Category Archives: Film
The Three Faces of Richard III


The Three Faces of Richard III

Between two evils, I always pick the one

I haven’t tried before.

~Mae West


The Critical

Richard III. Richard Loncraine, Director. Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine, Adaptation and Screenplay. United Artists Pictures. 1995.

1995 Movie with Ian McKellen, dir., Ian Richardson


Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enigmatic plays. The editors of Shakespeare’s work, who compiled the first folio, listed the play as a “tragical history”. What they meant by this is not often looked into by theater scholars, theater critics or film buffs. If they have considered the point, it is at least fair to say that the results of their deliberations have not made a substantial impact on the public mind, or on the performance of the play.

What is very much a part of the public’s perception of Richard III (as a character) is that he is “one of those villains you love to hate”. I believe that this is exactly what Shakespeare wanted from his Richard, a villain who was likable but hateful at the same time. After all, Shakespeare was re-writing history to suit his Tudor patroness, Elizabeth I, and the politics of the day. It was debated in Shakespeare’s day, whether the historical Richard was a “villain” or a “tragic hero”. This debate, no doubt, was carried on in hushed tones, because if the wrong person overheard you saying the wrong thing, and word reached her Majesty, you could find yourself quite “divided” on the issue. [Elizabeth I ‘s favorite method of execution was drawing and quartering, after which the corpse was set on fire; the head was often placed on a pike for public display.]

The heads-up on Shakespeare, at least in his own day, was that he was a shrewd business man with a flare for the dramatic, who always kept his wits about him; but who was also a bit of a “hack”. (He stole lines, scenes, whole premises for plays from everyone he could, including his rivals, the so-called “College Wits”. [e.g. Marlowe, Greene and Kydd.] His plays always seemed to be well attended and therefore made money, but not necessarily more so than any one else’s.) Shakespeare and his partners, in keeping with the practice of the day, ran an impromptu brothel and procurement service. The public theaters were also turned into arenas for the blood sport of bear baiting. How Shakespeare, or any other writer of his time, could “shock” the audience, or otherwise arouse controversy from the performance of a play is hard to imagine.

Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet has been the only film production to stay completely faithful to the script. At a little over four hour’s total running time, it is easy to see why. Needless to say, Branaugh’s film was well-received critically, and is now sold as a boxed set, for home video. My point is that to attract a contemporary audience, anyone trying to put Shakespeare’s plays on stage or on film has to cut the script. Ian McKellen is no exception it is just that his shears are larger and duller than most others.

The editors or compilers of the first folio seemed to sense something about this play that continues to haunt every production of it. In every production of Richard III, the director, the actor playing Richard and the audience are confronted by at least three Richards: The Richard of History; Shakespeare’s Richard’ and the Richard of the current production—as imagined and realized by the director and the actor portraying him.

McKellen is a bit too efficient in the task of taking controversy to the box office. He attempts to provoke the sincere Shakespearean scholar he succeeds only in raising a muffled grumble or two. Those muffled grumbles are emanating from him. Yet this may be intentional. All of the lines grumbled by McKellen are well known lines. As was noted at the beginning, this is a well known play.

It is as though McKellen limps his way through the first few scenes, mumbling his lines, daring us to compare his performance of Richard with any other performance of recent memory. The 1956 film version by Laurence Olivier springs to mind (albeit one leg at a time). McKellen must have felt that Olivier had an unfair advantage, in that he was there first (Olivier’s film performance was based on his stage performance at the Old Vic in 1946). And so to break with the squalid, acrid tongued tradition of all of the theatrical greats who ever dragged Richard’s lame leg across the boards—McKellen lifts his.

He delivers part of Richard’s opening monologue standing at a urinal. Had this happened at the end of the play, we might have excused him. But with such a strong opening statement, where can he go from here? He has at this point so totally and completely upstaged himself and his movie that we are not entirely sure we want to see what happens next.

