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Shakespeare and the Body in the Carpark

Philip Schwyzer

Professor Philip Schwyzer, Professor of Renaissance Literature in the Department of English.

Philip Schwyzer is Professor of Renaissance Literature in the Department of English. His book, Shakespeare and the Remains of Richard III, will be published by Oxford University Press next year. Here he asks how the mystery regarding the fate of Richard’s body may have sparked Shakespeare’s imagination.

Though we still await the results of DNA testing, it’s hard to imagine that the remains found under a carpark in Leicester this summer could belong to anyone other than Richard III. The skeleton is not only in the right place – the choir of the church of the Leicester Greyfriars, where Richard is known to have been buried in 1485 – but, with an arrow embedded in its spine and a massive wound to the cranium, it fits what we know about the king’s death on Bosworth Field. As the near-contemporary Song of the Lady Bessiye reports, “they struck his bascinet [helmet] to his head/ until his brains came out with blood.” Most striking and persuasive of all is the severe spinal curvature which would have given the living body precisely the appearance described by the chronicler John Rous: “small of stature, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower.”

The story of the Leicester dig, initiated by members of the Richard III Society, could be mistaken for something from the career of Heinrich Schliemann, if not Indiana Jones. As Richard Buckley, who led the excavation, acknowledges, “in archaeology you aren’t supposed to look for famous people.” Much less do you expect to find them. Yet if the fantastically successful result of the Greyfriars Project seems like something out of a film, it is appropriate to its object. The small man with a short face has always seemed larger than life – even before William Shakespeare got hold of him.

The chronicles Shakespeare would have consulted in writing his play are still among our main sources today for the events following Richard’s death at Bosworth. They describe how Richard’s body was mocked and abused on the battlefield, slung naked on the back of a horse and carried into Leicester. According to Thomas More, the king was “harried on horseback dead, his hair in despite torn and tugged like a cur dog.” As the body was carried over Bow Bridge, its head was reportedly allowed to slam against a protruding stone, fulfilling a prophecy made by an old woman that where his heel struck in the morning, his head should strike that same night.

Richard’s naked and battered body was put on display for two days before receiving burial at the fairly obscure Greyfriars priory. Some ten years later Henry VII’s government made a small payment for the construction of an alabaster tomb (complete with an epitaph in which Richard is made to confess his crimes and express gratitude to Henry for treating his remains so mercifully). When the infamous Cardinal Wolsey died and was buried at another Leicester monastery in 1530, a joke circulated that the city had become “The Tyrant’s Sepulchre.” Not long after this, the Greyfriars was dissolved, and Richard’s body disappeared from the historical record. Different stories soon circulated about its fate, the most famous claiming that his remains had been dug up, dragged through the streets, and thrown in the river Soar. Until the eighteenth century, a medieval sarcophagus said to have contained Richard’s body was on display at a Leicester tavern, where it doubled as a trough.

Shakespeare’s response to the traditions surrounding the fate of Richard’s corpse is enigmatic. Following his death in battle, Richard’s body is left lying on the stage, with no stage direction calling for its removal before the end of the play. Although the victorious Richmond gives directions for the burial of others who have fallen on both sides, nothing is said about Richard. Richmond may ignore his fallen foe, but the audience, typically, cannot. In the recent production starring Kevin Spacey, Richard’s body was winched up by the heels to hang upside down above Richmond’s head as he delivered his final speech. (Even as a lifeless corpse, Richard tends to steal the show.)

Did Shakespeare know the story of Richard’s rude deposition in the river Soar? This might help explain why the play is so stuffed with images of watery burial. In his first soliloquy, Richard declares that “all the clouds that lowered upon our house [are]/ In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” Later on, his brother Clarence reports a vivid nightmare involving corpses on the ocean bed: “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;/ Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon…/ All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea.” The fascination with watery burial which runs throughout Shakespeare’s plays, down to Ariel’s famous “sea-change” song in The Tempest, has its origins in Richard III. Though we can now be fairly certain that Richard’s body was never subjected to this fate, the popularity of the story tells us something about the early modern imagination, its preoccupations and its fears. Perhaps it tells us even more about Shakespeare’s personal nightmares.

While we await the results of DNA tests, discussion is shifting to the future of the Greyfriars remains.  Leicester Cathedral, which already contains a memorial to the fallen king, has staked a strong claim. Some commentators, however, have called for Richard to be interred with full royal honours alongside his relations (and reputed victims) in Westminster Abbey. As a northerner at heart, Richard himself might have preferred burial in York Minster, a cathedral to which he showed much favour in his reign.

