My Kingdom for a Porsche

It’s been almost two weeks now and I still haven’t seen anybody use this obvious groaner for a story about the announcement that yes, indeed, those bones are “beyond reasonable doubt” those of King Richard III. (“Porsche’ because they were found under a car park, get it, hahaha?) It’s up to me to stand up for the great Shakespearean tradition of bad puns.

Are you as strangely moved by this story as I am, and as the whole of England seemed to be? Oh, sure, there were jokes, my favourite being this one:

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[All over the web, but I borrowed it from cherrycaketh.tumblr.com]

Not only is any reminder of the Elizabethan series of Blackadder welcome, the reminder of Baldrick, played by Tony Robinson, is particularly in keeping. As presenter of Time Team, Robinson must have been kicking himself since the discovery of the bones was first announced. If the search for Richard wasn’t the ultimate Time Team episode, what could be?

For just think about it! If there’s one thing we learn from watching Time Team, it’s the sheer contingency of archaeological exploration. These are serious people, funny though some of them look, doing actual science, and how many times have we seen them lay down their three intersecting trenches and come up with nothing? Indeed, you may remember how Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist of the Richard III dig, was at pains to lower expectations—rightly so, of course. He is a scientist, after all. On his account the Leicester team was engaged in something more like reconnaissance than a hunt for Richard’s remains. It was “a shot in the dark.”

And then. And then. The very first thing they find, in the very first trench on the very first day, is the skull of Richard III. If you’d made it up, nobody would have believed you. But because it really happened, we wanted it—desperately wanted it—to be true. My own sense of wonder is mingled with relief that it did turn out to be true. If those bones had turned out to somebody else’s I think I would have been crushed.

I wouldn’t have been the only one. I watched the Channel 4 special, Richard III: The King in the Car Park, with a fascination that developed into a distinct feeling of unease. I’d never seen the shaggy-haired presenter, Simon Farnaby, before. I gather he claims to be a comedian. He came across as rather more of a prat. The power of the special comes from the way it depicts the Leicester team conducting a happy marriage of history, literature, and science. History and literature gave them the broad outlines; where to dig, what to look for in analyzing what they found. Science then went to work, proving that history and literature were indeed pointing to the right object.

The University of Leicester has finally gotten [by the way, British readers, did that sound like fingernails on a blackboard to you? I am genuinely interested in this taboo of yours about the perfectly respectable form gotten. It was good enough for Shakespeare—why do (some of) you have a problem with it?] around to putting up the video of the press conference. It’s well worth watching in its entirety.

These are heroes of science, and, of course, of literature. The biggest hero of all in my opinion is Dr. Jo Appleby, the osteoarchaeologist. The Channel 4 special reveals her crucial role at every stage of the process, from the initial dig (it was she who found the skull), through—of course—the analysis of the bones, right up to the press conference. Don’t skip Dr. Buckley’s presentation, but watch her starting at about 11:15 of the video, and fall in love.

But don’t, either, neglect the following historical, genealogical, and genetic presentations. Because, once again, the identification of Richard required the marriage of all these different parts of science. It is the most convincing demonstration we have had in recent times of the seamlessness of knowledge. That’s just one of the things that makes it so exciting.

I spoke of a sense of unease, though, in watching the Channel 4 special. That’s because of the way it was framed. Of course, it had to create a narrative, and that involved building up moments of suspense that might not have been all that important in the real quest. For example, a piece of metal was found stuck in the skeleton’s cervical vertebrae. Speculation that it was an arrowhead was dashed by the conclusion that it was a nail that just happened to be in the grave, but this was not a piece of evidence that would have mattered much one way or the other.

It mattered greatly, though, to the person the special tried to make into the viewpoint character. That is Philippa Langley, the secretary of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society. If any individual is responsible for the quest for Richard III, it is Ms. Langley, who according to Wikipedia felt that she was standing on Richard’s grave on her first visit to the car park. The special follows her through the quest, and that’s fine up to a point. Different viewers may locate that point in different places, but by the time she sees the skeleton laid out and says “I don’t see bones lying on that table, I see a living breathing man,” even the best-disposed viewer surely has to feel a smidgen of concern for her. By the time she sees the facial reconstruction of Richard (she’s so emotional that she has to be supported as she’s led in to the room) and says “It’s like you could talk to him—just have a conversation,” I began to think of Shakespeare’s Richard and his Macbeth, who both talk to phantoms; and grateful though I am to her that she triumphantly vindicated her obsession, the special makes abundantly clear that it is an obsession. Since Ms. Langley has an executive producer credit for the show, she plainly doesn’t see how scary it makes her appear at times.

The Richard III Society has always had a rather crankish public image (the historical Macbeth was also a competent king and the historical Duncan was a thug, and yet there is no Macbeth Society dedicated to setting the record straight). Ms. Langley does nothing to change that. One has to wonder what she’s going to do now that her improbable quest has succeeded. One gets a sinking feeling from the special that the answer just might be “Raise large numbers of cats.”

And what about Shakespeare in all this? It seems to me that the Richard III Society won its battle long ago. Surely, few if any among the dwindling number of those of us who give a flyer take Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard at face value. I for one am perfectly happy to believe that Richard was an excellent administrator, much liked by the people, especially those of the North, and an all-around competent or better king. I’m even willing to be agnostic about that unpleasantness regarding the Princes in the Tower (though obviously something happened to them). Does this wonderful discovery change my appreciation of Shakespeare?

Why, yes. Yes it does. It leads me to appreciate Shakespeare even more. To have created a character so unlike the real person and yet so vivid as to have replaced the real person in some minds is no small feat. Now that we definitively have the two Richards, why not celebrate them both?

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