We are all familiar with a range of Medieval English kings. We know about the fiery, charismatic Bolingbroke who deposed his weak cousin, Richard II, who was indecisive and cowardly. It’s an historical fact that Bolingbroke became Henry IV and we also know that he was an unsuccessful, unfulfilled monarch who spent the last part of his life wallowing in a kind of depression.
We know that Henry’s son, Hal, was a tearaway prince, prodigal, irresponsible, the companion of London lowlife. We know that he eventually became England’s greatest king, Henry V, with considerable leadership qualities, who led his troops into battle against the French and won the Battle of Agincourt. We know the very words he spoke in inspiring speeches to his troops – words that will be with us as long as the English language lives. We know that his son, Henry VI was a spiritual, scholarly young man, easily swept away by the political tides of his time.
We think we know all that but if it hadn’t been that Shakespeare’s interest in these historical figures actually created them as human beings for us we would probably never have heard of them. After all, apart from the kings in Shakespeare’s plays, which other historical kings do we know anything about? And how many have we even heard of?
When we think of Richard III we have the image of a villainous, murderous, psychopath – crippled and hunchbacked. Any attempts to question that image can’t get past the picture that’s so deeply imbedded in the consciousness of our culture. But now that the historical Richard’s remains have been discovered under a carpark in Leicester scholarly attention is going to be focused on him. Not only will he be buried in the cathedral, there will be countless things written about him – things that will contradict the account of Shakespeare’s Richard III. For a start, although Richard had a curved spine, it did not amount to a hunched back. The scholars who have maintained that he was no more villainous than most kings will now have a hearing.
But most interesting for us here at No Sweat Shakespeare, is the problem it may cause to actors playing the role created by Shakespeare.
Jonathan Slinger, who played Richard for the Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006-08, argues in a Guardian interview this week that the discovery doesn’t change anything. He sees the remains as evidence that Shakespeare was just about right. Moreover, in his opinion, the curved spine authorizes the traditional presentation of the character as a physically contorted figure.
Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Globe Theatre, in the same interview series, shrugs, admitting that he has no idea of how the discovery of the remains will play out in future productions of the play. Simon Russell Beale who played Richard for the RSC in 1992 says that Shakespeare created a lot of monsters and that Richard was nothing more than a monster in an age of monsters. Beal is glad that he doesn’t have to change his physical view of Richard, even though he played him as a large figure and the remains show Richard to have been a very small man.
It’s doubtful that actors are going to rethink the role. Each one is going to interpret it in his own way, as actors have always done. In any case, as Shakespeare has written him as a hunchbacked monster that’s how he will be played. We mustn’t forget that Shakespeare’s play is a stage drama, not an historical biography. I suspect that the play will be performed for hundreds of years to come, whereas the discovery of the remains will be a temporary bubble and scholarship will not in any way dent the general perception of Richard 111.