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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

In Search of the Real Richard III

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 3

Shakespeare not only talked about his own times; he also wrote history plays that showed us the past—though it was a past filtered through the politics and prejudices of Shakespeare’s present.

Questions about this came up recently when a body was found in a Leicester, England, parking lot. That body is now widely believed to be that of King Richard III.

Among the many issues raised, along with that body, are questions about who the real Richard III was, versus the dramatic character that we’ve all come to know from stage and film.

In search of that answer, Rebecca Sheir, host of our Shakespeare Unlimited series, talks with an expert on the historic Richard III, David Baldwin, and an expert on Shakespeare’s Richard III, Michael Dobson. Meanwhile, historian Retha Warnicke explains the practical challenges of any research into Richard’s long-ago time.

David Baldwin is a medieval historian who has taught at the universities of Leicester and Nottingham. His book Richard III was published by Amberley in 2012.

Michael Dobson is director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham in England.

Retha Warnicke is professor of history at Arizona State University.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I, That Am Rudely Stamped,” was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul; Garland Scott, associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Thanks to Hannah Tucker at the University of Leicester for her help.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called “I, That Am Rudely Stamped.”

One thing literature does for us is open up a window onto times we’ve never experienced. The best writers not only transport us to other times and places, they also allow us to reconsider from a new angle the social conventions, habits, attitudes, and gender politics of the time in which they were writing. It’s why we’re able to talk about conditions being Dickensian, a situation being Pinteresque, or a character being Shakespearean. When it comes to “Shakespearean,” though, there’s a caveat. Shakespeare not only talked about his own times, he also wrote literary plays that showed us the past, though it was a past filtered through the politics and prejudices of Shakespeare’s present.

Questions about this came up recently when a body was found in a Leicester, England, parking lot that is now widely believed to be that of Richard III. Among the many issues raised, along with that body, were the ones that we bring up in this podcast. It features an expert on the real Richard III, David Baldwin, author of a new biography of the Plantagenet king, and an expert on Shakespeare’s Richard III, Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham. They are interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

REBECCA SHEIR: We’re here, of course, to talk about Richard III. And stick with me here, but it sort of seemed to me, a good place to start is to talk about Whitey Bulger, the Boston Irish mobster who spent 16 years on the lam from the FBI.

[CLIP from The Departed:]

JACK NICHOLSON as FRANK COSTELLO: Those guys you tuned up, they’re connected down Providence. What they’re going to do is come back with some guys and kill you, which, sure as you’re born, they will do, unless I stop them. Do you want me to stop them?

SHEIR: So that, of course, was not Whitey Bulger. That was Jack Nicholson in the movie The Departed, which director Martin Scorsese says was based on the story of Whitey Bulger. And there was an interview a while back with Kevin Cullen—he’s a reporter for the Boston Globe—who grew up with Bulger and he also wrote a book about him. And the interviewer asked Cullen, “What do you think Whitey Bulger thought of that movie?”

[CLIP from interview with Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe:]

KEVIN CULLEN: We know that Whitey did go see the movie in Santa Monica. I think Whitey would have been appalled by that, because Whitey’s extremely vain, and to this day, was doing 150 push-ups in his cell. He’s going to be 84 in September, and he would not let himself go like Jack Nicholson. But I think Nicholson captured the menace. You know, Whitey was a vicious guy. I think the public record’s pretty clear about that.

SHEIR: So, Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, I want to ask you, as with Whitey Bulger, if Richard III went to see Richard III by William Shakespeare, what would he think?

MICHAEL DOBSON: Oh, he’d have felt defamed. I mean he’d have had to make allowances for the fact that Shakespeare hadn’t known him personally and only knew nasty stories about him from a generation further on in history. But Richard saw himself as a legitimate, pious Christian prince, who only killed his nephews because he absolutely had to, and certainly didn’t have nearly as crooked a back as Shakespeare, and doubtless, the stage costume department, wanted to imply.

