Friday, September 14, 2012


The title of this post is the last line of the truly pathetic epitaph on Shakespeare’s tombstone. That bit of doggerel alone was sufficient to make other great writers like Twain and Freud skeptical about the claim that William Shakespeare of Stratford was really responsible for the literary canon attributed to him.
I heard a rather bizarre bit of news yesterday about bones. The news is a reminder that “history” is a difficult construct—both malleable and recalcitrant: “Archaeologists searching for the grave of King Richard III say they have found bones that are consistent with the 15th century monarch's physical abnormality and of a man who died in battle.” See the full story here:
The reason folks have been devoting energy to this seemingly odd quest for some very old bones has to do with competing views regarding the historical Richard who is the eponymous anti-hero in Shakespeare’s famous “history” play. For most, Richard epitomizes pure, Machiavellian evil: the man willing to do anything to obtain power, like murder the numerous relatives, including two young nephews, who stood between him and the throne. To the extent that people know anything about Richard, I suspect most “know” what they know thanks to Shakespeare—even if they have never seen or read the play.
But for centuries—and more aggressively in the past sixty years or so—some have argued that Shakespeare just made up most of the ugly tale as a means to suck up to the Tudors. By Shakespeare’s day, the Tudors were well ensconced as England’s monarchs, yet, as Shakespeare well knew: “uneasy [always] lies the head that wears the crown.” (Henry IV, Part 2, III.1).
As far as I know, the first literary effort to take on Shakespeare’s version of history did not appear until 1951. The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, is a really fun bit of pulp fiction—a detective story about a contemporary British detective entertaining himself during a convalescence by plodding through the “evidence” of Richard’s malfeasance; he ultimately concludes that the whole thing was a massive defamation. Perhaps Tey’s literary efforts inspired the resurrection, a few years later, of the “Richard III Society,” which, according to that organization’s website, is fueled by “the belief that the truth is more powerful than lies - a faith that even after all these centuries the truth is important. It is proof of our sense of civilised values that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for.”
It is truly scary how easy it is to make up facts. Scarier still is how easily the truth can get lost beneath layers of debris, perhaps forever. By contrast, it is encouraging how people nonetheless believe that “the truth will out,” that lies can be overcome by education, that the best response to false, deceptive, manipulative speech is yet more speech. But complexities abound—such as the undeniable facts that some always have the ability to build bigger megaphones and that uncracking eggs of calumny thrown into the public square is a virtual impossibility. Yet I will continue to hope that, even if Shakespeare propagated falsehoods about the historical Richard, Shakespeare was right to suggest that his Richard’s worldview is not one likely to sustain a person for the long haul. Like a Nietzschean ubermensch, Shakespeare’s Richard says: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use,/ Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe.” (V.3.309-10). That Richard ends up, however, alone, haunted by ghosts, and crushed by forces bigger than his own selfish ambitions. See previous post “What Would William Do?” Then again, wouldn’t it be a supreme irony if DNA evidence ultimately demonstrates that the man who wrote a rousing morality tale about the triumph of good over evil did so in a “history” play that was a calculated fiction?

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