For the most part the cast is British. Two noteworthy exceptions are Robert Downey Jr. and Annette Bening. They are of course, Americans, [gasp!] And they are not putting on phony British accents [gasp even louder!] In the original script (Shakespeare’s, not McKellen and Loncraine’s screen play) however, Edward’s Queen, Elizabeth, and her brother are outsiders to the court, they were treated with suspicion and mistrust. This is true, just as we might be led to mistrust these American “movie stars” doing Shakespeare. Someone knew exactly what he or she was doing. In case we have missed the point he or she further exploits Downey, by having “Lord Rivers” meet his untimely demise in the middle of a tawdry sex scene. [Actually it was pretty tame—I would have liked it better if it was tawdrier.] River’s gasp is segued into the shrill whistle of a steam locomotive. This is the same locomotive that is carrying the young princes to London, to their doom.

With his editor’s shears still in hand, McKellen gives some of the best lines in the play (given by Shakespeare to “Old Lady Margaret”) to Lady Cicely (the Duchess of York, played by Dame Maggie Smith), Richard’s mother. I am quite sure that McKellen does this to achieve some sort of economy. Lady Margaret, in Shakespeare’s play, hides herself in the castle and presumably works mischief on the house of York. She is Henry VI’s widow, and Prince Edward’s mother, both of whom were killed by Richard at Tewkesbury in the film. (This contradicts the play and the historical accounts.)

The Duchess of York was married to Richard Plantagenet who was killed by Lady Margaret’s men; his head was cut off, crowned with a paper crown and set on a pike on the gates of the city. Her son Edmund was killed before his father’s eyes (and according to Shakespeare’s Richard—Richard’s) and a handkerchief soaked in his blood was smeared on his father’s face before the latter was beheaded. For reasons that Shakespeare and the histories made completely obvious, Lady Margaret is Richard’s chief enemy—McKellen and Loncraine leave her out completely.

The Duchess, his mother, suspects that Richard is responsible for the deaths of her other sons (Edward IV, late the King of England and George, late the Duke of Clarence) her two grandsons (Edward V, late the heir apparent to the King and Richard, late the Duke of York) Certainly Lady Cicely has no maternal love left for Richard, but Lady Margaret is so much more fun! McKellen assumes perhaps, that his audience does not know the play or the history and so will not miss the second most important character in the play.

Another radical departure from Shakespeare’s play is the treatment of Richard’s turbulent night before the critical battle of Bosworth Field. Shakespeare’s Richard is visited by the ghosts of all of those whom he has slain, and each of the ghosts curses him and invites him to think of them in the battle, and then to “despair and die”. Shakespeare’s reminder to the audience why Richard (who some might have still considered a hero) was about to be handed his head. It is also another break with the Olivier film, in which the dream sequence is presented according to the technology of the day. A glass panel, smeared with Vaseline is moved in front of the camera to visually indicate the segue into a dream sequence.

Other cosmic forces conspire against Richard as well, as he prepares to fight Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare’s play. It is noted that the sun is late in rising. This is crucial to an Elizabethan understanding of the outcome of Shakespeare’s play, and the historical outcome. The situation also calls back to the opening lines where Richard puns on the sun-like device of the house of York and his brother Edward as the favorite son of the same house (whom he has made King). Now on the morning of the battle that once again pits York against Lancaster, cousin against cousin, the sun refuses to rise. Shakespeare suggests this as a portent, but we are not quite sure whether for good or ill. Do the forces of nature side with Richard? By refusing to rise, the sun is delaying Richard’s demise. McKellen omits the lines completely, thereby avoiding the confusion and possible subversion planted in Shakespeare’s words.

In McKellen and Loncraine’s film, Richard spends a fitful night, he tosses and turns and dreams he has been transformed into the boar on his standard. We hear snippets from the dialogue of the film that we can not quite make out. And Richard awakes in a cold sweat. Richmond, by contrast, awakes with his naked young wife Elizabeth (the daughter of Edward IV). God and McKellen have given her to him a little early, as a portent for the battle. In the play the marriage takes place after the battle as the falling action of the play. Here I suppose we would have to consider it “pre-climactic”.