SHEIR: [LAUGH] David Baldwin, in your book, you seem conflicted about whether Richard III is as advertised or not. You say he only appears to have behaved badly during the three months between Edward’s death and his own accession. And you say that that behavior was out of character for him. Was he really the guy who did all those terrible, terrible things?

DAVID BALDWIN: Well, of course, all the things that he supposedly did, or quite a large number of them, he did between April and June of 1483. He was an exemplary royal brother up ’til April of 1483 and an able and fair-minded king after June. But it’s the way he takes his nephew’s throne, and has people he knew who would oppose him executed, which, of course, has blackened his character. And, of course, it’s particularly what happened to the princes in the Tower, after they had been overthrown. Did Richard have them killed? The great difficulty is, is that we really don’t know. But, of course, they were in Richard’s charge and so he can’t really escape some of the blame for that.

SHEIR: Now, David, you suggested that if Richard had only been given some time, he might have gone through eternity with a whole different reputation. Can you talk about that?

BALDWIN: Well, as I said, he was certainly a very capable and able king. And really no one wanted a child king, and I think if Richard had had five or 10 or 15 years to show what he could do, after that much good government, perhaps most people would have accepted that his becoming king had been the best thing at the time. But of course, in the two years he had, Richard could never really demonstrate that. He had the overthrow of Edward V hanging over him for the whole time, and he could never really escape from that.

SHEIR: Michael Dobson, as you know, Professor Baldwin here wrote a book about Richard III, came out in February 2011, and since we have the two of you together, are there things you’ve always wondered about Richard III that perhaps an historian could answer for you?

DOBSON: Well, it’s true, I’d be interested to know whether there’s an identifiable point in Richard’s career at which he notices that there’s a real risk of him becoming king. At which he starts to think, if I don’t get rid of the people between me and the throne, I will be got rid of in my turn by somebody else. I wonder if you can see that anywhere.

SHEIR: David?

BALDWIN: Well, of course. Edward IV died on the ninth of April 1483 and he was only 40 years old. No one expected him to die at that moment in time, and, of course, he left two sons, one age 12 and the other age nine. And had Edward lived for just a few years longer, had his eldest son been, let’s say, at least 15 or 16, then I think he would automatically have succeeded and there would have been no opportunity for Richard to even step in.

So, I don’t think Richard can really have had any meaningful idea that he would become king, until at least his brother died, and it was only then that he saw the opportunity, and he almost certainly felt under threat. He thought that if the young king fell into the hands of his mother’s relatives, who he knew far better than he knew his Uncle Richard, then he would prefer to be governed by them. Richard would be elbowed out, and his position would become increasingly difficult. Therefore, the only way to secure the future was to make himself king. But even when Edward died, there’s no real evidence that Richard was planning to become king from that moment onwards. It’s what happens in the month between the date in May when Richard takes possession of the young king and when he has William, Lord Hastings, executed on the 13th of June. Richard’s ideas, his thoughts must have progressed during those weeks.

SHEIR: Professor Baldwin, you say there were worse murders committed by British royalty than Richard III killing his nephews. What were those? Can you spell them out for us?

BALDWIN: At least two previous medieval kings had been murdered, Edward II, and, of course, Richard II. But they were both adults, and adults who had reigned for very long periods of time and who had made a very considerable mess of things. The thing about Edward V was that he hadn’t been given an opportunity to show what sort of king he might have become. And it was one thing to get rid of a king who had shown himself to be thoroughly incompetent, but quite another to remove a king who had never had a chance to display what he might be like.

SHEIR: So, looking then at Richard III and his alleged involvement in the deaths or disappearance of his nephews, the princes in the Tower, why is that so much more notorious than all of these other incidents?

