JULY / AUG 2016: BY CHARITY BISHOP
“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.
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.”
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!