Prologue to a Benefit Performance of Richard
Thanks to the Warehouse Theatre, and thanks to you all for coming
along to support Amnesty International and to marvel at this spectacular
play, with its glittering poetry and tumultuous action. It's certainly
a play that has human-rights aspects tyranny and wickedness
a-plenty! But it has another, if inadvertent, lesson:
History is written by the winners. Truth matters.
This was one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, preceded only by the three-part Henry VI. In other words, Shakespeare began by dramatizing the history of the previous century. He lived under the Tudor dynasty, the climax of the Renaissance in England. Richard III was the last king of the preceding dynasty, the Plantagenets. He was, you might say, the tail of the Middle Ages.
The play has a huge cast, though not
as complicated as was the reality. Kings and lords of those times
intermarried plurally and had many children. Here's a simplified
In late Plantagenet times, England
or its lords had become divided into two factions, called
Lancastrians and Yorkists, because they supported two lines of royal
cousins, the Dukes of Lancaster and of York. Their badges were the
red rose and the white, so the wars between them were later dubbed
the Wars of the Roses. These wars between warlords ravaged fifteenth-century
England. The Lancastrians had perhaps the poorer claim to the throne,
but they gave us Kings Henry IV, V, and VI. The last of these was
infirm of mind, so in a series of battles in 1471 the Yorkists led
by Edward IV took over. That's what his brother Richard refers to
in the play's opening lines:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.
But Richard was only the eleventh of
twelve children. He had yet to murder his way to power. He murdered
his brother George, his brother Edward's children, the old Lancastrian
king and his child, and his own wife. He had dozens beheaded without
trial (Off with his head! is from our play). He was a
venomous murdering ogre! Furthermore, he was a weak, stunted, ugly
cripple, as he self-hatingly emphasizes in the play. He kept his ill-gotten
throne for only two years. The revulsion against him was led by someone
with a far more remote claim to the throne, Henry Tydder or Tudor,
who called himself earl of Richmond. He was the grandson of a handsome
Welsh squire who had had children by the widow of Henry V. He claimed
to represent the Lancastrian cause. In 1485 he arrived from France,
overthrew the monster Richard, and reconciled the two sides by marrying
a Yorkist princess, as he says at the end of the play:
We will unite the white rose and the red.
He became Henry VII, founding the
great Tudor dynasty.
All this Shakespeare dazzlingly shows
us, following the historians of the time. And it's a pack of lies!
The historians were writing under
the Tudors. And the Tudors were more absolute and unapproachable
monarchs than their predecessors had been. They had a state security
system worthy of Stalin or Saddam. No one would have dared by defending
Richard III to imply that Henry VII, who was certainly a tyrant,
was also a usurper. Researchers have found reason to doubt every
For a start, Richard was not a hunchback.
(Nor was he two years in the womb or born with a full set of teeth,
hair to his shoulders, or a withered arm.) He may have had a slight
scoliosis and one shoulder slightly higher than the other (as I
You would hardly know from the play
that he was only eighteen at the beginning, thirty-two at the end.
Or that he and his wife Anne Neville had been childhood companions
and were a loving pair; he wept bitterly at her death. Or that it
was his brother George who was really a traitor.
About all that Richard's detractors
would grant him was that he was brave (despite his puniness). Almost
all his actions were later deliberately misinterpreted. In most
of them he was not only brave but loyal, generous, popular, and
trusted. During his time as governor of the troubled north of England,
he had become loved throughout it, setting it on the road to prosperity.
He eased royal demands for money, enabled poor suitors to bring
their petitions for justice, started the system of bail (so that
people waiting to be tried need not wait in prison), stopped the
censoring of books, even founded the postal system. He made good
laws for the ease and solace of the common people; England,
unlike other nations, had a parliament and a relatively strong populace,
on whose approval the king's power had to rest. Considering that
Richard when eight had to see his father's and brother's heads stuck
on the gates of York, he was relatively unbloody and forgiving,
sometimes unwisely so.
The remaining doubt is about the crime
for which he is most remembered and which gave the pretext for the
rebellion against him: the death of the two little princes, his
nephews, in the Tower of London. At the death of the king their
father, the elder of them came to London to be crowned, Richard
meeting and escorting him as Lord Protector. But at this point a
bishop announced that he had witnessed the marriage of their father
to someone else before their mother; and if they were illegitimate
they, like several other illegitimate children of Edward IV, could
not reign. The parliament agreed, and asked Richard to accept the
crown instead. The boys were housed in the Tower, which was a royal
residence as well as a prison. They were seen for a while playing
in the garden, then seen no more. Two centuries later their bones
were found under a staircase.
Richard's defenders claim quite a
lot of evidence that the princes were alive and well treated just
before his own death, and were murdered by his successor Henry.
Mainline historians believe that Richard must have had a hand in
it, that if the boys had survived he would have been in a shaky
position (as would Henry, much more so); that he did his best to
live down the crime (true or rumored) by being a kindly and effective
king, which might have worked (political murders were, after all,
common) but he had too little time. Here are the makings of a detective
story. (One has indeed been written, Josephine Tey's Daughter
After the Battle of Bosworth, when
Richard was betrayed by his pretended allies the Stanleys and died
fighting bravely, his naked and bloody body was trussed on a horse
and taken away for common burial.
The winners get to write the history.
It's the truism of truisms, but: the most important thing is truth.
Distortion of truth underlies the larger part of human rights violations.
It underlay the three atrocious wars in the former Yugoslavia. The
suppression of journalists and other truth-seekers, that we in Amnesty
hear so much of, makes other suppressions possible.
This is one of the Shakespeare plays
without a Prologue. I crave pardon that my prologue isn't in rhyme
I'll do it again that way if you like! My merry masters and
mistresses, let us begin
"he Life and Death of King
Richard the Third."