BALDWIN: Well, I think, really, Richard’s reputation has suffered because he killed children, and, of course, to kill a child who the supposed murderer ought to have been protecting. I mean, because, of course, Richard was the boy king’s guardian, he should have been looking after him. I think one reason that Richard really gets away with this, in the summer of 1483, is that he really wrong-foots everyone. Because all previous, or the most recent previous, royal uncles had all behaved very well, and I think everybody thought that Richard would do the same for Edward V, and this is what caught them by surprise. Richard didn’t do what they expected. He did the opposite.

SHEIR: And that’s why it’s seen as so much more heinous.

BALDWIN: That’s right.

SHEIR: We’re talking with David Baldwin, whose book on Richard III was published in 2011, and Michael Dobson, the director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham in England. We’re going to take a short break from that conversation now.

As we’ve been talking, we’ve been making a lot out of who Richard III really was, but that raises a question. How do we know? After all, it’s hard enough to speak with authority about what a modern-day leader was like: Dwight Eisenhower, say, or Stalin. When you go back further and try to pin down what Jefferson was like or King George, it gets even harder. So, if you’re a historian, what do you do with important figures who go way, way back? What do you do with someone like Richard III?

RETHA WARNICKE: Unfortunately, sometimes we just have to guess.

SHEIR: That’s Retha Warnicke, a professor of history at Arizona State University. She specializes in the Tudor period, the time in history right after Richard III.

WARNICKE: It’s difficult to get into the culture and understand it, but we do our best [LAUGH] and it’s a good guess, sometimes. And that’s why historians fight with each other. Two of us can read the same information and see something different in it.

SHEIR: Now that’s not to say that history is nothing but guessing. When historians set out to uncover and then explain an era, even one as long ago as when Richard III was king…

WARNICKE: There are more primary sources than one would anticipate.

SHEIR: Especially in England. Because even as early as the 12th and 13th centuries, the English government had begun to build and maintain archives. And it’s in there that historians begin to find the material that helps them piece together daily life, 600 and 700 years ago.

WARNICKE: Treasury reports, their parliamentary documents, other courts like the Court of Kings Bench, and not only are the documents available from the national government, but local governments and manorial records are also available.

SHEIR: Those would be the records of manor houses. Like how much money the lord of the manor or the parish priest doled out to the poor. How many poor there were, for that matter. And speaking of money, Professor Warnicke says, in some cases you can find household financial records for rulers in this period.

WARNICKE: Monarchs and their wives and the aristocracy generally kept records of where they spent their money. It’s incredible to us today to think that people would write down one pound sterling for a book, or some other, what we might consider minor, expenses. We simply don’t keep records like that anymore, but they did.

SHEIR: And because of that, she says, you can find tantalizing snapshots of what even a king’s daily life was like.

WARNICKE: We see them giving tips to messengers who brought, perhaps, a deer to them or some gift to them. And in Henry VII’s expenditures was money for the girl that danced for him, and it just opens up the world in which they lived, at least through their expenses.

SHEIR: As valuable as something like that can be, though, what’s hard to get from the time of Richard III is any idea of what people were thinking. What were their motivations? What did they want? That’s because…

WARNICKE: Unfortunately, it’s not until the 15th century that we begin to see private letters, written by individuals.

SHEIR: So, you’re not going to know was Richard loyal to his brother Edward IV because he wanted to be, or because he had to. Did he love Lady Anne? You might find those things out from a letter. Without it, you just have to guess. Something else you can’t get is public opinion.

WARNICKE: The lower classes didn’t really begin to write until the 18th century, when charity schools were founded for the lower classes.

SHEIR: So did Richard’s subjects love him? Or hate him? Did they even know he was king? We have no way to know. And if historians tell you they do, they’re making it up.

WARNICKE: Fortunately, although this happens rarely, someone will discover a document that no historian has ever known before.

SHEIR: That actually happened in the case of Richard III. As anyone who’s ever read Shakespeare’s play knows, Richard took the crown from his nephews and he may have also had them murdered. In trying to figure out whether he’d done that or not, historians went 600 years without knowing of any rumors spreading around that it had happened. And that’s strange, if someone killed the heir to the English throne, surely someone would have talked about it. It would have been in the air in London at the time, and someone would have written it down. But for 600 years, there was nothing.

