Dear readers and friends,
I am honored and delighted to have a guest blogger today. Robert Fripp, the author of Dark Sovereign, a thoroughly researched play that does justice to Richard III. Robert came across my blog-review of the WSC’s production of Richard III: WSC Richard III: a parable about politicians. He liked what I wrote and was prompted to write himself about this king and his play here:
Richard III: Receiving emergency care after mauling by Shakespeare
Discussing Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III, Ellen recently wrote, “They [the WSC] mean to take [Richard III] into the 21st century; as the director says, it’s not a history play anyway (as nowadays we know Shakespeare was repeating heavily shaped Tudor propaganda).”
“It’s not a history play anyway.” Too true. Shakespeare’s Richard III comes close to emulating British pantomime, where a rough-looking male with five o’clock shadow plays a wicked step-mother, and the leading lad is a nubile young woman in tight-fitting Robin Hood garb. Shakespeare’s Richard III goes far beyond character assassination. It crosses the line into farce.
Someday we may recognize 1983 as a watershed year in the history of research and reportage on the subject of Richard III; not because 1983 marked the 500th anniversary of Richard’s accession to the throne. Rather, because a current affairs television producer in Toronto (me) got so fed up with the quasi-history and fabulous (in the literal sense) character assassination of Richard III that I started writing a “better” play than Shakespeare to produce a plausible King Richard. I’ve written my play, Dark Sovereign, in the English it was available to for Shakespeare—which I learned to write “fluently.”
Strange projects may spawn stranger outcomes. Whether Dark Sovereign lives or dies as a play, overnight it is now the longest drama written in Renaissance English. Dark Sovereign bumps Hamlet and Richard III from being the first and second longest down to being second and third. I never intended Dark Sovereign to be performed at full length. My Introduction invites directors “to grab a machete and roll up their sleeves.”
Now to our new Richard III. As a boy, he took military training at Middleham Castle, in the North Riding of a northern county, Yorkshire. Much later, he married Lady Anne Neville, who grew up at Middleham. In Dark Sovereign, before Richard proposes to Anne, Robert has Richard remind her:
” ‘Twas in your father’s house I learn’d to war.
Remember wi’ yourself, how I bethought was
to play David in Golias’ armour;
whilst did you, a little golden girl, sit out and pick pied daisies.”
Five hundred years after the king’s death in battle, two Richard IIIs stalk England. Shakespeare’s ambitious psychotic still enjoys a warm welcome in the South. But many Northerners won’t hear a bad word against Richard. In many respects he was a benign governor in the North. When you enter a pub in Leeds, Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester or York, be careful what you say.
For nearly a decade Richard served as military commander in the North, defending the border against Scottish raiders on behalf of his brother, King Edward IV. In Dark Sovereign, a letter informs Richard that King Edward’s ambitious queen, Elizabeth Woodville, appears to be reaching for regal command herself, and Richard’s allies demand that he hurry to London. Richard angrily responds:
Richard: “I am to Edward shield and general captain
in the office of a wall against the Scot.
But these would have me hole the wall,
lay down my arms, quit vigilance, invite invasion.
Is England so phantastically king’d, that I
—while Scotsmen ravish English wives—
must haste to London,
there to save my brother from his queen?
Psha! Though it be comfort-killing, yet the Border is my stage.
I’ll order myself in the play I have in hand.”
When King Edward dies, Queen Elizabeth Woodville is able to use Edward’s underage heir, their son, as a rubber stamp to enact mischievous policy. Richard in turn is forced to react. Given the opportunity to seize the boy, he joins forces with Harry, Duke of Buckingham, who reminds Richard how many members of his immediate family had already been killed during England’s war for dynastic power:
BUCKINGHAM: “Our hurt’s not small;
no more is the common griefs of England.
Spare for no cost, no more than if it were the cause of all.
A time and times the Rose that bare you
wept death-wearied tears for York, which,
claiming England’s dear-bought majesty,
did quit it debt with dearest blood. 
