Thursday, January 21, 2010

Poor Richard! Austen, Shakespeare, Tey, and The Legacy of Richard III

Folks who like to paint Jane Austen as a heartless shrew often point to the end of Chapter 6 in Persuasion, wherein the Musgrove family lament the loss of "poor Richard" -- brother and son lost at sea some years before. Sharp of understanding and wit, Miss Austen goes on to write that "the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before his twentieth year . . . he had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him 'poor Richard,' been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead." People are weenies; Jane Austen rules; and this depiction is not only hilarious, it is a spot-on portrait of the white-washing of character and consequence we give to the dead.

But, sometimes the opposite is true, and the dead are besmirched and defamed for no reason other than to promote the interests of those still living. And, I fear that this latter occurrence has plagued the memory -- both cultural and historical -- of England's favorite villain king, Richard III.

We all know Richard III, don't we? Hunched in back, disfigured in limb, monstrous in mind, ruthless in action. He murdered his two nephews, you know, to ensure his succession to the crown. And set up his brother, Clarence, for a fall, too. And killed off his wife, Anne, for kicks. Anyone who had the misfortune to cross his hobbling, goblin-gaited path was most likely going to meet his Maker within . . . well, within the Act, because this is the Richard of Shakespeare's delightful, eponymous play.

I love Richard III. I think that it is, perhaps, my favorite of the Bard's. I know, I know, an odd choice. But, it is as splendid an example of political subversion as ever tread the boards. And yet, it is always classified as one of the history plays.

Is it history? Josephine Tey wrote a mystery novel that lays out in a readable, conversational way the case that it is not. My father was recently reminded of this 1951 novel by reading a review of it by Jo Ann Skousen in the current issue of Liberty. His enthusiasm in recollection was such that he badgered me repeatedly in our conversations to read The Daughter of Time. How could I hold out against such urging? I checked it out from the library.

"Truth is the daughter of time," is the proverb that introduces this most unusual of murder mysteries. Because, while there are murders a-plenty the background of the story, the main crime to be solved is the assassination of character. That assassination took place 500 years in the past, and the case is investigated by a British officer of Scotland Yard who is recuperating from a devastating injury and an American scholar "apprentice." Inspector Alan Grant has a penchant for deducing personalities from portraits. That is, he believes -- with some justification -- that he has an intuitive eye for reading occupational tendencies on the faces of men. When a friend who visits him in the hospital brings with her a sheaf of historical portraits to amuse him with scandalous characters of yesteryear, Grant's attention is riveted by that of Richard III, the last York king. In his features Inspector Grant sees goodness and conscientiousness and concern and sadness, but no hint of the malevolence and psychopathy that our persistent cultural memory of this briefest of regents connotes.

On this hunch alone, Inspector Grant begins a grand work of armchair detection. In his immobile state, he enlists every visitor to his bedside to help him in uncovering more and more pieces of the puzzle. Either he is much mistaken in his reading of Richard's character, or our historical characterization of this monarch has been scandalously false. With an almost charming hubris, Grant tends toward the latter (without which, I suppose Ms. Tey's book could not have been written). And, what do you know? His researchers start to bring evidence to support his theory!

OK, so Josephine Tey's book is a wee on the nose. I do not know if I agree fully with her story structure. But, the story of the end of the War of the Roses, Richard's ascension, and Henry Tudor's usurpation (or, if you buy the common Tudor version of history, switch Richard's action with Henry's) is fascinating on every level. And, when the stones of Tudor mythology are overturned, there is a lot of nasty business writhing about underneath.

The upshot hypothesis of Daughter of Time is that Richard was pretty darn good -- as both a person and a monarch -- and Henry Tudor -- later Henry VII -- was about as bad as can be; but, with the complicity of generations of historians, we attribute all of his bad behavior to Richard in as neat an act of historical fudging as ever was perpetrated. Tey asserts, through her Alan Grant, that the Princes in the Tower -- that pairing which brings to the mind's eye the most pathetic of scenes -- were alive and well throughout Richard's two-year reign. They had already be declared illegitimate, owing to their father's undissolved previous marriage, and unable to ascend to the throne in Parliament's Titulus Regius that gave the crown to Richard. Their mother lived in court with Richard; their sisters did as well. These all argue in favor of Richard's owing them nothing but kindness and condescension. Henry Tudor, on the other hand, had the Titulus Regius utterly destroyed upon his victorious entry into London after killing Richard at the battle of Bosworth. He did this to make his wife a legitimate child of Edward IV (Richard's older brother) and to invalidate Richard's reign. Unfortunately, by doing this, he made young Edward and his brother Richard both heirs to the throne before him. His only way to retain the crown was to do away with the boys and attribute the heinous act to Richard. And, Tey as well as others before her, believe that this convenient rewriting of history is exactly what he did.

Of course, for any authoritative accounting of English history, we must turn to Jane Austen, who wrote at the age of sixteen, The History of England: From the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st. What had she to say about the mystery of Richard III?
"The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard.* Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it."

