Last summer, I binged on Starz’s The White Queen, a War of the Roses sex-and-swords series. Shortly after, I saw the Smithsonian’s documentary on uncovering Richard III’s remains. When I gave up on House of Cards S4, I instead watched Kevin Spacey’s Now: In the Wings on a World Stage, a documentary about an international troupe touring with a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Maybe it was watching all of these works together, or maybe just because I am a sucker for swelling music over a montage, I felt quite emotional when the documentary ended with a supercut of interpretations of the famous history; dozens of nations, eras, sets, and other surprises flashed by, all the with the same genesis of the now 400 year-old play and 500 year-old historical figure.
I felt inspired to create a visual web of all of the adaptations of Richard III, the person and character. The infographic would have three hubs: The historical Richard, informed by court records, biographers of the era, and Richard’s own writings; Shakespeare’s Richard, informed by the Tudor reign, seminal productions, and important adaptations; and the data about Richard’s skeleton, which was unearthed in a Leicester parking lot in 2012. The web would show how each work was related and interrelated, how ownership of the character of Richard has shifted over the centuries, and to what outer reaches writers, artists, and musicians have gone to reinvent the character of Richard.
In other words, I set an an impossible task. I mean, unless my canvas was the side of a skyscraper and my patience as wide. After just a half an hour of research, I had barely scratched the surface of the Richard III corpus. As Shakespeare said, “Words are easy, like the wind. Infographics are hard.”
I already knew that the character of Richard III had been under debate for centuries. Most of what contemporary audiences think they know about him comes from the scheming, manipulating, murdering lech-with-a-hunchback as written by Shakespeare. Historians, however, have argued that Richard was not the mastermind behind some of the worst deeds attributed to him in the play (the murder of his nephews and the execution of his brother, to name just two). Phillipa Gregory, author of the source material for The White Queen series, explored the alternate idea of Richard (owed to what’s known as the Ricardian movement): A gentle, albeit weakened ruler caught up in the power struggle between the houses of York, Lancaster, and Tudor.
To date, Richard III has made appearances in pop music, board games, opera, manga, and Rowan Atkinson vehicles. Some writers have created characters in the mode of the Richard archetype, like Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones; others have re-imagined Richard as a vampire. Themes from Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard have informed countless masterplots, from betrayal among brothers, to the petty tyranny of the unloved, to the cathartic defeat of the tyrant.
Even if I can’t put it all together in a visual web, Richard III’s cultural ubiquity is in largest part thanks to the storytellers who first shaped and then mined his legend. With every new production, adaptation, borrowing of archetypes, the legend grows.
What other historical figures have spawned such a rich body of work? Are you working with any of them right now?