I’ve always loved Richard III – ever since I first read it as a teenager. As I grew older, I realised that Shakespeare’s histories may be no more than legends, that he might have been biased, even a Tudor propagandist. But he’s given us some of the best historical fiction – and quite a few facts as well.
On the one hand, he follows his sources closely. Events may be conflated, their order changed, their interpretation simplified, comic relief introduced, the number of real-life characters reduced, speeches made up. But on the whole he keeps to the chosen narrative, which would place him rather near the fact side of the fact/fiction continuum. On the other hand, the dramatic architecture is impressive: he knows how to build up a good story, how to play on our emotions and our imagination to reach a climax, how to construct a fascinating tale from a dull chronicle. He selects just the material he needs and structures it so that the scenario unfolds seamlessly – a people’s history book of sorts.
Though we have perhaps become more critical than his first audiences, each generation finds its own way of enjoying English history through his stirring pageants. I’ve recently watched the Hollow Crown production of the Wars of the Roses, which comprises the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, my favourite. I loved it. I thought the photography was amazing. Benedict Cumberbatch, who is the last Plantagenet King’s third cousin 16 times removed, has not disappointed me. He’s magnificently human: still bad, but not just the calculating monster we’re used to – his rendering of the ‘there is no creature loves me’ line is actually quite moving. The hump, the withered arm, the uneven gait, the stumbling as he climbs the throne are all pretty convincing but not overdone. The soliloquies and asides are soberly expressive, and the camera is just where it should be, whether to stress personal feelings or to contextualise the action.
I liked all the actors. Judi Dench is perhaps quieter than I expected as the Dowager Duchess of York, the young princes are very good, and Sophie Okonedo is superb as Margaret of Anjou – she almost steals the show. There is too much blood on the battlefield to my taste, but then again that’s what mediaeval close quarter combat must have looked like. Queen Margaret has been made to wander it after Richmond’s victory, surrounded by the strewn corpses, a silent, haunting symbol of the senseless waste brought about by war. This may not have been Shakespeare’s idea, but I thought it a stroke of genius: in the final moments the focus is on tragedy itself.
Jane Austen must have enjoyed Shakespeare’s histories tremendously. In Mansfield Park, Fanny has been reading Henry VIII to Lady Bertram.
Crawford took the volume. Let me have the pleasure of finishing that speech to your ladyship,’ said he. ‘I shall find it immediately.’ And by carefully giving way to the inclination of the leaves, he did find it, or within a page or two, quite near enough to satisfy Lady Bertram, who assured him, as soon as he mentioned the name of Cardinal Wolsey, that he had got the very speech. Not a look or an offer of help had Fanny given; not a syllable for or against. All her attention was for her work. She seemed determined to be interested by nothing else. But taste was too strong in her. She could not abstract her mind five minutes: she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had been long used: her uncle read well, her cousins all, Edmund very well, but in Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always alight at will on the best scene, or the best speeches of each; and whether it were dignity, or pride, or tenderness, or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. It was truly dramatic. His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly, and with no such drawback as she had been used to suffer in seeing him on the stage with Miss Bertram.
The heroine is mesmerised, just as Austen must have been when her brother Henry read Shakespeare aloud to the family:
Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needlework, which at the beginning seemed to occupy her totally: how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it, and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and fixed on Crawford–fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken.
Unlike his namesake, Mr Crawford is not particularly familiar with the Bard’s works. He doesn’t even remember whether he saw Henry VIII at the theatre. But this is a powerful scene, a joyful break in a wearisome tale of woe. Fanny’s suitor has ‘a great turn for acting,’ and a great zest too, as he makes plain in his reaction to the idea of private theatricals:
‘I really believe, said he, ‘I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I could be anything or everything; as if I could rant and storm, or sigh or cut capers, in any tragedy or comedy in the English language.
Richard III is also mentioned in Austen’s letters. ‘Prepare for a Play the very first evening,’ she suggests to her sister on 9 March 1814, ‘I rather think Covent Garden, to see Young in Richard.’
Charles Mayne Young was born in 1777. He impersonated a variety of roles in Liverpool and Manchester before appearing at the Haymarket Theatre as Hamlet in 1807. He joined the Covent Garden Company in 1810, as second to John Kemble, leading in his absence.
Jane and Cassandra would have watched Colley Cibber’s adaptation of the tragedy, which was usually performed from 1700 to the end of the 19th century, replacing the original text. It would have begun with the murders of Edward Prince of Wales and Henry VI, to provide some background for those who were not quite familiar with the histories. Cibber’s version was much shorter than Shakespeare’s, and about half of the lines were his own. Many characters had been removed, among them Edward IV, Clarence, Queen Margaret, and Hastings, thus simplifying the production. This might have been one of the reasons behind Cibber’s success, another being his focus on the title-role. The princes were killed on stage, like in The Hollow Crown, presumably to increase the pathos, but Richard tended to be a bit over didactic about his schemes and motives, which must have made it all rather boring.
Though Cibber himself enacted the part rather indifferently, his version was hugely popularised by David Garrick, always a favourite with Georgian audiences. His portrayal of the main character suited their taste, eliciting sympathy and compassion, but stopped short of condoning vice.
The Covent Garden house could accommodate around 3000 people. It would have been lit by wax candles during the whole performance, as it was actually impossible to dim the lights. The actors would have stood on the forestage that jutted out into the auditorium, and the Austens would have watched it all from a box. It would be interesting to know whether they did go see Richard III and what they thought of the acting – some believe they didn’t.
If they had, Jane might have smiled remembering what she’d written as a young girl in The History of England, or the heated argument between Kitty Percival and Mr Stanley in Catharine, or The Bower – ‘upon my honour, you are entirely mistaken.’ Was she? Can anyone be? Shakespeare got at least one thing right. After all, whatever we may think of his reign, his role in the War of the Roses, or the Tudor spin doctors, forensic anthropologists confirmed that the King was indeed hunchbacked.
Fact and fiction intertwine in curious ways and we try to make sense of both as we go along. Each generation has its own Richard Plantagenet. Shakespeare’s words are resignified in different contexts. Our experience of the play can never be the same after the Leicester car park discovery, after the anxious wait to know whether it was really him that lay unceremoniously buried in the city centre, and the final scientific corroboration. The Bosworth scenes have certainly taken on new meaning. Richmond’s prayers and protestations sound more hypocritical, his promises emptier.The opening lines have always had multi-layered connotations: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun/son of York.’
Austen’s novels were written to be read, Shakespeare’s plays to be performed. Both have been adapted for the stage and screen at various times. Whatever our opinion of the merits of particular renditions, they are works of art in themselves, recreations aimed at different audiences, ways of understanding their world as well as ours.
Jane Austen’s Juvenilia quoted from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blvolsecond/153.html
Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park quoted from www.mollands.net
Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.
Hammond, Antony, ed. (1989). King Richard III. London: The Arden Shakespeare
Kane, Kathryn. (2009). The Glittering Regency Theatre. Retrieved from https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/the-glittering-regency-theatre/
Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.
Siemon, James, ed. (2009). King Richard III. London: The Arden Shakespeare.
Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.