As The Daughter of Time makes clear at the end, the rehabilitation of Richard did not start with Josephine Tey. Not by any means. After the hundred years of the House of Tudor and their state-sanctioned historians, the Stuarts brought with them a new accounting of Richard III. Buck in the 17th, Walpole in the 18th (whom Jane Austen probably read), and Markham in the 19th had all written histories of the Richard-era that pointed out the treachery of Henry VII. But these restorations of character have all been overshadowed by one writer whose portrayal of Richard III has remained the culturally definitive one: William Shakespeare.

Was Shakespeare taken in by Tudor pet Thomas More's The History of Richard III? At first glance, it would appear that he was. Every bit of back-stairs gossip that More printed as truth made it into Shakespeare's Richard III. Yet, when I wrote earlier that the play is a splendid example of political subversion, I was hinting at something of which I have become convinced: Shakespeare wasn't buying the official line on Richard III. Because, you see, we love the Richard of Richard III; and we're supposed to loathe him.

Every wicked act of which Richard was accused by the Tudors is paraded for our appalled observation. His schemes to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of his brother, Edward IV, about their middle brother, the Duke of Clarence, lead to Clarence's execution. He not only trumps up charges of illegitimacy against his young nephews, he has them murdered for good measure. He seduces the horrified Anne at the beginning of the play, only to have her offed with an aura of implacable insouciance later on when he decides to wed his niece. Good ol' Hastings is dragged out for a swift death when Richard accuses his mistress of using witchcraft to wither his deformed arm. His constant cries of "Off with his head!" are amusingly reminiscent of Carroll's The Queen of Hearts. He is seriously a bad dude. In short, this presentation is everything that the government censors of Elizabethan England could want in a play that ends with the glorious ascension of the Queen's grandfather.

Yet, amazingly, we are on Richard's side. He winks at us and smirks with us and invites the audience to approve of and delight in how nimbly he deals with the fools that surround him. He seduces us. We cheer him on. Seriously, you start to think that, perhaps, those little princes had it coming to them. Anne was such a whiner, really. Clarence was a bumbler; Hastings and Buckingham were so blah -- who needs 'em anyway? Give us Richard!

Now, you could say, "Well, that's how he's played. That's the actor's invention." Yes, maybe; but, you see, I read this play long before I ever saw it acted on stage or screen, and that was my reaction to Richard from the beginning. So, I cannot help but think that Shakespeare -- always the most keen observer of human nature -- wrote him that way. He is irredeemable in a way that few Shakespearean villains are; yet, unlike, say, Iago from Othello, he does not make us shudder with revulsion. And that is because I think that Shakespeare wrote the play as a fantasy, rather than as a history. History is full of people and their multiple motives, their complex actions, and the complicated consequences thereof. Richard III is a Tudor fantasy play, in which Henry VII rides in on the last act to deliver England from a monster. But the catch is that Shakespeare's Richard is not a monster, at all. Monsters threaten real people. Richard III's only real person is Richard; the rest are cardboard characters. Iago is a monster because Othello and Desdemona are heart-breakingly real.

So, I am convinced that William Shakespeare somehow knew that More's Richard was a load of bunk; and he decided to use that bunk as the basis for a superb bit of theatrical subversion. Any artist of his caliber would chafe under the censorship of a repressive government; but, in a totalitarian regime there was not much you could do about that, presuming, of course, that you valued your head. So, the sublimity of "pulling one over" on the tattle-tales and spies must have given our Bill the greatest satisfaction. Unfortunately, his portrayal was taken as gospel by many who lacked imagination and a good sense of humor, and Richard III's character was killed off more surely than ever his beloved wife, Anne, was.

"History is written by the victors," goes one old saw. True, that. But, Shakespeare himself echoes Tey's cited proverb by saying, “Time's glory is to calm contending kings, to unmask falsehood and bring truth to light.” Not even the authority of the most venerable or vocal of historians can hide truth forever. The lessons of Richard of York are multiple: question the official line -- especially if it was written by people who stand to profit from your gullibility; human history is far more complex than a listing of good guys and bad guys; do not allow artistic license to stand in for objective reality. Moreover, the real tragedy of Richard III is not only that a people were robbed of good governance by the perfidy of a pretender, but also that a gentle soul has been adrift in a perditious posterity because of it. Poor Richard!

*These two pretenders to the throne threatened Henry VII's claim during his reign. Warbeck claimed to be Edward IV's younger son, Richard. Simnel claimed to be the son of Edward IV's brother, the Duke of Clarence.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Uncle! Uncle! Okay, I'll read, "The Daughter of Time", already! And, Richard III by The Bard, just so I know what the heck you're talking about.

It will be my pleasure since the last good book I read was...well..Fantastes by George MacDonald. Ever heard of it?

Anyway, see you soon. And the better read I'll be by then thanks to you!