Bloody Will Be Thy End: Shakespeare’s Tudor Histories

JULY / AUG 2016: BY CHARITY BISHOP

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Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this sun of York!”

In Shakespeare’s times, plays performed at the mercy of English sovereigns. Theatre owners and playwrights fell in and out of favor according to topic. Financial assurances rested on a play’s ability to pass the censorship of the period. Elizabeth and other monarchs banned plays thought seditious or unfavorable to their reign. Shakespeare wrote up his histories on the War of the Roses, Richard III’s monarchy, and divorcing Katharine of Aragon, in such a manner as to please the crown.

This is most clear in Henry VIII and Richard III. The former revolves around Henry’s break with the church to divorce Katharine and marry Anne, the latter concerns the reign and downfall of Richard III.

History presents far different images of those events than Shakespeare.

Henry VIII History: eager to bed Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII pushed Cardinal Wolsey to force through an annulment. When Wolsey failed, Henry denounced and might have executed him, had not the cardinal died. His mistreatment of Katharine, abuse of daughter Mary, murder of Thomas More, and execution of Anne Boleyn, prove Henry as an unstable, power-hungry tyrant.

Shakespeare: To avoid offending Henry’s daughter Elizabeth and her distant cousin, King James, Shakespeare cast Henry as an innocent pawn in Cardinal Wolsey’s treacherous hands. The villainous cardinal schemes to remove the most pious Katharine and undermine Henry’s authority. He omits Anne’s downfall, trail, or execution.

Richard III History: after his brother Edward’s death, Richard took power. He held his nephew princes in the Tower for “safekeeping.” They vanished. No one knows their fate or who ordered their deaths. He lost Anne Neville. Rumors abounded at court that Richard intended to wed his niece, Elizabeth of York. He refuted them. Henry Tudor launched a successful invasion from France. Lord Stanley, stepfather to Henry and husband of Margaret Beaufort, turned on Richard in battle. Richard died on the field. Henry married Elizabeth and secure the throne. He became powerful and wealthy through a corrupt judicial system.

Shakespeare: corrupt, hunchbacked Richard murders and schemes his way to the throne. He arranges brother George’s death, orders Lord Tyrell to execute the Prince, kills Anne Neville’s husband (as he killed the former king) and marries her, then kills her intending to marry Elizabeth of York. His own mother laments his birth and curses him to die in battle. He holds Lord Stanley’s son to ransom, but Stanley turns on him at Bosworth. After engaging Henry on the field, Richard dies. A new, hopeful dawn begins for England.

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Once you realize the culture when Shakespeare wrote these plays, both “re-interpreted” histories become easier to understand. Shakespeare used Sir Thomas More’s history of Richard (unfinished) and common lore on Henry’s divorce as resources. More recorded Lord Tyrell confessed to executing the princes on Richard’s orders. No other records substantiate it. (More was present at Tyrell’s trial for treason; Henry VII executed Tyrell for conspiring with a known traitor to aid a foreign invasion.)

Shakespeare’s Richard III influenced public perceptions for generations. It’s an incredible masterwork, containing Shakespeare’s most memorable villain.

Much like everything else in Renaissance England, Shakespeare’s play is more symbolism than literal interpretation. Richard is the Satan to Henry’s Christ. Without evil to overcome, a hero is never born. Shakespeare embodied Richard with symbolic vices, personifying abstract forces. It is easier to hate a person than an idea. Richard symbolizes evil, Satan incarnate. He is the devil against which hapless innocents strive. Shakespeare explores fallen humanity in Richard, until a savior (Henry) liberates England, absolving Richard’s sins and bringing on a new era.

Truth becomes fabrication. The chosen sides please Henry’s descendants. Here, Henry and Richard are no longer their true selves, but symbols of England past and future, Christ and Satan, Evil and Good. Myth replaces truth, not historical slander but allegorical storytelling.

And thus I clothe my naked villainy, with odd old ends sto’n out of holy writ; and seem a saint when most I play the devil.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

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25 Replies to “Bloody Will Be Thy End: Shakespeare’s Tudor Histories”

  1. It’s strange, today, to realize that all Shakespeare’s plays were written within the confines of relatively strict government censorship. I wonder how his writing might’ve been different if he didn’t have to work with those restrictions?