The battle is set (as is the film) in the wartime Nazi-fied England that McKellen and Loncraine have devised for the movie. I have not talked about this much, because it is just so obviously wrong. Hitler was not a villain we love to hate—Hitler was pure evil. There is about Richard, a sense that had his circumstances been different he could have been redeemed. In one of the more ludicrous moments in the film, during this battle Richard’s jeep stalls and will not re-start. This is McKellen’s justification for one of the most famous lines in the history of the English stage: “A horse, a horse—my Kingdom for a horse!”

The final confrontation of the battle is a scene devised by McKellen and Loncraine as perhaps the primary reason for retelling the story. (Because the two wanted to see this particular scene played out.) After much confusion in the battle scene, and a bit of running around by both actors, Richmond sees Richard opposite him, apparently fleeing the scene (after chewing-up most of the scenery). (This is Richmond’s big scene.) Richard turns and sees Richmond. Richmond takes aim at Richard who has no gun.  Richard smiles, extends his hand toward Richmond and says “let’s to it, pell mell; if not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell” Richard leaps backward off of the beam he has been standing on. Just before Richmond shoots, Richard jumps into a pillar of flames and certain death. Richard smiled at Richmond, now Richmond smiles too; in that moment we are supposed to see that they are somehow the same. Richmond is no better, no worse than his predecessor was. They are both opportunists. Richard jumps as a final act of defiance, not in desperation. Richmond wins, but only because Richard won first and best. The machine of the state engulfs both of them—eventually neither wins.

All in all it’s a rather bloodless attempt to put a “post-modern”, “hip” turn on an early modern story. Richmond lives, Richard dies, the state remains the same. This is consistent with McKellen’s handling of Shakespeare’s other subtleties. Almost all of these are transformed into steam-roller clichés. Shakespeare’s play is not history play, nor is it a tragedy, even by Elizabethan standards. Who is the “tragic hero”? The McKellen and Loncraine film is neither history nor tragedy. Both are a kind of hapless melodrama; the play also doubles as propaganda for the Tudors’. We are supposed to boo the villain and cheer the hero at the end. Richmond does not even show up in the play until the final act—in the film he is in a crowd scene or two. We are intended to leave Shakespeare’s theater certain in the knowledge that Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s grandfather saved the Kingdom from a cruel tyrant. When we leave the theater after seeing McKellen and Loncraine’s film, all we feel certain about is that Loncraine and McKellen have succeeded in breaking with some long standing theatrical traditions; and that, at least McKellen feels relieved.


The Literary


From Historical accounts, Richard III

The Goddess of Sovereignty in Richard III


Of the two principals who met in battle at Bosworth Field on that day in 1485, when the sun was late in rising, as Richard notes:  “He disdains to shine; for by the book/he should have brav’d the east an hour ago/ a black day will it be to somebody (V, 3).  Black indeed! Shakespeare seems to drop his façade of loyalty to the Tudor cause, when in the next few lines Richard says, “For the selfsame heaven/ That frowns on me looks sadly upon him” (V, 3). Shakespeare seems to be winking at us as if to say that he knows better than to think that either cause was totally just or entirely in the right and that there were perhaps villains enough to go around. And indeed, it may be argued that Richard’s claim to the throne was much stronger than Henry Tudor’s. Richard’ claim was based on direct descent from Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund Langly as well as Edward’s third son, John of Gaunt’s ill-gotten Beaufort line; it should be remembered too, that his paternal grandmother was descended from Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp.

Owen Tudor was lucky enough to have served in France as the Keeper of the Wardrobe for Catherine of Valois, the widow of Henry V. Owen’s later marriage to Catherine perhaps did more to set his (and his sons’) fortunes as an important player in international politics. While it is true that Richmond’s mother belonged to the Beaufort line that hardly trumps the fist-full of paint cards held by Richard. It could be reasoned, that everybody alive at the time and even in Elizabethan times knew it. Henry Tudor certainly knew it. His first act as King was to fix the date of his accession to the throne to a date before the battle at Bosworth Field. Then, he had all of the nobles who fought against him declared traitors, executed and then he seized all of their lands and men. What Henry VII had started with his headsman’s axe, his son continued with the pen and press.

