Tuesday, February 05, 2013

good news for ricardians

I am, like a lot of other folks right now, pretty excited about the recent discovery of Richard III's skeleton under a Leicester municipal parking lot. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as I'm sure many more scholars will be weighing in, but it does seem like the doors are wide open to discuss Richard III and his reign.

Look at the extreme curve in Richard III's spine, from scoliosis. From The New York Times and Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

Thanks to a certain playwright named William Shakespeare, Richard III has come down to us through the ages as a hunchbacked, scheming murderer of brothers and children. there have been many authors and historians who have happily reiterated this party line, while there have been just as many who have disputed the portrayal of "evil King Richard" in fiction and non-fiction.

Boris Karloff as Mord listens closely to his King's (Basil Rathbone) instructions
As much as I have enjoyed Shakespeare's play and some of the over-the-top portrayals through the years (Laurence Olivier, even Al Pacino), I have to admit that I lean more and more towards the Ricardian camp these days. That said, for a really entertaining movie version of the wicked king, Tower Of London, starring Basil Rathbone as Richard III, is great fun to watch. Rathbone has little figurines of each relative who stands in his way, and viewers can watch him knock off his brother Clarence (Vincent Price) in a butt of malmsey and imprison his nephews, the little princes, in the Tower of London. Boris Karloff is also on hand as Richard's creepy henchman Mord. In the same vein, but lacking any humor or authenticity is Alison Weir's The Princes in the Tower. I read the book with an open mind, but I found her "scholarship" so faulty and biased towards the Tudors that I now doubt her historian credentials. It was probably wise for her to have switched to writing fiction, as she seems to have done recently.

In the "give Richard a chance" camp, still probably the best book to start with is Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. Part detective story, part history, Tey lays out a very convincing case for questioning the old position of Richard III as a murderous uncle. For readers who love historical fiction that is amply researched, Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne In Splendour is an excellent book, for telling the story of Richard III and his shining brother, Edward IV.

In Egypt (and many other places) they keep digging under old temples and finding even older temples, so we shouldn't be surprised to find a king below a parking lot. What will be interesting is how much will this skeleton be able to tell us about Richard III, his life, his times. How close have some of our fiction and non-fiction depictions of this controversial king come — and which ones, the bad or the good ones — will become the new accepted history?
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