The History of King Richard III

30 Apr

The Penance of Jane Shore, ink and watercolor,...

Image via Wikipedia

I read this excerpt from Sir Thomas More‘s The History of King Richard III right after I read Utopia. I planned to blog about it, but I felt so uneducated about the excerpt to blog intelligently about it. I looked up Jane Shore, Edward IV’s mistress, and didn’t find much. And I didn’t get anything from the excerpt. So I decided to come back to it.

It turns out that in the end of the excerpt, More explains why you won’t find much in history on Jane Shore: “…some shall think this woman too slight a thing to be written of and set among the remembrances of great matters, … Her doings were not much less, albeit they be much less remembered, because they were not so evil.” OK, More, you win. I’m interested now!

I re-read it today and feel like I have a clearer sense of it. I’m sure I don’t “get” it, but I got more out of it this time. With the Norton Anthology proclaiming The History of King Richard III as “the first ‘history’ in English that has any claim to be English literature,” I don’t know why the editors chose this excerpt that seems to have very little to do with Richard.

However, it does show Richard III’s cruelty in his treatment of Jane Shore because she was a mistress of his enemy. The excerpt shows her fall from grace. According to the text, she once was the following, under Edward IV’s reign:

  • worshipfully friended
  • honestly brought up
  • very well married
  • proper
  • fair
  • delighted men not so much in her beauty as in her pleasant behavior
  • proper wit
  • merry in company
  • ready and quick of answer
  • neither mute nor full of babble

But now, under Richard III, after he “spoiled her of all that ever she had … and sent her body to prison,” More described her thusly:

  • old
  • lean
  • withered and dried up
  • nothing left but rivelled skin and hard bone
  • beggarly condition, unfriended and worn out of acquaintance
The text says Jane Shore was still alive when More composed The History and that he “holds her forth as a remarkable example of the caprices of fortune.” In fact, her rise and fall reminds me much of that of Anne Boleyn, once so desired by the king to the point that he would cast aside his wife, his daughter, his standing with the people as well as with the church to have her, and yet later she was so despised by him that he’s feasting and merry-making with other ladies while Boleyn’s head is being chopped off in front of the people. My, the mighty how they fall…
One beautiful line in this excerpt: “For men use if they have an evil turn to write it in marble; and whoso doth us a good turn, we write it in dust.”

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