Bloody History and the Stage; the Handling of the Murder of Children in Richard III

In class it was interesting to read the account of the murder of the princes in the recorded history which Shakespeare based his own history play on. In comparison to the recorded history, Shakespeare’s portrayal provides both a less classist portrayal of the murders and handles the scene with surprising taste.

One aspect of the official history of the murder of the young princes that upset my modern sensibilities was the way in which the history went out of its way to note the occupation of one of the murders, Jon Dighton, a horse handler. The history account also refers to him as a knave. Unsure of the exact etymology of the word, but suspecting it to be significant, I referenced the Oxford English Dictionary and found the word knave to be derived from the word “cnafa”, which means servant. From this it is clear that the history set to make clear that the murders of the princes were meditated through as low of class of people as possible. I think this is interesting because it demonstrates how history as a narrative lacks objectivity, being written always with a bias in mind; In this case, this bias being against the lower class. Shakespeare in his play skips this bias entirely, for which I give him credit.

Another aspect of the play we discussed was portraying the act on stage. The treatment in the play, describing it after the fact in a speech, reminds me of the tragedy of Oedipus, in which Oedipus blinds himself and his mother hangs herself offstage, with the act being announced by different characters. I attribute this to a stronger censorship of the time and a more strict definition of vulgarity or obscenity. Another aspect that occurred to me was the difficulty in portraying this act so as to be understood. The smothering taking place on the raised surface of a bed, so I imagine it would be difficult to portray the smothering in such a way so as so that those in the lower seats, beneath the stage, could see what was going on. Another idea that occurred to me was that the actual smother itself was not realistically a “clean” kill. The children probably woke up, and probably struggled. Unless Shakespeare wanted to portray it unrealistically, with the children passively dying, the actual portrayal of grown men overpowering and smothering small children would likely be disturbing. For these reasons, in practical terms, I think Shakespeare made a smart choice in delivering it through soliloquy.

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