Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Dr James Gairdner, Richard III and Shakespeare


It has taken me a while but I now am able to talk about William Shakespeare without harping on about the fact that he is solely responsible for Richard III's bad press. I can now read and enjoy his plays for what their are, just plays.

Shakespeare in his day was just a poet with a living to make he certainly wasn't considered a historian by the people around him he was simply writing what  Elizabethan theatre goers wanted to hear and see. The Elizabethans liked their

 " villains to be villainous," the audiance had  a "constant demand for a really bloody gangster play just as today there is a similar demand for a sadistic gangster film. Shakespeare's Richard is nothing but a royal gangster who had been presented to him ready made by Tudor chroniclers" V E  Lamb writing in 1959

Shakespeare wasn't concerned with historical accuracies, he just made the facts fit his plays. In The Betrayal of Richard III it is suggested that it was of no consequence to Shakespeare that he presents Richard as a monster, a grown man who was "reveling in the bloodshed at the Battle of Towton" when in fact he was an eight year old exiled in Utrecht, or that he makes Margaret of Anjou wander around the Palace of Westminster in 1483 foretelling Richards downfall when she actually had been in France since 1475. None of these were actual facts, Shakespeare simply used what he knew to make his plays more exciting. After all we have seen it done today, you have only got to watch the television series The Tudors to see that. Shakespeare portrayed  Richard III as the villain his public loved to hate, the murderous, lying, ruthless hunchbacked king.

I read recently that the English take their religion from Milton and their history from Shakespeare how true is that. Not only have I fallen into that trap but many accredited historians have done the same such as Dr James Gairdner a British historian who studied the early Tudor period relating to Richard III, Henry VII and Henry VIII. As an introduction to his work entitled Lancaster and York he writes

   "For the period of English history treated in this volume we are fortunate in possessing an unrivalled interpreter in our great dramatic poet Shakespeare. A regular sequence of historical plays exhibits to us not only the general character of each successive reign but nearly the whole chain of leading events from the days of Richard II to the death of Richard III at Bosworth. Following the guidance of such a master mind we realise for ourselves the men and actions of the period in a way we cannot do in any other epoch"

There are many of us who are in someway to blame for Richard III being portrayed for over 500 years as a wife poisoning, niece lusting, nephew murdering tyrant. The Tudor usurpers who needed to blacken his name so that they could hold onto his crown, historians like Gairdner for perpetuating the lie and the likes of me for not thinking for myself by reading and listening to all points of view before making my mind up but I see now that we cannot wholly blame William Shakespeare for his undoing.

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