Playing Fast and Loose With History: the Mysterious Case of Richard III
|Good King Richard?|
Did I say Good King Richard? Sorry, I meant Richard Crookback. Or did I? Actually I don’t know. The announcement this week that the bones uncovered in a Leicester car park are, beyond reasonable doubt, those of the last Plantagenet king of England, did more than provide an elegant ending worthy of a novel to Richard’s tragic tale. It also got me thinking.
Fiction, by definition, is Not True. It might include elements of truth and it might (if we get it right) ring true. But does that give the novelist a licence to play fast and loose with facts? You surely wouldn’t introduce a tank crashing across Bosworth battlefield to rescue the king even if you might just get away with a kitchen maid peeling a potato a couple of years before Walter Raleigh produced one for Elizabeth I.
Character is different, in my book at least. The beauty of historical figures is that they tend to be portrayed, whether as heroes or villains, by contemporaries who had a vested interest. Political spin is an ancient art – contemporary pictures of Richard were altered under Henry VII to portray him with that famous hunched back – but who knows whether the original portrait was itself a propaganda piece to show him as the flower of manhood?
|Hero or villain - it's up to you|
Shakespeare gets a lot of the blame for this but to me his position is defensible. Richard III is a damn good play and I’d argue that it wouldn’t be quite as fine if he’d portrayed Richard as virtuous. Another example: in her Cousins’ War series Philippa Gregory depicts him both through the eyes of his wife as chivalrous, loving and under an obligation of crushing duty; and through the eyes of his sister-in-law (mother to the Princes in the Tower) as an obsessive, ambitious mass-murderer. For me, it’s the second of these scenarios in which he’s the more compelling character.
Novelists are perfectly entitled to do what they like with a character as long as there’s no-one they can libel by so doing. Richard may well have been wronged but the man’s been dead since 1485 and we’ll never know for certain what he was really like. In my book, writers can play with his character, for better or for worse, to their hearts’ content, though I’d prefer it if they kept to the hard facts as they’re known and undisputed. So do what you like with Richard - but please, no tanks on Bosworth Field….