Murderer, manipulator… or not that bad at all? The reframing of Richard III

Published in The Observer on March 3, 2024

For a king who has been dead for more than 500 years, Richard III has been making a remarkable number of headlines this winter. And yes – many of them are discontented. From fights among historians over his actions to casting controversies around fictionalised depictions, Richard III is more contentious than ever.

There’s long been a battle for his reputation – by those persuading us not to believe Shakespeare’s infamous portrait of him as a monstrous villain, but also among historians themselves. Just what kind of king was Richard: a tyrant who murdered his own nephews, or a fair and brave leader, whose reputation was smeared by the Tudors who came after him?

“In a sense, we’re still fighting the Wars of the Roses,” smiles Philippa Gregory, the bestselling historical novelist, of this enduring factionalism. There is even a Richard III Society, dedicated to rehabilitating his reputation. “That’s a very unusual thing for a historical figure to have.”

Devoted Ricardians will no doubt be thrilled by her latest work: Richard, My Richard is Gregory’s debut play, and sees Richard III rising from his grave in a car park in Leicester, and arguing with the embodied figure of History, in an attempt to clear his name. It opens at Shakespeare North Playhouse this week.

It’s been a long time coming: Gregory was seized by the idea when she attended Richard III’s re-burial in 2015. “Being present at the interment of a medieval king was extraordinary,” she says. “There was this real outpouring of affection, and respect for him.”

The reputational damage wrought by Shakespeare in his 1592/3 play kept coming up in conversations at the funeral – and when someone suggested Gregory she write a play to redress the balance, the idea stuck.

So, does she believe the real Richard III was a good and noble leader?

“No, I think he was a medieval king,” she quickly replies. “He was incredibly violent and clearly guilty of unconstitutional killings. But Shakespeare’s depiction of him as so deeply corrupt that even his body was bestial… that’s obviously not true of anybody. We know now you don’t spend two years in your mother’s womb and [you don’t] come out a psychotic killer.”

Her play aims to “recover the historical Richard, in so far as we can”. That’s meant honouring some gaps in history by retaining a level of ambiguity in her storytelling – most notably, around the fate of the princes in the tower.

Often dubbed “the greatest mystery in British history”, their fate is key in the fight for Richard III’s reputation. It was long believed that Richard had his nephews, the 12-year-old Edward V and nine-year-old Richard, killed in 1483. Certainly, the princes disappeared from record – and later two small skeletons were found under a staircase in the Tower of London in 1674. But they have never been DNA-tested – and recently, new research emerged that supports the counter-theory that the boys escaped.

Writer Philippa Langley, the woman who led the exhumation of Richard III, conducted a Europe-wide research project, with 300 volunteers scouring archives for later evidence of the princes. In her recent book and Channel 4 documentary, The Princes in the Tower, she lays out why she believes that Richard did not murder the boys.

Among the most exciting findings are several “proof of life” archival discoveries, that appear to shed light on what the princes got up to in the decades after their disappearance: namely, fleeing to various parts of Europe, and preparing to lead their own, ultimately unsuccessful invasions of England as young men in the late 1480s and 1490s. The new findings include a written account allegedly by Prince Richard of his own life, plus receipts for weapons and services for both Prince Richard and Edward.

Sceptics argue it’s all wishful thinking: the statement is fake, the receipts signed by impostors. Dissenting historians include Nathen Amin, John Reeks, and Tim Thornton; Nigel Jones pooh-poohed the theories as “preposterous revisionist rubbish”. The Rest is History podcaster Tom Holland tweeted that “the idealisation of Richard III – a nephew-murdering utter disaster of a king … is the maddest thing.”

But Langley is convinced that Richard III is not the child-killing monster he’s made out to be – but a “loyal, brave, devout and just” leader. She argues that archival sources from his own time paint a very different picture to the later Tudor spin: “Richard III has been the poster boy for fake news.”

Asked why some are so resistant to the findings, she says “many powerful voices have built long and illustrious careers on repeating the centuries-old stories, without question and proper investigation. I’ve upset a very long-established apple cart.”

