Saturday 23 April 2011

William Shakespeare and Dicks

            Today, April 23, is William Shakespeare’s birthday! It’s also St George’s Day, making this pretty much the closest thing Great Britain has to a Fourth of July/Australia Day/Canada Say. After all, what’s more British than Shakespeare (aside from bad food and stiff upper lips)?
            Now William Shakespeare was obviously not named Richard, but he was certainly no stranger to dicking around with history. I understand he was using poetic license. You have to telescope history when you have a filthy pile of groundlings hurling debris and vitriol at your actors. You put people on stage for more than five acts and you’ve got a hostile work environment. But one must take Shakespeare’s history with a pile of salt.
            So, today, in honor of the bard’s birth (and death), I will briefly examine how he treats two eminent English Dicks, Richard II and Richard III, in his plays.
            To quickly sum-up, the two receive almost exactly opposite treatments. Shakespeare has Richard II end his life in a far nobler manner than the real king did, while Richard III (who was undoubtedly a bit of a dick since he was a late medieval nobleman) was warped into a hunchbacked monster with a soul worse than the Grinch’s. In Richard II, Richard II is a tragic hero of sorts, brought down by his own pride. He has an epiphany at the end of his life, realizing he has not been a good king, and willingly passes the crown to his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (soon to be Henry IV). Richard even displays some top-notch political thinking at the end, expounding on the notion of the king as man versus king as institution. Richard realizes he has given up his role in the institution of kingship, but as an anointed sovereign, he still retains some attributes of kingship. A king, once anointed, can never have the unction removed. So Richard, sadder but wiser, passes on the crown, goes to prison, and is murdered.
            The basic outlines of Shakespeare’s tale are true. Richard II was deposed by Henry IV and he was sent off to a castle, imprisoned, and later murdered. But Richard probably did not cheerfully pass the crown on to a cousin he almost certainly hated and had exiled from England for ten years just one year before. Shakespeare can be forgiven this because Henry IV and his supporters put word out that Richard had given up the crown cheerfully, which was a big fat lie designed to make themselves look better. After all, it wasn’t so bad to kick a king off his throne if he agreed to it, right? I mean, he asked for it (like a woman wearing a short skirt, no doubt). But Richard II should be pleased. Instead of looking like a bad king who resisted his inevitable downfall, he comes off looking like the wise old man on the mountain. Oh sure, he has suffered, but now he’s reached a higher plane of enlightenment. Being king would just bring him down anyway.
            Richard III, title character of Richard III and bit player in the three parts of the Henry VI saga, has more cause to complain. While Richard II comes off as a tragic hero whose death makes you pity him, Richard III is more twisted than a serial rapist-murder in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. If Henry Tudor and Richard’s lack of a horse hadn’t managed to do him in, the people of England would probably have had to call Batman.
            Any assessment of Richard III in Shakespeare should probably start with the basics. Richard III, the actual dude, was too young to do shit in the era of the Henry VI plays. Richard was all of eight years old when his brother Edward IV became king, meaning he was not much of a warrior when Henry VI was still king. Beyond the obvious, Richard III probably didn’t orchestrate all those deaths, years ahead of time, for the sole purpose of gaining the throne. That would have taken years of planning and a lot of luck (such as your brother the king deciding to execute your middle brother for treason). In essence, Shakespeare’s Richard III is an evil genius who manages to kill five people who are blocking his path to the throne in a plot that takes over ten years. That’s some spectacular planning and some amazing patience. He also manages to do all this while having “I’m so ugly you should know not to trust me” stamped all over his crooked, scheming body. And he manages to marry a hot girl, despite having just killed her other husband, by making her think he’s going to kill himself. Really, Shakespeare, women in the middle ages weren’t that stupid. But the issue with Richard’s wife is my biggest beef with Shakespeare and other anti-Richard III fiction writers (and yes, they exist, although I believe the pro-Richard writers are outnumbering them). While I don’t necessarily believe that Anne Neville, Richard’s wife, was in love with him (or he with her) when they married, I don’t think she was all that attached to her first husband. Her first husband, Edward of Lancaster, was the son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, the biggest enemies of Anne’s father Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Warwick himself had actually called Edward of Lancaster a bastard and his mother Margaret the medieval equivalent of “big, fat bitch.” So growing up, Anne probably heard some not-so-nice things about Edward and his mother, meaning she was probably more than a little shocked when he father switched sides and had her marry the “bastard” son of his enemy. We have no idea what their marriage was like, but it only lasted a few months before Edward died (probably not killed by Richard III but slain in battle). And while Anne might have felt sad to be a widow, I doubt she was mourning for the lost love of her life, unless she was an extremely sentimental teenage girl. And while she was a teenage girl, I doubt Anne Neville, daughter of the most powerful earl in England and obvious political pawn in the politics of marriage, was overly weepy when her husband passed. I also doubt she was a big enough idiot to marry a creepy hunchbacked murderer who was dumb enough to woe her next to a coffin.  
            But I digress with Anne Neville. Suffice it to say, Shakespeare treats his two Dicks differently. Apparently he took the unused dickishness from Richard II and dumped it on Richard III. But despite their historical inaccuracies, both are really enjoyable characters (albeit for different reasons). Shakespeare was not a historian but he was a master.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

