This is All Souls’ Day, fellow, is it not?
Why then, all Souls’ Day is my body’s doomsday. (Richard III – BUCKINGHAM: V.i.10-11)
Yes, 02 November is All Souls’ Day. Brought up as a Catholic, and of course many years before the Americanisation of Hallowe’en we had, instead, All Saints‘ – 01 November – and All Souls‘ the following day, the former being a ‘holy day of obligation’. Lessons off school, wearing a smock as a server boy and smelling candlewax and perhaps incense, as far as I was concerned … you might even get a sip of communion wine, if you were lucky!
But yes, All Souls’ is also the date of Buckingham‘s execution in Richard III, so it seems appropriate to commemorate this now, at this serendipitous stage in the Ponytail Shakespeare Project‘s progress.
Is there any more poignant death than his? The grief-stricken suicides of Juliet and Cleopatra simply don’t do it for me: the closest I can come to Buckers is Falstaff‘s ignominious off-stage ending in Henry V. They’re both abandoned by former allies, and in this case, it is an opportunity for even the densest spectator to understand that Margaret‘s prophecies are coming true, because Buckingham tells us:
‘Thus Margaret’s curse falls heavy on my neck’ (V.i.25)
But it’s more than that. The scene’s less than 30 lines long in my Arden Third, but I think it’s full of pathos – not least because as a result of the two film versions I know well, I’ve become convinced that Buckingham loves – in the modern, not the EMP sense – Richard. Both Michael Byrne (1983, dir. Jane Howell) and Ben Daniels (Hollow Crown) seem to have a real bromance going for their allies and kings.
Channeling Meatloaf‘s, ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’, Buckingham terminally upsets Richard by refusing to participate in the murders of the two princes. In this, there is a chink in Buckingham’s shrewdness. After the historically accurate and genuinly frightening depatch of Hastings, does he expect that the Princes can be allowed to live, even if successfully bastardised? And Richard IS upset, terminally pissed off, to the extent that he won’t even speak to Buckingham after he’s captured and on his way to the block. In The Hollow Crown, the episode is staged so that we understand that Richard has to overhear Buckingham pleading for a final conversation. Buckingham is too much a man of his time to expect mercy, I believe, but he wants, needs, perhaps even deserves, a lover’s farewell …
‘Will not King Richard let me speak with him?’ (V.i.1)
No. He won’t.
Buckingham, as much a ‘kingmaker’ as Warwick was in the HVI plays, has outlived his usefulness. The astonishing ‘play within a play’ that he enacts with his ‘bestie’ in front of the Mayor and burghers of London, which results in Richard being acclaimed king – a wonderful piece of theatre – is entirely forgotten …
A flick through some of my go-to volumes on the Boar’s Head Bookshelf relegates Buckingham to little more than a footnote in the story, although it’s worth looking at what Holinshed has to say:
‘The duke being by certeine of the kings councell diligentlie
vpon interrogatories examined, what things he knew preiudiciall vnto
the kings person, opened and declared franklie and fréelie all the
coniuration, without dissembling or glosing; trusting, bicause he had
trulie and plainelie reuealed and confessed all things that were of
him required, that he should haue licence to speake to the king: which
(whether it were to sue for pardon and grace, or whether he being
brought to his presence, would haue sticked him with a dagger as men
then iudged) he sore desired and required. But when he had confessed
the whole fact & conspiracie, vpon All soules daie, without arreigment
or iudgement, he was at Salisburie in the open market place, on a new
scaffold beheaded and put to death.’
‘Without arraignment or judgement’ seems a harsh penalty for Buckingham to pay, on the whole …
Overall, I’m reminded of Lytton Strachey‘s account of Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex – even if the historical events took place a good decade after Shakespeare’s lines:
‘Of what use would be a cry for mercy? Elizabeth would listen to nothing, if she was deaf to her own heart. The end came in silence: and at last he understood. Like her other victims, he realised too late that he had utterly misjudged her nature, that there had never been the slightest possibility of dominating her’
Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (ed. Michael Wood), (The Folio Society, 2012)
William Shakespeare, King Richard III (ed. James R Siemon), Arden Third Edition (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth and Essex (Chatto & Windus, 1928)