Henry VIII commissioned several histories, notably from Sir Thomas Moore and Raphael Holingshead. These histories served as the official record, and were one of the sources used by Shakespeare and the other writers of chronicle plays. We can all be sure that Henry VII smiled down on his son from whatever corner of heaven he was ensconced in, when the last of the Plantagenets fell to the headsman’s axe. She was by then a little old lady and hardly a threat to the crown: Margaret Pole, the daughter of George, the ill-fated Duke of Clarence, and the niece of Richard III. It is uncertain when exactly or how Richard became the misshapen fiend of the Tudor myths; whether in the chronicles commissioned by Henry VIII, where they first appeared in writing; or in the popular imaginations of folk lore; or in nightly whispered warnings of good Tudor mothers at their good Tudor children’s bedsides; we do not know.

Shakespeare seems to have wondered about this too; he has little York two or three times refer to stories that he has heard about his uncle Glouster (II, 2). His aunt, the Queen and his grandmother, the Duchess of York, are sitting by, and they ask him how he came to hear these stories. At first the boy lies and says he heard them from his uncle’s nurse. When the Duchess points out that the nurse is long since dead, the boy says he does not know who it could have been. Then he implies that these stories were on the order of common knowledge.

I suppose that Shakespeare might have felt that since Henry Tudor’s lineage was not sufficient to found his claim to England’s seat, and the gossip of children, household help and common people not sufficient to erase the title from Richard, he set out in a much subtler way, to provide “otherworldly” support for Elizabeth I’s grandfather.

The otherworldly help that Shakespeare enlists for Henry is not the Christian God, nor Jesus his son. From the outset of the play Shakespeare tips his hand and shows his intentions: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York…(I, 1). The reference is obliquely to the two devices of the warring houses of York and Lancaster, and to Edward IV and lastly to himself. Shakespeare and most of his audience knew that Edward was a drunk and a womanizer and that it was Richard who won the battle at Tewksbury. The audience also knew that it was Richard who was responsible for the death of Henry VI and of his son Edward the Prince of Wales. The third part of the trinity is not invoked by Richard until the end of the play when the sun refuses to shine and he proclaims that “A black day will it be to somebody”. Red, white and black are the colors of the triune Goddess Sovereignty. In ancient times the King was ritually married to her at his Coronation and was thereafter seen as her consort. Each of the colors has a corresponding goddess: Black is Calleigh, the wise and mystical old woman; Red is Morrigan (Morgan), the matron and goddess of war; White is Brigghid (Bridgette), the virgin. Together these are the Great Goddess Sovereignty and she alone has the power to make Kings. For Shakespeare and his audience the goddess religion was still very much alive in folk lore and folk wisdom. King Lear is based on a welsh myth about the god of the sea who comes to Britain with his three daughters, whom Shakespeare calls Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. The three “weird” sisters that dominate the “Scottish play” [hey, I’m an actor; it’s bad luck to name it outside the theater] are said to chant actual spells and incantations.

If the reader is still in doubt and needs further convincing, one need only look to Act IV, scene 3; Old Queen Margaret styles herself a black faced crone:

Queen Margaret: [enters]

So now prosperity begins to mellow

And drop into the rotten mouth of Death.

Here in these confines slyly have I lurk’d

To watch the waning of mine enemies.

A dire induction am I witness to,

And will to France, hoping the consequence

Will prove as bitter, black and tragical.

Withdraw thee wretched Margaret. Who comes here? [retires]

(IV, 4).

