MY RICHARD III has a narrow posterity, fondly remembered only by my mother and, perhaps, my old drama teacher. Yet even brilliant exponents of Shakespeare’s great, twisted villain, from Laurence Olivier to Al Pacino, were crowded offstage as the real man’s remains were laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral this week.
With his re-interment, there has been a chance to set the stage villain aside and remember the good done by the last Yorkist king. But the final grace he performed was to allow a divided nation to draw breath together.
Another great play, Sophocles’ Antigone, deals with the respect due in burial even to the enemy dead. And it speaks too against the narrowness of faction and closed-mindedness. Haemon urges his father, King Creon, “think not that your word, and yours alone, must be right”.
Richard reigned at the tail-end of a bloody civil war. My American relatives still proudly remember their ancestor Thomas Iden’s Lancastrian allegiance at Bosworth. In Shakespeare’s vision, with Richard’s defeat such savage rivalry gives way at last to the new unity of the Tudors. But finally, in death, Richard has commanded his own moment of reconciliation, visible in the shared emotion of the crowds along the route of his coffin and the peaceful meeting of descendants from both camps in Leicester this week.
Now we are called to a rancorous electoral battle. The outcome is uncertain, the emergence of a clear mandate for government unlikely, the stakes immense. The formal dissolution of Parliament on Monday will begin weeks of bitter trench warfare between two parties devoted to very different visions of how to seek their country’s good. May the right side win. But, as all rivalries fall away in time, until only the shared, patriotic cause endures, let us hope too that both sides can one day be remembered with honour.
Marc Sidwell is City A.M.’s executive editor