I am always impressed when I read a historian who claims to know “who Richard III was”. Unless personal papers, i.e., diaries, letters and other communications from other contemporary sources emerge, one must look at Richard III in the context of his time.
For many this means, understanding the times – economically, socially and politically. What this means is understanding the Fifteenth Century. If you can’t understand the times, then you won’t understand the man. If you can’t understand the man, then how can you judge him?
When we look to assess Richard III, and in some eyes, to judge him, how is being looked at? In the eyes of the Fifteenth or Twenty-First Century?
The starting point for many is after his death on August 22, 1485. After his death at the Battle of Bosworth, he lost his life, but more importantly, he lost his reputation. The good that he did as Duke of Gloucester and the laws he put in place in his only Parliament were forgotten by many except perhaps from the good people of the north who had worked and lived along side of him for twelve years.
Most will blame Shakespeare’s play, but we must always keep in mind that this is not history, it is drama. Blame must be put on the shoulders of his successor – Henry Tudor. It is the unwritten law that history is always defined by the winner.
Tudor went on a campaign that lasted with his son to blacken the reputation of Richard III. A look into the sources of the times needs to be reviewed and even when one reads their history, they must ask these questions.
Who were they? Who employed them? What was their agenda?
Here is a brief biography of the sources – you decide.
Thomas Legge was born in Norwich in 1535. At age 17 he entered the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and subsequently passed on to Trinity College. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1557 he became a fellow. He was made a master of Caius College in 1573.
In 1587 he was appointed vice-chancellor of the University, a position he held twice. Before he died in 1607, Legge had also become a master in Chancery and a doctor in the court of Arches.
Reference to Legge’s play, Richardus Tertius, can be found in the title of the manuscript found in the Cambridge University Library. These references can help place the time and circumstances of the production of the play. It appears that it was first produced in 1579 and billed as ‘Tragedia in tres acciones devisa’, a tragedy in three divided actios, or actes. There is also reference to a performance given in 1582, “acted in St. Johns Hall before the Earle of Essex 17 March. 1582.” However, since the list of players is the same as for the 1579 production, this date remains in question.
There is speculation that the play was written to be performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1592. This is based on a written communication from the queen’s Vice-Chamberlain, Lord Burghley. He wrote to both Cambridge and Oxford in December 1592 requesting that students write some English comedies to be presented to the queen at Christmas. The reasoning behind this was that the usual London actors could not perform due to an outbreak of the plague. However, the current Cambridge vice-chancellor, Dr. Still, replied to Lord Burghley stating that they had little experience with English plays and that the actors appeared unwilling to perform in English. The queen was not amused at this reply.
Thomas Legge, who soon after replaced Dr. Still, sensed an opportunity. In January 1593 he himself wrote to Lord Burghley stating that men had been sent to Oxford to witness a queen’s entertainment there and were now better prepared to oblige her request. Perhaps this is true, but there is no solid evidence to prove that the play was ever performed for the queen.
One thing is certain. Legge’s play appears to have been the first real history play to be written in England. This can be considered to be a turning point in English drama. Legge was the first to use the chroniclers as a source for drama, setting real historical people up on a stage.
The play proved to be very popular and undoubtedly had great influence on other writers of the time, including Marlowe, who was a Cambridge man himself. Marlowe, along with others, shows this influence in their own works and helped to further popularize the national historical drama.
According to Dr. George B. Churchill in his Richard the Third up to Shakespeare, the historical material for Legge’s play was sourced from Sir Thomas More’s biography of Richard III with Hardyng’s continuation, Grafton, Hall and/or Holinshed. Dr. Churchill gives a fine analysis of each of the three actes, giving detailed examples of where Legge depended heavily upon the chroniclers and where he varied. For example, there is no mention at all Legge’s play of any deformity; Richard’s character is not derived from that of a man bitter at the world for a misshapen body. In Shakespeare’s play, Richard is portrayed as a man who has his own agenda and who guides everyone and everything to his plan. Legge’s Richard is one who is dependent upon his councilors and it is they who direct his moves.
Even with these differences aside, Legge’s play does seem to be a major source from which Shakespeare would have derived his own drama. Richardus Tertius contains all the elements that are later to be found in The True Tragedy of Richard III. It seems evident that Shakespeare would have used Legge’s play and honed it to his own style. However, considering that Legge’s sources seem to be the same used by Shakespeare, any supposed historical veracity must be thrown out.
Churchill, George B., Ph. D., Richard the Third up to Shakespeare, Alan Sutton, Rowman & Littlefield, 1976.