Monday, October 31, 2022

Why Did Shakespeare Paint Richard III as a Villain?

 From Matt Lewis at History Hit:

This central magic trick in Richard III, the sleight of hand of making us like a villain so that we fail to stop him, just might provide the explanation for Shakespeare’s play. The play was written somewhere around 1592-1594. Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne for about 35 years and was around 60 years old. One thing was clear: the Queen would not be having any children, and the image she crafted as timeless Gloriana could not hide that fact.

A succession crisis was brewing, and those moments were always dangerous. If Shakespeare wanted to tackle this contemporary issue, he would need a safe facade from behind which he could do it. Openly questioning the succession would mean discussing the queen’s death, which strayed into treason. There had been recent succession problems in the Tudor dynasty, but discussing the queen’s siblings would be indelicate too. However, there was a succession crisis, or series of crises, the Tudor dynasty had positioned itself as having solved: the Wars of the Roses. That might do nicely.

Viewing Shakespeare’s Richard III and his other histories as, well, history is to miss the point of them entirely. They speak to something timeless in human nature, and they often say more about Shakespeare’s own day as much as the time they were set in. It is possible that we can see the Bard’s message far more clearly in Richard III than elsewhere. This theory relies on accepting that Shakespeare was a recalcitrant Catholic, preferring the old faith to the new. During the 1590s, work was underway to deal with the looming succession crisis, even if it could not be discussed openly. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s closest advisor throughout her reign, was in his 70s, but still active. He was supported by his son, the man he was planning to take his place eventually. Robert Cecil was 30 in 1593. He was central to the plan to make James VI of Scotland the next monarch after Elizabeth’s death. James, like the Cecil family, was a Protestant. If Shakespeare’s sympathies were Catholic, then this would not have been an outcome he would have hoped to see.

In this context, Robert Cecil is an interesting man. He would serve James VI when he also became James I of England, becoming Earl of Salisbury too. He was at the centre of uncovering the Gunpowder Plot. Motley’s History of the Netherlands contains a description of Robert Cecil dating from 1588. He is described, in language we would not use today, as “a slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature”.(Read more.)

Via Murrey and Blue.


Also from Matt Lewis: ten portrayals of Richard III on screen, HERE.


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