Richard III Clouded by Fiction: A History
As England prepares to rebury Richard III's remains, his legacy has been clouded by fictional portrayals of his reign.
The discovery of the bones of Richard III closes a final chapter in the life of a monarch who, despite his notoriously malformed physical stature, loomed large in literary history.
Centuries after his death at the Battle of Bosworth to mark the end of the War of the Roses, Richard III's legacy has been clouded by fictional portrayals of his reign.
Given that the fall of Richard III allowed Henry Tudor, who would later become King Henry VII, to ascend the throne after a hard-fought war, it should come as no surprise that English fiction around the time of the Tudor dynasty cast Richard III in a negative light, to say the least.
Among the earliest works of fiction about Richard III was a play entitled Richardus Tertius, written by playwright Thomas Legge in 1571. Legge depicted Richard III as a wicked, mad king who resorted to villainy to consolidate his power.
Written and performed in Latin, the text of Richardus Tertius still survives today, but the play itself is not nearly as well known as another that would be completed some two decades later.
Demonized as a hunchbacked king turned villain in the play bearing his name, Richard III's character as depicted by William Shakespeare has proven the most enduring portrait of his time on the throne.
Opening with the lines "Now is the winter of our discontent," Shakespeare shows Richard III to be a man of twisted ambition from the outset of the play. Richard III's inner character is manifested by his deformed and stunted outward appearance. Not above killing children, his own nephews, Richard III goes to great lengths to satisfy his paranoia that his throne is not secure.
His cruelty incites rebellion, which he initially repels until faced with defeat at Bosworth Field. Richard III's last words, "My kingdom for a horse!" reveal a man isolated but still willing to sacrifice everything to save himself, and are among Shakespeare's most memorable lines.
Shakespeare's portrayal of a deformed, diabolical and duly defeated Richard III would endure in the popular imagination for centuries following the play's original production. Centuries after Richard III's death, Tudor propaganda continued to define his legacy well into the 19th century.
With roots in the 17th century and growing in strength in the 20th century, Ricardian revisionists began pushing for a reconsideration of the much maligned king. As historians began to rethink the legacy of a king who may have gotten a bad rap because of his successors, so too did fiction writers reexamine Richard III as a character.
Written in 1951 by Josephine Tey, "The Daughter of Time" is undoubtedly the most famous work to cast doubt on the controversy surrounding Richard III's legacy, even drawing an implied citation by Winston Churchill in his series, "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples."
Tey's story is of a Scotland Yard detective whose interest in the history mystery leads him to believe that Richard III was in fact felled by the Tudors in a power grab.
Despite being dead for over 500 years, Richard III is still appearing as a character in modern fiction. Sometimes hero, sometimes villain, Richard III has appeared as everything from a grotesque hunchback to a beloved and remarkable ruler, and even once alongside Jonny Quest.
The real Richard III might be dead and his bones discovered, but the character Richard III still has many lives ahead of him yet.