I mean the recent unearthing of the bones of King Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester—a discovery so fresh that the bones are still cold, so to speak. The find has me thinking about another king, a currently reigning queen, and the power of Story to shape their lives and ours.
Not surprisingly, the find has rekindled that hoary debate about the character of the Plantagenet monarch, who reigned between 1461 and 1483. His popular image comes from Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard III, in which he is portrayed as murderous and conniving, both physically and morally deformed. The real Richard, who reigned from 1483 until his death in 1485, seems to have been a well-meaning reformer whose good works were thwarted by the brevity of his reign.
All that’s unfair, of course. But I can’t help fretting about a monarch even more unjustly reviled than Richard III, and that’s King Macbeth of Scotland. Once again, the Bard is the chief culprit in his defamation.
As Garry Wills shows in his book Witches and Jesuits, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is as much a propaganda piece as it is a literary masterpiece. Written in the wake of the notorious, failed “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 to blow up the British Parliament, the play is filled to the brim with scarcely veiled flattery to the reigning King James I, who claimed descent from the play’s King Duncan and quasi-mythical Banquo. If Shakespeare’s earlier Richard III was a paean to Tudor rule under Elizabeth, Macbeth was a paean to the ascendency of the Stuarts under James.
Shakespeare’s story has precious little to do with facts. King Duncan, whom Shakespeare portrays as blameless, kindly, and fatally naïve, was actually a cruel, aggressive, war-mongering, and rather incompetent tyrant whose six-year reign was bloody and oppressive. Macbeth had good reason to get rid of him, and he did so in open combat, not while he lay asleep as a guest in his castle.
As for Macbeth himself, Scotland greeted him as a welcome change and prospered under his reign of nearly two decades. He ended long wars, generously supported monasteries, preserved the Celtic language and traditions, and made a holy pilgrimage to Rome. Macbeth’s defeat by Malcolm in 1057 with English aid was nothing for the Scots to cheer about.
As Marc Antony said of the title character in Julius Caesar,
The evil that men do lives after them:
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.
And so let it be with both Richard III and Macbeth. But let’s pause to consider the power of Story to transform a person’s life. Is the Richard III whose bones lay under that parking lot fundamentally more real than Shakespeare’s “subtle, false, and treacherous” Machiavellian fiend? And is the historically benign Macbeth more real than Shakespeare’s murderous necromancer?
I remember some years ago seeing on the BBC in England a series of interviews with young schoolchildren … about Queen Elizabeth II. And they were asked, “Well, what does she do? Tell us about her day.” And it was fascinating. These children were very sure they knew exactly what the queen did. For instance, she vacuumed Buckingham Palace while wearing her crown. And she sat on her throne while she watched television, things like that. It was wonderful. And it struck me then that [the children’s beliefs about] Elizabeth II … had a much more important role to play in British social history than the actual living woman … and also had a certain power over her.
So let it be with Queen Elizabeth II.
And as for the rest of us …
… how much are we shaped by stories told by others?