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A Game of Bones: the finding of Richard III

Yesterday morning I was glued to my laptop, watching the press conference announcing the results of the research into the skeleton found in a Leicester car park last year. To cut a long story short, they confirmed that yes, the body is that of Richard III, beyond a reasonable doubt. I was immensely moved by the whole proceedings – after all, Richard is the most vilified king in English history, and this discovery goes a long way towards teasing out the truth from the Tudor propaganda.

But what is that truth? Well, for a start, it confirms that although Richard suffered from scoliosis (a twisted spine) which would have likely left him with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, he was not a “hunchback”, nor did he have a withered arm. So Shakespeare’s representation of his deformities is a gross exaggeration but not wholly without foundation. The remains and the facial reconstruction based on them even fit the portraits of Richard: a handsome young man with delicate, almost feminine hands despite his reputation as a great fighter. Indeed, far from making him appear the wicked king of legend, most portraits show a care-worn figure, perhaps troubled by chronic pain caused by his scoliosis.

Secondly, the Leicester investigation provides touching insights into the events of his death. The body bears several potentially fatal head-wounds, the most severe of which almost certainly killed him, but there are other, minor wounds that seem most likely to have been inflicted after death. Dagger cuts to the face, and stabs to the back and buttocks (areas that would have been protected by armour during the battle), all echo contemporary accounts which say that his body was stripped and tied across a packhorse for transport to Leicester.

None of this, of course, bears much relation to the real mystery associated with Richard: did he murder his nephews (or at least, cause them to be murdered)? I’m not one of those rabid Ricardians who believes he was practically a saint, viciously slandered by the Tudors – as we now know, there were grains of truth in the unflattering physical description presented by Shakespeare, so why not in his behaviour too?

My personal belief is that Richard fully intended to carry out his role of Lord Protector (as set out in his late brother’s will), but found himself thwarted at every turn by the queen and her ambitious relations. Richard was very popular in the North, his home ground, but he was little known in the South and may have been out of his depth at court. Remind you of a certain fictional character?

Rather than back down and see the Woodvilles rule through a child king, he declared the boys bastards (just as Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones tries to disinherit the Lannisters) and took the throne for himself. It turned out to be a disastrous decision, but at the time he might have felt it was the right thing for England, and the House of York. After all his own son, Edward, was still living at this point and his wife was young enough to bear more children.

So what about the princes in the Tower? To my mind there are two possibilities:

1. Richard realised that the princes would be too tempting a target for rebels, and so they had to die. Medieval kings were ruthless in protecting their interests, and perhaps Richard was no exception. Or maybe the king balked at such an act, just as Queen Elizabeth later hesitated over signing her cousin Mary’s death warrant, and it was one of his courtiers who acted in his name.

2. The princes were killed by a Tudor sympathiser looking to simultaneously blacken Richard’s reputation and clear Henry’s way to the throne. The boys’ deaths certainly made Henry Tudor’s job a lot easier. If they had been alive when he defeated Richard, he would have had to get rid of them himself – not a good start to his reign!

The problem is that both are plausible, so I don’t think we’ll ever know which is the truth. It wasn’t to Richard’s advantage to cover up their deaths so clumsily – if he had access to either the living princes or their bodies, why not put an end to all the speculation? – but then unlike a novel, real life doesn’t always make sense. At least his remains have been rescued from their ignominious fate and will now be buried with honour. Richard III was no better than many medieval kings, but I reckon he was no worse, either.

Doing it Elizabethan Style: Shakespeare’s Richard III

A few weeks ago I heard that the Globe had transferred two of their summer productions to the Apollo Theatre for the winter – and more importantly from my perspective, these were two new all-male productions starring Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the Globe. I’d read about the similar productions he’d done almost a decade ago, so the chance to see one at last was irresistible!

Johnny Flynn as Queen Anne and Mark Rylance as King Richard III (Photo: Globe Theatre)
Johnny Flynn as Queen Anne and Mark Rylance as King Richard III (Photo: Globe Theatre)

I hesitated briefly over which to choose, and eventually plumped for Richard III. Much as I love Twelfth Night, it’s a play I’m very familiar with, whereas the only version of Richard III I’ve seen is the well-known Laurence Olivier film. The reviews of Rylance’s performance suggested that this might be the better of the two, which swayed me further.

