A skeleton with a cleaved skull and a curved spine entombed under a parking lot is that of Richard III, scientific tests confirmed. (University of Leicester/AP)
Sometimes you pick the historical figure you choose to admire, but other times the historical figure picks you.
In 1970, while taking a class at the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, I read the play “Richard III” and was immediately and forever wooed and won over by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, aka Richard III, whose skeletal remains were identified with DNA certainty last week. The remains were discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England, where Richard was buried after his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
As Shakespeare portrayed him, Richard III was evil incarnate: The murderer of two innocent young princes in the Tower of London, the drowner of his own brother, the usurper of the throne of England, and, by his own cheerful admission, a misshapen wretch “not made for sportive tricks.” You get the drift: We were not supposed to like him.
Despite these obvious cues, I was immediately enthralled by Richard III — intoxicated by the eloquent lines Shakespeare wrote for this erstwhile villain. “Now is the winter of our discontent,” Richard begins in the magnificent opening soliloquy to the eponymous play. Later, Richard raffishly tries to seduce Lady Anne Neville, and moreover approaches her — of all times! — during the funeral of Anne’s father-in-law, who, along with Anne’s husband, has been killed through Richard’s connivance. It is impossibly brash and yet Richard pulls it off, moving Anne from disgust (“foul devil”) to accepting his offer of marriage in the course of a single, unforgettable scene. Afterwards, Richard chortles to the audience, “Was ever a woman in this humour wooed? Was ever a woman in this humour won?”
Shakespeare wrote “Richard III” during the reign of Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of Richard’s nemesis and vanquisher, Henry Tudor, later Henry VII. The very foundation of Elizabeth’s rule was based on vilifying and discrediting Richard III. Nonetheless, writing a play about the sitting Queen’s grandfather was dangerous stuff, because if the Queen took offense it could mean a beheading.
Shakespeare, not surprisingly, casts Henry as a faultless human being, although his faultlessness is mostly reported to us secondhand, as Henry is prudently offstage for most of the play — why risk antagonizing a sitting queen, right? Richard, meanwhile, is Richard — forever engaged in the next machination, the ensuing scheme. Indeed, throughout the play, Richard evokes, at least to me, another familiar character from English literature: the Artful Dodger. Everyone (other than the victim) loves a story about a scam artist, a grifter, who uses human vanity and greed to personal advantage.
That, to me, was the key to “Richard III”: Shakespeare was secretly yanking Queen Elizabeth’s chain. He knew how to do villains as well as anyone who ever put goose quill to parchment: Iago, Shylock, and Lady MacBeth do not evoke the slightest twinge of empathy or likability. Richard, by contrast, is charming, candid with the audience about his aims and masterful in achieving them, until he runs up against that stodgy, stultifying plaster saint, Henry Tudor.
Henry Tudor, as portrayed in “Richard III,” always struck me as immensely dull — the high school class president of Medieval England. Faultless, role-model types may have put you in tight with the Virgin Queen, but deep down everyone else is secretly rooting for Richard III to gob-smack this twerpy dork. I am sure that in the mosh pit of the Elizabethan theaters, at least some of the audience was wooed, as I was, by the sheer force of personality Shakespeare infused into this character, who was supposedly “cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time.” Whoa, call me whatever you want, Will. Stick and stones, my man.
Probably the second-most famous schoolboy mnemonic in England — after “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” (the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives) — is a pithy catechism that goes, “The Cat, the Rat, and Lovell the Dog, ruled all of England under the Hog.” The “Hog” was a reference to Richard III, whose personal crest was the white boar passant. William Catesby and Thomas Ratclyffe were the “Cat” and the “Rat,” and, along with Francis Lovell, three of Richard’s staunchest supporters.
The “Hog” met his end at Bosworth Field in 1485, where he was killed not by Henry Tudor and not while seeking to escape (“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”), but in heroic combat. Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings, was buried at Greyfriars Church, in Leicester, and then forgotten in location, but not in literature, for more than 500 years.
The Cat and the Rat also died at Bosworth Field, but “Lovell the Dog” survived and was last mentioned in 1488, for receiving a safe conduct from King James IV of Scotland. A tantalizing internet rumor suggests that Lovell’s body was later found in a sealed vault, a victim of starvation. Doubtful, but who really knows? When it comes to Richard III, the verdict of history always seems to bend in favor of literary license over factual accuracy.
As Shakespeare wrote — in “Richard III” of all places — “An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.” Richard III’s story has never been plainly told, for he has been heavily slandered and forever marked by the works of the Tudor propagandists, even if one of them was also the greatest writer in the English language and, one suspects, a secret admirer.
Richard Plantagenet, welcome back to the world. May you and your soiled reputation no longer RIP. As one of your few but deeply loyal supporters, I propose a rallying cry for all Richard III believers everywhere, borrowed from the University of Arkansas football team: Go Hogs!
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.