Monday, September 17, 2012

My Kingdom for a Hoax

by Alastair Johnston

Shakespeare's Richard the Third left us a few memorable phrases that have been delivered by everyone from Larry Olivier in a wig and mascara to Al Pacino in a backward baseball cap (but resisting the Brooklyn accent that would have made the king Richard da Turd), from Ian McKellen in jazz era Fascist drag to prize ham Richard Dreyfus in The Goodbye Girl, to Peter Cook in Black Adder. Richard the Third was even filmed thrice in the silent film era. Everyone knows, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse"; the opening lines are also familiar:

Now is the winter of our discontent
made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds, that lowr'd upon our house,
In the deep bosom of the ocean bury'd.

The opening of Richard the Third in the First Folio of Shakespeare, 1623

In December 1960 my father was pleased to note a sign of literacy in Britain when a camping & sporting goods store ran an ad reading, "Now is the winter of our discount tents." But Shakespeare played fast and loose with the saga of this king, making him more of a Quentin Tarantino anti-hero than a real historical figure. He telescoped the action, making Richard's rise to the throne seem an overnight trajectory, though the time between Henry VI's murder (by his successor Edward IV) and funeral (1471), Clarence's imprisonment in the Tower (1477), to the Battle of Bosworth (1485), was fourteen years. 

The play was (probably) written and first performed in 1597. Shakespeare seems to have ignored published historical sources, but subsequently his version of the story has been taken as factual. The murder of Clarence (stabbed and drowned in a butt of malmsey) was pinned on Richard by the Lancastrians without much evidence. The princes in the Tower may have been killed by orders of Henry VII. Who knows? Did Prince Philip order the murder of Princess Diana for sleeping with Arab playboys?

Dr Johnson thought the play was overrated and Shakespeare "praised most, when praise is not most deserved; some parts are trifling, some shocking and some improbable."

Boydell's Shakspeare, 1803. Steevens' third edition, but a monumental work in English publishing. Printed by William Bulmer at the Shakspeare Printing-Office on Whatman paper and illustrated with numerous engravings. Reproduced from Peter Isaac's William Bulmer: the fine printer in context (London: Bain & Williams, 1993)

But George Steevens, Shakespeare's great editor, understood the secret of the play's success: it was an ideal role for actors like Burbage or Garrick because it showed a gamut of emotions from hero to lover, statesman to buffoon, from hypocrite to repenting sinner.

It was only a generation after Richard that Henry VIII sacked the monasteries in 1538. There was a free-for-all as the high-living priests were stripped of their accumulated wealth and luxuries, books, jewels and the like, while religious icons were smashed and destroyed, even graves were robbed. And the last Plantagenet King was forgotten — apart from a minor play. We know from Shakespeare that Richard's personal avatar was a boar.

The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,
That spoil'd your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your embowell'd bosoms...

Things took an odd turn in May 2010 when someone with a metal detector found a silver boar pin and decided they had found the true site of the battle of Bosworth Field. Some coincidence. Like walking in Giza and stubbing your toe on an ankh ornament inscribed KLPTR in hieroglyphics. Even more coincidental is the discovery of the site of Greyfriars under a parking lot in Leicester (after others had searched for centuries), ten days ago, and, in less than a week, archaeologists had dug a trench, found the garden of alderman Robert Herrick (not that Robert Herrick) which had been located on the site, and soon hit upon the exact spot where the King was wrapped in a shroud and buried humbly over 500 years ago. Perhaps the posthumous saga of Richard 3 is a bit too Hollywood to be believed.

Many people have wondered what happened to the king after his death at the battle of Bosworth Field. Henry VII, not a pretty figure himself, didn't want him becoming sanctified, which might have happened if he had been returned to York and buried in the majestic minster there, so, after his naked corpse was paraded through Leicester (not as a warning to his followers, but to establish definitively his demise), he was turned over to some friars for a quiet interment. Bin Ladin disposal — burial at sea — wasn't thought of as an option.