I booked stage seats, for the best possible view at the most reasonable price. This meant we were seated in one of two two-tier wooden stands, almost like a bit of the Globe Theatre brought to the West End, on each side of the stage. Unfortunately we arrived too late to get a lower-level seat, but the upper level still gave wonderfully up-close-and-personal views of the actors and set. The costumes were absolutely gorgeous – I spent a good deal of the play just taking in all the details, from the various styles of men’s hats (including a very silly fluffy white one with a pink hatband, like something a pimp would wear!) to the daggers worn tucked horizontally through the belt, in the small of the back. Another benefit of our seats was that we could see many of the costumes hanging up backstage, and even got a chance to thank the actors personally as we left, since they were still standing in the wings.

The undisputed star of the show was of course Rylance. He plays Richard as an almost pantomime villain, confiding in the audience about his wicked plans and getting them on his side. The result was an extremely funny play – surprisingly so, for a Shakespeare history play – at least until his final downfall. He was ably assisted in this by his foil, Roger Lloyd Pack as Buckingham (better known as Trigger from Only Fools and Horses). Most of the actors apart from the few leads played multiple roles, but the distinctness of their costumes meant that I was never confused when they returned in new guise. From our stage seats we could also make out little details invisible to the rest of the audience, like the fact that the pewter inkwells really did contain ink and you could see the actors signing the various documents that appear in the play. This added a startling verisimilitude that I had not expected – and nearly gave Mark Rylance a turn when he all but dropped an inkwell in his lap!

As mentioned above, one of the main reasons I wanted to see this production was that it was being staged with full Elizabethan practices as far as possible. The stage was lit by masses of candles (albeit backed up by some electric lighting for the benefit of modern theatre-goers) – four huge wrought-iron candelabra hanging from the ceiling, and a large floor-standing one at the back of the stage. Scenes flowed seamlessly from one to the next, with incoming actors beginning their lines even before the previous ones had left the stage. And then of course there were the men in female roles.

Samuel Barnett (perhaps best known for his role as Posner in The History Boys) was brilliant as Queen Elizabeth, graceful in his movements and acting as effortlessly as if this were his usual type of role. Johnny Flynn was less successful as Anne Neville; he declaimed his lines stiffly, as if it was taking all his effort to maintain a believable falsetto. A pity, as this has put me off going to see Twelfth Night, in which he plays the key role of Viola.

Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth and Colin Hurley as King Edward IV (Photo: Globe Theatre)
Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth and Colin Hurley as King Edward IV (Photo: Globe Theatre)

One difference from Elizabethan practice is that the actors playing female roles were a lot older than they would have been in Shakespeare’s day – Barnett, for example, is 32. Some actors did indeed continue in such roles until their early twenties, but the majority would have been around fifteen or sixteen, an age at which many an undernourished Elizabethan apprentice might still have an unbroken voice. These days, finding boys young enough to have such voices but old enough to play leading roles in Shakespeare must be practically impossible!

What struck me, though, during the play was that I soon stopped thinking of them as “men in drag”. On the one hand, they clearly weren’t actual women, but the combination of the artificiality of the stage environment and the contrast between male and female Elizabethan dress made them so distinct from the men as to seem like women by virtue of that fact alone. It gave me a striking insight into the Elizabethan mindset, whereby a person’s identity (both in gender and status) was judged very much by their clothing and far less by the human body inhabiting that clothing.

The play ended, as all Globe productions do, with a traditional jig performed by all the company. The dancing was superb, with so much leaping, stamping and clapping that I almost expected the men to start break-dancing any moment! It also reminded me a great deal of the ball scene in A Knight’s Tale where they suddenly start boogying to Bowie. Anyone who thinks that an Elizabethan ball would have been as sedate an event as its equivalent in Jane Austen’s day should think again – this was seriously sexy stuff!