WARNICKE: But in 1981, Professor Green published, in the English Historical Review, information about a document that he had discovered at the College of Arms, which said that, that year 1483, this merchant said that the rumors were in London that the boys were dead by October of that year.

SHEIR: So a historian will look in the archives, they’ll look at the chronicles, those are narrative accounts of important events in daily city life. But if they go looking for hints about the real Richard III in Shakespeare, Professor Warnicke says, be careful.

WARNICKE: Shakespeare can offer us information about his culture that is important. But his histories are simply creations. He takes a name of a person, like Richard III, and then creates this wonderful demon. It’s not the real Richard III. I’m not going to pretend to be able to tell you who the real Richard III was, but he was not that demon.

SHEIR: So after hearing all that, David Baldwin, I’m wondering about the sources you used for your book. Did you rely on the tried-and-true sources out there?

BALDWIN: Well, there’s really no alternative, as far as King Richard is concerned. The question is, of course, how reliable are those sources, because every chronicler would be writing for his patron. And, of course, he would have had his own viewpoint. And so, in a sense, we always have to use them with caution. We cannot assume that what they say is precisely as things were at the time. They may be putting a particular slant on it. It’s very difficult, of course, to really pin Richard down. But one thing, I think, which does come through, is that he’s being blamed for being ruthless. But in a sense, he really had to be ruthless, because all medieval kings, all successful medieval kings, were ruthless. It was the nicer, kinder chaps who either lost their thrones or came very close to losing them. And if Richard ever studied history, he would have known what sort of king he had got to be, if he was going to be successful.

SHEIR: And David, you mentioned the chronicles, we just heard about the chronicles in the piece we played, and you suggest in your book that those who are writing chronicles during Richard’s life, they’re misunderstood, as far as whether they were pro-Richard or con.

BALDWIN: To some extent. Quite a number of chroniclers, particularly those who wrote after 1485, are usually assumed to be writing under Tudor influence and are therefore automatically anti-Richard. But I think, when we look at them more closely, they all have something good to say about Richard. And so, here again we have to, I think, really look at them with some degree of caution. If we take John Rous, for example, he’s the man who says that Richard was born, I think, after spending some two years in his mother’s womb and with hair and teeth. Now that all sounds pretty unlikely, and Rous has been generally pooh-poohed for many years. But the discovery of King Richard’s body has proved that he was buried precisely where John Rous said he was, in the choir of the Grey Friars’ church, and, also, that his right shoulder was higher than his left. And so, you know it’s very difficult to write these people off altogether, even if they appear to be anti-Richard, when some of the information they provide can be shown to be perfectly accurate.

SHEIR: As we’ve been talking, we’ve been bringing up other monarchs, others of Shakespeare’s monarchs. And Michael Dobson, there are those who feel that the differences between Shakespeare’s Richard and the historical Richard are more interesting than the differences between others of these monarchs, say Henry V, and the real figures. So, I’m wondering first, do you agree with that?

DOBSON: No, not at all. I think that Shakespeare’s Henry V is a wonderfully distorted and inaccurate picture of what happened in Henry’s campaigns in France, of which there were two, rather than one, which lasted much longer than the play suggests they did. The nice thing about Henry V is that in the epilogue at the end, Shakespeare does admit to the audience that it all came to nothing [LAUGH] and was an entire waste of time and that the kingdom then went to pieces under Henry’s infant son. So, Shakespeare isn’t always as luridly in tune with Tudor propaganda as he is in Richard III, though I wouldn’t describe it as a propaganda play. And, of course, in Henry IV, I mean he makes the young future Henry V, Prince Hal, and Hotspur, the heir of the earls of Northumberland, who are fighting on either side in a rebellion, the same age. Whereas in fact, Hotspur was about, you know, 20 years older and certainly was never killed by Hal in single combat. I mean, it makes for a much better play if you have them the same age at the same time and fighting it out on the battlefield. You know, I think we have to treat Shakespeare as a dramatist, rather than a historian.

