Kings and queens don’t usually feature that highly among my regular historical interests, but even I was fascinated to learn last month that the skeletal remains found during a recent archaeological dig in a Leicester car park (of all places…) have been identified as those of Richard III, the last Yorkist king of England – whose body had been considered all but lost for centuries. And the twists and turns of this complex historical detective story got me thinking about history and about how we portray and interpret it.
Richard has long been a controversial figure historically. Not initially ‘born to be king’, he is believed by many to have been a severely physically disabled and emotionally embittered man who connived his way to the throne, murdering his young nephews in the process (these nephews being the sad little figures known to history as ‘The Princes in the Tower’); a dark image both reinforced and exacerbated by the works of some near-contemporary chroniclers, later plays such as that by William Shakespeare, and countless portraits and engravings produced long after Richard’s death.
“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die. —
That strain again; it had a dying fall:
O, it came oer my ear, like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing, and giving odour! Enough! No more.
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before”
– Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night: Act One, Scene One
Without doubt, those are some of the most famous opening lines in the history of English literature. You may recognise them from your school days; from studying Shakespeare in English classes. Twelfth Night is easily my favourite of all the Bard’s plays; it is fun, subversive and full of mistaken identities, game-playing with gender (and thus, to a modern eye, sexualities too), and out-and-out Shakespearean farce.
Far beyond the ‘boring Shakespeare’ many of us encountered at school, methinks…
Written sometime around the turn of the 16th century (dating Shakespeare’s plays is not an exact science), and probably first performed in 1602 at London’s Middle Temple Hall in the Inns of Court as part of that year’s Christmas festivities, the plot of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night vividly echoes the riotous reversals and noisy fun of the real life medieval Twelfth Night holiday celebrations – in fact, it was written to be (and often still is) performed as part of these Twelfth Night celebrations