Tuesday 8 October 2013

Virginia Woolf missed a trick with Shakespeare's Mother: Juggling Babies and Books

A shorter edition of this piece was published in the New Statesman on 5/10/13

Eighty-five years have passed since Virginia Woolf delivered a series of lectures to young women students at Cambridge, which formed the basis of her famous feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own.” To aid her argument that women required a distinct physical space in order to write fiction, to attain distance from the demands of the patriarchal family unit, she created the character of Judith Shakespeare. The bard’s fictional sister was just as innately talented as the famous playwright but restricted by a lack of education and the social expectations of her day. Even though it is still not a level playing field, the twenty-first century has witnessed the proliferation of many talented Judiths in all fields of the arts. Examination statistics indicate that young women today are consistently outperforming their male peers at school, in a reversal of the conditions that saw Woolf herself denied a formal education. However, what if Woolf had chosen not to focus upon Shakespeare’s sister, but looked instead at his mother? What if Mary Arden had been an unfulfilled creative genius, her mind brimming with characters and storylines as she went about the business of raising her family?

It may seem anachronistic today to resurrect the old debate about female creativity and motherhood. No one now doubts the abilities of women to achieve the highest accolades in literary and artistic fields. Since Woolf illustrated the extremes of the debate in her 1927 novel To The Lighthouse, women know they don’t have to belong to one camp or the other. They do not need to choose between being the “artist” (Lily Briscoe) or the “mother” (Mrs Ramsay.) In fact, many push themselves to do both simultaneously, succumbing to expectations that women will achieve at every level in their professional and private lives. Luckily though, the pressure to accomplish this effortlessly, without complaint or hiccup or smudged mascara, is being challenged. Feminist writer Debora Spar’s new book attacks the myth of the superwoman, saying that women can’t have it all and shouldn’t expect to. Of course this is something of a first world problem. I’m not trying to claim writing mothers as a persecuted minority, or overlook the fathers that write and raise healthy, happy children on their own. Likewise, I’m aware that there are many more significant discussions to be had regarding literacy, class, ethnicity and expectations. I’m simply interested in returning to the scenario presented by Woolf in the 1920s and widening it a little to examine whether this debate is ever really redundant.

Woolf attempts a compromise by suggesting her heroine, Mrs Ramsay, is an artist by dint of her creative nature. As a mother, nurse, wife and hostess, she constantly brings people together and forms the glue of family life. She personifies the Angel in the House as Woolf’s own mother did, before her premature death at forty-nine, worn out by caring for others. Post-Impressionist Mark Gertler said a similar thing about his own mother, Golda, a warm East End Jewess whom he described as the only “modern artist.” Yet while there is an art to living, a real value in creating a warm, nurturing home, it isn’t really a substitute for producing the discernible “works” that the literary or artistic mind craves. Thus, it is incumbent for writing mothers today to find their own personal balance, through the careful allocation of resources and the support of partners, family and friends. Woolf didn’t have children and her arguments didn’t include the dilemma of the creative mother with several young ones to care for. The descendants of her Cambridge audience may have absorbed her message but they are still treading a fine line between meeting the needs of their families and seeking artistic fulfilment. Back in 1898, the promising young artist Edna Clarke Hall, commented on her struggle to carry on painting after her marriage, that “a women’s responsibilities lie equally with their children and in the development of the powers in herself which are her true expression.” This is just as true, in 2013, as it was then.

So how do women do it? Having written and published four books, plus a number of articles, reviews and running a blog since the birth of my first son in 2010, this is a question I am often asked. My answer is that I have become a very focused, opportunistic writer; I compose on the kitchen table whilst my toddlers rampage about me, writing a paragraph here and there before I head off to change a nappy or play a game of Thomas the Tank Engine. (Ironically, I always have to be Emily, never Thomas.) I don’t have the luxury a room of my own but somehow I have managed to find a writing “compartment” inside my head. Things get stored in there and ripen, until the time that I can dash to the keyboard and bang out a few hundred words. It isn’t easy and it wouldn’t be possible without the support of my husband, who will take the boys out for a few hours on the weekend or over to the park when he gets back from work. I think I’m very lucky in this respect and it made me wonder about the decisions other writing mothers make; the sacrifices, allocating and balancing time, the ambition and possibly, the guilt. Managing the transition from Judith Shakespeare to Mary Arden is not easy; I asked some other women how they’d gone about it.