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    1. I think the clues lie in his works which did not need censorship — his non-historical plays give clues to his natural wordplay and themes; although how much censorship influenced depictions within those narratives (might he have avoided some stereotypes but not others?) is impossible to know. (Who was he allowed to mock, and who was out of bounds?)

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        1. Everyone is subject to censorship, at all times — something restrains them, holds them back. It may be personal, or objective; it could be the government, religious beliefs, etc. Something holds us all back.

          Sometimes, censorship is not negative; sometimes, it prevents us from becoming something worse than we are.

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      1. Mmmmmmmmmmm . . . I guess it depends on how you define “censorship”; whether you only use the word to mean external restraint/monitoring by official authority, or whether you expand it to include ALL restraint, including that which comes from our own conscience.

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        1. Let’s expand it.

          As a writer, I struggle in censoring my own work — because not only do I want to tell a good story to my readers, I must also consider the moral and social implications of my work; whether it leads others astray, what such actions, put into literal practice in society, might reap, and so on.

          I think the true nature of a writer is revealed in their work; but their genuine self is most often revealed when free of inhibitions and external censorship. Some days, I resent the restraints put upon my writing by external sources (such as faith) — which reveals to me insights into my own character, which are not always pleasant.

          It’s impossible to know what Shakespeare might have written without censorship; but what he did write, even under it, was intensely provocative in many ways. Revisionist history aside, he had layers of nuance, meaning, and innuendo spread throughout his works that elude most modern perceptions.

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      2. That’s quite true . . . nobody is ever completely free to write whatever they want, even without official restrictions.

        Yes, and I think that’s why Shakespeare is one of history’s greatest authors–his works have SO MUCH meaning in them, layers and layers of it, that we haven’t yet deciphered it all even five hundred years later.

        You know, I just remembered something about “Richard III” from my English class a couple semesters ago: Even though Henry VII is technically the hero, doesn’t he only come into the play at the very, very end–make a few speeches, and that’s it? Personally, I found him to be a somewhat flat and unimpressive character . . . in contrast to Richard, who’s definitely EVIL but also complex, vivid, and fascinating. It’s Richard that I really remember from that play, not Henry–which could be Shakespeare’s way of questioning/challenging the official Tudor narrative of Henry VII as completely awesome and Richard III as completely awful.

        But again, if that’s what Shakespeare DID mean, he was far to clever to say it outright. We just have to guess . . .

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        1. I read something similar in my research for this article; that Richard III is such a powerful figure, he overshadows the characterization of Henry VII. It’s possible Shakespeare became so immersed in creating such a tremendously brilliant villain, he had little time or interest for the hero.

          As someone who routinely finds villains far more complex and interesting than heroes, I can relate; often, mine are so forceful and vivid, the “good guys” pale in comparison — until I rewrite six drafts.

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      3. I’m terrible at actually writing “bad guys”–I always want to make them waaaaaaaayyyy too nice. Something I need to work on, I suppose . . . I’ve been told my “good guys” are very vivid, though, so there’s that.

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        1. I think I love my villains a little TOO much… but then, none of them are ever actually villains in my mind; they happen to do evil things, but are complex emotional characters, like any other.

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      4. That’s a good point, though; while one can’t condone their evil actions, one also can’t regard “villains” as some kind of “separate race,” fundamentally different from the rest of us human beings . . . we ALL do evil things sometimes, because we’re all mortal and fallible.

        Out of curiosity: What happens when you find it necessary to kill one of your bad guys? Does it make you especially sad; or is it no different from any other character death?

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        1. I feel sorrier if there is no repentance or redemption than if there is; because then the character is truly “lost” — but often, I’m the only one sad about it (my readers? not so much!).

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        1. Hah, I identify with… all of that. 😛

          I think the only fictional character villain deaths I’ve ever been glad for were in “Daniel Deronda” and Tulkinghorn in “Bleak House.” 😛

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      5. I identified with pretty much all of it, too . . .

        Huh, I’m not really familiar with either of those. (I don’t really like Dickens, so I tried reading “Bleak House” once but never finished it.)

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      6. I should really check it out . . . I have a feeling I might do better with film/TV adaptations of Dickens than his actual novels.

