Richard III and the Tudor Myth – Learning with Confidence

Richard III and the Tudor Myth

In our last post on Richard III we covered the basic context of the play up to the moment it began. In this post we’re mainly going to be concerned with the events of the play, the events of history, and how discrepancies between the two are evidence of the deliberate manipulation of history by the Tudors, as well as Shakespeare’s role in the obfuscation and character assassination of the events surrounding Richard’s brief reign.

We need to start with a minor or cadet branch of the royal family of which the houses of York and Lancaster were a part. This is the line of descent coming down from John of Gaunt, a fascinating figure in his own right, and powerful member of the court of Richard II. John was… let’s say ‘prolific’ in terms of the number of children, mostly illegitimate, he fathered. For this and various other reasons, the Tudor line of the family was officially debarred from the succession, this barring forming part of a complicated deal to preserve stability within the kingdom.

At this point, enter a young chap called Henry Tudor, whose title was Earl of Richmond. This would be the Richmond who kills Richard in the play and subsequently becomes Henry VII. We could go into a complex dissertation on Henry’s antecedents and the various reasons he had little or no claim to the throne, but this wouldn’t be strictly relevant to understanding the play. Suffice it to say that Henry Tudor had a highly questionable claim to the throne and leave it at that. By far the more relevant fact is that he was grandfather to Elizabeth I, who was on the throne at the time the play was written.

Enter the Tudor Myth. Given that Henry was an usurper with a very shaky claim (his mother was from the disqualified John of Gaunt line, whereas his father was a servant), he had two imperative and immediate objectives. One was to immediately establish his legitimacy, which he did by marrying the last surviving marriageable Plantagenet (the younger Elizabeth from the play) and also by utterly blackening the name of Richard III who, as discussed in the last post, was actually the rightful king of England. The other was to produce a dynasty, an imperative which carried over to his son, Henry VIII, with spectacular and famous results.

The depth and extent of Henry VII’s propaganda campaign was breathtaking. Of all the surviving portraits, only one remains that wasn’t doctored to give Richard a hunchback, which we now know he didn’t have. Deformity was considered a mark of God’s disfavour at the time. He also put about the story that it was the murder of the princes in the tower which catalysed his invasion, when the fact of the matter is that dynastic murders of this kind were far from exceptional. And to top it all off, he hired, threatened, or otherwise coerced chroniclers and writers to amend the record to paint Richard and his reign in the blackest possible light.

It’s an open question whether Shakespeare deliberately took part in this myth making, or if he was simply spinning a tale from the only available sources and believed his depiction was true to life, but it is a fact that to question Richard’s perfidy would be to also cast doubt on the legitimacy of Henry VII and, therefore, Elizabeth – an offence which carried the death penalty. Ascribing purely sycophantic or self interested motives to Shakespeare, however, wouldn’t just be ungenerous, but also overly simplistic. It should be remembered that Elizabeth herself was far from secure on the throne, especially early and late in her reign, and there is a recurring anxiety surrounding national disunity in most of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have lost friends and relatives in the bloody and chaotic Tudor succession, and the memory of The Wars of the Roses was still vivid for many English. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that support of the legitimacy of the current regime might have been viewed by Shakespeare as a political and patriotic duty.

Now, it’s worth looking at noteworthy features of the play, aside from the obvious (Richard’s characterisation), which support the Tudor Myth. Firstly, there’s the counterfoil represented by Richmond. It’s worth analysing Richard and Richmond’s rallying speeches side by side. It’s notable that Richmond appeals exclusively to God and justice, whereas Richard’s speech contains multiple references to the protection of property – this distinction clearly designed to show Richard as mean, grasping, and cut off from holy things. Then there’s the fact that Richmond spends a significant portion of his time on stage praying, whereas Richard, when not speaking to other characters, devotes his attention almost entirely to either the audience, in malicious asides, or himself, in furious soliloquy. And there are other, smaller representational decisions as well. The treatment of the characters of Buckingham and Stanley is significant. Stanley, Henry Tudor’s stepfather, is portrayed as a much put upon hero, whereas in actual fact he was a cold and calculating power broker. At the battle of Bosworth, where his king and his close relative were fighting, he held back, only intervening when he could see a clear winner emerging. And as for Buckingham, many historians actually put the ‘credit’ for the murder of the princes squarely at his door. This is controversial, but the general consensus is that Buckingham was a nasty piece of work. Why, then, does he get to redeem himself towards the end of the play? Well, because at the critical moment he turns on Richard, and all who helped in his downfall must get their reward.

And probably most glaring of all is the portrayal of Elizabeth Woodville (Queen Elizabeth, Edward’s wife) and her despicable relatives. By all accounts, contemporary and later, this Elizabeth and her family were horrific people. They were much hated at the time of her reign, being seen as grasping, money-grubbing, and ‘low’. It is also contended that the ease with which Richard was able to lock up Rivers et al in Pomfret (scene of so many royal and high-born murders) before executing them was largely down to the fact that nobody really liked them. In the play, however, the fact of their victimhood to Richard’s power grab means that they are portrayed almost as martyrs. Good and true servants of the state who were cut down while innocently doing their duty. So in looking for evidence of the Tudor Myth in Richard, one need only find instances of the clear binary distinction between the Richard and anti-Richard camps, and the historical airbrushing applied to both.

As a final note, it’s important to remember that for the audience of the day, these were all very much real people whose memory was recent and vivid. Some echoes of the play reverberate down to the present day, even – James Blunt the singer is, for example, a direct descendant of the Blount who appears in the play. And the current royals are, of course, distant relatives of those murderous Plantagenets and Tudors.

In another post, we will look at considering Richard III alongside its companion piece, Al Pacino’s Looking For Richard.