“Though Richard III ruled England for only two years, his short life and violent death in battle make him one of the most controversial of English kings. He is a deeply divisive and interesting figure. He attracts fierce enemies and fierce partisans, and since his death over five hundred years ago, the controversy has hardly cooled. Did he have a rightful claim to the English throne? Did he kill his young nephews in order to become king? If not, who did? Or perhaps they were not killed at all? It is difficult to separate myth from historical reality, and each of Richard’s defenders and detractors has a version of their own. Els Launspach is alive to all the ambiguities of this story. She has researched deeply, and works with the paradoxes and puzzles of the era to produce an intelligent, multi-layered and very individual book.”
King Richard III, whose remains recently have been discovered, is traditionally seen as a tyrant, a child murderer and a usurper of the English throne. But how much of his reputation is true to the facts, and how much of it is propaganda inspired by the first Tudor king, and perpetuated by Shakespeare down through the centuries?
Opening with the spectacular findings in 2013, the Dutch theatre critic and author Els Launspach portrays the intense dilemma’s of three writers on ‘history’: the statesman and philosopher Thomas More, the 17th century Master of the Revels George Buc and lastly Jennifer Simpson, a witness in the Trial of Richard III created and broadcast by London Weekend Television in 1983. What truth should they serve? The immediate pressures of political expediency and public opinion, or a truth they personally pursue?
Els Launspach offers a moving picture of individuals caught up in an age old struggle; in their effort to be true to themselves and to the facts concerning the last Plantagenet king, the three main characters risk either humiliation or loss of integrity along the way. At a time when politicians and their spin doctors are fashioning their own version of the past to justify their policies in the present, Richard Revisited offers a bittersweet reflection on the agony of personal choices.
Voicing George Buc - Master of the Revels - the novelist reveals many details of Shakespeare’s profession. As the story unfolds the reader will be guided to very surprising perspectives. Questions on art and identity arise, while the process of political spin, so painfully present in our years, becomes impossible to ignore.
RICHARD REVISITED was published in Dutch as MESSIRE in a beautiful cassette together with the translation of the history play by the famous Dutch poet Gerrit Komrij, who has translated several Shakespeare plays for the Dutch theatre.
Het Nederlands Dagblad, 25-4-2008:
There is a great reward for the reader’s persistence, absorbing Messire by Els Launspach. The novel offers an intriguing web of themes, among them subjectivity in the process of writing history. Launspach shows convincingly that History does not exist, only a certain balance of interests. (…)
Fresh and surprising is how this novel portrays the last days of Thomas More, reflecting on his life while the souls of the dead surround him. His doubts become torments when he is visited by a young woman, grandchild of the very statesman who has once guided his first steps into the professional world. The prisoner and his young female visitor have different ambitions. The discovery of a long forgotten quarto in which his superior privately has mentioned some names, jeopardizes Mores peace of mind and there follows an investigation of the self, an agony which is ended only by his execution. (…)
Launspach´s game with fact and fiction is clever and exciting. (…)
The novel begins with a splendid part on Thomas More (…) He looks back with remorse on several issues concerning his ambition, fearing that he will be cleansed in purgatory. His swansong contains passionate remarks. ´Here he had finally understood that his obstinacy and doubt went hand in hand, like a pair of horses galloping as one.´ Impressive discernment follows. Every argument exonerating Richard makes him (Thomas More) the more guilty. And there is really something at stake, his integrity and spiritual welfare. History and literature are entangled in this first part brilliantly.
Writing the novel MESSIRE (speech at the presentation of Messire)
We all seem to know who Richard III was: a man deformed both physically and morally, perhaps the most reviled of men who have ever usurped the English throne. But how much of that picture is true, and to what extent is it a distortion by Shakespeare and others? This problem haunted me for years and the more I pursued my research, the more I came to question the admittedly powerful picture that Shakespeare painted. As I proceeded my thoughts circled increasingly about the very process of history making itself. To what extent is it a genuine dialogue with the past and how much of it is a matter of political expediency?
As I was enjoying Shakespeare, at the same time I came to have faith in Richard III’s personal coat of arms, Loyaute me lie (loyalty binds me). What if he was loyal to the English nation? What if his actions were serious and sincere, not intimidating or manipulative as is suggested by Thomas More? Did Richard of Gloucester usurp the throne? Is it true that he was dishonest? Did he act without compassion during his reign? Did he command the murder of his two nephews?
Just as the battle of Bosworth in 1485, where Richard died, had an enormous significance for his own time while his career was deliberately distorted by the Tudors succeeding him, so our recent history has also been invoked by politicians to justify their actions. We desire to be true to ourselves and the pressures of contemporary society. But the so-called Gulf of Tonkin episode, an apparent attack on US shipping, was a pretext to justify America’s escalating involvement in Vietnam. And even more recently the events of 9/11 have been variously interpreted by western leaders to inspire military adventures in the so-called ‘war on terror’ with as yet incalculable consequences.
We consider such events as the bone structure of history. Some facts are available but many are not, and they can only be appreciated by information and interpretation.
Sometimes fiction can throw a special light on these moments afterwards, to shade our experience. In the last pages of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje a young Sikh deserts from the Indian army liberating Italy in 1945. Such is the inner conflict created by the western use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that he can no longer reconcile the enormity of these acts of destruction with his assumption of western civilisation. This is what fiction can do: as readers we suddenly appreciate the notion that our western history may be biased. The maps are redrawn.
On the other hand Shakespeare’s successful history play on Richard III looms large: here fiction has become ‘fact’, a disquieting phenomenon that nowadays multiplies before our eyes as the past is simplified and pressed into the service of the present. What about the contrary signals, the motives that are not heard so well and cannot be sufficiently investigated? My novel Messire fights oversimplification, the politically expedient scenario, Shakespeare’ s fiction, with fiction. It is not an easy journey, but one we must make.