I’ve been fascinated by King Richard the Third for years. I’ve read the books, the ones that extol him, as well as the ones that consider him evil personified. I’ve read the fiction, seen the play, and listened to the debates. I’ve even worked on a play of my own called “Tom, Dick and the Harrys”. Much of that work has had to be redone in the past few months because Richard’s remains, as you probably heard, were rediscovered.
This past week we’ve seen an extraordinary sight: thousands lining up to pay homage to a man who has been dead for more than five centuries. Estimates put the number of people who paid their respects yesterday at 7,000, and there have been similar numbers every day this week.
I confess I had a lump in my throat when I saw the crowds toss white roses, the traditional emblem of Richard’s House of York, upon his coffin as it passed through the streets on its way to his re-interment. That’s a lot of love for a king who died half a millennium ago and whose reign was a mere 777 days.
Just like his life, Richard’s funeral is not without controversy. He has not been accorded a Catholic burial as would have seemed appropriate; he was not interred in York, a city he loved, nor in Westminster Abbey with other kings and his own queen. He’s being laid to rest in Leicester.
But we come to bury Richard not to… actually, we do want to praise him. After centuries in which words like ‘usurper’ and ‘crookback’ were the general response to his name, it is delightful and surprising to see so many people come out and declare themselves, for the moment at least, Ricardians.
Yes, there are the naysayers. The ‘serious’ historians who consider the rest of us loons because we do not share their view of historical events. Yet after 500 years, who is to say where the truth lies?
We can argue the point passionately either way: Richard usurped the throne because he was power-hungry, or Richard was acting defensively and for the good of the country. Richard murdered his own nephews, or Richard sent his brother’s sons abroad for their own safety. Or they were killed by someone else. Or they died of natural causes. You pays your money and you takes your chances.
Many people think of fiction as something distinct from truth. “Fact or fiction?” they say, as if you must choose one or the other. But, in my opinion, the best fiction is truth. I’m not talking about ‘true stories’ or based on real events. I’m talking about the truth about people, about how we engage with one another, about facing the worst of ourselves and each other with courage and with honesty.
Fiction is often the best way to reveal truth. It allows you as a writer or as a reader to explore dimensions that go beyond the ‘either / or.’ Sometimes truth lies half-way between the poles. Often, almost always, in fact, it is muddled, layered, multi-dimensional, just like human beings. The absolute right and the absolute wrong usually involve body bags and statistics that would break your heart, if statistics could tell a story.
Fiction allows for complexity, something ‘truthful’ news bites do not. Don’t get me wrong, facts are very important. But facts don’t tell the whole tale.
Some things are unknowable. What goes on inside a killer’s head when he plots and murders his sixth victim? Behavioural scientists will offer terminology. They’ll point to unhappy childhoods or abuse in the past. Sometimes they’ll shrug and say, “This one falls outside the usual parameters… we don’t know.” The killers themselves are seldom self-aware enough to be able to explain it. In fact, there are a number of reports of people like Jeffrey Dahmer begging to know what was wrong with them, pleading to be fixed.
Now, obviously, fiction writers don’t have some magical charm that allows us to explain things that are unexplainable. But we are willing to go there. To delve into the darkest chasms of the human psyche and describe what we’ve seen. We will risk our sanity and our sobriety to do so.
Would anyone know what love was if there weren’t poets to describe it?
When Star Trek‘s Mr Spock says things like, “I felt happy,” I always wonder: How does he know? If you’ve never experienced a particular feeling before how do you know what it’s called?
Emotions are seldom single-notes. More often they are chords.
As we grow up we learn that it’s possible to experience contradictory emotions at the same time. You can love and hate the same person in the same moment. You can be happy for a friend’s success but madly jealous of them too. It’s fiction that reveals these truths. That explores the chords of human feeling and experience.
People, with very rare exceptions, tend not to be either heroes or villains. We, too, lie somewhere in the middle. We have our days of sin and dishonour; we have our moments of glory and heroism. Why must Richard III be either saint or sinner? He was as, Shakespeare said of another monarch, “A goodly king….
He was a man. Take him for all in all. / I shall not look upon his like again.”
I started to write my play about Richard because I wanted to hear his story. I wanted him to explain himself to me. If you write, you’ll know what I mean. If you don’t write, you’ll never be able to understand it. To put it another way, the play’s the thing in which I’ll study the conscience of this king.
It’s the mystery that draws us, the human desire to know. It’s what sells High Street magazines: “The secret to Sophie’s success”, “Ten fashion tips you need to know…” They’re all saying the same thing. We know something you don’t. We’ll tell you. For a price.
For all the brilliance of science and of historians, we’ll probably never know everything there is to know about King Richard the Third. We may someday learn what happened to the missing princes, but we’ll never know what Richard felt about them. Historians tell us that in his final battle he suddenly broke away and made directly for the future Henry VII, only to be hacked down by the enemy army. What spurred him on? What was in his heart and mind as he died?
Richard took those secrets to his fancy new resting place in Leicester. The mystery, the controversy and the mystique surrounding him continues to inspire us. Without the storytellers would Richard’s tale continue to draw crowds after so many long years?
The fact-men will continue to look in microscopes and study manuscripts. In time, they may answer many of the questions that linger about this most enigmatic king. But it will be up to the writers to put it all into context.
And that’s the truth.