No historian is paying much attention to Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard these days – although in the public consciousness, it has proved sticky. And aside from cementing the image of him as a very nasty man, Shakespeare’s liberties in describing Richard’s body are today prompting their own rows.

When his skeleton was dug up, analysis showed he had scoliosis – a condition causing a curvature of the spine. Shakespeare’s description of Richard as hunchbacked, with a withered arm and a limp is probably artistic licence; sources at the time, Gregory suggests, show he was a “fit and strong” fighter. Nonetheless, this is still a rare lead part in the western canon specifically written as disabled, and as such, many now argue he should only be played by a disabled actor with relevant lived experience.

Recently, the artistic director of the Globe theatre, Michelle Terry, announced she would play the part this summer, prompting complaints that this amounted to “cripping up”. Cue an open letter from the Disabled Artists Alliance, signed by more than 180 artists and organisations, multiple statements in defence of the move from the Globe, and opinion pieces arguing that actors are just pretending and should be allowed to play whoever they want, and a sinking feeling that Richard III might become a football in a bad-faith culture wars kickabout…

Terry declined to contribute to this piece. But in a lengthy public statement in January she explained she would “not be playing Richard with a visible or physical impairment” and that they wanted to remove Shakespeare’s conflation of evil with physical disability. “What play are we left to experiment with if this conflation is removed? We are left with a play about tyranny, abuse of power and toxic misogyny. And right now, we feel that this is something important to explore.”

This defence has only led Terry out of the frying pan and into the fire, however – with critics arguing that the Globe is now not only denying a disabled actor the chance to play one of the vanishingly few disabled parts, but erasing the disabled experience altogether.

“You would never in a million years go, ‘I’m going to play Othello as a white woman – and take the issue of race out of the agenda.’ You would not do it,” points out Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, a theatre company led by deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists.

So has Richard III become a part – like Othello, or Shylock – that only certain actors can play? Yes, is increasingly the conclusion theatres are reaching. Several productions have recently cast disabled actors: Mat Fraser for Northern Broadsides in 2017; Daniel Monks in a modern update, Teenage Dick, at the Donmar in 2019; Arthur Hughes for the RSC in 2022.

But for disabled theatremakers, this is not a new fight – it’s just one they’ve only recently seen progress on. “I’ve been at Graeae for 27 years in August, and I’ve been fighting the same agenda since day one,” says Sealey. “When I finally saw Mat Fraser doing Richard III I was like – yes, thank you.”

Which was why the Globe casting shocked so many: a roll backwards in the fight for representation. But what about Gregory’s Richard, My Richard? The new play has so far not attracted much opprobrium for casting the non-disabled Kyle Rowe.

“All of the fuss about how you stage Shakespeare’s Richard III doesn’t apply to us,” says Gregory, briskly. “I wanted to write a play about an able-bodied Richard III. We’re doing Richard as he was recorded at the time – which is handsome, strong, slight.” His scoliosis may not even have been noticeable to others, she suggests.

This argument doesn’t fly for Sealey. “Some people say, ‘Oh well, Richard’s scoliosis wasn’t very obvious, it didn’t really impact on his day-to-day life.’ Excuse me? How do you know that? There’s an awful lot of assumptions made.” Many disabled people may have coping strategies that mask the impact that their impairment – visible or invisible – has on their daily life, she suggests.

Behind the scenes, Graeae has also been having conversations with Shakespeare North. “They know how disappointed I am,” confirms Sealey. “We are doing a Shakespeare with them in the summer – we just said, ‘Why oh why did you not talk to us? Where are deaf and disabled people in the decision-making?”

Ultimately, Langley, Gregory and Terry all want us to see Richard III in a fresh new way. In Shakespeare’s play, Richard frets that “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues / And every tongue brings in a several tale / And every tale condemns me for a villain.” Today, his villainy is no longer assumed, and conflicting tales of Richard abound. Surely no other dead king inspires such fierce loyalty – or such division.

Richard, My Richard is at Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot, 8-30 March (shakespearenorthplayhouse.co.uk); Richard III is at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 9 May to 3 August (shakespearesglobe.com). The Princes in the Tower by Philippa Langley is published by The History Press (£25).

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