for love who is "resolved to prove myself a villain, and hate the idle the pleasures of these days." He cheats and lies and murders his way to the throne, sharing all his plans with the audience as if they were in on it with him. Yet, and here lies the trap that makes production of the play so tricky, once the crown in on his head he's back where he started--with nothing to do. He has no plans, no philosophy, no ambition what to do with his power once it is his. All he can do drink, mope, and try to hang on. Al Pacino capture that brilliantly in his own film Looking For Richard, about the process of putting on the play (with an awesome cast--Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, etc.). There's a magnificent scene at the end, when Richard wakes from a nightmare, haunted by all his victims and we're again reminded this is a human being, no matter what his shape. He did not choose or desire this life, but made of it the best perhaps he could--or the best he believed he could (remember in the play even his own mother disdains him, and the only source of genuine love--his father--is long since dead):
What, do I fear myself? there's none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No;--yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why,--
Lest I revenge. What,--myself upon myself!
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well:--fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the dir'st degree;
All several sins, all us'd in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all "Guilty! guilty!"
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die no soul will pity me:
And wherefore should they,--since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Great stuff, all of it. But not history.
But realizing that doesn't really help. Look at the only known portrait of Richard. What do you see? A plain man (Richard resembled his father, just as his brothers looked like their mother, a famous beauty) in dark but very rich clothes, fiddling with jeweled rings. He looks to the side, his lips pressed into a single line. Is this a sadist, a ruthless killer? Or a puritanical nobleman, angry at the corruption around him? People have seen both looking at that face. What that says to me is that here is a face that conceals. Whatever else Richard may have been, he was private.
So what can we say for sure about him? We know he favored the North. One biographer called him England's only Northern King, if only by adoption. He had at least two illegitimate children, about whose mother or mothers we know nothing. He arranged good marriages for both offspring. When his wife, Anne, fell ill (poison say some, others tuberculosis) he obeyed the doctors and left her bed, and upon her death claimed to have loved her every day of his life. He certainly usurped the throne, but there was at least some quasi-legal justification for that (as well as a compelling political one, not least to avoid another war). Did he kill Edward, Prince of Wales? At the time, everyone said he died in battle. What about Henry VI? Well, if he didn't he was certainly part of the regime that did. Plot an incestuous marriage with his niece? Frankly, there's nothing to back that up--although such was a rumor at the time, to which he responded by sending young Elizabeth away from court. He pardoned a lot of nobles which in hindsight he really shouldn't have--like Lord Stanley, stepfather to the future Henry VII. But when he acted against others, he was swift and violent. Lord Hastings, the Queen's brothers, the Duke of Buckingham--apart from anything else Richard was also a warlord. If he decided people had to die, they died. Yet he certainly let people live who later betrayed him, even after he gave them considerable honor.
Did he kill the "Princes in the Tower"? No way to know at this late date. He did try not to kill people, but after a certain point they just vanish. Skeletons in a chest were found many years later but never positively identified. But even if those weren't the Princes, does that mean he didn't have them murdered? For that matter, weren't they doomed once he took the throne? I've sometimes wondered if the Duke of Buckingham didn't have the Princes slain, anticipating his friend's needs but not reckoning on the man's emotions. Such would certainly explain what happened to their friendship. But then, it also works if we assume Richard ordered Buckingham to do it then blamed him. Such is well within the range of human behavior. Or if Richard ordered it and Buckingham disapproved (although from what we know of the Duke's personality, that seems a less likely scenario).
So we're left with a mystery. And understandably we feel some kind of relief when an answer is offered--even if it is little more than a guess, or a self-serving bit of political propaganda, or a reaction against such propaganda. But look at the scenario painted above. Is that not hint of my own feelings about Richard, that I sought a way to absolve him? We want answers, but the kind of answers we find comfortable are windows into ourselves.