March 26, 2009

The True Tragedy of Richard III

I've just read the anonymous The True Tragedy of Richard III, and am quite amazed that no-one's made me read it before. Granted, it's relatively unavailable - I had to read it in the Malone Society reprint. However, it's a fascinating read for light it sheds on Shakespeare's writing of his Richard III, almost certainly a few years after the anonymous play. Here are some of the most interesting connections:

  • The presence of several minor plot points in Richard III is far better explained once placed in relation to the other play. Aspects I'm thinking of include: the reports of Mistress Shore's influence, the dilemma Stanley is placed in by Richard keeping his son George hostage, the reconcilement of Hastings and Buckingham with the Queen's faction, and the marriage of Richmond to Elizabeth's daughter. All of these things get lip service in Shakespeare's play, but are relatively minor to the main plot. However, all of these play major roles in the anonymous play; in particular, Mistress Shore gets an entire scene depicting her descent to begging on the streets, with the citizens forbidden on pain of death to relieve her. In many ways, the earlier play is actually richer in terms of its characters: Richard himself is less dominant, allowing several other characters to have their moments in a more generously ensemble piece.


  • Shakespeare's rewriting of the play takes into account his work on the Henry VI trilogy, and there is much work done to tie it in to the earlier pieces. Most obvious is the addition of Margaret, reappearing from the earlier plays to curse Richard. More subtly, Clarence (who only appears as a wordless ghost in the earlier play) is given a major role by Shakespeare, including speeches which hearken back to characters such as Warwick. Henry VI's funeral isn't present in the earlier play - its addition by Shakespeare is another link to the earlier trilogy.


  • The earlier play has a more traditional comic role in a Page who follows the action throughout, commenting on it for the audience's benefit. This role is completely omitted from Shakespeare. To enhance the central role, Shakespeare's play also reduces the role of Catesby, who is more dominant in the earlier play. Buckingham's role, however, is enhanced, as are those of Hastings, Rivers and Grey. Shakespeare's focus is Richard himself, and those conflicts which bolster Richard's role are given full weight.


  • Shore aside, women are mostly absent from the earlier play. Elizabeth has some stage time, as does her daughter, but otherwise it is a man's world. The addition of Margaret, the Duchess of York and Anne to Shakespeare's play, coupled with the enormous expansion of Elizabeth's role, is one of the most notable differences between the two.


  • The earlier play finishes with the actors stepping out of character and running through the line of Tudor monarchs (even Mary), finishing with explicit praise of Elizabeth and prayers that she will live forever. With this perspective, it is quite clear that the 'Tudor Myth' was being fully exploited in the earlier play, yet Shakespeare's is far less explicit about this aspect of the history.


  • One of the murderers employed by Tyrell to kill the princes is Black Will - a shock to anyone who knows Arden of Faversham! Considering the theory that Black Will was an early Shakespeare role, this reappearance of essentially the same character is hugely interesting.


  • Lastly, Shakespeare knows what's worth dramatising. In the earlier play, Richard merely reports his dream before the battle: in Shakespeare, it is fully dramatised and extended to include Richmond too. Likewise, key scenes such as the appearance of Richard with two priests before the crowd, the murder of Clarence and Richard's early days in power are only reported in the earlier play, scenes which Shakespeare makes good use of.

It's a hugely interesting play, and I highly recommend seeking it out if you're interested in Shakespeare's play. It's clearly (so it seems to me) a source, and shows us a great deal about the way Shakespeare reused material.


- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Duncan

    The True Tragedy is one of the plays highlighted in yellow (as belonging to Shakespeare’s apocrypha) in the list posted below. If that play is clearly a source for Richard III and the latter play essentially a rewrite of the former, does that make it unlikely that Shakespeare had a hand in it?
    Do playwrights in this period go back and have two bites of the same cherry as it were?

    27 Mar 2009, 08:59

  2. I’ve highlighted True Tragedy because it’s one of the plays being investigated by the project team as possibly having a hint of Shakespeare in it. It’s never, as far as I’m aware, been included in any grouping of apocrypha before; so if the team does make a case for True Tragedy, it’ll be a bit of a first.

    It’s an old, old argument that Shakespeare began his career in the theatre fitting up old plays for performance, revising and adapting. The theory is then sometimes extended to imagine a Shakespeare who became interested in the material he was touching up, and went back to it a few years later to create his own version. On these grounds, cases have been argued for The Famous Victories of Henry V, The Troublesome Reign of King John and King Leir and his Daughters among others.

    My personal suspicion is that this is attribution working in reverse – amateur critics see a play which echoes a Shakespeare one they’re familiar with, and therefore try to argue that he had a hand in both. In the case of True Tragedy, it seems obvious that Shakespeare knew the earlier play well and wrote his play with one eye on it, but whether or not Shakespeare had any kind of hand in it, I’ll leave to greater minds.

    27 Mar 2009, 09:34

  3. Malvolio

    If you think the True Tragedy of Richard III is eye opening, try the Famous Victories of Henry V. Every scene that source play finds its way into the Prince Hal trilogy, and it seems clear the play was written prior to the Stratford lad’s arrival in London (though Bloom fantasizes a young Shakespeare helped its primary write Dick Tarlton “botch” it). It’s not as well written as is True Tragedie (which has amazing passages at times), but Famous Victories basically invents the juxtaposition of low comedy on historical drama that so appalled Sir Phillip Sidney (and most critics seem Shakespeare’s Henry V as a direct response to Sidney’s Apology For Poetry). Famous Victories also invents Oldcastle, though the character Derricks actually more resembles the Oldcastle of the Prince Hal plays.

    And the reason you weren’t assigned True Tragedie previously, I’d wager, is because Stratfordians avoid both these plays like the plague.

    22 May 2009, 23:30

  4. Thanks for your comment Malvolio (if, indeed, that is your real name!). FV is indeed a fascinating play, and for further discussion I’d recommend “The Oldcastle Controversy” in the Revels Companion series, which prints both FV and 1 Sir John Oldcastle for comparison.

    FV’s less of interest to me than True Tragedy. With it being such a relatively early play, and the fact that Shakespeare uses it across three different plays, its relationship to the Shakespearean material is a fairly straight source-and-reworking one. I actually find FV more interesting for the chronicle model of history play it pre-empts: in terms of structure, it’s closer to plays such as Thomas Lord Cromwell, Thomas More and Edward III than to the Henry IV plays, and thus establishes a model for a more “popular” form of history.

    The relationship between True Tragedy and R3 seems to me to be deeper: they’re much closer in date, and the Shakespearean version directly responds to and reshapes the earlier play in a committed and consistent way. I’ve got nothing to go on with this yet, but my suspicion is that it has a place in the widening Kyd-Shakespeare canon that Brian Vickers is piecing together, which suggests that the two collaborated on 1 Henry VI and Edward III. If Kyd also wrote the Ur-Hamlet, then we’re starting to see a heavy early influence on the younger playwright, and it wouldn’t surprise me if True Tragedy fits into this pattern. Considering True Tragedy features a Kyd character in Black Will, this adds a further bit of weight to the argument.

    I don’t think there’s a “Stratfordian” conspiracy in me not having read True Tragedy before – it’s quite simply that it’s only available in the Malone Reprint at the moment! Shakespearean academics are generally pretty interested in the early source plays, they’re certainly not avoided in the way many of the apocrypha are!

    23 May 2009, 11:18


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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