And that’s it; Shakespeare makes the whole appearance solely about Lady Margaret, dead King Henry’s widow’s revenge. Shakespeare’s audience would have remembered that Margaret was the driving force behind Henry’s throne; they would have known this because she often led Henry’s troops into battle. She is Richard’s proper foil in the play, not the insipid Richmond—who shows up as almost an afterthought in the last act. (Except for a very brief scene in which he is told to go to France to secure a French army. Margaret is after all, Margaret of Anjou.) For Margaret and for Shakespeare, Richmond is a mere functionary—he is in the play just to save the day and marry young Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter, thus uniting the white and red houses of York and Lancaster. The true victory belongs to Margaret as the embodiment of the Calleigh who by providing the connection to the French army, chooses and makes Henry the King.

As Margaret watches “the waning of” her enemies, she reminds us of all of the curses (that become prophesies) she visited on them to “pierce the clouds and enter Heaven” (I, 3). [Granted, as curses go, this is a rather polite way to wish your enemies dead.] The fruition now of these curses, proves her role as Calleigh; for it is only Calleigh who can prophesize or confer the power to prophesize. Calleigh also ensures the efficacy of curses she deems to be worthy.

As Act IV scene 4 continues, we see the triune goddess almost complete in paradigm and in persons. Lady Margaret, Queen Elizabeth and Cicely the Duchess of York sit around and talk about their grief. Margaret has lost her husband and son; Elizabeth has lost her husband and two sons but still has a daughter; Cicely has lost her husband and four sons. Her surviving son is Richard III. Margaret is responsible for the deaths of Cicely’s husband and eldest son. Richard is responsible for the deaths of everyone else, as well as the death of his wife and cousin the Duke of Buckingham. [At the end of the play the body count is thirteen.]

These three should be mortal enemies but the audience sees that they are joined by their grief. The first topic of their discussion is their grief. In fact for a while the women seem to be quarreling over whose grief is the greatest. This is not a pity party though; this is a chthonic, maternal recitation of pedigrees that establishes, not their worthiness as adversaries, as would a patriarchal recitation of pedigree; but in the depth of their grief they establish their unity against their common enemy Richard, and their affinity with the great Goddess.

Margaret establishes her primacy: “If ancient sorrows be/ Most reverend/ Give mine the benefit of seniority…” (IV, 4). Then continues “If sorrow can admit society…” she identifies Cicely as the matronly aspect of the goddess: “From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept/A hell hound that doth hunt us all to death…” (IV, 4). Continuing further, she introduces us and Queen Elizabeth, by referencing Princess Elizabeth through her mother: “I’d call thee then, vain flourish of my/Fortune…”(IV, 4). Shakespeare is using an older meaning derived from both Latin and French of “flower”, not necessarily “flowering” or “thriving”. Thus the reference is to the red and white flowers of Lancaster and York, the “flower” of virginity and foreshadows the “flowers” of the wedding bed. She also implies that Queen Elizabeth will play the role of Calleigh; this sets-up first a confrontation scene between Cicely, Elizabeth and Richard and then an attempted seduction by Richard of first the younger and then the elder Elizabeth.

In the action that follows Richard enters accompanied by men with horns and drums. The two women confront him about his many crimes against them and their families but Richard instructs the men to start playing to drown out the women, saying “Either be patient and entreat me fair/Or with the clamorous report of war/ Thus I will drown your exclamations”(IV, 4). Richard represents the paternalistic new order, and the women represent the chthonic order of the great Goddess. Cicely confirms Richard as her vassal and her son, by asking “Art thou my son?” And thus puts back on Richard his burden and bargain with her; she had once chosen him as her Champion and he betrayed her.

Thou cam’st on Earth to make the Earth my hell.

A grievous burden was thy birth to me;


Thy prime of manhood daring, bold and bloody,

More mild, but yet more harmful-kind in hatred.

What comfortable hour canst thou name

That ever grac’d me with thy company? (IV, 4).