SHEIR: Well then, that segues actually very nicely into my next question. This one is for both of you. I’m interested in knowing your thoughts on where the Shakespearean portrayal of Richard III came from. And I don’t mean, I don’t mean, factually, as in what books did Shakespeare read or anything like that. I mean, from where did Shakespeare get his impression of Richard III. Michael Dobson, do you want to try that one?

DOBSON: Yeah, well, it’s a composite of lots of kinds of fiction and drama, as well as it’s using stuff from historical sources. I mean, Shakespeare had seen a lot of morality plays when he was young, in which there’s a sinister tempter called the Vice, with whom Richard frequently compares himself in the Henry VI plays and in Richard III, just as Shakespeare knew about these lurid rumors about an Italian political thinker called Machiavelli, who is said to believe just in power for its own sake and to have no ethics whatsoever. And again, Richard compares himself to Machiavelli, he says he can “set the murderous Machiavel to school.” So, there’s a composite of boogeymen from different kinds of drama and storytelling, that flesh out and sort of hunchback out his Richard.

SHEIR: And David Baldwin, what do you think?

BALDWIN: He certainly draws on Sir Thomas More’s portrait of the king. I don’t think there can be any doubt about that, and, of course, he takes More’s bias. The factor here, of course, is that although Thomas More was writing about Richard III, it has been suggested that the king he was really talking about was Henry VIII. But, of course, he couldn’t criticize Henry VIII openly in the reign of Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth. Now that may be pure speculation, but, you know, is he trying to paint a picture of what a “bad king,” in inverted commas, was really like, rather than what Richard III personally was really like?

SHEIR: Well, when Shakespeare was writing, was there a lot of anti-Richard sentiment in the air at that point?

BALDWIN: Yeah, I mean, there are other plays before Shakespeare’s depicting Richard as a tyrant. I think the thing that’s most powerful about Shakespeare’s play, as Professor Baldwin has been suggesting, about its potential as a politically skeptical play about any king, is that it’s just a very realistic depiction of how a tyrant could take over in England. This is how it’s done, all you need to do is get control of the heir of the throne, go through a charade in front of the Lord Mayor of London, be in the right place at the right time with enough suborned witnesses, and the constitution is yours for the asking. And the citizens aren’t fooled in Richard III. We meet ordinary people, who know very well what’s going on, but they can’t do anything about it. So, I think it’s a politically skeptical play rather than simply a propagandist one about how the Tudors are marvelous.

SHEIR: Well, you know, despite everything, feelings run quite high about Richard III, whichever way you look at it. So, I’m curious, is it Shakespeare’s play and the films made from it that lead to that? Are they the whole reason or are they just a part of the reason? What’s going on here?

BALDWIN: Oh, I think they’re the main reason. I mean, by far the most interesting thing about Richard III is his reputation over the successive 400 years. And that’s almost entirely created by the fact that he becomes nominally the central character of one the best plays ever written.

SHEIR: And David Baldwin, do you think Shakespeare gets him totally wrong? Is he a cartoon in Shakespeare?

BALDWIN: He is, to some extent, I think. But, of course, he was responsible for some of the crimes, at least, that Shakespeare attributes to him. He most certainly has William Lord Hastings executed without a trial. What we cannot say, of course, is whether or not he was directly involved in the death of Henry VI, or the slaying of Prince Edward of Lancaster, or even in the death of his own wife, Anne Neville. There are hints in some of the sources that he could have been involved, but he doesn’t necessarily take the prominent role there that Shakespeare accords him.

SHEIR: So then, turning to Michael Dobson now, when it all comes down to it, is it just a silly exercise to even try talking about the real Richard III? I mean, after all, art shapes our perception of the past to such a great extent. For instance, when Showtime created Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, there were historians who were furious, because they say Oliver Stone, you know, creates enduring portraits of historical figures that are flawed, ridiculously flawed. So, should we be concerned about how Shakespeare portrayed Richard III in Richard III?