Though the discovery of the body is in many ways a cause for wonder and celebration, it has its melancholy aspect. The bones from Greyfriars cannot help but speak to us of mortality, of great suffering, and of wasted dreams. They humanise Richard III, and can make us pity him, even if we still believe him to have been guilty of at least some of the crimes laid at his door. Richard – who in Shakespeare’s play is called a devil, a cacodemon, a dog, hedgehog, and a bloody boar – was a human being after all. And someone made a great hole in his head.

In becoming more human, does Richard become less potent as a symbol? I would argue that the fact that Richard for so long had no known resting place contributed to the potency of his myth; it helped Shakespeare create a character who strikes us as unnervingly present, unfailingly contemporary and terrifyingly alive. Paradoxically, knowing just where Richard is may make him seem less rather than more present, leaving him less free to roam the cultural imagination. Yet Shakespeare’s play, the most frequently performed of all his works, will undoubtedly remain as popular as ever. And there will now be another image of Richard to hold in memory alongside the stage villain – one so much smaller and frailer than Shakespeare’s hunchbacked cacodemon, and so much more real.

Royal Successions: The Importance of Poetry

Andrew McRae is Professor of Renaissance Studies in the Department of English.

Andrew McRae is Professor of Renaissance Studies in the Department of English.

Poet laureates earn their allowances at times like these, says Professor Andrew McRae.

In May this year, when we celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, Carol Ann Duffy will publish an edited volume, Jubilee Lines, including sixty new poems by sixty poets, each concerned with a year of Elizabeth II’s reign. This represents a neat variation on a theme that can be traced back through British history. But what does such literature achieve? What might it tell us about the monarchs and the ways in which they were perceived? And how might it reflect upon the changing values of monarchy?

While such questions might be asked of any poem devoted to a king or queen, they assume genuine urgency in literature published at moments of succession. Sixty years ago, John Masefield, who fits the laureate category of a man equally long serving and poorly regarded by literary history, seized upon the pastoral mode for his modest poem to welcome Elizabeth to the throne. ‘This lady whom we crown was born,’ he wrote, ‘When buds were green upon the thorn / And earliest cowslips showed.’ ‘Cowslips’, an Old English word, not only lends the poem a native touch, but recalls Edmund Spenser’s seminal poem in praise of Elizabeth I in The Shepheardes Calendar. And throughout, as must have seemed equally appropriate for the post-War British nation, the resources of pastoral allowed him to link the succession to hopes for a second Elizabethan regeneration. ‘May this old land revive and be’, he writes, ‘Again a star set in the sea, / A Kingdom fit for such as She / With glories yet undreamt.’

If there is something polite and stylised about Masefield’s poem, that may say as much about the age he inhabited as about the poet himself. But this was not always so. What if we turn our attention to the most politically turbulent English century of all, the seventeenth? What might a study of the succession literature of the Stuart dynasty – of the years 1603, 1625, 1660, 1685, 1689 and 1702 – tell us about both literary and political cultures of the time?

These dates were moments of intense anxiety and anticipation. The 1603 succession was itself neither obvious nor uncontested, the 1660 succession required a collective act of will to re-establish monarchy as the nation’s natural state, the crowning of William and Mary in 1689 was more the result of a coup than an orderly succession, and so forth. And literature of all kinds poured from the nation’s presses at each moment: poems of all kinds, pamphlets, news-sheets, histories and genealogies, accounts of royal entries, and so on. Much of the resulting output has been considered over the years as mere panegyric; however, even poetry of praise, as the example of Masefield’s poem suggests, can bear subtle meaning, and in the hands of a master it can equally be used to shape expectations of ruler and ruled alike.

Ben Jonson, for instance, fashioned himself as the poet laureate at a time when there was in fact no such role, and from the moment of James I’s arrival in England he cleaved to the throne and sought to define its values. But there were risks attached to this strategy, in this most risky of centuries for the public poet. Edmund Waller, for instance, wrote a ‘Panegyric to my Lord Protector’, celebrating Oliver Cromwell at the height of his powers, as he increasingly sought to drape his protectorate with the trappings of monarchy. Just five years later he welcomed Charles II with a poem ‘To the King, Upon His Majesty’s Happy Return’. When Charles judged that the poem to Cromwell was the better of the two pieces, Waller observed: ‘we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction’.

We know too little about the succession literature of the Stuart era. That’s why, in a major project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, researchers at the universities of Exeter and Oxford are attempting to bring it to light, making sense of it for the first time. We will catalogue all publications from the years immediately following a succession that engage in any meaningful way with the matter. And then we will work to interpret these works, asking questions about the perception and representation of monarchy, and revisiting through this lens some critical questions about changes in political values and culture through the course of the Stuart era. In the process, we aim to revitalize debates about the politics of literature, and the values of politics, in this pivotal era of British history.

