guest post comes from Robert Fripp, author of Dark Sovereign: the tragedy of King Richard the Third that William Shakespeare should have written. “Dark Sovereign,” the first play in four centuries written, fluently,
in Shakespeare’s English, counterattacks Shakespeare’s interpretation.
Robert was the series producer of CBC-TV’s investigative series “The
Fifth Estate” for a decade before becoming an author, an independent
television producer, and a copywriter for companies working in fields of
King Richard III presents the modern world with two distinct and different images. They sit at opposite ends of a spectrum displaying every aspect of human personality, from good to wicked, with shades of grey between. More than five hundred years after Richard’s death, the image that most people know is the misshapen psychopath dreamed up by Shakespeare. The Bard launched this villainous creation in “The Tragedy of Richard III” in 1591, when it was useful propaganda for the House of Tudor. For over a century Tudor monarchs had wished to distance themselves from the House of Plantagenet that came before. They especially wished to severe connections from the last Plantagenet ruler, King Richard III.
In the 1940s the actor Laurence Olivier added a severe, Quasimodo-style disfigurement to the theatrical character of an already damaged king. A decade later, in 1955, Olivier transferred his crippled persona from stage to screen and the ghoulish character took on a permanence that has endured for more than sixty years. Kevin Spacey’s recent impersonation is but the latest cartoon of this unflattering creature to creep or limp across world stages.
Where did this disfigurement originate? Shakespeare borrowed it to great effect: Early in Scene 1 he has the king describe himself as: “Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, / And that so lamely and unfashionable / That dogs bark at me as I halt by them…”
But Shakespeare was not the first to invent or to invest in a damaged Richard III. Sir Thomas More had described the king in unflattering terms eighty-five years earlier. Sir Thomas, a man of deeply conservative religious views, was applying to Richard’s person the biblical metaphor that physical deformity might be a heaven-sent affliction imposed to punish sins of character. This notion goes back at least to Boethius (d. 525) in the Christian era. In the Bible it crops up in Leviticus 21.17-24, and thence carries forward to Psalm 51.5 (A.V.). The Tudor chronicler Raphael Hollinshed borrowed his “Richard” image from More.
That is how many scraps of ill-met scholarship found their well-chewed way into Shakespeare. In Paul Murray Kendall’s authoritative biography, “Richard the Third” (1975), the author describes Shakespeare’s play, “The Tragedy of Richard III” thus: “What a tribute this is to art; what a misfortune this is for history.”
So, how about that second distinct image of King Richard III? Richard was a Northerner. He spent several of his boyhood years as a squire, learning his military skills at Middleham Castle in the North Riding of Yorkshire. It was there that he met his future wife, Lady Anne Neville. At one point in “Dark Sovereign” he reminds her: “’Twas in your father’s house I learn’d to war. / Remember wi’ yourself, how I bethought was to play David / in Golias’ armour; and whilst did you, a little golden girl, / sit out and pick pied daisies.”
Together they shared the risks of childhood: “In younger, foolish-witty years, we ventur’d out / on the River Youre to stand on the ice, hearing it so crack / whose strength had soon yielded to hurl us down. / How thin the ice; how deep, how swift the torrent runs below. / Shall he be resolute, that is so unresolv’d?”
For almost a decade Richard served as the military commander for his brother, King Edward IV, along the Scottish border: “I that am young in years am old in hours of service. / I am to Edward shield and general captain / in the office of a wall against the Scot.”
When Richard’s father and his younger brother were killed in the battle of Wakefield, it was Richard who led a family delegation to York to remove their heads and butchered bodies from spikes around the city walls, and to give them decent burial.
And when King Edward IV died, it was to York, not London, that Richard went as his first port of call in his time of crisis.
For much of his short life, Richard demonstrated the fidelity advertised by his motto, “Loyalty Binds Me.”
Nor was that loyalty restricted to his family and Yorkist allies in the Wars of the Roses. As Governor of the North of England, Richard had taken measures to support, and to represent, the poor. When he became king, he translated that concern into his first, and only, Act of Parliament. At that time, the French expression for dusty-feet, piedpuloreux, translated into a Scottish and English noun describing itinerant peddlars as “piepowders.” Richard’s Act I overhauled the “Courts of Piepowder” which arbitrated market trading disputes. “To every of the same fayres is of right perteynyng a court of Pepowders to mynystre to theim due justice” (1483, Act I Richard III, c. 6, para. 1). None of this fuels the weird image created by Shakespeare’s fevered imagination for Tudor preejudice.
Never forget: We are talking English history here. Controversial events that took place centuries ago are still sitting front of mind. Ancient regional interests project the same grudges, now; accents, county borders and points of view still anchor differences. Richard lll’s North, running from the City of York to the Scottish border, has little sympathy for the creature dreamed up in the effete and distant South by Shakespeare.
In September 2011, a woman who had read my play, “Dark Sovereign,” wrote to me from Portugal Cove, Newfoundland:
“My father, who was born in [the northern town of] Leicester, raised me to be a Ricardian,” she wrote me. “Dad’s grandmother was from Yorkshire, and Dad never got over being given a ‘clout’ at the age of seven when he came home from school and told her all about Richard Crouchback.”
The writer then reminded me that twenty years ago I had advertised a limited printing of “Dark Sovereign” in a British magazine. Her father happened to see it, and, because he was coming to Toronto to visit his daughter, he bought that magazine with him. Landing in Toronto he asked his daughter to drive to my door where he bought himself a copy of “Dark Sovereign.”
In common with that Richard III supporter, a great many people in the North of England believe that Richard was a benign ruler and a fine, upstanding man. When you open your mouth in a pub anywhere near the City of York, be careful what you say.
Robert Fripp is the author of “Dark Sovereign: the tragedy of King Richard the Third that William Shakespeare should have written.” Fripp wrote “Dark Sovereign” with clockwork precision in English as it was available to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Read two full scenes at Booklocker.com and 19 pages on Robert Fripp’s URL.