DOBSON: Yeah, I think writers do have a moral responsibility to represent the past in some way that is useful and just and valuable to the present. At least Shakespeare didn’t give out education packs to schools [LAUGH], saying this should be taught, and that it was all true, which is more than can be said of Roland Emmerich, with his ludicrous film about how Shakespeare’s plays were really written by a dead earl.

SHEIR: [LAUGH] Let’s see, that was Michael. David, do you want to chime in on that?

BALDWIN: I think with most individuals, when we look back on their careers at this distance in time, we can usually say that if they’d done this, or hadn’t done that, then things would have turned out better for them. But I don’t think now, looking back at Richard III’s reign, we can actually do that. Because, of course, I don’t think there’s very much doubt that his position would have deteriorated, had he been content to remain Duke of Gloucester. But of course, having become king, what he found was that he’d only exchanged one set of problems for another. And of course, we know what happened to him because he became king. So, what was he to do? There doesn’t really seem to be any good alternative available.

SHEIR: So as we’re talking about sort of the fact of Richard versus the fiction of Richard, when it comes to historians, I mean they extrapolate, it’s part of what they do. Especially when you’re talking about historical records from so long ago. You have your facts and then you draw from them what you will. So, generally, should we always think of history as fact? Or should we allow for some fiction in there?

BALDWIN: You know, to some extent, all right, we have facts, but a lot of the facts come from government records, which are pretty impersonal. And as we said earlier, we have very few letters from this period that would tell us what an individual was really thinking at the time. We can presume that their actions imply this or that, but in the last resort, it all comes down to interpretation. And there’s really no way of proving or demonstrating who is correct, short of new evidence becoming available.

SHEIR: Michael Dobson, what do you think about sort of this relationship between fact and fiction?

DOBSON: Well, I mean we can only make sense of the present by projecting stories onto it and trying to deduce stories from it at the same time. And that’s even more true of the past, we have to make a story of it to make it mean something. I mean if we even had Richard III alive in the room with us, I doubt we’d be able to come up with a definitive answer as to who he was or what he meant. We probably wouldn’t understand the answers that he might give to our questions.

SHEIR: So the body that was found in the parking lot in Leicester brought Richard back into the public consciousness. But in a way, he never really leaves, does he? I mean, people really do seem to have a lot of interest in him versus other British kings, except for maybe Henry VIII, which we’ve discussed. So, do you think it’s Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard that influences historians to take more interest in Richard III than in some other monarchs? I guess what I am saying is, why this guy? David Baldwin, what do you think?

BALDWIN: Well, I think really, for that reason. First of all, of course it stems from the supposed murder of the princes in the Tower, or what happened to the princes. The fact that we simply do not know what became of them, that’s the first element in it. And, of course, secondly, it is the way that Shakespeare seizes upon Richard and makes him into a thoroughgoing villain. And these two elements put together have really made Richard what he is. I mean, as far as I know, he’s the only medieval king with a society dedicated to clearing his name.

SHEIR: Michael Dobson, what do you think? Why this guy?

DOBSON: Because he’s the subject of such a great play, or as I say, the nominal subject of such a great play. And you know there is a man, at the moment, who’s a cousin of the present queen of this country, called Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is the royal patron of the Richard III Society. I don’t think he would bother being this bothered about his long-dead ancestor, if it weren’t that every time he announces his title, people imagine Laurence Olivier with a false nose, which must be very annoying for him, I think.

SHEIR: [LAUGH] Well, Michael Dobson, David Baldwin, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

DOBSON: Thanks.

MICHAEL WITMORE: David Baldwin is a medieval historian who has taught at the universities of Leicester and Nottingham. His book Richard III was published by Amberley in 2012. Michael Dobson is director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham in England. They were interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

“I, That Am Rudely Stamped” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Hannah Tucker at the University of Leicester.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.