Effectively, Cicely, as matron now renounces both that role and her progeny. The cycle of her tenure is complete and she must prepare to pass the mantle on, and become in her turn the Calleigh. The last gift she gives is first prophecy she makes, “Bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end/Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend”(IV, 4). And with that she leaves; and as she leaves, Elizabeth picks up the mantle Cicely has left behind her: “Though far more cause, yet much less/Spirit to curse abides in me; I say amen to her.” Elizabeth identifies herself as the new matron of the triune Goddess, if we extraneous words she is telling Richard that there will be a new champion for Sovereignty—and obviously it is not him. As the scene continues, the emasculated Richard continues trying to seduce her as he once seduced Lady Anne. (Who was the wife of Edward the Prince of Wales.)

Elizabeth is now possessed not only of a “cause” but of all the knowledge of all of her predecessors. She easily beats Richard at every point: she knows it, he knows it and we know it. Richard is being refashioned an emasculated foppish failure—a dark parody of his former self. Elizabeth sees him for what he is and now in spite of her grief (potential loss of her daughter’s maiden-head, the actual loss of her two young sons, and her own loss of innocence) she is almost moved to laugh at him. Richard meanwhile fails to woo her and sues to woo her daughter—the maiden of the triune goddess—through her. In a lengthy scene, rich with meaning and confirmations for our purpose here, Elizabeth appears to lead Richard around by the nose in the argument, until in his frustration (Richard is not used to being bettered, especially by a woman.) He is moved to say: “Be not so hasty to confound my meaning/I mean that with my soul I love thy Daughter/And do intend to make her Queen of England”(IV, 4). Even if Elizabeth does not laugh at him at this point, which she might—the audience should. Most people in Shakespeare’s audience would have known that while the goddess Sovereignty can make any man she chooses, King; no King, no matter how powerful he is can make a woman sovereign Queen. It is as if Richard is telling Elizabeth that he will get pregnant and have the baby himself.

Elizabeth shows more restraint, she merely continues to taunt him: “Well, then who dost thou mean shall be her King?” (IV, 4). Here again she is pointing to his crotch and saying that he does not have the right equipment. He has been unsexed by the goddess, he can neither bear children nor get children; yet now he is promising to do both. The scene is repeated (as he attempts to seduce both mother and daughter) and may seem overly long because Shakespeare does not want us to miss his point. Nor does he want us to miss the connection between this scene and Richard’s seduction of Lady Anne: “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won?”(I, 2). Not only did Richard not win, but he has lost everything: his manhood, his Kingdom, and his life. If he were not writing a five act play, Shakespeare could have stopped here as he ends the fourth scene:

Richard.  Bear her my true love’s kiss; and so farewell.

[kisses her] [EXIT Queen Elizabeth]

Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!(IV, 4).

Richard has addressed his aside to Elizabeth, but we know that Shakespeare aimed those lines at Richard. The rest of the play is written in a rapid series of short vignettes; this gives one the impression that events are happening very quickly—hastening Richard to his fate; fate that was already settled in the last act. Even the parade of the ghosts of Richard’s victims is not a very convincing device compared with his encounter with the Calleigh and Morrigan. I would suggest that Shakespeare realized that it was important for us to see Richard die. And it is important in order to establish Henry Tudor on the throne, and thereby keep the royal patroness happy.

The battle at Bosworth Field does not seem to hold much fascination for Shakespeare, except maybe to include some of the famous lines he pilfered from Holinshead and More’s histories.  Included among these are the famous “A horse, a horse my Kingdom for a horse!” (V, 4). Since this line is included in the chronicles it had somehow passed into the popular imagination first. This line and others like it, along with Richard’s deformities could have simply been made-up, but the authors of the chronicles and Shakespeare could not omit them—they are just too good!

The final bit of Royal propaganda comes at the end with Richmond’s final speech:

Richmond: Inter their bodies as becomes their births.

Proclaim a pardon to the soldiers fled

And then, as we have ta’en the sacrament,

We will unite the white rose and the red (V, 4).