‘Twere the devil’s undeserving profit, did your father
—his three sons withal—untimely fall in grave.
To sway the diadem doth mitigate abominations.
To lose the rule were death. And treason.
Standing: I’ll take me out a pissing while.
I’d purge the wine of fellowship on daisies.”
“Alone. At last alonely and alone.
The nighted hours pass, a quiet wilderness without,
contráry to the noise keeps coil within … 
… How should I think? nor why, with voice of word,
lend mettle and substantial form to thought?
Springs up this maund’ring from a sudden fury of the night?
or wells it from a lock’d up inly fount? …
… ‘Tis said the soul is fed with charity,
but charity contendeth ever to prevail upon base fearful parts.
The mind of man is wax, wherein old use sets to his seal. 
I’faith, it is his learn’d experience breeds each his habitus.
This man, this habitus, is phoenix-like his gather’d self,
but wanting Charity’s pure phoenix-fire
came to his years unpurified.
Seldom suck’d I Charity wi’ nurses’ milk.
How the devil can I express her?”
At this point, Richard broaches a topic much debated in late medieval and early modern times. Dante Alighieri had introduced this question in his Divine Comedy: Does the Will or Reason provoke action?
“Whence welleth thought? and whither flows?
Being mine alone, I speak to me alone. But which self speaks?
and whether, as Another I, doth arbitrate his thought,
I may not know. Some humour feeds the tongue, 
which, being feeding, moves noise, so.
Other chooseth out th’opinion ears give audience
and which reject, as they were darts turn’d by a buckler.”
Lights: Dawn breaks.
Enter BUCKINGHAM silently. He listens.
“Speaks Reason to my Will?
or doth proud Will to Reason speak?
The Comedy did anciently set forth how wayward Will
strove with his government, the passive voice of Reason.
O, would I wist which captain order’d thought,
Prescrib’d it me, dictated every deed.
Whether doth the Will or Reason urge me fasten on occasion 
of this night to sway the rule on England?
If either door gaped wide, mankind would wholly righteous be
—or damn’d! How stony is the way ‘twixt Reason and the Will,
I published Dark Sovereign in Arden style, meaning that the text shares the pages with footnotes, giving actors and students instant reference to precise meanings. Precision extends to the language in which his play is written as well as the history. My aim: “The language of Dark Sovereign is precise. It is written in the vocabulary, idioms and syntax of the period from about 1579 (Sir Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia) to precisely 1626, a cutoff date dictated by technical reasons involving Francis Bacon. This interval of forty-seven years marked the renaissance of English letters. Every word in Dark Sovereign, each syllable, word-sense, expression, verb ending, tense and function, as well as word order, metaphor and construction patterns, is present because the author found precedents in English written before the year 1626.”
Robert Fripp’s URL: RobertFripp.ca/ & LinkedIn (Toronto)
Dark Sovereign: Available in Paperback from Internet vendors
Tags: Robert Fripp, Shakespeare, Richard III, Dark Sovereign
Allow me to add that it was in the 18th century the first revisionings of the Tudor myth began: with Horace Walpole (see his Historic Doubts). The source for Shakespeare’s propaganda play was Thomas More (a strong defender of Henry VIII — even after Henry VIII decided that More was more than dispensable). The subject is covered in Peter Sabor’s splendid Horace Walpole: The Critical Heritage. Paul Murray Kendall’s study reprints parts of More history and Walpole’s Historic Doubts.
Perhaps the 18th century stage, with turning away from beliefs in numinous kings, its scepticism, and new histories (David Hume, Catherine Macaulay), and its great empathetic actors first stirred pepple to doubt the accuracy of Shakespeare’s powerful play. The love of medievalism which fed into the gothic also created sympathy for the Catholic and Stuart point of view (for example, Sophia Lee’s The Recess, a gothic novel about the supposed twin-daughters of Mary Stuart by Bothwell, and Scott’s novels, Kenilworth and The Abbot) helped create a climate for revision.