A Rose for the Crown

            A while ago I went to my Amazon account and saw the algorithm had recommended A Rose for the Crown. I have read this novel already, and a flood of memories returned, mostly centered on the book’s groan-worthy prose. And, in the interests of full disclosure, I have decided to share a few choice phrases with you all.
            First, though, some background. A Rose for the Crown by Anne Easter Smith is a historical fiction/historical romance novel about Richard III. I love me some Richard III with the power of a thousand fiery suns in splendor (the sun in splendor being a badge of Richard’s elder brother, Edward IV). Anyway, I thought this book would fall more at the historical-fiction end of the spectrum, and I was wrong. Basically, it’s about Richard III and his super-awesome fictional* mistress named Kate, who has miraculously risen from her peasant roots by marrying an elderly burgess, then a lower-level noble, and then gets to shag a duke. Such a social climb is not impossible for medieval England, but it’s pretty damn unlikely. Like the heroines of all romance novels (or so I’ve heard) Kate is loyal to a fault and a spunky, borderline feminist. Only borderline feminist, of course, because she isn’t having sex for her own pleasure, but because she loves her man so much. And she objects when guys say mildly misogynist things about women, but she’s totally content to stay at home and raise her children and be all earth-mothery. I’m not saying women in the middle ages didn’t object to men telling them they were worthless and weak, but they tended to prove their value by doing more than being a good lay. But I digress; back to the book. Kate is married to her second husband when she first meets Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Richard III before he was king), but she can commit adultery because...wait for it.... her husband is gay and refuses to ever have sex with her. Can someone say cliché? There were definitely gay guys during the middle ages, but many of them still managed to throw their wives a bone(r) and have sex with them sometimes. Men wanted heirs and heirs meant sex with women. Kate and Richard have a lovely, sexy relationship until Richard marries and the adultery has to stop. Adultery is okay for a woman, but a man needs to cut that shit out. Whatever. On the plus side, though, Richard III comes across as pretty awesome (not a homicidal maniac) in this book. So it has that going for it, which is nice.

*Richard III had two illegitimate children, but historians have no idea who the mother/mothers was/were.

            If the general outline isn’t enough to convince you of the hilarity of this book, perhaps the following quotes will. I swear I am not making this crap up.

p. 260 “He felt his erection straining in his codpiece. What to do now? he thought in a panic. His hands were reluctant to relinquish their delicious fondling.”
-Points to the author for making a fifteen year old (did I mention Richard is a teenage through all of his years with his mistress?) reaching second base sound so sophisticated. And ridiculous.

p. 266 Richard: ... “‘I imagined that Margaret would take one look and run away. After all, she was just a woman. Ouch!
            Kate had pinched him hard on the rump, and he grinned at her.
            ‘My apologies. I forgot who I was bedding!’”
-Ahhh, romance novel feminism at its finest. And, Richard, dude, you didn’t forget who you were bedding. About the only thing you know about this girl is that she’s hot and has a vagina she will let you stick Dick Jr. into. She objects to you saying woman are cowards? Well, now you know two things about her.

p. 308 “They lay entwined on the bed in their chemises, kissing and fondling until Richard’s need became too great. He gently mounted her, and they moved together in a loving union that rocked the bed and brought Kate tears of joy.”
-I can’t even read this passage without laughing and/or throwing up a little bit in my mouth. Mounted her? Is she a bloody horse? And who cries tears of joy after sex? Seriously, woman, get a hobby.

p. 350 Richard and Kate are having sex in a river, their horse runs off, and some creepy old guy brings it back. And creepy old guy says, “‘And, if I may be bold, ‘tis no wonder you forgot the horse when you have a filly like that to ride.’”
-*Sigh.* Again with the horses.

p. 417 Kate says, “‘Our lovemaking was so beautiful, it made me cry, ‘tis all.’”
-I think I really am going to vomit this time.

            This crappy book also sticks in my mind, though, for a terrible realization I had while reading it. So this book is basically a medieval romance novel – the main characters were having lots of sex. Okay, whatever, I can handle that. At the same time that I was reading this rubbish for fun, I was reading the chronicle of Matthew Paris for my school work. In this chronicle, Matthew details a “horrible” scene in which a random Christian boy is kidnapped by Jews, circumcised, and sent home (almost certainly a made-up story). The boy’s family and the whole town of Christians were aghast. My first reaction was, “Please, they did that kid a favor. Plus, it’s not like they cut off something he needs.” Later, though, my reaction was, “All the dudes I study were uncircumcised.” Glance at this book: “Richard III wasn’t circumcised. Ewww.” I had to take a little break from historical fiction.
            Recalling this realization, however, makes me remember another one, which happened a little earlier in my life. I believe I had recently been to an art museum and seen a medieval stained-glass window depicting the Circumcision of Christ, which is technically a feast day and is celebrated on 1 January. “We decided to start our calendar year on the day Jesus got snipped,” I realized with amazement. Crazy (and totally phallo-centric. Did Freud ever speculate on why we have made this day such a big deal?)! Anyway, I was later relating this to my neighborhood friends, and one of them (who had actually been to Catholic school through age 13), gave me a rather horrified look and half-asked, half-stated “Jesus had junk?!” Never having put this fact in quite those terms, all I could muster was, “Ummm, yeah. He was a guy, so yeah. He had junk.” This exchange took place before The Da Vinci Code was hot, which I guess is why we hadn’t contemplated Our Lord and Savior’s junk before.
            So there you have it, Richard III connected to Jesus in fewer than six degrees (Richard would probably be so proud; Jesus arguably less so). I, however, am going to troll the internet now for pictures of kittens and butterflies and such to clear those junk-y images from my mind.