That this is revisionist history has already been visited above. Henry killed the nobles, stole their lands and this made him wealthy and powerful. But it did not make him as wealthy or as powerful as Princess Elizabeth the daughter of Edward IV. Had he not married her the Wars of the Roses could have continued in her name. As the Virgin aspect of the goddess, Elizabeth made Henry King. She and he together united the houses of York and Lancaster in the person of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth saw herself as the incarnation of Sovereignty. Elizabeth I had flaming red hair and translucent white skin; she prided herself on her virginity and was called with respect and fear, the Virgin Queen. [Although most historians link her to at least two romantic relationships whether or not she was a Virgin likely went to the grave with her.] She gave her name to an age in History. In short she became all that her forebears could not, Shakespeare knew this, and so Richmond ends his play abruptly: “That She may long live here Gods say Amen! (V, 4).


The History

Battle map for the Wars of the Roses (ending 1485--Bosworth)


When I teach Richard III, I try to teach the history from the late fifteenth century and before; I teach about Elizabethan stagecraft; and I focus most of my attention on the differences between the actual history and the “history” presented by Shakespeare. As a historian, Shakespeare was a very good poet. And I teach about the political and social realities of everyday life in Shakespeare’s England. I teach simple truths like Elizabeth the First’s half sister Mary I was responsible for the deaths of some 300 Protestants; Elizabeth was responsible for the deaths of some 10,000 Catholics. Yet History records her sister as “Bloody Mary” and Elizabeth as “The Virgin Queen”. I also teach that “History” and historians cannot be trusted. It is not that historians tell lies, it is worse; they tell partial truths. The English Navy for example, did not defeat the Spanish Armada; the weather and the “gulf stream” did [Oh, and the really gnarly rocks off the English coast did not help!]

I want my students to be a suspicious: of the texts, of authority and even a little suspicious of me. [It is my sincere hope that 100 years from its publication, juvenile delinquents will be sentenced to cross-reference and annotate this book for a year—of course in 100 years people may have forgotten what it means to cross-reference or to annotate. Hey, I was good throughout the whole last section, not one sneer! I have a lot of pent-up snide energy to vent!] These “histories” that are written by victors are only believed by idiots! [For you history teachers out there: you can use this line, but you had better quote me or I will hunt you down! If I’m dead, I’ll haunt you; if I’m alive I’ll make you eat this book—page by page and then the hard cover!!]

As I have written previously, History is not a series of facts or truths; History is an informed interpretation of events. The more remote we are from those events or the people who participated in them, the closer “history” moves to myth and legend. To further complicate the matter, written accounts of events are often accompanied by oral accounts or traditional accounts that change over time with re-telling. There are many studies by forensics experts that detail just how unreliable “eye-witness” accounts can be. The best we can hope to do as students and teachers of history is to read as many accounts as possible and then try to determine which ones are more reliable or more likely to be true.

There are for example, records of Richard’s activities that are independent of the accounts given in the chronicles of Holinshead and More. There are no mentions of deformities in these; in fact Richard is represented as a poet, an able soldier, a fair magistrate and a good administrator. The Richard of these independent records served as a “Viceroy” under his brother Edward IV, especially in the troublesome north of England. Their brother George, the Duke of Clarence led an insurrection against Edward and by extension, Richard. The rebellion was put down and George was arrested but Edward apparently forgave him. Perhaps Richard did not, perhaps Richard was responsible for George’s death but it is doubtful that he was drown in a butt of malmsey as Shakespeare would have us believe. That is the kind of detail that is often added to an oral account to make a “real event” more like “poetic justice” or simply more dramatic. People in Shakespeare’s audience were superstitious; it is true that for the late-medieval, early modern, superstitious mind it was easier to believe that a King might be murderous, treacherous or “twisted inside”, if he was deformed or “twisted” on the outside.

When we think of medieval warfare, we think of large numbers of troops on opposing sides charging at each other and engaging in hand to hand combat. The image comes to us from Hollywood, not from history. With some exceptions, the Wars of the Roses were more like a series of “gang rumbles” or “terrorists insurgencies” than organized warfare. There were alliances made and broken or switched; often these alliances were sealed with weddings or other bribes. There was plenty of treachery and “king-making” going on behind the scenes as well. But in the final analysis, because the main issue is about Royal bloodlines and power, wealth and land, the Wars of the Roses were at the most a family squabble that lasted about 30 years.










