William Shakespeare turned history’s Richard III into one of literature’s greatest villains, so it seems weirdly appropriate that the new movie The Lost King — about the search for Richard III’s remains — also turns real people into fictional villains.
The Lost King is a genial comedy about the real-life amateur historian Philippa Langley, whose crusade to rehabilitate Richard III’s image led to the 2012 discovery of his skeleton in a parking lot in Leicester, England. What little conflict the film has comes in the form of patronizing officials from the University of Leicester who mock Langley’s lack of credentials and try to grab most of the credit when Richard’s bones are discovered pretty much right where she said they’d be — a dramatic license that doesn’t correspond with the facts as they’ve been reported elsewhere.
Based on Langley’s book The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III, The Lost King very much focuses on her subjective perception of events, including how her impulse to begin investigating Richard’s life and whereabouts was based on feelings and — yes, the film makes this joke — hunches. It’s not hard to imagine how she perceived some University of Leicester officials as dismissive and obstructive, but it’s also not hard to understand why some of the still-living people whose actual names were used might feel aggrieved at how they’ve been portrayed.
Shakespeare faced a different issue: though all the people he wrote about in Richard III had been dead for almost a hundred years (and longer), he did have to worry about the response from his reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth, whose grandfather Henry VII killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. So Shakespeare based his depiction on the commonly held perception of Richard as a literally twisted and evil usurper, an image promoted by Tudor propagandists like Sir Thomas More, whose History of Richard III was a major source for Holinshed’s Chronicles, one of Shakespeare’s sources. Despite making Richard a charming rogue of a villain, driven by bitterness and ambition, Shakespeare makes it very clear that Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather did the nation a service by getting rid of him.
Shakespeare also labeled Richard III a “Tragedy,” the only one of Shakespeare’s Histories so designated, putting his thumb on the scale to direct how his Richard should be read. In fact, the play first appeared in print under the fuller judgmental title The Tragedy of King Richard the third. Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserved death. It seems likely, however, that this was the printer, not Shakespeare, wanting to make it very clear that the play was a condemnation of Richard, not a celebration.
Because presentation matters. The Lost King states in a two-part credit at the outset that the film is “Based on a true story — Her story” (emphasis mine; capitalization theirs), phrases that also appear on the movie’s posters and in its trailer. The film is clearly not a documentary, and as I’ve argued before, fiction has no obligation to be realistic; The Lost King, for example, shows Langley regularly seeing and communing with Richard III’s ghost. Still, one can almost hear the University of Leicester officials justifiably quoting Richard III himself, “They do me wrong, and I will not endure it!” It’s possible Shakespeare, knowing he was the one doing the wrong, intended that line to be a sly acknowledgement, like the actual Richard crying about his fictional treatment.
Shakespeare’s enduring depiction of Richard III has been called into question before, most convincingly by — ironically — another work of fiction. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey is a 1951 mystery novel in which bedridden detective Alan Grant, bored during his recuperation from a broken leg, becomes intrigued by how little a famous portrait of Richard III, painted during the king’s lifetime, resembles the evil hunchback immortalized by Shakespeare. Once again, perception is key: Grant prides himself on what criminals look like (a dated and problematic premise), and so launches a pre-internet search into the more verifiable facts of what was written about Richard III during his lifetime. The novel is a cold case investigation of the murder of the two Princes in the Tower, which Shakespeare dramatized offstage. Tey’s detective discovers that (spoiler alert) not only did Richard III probably not order the murder of the two princes, they had already been declared illegitimate by the same Titulus Regius act that gave Richard the crown. They were in reality no legitimate threat to Richard’s claim to the throne, and were in fact also not the only living claimants to it, many of whom Richard supported financially before and after he became king. In classic mystery novel tradition, Grant discovers that the culprit with the greatest motive for killing the two princes was probably Henry VII, who had even less of a claim to the throne than Richard. Henry VII not only repealed Titulus Regius but managed to suppress its existence for over a century, which is also (perhaps not coincidentally) the length of the entire Tudor dynasty.
The popular aphorism has it that no one’s ever the villain of their own story, but I wonder how true that is. Richard is certainly the villain in the tragedy that he narrates, and Phillipa Langley, in the film about her, has possibly and inadvertently become one in hers.
This isn’t the first time history has gotten mangled in the creation of fictional narratives, nor will it be the last. Shakespeare’s Richard III is an acknowledged masterpiece and Tey’s The Daughter of Time has been ranked at or near the top of several lists of the greatest mystery novels ever. Whether The Lost King will enjoy a similar reputation remains to be seen.
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