The Art of Recovering Richard III
By Alice Dailey
Upstart: A Journal of English Renaissance Studies (Special Issue: Finding Richard: A Forum Art, Archeology, Disability, and Temporality) (2013)
Introduction: In his role as Patron of the Richard III Society, Richard Alexander Walter George, the current Duke of Gloucester, states that “the purpose — and indeed the strength — of the Richard III Society derives from the belief that the truth is more powerful than lies”. The Society believes this truth to reside in the “material” evidence of Richard, which they hope will come to supplant the lies popularized by “the picture painted of Richard III by William Shakespeare in his play”. Echoing Stephen Gosson’s accusation in The Schoole of Abuses (1579) that poets are “the fathers of lyes,” the Society identifies Shakespeare as the source of a specious history that must be corrected by the unfabricated objects of archival and archaeological study. In his Defense of Poesy (1595), Sir Philip Sidney countered charges like Gosson’s by declaring that the aim of poetry is to “teach and move to a truth”. For Sidney, the crafter of fiction “nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth”. I want to suggest that Sidney offers more than simply a counterpoint to the Richard III Society’s assertion of the truth claims of archaeology over art. In its account of literary creation, Sidney’s Defense anticipates how the Ricardian search for truth will inevitably lead back to art, the medium through which we encounter the “real” Richard III.
The phrase “real Richard III” entered the public conversation about the archaeological dig for Richard’s grave through the Society’s most outspoken supporter, screenwriter Philippa Langley, who has described the effort as a “search [for] the real Richard III” and its outcome a success (Cullinane). The presentation of forensic evidence by the University of Leicester and the subsequent projects generated by the exhumation of the king’s remains attest to the ambiguity both of this “real Richard III” and of the recovery effort’s success. For the Society, the unearthed skeleton is not in itself real enough. Langley and her fellow Ricardians seek a reappraisal of the character of Richard III — an anatomy of the interior man that the skeleton alone cannot provide. To the layperson’s eye, the skeleton is a mere assemblage of surfaces that offers no legible interior. Without the skin and tissue that participate so centrally in our construction of inside and outside, surface and depth, the skeleton lacks the hidden, irrecoverable essence by which we identify “real” people. Peggy Phelan has written that “the flesh we crave as confirmation of our forms cannot do anything but turn us forever out even as we burrow into and into the holes we find there”. Looking for the mind or heart of Richard reveals only skull, ribs, spine, pelvis, or the blank of the black display cloth. Even the skull’s empty eye sockets cannot offer windows to the soul that the Ricardians seek. They are only craters that curve back outward, returning us back to the surface of bone.