Will Richard’s Bones Rattle Juicy Play?


“The evil that men do lives after them-the good is oft interréd with their bones.” We all know from as far back as high school that Marc Antony explained this fact of life and death during the inflammatory Forum eulogy he gave in defense of the assassinated Julius Caesar.

But what happens when bones get disinterred? What might William Shakespeare have said in that situation? We do have one poignant example-Hamlet’s crying “Alas!” when handed his beloved Yorick’s skull.

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Would he play it differently now?
Would he play it differently now?

Still, how about the recently discovered and authenticated remains of Richard III? After all, in his play, Shakespeare indisputably gives the man quite a going-over. To begin with, the Bard might boast about being right on the money with the unesthetic scoliosis.

On the other hand, would anything about Marc Antony’s observation have made our Will reconsider to what degree evil lives after men’s lives while good ceases to hold interest? (Remember that The Tragedy of Julius Caesar was written after The Tragedy of Richard the Third).

I only ask because on reading the amazing news that a skeleton belonging to the last of the Yorks occupied space under a parking lot, I began to think about possible theater-related ramifications-especially if any examination of dem-bones-dem-bones-dem-royal-bones results in additional revelations about their owner’s physiological and/or psychological make-up.

Will producers, directors, actors suddenly feel obligated to rethink the dastardly Richard whom Shakespeare presented and who’s now recalled strictly in terms of the know-it-all dramatist’s five-act depiction?

The first answer to the query will likely be expressed by costume designers. As of this month, they’ve been given a clear picture of the curvature of the late Duke of York’s spine. The “hump”-if it’s not too politically incorrect to call it that-doesn’t appear near the shoulder but in a more central part of the back. Won’t at least one literalist costumer jump at the chance to get it right?

Speaking of literalists, will any theater people-Shakespeare historians, Shakespeare critics-think of Marc Antony’s ringing lines? Might they ask whether it’s possible that not only is the good buried but in some cases the evil that lives after is made up? What if Richard who hobbles diabolically through the history written about him is an entirely imagined figure? And if he is, what to do about the play?

The response springing to mind is: Do nothing. The work is too exhilarating a thriller for anyone to check facts. The tale of Richard bumping off anybody he has to who stands between him and the throne (those two innocent princes, for instance), marrying anyone who’ll further his sinister purpose and getting his Bosworth Field comeuppance is too hot to jettison.

Check facts!? Shakespeare never did-and then used poetic license to embellish them. It’s well known since the 1592 or 1593 writing that he based his Richard on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland-as were no little percentage of his other histories.

It’s also common knowledge that Holinshed based his account on Sir Thomas More’s biography, The History of King Richard the Third, which concentrates on only the last years of the man’s life. This begs two questions: 1) Did Holinshed check his facts?; and 2) Did Sir Thomas More check his?

Someone has definitely set about fact-checking-and wasn’t necessarily the first to do so: the mystery writer Josephine Tey. The book is The Daughter of Time, published in 1951 and a great read. In it, Detective Alan Grant, flat on his back in a hospital bed and bored, decides to solve what today would be called a cold case.

Grant settles on Richard III, after deciding the portrait of the king hanging in the National Portrait Gallery doesn’t show an evil man. Refusing to abide by hearsay, Grant meticulously combs through historical records-and news of them-brought to him by other characters.

He wants facts, which he insists Thomas More didn’t rely on-was instead writing the history that winners get to write. More was disseminating Tudor propaganda once Richard, as the last of the Yorks, had been routed. So Tey’s Detective Grant builds a convincingly air-tight case for Richard’s innocence in the death of those Tower-confined princes et al.

On top of that, he fashions a strong case for the true villain, but the book is too firmly recommended here (so’s More’s, but with different reasons) for the actual culprit to be named. Tey does specify that Grant isn’t the first over the last several centuries to exonerate Richard.

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Okay, we concede that no one is about to jettison Shakespeare’s tough and often devilishly funny script, but it could be that the hoopla surrounding the Leicester-vicinity digging will start people thinking about the (maligned?) Richard. Perhaps they’ll read or re-read Tey and predecessors or reassess More’s bio. Incidentally, More was five when his subject was crowned. When he began writing a few decades later, he was on the rise in Henry VIII’s brave, new Tudor world.

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So a possible result of revised thought could be that theater-goers will now enjoy Richard the Third (be chilled by it, draw a moral from it) as a complete fiction. In future, they may watch the protagonist’s machinations as that of a catchall demon merely bearing Richard III’s name. That’s if they haven’t already done so, knowing Shakespeare liked to please Elizabeth I, the last Tudor.

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But if there’s no tossing Richard the Third in the dramatic-literature trash bin, might something else evolve. At a time when exoneration is a hot issue, might contemporary scribblers decide to write their own Richard III opuses. We already have The Exonerated, but it wouldn’t seem as if that one can be revised to include the late, sometimes lamented monarch.

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Others, though, could take up the quill-or the cudgel, as it may be. Would a stage documentary make sense? How about Anna Deavere Smith or Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project applying their dramaturgical philosophies to it-or The Civilians or Les Fr√®res Corbusier? Maybe that enterprising Nature Theater of Oklahoma troupe?

What if Tony Kushner or Tom Stoppard took on the cause of freeing Richard III from his 500-year-old image. Is it too much to ask? Doesn’t this perhaps-not-tricky Dick deserve the benefit of expertly-researched doubt?

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