All in all it was a wondrous experience, and well worth the considerable sum I paid for the tickets. I’m already starting to eye the coming season at the Globe Theatre with interest…

Alchemist of Souls signed audiobook giveaway

Christmas is coming early for one of Mal Catlyn’s fans…

One of the (many) cool things about Angry Robot Books is that they now publish an audiobook version of all their titles, simultaneously with the paperback and ebook. This is a great thing for both authors and readers, since there are a lot of fantasy fans who don’t have much time to sit down and read a book but will happily listen to one on their daily commute or whilst doing chores (I listen to audiobooks whilst washing up).

Anyway, I have a spare boxed set of The Alchemist of Souls on CD to give away. This is the unabridged edition, on 13 discs, narrated by award-winner Michael Page (see my June blog post announcing the audiobook release).

All you have to do to be in with a chance is to leave a comment on this post. If you win, you will receive a brand new CD audiobook set of The Alchemist of Souls, with disc 1 signed by yours truly! Unlike previous giveaways, since I only have the one spare copy, entry is open to anyone, anywhere in the world. This is a one-off chance to own the only signed copy currently available 🙂

Please note that comments are moderated to reduce spam, so don’t panic if yours doesn’t appear right away.


  1. One comment per entrant, please – multiple commenters will be disqualified.
  2. For security reasons, please don’t leave contact details in your comment – there’s a space in the comment form for your email address, I’ll use that to get hold of you.
  3. Closing date for entries is noon PST time on Tuesday 27th November. Any comments posted after that deadline will be deleted.
  4. I will be picking one winner (using a random number generator), to receive the aforementioned boxed set.
  5. If I do not hear from the winner before Christmas, I reserve the right to select a replacement.

Good luck!

The Alchemist of Souls – now in audiobook!

June is Audiobook Month, so I’m delighted to be able to contribute with my own slice of aural entertainment. You can now wrap your lugholes around the adventures of Mal, Coby and friends with the latest co-production between Angry Robot Books and Brilliance Audio. Read by Michael Page, award-winning narrator of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, this is an unabridged edition of The Alchemist of Souls. That’s 15 whole hours of Elizabethan intrigue, romance and action – enough to entertain you through quite a few commutes.

I’ve been listening to it myself the past few days, partly to find out how Michael got on with the skrayling names and languages, and partly to try and absorb the rhythm of my own prose when read by a great narrator. Of course there’s the small problem that I do occasionally wince and wish I’d written a sentence better, but that’s part of the learning process 🙂

What’s particularly interesting about the narrator is that he’s a professor of theatre with a particular interest in Shakespeare – I do hope he enjoyed reading the theatrical sections and didn’t find my made-up play too terrible! He certainly does a good range of accents and voices, and does a creditable job of pronouncing all the skrayling stuff despite not having had a pronunciation guide from me (I guess my orthography was a success, then!). In some respects he pronounces it better than I do, since I’m rubbish at a trilled ‘r’; he does speak it rather slower than the skraylings would, but that’s perfectly understandable. At some point I shall post a pronunciation guide on my website, and perhaps a bit of background information about the languages, for the delectation of the conlangers out there.

All in all I’m delighted with the end result, and hope you enjoy it too. The audiobook is available from Audible, Amazon and the iTunes Store – see my Alchemist of Souls webpage for links. For more about Audiobook Month, search for the #JIAM2012 hashtag on Twitter or see the link at the top of the page.

History at the Movies: Shakespeare in Love

I have a love-hate relationship with movies set in my favourite historical periods. On the one hand, I adore the visuals, but the scripts in particular can be horribly anachronistic or just plain annoying! Just for fun, I thought I’d pick apart a few films set in the Elizabethan period, starting with a well-known example: Shakespeare in Love. I chose this film because, although one obviously can’t hold a frothy romantic comedy up to the same standards as a historical epic, it’s surprisingly faithful to the period.

*** SPOILER WARNING *** In order to discuss historical accuracy, I have to give away the plot. However this movie is over a decade old, so…

The Story

Enthusiastic young playwright Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling with ideas for his latest play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, until he encounters the lovely Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), far above him on the social scale. Viola, meanwhile, is no shrinking violet; betrothed to a pompous nobleman (Colin Firth), she tries to escape the strictures of her life by disguising herself as a young man and auditioning for a part in the new play.

