Victim or Monster?

Article excerpt

Byline: Harold Bloom

The truth about Richard III is not to be found in Shakespeare.

The discovery of the skeletal remains of King Richard III of England reminds us that Shakespeare's ironic, self-delighting, witty hero-villain has a troubling relation to actual history. The melodrama came relatively early in Shakespeare's career (1597), was popular from the start, and continues to hold audiences. Though I have attended a number of stage performances, I share the general impression that the much more vivid presentation was Laurence Olivier's film in which he directed himself (with great gusto) as the hunchback usurper. Doubtless he enjoyed disposing of his two great rivals, Ralph Richardson, who as the Duke of Buckingham marched to the headsman's block, and John Gielgud, as his brother, the Duke of Clarence, who is drowned in a butt of Malmsey.

Olivier caught exactly the right tone that at once threatens and seduces the audience, making all of us akin to the masochist Lady Anne, played by the astonishingly beautiful Claire Bloom. Building upon and outdoing his forerunner Christopher Marlowe, particularly in Marlowe's portrayal of the zestful Barabas, protagonist of The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare ran off with the garland of Apollo.

Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet kings of England, displaced by Henry VII, founder of the house of Tudor and grandfather of Elizabeth I. Tudor mythology portrayed Richard III as the ultimate royal monster whose supreme viciousness manifested itself in the murder of his little nephews Edward Prince of Wales and Richard Duke of York. The winning side writes the histories so the Tudors triumph forever.

Shakespeare's principal source was the superb Tudor propaganda, lethally entertaining, of Sir Thomas More's The History of King Richard III. Did Shakespeare, wisest of all authors, believe this account of Richard? We never will know, but I doubt it. Deliciously too bad to be true, More's Richard explodes into Shakespeare's prodigal of outrageousness, a figure of the highest fantasy. A great killing machine, his grander exuberance emerges in spiritual hypocrisy:

But then I sigh, and, with piece of Scripture

Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:

And thus I clothe my naked villainy

With odd old ends stolen forth of holy writ,

And seem a saint when most I play the devil. …