Almost unanimously, the twenty-first century mothers did not find that juggling their writing with their family life came easily. Many were able to achieve it only with the support of others or by reorganising their lives. Joanne St Clair, author and founder of Naked Raver, found that following a tight timetable helped, which prioritised different people at different times, according to need. Before that, she says, “it seemed that childcare naturally came as my responsibility, hence my writing got pushed to the side.” By working with a series of short time slots, she and her family have found the “best balance with all the resources we have.” Features writer, blogger and PR consultant, Fiona Scott, ensures that she and her family do at least one thing together a day that gets them out of the house, such as a walk or trip to the park. It is maintaining this family closeness whilst your mind rapidly races through your next chapter that can prove difficult. Of course, writing can take months, even years and does not yield instant result. “Overnight success” is never an overnight phenomenon. Fiona rightly stresses the need for planning and hard slog, which sometimes necessitates working for free to establish an author’s name, as I've done on many occasions. While the difficulties facing writing mothers are very similar to those experienced by all working parents, even the established writer must expend considerable time on work that does not result in a pay packet.

Writing mothers have to take the long-term view. Historical biographer Debra sometimes notices that her mind wanders into the fifteenth century when she is with her children but she knows they are happy and healthy and will benefit in the future from their mother being fulfilled. Royalty blogger Samantha felt the same but balanced this with a sense of responsibility to herself. Likewise Emma, a fantasy and horror novelist, suspects she is not the same dedicated mother before she started writing but takes a pragmatic approach to family life, wisely realising that her children won’t remember the house being untidy or their mum being tired but will recall a house full of “magical stories” and proudly tell their friends and teachers that “mummy writes books.” Katharine, who used to be a university lecturer and now writes historical fiction for young adults, made a conscious choice not to spend time on the traditional female obligations of cleaning, grooming or shopping, in favour of making her daughter proud. She is able to discuss her characters and plot lines with her eight year old, who plans to illustrate her mother’s books one day.

Ultimately, writing mothers have made a choice and they know it. Their dilemmas are very similar to those of all working mothers, yet as Rebecca, a TV writer and PhD student acknowledges, she is “lucky to be paid to do something I enjoy” and believes it important that she has a creative outlet. Even when this choice can lead to financial difficulties, writing mothers want their children to benefit from their talent and the example they set provides the family with a sense of hope, a vision of hard work and high aspiration. Samantha sees writing as providing something that fulfils her creativity and will leave a legacy for two sons. She feels a “sense of responsibility” given the misogynistic presentation of women’s roles in the media and hopes to break this cycle by example. These women are driven by passion and a compulsion to write; as Katharine admits, “I find myself doing it when I’m not looking.” Amid all the struggles it necessitates, we persist because, in the words of blogger and businesswoman Helen, we “love it!” It is this drive that connects female artists and writers of all eras.

The lives of Woolf and her sister, the post-modern artist Vanessa Bell, provide an answer to the comment “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” voiced in To The Lighthouse. Still rightly revered as a giant of modernism, Woolf’s reputation is still stronger than Bell’s, whose life encompassed motherhood as well as art. Even though Vanessa’s life was made easier by the presence of nannies, she was a devoted parent and this necessitated some juggling when her three children were small. A century ago, childcare was shared between the mother and hired help, in varying proportions from the middle classes upwards. Today, child minders and nurseries play invaluable roles in the lives of working mothers, particularly for those who are single. Also, the nature of writing, the flexible, freelance aspect to it, means that it is often relegated to the status of “a hobby that pays well” and squeezed in around the shared workload of partners. Most of the women I spoke to fitted their writing around their children’s routine, before they woke in the morning and after they had gone to sleep at night. Others fitted it in whenever and wherever they could; Kerry writes on the train to work and in their lunch hour, Joanne uses a walk as an opportunity and piles of notebooks can be found all round blogger Vicky’s house.