Hilarity ensues (as they say), as Viola struggles to keep the two sides of her life separate and secret. She falls madly in love with Will, only to discover he has been keeping a secret of his own: he’s married. Realising that they can never be together, she gives him up, but they never forget one another, and Shakespeare eventually immortalises her as one of his pluckiest cross-dressing heroines, Viola in Twelfth Night.

Historical basis

Obviously there’s not going to be a lot of this in a romantic comedy, but just for the record, the real events included in the film are:

  • Shakespeare’s writing of Romeo and Juliet, probably in the early 1590s (it was first published in 1597, and this usually only happened after a play had been performed many times)
  • the murder of Christopher Marlowe in the early summer of 1593 (supposedly in a quarrel over a dinner bill, but since Marlowe was a spy, the motive behind it was probably political)

Also, Shakespeare was 29 in 1593 (and actor Joseph Fiennes was 28 when the film was made), hence the romance plot fits into Shakespeare’s life very plausibly.

Many of the background details are pretty accurate. Shakespeare is shown stripping the barbs from his quills when preparing to write, and Bankside is portrayed as suitably muddy and semi-rural. There are little touches of social history, too, like Shakespeare walking in on Burbage and his whore and not being the slightest bit embarrassed, or the nurse rocking noisily in her chair to drown out the sounds of Will and Viola’s lovemaking, which give a real feel for how little privacy Elizabethan people had.

Deliberate fictions

Pretty obviously, Shakespeare’s working title for Romeo and Juliet never involved a pirate’s daughter; that’s just a bit of fun, to prepare the ground for the change that his love for Viola brings to his writing. And Viola herself is a fictional character, though judging by Shakespeare’s sonnets he was by no means celibate when he lived in London, hundreds of miles from his wife! Viola’s fiancé, the Duke of Wessex, is equally fictional, though he is a typical Elizabethan nobleman, hot-tempered and proud.

Being a comedy, the film has a lot of fun with anachronisms, from the “priest of Psyche” on whose couch Will confesses his performance anxiety, to the wherryman who talks exactly like a London cabbie: “I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of my boat, once…”. However these little touches help to connect a modern audience with the past, and they are in the spirit of the era, if not the letter.

Historical “errors”

  • It’s fairly certain that Shakespeare never wrote a play for Philip Henslowe (played by Geoffrey Rush in the movie). No payments to Shakespeare are listed in Henslowe’s surviving account books – a fact which some have used as “proof” that Shakespeare wrote none of the plays attributed to him. However Shakespeare was a member of a theatre company based on the other side of London, and from 1599 he was a sharer in that company, so the absence of payments to him isn’t that surprising.
  • The story about Queen Elizabeth and the cloak over the puddle is almost certainly fiction; it probably originated with 17th-century historian Thomas Fuller, who was inclined to embroider the facts with fanciful incidents, and was perpetuated by Sir Walter Scott in his Elizabethan romance Kenilworth.


Overall I give this movie 6/10 for historical accuracy – the plot may be pure fiction, but it’s played out against a background that puts many a more serious film to shame.

The perspective of time

I’ve just been watching a DVD of “Twelfth Night” (the BBC/Trevor Nunn version with Helena Bonham-Carter and Nigel Hawthorne), and it suddenly struck me that this play is the twin (no pun intended!) of “The Merchant of Venice”.

We often think of “The Merchant of Venice” as a serious play, even a tragedy, because of its (to us) strongly anti-Semitic flavour and the persecution of Shylock. In contrast, “Twelfth Night” is acknowledged to be a comedy, even though a substantial subplot consist of the cruel persecution of another representative of a hated religious group, Malvolio the Puritan.

However having seen “The Merchant of Venice” performed at the Globe, I now know that it is one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, much like “Twelfth Night”. A large part of the play is taken up with the story of Portia’s testing of her suitors with the almost fairy-tale challenge of the three caskets of silver, gold and lead.
Being a lover of Shakespeare rather than a serious student, I have not done a detailed study of the two side by side, but I can’t help wondering what a difference history has made to our perception of them. If there had been a vicious counter-Reformation that saw Protestants being exterminated in a holocaust, would we now feel as uneasy about “Twelfth Night” as we do about “Merchant”?

