Rethinking Richard III

Richard III parody - George Bush Jr as the King.

If you haven’t already heard the news, it seems that a set of human remains found in what is now a car park could’ve belonged to King Richard III.

In the wake of this news comes an article that discusses the portrayal of King Richard III.

So I thought I’d share my – possibly inaccurate – two cents on the matter.

I’ve always thought King Richard III was a very relevant text for Singapore and Singaporean audiences.

As a big fan of Singapore (I love Singapore!) and Singaporean history in all its forms, reading the text brings to mind visions of:

Nevertheless, as someone who is also very much aware of how media, language and representation can be used to manipulate the minds of the many, I don’t doubt that Richard III could’ve been misrepresented.

To break it down simply (and again, I stress that this might be an oversimplification of the matter):

  • Theatre in Shakespeare’s time was a form of media/entertainment then;
  • Shakespeare wrote during the reign of Elizabeth I who was from the House of Tudor;
  • The House of Tudor was founded by Henry VII; and
  • Henry VII was the same dude who defeated Richard III at The Battle of Bosworth Field and wrested the reign of the throne from him.

In light of this, let’s consider these three truisms:

  1. Any politician worth her/his salt will go out of her/his way to remove any possible threat to her/his throne/seat.

    It’s a measure as old as Jesus (perhaps even older) and has been used in contemporary Singapore’s history as well (c.f. what I mentioned earlier about Lim Chin Siong and the Internal Security Act).
  2. History can be whitewashed/history is written by the victors.

    ‘Nuff said. Alternatively, a lie repeated often enough will become the truth.
  3. Any artist concerned about bringing home the bacon will not want to offend her/his patrons/governing institutions lest her/his funding dries up.

    Very contemporary case in point: Square Moon (“I saw you standing alone…”)

So it could’ve been possible – again, I don’t proclaim to speak the truth; I’m just pointing out possibilities – that:

  1. Shakespeare purposefully portrayed Richard III in the manner he did because he had no choice/he was forced to do so; and
  2. King Richard III wasn’t just for entertainment; it could’ve been used as a tool for public propaganda to shape the views and opinions of the masses in order to provide moral and political legitimacy to the existence of the Tudor dynasty.

Which brings us to our present-day beliefs and also provides us with a very nice reflection on the state of politics in Singapore.

“But Laremy,” you might (or might not, depending on whether I’ve managed to keep your attention up to this point) ask. “Is there any evidence in the text that could possibly support this view?”

“Possibly,” I will reply, and possibly, dinosaur bite you concurrently (or consecutively, depending on how well I can multi-task).

I’ve always thought of the character of The Scrivener as a metatheatrical device which represents Shakespeare’s voice in the matter.

  1. First, the Scrivener’s speech is actually a sonnet, in that it has 14 lines.

    Although it doesn’t follow the rhyme scheme of the sonnets that Shakespeare used to write, form in literature – more often than not – always has a function.

    So the use of the sonnet is meant to reflect the status of The Scrivener as a learned man; a man of letters – much like Shakespeare.
  2. Second, the speech is right smack in the middle of the play – and it’s a 14-line scene on its own.

    Why was it so important as a scene that it had to be left on its own? Why couldn’t it have been excised?

    Shakespeare already had enough material in the play to show the purported misdeeds of Richard, along with the purported views of the citizens.

    Why does this scene even have to exist?
  3. Last but not least, if I may take the liberty of paraphrasing The Scrivener’s speech slightly, look at what we have (mentions of time shouldn’t be interpreted literally):

    This is the indictment of the good [King Richard III];
    Which in a set hand fairly is engross’d,
    That it may be this day read over…
    And mark how well the sequel hangs together:
    Eleven hours I spent to write it over,
    For yesternight…was it brought me;
    The precedent was full as long a-doing:
    And yet within these five hours lived [King Richard III],
    Untainted, unexamined, free, at liberty
    Here’s a good world the while! Why who’s so gross,
    That seeth not this palpable device?
    Yet who’s so blind, but says he sees it not?

    Bad is the world; and all will come to nought,
    When such bad dealings must be seen in thought.

Convinced? Or am I also using media and language to manipulate your mind?

About the author

Laremy Lee

A versatile educator, writer and editor, Laremy Lee (李庭辉) has the uncanny knack of being one of the few among his generation in Singapore who crafts compelling stories in different genres.

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