The above are scans of the transparencies[i] I use in class to try to sort out the major players in the Wars of the Roses. I have edited these genealogies from several sources for the sake of “clarity”. There are still problems and inconsistencies, many of which I am probably not aware of because the sources I drew from may have been inaccurate. I am aware that some of these discrepancies lead to interesting speculations about the official histories and Shakespeare’s play. For example, the year of Anne Neville’s death is variously given as either 1484 or 1485. Anne’s first husband Edward the Prince of Wales, the son of Henry VI was killed in battle in 1471. Sometime between 1471 and 1483 she married Richard the Duke of Gloucester, who later became Richard III. Together they had a son, Edward, Prince of Wales; Edward’s death is also variously given as either 1484 or 1485. Shakespeare and the official histories imply that the evil Richard killed his wife to marry young Elizabeth, his niece. This simply does not make sense.

What are the odds that mother and son would die in the same year? Why would Richard kill his wife if she had produced a legitimate heir? Is it not more likely that once Henry VII won at Bosworth Field he had Anne and her son killed to remove them from the picture? Anne after all, had switch allegiances and married her childhood friend (they grew up together in the Neville household) Richard; her grandfather had married into the Beaufort line; and her father had betrothed her to Edward of Lancaster, and her sister Isabelle to George the Duke of Clarence, Richard’s brother as a shrewd political move. So it is not as far-fetched to think that she should marry Richard as Shakespeare would have us believe. And it seems even less likely that Richard would kill his wife since he had known her almost all of his life and she had given him a male heir.

There is another matter for some speculation, the deaths of Edward IV’s heirs Richard the Duke of York and Edward the Prince of Wales. The traditional date of their deaths is given as 1483. This is the same year that Richard acceded to the throne. Shakespeare and his sources tell us that Richard, their Lord Protector, had them killed in the Tower of London. However it is a curious fact [well, let’s say “thing” since “facts” are not always facts.] that Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham is also listed as having been killed by Richard that same year.

But in Shakespeare’s play and presumably in his sources, Buckingham is Richard’s closest advisor and confident. Buckingham deserts Richard only just before the battle of Bosworth Field and Richard has him killed in 1485 as a traitor. Is it possible that Stafford dispatched the young princes in his own play for the throne? This would certainly help to explain why Elizabeth was not killed along with her two brothers. Of all of the heirs of the five sons of Edward III the Dukes of Buckingham had the weakest claim to the throne and were last in line. However, if Stafford could marry (or could marry his son) to Elizabeth the daughter of Edward IV, he could legitimize his claim through her, just as Henry did. The reason for Buckingham’s defection in the play is that he is angry at Richard who promises him an Earldom, and does not deliver—in other words Buckingham is denied a powerful position!

Of course this is all just speculation. However it is speculation that fits reported facts. And while we must remain suspicious of facts from the late 15th century, we also should not accept wholesale, the “histories” presented by Holinshead, More and Shakespeare. History teachers can present this material to their classes as an interesting exercise in the study of English history. Literature teachers might present this material as a way of interpreting Shakespeare’s plays. And Drama teachers can present this material as “subtext” to allow their actors to layer their performances in greater depth. (Certainly an actor playing Richard who “knows” Richard is guilty would play him differently than one who believes that he is innocent.) My point here is that as teachers and students in academic disciplines we can look to the arts (in this case Drama) to add texture, meaning and context to those disciplines.



[i] Richard Neville is accorded the wrong title; instead of the Earl of Salisbury it should read the Earl of Warwick. [Even I make mistakes!] He was known as “The King Maker” in part because he switched allegiances so often. Originally loyal to Edward, he helped George raise an army against his older brother. Then when the coup failed he threw his allegiance to Henry and Margaret. He died in battle at Barton.