Ricardians Get the Hump Over Staging Shakespeare’s Richard the Third at Leicester Cathedral

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Heritage Police working on Operation Wild Boar-  allegations of historic child murders in the Tower area of the City of London have released this e-fit of the principle suspect and the two victims.
[Image:  Placed in the public domain by Andreas Praefcke via Wikipaedia]

 

by Andy Brockman

The Guardian newspaper has highlighted a storm in a goblet of Sack brought about by the decision of Leicester Cathedral to allow the staging  of a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, mounted by the Theatre Company Antic Disposition as part of a UK tour.  The decision to promote the staging of the play at the place which now houses the remains of the most controversial of medieval Kings has been condemned as disrespectful to Richard’s memory by screenwriter turned Richard III spin doctor Philippa Langley and the staunchly pro Richard, Richard the Third Society.  Both parties regard the play, which was probably first staged in 1592, as Tudor propaganda designed to blacken the late kings reputation.  Richard the Third himself was killed by the forces of Queen Elizabeth the First’s grandfather, Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth, not far from Leicester, in 1485 and the Kings body was taken to Leicester for burial at what was then the Greyfriars [Franciscan] Church.  Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII the site was rebuilt and subsequently and famously, became a car park used by Leicester Social Services.  It was from the car park that the Kings skeletal remains were recovered by archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS)  in 2012 leading to a media feeding frenzy in the short term and in the longer term a permanent gleam in the eye of Leicesters tourism office as it counted the ways the town could cash in on their unexpected windfall of the fallen Plantagenet.

While having no formal role in the management of the King’s remains, which were re-interred with full honours in Leicester Cathedral in 2015, Ms Langley told the Guardian that the cathedral authorities had got this particular decision badly wrong. She added that that the independent Looking for Richard project which she leads “deplore and condemn Leicester Cathedral for this wholly unprincipled commercial and promotional venture”.

Setting herself up as the official spokesperson of the Plantagenet cause, Ms Langley further opined that the performances of Shakespeare’s five hundred year old play,should be relocated to an alternative venue, and demanded that “no future performances of any play or film that might be considered derisive or humiliating to the memory of the king be contemplated where, it is important to remember, the man himself now lives”.

She did not add that, in her view, the stories that Richard was a homicidal tyrant were invented by the fake media chroniclers on the Tudor Alt Right, like the failing Polydore Virgil and crooked Thomas More, but she might as well have done.

However, to outsiders reading this account the words “lost” and “plot” might spring to mind, not least because, as the cathedral authorities have pointed out, like it or not, Shakespeare’s Richard the Third is not just a play.  It is also part of the corpus of world literature and has been for centuries.  Indeed, no objective researcher would deny the play is now also part of the corpus of Ricardian literature, pro and anti, and all reasonable scholars would accept that the play is not a history.  No-one today even pretends that it is.

In fact this whole Monday afternoon row smacks of one of those concocted outrage stories where the media either goes to a subject for comment in expectation that the response you receive get will gift you  a descent follow up story [as it has, the Guardian’s sister Sunday paper the Observer carried the initial news of the production visiting Leicester the day before], or the quoted subject goes to the media themselves to push an agenda which has dropped out of the headlines of late.

However, in these days of fake news and image management the outcome of this particular row is of interest to more than just partisans of Richard III, or their opponents who regard those in  King Rickifandom as deluded romantics.   If Leicester Cathedral is forced to cancel the performances of Richard the Third then make no mistake, a classic of world literature will have been subjected to censorship.

By this same token Hamlet could not then be performed at Elsinore in Denmark and Julius Caesar would be banned in Rome as neither play is entirely historically accurate and both push a political and social agenda acceptable to the Elizabethan regime and don’t even think about trying to perform the Scottish play in, well Scotland.

It can also be pointed out that His late Majesty the King [not “the man” as Ms Langley puts it in an odd construction to use if you are wanting to respect dear, dead Dickon], doesn’t live there at Leicester Cathedral, for the simple reason he is dead actually and has been since 22 August 1485, as the Leicester archaeologists proved rather comprehensively, professionally and in sometimes sickening forensic detail.

It can also be pointed out that just because your project put up the initial money to dig up Dick, as Ms Langley did, you do not gain thereby proprietorial rights on the late King’s public image in perpetuity, acting as a sort of self appointed Pro-Plantagenet Sean Spicer, damning the Fake News emanating from crooked Thomas Moore [sad] and that overrated playwright from Stratford, Will Shakespeare.

However, as this, on the face of it, ludicrous row suggests, history can engage people in ways which are far more about the here and now and about personal and deeply held world views, than traditional, supposedly cool and objective, academia might like.  After all, we recognise that in the worst cases, such as in the island of Ireland, the Balkans and parts of the Middle East, perceptions of history, historical events and historical figures can lead to tensions within communities and even violence lasting generations.    So let us be constructive about this.

Let us all first agree that the historical Richard III is a complex and now ultimately unknowable, character.

If you want a brave, literate, late medieval aristocrat who could inspire loyalty among his family and lieutenants and had an honest face you have got him.  If on the other hand you want a pragmatic, even Machiavellian, early Renaissance ruler who probably had his nephews murdered for political reasons, you can have him too.  The evidence, such as it is, allows for both views and authors as diverse as Jane Austen and of course Shakespeare himself, have indeed taken these opposing views.  Mean while others have tried to steer a middle way and most scholarship has offered evidence based debate for those who remain open minded enough to take part.

Next, rather than simply suggesting Ms Langley and the Richard the Third Society go forth and multiply themselves, which they would be quite entitled to do, I hope Leicester Cathedral does put on the play, [which will probably now sell out if there is such a thing as natural justice and no such thing as bad publicity].  However, the Cathedral should also ensure that the programme for the production, and ideally a supporting lecture, place Shakespeare’s [not history’s] Richard the Third in the context of the period it was written and the development of the political and body image of Richard in the centuries following his death.

Job done.

With Shakespeare’s account properly questioned and contextualised as a historical document Ms Langley and the RTTS could then stop trying to censor what people in Leicester can and cannot see on the stage and get back to trying to their day job of trying to prove the unprovable, Namely that the King and his consiglieri, the Cat, the Rat, Sir Robert Brackenbury and the rest, were actually innocent of all Shakespearean charges.

And remember that, even if Richard did off the Princes, not to mention all the other victims Shakespeare ascribes to him [via his literary source, that Sainted incinerator of heretics St Thomas More], you cannot libel the dead under English Law, even if they are Royal.

Also remember that censorship in the Theater ended officially in 1968 and now is not the time to reinstate it by the back door because you disagree with a characterisation in a five hundred year old work of dramatic fiction.

And if the Cathedral bottles this one and caves in to this megaphone media lobbying by a tiny minority of enthusiasts?

Anyone up for joining in with a flash mob reading of Shakespeare’s play at a certain ecclesiastical venue in Leicester?