Woolf’s writing evokes the image of her and her sister as young women, dressed in their late Victorian gowns, standing at an easel or desk in their converted Bloomsbury nursery. Woolf, a major figure of literary modernism, was first published by her brother-in-law’s firm, Duckworth and company, before beginning the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard. The changing nature of self-publishing and cheap, widespread access to the internet has facilitated women’s writing in a way that was unthinkable to Woolf’s contemporaries. Katharine draws support from online groups and for historical researchers, like myself, social networking sites and electronic texts provide an interface without which our work would not be possible. Still, the publicity alone requires commitment and time; Kerry describes herself as “taken aback by the amount of self-publicity required.” However, the lack of career opportunities for arts graduates makes freelance writing a really valuable alternative for working mothers and even those wishing to return to established careers can find their post-child lives are no longer compatible. Helen had worked as an analyst but having small children just didn’t make it a feasible career. Those who can write are increasingly adapting their lives and taking to their keyboards. My career wouldn’t have been possible without the internet; Woolf’s room of one’s own is now unquestionably a virtual one.
Women’s determination to carve out spaces to write also springs from a conviction that female fulfilment is important, and significantly different from work for work’s sake. I know exactly what Joanne means when she describes writing as her “medicine,” of the need to do “what burns within” and give expression to “an essential part of who I am.” This isn’t to be confused with selfishness. Writing has a place in these women’s lives which is often flexible according to the needs of their children; it brings them the benefits of a mother who has found a creative outlet, as well as setting the examples of dedication and hard work. In Helen’s words: “writing has given me the freedom to be the mother I wanted to be.” Woolf’s debate of 1928 focused on the Judith Shakespeares of her world; the women like her who strove to write and paint in the face of opposition from those wishing them to fill more conventional roles. Factor children into this equation and it remains relevant even when we may think this battle should already have been won.
Many thanks go to the busy mothers who took time to share their thoughts with me:
Helen Neale of www.kiddycharts.com
Kerry Barrett, author of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (October 2013) www.kerrybarrettwriter.wordpress.com
Joanne St Claire, author and founder of www.thenakedraver.com
Fiona Scott of www.mumsinmedia.co.uk 
Vicky of  www.singlemotherahoy.blogspot.com
Samantha Arbisi of www.deadroyalty.wordpress.com
Rebecca Ellis
Debra Bayani, biographer of Jasper Tudor

Sunday 6 October 2013

"Tudor", a new Family Saga.

“Tudor: The Family Story.”
Leanda de Lisle
Chatto and Windus
29 August 2013
978 0701185886
Having read de Lisle’s “The Sisters Who Would be Queen,” I was keen to read her version of the Tudor story and I wasn’t disappointed. This new book is a must for all enthusiasts of the era, a sweeping family saga that takes us from the arrival of Owen Tudor at court in the 1420s, all the way through to the end of the dynasty. It is, as it says, the account of a family’s fortunes, detailing their fluctuating position over two centuries. There is a lot of material to cover here but de Lisle does not allow the reader to lose focus. She sweeps us through with crisp prose, whilst finding opportunities for the memorable anecdotes and colourful details that such a wide-ranging work requires to prevent it spreading too thinly. De Lisle’s style is very accessible and balances clear explanation with a commentary aimed at that those already familiar with the era, so would appeal to those already well-read in the area as well as those coming to the subject afresh. It is popular and scholarly at the same time.

I particularly enjoyed the section on Owen Tudor’s history, as this was an area I knew less about and is not usually included in studies of the Tudors as a ruling dynasty; they are sometimes presented as springing into existence in 1485 and it is interesting to see the role they played during the wars of the roses. In fact, I would have been happy if De Lisle had pushed her research back even further and given us more detail about their Welsh origins. I was also interested to learn more about the illegitimate son Owen fathered later in life, David Tudor, and his support of Henry VII. It is also refreshing to see the story of the family told with a positive emphasis on the role played by Margaret Beaufort, who has all too often been a recent casualty of fictional and non-fictional portrayals, reduced to a caricature of the pious and meddling woman. Here, she is very much a driving force, sympathetically drawn as a mother influencing her only son.

The book also explores the way the family tree branches out, including information on the less well studied members of the Tudor clan and where they fit into the story. De Lisle has made it something of a speciality of hers to illuminate the lives of those family members on whom the spotlight of history did not fall, reminding the reader that birth, inheritance and gender are matters of accident and that being part of this illustrious family was not just difficult for those whom it propelled on to the throne. The portrayal of Mary I can also sometimes descend into oversimplification but this book gives the context in which her character was shaped and the process by which she became the woman and queen known to us as “Bloody Mary.” The final chapters on Elizabeth were also vivid and memorable, concluding the work with her deathbed scene.


Sin on the South Bank: A Review of "Bankside."

