Now that Shakespeare is part of this year’s London Olympics we’re going to be seeing his play about Richard II all over the place. In fact it’s at the Globe shortly, in Palestinian Arabic. It’s a wonderful play but what has this Richard to do with the real King Richard II? Precious little in my opinion but the play is already unleashing a virulent round of Plantagenet bashing by the apologists for his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster and, after a bit of crown snatching, King Henry IV.
It always starts with name calling. Richard is petulant, whining, in a funk of self pity, cowardly, pompous and self-dramatising. With the upshot that he deserved to lose his crown and die.
But where does this view come from? A look at the sources show that it’s a hackneyed replaying of the bad press first put about by the Lancasters themselves to justify the theft of the crown by Bolingbroke.
But hang on, doesn’t Shakespeare agree? He surely does.
Why? you might ask.
It’s because he used Holinshed’s Chronicles for his source material. Based on an idea of Reginald Wolfe, these were an editorial collaboration on stories from England’s past. Wolfe died in 1573, too late to see publication, but the chronicles were such a success they were revised and republished in 1587, the version used by Shakespeare for his history plays.
With a refined network of spies and a delight in beheading anybody they didn’t like the tyrannical Tudors, from Henry VII to Elizabeth I, were alert to any suggestion that their dynasty was founded on theft, murder and violation of the divine right of kings. Anyone who disagreed had to watch their heads. Hence the bias. Inexplicably, the litany of prejudice against the deposed Richard continues to this day.
Later I’ll show in more detail why Richard has been unjustly maligned. Watch this space!