Saturday, February 9, 2013

Richard III – The Blurring of Fact in Fiction

The Battle of Bosworth

For several months now I’ve been following the research and test results on a skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park in the UK. It was believed that the remains belonged to none other than King Richard III, last monarch of the House of York and the last English king to die in battle.

Richard III was slain during the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. His forces outnumbered those of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) but despite that, Richard lost. The accession of Henry VII thus ushered in what became known as the Tudor Age. It was, more or less, the end of the Middle Ages. 

Last year, a team from the University of Leicester began a series of tests on the skeleton that was found and this week they have released the results. You can read about it on the BBC by clicking HERE.

Skeleton of Richard III, in-situ, beneath Leicester car park
Notice the curve of the spine in the middle
There are many nay-sayers who believe the results come from a bit of dodgy science but most agree that the remains are ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king.

I won’t get into all the exact science and the genetic tests that helped the team come to their conclusions, fascinating though it is.

What I found interesting is the appearance of the skeleton itself.

For most, including myself, the image of Richard III that comes to mind is that created by William Shakespeare in his play Richard III.

"But I, - that am not shap'd for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph; 
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, 
Deform'd, unfinishe'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;-"
(King Richard III, Act I, Scene I)

Lawrence Olivier as Richard III
I can’t help but picture Laurence Olivier when I think of Richard III, the humped back, the gammy leg and limp, the shortened arm. Shakespeare’s grotesque, scheming king is the image that my mind conjures without hesitation. Olivier was brilliant in the role, by the way.

However, in light of the discovery of the body of Richard III, it appears that the former image of Richard Plantagenet as a sort of monster was largely fabricated by Shakespeare. History, as we know, is written by the victors and William Shakespeare (apologies to all you Oxfordian theorists out there!) was a Tudor man through and through.

The skeletal remains that have been exhumed and studied these past months do show signs of scoliosis, an extreme curvature of the spine, but that is about it. Otherwise the body is ‘normal’ if slight in build according to researchers. No shortened arm or crippled leg, no deformity of the shoulders.

In fact, a reconstruction of the face based on the remains brings to light an almost handsome man. 

Based on these new findings, there is one question I want to ask.

In historical fiction, is it acceptable to drastically alter the personality and appearance of a person to suit the story?

I do consider the play Richard III to be historical fiction. Richard Plantagenet may well have been a monster of a person as far as his personality but it seems certain now that he was not as grotesque in appearance as Shakespeare and others of the period would have had us believe.

William Shakespeare
I am looking at this in hindsight and so it is easy for me to judge the writers of the time. Plays were very useful political tools in Tudor and Elizabethan England so it is not surprising that Richard III was portrayed a certain way in order to help smooth the Tudor claim. And it’s a bloody good story!

However, the line between absolute truth and fiction is often very fine.

The storyteller and historian in me are often at odds when I am writing. Is it more acceptable to change the appearance or personality of an historical person? Are the primary and secondary sources I am using accurate themselves?

These are questions that face the historical novelist.

When dealing with the big names of ancient history and ancient sources, one can never be absolutely certain of the accuracy. We can cross reference sources, including art, to try and develop the most accurate picture.

But often the most accurate picture is not the most entertaining. Yes, historical novelists have an obligation to portray people accurately but story also needs to be honoured.

Extreme changes are a bit difficult to justify but a slight tweaking here or there is acceptable. The thing to remember is that if any drastic changes are made the author should point them out in the Historical Note or Author’s Note at the end of the book.

Alexander the Great
As a writer, I know that not every reader will be happy with how I portray things and that’s ok.

At the moment, I am writing the first book in a trilogy of Alexander the Great (read a previous post on this project HERE). Alexander the Great is an historic person to whom many people are attached.

Alexander was a many-faceted individual and evokes as many emotions in people. The spectrum of views on Alexander is as vast as the empire he created. Realistically, there is no way a writer can successfully and completely explore every aspect of Alexander’s nature.

The Alexander I write about may be quite different from the Alexander someone else writes about.

Was Shakespeare wrong to portray Richard III as he did when it now seems obvious that his portrayal was inaccurate?

I don’t think so. We have to remember that Shakespeare was a product of his age and the way he wrote Richard may well have been the general perception people had of the recent monarch; the Tudor propagandists were very efficient. Perhaps Richard was someone mothers used to scare their children into going to bed, the King who imprisoned and killed little children?

Persians as portrayed in the movie 300
A similar portrayal might be of the Persians in Frank Miller’s 300, on which the movie was based. Now, I love that movie but I know for sure that the Persians of Xerxes were not monsters like in the book and movie.

However, at the time, an invading Persian army that was sweeping south through Greece and burned Athens would most certainly have struck terror into the hearts of the Greek populace of all city states. The wicked portrayal reflects a particular perspective.

It is the job of both the novelist and the historian to sift through the sources of history, the different perspectives, to get as close as possible to the truth.

The difference is that while the historian cannot, in good conscience, stray from the truth, the novelist has a certain freedom to do so, an obligation almost.

There are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the historical record and there are often contradicting pieces of information.

The historical fiction writer’s task then is to gather the information, decide on a perspective and write about your chosen person or period in a way that is as accurate as possible but also entertaining and engaging.

Facial Reconstruction of
Richard III
I wonder if, in light of this week’s revelations, we’ll start seeing Richard III played a little differently at various Shakespeare festivals?

One thing is certain. A lot of history books will need to be re-written. 
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