Bankside: London’s Original District of Sin
David Brandon and Alan Brooke
Amberley, paperback 2013
987 1445613840


Flowing through the heart of the capital, the history of the river Thames offers a powerful symbol for the lives of Londoners through the centuries. In fact, there have been people living on the site since before Roman times, washing there, catching fish and watching the horizon for signs of invaders. It was their livelihood, their transport and a symbol of the dependency of its people, shaped as they were by its moods and tides. From Elizabethan boatmen dashed against the arches of London Bridge, to the magical Frost Fairs, and the Victorian Lightermen steering their way through Dickensian fog, the river remains central to the city’s story. David Brandon and Alan Brooke’s Bankside: London’s Original District of Sin focuses on the way it has defined London, by carving it in two parts. Their story of life on the south bank tells a colourful and entrancing tale of Londoners through the ages.

With chapters divided thematically, Bankside offers a glimpse into the inns and taverns that first grew up south of the river to house travellers. Perhaps the most famous of these was Chaucer’s Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales feasted and planned their storytelling contest. Brandon and Brooke have tracked down the details of its neighbouring inns; The Bear at the Bridge, which opened around 1318 following a great flood, the Boar’s Head of 1459, the White Hart of 1406 and others. They appear as backdrops in the lives of famous men and women; the scenery for wooing and rebellion. At The Bear, in 1665, diarist Samuel Pepys snacked on ‘a biscuit and a piece of cheese and gill of sacke,’ and was entranced by the beauty of Frances Stuart, mistress of Charles II. Later that century, the landlord played host to the raucous drinking sessions of the Restoration dramatists, who were reputed to drink their canary wine filtered through their mistress’s underclothing. The pub is also mentioned by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. By contrast, The White Hart was used by Jack Cade as his headquarters during the peasants’ revolt of 1450. Despite having rallied up to 45,000 men in his name, Cade was hunted down and killed and his complaints about oppression and misgovernment were crushed. But they did not go away. The Wars of the Roses broke out five years later, fermented by similar concerns. The pub struggled on into the Victorian era, being occupied by a railway company before being pulled down in 1889.

Bankside is full of glorious detail. London-based readers will find it a full and helpful guide to the city they know but residency is not essential for the enjoyment of this book. Drawing on history, literature, myths and popular culture, the authors’ wealth of knowledge masquerades under a gossipy style, making it accessible and interesting. There is bound to be something new to discover here and something to appeal to all tastes, with chapters covering markets, prisons, worship, hospitals and theatres. A huge span is included too, ranging from the very first settlements all the way through to the twenty-first century, with its reinvention of the area, in popular culture and literature. This section is of particular interest, not just for its relevance but its almost encyclopaedic guidebook nature, documenting the uses of various streets in recent films. If you wished to visit the area today, this book contains useful information that would help you plan your trip, detailing information like what can be found in the Tate Modern and the relevant distances between places, which all seem “a short walk” from each other.

I found the chapter on literary and theatrical bankside to be one of the most interesting sections. The location of the theatres and taverns here, outside the city’s jurisdiction make it uniquely placed as a venue for showcasing new and controversial drama. As Brandon and Brooke explain, playwrights like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and their contemporaries were drawn south, where the Globe theatre was constructed under cover of darkness. It was designed as a wooden “O”, a representation of the world with its paintings of stars and clouds overhead and ghosts rising from the bowels of hell, under the stage. A flag would fly to signify that a performance was about to begin, usually at two in the afternoon, to utilise the daylight. However, a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII reached a more dramatic conclusion than even the Bard had predicted, when a theatrical cannon ball lodged in the straw roof, which burst out in flames. The sight and smell must have been visible from the opposite bank, right to the northern boundaries of the city. This section provides a nice contrast to some of the grisly details of the history of the Clink prison and the bug-infested hospitals.

Bankside has a lot to offer the reader. There are two really good picture sections, featuring a range of well-chosen images which really compliment the text.  The only quibble I have is that the writing is uneven; it does take a little while to get going but soon warms to its theme. The style does vary between sections, with some written fairly dryly and others being rather colloquial in tone for my taste. This may be the result of co-authorship and does not detract from the material itself. Brandon and Brooke have done an admirable job of delving into London’s original district of sin, making its history accessible and exciting.



In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn.