Plus ça change

I was watching “Doctor Who Confidential” on BBC iPlayer this evening (nothing unusual about that!), when a bit of theatrical jargon caught my ear. During a section about lighting effects, the gaffer (head electrician) explained that he was following the script “from what’s called ‘sides'” – and I was suddenly taken back four hundred years. “Sides” was a term back in Shakespeare’s day for the individual scripts which contained each role’s lines and cues; lacking photocopiers or typewriters, the copyist provided each actor with only the bare minimum he needed to follow his part.

For me, one of the joys of history is discovering unexpected links with ancestors long dead, and today’s find was a very small but still pleasurable addition to that list…

Merchant of Venice

Last night we went to see “The Merchant of Venice” at the Globe (a regular annual trip arranged by the campus sports and social club). The production was very good indeed – great acting and lots of music and spectacle. Unusually, they had added some bits of scenery to suggest the cityscape of Venice: at one corner of the stage were some rustic wooden poles, perhaps ten or twelve feet long, for tying up gondolas, and the normal short run of steps up to the stage had been replaced by a wooden bridge. The costumes were mostly Elizabethan but with a few tweaks to add the flavour of a busy modern metropolis (the programme made comparisons between Venice and New York), such as trilby-like hats for the men and one of the merchants in dark pinstripes!

Most surprising of all, though, was how funny the play was. When we think of “The Merchant of Venice”, we tend to focus on the trial, and Shylock’s contract with the eponymous merchant Antonio. But the subplots, of Bassanio’s wooing of Portia, Gratiano’s of Nerissa and the elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica, are much closer in tone to Shakespeare’s other Italian comedies, and the production certainly brought that out. As is typical with Shakespeare’s plays there is a part for the company’s clown in Lancelot, but this production added a nameless courtesan, played (I think) by Leander Deeny (who also took the minor parts of servants Leonardo and Stephano), who clopped about the stage in his high-soled chopins and engaged in “business” (in both the stage and usual sense) with some of the male characters. At the end of the performance all the cast joined in a jig, as was Elizabethan tradition. Perhaps because of the courtesan’s “clogs”, I was suddenly reminded of the big dance number at the end of the movie “Zatoichi”, and I wondered whether Takeshi Kitano had ever seen an authentic production of Shakespeare! Given the Bard’s popularity in Japan, it’s not so very improbable…
This was my second visit to the Globe, and as usual I treated it as something of a research trip as well as a good night out. In the theatre shop I bought a heavily-illustrated children’s book “A Shakespearean Theatre” – with their cut-away illustrations and tidbits of information, books of this sort are really useful for writers, condensing years of academic research into vivid images. Of course I have other, more grown-up resources to fill in the gaps, but an illustrated book makes it much easier to visualise what other works labour to describe.

The Winter’s Tale

Yesterday’s trip to London was exhausting but definitely worth it – almost as good as a trip back in time (and without the smells!)

We got the coach down to London and arrived in plenty of time, so we had a drink in “The Mudlark” and then dinner at Pizza Express (very Elizabethan – not!). Just after 7pm we headed back to the Globe, where we ordered a drink for the interval and hired cushions – the latter very necessary, as the benches are very hard. I was gratified to see that prices for cushion hire haven’t changed in 400 years, in relative terms at any rate. In Shakespeare’s day it cost 1d to hire a cushion, and now it costs £1. On the other hand the gallery seats used to cost only 2d or 3d – a lot cheaper than today’s £25!

The play was performed in Elizabethan costume, though with women in the parts that would have been played by boys. “The Winter’s Tale” is not one of Shakespeare’s best, and not easy to understand; not just because of the changes in the language in the last 400-odd years, but also because it is deliberately obscure in places. However it was an enjoyable performance and of course more “grist for the mill”.

Sadly I have no clear photos as it was a cloudy evening and thus rather dark; the theatre is open in the centre but obviously rather shadowy at that time of day.