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  • Thomas More’s History of Richard III: Genre, Humanism, and Moral Education
  • Dan Breen

In a recent article on the historiographical reputation of Richard III, P. W. Hammond notes that Shakespeare’s play “is the final culmination of the Tudor picture of the man who was Richard III” and further that the perspective that Shakespeare presents is “the view of [Richard] which prevailed generally for the next 200 years.”1 On the previous page, however, in his discussion of Thomas More’s prose biography, Hammond claims that More’s “reputation as a scholar, saint and martyr helped [the biography] to form the prevailing view of Richard for the following two centuries.”2 Though Hammond of course acknowledges Shakespeare’s conscious debt to More, the similarities shared by each of these locutions are striking and serve to illustrate what is still a popular conclusion regarding the textual transmission of Richard III from one end of the sixteenth century to the other: that is, that More’s Richard was grafted almost complete into Shakespeare’s play, in the same way that the text of More’s History was grafted into the chronicles of John Hardyng, Joseph Hall, and Raphael Holinshed.3 The development of Richard’s character thus, within the context of [End Page 465] Shakespeare studies, exhibits an odd stasis. In Hammond’s suggestive assertion, Shakespeare’s play serves to “reinforce” More’s depiction of Richard as a tyrant, strengthening the edifice of More’s creation.4

Scholars who work primarily on More’s biography have begun to challenge the construction of this stasis by reading the History as a deeply unstable text.5 There are, for example, frequent narrative disruptions; noticeable inconsistencies in More’s descriptions of his characters; a fluctuating attitude toward textual sources; and a chronology that is almost never correct.6 Further, the material text itself comes down to early twenty-first-century readers in several different forms. The History was incorporated in an edited version in Hardyng’s chronicle in 1543 and Hall’s in 1548, then published in William Rastell’s English Works of Sir Thomas More in 1557, and finally incorporated into Holinshed’s Chronicle in 1577. More originally composed the text at some point during the second decade of the sixteenth century (certainly after 1513) and wrote versions of it in English and in Latin, neither of which he ever finished.7 Given the general critical consensus regarding this [End Page 466] instability, it is curious that so many of the same scholars whose work warns against the History being comprehensible as the product of the interpretive totality provided by the figure of Richard III should in turn address the unstable nature of the text by creating their own interpretive totalities. Elizabeth Story Donno, for instance, asserts that while the History resists the coherence provided by any number of literary genres, it conforms broadly to the principles of epideictic oratory.8 Alistair Fox and Gillian Day (independently of one another) adopt a different tactic and emphasize the unfinished state of the History in order to argue that it must be understood to represent an intermediate stage in More’s intellectual development.9 Begun as an investigation of the English political system, the project is ultimately abandoned both because the traditional political history does not afford the generic resources that More needs in order to consider fully the philosophical dimensions of political principles and because a straightforward history of a nearly contemporary monarch may suggest unflattering parallels to the habits of governance exercised by the reigning king or queen. Still other critics identify Richard III as a moral exemplum;10 a play;11 a political history;12 and a biography.13 [End Page 467]

Whatever Richard III is, it seems significant that the overwhelming critical response has been to acknowledge the textual and material signs that promise resistance to a fully comprehensive reading and then to attempt to produce just such a reading.14 Whether the critical totality is generic, pedagogical, or biographical, the very instabilities that it seeks to address remain a subject of particular interest. It is my contention that the instabilities within More’s narrative (especially in his descriptions of Richard...


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