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  2. (I have a horrible habit of pardoning my antagonists and letting them live because by the time I get to the end of the book, I’m fond of them.)(I also don’t make my antagonists evil enough and am always having to nasty them up in rewrites.)

    But anyway, loved this article, Charity! I’ve never really sat down and compared History vs. Shakespeare on those plays (or any of his, really) — I just always sort of have “History Version” and “Shakespeare Version” in my head and try not to mix them up. Sometimes I fail — Shakespeare is easier to remember. So it was great to see the differences in those two plays laid out like that!

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    1. With one of my books, I asked my test reader if the hero wasn’t as complex or interesting as the villain and she said yes, it was obvious I favored the villain more than the hero. I went back and wrote possibly my greatest hero as a result. So… nothing wrong with rewrites. 😉

      I find villains often more emotionally complex than heroes. Heroes are hard-wired for good; villains seem to have depth and nuance, shades of evil behavior that I find fascinating to explore. Richard III is a good example of a complex, vivid, dramatic villain. He’s utterly over the top in his snide evil but yet so engaging, it’s easy to forgive the caricature. He’s the human personification of all that is heinous in our world. It works.

      Glad you liked it. I’m actually not much of a Shakespeare fan or buff, but I was glad to find something I could contribute to this issue! 🙂

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      1. And I have a supremely hard time finding bad guys to be at all likeable, even when I’m writing them. Not sure if this is part of my personality, my upbringing, or what, but I instinctively react with, “That’s the bad guy — I must dislike them extremely much.” I remember when The Avengers came out, and a friend announced their favorite character was Loki, and I was appalled. It seriously bothered me that they could like Loki — he was the bad guy, and he was there for me to despise, and besides, he was so mean to Thor! How could anyone like him? Now, many repeat viewings and other movies later, I’ve become tolerantly amused by him most of the time, but I still cannot like him.

        So when I’m writing, I struggle with villains because I just see them as The Bad Guy, The End. Whereas my good guys… them I can shade with grey no problem, because even though they’re not perfect, they’re still The Good Guy, even if it’s hard to see that sometimes.

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        1. Except in cases of animal torture, rape, or sadism, the villain is often my favorite character. I find them nuanced. It interests me, how so many can hold seemingly contradictory moral standards. The idea that murder is justified, in “The Godfather,” for example, yet Vito takes care of poor widows. The culture of it fascinates me.

          I figured out a long time ago that intelligence attracts me in fictional characters — and often the most intelligent person in the room is also the most evil person in the room. Loki is unquestionably the most evil genius in the room most of the time, so naturally combined with his sarcasm, I enjoy him very much. There again is a dual dynamic — Loki both resents his upbringing, and appears to genuinely love his mother. Her death as a consequence of his actions does appear to hurt him — or does it? Which is the illusion and which is the reality? I like it that I cannot tell. I have a “sense” of Loki that he is far more callous and manipulative than he appears; but because he’s such a great villain, he can make me doubt my suppositions.

          People often give me grief over liking the villain. I tell them, “Without an adversary, heroes never become heroic. They need someone to fight against, to realize their untapped potential. So you should thank them, really.”

          😉

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  3. And there are some villains I do love. Really, truly love — like Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) in the original 3:10 to Yuma. He is smarter than everyone else in the film, and I cheer for him AND for the good guy. I don’t want him to win, but I have to cheer him on anyway. And I do have a deep fondness for Calvera (Eli Wallach) in The Magnificent Seven — again, I don’t want him to win, but I can’t help but like him. And Magneto in the X-Men movies where he’s the villain — the only one where I really dislike him is in the very first movie.

    But for the most part, bleah, nope, don’t like bad guys, don’t want to spend lots of time thinking about bad guys, just want bad guys to go away, thank you. (This is not at all useful as a writer, and I have to force myself to get out of that mindset when I’m writing, which does not always please me.)

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    1. If I named all my favorite villains, we’d be here for a week.

      I do love Magneto though. Such a superb character — so much internal angst and narrow beliefs. He literally cannot see that he is becoming the thing he is fighting against — his loathing of the Nazis has turned him into a Nazi, intent on destroying and/or corrupting all non-mutants. Terrific arc. I watch those movies primarily for his dynamic with Xavier. Their screwed up friendship fascinates me.

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