Friday, August 22, 2008

Interesting Death Notice in the New York Times

Richard III.

For those of you who think this is obscure history, well, you aren't altogether wrong. Richard III was King of England from 1483 to 1485. He may be best known (and even that's a stretch) to modern audiences through the Shakespeare tragedy in which Richard is the title character. He is one of Shakespeare's best villains. Interestingly enough, the play is one of those closest to Shakespeare's own time and contains a higher amount of factual basis than most of the others. Of course, William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) worked for Elizabeth I (who ruled from 1558 - 1603), the granddaughter of the King who defeated Richard III in battle.

Historically speaking, Richard III was the youngest brother of King Edward IV, who died in 1483. Edward IV's oldest son, Edward V (who was a child at the time), was supposed to be crowned King of England, but then the younger Edward and his siblings were declared illegitimate on their uncle Richard's orders. Edward V and his younger brother (also named Richard) mysteriously disappeared in the Tower of London, and Richard III was crowned King of England. The bodies of Edward V and his brother were found almost 200 years later during a 17th century Tower renovation project.

Richard III is best known for establishing bail for criminals during his brief reign. Also, during that time, Richard's wife, as well as his son and heir, died. In 1485, forces allied with Welshman Henry Tudor (who had a tenuous claim to the British throne) invaded England, and these forces met with Richard's at Bosworth field. On August 22, 1485, Richard was killed in that battle, and Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII. This battle also marked the last major conflict of the "Wars of the Roses" (though fighting continued for some years thereafter). According to Shakespeare, Richard III uttered the famous words, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" before being killed in battle. Henry VII married Elizabeth, the sister of the two boys who disappeared in the Tower, and ruled until his death in 1509. (Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s patron, was granddaughter of Henry VII. Her successor, James I, was great-grandson of Henry VII.)

Given how long the "Princes in the Tower" (as Edward V and his brother Richard are known) were dead before they were discovered, it is impossible to tell how old they were when they were murdered. A difference of two years in age would make a huge difference as to who was responsible for ordering their deaths. Circumstantial evidence points to Richard III; however, Henry VII would have had no interest in having them alive, either. The Richard III Society, who places the In Memoriam notices in the New York Times every year, believes Richard III was framed by history (and alas, history is often written by the victor). Author and historian Allison Weir sifts through historical evidence and places the blame squarely on Richard III. In any case, it is a real murder mystery, one of the few actual ones in a Shakespeare play.

Shakespeare blames a lot of deaths (probably more than historically accurate) on Richard III. He also implied that Richard had an unhealthy interest in his niece Elizabeth (the sister of the Princes in the Tower, who was about 14 at the time). The main gist of the play, besides the historical debate, concerns a man who is so power-hungry that he murders most of his enemies, and then turns on his friends as they become disgusted with him. Finally, with few friends left and a whole host of enemies, he himself falls and justice is served.

I have often compared the Clintons with Richard III. Bill and Hillary Clinton are people who are a bit mad for power and turn on their political enemies rather viciously (though I am not blaming the Clintons for anyone’s death). It is apparent that even Democrats have become disgusted with the antics of Bill and Hillary and have mostly abandoned the formerly President and First Lady. Perhaps the early primaries did turn into the Clintons’ “winter of discontent” (to paraphrase Shakespeare). Imagine what would happen if Hillary did try to wrest the Democratic nomination from Barack Obama!

Several stage productions of Richard III have been filmed. In addition, Al Pacino starred in a film called “Looking for Richard” about making a production of Richard III. I recommend this film as Pacino does a good job of portraying a villainous character.

So you can commemorate this day however you want, if at all. I always put a message on my office voice mail about the Battle of Bosworth whether or not I am in. (Please don’t tell my boss.) This is an interesting topic of study with or without all of Shakespeare’s embellishment.