York Minster (construction started in 627 C.E., still ongoing)

So the legendary King rises from the grave. It's better than Dracula! Today's news is that Richard wasn't a hunchback but had scoliosis — curvature of the spine — that made his right shoulder higher. He had an arrow in his back and an ax or sword blow to the skull that had finished him off. Maybe his last thought was "A hearse, a hearse! My kingdom for a hearse..." It's an incredible story, but could it be a hoax? We won't know until DNA tests are completed in a month or so, but it does seem as though they've found the ambitious duke who laid waste all rivals for the throne. If only the House of Windsor (nĂ© Battenberg) were so lively, instead of the sullen German upstarts they continue to be.

Shakespeare himself was almost lost to history, partly due to debased editions of his works but also perpetual copyright laws prevented their circulation. In 1680 one Crowne took Shakespeare's Henry VI, retitled the work The Miseries of Civil War, and claimed it as his own. Shakespeare's revival was due to Elizabethan scholar George Steevens, who restored the plays, and, since Steevens's re-edition, they have been continually performed and admired throughout the English-speaking world.

Steveens' edition, reprinted by Bensley in 1805, with a vignette after John Thurston, engraved by Charlton Nesbit: "Wisdom recovers from the grip of Time the laurels of which he had despoiled the tomb of Shakspeare."

Oddly, Steevens himself was involved in a hoax about another dead English monarch, the obscure Hardicanute. Steevens' dad was a director of the East India Company and young George had everything: "Every luxury was lavished on you — atheism, breast-feeding, circumcision." Well perhaps not as luxurious as Joe Orton's character — but he went to Eton and King's College, Cambridge. Then, with all the ease of a young gentleman born to a life of reading, dropped out of college. His life of privilege continued in a house on Hampstead Heath where he built a library of Elizabethan literature and collected Hogarths. He made daily rounds of the London bookshops and then came back to Hampstead to discuss his finds with his pal, Isaac Reed.

1803 stereotype edition of Steevens' Shakespeare, issued by Isaac Reed

In 1773 he produced his ten-volume Shakspeare. It was so good Dr Johnson deigned to add his name to the edition, though he didn't contribute much. But soon Edmond Malone and others muscled in on Steevens' turf so he turned his energies to subversion. While he was one of the first to expose the Chatterton-Rowley forgeries, and knew right off that William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare manuscripts were fakes, he also wrote a fictitious account of the Javanese upas tree, derived from the writing of an (imaginary) Dutch traveller (shades of Psalmanazaar). The Irelands' Shakespeare manuscripts had fooled a lot of people for a long time and certainly made an impact.

Reed published a new edition of Steevens' Shakespeare in 1785. At that point Steevens felt his authority had been usurped, so to reassert himself he created variorum editions, adding many valuable passages from Shakespeare's contemporaries to his notes.

Steevens last spectacular hoax was that of Hardicanute's tombstone. (A similar trick was pulled off in 1936 when members of the E Clampus Vitus fraternity conspired to plant the "Plate of Brasse" along the Northern California shoreline to give credibility to the notion that Francis Drake had anchored in Bolinas lagoon, or nearby, in his world tour of 1579. The perpetrators knew that Herbert Bolton, Director of the Bancroft Library at U C Berkeley, was desperately seeking the plate, so obliged him by planting a fake that was considered authentic for 40 years.)

Steevens's stunt was to get back at another Hogarth collector who had some early works that Steevens coveted, but who snubbed his advances for a trade. The Society of Antiquaries fell for the ruse, that a stone monument to King Hardaknut had been unearthed in the London suburb of Kennington, and the Gentleman's Magazine published this etching [above] of the inscription in Anglo-Saxon (concocted by Steevens). Son of King Canute, Hardy was another murderous monarch who eliminated rivals, taxed the bejesus out of his serfs, and when they objected, razed their cities. But right away someone noticed the etching technique of the inscription was modern, so the hoax didn't fly. 

Was Steevens malicious, or just a wry guy having fun at others' expense? I think the latter. And he had spent long hours poring over manuscripts and early printed books, reading "for my sake" and seeing "for my fake" over and over.

1 comment:

  1. 4 February 2013, DNA testing proves the bones in the carpark are those of the king


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