King's College London
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'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Holinshed and Richard III

Opening showing text from the chapter on Richard III, describing the murder of his nephews, the two princesOpening showing text from the chapter on Richard III, describing the murder of his nephews, the two princesAlong with Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel lives, the Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed (c1525-80?) are perhaps the best known source for Shakespeare’s plays.

Although little is known about Holinshed’s life, his work underpins all of Shakespeare’s English history plays, as well as King Lear, Macbeth and Cymbeline. It seems Holinshed inherited the task of producing the first edition of the Chronicles after his employer, the printer Reyner Wolfe, died in 1573; however, it was not until the corrected second edition of 1587 that the text became considered an authoritative record of English, Scottish and Irish history. Both editions were censored after concerns from the Privy Council about the depiction of recent events in Ireland and Scotland, in addition to internal factionalism and rivalry at court.

The text shown here is part of the chapter on Richard III, describing the murder of his nephews, the two princes in the Tower of London.

Miles Forrest, and John Dighton, about midnight (the seelie children lieng in their beds) came into the chamber, & suddenlie lapping them up among the clothes, so to bewrapped and intangled them, keeping downe by force the fether-bed and pillows hard unto their mouths, that within a while, smothered and stifled, their breath failing, they gave up to God their innocent soules into the joies of heaven, leaving to the tormentors their bodies dead in the bed.

In his play Shakespeare renders this as twice-reported speech, as if the crime were too dreadful to be conveyed directly: Richard’s agent Tyrrell recounts the murderers’ tearful confession, 

We smothered  
The most replenished sweet work of nature  
That from the prime creation e’er she framed.
 

Holinshed’s own source at this point is Sir Thomas More’s account from 1513. Shakespeare’s popularisation of the notion of Richard as villainous usurper has its roots here in Tudor apologetics, although given his eventual fate, perhaps More’s views on the tyranny of monarchs were as much informed by the early reign of Henry VIII as by the king defeated by Henry’s father at Bosworth.

In this exhibition


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