Speaking with the Dead in Leicester, I: The King Richard III Visitor Centre

This Monday I made a long-looked-forward-to visit to Leicester to view the new King Richard III Visitor Centre and the cathedral where the royal remains will soon be interred. Having followed the Greyfriars saga closely over the last two years, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but there were still some eye-openers and surprises.

One thing that struck me was the extent to which the KRIII experience was all about Shakespeare, even where (especially where) it was defiantly Not-About-Shakespeare. The first thing on the tour is in fact a Shakespearean history play in miniature: “Richard Plantagenet, Young Warrior: An Historical Play in Five Acts.”

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This video drama consists of a series of soliloquies by Richard’s mother, his guardian Warwick the Kingmaker, his armorer, his bride-to-be Anne Neville, and his brother Edward IV, all pondering Richard’s rise to greatness. The language flirts feverishly with iambic pentameter and Shakespearean diction: “And though I once was princess of Wales, I shall content myself with Duchess of Gloucester, and proudly bear him sons and heirs. Pray God that in these shifting times this may yet prove to be a match.”

The ground floor of the Centre is devoted to the historical Richard’s reign and fall, but even here we are reminded of the words Shakespeare gives his villain on Bosworth Field: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” A display board criticizes Shakespeare for making Richard seek a means of escape, when all historians agree that the king refused to flee and fought bravely to the end. Shakespeare, it seems, was so biased against the Last Plantagenet that he would not allow him dignity even in death. But this simply gets the play wrong, for it is absolutely clear that Richard is calling for a horse not in order to escape, but to ride back into the fray:

Richard: A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
Catesby: Withdraw, my lord; I’ll help you to a horse.
Richard: Slave, I have set my life upon the cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die:
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.
A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Upstairs in KRIII we find an area devoted to Richard’s posthumous reputation: “Portrayal or Betrayal”? Here we find a succession of great Shakespearean actors pictured in the role, from David Garrick to Kevin Spacey, and Olivier’s classic performance playing on the screen. We are reminded that “Shakespeare was not writing actual history, but his play did reflect a century of hostile writing about Richard.”

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Yet, as good eventually blossoms out of evil, so Shakespeare’s defamatory portrayal — and especially Olivier’s performance of the role — led at last to the formation of the Richard III Society. Without Shakespeare, there would be no Society; without the Society, as the exhibition goes on to stress, there would have been no dig. And so it seems, despite protests in the local press, Shakespeare has genuinely earned his place in KRIII.