In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn
Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger
Amberley Publishing
15 September, 2013
ISBN 978-1-4456-0782-6


Anne Boleyn remains one of the most controversial and thought-provoking figures of Henry VIII’s court. As a sophisticated beauty, her rise to fame ruffled many feathers amongst the supporters of Catherine of Aragon and challenged the expectations of queenship. The tempestuous marriage that followed, the birth of her daughter and her shocking death at the hands of her husband, on blatantly trumped-up charges, have rightly earned her a following dedicated to studying her life and defending her name. Many good books have been published on Anne in recent years; biographies, novels and studies of the way she has been portrayed in popular culture but this is the practical guide that the Queen’s devotees have been waiting for. With Morris’s and Grueninger’s meticulous research in your hands, it is possible to step even closer to the real Anne Boleyn.

Taking a biographical approach, this book walks the reader gently through the differing locations of Anne’s life. Following the authors’ lead, it allows you to become fully immersed in what survives of the England she knew as well as recreating a sense of it in the past. Including maps and visitors’ information, it is easy to plan your own itinerary from these pages, as the authors literally tell you where to park and how far to walk, what to see and where to go next. They share their own experiences of meeting people along the way; what to see, where to eat and where to stay; and they prove to be considerate, informed and dedicated guides. Plus, the authors repeatedly go off the beaten track to explore less well known locations, beyond the usual Castles associated with Anne and Henry. Their own extensive travels give the text an immediacy and accessibility often lacking in more academic studies, all the more remarkable for Grueninger being based in Australia. Most of all, this book sings with the passion of its writers; just within the first few pages you can feel how much they both enjoyed researching and writing it.

If you can’t get to England or undertake the full Anne experience, this book also allows you to travel from the comfort of your armchair. The level of detail given of the buildings, surroundings and objects is vivid enough to be pictured, and provokes the reader to want to find out more. The very useful section on the Boleyn treasures includes websites and information about how to access these manuscripts and images; it would form an excellent basis for readers to take their enjoyment of Anne further. The authors use a wealth of primary sources to vividly recreate Anne’s world through the eyes of her contemporaries, in letters, records and accounts as well as drawing on the work of more recent historians. Plus there are two very full sections of images, many previously unpublished, from the authors’ own collections. It is usefully divided into small sections, with easily navigable headings, making it an ideal book to dip in and out of, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of gems about Anne. I particularly enjoyed the section about the progress of 1535, as an area often explored in less detail.

It is hard to find anything new on Anne these days, however In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn fills a definite gap in the market. It provides the reader with a different kind of Anne experience, facilitating a greater sense of ownership of the Queen and her life, making more of a direct personal connection between reader and subject. And you couldn’t hope for better guides than Morris and Grueninger. If you have any interest in Anne Boleyn at all, you will not regret buying this stunning new book.


If you enjoyed In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, you may also enjoy these other new additions:

The Anne Boleyn Papers
Elizabeth Norton
Amberley, August 2013

The Anne Boleyn Collection II: Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn Family.
 Claire Ridgeway
Createspace, September 2013

The Creation of Anne Boleyn.
Susan Bordo
UK edition, Oneworld, January 2014


Thursday 3 October 2013

Shakespeare's Secret Love for Richard III: Elizabethan Textual Politics.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been disturbed by online questions I’ve seen posed about Shakespeare’s 1592 play, Richard III. These have ranged from wondering why the playwright was a liar, to a complete rejection of all of his plays by devoted Ricardians. In which case, they’d be missing out, not just on a piece of spellbinding drama but also on the bard’s unconcealed affection for the dead King. Yes, that’s right: Shakespeare actually loved Richard but he couldn’t change the course of history or challenge what he did not know.
                                                     Sir Ian McKellen as Richard in 1995

No political motivation underpins the charisma of Shakespeare’s Richard at the start of this play. If the bard was simply using the dead King as a villain, following the lead of Rous, More, Vergil and Holinshed, he need not have gone to such lengths to create an engaging, charismatic figure. Rather, it seems, Shakespeare infused his Richard with a life force that went against the historical grain, compelling an audience to connect with him as an individual and drawing on the very British sympathy for the underdog that underpins much of Richard’s following today. The character’s tone is expansive, confiding, he draws us in with soliloquy and confidences. By speaking directly to the audience he makes us complicit in his exclusion from life and love; he “must prove a villain” and invites us to share his journey. And he does it with such destructive energy, such personal allure in spite of his outward deformities that we cannot help but be charmed.

