Great villains bring out the devil in us,
Earlier this week we identified the dead man found in a Leicester carpark. His remains told a story that DNA evidence later corroborated: a slender frame, a curved spine, signs that he had been beaten and mutilated. The giveaway, though, was his skull, which bore eight wounds, two of them fatal.
Alas, poor Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England, I knew him.
At least, I know Shakespeare’s most extraordinary villain, his Machiavellian anti-hero, and the only protagonist to take up as much stage time as Hamlet. He is the “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog”, sent into the world, he says, “deformed” and “unfinished”, or – to quote his loving mother – the “poisonous bunch-backed toad”.
One of the more disturbing discoveries made by the University of Leicester archaeologists were signs of “humiliation wounds” inflicted after his death, including the nasty detail of a sword thrust into him, “from behind in an upward movement”. That act screams hatred.
Does the sensationalism of Shakespeare’s play leave more humiliating wounds? History, as they say, is written by the victors, and History Plays are written to amuse them. Shakespeare’s patron was Queen Elizabeth, whose grandfather, Henry VII, defeated Richard and took the throne: a fair and unbiased depiction of the old regime was never on the cards.
The “Tudor Myth” may be crude propaganda, but the uncomfortable truth is that it makes a much more gripping yarn. Would you rather watch an even-handed depiction of Richard III’s solid administrative skills during his short reign, or see him seduce a grieving widow over the body of her murdered father (whom he killed)? Never let truth or ethics get in the way of a good story.
Nowadays we tend to think of ourselves as more sophisticated and compassionate, with a firmer grasp of the ethics of depicting real people. On stage even Hitler has found different sides and Richard Nixon is portrayed as a wily, conflicted and often tragic figure. Today we’d rather avoid inflammation or humiliation: there’s no room for hate figure.
There’s something uncomfortable about a monstrous villain transformed into something real: not a devil incarnate, but a man who suffered.
Look at Richard III again and you’ll feel queasy about how it relates disability to evil. (Is his deformity supposed to be a manifestation of evil, or is he made evil by a contemptuous society?) But you’ll also see something more subversive. Richard confides in the audience constantly, he gets all the best speeches, he is more fascinating and memorable than all the other Richards and Henrys combined.
The real Richard III was certainly demonised, but you can have sympathy for that devil. His remains will now be reinterred, but the villain will never rest in peace.