One wonders finally, against the weight of this rich history of royal writing, how the poems in Duffy’s collection will negotiate the relation between monarchy and history in the twentieth century. And one wonders also how Duffy might respond if she is still in her position at the moment, sometime in the future, when poets are called upon to celebrate a third Caroline succession.

Death in Devon

Riptide - Volume 7

Riptide - Volume 7

Ginny Baily, Editor of Riptide, describes how they gathered an alternative view of Devon for their latest volume.

When Riptide short story journal agreed – in collaboration with Wordquest Devon – to produce a volume of Devon-themed stories, we were anxious to avoid the clichés – the cream teas, rolling hills, thatched cottages, cosy retirement to beach huts in seaside towns. We phrased our call for submissions carefully, talking about Devon as metaphor, imagined Devons, Devon from the outside as well as from within, and we cast our net wide. We feared, after six successful and varied volumes, becoming parochial.

What we didn’t expect were tales that picked up these clichés and turned them on their head. There is nothing cosy, for example, about the retirement home that features in Martin Sorrell’s story ‘Going West’ which poignantly conveys the frustrated hopes of middle age amid the decrepitude and occasional fleeting joy of old age. Devon in this story is the place where “silly promises” are made, a sort of lost paradise, a metaphor for youth and beauty and impossible dreams.

The beauty of the county emerges in these stories but there is always an edge to it. This is most evident in the depictions of Devon’s two moors. The Dartmoor where the main character in ‘The Wood Store’ by Ben Smith lives is intimately known to him, ‘every sheep-track, every mound of rock,’ but his moor is changing. Second-home buyers are moving in, forcing the locals out. Being able to name every wild flower in a patch of meadow or having an eye for the way the sun presses ‘itself like a pale thumb print into the mist’ is no match for the power of money. In Greg Hoare’s story ‘Inches’ a ‘market town in the folds of Dartmoor’ is the claustrophobic, dead-end setting. There are no prospects in this little town, no jobs. It is a place of Saturday night street fights. Dartmoor here becomes the place from which the young character Dylan wants to escape and London, where the money is, his aspiration. Judy Darley’s ‘The Beast’ is set on Exmoor, at a place where ‘the green grey strip of the moor … met the solid, unwavering purple of the sky’ and here the moor, not just its beauty but the power it has to catch the imagination, the myths and stories it has generated, is both a fearful place and a refuge.

Normally we don’t set a theme for the Riptide stories but we have always found that one emerges as we make our selection – masks and what is behind them in Volume 3, summer slipping away in Volume 4, flight in Riptide 5 – as if the authors, unbeknownst to us, have been whispering in each other’s ears. Of course, there is nothing mystical about this phenomenon. It isn’t that the authors have been listening to each other but that their eyes and ears are attuned to what is going on in the world around them. This latent but always expansive theme then becomes the connecting thread of the anthology. This time, because we’d set a theme, Devon, we imagined that we might constrain or narrow the preoccupations of the writers and that the binding thread of the whole was dictated in advance. The opposite turned out to be true.

We discovered, in fact, that we had given the authors’ licence to let their imaginations soar – a reminder that restrictions can be one of the best ways of sparking creativity as anyone who produces their best meal out of what they can find in the store cupboard can testify. Devon in these stories is the backdrop against which the writers communicate contemporary reality, the zeitgeist or spirit of the moment, and what they tell us is what we already know: that times are hard. Jobs are difficult to come by – whether you’re fresh out of school like Greg Hoare’s Dylan or joining the swelling ranks of the unemployed graduates like the characters in Luke Kennard’s ‘Freaks of Nature.’ From Sorrell’s old people’s home crooner to Shohidur Rahman’s ventriloquist who had ambitions ‘to enter the larger world, with its lights and luminaries,’ compromise, making do, letting go of dreams, colour the lives of many of the characters who people this collection.

There is nothing twee or picture book about the Devon portrayed in these stories. The dead bodies alone should alert us to that fact. There are five strewn among these fifteen tales: two murders, two manslaughters (one of them open to question) and one ‘slow suicide’. But the book, far from being a depressing read, is a powerful and, ultimately, an uplifting one. By bestowing its unflinching gaze on our life experiences – in all their joy and suffering – but doing so through the filter of Devon, something transcendent and timeless is revealed.

At the heart of this collection there is a story, a piece of memoir, by our oldest ever contributor, Roland Tuson, 88. He recalls the daily struggle and poverty of his childhood in Exeter 80 years ago. His story sings with the joy, sunshine and adventure of life, the sparkling beauty of the river, the way it ‘provided a huge adventure playground’. His story is a reminder that hard times are not new and that perhaps Devon, with its timeless core of granite, is uniquely well placed to remind us that nothing lasts forever.

Riptide is a bi-annual anthology of new short fiction by both established and emerging writers. Find out more on the Riptide website.