Monday 4 April 2011

St. Richard de Wyche, Bishop of Chichester

Sorry, this is one day late, but I was out of town and didn't have internet.

            April 3 is the Feast Day of St Richard, Bishop of Chichester. Richard died on this day in 1253 in Dover, England. Like most saints, his feast day is the day of his death here on earth, which marks his birth into eternal life. Kind of creepy, but that’s how it’s done.
            While St Richard isn’t a totally obscure saint, he’s certainly not an A-lister. He’s no St Patrick or St Anthony, but he was a real person, who actually lived, putting him a step ahead of St Christopher. Sorry, travelers, I know you like those medals, but St Christopher is almost certainly apocryphal. Anyway, when I was younger I was psyched to learn there was a St Richard. This had a practical application, even. I had heard (although I have not independently verified its truth) that Catholics had to name their kids after a saint, either first or middle name. My first thought was, “Frick! Is there a saint Richard or am I going to have to give my kid some Gospel-ly name such as Luke [too Star Wars]?” I consoled myself by thinking I could just give my kid a papally-approved middle name, until I sought out St Richard. And there he was! There was much rejoicing. Now, if I ever have a son, I can give him a ridiculous middle name such as “Castle” or “the Third.” Many of you are probably thinking, “Umm, if you name your kid Richard you’re already giving him a ridiculous name.” To which I reply, “Dad, why are you reading my blog?”
            On to St Richard. He was born Richard de (or “of” if you hate the French) Wyche. His parents were named Richard and Alice, and our saint was of aristocratic birth. He became chancellor of Oxford about 1235, and of his life before that we know pretty much nothing. Richard studied arts and canon law because you didn’t become chancellor of medieval Oxford without having studied them. Also, he was regent of both of those sometime before 1235, although scholars aren’t exactly sure of the dates.
            I read once in a book on saints (or a website, I forget which now) that when Richard was in university as a student at Oxford, he and his roommates were so poor they only had one gown between the three of them. So they rotated who went to classes because they didn’t have enough money for them all to have the garments required to leave the house. I love this story. It’s a great variation on the “well, we were so poor” story. I have never once heard one of my elders bitch “we were so poor we couldn’t even all go to school on the same days.” It’s too bad because the thought of a bunch of nearly naked, grubby children huddled at home while the chosen few get to put on clothes and go to school is absolutely priceless. I also like this story from the perspective of a university teacher. If one of my students told me they had missed class because they didn’t have any clothes to wear, I would be highly skeptical. Especially since I attend grad school in southern California, where “enough clothes on to venture outside the house” is highly subjective. I think I would just tell the student where the nearest Goodwill was and call it a day.
            Moving on, St Richard was chancellor at Oxford, then chancellor to Edmund of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury (and a saint himself. Must have been something in the holy water.). Richard was close to Archbishop Edmund, accompanying the archbishop on his final trip to Rome, and being present for his death in 1240. Richard was one of the clerics who accompanied the archbishop’s body to Pontigny Abbey for burial. Deeply affected by Edmund’s death, Richard spent some time with the Dominicans in France, being ordained a priest and engaging in intensive personal mortifications.
            In 1244 Richard was appointed Bishop of Chichester, against the will of the English king Henry III. A tiff ensued, but the pope was on Richard’s side and consecrated him bishop in March 1245, a sort of “in your face” to Henry. In 1246 Henry backed down and Richard was allowed to do his job.
            Richard did his job with some zest. He raised money to repair the cathedral church at Chichester, which was in a state. He endeavored to make sure parish churches were properly served by priests who knew what they were doing, and held frequent diocesan synods to make sure priests were following the rules. Without going into too much detail about the medieval church, Richard was a reforming bishop. He traveled about his diocese, trying to help people, and he was fairly learned – he bequeathed a decent-sized library to the mendicants. Richard was commissioned to preach the crusade, and he died in Dover while on his preaching tour. His body was returned to Chichester, and miracles were reported at his tomb shortly thereafter. He was canonized in 1262, and remained a popular saint in southern England until the Reformation.

I used the always scholarly Oxford DNB for my information, but if you want to some saintly stories, no doubt replete with amazing miracles, check out this website.