No writer can escape from the times in which they lived and worked. By definition, they are a composite of the mores of the day, of cultural constructs and received wisdom. Over a century after Richard’s death, Shakespeare could no more think of questioning his “deformity” and villainy that he might have questioned the sun rising in the morning and setting at night. Equally, we wouldn’t expect him to be able to step outside the Elizabethan perception of “Moors” while exploiting them to justify the character of his Othello. He wasn’t the unwitting dupe or co-conspirator of Tudor politics, he was exploiting the popular perception of recent history for purposes of entertainment and didacticism. It doesn’t mean he didn’t believe in the popular portrayals of Richard’s appearance but he did not invent them and their robust tradition scarcely needed his endorsement by that point. In them, he saw the seeds of inevitability that he could juxtapose with a personal magnetism in order to create compelling drama. He was not a politician or a liar, he was an artist of genius.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard’s physical deformity needs to be recognised as dramatic rhetoric, an ideological distortion, a piece of neo-Platonic determinism, in the same way that Shakespeare had to make Othello black. It is an essential part of the Elizabethan rhetoric that encodes villainy in physicality. In fact, it illuminates for us just how far history itself had been deformed. The juxtaposition of attraction and repulsion was a moral lesson for the Elizabethans and regardless of hindsight, they all knew how it was going to end. So Richard must prove himself a villain in order to justify the inevitability of fate and the re-establishment of calm. He transgresses the boundaries established by the Tudors’ ancestors therefore he has to pay the price. Shakespeare’s message is not a political one here; Richard is merely his vehicle for the confirmation of the Elizabethan moral code. This is a literary device in line with centuries of defamation of monarchs, politicians and public figures. It just happens to have been a more successful one.

As the play progresses, Richard gradually alienates all the other characters, even his family. He interacts less and less with the audience, so our initial bond is weakened, in a process of detachment which is necessary for us to be able to accept his death. He is not our Richard by the end, he has undergone a process of transformation; under increasing pressure, the audience see him closing down. He speaks to us less, confides less and his responses impart information rather than confiding his inner landscape. Increasingly, though, we are privy to the discussion of those who oppose him; we hear fear, hatred, criticism and sense his inevitable fall, so by increments, we transfer our interest and connection to Tudor. Even when we resist this, Shakespeare forces our attention on to Richard’s adversary by the use ennobling imagery and literally, letting Tudor take centre stage. An Elizabethan audience were wired to feel gratitude and relief for the persona of the Revenger, the genre’s answer to chaos, by which order would be restored. As Francis Bacon wrote, a few years after the first performance of Richard III, man may offend laws but “the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office.”

Where modern Ricardians may have fallen out of love with Shakespeare’s play is the discrepancy between our sense of morality and that of the Elizabethans. We don’t just require the victory of the abstract personification of Revenge; we have a far more sophisticated sense of personal merit and Shakespeare’s sympathetic development of Richard’s character means we bridle more when the playwright conforms to structural convention. In fact, Shakespeare makes his audience’s relationship with Richard into something of a love affair. First we are attracted, compelled, committed even, then after the initial flush of connection, we feel our hero has begun to lose faith with us, to withdraw, to disconnect and we lose ownership of him. Richard was our guide, our conduit into the mise-en-scène of the play but as the action develops, he steps back inside it and the divide between character and audience widens. He turns from hero to anti-hero, protagonist to antagonist, in order to become the sacrifice that the fates demand. It is essential for the arc of the plot that we lose sympathy with Richard by the end, even if we don’t fully side with the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, whose character is barely developed. He is merely the dramatic instrument of fate. This doesn’t mean we dislike Shakespeare’s Richard, we can still think of him with compassion, even fondly. Ultimately though, the dramatist has a higher intent. We are touched by the pathos of Richard’s death and learn the moral lesson that was a requirement of Elizabethan literature.

Shakespeare’s context compelled him to create a Richard in the model that he understood. That was his job and exposes the limits of his era. He can’t be criticised for not rehabilitating the King when he did not understand that there was a wrong that needed righting. However, there was no compulsion to develop his character along the lines that the playwright chose. It was Shakespeare’s own decision to present us with the charismatic, captivating character which, for a perceptive and informed audience, is the play’s most lasting legacy.

 This piece first appeared in the Huffington Post on 3/10/13