History teaches us many things. One of them is that it goes on for a very long time. Sometimes nothing much happens for a lot of that long time and occasionally all sorts of things pile on top of each other. It doesn’t stop. One event unfolds into the next and carries on doing so until somebody comes along and tries to make sense of it all.
Shakespeare had a shot at this in his history plays. Although not written in chronological order, the earliest of his kings was John (1199-1216) and the last Henry VIII (1509-1547). The cycle thus recounts almost three hundred and fifty years of English history and covers, amongst other things, foreign wars, civil war, regicide, infanticide, fratricide and much else. In other words, quite a lot of stuff.
But Shakespeare was writing plays, not history books, inevitably altering events for dramatic effect. Henry VI’s widow, Margaret, for example, left for exile in France following his death and never returned to England. She died in 1482. Yet in Richard III she returns to Edward’s court to heap curses on all around her, and pops up again after Richard has become king in 1483 to trade laments with two other widowed queens, a year after her demise.
As it happens, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard has only recently been reassessed, since for centuries it was assumed his depiction as a hunchback was part of Tudor propaganda to discredit the Plantagenets and affirm their legitimacy. Yet when Richard’s body was found beneath a car park in Leicester last year it revealed pronounced curvature of the spine.
Of all Shakespeare’s Histories, I am best acquainted with Richard III having spent about nine months working on a comic book version in 2007. When it was summarily removed from the list of three texts to be studied for the Key Stage 3 SATs exam early in 2008, the project was abandoned. Later in the year the KS 3 SATs were abolished altogether, but that is another story.
Having worked on Henry V in the lead up to the Iraq war in 2003, I was at work on Richard III at the height of the Iraq insurgency which raged worst between 2006 and 2008. And as there had been parallels between the sophistries used to justify Henry’s invasion of France and the US led invasion of Iraq, so there seemed unsettling symmetries between the slaughter and turmoil of Shakespeare’s history plays and the insurgency several hundred years later.
Richard’s defeat at Bosworth brought to an end the Wars of the Roses that had seen bloodshed and mayhem in almost all parts of England. Although intermittent, the civil war lasted for more than thirty years and involved extremes of violence - the Battle of Towton being the bloodiest ever fought on English soil. It took place in a snowstorm on 29 March 1461. After hours of savage fighting, 28,000 men had been killed, more even than on the first day of the Somme in 1916, the single worst day in British military history.
After the Lancastrian defeat at Towton, Henry VI retreated to Scotland. It was one of a series of battles which saw power change hands and allegiances shift - shifts made all the more confusing because so many of the protagonists were called either Richard or Edward. Explanation is thus required when in RIII Act 4 Scene 4 Margaret rebukes Elizabeth,
‘Thy Edward he is dead, that killed my Edward;
Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward.’
Elizabeth’s Edward was Edward IV, son of Richard Duke of York, who had been captured and murdered after the battle of Wakefield, stabbed to death by Margaret and Clifford after they had earlier murdered Edward’s brother, Rutland. Richard’s death was avenged by his son Edward at the Battle of Towton, where he was supported by Richard, Earl of Warwick. Warwick later fell out with Edward and joined the Lancastrians, but he was killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471 at which Margaret’s husband, Henry VI, was captured. He died shortly after, believed murdered by Edward’s brother Clarence.
Margaret’s Edward was Edward, Prince of Wales, killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 by Edward VI. Elizabeth’s other Edward had been Edward Prince of Wales, but on Edward VI’s death had became Edward V before being murdered along with his younger brother, Richard, by his uncle, Richard, who was now Richard III. After becoming king, Richard married Anne, daughter of Richard, Earl of Warwick. She had previously been engaged to Edward, Prince of Wales (Margaret’s son, not Elizabeth’s). She and Richard had a son, Edward, another Prince of Wales, but he predeceased them. Richard was then killed at Bosworth by Henry VII, who promptly married Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth, thus uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster. All pretty clear, I think.
The situation in Iraq in 2007 seemed no less bewildering with the country split between Sunni and Shia factions such as Ansa al Sunna and militias like the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr. For a time it looked either as though the country would separate into independent states; or that after years of instability a single figure would seize power and unify the country under an authoritarian regime of repression and torture. Much like Saddam Hussein, in fact – and not unlike Henry VII who ruled by repression and fear and nearly bankrupted his barons and merchants - periods of anarchy often being followed by autocracy.
Figures are unclear about how many civilians were killed as a consequence of the Iraq war, but in 2006 the Lancet Journal estimated them to be 654,000. These deaths were our responsibility. Of the many stupid mistakes made by the Coalition, perhaps the grossest was its assumption that the war would be over quickly with a grateful Iraqi population so delighted to be free of Saddam it would spontaneously sprout democratic institutions. The de-Ba’athification of the civil service and disbanding of the army were aspects of this miscalculation, resulting in social breakdown and widespread looting.
Tony Blair has insisted that ordinary Iraqis are now better off than they were under Saddam. This is certainly true if they happen to be a Kurd or Marsh Arab. But for many, perhaps most citizens, life remains considerably worse. Some of their voices were heard in a series of programmes on Radio 4 to mark the tenth anniversary of the war. One said, ‘They brought chaos and violence and left rubble.’ Another commented, ‘Then we had only one dictator. Now we have hundreds.’
It is perhaps facile to equate Blair with Richard III, though tempting. For all his toothy smiles and ‘Call me Tony… I’m a pretty straight sort of guy’ charm, he was ruthless in pursuit of power and determined to hold onto it once achieved. You don’t win three elections in a row by accident, even against a discredited Conservative party. He was also an arch manipulator, the Commons vote in favour of war allegedly won through a combination of flattery, bribery, intimidation and deceit. In other words, parliamentary business as usual.
If it’s not quite fair to see Blair as Richard, it is only too easy to see Richard as a master of what would now be called spin. His words could soften his bitterest enemies, except perhaps Margaret, and in Act 1 Scene 2 he woos Anne - despite the fact that she is a Lancastrian and that as a Yorkist he was part responsible for the brutal deaths of her father, fiancé and his father. Reader, she marries him.
He’s equally good at working a crowd and in Act 3 Scene 7 he appears before the people of London reading a prayer book, between two clerics. He’s supported by Buckingham, his spin doctor. Together they persuade the populace that Richard is pious and humble and reluctant to become king. Having done so, Richard then goes off to arrange the murder of his nephews.
It’s not subtle, but the play itself is a form of spin, a Tudor fabrication to blast Richard and justify Henry’s usurpation of power. Spin isn’t new, but Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell refined it to lethal effect. Richard and Buckingham fell out and Buckingham had his head chopped off. He returns late in Act 5 to haunt Richard, which must have been some consolation.
Blair and Campbell have had no such falling out. They remain defiant in defence of the actions which led Britain to war. The war cost the US at least $802bn. Some economists put the true figure at $3trillion. It cost the British tax payer £9.24bn. It cost the lives of tens of thousands of people, with millions more displaced and damaged.
And it is not over. April 2013 saw the largest number of violent deaths in Iraq for more than five years. Figures for May are likely to be worse. It could be many years before peace unfolds and the country is finally allowed to heal.